Snapshots from a New Hampshire Garden: Part IV

Country Trees City Trees

Winter snow in North Carolina. Sign Canoe Crescent commemorates loss in Hurricane Isabel

A nod to Winter, but not in New Hampshire. Heavy snow in North Carolina a few years ago shadows the sign Canoe Crescent that we erected after a tree crushed the canoe during Hurricane Isabel

Country Trees

I miss the wind. Even on still days there was furtive gossiping, murmurs, whispers, swishing, sighing in the air, with answering ripples, sometimes, from lazy waves lapping at a sand bar some place.

Sunset over Albemarle Sound silhouettes young trees

Visitors used to comment on how quiet, how peaceful it was here, and slowly they would unwind in this land lying next to Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. Whispers in the woods supplanted grinding gears in the city.

Trees were always a backdrop to the garden. Photo taken 30 years ago along the front walk

There are no whispers during big storms. Winds roar and trees rumble and roll.

The Pines Along the Road

Across the road from us, loblolly pines grabbed the real estate after land was clear-cut fifty years ago. Methuselahs that were spared cast their pine cones abroad, insuring a monopoly of offspring close by.

Their youngsters pad the forest floor with broken and bent needles that turn coppery if a stray sunbeam side-lights them, for these are dark woods and the pine-needle carpet is thick and plush and makes great hideouts for chiggers and ticks.

Our Methuselah to the north, a lone loblolly pine, seems to watch over our land

Here’s the peculiarity about these exclusive pines across the road: During high winds they dance in precision like royalty of old in the courts of England and France. They line up and sway with elegance, as if some chorusmaster is choreographing the show. Altogether now, sway to the north. Altogether now, sway to the south. On beat. They dance as one.

In thirty years none of the loblolly pines across the road took a header in a storm, while others that were not part of this exclusive club hit the ground

If you look for some semblance of order in growth at ground level, you will be disappointed. Tree trunks here are scattershot through the woods, random.

Here’s an even greater peculiarity: The treetops line up in rows that sway opposite each other. As the first row sways south, the row behind sways north. Then the sway is reversed. When the first row sways north, the row behind sways south, creating a contra as lively as colonial dances in church halls then and community centers today.

Work crew is removing remains of trees in our backyard felled by Hurricane Isabel because they were growing on fill dredged from swamps and their roots never got a toehold in the woody litter.  Note the stature of the loblolly pines

The timing is flawless (they’ve had decades to rehearse). Despite the hurling, gyrating wind, there is no hesitation or twisting. Once resonance begins, as long as the wind drives the rhythm, the swaying does not waver, wind and trees howling together to the world, never bowing, never breaking, never faltering, except for the occasional grandfather with a rotten base that topples, its crash but a blip in the rage of the storm.

Methuselahs succumb to age, too. Ours was not caught in a storm, but was attacked by pine beetles that galleried the tree, destroying its lifelines to and from the ground

The Higgledy-Piggledy Woods to the South

If the pine woods across the road are exclusive and elegant (in high winds anyway), the woods to the south are a higgledy-piggledy catch-all for an improbable assortment of trees.

Paul Bunyan must have pocketed seeds from every kind of tree he lumbered and scattered them over this little patch of no more than half an acre. Here’s a breakdown:

A couple of male American hollies with spikey elbows. Some spindly pines competing with two Methuselahs. A gawky, hesitant oak. And sweet gum, sturdy, wannabe kings.

Gawky American holly tangled in snow

There are more: Ironwood and eastern hophornbeam (struggling now, beyond their prime). And spindly but healthy understory aralia (Hercules Club we call it because we dare not touch its spiny branches).

And more: Red maple, whose surface roots may rule the underworld with their spread. Mockernut hickory whose nuts bop us on the head if we are not vigilant. And red cedar that grows into an enormous lump.

And even more: Black cherry that would like more sun. And swamp redbay, a handsome, robust grower that hosts the palomedes swallowtail but misses being a popular ornamental because of its unsightly (to a gardener) leaf galls.

Thirty-five years ago these trees were bumptious teenagers, leafy, skinny, and expectant. Somehow they grew up, lanky, and we did not notice because our eyes were cast low. Still, they charmed us through the seasons.

Winter Wonderland

Today they are long and lanky, but sturdy, not round and chubby like solo trees fed on lawn-care diets. They crawled up from seeds cast casually by wind or birds on hard clay, soil scraped barren of life by bulldozers fifty years ago. They scrabbled. They elbowed.

Spring, dogwood and azaleas planted to hide their knobby knees

Unseen, unhurried, and unhindered, roots spread out, tusseled, and embroidered an opportunistic network. Big roots went as deep as they could in the clay. Hair roots created a dense mat.


We discovered how tenacious the roots were when we tried to plant camellias under these thrifty trees. They grudgingly gave way when we dug holes but battled for underground supremacy when they found that our rich, hand-mixed soil was far superior than baked clay.

It took time, but camellias, azaleas, too, eventually held their ground and blossomed

The canopy is 70 feet above us now, and some of those trees have the lean, rugged good looks of a fifties movie star, but not many.

Handsome? Rugged? Thrifty?

They and their understory shrubs became an integral part of our landscape; in summer their deep shade kept us comfortable and cool.

Caressing our garden with their shade on a hot summer afternoon

But these gawky, spindle poles are not about to join any elegant dances. Basic survival from battery by wind and storm is the game.

They whip and twist and buck like untamed broncos in gales and bend until they must break. But they don’t. They lose limbs, instant, crackling amputations, cullings that tear out weakness, disease and death hidden by green canopies.

A foggy day gives them an air of mystery

Their trunks don’t snap and they are not uprooted. And they stand up straight again when the 60-mile-an-hour winds retreat. How is this possible after hours-long pummeling?

Casualties are unseen. Sinews stretched and torn during forced acrobatics can invisibly weaken a tree that otherwise stands tall, inviting insects, disease and early death. But most of these trees are prepared for the inevitable big storm.

Under cold winter sun and blue sky they gleam

Listen again to those sweet breezes on a summer day. They are more than just a tonic to our souls. They are gymnastic workouts for trees, warm-up stretching and bending, flexibility training. Barely perceptible creaks and groans, even the gossip, are signals that trees are resilient, so they can buck the wind when they must.

Almost forty years old in this picture, they are a dependable backdrop, gracing our garden and its crabapples with their spring green

Our Country Trees will buck in storms and creak in summer breezes, but we will not be there to witness their adventures, for now we live in a New Hampshire community where both natives and non-natives have become City Trees.

City Trees

High winds may tear up loftier hills but they sweep over and above this bowl snugged in by mountains and nestled around a lake. This is where we live now. Life is pretty tame for trees here, unless lusty gusts cause a rushing and a rumble and snap away at branches and twigs to remind homeowners that to welcome spring will require some raking.

Summer afternoon by the lake in the shade of white pine trees

Other days, especially after a snowstorm, you can feel an infinite stillness, a hush. On a winter morning after, dustings of snow that sparkle in the brilliant rising sun seem caught by time. The vision may vanish but the lovely memory lingers like an old photograph.

Frozen for a moment

The large old pines that line the lake do the yeoman work of holding soil in place and many have been around for eons.

The base of an old pine, its growth rings too numerous and confusing to count by eye, is hoisted up and over an 1880s house. The tree was probably older than the house

Cutting pines along the lake is strictly controlled, but sale of the huge logs helps defray the cost of removal.

A pile waiting to be picked up for transport to the mill

Inland, pines cluster along roads and empty spaces or ribbon through backyards, their shade keeping maple, oak and birch striplings down.

White pines at the boundary line behind our house

Once white pines covered the entire state in prodigious numbers. They fell quickly to England’s need for tall masts and colonists’ needs for survival. Second and third growths ramped up, but commerce has whittled their numbers.

True city trees are specimens, perfect in form and shape. Solo performers. Chosen. Native or near-native, doesn’t matter as long as they behave like specimens.

A young birch, graceful and fast growing, will welcome visitors when the pile of snow is gone

They are planted because their owners want a welcoming front yard or an umbrella for shade, or markers for property boundaries.

This old tree complements the yellow cape

If the decades of the twenties and thirties called for a chicken in every pot, the decades of the forties, fifties and sixties seemed to call for a tree in every front yard. Sometimes two, if the house warranted.

An old white birch, gnarled and tired, still dominates the homes around it

Fast growers are preferred. New homeowners on cleared lots could then declare they’d never seen anything grow like these instant trees.

Two Norway maples  that held court in the front yard of our house and were featured in Snapshots Part I  are examples.

Once a supple beauty, this white birch in a front yard will not give in to the arborvitae closing in around it

Vintage trees, these city trees are, settled in, old, and buxom, because life has been pretty easy for them. Sunlight urges them on and soil is complicit, so energy goes into complex growth patterns, labyrinthine branching – and magnificent size.

Multi-branched and complex, and large

Some of them dwarf the homes they are supposed to embellish.

The old oak may actually have been in place before this cape was built during the last century

They have their share of scars, deep dark holes, split bark, and scalpel work on dead or decaying limbs.

The old birch hangs in, as maple saplings crowd it. What animals find shelter in its hole?

Many hang on with missing limbs, lopped by chain saw or broken by disease.

Snow caps multiple cut limbs

Then there are the ultimate indignities of being split up the middle to accommodate overhead wires, or summarily removed, forgotten except for their stumps.

The vertical telephone pole contrasts with the gnarled branches left after trimming for lines

We have some of these old trees in our garden, all of them sturdy, fast growers, easy going, not fussy. They punctuate the landscape like gracious relics of a simpler time. They are truly comfort trees, but they will not last forever.

Norway Spruce (Picea abies)

The first time we walked out the back door we were awestruck. Here, just off our patio, was this old shaggy evergreen, a Titan king standing seventy feet over our heads, with long, sun-streaked cones that looked like kingly baubles.

Our majestic Norway spruce

We’d never seen a tree like this before and did not know what to call it. With such presence its name didn’t seem to matter. It begged to be decorated with huge glowing balls during the holidays, but we’d have to hire Paul Bunyan to do the work.

Elegant baubles for a majestic tree. John M. Hagstrom

The lowest tier of branches is brown and dead, so there is space underneath for table and chairs, a secret room for puttering and potting. I could store pots here, too, and bags of soil and garden stone, and wheelbarrows, and construction materials. These are not particularly majestic accessories for the skirts of such a noble tree, but it is shady and quiet working under these boughs, and I promise we will remove the clutter as soon as we get to spring projects.

You can just catch sight of my chair from this vantage point. Now, at the end of winter the soil at its base is covered with a thick, soft layer of needled twigs blown off by the wind.

Somehow we learned this giant was a Norway spruce, relative of the native, stiff-needled Colorado spruce. The needles on our tree feel smooth and non-confrontational as you run your hands along a branch.

A dusting of snow frosts its large branches, or skirts as they are called

Despite its name, most people assume Norway spruce is native. It seems to be everywhere throughout northern landscapes, first planted, then seeded in. Imagine immigrants more than a century ago bringing this token of the old world with them, living memorial of home and heritage, to serve as windbreaks, boundary markers, or decorative accents.

The tree takes snow and bluster in stride, as the hydrangea paniculata beneath it struggles to keep its branches from being buried, and the wrought iron garden chairs grow comfy cushions

In our garden Norway spruce is a cozy hangout for small birds — chickadees, titmice, juncos, warblers — who disappear in its pendulous branches. They may emerge to feed on seeds scattered from its cones, along with robins in late winter, but mostly they loaf while they wait for a turn at the feeder. Or hide from predators.

Apparently hawks and owls like to roost among its branches, too, but we have not seen any yet, nor heard any frantic confrontations. And there are other creatures, too.

Evening in February. Patio tables have layer cakes and chairs have comfy cushions so what is going on under the snowy cloaks of winter that cover the spruce boughs is hidden

Snow is shrinking as winter closes out in March, and dastardly deeds are being exposed. A carpet of shed twigs lies under the tree, lovely and green and plushy.

The culprits? Apparently squirrels, who have tried to reach our bird feeder but were foiled,  have substituted spruce buds for bird seed in their diets. They clip a twig so they can hold it and chew off buds for next year’s growth, then drop the twigs like so many old bones.

Apparently our squirrels do not have a waste-not want-not philosophy. Lots of uneaten buds in the piles,, and lots of twigs for us to clean up

So, this noble spruce is not invincible. Small creatures, frisky and hungry, can quietly tease treats for many a winter meal out of its boughs. In February, when I saw a squirrel sitting comfortably on my potting table amid a pile of green twigs I naively thought he was taking a break from plowing through  eight inches of snow or plotting his assault on our bird feeder.

Green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica)

The green ash that sits at the far end of our garden seems perfect.

The moods of this old tree can mesmerize you. It dominates a wide sweep of lawn, precisely the vision you might take away from a rambling public garden. It’s photogenic, too. We’ve captured it silhouetted against sunsets and storm clouds and snowstorms, as shown in this slide show.

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Its thick, heavy, furrowed trunk speaks of age. Its scars speak of past skirmishes and survival.

I wonder, when I see damage like this on a tree, how did the insult come about, and how did the tree finally heal itself to live another day, or decade, or century?

Its muscular limbs stretch like wings to create a wide crown that casts cool shade on hot afternoons. Beneath it, a healthy stand of periwinkle grows in a perfect circle that calls out for a garden bench.

But our green ash, though it has survived past insults, is ailing.

Once upon a time this native tree grew in swamps and floodplains across the country. Gardeners adopted it because it tolerates some drought, and it grows fast and casts lovely shade.

When Dutch elm disease invaded, green ash became a substitute for dying elms. And as white ash became scarce, green ash stepped up to supply wood for oars and canoe paddles.

For decades, it seemed green ash could jump into any reasonable niche, though messy pods from female trees and weedy seedlings frustrated gardeners. Planting male cultivars, which are seedless, muted complaints.

Yet millions of trees across the US and Canada are dead and dying, have been for decades. Unraveling the mystery behind this mass die-off has proved to be one of the longest running ecological detective stories ever.

Today we know that a glittery, diminutive, half-inch long insect called the emerald ash borer is the culprit. It is one of the most destructive and costly forest insects ever to invade New Hampshire.

Adult emerald ash borer, only half an inch long is bright but easily hidden among leaves at the top of a tree. Cornell Cooperative Extension

Three decades ago, nobody was looking for an insect they had never heard of. The only visible clue that ash trees were declining was a general thinning of their crowns, first observed in lower Michigan, then elsewhere. Why? Road salt? Drought? Changing water tables?

Only when an arborist finally spotted a beetle many years after they had multiplied and begun killing trees, could scientists begin to recreate events and solve the mystery.

Stowaways from Asia, probably hidden in wooden packing materials, probably only a few of them, probably arrived here around 1990, or probably even earlier.

In Asia, ash trees evolved along with this beetle, so a balance was struck between insect and tree. Here the beetles found a banquet of ash trees with no defenses. They thrived in stealth.

The MO of the emerald ash borer (alias, jewel beetle) is this: Adults feed on foliage; they mate; females lay eggs in bark crevices; eggs hatch; larvae feed underneath the bark; they create galleries that disrupt the arteries of the tree; mature beetles escape through D-shaped holes. The cycle is then repeated, on the same tree if it still lives, or another tree.

Larva chews through wood, creating galleries that eventually prevent vital fluids from moving throughout the tree. David Cappaert, U of Michigan,

Most likely you’ll never spot a jewel beetle because they operate under cover for most of their lives.

Adults exit through D shaped holes that are almost impossible to spot. David R McKay USDA

There’s a twist to the mystery. On their own, these small boring insects don’t travel very far, and it takes generations of insects to kill a tree. Without accomplices they could not have spread so quickly.

We the people have aided and abetted the invasion of the emerald ash borer. Who knew that healthy trees purchased from a nursery could already be infected? Who knew that transporting firewood or logs would carry the insect into new territory?

If you look closely at our ash tree you will see that its crown is thinning. Our neighbor recently removed his weakened ash, so the cards are played.

Chemicals may seem to deal a better hand, but they only delay the loss, and at what cost to the environment?

As leaves turned colors this fall it was easy to spot thinning. There is more damage on the shady side of the tree

If we see a red-bellied woodpecker tearing at bark for nuggets, we will know that insects have taken over. If there comes a time when the tree must be taken away, we will have to accept the loss. Until then, we will rejoice each spring when our green ash leafs out.

Catalpa Tree (Catalpa speciosa)

Until we moved here, I had almost forgotten about the catalpa tree that dominated the front lawn of our house in the forties. It had giant (to a kid), heart-shaped leaves like fans, pretty flowers and sometime later, long dangling bean pods arrived.

In our garden today, the catalpa tree dominates the skyline of our house. It could eventually grow to be 100 feet tall

The old catalpa tree, as we knew it, cast lovely, if limited, shade. On a pleasant day our parents would sit under the tree, catching up with old friends who had come to visit, while we kids came and went, wondering how big folks had so much to talk about.

On hot days, we kids were happy to play Monopoly or double-deck Rummy (probably with made up rules)  with friends under the shade of those lovely big leaves. It became our green hideaway in summer.

It was the only tree we knew that had such pretty blossoms. One of our friends wore the blossoms on her fingers. Sometimes we would put them in our hair and parade around like pretty ladies. We spent many hours under that tree.

That is, until the worms came. From out of nowhere, it seemed, they began falling on us. Not hundreds, you understand, but enough to give us all the creeps. One time my little sister ran into the house hysterical because she was sure she had worms in her underpants.

The “worms’ probably looked something like these two color variations of the catalpa hornworm

Pretty soon our old catalpa tree got too big for the narrow front lawn and it seemed to be reaching for the garage. It was very healthy. It produced hundreds of pods each year, maybe more, at a constant clip, and nobody wanted the chore of raking them up.

Then there was the matter of the worms that fell to the ground and invaded underpants.

The catalpa became that bugaboo of trees that must get along with humans: the messy tree.

Our parents said, Enough! The tree must come down. How much the worm-terrors played in that decision none of us remembers.

(From a Gardener’s Perspective: The catalpa hornworm that unwittingly caused the ruckus is a caterpillar, relative of the tomato hornworm. It is the larval stage of the Catalpa Sphinx Moth.

Rather dowdy, females programmed for egg laying, not a moth you would notice

After chewing on catalpa leaves in summer, it will spend the winter as a pupa buried beneath the soil to complete metamorphosis and emerge as  an adult moth.)

. . .Unless a parasitic wasp  lays its eggs on the caterpillar so its young can feed on the host,, same principle as wasps on a tomato horn worm

As it turned out, removing the catalpa was a boon for us kids who switched from playing cards to playing endless games of croquet all summer – not, you understand, the quiet, genteel games of nineteenth century aristocrats.

No, we used the newfound space to plot clever courses around and through shrubbery that inevitably provoked very loud discussions (Arguments? Never!) over rules (ever changing) and boundaries (ever changing) and perceived infractions. Looking back, I wonder if the neighbors ever noticed the noise.

We kids quickly forgot about the old catalpa tree.

And now, decades later, we have a catalpa tree on our side lawn. Old memories bring a smile. This handsome specimen is a skyscraper, comfortable where it is planted. We will never cut it down.

Catalpa in bloom on the side lawn

In spring it is covered with exquisite blooms whose intricate details cannot be appreciated because they are beyond the reach of our eyes. When they fall, they create a froth of white against dark grass and soon disappear.

Honeybees use the “runways” into the heart of the flower to find nectar

And then the pods, or capsules as they are called, come by the hundreds. In these modern times the catalpa is not a messy tree. Old-fashioned push mowers that gave operators a cardiac workout were not aggressive enough to chop up the capsules. Today’s power mowers chew them up and turn them to compost.

Yellow leaves in fall, along with an abundance of capsules that contain many fringed seeds and darken later in the season. Arbor Day photo

We might look at the catalpa solely as a tree to decorate lawns (or irritate gardeners), but there is more to its story than that. The catalpa is native to forests from southern Illinois to western Tennessee. Its fast growth and resistance to rot made for sturdy, hand-hewn fence posts and railroad ties. With little fanfare, this tree made a contribution to the country’s progress long before power tools replaced calories.

Indirectly, the tree put good food on the table. Joe Boggs of Ohio State, who took the excellent caterpillar pictures above, remembers using catalpa hornworms as a favored bait for catching the largemouth bass that were served at many a family dinner.

Catalpa beans shine silver in a winter sun

Next spring when the catalpa tree blooms we will listen for buzzing in the tree, as bees seek nectar not only from flowers but from nectaries on the undersides of the big leaves.

Honeybee seeking nectar from the underside of a catalpa leaf, a common occurrence in spring. Fabulous photo by Zachary Y. Huang


I will always miss the wind whispering in country trees, but I rather enjoy gardening among city trees that don’t invade my territory or bop me on the head with nuts that squirrels drop — or launch.  But then there are those catalpa worms to watch for. . .

Late afternoon sun gilds pine trees backing our property



Posted in Catalpa, Community Trees, Emerald ash borer, Green Ash, New Hampshire garden, Northeast North Carolina, Norway spruce, Uncategorized, Woodland trees | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Snapshots from a New Hampshire Garden: Part III

Our Garden Heroes

There is utter madness behind our methods. We are designing and planting new gardens in our mid-eighties. Then again, we ask, why not? Gardening has become the biggest whodunnit for us, a larger-than-life mystery about outdoor place-and-space that we cannot stop exploring simply because we are ageing.

It’s a loosely choreographed tale with twists of  weather and wind and derring-do of heroes and villains (sometimes we are both), a tale told of hard work and high hopes.

And full of questions, too. That’s where the mystery comes into it. Will the weak weigela make it through the winter? (It should, if I stop scraping its bark to find green.) Will the allium divisions puff out like gangbusters? (They did in Susan’s garden, where they came from.) Will the bulbs planted last fall bloom? (Where did I plant them, anyway?)

And how many uh-ohs will we have to contend with? We never put titles to these tales. We take it for granted that we will never have to purloin one of Agatha Christie’s greatest titles: And Then There Were None.

(Not a chance, because there will always be weeds.)

Oh, the eternal optimism of gardeners!

To bring you up to date on the latest chapter, we have just finished tearing out the stockade fence next to the patio, bartered the hot tub away, uprooted burning bushes and other large shrubs.

Rooting out the fence was true spectator sport, and it opened up vistas in the garden

We had cleared space for new plans and new plantings! It was exhilarating. And it had been easy. All I had to do was point my Index Finger to make things happen.

The last of the burning bushes under the front gable is hauled out

I began to like this style of gardening, though I had a niggling feeling that intentions were outrigging shovels and ideas were outracing hoes.

I needn’t have worried. There was a world of super heroes in this year’s tale, just waiting to help.

The Heroes

Many of these heroes are the enablers I spoke of  in my last post. They are, in fact,  Our Garden Heroes. They contribute inspiration and  help — and plants — and they happily keep my Index Finger in constant play.

Do we know what we are doing? Not really.

We approached new projects by committee, sifting ideas like compost and counting on instincts born of common sense and years of hard-knocks gardening. Maybe we would get things “right” sooner than later?

And we depend on Our Garden Heroes.

Mike the Sod Busting Hero

A stone path leads from the driveway to the front door. The previous fall, Susan, one of the most enthusiastic heroes had planted bulbs along it as a spring surprise for us. When they bloomed, we immediately wanted more.

Front path brightened by daffodils and tulips

To soften angles and add pizzazz to the minimalist ranch, we came up with the idea of sinuous beds winding round most of the house. 

The first leg of our garden would begin in front of the house where sunshine urged grass to grow. Very thick grass that defied removal. Mike the Sod Busting Hero patiently, methodically cut and dug to remove clod after clod, following the wide curve we had scribed with the garden hose.

We put down a tarp to hold dug sod but it was easier to collect and haul it away in wheelbarrows, thence to purgatory

Hero Mike made light of the effort by insisting that digging was good exercise.

But we just happened to catch him napping under the ash tree. Wake up, Hero Mike, You’ve got more digging to do: that new magnolia, the rhododendron, and the sad rose of sharon we pulled…

My, that front bed is a big area, we said, but we were confident we could fill it. Here we put Magnolia ‘Elizabeth,’ an eclectic mix of azaleas, spirea, mugo pine, Siberian iris, and gallardia. Mexican heather and divisions of allium millenium and liriope variegatum filled empty spaces.

The initial planting. Other perennials and annuals were added, but many loafed on the job and will not be invited back next year.

Further along the front, the bed is shaded by the maple tree. Here we would create a seating area sized to outdoor furniture that Steven had designed and built for us.

Temporary seating only! The soil, already loosened when burning bushes were pulled, needed compost and the bed needed gentle reshaping. We took turns on the single seat, while we cogitated great plantings

We would surround this area with sun-shade lovers: deutzia,  ‘Elf’ mountain laurel, andromeda, rhododendron, Annabelle hydrangea, hosta.

A contorted viburnum Carlesii I’d raised but ignored when it should have been shaped was hidden near the front door in hopes that its fragrance would sweeten our springtime.

The finished seating area created from assorted pavers. In hot dry weather the hose becomes a garden artifact, but it would be practically invisible if I tucked it against pavers or brick

I am galloping too far ahead of my story. Before we go further, I must introduce. . .

Bob the Brick-Laying Hero

We admit to being scroungers. We did a search of the garden and found a couple hundred vintage gray concrete bricks and modern red bricks, many sunk three deep into the edges of old flower beds, barely visible under invading grass.

Pavers, too, emerged from unexpected spots. Buried treasure indeed! We dug and hauled until we had enough piles for Bob the Bricklaying Hero to create his own brand of garden magic.

Makeshift foam pad planted under knees, with patience and experience hard-earned in our former southern garden, Hero Bob methodically began work on a two-brick-high edger.

In this wintry photo a double tier of bricks edges a bed in North Carolina. Bottom brick is the foundation and is flush with ground level

There is usually no need to cement the levels to each other, as they seem to stay in place unless an absent-minded gardener trips over them. A special adhesive is available and is quite reliable as long as bricks are not persistently wet.

Bob the Brick Laying Hero began by creating a level channel at the edge of the front border that Mike the Sod Busting Hero had so carefully cleared.

Deepening and leveling the channel before the brick is laid

The Lady with the Index Finger insisted that the drab-gray concrete bricks should be top layer because they reflected the vintage of the house. Everybody, including Hero Bob, thought this was a wacky idea, but eventually he acquiesced (most likely to keep peace with the Lady) and laid a long measure of drab–grays 

Tacky. Tacky. Tacky. Objections came thick and uninhibited. The pale bricks looked plain wore out. Vintage, schmintage! Garden history, it was decreed, should be hidden underneath modern-day red brick.

With quiet equanimity, Hero Bob, on hands and knees, redid the edging from scratch. He was, pun intended, a brick about the redo.

In fact, in response to the Lady’s now humble suggestions, he created a second level in the bed, this from a surprise discovery of patio stone in the back corner of the yard.

A low stone “wall” within the bed  creates a level terrace to eliminate the slope between front path and lawn

Almost finished bed. Pavers were placed underneath to create a solid base

The stone edger complements these fall bloomers that came with the house and prompted an instant love affair between asters and me


View of bed showing stone upper level and brick lower level that abuts the lawn. Grass is trimmed with a weed whacker when necessary. Stokes aster ‘Peachy’s Pick’ and gallardia ‘Arizona Sun‘ provide mid-summer color

During much of the summer we could find Hero Bob on hands and knees, troweling narrow corridors through soil and leveling brick. Not just brick. He also used the pavers we found to create the shaded front seating area that was pictured above.

The front gable bed, a shady spot for gathering. Brick-and-paver channel for runoff from downspout can be seen in lower left of photo.

Late summer view. The particularly lush look comes from potted plants still waiting for a home

The final pattern for the front bed

The front-bed project turned into a Round-the-house Saga because we could never find a pleasing stopping point. (Kind of like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, without music.) Hero Bob just continued on and on as the days went by.

Of course, he ran out of brick, so this happy no-cost project became a hard-cold-cash project. Since the landscape supply place was only five minutes away, popping over to fill the trunk with 75 bricks at a clip became a routine gardening drill.

We will now stop for an Intermission in our Round-the-House Saga, a little diversion to introduce you to. . . 

The Armillary

In our North Carolina garden the armillary and its base were centered on a nexus of woodland paths and surrounded by white stepping stones, created and poured by Bob, and inlaid with numbers and zodiac signs cut from stained glass. It was a delightful meeting point.

A quiet moment before the senior prom and festivities. Photo by Pamela Hadden

But pure white stepping stones don’t remain pure white under a steady rain of woodland detritus.

Photo by Susan taken in early spring, before final clean-up and bleaching of stones, an annual chore.

Consider that a lesson learned. This time the armillary and its stones would be surrounded by a formal circle of white rock edged in brick and set in the center of the spacious back lawn out from under trees. The stones would spend winters in the garage.

A portable fire pit lay where we wanted to put the armillary, which relieved Sod-Busting Mike from the task of excavating grass. Since we did not envision sitting around a campfire singing kumbaya and eating s’mores any time soon, this was pure serendipity.

The fire pit, centered on the spacious lawn, with little grass around it. The wheelbarrow in the background is another garden artifact

Figuring pleasing proportions of a circular bed in a spacious lawn was not so easy. First time the circle looked dwarfish, like a dot lost in space. Second time, in an expanded bed, the zodiac stepping stones looked like they were floating in space.

After the front bricklaying fiasco, Hero Bob preferred not to lay brick a third time. The Lady scrounged for ideas and uncovered more surplus gray patio stones. An arrangement of these stones would punctuate the sea of white rock, and maybe add some subtle interest.

The ever present chair and wheelbarrow!

Once we were happy with proportions, Hero Bob leveled and smoothed the bed and laid a double tier of bricks.  Ground cloth was then put down, followed by stepping stones and finally washed stone

Finished at last.

The circle stayed reasonably tidy even through fall, as there were no trees nearby and leaves tended to blow away.

A closer look at one of the three zodiac stones. The other five stones are roman numerals

The most formal focal point in our garden, highlighting a handsome background of trees and shrubs

The North Side of the House

Now it was time for Hero Bob to return to the Round-the-House Saga, rounding the corner from front to side bed, adding flourishes to the flow and creating yet another garden bed more generous than expected. He was not fooling around this time.

The wide curvaceous bed, fall photo taken after most plants have gone to sleep. Note brick and paver outflow from drain gutter

Before we go any further, let’s take a step back and look at early spring preparations for this bed..

Brandon the excavator and his mechanical dragon had dumped a generous pile of top soil here that had to be spread before any bricks were laid.

The pile seemed monstrous at the time, but once raked out, it became a thick layer of great soil that did not require ground cloth to prevent weeds except under the eaves.

Now, every good gardener knows you should carefully record shifting pockets of sun and shade over time. But it is northern cold up here in winter, so I stuck my head out the door  when the spirit moved me and observed.

No surprise, the north side of the house seemed to be in perpetual shade. I saw just what I expected to see.

What fun! I could plant the usual shady characters here, plants that had complained in our North Carolina garden: tiarella, lamium, heuchera, foxglove, brunnera, bleeding heart. 

Surprise! Come springtime, I noticed a luminous  glow sliding over the bed from the east. Eastern sun, quite the bonus, I thought, rather smugly.

I smiled too soon. Later in the day, harsh bright light pushed in from the west. A generous chunk of this shady bed was sunny for several hours each day. Oops!

Deep dark shade close to the house vs full hot sun further away, an interesting and unexpected contrast

Fortunately, moisture-holding top soil compensated for my mistakes in siting. Back to the drawing board next spring.

An early fall view of the side bed, plants surprisingly tolerant of the extremes of exposure. With almost two weeks of 90 degree temps with little or no rain during summer, the hose became another artifact in the garden, like the wheelbarrow

Jeff the Handy Man Hero

There is a lovely stone patio at the back of the house. Until we pulled up the fence and arborvitae privatizing it on one side, we did not realize that an uncomfortable slope between lawn and patio had to be resolved if we wanted full access to the patio.

Removing large shrubs and a stockade fence from this area created the need for path and landscaping

Ten or fifteen years ago we would have tackled a project like this with gusto. Now, we mostly thought about what should be done. But who could we ask to take on this project?

Jeff, the Handyman Hero, who paints houses and builds rooms and bookshelves and finishes furniture and fixes sinks, that’s who. He is, above all, very good at improvising. 

Having, thankfully, been released from doing actual work we now could spend our time discussing, measuring, discussing, measuring, and, for good measure, discussing and measuring again. And, best of all, watching.

Discussions terminated, Hero Jeff figured the materials, purchased them, and hauled four by four pressure treated posts from the back yard to use as stabilizers along the sides of the path.

The path area and the rock adjacent to it. The dark strips in the foreground are called “beasts,” a term for heavy plastic strips designed to hold stone and rock in place

Somehow Hero Jeff managed to sort the stones into a pleasing pattern that worked the first time without a lot of discussing and measuring.

The finished path with a four by four pressure treated step created from our garden cache. After weathering, the step will be stained to blend with the stone

This is a sunny area, so we planted spigelia, monarda, coreopsis, cosmos, grape tomatoes, lavender, nasturtium and maiden pinks.

Plants thrived in the existing soil with helpings of top soil

This is the first time I have gardened with a winning combination of good soil,  moist but well drained, stolen from mountains pulverized by glaciers, under days of full sun that kept plants blooming. 

Feet can be the best tools. Setting the beast in place to create a pleasing junction between stone, rock and mulch. Ace Hardware should give us credit for featuring their wheelbarrows in our garden

At last, a finished piece of the backyard. Well, sort of . . .

We dug a couple of boxwoods, held them in pots for much of the summer, for planting here. Crazy green nasturtium, center right, grows in the rich soil but does not bloom. An old panicle hydrangea blooms in the background

Another view. The tall shrub is European Snowball, or Guelder Rose,, (viburnum opulus) that came with the garden. Later in the season we cut it back severely because of persistent insect damage to the leaves. We have high hopes for next spring

Meanwhile Bob the Bricklaying Hero has been slowly working his way around the flower borders.

Preparing the edge for brick that will meet the still unfinished path

Adding Spice to the House

No matter that we were going full swing on our Round-the-Garden Saga. That did not stop us from starting yet another project. Why not add some visual interest to the house, too? Let’s give people something to look at as they drive by our corner or walk their dogs.

Yellow! That was the color we chose for the three gables, bright yellow with hints of earthtones in the paint mix — this choice after countless trips to the hardware store for paint swatches and unlimited hours of discussion and hand-wringing before, and especially after we saw the bright first coat. Were we becoming a circus house?

Hero Jeff painting the gable on the south end of the house

In the middle of our most crushing hand-wringing episodes, a couple we’d never met happened to be out for a stroll (and they didn’t even have a dog). They made a point of stopping to tell us they really liked the new color. That cinched it. We asked Hero Jeff  to paint the second coat.

Hero Jeff also painted the window frames and garage door black and added black shutters, simple fixes that did not break the bank. (Especially since he gave us three sets of shutters he had in storage.)

Paint job and shutters on the front gable in a late fall picture

Black trim against the new beds, early fall

It’s pretty tricky adding shutters to windows on a brick house. Question: How do you attach plastic shutters to brick? Answer: By gluing strips of wood to the brick and drilling holes in the shutters, then screwing the shutters to the wood.

It’s even more of a mindbender when the plastic shutters expand and bow out from brick that heats up in blazing afternoon sun. Hero Jeff improvised by enlarging the holes in the shutters to allow for expansion. The fix worked.

Stone Grubber and Dirt Digger Heroes

I never thought I’d call our children and spouses Heroes, but Heroes they are.

There was a hazy sort of project planned for the back. It was possibly the most involved and the most necessary, and that is probably why it remained hazy for a good part of the season.

During summer afternoons the sun blazes across the patio and we wear caps and dark glasses and huddle beneath umbrellas and pretend to enjoy the ambience while we squint at each other and play musical chairs in time to the sun’s dance.

Happy hour? Nope. Moving day to escape bright summer sun

We needed plants, big ones, even a tree, to defuse the light, and we needed to get them in quickly if we were going to see results we could enjoy.

For a change, my lust for plants turned out to be a blessing, particularly those viburnums I’d bought earlier in the season at chunky prices because they looked so healthy, and the big aronia Susan had found for me.

Viburnums in pots, displaced during most of the summer, would finally have a home

That sunny spread south of the patio would be just the home for them, a home for native shrubs and perennials jostling like good friends and attracting all sorts of birds.

Part of their proposed home, looking pretty reasonable except the homeland extends to the end of the house. Nothing halfway about this project

But what a rooty home! Part of the area was already cleared because we’d pulled up some large shrubs that would have needed constant manicuring.

We found good soil under the mammoth shrubs we removed  — and no grass!

But otherwise, this was the healthiest patch of turf on the property, with iron roots that stretched out forever. Hero Jeff tried to rototill the grass, but the machine bounced off the sod and bounced back up at him.

Hero Bob tried cutting out squares of grass and pulling out rock and weeds, a job for the ages. Squares of cardboard only stalled the rangy growth instead of smothering it. There seemed no beating this tough, wiry grass that intended to defend its stake in the yard.

The Lady finally used her Index Finger to Roundup the stubborn patch. Yes, I confess to succumbing to the pre-mixed formula strategically positioned on an impulse-buy display in the hardware store. Shame on me, but I am too old to spend forever in a battle over grass that I would lose anyway.

Now we could think about the final shape of the bed and possible paths.

Tentative shape showing full expanse

Paths through the area evolved after the usual exorbitant number of hours of discussion. One proposed (ugly and awkward) path, below,  took us from garage door to patio.

The dark circle indicates a tree. We used black spray paint to define areas only because we did not have white paint

We nixed this one without discussion. A stone path from garage to patio already existed! But we did decide on two other paths: a short one from the patio to the backyard, and a longer one from the garage to the backyard.

Short path edged with the beast goes directly from patio to backyard. Stones will be sunk into rock when we get around to it

Graceful and satisfactory, the path below curves out from the garage to the back yard.

Hero Bob has raked and shaped it and will edge it with the beast. We’ll use “borrowed” stepping stones from Steven and Lisa to complete it next season

Now it was time for our Family Heroes, the stone-grubbers and dirt-diggers to arrive for a working weekend.

Stone Grubbing Heroes Susan and Lisa work at removing weedy stones from around the patio

Meanwhile Dirt Digging Heroes Ellen and Steven are digging holes for plants.

Deciding where these shrubs should be placed needed careful thought, since they would eventually grow tall and bushy, and we did not want them to block views of the garden beyond.

Hey, these two Heroes are having too good a time

It probably helps that we fed them well.

We soaked the plants before filling the superb holes dug by these heroes.

There is just one more hero left to thank.

Susan the Steadfast Hero

She is always there. Answering questions, making suggestions, ferrying me to nurseries. After gardening in New Hampshire for twenty or more years she knows what works and what does not.

In her Garden

She has experimented and won and lost. She gives me the benefit of these long years of experience, unstintingly. She sees the big picture but she is practical about details. She reins me in and she spurs me on. Her quick mind sees possibilities where I have not noticed.

Exploring leaf texture at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris

She is quick at digging and planting, and weeding, too. And willing! That counts for something, doesn’t it?

Oh, and she’s made a list of plants from her garden that she will give me next spring. What more could a gardener want? 

Waiting for mom to catch up during a garden visit on the go

For all this and more, I thank you, Hero Susan.

And a hearty thanks to our sod-busting, brick-laying, stone-grubbing, dirt-digging and general all-round pitching-in heroes

The days grow cooler. Work is done for the season. Next spring will bring more challenges.

The tale is not finished, but we have enjoyed the first chapters.

And now, as we look out at piles of snow, we are waiting for the land to shift from monochrome to kodachrome.

Our yellow gable becomes a singing canary on gray days

PS The back bed still looks good after emerging from several inches of snow

Posted in Armillary as a Feature, Brick edgers, Building stone path, Creating a Garden, garden maintenance, New Hampshire garden, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Snapshots from a New Hampshire Garden: Part II

True Confessions of a Plantaholic

Can anyone spare a dime (or more, on account of inflation) for a new pair of garden shoes? I spent all my money on plants.

For years I’ve kept my addiction to plants, if not under wraps, then moderately in check. I bet anyone who has read my blog posts would never suspect I had this weakness. I bet even my closest friends don’t know.

Now, standing in a garden still new to me, I was like the cliched kid in a candy shop. This much I knew: Here was good, gritty mountain soil, moist but well drained and enriched with years of mulching. Lots of sun, with neat pockets of shade. An ocean of green. A big pile of compost in the back (who gets that lucky?). And a climate that does not roast plants (though it might freeze them to death in winter).

What experiments I could try! What perennials I could grow! Shrubs to attract wildlife! Wildflowers! Maybe even a vegetable or two! And lots of nurseries to indulge me. I immediately slid off any wagon I might have casually considered jumping on.

A good friend sent me this cartoon. Could she have guessed?

In my defense, I have a lot of enablers. Specifically, our children who gave me gift cards and promised help and plants from their gardens, some of which had multiplied from plants I had given them. How could I turn my back on such good will? I certainly didn’t want to disappoint anyone.

And there was even more money in the pot because I was done paying home heating bills for a while. 

Confidentially, I love neat and orderly, but somehow I wind up with spangle. While I enjoy the clean lines, the order and the simplicity of our new garden, I just had to liven things up a bit, don’t you think? Everyone agreed with me and even promised help (more enabling).

This time there would be no higgledy-piggledy scattershot activities, though. There would be control. Everything would be dutifully recorded in a little red notebook. (Well, you know how those resolutions go. . . Still, I did fairly well. . .

The plant-tag hodge podge, a lot of tags, but –sigh– not all of them

At the end of the season, people began asking how many plants I(we) planted. I was stunned. Were people beginning to suspect something?

Impossible! How could they? Just to show everyone that I am not a plant cuckoo, I have listed below my new plants, where they came from, and, for anyone who is interested, totals, too.

Caution: Unless you are a plant cuckoo  (which I am not) you will find the next section very boring and can just skip to the totals below.

 Some Plants I Dug from our Southern Garden

The prospective buyers of our house looked around our late summer jungle and said, Sure, dig up whatever you want. (They were probably thinking, Less for us to machete. They had already mentioned thinning.)

How could I resist? Favorites, many I could have easily found up here, were hastily dug and shoehorned, unlabeled, into pots. Steven packed them into his car (not big enough) for the trip to Connecticut, then transferred them into Susan’s car for  overwintering in pots or in the ground here. (I wish now I had been less practical and more over-eager. I’m sure they would disagree!)

Shrubs: Quince ‘Crimson and Gold’, Patsy’s Weigela (outstanding cutting from a Master Gardener that I could never ID properly), Sinocalycanthus, Viburnum Carlesii (2),  Pink Carpet Rose, Deutzias gracilis, ‘Chardonnay Pearls,’ and radicans, St. Johnswort, Pink Flowering Almond, Spireas ‘Gold Flame,’ Bridal wreath and ‘Shibori,’ Viburnum mariesii (gift from friends who grew it from a cutting taken from a plant I had grown from a cutting and given to them), Korean boxwood (2), Leucosceptrum stellipilum ‘October Moon’ (Japanese Shrub Mint), Clethra ‘Hummingbird,’ Hydrangeas, dwarf paniculata, Tuff Stuff,’ ‘Annabelle,’ (Joke’s on me. Annabelle is tough to grow well in eastern NC. I babied my cuttings for years, then discovered scads of plants from seed in the New Hampshire garden,)  

Perennials: A dozen or more daylilies, a few hosta, peonies(2), amsonia, lenten rose (2), phlox, autumn fern, boltonia, liriope variegata, Joe Pye Weed, and a few others, nameless, tucked into assorted, already stuffed pots.

Slide Show of Plants from our Southern Garden

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Lisa and Steven’s Garden in Connecticut

Lisa and Steven are two of the enablers. Over the years we’ve had fun watching their garden grow into a lovely natural oasis for wildlife, some of whom often feel a little too much at home. We have given them plants from cuttings grown in our garden, multipliers of which they are giving back to us, along with some that I couldn’t grow in the south. They’ve invited us to raid their garden any time.

Shrubs: Deutzia radicans (2), dwarf lilac from runners (2), pink spirea

Perennials: bleeding heart, rudbeckia, rose campion, dragons blood sedum, white potentilla, penstemon ‘Husker’s Red,’(2) perilla, persicaria, purple butterflyweed (2), lady’s mantle, autumn joy sedum

Slide Show of Lisa and Steven’s Garden

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I want a colorful natural garden like Lisa and Steven’s.

In fact, what could be more colorful than this lovely mound of chrysanthemums?

Susan and Mike’s Garden in New Hampshire

Another pair of enablers. They have an extensive collection of plants spilling over a large hillside garden. Susan may have inherited her weakness for plants from her mother. She is my garden guru and my most consistent enabler, ferrying me from nursery to nursery because, from experience, she knows them all so well.

There is precedence for our plant shopping together dating back many years,, Candid photo taken in North Carolina by Mike

The contributions from their garden look low because Susan is holding back temporarily, not wanting to overwhelm me with her planned avalanche. The promised plants will come in 2023 so are not counted in this list.

Shrubs and Vines: Viburnum ‘Michael Dodd,’ apricot shrub roses (2), Sweet Autumn Clematis, Aronia.

Perennials: a dozen or so columbines, Ironweed ‘Iron Butterflies’(2), several Missouri sundrops, 15 or so allium ‘Millenium’.

Also, milkweed, butterflyweed and columbine seeds. These are not counted, since they are only hopefuls.

Slide Show of Susan and Mike’s Garden

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I want a summer garden like Susan and Mike’s.

Marie’s Garden in Massachusetts

Susan and Marie have been friends for a long time. When you spend some time in Marie’s shade garden you step away from the busy world and into a quiet woodland glen. Not simply a collection of hostas and ferns, this garden is years in the making, spacious and serene, with a natural mix of plants under native trees.

It’s a garden that invites lingering and learning, for Marie has a comfortable seating area and dedicated nursery beds for special plants. She gave me 5 pretty yellow hosta with green bands and generously promised more of whatever I would like.

Slide Show of Marie’s Garden

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I want a shade garden like Marie’s. (Except — woodland plants, with no graceful tree cover, set against the brick wall of our house for shade? The vibes don’t seem to jibe. But there’s the challenge.)

A Lovely Private Garden in New Hampshire

Open by invitation, the owner was hard at work in her garden when Susan and I visited, though she was happy to linger and talk with us. This immaculate garden rambles over a few acres, with lovely vistas and great varieties of plants. It has the feel of an arboretum.

Large truckloads of mulch were being brought in and spread during our two or more hours there, browsing and digging up plants to take with us. Yes, digging! Our hostess had generously supplied us with trowels and plastic bags and told us to go for it.

I am proud to report I took only four small plants that will surprise us next spring.

Slide Show of Garden

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I want a garden  like an arboretum, with vistas and fine shrubs.

Scenic Nursery in Raymond NH

A lovely nursery in a scenic rural area with reasonable prices. It’s a great place to browse.

Shrubs: Weigela ‘Minuet,’ Serviceberry ‘Autumn Brilliance’ 

Perennials: Maiden pink ‘Brilliant,’ Unlabeled fern that spreads, Salvia ‘May Night,’ Lamium ‘Herman’s Pride,’ Bee Balm ‘Marshall’s Delight,’ Coreopsis ‘Jethro Tull,’ Mullein ‘Temptress Purple,’ and Lavender.

Bee Balm ,Marshall’s Delight Photo by Alan Silvester

Devreindt Farm in Goffstown NH

A farmstand beyond all farmstands, with an array of vegetables, annuals, perennials, and a wide range of shrubs and trees, and great ice cream cones, too.

Shrubs: Weigela ‘Red Prince’ (I think, I can’t find the tag), Hydrangea ‘Little Quick Fire,’ (impulse buys, what isn’t?)

Perennials and Annuals: Yellow Siberian Iris, Yellow chrysanthemums (3), six packs of the following: Shasta Daisy ‘Crazy Daisy,’ Dwarf Sweet William, Dahlia ‘Fresco Mix,’ Gallardia ‘Arizona Sun’ and ‘Arizona Apricot,’ Lupine Mix, Red Columbine, Nicotiana, mixed (mostly yellow)

Weigela ‘Red Prince,’ Photo from Missouri Botanical Garden

Audubon Center in Concord NH

It’s always fun to visit an Audubon Center and even more fun when Bagley Pond Perennials, a propagator of natives, is holding a plant sale there.

Native Perennials: Tiarella (3), blue flag iris, yellow coneflower (Ratbiden pinatta), Slender mountain mint and clustered mountain mint, Smooth blue aster, Golden alexander

Native columbine seeds jumped into my pockets, too, not counted.

Golden Alexander, Zizia aureus, Photo from Ancient Roots Native Nursery

Sisters Plant Sale in Reading MA

This is an annual spring event put together by volunteers, with proceeds going to charity. Of all our nursery visits, this was a true kid-in-a-candy-shop event. My kind of prices, downright reasonable, wide selection so I could think about experimenting. I broke the bank.

Shrubs and Vines: Chinese wisteria, purple, (I know it’s thug, but what fun in springtime) Golden Rain tree, Viburnum tomentosum, Kerria ‘Easter Rose,’ Clematis virginiana (Virgin’s Bower)

Perennials: Jack in the Pulpit, Geranium ‘Karmina,’ Heuchera hybrid, Achillea ‘Cerise Queen,’ Stachys, Phlox ‘Jeana,’ Anemone virginiana (tall thimbeweed), Ostrich fern, Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Kline,’ Clustered bellflower, Virginia Mountain mint, Hellebore ‘Tropical Sunset,’ ‘Wedding Crasher,’ ‘French Kiss,’ all in the Honeymoon series,  Brunnera macrophylla, Astilbes ‘Vision in Pink,’ ‘Montgomery,’ and ‘Deft,’ Euphorbia, Iris x robusta ‘Gerald Darby,’ Trillium erecta,

Anemone virginiana, Tall Thimbleweed. Photo from Missouri Botanical Garden

Mason Hollow Nursery in Mason NH

A wonderful nursery for hostas and other interesting plants, reasonably priced and well grown. The owners are extraordinarily knowledgeable and have a large following of fans. They are also stewards of the environment.

Young woodies: Clethra Rosea, Spice Bush, Hepticodium, Redbud ‘Pink Pearl’, Fringe Tree

Perennials: Spigelia ‘Little Redhead’, three Cimicifugas, ‘Pink Spike,’ ‘Shade Runner,’ and ‘Rubifolia,’ Northern Maidenhair and Jurassic Gold ferns, Baptisia ‘Lemon Meringue,’ Glaucidium, Hylomecum japonicum, Disporum, Aruncus dioicus

Fringe Tree. Photo from our southern garden, where we were lucky enough to have both a male and female that produced berries that birds feasted on

Frizzhome Gardens in Bedford NH

Rows and rows of perennials, annuals and vegetables on long tables, a wonderful variety that I have just begun to tap.

Perennials: Betony ‘Hummolo,’ Stokes Aster, ‘Peachies Pick,’ Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum ‘Luna’),

Annual: Mexican Heather, 2 four-packs)

Betony ‘Hummelo’

Rolling Green in Greenland NH

A fine nursery further north than most we visited with high quality plants and prices to match. I purchased a beautiful magnolia with yellow blooms, reduced because it was a holdover from last season. I could not consider other plants because there was little room left in the car and the plant budget for the day had already been exceeded.

Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ introduced in 1937 . Photo from Missouri Botanical Garden

Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland, MA

Luscious nursery with a wide variety of plants, all well grown, like spending time in a botanical garden. Not inexpensive but I had a generous gift card and didn’t mind adding some

Shrubs: Spirea ‘Glow Girl,’ Azalea ‘Linda Stuart’ (3), Pieris ‘Red Mill’ (2), Viburnums ‘Brandywine’, ‘Winterthur,’ ‘Mariesii,’ ‘Burkwoodii.’ Kalmia ‘Elf’ (2), Dwarf chokecherry (Aronia ‘Low Scape Mound’)

Burkwood Viburnum coming into bloom. Photo from Michigan Bulb Co

Black Forest Nursery in Boscawen NH

Considered one of the top ten nurseries in the state with a wide variety of interesting plants. We went later in the season and took advantage of some nice sales

Shrubs: Andromeda ‘Mountain King,’ Aralia ‘Sun King’

Perennial: Lavender ‘Dilly Dilly’ 

Aralia ‘Sun King’ looks tame here but will outgrow the allotted space  quickly. Photo from Missouri Botanical Garden

Stratham Nursery in Stratham NH

A pleasant nursery with good sales later in the summer

Shrubs: Rose ‘Red Drift’ (2)

Red Drift Roses. Photo from UK Nurseries

Home Depot in Manchester NH

A nice selection and good sales, especially end-of-season bulbs

Shrubs: Scotch Broom ‘Pomona,’  and an azalea I later learned was a relative of southern-grown gumpo azaleas, so I gave it to Lisa and Steven, a zone warmer in Connecticut (not included in the count) 

Perennials: Liriope ‘variegata,’ Salvia ‘Carodonna,’ (3 plants in a big pot that I divided and planted separately, does that count as one or three?)

Salvia ‘Carodonna,’ a tall, sturdy, showy salvia that will rebloom if cut back. Photo from Missouri Botanical Garden

West Manchester High School, Manchester, NH

We came to their sale to support the horticultural program that teaches students the basics of propagation and caring for seedlings.

Annuals and Vegetables: Three-packs each of Cosmos, Grape Tomatoes, Nasturtium, Green Beans

What a joy these cosmos were late in the season, attracting bees and dancing in breezes, not flopping, as they did in my southern garden. Nasturtium peeks from behind but our soil is too rich for this plant, so mounds of leaves outrace scant blooms

Hannaford Supermarket, Pinardville, NH

An impulse buy:  The lovely label on Clematis ‘Pink Fantasy’  reminded me of my ‘Nelly Moser’ vining over azaleas in our southern garden. The jury is still out on how satisfactory the color of the blooms will be.

Clematis ‘Nelly Moser’ against azalea ‘Fashion’ in North Carolina

Ocean State Job Lots in Hooksett and Stratham NH

A big box store with great bargains on seasonal plants and bulbs

Perennials: Five purple and bright pink asters

The display of asters on the shelves was irresistible, and when they brightened our raw garden I became a true  fan of this reliable and much loved plant

Lowe’s in Manchester NH

Some good sales midseason.

Shrubs: Azalea ‘Golden Lights,’ Mugo pine,

Azalea ‘Golden Lights,’ deciduous, a member of the Northern Lights series. Photo from Michigan Bulb Company

Ace Hardware in Goffstown NH

For a local hardware store, Ace carries an extensive and interesting offering of plants

Shrub: White rhododendron ‘Cunningham’

Annuals: six-pack of red geraniums that made a splash this summer

Rhododendron ‘Cunningham White’. Photo from UK Nurseries.


I must count the bulbs we planted, too

Daffodils: 160
Allium: 35
Hyacinths: 12
Iris reticulata: 25
Tulips: 125
(Sadly, only after the soil had frozen did I discover half a dozen daffs that I missed, well camouflaged by soil and mulch. Now they are covered by snow. We shall call that our little experiment.)

The Tally

Trees, Shrubs and Vines:  70
Perennials:  175
Annuals and Vegetables:  44
Bulbs: 357

The grand Total: 646

Note: I did not count any seeds collected and dispersed, nor those still languishing in an assortment of containers. Nor did I count plants that we moved from their original garden locations, a job that is not yet complete.

Now, you are probably wondering where in the world could we put all those plants we brought into our garden. Which  ones are thriving? Which ones hit the ground and never rose again? Which ones haven’t yet made up their minds whether they like it here?

Well, all that is a story for another day.

Posted in Nurseries in New Hampshire, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Snapshots from our New Hampshire Garden Part I

The Privet and the Maple

I once said that I would never live in a ranch house or a red brick house, and I would never have a garden with a Norway maple or a privet hedge or a big lawn. I should learn to restrain myself.

We are currently known as the people who live in the brick ranch on the corner. We have a Norway maple and a privet hedge in the front yard and a great lawn in the back yard, and, as people say these days, it’s all good.

Our ranch on the corner backed by trees in neighboring yards, privet and maples to the right are just out of view

Here is how it happened. We were not planning to relocate and it never occurred to us that we were aging. Daughter Susan and husband Mike in New Hampshire, a little more forward-thinking, suggested, delicately, that we might prefer not to be living so far from relatives in a semi-remote area of North Carolina and might like to try snowy New Hampshire.

We said yes, you are probably right. (Even the snowy part sounded somewhat romantic because we could take a reprieve from interminable chopping and weeding necessary in a southern garden.)

But we would need space because we are not ready to part with our life stories (clutter). And we would need room for a wood shop. And we don’t want to give up gardening. And, if possible, could you find something on or near a lake (New Hampshire has a lot of lakes, doesn’t it?). For not too much money.

That is a tall order, they said, but we will try.

Two days later they called to say they had found a recently renovated, well groomed, mid-twentieth-century house only ten minutes from their home. It had ample living space and a full basement (for wood shop and library). It was on a half-acre-plus lot, across the street from a lake and a mile from a quintessential New England town with a river running through it and a well stocked old-time grocery store and a delicious hardware store and a century old library, also well stocked, with columns and a grand entry.

Slide show of the lake, which was the site of July 4th festivities

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Yes, the lake is lovely, but the house was a red brick ranch with not one but two Norway maple trees and a six-foot-tall privet hedge and lots of burning bushes and a huge rolling lawn.

Isn’t there anything else around, say, with more of a New England flavor? My second-guess internet searches turned up quaint colonials that begged for rose-pink ramblers embracing the front door, but, oh my, what fixer-uppers they were, on wooded hillsides that would keep us snowbound all winter. Not so romantic.

So we came back to reality. Apparently there were a lot of other people who were not concerned about red brick clashing with pink roses, or  maples and privets in the garden. We jumped smack into a fierce bidding war. Like big-time brokers we fielded numbers climbing at warp speed. On property we’d only seen through real estate photos! Were we turning dotty in our golden years?

Not at all, said our children, four of them, with equally enthusiastic spouses, who had checked out the house for us and were already comfortable in a society that tosses big numbers around like confetti. They desperately wanted to see more of us without having to caravan south and seemed not especially concerned with pink roses languishing against red brick, or Norway maples and tall privet hedges, or globes of burning bushes.

Meanwhile, to ease the transition, Susan compiled a bible with pages of phone numbers, from neighbors to doctors to contractors to local nurseries (hat page is already dog-eared) and transformed our front entry into an autumn welcome center.

Note the boxwood and burning bush backdrop against the brick

So we settled in during a 2021 New England November whose gray clouds kept us focused on re-arranging our life stories inside this brick house which turned out to be winter-snug and cozy. Lovely, because my heart was not quite ready to give up our former garden to tackle a new one.

Our southern garden of thirty-five years had been made and remade in meandery response to tropical storms and changing climate and our personal whims. It was a garden chock full of plants that toppled through life, elbowing each other, with woodland paths and surprises around corners and hot pink roses and just enough grass to service our septic system.

It was a garden that seemed on the verge of bursting out of bounds, reined in imperfectly by a gardener who liked growing more than taming. By a curious gardener who luxuriated in a leisurely work-in-progress that spanned decades.

In this garden of surprises there was no privet or maple, though occasional seeds from burning bush berries plopped by birds would grow into graceful, almost balletic understory trees, short-lived because they were too polite, or exhausted, to compete with rowdies in heat and humidity.

Slide show of our last autumn in North Carolina

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On the other hand, our New Hampshire garden is orderly and spacious. There is a classic feel to it. Magnificent trees like a Norway spruce with graceful boughs and an ancient green ash and a perfect hemlock speak of age and cycles and death. Handsome old shrubs and small trees hug the periphery of an expansive lawn, and mature trees on neighboring properties enhance the landscape.

Plants don’t bump up against other plants, or hang over them like drunken sailors. The orderly design has a European flair, and I find that gazing across our spacious lawn produces far less sweat in mid-summer than machete-ing a jungle.

Slide show of our New Hampshire garden

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But this garden was not ours, and we did not have the luxury of decades to fine-tune it.

Off with their heads, out with their roots, I cried like Alice’s wacky Queen of Hearts. The order included 18 or 20 globes of burning bushes, arborvitae that blocked windows, assorted large shrubs that required regular, thoughtful shaping (that kind of pruning is not in our horticultural repertoire), and, of course, the privets and the Norway maples.

It would be the first time we paid for garden work that was not related to hurricane damage, and the first time Ranger wasn’t on hauling detail, having been left in good automotive hands in North Carolina.

Brandon from the bible was anxious to try out a brand new scoop with a mean dinosaur claw that could, in the hands of a skilled operator, excavate shrubs and tear out fences (a last-minute request) and smooth out disturbed ground with equal dexterity.

Slide Show of the Mighty Excavator

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But at the end of the day, there was no time for pulling privet or maples and no space in the big pickup truck for their remains. Anyway, the maples were too big and needed to be taken down by an arborist.

 When we were young marrieds and living in suburbia, our house featured a sweeping front lawn with Norway maples planted by the town for beautification and shade. These were tough street trees (as we called them), planted because they survived.

Late winter they were leafless and twiggy and, unless frosted by storm, not very appealing

Maple and privet photogenic during an ice storm

When Boisvert Brothers took trees down across the street from us, we were so impressed with their work we hired them to do in the maples.

Logs from hundred year old trees were hauled to the road from over the house across the street

I thought the company name, which means green woods, was an especially clever choice, until I learned that there really is a long line of Boisverts in the forest industry, descendants of French immigrants that settled here generations ago.

And then a funny thing happened a few days before the take-down. The trees leafed out and showcased a display of knock-your-socks off crimson wine that became stars in the early spring garden.

Maples bloom in spring fronted by privet that has leafed out

(Note for Botanical Latin Lovers: The variety of Norway maple, Acer platanoides ‘Schwedleri,’ in our garden has been around since mid-19th century. Its leaves emerge crimson and turn dark green in summer. ‘Schwedleri’ is the parent of the popular ‘Crimson King,’ introduced mid-twentieth century, whose leaves remain crimson all season.)

The old Queen took a step back. But we don’t need two! she asserted. We’ll keep the larger maple in front of the house. 

Taking down the maple

Which turned out to be a lucky call. That maple has benevolently shaded us during languid summer afternoons, before it turned to gold in the fall.

Old gold in autumn with the neighbor’s burning bush behind the fence in the background

The six-foot-and-growing privet still goes out, the baleful Queen added. No reprieve.

And then another funny thing happened a scant twenty-four hours before Brandon was scheduled a second time to excavate privet. I was browsing Google earth photos that showed our fifties ranch with the young maples and privets. I studied the picture for a while and I had an epiphany of sorts.

Our jaunty mailbox backed by now overgrown privet (Ligustrum amurensis)

We were living in one of the last great examples of mid-century gardening history! People planted maples and privet hedges regularly in front of their houses then.

When I was growing up I can remember parading around with pollynoses from maples stuck on my nose. (Technically these seed-bearing wings are called samaras, but pollynoses are far more fun, unless you happen to be raking zillions from a lawn.)

And sometimes, in the background, I could hear the sharp snap of heavy shears as my father rhythmically clipped the privet hedge near the sidewalk. No power tools in those days.

This minimalist brick ranch was in vogue then, too. Maples and privets once had their place in time, as did our brick ranch, and they belonged together. The Queen retreated. The privet will stay, she said, but cut down to a manageable height.

And so we would preserve this sliver of gardening history. But not quite yet.

Blue jays, who cared nothing for the Queen’s commands, were meanwhile building a nest high in the hedge, with plans to spend most of the summer raising a family there. The trimming would have to wait.

But we were ready now to make a plan of sorts and create a garden that would build on the history of the land and become a piece of our gardening history, too..

Nothing can top the autumn glow of trees in New England


Posted in New Hampshire garden, Norway Maple, Privet Hedge, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Gork, A Special Blue Jay

How a Baby Bird Stole our Hearts


It is not every day that a ball of fluff enters your heart and takes you by the hand and leads you into a world you could not possibly have imagined. This is a diary about a baby blue jay we rescued, and how we as a family, six of us, raised this young nestling to adulthood.

Along the way, there were adventures that threatened our adopted charge — and gave us a goodly share of anxiety.  As a bonus, we got to meet first-hand the lively gang of young and old blue jays living in oak woods that framed our first garden.

That was 50 years ago in a brand new suburb of Long Island. Its backyard featured a lawn big enough for hit-or-miss badminton games and, behind that, a scruffy area with an old jungle gym and piles of  cast-off leaves that eventually gave us rich compost and earthworms.

Native and non-native shrubs and trees were clustered in groups along the property line. They offered comfortable perches for newly fledged birds, and safe hideaways for them to view the great world beyond the nest, and spots for afternoon naps, too. Berries and seeds came along in season.

But the real action that summer took place on our back porch. Once Gork began exploring our world, other birds soon learned there was easy feeding here. Our big round redwood table, summer anchor for peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich lunches and family cookouts, became an exclusive, unruly banquet for birds.

Susan and Philip, six-year-old twins, left and center right, waiting for lunch with playmates Maureen and Andrew

The memories of that golden summer half a century past had long since slipped into mists.  Serendipitously, as we packed  for a recent move, we found my diary and some old photos of those days stashed in the bottom of a box in our attic.  

As I read my entries, I began to relive the discoveries we made as a family: the caring, the worries, the suspense, the laughter, and the final twist.  And so I am sharing with you this small tribute to a plucky survivor. 

The story begins on Sunday, July 8, 1973.

1. The Rescue

The jay had been squawking for over an hour. It was, otherwise, a summer Sunday like any other. The kids were making the rounds of the neighborhood with friends. We were at peace, puttering, loafing.

Except for that incessant squawking. Was there a cat around? Vaguely we wondered where the neighbors’ cats were hiding. Half-heartedly we checked the grounds, but finding none in their usual nooks we chalked the squawks up to ill temper.

Only after the jay stopped did we pay attention. The sudden sharp absence of noise and a call to us from our nine-year-old son, Steven, to come see what he had found under a bush got us moving.

There, half-hidden in the underbrush was a bundle of fluff smaller than a tennis ball, clear-eyed, unafraid, right wing drooping. He made no move to run but gazed on us with frank interest. Only when we tried to catch him did he prove fleet of foot, if not of wing.

He dashed through the bushes, instinct apparently telling him that a precarious freedom was more desirable than capture by Big People. It was about the only instinct he seemed to possess at that point, for later events would show that he was unafraid of cats.

When he tried to fly, he didn’t stay up for long. His tail was no more than a stick, and no matter how he tried to flap his wings, he would thud to the ground. After a chase in and around shrubbery, we captured him, a bit rudely, with a small pail and a cover.

A ball of feathers

We tried to put him on the branch of an oak tree, a few feet up from the ground, thinking his parents could find him there. But we couldn’t manage to get him balanced enough to perch properly. Perhaps that droopy wing was causing trouble, or maybe he didn’t yet know what was expected of him as a bird.

He held on tentatively, but when we let go, he swayed, swung round the branch and, for a brief moment, hung upside down like a bat, observing us with those innocent, appealing eyes.

We couldn’t help but laugh at his absurd position before he floated gently to the ground. He ran a bit, but he was tired by now and had lost some of his spunk. It was easy to catch him a second time. Gingerly we cupped our hands around him and carried him to an empty rabbit cage set on a wood and wire mesh bench.

Tiny but unafraid

He did not resist when we placed him in the cage with a dish of water. Judging by his immaturity, we assumed he had fallen or been elbowed out of the nest a few days before he was due to leave.

Again, he looked at each of us with frank curiosity, innocent, completely devoid of fear. We found that by touching his breast he would climb onto our fingers and could perch there if we gently clamped his claws with a thumb to help him balance. We marveled that this wild creature should accept us so readily.

We had no idea that this bird would enter our lives and steal our hearts so completely.

We moistened dog food and put it in the cage. This is probably less palatable to a baby jay than cherries or grapes or bugs or sunflower seeds, but it is nutritionally complete and it fills the tummy. Since we occasionally cared for animals from a nearby environmental center, we kept a supply of dry dog food in the pantry.

We assumed he would feed himself, but when he did not touch the food, we guessed he was still too young to have mastered that operation.

We tentatively touched his beak with small mouthfuls of food. He opened wide, and we could see the pink insides of his gullet and his long, shiny, pointed tongue that darted back and forth.

Ffeisty fellow

But he still couldn’t figure out how to get the food down. Gingerly we pushed a fingerful of food into his beak, nudging the food to the back of his throat. Ah-h-h. Ah-h, that was the touch. He gulped the moistened dog food greedily, squealing and flapping his wings as he worked it down to his stomach.

If a fingerful was too big or the food too pasty he would have to stop a moment and swallow hard, though this did not particularly upset him. The point was, his empty stomach was being satisfied, if a bit clumsily.

Toward evening some jays (self-appointed lookouts?) arrived and began a series of calls. While daylight turned dusky we pondered the fate of this foundling. As the sky darkened and the world grew quiet he fell asleep, snug in our cupped hands.

Some cuddling for a bird after a long day

We placed him gently in the cage. Tomorrow we would figure things out.

A long day ends

To read the complete diary with photos and meet the cast of characters,  go to the black banner across the top and click on Gork, a Special Blue Jay.

Copyright @ A Herons Garden 2022

Posted in B;lue Jay Behavior, Caring for Baby Blue Jays, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

How Do You Say Goodbye to a Garden?

Our Southern Garden Gave Us Rich Memories

It was high dusk on a gray November day. We had countless plants we’d collected on the fly from our thirty-five-year-old garden tightly wedged into the back seat of the car. There was no looking back as we drove off to our new home in New Hampshire. We had already brushed vestiges of mud from our clothes.

The mud had not come, as you would suspect, from a wistful farewell ramble through garden beds we would never see again. The leavetaking was much too hectic for such leisure. It came from the mundane – and muddy — task of trying to read a drowned water meter. This was a final, futile favor to a county water department that had occasionally been generous to us when we left our hoses running through a summer night.

Now, the paths, the steps, the open space, the beds and borders, the woodlands, and all creatures who lived among them would be cast behind to awaken only in memories and old photos, some reproduced here in slide shows.

The Garden We Were Leaving


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Faithful Ranger, not the garden, got the last formal goodbye. After three decades of reliable service, we were giving our ’92 Ford truck to our magician-mechanic in hopes that he would find a good home for it. Now, during this last stop, we were turning the title over to him. We gave him one last hug, and with a quick pat to Ranger’s fender we took leave.

Ranger had hauled peanut hulls, cotton dirt, manure, mulch, sand, bricks, landscape ties, fence posts, shingles, lumber and garden trash, and he had plucked stubborn, storm-damaged plants from garden beds with the pulling power of his six-cylinder engine. There probably wouldn’t have been a garden without Ranger.

There Will Never Be Another Ranger


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Our garden had grown into a bunch of rambunctious, wayward, tumbling rowdies, always threatening to spin out of control. Each year, I vowed would be the year the garden would shape up. That never happened, of course, as plants have a way of growing out of bounds in southern summers.

So we settled into rationalizing that the garden was a work in progress that bugs and people liked, one grand experiment. Bob called it The Jungle.

Mind you, I was forever transplanting and re-organizing, rescuing the timid from thugs, removing innocents caught in the way of my current new wave (a touch of idiocy?), and taming upstarts that hadn’t read the books. But that wistful eye for just another new plant, like wondering what’s around the bend in the road, kept me in a pickle pail full of delightful discoveries, including, outrageously, a Dawn Redwood that eventually shared the skies with oak and maple.

So spirea nudged azalea. kerria tangled with sinocalycanthus. Clematis ‘Nelly Moser’ lounged on ‘Fashion’ azaleas. The tendrils of sweet autumn clematis tried mightily to reach out and embrace the entire garden. Summer natives danced out of bounds. Grasses kissed the sun. And we took pleasure in the tangle.

Lovely Rowdies


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During the final rolling weeks of packing, plants had become the last things on my mind. Earlier, they had been first priority. So many had been propagated here, they were like a second family. I dug up whatever I thought would survive the move North and, graciously, Steven and Susan transported and cared for my potted addictions (except for last-minute smuggles noted above).

There were not as many as I thought. I’d spent years of hankering after one of those perfect New England gardens featured in glossy magazines only to find that the plants inevitably succumbed to southern heat, humidity and mucky soil. Finally, I had learned the limits of my space and I grew to love the lush growth and lavish parade of bloom that came with these southerly tough/tender plants.

Now that we were moving North, I was saying goodbye to plants I would not soon meet again: camellias, Florida anise, abelias, southern azaleas, and most of my hydrangeas. And especially that grand watermelon crepe myrtle strung with Spanish moss that transformed our modest front lawn into a cliched but gracious southern landscape.

Southern Plants I am Missing Already

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It wasn’t just plants I was saying good bye to. Years back I came to gardening with a scrubbed face and shining eyes and lots of book-knowledge. I thought I knew it all. Yessiree, I would build beds and borders just right, perfect, with plants that behaved. I had the ultimate Grand Plan.

Then people started giving me plants. I was touched and delighted. But, horrors, their plants were not part of my Grand Plan. Oh dear! Where do I put a plant that is not part of the Grand Plan?

I needn’t have worried. In those first years we had no idea of how to garden in gray clay that dried to pottery shards, so most of my Grand Plans fizzled. I welcomed gifts from knowledgeable gardeners. As I watched the plants grow and bloom, they evoked sweet memories of good friends.

I learned that a garden is a tapestry tight-wove of plants and people and remembrance of good times past. Like the lingering sweet smells of blossoms on a moonlit summer night, memories of people who loved plants, walks and talks with them, visits from Master Gardeners, plant sale days, faux barbecues on the gazebo, even making quince jam, gifts given and received, would fill my spirit as I brushed by familiar plants.

And I will never forget the peace that wrapped itself around one and all as we roamed the paths or relaxed in the gazebo. I can still hear the quiet swish of breezes and wavelets off Albemarle Sound that once lulled us into golden hours, remote from the clutter of everyday life.

Now the memories belong to me, but the plants belong to others.

People in the Garden


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I had never set out to create a garden for butterflies, or birds, or other animals. I simply collected lots of plants that I liked, and tossed them together into a smorgasbord with woodlands. And life came out of the shadows and into my garden. Swamp red bay (already on the property) and spice bush (purchased as sprigs) attracted swallowtails.

Blue mist flower was a siren that drew every sipping insect with wings, and slender black wasps loved clethra. Wild honeybees gossiped in abelia grandiflora until mites invaded hives and silenced the happy spring buzz. Argioppe spiders, relatives of wise Charlotte who crafted messages in her web, crafted their own messages to lure end-of-summer prey.

As to the unwanted, chiggers and ticks and mosquitos, well, we managed, occasionally having the garden sprayed professionally with garlic and essential oils. There might be holes in some leaves, but mostly the garden remained healthy, possibly because we were faithful about adding compost that nourished plants and erratic about using chemical fertilizers. Camellia tea scale was the only insect we treated with oil spray once or twice a year.

The Small Critters We Loved


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Come warm sunny days in February I’d be poking around, impatient for new life. If plants weren’t risen and happy I would fret. But with the February sun came the first tentative warblings of newly awakened birds and my spirit would quicken. Territorial stake-outs and mating would lead to summer adventures.

Mockingbirds claimed exclusive rights to elderberries. Baby titmice prattled in baskets of ferns. Cardinals fought their reflections in windows. Woodpeckers woke us, banging on metal drain gutters.

Carolina wrens regularly invaded our garage scouting for nesting niches. Hummingbirds buzzed indignantly when the feeder was empty. During a droughty year a woodcock visited our sparsely watered garden to seek worms nearer the surface than in the dry woods. And, through dusky woodlands, a wood thrush would send us a summer aria.

One year a cowbird deposited her eggs in the nest of a prothonatary warbler. How disappointing to see baby cowbirds instead of baby warblers!

One spring a black snake took up residence in the bluebird box just as the babes were ready to fledge, traumatic for us and the family, and for the local bird population who flew in to – well, we are not sure why. Watch the action? Express outrage? Render vocal support? Get first dibs on an empty birdhouse?

Bob turned the box upside down and banged it until the stubborn snake apparently got addled. As it tried to slither away, he caught it and took it to a distant patch of woods while the birds were reunited. Amazingly, all but one nestling fledged.

Osprey keened when the amelanchier bloomed. And the great blue heron would stop by in summer for fishing and loafing, along with the turtles. One year, when we were cleaning the pond, he skulked behind shrubs and trees, homing in on vulnerable fish. We were on to his tricks but he knew when we were watching and he figured out how to win.

Winter, plants stripped of frippery, would reveal the housekeeping of summer’s smaller tenants: messy, casual, accomplished. Then February would come round again and we’d see the lone pied billed grebe cavorting in our slip and hear the first warblings that heralded a new spring.

Heron and Friends

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Sometimes, when I puttered during quiet summer evenings, potting or transplanting, a young squirrel, or a solo rabbit would follow me around, so close behind I would have to watch where I stepped. These young critters, recently graduated from cozy nests, seemed to want company, any company. I enjoyed their presence and would murmur nothing-phrases to them as I moved through the garden, though I was happy when they grew into independence.

One summer a frisky fawn latched on to me, one of twins introduced to us on a sunny afternoon by the doe herself. He’d watch me while I gardened, waiting for me to chase him. When I turned round to scold, the game began. One day I found him devouring an entire vine, tendrils dripping deliciously from his mouth. I stood quietly until he finally noticed me. One long moment of indecision, then, with great reluctance, he dropped the vine and took off before I could scold him.

Creatures came and went. There was a part of the property we rarely visited, left it to wildlife. A pair of coyotes camped out for a couple of years, skinny, almost gaunt. I know because I came face to face with one as we crossed paths. I took a silent breath. We stood motionless, both vulnerable, sizing each other up. I dared not turn my back. The coyote, braver, finally turned away and loped off.

Then there was the blind raccoon who hung around for a few weeks and scared a young possum away by accidentally bumping his nose. And the semi-tame rabbit from two properties down who wandered to our place regularly, following us as we worked. And the otters who played on our dock one summer. And the beaver who must have had delusions of grandeur thinking he could gnaw down a forest of mighty sweet gum trees.

The crayfish that were always building castles in clay undermined our paths, but we never managed to spot one. For a while a groundhog was resident, but during a rainy year he left after his underground digs turned muddy. We had tried to catch him but only snagged a baby raccoon, whose mother, distraught, left the grounds permanently, trust broken, even after we freed her youngster.

There was always a frog singing in the pond. One summer we swore he sang to us, since he was quiet until we came round and spoke. Occasionally a fox showed up but we never found a den. And once there was bobcat scat in a planter box, but we never saw the bobcat.

The Bigger Critters


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If Ranger was the workhorse on wheels, Bob was the builder who quietly did what needed to be done outside, and that is probably my fondest memory of all. Bob gave the garden its structure: gazebo, shed, decks, dock, steps, fences, brick edging for beds, crooked paths with steps, an automatic watering system, and the courtyard off the garage. Sometimes he worked solo; sometimes friends joined him.

Any bright new idea I had he was willing to tackle, transferring my sketchy thoughts with deliberation and a Number Two pencil onto graph paper, until he converted ideas into reality. Our first project, a challenge, was laying brick for a sinuous wall under our large south-facing den windows.

Most years there was damage from storms and Bob would be out lopping and pruning and sawing, sometimes felling entire trees while I held my breath. These were probably his favorite projects. A man and his chain saw. . .

And his chipper-shredder. We would rake and he would shred leaves and branches to make instant mulch, some of which eventually became velvet soil. As trees grew taller, we’d be ankle-deep in leaves. But those leaves were clay-busters. After years of mulching, our soil finally became diggable.

Far less dramatic were my numerous requests to plant and transplant, so Bob made himself a distinctive Master Digger badge to wear during garden tours and plant sales. As he dug, he sent each plant on with a proviso: Don’t get too comfortable, he’d say, because you will probably get moved—again.

Oh, and Bob was good friends with Ranger.

Mr. Bob

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Three decades of my memories are seamed to the garden with a lock stitch that cannot unravel. Having tossed the rigid Grand Plans and planting for joy instead, I began collecting spectacular (to me) trophies with a sense of adventure and the zeal of a religious convert, haphazardly, from anywhere – weedy fields, abandoned gardens, rural mom-and-pop roadside offerings. If nobody was home we dropped our money in an honor box.

Often I tooled around country roads with a good friend scouring ditches and vacant fields we’d scouted previously (trespassing?) to gather samples of all sorts of interesting plants (weeds? No, natives.), always watching our backs for the muzzle of a shot gun as we dug.

Rose’s Department Store and the old K Mart had interesting plants, too, for practically pennies. . The crab apple in front of our house came from K Mart and was the first tree we planted that lived. It cost $8. It bloomed the first year.

Once we found dogwood saplings for a dollar a piece, but you had to buy ten to get the bargain. Ten dollars! Too much for our thrifty plant pocketbooks! So we divided them between us, and split the bill, and five dollars didn’t seem so outrageous. And yes, most of them lived!

Plants-by-mail were cheap, postage nickels and dimes. As we explored the coast, from Florida to Maine, I inveigled plants from specialty nurseries, motel managers, garden caretakers. Verges along country roads gave up some gems, too. The challenge was in the chase.

I confess today to owning a large wooden box dedicated to certain garden keepsakes: plant labels and price tags (which also remind me of how many I lost along the way).

But, oh my, when I learned how to propagate plants from tiny cuttings, that was the ultimate in plants for pennies. From a couple of purchased George Tabor azaleas I grew great swathes of blooming plants. Roadside plants contributed specimens, as did friends’ gardens, and other nameless gardens. Large carry-alls hid evidence of twig-rescues for a good cause. Each cutting that lived created a special memory.

So the garden grew from cuttings and clippings, and I began giving away plants until I noticed people avoiding me when I had a potted plant in hand. That was when we began holding annual plant sales and donating funds to environmental education.

Many of my trophies perished along the way. But many lived on, too, and those ragamuffin early days of plant hunting hooked me, even as plant prices rose and plants were often strait-jacketed in pots with pretty pictures.

In the beginning, I believed I was the guiding light in the process. But chastened by experience, my focus shifted from collecting to looking, really looking at my garden, absorbing the joys and disappointments as they came along.

On grand scale I rejoiced in a fairyland of dancing lights and shadows over the water on summer afternoons when the sun came in from the west. Then we would sadly clean up the mess when storms struck down the fairyland. On smaller scale, I took delight in blossoms lit by stray sunbeams that tarried after sunset. These picture-memories of fleeting visions I hold close.

Early Gardens and Plant Hunting and Propagation

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Each spring, we declared, was the best ever! Were we honing our gardening skills? Learning to grow better plants? Coping with clay? Had we become sorcerers? (Such preening!) No, the joie de vivre came not from us but from the timeless rhythms of nature. We were only her stewards seeking pleasure in her handiwork.

By mid-summer, the garden could look tired, with no relief from hot days and hot nights. Fall was a resurrection of sorts, as new blooms and berries and golden leaves shined up the garden. Snow in winter was a treat, though wet winters could send mud up to your ankles.

But spring was special because plants were just beginning to stretch out, not yet encroaching on each other. We could enjoy order and leisure and color in a fresh, dewy garden. Weeding and pruning and watering would come later. We could cheer the splendid parade beginning with camellias and on to magnolias, azaleas, clematis, flowering trees and hydrangeas.

Those Glorious Springs

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The woods were a dark backdrop to the garden during those first few years. Only the trees around the house were cleared. Which goes to show what suburban slickers we were. In hurricane-prone country it is not a good idea to have trees hugging your house.

We built our house with more windows than walls, the better to see the garden and the woods year round, also trees coming down during storms. Our garden in the woods might never have tripled in size if Hurricane Isabel hadn’t taken away some 150 trees and brought us light for growing azaleas and daffodils, which then made way for a new generation of trees.

A third of the trees were doomed immediately, twisted and thrown by embedded tornados or pummeled savagely by winds up to 100 mph until they toppled. Others, seemingly unscathed, were damaged internally, susceptible to insects and disease. They succumbed over time.

Isabel also taught us that trees change, light changes, even soil changes over time. The garden that once was can never come back without persistent masterminding.

Above all, she taught us that trees rule. Thirty-five years ago they were bumptious teenagers, leafy, skinny, and expectant. But our woodland trees were tough and patient. They scrabbled, they elbowed, their roots tangled, embroidering a complex network of self-support. They created their own soil and they inched up to 80-foot towers without our really noticing.

They gave us cool shade and they whispered to us on breezy days, and we used their leaves for mulch. But trees are takers. There is no contest between trees and alien plantings. And no compassion. Trees win unless the gardener is attentive and patient and willing to lose some struggles. We did not know this when we began our journey.

These trees were not picture-book quality. Some appeared to be girdled and half rotten at the base, yet they carried on. One was hunchback. Many had lost big limbs, so they were scarred and misshapen.

The Grandfather Pine that overlooked the north edge of the property spent a couple of years dying before, too late, we noticed that its upper branches looked like pins in a pin cushion on a pole. Bark beetles had clogged its arteries.  A few years after we took it down, termites were working on the remains, turning it to dust and returning it to the forest.

Would we have given up our trees? Given up those afternoon shafts of sunlight sliding among their trunks, washing them with crayola-crayon earthtones? Given up our glimpse into the lives of birds among their branches? Given up following the lives of our trees as they flourished or became vulnerable and declined? You, dear reader, can guess the answer.

Instead, we cleaned up messes from storms and soldiered on to create our Garden in the Woods. Despite some spectacular disappointments, we learned patience and wisdom and acceptance and how to get along with the trees that had become family.

A Garden in the Woods

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I left a part of my heart in that North Carolina garden. Mostly I miss the light whispering through trees, kissing leaves, dropping diamonds on wavelets. One afternoon a visitor told me that he felt like he was in a fairyland, and that vision will stay with me for the rest of my life.

A clear resin suncatcher with memories pressed from our fall garden, gift from a talented neighbor, sparkles in the morning light that streams into my new kitchen. It makes me smile.

I wonder about the garden. Will the new owners be patient with the trees and the tangle? Will they be patient enough to wait for the ‘Near East’ crepe myrtle whip we planted in an oversized box of landscape timbers to rise and bloom? We renamed the tree Hope.

I guess the best way to say goodbye to a garden is to begin work on a new one. But please, allow me a few more memories of our thirty-five years in our eastern North Carolina landscape.

Some Final Memories

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Celebrating the Roots of our North Carolina Garden

A Lesson in Patience

I’ve had a quietly satisfying epiphany! After listening to gardeners across the country I began to see how place — geography, environment, climate, soil — defines the character of a garden — and sets the limits.

I’m not always the culprit when things die. Or malinger. Or grow so out of bounds that guests have to machete their way to the front door by midsummer. Blame it on the elements, I say. Not on me.

Where there had been empty spaces and shrubs that behaved, by July there is a jungle in front of the house

My eureka moment probably sounds pretty ho hum to you. Isn’t it obvious that desert plants won’t grow in bogs and reindeer moss won’t grow in the tropics? Yes, but I’ve learned that there are fine-tuned elements that make growing shasta daisies, for instance, easy to grow in one garden but impossible in another, and rarely do we understand why.

Special shasta daisies from friends bloomed for a season, then disappeared

My absolution has been years in coming. It probably began sub rosa during warrior days as an environmental steward advocating for clean water in eastern North Carolina — and delighting in the special dance between land and water here.

Exploring canoe trails and byways, wildlife refuges and historic sites put me in closer touch with how this dance shaped life throughout centuries. These were quiet times spent paddling creeks and ambling trails and moseying main streets of small towns. (Note: Good ice cream cones in these small towns around Albemarle Sound.)

A quiet afternoon on a creek that flows into the Alligator River

You meet a lot of people during all this advocating and meandering. Some were living in old family homes with a long history. These modern tillers of the soil had deep and abiding love for the land that nurtured generations. Rough treatment by the elements some years, and maybe famine. Or cornucopias of crops other years. It didn’t seem to matter. Their reverence for the land was rooted in faith and acceptance.

The 1786 Pendleton House in Pasquotank County surrounded by a cotton crop. Photo by Melissa Dawn

They accepted the unexpected and the unwanted. I had not encountered this depth of contentment-in-place anywhere else, and it touched me, and I began to delve deeper, even develop roots here.

Not the deep tap roots of time and family, but thready, wandery roots that pulled me into exploring past dynamics of this special place.

For me, it was a voyage through time and change on a landscape governed by wind and water.

Not so long ago, mighty trees once grew here in rich lowlands bathed by clear, tannin-stained black-water creeks and rivers that supported abundant wildlife.

The upper Chowan River calls to mind the bottomlands that once covered much of northeast North Carolina

Our garden is not founded on rich bottomlands that once nourished farms. Instead, it is rooted in another typical eastern Carolina soil: gray clay. Our garden sits where quiet waters once lapped a shore, surrendering fine suspended sediments, laying them down in beds eons ago.

An example of gray clay in wetlands

Clay doesn’t tame easily, I learned. Even today, after modifications, it asserts itself. In the beginning, even weeds would not grow. I am responsible for the weeds. I brought in truckloads of topsoil that was supposed to bury the clay. The weeds were hitchhikers.

So I began to look at the garden through a set of long lenses that took me back through centuries-old time capsules of drought and flood, storm, and sea level rise and fall.

I began to understand that what was happening in my garden was a reflection in miniature of a greater landscape. Weather and climate toy with my plants just as they destroyed or nurtured corn crops of yesteryear, dispensing famine or feast on a whim of the wind.

Camellia shoa noa saki thrived for twenty-five years but finally succumbed after several rainy seasons super-saturated its moorings

I don’t have to worry about famine, but storms have torn trees from their moorings. During droughty years, ferns droop and plants shrivel and the clay cracks. Rainy years may bring great blooms in spring, but as summer slides away, plants tire of struggling in saturated soil. Or they are cut down by prolonged seasonal dry spells. Or, if I am lucky, during a good summer they thrive.

Hurricanes can erase a garden. View of our back yard after Isabel. The storm did not stop the hummingbirds

It took us a long time to gracefully, or not so gracefully, accept that today’s conditions would not necessarily apply to tomorrow’s seasons, that fickle clay was beholden to weather, morphing from muck to concrete as rains soaked or sun dried.

That compost lovingly laid down disappears in clay that floats to the surface after torrential rains. That it is pointless to wrestle shovels in muck that sucks all things into its maw. That we can neither depend on nor predict what the sky above will bring us.

We learned patience. Dynamic, living systems are not built in a month or a year or a decade. They are the results of millennia of change. (Yet they can be destroyed in a bulldozer-moment.) We are only ciphers in time on the land.

A prime example of patience! Here is a bald cypress, almost three thousand years old, among several growing in the Three Sisters Swamp of the Black River in southeastern  North Carolina. They are the oldest living trees east of the Rocky Mountains. The swamp is protected by The Nature Conservancy. istock photo by Earle Liason

Our property was a dark hole when we bought it, a runty mob of pines smothered by catbrier, vine and pine battling for light. An odd-looking skeleton lay on soft pine needles, a few scattered bones permeated by drifts of sea fragrance from a midden of mussel shells tossed by otters. (Lots of chiggers, too, we would discover.)

Not a particularly inviting canvas for a garden, but we were up for challenges we didn’t expect.

Dark woods were the backdrop for our first gardens, until storms toppled trees and brought light

It would take time to understand the singular contributions of earth, sky and water to this place and learn to play off them to grow a garden.

And even more time to accept that our land will never grow those shasta daisies, gifts multiple times over from good friends, divisions freely shared from their gardens growing on a river bank only a few miles away. But we can have fun with hydrangeas — and camellias and azaleas!

Two ‘Ayesha’ hydrangeas back ‘Lemon Zest’ not yet in bloom

And so I learned to celebrate the special gifts from our patch of land. I came to understand all this and write it down a month or so before we left the garden for good.

Posted in Climate Change, Creating a Garden, Environment, Northeast North Carolina, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

To Spray Or Not to Spray

The Unvarnished, Untold Story of our Pleasure Garden

Many of you commented on my recent posts about the wonderful spring we had here: a lovely blend of copious rainfall, balmy temperatures and sunny days that produced boundless garden bouquets.

Now I must confess the rest of the seamy story.

The underbelly of our garden is an iniquitous den of bloodthirsty despicables. This year they took advantage of moist growing conditions to multiply and gear up and gang up. They specialize in guerilla tactics and sneak attacks and they have taken over our garden like the thugs they are. We are being held hostage inside our house.

Beneath this tumultuous landscape lurks a hidden horde of ne’er do wells waiting to pounce on a trespasser

What’s a gardener to do? We mounted a blitzkrieg on the bugs.

After all, we have our reputation as gardeners to consider, which is not particularly sterling when it comes to controlling unruly guests. Summer visitors often come away from our gardens with souvenirs they didn’t count on.

Worse, we are probably the culprits in dispersing armies of villains by grinding litter from some beds and returning same, homogenized, to other beds. Fortunately, friends and relatives have been good-natured, but there are limits.

We clear the garden beds and the critters obligingly came along

As you may have guessed, the despicables are ticks, chiggers, and mosquitos.

So we called Jess, maestro of the blitzkrieg. She’s experienced. She’s on target. She’s a bugs-in-common friend.

Back in 2013, when our reputation was at a low point, I asked Jess, who had recently picked up a franchise for spraying despicables, if she could treat our garden with only natural ammunition, no synthetic chemicals. It would be an experiment. We’d take our chances on success.

Her parent company agreed with the plan. Jess sprayed only with garlic. The despicables were routed. We became her first customers to go “all natural,” and now most of her spraying is done with natural oils.

Essential oils are best purchased and stored in tinted bottles and should not be adulterated with other ingredients


This year Jess sprayed with a combination of garlic – lots and lots of garlic—and essential oils from a variety of plants: tea tree (an Australian native), cedarwood, lemon grass, citronella, rosemary, geranium, and chrysanthemum.

(Helpful Tip: Jess recommends a mix-it-yourself tea tree oil spray to repel ticks when you are outside: 8 or 10 drops to one cup of water in a spray bottle. Tea tree oil is readily available on-line or in drug stores.)

Since the garlic in the spray can be irritating, Tess wears safety glasses and a respirator, (standard Personal Protective Equipment or PPE) and dresses in layers with a hoodie. We stay in the house. She uses a gas-powered blower and carries a pack that weighs 68 pounds.

Jess geared up and ready to spray

You can smell the garlic for a few hours, but bees, butterflies and birds don’t seem to mind. They were out and about shortly after the fog dissipated.

Dragonflies were active, too, but I worry that they will go to bed hungry tonight. They can reach flying speeds of 30 miles an hour, twisting and turning to scoop up mosquitos and other fliers, but the mosquitos don’t seem to be flying now!

Some other animals may go hungry for a while. We may be dinner for chiggers, but chiggers are dinner for ants, beetles, centipedes, spiders and birds. And ticks are dinner for chickens, frogs, possums, ants, and probably some others. They all fit into a food web that we civilized people mostly try to ignore.

Well, I can’t worry about the world all the time. Spraying with essential oils, which are the volatile aromatics that plants produce to protect themselves from becoming some animal’s meal, sure beats using Sevin ready-to-use with carbaryl.

It is such a joy to garden without a nest of baby chiggers under foot ready to scale the heights of my torso, stopped only by bands on clothes. I know these tiny, almost microsocopic, larvae of the red bug or harvest mite are just trying to make a living but I’m not crazy about their dissolving my skin cells with their saliva for a feast. These relatives of spiders do not burrow, by the way, a common misconception.

A 1790 lithograph of a chigger. PBS

Itchy bumps are caused by your body breaking down the feeding tube chiggers leave behind after they fall off or are brushed off. They are best treated with anti-itch cream and calamine lotion. Teenagers (nymphs) and adults are pretty benign, feeding on decaying matter and soil insects.

The best thing about chiggers is: They do not carry disease, at least not here in the United States. They do carry a disease called scrub typhus in a wide swath of Asia and Australia, and most recently in Chile.

The redbug, or adult version of the chigger. Note the 8 legs which makes it a relative of the spider.

Ticks, also kin to spiders, are another story. They can carry serious diseases like lyme disease and spotted fever that need immediate treatment. Lone star ticks, recognizable by the prominent white blotch on their backs, can cause alpha gal syndrome and allergy to red meat that can be life-threatening.

Size comparison of ticks, from larvae to adult. CDC diagram

Ticks are blood suckers from the time they hatch as six-legged larvae, then grow to eight-legged nymphs, and finally to adulthood. They only need one meal per stage, but if you happen to be dinner during one of these stages, that’s one meal too many. The good news is, they die if they don’t eat during each stage. Most of them die, thank goodness.

How do they latch on? They have a behavior that is, quaintly, called questing. For me, it brings up images of knights in shining armor on their quests in the old days (though I was never quite sure of what their quests were – the hand of Guinevere maybe?)

Female lone star tick, identified by bright white spot on back, is questing, or extending front legs hoping it can hook onto a hapless animal passing by.

Snakes don’t quest. Rabbits don’t quest, but ticks do. They perch on foliage near the ground with their two front legs extended, hoping to snag a passerby. If they succeed, they will explore this new (involuntary) host till they find the right spot, tender and. perversely, just beyond easy reach.

They are alerted by an animal’s breath, body odor, body temperature, moisture and vibrations. (And here you thought that morning shower made you invincible.)

Greatly enlarged, this group of larval ticks is cluster questing; they are hooked to one another and will automatically tag along when the first tick attaches to an animal. Photo by Brenda Leal, Entomology Today

As they bite, ticks may transfer some saliva into their host. If the tick’s saliva is carrying pathogens, it can cause disease. On the other hand, if the involuntary host is diseased, the tick will drink blood that will infect a new host the next time it feeds.

Proper suiting-up before gardening and a thorough check afterwards will prevent most insect trespass. Detailed information on ticks, chiggers and mosquitos is available on a variety of government and medical sites.

We are once again the Grand Pooh-bahs of our garden, (more realistically. the lowly caretakers.) Now there is no excuse for not putting the summer rioters and the invading vines and those galloping shrubs back in their places.

Crepe myrtles are next to be groomed, but they are such a welcome part of the July landscape, we can put this off for a while

If you live in northeastern North Carolina and want to contact Jess, email her at

Jess, out from behind her PPE

Posted in Ticks and Chiggers, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Albemarle Sound: Voyage Through Centuries XI

Rising Seas and Sinking Land

Nathaniel Batts may have been a recluse when he died in 1679, but he was a virtuoso wheeler-dealer in his younger days as fur trader, land owner, pardoned murderer, serial debtor, swindler, explorer who discovered an inlet, and friend of people in high places who eased him out of debt when a prenuptial agreement locked him out of his wife’s fortune.

Section of a 1775 map showing Batts Grave at the mouth of of Yeopim Creek

Batt’s colorful life surely deserves a ten-part mini-series, but for now we are more interested in his grave as an expression of what has been lost to rising seas and sinking land.

The North Carolina Gazetteer says that in 1749 the island called Batts Grave was 40 acres in area and had houses and orchards on it. By 1756, in just seven years, it had been reduced to 27 acres.

By mid-twentieth century Batts Grave was reduced to a fly-speck on a map. Today it is gone.

Rising seas, hurricanes and nor’easters ate at the island.  Sinking land played a lesser but inexorable role. These geologic forces are continuing today.

In fact, rising and falling seas that seem so dramatic to us today have been changing coastal landscapes for eons.

This photo by geologist Stan Riggs pictures a terrace in west Albemarle Sound that was once an old shoreline It adjoins the Suffolk Scarp 

The Suffolk Scarp referred to in the caption of this picture is the remains of a shoreline that existed 80,000 to 125,000 years ago, before glaciers sculpted North America, during a warm period when sea level was 25 feet higher than it is today.

At that time the entire Albemarle area was below water, a shallow continental shelf. The barrier islands that we know today did not exist.

The map below shows that, at just a few feet above sea level, the coastal plain (Inner Banks) will flood as polar ice caps melt.

The Suffolk Scarp, or Shoreline, already discussed, is 25 to 50 feet above sea level, but even that will flood if the ocean reaches the Fall Line.

The Fall Line, in black, is where the rolling hills of the Piedmont begin. Interstate 95 generally follows this ridge, which is about 150 feet above sea level today. If  both polar ice caps melt, the ocean would rise to the Fall Line.

All land east of the Fall Line would be flooded. Millennia before glaciation, when temperatures were higher and the world was a warmer place, the ocean reached the Fall Line.

The Albemarle area today showing the coastal plain vulnerable to sea level rise, the old Suffolk Shoreline at 25 to 50 feet above sea level, and the Fall Line (in black) where the rolling hills of the Piedmont begin. NC Land of Water

Our lives are so short we can only observe nannoseconds of geologic change. Interludes of thousands of years of glaciation, when the world was cool and ice caps grew and the level of the ocean dropped. have lulled us into believing that what we experience today is what the land has always looked like. Nothing could be further from reality.

Let’s look more closely at what takes place when glaciers grow. Past glaciation is a major reason why the coastal plain, Albemarle land, is sinking, or subsiding. How can that be, you ask, when this land was never glaciated?

During the last Ice Age, 20,000 years before present, glaciers extended as far south as Long Island. Tons of ice from these glaciers compressed the land beneath. In response, unglaciated land to the south, including the Albemarle, reacted by easing upward. (Like a slo-mo see-saw.)

As climate warmed and glaciers finally melted, the land that had been compressed under them was released and began to rise. Land to the south (the Albemarle) reacted and is still reacting by sinking. (Now the slo-mo see-saw has changed direction downward.)

This action takes centuries. We are only seeing some of the results of this geologic change today, and lately the changes seem to be measured in decades.

Where decades ago, buildings seemed safe, today, there are puddles and flooded streets after storms, worrisome to anyone living in a vintage family home where water now encroaches on the front porch.

But this is only a small part of the story.

Let’s go back in time, say 15,000 years ago when glaciers were beginning to melt, and ocean water is still bound up in glacial ice.

The ocean is about 400 feet lower than today. Land would have extended some fifty miles east of today’s shoreline. A barrier beach, like the Outer Banks, if it existed, would have been just east of that. The Outer Banks, as we know it today, would not form until sea level rose to today’s levels.

The land is tundra-like, but warmer than you might expect because of the Gulf Stream that slides along the periphery. As climate warms, lush marshes and swamps will grow up, wonderful habitat for ice age mammals and birds — and early man.

Tundra on the continental shelf miles off today’s shore line? As climate warms, marsh and swamp will develop over thousands of years, then migrate west as sea level rises. NOAA

As the earth warms and sea level rises, the shore line is flooded by the ocean and pushed westward. Marshes are flooded and die and are born anew on higher ground. They replace swamp forests whose trees have drowned but scattered seeds that will take hold on higher, dryer land.

As sea level rises, there is an inexorable migration of water and life to the west.

Fossils of plants and animals and micro fossils of pollen tell stories.  By analyzing and carbon dating the kinds of life found in core samples of strata, scientists can read the ancient waves of climate change.

How long did this take? How far out on the continental shelf did early man live?  These are questions that cannot easily be answered.

The Albemarle area holds a plethora of  fluted points and artifacts, including a dugout canoe from about 6000 years ago. But artifacts of Paleo-Indians could date from 15,000 years ago, or earlier, and these are drowned in open seas today, so we can only imagine the extent of their occupation.

Let’s look at life from the perspective of Early Indians. They were hunter-gatherers who followed the food. They did not have vested interests in real estate and infrastructure.. They accepted what the land had to offer, and moved on when necessary. You could say they were resilient.

It wasn’t necessarily an easy ride. There were great storms and droughts, and floods and freezes and forest fires, even a mini-ice age that lasted almost 1500 years.

Coring on Roanoke Island by the NC Coastal Geology Cooperative reveals a combined rate of sinking land and rising sea level as follows:  Only three inches prior to the 19th century. Seven inches by the end of the 19th century. A whopping 16 inches by the end of the 20th century.

Can this be possible? Remember Batts Grave. Our own casual observations of water levels on our bulkhead tell the same story: about 6 to 8 inches rise in thirty-five  years.

Photo of our boardwalk circa 1988. Note mini-dock we had for disembarking canoes and horizontal timber visible to the right. Today these  are totally submerged  except on rare occasions when the wind blows steady out of the north and water is pushed to the south.

It’s not unusual for a storm to cause water to rise to the top of the bulkhead. After most storms some parts of our woodlands flood.

Albemarle lands are among the most threatened in the country by a combination of subsidence and rising seas.

Do you remember the Suffolk Scarp, or Shoreline in the map above? It rises west of Albemarle Sound and was under water before climate cooled and glaciers froze ocean water and sea level dropped.

Rising seas are expected to reach the Suffolk Scarp in the next 100 to 500 years as climate changes. We are seeing the beginnings today with consistent flooding of roads, farms and yards.

What Do We Do?

Where scientists could not persuade, hurricanes, flooding, loss of low areas and the appearance of ghost forests are turning skeptics into believers in sea level rise.

As sea level rises, salt water, from overwash of hurricanes, for instance, can kill plants that are not salt tolerant. These ghost forests are occurring on the Albemarle/Pamlico peninsula today. Mark Hibbs, South Wing SCRO

How will communities respond to threats to their way of life?

We are beginning to realize that we can no longer do battle with rising water and storms. Past knee-jerk reaction has been to harden structures — create seawalls, build jetties, erect bulkheads, pile on the rocks, or the  sandbags — to keep that water in its place.

Sand bags scattered on the barrier beach after a storm. Not working too well, judging from the flooding. NC Coastal Federation

Such efforts cannot be maintained in a dynamic environment where change is coin of a watery realm. Water will always win.

Tuning in to the natural world, and working with it, is the best way to preserve our well-being.

All that we have done to the land — ditching, draining, clear cutting the magnificent forests, building dams, laying down pavement — all this  speeds up and re-routes the natural flow of water and makes the land — and its people — more vulnerable to the forces of climate.

Spongy wetlands allow water to seep ever so slowly through the landscape. Mighty trees in acres of forests have vast networks of roots that drink copious quantities of water. Once removed, there is erosion and puddles and muck. Ugliness, too.

This former farm has been converted to wetlands. Rainfall from the farm once took only two minutes to run off into nearby waters. Now, drainage from these wetlands is naturally slowed, taking more than two months to find its way into creeks. NC Coastal Federation

New ideas must bubble up as scientists, politicians and communities work together. Money is needed to experiment and implement.

Like paleo-Indians we need to develop resilience. We should be working with climate, not against it, treating land as an asset to be managed wisely.

Resilience to storms: Are we just mopping up after storms, or are we making decisions that will reduce future damage?

Managing flood waters after Hurricane Matthew. Almost one and a half billion dollars has been spent to clean up after Matthew and Florence alone. Photo by Leticia Samuels, USCG

Communities need help in planning and funding, developing shovel-ready projects that can put fixes in place immediately after a government call for proposals.

Resilience to rising sea level. Close kin of resilience to storms. We need to accept that we can’t prevent sea level rise, but we can develop long-term strategies tailored to sites and community needs.

Even small projects like planting a rain garden or an acre of trees will help. NC Coastal Federation

Some examples that emphasize natural solutions:

  • moving homes to higher ground
  • planting trees whose roots are efficient at absorbing  water
  • removing impervious pavement
  • removing ditches to promote more natural flow of water
  • making the ground more spongy so rainwater percolates

Wide swales on the side of a road diffuse runoff of rainwater and sediment, further helped by woodlands that transpire moisture. On grand scale, this is a technique that would mitigate runoff from miles of impervious roads, driveways and parking lots. NC Dept of Transportation

The mills of government grind slowly. Rising seas care not.

It is up to people brainstorming and barnstorming to find solutions that will protect people and the environment.

Political will. Public-private partnerships. Citizen activism. And community support. These are the tools we need to make sensible plans that will take us into the future.

We can’t know all the answers because we can’t predict the curve balls to come, but with close observation, a thoughtful approach, and cooperative efforts we can develop the resilience that grounded those Paleo-Indians long long ago.

They will thank us. Photo of baby otters by Meekins USFWS

We thank the many career professionals and dedicated volunteers who are helping to protect the Sound, its land and rivers, and its wildlife.

I consulted many on-line sources to frame this Voyage through Centuries: among them, historian David Cecelski whose blog with its wonderful old photographs gives insights to  fisheries and everyday life; coastal and marine geologist Stan’s Riggs who tirelessly advocates for a realistic understanding of coastal dynamics and the opportunities they present; and environmentalist Todd Miller, who founded The NC Coastal Federation, a powerful watcher of coastal land and water issues and publisher of Coastal Review Online.

This Voyage grew exponentially out of a grant the Albemarle Environmental Association received from the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine Study thirty years ago to produce a series of Profiles of Albemarle Sound and its rivers. The original versions can be found on the website AEA on the Web.

Posted in Albemarle Sound, Climate Change, Environment, sea level rise, Sinking of North Carolina and Virginia coast, Storm recovery, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Albemarle Sound: Voyage through Centuries X


Some of the counties surrounding Albemarle Sound are among the poorest and least populated in the state. They are also the most vulnerable to rising seas, as we shall see in the final chapter.

Poverty and isolation are not particularly evident to a casual observer because families and communities are close knit. But the resources here, and the land, have been attractive to outside interests who would upset the precarious balance between rural life and land for a moment of greed.

Keeping memories alive that show how the Albemarle sustained people who worked and fished here is one way of forging strong conservation goals and pride of stewardship to counter centuries of exploitation.  State, counties, non-profit and community groups are working together to bring an enduring identity to the Albemarle that will carry it into the future.

To fully appreciate the 180-degree-turn that this twenty-first century voyage takes, we must take a look at the recent past.

Seeking Environmental Justice

There was a time, maybe three decades ago, mostly forgotten now, when the wetlands south of Albemarle Sound were considered ideal for a hazardous waste incinerator. After all, when you fly over this land, what can you see? A few clusters of houses, a lot of farmland with manmade ditches, maybe some ducks or geese, tangles of swamp that defy GPS, just a bunch-a-nuthin.

Imagine these wetlands that are historically prone to hurricanes and floods housing an incinerator whose innards would, we are assured, never belch any but fine clean air (or at least cleaner than the dross that goes in) to drift over farms. Imagine the roads that would be needed to carry the massive, rumbling, trucks with their poisons. And, God forbid, imagine a spill of the worst sort of poisons that would infiltrate networks of ditches that flow to native waters.

This state-of-the-art incinerator opened in Arkansas in 2016.With rotary kiln, spray dryers, scrubbers and filters it promises relatively clean emissions. Thirty years ago the technology was not as sophisticated

Residents fought this injustice. How they fought it! Through public education and public meetings, and presentations to county commissioners who saw the incinerator as a plus, a way to bring jobs to a community that desperately needed them.

The people prevailed. Once they were given the details and understood what they would lose, they rose up with the tenacity of their lineage, the lineage they had inherited from their ancestors who had the grit to survive here. No, thank you, they did not want the menial, and perhaps dangerous, jobs that came with this intrusive behemoth.

There was a time, two decades ago, when the United States Navy eyed this good-fer-nuthin place with a few people and a lot of birds as a practice landing field, called an OLF, for a new line of fighter jets housed at its Oceana base in Virginia Beach. Recently settled residents in Virginia objected to noisy take-offs and landings at nearby Fentress Outlying Landing Field (OLF).

Exporting the deafening noise to this nowhere land around Albemarle Sound seemed like a good idea to the Navy, who wanted to avoid clamor from local residents. Five sites were selected, each of which would be subject to an Environmental Impact Statement required by law.

F-i8 flying over farmland that seems empty in Washington County. Photo by Drew
Wilson. Virginian Pilot

Residents here, who are serenaded by choruses of crickets and katydids on summer evenings, were appalled by the idea of noisy jets flying back and forth from Virginia to North Carolina to practice excruciatingly noisy, repetitive practice runs in this land of black bear, snow geese and tundra swans.

This was a David-and-Goliath battle without the romance of a quick victory. It was automatically assumed we could not prevail. It became an eight-year battle, and then another five-year battle.

Residents lived on tenterhooks. They set aside their lives, met in private to plan strategy, held rallies and pig pickins, organized post-card-writing campaigns, all the while haunted by the sacrifices people would be compelled to make — for example, forced sale of home and farm that had nurtured generations of  families in exchange for relocation (where?) — and the losses to community life in exchange for the bones the Navy was prepared to throw into the pot.

Crowds of snow geese, tundra swan and ducks inhabit the area in winter. During a demonstration flight flocks of birds rose up amid the planes and shaken pilots refused to continue flying. Photo from Visit Elizabeth City

After eight years, the Navy lost its case in court and the voluminous environmental statements that had been prepared by a firm in upper New York State were declared flawed. Another round began with another five choices, this time three in Virginia and two in the Albemarle. Finally, after thirteen long years, the Navy quietly went away and residents could listen to the katydids in peace.

During all those years of campaigning and lobbying lawmakers, activists conducted themselves with grace and dignity. There were no arrests for disorderly conduct or property damage. There was simply respectful patience and determination.

Both the incinerator and the outlying landing field were prime examples of environmental injustice.

A hazardous waste incinerator is never located near an affluent community.

Nor is an OLF. A 1990 socio-economic comparison of  Virginia Beach and Washington County (Navy’s final choice on Albemarle Sound) is in order. Virginia Beach: median income $45,000, 13% of children below poverty level, 20% African American population. Washington County: median income $28,000, 29% of children below poverty level and 49% African American population.

Identity Change Develops Momentum

We’ve come a long way since those decades when wetlands were nuisances, and the coastal plain was prime ground for exploitation.

Perquimans County shoreline. Photo by Lauren King. Virginian Pilot

There is a highway along the south shore of the Sound that used to be considered a tedious miles-long pass-through for vacationers hurrying to a sparkling ocean and a lively Outer Banks (OBX) tourist scene worth a billion dollars annually.

Today, people are stopping along that highway south of the Sound and other highways along the north shore of the Sound.

The Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City tells the story of the Albemarle with photos and artifacts, including a historic shad boat. NCDNC

The Albemarle area is developing its own identity; it is becoming known as the Inner Banks (IBX). It’s a special place where vacationers can slow down and discover a venerable part of the country that has been — well — forgotten by the outside world.

Canoeing on Salmon Creek, a newly opened recreation area in Bertie County fostered by the non-profit group Tall Glass of Water

Communities in northeast North Carolina are capitalizing on their history and their roots. Towns have visitor centers,  friendly museums or nature centers, galleries and arts centers featuring local craftsmen, boardwalks, river views, walking tours or tram rides, even tree houses for rent. Ice cream cones, too.

Port o’ Plymouth museum on the Roanoke River explores the history of the area and the Civil War. Pictured is a replica of the CSS Albemarle Ram

Here you can find an intimate step back into the history and environment of the earliest pioneers in the country.

The Newbold-White House sits on land high above the Perquimans River, a reminder of some  of the earliest settlements in the Albemarle

The Albemarle is not glitzy. There are no fern bars. It’s inviting and comfortable and unhurried. And there is good fishing.

Otter catching a prize. Two-legged anglers enjoy fishing in these waters, also. Photo by Meekins USFWS

Natural areas — a network of wildlife refuges, state game lands, state parks, community parks offer visitors a place to have a picnic and photograph wildlife, or a chance to linger along a creek or hike a trail, or join a guided tour for hands-on experiences.

A group studying water quality and biota of the marsh. SeaGrant

These collective invitations to explore the Albemarle come from loose consortiums of public and private agencies.

Non-profit groups like The Nature Conservancy and North Carolina Coastal Land Trusts acquire and broker land for conservation.

Land along the Salmon Creek was acquired by the NC Coastal Land Trust, then folded into conserved county, state and federal lands. Portfolio Coastal Land Trust

NC Land of Water, Roanoke River Partners, and Bertie Water Crescent promote eco-tourism.

Boardwalk and camping platforms in the wilds of the Roanoke River flood plain. Roanoke River Partners

Coastal Wildlife Society, NC Coastal Reserve, and the Red Wolf Coalition are among many that work to conserve eco-systems.

Support comes from federal and state initiatives. Recent rollback of protection for streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act has been reversed.

More streams (18%) and wetlands (51%) will be protected under re-instated directives of The Clean Water Act. US File Photo

Oysters. once a staple of life in Albemarle waters but now struggling, partly because of changes in salinity and water quality, are being given helping hands. Oystermen are helping with initiatives, and, in the process, helping to promotethe industry.

Cultch planting, that is, dropping shells and stones into coastal waters creates a reef of sorts for oyster spat to attach to and grow. NC Coastal Federation

Funding through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, matched by partners in North Carolina, will conserve habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds.

The elusive king rail will be protected under acreage added to Currituck National Wildlife Refuge. USFWS

The state is generously appropriating money for parks and recreation and clean water trust funds. Town and county governments are seeking funding and working with non-profits to promote eco-tourism.

The town of Windsor conceived of and received matching funding for constructing treehouses and raised boardwalks for campers along the Cashie River, part of the Roanoke River system

Seeking Green Industry

But to preserve society here, the soft tread of ecotourism and eco-education needs to be augmented by green industry. Renewable energy featuring wind farms and solar arrays are punctuating the landscape, bringing income to farmers and the community.

Offshore wind farms, not offshore oil-drilling platforms, make sense to most. Technology has brought the costs of solar and wind power into competitive range, and the environmental and human losses created by, for instance, the BP catrastophe in the Gulf of Mexico would become sad memories, not future threats in hurricane-prone seas.

Yes, you can farm crops on a wind farm. Continuous blinking lights on blades warn birds during night flights

To move forward, there must be political will that overcomes regressive political and industrial moves. For instance, as of June 2021 the NC legislature is considering a bill that would force communities to make connections to piped-in natural gas instead of choosing cleaner electricity in new construction. It is blandly titled Assuring Choice of Energy Service but would, in effect, limit communities’ freedom of choice.

Additionally, a bill to Study Emerging Energy Generation, crafted by Duke Energy in conference with lawmakers, is on track in the legislature. It calls for replacing six coal-fired plants with three fracked-gas facilities and seeking permits for small nuclear facilities at ratepayers’ expense. These regressive proposals fall far short of the Governor’s climate change and clean energy plans that would make North Carolina a leader in renewable energy.

There is much progress to be proud of, but we face an un settled future.

The future is of little concern to this alligator loafing on the water with friends in Merchants Millpond State Park. Photo by Chuck Richardson

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