Sunday, October 25, 2015

Another Growing Season Ends

Saffron crocus among strawberries.

Our first frost came last weekend, signalling the end of the growing season. On subsequent warmer days I was able to harvest a few more strawberries from the front bed and while I was poking about, found that the saffron crocuses I had given up on were starting to bloom! So far I've been able to gather about six flowers, and hope there will be a few more to season one or two dishes this winter. It seems hiding among the strawberries didn't hurt them at all.

Pencil drawing of saffron crocus.

Front yard in September
Front yard after the frost

These before and after photos of my front yard show how quickly everything goes from lush to drab after just one frost. It's been a good growing season--the wet early summer helped tremendously--all my trees and flowerbeds made progress, some more then others. The red maple on the west side gained several feet in height and about an inch in girth--I wish I'd taken photos a week or two earlier, when its foliage was fiery, and the narrow-leaf sunflowers by the house glorious.

West side garden

The Zelkova tree in behind suffered a great deal last winter with several major branches dying back. Let's hope this winter is not so severe and the tree can regain lost ground next year. This spring I planted a native witch hazel between the two, the small bush you see here. In time this will become a lovely under-story tree.

The Little Indians

The Little Indians bed (now eleven) continues to develop--the Amsonia in the rear is just beginning to turn gold and the Stella D'Oro daylilies in front are a bit larger. I'd hoped to widen the bed by another couple of feet this fall, but that can wait until next year.

New back yard bed

During the summer I planted a new Kousa dogwood near the miniature lilac Silvia had given me. I eventually joined the two mulched areas to form a new bed. Using the lazy method of newspaper mulch, I killed off the scrubby grass and have been putting in new plants here: a yellow lilac bush in the middle, a deep red hibiscus my neighbor gave me, a Clematis and lavender Bea gave me, an iris and a mum. It doesn't look like much right now, but hopefully, next year the plants will be fuller.

View of the back yard

Shady bed under the deck

The ferns under the deck are still struggling to get a foothold--the alkaline soil doesn't help. Lots of iron sulfate to acidify the soil hasn't made much difference so far. A Heartleaf Brunnera (B. macrophylla) was added this year; I'll keep working on it but it's a long ways from looking like much.

Backyard with ornamental trees

The back yard is still a fairly empty large space-- this year I added a native bottle-brush tree to the other small trees planted at the perimeter (tiny tree visible at left front). It will take a number of years before it attains its classic silhouette and lovely scented flowers. Behind it the Sevens Sons Flower Tree has sprung up to about five foot height and it bloomed lightly this summer. I've yet to see any showy red seed heads on it though--this is supposed to give the shrub two-season interest. The deer kept eating my trees back so I finally fenced in the dogwood and the crab apple--not very scenic but necessary until the trees grow tall enough to be out of the reach of the pesky critters.

I planted couple of new arbor vitae at the edge of our property, just behind where this photo was taken--one fast-growing Thuja 'Green Giant' and a Thuja 'Goldstrike,' with golden-tipped leaves. I'm hoping as these evergreens gain height, they will screen out the worst of the winter winds on this exposed hillside.

Front of the house.

There's still some time left for fall planting--I hope to dig in a few more trees and shrubs, and perhaps some spring-blooming bulbs in the coming weekends.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Drawing in Color Workshop

Gnarly carrot and color pencil drawing together.

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to take a workshop at the US Botanic Garden with renowned botanical artist Wendy Hollender. She was a wonderful instructor--one of those rare teachers who can verbalize her thought process while doing a demonstration, who really gets across the principles and ideas behind her work as well as the techniques.

There were fourteen of us students, most of us experienced artist members of BASNCR (Botanical Art Society of the National Capital Region). The theme of the workshop was roots, inspired by a fascinating ongoing exhibit the USBG has on this subject. Wendy brought a fabulous assortment of root vegetables grown on her farm in upstate NY: carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips, etc. all of which had a great deal of "character" as we artists like to say.

The first thing she asked was whether we knew what type of soil her farm has. As a gardener struggling to grow plants in Shenandoah Valley soils, I recognized the familiar twisting, contorted pattern of roots growing on very rocky soil right away and said so--my guess was correct.

I chose to draw this gnarly carrot for its intricate pattern of roots going off at all angles--it seemed to actually be a combination of five normal-size carrots with some tiny ones emerging here and there. My fellow students chose their vegetables, and we were instructed to start our life-size drawings with light graphite pencil, measuring and getting the proportions accurate.

Once we had drawn the basic outlines, Wendy showed us how she started toning the shapes with a dark sepia pencil to bring out the form, in effect creating a grissaille, and then adding a bit of color at the same time.

Wendy Hollender demonstrates technique.

Wendy's demo Day 1

She put down some color using watercolor pencils and applied a small amount of water with a "water brush" (a very clever brush with built-in water reservoir that saves one from having to carry a water container on site). The idea was to cover most of the grain of the paper, leaving only a bit a white for the highlights.

My electric pencil sharpener did not fit the Faber Castell watercolor pencils we were using, so I decided to try to stick to plain pencils for the most part.

Starting to add color to my early stage grissaille.

At the end of Day 1

Towards the end of the first day I had my drawing fairly filled in with color. I felt I was probably close to being finished. I voiced my fear of "going too far and ruining it," a feeling I think many of us share. This obviously struck a chord with others in the room.

Wendy's answer was, for me, the workshop's number one take-away. She said, "Most people take their drawing up to a point and then stop, thinking that's good enough. That's the point where you need to push yourself, to push your work to the limit. Keep pushing and pushing past the limit to see what happens."

That clicked with me--what were we all so afraid of? It's a drawing, after all, not a life and death struggle (though sometimes it may feel like that)--if it doesn't turn out well one can always start over. Wendy's insight is a life lesson one can apply to anything, not just art--all who succeed do so because they push themselves past the previous limits.

The next day started with renewed energy. It was time for me to work on getting the darks darker, for a full range of values on a scale of one to ten. Wendy had us do exercises on strips, toning small sections to create a 3-D impression of roundness. Some of the students had a difficult time understanding this, and she worked with them patiently, but insistently, until they got it right.

Wendy's sketches.

I tried out the watercolor pencils on the top stems of my carrot and found it an interesting way of covering the grain of the paper faster. I'll have to try more of this in the future once I get a sharpener that works with the thickness of these pencils. I used the Verithin black and dark brown pencils (quite hard compared to the Faber Castell), to darken and sharpen the edges, all to good effect. I used an ivory pencil to burnish in the colors.

By late afternoon my eyes weren't focusing and I was utterly exhausted--who'd imagine that drawing could be such hard work? I took a walk around the room to check our the other artists' works.

Workshop students' artwork

Wendy had demanded the best from each of us, and at the end of the day, when we all put up our drawings for display and a final critique, the transformation we had undergone was visible in each of the works.  I never knew I could achieve such results with color pencils! I wish all workshops could be like this one.