Holiday Poinsettias for the Garden

The Unruly Gardener Shares her Experiences

In late December 2019 I wound up with seven ailing poinsettias, four from people who know I am a pushover for ailing plants and three carry-overs from winter 2018-2019. These were gifts from friends who got them free from a farmer’s market and survived the 2019 growing season in my garden.

Here’s a mid-November 2020 picture of one of our poinsettias

What did I do? What worked? What didn’t?

Sorry, no hard-bound instructions here, or diary-documentation. Not the style of an unruly gardener. But I will revisit their story, as truly as I can.

On this cold December day in 2020 all our tropicals that had once been lolling in balmy sunshine are now incarcerated in a makeshift prison (our garage) where nighttime temperatures of 45 degrees or lower are common, and where they are ignored until they droop for a drink.

Adequate light during the day helps make up for overcrowding and low temps

Since temperatures are easily ten degrees  below ideal, most of them are too chilled to do much drinking, which is fine with the warden.

Peace lilies are the first to gasp, and I am kind to them because they’ve been reliable allies for more than three decades, blooming nicely in the garden. Boston ferns drop fragmented leaves (pinnules, if you want get technical) with abandon, spider plants shrink, and poinsettias eventually turn to sticks.

Boston fern being led from its home in the urn. It pops in and out easily, a joy to move, a mess by spring, but handsome and happy once it is back home

None of these plants ever dies outright, so the austere watering regime is probably kinder than lavish doting. It’s a messy but no-work business unless the warden decides she must sweep out the dross.

As days grow longer and daytime prison temperatures rise consistently by ten degrees or more, tiny leaves emerge on viable poinsettia stems. By this time their soil is dry and tired. I trim back the dead and untidy and give them a sip once in a while, not very much.

It would make sense to fertilize them when they put out that first tentative growth, but I do not want to inspire false hope. Besides, if growth is stimulated,  I might have to water them more frequently.

In April, when I’ve gotten tired of the mess and sunny days have heaved away frosts, I set them all free. In years past I would repot poinsettias up one size in good potting soil.

About the time this earlyCoral Bells azalea blooms, poinsettias can go outdoors. Bridal wreath spirea pokes from behind

After numerous pot-stirrings it became obvious that hunting for a decent pot and mixing ingredients took far longer than scratching out a hole in a non-rooty part of the garden and dropping the plants in with some water and a casual toss of 10-10-10 (Too much? Too little? I never know.).

Aesthetically, poinsettias in pots, sunk in beds or not, do not excite me. They look more like props than partners in the garden. These wild plants, small trees in Mexico, need space, so their roots can roam.

The camera did not capture the stature of this poinsettia in fall, 2019. Its roots were strong, as round as my thumb, and they wandered through the bed making removal of the plant a major chore and  ultimately, sadly, futile

Back to the recently liberated sticks. Shackled all winter, barely awake, they still look like last fall’s castaways, so I camouflage them. I do not want them out in full sun withering as they come to life. I tuck them discreetly into shady bowers where ferns will distract the eye until they get dressed.

A shady bed in late April where some poinsettias went. I never thought of including them in this picture — they were nothing-plants at the time — and I never came back to record them till they came into color

Their rich green leaves in summer, so handsome with a subtle red midrib, have always fascinated me. Since they are tropical guests in this temperate garden, insects tend to ignore them and the leaves stay fine all summer. They have their natural defenses, too. Milky sap that exudes from bruised leaves may repel insects and mammals that don’t want their mandibles clogged with nature’s gummy bear.

This 2020 plant near a path remained small but its leaves were still almost perfect in December

I grow poinsettias because they are handsome and carefree in mid-summer, when the rest of the perennial garden is ready to call it quits. If I want pzzazz for the holidays, I depend on plants pampered by a nursery.

So I never expect to have bracts form and glow red in my garden beds. Subtle changes begin as daylight wanes and the blooms of sasanqua camellias emerge.

 Here, camellia ‘Apple Blossom’ pokes out a single bloom high over a poinsettia below.  They’re a bit of an odd couple: camellias and poinsettias

With each tilt toward the winter solstice the entire plant seems to liven and put out modified leaves that slowly enlarge and become more and more vivid. What a bonus!

A December 1 photo of the plant shown in November, above, probably at its best

These autumn nights are not long enough to punch out high color. To get that, I would have to run around putting big nursery pots over plants to give them the 15 hours of complete darkness they need to come into full plumage.

That would mean setting alarms or plastering sticky notes around the house to keep me on track. Not my style, and I’m not sure I would like spikes of untimely bright red poking out among dying hosta (rationalization, again).

Ironically, I wind up running around putting large nursery pots over them anyway (and bath towels with a brick for good measure, don’t ask why). Instead of setting an alarm clock, I check the weather forecast multiple times daily to see if nighttime temperatures will drop into the low 30’s, at which time action must be considered.

Poinsettia with Pot with bath towel, one of my more aesthetic efforts in the garden

I’ve discovered that protected poinsettias can take temperatures that drop to freezing or slightly below, as long as these temps do not linger. The plants emerge perky from pots after rainy nights, too.

We had so many cold, windy, and rainy days and nights this year, and so many twigs, branches and limbs down, I thought the sky was falling on our garden

But snug in their pots, poinsettias emerged glistening from water that had apparently seeped through pot and towel

This all works pretty well as long as daytime temperatures are benign. Cold 40’s and rain take their toll on these plants.

Then there is that little matter of aesthetics I’ mentioned before.

Towels drying on a fence with overturned pots would not be considered House and Garden decor

I’m not sure these plants are particularly fond of pot-on, pot-off manhandling, either, especially in the dark of night when the forgetful gardener has to run out with a battery-dimmed flashlight to do pot-duty.

Final photo of poinsettia pictured in November and early December. Still valiant but beginning to  show signs of wear

The smart gardener keeps poinsettias in pots during summer. They don’t shock when they are brought inside and closeted for 15 hours a day to emerge Voila! gorgeous before Christmas. Maybe.

The unruly gardener, on the other hand, would forget to set the alarm or look at the sticky notes and they would languish in the closet until she needed a broom. Ole! Ole! to the nurseries that successfully manage these crops.

Nighttime temperatures of twenty-plus degrees near the end of December prodded me to bring poinsettias and other chilled but still happy tropicals into prison.

After having wrestled with the doomed granddaddy of our garden poinsettias in 2019 (pictured earlier) and losing,  I recruited Bob to do the tough digging

Surprise! This year poinsettias popped out with barely a poke or a pull. There were no long wandery woody roots that could fill in for a neighborhood pick-up stickball game. Here is what we found.

Roots were so limited they could not hold on to a decent ball of soil. Why? We do not know. Note plant on the right with girdling roots. During the summer, flexible slender roots that I failed to spread when planting grew and toughened. This time I pruned and straightened before replanting

The discovery of inadequate roots did not bode well for a winter stint in prison. The plants drooped immediately and have not perked up. One good sign: they stand rock-solid in their pots, so roots  might be welcoming the humusy soil-and-perlite mix I used.

Time will tell. I could have left the plants languishing outside for the winter and begun anew with fresh 2020 poinsettias from a garden center. But where is the mystery? For me, I guess, gardening is as much about experience and observation, disappointment and loss, as it is about success with pretty flowers.

But I do enjoy those pretty flowers, especially in winter when sasanqua camellias bloom so freely and reliably.

Camellia ‘Sho a no saki’ has bloomed since October, still going after three months

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Reviving Old-Timey Sorghum Molasses Days

A New-Age Experiment on an Old Southern Tradition

At the end of August good friend Steve invited us to come by for a try at making sorghum syrup at his barn. This would be an adventure, he said, as no one attending had any practical experience making syrup. But, for a start, there was guidance passed down from old-timers, and the Internet dispenses a generous buffet of book learning. And, he added, this would only be the small beginning of an annual tradition.

Sorghum syrup! My northern-bred bones thought sorghum syrup was a relic by now. After all, you can’t find it in a supermarket.

Making “molasses” or “sorghum molasses,” as it is often called, became a southern tradition during the Civil War, when northern blockades cut supplies of sugar. Sorghum cane grew happily in the South and resourceful farmers soon honed techniques for pressing the sweet juice and boiling it down.

This is a long and labor-intensive process — tailor made for community camaraderie and celebrations of the harvest. There are few practitioners in today’s hurry-up world, but nostalgia for these good times still lives, thanks to wisdom handed down through generations.

Bottled sorghum syrup. It takes about 50 gallons of juice to produce a few dozen quart jars

A long time ago, I had an untidy brush with sorghum syrup in a western North Carolina restaurant. There, on the menu, was an entry for buckwheat pancakes and sorghum syrup, right below a sinful entry for light and fluffy Bisquicks with butter and maple syrup. (My kind of breakfast!) Buckwheats and sorghum? Not so tempting, but a good friend of mine, Anne, loved them, and they sounded so-o nutritious.

How far wrong could I go

One bite. One bite and I spent the rest of breakfast lusting for Bisquicks and maple syrup.

Memory has mercifully dulled my senses, but what I recall of the meal tasted like a medley of tin, dirt, bog (whatever that tastes like) and bottom-of-the-bag Harry Potter jelly beans.

(By now I have mightily insulted my southern neighbors and the sorghum-molasses-syrup lovers of the world, so I’d better back out of this tunnel and simply call the flavor complex.)

Sorghum “berries” against a blue sky. The crop is related to sugar cane, which produces molasses as a byproduct of milling. Sorghum is more tolerant of cold weather. Photo by American Distilling Institute

In my defense, I would like to point out that even though sorghum flour makes highly nutritious tortillas, most tortilla-eaters prefer theirs made with corn. Nutritious sorghum silage is, however, fed to cows. I wonder if cows would prefer corn if they were given a choice.

Well, I would give this sorghum molasses a try.

Now, for those who may be seeking advice on sorghum-syrup-making as a second career, or even just a sideline hobby, here is a step-by-step guide to help you achieve the ultimate success – delicious, nutritious, sorghum molasses.

Be forewarned. This undertaking is not for the faint-of-heart. It takes patience, persistence, and honing of skills that are mostly lost to us.

Did you know that sorghum syrup can be drizzled on pancakes and biscuits, added to cookie, bread and ice cream recipes, used to sweeten barbecue sauce and baked beans? How about bacon sorghum cornmeal sandies?

If you are still serious about sorghum-syrup-making, you should plan to spend Fourth of July, or, if you prefer the more traditional barbecueing, then the day after, planting about a quarter acre sorghum seed in rows, about a hundred feet long. After the canelings are up you will have to thin and weed.

A sorghum field after thinning

Sorry, but your local nursery probably does not sell starts in pots. Remember, summer days can be hot. Hydrate to avoid heat stroke. Knee pads and back brace recommended for novices. For tips on fertilizing, check out the 1891 University of Arkansas Agricultural Bulletin #16. Very informative.

Some time late August or early September the cane should be harvested. Before being fed into the press it must be “dressed,” which means stripping the leaves from each individual cane and chopping the heads off. (Seems to me this activity should be called “undressing the cane,” but I am an ex-northerner, so what do I know.)

This is a big job, so you will want to invite a dozen or more unsuspecting good friends to your sorghum-syrup party. They will be “dressing the cane” but you needn’t mention that in the invitation. Be sure to call it a party. Everyone loves a party. Which means that you should have enough finger-lickin’ food on hand to bribe, er, feed, them all.

You will need to find a sorghum mill for pressing the cane. A diligent search of old barns across the south will no doubt turn up a rusty cast iron mill that you can either bring to Antiques Road Show (hold the rust remover) or have refurbished and repaired by a sorghum-mill restorer. Check out an old copy of the Yellow Pages.

Here is an example of a mill used for pressing. Dressed canes fed in on the right, crushed canes exit on the left

An Enthusiastic Mule (or horse) is key to success. Without The Mule, there will be no juice, since The Mule must walk around in circles to turn the crank to press the cane to release the juice. Unfortunately, mules these days tend to be independent, so you might have to substitute a ride-on mower for The Mule. The rider need not be enthusiastic, but he should be mellow.

Buster Norton is harvesting sorghum in western North Carolina. Note that the chestnut horse is striding around the mill like he has a real purpose in life. Photo from NC Field & Family

You should assemble a small, knowledgeable crew to feed sorghum cane into the mill and draw off the pale green juice in buckets. (If you are short on buckets, you can use five-gallon pickle pails.) Your crew can be chosen from the first three or four individuals who respond affirmatively to your invitation.

You will need to construct a fire pit. This should have sturdy support for the trough that will hold the juice and a chimney constructed of concrete block. You can probably find directions for this in an old Popular Mechanics magazine. Check out Useful DIY projects in the Index.

Here is the fire pit that Steve and crew built

But don’t worry if you don’t have directions. This is an easy weekend project. You will have plenty of time left to fell a couple dozen trees and split the logs needed to maintain a crackling fire for the several hours it takes to boil the juices down. You’ll get about one gallon of syrup, maybe, for every ten (or more) gallons of liquid you pour into the trough.

Be sure to have a variety of kitchen tools like ladles and sieves on hand. The liquid must be continually stirred to keep it from burning as it thickens, and the green gook that rises to the top needs to be regularly skimmed off to maintain peak flavor.

The crew skimming the juice

These tools are all available from homey stores like Bed Bath and Beyond. Alternatively, you might find some in those old barns you’ve visited. Wash thoroughly to remove spider egg cases.

Production was in full swing when we arrived. There were maybe fifteen of us and what seemed like a thousand (though I’m not good at counting this type of thing), no, at the very least ten thousand sorghum stalks piled on an assortment of truck beds and trailers scattered along the farm road.

At least ten thousand canes?

Steve had graciously assured us we were not expected to work. But when you see piles of maybe twenty thousand stalks hanging off truck beds, it seems gauche not to volunteer. And besides, lunch of hot dogs and fixins’ would be served after stalk prep, so it was in everyone’s best interests to hurry the task.

Stripping the cane, one cane at a time

No, Steve did not rummage through barns looking for an old mill. He purchased his from a local farm family and says he remembered seeing it used by a black family in the 1960’s. It had been in that family for a least a generation,  since the early 1900’s. The mill is bright red and made of cast iron and probably manufactured in the late 1800s.

Three Sorghum Syrup Tenders were monitoring the operation as we arrived, having just jury-rigged a break in the press which set progress back by about an hour. (If you were 150-odd years old, you might break down, too.)

Tending the mill while the ride-on mower turns the crank

A ride-on mower proved to be an exceptional substitute for The Mule (except when the rider was called off duty to monitor lunch preparation). Steve’s horses must have gotten wind of the project because they made themselves scarce. One dissolved into the shadows and the other had that attitude that says You’re crazy if you think I’m idiot enough to spend my day walking in circles.

Bucket after bucket was emptied into the trough. Time came to start the boil.

The grand experiment begins

The fire roared. Smoke churned out of the chimney.

Steam rose from the trough. Stirring the liquid and sieving off green goop began nonstop.

The green goop is actually chlorophyll, which may have been fine in toothpaste years ago, but is not recommended in sorghum syrup

The piles of wood that had seemed so grand began to disappear stack by stack.

The woodpile, made up of split logs and scrap lumber, must keep the fire going for several hours

Expectations were high, but it would be a long time before syrup would actually appear. The hardest part of the process is knowing when to take the sorghum syrup off the fire. Too early and the syrup is watery; too late and you run the risk of a burnt product.

Next day, we waited anxiously to hear the results.

Despite hours of skimming and stirring. . .

. . .those piles of pressed cane just did not produce enough juice to make for a reasonable quantity of syrup. The cane had been planted too early, in May, instead of July, and it was already drying up by the time it was harvested.

When the liquid finally boiled down into a syrup of sorts, there was so little left, even vigorous stirring could not keep it from burning. A single jar of syrup was rescued. Nobody liked it. It was poured down the drain.

We came away with renewed respect for those intrepid farmers a century and a half ago who began the sorghum-syrup tradition. They had to figure out what to do from scratch. They couldn’t tap Grandpa’s memory or the Internet. They had to persist until they got things right. And then they invited the community to celebrate the harvest.

Next year, another try

Steve says there will be another try at Sorghum Molasses Day next year. They’ll change some techniques based on this year’s hard-won experience. And he promises the cane will already be dressed by the time we arrive! Maybe next year we’ll all get a taste of real sorghum molasses for a new twist on an old tradition.

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Hurricanes and an Aging Woodland

Trees Have Adventures, Too

Hot spots in the Atlantic Ocean have been popping up like weeds in a garden this year, and I can’t help reflecting on what kinds of mischief they could spill in the next two months. I stand at the window looking at our woods to the south, and I wonder what adventures they will have.

Thirty-four years ago the trees on our southern boundary were bumptious teenagers, leafy, skinny, unpretentious, a motley gang of pine, sweet gum, hickory, oak, red maple, cherry, hop hornbeam, musclewood, holly. In the past ten years pampered distant cousins have joined them: camellias we propagated and planted in their territory.

Today the trees look dour, ominous. Now about fifty years old, they look to be 80 feet tall. How did we miss this growth?

Friends or Foes?

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 unyielding clay scraped barren by bulldozers fifty years ago. The would-be saplings scrabbled over bad hands dealt them, bickered over shares of sunlight and stingy ground, and stole nutrients from their aristocratic cousins.

A patch of ground adjacent to our woods, barren for fifty years. Woody, opportunistic roots weave through it

Most of them lost to faster growers and stronger genes. As the game went on, winner and loser alike threw down their hands each fall and their meager morsels gave life to the clay, winners reaping desserts from losers. Their roots wandered, congenially crisscrossing into a tight, democratic weave that defies digging today, despite the silken quality of their soil.

A winter storm more than a decade ago highlights the jostling

Yet these trees can seem fragile. During Tropical Storm Isaias, whose eye raced west of us in early August, with winds clocked between 50 and 60 miles an hour here, they whipped and twisted and bucked in the gale and I did not see how they could ever stand up straight again. They did not break then.

But can they beat off longer battles with stronger wind power? This brief storm tore away countless twigs, branches and even limbs the size of small trees, piled them along paths, hid them among shrubs. Most of the cast offs were beneficial cullings, surgical removal of weakness, disease and death hidden by green canopies. What damages from a longer, more intense storm?

Memories of Hurricane Isabel color our understanding of winds in a woodland

Interior damage from storms is stealthy. Sinews stretched and torn by high winds can invisibly weaken a tree over time. (Though ironically, gentle breezes that cause imperceptible creaking and swaying in the woods can strengthen a tree as it ages.

A little to the southwest of our house, there are three sweet gum trees with not a shred of bark around their bases from the ground up to about two feet.

Two of the three gum trees, far left and center, with substantial trunks remain straight after Hurricane Isabel. Sturdy then, after battering, but what’s next for them?

Once upon a time a beaver had begun gnawing at one of the girdled trees, then apparently decided the monumental tasks of felling and hauling were not worth the effort when he could pursue more productive chewing elsewhere. Did he dream he was David felling Goliath? Never mind, it is amazing what beavers can do – and have done in our woods.

Unfinished business. Note the trunk of this young tree bent over the water

In fourth grade science we learned that girdled trees die because their pathways for nourishment are severed. How is it that these three trees with rotten-looking bases leaf out each spring?

Rotten and diseased all around, yet they survive

(Just goes to show, you can’t always believe the books.) They seem ripe for toppling, but they are surviving. Their combined canopies thrust up into the sky are more feather dusters than mighty crowns, and for our purposes that is just fine. They’ll bow to high wind, instead of ceding. (Perhaps.)

So now I stand at the window figuring odds on games still unknown and to which I am not invited. How close are the trees to the house? How might they fall if we are on the west side of the storm? The east side? I invoke some hazy geometry, trying to figure storm paths, trajectories and angles.

Even pine trees seem benign in this snowy picture from a few years ago

Did I mention that there are two tall, business-like pines directly south of the house? Pines can uproot when ground is super-saturated. (Ignore this taproot business; pines here haven’t read the books either. Their tap roots skirt the water table, run parallel to the surface instead. Lots of illiteracy in the woods.)

Or, pines snap, bam, down they go. So I stand at the window figuring where they would land if they snapped at a certain height and what trees in between might soften their fall, or would they simply take down the dowdy dogwood and the bad-hair holly.

Heavy frost, like frozen gel, attacks bad-hair holly but there’s no sculpting this tree

From where I stand, the crowns of these pines look skimpy for their age. Maybe they’ve lost pieces of limbs in the past few years. It’s sometimes hard to trace the origin of a downed limb.

That bit about less resistance to the wind gives me another idiotic sense of false comfort. One thing I’ve learned from thirty years in the woods is that trees are a lot bigger, a lot bigger, when they hit the ground than when they are standing straight. I should know better.

Never mind that an embedded tornado could come through and corkscrew these trees and hurl them across the property, utterly defying my shaky invocation of geometric puzzles.

And what happened to that crown?

You are probably wondering why in the world we have not cut down these and several other trees I haven’t mentioned. For, I guess the same reasons that people don’t move from river banks that flood during storms. These reasons resonate far more deeply than I can probe, so you and I will have to keep wondering.

You never really know about trees, except they get weak and die and fall eventually, and if they are ignored, over time, they become smooth as velvet and slip back into the forest.

It’s hard to say when a tree will fall, unless it is purposely taken by man. Often the tree gives up during a perfectly windless spell. Years ago, one still, cold winter night I forgot about a pot on a hot stove. We opened windows for a quick air-out.

As the chilly night air entered, we heard a cataclysmic boom. First thoughts a huge truck. On our back-woods road? On a dark night? Second thoughts, the noise did not come from the road. Next day we found an ancient, rotted, headless pine toppled not thirty feet from the house.

The remains of the pine a few years ago. Now it is lost to the forest floor

And then there is the mighty oak on the north side of the property, not at all slimline like the trees to the south. It’s got impressive height, but it has girth, too, a circumference of 12 feet. It is gnarly and looks pretty beat up. I guess a tree that is a couple hundred years old, has a right to look beat up.

The old oak after one of its limbs gave way. Note another limb still hanging

One fine, calm spring day, it dropped a mighty limb that looked as big as an old tree. It squashed the hoop house where we propagated stem cuttings. We were glad we weren’t squashed, too.



When we tried to figure out where the limb had been attached, we spotted another large limb torn away and wedged against a neighbor. We’d better watch that, we said. That’s dangerous. That will fall any day now. For almost two decades and countless storms the hanging limb threatened. It is gone today.

High winds and storms bring the most dramatic changes to our woods. We happen to live in a kind of hurricane alley (not disclosed during real estate negotiations) that sounds a lot worse than it actually is. If a storm churns directly up the coast, its eye will often pass over us. Usually, by the time the storm reaches us the drag of the land has tamed it and we laugh with relief and say how lucky we are.

Lasagna in the woods served up by Hurricane Isabel

Hurricane Isabel was not tamed when she reached us in September 2003 with winds topping out at 100 miles per hour. From first tentative raindrops to the final huffs and puffs, she lingered for almost twenty-four hours.

She taught us the most about trees and hurricanes, though not enough. Naive about storms then, we got through by sheer good luck and good help.

But Isabel directly felled only about 40 or 50 of the 150 trees we eventually lost.

We assumed that if a tree was left standing it was a survivor. We were mistaken. Internal damage, tearing of sinews, and structural weakness can promote attack by insects.

Most of these trees, though standing, did not survive. (Note lumberjack roping prior to cutting)

Somehow, bark beetles, twig girdlers, and borers can home in on weakened trees with laser-like focus. They kill a tree or bring diseases that will kill a tree, and in our swampy paradise, fungus and rot regularly stay on the prowl.

Quite a history in this log

Nutrition plays a role, too. During Isabel seven pines uprooted as a group and fell against the house. Sounds like a terrible catastrophe! But they were undernourished and skinny and there was so much crashing and howling going on we did not discover them until we tried to open the front door next day.

We’d intended to thin them, poor runty things confined to a postage stamp in our garden, but we never did. We called them the seven dwarfs. Sometimes procrastination works.

A delicate removal of tree limbs from our roof

But it was the crabapple we loved that saved our roof from the pines. It blocked a direct hit to the house. We called it our Norman Rockwell tree because of its fine shape and the big scar on its trunk from an old limb and its spectacular blooms in spring. The crabapple never recovered from the hit and had to be taken down a decade later.

Just a memory now

The real action during Isabel was taking place in the woods north of our house. Trees, mostly pines keeled one by one, oozing out of soil saturated by summer rains. Some of them snapped and fell against the house or crashed through fences. Young maples and gums collapsed or twisted, all rendered leafless by the high winds.

A second helping of lasagna in the woods

We couldn’t tell if the freight trains we heard were gusts of wind or embedded tornadoes. Next day, we found part of a sweet gum tree hurled across the yard and lanky trees corkscrewed together in close embrace, emboldened by tornadoes.

Sweet gum crown tossed a hundred feet into our courtyard

Twisted trees

Hurricane chasers armed with chain saws arrived as the winds stopped blowing. They assembled crews and the saws screamed and whined.

The clean-up crew at work

We could never fully come to terms with how bizarre the destruction was and how it was physically possible.

Perfectly carved, gleaming in sunlight and still standing

Wrenched apart and impaled by a sapling

We began to understand that each tree tells a story. Of wet years and dry years, of new limbs filled with hope and old limbs broken by rot, of invasion by insects and disease, of scars and healing and final repose.

The stories that trees could tell

During quiet times, when he was not in a tree, the Texas woodman taught us about trees and chain saws.

Balancing act. Note spray of sawdust as he cuts

It was probably years of storms that caught up with Grandfather Pine, the oldest, tallest pine around. He watched over our property from the north, a grizzled guy who had survived summer storms and winter nor’easters. He was a fixture, though, frankly, we barely took note of him as we potted plants under the heights of his crown.

He wasn’t the handsomest, but he anchored the property

We never noticed the holes in the bark. Bark beetles,  however, were far more alert than we were. Age and stresses from storms may have made him an attractive quarry.

Bark Beetle hole much enlarged

When a deep pool collected at the base of the tree, we simply stepped around it and said How curious. One day, from way across the property I happened to spot the dead crown, its burnt orange bristles reflecting sunlight. When did that happen? we asked in dismay. We knew now that the deep pool had signaled the inability of the pine’s roots to drink up.

Portrait of a Dead Pine

The woodman felled the pine cleanly and right where he wanted it. There was that time-stopping, breath-holding moment of anticipation as this majestic tree barely wavered, slowly tottered and toppled, picking up speed for a mighty landing, a reverberating jolt that bounced the ground.

Not seen, the notch that was removed before the base was cut to allow a precise and measured fall.

All life in the woods stopped in that moment. No birds chattered. No beetles clicked. No squirrels scratched. Even the leaves on the trees seemed to stop rustling. Deep deep silence penetrated the woods. A moment later, the usual chatter of the forest that had barely pierced our senses, returned. In the collective silent gasp, had life in the woods instinctively stiffened with the same questions we would ask. “What just happened? And should I worry?”

The mighty pine fallen

And so it became Grandfather Pine’s turn to give back to the woods what the woods had given to him. As years went by, his wood gave life and homes to tiny organisms and shiny black beetles and white grubs coiled tight. Fine roots stole into dark corners and bound his trunk tight to the soil. Moss would cover his crusty bark and his insides would become hollow.

Part of the trunk as it looks today, mosses gathering nourishment from the decaying tree

On a clear spring day a year and a half after we lost the Pine, termites rise out of a disc cut from its base. Usually maligned, they fill a niche, breaking down waste in the forest. Sunbeams caught them as they flew, and they sparkled.

So, I stand by the window spinning my rickety conjectures and thinking about how much we have learned from living in the woods for thirty-four years. It’s a pastiche of the past that can’t help me predict when or how storms will threaten.

One thing I have learned is that our woodlands don’t need me. They may bow and break before storms, but they will recover and heal and regrow.

A few years after Isabel, young trees in the battered North Woods are thriving. (The sign says Windy Wicket)

Life in our woods will sustain itself, perhaps not in ways that we think best, and there will always be losses, but there is a far grander hand playing out than we will ever understand. Still, I wish I knew how the next hurricane will treat the tall trees to the south.

Posted in hurricane isabel, storm damage, Storm recovery, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

What I Did Then I Would Never Do Again


Midsummer has arrived, and July and August are draping the garden with raggedy crazy-quilts. I knew, deep underneath my intoxication with our garden this spring, I would have to pay the piper for all that bliss (or some other designated creditors.*)

Perfectly respectable clematis ‘Henryi’ attacking the porch — for the second time this year!

Summer is supposed to be carefree, overflowing with peaches and cream. That does not seem to apply to this garden, where rowdy plants are staging guerilla-style invasions. Somehow, the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye has a loftier ring than the poison ivy has almost come to the top of the ratty old gum.

Haven’t tackled the poison ivy yet (obviously). Note invading fern. #4 below tells the story

I am a laissez-faire gardener. That’s French for ignoring messes. Most years, though, we do lick-and-promise clean-ups before visitors come. Those hefty, hefty barrowsful keep things under loose control, cosmetically anyway. This year, no visitors, no licks, no promises.

But lots of time. So I walk the garden to figure out what I did then that I will Never Again do. (Notice, I said Walk, not Work.) I’ll plan some strategy, dream up some shady ploys for Laissez-faire, or enjoy a sunset.

Practicing Laissez-faire

(Of course, Dear Reader, I know that you would never have any Never Agains in your garden.)

1. I shall never again plant a tulip tree in the middle of the front lawn.

Why did I do it? Long ago I fell in love with a tulip tree in an enchanted woods. So I rescued a stray seedling and gave it a place of honor in our garden. Ah, the rosy dreams.

Tall and straight. A model tree?

The reality is: This glory of the woods, come midsummer, flings a bumper crop of out-sized brown, crusty leaves over the lawn. We should be blowing, mowing or raking, but Laissez-faire works best. By the way, did you know that tulip-tree limbs make outstanding missiles in hurricanes?

Misguided launch, last hurricane

2. I shall never again plant a quince at the end of the driveway.

Why did I do it? You should see this quince in spring, when daffodils bloom. I wanted everyone to admire its red blaze. Unfortunately, there’s a hitch. I am not a good backer-upper. Quince thorns scraping the side of a car are like chalk on a blackboard.

An old photo, today the quince is even fuller now than it was then

So far nobody has been impaled, fortunately, since you don’t notice the thorns until midsummer, when the plant defoliates. That’s when neighbors are sure to spot that quince and ask why I keep a dead plant with thorns at the end of the driveway. One year I let clematis sprawl over the naked quince. Then people asked why I didn’t cut down that vine that was invading that dead plant with the thorns.

3. I shall never again make paths narrower than four feet.

What was I thinking? By midsumer, hungover plants make narrow paths uninviting, at precisely the time The Big Itches arrive.

There is a path there…somewhere. Annabelle hydrangea was caged after deer discovered it and dined heartily (Laissez-faire) or, in this case, “closing the barn door”

So laissez-faire trumps industrious cleanup and I tell visitors I am waiting for plants to set seed (though I have no idea what seeds). Alert visitors want to know names, might ask to collect seed heads. Go right ahead, I say, but do watch out for the diabolical duo: poison ivy and chiggers. Sane persons lose interest.

4. I shall never again experiment with unknown plants.

Take the East Indian maidenhair fern. (Please.) Such an exotic name. I purchased one and now there are hundreds.

So I give up, no more pulling, digging, blaspheming. Now they have free rein of one whole garden bed. The deal is, they share space with a hodge podge of the toughest of the toughs: quince, mahonia, spirea, calycanthus, formosa azalea, and a certain deutzia that never stops growing. So far I can’t tell who is winning. Next year will be better, I’m sure.

Enormous Solomon’s seal, a volunteer, holding its own. Can’t really see the shrub-toughies,  can you? (A renegade band is pictured in the poison ivy photo)

5. I shall never again say that next year will be better.

From now on I will accentuate the positive and say instead: You should have seen the garden last year. Since most people can’t remember what they had for breakfast yesterday, they surely won’t question my version of the-fish-that-got-away story.

((Sorry, no photo is available for this Never Again.))

6. I shall never again overcrowd plants.

Each plant must have its own space, I say, but something always seems to go awry.

I blame our clay soil (Never the gardener). Plants often spend four, maybe five years rebelling before they decide to explode. Some plants simply give up. That leaves lots of open space in a bed for a long time.

This is a sad-looking bed, second season. Try squinting and you may find a couple more plants

I am impatient. So what’s the harm of tucking in a few plants from friends or some special finds from nurseries? Space may be a little tight, but, well, not every plant will grow.

One year, everything does grow, and I have Horticultural Armageddon.

Duking it out. The apricot ginger lily came from good friends.

How come they can plant close — real close — (we sneaked peeks  as we toured) at Hever Castle in England (Anne Boleyn’s home) and not have Horticultural Armageddon?

7. I shall never again let an unknown “interesting” plant get more than two feet tall.

Three years ago we found a stripling with leaves similar to a redbud’s. (Should have looked more closely.)  We’ve won the lottery on this one, we crowed, as we watched it grow to a height of thirty feet this year and imagined a splendid cloud of lavender bloom next spring.

Our true redbud, recovered from being cut to the ground and left for dead because of canker and rot. It surmounted its troubles and now blooms faithfully near a front path where everyone can see it

The buzzing in June tipped us off. Bees? On yellow catkin blooms? And green berries instead of pods? Our “redbud” was an imposter! This was a Chinese tallow tree (Triadica sebifera), fast-growing to 60 feet, its long-lived seeds loved by birds. Once grown as an ornamental, today it’s invasive.

At thirty feet, Chinese tallow tree dwarfs six-foot Joe pye weed

We might have delayed removing it, but a certain gardener was not happy with the idea of taking down a forty-foot tree next year.

Bob is using an extended pole saw to cut away the lower branches first

He’s finishing the job using a chain saw to cut the trunk

8. I shall never again buy or accept as a gift a plant that has already died three times in my garden.

Twice maybe, but not three times. Especially those plants that look haggard for months before they give out — though in their favor, dead plants usually don’t hog garden beds. And one can always replace them with others that will. Having said that. . .

Arborvitae occidentalis will replace arborvitae occidentalis lost to wet conditions. Second try for this columnar accent. (Do losses of other arborvitae count?) Nurseries say this one is good for zones 3 to 8; university web sites say it’s good for zones 2 to 7. We’re zone 8. Hmmm

A gumpo azalea died here this year, the first to actually give out. In prior years, three or four others were rescued in the act of dying. I gave each one rehab and filled the space with a recovered substitute. So, is this #1 or #5? When weather cools, another that’s been in the wings is going in

9. And finally, I shall never again read articles with titles like How to Conquer Weeds, Spectacular No-Care Annuals, and, the one I like best, Plan Ahead for a Carefree Garden.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always planned ahead. Every spring I would make lists, and sub-lists for the lists, and sub-sub lists for the sub-lists. Each time I finished a task, I would cross it off the list(s) with fanfare.

I never got beyond Task Number 3 before July Fourth. So that’s why I don’t make to-do lists any more.

A summertime bed in Chanticleer Garden, Pennsylvania. They got through their to-do lists. Photo by Susan

Instead of to-do lists, I make Never Again lists and fine-tune my Laissez-faire.

*Designated creditors: Wheelbarrows and truck

A bumptious summer duo that makes it all worth while (Ashy sunflower with variegated miscanthus grass

And the never-fail crepe myrtle.

An old, reliable dwarf species against a white summer sky before sun has set

Posted in Garden Humor, garden maintenance, Garden Never Agains, Summer | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Empress Josephine: Plantaholic for the Ages

Her Passion for Plants Enriches our Gardens Today

She was attractive, willful, extravagant. She was smart, manipulative, acquisitive. She was passionate about plants.

But she had no money.

In fact, the first three decades of her life read like a Victor-Hugo epic set against the turmoil of 18th century revolutionary France.

Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie was born in 1763 to prosperous creole sugar-cane plantation owners in Martinique. She was a child of the tropics.

She’ll be a queen, a soothsayer once predicted, but when hurricanes destroyed the family’s holdings the prediction seemed off the mark.

At fifteen she was sent to live with an aunt in Paris and a year later married to a well placed but ne’er do well aristocrat. Fifteen years later, he would meet an untimely death by guillotine.

Josephine, with her children, visits her husband in prison. Oil by Jean Louis Hector Viger, one of the finest French portrait painters in the  19th century

Already arrested as an accessory, Josephine might have been next on the block but for another untimely death in 1794: Robespierre, major player in the Reign of Terror.

Then she met a general called Napoleon Bonaparte. He was on fire for her. She thought he was boring. Still, he was ambitious and there were distinct advantages to a formal union.

They would marry two years later. She was 34, a widow six years his senior with two children. It was a union of tiffs, tears, dalliances and dramatic reconciliations. It was a union that would allow Napoleon to build an empire.

Portrait of Josephine in coronation costume a year after becoming Empress eight years after marrying Napoleon. Robert Lefevre 1805

Josephine wasted no time.

In 1799, while Napoleon was off on a campaign to Egypt, Josephine borrowed money to buy Le Chateau de Malmaison, an over-priced, ancient, high-class fixer-upper west of Paris with acres of tangled gardens and a murky history. The purchase began Josephine’s entrée into the world of plants and politics.

Aerial view of Malmaison showing rear of chateau. Landscaping and formal rose garden to the right are not historic

She poured money into redecorating the chateau and taming the garden. She hired landscape architects and gardeners and built a heated orangerie that could hold 300 pineapple plants. A huge glass house for tropicals and roses would become the focus of her plant collecting. Eventually she would establish a nursery to provide plants to commercial growers all over France.

View of the Chateau de la Malmaison next to the park/garden, aquatint by  Auguste Simon Garneray c.1812

She haunted flower markets for the unusual. She conferred with scientists and nurserymen, supported botanical research. She became a self-taught botanist, though she still preferred using common names for plants and animals. She introduced plants and set trends for novice gardeners intoxicated by botanical wonders from exotic shores.

Throughout the 19th century,  crowded flower markets all over Paris offered thousands of plants  for sale. At one of these Josephine is said to have found a then unknown bulb (Brunsvigia), huge, slow-growing, with spectacular flowers, that eventually bloomed in her garden. Marie Francois Firman-Girard 1875

She wanted the estate to be known as “the most beautiful and curious garden in Europe, a model of good cultivation” with rare and exotic plants and animals. Here, imported plants would naturalize and live in harmony with native plants in artful and pleasing design. “I wish that Malmaison may soon become the source of riches for all [of France]”

Engraving showing glass house 150 feet long with 12 coal-burning stoves. A gardener presents a bouquet to guests. Anonymous, 19th century engraving

Napoleon was livid when he returned from his Egyptian campaign (with fewer spoils than anticipated). The extravagance! The debt! And the design of the garden!

Instead of traditional French formal, Josephine had adopted newfangled English romantic: exotic shrubs and trees, winding paths, a small lake for boating, waterfalls, statues and follies, and a Temple of Love with columns from destroyed churches.

The Temple of Love surrounded by rhododendrons naturalized for the first time in France.  Auguste Simon Garneray 1812

Not a trace of formal beds and terracing in this playground of naturalism. Des niaiseries Napoleon complained –foolishness, silliness, inanities.

(Brief Digression: While in Egypt, Napoleon sent love letters, a red cashmere shawl, and plants and seeds to Josephine. She planted mignonette seeds and adored the heady fragrance of the flowers. Soon all France was growing mignonette.)

Napoleon did not expect to come home to this travesty of garden design.

Rolling lawn, wildlife, and naturalized trees and shrubs. Auguste Simon Garneray

Oh, the tiffs and the tears. To make amends, Josephine turned one corner of her garden into classic French design with a working drawbridge. Here Napoleon, mollified, could withdraw in peace.

By the time Napoleon became Emperor of France in 1804, Josephine (his coined name for her) had a reputation as an extraordinary horticulturist and a canny trader of plants. Now, as Empress, she would command even greater deference.

Outdoor reception at Malmaison. Francoise Flameng 1802

Whatever objections Napoleon may have had over Josephine’s single-minded — and extravagant — design for Malmaison, he apparently came round. He arranged for the garden to be enlarged from about 150 acres to 700 and was generous with financial support. From 1800 to 1802 Malmaison became his headquarters.

Salons for entertaining were incorporated into the glass house. Here, among pots of exotics, the royal duo entertained artists, scientists, and foreign dignitaries. Never mind that visitors were probably not gardeners. A charismatic Josephine treated them to detailed botanical lectures on her latest acquisitions.

Interior of glass house with salons for entertaining. Auguste Simon Garneray

There was a reward for patient listening. Visitors were served sumptuous dinners on lavish gold place settings, many decorated with botanical motifs (booty from occupied Berlin).

Simulated table settings


(Interesting Tidbit: Josephine was among the first to grow plants in pots, or boxes, which were moved from greenhouse to garden when they matured. Planting in pots became trendy and spawned countless how-to lectures and books by newly minted authorities.)

In a letter written the year of her coronation, Josephine wrote that her collecting inspired bonheur inexprimable. (Spoken like a true gardener, but this particular gardener wonders how inexprimable her bonheur would have been if she had to personally plant all that she collected.)

Josephine at leisure in a salon adjoining the glass house. Francois Gerard 1801

Of 2000 imports, 200 plants flowered for the first time at Malmaison, familiars like the tree peony, magnolia, rhododendron, hibiscus, phlox, dahlia and camellia. Later inventories listed many thousands of plants.

Double red dahlia. Pierre Joseph Redoute

(Herbaceous) Peonies. Pierre Joseph Redoute

Thousands of species came to France from one important expedition to Australia, or New Holland, as it was called then. Among them are eucalyptus, mimosa, acacia, myrtles, and phormium, known as the linen of New Zealand. Professors who sponsored the journey were ex[ected to give Josephine first choice of plants. She underwrote costs for the first edition of the Atlas of plants, and Malmaison was featured on the Frontispiece of the second edition.

Engraved frontispiece showing the chateau and naturalized plants at Malmaison. Kangaroos, dwarf emus and rare black swans shown here became part of Josephine’s “zoo” and allowed to roam free.

From Africa came ceanothus, ixia, bottlebrush, an astounding collection of heaths, and pelargoniums. She favored the zonal geraniums that brighten our summer gardens, and so did the rest of Europe. Today, these brilliant blooms spill over window boxes in Europe’s towns and cities, testament to that adventurous age of exploration.

Though France and England bickered for years, nursery shipments to Josephine from England slipped smoothly through blockades by orders of the British Admiralty. In fact, she once had a running tab of thousands of pounds (counting some arrears, maybe?) with the nursery of Messrs. Lee and Kennedy, who had direct ties with botanists in China. Through them came the first Rosa odorata Europe had seen.

Rosa odorata. Pierre Joseph Redoute

(A Promise Sealed: Josephine wore violets at her wedding, and early on she won a promise from Napoleon to bring her violets every anniversary. He apparently never forgot, even searching them out during one particularly cold March after servants had failed to find any.)

But roses were Josephine’s passion. She wanted all 250 known varieties. When that did not satisfy, her gardeners and nurserymen propagated new varieties, till there were about 500 in all.

Rosa Gallica. Pierre Joseph Redoute

Curiously, the rose most associated with her garden, the very fragrant Souvenir de la Malmaison was only introduced decades after her death. You can still find it today.

Souvenir de la Malmaison

Josephine died of diphtheria/pneumonia in 1814 while Napoleon was imprisoned at Elba. Though Napoleon had divorced her and remarried because there were no heirs from the marriage, he returned to Malmaison for a year after his escape from Elba.

Empress Josephine, wearing the shawl given to her by Napoleon, in a romanticized Malmaison setting. Painting finished in 1809, five years before her death. Pierre Paul Prud’hon

The bones of the garden eventually passed into oblivion. (The chateau, however, is preserved as a historic site and welcomes visitors for tours.)

The formal entry to Malmaison today. Photo by Pelio Faber

But the spirit of Malmaison lives on in the exquisitely illustrated portfolios that Josephine commissioned of plants in her gardens. Two volumes of botanical paintings record this heyday of collecting plants, naturalizing them, and propagating them for gardeners around the world. One of these is Les Lilacees which features many plants familiar to us today.

Hosta from Les Lilacees. Pierre Joseph Redoute

Hellebore and Carnation from Les Lilacees. Pierre Joseph Redoute

Of all plant portraits, the most loved are Pierre Joseph Redoute’s renderings of Josephine’s roses that appear in Les Roses. They are revered today as examples of the finest botanical artwork, so outstanding that Redoute is called the Raphael of Roses for his combination of artistry and attention to scientific detail.

Rosa centifolia Anglica rubra. Pierre Joseph Redoute

Often these images are simply called The Redoute Rose. But they grew in Josephine’s garden first.

Rosa centifolia (Cabbage Rose). Pierre Joseph Redoute

Posted in Empress Josephine, Gardens at Malmaison, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

A Practically Perfect Spring

But There is a Catch

It’s late May when I begin this piece, and it’s been windy and rainy for seven or eight days. Last I checked we had seven-going-on eight inches in the rain gauge, with more coming in, remnants of Bertha. Water is so high in the canal it slips under the old bulkheaded dock and laps at roots, pirating invisible crumbs of soil.

Some old, established plants decide to check out for good. Azaleas, mounded up in an already raised bed are sitting in puddles up to their ankles.

Garden beds look like the morning after mad merry-making. Plants are tousled, crumpled, lounging, flopping, high on hangovers and needing one big stake-up. Jackmanni clematis pictured here was battered and spirea shibori, heavy with blooms was flattened.

Axiom (mine): When foxgloves bloom proud and tall, look for storm winds to blow and hard rains to fall.

These foxgloves, here shown casually staked, would bow and break to weather. Hopefully I can gather seed and try again next year.

By early June the sun has cut through. Leaves should be basking in warmth and revving up. Instead, they are drooping, in a sulk. Roots below are still sluggish in cold, super-soaked ground and resent being woke by demands from the cheeky penthouse. Soon enough, they’ll all get over their snits.

But none of this matters. None of this takes away from the Practically Perfect Spring this year. I want to remember every detail, so I grab my camera and I can’t stop taking photos.

Always the gardener, I am also thinking poles and string for the totterers and leaners that I meet. But plants are quickly straightening up, as if they know what I am thinking and do not want to be straitjacketed.

Frankly, I am more interested in photographing plants, not straitjacketing them. Maybe, if I had an obedient little garden elf whom I could command by pointing a perfectly manicured finger at a weedy bed or a toppling plant. . . .But I have neither elf nor perfectly manicured fingers. . .

Instead, despite the weather’s roughhousing these past few days, I am reveling in this, the best of springs. Wisps of a breeze carry potpourri through moist air. Florida anise is pungent as I brush by. The tang of a briny seashore floats in; are otters teasing fresh-water mussels again? Will I find a stash of shells in broken down hurricane slag?

I bend to inhale the subtle sweetness of peonies (festiva maxima) bunched against poppies that outdid themselves this year.

Fragrant, slender blooms of mock orange greet me, reminder of my mother-in-law’s gift from her garden.

I embrace faint musky clove from sweet william, though I try to avoid cat’s pee of salvia guaranitica.

And perhaps a whiff of japanese honeysuckle? Early gardenia? A rich earthiness underlies it all, sometimes sour, sometimes rotten. From soggy, anaerobic decomposition? Or a stinkhorn fungus lurking in detritus and expecting visits from flies?

And then I remember, This is a Practically Perfect Spring.

It is the shrubs and trees, vines and perennials that deserve a fanfare. Beautybush, with exquisite shell-pink blooms.

Native flame azaleas with eye-popping orange blooms.

Our native wisteria, ‘Amethyst Falls,’ blooming even though I’ve chopped it unmercifully. (It wasn’t supposed to be so aggressive.) Looks like a pine cone with polished nails, doesn’t it?

Those sunny bands of irises, Japanese, swamp, Louisiana, that bloom and pollinate happily in wet soil and years ago captured my heart after bearded irises balked.

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Clematis bounds up and about, flouncy, carefree. Even the native clematis, whose cup-shaped bloom is tiny, probably only an inch or so deep, is romping over its neighbors and blooming with gusto this year.

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Pendulous white flowers of deutzia Rochester, a slip years ago from a manicured plant on a college campus, cascade over spirea shibori and bright yellow oenothera.

Hot pink carpet rose, vanished years ago?, a wisp last winter, sprouted and bloomed passionately, though shy of camera. Creeping St. Johnswort (Hypericum calycinum) a meandery forgettable in previous years, has become bold this year.

Swamp dogwood wrapping round the gazebo, a diminutive competitor in southern swamps, becomes a lavish specimen on its own, dripping with hundreds of blooms, upstaging the nearby male holly, whose tiny flower petals cover walkways like chaff.

Native amelanchier, or Juneberry, a cloud of white this spring, first to bloom and first to berry, gives first feast to robins and squirrels. I’ve managed to catch the last few.

Striking, tall elderberry, grown up from a wayfaring seed, with large white clusters that bring bees in spring, then birds in late summer for the dark berries — if the mockingbird allows them a nip or two.

And, earlier in the season, our faithful bank of George Tabor azaleas, mature now, from cuttings years ago, practically carefree, and partnered with variegated Solomon’s Seal.

No matter the parade of weeds, no matter the endless mulching, no matter the tiresome staking, I am thankful that after thirty years and mountains of compost ground from millions of leaves laid thick on sticky clay soil, we have lived this Practically Perfect Spring.

Moderate temperatures kept blooms hanging on a little longer with richer, more intense color, unbleached by heat. Sun and rain played equally in the garden. No blasts of heat shriveled new growth and no tongues of cold blackened ripe buds.

It’s time now to stop my royal ramblings and take my turn at being the Handmaiden of our Garden. (The handmaiden with grimy fingernails, that is.) I am thankful that I can partner with a Royal Steward in grimy jeans who is willing to grind leaves or ferry truckloads of garden cast-offs.

For there is a price to pay for this Practically Perfect Spring. And that is — A Summer of Practically Nonstop Pruning.

Here, George Tabor takes over the bench.

But before I get out the shears, let’s dilly dally and take a look at what the garden is giving us in June . . .late azaleas, hydrangeas, daylilies, hosta.

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A Tale of Hellebores in Two Gardens

Dazzle and Disappointment, Inheritance and Intuition

A dazzle of hellebores, also known as lenten roses. Can you find duplicates? Photo by Susan

Part I

Imagine this dazzle growing in one garden. Yup, just one garden: Susan’s Zone 5 garden on a rocky hillside in New Hampshire. Appropriately, she’s floated these beauties in a heart-shaped glass bowl — because don’t we all love hellebores! Commonly called lenten rose because of when they bloom, these hardy pioneers clear away the last tired patches of winter.

Early April, wan sunlight gives a lift to still sleepy plants in a New Hampshire garden. Photo by Susan

Now, New Hampshire is well known for a spring season that takes forever to show up. Less well known is its reliable Fifth Season, usually around March-April — a dreary intermission between glorious calendar-photo snowscapes and glorious spring color. The locals call it Mud Season.

A patch of bloodroot breaks bare ground, along with other hopefuls near a vibrant yellow display. Photo by Susan


A closer look at bloodroot, an early-spring New England favorite, as it breaks bare ground. Photo by Susan


Another taste of spring? Photo by Susan

When do hellebores bloom in New Hampshire? You guessed it. Mud Season, when the weather is at its, well, dreariest. Perhaps that Mud-Season ambiance was what impelled Susan to look for a dash of cheer from hellebores. Several years ago she scoured nurseries for the new and elusive.

A high point of color in Mud Season will give way to spring perennials in May. Photo by Susan

Masses of sunbeams in Mud Season. Photo by Susan

North Carolina nurseries were high on the list, specifically Big Bloomers in Sanford. One bright day in late autumn we steamrolled through multiple greenhouses. There we found nuggets of promise in small pots at small prices. She couldn’t leave any behind, so she took one of each variety, many shown here. I got to keep them alive during our relatively benign winter – and incidentally watch them open their first blooms.

Looks like froggie is happy to hug a leaf from the bouquet behind him. Photo by Susan


Massed against a sunny wall. Photo by Susan

Was I envious that my foster plants would eventually go flying north?

An iridescent purple hellebore brightens a bed that in two months will be thick with perennials. Photo by Susan

Not at all! Our garden was still recovering from Hurricane Isabel ’03, and most of our hellebores had skittered off after the trauma. I was not yet ready to purchase replacements. I bought a Japanese snowball bush instead. . .

Photo by Susan

Part II

. . .And waited patiently for a new crop of hellebores to appear. Unlike the dazzle pictured above, our blooms, when they finally arrived, had a range of soft mauves and rosies, with exquisite freckles on faces forever bowing.


When they arrived, I chose the best colors and planted them in masses. Stirred from sleep by late winter sunbeams, they would nod in still-chilly breezes, coaxing me to get the camera out each spring to capture their joyful return.

My prize plants seeded abundantly. With good potting soil and a sprinkle of fertilizer now and then, the seedlings that I pricked out would mature into handsome plants in a couple of years. We began to offer them for sale at garden shows.


One year we had so many they became decorative accents at a Master Gardener flower show, and everyone had to have one.


For a few years we had success with hellebore niger, the lovely white Christmas rose that blooms earlier than the lenten rose.

Lately, though, I’ve come aware of changes I hadn’t picked up over the years. I must confess that after I greet these reliable old friends with a smile each spring, and they nod greetings from comfortably crowded beds, garden chores consume me, and my vision tunnels.

These are old friends, after all. Or are they? Today, many of those subtle mauves and rosies that I had taken for granted are gone. What happened?


I began to suspect a pattern. Over the years, scattered solo plants would grow splendidly, then drop out, leaving a big hole in the landscape. Why? They’d all been given standard hellebore treatment: a modest amount of sun and velvet compost, and occasional sprinklings of 10-10-10 fertilizer in January when they began growing. (Not necessary, but it does give a nice boost to the plants.)

Hellebores are usually carefree and long-lived. Apparently not mine. I have not yet mentioned one key element in the equation: good drainage. Pottery clay cradles our garden. The water table is a scant 18 inches or less below the surface. Raised beds help, but they are not always the answer.

Young plants greedy for nutrients and water will send out roots and thrive. But larger root systems of older plants can’t always find purchase in soils that are swamped during rainy spells or wet winters. Root-rot or stem-rot can set in and plants give up.

It’s a pattern we now recognize and even expect to occur in certain varieties of shrubs. Prunus (cherries) and weigela, for example, grow into lovely plants and then one day they are leafless.

In crowded beds a small patch of dead leaves does not warrant full-up inspection, so it was a while before I cottoned to this revolving door of hellebores. Mature plants survive for a few years, then cede the land to their offspring.

Here’s the rub. The offspring are disappointing. They are not as pretty as my chosen favorites. I suspect that those basic laws of inheritance about dominant and recessive genes are playing out in my garden. Over time, dominant genes tend to produce survivors with tame blooms.


Still, they are welcome each spring, and I will always thank my first hellebore for opening my eyes to a guiding principle in gardening. As a gullible neophyte, when I purchased a picture-perfect hellebore with spectacular blooms, guiding principles were nowhere in my thinking.

It was picture-perfect the second year, too. But the expert-in-the-book said to cut out the leaves in spring. Tough and glossy the leaves looked. Healthy. But I’d heard that hellebores were persnickety. If I didn’t follow directions, maybe my plant would die. So I cut. And it died.

That was when I learned that I should trust my own instincts and my own observation, that knowledge should be tempered by plain old common sense. I can’t say for sure that my pruning killed the plant. But from that time on, my judgment calls were based on my gardener’s intuition, an unexpected gift from my first hellebore.


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In a Hatter’s Mad World There is Escape to a Garden

Of all the quirky grounds I can think of for escaping to a garden – snooping on box turtles, smelling the rain – never would I have listed escaping a pandemic. More specifically, the noise of the fear.

‘Jet Trail’ quince and native honeysuckle, early spring bloomers, opposite variegated Solomon’s Seal just emerging, backed by George Tabor azaleas

I am acutely conscious that a universe of microbes with spikes is waiting to get their tenterhooks into me. I know I must be vigilant about washing my hands and touching the mail and holding my breath around suspicious people and keeping track of toilet paper and sanitizer.

Now I am addicted to checking media minutiae, not once, but several times a day. Then I promptly forget the meaningless numbers, or I drop zeros, or maybe add some – which is why I have to check several times a day.

Between tallies, late-breaking sagas explode like curve balls.

Press conferences from the Twilight Zone. . . .Bidding wars on ventilators and masks and whatever else may be profitable for sellers. . . .Cruise ships adrift at sea. . . .Workers furloughed. . . .Velvet gloves for corporations. . . .Clogged sewers. . . .Overworked caregivers in bandanas and plastic garbage bags. . . .Concerned patriots silenced for honesty. . . .Beach parties and barbecues. . . .

Forget the virus, it’s the stock market, stupid. Barely mentioned, but oh so sad, people sick and dying alone. But we soldier on in our isolation, tethered to phantom statistics drained of life blood.

Are we living a mad modern twist to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland without the memorable charm of the original?

A cloudy blue sky mirrored in tannin-stained waters

In the chill of an early spring morning I walk in my garden. The bleating fades. The world seems reassuringly ordered. Geese are honking (to sweethearts?), wrens are chorusing from fence posts, cardinals are calling out territories with civility, a hairy woodpecker is vigorously attacking our house, and it looks like a beaver has been tackling an 80-foot gum.

Pink flowering almond explodes with joy

The sweet green growth of spring has quietly come round, early, while I have been sidelined by noise. Its breezes are shaking off remnants of winter as, bit by bit they unmask secrets of summer. Kindly, I am invited into a charmed and reassuring circle of seasons that I thought had gone missing.

Japanese red maple ‘Bloodgood’ glows in an eastern sun

Dogwood blossoms seem brighter and whiter this year. Red maple leaves redder. Crab apple bouquets showier.

This lavender azalea, a gift from a friend’s garden, is among the first to bloom in spring

Azaleas flouncy (except for shrubs the deer chewed along paths that we’ve provided).

A splash this spring, Japanese snowball bush is on its way to becoming queen of the border — I hope

Japanese snowball, still gawky after ten years of dawdling, is beginning to live up to its teasingly voluptuous promise.

There are surprises everywhere: blooms on a finally-settled-in cherry tree, flower buds on a tired old mock orange I am reviving. And it looks like azalea slips from a neighbor’s overgrown plant will soon show color.

‘Okama’ cherry has been slow to come round, but I shouldn’t complain. Except for wild cherry, it’s the first cherry, or prunus, to make it in our garden

At my feet fresh new leaves of epimedium poke about, before I’ve even thought of nipping last year’s tired, burgundy-blotched foliage.

Fresh green leaves of epimedium ‘Sulphureum’ roll right over last year’s, backed by flowering lenten rose

Amelanchier (Juneberry the colonists called this multi-stemmed native tree) has puffed out a frothy white halo. What berries there will be in June! What feasts for birds.

Shame on lesser celandine, that flashy rowdy. Now I’m bound to teach it some manners.

Erlicheer narcissus, one of the best daffodils for the south, holds up well during warm days in April, sharing the stage here with crab apple petals

Daffodils, ahead of schedule, are fading already, will soon need the shears, though the late-blooming, fragrant erlicheer are giving us an early show.

I am fortunate that I can escape to this rambling, casual garden (euphemistic excuses for tardy trimming and tidying). Heaven knows, as I look around, there is enough to do on our green acre to push the noise out of my head for a long stretch.

Bob limbs up a watermelon crepe myrtle that during the past thirty years has become a centerpiece in our summer garden

Which surprises me. After thirty or more years of toil, one would assume a pleasure garden would be shipshape, mature plants in place, weeds banished, gardeners resting on hoes, all ready for pleasure. Once or twice we were almost there. I can remember repeating, like a comforting mantra, Just wait till next year.

Long views are my favorite shots. They show me how far we have come, and weeds become instantly insignificant

But whims of time and weather, like unexpected knocks and bumps in our lives, can crumble rosy plans. Storms fell trees. Late winter blasts maim or kill. Flooding rains leave soggy ground that drowns. Early, unforgiving heat spells shrivel and blight.

Opportunistic wisteria cascades amid trees tumbled by high-speed straight-line winds. Note basking turtles

The opportunists survive. These are the hardy hardies that grow blithely on into jungles that threaten to swallow house and garden if they are not whacked back, only to rise again after the whacking.

Some of the “hardy hardies” we have whacked down (about a truckload a week)

Which is fine. In my isolation I have time and weather on my side. I can get my hands muddy or lean on a shovel while I dream about grand vistas. I can play musical plants till I find soul mates for a patch. I can flit from one corner to another and still feel a sense of control, even mastery.

I work in cinematic slow motion, with cuts and edits and replays, but there is serenity in not having to hurry. Maybe this year will be that next year. And if not, it doesn’t matter so much.

And yes, I feel fortunate. Even when I must leave my sanctuary and wash the good earth off my hands and return to the din of the Hatter’s Mad World, I know my garden will be there for me.

One of my favorite spots in the garden, a gift, because it needs little attention

My heart goes out to those on the front lines and those seeing bad times. I hope each of you can find a garden of your own somewhere, a sanctuary that will heal the hurt and restore the heart.

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Garden Memories

Three decades of my memories are seamed to the garden with a lock stitch that cannot unravel. The quiet months, January and February, when the green world seems asleep, often draw me back to those first years, when I was fresh and curious and eager.

I collected 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.

Rose’s Department Store and the old K Mart had interesting plants, too, for practically pennies. 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.

Image from an old glossy photo. This was not a smart stop on a windy road, but I got my prize, cuttings from an old-time deutzia. Wicked candid by Mike

Verges along country roads gave up some gems, too. The challenge was in the chase.

That was when plants were allowed to have personality; they grew however they chose to grow. Once armies of modern nurseries brainwashed plants with chemicals to demand bug-free uniform growth and put them in fancy pots with printed logos and charged a lot of money for them, plant collecting lost much of its allure. But those happy early days had hooked me and laid down the warp and woof of my memories.

This granddaddy pine stood above the garden for years, witnessing my floundering, but after six or seven decades, buffeted by storm and weakened by bark beetles, it became another memory

Well, many of my trophies perished along the way. But many lived on, too. For a long while I believed I was the guiding light in the process. Chastened by experience, my focus – and my memories — broadened from plant collecting to looking, really looking at my garden, absorbing the joys and disappointments as they came along.

Not a memory — yet. This fragile gazing globe, gift from daughter Ellen, has so far survived my clumsy efforts to protect it from wind and weather. It was part of our original fairyland

On a grand scale I rejoiced in a fairyland of dancing lights and shadows on summer afternoons when the sun came in from the west. Then sadly we cleaned up the messes 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 taught me about how fragile the beauty of a garden is. How impermanent over time.

Azaleas, spirea, crabapple in the soft light of spring frame our favorite elf who traveled with us from England twenty years ago. The crabapple, broken by storm, is a memory today.

I discovered that coyote, bobcat, beaver and otter were temporary wayfarers. (Was this garden a safe zone for them? For me?) I can’t forget my close encounters with the animals, large and small, that passed through the garden, and I still wonder about how they survive from day to day in this small world of change.

As I uncovered new (to me) secrets of plants and soil, I learned more about the ways of life in the garden and my memories grew richer as years passed.

Wisps of snow on a fall-blooming ‘Yuletide’ camellia. The plant is one of Bob’s air layers and this photo comes to us from friends who are enjoying its bloom in their garden.

Favorite plants bring good friends to mind. Storms create war zones that leave scars that don’t fade. But rainy winters and scorching summers, bubbling springtimes and wrinkled autumns, they are the dependable rhythms that give anchor to the garden. (As do the ever-so-dependable weeds.)

That said, I hope you can glimpse some fragments of my garden memories from these few photos. They tell a story of contentment and loss, beauty and friendship, youth and old age, surprise and change. A tempering by time that is much more satisfying than my original rows of trophies.

Our Norman Rockwell crabapple sheltered robins’ nests in spring and fed berries to squirrels and birds in fall. It never quite recovered from sacrificial injuries endured when it held back the pines that fell against the house during Hurricane Isabel. Out of gratitude for the weakened and broken but still-blooming tree, we withheld the axe for many years until it inevitably declined.

Last monarch butterfly of the year, late about her rounds. She hovered here for two weeks one November, clinging to, sipping from, the long, tubular flowers of pineapple sage, sharing small pools of nectar with honeybees and sulfurs. The riot of untamed sage succumbed to wet seasons, so we shall never see a repeat performance.

Was she cast among detritus as the year waned?

Before the pines fell and the fairyland was gone, there was shade in our backyard, and hydrangeas cascaded with hostas down to the dock.

Today, natives, Joepye weed, St. Johnswort, boltonia and New York ironweed, flagrant and unruly, battle for territory in wide open space and the western sun.

Our last plant sale. We ran it annually for more than a decade to support environmental causes, and it was a grand excuse for meeting new gardeners and old friends. . .

. . .and for gathering later under the gazebo for a pot luck feast and good fun—even in the rain.

There’s always a frog or two in the pond. This particular visitor usually hid under a lily pad, silent until he heard us chatting during lunch break in the gazebo. Then, he’d harrumph his two cents in a loud bass fiddle. When we stopped talking, he quit croaking. Laugh if you will, but we had a connection with this croaker beneath the waterlily.

Grandpa and Tom drag the remains of two dwarf Burford hollies, sentinels by the front door, into our woodland brush pile. Even with repeated pruning into lollipops (I guess you’d call that topiary), they threatened to swallow the house.

Master Gardeners visit in the rain. They’re hardy fellows. But wait, half the group has disappeared. To drier terrain under the gazebo no doubt.

Chrysanthemum ‘Sheffield’ began life in our garden as a single-stemmed stowaway hidden among thorns on an old rose bush from a friend’s garden. Rambling and rambunctious, it brightens our November gardens and is an oasis for last-minute insect visitors.

Prom night for high school seniors ready to take on the world, but first a photo session in our garden with a professional photographer.

My favorite memory of all. Master Digger Bob working in the garden to make it grand.

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43,000 People are Suing Bayer over Cancer from Roundup

A David and Goliath Story — With some Twists

Plaintiffs in these high-profile cases are a mix of professional and amateur groundskeepers, landscapers, gardeners. They have used Roundup for decades and claim that their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that can be fatal, was caused by the glyphosate in Roundup.

(This is the same weed killer that kills the milkweed that Monarch butterflies depend on to survive.)

Monsanto, the manufacturer, is now owned by Bayer, so this is the Goliath that must take the hits.

If ever there will be any hits.

At first Bayer dismissed the cases as “nuisances.”

Only three cases have gone to court so far. But the verdicts have been stunning. Juries awarded millions in damages, two billion in one case. (Even-handed judges have reduced awards, but they are still in the millions.) Bayer is appealing.

To this day Bayer insists that glyphosate is not carcinogenic.

Jurors and plaintiffs disagree. Studies presented during trials convinced them that indeed glyphosate is poisonous. They are angry. They’ve been misled, lied to and taken for fools by Monsanto/Bayer, and the verdicts mirror their disgust.

Internal company documents, unofficially called the “Monsanto Papers,” revealed that scientists were bribed and bullied, reports were ghost-written or buried, and employees colluded with regulators. Said one of the judges: “There was nothing suggesting that anybody at Monsanto viewed this issue objectively or with any consideration for the life of human people.”

Now Bayer is whining about unfair adverse publicity and blaming junk science for distorting facts.

To date, there are three big wins, no losses. Clearly, the Davids have the advantage. The slingshots are primed and aimed.

But not yet free to fire. Goliath is flexing his muscles.

Behind the scenes Bayer is muscling in on the courts. A fourth case, to be tried in Monsanto’s home town of St. Louis has been pulled from the docket. Stays are being granted for many other cases.

The Environmental Protection Agency has never formally ruled on the safety of Roundup. Instead, the Agency maintains glyphosate poses “no risks of concern to human health” and is “not a carcinogen.”

So it is no surprise to learn that EPA has now become an ally of Bayer. In an incredible turnabout, EPA and the Dept. of Justice have joined hands to file court papers in support of Bayer as it tries to reverse a California jury’s award of 25 million to a cancer victim.

But burying so many lawsuits is an impossible feat, even for a Goliath like Bayer. The conglomerate is now agreeing to mediation, though with the proviso that settlements will be financially reasonable and that there will be a cap on future liability. Mediation will no doubt drag on for years.

Bayer is confident. With allies in government and strong demand for Roundup by US farmers and property owners, to the tune of 26 million pounds a year, the company’s bottom line will not suffer.

Goliath appears to be winning, despite slingshot buckshot that’s taking the shine from his armor.

Most discouraging: Even if we Davids choose not to use Roundup in our gardens, we are getting a dose of the poison every day in foods that we eat. Glyphosate is routinely sprayed around crops to kill weeds and directly on some crops before they are harvested.

Most encouraging: Some slingshot buckshot is coming from, of all companies: Kellogg’s. The cereal producer plans to stop using glyphosate before harvest on all of its crops. Surely more companies will follow?

Slingshot buckshot is being fired from other directions. A peach farmer in Missouri is suing Bayer for damage to his orchards from dicamba, yet another Monsanto product that is combined with Roundup for extra punch. Trouble is, dicamba drifts uncontrollably and has contaminated farmfields and settled on dwellings in the south.

Slingshot buckshot is being fired on PCBs, too. Four states and ten cities are suing Bayer over PCBs produced by Monsanto for more than half a century from the 1920’s until they were banned in 1979. PCBs, widely used in industry, have polluted our waters and tainted our seafood. Monsanto knew for half a century how deadly poisonous they were.

Enjoy your apple a day the Monsanto/Bayer way.

No view is quite so dazzling as a vast field of cotton in September after it has been defoliated by, for instance, a combination of glyphosate and dicamba. Foliage is  dessicated and bolls pop. Cotton is routinely defoliated for more efficient picking and packing by machines that resemble alien craft with searchlights when they operate at night

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