Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Ultimate Flower Show experience (Think Philadelphia Flower Show...) A post by Thea McGinnis

Magnificent bridge lined with delft tile at the entrance to
the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's 2017
Philadelphia Flower Show "Holland - Flowering the World"

Like tens of thousands of you lovers of all things flower and garden, I attended this year's fabulous Philadelphia Flower Show.  But my visit was a bit different than yours - because I got to attend before the show opened. How did I finagle that?

One of the many beautiful display gardens at the Show

 I was honored to be asked to participate as a student judge - one of eighteen student judges invited to serve within panels of amazing, talented and professional judges from around the United States.

My team included Andrea Little from Boston, Massachusetts, Barbara Hamacheck from Ketchem, Idaho, and Amelia Crumbley from Mississippi.

 Andrea has been an accredited judge with National Garden Clubs for twenty-seven years.  Amelia is a brand new Garden Clubs of America accredited judge. And Barbara is an accredited judge with Garden Clubs of America.  I'm an NGC student judge and working toward my accreditation.

 This opportunity would never have come my way if I hadn't decided to attend NGC's Flower Show School.  I never really seriously considered becoming a flower show judge but I took Course I (of four) to find out what it was all about.  Honestly? I loved immersing myself in the course work. The Courses are like going back to college for a weekend.  Taking each course for credit is the key, though.  Yes, it requires you to take a very challenging exam at the end of each course, but a few of my fellow students learned the hard way that if you don't go for course credit, and you do go on to become judge, you will have to repeat the course.  What has impressed me the most, though, is the caliber of our instructors. Whether it is horticulture or design, the depth of knowledge and expertise shared with students is an awesome value.

 Back to my experience as a student judge with the PHS -  I arrived Thursday afternoon and immediately met up with NCAGC President-elect and fellow student flower show judge, Robin Hammer.  Robin and I have been lucky to go through our flower show school courses together.  Let's just say - we laughed a lot!!

NCAGC President-Elect
Robin Hammer
Robin and I, plus our dear garden friend, Julie Wadsworth, were invited to a dinner party for judges at the lovely Acorn Club, where we had the opportunity to meet many of the judges and chairpersons we would work with the next day. That's when I realized our fellow judges were from all over the U.S!

We got up early the next morning and met up with our panels. We started at 8:00 a.m. and didn't wrap up our work until about 1:00 p.m.  What impressed me most was how my fellow judges were able to make meaningful points that counted powerfully within our evaluation and decisions. And we were able to give exhibitors instructive comments that always circled back to principles and elements of design we adhere to in NGC and GCA.   I learned so much about the judging process and decision making that day, and best of all, made new friends.  Robin was assigned to a different panel of judges and had a wonderful experience as well.

 After all the scoring and collaboration with a great team of judges, we wrapped up our day with a lovely luncheon. We then got to experience the flower show in all its glory. All in all, it was a unique, fantastic opportunity and an awesome experience. And I loved visiting Philadelphia!

 I love garden club in all aspects of it's mission - as a community organization in your town, on-going member education, hands-on learning, and friendship.  I invite you to attend your local garden club's flower shows and meetings.  Come learn about horticulture and design.

Here are just a few of the exquisite designs competing at the Philadelphia Flower Show:

A charming bicycle basket of tulips

The Philadelphia Flower Show had top quality horticulture specimens, like this
gorgeous Hellebore, on display

Many go home with the names of new plants they can try in their gardens.  I also highly recommend attending any of the NGC courses for accreditation or certification as a consultant, offered to garden club members in your state - whether it is Landscape Design, Environmental, Flower Show Judge, or Garden Studies schools.

Robin and I are now immersing ourselves in completing our credentials by student judging flower shows in the National Capital area.  I'm looking forward to bringing what I learned from judging at the Philadelphia Flower Show to those shows.  My next post on the blog will include a list of our upcoming flower shows.  Flower shows are free, fun, educational and open to the public. Plan to attend one in your area this Spring!  - Thea

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Wintertime Blog - Photographer Brigitte Hartke and the Birds at Her Northern Virginia Feeder

Cardinal before dawn

It is still dark. I am pouring my coffee when I hear the first chirp, chirp of the day.  Cardinals are the first to my feeder each morning, and the last to visit at dusk.  I am always struck by their beautiful red color, and I particularly like the subtler hues of the female’s feathers.
female cardinal
A female cardinal

male cardinal
A male cardinal

Throughout the day, many birds come to visit as I provide a wide variety of choices — seeds, nuts, dried berries and fruit, suet — and what started as a simple attempt to attract and have birds nearby became a rewarding, enjoyable, though time-consuming, hobby; I love to photograph birds in the closest proximity that they will allow.

mixed flock at feeder
A mixed flock at the feeder

My feeder is just inches beyond my window as my camera’s zoom is not strong, and I have had the chance to study them in a very personal way, and to notice things I could not have observed from a distance.

One of my favorite local birds is the Carolina wren.

Carolina wren
Carolina Wren

This little cinnamon-colored bird with the jauntily-angled tail and beautifully-patterned plumage is the acrobat of my visiting birds.  He will hop all over and under objects, and pops up with ease through the hole in the middle of my platform feeder.  One is left with the impression that the wren is having fun. I know he will look for more than one female this spring, sometimes keeping two families going at once. I’ve loved having these birds take up residence in my small birdhouses; but, take care when leaving your garage door open for long as wrens will have a nest going in no time.  Wrens are especially fond of suet and insects. I had four fledglings visit the feeder once, and was absolutely delighted with their antics and behavior as they checked out every nook and cranny.

a native white throated sparrow
A native White Throated Sparrow

I see, feed and photograph many commonly-sighted birds visiting my feeders, and the occasional towhees, pileated woodpeckers, rose breasted nuthatches, sap-suckers, cowbirds, and grosbeaks; I see a number of species of our fairly common native sparrows which please me very much. I much prefer to take photos of the birds perching on branches or foraging on the ground rather than on a feeder as they look more natural.

A Black Capped Chickadee holding a seed

A watchful Junco


I once supported so many mourning doves that roosted in an oak in the wood just across from my window-placed platform feeder, that it prompted someone to alert me to the fact that I was maintaining a rookery.
Mourning Doves
Mourning Dove 
 I was trying to keep up with  the appetites of up to 26 doves; but they were always there in the tree, day-long residents hanging out through all weathers — and I enjoyed watching them, as I find them such beautifully-plumed birds.
Mourning Dove in snow
 They would usually fly in to feed en masse in the morning and evening — I once counted 11 birds on the platform at once (I should have been scattering the seeds on the ground; it is less stressful for them and discourages the passing of diseases among the birds).  I began experimenting with catching them in flight, coming and going, with my camera shutter speed set very fast.  Speaking of speed, while, on the ground, they slowly beetle around while feeding, once startled or threatened, they are capable of great speed in flight.  They are not the fussiest nest-builders, a friend once remarking that ‘they will cross two sticks together and call it a nest’.
Blue Jay looking in

Blue Jay working a kernel out of the seed

I did enjoy how the proximity of the birds at my window allowed us both the chance for mutual scrutiny.  This they often did, and it is a funny sensation when a bird peers into your kitchen and looks you over. Holding still, I stared back, and occasional took a photo. Those were some of my favorite moments.

Red Bellied Woodpecker

I became accustomed to some of the behaviors over the years.  Blue jays, tufted tits and chickadees will pick up safflower or sunflower seeds and hold them between their talons, crack the shell and eat the seed’s kernel on the spot, then pick up another to repeat.

Tufted Titmouse holding a seed

Nuthatches and some others will grab a nut or seed and fly to a nearby tree to tuck it into a crease or crevice in the bark of the trunk or limbs, to be consumed later.  My guess is that this behavior results in supporting many other birds who will find the food and benefit by it.

Years ago, I received an unexpected gift from the birds.  Birds are a major force for seed dispersal.  Coming to my feeders, they would sometimes leave droppings on the ground beneath, and this resulted in the germinating of a nice little patch of common asclepias, or milkweed;  I came to refer to it as my “science project’, and I left the plants to thrive from year to year, though their site was less than ideal.  I began to get caterpillars which became pupae and then monarchs!

Great Spangled Fritillary enjoying the milkweed patch

The milkweed, the host plant of the monarch butterflies, also provided nectar and sustenance for yellow and black swallowtails and other butterflies as well as many kinds of bees and other insects.  I used the milkweed patch for my macro-photography for years, as it came up every year after its first emergence.
Spangled Fritillary

On occasion, my photography of birds has developed into a photo-session marathon.  I may go days or weeks without taking a bird pic, and then there will come a day, when the snow comes down and the birds come in, and there’s nothing else to be done but to drop all other activities and stand at the window to photograph, observe, and learn.  Dreary days make the birds’ colors stand out, and the white snow reflects light up to highlight their undersides beautifully.  The falling snow adds to the beauty of the photos as well.
Tufted Titmouse

There are several interesting behaviors worth mentioning that I’ve observed for some years.  In the first, there may be very few visiting birds for several days, and then one bird species will arrive, followed minutes later by another, and another.  Within the space of an hour or two, many kinds of birds will be back to feed.  I later learned that these are called ‘mixed flocks’ that tend to travel together.
Downy Woodpecker and male Cardinal 

Another behavior I have observed is birds ‘freezing’ in place when there is a predator or some danger nearby.  I don’t know if one birds gives out a warning that all the birds heed (I have my doubts that the jays can always be relied up for they are known to give a warning cry just to clear the feeder for themselves).  I have seen birds remain unmoving in any way except for a slight movement of the head and eyes to check out their surroundings; this may go on for fifteen minutes.

Blue Jay

Just as suddenly they all go back to their usual activities.  I watched a red-bellied woodpecker, not known to be a swift flyer, move to the house side of a tree and stay there for some time, while a chickadee sat motionless in the same tree. The doves, being very swift flyers, sometimes choose flight, though they are sometimes caught.  It seems logical that predators home in on the movement of birds, and this seems to be the case.  I don’t think this ‘freeze’ behavior is the same as when ‘sentinel’ birds find a place from which to scan for predators while others forage for food.

An alert male Cardinal

Though I must go farther afield to photograph blue and green herons, eagles, and rails, I will always enjoy living with and capturing images of my “Usual Suspects” — the birds most commonly found at our local feeders in northern Virginia.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
 Moving to the more rural Bull Run area last year, I had to bid goodbye to the bog behind my house in Clifton that, because it was the site of many dead or dying trees, brought in great numbers of woodpeckers; and I had to leave behind my milkweed patch, the host of the monarchs, but I am planning to start a new one here. And I’ve seen birds at my feeder here that I’ve not seen at them before my move, while seeing less of others. Many hawks and owls fly by, a dozen turkeys stopped to preen on the lawn right after Thanksgiving, while the cry of owl pairs calling back and forth, too, can be heard (as well as coyotes that I frequently hear howling at night).  On Christmas morning, I saw my very first owl in the wild. I am hoping to get a photo of her one of these days. Yesterday morning, I watched a great blue heron fly by my bedroom window. Though I am happiest on country rambles, until I get a camera with a stronger zoom lens, I am content to take my best bird photographs here at my window — utterly absorbed and, hopefully, completely snowed in.
Nuthatch in snow

All photographs are owned and copyright 2017 by Brigitte Hartke

Contributor Brigitte Hartke is a writer, gardener, photographer, amateur genealogist
and a very active member of Five Hills Garden Club in Vienna, Virginia.  

Brigitte Hartke surrounded by native bluebells at Riverbend
She enjoys learning and writing about the scientific concepts relating to environment and conservation, and the interconnectedness, evolving over long evolutionary periods, of all the many species coexisting within a healthy biome

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Gardens in the Shire - A Very Special Visit to Hobbiton

Blog contributor, Diane Marsden and her husband recently took their dream trip to New Zealand. At the top of their list was a visit to the charming, tiny village of Hobbiton.  Yes, Hobbits love gardening, too!  Enjoy!

On a recent trip to New Zealand, my husband and I, fans of the J.R.R. Tolkien's books, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, decided to visit the movie set from the films based on these books. This was the perfect location for the filming of these stories.

Lush, rolling green farmland, the Shire brought to life - a peaceful place, a wonderful and quiet village.

We enjoyed a  delightful to visit Hobbiton, and the little Hobbit houses and pretty gardens at each one.  We could imagine the characters in the houses and visiting in the village.  I could visualize Bilbo writing his story of his adventures inside his Hobbit house.

There was a sign on the gate of Bilbo’s hobbit house,” No Admittance, except on Party Business."
I remember the scene from the movie.  Each house had garden gates, birdhouses and lots of flowers.

There was a vegetable garden and an orchard complete with a ladder to pick the fruit.  Clothes were hanging on the line waiting to be collected by a hobbit in the village when they dried.

There was a mill house and the Green Dragon Inn, which one could go inside an order a scone, tea or a pint. You could see in a mind’s eye the busy Inn from the movie.

We remembered the party scene from the movie of Bilbo’s birthday party and villagers having fun watching the fireworks of Gandalf’s making and celebrating There were many scenes in the movie, where the hobbits were in dangerous situations and they would wish to be back in the Shire.

We left with delighted smiles and a happy heart having been to a place brought to life by the creation of a movie and Tolkien’s  genius.

photography by Diane Marsden 

Diane Marsden moved West from the East Coast for college and never came back (except for visits with her family and friends!)  She is a photographer specializing in wildflowers and natural landscapes, master gardener, poet, writer, and world traveler. Diane and Lloyd opened their garden this past June for THE ART IN THE GARDEN, an art show displaying the work of local area artists – including Diane’s photography and Lloyd’s exquisite woodworking. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

NATIONAL SEED SWAP DAY - Grow By Seed Saving And Swapping - A guest post by Kathy Jentz (and some save the dates!)

Whether just among your neighbors, your garden club/plant society, or your wider community, a seed swap can be a terrific way to get lots of seeds, to meet new friends, and to learn a great deal about what grows best in our area.

Why go to the bother of collecting all those tiny seeds? The first reason is thriftiness. No need for anything in your garden to go to waste. Compost, recycle, and re-use. The second reason is frugality. Why buy new plants every year when you can grow your own for free? Even further, why buy unproven plants or seeds when you know the ones you are collecting from did well and obviously flourished in your yard.

Another reason to collect seeds is to ensure the propagation of heirloom varieties and rare, native plants that are not available through other means. Commercial growers and catalogs will often only carry the most popular plants and seeds. By collecting seeds from particular flowers and edibles, you are safe-guarding the future of these species. You are guaranteeing we will have a wide variety of genetic diversity in our future and not just the current “top growers.”

The final reason to collect seeds is to trade them. You may have 100s of Cleome seeds and another gardener has 100s of Poppy seeds. Why not trade a few hundred with each other? Again, you are getting new plants for free or close to it. Seed trading is a whole world unto itself. There are online groups, pen pal lists, and clubs for seed swapping.

This January, DC area gardeners will have the opportunity to meet up and swap seeds in person. Washington Gardener magazine is holdings its annual Seed Exchange on Saturday, January 28, 2017 from 12:30 – 4:00 p.m. at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, MD and Saturday, February 4, 2017 from 12:30 – 4:00 p.m. at Green Spring Gardens in Fairfax County, VA. The Seed Exchange will include seed swapping, door prizes, planting tips, and gardening workshops by local garden experts. Details are posted at and at

Seed collecting is easy. Just wait until the end of the growing season when your current flowers form seedpods. Check on them every few days. They are ready when the pods are dry, brittle, and just ready to open. Don’t wait too late or they’ll break open on their own and cast their seeds to the wind. Pick a day with little breeze and no rain. Go out in mid-morning, after the sun has dried out the air and dewdrops from the leaves. Take a piece of paper and put it under the seed heads then shake them gently. Be sure the seeds are thoroughly dry before you put them in tightly closed jars or zipper-closed baggies. Label them right away and store them in a cool, dark, and dry place.

That last step is the most important. Label them with the date and variety. Be specific as possible. Next spring you’ll be very glad you did – as many seeds look alike. The date is important as you will want to use up your seeds the next growing season or two.

A side note on seed collecting: not all plants can be propagated from seed. Many plants that you buy are hybrids or sterile. If you have hybrid flowers and vegetables, they may produce seeds. However, the seeds will often not produce offspring that is “true” to the parent plants. In other words, the seeds from hybrids are often a different variety than the plant you originally purchased and they are often inferior in quality.

A simple way to get started is to collect seeds from your common annual flowers that open-pollinate: zinnias, marigolds, forget-me-nots, four-o-clocks, cosmos, cleome, and sunflowers. Then, as your gardening skills grow, move on to perennials and biennials.

About the author:  Kathy Jentz  is saving seeds this weekend from her hollyhocks which came to her garden from her grandmother’s seed collecting. Kathy Jentz is Editor of Washington Gardener Magazine. Washington Gardener magazine, is the only gardening publication published specifically for the local metro area — zones 6-7 — Washington DC and its suburbs.
The magazine is written entirely by local area gardeners. They have real-world knowledge and practical advice with the same problems you experience in your own gardens. They share their thoughts on what to plant in deep shade, how to cover bare spots, which annuals work best throughout the humid DC summers, and much more. If you are a DC area gardener, you’ll love Washington Gardener magazine!

To subscribe to the magazine via Paypal/credit card, click on the “subscribe” link at  Washington Gardener magazine also makes a great gift for the gardeners and new home owners in your life!