Remembering Jo Banfield
I first Met Jo Banfield during the winter of 1980 at the Washington DC Flower and Garden Show. Marla and I had recently moved to Maryland from Illinois and we were looking for spring flowers to break the humdrum of winter. We happened upon Jo and another lady (whose name was Betsy Kinney I think – she moved to New England shortly thereafter) who were fronting a booth for the Potomac Valley Chapter of the Rock Garden Society. What drew us in were the planted troughs that were on display – gorgeous! We ended up speaking with Jo for quite a while, really liked her and ended up paying our dues and joining the chapter. During the following spring and summer, we visited member’s rock gardens (including Lynn and Vic Makela’s garden which was extraordinary), met rock garden legend Harold Epstein, and fished bog iron rock out of a creek with Russ Kirk for our first rock garden (I remember our AMC Pacer was dragging bottom all the way home on that trip). The chapter had about 15 members at the time (all a bit older than we were) and they were so enthusiastic to have some young blood enter the picture that we were treated like royalty! Jo told us that we were lucky the previous president of the chapter (Ralph Bennett?) had retired because he had to see and approve your rock garden before you were allowed to join the group!
Jo and her husband, Bill, became really good friends over the years. One summer, Marla and I joined them for a trip to the Pine Barrens in New Jersey which was one of Jo’s favorite places. She was in search of the rare curlygrass fern (which we never found). What I remember about that trip (besides the no tell motel we stayed at, Fig. 1) was Jo’s knowledge about plants. I marveled that she was able to identify everything I pointed at and she introduced me to huge patches of sundews and Habenaria (now Platanthera) orchids in roadside ditches. What a great time we had!
Sensing my enthusiasm for carnivorous plants, Jo took me on an outing to a swamp near Annapolis on a particularly horrid August day where both temperatures and humidity were in the mid-90’s. We were looking for pitcher plants, Sarracenia purpurea. I remember following Jo, trudging through knee-deep muck, sweating my @%& off, no water and covered with biting flies and mosquitoes. Jo was not perturbed in the least, and I was embarrassed to complain, so on and on we went until we found the suckers (pitcher plants, not leeches). I was never so happy as to have mission accomplished and to go home and take a shower!
I will miss the Banfields and their hospitality. We had many plant exchanges at their house, always accompanied by vigorous conversation with good friends (Fig. 2). I am happy to have some of Jo’s plants growing in my garden and I think of her every time I come across them. And I thank her for bringing me into this club which has rewarded me time and time again.
I remember being in awe of Jo's garden and greenhouse. I enjoyed meeting her, and the experience was so much fun that I joined PVC NARGS right away.
Another time, when the plant swap was held at Jo's, she gave away some plants from her greenhouse, and I still have a small succulent. I hope I can keep it alive forever to remind me of the inspiration I received from Jo Banfield.
I did not know her well, but some lives make huge impressions.
Jo was a consummate gardener who shared her enthusiasm, her knowledge, and her generosity of spirit to all who came her way. No one was ever turned away.
If I recall correctly I was among the younger members of the Potomac Chapter when I joined back in the 80's, though I don't recall that it had such a name at the time. From the very beginning Jo treated me as if I actually belonged to the small group of elite plantsmen and women who attended the meetings. She was among the friendliest, liveliest, and most upbeat of members and remained so during my decades with the group. I recall her bobbing and weaving about with alacrity as she talked to her fellow plant aficionados. There was always a smile or a laugh, a sense of joy, encouragement, and perhaps even mischievousness in her words, no matter how minor the subject. The plant exchanges at her "estate" were a real treat for me, even when the plants themselves were lacking in distinction. Jo, herself, never lacked in distinction! I am not familiar with all her interactions with members, but when we held one of the trough making workshops the dozens of semi-finished troughs were hauled to her place and the two of us did the finishing up. That was the only time we spent alone together, and she really seemed to enjoy the hard work of distressing those troughs to be sold for the benefit of the Chapter. I'm sure she engaged in many other Chapter activities as part of a silent contingent, for which she and others possibly received little recognition. As a once younger member, I can say that folks like Jo best represent the camaraderie found in special interest groups, whether devoted to plants or even subjects of lesser interest.
Jo Banfield was one of the first PVC-NARGS people I met, and there’s a simple reason for that. Back in those days, she and Cecie Phair were the greeters at the door to our meetings. They collected dues, checked to see if membership was up-to-date, answered questions and – this was particularly true of Jo – got you talking.
Everything I know about the early days of our club comes from the piece Jo wrote “Potomac Valley Chapter: A Short History” for the chapter publication Rock Gardening in the Greater Washington, D.C. , Region. If you haven’t read it, you should!
After I visited her garden for the first time I made a remark in the chapter bulletin about “abundant evidence of someone having way too much fun”. As Chris Herbstritt’s summary tells, there was plenty to see, including some surprises. For me, the Alabama croton, Croton alabamensis, was one of the surprises. And the little evergreen oak Chris mentions was another. I must have really made a scene when I saw it, because it was not too many meetings later that Jo handed me a small one in a pot. That oak is Quercus turbinella , and I’ve since learned something very interesting about it: it spreads by underground runners. I like to remember my gardening friends by the plants they have given me over the years: that little oak is the one which keeps her memory alive for me. And that little oak has another rock garden association: Jo told me that it was Panayoti Kelaidis who gave her the acorns from which she grew her plants.
Chris has done a great job in describing her garden. I want to add one more plant I saw there: Allium zebdanense. This is a small bulbous onion with flat, narrow leaves and foot-high scapes topped with umbels of white flowers. It maintains itself well and is not an aggressive spreader.
If Jo kept garden diaries, I’m not aware of them. What a pity: they would have had so much to tell us.
And here is Chris Herbstritt's extensive review of her garden:
Meeting Jo Banfield and Exploring Her Garden by Chris Herbstritt
I met Jo Banfield at her Rockville, Maryland home on a warm, sunny afternoon on August 24th,2012. The club had been invited to peruse her gardening books and collect cuttings from her rock garden. We were told that Jo would soon be moving to Denver to be closer to her children and family members.
I introduced myself to Jo and we started “talking shop” right away. I immediately got a sense of her plant knowledge and her zeal for gardening. As I viewed her book collection, her eyes brightened as she began to speak about her rock gardening adventures. I came to learn that Jo was one of the founding members of our local rock garden club (the Potomac Valley Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society… PVC NARGS). Over the years, she and her husband hosted numerous garden picnics, parties, and potting sessions.
She recalled that the goal of one workshop was for each member to create two garden troughs from scratch. One trough was theirs to keep and the other was to be sold to support the club. I actually saw one of these troughs in her greenhouse on the day that I visited. It had held-up well over time and was covered in lichens. It had obviously had a full life “on the outside” before it came to live on the garden bench.
NARGS and Plant Collecting Adventures
Jo went on to say that she enjoyed hunting for new and unusual plants and enjoyed growing them in her garden. One of her favorite things was growing plants from seed and watching the plant develop into its mature form. I later learned from her daughter, Sarah, that Jo was always prepared with ziplock bags so that she could collect seed or spores when the opportunity presented itself.
I heard about one of Jo's legendary long treks for spores of the rare curlygrass fern, Schizaea pusilla, in the pine barrens of New Jersey. Unfortunately the hunt for the elusive curlygrass fern was fruitless. Though no spores were collected, I have a feeling seeds of other plants were collected and a good time was had by all.
In addition to collecting plants, Jo and the family also collected rocks and minerals wherever they traveled. Her greenhouse was filled with trays of interesting rocks that had been polished and shaped, and many of these were used to decorate her cactus pots. The day that I visited, I saw pots of cacti and agaves and many stacks of terracotta pots. The greenhouse was attached to the east side of the house. A picture Sarah shared with me showed that the greenhouse had once been chock full of a wide variety of succulents. I can imagine Jo dividing and potting-up her cacti in the middle of winter while gazing out and seeing the frosty winter scene of her shade garden.
Jo created three main gardens, but also had many satellite beds and trees planted throughout the property. The three main gardens were consisted of a vegetable garden, a rock garden, and a large shade garden.
The Vegetable Garden
Her vegetable garden was fallow at the time that I visited, but it showed signs that it had once been home to many tomato plants. A tall, sturdy, mesh fence which was obviously used to keep the rabbits and deer at bay surrounded the garden. Sarah told me that Jo spent many hours in this garden, tending the tomatoes, squash, and beans. It was near this garden that Jo's ashes were eventually distributed at her memorial.
The Rock Garden
The rock garden was located on the sunny front side of the house and ran along part of the driveway. It was impressive in its size and consisted of a large number of rocks and small boulders with plants and small shrubs interspersed throughout. Many of the rocks were dug into the ground with sand filling in the spaces. These crevices were perfect for rock plants to take hold. The garden was about 3 feet higher on the “road side” which gave visitors a good view of plants at all levels. A slanted rock wall formed the front face of the garden which gave the garden some elevation even though the property was essentially flat.
I was fortunate to observe the rock garden during all four seasons over the past several years. Here I will attempt to give you a mind’s eye view of the garden – in the way a gardener would view her garden.
In spring there were at least 40 varieties of blooming narcissuses, various crocuses and blue and white Ipheion uniflorum. A real surprise was a large population of Iris tuberosa also known Hermodactylus tuberosus – the unusual snake’s head Iris. It certainly seemed to love growing amongst the rocks and sand. The summer garden was dominated with sedums, delicate naturalized red crocosmias and perennial geraniums. In the fall, multitudes of bright yellow Sternbergia lutea - the “fall daffodil” - bloomed as the nights got shorter. As winter came along, the dried foliage of xeric ferns, dwarf mahonias and dwarf hollies filled-out the garden and provided winter interest next to the stark grayness of the schist.
The Shade Garden – Ornaments & Plants
The shade garden was nestled under the large arms of white oak trees and included a small pond, a bog garden with yellow flag Irises, and two very large garden beds filled with perennials. A gray, lichen-encrusted garden bench with a round slate top table was located next to the pond. Two unusual, spherical concretions (rocks) sat on each side of the garden bench, looking like giant, gray bowling balls. A weathered concrete fox statue stood guard near the pond and watched as the bullfrog snapped up unaware crane flies as they passed too close.
Next to the pond grew an ancient, gnarly, miniature azalea. I have no idea of what species or cultivar it was, but it looked like a lot like a natural bonsai with its lower branches dipping down to the water. At the base of one oak tree was a large 5 foot clump of Mahonia japonica. The tough and leathery green leaves appeared to be untouched by the resident deer population. At the base of another large oak was a huge, evergreen, spiny leaved × Mahoberberis. I attempted to take a cutting, but there were no “layers” to be seen and the plant seemed to have only one enormous trunk. A well-mannered, thick clump of dwarf sweetbox inhabited the center of this bed.
Next to the Sarcococca was an interesting, handmade concrete mushroom that listed at a 45 degree angle in the rich dark humus. Seeing soil like this made me wish that I had similar soil in my own garden. I suspect that this rich, well-draining loam was the result of many years of Jo adding decomposed oak and maple amendments.
Next to the sunken bog garden filled with Iris pseudacorus was a miniature bog garden made from an old porcelain sink – flush with the ground. I wonder if it was once filled with sundews and pitcher plants. Near this were artfully stacked stones composed of tufa and coral. These created a natural-looking outcropping for a large clump of vigorous Helleborus arguitifolius. Finally a large copper bird bath, on a single metal post, was installed next to a bright red garden spigot protruding from the ground. From a distance, the coiled green garden hose, still attached to the spigot, looked a bit like a snake.
Shade Garden – Early Spring
In early spring, the shade garden was dominated with a virtual sea of bright yellow winter aconites, Eranthis hyemalis. The aconites had spread with abandon throughout the shade garden. The tiny, green parasol-like leaves lasted into late spring and then disappeared as the terminal seed pods popped and distributed the creamy yellow seeds everywhere. In addition, large swaths of snowdrops bloomed and spread their delicate nodding white blooms. Jo grew two species of these, Galanthus elwesii and Galanthus nivalis, and these too naturalized.
Blue highlighted-in-white glories of the snow bloomed here and there and had naturalized throughout the lawn. This essentially made the lawn an extension of the garden. Blue flowers of Scilla siberica bloomed in clumps around a small white dogwood tree. The cropped scilla foliage was obviously a favorite of some herbivore. Jo had mentioned that the deer and rabbits were challenging to deal with, but she persevered. I found a small clump of intact dwarf hosta near the red garden spigot. I suppose this hosta was too small for the deer to notice, as it was uneaten. Tiny naturalized blue, white, and purple violets also populated the lawn and garden. Probably the most striking plants in the garden were the enormous clumps of garden hellebores. These bloomed in shades of simple pink and white and had nodding flowers. From the sheer size of the clumps, these hellebores must have been some of the first to have been grown in our area. Late winter was equally interesting with the green blooms of Helleborus argutifolius and Helleborus foetidus.
Shade Garden – Late Spring
Innumerable varieties of late jonquils sprouted up from patches in the lawn. Also flowering in abundance were Leucojum aestivum, the snowdrop relative called the summer snowflake. These had formed an 8 foot diameter clump and were obviously naturalizing slowly under the massive oak. Other plants in bloom were the occasional trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) four types of epimediums, vancouverias, squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis), Dutchmen’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), Arisarum proboscideum (mouse plant), Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) and an early red-blooming herbaceous peony.
Flowering trees also bloomed throughout the property, including Magnolia ashei and several very fragrant, large Magnolia stellata trees. I could smell the stellatas even from 50 feet away. An incredibly large Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ covered in large, light yellow blooms grew behind the house. This tree may be nearly 35 years old since the cultivar ‘Elizabeth’ was one of the first yellow-flowered magnolia hybrids to be released to the public (patented 1977).
Shade Garden – Summer
The early summer garden included late herbaceous peonies which bloomed in shades of pink, white, and red. Wild roses grew here and there, and I even saw a tree peony. Unusual shrubs that bloomed at this time were the rare Alabama Croton and Symplocos tinctoria. I had never seen this plant previously and said to myself “What’s that?!” It had interesting clusters of bright yellow flowers that were pleasantly fragrant.
One of the most impressive specimens on the property was a 35 foot Stewartia pseudocamellia tree. I was lucky to see this amazing tree in full bloom one early summer day. Thousands of large, five-petalled white blooms with large yellow stamens adorned the tree. The blooms looked a bit like fried eggs with white around the outside and the yellow toward the center. As if this wasn’t enough, this Stewartia pesudocamellia also had especially attractive exfoliating bark.
Shade Garden - Autumn
Fall at the Banfield garden was announced with the blooming of stands of Lycoris × squamigera (pink “naked ladies”). These hardy bulbs bloom with bare stems and have clusters of large medium-pink flowers which erupt from the ground following late summer rains. Just as the “naked ladies” are disappearing, the even more impressive bright red Lycoris radiata flowers begin. These are known as red spider lilies because they have red petals with long spidery stamens. They also bloom with bare stems (no leaves) and are called surprise lilies because they seem to appear overnight after fall rains. Before the spider lilies bloom there are the bright yellow blossoms of Sternbergia lutea. Jo had masses of these “fall daffodils” sprinkled throughout her gardens.
In addition to the fall blooming flowers in the garden, some trees are known for their bright fall foliage display. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the leaves of the previously mentioned Stewartia pseudocamellia. Its leaves transition from green to yellow, and progress to orange, and finally terminate in a bright crimson color. Most leaves have multiple hues which make the effect even more attractive. This tree truly has multi-season interest.
Shade Garden - Winter
Winter at the Banfield garden was a time when the structure of trees could really be appreciated. The presence of evergreen trees, shrubs and perennials gave your eyes a break from what would otherwise be a monochromatic scene. The garden contained several unusual evergreen trees worth mentioning. At least two 50 foot Cunninghamia lanceolata ‘Glauca’ trees grew at the garden, and their powder blue color was unique compared with their green counterparts.
Another unusual, diminutive tree was a semi-evergreen oak which was planted next to the greenhouse. I am sure that its tiny blue-green leaves were a welcome sight in the winter when everything else was brown. The story I am told is that Jo grew this rare oak tree from an acorn that was shared by another gardener in the rock garden society. It has held its own even after our two most recent severe winters.
While few flowers bloom during the winter, the common perennial vinca, Helleborus foetidus and Helleborus × hybridus were the exceptions. The opening of the hellebores is a herald for the upcoming spring. It means that the whole cycle is about to start over again.
Jo Banfield and Her Garden – Time Well Spent
In closing, I would like say that it was a pleasure to meet Jo Banfield and learn about her gardening life. I thoroughly enjoyed studying her garden over the past several years. The Jo Banfield Garden is a good example of a well-constructed garden which was composed of a palate of time-tested plants that all gardeners in the area should consider. Jo’s zeal to explore for new plants, read about them, and then grow them, resulted in the creation of a truly memorable garden. The plants that Jo shared with our club members will thrive and remind us of her for years to come.