A Day in the Life of a Garden Writer: The Hunt Country Gardens and Growers Tour

Ladew Topiary GardensAs a member of the Garden Writers Association, now known as GWA: the Association for Garden Communicators, I attended a GWA-hosted regional meeting this past Friday called Hunt Country Gardens & Growers Tour. GWA is a non-profit, membership-based organization for people involved in garden communications.  Membership has many benefits including a newsletter, an annual symposium, and regional meetings. The GWA divides itself into 7 regions and Virginia is in region IV. This particular regional meeting was in Maryland, Region II, but only a short drive for me.  Members, spouses, and non-members can attend any regional meeting; one does not have to restrict oneself to one’s region.

I registered online a few weeks ago for the one-day event. We were to meet in Hunt Country (as in fox hunts) at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton and then drive to Manor View Farm, then Cavano’s Perennials, and then a GWA Connect meeting at a local restaurant (an informal get together). All of these places were very close to each other. A week before the event, Kirk Brown, the GWA president, e-mailed the most recent news and tips for the trip and a list of fellow attendees. Kirk said that Manor View Farm and Cavano’s Perennials were offering their plants to us at their wholesale prices and he received plants for us to trial from Proven Winners. I packed my trunk with boxes and bags, a small cooler of water, and a large thermos of coffee and left the house at 6:00 am Friday morning.

I arrived at Ladew at 7:45 am and was welcomed by Kirk (who actually lives in Pennsylvania but was rooming in a local hotel). Over the next 15 minutes about 30 of us gathered in the café, where Ladew staff had laid out trays of pastries and coffee. Several people had come from other states; some drove for the day; some were staying overnight in hotels. I looked forward to meeting as many of my colleagues as I could. At my table, I met Joshua Taylor (Joshua Taylor Photography) who lives in Arlington and we were joined by Teresa Speight (Cottage in the Court) whom I had already met from previous functions. I recognized a few other people: Susan Harris (dcGardens.com; gardenrant.com), Kathy Jentz (Washington Gardener), John Boggan (DC Tropics), and Kate Copsey (katecopsey.com).ladew hedge

Kirk briefed us on the latest happenings at the association. GWA is being managed by a new association management company, Kellen. In only a few months, staff at Kellen have made tremendous improvements. Kirk described the myriad upcoming events and encouraged us to use hashtag #meetGWA, #whyGWA, and #growGWA during our day (if you search for us on Facebook you may find quite a few photos). Kate stood up and encouraged everyone to attend the GWA’s 68th Annual Convention and Expo in September, in Atlanta.

Emily Emerick, the Ladew executive director, gave us the background on Mr. Ladew’s estate. She introduced Barbara Barnoff, who is in charge of visitor services/volunteers, and the staff horticulturists. Staff had already packed a bag of information on Ladew for us to take, which included a guest pass for a subsequent visit and another pass to one of their summer concerts. From there we were led on a tour of the gardens. This was a terrific opportunity to take beautiful photos of plants, statues, small gardens, and the famous topiary. For those of us who blog, it also was a great opportunity to “stock up” on photos for future articles and tweets. Some of us followed the horticulturists and talked plants, while others walked around taking photos. The day was perfect, cool and overcast. I met Eva Monheim, Oak Leaf Productions, and Rick Ray, a retired horticultural professor.

Afterwards, we caught up with Kirk at his car in the parking lot. Prior to the event, Mark Osgersby, who works in the Proven Winners’ Marketing and Public Relations Department, had shipped boxes of plants to Kirk’s house for him to distribute to us. We were able to pick from three of Proven Winners’ new introductions: Spirea ‘Double Play Blue Kazoo’, OSO EASY double red landscape rose, and rose of Sharon ‘Purple Pillar’. Thank you Mark and Proven Winners staff!!provenwinners

After loading our cars with the plants, we drove to Manor View Farms, which was only a few minutes away. Manor View Farms is a wholesale nursery consisting of a 5-acre horticultural distribution center supplying plant material and hard goods to the landscape trade; 85 acres of tree and shrub production, all under drip irritation; and 3 acres of about 16 greenhouses devoted to propagation.  The owner Alan Jones, his son Collin Jones, and Brian Mitchell guided us around the field of trees and shrubs on a flat-bed wagon. We sat on bales of hay (I am sure this photo is on Facebook!). Alan said that currently the most popular items are crepe myrtles, southern magnolias, knock out roses, and hydrangeas. However, a plant’s popularity can change from year to year so by the time a plant is mature enough to be sold its popularity may have waned. He also described how the company collaborates with the University of Maryland on a few projects, such as determining the amount of water truly needed to irrigate plants. Alan, a well-known propagator, described their new introductions: Quercus palustris ‘Green Pillar’, Thuja x ‘Steeplechase’, and Chionanthus virginicus ‘White Knight’. I was surprised and impressed that the company isn’t just a wholesale nursery, it is very involved in horticultural research, collaboration, and innovation.caryopteris The hay ride took us to the propagation greenhouses where we got off to see rows of small containers, each with a single cutting, under misting beds. I was able to chat with Susan Harris about her new venture, goodgardeningvideos.org, and I met a fellow Virginian, Marianne Willburn (Small Town Gardener).

We gathered in a large garage for sandwiches and drinks. I met a new GWA member Rebecca Ann Cole and discovered we had a lot in common. We talked about balancing time with social media and family and Claire Jones (Claire Jones Landscapes) told me about “tweetpi.” Ruth Rogers Clausen, a well-known author of gardening books, distributed brochures about the new Delaware Botanic Gardens and Carolyn Mullet passed out a postcard about her garden tours (Carex Garden Design and Garden Tours).

After several people bought shrubs and packed them into their cars, we drove to Cavano’s Perennials, only a few minutes away.

Cavano’s Perennials, also wholesale, specializes in container production, everything from annuals, to perennials, ferns, herbs, and grasses. They have over a thousand plants and about 50 employees. There were many large greenhouses, some with shade cloth, and many plants in pots on the ground in full sun. The owners, Ferenc Kiss and Taylor Pilker, welcomed us and explained the history of the company and the current operations. They treated us to their plants at wholesale prices and we could either pick what we wanted and put them on a cart or complete an order form and have staff bring the plants to us. I had already perused through their catalog (great resource) and selected Baptisia ‘Dutch Chocolate’ and ‘Lemon Meringue’ and an orange mint. Some people were really loading up, like a kid in a candy store, and pushing a cart from greenhouse to greenhouse. The variety was tremendous.geranium

I had a delightful horticultural conversation with Taylor who described the importance of root health, which determines the plant’s success when transplanted into the landscape. He also said that Cavano’s was one of the first to become neonicotinoid-free because of the public’s concern for pollinators. My impression was that this organization was very responsive and strived to employ the latest theories, techniques, and practices.

After I put my plants in my trunk, I met Liz Ball, a well-known garden writer and speaker, Sabine Stezenbach (Town and Gardens), Debra Balcerzak-Wilson, and Lori Zimmerman. Debra and Lori just started to sell a new fertilizer line called Natural Start by Greenview, part of the Lebanon Seaboard Corporation, and they brought samples for all of us.

In the late afternoon, after every one toured the place and bought their plants, Kirk started the trunk show. He literally opened the trunk of his car, distributed raffle tickets, and called out the numbers. I think every person received something—additional Proven Winner plants, donated plants, a donated poster, or a donated book. We were about to leave for our next destination when a staff person drove a flatbed to the parking lot loaded with herbs. Ferenc told us to help ourselves–we were so surprised and thankful! It was very generous of Cavano’s to give so many free herbs.

By now the cars were so weighed down with plants, we inched along and slowly drove out of Cavano’s, making sure plants did not tip over. Some participants drove home and some at a local Italian restaurant, about 10 minutes away. Kirk had already reserved a private room. At my table, I sat with Ferenc, Carolyn, Claire, Kirk, Wendy Brister (Harvey’s Gardens), and Sabine. We had a very interesting conversation; I learned about garden tours, beekeeping, and native plants. I was surprised to learn that Kirk had organized the entire day himself. He must have volunteered a tremendous amount of time to create such as well-organized and informative day. The regional meeting was a blast and I truly enjoyed the opportunity to see gardens and nurseries, make new friends, learn more about horticulture, and obtain new plants for my garden. Thank you Kirk for a memorable regional meeting!

4 responses to “A Day in the Life of a Garden Writer: The Hunt Country Gardens and Growers Tour

  1. It was a wonderful day!

  2. Great post ! You really summed it up nicely with lots of details. It was great meeting you.

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