Post by Cheryl Corson
I left home just before 7am Wednesday for a 2 hour drive south to Sandy’s Plants near Richmond, Virginia. Sandy McDougle is a retired school teacher with a slight Southern twang, whose 35 acre family home has grown in her retirement to accommodate one of the finest perennial growing facilities in the region. All the well-known retail garden centers around DC get at least some plants from Sandy’s. I use them for my clients, and for our own place outside the city.
Sandy and her Sales Manager Elise host some events in the spring and fall where designers and retailers can preview new cultivars and even vote on what Sandy should consider growing in the future.
Designer’s Day is like Fashion Week with work boots. We get our name tags and a healthy breakfast with coffee, and then Sandy plunges into the 100 page catalog while Elise projects matching plant photographs on the screen in the corner of the darkened room. By noon we’ve made it to “H,” and we vote to grab lunch and keep going.
Sandy serves hot sandwiches, fruit, salad, and dark chocolate brownies. Our group of about 30 designers, mostly women, comment on the plants – how we’ve used this one or that, if they can take more or less sun, shade, or moisture, and how much or little deer like them. It’s mid-February, so we aren’t yet swamped with work, and there’s nothing more fun than talking about plants while eating good food, in the easy company of knowledgeable women who like to share garden stories.
One woman approaches me at lunch to ask about my business. She’s a pediatrician transitioning to garden designer. My other well-established colleague there, I learn in the afternoon, used to be marketing director for Diet Coke. In 1991, I myself left a job as director of Colorado’s public art program to enroll in a 3-year graduate landscape architecture program at Harvard. And here we are, middle aged, smart, happy, wearing comfortable clothes, and doing what we love.
And the plants? I can tell you, for example, after early attempts at breeding orange-hued Echinaceas that turned out to have weak stems, leaving “their faces in the mud,” new cultivars have arrived. Sandy endorses, “Now Cheesier,” “Pow Wow Wild Berries,” “Pixie Meadowbrite,” and well, thirty-seven cultivars of Echinacea alone.
Mid-way, Sandy reminisces about the earliest days of perennial growing, recalling the introduction of plastic gallon pots, not even that long ago. Before that, she says, if you wanted a perennial you had to dig it from your friend’s yard.
I decide to try Gaillardia, Gaura, Gelsemium, hardy Geranium, and Geum to my gardens to see how they do before specifying them for clients. Sandy sells sixteen cultivars of Gaillardia, but I decide on Grape Sensation. She sells twenty-seven hardy Geranium cultivars, but I’m going to try ‘Biokovo Karmina.’ We make it through the alphabet by 2pm, enough time to walk through the gardens, greenhouses, and some production beds and drive a hundred miles home, full of ideas.
Cheryl Corson is a gardener, writer, and landscape architect. Her website is www.cherylcorson.com