GardenSmart :: EPISODES :: 2005 show28
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Show #28

Ornamental grasses are enjoying a boom in interest in a variety of gardens across the country. That's understandable because grasses are drought tolerant, low maintenance and provide 4 seasons of color. Today we're in downtown Philadelphia visiting The Eastern State Penitentiary, an historic landmark, that at one time was home to hundreds of prisoners. The gardens surrounding this unique site have been inspired and are maintained by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society and a cadre of like minded neighbors.

Jane Pepper is the President of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) and welcomes Garden Smart viewers to Philadelphia. Philadelphia is often referred to as the mecca of horticulture in the U.S. PHS has 14,000 members, they produce the Philadelphia Flower Show and in the past 40 years PHS has undertaken a lot of community gardening projects in and around Philadelphia. The Eastern State Penitentiary was one of their early greening projects. Here PHS worked with the city as well as with many neighborhood groups. Both have been very creative in not only the installation but also the annual maintenance which is significant for a site like The Eastern State Penitentiary.

During the past decade PHS has turned its attention to projects within Fairmont Park, a fabulous park system within Philadelphia totaling more than 8,000 acres, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is another PHS project. It's gardens were languishing so PHS raised the money for the capital installation and they now maintain the gardens. PHS is an association of people who love to garden and as such offers garden tours both in the U.S. and abroad. They have a wonderful magazine called Green Scene as well as offering classes and workshops that help to develop people's interest in gardening. PHS also provides gardeners an opportunity to meet other gardeners. At their web site you will find complementary tickets to the Philadelphia Flower Show, which happens every year the 1st week in March. Please come visit and check with PHS before your visit because there are many wonderful gardens in the Philadelphia area.

We next visit with Dorene Martin the head gardening volunteer at The Eastern State Penitentiary. Dorene fills us in on some of the history of the penitentiary. Penitentiary comes from the word penitence. Before Eastern State they had prisons where people were thrown into rooms and dungeons; if the prisoners made it through, they served their time. Here you served your time in solitary confinement, you thought about what you had done and hopefully when you came out you had corrected your ways. This was the first penitentiary in the U.S. and probably the world. John Haviland designed this prison. It has a center with spokes coming out similar to a wagon wheel. The idea was that someone could stand in the center and look at all cells at one time. Guards could see that prisoners were in their cells. Building began in 1825 and was complete in 1829, the prison was open until 1971. There were some infamous guests, Al Capone had his own nicely decorated cell. Willie Sutton was part of a notorious break-out attempt. Although it is in the middle of downtown it is very quiet, that's because the walls are 12 feet thick and the inside walls are made of stone, thus there isn't a lot of noise inside. When serving your time there wasn't much to occupy your time, it was just you and your supreme being to worship.

After closing in 1971 the prison fell into disrepair; the city of Philadelphia owned it and didn't take care of it. The outside was in bad shape, weeds and trees had grown up and it was littered with trash. Around 1988 people in the neighborhood felt it had become an eyesore and were interested in saving the penitentiary as an historical site. Since the prison sits in the midst of 3 neighborhoods, neighbors wanted it to look nicer, they wanted it to look pretty. Neighborhood groups got together and decided to do something with both the interior and exterior. Thus raised money through bake sales, lemonade sales and other fund raisers. Some neighborhood associations put in money others volunteered time. In the spring of 1990 about 100 people from the 3 neighborhoods got together and planted the terraces. Today the gardens that surround this prison look like something surrounding an English castle. This garden is about a city block long, thus takes some effort. They now have a core of about 12 volunteers that come out the 2nd Saturday of every month and work 3 or 4 hours and complete the major maintenance. The garden has brought the community together. When it looked bad people felt bad about the area, there wasn't a lot of business and people didn't fix up their houses. Once the penitentiary looked better, people started making their houses prettier, they put out flower boxes, it's revitalized and beautified the neighborhood. Dorene and her husband were members of the civic association and they came out as part of the original committee. When Dorene came out she realized that she missed gardening. She had gardened as a child with her parents and this gave her a place to garden. Most of the neighborhood is row houses, thus don't have land around them. Some may have little gardens behind their house, Dorene has a roof garden and planting around the outside but doesn't have a big expanse to work on, so this offers her the opportunity to work on a big area. When this garden was put together it was with the help of Philadelphia Green, who has helped with a lot of the organization and landscape design. They provide a project manager who helps with choosing plants and horticultural issues which is most helpful for the volunteers. But it is the volunteers that to this day do the majority of the grunt work.

Julie Snell is the Philadelphia Green project manager and works with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, we next talk with her. Although this garden is beautiful today it didn't start out that way. It originally was in disrepair as discussed, they then installed a meadow type theme. That worked well for awhile but they found it was challenging to maintain a meadow garden with volunteer gardeners because the volunteers found it difficult to tell the difference between meadow plants and young weeds. It was tough to tell what to pull and not pull. As well a meadow meant that it needed to be cut back, so part of the year it was barren. They thought about the problem and decided to increase interest by utilizing tall Ravenna grass (Erianthus ravennae). Since the plants will grow to 10-12 feet tall they work well with the monumental scale of the prison, whose walls are 30 or so feet tall. As well graffiti had been a problem, since there had been a lot of wall space. So they also decided to add vines that would grow up and soften the effect of the huge walls.

We look at several of the grasses first. Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) likes hot and dry conditions. This location is south facing so during the summer season a lot of heat is retained in this area. Northern Sea Oats are drought tolerant and produce a beautiful inflorescence. They leave them up through winter because they add garden architecture and in early spring (usually around March) cut them back. It is a clumping form but will reseed. It is a beautiful grass that picks up the slightest breeze and has a wonderful movement.

In general, there are 2 types of ornamental grass, clumping forms stay put, stay in their area and rhizomatous varieties that will spread by underground runners and go all over the place. You must find the right place for the right grass. Also, self sowers can become a problem if near a wetland area because they can become invasive.

Karl Forester (Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Karl Forester') is another grass that picks up the wind and light. Early in the season the flower stalks come up and have a nice feathery look. In fact its called Feather Reed Grass. As the season goes on and fall approaches the inflorescence turns more reed like but throughout the season it has a nice movement with the slightest breeze. They leave it up throughout the season they like to view the whole cycle of the plant-the seed heads, the stalks, everything - enjoy the fall color then cut it back in spring.

They have some beautiful woody shrubs in this garden as well. We look at a Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) which obviously grows in Philadelphia and they've left the seed heads on for winter interest. They love the bright shocking pink flower. In the fall the foliage turns a peachy red color.

They also have 3 different types of Viburnum - Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), Blackhawk (Viburnum prunifolium) and American Cranberry Bush (Viburnum trilobum). They either have red or blue berries. The berries will last through the winter or until the birds eat them.

We next look at the Ravenna Grass mentioned earlier. As mentioned it will grow to 12 feet tall and competes with the monumental scale of the building. They cut it back in the spring, thus it grows this tall in a season. They use electric shears because some of the reeds are so thick that manual shears would be too much of a work out. Periodically they divide these plants and hire a contractor to do that because it is a huge job. The contractor digs them up then divides them in fourths then replants one of the divisions back in the hole. They then donate the other divisions to community gardens. Ravenna Grass is a great grass to grow if you have a tall landscape area but keep in mind how tall it will grow. If planted in front of windows or doors it will cover them.

Miscanthus is another beautiful grass and has unusual leaves. We look at a Zebra Grass (Miscanthus sinensis Zebrinus) which is a type of Miscanthus. Its leaves look like it has stripes, like a Zebra. It grows similar to the other grasses, is drought tolerant, again they let it grow through winter and cut it back in early spring. It has a flower stalk and flowers in the fall but is beautiful when not flowering because it has beautiful foliage.

The Buddleia or butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) is one of Julie's favorites. It is fast growing, in early spring they cut it back hard because it will grow 5 or 6 feet in one season. It has flowers which are butterfly attractors. To keep it blooming they deadhead throughout the season. It's a rough type of deadheading, they don't cut back one bloom at a time, they use manual shears. They don't worry where they cut because these bushes are seen from a distance so fine scale isn't important. The larger tool and rough cut provides the desired effect, they prune it several times throughout the summer and it reblooms throughout the season. After the flowers are spent they just give it a haircut, trim it down. If you have a shrub a little off the road or away from where people will get up close don't worry too much about how you cut it back. They hard cut the plant back in early spring, but cut only last years wood, if you cut older wood the plant will have a tough time regenerating. The old wood is strikingly older looking, don't cut that, only the new wood. If you cut the new wood it will then realize 5 or 6 feet of growth per season.

Eva Monheim shares some tips for decorating your front door or back door. It's very easy. She starts with a shrub form of upright ivy and a nice sized pot. The container is large enough to allow several additional containers to be placed around the edge. She adds a Helianthus which is in the sunflower family, and puts a shish kabob skewer through the container which then holds it in place. She next adds chili pepper plants and skewers those as well. She adds some Juncus grass and lays them on their side to soften the edge of the container. Eva then fills in with a fresh plant material, Lamonium, which will dry in place. You can buy it at any garden store or fresh cut flower market. Tuck it in the excess places to hide some of the containers. Next she adds pumpkins which have been placed on skewers and then adds sorgum which is in the corn family. She has wrapped wire around the corn, then around another skewer and then inserts the skewer into the container. Pull down the husks to cover the wire and you have a festive looking container that just screams fall. Thanks Eva you've shown us how to create a beautiful fall container.

Julie next shows us Yellow Aster, Maryland Golden Aster (Chrysopsis mariana), which when viewed all together looks like a sea of gold. It harkens back to the original meadow plantings. It is a great plant and does well in drought conditions. They're letting it grow to its full height but if you wanted it to bloom with a shorter flower stalk and mid season you could cut it back about June with some hedge trimmers and it would bloom lower. This Aster goes well with other Asters like the blue, white and pink varieties providing a rainbow of color. It is a nice plant and low maintenance.

We look at several other grasses. Feathertop (Pennisetum villosum), is a nice low growing grass as opposed to the taller grasses we've viewed today. It was planted as an annual several seasons ago and it has re-seeded which is surprising because it is supposed to be an annual grass, a tender perennial in Philadelphia. It stays in the area and flowers in the fall. Again leave the inflorescence up through the winter.

Another tall grass is called Morning Light (Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light'). It is a Miscanthus, the foliage is present until fall then the infloresence and flower heads come up and and they last through winter. Remember if you're in a warm area like the southwest if you have ornamental grasses you may not want to have them close to the house. Keep them further out in the yard because they can be a fire hazard.

Julie this has been great looking at all the plants you've established in front of the penitentiary. From the ornamental grasses to the Buddleias to the shrubs you've done a wonderful job making the Eastern State Penitentiary a beautiful neighborhood focal point. Thank you for sharing this wonderful spot with us and our viewers.


Golden Pheasant Inn

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Eastern State Penitentiary


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By Biltmore
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