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.

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 , , | 2 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

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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. (A prenuptial agreement forbade him to use his wife’s fortune to satisfy his debts; he found forgiveness elsewhere.)

Section of a 1775 map showing Batts Grave south of today’s Yeopim River

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 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 small but inexorable role that continues today and makes the Albemarle even more vulnerable. Below is a map showing the big picture.

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

Blame glaciers for sinking, or subsidence. Tons of ice crush the land beneath. In response, unglaciated land south of the glacier eases upward. (Like a slow-motion see saw.)

As glaciers melt, compressed land begins to rise. Land to the south reacts by sinking. Now 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.

Worrisome as it may be, this is only a micro-snapshot in time.

Let’s puts some boots on and rest for a moment at the edge of a melting glacier, say 15,000 years ago. Seas then are about 400 feet below today’s seas. A barrier beach might have been some fifty miles east of today’s Outer Banks.

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 pushed westward. Marshes are flooded and die and are born anew, replacing swamp forests whose trees have drowned but scattered seeds that will take hold on dryer land. It is an inexorable migration of life.

How far out on the continental shelf did early man live? The Albemarle area holds a plethora of  fluted points and artifacts, including a dugout canoe from about 6000 BP (Before Present). The artifacts of those first Paleo-Indians, however, are drowned in open seas today, so we can only imagine the extent of their occupation..

These early Indians were hunter-gatherers who followed the food supply. They did not have vested interests in real estate and infrastructure, so they managed migration with skill. 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.

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.

Coring on Roanoke Island by the NC Coastal Geology Cooperative reveals a combined rate of subsidence and rise in sea level as follows: 3 inches prior to the 19th century; 7 inches by the end of the 19th century; 16 inches by the end of the 20th century.

Sounds impossible, doesn’t it, but 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 these days. 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.

Would you like to go back to the past and see a piece of the future?

Where the sea has been and where it is going, Stan Riggs History of Sea Level Rise. NC Division of Coastal Mgmt.

Take a minute to study the map above. The gray area represents an abrupt 20 to 25 foot rise from the lowlands of the coastal plain. It is called the Suffolk Scarp, or Suffolk Shoreline, and is apparent today on the west shore of the Chowan River.

This photo by geologist Stan Riggs pictures a terrace that adjoins the Suffolk Scarp along the Chowan River which flows into western Albemarle Sound

The Suffolk Scarp is the remains of a shoreline that existed 80,000 to 125,000 years ago during a warm period when sea level was 25 feet higher than it is today.

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

Rising seas are expected to reach the Suffolk Scarp in the next 100 to 500 years.

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 once took only two minutes to drain into nearby waters. Now it takes more than two months. NC Coastal Federation

New ideas must bubble up through collaboration with scientists, government officials and communities. Money is needed to experiment and implement. Like paleo-Indians we need to develop resilience, a concept that has been adopted by many planners.

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 technical and financial assistance in planning, developing shovel-ready projects that can put fixes in place immediately after a government call for proposals. We should be working with climate, not against it, treating land as an asset to be managed wisely.

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 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.

As we already know, it is up to people brainstorming and barnstorming to find solutions that will protect the environment and take care of human needs.

With political will and public-private partnerships, the dedication of non-profit groups and a broad base of support from communities, we can tackle the tasks before us and 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: in particular, 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 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.

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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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Albemarle Sound: Voyage Through Centuries IX

The Mighty Herring Fisheries

When the shadbush bloomed in spring, the hard work and celebrations began. Schools of shad and river herring teemed in from the ocean through inlets and into the Sound and up rivers, bound for their birth places to spawn a new generation.

Alewives, one species of river herring. Jerry Prezioso NOAA

At a time when people lived off the land, these silver fish brought great joy and the promise of full cupboards, a fine reason for exuberant annual celebrations.

Buckets, baskets, nets, poles. Families scooped up fish that would feed them throughout a long winter.  Shad had to be kept on ice to stay fresh, so it was eaten immediately, but the oily flesh of herring lent itself to salting, pickling and drying that would preserve it for a year or more.

(Well into the twentieth century you could find community celebrations of herring runs — and barrels of corned herring in country kitchens.)

Fishermen cast their net baskets off a bridge in Martin County late 19th century

Around the end of the 19th century, herring could be purchased on river banks in spring for as little as one dollar a thousand, though the average price was $2.50. A dollar a month, wrote one Chowan County native, would procure for a person the most usual diet of much of the population — herring, cornbread (corn was 40 cents a bushel) and tea brewed from native yaupon holly.

From the 1760s on, commercial fisheries were operating on Albemarle rivers, catching fish in cunning, labyrinthine weirs of poles and reeds. Pickled herring were shipped up the coast to Baltimore, New York and Boston; west to the Great Plains; and south to the West Indies. By sail. By steamer. By rail.

Salted herring packed in wooden bins for shipping. Smithsonian Institution Archives

A century later, about the same time shad boats were first skimming waters, the pound net was introduced, while huge seine nets were catching vast numbers of fish  with breathtaking efficiency.

The Seahawk herring boat piled high with fish, on Albemarle Sound

Every plantation had a shoreline of smooth sand where fish were landed and processed. Capstans, or windlasses for hauling seines in, salting houses, processing sheds, and offices created a mini fishing town.

Fishing flats Avoca

During fish hauls, two ten-oared boats would carry a seine more than two miles long and several feet deep off shore. Boatmen would row in opposite directions extending the seine, which had a line of corks on top to keep it afloat and a line of lead weights on the bottom to sink it. The seine would be strung out in a direction to block the herring as they swam upstream to spawn.

In 1861 Harper’s Weekly published a moment-by-moment rapid-fire account of hauling in a catch. Here is an excerpt. It begins after the fish have been caught in the seine and the seine is attached to capstans.

Capstans could be turned by men, mules, or eventually, by steam in order to tighten the seine

In this instance, mules are used to turn the capstans to tighten the seine until the fish are crowded and surrounded by net on shore.

Fifty stalwart men rush into the water, waist-deep. The captains shout and swear, the gulls and eagles scream, and dashing into the melee, audaciously snatch their share of the spoil.

A few minutes of heavy dragging and the flashing, wriggling mass is rolled upon the beach; a line of wide planks is hastily staked up behind, the net withdrawn, and the boatmen again put off cheerily to repeat the haul.

Hauling the catch, engraving from Harper’s Weekly i879

The women and boys now rush knee-deep into the gasping heap. The shad are first counted into baskets and carried to the packing-house; while the herring are headed, cleaned, and thrown into tubs, ready for the salters—all of which is transacted with merciless coolness and the most wonderful celerity.

It requires from five to seven hours to complete a haul ; and as there is no respite by day or night, three and four hauls are made within the twenty-four hours. The only time allowed for eating and sleeping is during the odd hours snatched by the different classes of workers when their especial branch of service is suspended. When the hauls are not heavy the cleaners and salters have an easy time between landings. The boatmen sleep while the mules wind in the net; the mules browse and bray while the boats are out.

Black women waiting to sort, gut. head, salt and pack fish. By the time they finish one haul, another will come in. A seine is piled on a fishing flat in the background. Smithsonian Institution archives

A first-class fishery employs from eighty to a hundred bipeds, and a dozen or twenty quadrupeds, and the labor during an active season of six weeks or two months is equal to that of a brisk military campaign in face of an enemy.

Of all the striking views of this exciting and picturesque business the night-haul is pre-eminent in interest. Here the lively scenes of the day are reenacted amidst the glare of pine torches, which exhibits the wild figures of the fishermen and the death-struggles of the finny captives in the most dramatic light possible.

Fishing at night was common during herring runs. Torches kept boats from losing their way. Fishermen’s night songs, hymns. chanteys, or old slave songs could be heard from across the water, “nothing more stirring than those crews singing on a moonlit night” recalled Col Capehart, owner of the fishery. Engraving from Harper’s Weekly

Besides needing captains and crews, cleaners and packers, skilled seine menders were valued for keeping the seines, which had to be tarred, in top shape. Holes in a net meant lost profits. Coopers made barrels for storage. A manager attended to details on shore and sold to customers on the beach.

Even children who were hanging around would be put to work where needed; their pay would be a bucket of fish for supper. Regular workers were paid a share of the profits.

Salting the herring for dinner at the fishery. Much larger troughs are used when salting for shipping. Smithsonian Institution Archives

It was not uncommon to take a hundred thousand river herring in a haul, though most hauls were smaller, five thousand up to thirty thousand. Since it cost between five and ten thousand dollars to establish a fishery, only wealthy planters could afford the upfront costs. The vast majority of farmers gathered their fish for personal consumption in dip nets or bow nets.

Every river had its haul of fish, though uniqueness of terrain and flow created differences in the personalities of rivers.

By the end of the 19th century the herring and herring roe of Albemarle Sound had won widespread fame. In a world where herring fisheries ruled, Albemarle fisheries were king.

Extracting shad roe 1877 at the Capehart fishery on Albemarle Sound. Smithsonian Institution archives

In a curious twist, settlers here  — laboring mightily in an inhospitable but richly endowed land, living on the edge, isolated,  self-reliant, insular — grew to have standing on the world map. Markets in New England, Europe, the Caribbean, even Russia eagerly sought their fish, their naval stores, their cotton and produce, their lumber.

We are fortunate today to have a rich photographic record of this era. During the 1870s the U.S Fish Commission sent scientists into the field to document fisheries nationwide. They produced a multi-volume report; the photographic collection is housed in Smithsonian Institution archives.

The North Carolina History Museum in Raleigh also houses archival photographs. Historian David Cecelski has reproduced many of these photographs in his blog posts about the herring fisheries. He tells an insider’s tale of coastal North Carolina life and fishing traditions.

At least thirty men heave thousands of fish onto the beach at Avoca in Bertie County 1877. Smithsonian Institution Archives

And Then the Fish Stopped Coming

As far back as the 1840s, a few prescient people sensed that the fishery could not last under such colossal landings. But it did not occur to most people that there could ever be an end to this bonanza. They simply assumed they could count on these fish to arrive on time each year, in the millions, as expected, forever.

Even the eminent scientist, Thomas Huxley, president of the Royal Society in England, saw no reason for concern. I believe, then, that the cod fishery, the herring fishery…and probably all the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible…(1883)

By 1896 0ver 1100 pound nets in Sound and rivers had replaced the labor-intensive haul seines, and fishermen were landing over 20 million pounds annually.

So many pound nets blocked passage of river herring that the state enacted the Vann Law in 1905 that required fishermen to leave a channel in the Sound to allow fish to migrate to their natal waters for spawning.

Still, the fishery continued to decline in the twentieth century. During the 1950s total catches were about 11 to 12 million annually. By the 1970s they had dropped to about 8 million, and in 1993 came the crash, down to one million.

Northeast North Carolina was not the only area that suffered losses. In 1965 the entire range of Atlantic states harvested over 64 million pounds. Forty years later total harvest for the combined area was under 100,000 pounds, almost a 99 percent decrease.

The fishery had died. In 2006 a moratorium on commercial fishing was declared in North Carolina. Three New England states, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, joined the moratorium, but other coastal states did not. The fish did not come back.

Fishermen once unloaded boat loads of herring at fish houses like Perry Wynn’s on the Chowan River. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Oct 2007

The demise of the river herring fishery has vast implications for life in the sea. It is, for instance, probably responsible for the weakening of the cod fisheries in New England and Canada.

The river herring, after all, is low man on the food chain. It is born to be eaten. Half of a herring’s year is spent out in the Atlantic Ocean, anywhere from Canada to South Carolina or Florida, being eaten by the big fish that count on the silvery slivers swimming in massive schools.

For eons the silver slivers have been dinner and dessert for big creatures of the ocean like cod. Without them and their cousins the food chain collapses and nobody gets dessert.

In the Albemarle river herring are the preferred food for the rockfish, or striped bass, another great Albemarle fishery whose story most appropriately belongs to the Roanoke River. Can you imagine the turmoil, the frenzy, the catching and losing, as river herring and striped bass jostle in that race of millions to find their particular spawning grounds?

Striped bass, or rockfish, are the tigers of the Sound. In the days of big herring catches, landings of rockfish could weigh thousands of pounds. It was not unusual for a single rockfish to weigh a hundred pounds. Wikipedia

Let us return for a moment to the first American settlements when tools were few and simple, and survival depended on the wit, skill, and hardiness of those early men and women.

The environment provided everything they needed if they learned its ways. And if the rains failed one season, or a drought or a flood came along, well, they would have to work harder, and they might lose anyway.

They were conservationists by default because they could tame the environment with only their sinew, and maybe a mule to help them along. They could not claim control over the land.

Giant tupelo and cypress trees in Merchants Millpond State Park in the flood plain of the Chowan River are suggestive of the swamps the settlers encountered.

Then we developed bigger, more efficient tools, and the search for ease of living and profits replaced survival with two hands. (Can you blame us?)

We pursued technology that would control the environment and meet our needs and expectations. (Can you blame us?)

We thought our rational approach would solve problems, so we substituted that for an intimate understanding of wild ways, a knowledge that is only gradually acquired, with patience, a knowledge that doesn’t lend itself to committee meetings and graphing.

We set no boundaries. There was great good, but there was greed…

We lost touch with the ways of the land, and we did not know what we were losing. Not just here in the Albemarle but all over the country.

Progressive loss of touch and delight in progress undergird the loss of the river herring fishery–and many more losses.

When losses became too great, we woke up. We studied. Lots of studies. One is of particular interest because its scale had local and national focus.

Urged by a generation of activists who came along after the first Earth Day in 1970, farsighted congressmen took note of declines in fisheries across the country. In the 1980s they sponsored legislation that would fund major studies of estuaries.

The Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine Study (APES) was born. Scientists, government officials and private citizens cooperated to explore reasons — and seek solutions — for declining catches.

The study area, the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine System. EPA and US Geological Service

Turns out these little ten-inch-long fish that weigh half a pound have had the book thrown at them.

Here is how we messed up and how we are trying to reconcile the damage:

Decades of overfishing.

  • In times past there was a balance between juveniles and older fish in schools of river herring.
  • Juveniles need to wait three or four years before they can spawn, and their first year of spawning is usually only a warm-up.
  • Older females become  more and more productive with age and can release up to 100,000 eggs annually. However, they are exhausted after spawning and vulnerable to predators. They return to the ocean to recover and refuel.
  • If you decimate either class, you lose the future. Hence the moratorium on commercial fishing for herring in 2oo6. It is still in place.

Spawning herring. Milt from the male turns water milky, while females lay eggs on the substrate. Alaska Fish & Game

Activity in the Atlantic Ocean.

  • During the late 1960s and early 1970s fleets of foreign trawlers with mammoth nets were intercepting herring out in the Atlantic Ocean on their way to the Sound, 24 million pounds caught in 1969 alone.
  • In 1977 the Magnuson-Stevens Act forbade fishing within the 200-mile band of waters called the Exclusive Economic Zone of the United States.

Bluebacks and alewives, collectively called river herring, are anadromous fish. They spend much of the year in the North Atlantic, then migrate south to the brackish water of the Sound to spawn. Their lives outside the Sound are a mystery, except  that they are eaten by big fish and sea birds. NC Wildlife Resources Oct 2007

Barricades block fish migration

  • Nets once reached across rivers until regulated.
  • Dams alter river flow.
  • Streams are forced into culverts as roads are built across them.
  • Today, where possible, bridges replace culverts and dam-flow is altered to aid spawning (with mixed results in the Roanoke River)

Water exiting a culvert at a road crossing. Fish do not like the turbulence inside this giant tin can, nor do they like brushing against cold steel instead of soft sand

Loss of Habitat

  • Wetlands ditched. Woodlands clear cut. Pavement laid down. Development favored.
  • Streams rerouted. Riverbanks reworked.
  • Rainwater that once seeped lazily into streams pulses unchecked into waterways that become an open fire hose flushing larvae and young fish.
  • Today, permits are necessary for work done near water courses that are protected under the Clean Water Act. Not all of them are protected and permitting can be sketchy.

Wetland that has been ditched on North River Farms. NC Coastal Federation photo

Pollution from Agriculture

  • Sediment that runs off farms and construction sites clogs gills and buries larvae.
  • Nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizer runoff  cause algae to bloom. When algae die, they break down, robbing water of oxygen, causing fish kills. (A particular problem in the Chowan River).
  • Best Management Practices (BMPs) used on farms and forests reduce runoff, minimize erosion.
  • Integrated Pest Management on crops encourages farmers to use less pesticide (and saves them money, too.Algal blooms on the Chowan River

Pollution from Municipalities and industry

  • Toxic organics, heavy metals, and oil from roads and parking lots.
  • Nutrients, bacteria, heavy metals,  and chemicals from the sewers of industries and cities.
  • Updated treatment plants treat waste water from municipalities and industry. (Fortunately, minimal urban sprawl and industry here has limited pollutants.


Street-side swale and pervious concrete sidewalk that allow rain water to seep into the soil are ways to control urban run-off. Wikimedia

The great herring catches are shadows now.  We are trying to mend damages from two hundred years or more. We have removed too much critical habitat for the great fisheries to be reclaimed, but we have shifted toward conservation.

Wildlife refuges, state and county parks, and game lands protect land and provide habitat for wildlife and outdoor experiences for people.

Kayaking in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

People must feel that they have a stake in protecting the vitality of land and water, their land, their water. Public education must focus on developing an understanding of natural cycles and how we can live in harmony with them.

The Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership (APNEP) is  doing just that as today’s successor to the original estuarine study (APES).

As its name implies, it partners with a variety of groups to support research, restoration and public education. It is a comprehensive approach to protecting our land and water.

Monitoring water quality, Daniel Zapf

This coastal plain where the rivers meet the sea is still compelling, still beautiful, still a respite for many. With care, it can continue to be so.

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Albemarle Sound: Voyage Through Centuries: VIII

A War that Wasn’t Wanted and the Expedition Hurricane

North Carolina did not want a fight.

South Carolina must have been itching for one because she seceded in 1860, before President Lincoln took office. She commandeered federal forts in the state, then dared Lincoln to provision the troops at an unfinished Fort Sumter by firing on it.

North Carolina was enjoying unprecedented prosperity.

Her economy was booming. Wealthy planters did not want to lose their investments or their power. Small farmers were doing well and weren’t interested in fighting to support planters’ interests. Lincoln didn’t seem so threatening, though he hadn’t even been on the ballot in North Carolina. And, generally, people liked living under the protection of the federal government.

Debate over secession could be acrimonious, but as late as February, 1861 the vote by the legislature in Raleigh (the new capital) was overwhelmingly pro-Union.

A month after the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 and Lincoln’s immediate proclamation to stop the rebellion, North Carolina became the 11th and last state to vote to secede.

She had no choice. She would have been at war with her neighbors, fighting her Sister States. The vote was unanimous. 

Pro-Union sentiment was strongest in the eastern and western parts of the state. Many pro-union planters, fearful of ruin,  moved family and slaves to the central part of the state; others aligned with the Confederacy.

One of the finest painters of the Civil War was Conrad Wise Chapman, who actually fought as a Confederate soldier, Here is  a rendering of The 59th Brigade, also called Wise’s Brigade, that fought in Virginia and Carolina

North Carolina had nothing to gain and everything to lose by seceding. And lose she did. 

She sent 130,000 of her young men into the war. She lost 40,000, half to disease. More than any other confederate state on both counts.

Confederate soldiers, from The Civil War, by Ken Burns

Albemarle counties raised volunteer units, many of whom saw the full brunt of the war, including the fateful Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg. Captain Benjamin Skinner wrote of the constant whistle of the musical minnie… above our heads.

There was no standing army but each county had its own militia. It was not unusual for troops to be furnished with firearms purchased from private citizens. Sometimes daily rations amounted to as little as a few crackers and a quarter pound of meat, and men might go for a month without a change of clothes.

Photo of Confederate volunteers

Wrote the same Captain, Sufferings, privations & hardships have been endured such as no modern armies of their countrys have ever been called upon to undergo…but the… greater our sufferings now the more glorious will be our greater triumph…

Within a year, General Ambrose Burnside’s Expedition had captured towns in the east and established a blockade.

The Great Expedition under way, the Union armada to establish a blockade, sketched in October 1861

Control of Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds was firmly in Union hands in a bid to cut off General Lee’s southern supply routes to Virginia.

Hatteras had fallen. Roanoke Island was falling.

Artist’s engraving of Union troops going ashore on Roanoke Island to battle Confederate troops

Union troops and a fledgling Navy easily outmaneuvered seven small Confederate boats they called The Mosquito Fleet to capture the Island. On land volunteers tangled with Burnside’s men but were no match for the larger forces.

They were captured and three weeks later they were paroled. They then set about forming a new company with others and joined another regiment.

Confederate Prisoners by Winslow Homer, who had toured the South and sketched military and civilian life there during the war

Apparently the release of captives was common in the early years of the war. Prisoners of war would be held for a while, then freed, sometimes after taking an oath of allegiance to the Union. Whether they re-enlisted was an individual decision.

Life in Albemarle counties was overturned. Sound and rivers became thoroughfares for gunboats. Towns were shelled in skirmishes to maintain the Union blockade.

Confederate Steamship Eolus patrolled Albemarle Sound and rivers

To counter Union action the state authorized counties to form guerilla bands called Rangers to harass Union forces. Rangers in the Albemarle were most effective, since their members were so familiar with its forbidding terrain. They also prevented slaves from crossing Union lines and terrorized Union sympathizers.

Stating that they were virtually bandits, an angry Union commander threatened serious reprisals. Locals, too, were not happy with the depredations and the secretive nature of these bands.

Meanwhile, Albemarle residents had been smuggling supplies for Lee’s army. Provisions would be shipped from Norfolk Virginia through the Dismal Swamp Canal into northeast North Carolina.

From there they were ferried  west through swamp and river, then back up north to Lee’s army in Petersburg, or further north to Richmond, Virginia. The hand-off of supplies was probably done relay-style, from crew to crew.

To stop the smuggling, federal forays destroyed bridges and roads but the supply stream continued.  The Union then organized Negro troops to intervene, a move that was bound to incite citizens, particularly in light of reputed atrocities. It worked. Citizens were kept in a state of fear and panic.

A truce of sorts was arranged. The Union would remove Negro troops if citizens stopped smuggling and the Rangers were disbanded.  A jittery peace was restored, though it a Union captain acknowledged later that this circuitous supply route through northern North Carolina remained effective during the War.

Exports of cotton, lumber, ships stores and fishery products that were expected to pay the bills were halted by the blockade. Imports of necessary goods were blocked. Basics became luxuries.

From 1862 to 1865 prices soared because of profiteering by smugglers: a barrel of flour went from $18 to $500; corn, a staple, went from $1 a bushel to $30. Parched corn was used to make coffee, and sorghum was grown and processed instead of purchasing sugar.

Wrote one resident, Sure this War is meant to check the profusion in which we have lived & to teach the rising generation economy & the employment of their resources.

Many southerners could not believe that slaves would want to escape bondage. They were quite sure that slaves felt such a strong attachment to their masters they would never leave, that they were being driven or enticed to federal camps. When slaves took advantage of the Emancipation Proclamation, planters felt betrayed.

There were, however, blacks who remained loyal to the Confederacy

Yet as soon as Union troops arrived in an area slaves would follow their camps. Slaves that did not flee often piloted Union ships and revealed the location of Rangers.

If you can cross the creek to Roanoke Island, you will find safe haven.

Roanoke Island became a refuge for escaped and freed slaves. Protected by the Union army, over 3500 refugees would settle there in a camp called the Freedman’s Colony where community life flourished: families could live as families, children could attend schools, gardens could grow and going to church was central to life.

Photograph of housing in the Freedman’s Village

Some freedmen from Roanoke Island and other camps in eastern Carolina offered their skills to Union forces, or became spies, guides and scouts, built forts and bridges and served in four Union regiments.

Blacksmith working in the Freedman’s village. There were at least two other similar villages in the east

After the war the land was returned to the original owners and colony members became refugees again. Reports of depredations by some of these refugees and others caused counties to establish militia to maintain control.

It wasn’t all rosy for Union ships on Burnside’s Expedition. Bad weather plagued them in turbulent seas. In November, 1861, the Expedition Hurricane scattered a Union fleet of 75 ships off Cape Hatteras. Two vessels sank, and others were wrecked by Confederate forces. Storm surge was so high it  inundated Hatteras Island.

Words from one sailor: Wind continued to rise till at 11 pm it blew almost a gale…The scene was fearful but magnificent. The ship was tossing and pitching…The waves were rolling at least 20 feet high.

Words from another: Last night was the worst I ever saw. I could not sleep for I had as much as I could do to hold myself in my bunk. Reynolds got thrown out of his…8 am Window in stern got stove in the night…water was three or four inches deep. Shoes, guns, knapsacks…floating round in fine style.

Rescue of a battalion of 485 Marines from the foundering SS Governor. Seven men were lost trying to jump toward the rescue ship USS Sabine

Then, on a stormy New Years Eve in 1862 the ironclad warship, the Monitor, sank in 300 feet of water almost 200 miles off Cape Hatteras, losing 16 of her crew. She had performed extraordinarily well in service.

The Monitor, foreground, sinking offshore. In addition to a revolving turret, many unique features had been included in her hull

The first ever duel between ironclad warships took place near the mouth of the James River when the smaller Monitor clashed with the formerly wooden frigate Virginia. The Virginia had previously sunk, then was raised and re-outfitted as an ironclad and rechristened the Merrimack.

Battle between the Merrimack and the Monitor. The Merrimack looks like the roof of a barn; the Monitor sits low in the water, only 18 inches exposed

The Confederacy hoped to use the Merrimack to break the Union blockade, and before the Monitor arrived, she had already destroyed two wooden Union ships.

The battle ended inconclusively; the blockade remained. But the clash between two ironclads marked a major turning point in the history of naval warfare, and the two ships are memorialized in the names of Hampton Roads tunnels.

The Union and Confederacy had both developed steam-powered ironclads because ships built from wood could no longer withstand fire power from late-model heavy artillery.  European countries took note of this battle and immediately stopped construction of wooden ships.

The Monitor’s location is a watery historic site, and the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, VA tells the story of that time through exhibits and artifacts.

The Monitor in its national marine sanctuary.

Only a few months before the Monitor sank, the Merrimack was blown up by her Confederate commanders as Union troops approached Norfolk to tighten the blockade. She was heavily salvaged, so few remnants remain as relics.

There was only one major battle fought on Albemarle Sound, a year before the end of the war. Three confederate warships, including the Albemarle Ram, an ironclad built in a cornfield, and eight Union gunboats faced each other. The battle ended indecisively at sunset.

Battle of the Albemarle May 1864. Three Confederate warships, including an ironclad ram in foreground and sidewheeler in background engaged eight Union gun boats until sunset, when both sides retired. Weapons and Warfare

(During the Civil War, much action in the Albemarle centered on the rivers and towns north of the Sound. These details will be available as we post the profiles of these rivers.)


Left with a shattered economy and a broken society  — devalued land, bearish cotton prices, a crumbled plantation system, destroyed homes and businesses — citizens began to find ways down new paths.

The social fabric of the community had been frayed. Soldiers came back wounded, or they didn’t come back at all. Families were broken by death and disease. Livelihoods were cobbled together by every member of the family.

Going to school would not put food on the table. Money was so tight that the personal surety bond, a sign of trust that was used regularly before the war, was replaced by the mortgage.

The country store and gristmill, many now in disrepair, had offered antebellum farmers more than essential goods and services. Along with churches, they had been the  nucleus of community life. Rural folk, whether landowner or tenant, free black or white, converged to purchase supplies, have their corn ground, or simply visit with neighbors and friends.

A Grand Opening in Plymouth, on the south side of the Sound, 1865

The structure of county government changed. Instead of Justices being appointed to manage affairs, county commissioners were elected to govern, a more democratic process that allowed for participation by blacks, who now voted and began to hold county offices.

Heavily in debt, Albemarle’s county governments struggled to provide aid to the poor, repair bridges, roads and ferries and restore public schools that had been closed early in the war.

Loss of labor, unstable race relations, and an uncertain political future reduced the wealthy to poverty. The Capeharts of Scotch Hall whose plantation had been bringing in $100,000 a year were left with $1200. Still, that was a tidy sum compared to assets of most people.

Freed slaves, now refugees, looking for a new home. Harpers Weekly, 1863

Class and color remained strong points of division throughout the century. Planters had trouble accepting the new equality enjoyed by blacks, and especially the idea of blacks holding public office. Blacks aligned with republicans, putting democrats in the minority.

The Perquimans Record opined in 1892 that the white element in the Republican party is the best class of our people, wealthy, Intelligent and refined. 

Democrats  worked very hard to gain the majority, presupposing that once in power they could reduce the Negro to his former subservience. The rise of Populism that attracted many farmers, slowed them down, but by the 1900’s they were firmly entrenched with a racist agenda.

Cotton and corn crops were good that first year after the war. They fetched high prices. People were optimistic. But rains brought poor cotton crops the next couple of years, and there was barely enough corn for bread.

Spring plowing, the beginning of a new season of hope

The 1870 census revealed devaluation of farm acreage, livestock and crop yields. Cash value of farms dropped by half or more.

Freed slaves and poor whites lacked the money to purchase even devalued farmland and supplies to start them on a new life. Planters  were so deeply in debt that they could not pay workers up front, so they divided up their property and worked out a system of sharecropping or tenancy.

Tenant farmers rented the house and the land they tilled. They had control over what  crops they grew and how they were sold. Out of the cash they received they paid the planter and any merchants the money due for rent and supplies and kept the rest.

Picking cotton on a tenant farm

Sharecroppers seldom owned anything. They rented the land and the house they lived in, along with all supplies needed for farming. They were told what to plant and had no control over sales. After harvest the planter took what was owed to him and paid what was left to the sharecropper.

Most bought supplies from local merchants on credit with the hope that they could pay off their debts after harvest. For many it was an endless cycle of debt and  poverty, reminiscent of the miner in the country-western song, Sixteen Tons, who owed his soul to the company store.


Sharecroppers in the 1890s

Sharecropped farms occupied about 35 percent of farmland north of Albemarle Sound, much less in counties along the south shore. Easing the penury were gifts from Sound and rivers, the dependable, annual running of herring and shad that could be freely taken.

The prosperity of antebellum years never returned to the Albemarle. Post-war industrialization elsewhere in the country did not reach here and farmers still planted their crops and watched the weather.

Those swamps, managed to keep the world away. A low population and lack of an industrial base protected the environment from smokestacks and warehouses. This watery oasis was not seen as a destination for building a bustling metropolis.

Even inroads wrought by Union armies could be and were repaired. Future threats  would come along and would-be moguls would try to exploit the environmental wealth, but they did not succeed with any permanence, even in the twentieth century.

This lack of commerce and industry created some of the poorest counties in the state. Yet there was not a vast exodus of African Americans from the Albemarle  during either wave of the Great Migration during the  twentieth century.

They chose to stay

Families with long lineage here, black and white, close-knit and close-by, have given support and comfort to each other through centuries, and a relatively benign climate eases life.

Lack of heavy commerce maintained a relaxed pace of life that allowed for neighborliness, deferential respect, and time-honored values of God, family and country. In fine weather or flood, people count on each other for help.

Shoreline along the Albemarle Sound, one example of the appeal of the region

Whatever hurt remained from the war, every spring communities could look forward to those heady days when the fish swam up rivers. And they knew that life in the Albemarle would be sustained for yet another year.

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