Thursday, October 23, 2014

Travel Report -- Sweet (Bee) Dreams in Berlin at the Ritz-Carlton and the Scandic on Potsdamer Platz

Rooftop beehives at the Ritz-Carlton Berlin, with the Tiergarten park in the background

In September, I took a trip to Germany and the Netherlands. Over the next few posts on Garden of Aaron, I'll be sharing some of my garden related experiences and memories from the trip.

But first, any travel involves finding a place to sleep. Personally, as a gardener, I try to find places with an eco-friendly sensibility.

In Berlin, I found two hotels that actually maintain their own beehives and produce their own honey - the Ritz-Carlton and the Scandic, both of which are on or near Potsdamer Platz.

Wikipedia has a great entry on the history of Potsdamer Platz, once the busiest public square in Europe. Destroyed in WWII and subsequently divided by the Berlin Wall, Potsdamer Platz became a desolate no man's land.

But after the Cold War ended and Germany reunified, the platz sprang back to life. For a while, it was the biggest construction site in Europe. Heavy investment has transformed it once more into a showcase for modern Germany.

All of which is to say that from a traveler's perspective, Potsdamer Plats is interesting, historical (you can still see remnants of the Berlin Wall) and convenient from a transit perspective.

When I started researching eco-friendly places to stay in Berlin, it was the beehives at the Ritz-Carlton that first caught my eye. Installed in 2011, the seven beehives house up to 400,000 (!) bees in the summer -- fewer in winter -- who collectively produce 250 to 400 kilograms of honey each year. Some of that honey shows up at breakfast in the hotel's restaurant, while jars of the sweet stuff can be purchased as souvenirs at the hotel's gift shop. Some of the honey even makes its way into the hotel's delicious signature lavender-honey cake!

Signature lavender-honey cake at the Ritz-Carlton Berlin

Where do the bees gather their nectar and pollen in the midst of a giant urban area? Well, Potsdamer Platz is nearby the Tiergarten, a large city park. I also noticed quite a few bees buzzing around inside the display cases at local bakeries and donut shops. Coincidence? :)

The restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Berlin incorporates ingredients from approximately 5 acres of land that are farmed exclusively for the hotel. The farm is in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern region, a couple of hours north of Berlin. In season, the farmer (who is also the supplier for the Ritz-Carlton Berlin's organic lamb meat) grows more than 60 kinds of organic and bio-certified vegetables and herbs for the hotel, including pumpkins, onions, carrots, cabbage, Jerusalem Artichoke (known locally as topinambur) and lavender.
(Photo courtesy of Ritz-Carlton Berlin)

The beehives are just one of the many environmental initiatives at the Ritz-Carlton Berlin, which recently became the first five-star-superior hotel to win certification from the EU's Eco-Management and Audit Scheme. The hotel managed this feat by taking a number of eco-friendly steps, including installing energy-saving LED lights, using environmentally-friendly cleaning products and reducing water usage.

I was impressed to hear that the hotel partners with a recycling program to transform its paper waste into school notebooks. The hotel provides approximately 25 tons of paper materials every three months that are then processed into more than 1,300 notebooks, which are distributed to welfare organizations in Germany and abroad.


After a couple of nights at the Ritz-Carlton, I checked out and walked ten minutes to my next hotel, the nearby Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz.

This was my first time staying at a Scandic hotel. Headquartered in Sweden, Scandic is a Nordic company with hotels in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Poland.

The company has a long track record of supporting sustainability initiatives over the past two decades. One thing I really liked and don't think I'd ever seen at another hotel was the way the hotel had subdivided the in-room wastebasket to allow for easy separation of organic and paper wastestreams.

The cheerful and clever subdivided wastebasket at the Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz.

To reduce packaging waste, you'll notice that the hotel has done away with the innumerable little bottles of shampoo and body soap that you find in most hotels and replaced them with refillable pump bottles in the shower.

Refillable pump bottles of soap and shampoo in the shower at the Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz

As a gardener, I loved the way that the hotel incorporated nature themes throughout its decor. For instance, this translucent panel between the shower and the bedroom is decorated with a leaf motif that glows when the bathroom light is on.

These nature motifs continue in the hallways, where murals (giant decals perhaps?) adorn the walls at the ends of the corridors. Piped in nature sounds such as birdsongs (motion-activated like the lines) provide a soothing soundtrack. I believe there are also ambient nature sounds in the elevators.
You'll even find the nature theme continued on some of the lampshades in the guest rooms at the Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz.

Clearly the Scandic has less Old World luxury than the Ritz-Carlton. Still, I was impressed with the Scandic's trendy modern design. I liked the wooden floors for instance, and the floor-to-ceiling windows.

The Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz seemed really new and clean. Here's another eco-friendly design choice -- a dual-flush toilet designed to reduce water usage. I like how the Scandic shows that you don't have to sacrifice beauty when you emphasize eco-friendly design. Personally I think it would be nice if every toilet in hotels (or homes) offered the dual-flush option.

I didn't get a photo of it, but like the Ritz-Carlton, the Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz also produces and sells its own honey. Some of that honey also ends up on the breakfast buffet, which was included in our room rate and included a selection of packaged and fresh organic products (which are typically labeled as "bio" in Europe).

In summary, if you're a gardener or just a traveler who wants to support and encourage eco-friendly business practices while still enjoying a comfortable and convenient stay, I'd have no qualms about recommending either the Ritz-Carlton Berlin or the Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz.

(Well, maybe one little qualm. In an effort to save energy, I believe the Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz turns off its air conditioning between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. We had a little bit of a warm spell during our time in Berlin and I did find it a little hard to sleep at night. I'm a little concerned that the room might become a sauna during a Berlin heatwave... Clearly I'm not the only one who had concerns over this practice. Reviews are generally very positive on Tripadvisor, but the few negative reviews generally reference the lack of nighttime A/C as the reason for giving a poor rating.)

Starting next week, I'll be sharing photos from my visits to German gardens. Stay tuned!

Full disclosure: Both the Ritz-Carlton Berlin and the Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz allowed me to stay in their hotels on a discount media rate. That said, all of the opinions expressed in this review are still my own.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Energizer Flowers in the October Garden of Aaron - Balloon Flower, Rozanne Geranium, October Skies Aster, Chaste Tree and more!

I'm probably revealing my age here, but do you remember the Energizer battery commercials from years past with a battery-powered bunny drummer that kept going and going and going?

That's just the sort of plant I admire in the garden, one that flowers for months and months without much (or any) external intervention.

I actually went away for a few weeks in September and left my garden to its own devices. We had a warm September here in Tennessee -- meaning plenty of days with temps in the 80s and practically no rain whatsoever (0.25 inches for the whole month).

And while the grass got some water from the sprinkler, the garden had to fend for itself without any irrigation. Here's how things looked when I got home:

Red berries on the Aronia arbutifolia, Red Chokeberry

Bunches of black berries on the Aronia melanocarpa, Black Chokeberry.
In prior years, these had some nice fall color. More recently, they seem to get defoliated (perhaps by lacebugs) every year, which doesn't seem to damage the plant much, but certainly eliminates any autumn color.

Autumn Fern (a.k.a. Japanese Shield Fern), Dryopteris erythrosora, I installed two of these in April in a partial shade setting. They seemed to struggle at first, but have since settled in nicely. Yep, it turns out there are ferns such as this that are remarkably drought tolerant once established. In fact, UGA recommends it as a groundcover for Georgia, which tells you it can take the heat (though it's also cold hardy to USDA zone 5). No flowers of course, but the new fronds have a beautiful copper color.

This is Platycodon grandiflora, the Balloon Flower. It had a nice long flowering period in the early summer, after which it formed seeds. Last year, I let the seeds mature and fall to the ground, which resulted in some self-sowing. This year, I trimmed back the plant by about one-third, which prompted it to rebloom vigorously. I've also noticed some bees visiting the flowers this year, which is nice.

Baptisia australis, Blue False Indigo, this has pretty flowers in the spring, but it certainly doesn't fall into the Energizer flower category (the flowers only last a couple of weeks at most), But it's a trouble-free tough native perennial with lovely foliage that stays attractive all year. It is also apparently a host plant for the Clouded Sulphur butterfly, which I have seen in my garden this year for the first time. I just planted some new Baptisias from Prairie Nursery, so hopefully I'll have more Baptisia foliage next year upon which the Clouded Sulphurs can dine.

I planted three small Spicy Globe basil plants in the spring. I hae to say this was not necessarily my favorite basil from a taste perspective. But they formed nice bushy plants (perhaps 8 inches high by 12 inches wide) that were covered with flowers for months and months. As you may be able to see in the left middle section of the photo, the flowers do a great job of attracting bees. So if you're looking to attract pollinators to your garden, a few basil plants could work wonders. And unlike some herbs, they seem to grow perfectly well (at least in Tennessee) in partial shade. Since these got so much attention from pollinators and since I never cut them back, I'm very curious to see whether they will self sow next year.

The Camellia sasanqua by the front porch has started blooming. You can't see it here, but the flowers attract a steady stream of honeybee visitors.

Even though I did not do any deadheading or pruning, the young Vitex agnus-castus (Chaste Tree) began reblooming in early September and was still going strong in early October. These flower spikes almost always have large bees hanging on them from dawn to dusk. They also attract some butterflies, as you can see from the small tawny skipper butterfly in the upper section of this photo.

More big bees on Chaste Tree flower spike

Practically all the cosmos have fallen over, but they usually are tough enough to keep blooming even while lying prone on the ground. And as you can see here, the (slightly out-of-focus) small bees will keep visiting regardless.

You may not be able to tell from this photo, but this (self-sown) cosmos plant has actually fallen across the path, but it is still blooming its heart out. No deadheading required for weeks and weeks (sometimes months and months) of blooms!

I'm not a huge fan of daylilies, but I do have some in my garden that I inherited and more that I added before I decided I didn't like them much. One thing I truly dislike is staring at the dead, dying and damaged daylily foliage after the plants flower. So after doing some research online, I read it's possible to cut the daylilies to the ground and have them resprout fresh foliage (aquilegia will do the same). So I gave it a try and - voila! - it worked! This clean foliage is much nicer to look at from late summer into autumn.

Another clump of daylilies that was cut back to the ground in mid-summer and has since resprouted vigorously with clean light green foliage.

A feather found in the grass. Perhaps from a hawk?

I tried to remove the Ajuga reptans from part of the front border. Clearly I did not get it all. Meanwhile, I had planted an Athyrium nipponicum, Japanese Painted Fern. Again, this is a fern that some sources will list as being drought tolerant (in partial to full shade) once established. This particular fern is called "Ghost" and it's actually a hybrid between the Japanese fern and a native American fern called Athyrium filix-femina. The name seems appropriate, since I thought it was a goner when something (rabbits?) ate it to the ground twice over the summer. Nonetheless, it has popped back to life each time! Clearly tougher than it looks...

My three Hidcote lavender plants (Lavandula angustifolia, also called Lavandula officinalis) have all grown nicely this year, although they haven't flowered much. I fear I may have cited them in too much shade, or perhaps they are just getting settled. The big challenge with growing in Lavender in Tennessee (as I understand it) is not so much the cold - these are after all supposed to be hardy to zone 5. No, the real challenge is our heavy clay soil and winter rains. Lavender apparently cannot tolerate wet winter soils. That said, Hidcote is supposed to be one of the tougher lavenders, so I'll hope these guys can defy the odds and survive until springtime.

At first, I thought my lavender plants would not flower at all this year, but sometime in September they did produce a few tall flower spikes. Since this is my first year growing lavender, I'm not sure when I'm supposed to harvest it for dried flowers / potpourri. 

One of my favorite plants just keeps on giving. Lonicera sempervirens, the native Coral Honeysuckle, produces non-stop orange-red hummingbird-attracting flowers from very early spring to autumn. The flower production has slowed dramatically now, but all those hummingbird (and butterfly) visits have clearly produced results, as the plant is now covered in berries at various stages of ripening. This photo shows all three stages of berries ripening from green to light orange to bright orange-red. I haven't noticed any birds feeding on the berries yet, but American Beauties says that bluebirds, waxwings and many other birds will eat the fruit. 

There are some Aronia berries in this photo, but the intended focus is the lush mass of Melissa officinalis, a.k.a. Lemon Balm, that grew from three tiny sprigs that I planted in April. As you can see, the Lemon Balm has formed a thick weed-suppressing groundcover. And the foliage is darn pretty. The leaves have a nice lemony scent, and I've tried them in a salad and as "lemonade", but alas I could not detect much of a lemon taste. Lemon Balm did not flower this year, but it's supposed to have late spring or early summer flowers that are a big hit with the bees, so I'm hoping it will put on a nice flowering show next year if it feels suitably happy and established. Of course, the real question is how far it will spread and whether I will someday regret having planted it. Only time will tell...

You can see where October Skies aster (Aster oblongifolius) gets its name. These plants are absolutely covered with sky-blue flowers in September and October. And the flowers are visited by clouds of little bees and wasps. It's a delightful plant that has been trouble-free so far for me this year. The dense foliage also does a great job of suppressing weeds. This was my first year growing asters, so I'm excited to see how they perform next year (presuming of course that they survive the winter without any problems).

Just another photo to show how floriferous all three October Skies asters have been. Charming, lovely plants. Unlike some other asters (I'm looking at you, New England asters), that can grow tall and gangly with defoliated lower stems, the October Skies aster stays dense and bushy. And at least this year, it probably topped out at about 12 inches high with perhaps a 14-18 inches spread. Definitely a lovely foreground plant.

Finally, a definite contender in the Energizer bunny category, this is Rozanne Cranesbill Geranium which has flowered for at least four months (early June through early-to-mid October) and will probably keep going until a hard frost with no deadheading or pruning required. (It accepts pruning if it rambles out of bounds, but no pruning is necessary to stimulate flowering.) What's more, I think the foliage quality actually improved on Rozanne throughout the summer and into autumn. One of the first plants I added to my garden, Rozanne has survived a couple of transplants and given me so much joy over the years. I think anyone who can grow Rozanne (hardy to zone 5), should give her a try.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Two Shots from Bernheim Arboretum - Abelia and a Pink Mystery Plant

Happy October!

Last week, I shared a slew of photos from a trip I took to Yew Dell Botanic Garden back in late August.

Around that same time (September 1st) to be exact, I stopped at the Bernheim Arboretum, also in the Louisville vicinity, on my way back south toward Tennessee.

I didn't take nearly as many photos at Bernheim, but I did have two snaps that I wanted to share:

I saw a number of Glossy Abelia shrubs (Abelia x grandiflora) at Bernheim. Covered with small flowers, the Abelias were attracting several butterflies, including this gorgeous Monarch that kindly held still long enough to permit this photo.

OK, all you Horticultural Gurus, would you care to hazard a guess on this (unlabeled) plant with pretty pink flowers that clearly has a bumble bee fan base? I'm thinking it might be some sort of Japanese anemone?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

An August Visit to Yew Dell - Pomegranate, Banana, Pineapple Lily and Bamboo in Kentucky!

Late last month, my wife and I were passing through Louisville, Kentucky and took the time for a quick visit to Yew Dell Botanical Gardens.

It's not the biggest garden by a long stretch, but I have to say I was mighty impressed and surprised with some of the plants I saw there. Here are some of the highlights:

Aster divaricatus, White Wood Aster, pristine foliage in August plus a carpet of starry flowers. What could be nicer?

Not blooming yet, but looking incredibly robust and healthy, here's another aster - A. oblongifolius "Raydon's Favorite," which wins rave reviews from Mt. Cuba Center

OK, this is not so pretty, but botanic gardens are useful in part to see the brownouts you'll rarely find in a gardening magazine or nursery catalog. This is Coreopsis verticillata Golden Gain.  

More proof that Firewitch Dianthus can make a beautiful groundcover

The sign said Ensete montevidensis, although I've seen usually seen this listed as Ensete ventricosum, cultivar "Maurelii". The common name is Red Abyssinian Banana. Unfortunately, it's only hardy to zone 9, so I imagine Yew Dell planted it as an annual, where it adds some bold and striking tropical ambiance.

I was excited to see what appears to be a thriving specimen of Eucomis comosa, the Pineapple Lily. What beautiful foliage! And even past its prime, the flowerhead is still attractive. I've often seen Pineapple Lilies labeled as hardy only to zone 7 or even zone 8, so it was a real treat to see it growing well in zone 6. (I suppose it's possible that the gardeners lift the bulb for overwintering...I'll have to make inquiries...)

I was surprised to see some Fargesia rufa "Green Panda" clumping bamboo growing happily in the shade at Yew Dell. Later I realized that Green Panda is supposed to be cold hardy to zone 5, so it should be able to handle Louisville winters without any problems. 

This was my first time seeing Green Panda in person and I have to say I think it looks pretty good in the flesh (so to speak). I'm not sure that I have enough shade at this point to keep it happy during a hot Southern summer, but it's tempting to give it a try anyway...

Splish! We heard some splashing sounds as we passed a tiny pond. Close examination revealed this fella.

Peeking through the greenery, we spotted another frog sheltering in the pond

Tragic, but beautiful.  Not sure what kind of bird this is. Maybe a Pine Warbler?
Some sort of Lantana camara. Such cheerful candy colors! Definitely planning to add some Lantana to my garden in 2015.

Anyone know what this is? It looks like a really nice groundcover. Maybe some type of sedum? There was a sign nearby that said Manfreda virginica, but clearly that's not this plant

Here's your trusty blogger leaping into the photo to selflessly serve as a yardstick in measuring this 10-12 ft tall banana plant. Maybe Musa basjoo? No sign here either. If it is M. basjoo (or another Musa), I'd be very interested to hear how the garden overwinters them (although they do seem to be located in a protected spot at the edge of a stone wall that presumably absorbs some heat in the wintertime and helps create a warm microclimate).

I've seen Nepeta x faassenii "Walker's Low" Catmint recommended by numerous sources, but it wasn't looking so hot at Yew Dell when I visited in last August 

Here's an (unlabeled) Oakleaf Hydrangea looking kind of crispy and stressed in a bright partial shade location

Sorry for the overexposure in this photo, but trust me when I say that this Oakleaf Hydrangea was growing in significantly more shade - high dappled shade, but shade nonetheless - and it looked much happier than the Oakleaf Hydrangea that was forced to cope with more sunshine. Seeing these two plants nearby reinforced my suspicion that Oakleaf Hydrangea probably prefers mostly shady conditions in hot summer climates. (Well they probably can tolerate a fair bit of sun with lots of supplemental water, but if left to their own devices with minimal extra watering, I suspect they only look their best in the Southeast with lots of shade.)

A pomegranate growing cheerfully in zone 6 Louisville?!
Blew. My. Mind.
True, it is a dwarf pomegranate (Punica granatum Pleniflora), but still I did not know that pomegranates could survive north of zone 7. (I've actually been under the impression that even zone 7 was iffy.)
Seeing this pomegranate seemingly growing happily here has forced me to reexamine my assumptions!

The foliage on this hybrid Witch Hazel - Hamamelis x intermedia "Westerstede" - had seen better days.
Sedum reflexum, Stonecrop, looks like it can make a great groundcover. (I don't think I saw a cultivar name listed, but this looks like photos of Blue Spruce that I've seen online.)

Some kind of tall sedum (not sure which -- I thought it was S. spurium Voodoo, but that's clearly wrong). Whatever it was, there were loads of honey bees buzzing about happily all over the copious flowerheads.

Silphium laciniatum, Compass Plant, a U.S. prairie native with beautiful compound leaves and soaring stems (8-10 feet tall?) that - as shown here - can topple to Earth in dramatic splaying fashion

Solidago rugosa "Fireworks", the top-rated goldenrod in a Chicago Botanic Garden trial, simply stunning en masse as shown here. Solidago reportedly provides bees with an important late-summer source of pollen and nectar.
No tag on this, but I suspect it might be Lespedeza thunbergii. It's a pretty shrub / large perennial, but I don't have any plans to add it to my TN garden and I'm a little surprised (if my identification is accurate) that Yew Dell still has it, given that concerns over its invasiveness have landed it in the Significant Threat category of the Kentucky's Exotic Plant Pest Council