Friday, January 23, 2015

A Wisconsin Garden Gem

Do you have a bucket list of gardens you want to visit someday?  I know I do--Monet's Garden at Giverny tops my list, followed by Sissinghurst and other famous gardens in the UK, Chanticleer in Pennsylvania, followed by many more.  I did cross one off near the top of my list a few years ago when I toured the Biltmore gardens during the Spring Fling in Asheville in 2012, though I must admit I was as excited to tour the mansion as I was strolling through the gardens.  I don't know when or if I will be able to visit the others on my list, but I have discovered you often don't have to travel far to find a beautiful garden worthy of being on anyone's list.  Such was the case this past fall when I made the three-hour drive to see the Rotary Botanical Garden in Janesville, Wisconsin.

Beth of Plant Postings and I had talked for over a year about meeting up and touring a garden within easy driving distance for each of us.  So when she contacted me this summer and suggested meeting at the Rotary Garden, I was eager to go.  I invited my friend Beckie along, who is always up for a gardening road trip!

I was not familiar with this garden beforehand and wasn't sure what to expect, but the minute we stepped out of the car, I knew this was a special place.  We picked the coldest day in mid-September to meet, but even so, the plantings surrounding the parking lot were still full of lush blooms.

What do strangers who have only "met" through blogging find to talk about for the better part of a day?  Well, as any gardener knows, if those two bloggers are also gardeners, there is no shortage of topics of conversation.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Beth thought I was quite a chatterbox, as enthused as I was about meeting her and seeing this beautiful garden!  By the way, note our footwear: as I said, it was an unusually cold day for September with occasional sprinkles of rain.  Beth came prepared, whereas I wore my favorite walking sandals--not the best choice for this day; no wonder I was cold!

Once inside the garden, I was so impressed I forgot the chill in the air.  I don't remember the name of this area, but I loved the boxwood hedges laid out in a formal pattern, but containing much more informal plantings with a tutuer at the center of each.

The Garden is divided into different sections, including an inviting Children's Garden.

Children are encouraged to touch, feel, and smell, as they learn about the benefits of plants and their wildlife visitors.

Native plants and others that attract pollinators are the emphasis in this area. 
 I wish I could remember the name of this plant.

Despite the occasional drizzle, the bees were still out and about,
 demonstrating the main principle of this garden.

A seating area in one corner makes the perfect spot for parents
 to relax a bit while their children explore.

Other areas include a Japanese garden

Complete with the traditional Dry Garden, or Zen garden, as we Westerners often call it.

There is also a Sunken Garden

An English Cottage Garden (complete with raindrops on my camera lens!)

And a Jungle Garden inspired by Where the Wild Things Are, filled with tropicals and other giant plants as well as intriguing doors and windows.

Other sections of the garden include a woodland garden, a formal rose garden, an alpine garden, and several others.  One of the more interesting areas I thought was the Thomas Jefferson Garden which includes "over 100 selections of vegetables, herbs, and flowers that Jefferson popularized."

Jefferson's belief in the importance of gardening is just one of his many legacies.

The Rotary Garden is a plant collector's dream.  Plants are clearly identified, and in the few cases where they aren't, we were usually able to locate a very helpful worker to identify any mystery plants for us.

I was especially taken with this Korean Feather Grass
 and will be on the lookout for it in a nursery this spring.

A few more photos to entice you:

I need a bench like this!

A balcony on the Visitor Center provided a great vantage point 
for taking a few photos before leaving.

The Rotary Botanical Garden is less than an hour's drive south of Madison, Wisconsin and less than two hours from the Chicago area.  It covers twenty acres, a large enough garden to make the trip worthwhile, but at the same time small enough to see completely in a single afternoon.  On the day that Beth, Beckie, and I visited, we had the garden virtually to ourselves, but I suspect that was due to the weather. It certainly is a gem of a garden tucked away in Janesville, one that I would heartily recommend anyone visiting if you are in the area.

A big thank-you to Beth for recommending this garden and finding a place for a lovely late lunch, where we talked even more. The three of us (Beckie was camera-shy) had such a great time that we hope to visit another garden(s) in the area this summer and hope that other bloggers in the vicinity might join us--look for details this summer!

Friday, January 16, 2015

GBBD: January "Blooms"

It's time for Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day once again, and even though I am late, I certainly didn't want to miss it, especially after missing it last month, the first time in nearly seven years that I didn't participate in this monthly celebration of what is blooming.  But what is a Midwestern gardener supposed to show in mid-January after a week of sub-zero temperatures and the garden buried under snow?

I know many in this region will be showing off their houseplants for this GBBD.  But I am not much of a houseplant person; I've killed more houseplants than I care to remember.  Usually I bring in a few annuals to overwinter, but I procrastinated too long on the geraniums, and the coleus cuttings I potted up mysteriously died.  Well, it really isn't a mystery--some lazy gardener forgot to water them regularly.

The only successful overwintering this year has been a dragonwing begonia that was just too pretty to leave to the cold this past fall.  Not only is it growing like crazy, but, as you can see in this not-so-great photo, it is still producing some blooms.

I usually also pot up some bulbs for forcing in the winter.  But I was so busy during the holidays that I didn't even think about it until I started seeing so many pretty amaryllis blooms on blogs and Facebook pages.  I finally remembered the amaryllis bulbs sitting in the cold garage and brought them in last week, just before we left for a week in Texas.  When we returned, I was amazed by how much they had grown already.  Last year these bulbs grew huge leaves without a single flower, however, so it remains to be seen whether they will actually bloom.  The one on the left does look promising, though.

My collection of "blooms" for this Bloom Day is obviously pretty paltry.  But that's okay.  Winter is the time when I finally get around to some indoor projects I put off during the gardening season, and it's the time when I enjoy looking through gardening books and getting new ideas for the coming season.  The garden isn't much to look at this time of year, but I do enjoy the 'Limelight' hydrangea blooms still hanging on outside my living room window.

The grasses are also pretty this time of year though most of them are weighted down by snow at the moment.

Frankly, gardening hasn't been on my mind very much for the past month.  We had a new grandson born just before Christmas, and last week we were finally able to make the 800-mile drive down to see him.  Nothing like cuddling a sweet baby for making you forget anything else!

I have not been very active with blogging in the last month or more, and here is one of the main reasons why.  I am not much of a quilter, but I do make a quilt for each of my grandchildren.  Since new Baby B arrived two weeks early, I was frantically sewing in every spare minute I could find, finishing this just days before we left.  My daughter loves elephants, so when I found this material with Dr. Seuss' Horton, I knew it would be perfect.  Among the many wishes I have for my grandson, I hope that he will grow up to love reading as much as his Grandma and Mommy do.

And so another Bloom Day passes--who knows what February may bring?  Last year we were in the midst of a snowy deep freeze, but the year before, a few crocuses were already popping up through the soil.  We'll just have to wait and see what Mother Nature has in store for us.  For more blooms across the world, be sure to check out our hostess Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Book Review Club: The Mockingbird Next Door

To Kill A Mockingbird has been a staple of high school curricula for many years and with good reason; it tops my own list of favorite books and one that I looked forward to sharing with my students every school year.  Published in 1960, the novel received a Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and a year later was made into the classic movie starring Gregory Peck, receiving three Oscars.  Since that time it has been translated into more than 40 languages and has sold over 30 million copies.  In surveys asking what one book "every civilized person should read," Mockingbird ranks second only to the Bible.

It's no wonder that such acclaim brought instant fame for its author Harper Lee.  While she granted the many requests for interviews at first, appeared at book signings, and played an active role in the production of the movie, the limelight soon grew too much for her, and she retreated to the privacy of her home.  For the past fifty years, little has been written about Lee that hasn't been told before. When asked for an interview, she usually replied with not just a simple no, but a "Hell, no."

Despite Lee's reputation as a recluse, in 2001 Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills set out for Monroeville, Alabama, hoping for an interview with some of its residents, if not Lee herself.  To her surprise, not only did she get an interview, but she soon struck up a friendship with Lee and her sister Alice and began to think about writing not just an article, but a book. After her newspaper article was published, Mills went back to Alabama, renting a house next door to the sisters for the next year and a half.

The result of Mills' surprising friendship with Alice and Nelle Harper Lee is The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee.  The book gives the reader a peek into the Lee home--filled with stacks and stacks of books, as the sisters are avid readers--and a detailed description of their everyday life.  Contrary to her image as a recluse, Nelle (as she is called by her friends) leads an active social life.  She introduces Mills to their friends, and the two go for coffee at McDonald's, feed the ducks, and go fishing at the Lees' favorite fishing hole (location never revealed).  They visit the courthouse made famous by the book and now a museum and popular tourist attraction.
Mills interviews friends who provide insight into the characters and lives of the Lee sisters, and spends many hours recording interviews with Alice Lee, who in her 90's was still practicing law in her father's old law office.

The Mockingbird Next Door, however, is a memoir, and anyone expecting new revelations about Lee's inspiration for her novel or her reasons for dropping out of the limelight will be sorely disappointed.  Friends of the Lees share anecdotes but are very protective of the sisters' privacy.  In the many hours she spent interviewing Nelle Lee, Mills always asked for permission first to record their interviews and if she might include certain comments in her book, usually getting a negative reply.  About the only "juicy" revelation that Mills includes in the book is Nelle's recounting of her strained relationship with Truman Capote, the inspiration for the character Dill in To Kill A Mockingbird, and with whom she collaborated on In Cold Blood, Capote's most famous work.

No mockingbirds here, but the red-bellied woodpecker has returned for the winter.
Why did Harper Lee drop out of public view?  Why did she never write another novel?  These two questions that every fan of Mockingbird has always wanted to know are never really answered in Mills' book, at least not with any new revelation.  Nelle and Alice both confirm that she was overwhelmed by the publicity surrounding the book and then the movie and by the push to write another novel.  As Mills describes the town of Monroeville today with its tourist attractions capitalizing on Mockingbird's fame, including a diner named after Boo Radley, it is easier to understand why Harper Lee withdrew from the limelight.

As for why Lee never wrote another novel, we are only given her sister Alice's explanation: "When you have hit the pinnacle, how would you feel about writing more?  Would you feel like you're competing with yourself?"

Mills' story did not end with the publication of The Mockingbird Next Door.  After the book came out, Harper Lee denounced it, saying, "any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood." However, her sister Alice defended the book, saying her sister had recently suffered a stroke and likely didn't remember giving Mills permission.  Much has been written about the authenticity of the book, but I tend to believe Alice's statement and that Harper Lee originally did give approval of the book.  Further support is the lack of anything too revealing in the book as well as Mills' apparent respect for the Lees' privacy.

Frank's favorite perch for winter bird-watching

I have to admit I was rather disappointed at first with The Mockingbird Next Door, probably because my expectations were too high.  The book tends to ramble somewhat and is occasionally repetitive, and "the stories that need to be told," according to the sisters, never quite materialize.  Still, once I settled in and realized that there weren't going to be any sensational revelations, I enjoyed the book and spent a leisurely time getting to know Harper Lee and her wit and intelligence in a more informal way. I would recommend this book for anyone who has been as moved by To Kill A Mockingbird as I have. Harper Lee may have written only one novel, but what a novel it was! She will always be an icon to me.

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@Barrie Summy

Disclaimer:  I received no compensation of any kind for this review, and as always, I review only books I like.  I purchased my own copy of The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee to read for my book club, and I want to thank my friend for recommending it.