Five Rivers MetroParks is open space conservation at its most enlightened. Caladium and coleus share hot red hues while silvery dichondra sparkles below. Variegated dogwood stands out in the dim light of the forest canopy. Friday, 3:45AMThe alarm zaps my skull like a stun gun. I'll be in Dayton by afternoon, but first Biff the Wonder Spaniel needs a lap around the block and I need a jolt of dark roast. Flying Santa Barbara to Denver is just long enough to put my butt to sleep, but I know there's a horticultural pot of gold and some wonderful people waiting. I make my connection, settle into seat 15D and review my notes for the double-header talks I'll be launching tomorrow for Five Rivers MetroParks (www.metroparks.org) in Montgomery County. MetroParks is a pretty amazing organization. Their strategic vision includes conserving the county's natural heritage, connecting people with nature, promoting community vitality, and honoring the public trust by embodying fiscal responsibility. From what I saw in my brief visit, they're hitting every mark. Flashback: Last spring, after Betty Hoevel, Adult Education Supervisor for MetroParks, invited me to come to her fair city, I Googled them and was duly impressed with what I found. Dayton, a town of 141k (greater metropolitan area around 840k), has got a park district to shout about. MetroParks encompasses nearly 15,000 acres of territory and includes 19 parks – wild open spaces, finely manicured gardens, plazas, woodland trails and farmsteads – plus bikeways and prime riverside acreage. Betty met me at the airport and whisked me to Wegerzyn Gardens for a preview of the venue where I'd be leading an interpretive design tour. My Saturday afternoon talk would use the grounds as an outdoor classroom to explain garden design principles. Chris Jensen, the staff horticulturist who I'd be teaming up with, led me through a series of beautiful gardens. You see, I'm fine explaining how different garden styles and effects are created, but if someone pointed to a cool Midwestern plant and asked me, "What's that?", I was pretty sure, "It's a plant" wasn't going to satisfy them. That's where Chris would step in. The pre-tour took me through a range of beautifully designed plant compositions ranging from a stunningly bold hanging trough (caladium, coleus and silver dichondra) to an all-edible Victorian style garden, an exuberant children's garden, understated arrangments of barely contrasting foliage, and wild and wooly woodlands. Saturday, 5:30AMUp at dawn, jet lag still playing with my circadian rhythms, I gulped a quick bite, grabbed my notes and met Betty for a ride to another gorgeous garden. We were headed to the Cox Arboretum, where a full house was arriving, curious about my Crimes Against Horticulture: When Bad Taste Meets Power Tools talk. The 90-minute mash-up of sustainable-design-meets-stand-up-comedy is wrapped in a tasty coating of snarky silliness. (I'm sure you've heard the phrase, "A spoonful of zany helps the medicine go down.") In 90 minutes, I explain how ignoring the basics of sustainable design – planning ahead, right plant/right place, proper spacing and patience, using hand tools instead of fume-belching power equipment – could result in green meatballs, hockey pucks, and table tops that populate too many gardens. [right: "When the moon is in the seventh house and junipers align with Mars"]Then it was back to the Wegerzyn for sloppy Joes and neon iced cupcakes honoring Chris's b-day. Betty's marketing campaign was a huge success, attracting another great crowd eager to pick up design tips to carry back to their own gardens. Like how using variegated foliage in low-light areas animates the space so you don't have to rely on seasonal flowers to liven things up. I explained what the designers had done and Chris discussed how to pull it off in a smaller home garden. In my humble opinion, I think we hit it out of the ballpark.Sunday, 9AM My flight wasn't leaving until late afternoon, so I hopped a shuttle from the Marriott to downtown Dayton. "Downtown Dayton on a Sunday morning?" my driver questioned. "Nothing's open." No worries. Camera in hand, I had hopes that I'd find something snap-worthy. Well, other than a few finely composed planters in front of City Hall, and a sweet little park (not part of the MetroParks system), she was right. After an hour of wandering, I hit paydirt: the hip, funky, historic Oregon District flanking 5th Street. From a block away, down a cobblestone street, Ann Heller's garden beckoned. Ann was the food editor for the Dayton News, but given the lovely plantings surrounding her historic two-story brick home, I'm surprised she wasn't the garden editor, too. Every square inch was beautifully composed, but my favorite spot was the subtle contrast of two forms of pink hydrangea, with slight variations in foliage shape, and delicately different flower arrangements. If this cool combo had been at the Wegerzyn the day before, I'm sure I would have spent a chunk of time extolling its virtues. Down the street, other well-loved gardens beautified the Oregon District, like this front porch, highlighted by a tasteful pairing of fall-color mums and matching pillow. Next door sat another "howdy neighbor" front yard where green dominates and silvery licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare), gray wood and white pots brighten the garden. Sunday, 12AM, Pacific Standard TimeThen it was back to the airport for a couple of flights home. By the time my head hit the pillow back home, it had been almost 70 hours door-to-door, but way too much fun to pass up. I was happy to have seen a bit of Dayton's remarkable character (including Betty's detour past the Wright Brother's home!) and once again, be reminded of how the love of natural beauty and plants forges bonds that unite gardeners everywhere. View the discussion thread.