Ayasofya, Istanbul

It was 3 degrees F this morning (-16 C), and I have pretty much given up on my dreams of an early spring. Since not much will be happening in the garden for a while, let’s cast our minds back to December 2009, when Judy and I and the boys took a trip to Turkey.

Danny had spent that fall studying at St. Petersburg University in Russia. For our Christmas trip, we thought we would take advantage of the fact that he was already in a far off land.

Entrance to Ayasofya.

Entrance to Ayasofya.


And in fact, his flight from St. Petersburg and ours from Chicago landed in Istanbul within a couple of hours of each other. Meeting at the airport, we all thought ourselves masters of international intrigue.

A view of Ayasofya's main dome.

A view of Ayasofya’s main dome.

So let’s start by looking at one of the places we saw on our first full day in Istanbul: Ayasofya, also called the Hagia Sofia. The name means “Holy Wisdom”.

Another view of the dome

Another view of the dome

Ayasofya was built as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral about 1,500 years ago, when Istanbul was Constantinople and capital of the Byzantine Empire.

A cross with the vertical parts removed. You can still see the shadow, though it is probably over 500 years old.

A cross with the vertical sections removed. You can still see the shadow, though it is probably over 500 years old.

It was converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453. Under the emphatically secular Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Ayasofya was transformed into a museum in the 1930s.

As a result of restoration efforts, Ayasofya displays art and architecture both Christian and Islamic, Byzantine and Ottoman.

View of the inside from the upper gallery.

View of the inside from the upper gallery.

From the outside the whole building gives a feeling of massiveness and solidity, like an enormous domed boulder. Inside, the space is cavernous, the windows mostly small, the light dim.

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A view of the upper gallery from the opposite wall.

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The capitals of the marble columns are intricately carved.

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Byzantine mosaics were destroyed or plastered over when the building was converted to a mosque. Conservators have been working on restoration for many years.

Scaffolding facilitates restoration of the ceiling.

Scaffolding facilitates restoration of the ceiling.


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The Islamic art, including patterned mosaics and Arabic calligraphy in gold, is also undergoing restoration.

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For security, the Sultan had a private screened loge to sit in.

Pulpit to the right, mehrab to the left.

Pulpit to the right, mehrab to the left.




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The minbar or pulpit for the Imam is very tall. The mihrab points towards Mecca and indicates the direction worshipers should face when praying.

Ayasofya seen from an adjoining park. The minarets were added by the Ottoman Turks.

Ayasofya seen from an adjoining park. The minarets were added by the Ottoman Turks.

Ayasofya was a fine introduction to the antiquity and the parade of empires past that seems to surround everyday life in Turkey.

Garden Catalog Review: Brent and Becky’s Bulbs

To be honest, I’ve never purchased anything from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, (I usually order bulbs from John Scheeper’s) but I feel justified in writing a review because they are enthusiastically recommended by one of my instructors at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Brent and Becky Heath with Jay and Denise Hutchins of Brent and Becky's Bulbs.

Brent and Becky Heath with Jay and Denise Hutchins of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs.

And I should mention that Brent and Becky’s plants are grown organically on their 28 acre Virginia farm. Their website is here.

When we think of bulbs, what usually comes to mind are the tulips and other spring bloomers that we plant in the fall. Brent and Becky’s has those, but right now they have an intriguing catalog of summer blooming bulbs (as well as foliage plants) that can be planted in spring. Technically, most are not really bulbs, but tubers, corms, and rhizomes.

For example, I was goggle eyed by the selection of Caladiums. I like Caladiums very much as a foliage plant for shade, but they are expensive. I’ve tried overwintering them but without success. Brent and Becky’s sells five ‘Celebration’ Caladium tubers for just $10.85.

The catch is that you have to keep them inside in pots placed on heating pads until the soil warms. But never fear, Brent and Becky’s sells heat mats for $26.945.

Caladium 'Celebration'. Photo from Brent and Becky's Bulbs.

Caladium ‘Celebration’. Photo from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs.

They also carry a large selection of Dahlias, Colocasias, Lilies, Gladioli, etc. There is also ‘Emily McKenzie’, a very distinctive and striking Crocosmia.

Brent and Becky’s carries a number of perennials that I’ve always believed had fibrous roots, but I don’t want to be picky. Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), for example, or Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana).

This catalog has serviceable photographs and straightforward descriptions as well as necessary cultural information. It crams a lot of selections into its 50 pages.

Have you ever ordered from Brent and Becky’s? Where do you usually obtain your bulbs?

Is Gardening a Hobby or a Crusade?

Is gardening a crusade or a hobby? This question occurred to me after reading a New York Times article about a symposium featuring Douglas Tallamy, Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. Tallamy is also the author of “Bringing Nature Home”, in which he argues for the environmental importance of using native plants in home landscapes.

Yellow Coneflower and Wild Bergamot

Yellow Coneflower and Wild Bergamot

In his presentation, Tallamy maintains that gardens should not be judged on beauty alone: Gardens should, among other things, help sustain the diversity of life.

Tallamy’s argument is all about insects. His research shows that native plants support way more insects than exotics. To give just one example, native oaks support 537 species of caterpillar, as opposed to a Japanese elm (Zelkova serrata), which supports none. This is because most insects are specialists able to digest the foliage of only a very limited number of plants (Monarch butterflies, whose caterpillars eat only Milkweed (Asclepias) plants, are a well-known example.)

Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebells

You may like the idea of fewer insects, but fewer insects means fewer birds, amphibians, and many other animals. Without insects, the food chain collapses. And in fact the number of birds has declined by half over the last forty years.

But should gardeners be expected to take on these dire problems? Doesn’t this approach detract from gardening as a means of relaxation, of simply taking pleasure in the beauty of plants? Also, can gardeners even make a difference?

Anise Hyssop

Anise Hyssop, Joe Pye Weed, Yellow Coneflower

Tallamy makes a pretty good argument that gardeners could help mitigate the loss of natural habitat if they wanted to. In the USA there are 40 million acres of lawn, an area about six times the size of the State of New Jersey. It would be significant if even a fraction of that lawn were converted to native plant gardens.

But let’s be honest. The real purpose of a garden is to make the gardener happy. If a gardener can’t be happy without tulips, or lilacs, or some other exotic plant, he or she should not be asked to go without (leaving aside the issue of invasives). Native plant advocates will win few converts if they insist on purity. And some exotic plants have wildlife value, for example by providing nectar for pollinators – though not forage for caterpillars.

New England Aster with Metallic Green Bee

New England Aster with Metallic Green Bee

In my own garden, I’d guess that about 2/3 of the species are native to the region, but these are mixed with exotics that I love.

Even so, there are a large number of beautiful and underused native plants capable of giving most gardeners a great deal of pleasure. And a garden full of insects and birds is a more lively, interesting, and enjoyable place.



Tallamy has written a new book with Rick Darke called “The Living Landscape: Gardening for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden.” The idea is that we don’t have to sacrifice pleasure while gardening with the environment in mind. I read and was much influenced by Tallamy’s last book. I’m looking forward to reading “The Living Landscape”.

So, to answer my own question – hobby or crusade? I’d say the two are not mutually exclusive.

Can Naturalistic Landscapes Make Us Happy?

My son sent me a link to an interesting post by Chicago Magazine’s Whet Moser. The post deals with some current research on identifying the elements that make a park look more “natural” to most people.

Lurie Garden

Chicago’s Lurie Garden: can naturalistic landscapes make us happier?

It was more the purpose than the results of this particular research that interested me. I’m not sure that anyone would be surprised by the qualities found to be more natural-looking – curved rather than straight edges, for example.

Marc Berman, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has stated that his research could help in designing “new environments in ways that may improve psychological functioning.”

In other words, this is a new spin on the idea that exposure to nature (or something we think looks like nature) provides uplift to those who live in man-made environments.

Berman has done some research in the use of nature walks as part of a course of treatments for clinical depression. He theorizes that natural environments provide a tranquil counterpoint to the overstimulation of man-made environments, and that this can create a sense of calm and well-being.

Or, as Berman puts it:”… interacting with natural environments can have a salubrious effect on cognitive and affective processing compared to interacting with more urban/man-made environments.”

Transcendental bumblebee meditation.

Transcendental bumblebee meditation.

My own experience in the garden tells me there is something real behind this. Contemplating a single plant, a border, or a garden overall provides a tranquil focus for the mind and quiets worrying or distressing thoughts. Watching bees on flowers has for me the sort of hypnotic effect that some who practice meditation get from concentrating on their own breathing.

There was also a study by Frances Kuo at the University of Illinois which found that green spaces in the inner city tend to reduce crime. This runs counter to the conventional view that bushes and trees provide hiding spaces for criminals and criminal acts.

Do naturalistic gardens have this effect more than formal gardens? Perhaps. As Jens Jensen, founder of the Prairie Style of design, once said: “Straight lines spell autocracy …”. Both formal and informal gardens are designed landscapes, but the formal garden suggests control, tension, discipline. The informal garden, by definition, is more relaxed.

Lurie Garden

Lurie Garden in October.

Jens Jensen may not have been familiar with “affective processing”, but he did say of naturalistic landscapes: “They appeal to the finer feelings of mankind and elevate the depressed in soul and mind to a higher place in the human family.”

Do you agree? Do natural-seeming landscapes in urban environments make us happier?

Tomorrow is the Last Day of the Great Backyard Bird Count

Yesterday and today Judy and I sat for an hour on the back porch, watching birds. This was not an example of us wasting time. No, it was an example of us carrying out our responsibilities as Citizen Scientists.

American Goldfinch at the nyjer seed feeder: is the coast clear?

American Goldfinch at the nyjer seed feeder: is the coast clear?

Specifically, we were taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). Launched in 1998 and led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, the GBBC enlists amateur birdwatchers to measure bird population trends.

Male Downy Woodpecker with a beak full of suet.

Male Downy Woodpecker with a beak full of suet.

One thing I really like about the GBBC is that you can do it from the comfort of a chair by the window. That’s the kind of birdwatching I can really appreciate. Particularly since yesterday got down to 5 degrees F (-15 C). Today it was snowing and a bit warmer, but I still preferred to count my birds from inside.

Male Northern Cardinal.

Male Northern Cardinal.

Hardier birders head out to parks, beaches, nature preserves, and other likely outdoor locations.

Dark-Eyed Junco.

Dark-Eyed Junco.

Over both days Judy and I saw nine bird species, including Juncos, Goldfinches, Cardinals, Chickadees, House Sparrows, Tree Sparrows (I think), Downy Woodpeckers, and Hairy Woodpeckers. The greatest excitement, however, came when a Red-Tailed Hawk twice swooped through the backyard. This caused all the other birds to scatter and not return for another fifteen minutes or so.

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He looks cold, doesn’t he?

I was a little disappointed that the Red-Bellied Woodpeckers and White-Breasted Nuthatches did not make appearances, because they have been fairly frequent visitors to our back garden this winter. I even thought of cheating and putting them on my checklist (because they might have shown up, after all).

Female Downy Woodpecker.

Female Downy Woodpecker.

But then I thought, would Jonas Salk or Albert Einstein have falsely recorded a Red-Bellied Woodpecker on their checklists? I don’t think so. And so I stayed true to my oath as a Citizen Scientist. Not that there is an actual oath, but you know what I mean.

Another Dark-Eyed Junco.

Another Dark-Eyed Junco.

A nice thing about the GBBC is that you can enter your data online and see the data develop in real time. For example, as of this afternoon there were almost 43,000 checklists submitted from the USA, plus thousands more from 115 other countries. Closer to home, there were 223 checklists submitted from Cook County, Illinois, where I live.

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Monday, February 16, is the last day of the GBBC. I have the day off, and I’m thinking I’ll spend one more hour doing another checklist. Maybe the Red-Bellied Woodpecker will show up.

If you’d like to participate, check out the GBBC website here. You can spend as little as 15 minutes watching from the comfort of your own home, and there are guides to help with bird identification.

Have you taken part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, and if so what birds did you see?

A Grand Finale for the Portland Fling

So this is the last post I’m going to do about the Garden Bloggers’ Fling held in Portland last summer. Fittingly, it is about the garden that hosted the event’s closing reception.

Entering Bella Madrona.

Entering Bella Madrona.

This was held at Bella Madrona, a five acre garden on the outskirts of Portland. The garden has been lovingly created over more than three decades by two retired physicians, Jim Sampson and Geoff Beasley.

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Lots of delicious reds in the border that starts at the entrance gate.

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Nice urn.


Another border featuring swaths of Helenium and Yuccas in containers lifted high on columns.

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Bella Madrona is a garden of many faces. It has borders mixing annuals and perennials, all exhibiting bold colors.

This arch looks like a good fit for a CS Lewis story.

This arch looks like a good fit for a CS Lewis story.

Another arch, another path.

Another arch, another path.

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It’s also a garden of paths, mostly gravel, cunningly designed so as to almost always disappear around mysterious bends.

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This looks like a good bench for Rip Van Winkle to snooze on.

This looks like a good bench for Rip Van Winkle to snooze on.

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I like the window cut into the hedge.

I like the window cut into the hedge.

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And all those paths lead to many niches and nooks, areas to sit and chat or just contemplate the view.

Nice little pond with waterlilies and koi.

Nice little pond with waterlilies and koi.

A babbling brook.

A babbling brook. I like that grass.

Interesting fountain.

Interesting fountain.

There were water features, of course.

I really like this snake made from a bicycle chain.

I really like this snake made from a bicycle chain.

Some skulls for a touch of the macabre.

Some skulls for a touch of the macabre.

Not sure what this is supposed to be - cattails? But I do like stuff made from old metal.

Not sure what this is supposed to be – cattails? But I do like stuff made from old metal.

There was a whole little garden devoted to gnomes, but Judy didn't get a chance to take many pictures in there.

There was a whole little garden devoted to gnomes, but Judy didn’t get a chance to take many pictures in there.

And lots of garden art – some macabre, some playful.

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And I can’t forget the ducks. Why is it that urban chickens have become kind of fashionable, but not ducks? All in all, I’d say ducks are cuter. Much harder to cook, though.

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Bella Madrona is frequently made available for fundraising events and weddings. It certainly provided a marvelous setting for the Fling’s closing reception. In fact, people stayed far longer than the allotted time.

It’s a bit sad to write this last post about the Portland Fling. On the other hand, I’m glad to have finished before my memory of these gardens fades any further. And now I can look forward to the 2015 Fling in Toronto.

Catalog Review: Forestfarm

Until this year, the Forestfarm catalog looked a lot like the phone book for a small city. This was a testament to the Oregon nursery’s incredibly vast selection of plants, especially woody plants. For me, Forestfarm has been the place to go when I had to buy a tree or shrub that could not be found at any local garden center.


This year, however, the catalog has been radically downsized. In terms of printing and mailing costs, I’m sure this move made sense.

However, the smaller catalog does not mean a more limited inventory. While the catalog contains only the more popular items, the full selection can still be found online. The Forestfarm website is here.

I will miss the old catalog, though. It was sort of the horticultural equivalent of War and Peace.

Forest Farm Nursery

Newly arrived Fringe Trees from Forestfarm, April 2013.

Neither the old nor the current catalog are glossy or gorgeous. Printed mostly in black and white on newsprint, this is not a catalog that seeks to seduce the gardener into making purchases. Though I should say that there are several pages of attractive color photos.

I appreciate the brief narrative descriptions of the plants, which often contain quotes from well-known plantspersons.

Over the years I have purchased a number of plants from Forestfarm, including American Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus), Clove Currant (Ribes odoratum), and Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida). All arrived healthy and were packaged with extreme care. All are doing well, except for the Flowering Dogwood, which perished in last year’s extreme winter (and I realize I was playing zonal roulette with that purchase).

Clove Currant

Clove Currant in flower

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that you will not be able to get the same size tree or shrub as you would buy in a nursery. Many are available only as 1-2′ striplings; the largest size available is generally 4-5′. So you have to be willing to exercise greater patience until the time when your new woody plant becomes an impressive specimen.

Judy sometimes complains that I’ve only inserted a stick into the ground when I tell her I’ve planted a tree or shrub..

What’s your favorite source for woody plants? Do you have the patience to plant very young shrubs and trees?