March 9, 2021 See America’s Top Spring Gardens, Karl Foerster, Vita Sackville-West, Gardener’s Latin, Flower Confidential by Amy Stewart and Berton Braley’s Botany Poem

Show Notes

Today we celebrate an East German Nurseryman and plant breeder who is remembered in the name Feather Reed Grass.

We'll also learn about an exceptional English author and garden designer.

We hear a little snippet about Gardener’s Latin as a clue to the meaning behind Plant Names.

We Grow That Garden Library™ with a fantastic book about the business of flowers.

And then we’ll wrap things up with a beloved old poem about botany.



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Important Events

March 9, 1874
Today is the birthday of the revered German plant breeder, writer, and garden designer Karl Foerster.

Now Karl was born into an intellectual and accomplished family. His father was an astronomer, and his mother was a famous painter.

Many gardeners are surprised to learn that Karl began gardening at the tender age of seven after obtaining an apprenticeship. A year later, Karl entered a professional gardening program and studied there for 11 years.

When Karl turned 18, he took over his family’s Berlin nursery, which was a bit of a mess.  But Karl had a knack for running a nursery. He streamlined the business by simplifying his plant inventory. Although Karl loved all plants, he was especially drawn to tough, low-maintenance, hardy perennials. Karl used three factors to determine whether a plant would be sold in his nursery: beauty, resilience, and endurance.

And Karl's high standards ended up bringing great success to his nursery.

When he turned 24, Karl moved his nursery to Potsdam. There, Karl married a singer and pianist named Eva, and together they had one daughter.

Knowing Karl’s high standards of plants, imagine how exacting Karl was as a plant breeder. Yet, Karl never pollinated flowers by hand. He wanted nature to reign supreme. Today, Karl Foerster grass is a recognized staple in many gardens and landscapes.

The story goes that Karl was on a train when he spied the grass along the tracks. To seize the chance to collect the specimen, Karl pulled the emergency brake, stopped the train, and then quickly collected the specimen that now bears his name. While gardeners have heard of Karl Foerster Grass or Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis), many fail to realize the grass was successful because it first met Karl’s high standards for perennials. Karl Foerster grass was the Perennial Plant of the Year in 2001. And, Overdam is a variegated version of Karl Foerster grass.

Karl’s plant performance expectations and his appreciation for low maintenance spaces with year-long seasonal interest helped shape the New German Garden Style of garden design.

A Karl Foerster garden had some signature plants: grasses, delphinium, and phlox. Naturally, all of these plants were favorites in Karl’s breeding work.

Karl once wrote,

“A garden without phlox is not only a sheer mistake but a sin against summer."

And he also wrote,

“Grasses are the hair of mother earth.”

Karl lived to the ripe old age of 96.

And looking back, it's staggering to think that Karl spent nearly nine decades gardening, and it was Karl Foerster who said,

“In my next life, I’d like to be a gardener once again.

The job was too big for just one lifetime.”


March 9, 1892
Today is the birthday of the English author and garden designer, Vita Sackville West.

In 1930, Sissinghurst Castle - at least what was left of it - was bought by Vita and her husband - the diplomat, and journalist, Harold Nicolson. Together, they restored the house and created the famous garden, which was given to the National Trust in 1967.

After seeing Sissinghurst for the very first time, Vita recalled,

“I fell in love; love at first sight. I saw what might be made of it.”

Vita explored the depths of her own creativity as she shaped the gardens at Sissinghurst. When she came up with the idea for a Sunset Garden, she wrote,

“I used to call it the Sunset Garden in my own mind before I even planted it up.”

Vita’s Sunset Garden included flowers with warm citrus colors, like the yellows, oranges, and reds of Dahlia's Salvias Canas and tulips.

Vita also created a white Garden – one of the most difficult Gardens to design, maintain and pull off.  White gardens are challenging, and you may be thinking, well, why is that? Well, here's the main reason: because, after flowering, many white blooms don’t age well; they turn brown or yellow as they wither and die on the plant. But I have to say that 10 years ago, I did help a friend install a white garden. And when it was in bloom, it really was spectacular.

By the time World War happened, Vita and Harold had been working on Sissinghurst for nearly a decade. But there came a point when they were both convinced that a German invasion of Britain was becoming more likely. Never one to run from a challenge. Vita decided to plant 11,000 daffodils on the property. She was essentially leaving her legacy and a message of defiance to the enemy.

Vita’s personal life was as varied and fascinating it's the plants in her garden. She had relationships with both men and women, and she loved the people in her life intensely.

Once, in a letter to Harold, Vita wrote,

“You are my eternal spring.”

On December 29, 1946, Harold wrote,

"Trying to convince [Vita] that planning is an element in gardening…

She wishes just to jab in things that she has leftover. The tragedy of the romantic temperament is that it dislikes form so much that it ignores the effect of masses.”

In 1955, Vita was honored with the Veitch Memorial Medal, which is awarded to those who have helped advance and improve the science and practice of horticulture - and Vita definitely achieved that.

I thought I'd close out this mini-biography of Vita with her own words. Here's something that Vieta wrote about spring:

She walks in the loveliness she made,
Between the apple-blossom and the water--
She walks among the patterned pied brocade,
Each flower her son, and every tree her daughter


We owned a garden on a hill,
We planted rose and daffodil,
Flowers that English poets sing,
And hoped for glory in the Spring.


Unearthed Words

Plants can be said to have a personality, a certain air about them, and this is often reflected in their names. The term vulgari often refers to what was considered the most common plant in the genus at the time of the naming. Thus the Primrose was named Primula vulgaris.

Many species names. Describe the beauty of a plant. The specific name Bellis means beautiful... And it's fairly easy to identify Elegantissima presents no surprises as it means very elegant…
While dius shows even greater beauty since it describes a plant belonging to the gods.
— Richard Bird, garden writer,  A Gardner's Latin, General Personality.

Grow That Garden Library

Flower Confidential by Amy Stewart

This book came out in 2008, and the subtitle is The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful.

It's hard to believe that this book has already been out for over 13 years. This was Amy's third book, and it's one of my favorites. And I remember thinking when this book debuted, just how sensational the stories in this book were - and also I was amazed by the amount of work it took Amy to write this book and to help us understand just what the flower industry is all about. Now the publisher describes Amy's book this way:

“Amy Stewart travels the globe to take us inside this dazzling world. She tracks down scientists intent on developing the first genetically modified blue rose; an eccentric horticultural legend who created the world's most popular lily (the 'Star Gazer'); and an Ecuadorean farmer growing exquisite, high-end organic roses that are the floral equivalent of a Tiffany diamond. She sees firsthand how flowers are grown and harvested on farms in Latin America, California, and Holland. (It isn't always pretty).

You'll never look at a cut flower the same again.”

This book is 320 pages of the secret story of flowers in the marketplace - highlighting the intersection of flowers, technology, marketing, and money.

You can get a copy of Flower Confidential by Amy Stewart and support the show using the Amazon Link in today's Show Notes for around $2


Today’s Botanic Spark

Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart


There should be no monotony
In studying your botany;
It helps to train
And spur the brain--
Unless you haven't gotany.

It teaches you, does Botany,
To know the plants and spotany,
And learn just why
They live or die--
In case you plant or potany.

You learn, from reading Botany,
Of wooly plants and cottony
That grow on earth,
And what they're worth,
And why some spots have notany.

You sketch the plants in Botany,
You learn to chart and plotany
Like corn or oats--
You jot down notes,
If you know how to jotany.

Your time, if you'll allotany,
Will teach you how and what any
Old plant or tree
Can do or be--
And that's the use of Botany!

— Berton Braley, Botany, Science News Letter, March 9, 1929


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