What I Did Then I Would Never Do Again

(Maybe)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practicing Laissez-faire

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

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

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

Tall and straight. A model tree?

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

Misguided launch, last hurricane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. I shall never again experiment with unknown plants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. I shall never again overcrowd plants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Designated creditors: Wheelbarrows and truck

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

And the never-fail crepe myrtle.

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

Posted in Garden Humor, garden maintenance, Garden Never Agains, Summer | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Empress Josephine: Plantaholic for the Ages

Her Passion for Plants Enriches our Gardens Today

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

But she had no money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josephine wasted no time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outdoor reception at Malmaison. Francoise Flameng 1802

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

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

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

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

Simulated table settings

 

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

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

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

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

Double red dahlia. Pierre Joseph Redoute

(Herbaceous) Peonies. Pierre Joseph Redoute

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

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

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

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

Rosa odorata. Pierre Joseph Redoute

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

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

Rosa Gallica. Pierre Joseph Redoute

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

Souvenir de la Malmaison

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

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

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

The formal entry to Malmaison today. Photo by Pelio Faber

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

Hosta from Les Lilacees. Pierre Joseph Redoute

Hellebore and Carnation from Les Lilacees. Pierre Joseph Redoute

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

Rosa centifolia Anglica rubra. Pierre Joseph Redoute

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

Rosa centifolia (Cabbage Rose). Pierre Joseph Redoute

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A Practically Perfect Spring

But There is a Catch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Native flame azaleas with eye-popping orange blooms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here, George Tabor takes over the bench.

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

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A Tale of Hellebores in Two Gardens

Dazzle and Disappointment, Inheritance and Intuition

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

Part I

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Another taste of spring? Photo by Susan

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

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

Masses of sunbeams in Mud Season. Photo by Susan

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

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

 

Massed against a sunny wall. Photo by Susan

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

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

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

Photo by Susan

Part II

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A cloudy blue sky mirrored in tannin-stained waters

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

Pink flowering almond explodes with joy

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

Japanese red maple ‘Bloodgood’ glows in an eastern sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Garden Memories

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

I collected spectacular (to me) trophies with a sense of adventure and the zeal of a religious convert, haphazardly, from anywhere – weedy fields, abandoned gardens, rural mom-and-pop roadside offerings.

Rose’s Department Store and the old K Mart had interesting plants, too, for practically pennies. Plants-by-mail were cheap, postage nickels and dimes. As we explored the coast, from Florida to Maine, I inveigled plants from specialty nurseries, motel managers, garden caretakers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a grand scale I rejoiced in a fairyland of dancing lights and shadows on summer afternoons when the sun came in from the west. Then sadly we cleaned up the messes when storms struck down the fairyland.

On smaller scale, I took delight in blossoms lit by stray sunbeams that tarried after sunset. These picture memories taught me about how fragile the beauty of a garden is. How impermanent over time.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Was she cast among detritus as the year waned?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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43,000 People are Suing Bayer over Cancer from Roundup

A David and Goliath Story — With some Twists

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

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

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

If ever there will be any hits.

At first Bayer dismissed the cases as “nuisances.”

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

To this day Bayer insists that glyphosate is not carcinogenic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy your apple a day the Monsanto/Bayer way.

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

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Remembering Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868)

Global Johnny Appleseed?

(One of an occasional series about unsung players in the world of plants)

If Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward had been able to grow ferns in his garden, we might not enjoy bananas in our cereal today.

Dr. Ward was a 19th century physician who lived in East London. He spent his teen years in tropical Jamaica, where flambuoyant foliage there may have inspired his passion for plants.

Unfortunately Dr. Ward’s London garden was, instead, a study in shriveled blacks and grays, where even ferns were casualties to soot from volumes of smoke issuing from surrounding manufactories (his words).

The smoke from “manufactories” in London cannot be understated, even into the 20th century. 1926 newspaper photo. Credit: Creative Commons Wellcome Collection

We can readily imagine pea-soup fog enveloping Dr. Ward’s neighborhood when we read these lines in Tyler Whittle’s book, ‘The Plant Hunters’:

What is known is that Wellclose Square, that part of dockland where he lived, was a Sherlock Holmes sort of place; not exactly producing lepers, abominable lascars (foreign sailors), and wicked Chinamen, but giving that impression all the same.  And had Holmes and Watson been acquainted with their contemporary, Dr. Nathaniel Ward, undoubtedly they would have admired his scientific method of observing and deducing.

Dr. Ward was not a world traveler, but his discovery would ultimately fuel the mighty British Empire.

Lithograph, 1859, by Richard James Lane, National Portrait Gallery, London. Dr Ward would have been 68.

Intrepid botanists and gardeners had been navigating the globe since Columbus and coming home with exotic plants and animals. But there were big problems.

Listen now to what Carl Linnaeus, that great Swedish scientist who showed us how to classify plants and animals had to say:

Good God. When I consider the melancholy fate of so many of botany’s votaries, I am tempted to ask whether men are in their right mind who so desperately risk life and everything else through the love of collecting plants.

The HMS Endeavor, commanded by Lieutenant James Cook, made a voyage to Australia and New Zealand from 1768 to 1771, more than half a century before Dr. Ward began his experiment.  Captain Cook, as he is commonly called, was the first to reach Australia. Naturalist Joseph Banks was on board.

If hunting plants was perilous for collectors, it was even more so for plants.

95 percent died en route. Only 5 percent survived in any condition to grow.

The year is 1829 and Dr. Ward is about to have a Eureka! moment. He has placed the chrysalis of a hawk moth in a tightly sealed glass jar with some soil. He notices that moisture condenses on the glass during the day, then returns to the soil in the cool of the evening, thus keeping the earth always in the same degree of humidity, he writes.

After a week he finds the beginnings of a fern and a blade of grass growing in the bottle. (Presumably, the moth is also doing well and will eventually fly off into the smog.)

How long, he wonders, can plants survive in a tightly sealed environment?

He intends to find out. He hires a carpenter to build two large glass cases with hardwood frames to resist decay and close glazing to create an airtight seal.

An example of what came to be known as the Wardian Case

By July 1833 they are ready for shipping. They are filled with native ferns and will spend six months at sea before they reach Australia.

The plants arrive in Sydney alive and thriving. They are ditched and the cases are refilled with plants from Australia. The return trip is storm-wracked and will take eight months.

In 1835 the plants arrive in England alive and thriving.

Percentages are reversed from 95 per cent loss to 95 percent survival.

Dr. Ward is ecstatic. Glass cases aboard ships are already common, but the tightly sealed environment, independent of surrounding conditions, is the breakthrough that changes plant exploration forever.

In 1842 Dr. Ward publishes the results of his experiments

The Wardian Case, as it comes to be known, can be as much as 4 feet long. It becomes a fixture on sailing ships.

Smaller versions become fixtures in middle-class Victorian homes. Now amateur gardeners can grow healthy ferns in their parlors in a controlled, humid environment, protected from rancid city air.

The Wardian Case, or terrarium, adapted to Victorian parlors

The Wardian Case becomes a household word – and incidentally precipitates massive excavation of native ferns from the countryside.

Dr. Ward, who will never profit from his invention, envisions the impoverished of London growing green, uncontaminated lettuce in window-box Wardian Cases.

Books arrive with directions for managing window gardens in the Wardian Case

But the Wardian Case, or terrarium, as it is called today, is destined for far greater arenas than tenement windows.

Covetous entrepreneurs, long on desire but short on morals, dream about profits in plants. British colonialism gallops into a new and prosperous era. If some shady deals are necessary — well, it’s all for the good of the empire.

For instance, take your everyday cup of tea. The British East India Company sent botanist Robert Fortune into China to learn as much as he could about Chinese tea that was produced deep  inland. Europeans were forbidden to explore much beyond port cities, but this did not stop Robert Fortune.

He disguised himself as a mandarin and trespassed on to forbidden land. He smuggled plants and seeds out  (in a Wardian Case). He stole ancient secrets closely held by the Chinese, complex techniques for  turning freshly picked camellia leaves into tea.  Soon English tea from plantations in India was eliminating the profitable tea trade in China.

Repeat that scenario, with variations,  for rubber plants stolen from Brazil and brought to India, where vast rubber plantations eventually broke Brazil’s monopoly and her economy.

Orchids, flowers, mangos, bananas, coffee, citrus, cocoa and vanilla bean plants are shipped to and survive in British colonies courtesy of the Wardian Case.

Tea Plantation in Ceylon, 1930’s. Shutterstock.

But malaria plagues life in the tropics and cuts deeply into profits. The Wardian Case brings relief.

The bark of the cinchona tree has an alkaloid that kills malaria parasites. In 1860 cinchona plants are smuggled out of South America into India. The bark is processed into quinine that is dissolved in tonic water. The last obstacle to expansion of the British empire falls.

Bark, flowers and seed from the cinchona tree. From a poster by M. VanHyll

Or — maybe the next-to-last obstacle. Doses of tonic to keep malaria at bay are bitter. The British soon discover that gin makes bitter tonic water pleasantly palatable, and gin and tonic presides over happy hour in the colonies. The last obstacle has fallen.

Exotic spices, flowers, and fruit find homes in kitchens and gardens worldwide. Rubber helps build the auto industry and provisions two World Wars.

Vast fortunes are made.  Great monopolies are created on the backs of slave labor. A mighty empire dominates the world. Global ecosystems are forever rearranged.

How would this epoch of plant-based power have played out without the introduction of the Wardian Case?

Next time you see a terrarium, or an aquarium (which is an upside-down terrarium), consider the shadowy 19th century figure who lived near the London docks and who never made a cent off an invention that changed the world in so many unpredictable ways: Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, Global Johnny Appleseed.

Orchids in a glass case, New York Botanical Garden. Photo by Kristine Paulus

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Climate Change and the Gardener

Garden Got You Bonkers? You’re in Good Company

Rising seas, melting ice, monster storms, raging fires. Climate events on planetary scale.

Do our gardens reflect a changing climate in quieter, less dramatic ways?

From its shaky beginnings, our garden has been a perennial game of chess. Soil, Drainage, Exposure, and Storms are the King, Queen, Bishops and Rooks. Plants are Pawns.

If I play the game with finesse and win, plants flourish. If I falter, I am checkmated by too much sun, too much shade, too much drainage, too many storms, too too too. . . or the flip side, not enough not enough not enough…

But maybe, these days, there are other reasons for being checkmated in a garden. Our Cooperative Extension agent, Katy, told me she’s been talking almost daily with distressed gardeners who are losing plants. Long established plants just seem to be giving up.

These Grayswood hydrangeas flourished for a decade in sun with modest shade but had to be removed when loss of a tree increased sunlight marginally. Could they have managedif weather had been less erratic? I miss them in mid-summer, when weeds crowd in where once there was elegance

Could erratic weather, an errant Knight, be the final piece in this garden game of chess, sometimes confounding our best intentions? Is erratic weather a partner in Climate Change? Let’s look back at the past couple of years here in northeast North Carolina.

Single digit temperatures in winter 2018, records for Zone 8.

Spring freezes in 2018 and 2019 as fresh new growth is emerging.

Unseasonally hot dry weather in May 2019 that shrivels tender growth that is replacing tender growth damaged by early spring freezes.

An unusually hot dry spell in August 2019.

Cascades of rain from Hurricane Dorian in early September 2019.

Followed by days of unseasonal heat and “flash” drought.

Oh it wasn’t all bad. (See September Renaissance.) Sometimes weather was an ally and some plants grew fast and lush – greedy for what the elements could give – but some were not able to adapt to erratic jolts when weather became the foe.

Many native plants, like this amelanchier, or serviceberry, held sturdy against erratic weather

Katy’s thoughts: “Things are giving up. Whereas they might have tolerated one or two of those stresses, they can’t continue to take hit after hit. I’ve even had landscape architects tell me that gone are the days of a once-and-done landscape. No more 30-year landscape plans. The landscape is now ‘temporary!’”

We took our pittosporum hedge for granted. Note the contrast in size between the big, old one finally showing signs of recovery, and the small new one that is taking much too long to settle in.

Farmers, too, are distressed. Nick Maravell, owner of an organic farm in Buckeystown, Maryland, has this to say in an Organic Consumers recent e-newsletter:

“It used to be farmers would get together and talk about having a good year. Now we’re getting together and hoping for a normal year, and we haven’t had one in a long time. We’re getting what I call the broken record syndrome. Every few years we break another record . . .

“We go from the driest year on record to the wettest year on record back to back. We go from the coldest spring to the warmest spring back to back. We have these stretches of erratic, from a farmer’s perspective, unusual long hot spell, long cold spell. That never used to happen to us. I’ve been doing this 40 years and believe me, the climate has changed.”

There was strangeness in our garden, too. Our fringe trees bloomed well but defoliated later in the season

NPR, in a piece on winemaking in France, reports that “French vintners say heat, drought and erratic weather are altering the landscape and their centuries-old way of working.” High sugar content caused by dry summers spikes alcohol level in grapes, which threatens consistency. More troubling, unshaded grapes shrivel on the vine.

Rainy spells are longer and more severe, as are cold spells, especially in spring. Hail is more frequent. And three-hundred-year-old vines have died in successive heat waves. (To maintain consistency, the French wine governing body prohibits irrigation.) Now the hunt is on for heat-tolerant replacements.

And the weeds! Lately arrived weeds, emigres from warm climates, can spoil batches of wine if not policed vigilantly.

Do upstart weeds in vineyards echo exuberant weeds in gardens here?These days our weeds live the high life. They grow fast. They multiply fast.

Nandina ‘Flirt’ is a new addition to our garden. We are hoping that it will become a low hedge, 18 inches, that will be a reliable shield against weeds

Even mulching gives only temporary relief. Now the hunt is on for reliable groundcovers to shade them out: low varieties of nandina, like ‘Harbor Dwarf’ and ‘Flirt’ for sunny spots;  epimedium ( but it can be slow), umbrella-like giant hosta, and fast-growing autumn fern for shady spots.

Autumn fern is a reliable evergreen groundcover in our garden

Losses of favorite plants, slow rebound of damaged plants, and poor performance often can’t be explained. At first we blamed our losses on old age, poor siting, and pruning violations. But the plants in question have performed well for decades. Why are they suddenly stressed?

Our Yuletide camellia, a heavy bloomer,  mostly died back during Winter 2018, now showing signs of recovery. Our other camellias were not damaged

Here’s a summary of what has happened in our garden over the past two years.

  • Decades-old pittosporum died after the extreme-cold winter. Normally fast menders, damaged survivors were slow to recover
  • Cold-battered and broken, our now gnarled and twisted ‘Yuletide’ camellia has taken two seasons to give us hope that it is recovering – or maybe not, depending on next winter.
  • Fringe trees began to look parched and thin this growing season, practically shorn of leaves, even after a reasonably fine bloom. Ditto for our long established variegated and holly-leaved osmanthus and other small trees, now balding. Will they come back next year?
  • After magnificent bloom, our watermelon crepe myrtles suddenly and prematurely defoliated, cluttering paths with shriveled leaves.
  • Native hophornbeam trees died, seemingly rotted out, though growing in higher drier parts of our property.
  • An old wax myrtle we loved for its convoluted trunks died suddenly, leaving Wizard-of-Oz branches that we could not bear to cut down until recently.
  • Large, old Grayswood lace cap hydrangeas, centerpiece shrubs, frazzled after a change of exposure when we took down a dying crabapple and were unable to recover.
  • Camellias near the crabapple drowned in soil made sodden by the loss of its thirsty roots and rainfall that exceeded the soil’s capacity to drain.
  • And finally, a young ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese red maple we raised and shipped to Zone 7 New York City in spring, lovingly potted and nursed, crisped its leaves after unseasonal 18 degree temperatures in early November. Will the young tree  survive the hit that it took before it was able to harden off?

Shaggy bark on one of our few remaining hophornbeam trees

We can’t control the weather, but we are hoping to stay even. We still believe that the soil holds secrets of life that give the best protection to our plants. We ’ll keep nurturing it faithfully, so it can give back to plants.

For us it is a never-ending task of raking-shredding-mulching. But what a lovely product from all those leaves! Partly composted, they are a fast-acting tonic that helps regulate soil temperature and moisture and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. This mulch does not, however, vanquish weeds as well as hardwood mulch.

Sometimes we don’t want to do all that work. Then we simply rake leaves directly onto beds in mounds that will settle into layers after a rainfall or two. No shredding, weeds are smothered, and deep down, but more slowly, crumbly soil is being created the same way it happens in a forest. Kinda nice to know we are a working partner with Mother Nature.

Camellias in beds benefit from layers of leaves put down in the fall (C. sasanqua ‘Hana Jiman’ pictured). We’ve had no losses of these camellias, despite heavy infestation of tea scale this spring that took us by surprise. It is pretty much eradicated now after Bob’s diligent spraying with horticultural oil

Pruning at the right time, during winter dormancy or before spring growth, when plants are not working at top speed to put out leaves and flowers, will minimize shock. And we try to follow this schedule.  Sometimes we can’t.  When plants like azaleas and loropetalum, for eample, have exploded, apparentlyttaking advantage of the erratic weather, we have to take action.

Keeping them (and others) in bounds has been a challenge – a truckload of trimmings to the landfill once a week during the growing season. Will these plants eventually resent repeated chopping during growing seasons? Or will they rejoice?

Camelias, too, needed pruning this year, drastic thinning and trimming in some cases, but they’ve managed well, with healthy leaf and flower bud growth (C. japonica ‘Nuccio’s Pearl’ )

It’s all one grand experiment that warns us, now more than ever, that nothing in the garden is for keeps. We shouldn’t go bonkers trying to win the game of chess.

So I will revel in the splendid color and the surprises that fall gave us this year.

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The True Strange Tale of an Unlucky Rabbit

In Which We Meet Rabbit

One fine summer morning we opened the door to find a wild rabbit sitting on our front porch. Might I come in? he seemed to ask, nosing the interior the way rabbits nose, but very politely. We chatted in a friendly sort of rabbit-jabber. We assumed he was looking for something to eat, though we would later learn this was not the case. He listened with the patience of a rabbit.

Rabbit would become a regular on our front steps

Where had he come from? Had somebody raised him? Had he stepped out of a rabbit hole? We did not want to be rude, but we are not in the habit of drinking tea with rabbits, nor have we ever invited any into the house.

Now this is something to think about

So, rather inhospitably, I’m afraid – although he was still most polite and did not try to venture inside – we took turns standing guard while one or the other of us hunted up some carrots. Since they were small, we brought out a few and laid them on bricks.

Rabbit did not eat like he was hungry

He nibbled on one, and nibbled and nibbled and nibbled but barely took a bite. What was he doing? No, Rabbit, there is no strange potion in the carrot. After what seemed like a very long time, he finished it.

Where had this rabbit been all his life? He attacked a second with more proficiency, having decided, perhaps, that it was tasty and potionless. A third carrot he carried off. He had had enough of us.

Or he might simply ignore the carrots

He was handsome, that Rabbit, larger than the wild rabbits that grow up (or don’t get to grow up) in our garden. His fur was luxurious and smooth, and it covered thick folds of skin that begged to be petted.

We did not, out of respect for his semi-wildness, but mostly because he wouldn’t let us. Considering his size, we assumed he would need to eat a lot, but then again, he looked more like a sitter than a bounder.

Definitely a sitter, he would watch patiently while I potted plants

During the next few weeks, we would see him lounging on the front lawn. If we were working outside, Rabbit would silently appear and sit next to us. Once I felt something brush the back of my leg, and there he was, trusting that I would not step on him. Wheelbarrows and rakes did not bother him.

As weeks passed, Rabbit would bound over to us when we came out of the house, as though he had been waiting for us, and there was joy in his bounding. He did not come to beg. He seemed to want to be near us.

But we are softies, so we made a beggar out of him. We liked him as much as he liked us. So we brought out the carrots when he came round.

Action Shot!

He seemed to especially savor apples because he would race away with the prize if you gave him one. Well, more like hopping than racing, but we could see determination in his step.

Maybe, under certain circumstances, even Rabbit could win a race with Tortoise. When Rabbit got tired of us, he slipped under the shed, his midriff and hindquarters stretching and thinning, until he looked almost as skinny as Brer Rabbit.

Watermelon rinds look interesting

Now, here’s the riddle. Rabbit always appeared gentrified: well fed, well groomed, unruffled. Didn’t much care about eating.  In fact, he didn’t seem to know how or what to eat in our garden. He might browse a dead twig or a dead leaf before he dropped the dry stuff in distaste.

This old garden shoe might have some possibilities

Once he tried a fern. Unpalatable. He’d nibble a weed here and there, or lackadaisically chew a crispy stalk hanging over a walk.

What’s so interesting among the weeds?

Or he’d dig in rocks. Rocks? He ignored the usual deer and rabbit fare: azaleas, hydrangeas and droopy but still juicy hostas. Which was fine with us.

Ferns? Stones?

In Which Glimpse Little Rabbit

From early fall on, we watched another, quite different rabbit. He must have been the only one left from a late litter. He was always alone. Scrawny, small, and alone.

We didn’t see how he could make it, but each time we saw him, he looked bigger and stronger. He was another with a strange diet. The only damage I found was heavily nibbled chrysanthemum leaves. The usual rabbit fare seemed untouched. Which was fine with us.

Little Rabbit never stayed long enough to have his picture taken, but here are some places where he would not spend time (the lawn) and where he might like to hide

Little Rabbit was growing up lean and smart. He was, as they say, a survivor. We never saw him on the lawn, though that has always been a favorite browsing spot for rabbits.

He had retreats throughout the garden, thickets of shrubs where he could hide safely. When he ventured out in the open, he didn’t linger. He dashed. Little Rabbit would definitely win a race with Tortoise, except you wouldn’t know it because he’d always be under cover.

Front Yard Hideout for Little Rabbit

I would talk to Rabbit about Little Rabbit. I would tell him he should not hang about on paths and lawns out in the open in full view of predators. He should hide in thickets more often. And he should not be so friendly with people. He was simply too trusting. He should act more like Little Rabbit, who skedaddled as soon as he saw us.

Rabbit did not appear to care about my rabbit-jabber. He was, however, intrigued by Little Rabbit, who had never taken much notice of Rabbit.

One day Rabbit got up enough steam to lope after him, but Little Rabbit was having none of that and dashed, with dignity, I might add, into one of those thickets he frequented. He was a rabbit who knew how to take care of himself. Rabbit seemed to accept the rejection and came back to listen to more rabbit-jabber.

Side Yard Hideout for Little Rabbit

When I use the word “thicket,” I mean “thicket.” Leaf to leaf, branch to branch, thorn by thorn, our groupings of shrubs are packed: large hydrangeas, roses, azaleas, camellias, viburnum, forsythia, wax myrtle, and loropetalum, for instance. Perfect havens for rabbits when they tire of sunshine and lawn and seek a cozy nook away from predators. Even Rabbit used them once in a while. But not as often as I thought he should.

Little Rabbit’s Emergency Hideout after spending time in open space

So, while Little Rabbit would stay in hiding, Rabbit would willingly wait on a sunny path for me to come back with my camera. He would willingly sit for pictures, though he was not inclined to action shots.

Back Yard Hideout for Little Rabbit

Visitor to our home that Thanksgiving spent several minutes filming Rabbit while he ate carrots. We stood in a circle around him, gawking, as though carrot-eating were the equivalent of hang-gliding off a cliff. Another day, he participated in Facetime with our grandson, though his reticence was hardly conducive to animated conversation.

In Which there is a Commotion

It was not quite winter when it happened. We heard thrashing in a thicket. No other noises, just thrashing. We waited. A hawk half-limped, half-crawled out from under the brush. Ruffled and roughed up he was, and his wings were crimped and dragging. We thought he’d been in some sort of battle and had broken a wing.

Once out in the open, Hawk, probably a juvenile red-shouldered, managed to straighten up to his full size and stretch his wings and smooth his feathers. His magnificent wing span blocked full view of his head, but everything looked to be in good working order.

Yet when Hawk tried to take off, he seemed rooted to the ground. Hawk tried a second time. Still landlocked. Again, he tried but stalled. Had something gone wrong with balance, or navigation? Was there some internal damage we couldn’t fathom?

At last, Hawk took off and flew. We discovered the reason for the commotion in the thicket and his aborted attempts to fly. In his beak he had been clutching prey he could not manage. Once he gave up his quarry, shed those extra pounds, he could lift off with that majesty so characteristic of hawks.

We ran to the dropped prey. Maybe there was yet some life left, but it was too late. We recognized that lifeless body, oh, we recognized it.

It was smart, fleet  Little Rabbit who did all things as they should be done and had been deeply hidden in the thicket. In a twist of fate, he had the misfortune to be felled by a young hawk of the year, still learning how to target his quarry and not understanding the limitations of the hunt.

Diving into tangled bramble to catch prey that he could not hang onto was not a path to success. Hawk no doubt learned from this encounter, but smart, fleet Little Rabbit paid dearly for that lesson, and we will miss him.

We laid Little Rabbit in a depression in the woods and lightly covered him. Next day he was gone. Wild ways are unseen but efficient.

In Which We Learn More About Rabbit

A few months later, a neighbor stopped by and asked us how we liked his rabbit. He had seen him on our lawn, he said. He and his wife, a teacher, had raised three youngsters in the spring, two males and one female, who had the run of their fenced property. They would feed them apples left from school lunches. Aha! So many questions answered in a simple conversation.

But three’s a crowd. The male and female mated and Rabbit was chased out. Maybe he came visiting because he felt first-rate with us, We were usually around. We always welcomed him, never chased him, and that is why he greeted us so happily.

In case you are wondering, Hawk isn’t the only one who learned a lesson. Soon after the incident, Rabbit changed. Or maybe he simply grew old and wise. He took to being skittish, even with us. He avoided the front lawn and wide paths. He stayed mostly hidden. He came and went quickly. He no longer cared for rabbit-jabber.

Hard or a hawk to get to him here

Occasionally he would climb the porch steps to chew winter-purple leaves off clematis tendrilled around a post. But he took care to stay hunkered down.

Nothing like a snack of old clematis leaves

Sometimes he’d nose around, especially if it was cold. Hoping to be invited in? But we don’t drink tea with rabbits.

We don’t see him any more.

But we have our memories and our pictures

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