Human Flower Project

Gardening & Landscape

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Swap Is Mightier Than the Sale

A first-time seed swapper is raring to dig in.

Yesterday a padded envelope arrived. “Gimpytwice,” whom I’d met on an internet gardening forum, had mailed me a fat bundle of mixed hollyhock seeds, in exchange for the cardinal vine seed I’m harvesting along the porch rail.

Like ships in the night, our seed envelopes crossed in the mail, arriving here in Austin, Texas, and there in Marion, Ohio, the same day.

I have no sense of Gimpytwice’s age, but she’s clearly an old hand at seed swapping. Rather than raving with delight, she promptly e-mailed me her mailing address and her real name. The hollyhock seed came sealed in a tiny plastic packet (the kind that seasoned swappers buy in bulk and then conserve and recycle). She enclosed a slip of paper “Thanks, Julie. Feel free to reuse envelope” and a gentle reminder of our agreement: “cardinal vine for hollyhocks.” I also found a preaddressed seal, two 37 cent postage stamps, and a second seed packet, containing “Free Mix Color Spider Flower 2004,” little specks of black and brown. (I think this qualifies as lagniappe.) All I’d mailed to her was about 30 cardinal vine seeds taped up ingenue-style in a piece of notepaper and a memo gushing enthusiasm.

I’m getting the picture: swappers don’t want praise and commentary, they want seed and postage.


Hollyhocks Photo: tawny tahni

In former times, gardeners relied on neighbors and relatives for seed-swapping. Steve Bender and Felder Rushing’s book Passalong Plants offers a fun review of this old-timey custom. But, today, if you aren’t on speaking—much less swapping—terms with neighbors or relatives, you can still exchange seed thanks to the internet.

Look at the seed exchange forum on the Garden Web. That’s where I met gimpytwice. There’s a wealth of both generosity and desire out there, people who have lost their last “bat face” plants and are eager to replace them, people with “chocolate cosmos” to offer. “I would like Queen Anne’s Lace and small cherry tomato seed,” pleads “shoe” from Missouri’s Zone 6. “Planting nut,” a swapper from North Florida, announces “The pink moon vine has finished for this year. I have seeds now for those who are still looking.”

I have no idea what pink moon vine is. I wasn’t looking, but I am now. self-addressed padded envelope and two postage stamps are on the way.

(Here’s a second seed swap source I haven’t tried, though it looks promising. Less Americentric, this site includes a “world seed exchange.”)

Posted by Julie on 10/26 at 11:09 AM
Gardening & LandscapeSecular CustomsPermalink

Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Idea of Order in Tuscaloosa

Calling all Rudy Giuliani fans: take a tip from gardener Vera Horton.

Back in the 1990s, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was tough on crime and tough on civil liberties too. Giuliani had been intrigued by a study called “Broken Windows” that tied crime rates to minor traces of public disorder. “Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.” So said a 1982 article published in the Atlantic Monthly.

Giuliani proceeded to beef up policing and surveillance in New York and crack down on graffiti and panhandling. Rates of violent crime declined. So did civil liberties.

The Tuscaloosa (AL) News reports on another kind of “Broken Windows” initiative. Vera Horton, a 61-year-old gardener, is fighting crime in West Tuscaloosa with “banana trees, angel trumpets, crape myrtle, geraniums and pumpkins. She chose to use her yard on 21st Street as the cornerstone of a project to help the area called Silver Park look better than its name, rather than remain tagged one of the worst places in the city.”


In Vera Horton’s Garden

Photo: Jason Getz, Tuscaloosa News

She asked the city council for help but was turned down. So after bringing her own corner lot to bloom, she went door-to-door offering to do the same for her neighbors. Interest in gardening has spread. A city council member told the Tuscaloosa paper, “Crime is down, street lights have been put up, a police substation is there… We’re looking anytime now to plant those crape myrtles Horton wants.”

New York’s mayor had proposed—and then claimed to have proved—that creating order decreased crime. Vera Horton had the same premise, only her idea of order wasn’t to expand arrests but to extend flowering gardens.

“Freedom is about authority,” Giuliani told Newsday in 1998. “Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do and how you do it.”

Horton holds another view—rather than ceding authority, freedom is about assuming responsibility, to work with others on behalf of the common good.

“I just remind people that some things we just have to do for ourselves,” Horton said. “We knew that no one was going to do it but us, so we did it.”

(For a good essay on the “Broken Windows” theory of crime prevention, check this piece on

Posted by Julie on 10/24 at 11:10 AM
Culture & SocietyGardening & LandscapePermalink

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Love Affair Begins on a Bomb Site

English artist John Levett traces his gardening instincts back to wartime, Bear’s Breeches, and his mother’s penchant for “nicking cuttings.”

Note: Today marks the real birthday of The Human Flower Project, with our first submission. Human = Interactive. Thanks to you, John.                  Julie Ardery

“I was born in 1944. My mum was travelling from the south coast back to her family in Deptford South London when a V1 air raid brought on labour halfway home so I was born in Kent otherwise known as ‘The Garden of England.’

For what it meant in those years, read Orwell on the hop pickers who used to come down from London’s East End in the Autumn; Vita Sackville-West, who bought Sissinghurst in the 1930’s & created the most-visited garden in England; Churchill, who bought Chartwell in the Kentish Weald in 1922 & spent his ‘wilderness years’ there building the garden with his wife, Clemantine; & Derek Jarman, who built his cottage garden on the shingle of the Kent marshland.


John’s mum (at left) spoonfeeding a pig

in the English Land Army, 1940.

Photo: Courtesy of John Levett

“We were homeless for the next three or four years & travelled from one relative to another for a few months at a time. In about 1947 we moved to Luton, a town about 30 miles north of London. It was well-known as a major centre for hat making & for its motor industry, being the UK manufacturer of Vauxhall motors. For that last reason it was bombed during the war. We lived next door to a bomb site which was great for getting lost in, recreating D-Day, making obstacle courses & breaking bones. It was also a valuable source of free land. A lot of foodstuffs were still in short supply & some were still rationed so harvesting vegetables was the priority.

“A major small-holding movement had grown up during the war & skills were plentiful. Mum had worked as a member of the Women’s Land Army during the war, who took the place of agricultural workers who had been called up. We weren’t short of veg but it was also the first flower garden we built.


Acanthus mollis, Bear’s Breeches

“I’m not sure if it was the plants that fascinated me or the names: Love in the Mist, Forget Me Not, Bear’s Breeches, Catchfly, Hounds Tongue, Ragged Robin. Every town of any size had a seed merchant in those days & if you couldn’t afford the little brown packets you could always scrabble in the yard around the back, plant what you found & see what happened. I liked the idea of that & I think it’s informed my gardening since: get what you fancy, see if it grows, if it doesn’t then move it. If it still doesn’t, then give it to a neighbour to try.

“Bomb sites aren’t rich in nutrients. An uncle came down & built a serviceable chicken run so we got eggs & fertilizer too (next door’s dog kept guard). We also used mushroom compost from another neighbour, dried blood from the abattoir down the road, leaf mould from the park. The park was useful for plants too. We’d go there Sundays & mum was pretty swift in nicking cuttings from any border plants that were putting out shoots or throwing out seed heads.

“It was the start of a love affair that stopped & started, a bit like wartime romances I suppose. Even in Britain in the 1950s & ‘60s, gardening wasn’t the sort of Wow! Fab! Groovy! thing to be doing when growing up was concerned. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I came back to it & helped mum build a proper garden in Hertfordshire complete with greenhouse, conservatory & potting shed…which she needed for the cuttings she carried on nicking ‘til she died.”


John Levett

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Posted by Julie on 10/19 at 10:19 AM
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Thursday, October 14, 2004

Moths and Workers Applaud White Gardens

Moon gardens gain new appreciation in an era of 40+ hour work weeks.

An all white garden? Oh,  please!! We all know the Brits hoped to conquer the world with their pear-shaped vowels, prep school ties and stiff upper lips, but must race hegemony even banish the yellow centers of daisies?


Sissinghurst (Photo by Dave Parker)

It was Vita Sackville-West’s famed gardens at Sissinghurst, built in the 1930s, that popularized the all-white garden. For those who fear the taste police (and such paranoia is rampant in gardening culture), the monochromatic garden is as irreproachable as Caesar’s wife. Landscape writers wax with adjectives like “elegant” and “cool.” But wiser gardeners equipped with two eyes and more than a thimbleful of zest know better. Painter and gardener Wanda Gamble of Smithville, Texas, chants an affirmation-mantra: “Fear no color!”

Even Anne Winn, a grande dame of Lexington, Kentucky, society, was mildly apologetic for her all-white garden. She told me she’d designed and planted it to prepare for her daughter’s wedding and/but liked it so much she kept it after the rice was thrown.

Los Angeles is a long way from Sissinghurst, however, and today’s L.A. Times describes a new rationale for white gardens. While gardening may have once been the pursuit of the leisured classes, now everybody’s doing it, and most men and women aren’t making it home from work until sundown, when reds and purples are swallowed up.

Christy Hobart describes how moonlight sets off an all-white garden. She tells how one landscape architect took inspiration from Lotusland in Santa Barbara: “silvery to blue-gray plants—blue fescue, Senecio mandraliscae and huge agaves—grow under enormous blue Atlas cedars and Chilean wine palms. The focal point of the garden in the hills, nevertheless, is an old metal Indian gazebo covered in dramatic ‘White Dawn’ roses.”

Without color to attract pollinating insects, white flowers rely on scent, maybe the most attractive feature of white gardens. I just bought a night-blooming jasmine. I, too, would like an evening oasis, without white supremacy.

Check out more of Dave Parker’s photos of Sissinghurst’s white gardens.

Posted by Julie on 10/14 at 11:01 AM
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