Farewell, ‘Ol’ Cuss’

And a trip to Lewis Ginter Botanic Garden.

A vast winter stillness. - Susan Safford

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The sadness and time passing, the future unknowable, the mournful awareness that we won’t see the Ol’ Cuss again, makes it a day to be among familiar faces. It is a day to be reminded that in winter, life seemingly pauses and goes down into the earth, to spend a still season, silently waiting for the time of reawakening.

A blue and white January day turning leaden, cold, and quiet on Abel’s Hill: we pay our respects to the late Lynn Murphy, a keen and boisterous figure, now departed and gone, stowed in his fishbox in up-Island soil among Island tall tales.

“When the picture is not good enough, go closer …” (Quoted from an interview with the late John Berger, the artist and writer, himself quoting Robert Capa, the photographer.)

Wavering winter

“Winter will not come till the swamps are full.” As readers of Garden Notes know, I find old-time weather lore nostalgically appealing, and cite it when possible. (Another reason to mourn the passing of the oldtimers, whose command of the apt saying was often delivered succinctly and in a matter-of-fact manner.) When the winds begin to blow and to influence the storms or calms we should expect; how the birds and quadrupeds behave in relation to the natural world’s phenology; floods and droughts; moons and tides.

Weather lore used to represent generations of rustic wisdom. Its sayings often have a timeless feel, and it causes me a pang to think that it might now be outdated, useless, and irrelevant, due to changing weather patterns, not to mention human attitudes. Does it still hold true that our spongy areas and boggy seeps must be brimming for real winter to commence? Will it commence at all? Let’s see what happens.

Lewis Ginter Botanic Garden

A recent trip south provided the opportunity to visit the Lewis Ginter Botanic Garden in Richmond, Va., during its seasonal holiday array. (Polly Hill Arboretum memberships gave us reciprocal entrance privileges; Islanders visiting arboreta or botanic gardens of other regions, take note.)

A relatively recently established public garden, Lewis Ginter really got going only in 1981, as a city-owned property partnered with determined civic groups. “In 1981, a committed group of interested citizens, horticulturists, and botanists formed to ensure that the garden imagined by Ms. Arents [Grace Arents, the garden’s original donor] became a reality. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden formed in 1984, opening its doors to the public in 1987.” (From the garden handout, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.)

Sited in an open, somewhat windswept park, Lewis Ginter is anchored by splendid and imposing structures on either end of a garden-lined axis. The scale of both Robins Visitor Center and the glasshouse conservatory that proudly form the axis’ focal points are large and monumental by Vineyard standards.

Ginter also possesses, in addition to several restaurants and cafes, the Kelly Education Center/Joan Massey Conference Center/Robins Library, the highly varied plant collections, extensive children’s garden, a large lake and numerous smaller ponds and water features, and a natural amphitheater-cum-rose garden for outdoor performances.

Maintenance standards are high. During this holiday visit, imaginative lighting and decorations were placed everywhere, inside and out. The conservatory contained model train setups; a towering, rainbow-hued decorated tree, with flowers, birds, and butterflies; and an adorable animals’ farmers market, all intended to entice young visitors.

One approaches the conservatory as if approaching a temple; it’s placed dominantly on high ground along an axis punctuated by cross-axes marked by circular, brick-walled mini-gardens. These are planted with smaller trees, such as chionanthus, in settings that are densely underplanted with seasonal bulbs, perennials, and lower shrubbery such as mahonia, nandina, and azalea.

The wealth of bulbs in spring must be spectacular, but, of course, just after Christmas these were underground and represented only by their plant tags. The more austere face of the garden in winter is nonetheless exceedingly attractive. The layout of broad walkways draws one further along into it. Off to the right lies the panorama of the rest of the garden landscape and display plantings.

The large Sydnor Lake (Ginter also possesses a number of smaller water features) looks as if it must be a marvelous hot-weather asset. A great deal of space is dedicated to the Children’s Garden on the lake’s far shore: every effort has been made in this extensive area to engage and pique their interest and imagination, and to create memorable experiences.

If in the Richmond area, which has many other additional attractions as part of its campaign for the “Beautiful RVA” collaborative social movement, beautifulrva.org/, please plan a visit to this ambitious public botanical garden.

Pollinators need pollen

Thirty years old this year, Select Seeds of Union, Conn., is an established area seed and plant supplier, with a wide and interesting range of ornamental annuals, tender perennials, and perennials. Many are heirlooms, while others represent the latest in new breeding. Zinnias are big this year, with Select and other seed houses offering new ranges that are sure to please both gardeners and pollinators.

In fact, at risk of sounding a by-now all too familiar note, insect pollinators need our help, and our gardens need their help. Some of them pollinate; some of them are prey for those that pollinate, but the healthy garden ecosystem needs them.

It is not an idle fancy to devote a portion of the vegetable garden or ornamental garden to rows of zinnias, sunflowers, or cosmos: anything (but concentrate on the Asteraceae for surefire results) that supplies pollen and nectar to the bees, flies, wasps — all the creepy-crawly small things — that fly or climb around, for the most part beneath our notice. Yields are better; seedpods are fuller; fruit increases; you get to observe this and become a backyard naturalist. Go closer.