The Sinking of the Albemarle and The Rising of the Sea

Mighty Hurricanes and Deadly Floodwaters

One moonless night in 1864 a Union patrol boat, silent, brazen, dared to approach a colossal armored vessel that had been cruising Albemarle Sound and disabling Union ships with outstanding success.

This mighty steel-clad Confederate vessel, or ram, was the CSS Albemarle. A torpedo launched from the Union’s small craft left a hole in its steel hull big enough to drive a wagon through. The Albemarle sank almost immediately.

The CSS Albemarle in its prime

That isolated event was the only sinking of the Albemarle we were aware of for a long time. Then we learned that another wider, greater sinking is taking place in the entire Albemarle area and to the north and south of us. And we believe it now.

When people first told us about an island called Batts Grave off the end of our canal, and the hermit who had once lived there, we thought it made a good story. We were pleased that the skittery pile of sand and clay was holding fast. It kept the Sound from barreling up our canal and gave a foothold to the bald cypresses that supported aeries for ospreys we loved to watch.

What made us sit up straight was the report that sea level was rising faster in Virginia and North Carolina than along the entire east coast. That’s against the laws of physics isn’t it?

Yes, it is, but in places where land is sinking, sea level will appear to rise more quickly, and indeed it will leave its marks on piers and poles, as we shall see. The area in question includes, roughly, a chunk of land from Wilmington to Hampton Roads, Virginia.

We looked at what was left of Batts Grave with new interest. How big was the island when Nathaniel Batts lived there in the 1790s?

Juicy Aside: Batts may have been a recluse before he died, but in his younger days as fur trader, land owner, pardoned murderer, serial debtor, he was a virtuoso wheeler-dealer. His savvy wife (or her family) had him sign a prenuptial agreement promising not to use her fortune to satisfy his debts.

Section of a 1775 map

The North Carolina Gazetteer says that in 1749 the island that would later be called Batts Grave “was 40 acres in area and had houses and orchards on it.” By the time Batts purchased it as part of a larger parcel and lived there in the 1790’s it was reduced to 27 acres, still a comfortable plot. It remained stable until about 1913. By mid-twentieth century it was reduced to a fly-speck on a map. Today it is gone, except for craggy cypress trees.

Were wind and water culprits in obliterating the island? Or was it the sinking of the Albemarle? Two pictures we took of our garden near the dock accidentally gave us some clues. You be the judge.

The first picture was taken about 25 years ago, when Batts Island was still a respectable speck in the Sound. Notice that the water level is below both the canoe platform and the beam below it, and the bulkhead above is generally dry.

Photo of our garden about 20-25 years ago, pre-Isabel

Now look at the next picture, taken a couple of years ago. Quite a difference in water level, and there are water stains high on the bulkhead walls.

Recent Photo

Wind tides in Albemarle Sound, will send water slosh north and south, from shore to shore, depending on wind direction. One winter, when a north wind blew for weeks, our boat slip was entirely drained, except for remnants of dirty ice topping mud, an extreme event.

In spring and summer, winds from the south might pile water up on the north shore. These winds are usually gentle, so there is no dramatic uptick. We don’t offer these pictures, both taken in spring, as hard cold evidence, but given the water stains in the second photo, we feel they show a pretty reliable record of a sinking land and a rising sea.

Why are we sinking?

First Reason: Glaciers! Hundreds of feet thick, and heavy, they bear down on the land. In response, land to the south bulges upward. Picture a seesaw. While Icy Land in the northern seat comes down, Green Land (us) in the southern seat is forced to rise up.

The opposite happens when glaciers recede. Land released from the weight of the glacier slowly begins to rise. (It’s been going on about 20,000 years so far.) Unglaciated land to the south (us) will subside.

Second Reason: People! People who take more water out of aquifers than rainfall puts back. Too many people, too much industry, too much pavement, too much run-off prevent rainwater from finding its way back to an aquifer, and the aquifer begins to shrink.

It’s a little more complicated than that, but field studies over time in Franklin, Virginia, back this up.  (I do not know of any long-term studies done in North Carolina.) To add spice to the mix, as the land sinks and water levels rise, the water table becomes more shallow.

Is it any wonder that our lawn becomes a rice paddy after too many hard rains? Or steps run with water and gather moss and mildew?

Or flower beds steep in puddles unless we raise – and raise – and raise them? Or that our water meter lies under water most of the time?

Or that the streets of Hampton Roads and New Bern and Wilmington and Elizabeth City frequently flood after what were formerly benign rainfalls? Do you see a trend?

Part of dock underwater showing erosion of unbulkheaded land

Let’s add a hurricane like Florence to the mix. Here in the northeast, Florence only grazed us, though parts of our property flooded and remained flooded for days after this mild storm, and one point is eroding badly. This, we have come to learn, is the new normal.

Let’s widen our perspective and look at New Bern and Wilmington and points inland that took direct hits. They are teetering on the front lines of rising sea level and severe weather.

Here’s the new normal for the eastern Carolina floodplain.

Fran in 1996 exceeded the 500-year-flood event in several areas.

Floyd in 1999, called the flood of the century, exceeded the 500-year-flood event.

Isabel in 2003 walloped us with her immense size and storm surges that caused widespread flooding.

Matthew in 2016 exceeded the 500-year-flood event.

Ditto for Florence in 2018. Some people were just recovering from Matthew when Florence wheeled in and upended their lives again.

Now let’s add a mix of hog farms and lagoons (spin-word for unlined pits of liquid manure) and poultry farms with their in-house wastes.

Graphic map of hog farms in eastern NC 2018 by NC Policy Watch. There are 9 million pigs in North Carolina, most of them on the coastal plain

Throw in toxic coal ash pits, sewage treatment plants and industrial sites and you come to see the witches’ brew that cooks when lagoons are breeched, when poultry houses are submerged, when coal ash pits are flushed and sewage treatment plants are overwhelmed.

CAFO, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, about 2500 pigs,  inundated by Florence flooding. Lagoon effluent is colored bright pink. Photo by Rick Dove

Imagine this witches’ brew poisoning your drinking water or washing into your home. And you may not even know it.

Flooded poultry facility. Photo by Rick Dove

Rick Dove, a founder of Waterkeeper’s Alliance who viewed the recent flooding by helicopter, puts it most succinctly, “I saw Florence sending millions of gallons of animal poop flooding across North Carolina.” How soon will this happen again?

Hog Waste sprayed on fields after Florence. This is routine practice under normal circumstances, too.  Photo by Rick Dove

Only time can heal a river. Only time can heal a land. Will we ever have enough time?

After the war, the CSS Albemarle was raised, repaired and condemned. In 1867 it was sold at public auction and scrapped for salvage. Too bad. At 158 feet long and 35 feet wide, it might have made a fine ark.

Posted in Hurricane Florence, Sinking of North Carolina and Virginia coast | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Ranger’s Summer

This was a summer to remember. Usually summers are sleepy for Ranger. And for us, too, because our story is part of his story and his story is part of the garden’s story.

Summers are just too hot to get outside and work unless you must make an exception, and this summer was a compulsory exception. Rain for days on end had turned paths into floods and lawns into rice paddies. August heat or no, we had to rethink – and redo — garden beds and drainage. We had to wake Ranger up.

Ranger after a rain

It was touch and go for a while, though. Ranger, our ’92 Ford truck is twenty-six this summer, an old-timer, in truck years at least a hundred no exaggeration. He tips the scales at a healthy two tons, maybe a little less. The gas gauge doesn’t work any more, but the odometer is clicking away at 99,000 miles. We’re hoping he’ll be good to go for another 26 or 99 now that he’s fixed up — if he, or we — don’t collapse first.

Those dagnab internal problems were what needed fixing up, kept him low for a couple of weeks while we waited for parts that were needed for surgery. Nothing real serious, like engine-bucking or transmission-hiccuping.

The exhaust system had finally given out. It needed to be replaced, though even under duress, muffler noise was restrained. (Knowing Ranger, he could never become one of those hotshot muffler blowhards.)

Three trips to the Recycling Center

Since Ranger was already out of commission, we added some bells and whistles, like a new rear view mirror that promises to stay properly glued to the windshield and new side mirrors you can truly count on to give you something more than a view of the road just traveled.

Oh yes, and a repair to the driver’s seat so a certain driver will not have to balance on the edge, impaled on the steering wheel while toe-tapping the gas pedal, though this particular driver is happiest being a passenger.

People tell us we’re crazy for putting money into Ranger. But where would we find another truck as faithful as Ranger?

By the time all the work was done, the tail pipe was the shiniest thing on the truck. Too bad it is half-hidden.

Black gold, otherwise known as cotton dirt, a mighty load for Ranger

There wasn’t much time for a sleepy convalescence in the woods. We needed Ranger. How we needed that truck. Three trips without pause to haul garden debris away helped limber the old frame and tone up the springs and tires.

Ranger was now ready for the big trip to Rocky Hock, where every summer they grow the biggest and best melons in the world, or at least the biggest and best along the east coast. Tasty and juicy they are, but we weren’t driving thirty miles for melons.

We get them direct from the melon man who sits under his canopy next to his truck on a local road and waits for his customers. Come to think of it, Ranger might have preferred melons to cotton dirt, but he didn’t have a say in planning this operation.

Cotton dirt? Yup. A ton of it.

The blooming crepe myrtle bows low over the empty bed that needs to be raised

Here’s how it went down. A few weeks earlier, we had pulled up or chopped back a dozen or more winter-torn pittosporum. When we surveyed the new reality it became clear that if they were to survive another winter their beds needed to be raised above the rice paddies to keep new roots from drowning.

The cotton gin is about 30 miles from us, a cooperative shared by Albemarle cotton growers. During the fall, cotton plants are chemically defoliated and cotton is picked by huge machines that look like alien spacecraft shadowing the sky under a full moon. The picked cotton is packed into open-work box cars and brought to the gin for cleaning.

One of the piles from last year’s ginning

During winter the gin hums. The waste piles up – you can find mountains of it at any gin –and the piles begin to decompose. Good composted waste, piles of it, and free for gardeners who can cart it off.

Summer is off-ginning season. On this day the air was still and humid. There was only one workman at the factory, and he was accompanied by one very loyal chihuahua who guarded his master with attitude. With a smile and a wave, he revved up the front loader, and tackled the pile, roughing it up first, to shake out weeds and loosen soil.

Careful, slow, measured drops from the bucket should have eased the jolt from a ton or more of soil landing on the truck bed, but it darn near broke Ranger’s back. Even with helper springs, Ranger was slung low and the back tires bulged flat.

It steamed. You could see the steam coming off that compost, still fresh even after sitting in the yard. It was that hot, much too hot to hold in your hands or sift through your fingers. But Ranger never flinched.

The ersatz farmer’s wife shoveled while the ersatz farmer carted

We had to travel major highways to get home. For Ranger’s sake we took it easy. It didn’t matter, though. The roads were empty during the heat of the day. Once in a while somebody passed us, but nobody was in a hurry. And nobody got annoyed.

People expected us to go slow, that’s what farm trucks do here, and Ranger looks like an old farm truck. Then too, the white-haired driver could be taken for an old farmer. What can you expect from an old farm truck and an old farmer?

Slate stepping stones removed, path releveled, lined with landscape cloth waiting for rock

The Ersatz Farmer and wife unloaded Ranger lickety-split, and the rear axle would have thanked them if it had had the words. But still there was no rest for Ranger. We had to take advantage of a stretch of sunny days to finish a big job we’d put off.

Hauling rock. Yup, hauling rock.

Here’s how this project went down. The slate path that slopes toward the house from the shed has lately been puddling and streaming and mouldering and mildewing.

We removed the slates and the Ersatz Farmer, helped by the Ersatz Farmer’s Friend recontoured the slope into a series of three level steps to be topped off with washed river rock. The contouring did not particularly alter the flow of water, but now the puddles would be hidden under rock.

Lowering the rock from the bucket

With a little forethought and sleuthing we probably could have gotten a landscaper to bring a big truckload and shovel it for us.

Maybe. It’s tough to estimate rock. And you can’t always find a willing shoveler, especially when there is long-distance wheelbarrow work. Well, we reasoned, this isn’t such a big area. It shouldn’t take that much rock, should it?

We can do it.

We’ll start with a ton, we said. A ton would not quite top the wheel wells. Ranger would be all right with that, wouldn’t he?

We should here give credit to our wheelbarrows, of Hurricane Isabel vintage, 2003, with a raft of repairs, that have yeoman duty through the years

Let’s go! So began a cliff-hanger of a drive down back roads past woods and fields on a bright day with not a care in the world but a truck’s sagging rear end.

Good old Ranger! Home with no blowouts, no stall-outs, no conk-outs, and no embarrassing side-of-the-road calls for help. We sighed with relief.

A ton didn’t go very far. Should we try again? Maybe once more? Yet again? And one last time?

For five breathless days, anticipating calamity, hoping for wins, we gave Ranger the task of hauling rock. Tailgate slung low, tires bulging, Ranger came through each time.

Even lowly pickle pails pulled on a wagon worked overtime to carry surplus rock

The Ersatz Farmer shoveled and the Ersatz Farmer’s Wife raked. The Ersatz Farmer’s Friend came by to help with the last ton, when we were flagging.

He would have been here from the beginning but we are too proud to ask friends to do (much) grunt work in our garden.

The stone is shoveled and raked and spread now. A certain satisfaction that promotes laziness has come over us. But Ranger is not yet back in his paddock.

There are still truckloads of superfluous greenery to cart away. And another truckload of cotton dirt to haul. And a major hurricane set to storm the coast that will surely leave more superfluous greenery.


Maybe when winter comes,  Ranger can take a short nap.

A box turtle pauses on another set of steps topped off with surplus rock

For an introduction to Ranger, see A Small Tribute to a Silent Partner.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

How Bayer’s Bug-Killer Got Hitched to Monsanto’s Weed-Killer

Adventures Down the Rabbit Hole

It was a spectacular June affair. Monsanto was Matron of Honor for Roundup (Lizzie Borden of Weed-Killers), and Bayer was Best Man for Neonics (Godfather of Bug-Killers). The Department of Justice was Justice of the Peace.

Half the world — the European Union, Brazil, India, Canada and China — chorused a throaty Amen.

Megabanks and investment firms were lavish in their promises of legal and financial advice.

Big Ag/Big Chem companies – newly hitched Dow and Dupont, and ChemChina and Syngenta — and BASF, tossed GM soybeans in celebration.

A honeybee was ring bearer and monarch butterflies hovered like cascading ribbons.

What’s her future? Flickr photo by Debbie Long

Banns were published and ended about two months after the union was announced.

There were over a million objections based on the duo’s close kinship, but Justice will give his blessing anyway.

In his exuberant toast, Best Man Bayer extolled the alliance of bug-killers and weed-killers to wipe out future world hunger.

The President sent his congratulations.

Meanwhile, in the (Monopoly) Board Room. . .

Earlier in the year – for the eighth time — Corporate Responsibility Magazine named Monsanto one of the 100 Best Corporate Citizens in 2018. Said Monsanto, “We are honored to receive this recognition, which acknowledges our commitment to be a sustainable and transparent company. . .”

Bayer factory in Belgium. Slogan: Science for a Better Life

Buddy Bayer is not so impressed with Monsanto’s corporate do-goodism. Bayer sells a lot of neonics, $1.5 billion worth each year, and it has no problem committing $66 billion in cash to purchase Monsanto.

That does not mean Buddy Bayer wants to share billing with Monsanto. First item on the agenda: Ditch that Monsanto name and her unsavory reputation.

A century-old institution gone from the headlines, though we’ll still see the familiar products on the shelves.

Back to the hitch-up. There is a hitch. Those pesky anti-trust laws. If you can’t exactly follow the logic in the agreements, remember we are still down the rabbit hole.

BASF Research Triangle Park campus: to expand

To snuff out any whiff of anti-trust smoke, Justice tells Bayer to sell off a 9-billion-dollar basket of goodies.

The goodies just happen to  go to BASF, the largest chemical company in the world, headquartered in Germany (as is Bayer), big in plastics, fossil fuel exploration, and insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides.

BASF has also partnered with Monsanto on biotechnology and has its own stock of GM seeds — potatos, soybeans, corn and canola — and is now poised to expand in this area.

Bayer seed stock — giving it up

BASF gets Bayer’s seed stock, herbicides, and research centers, anything that might compete with Monsanto products. Even Bayer’s Bee Care Center goes to BASF.

It is a Monopoly Board trade made in heaven for the players, who earnestly insist it will preserve competition and protect farmers and consumers.

In case you haven’t been counting mergers these days, there’s Monsanto and Bayer, Dow and DuPont, and ChemChina and Syngenta. BASF stands alone. That means four Big Ag/Big Chem companies will produce two-thirds of the world’s patented seeds and two-thirds of all pesticides.

Monsanto’s flagship Roundup products will remain on the shelves

And, to whet your appetite for that next ear of corn on the cob. . .In the US alone, about 150 million acres of crops get an annual dose of neonics, and more than 300 million pounds of Roundup (glyphosate) are sprayed annually on farm fields.

Roundup is top dog in the world of herbicides.

In fact, a former executive of Dow who claims to “love Roundup” has been proposed for a top post in the USDA. He’s the third Dow alumnus appointed. . .

. . .And, Dow’s dangerous pesticide, chlorpyrifos, banned for home use and linked to Parkinson’s disease, lung cancer, and brain damage in children, will stay on the market, thanks to EPA’s back-pedaling.

Bayer research facility in Raleigh Triangle Park in North Carolina goes to BASF

EPA originally planned a nationwide ban but pulled back. . .

. . .Because Dow contributed $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee?

Not to worry. Health and safety? Price-fixing? Loss of quality? These Big Four have a rosy outlook on doing good and earning fat profits. Or is it the other way round?

Or maybe the outlook will be less rosy for Bayer and Dow. On August 9th a federal court told EPA to ban all uses of chlorpyros within 60 days, instant blow to Dow’s bottom line.

Monsanto may be going but Bayer takes the hit, unless, legally, they can find a way to push the lawsuits aside

And, on August 10th, in a landmark case, a jury awarded $289 million to Dewayne Johnson, a school groundskeeper who claims Roundup caused his non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Bayer intends to appeal, but it will have to pay out about $25 million a year in interest on damages during the appeal.

Across the country, thousands are lining up to sue, each case to be tried separately —  no class-action suits, which dilute the value of plaintiffs’ awards.

Stirrings in the real world: Law Suits, Rulings, Activism, Science

–2015 Geneva. The World Health Organization rocks Big Ag when it releases a report stating that glyphosate (Roundup) is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Environmentalists cheer. European farmers riot. Congress threatens to pull funding. Monsanto goes into high gear to destroy IARC, the cancer arm of the WHO.

Bumblebee, an industrious solitary pollinator, on gooseneck loosestrife. Photo from The Conversation

–2015 Washington DC. EPA must make a ruling on Roundup’s safety, though it’s been in use since the 1970s. To date, EPA has not acted.

–2016 Missouri. Monsanto introduces Roundup Ready® Xtend Crop System with VaporGrip® Technology, a pre-mixed formulation of glyphosate and dicamba that’s easy to use and fights tough-to-control weeds in the Roundup Ready® Xtend Crop System.

–2016 California. Based on the WHO call, the state declares glyphosate a probable carcinogen.

–2018 California. A big win for Dewayne Johnson who sues Monsanto. (See above.) Jurors’ decisions are unanimous on all seventeen counts.

The “Monsanto Papers” (in-house records) reveal bullying and bribing scientists, ghost-writing and burying reports, collusion with regulators, this by a good corporate citizen that prides itself on being “sustainable and transparent…”

White-Crowned sparrow favors hedgerows and open areas near fields. Photo by Craig Fosdick

–2017 Michigan. Scientists find decreased fat stores and failure to orient in white-crowned sparrows when exposed to certain neonics, one link to declines in migrating birds. Are birds eating treated seeds? Rapeseed, often treated with neonics, is a favorite.

–2018 Washington DC. Bayer adds an amendment to the latest version of the House Farm Bill. If passed, it will prevent state and local governments from legislating local use of pesticides and override protective laws already enacted by seven states.

–2018 Washington DC. US Fish & Wildlife revokes a four-year-old ban on use of neonics in wildlife refuges. In 2014 alone, farmers and ranchers sprayed almost 500,000 pounds of pesticides on wildlife refuges. Wildlife refuges are multiple-use lands, and many are being intensively farmed now that demand for biofuel is high.

What’s she sipping? Neonics are systemic insecticides; they travel through all parts of the plant. Broker Rex, Shutterstock

–2018 Washington DC. Organic Trade Association, the same group that lobbied against mandatory GMO labeling of our food, accepts Big Ag/Big Chem Cargill and BASF into membership. Some advocacy group!

–2017 US of A. Beekeepers lose nearly half of their hives. Losses occur during winter and summer. Neonics suspected as culprit.

–2018 California. Study shows that neonics cause a wasting disease that ends in death for bees and pollinators that feed on tainted nectar, confirmation of research that led the European Union to ban certain neonics from outdoor use in 2013.

Many wildflowers are purple, drawing bees in because they seem to have comparatively more nectar

–2017 Canada and Europe. Field studies show that worker bees have shorter lifespans and their colonies are more likely to lose queens when exposed to neonics. A key finding: bees were exposed to neonics not necessarily from sprayed crops but from contaminated clover (a favorite food) growing nearby.

–2018 England. A long-term study of 62 species finds declines in wild bees and pollinators, as much as 30 percent in some species, especially those that feed on nectar from rapeseed treated with neonics.

CBD expects 60 million acres of monarch butterfly habitat to be sprayed with dicamba by 2019. Photo by Collette Adkins

–2016 US of A. Annual count of monarch butterflies shows a population decline of 68 per cent in 22 years, calculates roughly to a loss of about a billion monarchs from 1990 to 2017. Center for Biological Diversity sues EPA over failure to consider listing monarchs as “threatened.”

–2016 Arizona. Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) sues EPA for approving use of a toxic pesticide (halauxifen-methyl) without “robust” scientific research on its environmental effects.

The lawsuit is one of 82 that CBD has currently filed against the government.

–2017 Washington DC. (Now resigned) EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt directs EPA to restrict consent decrees and court-enforced deadlines for rulemaking. Directive is targeted to environmental non-profits that sue EPA over failure to comply with deadlines and release public records.

Monarch caterpillar on swamp milkweed. Photo by Mary Ann Borge

–2017 The Cornbelt. Milkweed, sole food plant for monarch larvae, all but vanishes, down to 20 per cent of former acreage, victim of an explosion of corn and soybean acreage and massive applications of glyphosate and dicamba to kill super-weeds gone rampant.

–2017 US of A. Monarch butterfly populations further plummet. Some figures put the decline at 90 percent, or nearly a billion since 1990. Monarchs follow the spring emergence of milkweed as they migrate north. Loss of milkweed means loss of habitat for eggs and loss of food for larvae.

Solitary bee on cotton. Cotton is not sprayed until harvest. Photo by Sarah Cusser

–2018 Washington DC. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration finds traces of Roundup in granola, crackers, bread, ice cream.  And an Environmental Working Group study finds contamination in oat products, including Cheerios and old-fashioned Quaker Oats. Roundup is sprayed on crops before harvesting as a dessicant to speed work in fields.

–2018 Minnesota. Organic Consumers Association publicizes the presence of Roundup in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, supposedly made from only wholesome, natural ingredients. OCA launches a lawsuit against the owner, Unilever, for scamming the public.

–2017 Arkansas. The State Plant Board votes to ban future use of highly volatile dicamba. Dicamba is a known contaminant of soil and water and a key component of Roundup Ready Extend.

The Board has received nearly a thousand complaints about drift that can stay airborne for as long as three days. In 2017 alone dicamba drift damages 3.6 million acres of soybeans and other crops and plants.  EPA approves continued use based on Monsanto’s assurances of future control.

How far will the drift go? Getty Images

–2018 Arkansas. Monsanto sues to lift the state ban on dicamba, claiming farmer’s misuse of its product. The suit is dismissed. Meanwhile, another 1.1 million acres of crops and vegetation across the mid-south are damaged by dicamba drift.

–2018 Washington DC. EPA announces it will postpone rulings on Bayer’s neonics until 2019.

–2018 U.S of A. Twenty-six million pounds of Roundup are sprayed on public parks, playgrounds, schools and gardens every year.

Good God, what have we wrought? Are we too far down the rabbit hole to get out?

More on this topic in a future post from one gardener’s perspective.

Posted in butterflies, Honeybees, Neonicotinoids, Pesticide news, Roundup, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Summer After the Winter of Three Degrees

The Pittosporum Rout

What a fickle gardener I am!

Pittosoporum were hit hard after last winter, harder than we thought. We assumed they would bounce back by midsummer, but they didn’t.

How they looked in better days as part of the front landscaping

Reasonable rainfall might have promoted growth, but more than thirty inches in June and July instead created temporary rice paddies that promoted rotting. The pittosporum sulked with browned-out patches and dead and dying branches.

Inveterate gardeners that we are, we were sure we could manage them, make them presentable and they’d be off and running again. A brief morning’s work for the two of us, we predicted, a bit of pruning and thinning.

Two days later, a mash-up of gaping holes and mangled shrubs remained, and Bob was hauling the remnants to the landfill.

Another notch for Ranger, see sidebar for my post of January 2017, A Small Tribute to a Silent Partner

Belatedly, I came to understand how important the pittosporum had been to our garden. For almost thirty years they had grown reliably in tight, rounded mounds with leaves that gleamed in sunlight, conferring serenity reminiscent of well-ordered Japanese landscaping.

Back in my gardening heydays of the late Eighties, I had picked up a few pittosporum for three or four bucks each. By the time I wanted more, being parsimonious, I simply parlayed the few into many by growing them from stem cuttings.

I grouped them all into two opposing arcs, each with a watermelon crepe myrtle at its center and separated by a swathe of lawn. I felt pretty good about a garden design that seemed to work without fuss.

A view of the grouping at the corner of the house opposite its sidekick

The pittosporum would become a simple, graceful gateway to our hydrangea and azalea gardens and a soothing segue into the riot of tall coneflower and phlox and canna and abelia and aster and aralia ‘Sun King’ and daylilies and quince and native honeysuckle and fern that tangle for territory along the side of the house.

Canna ‘Tropicana’ defends its space with boldness

For years the pittosporum lounged, always graceful, always tasteful, always dependably healthy and evergreen, spreading until they caressed the trunks of the crepe myrtles. Some years their perfect, undulating lines called to mind ocean swells and I would stop and look and wonder about shapes and forms in our universe. They became a topic of conversation when people visited.

Here’s the irony. I never took a picture that put pittosporum center stage. Today, that vision of ocean swells exists only in my memory. The few photos I could dig up show pittosporum in supporting roles only, incidental, no accidental, inclusions in pictures of a revolving showcase of stars.

I was, each season, seduced by the fresh and new and bright, ravishing daffodils and azaleas in spring, dazzling butterflies on dazzling phlox in summer.

Young Japanese red maple ‘Bloodgood’ in spring, with beautybush (kolkwitzia amabilis) in the background and pittosporum, with its central crepe myrtle, to the left, lush and green, but not the focus of interest

The pittosporum were simply there, a quiet mound of green that was easy to take for granted, easy for the eye to glide over, easy to ignore. It was not ravishing. It was a plain but respectable workhorse that managed to give a sense of order to an overflowing garden.

That the plants were self-sufficient and required no maintenance except for an occasional nip to shape only added to their invisibility.

A few years BEFORE this winter, growing well despite the nearby tulip poplaby that will not be denied its gifts from the soil

After two days of hacking, yes, hacking, I realized that what I had taken for granted was in real jeopardy. Top growth that was passable was underpinned by twisted dead and rotting branches, all of which had to be lopped out. Gnarled limbs anchored to the ground testified to the roaming nature of the shrubs, so one could barely track what was growing from where.

AFTER this winter, a jumble of roots and low branches is left, some with life, others not. Tulip poplar is in the background

Pittosporum is a southern shrub, a meters-high treelike denizen of Florida that is hardy enough to handle zone 8 low temperatures.

Our tamer, thirty-inch specimens of indeterminate width, ‘Wheeler’s Dwarf,’ are a little less cold tolerant and, according to the books, may succumb at about ten degrees. Their brittle branches tend to crack under the crunch of snow and ice.

What looks like snowdrifts are pittosporum lumps under the snow

Our troopers had survived three degrees and stood up tolerably well under days of snowdrifts. . .

Usually, broken limbs sprout quickly and the plants recover quickly after judicious pruning (whatever that phrase means) in spring. Hence our optimism. The exception was one winter when plants broke up so badly and were such an eyesore we vowed to dig and replant, a massive undertaking that sent us into total recoil.

You know how these determinations go, though: the spirit may be willing, but the shoulders and shovels lag far far behind.

The mess today. “Judicious pruning?”

In the end, our ditherings were moot because no plants were available. After cold or snowy winters it is sometimes difficult to find pittosporum, nurseries apparently suffering the same hardships as gardeners.

A diligent search by a friend in the business managed to turn up one sad specimen, offered up with apologies, that we grabbed gratefully and settled into a gap-toothed space.

That single plant is the only one left in good shape today. (Which makes me think that every so often, the gardener should do “judicious pruning,” even when it seems unnecessary.)

Despite our deep skepticism that spring, those winter-torn eyesores grew into beautiful mounds within a couple of seasons. Shame on us for doubting. And kudos to us for dilly-dallying.

So we are not giving up, though the situation seems dire. We are raising the beds by a few inches and I am starting a search for new plants to tuck in among the old-timers. To hedge against disappointment, I am back to propagating. The other day I stuck about twenty or thirty pittosporum cuttings into our previously-fallow-but-now-crowded propagation bed.

And when, exactly, would these cuttings be ready to plant out — if they even took. And would they succeed on a diet of hope, faith, and Miracle Gro?

 Blooming crepe myrtle branch bows low, strews spent blossoms over the empty bed that will be raised

My Internet search for plants did one thing, though. It reinforced my newfound loyalty to our pittosporum. I came across an article on their culture by a garden writer who had the temerity to give them only faint praise, calling them finicky because they needed water during dry spells, and wouldn’t grow in clay soil, and you had to watch for scale and aphids, though these were usually not so terrible.

What would the front garden look like without pittosporum in the background?

How dare anyone slander my pittosporum! How dare anyone faint-praise those plants that I had ignored all these decades because they were just there and didn’t need any care in our clay soil, and never had a bug and were hardly ever pruned and never needed a drop during droughts that were felling lesser plants (not that it ever occurred to us to give them a drink) but which have lately become my most-favored plants!

O dear, is it too late to make amends? Or will fickleness receive its just desserts?

Antler look-alikes? Guess whose idea it was to dry wet gloves on upside-down table legs?

Posted in Uncategorized, Winter damage | Tagged | 4 Comments

A Passion for Purple

I must be growing old. . .

for I have developed a passion for purple. Which brings to mind the first verse of Jenny Joseph’s poem, Warning.

“When I grow old I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me,
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens. . .”

Yes on the brandy, no on the satin sandals and summer gloves (I don’t even wear garden gloves), and yes I have sat on curbs (though it’s harder to get up from them these days).

And yes, yes, yes, I have too picked flowers in other people’s gardens, though I am crafty about it so my reputation is still in tact (I think).

For the record, the hydrangeas pictured have prime pedigree, All Summer Beauty in the back, Nightingale on the left, and, well, the small reddish purple is a seedling from a cutting I took in New Castle Delaware from a red that was poking out of a wrought iron fence, begging to be rescued

Of course, it’s not me that is aging. It’s the garden, and, in the tradition of the above manifesto, I would like to see more purple in it.

So far, my summer purple garden consists of two daylilies, Louisiana Iris, Japanese iris and some of that wandery phlox that can go wherever it likes in my garden.

One of the daylilies is a dark and dramatic, impressively sturdy ‘Ed Murray.’ Don’t ask me who Ed Murray is, but he is doing well even though he has been moved three times and must be moved yet again because he was cheeky and grew three feet tall and is hiding the gazing globe he was supposed to color-echo, so now he will have to take second fiddle and go in the back. Or maybe I will move the gazing globe.

Daylily ‘Ed Murray’ with Clethra ‘Hummingbird’ edging into its territory

The other daylily is a tame, ‘Rosy Lavender’ (my nickname for it) that I have had for a long time and that always seemed frail to me, maybe because it was re-arranged inordinately through the years. It’s a real sweetheart by itself, but eclipsed by bright yellows, oranges and reds it becomes a wall flower.

Tidy rosy purple daylily grows only 18 inches high, though it stands proud

Perhaps ‘Ed Murray’ would make a good dance partner. This year a clump of ‘Rosy Lavender’ got itself engulfed by a jumbo joepyeweed, beloved by butterflies, so it gets away with felonious assault in my garden. I felt obligated to rescue it, which digging and scrabbling will set it back a good year or two. I am not sure if “rosy lavender” counts as purple.

Joepyeweed was especially exuberant this year, crowding neighbors, because we had so much rain, 15 inches in the month of June alone. Now it is wilting on hot summer days

The other true purple in my garden is a stand-out Louisiana iris ‘Black Gamecock.’ In our soggy soil this one grows and spreads and blooms and grows and spreads and blooms in good sun, or not such god sun.

Louisiana iris ‘Black Gamecock’ is a reliable bloomer in our garden

Our Japanese iris like the same conditions and when they bloomed this year I discovered they have been busy hybridizing themselves. They are blue trending toward violet, white edged in violet, and a nice reddish violet, but I’m not sure if any of these count for purple.

I think there is some multiplying going on  here. I don’t especially remember all these rosy blooms from last year

It’s probably a certain nostalgia that’s pulling me to purple – memories of lush bouquets, perky nosegays and heavenly scents that I recall from years long past. Sadly, the three purple flowers I would like most to have in my garden are those that I can’t grow for one reason or another: heliotrope, pansies, and lilacs.

Perhaps it is more than nostalgia. Perhaps it is my affinity to the cluttery romance of things and colors Victorian. These three flowers happen to have long histories of whispering to Victorian lovers.

And what, exactly, is this “whispering of flowers?” Victorian techies called it Floriography. An offering of special flowers was often the only way to express the murmurings of the heart. (A blessing, perhaps, to an ardent but tongue-tied suitor?)

A modern “tussie mussie” by Debbie Del Rosario-Weiss

Indeed, initially, most ardent suitors dared not express their ardor verbally. Instead, they could present their adored with a “tussie mussie,”  a froth of lace enfolding herbs and blooms that spoke the message of love most discreetly. (We can’t help wondering today how many tussie mussies were cherished — or hastily discarded.)

To organize (or complicate) this flower-whispering business, a thriving market for dictionaries that could interpret the lore behind flowers grew up. They were regularly thumbed and definitions faithfully committed to memory. Donor and recipient alike could consult them to decipher the delicacy of a message.

Pierre Redoute’s illustrations are today considered masterpieces of botanical art

As one modern writer points out, though, there could be flaws in the delivery. Dictionaries differed in their definitions. Imagine a melodrama of crossed signals caused by a dictionary! leaving lovers star-crossed forever.

Not with my three, though. Their blossoms consistently express love and devotion – and passion, even faded passion. But their back-stories are quite distinct.

Heavenly heliotrope, yes, heavenly if you have ever savored its fragrance: vanilla and sugar and caramel and cherry pie in one long intoxicating whiff. It is difficult to find in nurseries, so long ago I tried it from seed. Initially, success was spectacular, which pleased me no end, as seeds and I usually have an uneasy relationship. Unfortunately, the plants faded in our hot humid weather and tropical summer nights.

Luscious heliotrope. Alamy stock photo, since I don’t grow it!

Disappointment was instantly rationalized. Heliotrope is a sun-loving annual that aphids, slugs and snails seem to love as much as humans. Just think, if it had prospered, I would have to be ever on the alert for varmints, remembering to cut back old stems to promote bloom and fertilize to keep the plants looking sharp. All this under a hot summer sun when I could be reading a book in a cool house.

Close-up of single heliotrope blooms, photographer unknown

But I do fancy the myth behind the flower that tells of Clytie, a water nymph who fell deeply in love with Helios, the Greek sun god, who, alas, had a wandering eye. Forsaken by her lover, in a purple funk, Clytie died of a broken heart.

Helios, out of pity, reincarnated her as heliotrope, the flower that devotedly turns her head to follow the path of her lover in the sun every day. (This all happened before the days of emancipated women.) More prosaically, this response is known as tropism.

Well, I will grow pansies, instead. You ask, who cannot grow pansies? I answer, Me! Rabbits here give them no quarter. They operate on a simple intuitive timetable of let it grow eat it let it grow eat it ad infinitum.

I could haul out the sprayer and spritz Liquid Fence on them (the pansies) on a less intuitive timetable (which I do for daylilies), but that seems a lot of trouble for a dozen plants purchased from an ag program in our local high school. I substituted blue forgetmenots that reseed freely and evoke the untamed look of an OK corral, but oh that blue-sky blue.

A lovely photo of a violet from my friend, Joan, in colors that would suggest “let’s take a chance”

The French word, pensee, meaning “thought,” is the root of the word pansy. Ironically, it was the staid old Victorians, and not the oolala French, who incorporated the idea of “amour” into the word/flower. A bouquet of white pansies edged in purple would suggest “let’s take a chance.” A bouquet of purple pansies, well. . .

This dramatic painting by Fantin-Latour of pansies in clay pots that were popular in the 19th century has captured my heart!

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare marries the pansy to affection in the twice-told tale of Cupid piercing a pure white pansy with his arrow and turning its center deep purple. Heart-shaped petals give credence to the pansy’s playful alternative names: love-in-idleness, kiss-her-in-the-buttery, and heartsease.

Oh, those bowers of lilacs in New England! Wouldn’t they do even better in the South, with its benign winters! Years ago, nurseries touted lilacs for our area, most of them purchased, I suspect, by gullible northern transplants like me. I never grew a happy lilac, nor did I ever see a happy lilac in a garden around here. I know that there are many varieties that will withstand a southern climate, but they must flourish elsewhere. If I can’t grow bowers of lilacs, I sulked, I wouldn’t grow any at all.

Photo from Pinterest

Paradoxically, lilacs can symbolize renewal and first love, or love lost. To Victorians, a gift of lilacs night be a reminder of an old love; widows might wear lilacs close to the heart.

There is a vein of sadness associated with the lilac. Poet Walt Whitman, uses the lilac in his timeless elegy to Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d”, conferring on their early bloom the symbol of life after death.

Lilacs in a Window, Mary Cassatt 1883

Think of ancient Greece when you use the lilac’s botanical name, Syringa vulgaris. Syringa, another of those nymphs that always seemed to be the center of love-troubles in Greek legends, had innocently beguiled Pan, the god of forest and field. To avoid his advances, she turned herself into a lilac shrub (One of the more extreme #metoo responses). Pan consoled himself by cutting reeds from Syringa’s hollow branches, ouch! and creating the first pan pipe. The Greek word “syrinks” means pipe.

Lilacs, by Claude Monet

Persons of a certain age (nobody known to the writer, of course) might be interested in certain other characteristics shared by these three plants with purple blooms.

Pansies are edible, full of nutrition, anti-inflammatory and mildly sedative. They are supposed to break down tumors, relieve headaches and dizziness, and clear upper respiratory infections.

Tinctures made from heliotrope are said to cure infections, cleanse the blood, fight fatigue, and clear congested lymphatic systems. Its essential oils are used in perfumes and lotions.

And lilacs can be used to treat skin problems, combat infections, prevent indigestion, reduce fevers, fight depression and relax the spirit.

Just think, with pansies, heliotrope and lilacs in your pantry, a body could shed meds, ditch docs, and live wild and free on salads and aromatherapy. And smell good, too. Now, that’s about as fine as wearing purple with a red hat.

Some other purple, or nearly purple, blooms in my garden

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The sweet but realistic artwork and lighthearted verse featuring flower fairies by Cicely Mary Barker, published during the early twentieth century, deserves mention. She painted from models in her sister’s kindergarten class who were dressed in costumes she created to resemble the flowers.

Song of the Heliotrope Fairy

Heliotrope’s my name; and why
People call me “Cherry Pie”,
That I really do not know;
But perhaps they call me so,
’Cause I give them such a treat,
Just like something nice to eat.
For my scent—O come and smell it!

How can words describe or tell it?
And my buds and flowers, see,
Soft and rich and velvety—
Deepest purple first, that fades
To the palest lilac shades.
Well-beloved, I know, am I—
Heliotrope, or Cherry Pie!


The Song of the Pansy Fairy

Pansy and Petunia,
Periwinkle, Pink—
How to choose the best of them,
Leaving out the rest of them,
That is hard, I think.

Poppy with its pepper-pots,
Polyanthus, Pea—
Though I wouldn’t slight the rest,

Isn’t Pansy quite the best,
Quite the best for P?

Black and brown and velvety,
Purple, yellow, red;
Loved by people big and small,
All who plant and dig at all
In a garden bed.

The Song of the Lilac Fairy

White May is flowering,
Red May beside;
Laburnum is showering
Gold far and wide;

But I sing of Lilac,
The dearly-loved Lilac,
Lilac, in Maytime
A joy and a pride!

I love her so much
That I never can tell
If she’s sweeter to look at,
Or sweeter to smell.

Posted in Heliotrope, Lilacs, Pansies, Purple in the Garden, Uncategorized, Victorian Florals | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

One Gardener’s Irreverent Take on Time-Honored Garden Art

Behind the Scenes of 19th Century Masterpieces

Some background first.

Public Parks, Private Gardens – Paris to Provence opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in March and will run to the end of July.

Theodore Rousseau. The Edge of the Woods. . . Fontainebleau Forest, 1854. Toward a more natural landscape

It is stunning. It’s a slice of horticultural history told with landscapes, portraits, still lifes, cartoons, maps, samples of tools, and artifacts. It’s worth viewing several times.

The 19th century was an exciting time for people who loved plants. An unstoppable green revolution was rolling through the land.

The artifice of formal gardens was giving way to inviting, natural landscapes with soft edges.

Botanical specimens were arriving regularly from exotic ports. Nurserymen were propagating and hybridizing garden staples for sale to the bourgeoisie who were cultivating flower gardens.

Edouard Manet. Music in the Tuileries Gardens, 1862

Property once owned by the Royals became destinations for recreation and rendezvous. Boulevards grew leafy glades, and new parks promised leisurely Sunday afternoon walks for a work-weary city population.

A French journalist in 1860 summed it up. “One of the pronounced characteristics of our Parisian society is that . . . everyone in the middle class wants to have his little house with trees, roses, and dahlias, his big or little garden, his rural piece of the good life.”

Henri Fantin-Latour. Summer Flowers, 1880. The flowers are from his garden

At the same time, artists were drawing inspiration from the natural world. Some became gardeners, and they celebrated their gardens in their paintings.

Others immersed themselves in the natural world, capturing on canvas light and color in new ways.

It is easy to be charmed by these idyllic tableaux. But I couldn’t help thinking that we’re not seeing the entire picture, that there might be more behind the scenes.

As a gardener who regularly mucks in the mud and swats at mosquitos, I have a slightly different perspective on some these masterpieces.

Here is my own humble interpretation.

Albert Bartholome. The Artist’s Wife Reading, 1883

Tomorrow I’ll weed.

Claude Monet. Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, 1865

What? No ants?

Honore Daumier, Cartoon, Lithograph, 1845

Caption translated: “I thought it would be more fun than this to water flowers during a heat wave.”

Claude Monet. Women in the Garden, 1867

Didn’t ANYONE tell her about chiggers and ticks?

Alfred Stevens. The Glass Ball, 1875 (oil on canvas)

No, that’s not poison ivy on your nose.

Claude Monet. The Path through the Irises, 1917

Got a little out of hand, did it? I know the feeling.

Gustave Caillebotte. The Parc Monceau, 1867

Can I get the name of the gardener who edged these paths? I have a friend. . .

Edouard Manet. Monet Family in their Garden at Argenteuil, 1874

But Mom, I’m so-o bored. Can’t I go play?

Hippolyte Bayard. In the Garden, 1842

How neat. Come to my potting area some time for the real deal.

Paul Cezanne. Madame Cezanne in the Conservatory, 1891

Do you think anyone will notice I didn’t do my nails?

Mary Cassatt. Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly, 1880L

Lydia intends to get neither a sunburn nor a single bug bite.

Edgar Degas. Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers, 1865

Now where can I find space out there for more flower beds?

Marie-Francois Firman-Girard. The Flower Market, 1875

Forerunner of our plant sales?

Honore Daumier. Lithograph, Cartoon, 1850

Caption translated: “No matter what one says, old things are always beautiful.”
“Yes, my dear, but only in marble.”

Odilon Redon. Madame Arthur Fontaine, 1901

I don’t sweat when I embroider.


Posted in Garden Humor, Gardens in Paris, impressionism garden masterpieces | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls

The Whodunnit Behind Tiffany’s Flowers Lit Up in Glass

We were supposed to be exploring pocket gardens and parks in lower Manhattan, but it was one of those bleak rainy days that turns a three-mile, 15-minute cab ride into a one-hour ordeal. So we settled on an activity that, it turns out, would brighten our day and lift up our spirits: a look at Tiffany lamps at the New York Historical Society and Museum on 77th Street and Central Park West.

We headed to the fourth floor and into a luminous blue gallery the size of a city block, where A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls permanent exhibit is staged.

A glowing dragonfly lampshade amid a kaleidoscope of color

Kaleidoscopic images of light and color ricocheted around us. Our own images receded, like auras, into the semi-darkness. We became lost in a cerulean eye, surrounded by glowing florals in glass: the lovely, familiar wisteria, daffodils, poppies, peonies.

Endless color and reflection

Czech architect Eva Jiřičná designed the surreal gallery with its floating, illuminated staircase and shadowy alcoves. Here, against a dramatic backdrop, a hundred Tiffany lamps are showcased, most of them donated by a single collector, Dr. Egon Neustadt, an early admirer of Tiffany.

Innovative lighted staircase bounces reflections around

Tiffany, 1908

Louis Comfort Tiffany.  Larger than Life. . .

Artistic Genius. . .

Grand Designer and Craftsman. . .

Bold Thinker. . . Imaginative Force. . .

Ambitious. . . Canny Competitor. . .

World’s Fair Chapel and Bapistry

His magnificent Chapel at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, with its complex stained glass renderings and innovative design, would set him on course to the fame he coveted.

Tiffany designed the dramatic field-of- lilies windows, but who actually  executed them? Aside: The shape of the baptismal font  may have been the inspiration for future Tiffany lampshades.

(Today, the reconstructed Chapel with its original glasswork can be visited at the Charles Hosman Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida.)

But who was Clara Driscoll working in the shadow of this Titan? And who were the Tiffany Girls?

Here they are in 1904, on the rooftop of  Tiffany Studios, Clara standing, far left.  Charles Hosman Morse Museum of American Art

Clara is barely mentioned in scant records that remain of Tiffany Studios. Her name appears on only one piece, a dragonfly lamp, for which she won a bronze medal at the 1900 World’s Fair in France.

Created in a variety of color themes, the dragonfly lamp was a popular item. Note how Susan fades into the background, barely three feet away

Public recognition was fleeting. Tiffany did not credit staff for contributions to his masterpieces. His employees, including Clara and the Tiffany Girls, worked in anonymity.

Clara was born mid-century (1861), and in the manner of her Victorian contemporaries, she wrote countless letters, round robin letters to her mother and sisters.

Possible yearbook photo from high school or art institute

Like email or Facebook entries today, each person added her news and kept the chain going and, happily, they saved the letters!

Through Clara’s eyes we see a detailed picture of work at Tiffany Studios and life in New York City at the turn of the century.

Vividly she describes her daily activities, her interactions with staff, the genesis of her ideas, the complexity of her designs.

Her ideas! Her designs!

Yes! Her letters confirm that she worked closely with Tiffany, that they shared a love of rendering the natural world in glass. They also reflect her deep love for the colors, shapes, forms, the romance of working with leaded glass.

Peonies, attributed to Clara Driscoll

From the letters we learn that Clara was the guiding force behind Tiffany’s leaded glass lampshades.

Today, fiberglas replaces the wood. Century Studios

She proposed the original idea. She designed these stylized gardens.  She chose the glass. She guided the Tiffany Girls during production, training them, pulling out of them latent creativity.

And she solved the problems.

As for solving problems, it was no small feat to adapt techniques used on flat panels to the curved surfaces of a lampshade.

Developed through trial and error, turned wood lamp forms were created and patterns etched into them. A thin layer of wax bonded glass pieces to the forms during work on the design. After soldering the wax would be warmed and the form would release from the shade.

Another favorite theme: daffodils

At one time, Clara’s staff numbered 35 women, self-styled Tiffany Girls, who were on the front lines of creating magic out of sheets of opalescent glass – as many as five thousand different colors and varieties to choose from — that were poured and stored at Tiffany’s furnaces in Corona, Queens.

The cartoon wrapped around a form. Century Studios

The women were responsible for developing “cartoons” (working drawings from watercolor renderings, often done by Tiffany) that would determine size and shape and pattern and placement of glass tiles.

Then would come the selection of glass to bring the design to light. The women would cut the glass with a steel or diamond cutting wheel and, if necessary, refine shapes with grozing pliers and other tools.

To prepare the panel for soldering, they would assemble the entire piece temporarily on the pattern and inspect it for flaws. Finally, they would wrap the edge of each piece of glass in a thin strip of copper foil cut from sheets of copper to which they had applied a thin layer of adhesive.

There are 2000 pieces of glass in the wisteria lampshade. There are 10,000 pieces in the World’s Fair panels.

Two versions of the wisteria leaded glass lamp. Note that the bronze base is molded to look like roots.  Much thought was given to designing bases that complemented lampshades

Execution had to be precise, each glass piece cut exactly to pattern and placed precisely on the master. Irregularities in shape or size of tiles would compromise solder seams and joints and diminish over-all quality. Once a product was approved, the Men’s Department would solder the glass in place with a lead/tin mix on both sides of the shade.  After cleaning, a patina to match the base of the lamp would be applied to the solder lines.

In Clara’s studio, with Joseph Briggs, Tiffany’s head workman, conferring on the design of desk and boudoir accessories of glass, bronze, and mosaic. 1901 photograph from Metropolitan Museum of Art

Clara observed in a 1904 interview: “Indeed, this is rather difficult work, but when one has a fondness for a certain brand of industry, she does not pause when a difficulty must be overcome.…The work is a new departure for women, and I believe that they like it.”

From the master, Louis Comfort Tiffany, “Infinite endless labor makes the masterpiece.”

Perfection indeed!

Clara came to her position at Tiffany’s with a clear aptitude for the future that she would find so rewarding. She and her three bright, ambitious sisters grew up in Tallmadge, Ohio, reared by well educated parents who  encouraged Clara to develop her talents.

A dear friendship with an Ohio naturalist, Harriet Louise Keeler, no doubt stimulated Clara’s love of the natural world that became integral to her work. After high school, she attended what is now the Cleveland Institute of Art and did design work for a furniture company.

Clara’s poppy lamp shade is an example of her ability to transfer her knowledge of the natural world into stylized artistry

By the time she came to New York to study at the Metropolitan Museum of Art School and then join Tiffany Studios in 1889, her background in art and natural history was deep and, at age 27, she was a mature and independent woman.

Until 2005 her story was buried in archives at the Queens Historical Society and Kent State University’s Special Collections.

Peacock feathers

Then, three tireless curators-turned-sleuths, Martin Eidelberg, Nina Gray, and Margaret Hofer stumbled upon the correspondence and realized they were holding keys to a rewrite of Tiffany history that would give long overdue credit to the creativity of Clara and the Tiffany Girls.

Their 2007 exhibit brought Clara out of the shadows. The 2017 dramatic recreation of the earlier exhibit shines a bright light.

Stylized peonies with an Oriental flair

Clara didn’t break any glass ceilings. Her achievements were not publicly recognized.

For her boundless creativity, for her complex bookkeeping responsibilities, and for her administration of monumental commissions for public buildings, she was paid $35 a week, commensurate with salaries paid to the men at Tiffany’s who had limited ranges of responsibility.

After a career of almost two decades, Clara married. She resigned from her position because Tiffany did not hire married women as a matter of policy.

“Flowers lit up in glass,” a quote from a Tiffany Girl

So it was with special enthusiasm that we viewed this exhibition, as much about jeweled flowers as about bringing to light the story of a strong and creative woman. This dramatic permanent display gives Clara the credit she earned over a century ago.

If you want to read more about Clara Driscoll, Susan Vreeland’s novel, Clara and Mr.Tiffany is a fine blend of fact and fiction. Based on Clara’s letters and other research, it tells Clara’s story against the backdrop of life in New York City at the turn of the century.

The slide show below features lamps from the exhibition. See if you can spot the copycat in the group.

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Mending Winter’s Mischief

Chicken Soup for the Garden(er?)

(All photos in the text are of Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide,’ a very large, 20-year-old shrub that has bloomed prolifically and dependably but is now in a precarious battle for survival.) 

Weather! Weather! Weather! We complain.  Plants thrive.

Will this rainy weather breathe life into moribund plants?

From what we’ve seen, azaleas, pittosporum, camellias, oleander, gardenias, some crepe myrtles and weak trees seem to be the biggest losers this winter, though our craggy, battered old oak is looking better than ever. Most of these plants in our zone 8A are living on the edge of their comfort zones. Usually happy, they were whammied this winter.

Do we have a plan of action? Not now. Eventually we will work one out for each sick plant. This gives us time to adjust to losses and figure out strategies. While there is a plant in the ground, there is hope.

So, for the moment, we are watching and waiting. This is what I tell gardeners when they ask, and they rather like this advice. It requires little immediate work, and it postpones making decisions.

How patient should we be? We’ll wait till fall, the season of renewal, when marginal plants might come to life. Depending on how a plant looks (a deadnik next to the front door may need to be chopped out to restore a gardener’s spirits) we may postpone action until early next spring. We are gardeners in the South, not stock brokers in the City, so we don’t rush.

Trees and shrubs carry a lot more baggage than seeds. If seeds from plants in my garden can sprout after lying dormant for years, surely I can give some slack to shrubs that have performed well. It’s an apples to oranges comparison, I know, but it suits my fancy now. And Mother Nature does have a quirky sort of patience.

Near perfect growing weather this spring, rain, sun and moderate temperature, is creating quite a jungle. But cool soil the past few weeks may slow revival of a weak plant.

Soil temperature must be in balance with air temperature for proper growth to occur. Roots in cold soil are still sleepy. They can’t keep up with the needs of top growth on a warm day. That is why you sometimes see plants wilting on a pleasant day in spring after a cool rain the previous night has put a sparkle in the garden. Sluggish roots in cool soil are slow to hear SOS put out by tops that are jazzed for growing. We see this most often in tender new growth.

But healthy shrubs have leafed out by now, and with what exuberance! So we can begin looking for life.

In particular, we’ve seen bright new azalea leaves topping old brown ones, making for showy plants, and some leafless azaleas actually put out bloom despite their nakedness. I am hoping they are not putting best foot forward now only to fall on face in hot summer.

Right now we are using the bend-and-snap test to determine life in masses of dead pittosporum branches. If a twig snaps when it’s bent, oh well, it was probably dead. If it doesn’t seem to mind being bent, we leave it for a later try.

Pittosporum will be a challenge to shape when it finally comes around. There’s new growth on tips of skeletonized branches and tiny leaves coming out of heavy old wood. What to prune out? What to leave? This new growth popping out from heavy wood is slow and easy to miss, but like the tortoise, it usually wins the race. Epicormic budding, this is called. Dormant buds beneath the bark become active in times of stress. It’s another strategy for survival.

Gardenias and oleander still look like a patchwork of green and brown: life at their bases, maybe some along branches, and some on tips of twigs. More decisions and more pruning challenges. Shocked crepe myrtles are growing at their bases, or, happily, they have come through like champs and sport the shiniest, healthiest leaves I’ve seen in a decade.

As for camellias, I am a faithful bud-checker. This is an exciting garden pastime, though not necessarily one that would perk up lagging conversation at a cocktail party. I check plants for growth buds from August on, even earlier, as I walk the garden to see how plants are preparing for next year. These buds will stay tightly wrapped until they flush out next spring. Leaf buds are slender, flower buds are round, though on other types of plants, buds can neatly package future leaves and flowers together.

New leaf buds should be smooth and shiny and firm. On stricken plants, buds formed last year are dried up or gone, leaving stubs at the ends of branches. I have found what appear to be new leaf buds, but they are small and sickly and they drop off when I touch them. If leaves emerge from these buds, they are stunted. Kinda dashes your hopes when you cheer a live one and it turns out to be a dud. But even when tops die off, camellias can come back from the base.

Scraping the bark to see if a plant is still alive is OCD behavior for me in February, though I haven’t killed a plant that way yet. This spring, it has not been a reliable test. Inner bark and fresh-cut ends of twigs may show a hopeful green, but a later check will show no color as the plant continues dying back. More dashed hopes.

Still, all this rain seems to be apologizing for the cold winter. It’s giving plants the best chance they could want. We soldier on with our TLC.

We give plants handsful of compost, but little if any fertilizer (too rich for a sick plant).

We scatter a mixture of dry leaves and pine needles that have fallen since last fall, a light mulch now that soil is finally warming. (Crumbling leaves will compost, and tough pine needles will give cover during hot days.)

We’ll stand hose-in-hand lavishing drinks of water on rickety plants during dry spells, until run-off tells us to stop, give time for the water to soak in, then give another drink.

Chicken soup for the garden. Chicken soup for the gardener’s spirits.

The Parade of Bloom in May, particularly Japanese, native swamp, Siberian and Louisiana iris, poppies,  deutzia, spirea, native wisteria ‘Amethyst Falls’ and Missouri sunflower are good for the spirits, too. Herewith some pink Knockout roses and a slide show of happy pictures.

A real delight this year

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The Winter of Three Degrees Part III

Guerillas in the Garden, or

Try not to Throw the Baby out with the Bath Water

Let me tell you what did staggeringly well over the winter. Lesser celandine! If you have read my post of March 2012, The Weed that can Snare a Gardener, written when I was a less-than-wise gardener (which is not to imply that the situation is much improved today), you are already familiar with my love-hate relationship with this plant.

Who could resist these sunny faces?

First I couldn’t get enough of it. Carefully I tended each bright shiny plant. And when I was blessed with bounty, I shared. How I shared. Other gardeners were equally dazzled, so I gave it away freely, even sold some at our plant sales. My ego soared. My star was rising among gardening friends.

Then I learned all the bitter truths about this kissin’ cousin of the buttercup.

It’s an impostor. A doppelganger for marsh marigold, Caltha palustris, a lovely native, not particularly coveted because of where it lives. (Sigh, if only my identification had been more objective before I fell in love with this dastardly counterfeit.)

You would need hip boots to get to this marsh marigold. Come to think of it, parts of our property might qualify as its habitat

Egg on my face, betrayal, but I managed to survive that bitter truth, until. . .

I discovered the next bitter truth. Only after I was totally hooked, did these bright rosettes with their knock-your-socks off blooms take full advantage. They bounced around our garden like slinky toys embedded in boomerangs. Surprise! Bet you didn’t expect us over here…and here…and here! Oh, and over there, too!

And then the third, the cruelest indignity of all, the one that feeds heady hope, then brings utter despair. The plants fade some time in May. They are gone, all of them.

You feel triumphant, light as air. Your garden is freed from the yoke of these invaders. You don’t give them another thought. Then, next spring, your psyche is dashed by a sea of psychedelic yellow.

And to think I actually cultivated lesser celandine along this path

My daughter and I learned these bitter truths years ago after we spent one spring day on our knees, three-pronged cultivators in hand, pulling up plants and feeling very proud of our “finished” work.

At the time, we didn’t quite understand the way these guerillas operate. Their blossoms are the vanguard, spilling seeds here there and yon if you do not run the extra mile (around the garden) cutting off new flowers daily.

What a bother! Better off spending time hunting up an army of schoolkids to collect bouquets and hope they don’t get tired, thirsty, bored, cranky, hungry before the job is done.

Formidable tools for survival

Major warfare, we soon learned, takes place unseen, in the trenches, where masses of roots with apparently innocuous bulblets, maybe only one, maybe a hundred (slight exaggeration) to a plant, stand at attention, ready to break away and go into hiding if attacked.

One bulblet, or even a part of one, accidentally removed from the original plant, will create a new plant. I repeat, one bulblet, or even part of one, will create a new plant.

So the Defender (that’s me, in case you hadn’t guessed) must dig with finesse. One would assume that your usually-adequate-for-small-plants handy-dandy trowel would qualify as the proper tool if finesse is required.

Not so. A full-fledged shovel must be plunged deeply (little finesse here) into the soil while carefully cutting around the plant and lifting the clump to remove the invaders, or maybe not, if you didn’t aim quite right.

In which case, the troops might be scattered, reburied, or cut in two, which will, of course, bring on the slinky effect. Complicating matters, bulblets sometimes grow among heavy roots that are impenetrable fortifications against mere shovels.

In that case, you should probably consider dynamiting the garden or incorporating celandine into your garden plans for the rest of your life.

Bulblets from two plantsfound in a one-gallon pot. Scattered bulblets fell away during handling

And another thing, don’t even think about salvaging that precious, composty soil you’ve been building for years. Shaking soil off a shovelful of roots guarantees another dozen plants next year. Into pickle-pail purgatory and on to landfil-oblivion they must go.

Interesting Trivia: Many years ago, the oystermen in Great South Bay, Long Island, were fed up with starfish prying open the oysters and helping themselves to the crop. To get rid of the starfish and, I suppose, vent their frustration at the same time, they engaged in a great effort to catch hundreds, maybe thousands, of starfish.

Methodically, with supreme satisfaction, they chopped the starfish up and threw them back into the Bay. Surprise! You can guess the rest of the story. Celandine has a lot in common with starfish.

If you doubt that this is guerilla warfare, take a look at the names of killer chemicals that one can use against this invader — if one is a gambler and willing to go bankrupt on such purchases, none of which have iron-clad guarantees.

Doff Knockdown Weedkiller
Scotts Tumbleweed
Scotts Fast Action Roundup Ready-to-Use
Bayer Glyphosate Ready-to-Use Kills Weeds & Roots
Roundup Gel Ready-to-Use
Resolva Lawn Weedkiller
Weedol Lawn Weedkiller
Bayer Lawn Weedkiller

We have read that a thick layer of mulch can discourage celandine, but I wonder, then, if pine voles would be tempted to tunnel in friable compost and become yet another guerilla force in the garden. I doubt that celandine bulblets would ever become a delicacy for voles when tulips and crocuses are on the menu.

Here’s a gang ready to march on an ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea just sprouting after winter

If celandine plants would stick to empty spots in a flower bed, we could tolerate them, but instead, they circle prized shrubs and home in until they establish a chokehold.

Rescuing such a plant, we soon learned, is tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bath water. We did just that this spring.

We decided to dig up a celandine-choked hydrangea that was failing, a favorite red that had grown and prospered from a cutting volunteered by a willing plant in New Castle, Delaware, where my sister, conveniently, was carrying a large purse in which to stash the prize. Quite cleverly, we named the acquisition New Castle Red.

It looked better before we dug it up. Note that most of the green is from celandine

Our plan was to separate hydrangea from celandine, rout the guerillas and restore the plant to its happy home in, say a couple of hours tops.

It didn’t work quite that way. To begin with, by the time we dug the plant out, we realized we were mucking in wet, heavy clay, the kind of clay that fails drainage tests, badly, but which, oddly, our hydrangeas seem to like.

By the way, anyone with a spare shovel and a yen for a sprained back can perform these high-tech drainage tests. You dig a hole (that’s the high-tech part), fill it with water, let the hole drain, then refill it and track the time until the hole is empty again.

We didn’t plan on running such a test, but we had a ready-made hole that was now filled with rain from a sudden storm, so we welcomed going off on this tangent. Watching water drain can be one of the more exciting  activities in a garden. Less strenuous, too.

In this case, watching a clock would have been far more exciting. The water level never dropped. We decided to go back to rescuing the hydrangea.

Bob takes hatchet in hand

We soon learned that it is difficult to work delicately when your hands are muddy and the dug-up plant is slippery and weighs a ton and you are fighting with a guerilla that has woven itself among roots.

To “save” the hydrangea we had to cut it apart. With a hatchet.

Casualties  in the wheelbarrow,  water for separating guerillas from keepers, and the final hydrangea tally in a two-gallon pot

We’ve divided hydrangeas before, but usually we are in command. By the time we finished “saving” this hydrangea, we wound up with 13 sticks, each with some semblance of leaves and roots. I heeled them into a cuttings bed (early spring, soil still cold for this work, I know) and last I looked, they were all showing some semblance of shuffling off.

The Casualties

We happened to have a “sister” to this hydrangea in the wings, so we stirred a goop of compost, mushroom dirt and clay clods into the still-rain-filled hole and popped her in with a little moat surrounding her (to promote drainage, I can hear you laughing already).

Holding her own in the muck. The former hydrangea was able to keep the hosta at bay but not the celandine

We had to “persuade” her not to float by adding more clods, especially after the next two-incher left standing water in the moat.

So ends the celandine cliff-hanger for this year. Will the new hydrangea evade the guerillas next year? Will any of the old hydrangea survive? Stay tuned for the next installment of this thrill-a-minute saga of death-defying warfare waged by Guerillas in the Garden. PG-13

For now, let’s move on to brighter news: luscious blooms and lush growth spurred by rainy days and cool weather this spring and workaholic compost that keeps feeding our soil like that certain bunny that never quits. Despite losses, it’s been the best spring ever.

This bawdy combo of ‘Fashion’ azalea and clematis ‘Dr. Ruppel’ never fails to entertain us each spring

Pictured in the slide show below are atamasco lily, clematis, spirea ‘Ogon’, and native honeysuckle, lady banks rose, sinocalycanthus ‘Hartlage Wine’ and kerria, red buckeye, fringe tree, deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls, sweet william,  limbed-up doublefile viburnum (v. plicatum tomentosum), a sea of forgetmenots, and columbines that give sparkle to a challenged oleander.

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The Winter of Three Degrees Part II of III

Raiders of the Winter Garden

Yup, that’s what they are. Come out in the cold to sample Green Plate Specials and hunker down for the winter as if they owned the place. Ah, those plants with tender leaves, hors d’oeuvres with a tang served up by Kurume and Gumpo azaleas, delicacies prized by these raiders of the garden.

The plants looked spikey even before the first flake of snow: Gawky, leafless sticks, especially if they were growing along the routes of the raiders. Negative focal points in the garden. (Can you have negative focal points in a garden? We did!)

A spikey azalea beginning to recover

The damage was considerable. In fact, it was so considerable that I took pictures, which now seem to be missing, probably because a plant that has been eaten tends to become invisible, which tends to hamper positive identification. So, take it on trust, there were a lot of photos that simply showed tangle.

On the bright side, these same plants were spared the misery of a long cold winter.

This Gumpo went brown in March. We held our breaths, as did everyone in our area as azaleas browned out

Spoiler alert: As of this writing, only one plant that we know of was totally lost to browsing.

Still, chewing damage was so pervasive I assumed initially that it came from deer. But the diagonal cuts on branches were clean, missing the ragged, torn edges indicative of deer browse. Maybe deer and rabbits had negotiated a temporary treaty and deer went elsewhere for tender kibbles.

Now I can understand why Farmer MacGregor had a certain hostility to these cute, furry creatures

Tall rabbits were the how and why of these Phyllis Diller plants. Not that they (the rabbits) are genetically tall. They simply stretch themselves skinny as a dime so they can reach to unsurpassed heights, even to the tops of, say, deutzia gracilis.

Yes, rabbits like deutzia, especially tender new transplants still naïve about the ways of rabbit raiders. But I wonder why these rabbits were still stretching for deutzia and azaleas, when concessions of just-out hosta were offering grab-and-go meals almost everywhere in the garden. (Maybe a need for more fiber in the diet? Is there a fiber RDA for rabbits?)

This young deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls’ once eaten down by rabbits, was spared this year. They preferred the older shrub that only  laughed the rabbits off

In their defense, rabbits can be very polite diners. They take small, dainty bites, even when they are ripping a plant apart.

Like a dutiful, efficient, organized, first-things-first gardener (as I know you all are, too), I began to cut away the sticks to shape the bushes and make room for healthy new growth that had begun to sprout from below.

At least they ignored the camellias. Here the rain has pounded a bloom into the ground

Then I had an epiphany.  Had I been in some alcoholic haze? My diligent tidying was not deterring the raiders. Instead, it was inviting more rabbit raids. Come and get it, varmints, new bush opened up, easy pickins’, guaranteed no sticks, lots of tender new leaves on the plate, all in shiny bright neon.

Let me tell you, I sobered up fast. Now on high alert, driven by pure naked impulse, I designed high-tech azalea barricades using cut-down joepyeweed sticks, which just happened to be at hand.

I gambled on confusing the raiders by tucking broken stalks like spears into the stick bushes, which, by the way, were beginning to look pretty good, except that now they were even more sticky and would require more tending later in the season to remove the stick barricade that was now junking up the growing sticks. Do you think these barricades could ever be positive focal points?

And then suddenly the Gumpos turned green

Then again, maybe I had been too hasty. After I sprinkled “aromatic” Holly Tone on the azaleas to coax them along, the rabbits seemed to disappear. Spraying Liquid Fence would have been more sensible, but who was being sensible at this point. Next winter, I vowed, I’ll toss wads of pine straw among azalea branches and top them off with a garnish of Hollytone. Let’s see how you like pine straw in with your azalea leaves, you, you, you. . .rabbits!

Despite browsing, on the whole, azaleas weathered the winter with grace. Rabbits ignored the large-leaved southern indica and Rutherford hybrids even though they remained green all winter. May-blooming gumpos that the raiders missed were badly browned, but they have now pumped out new green leaves with energy that astonishes. Do I spot flower buds, too?

Kurume azalea ‘Coral Bells’, a reliably early bloomer, seen here in a protected corner, for the most part eluded rabbits and the deep freeze

Who has not lately complained about copious rain! (Which complaints will no doubt be replaced next summer with groans about terrible heat and extended “drought.”)

Have you noticed that the plants are not complaining? Ever opportunistic, they are sucking up a power drink of nutrients that would otherwise be locked in dry soil. And so we are being treated to a lovely, green world in April.

Here a southern indica ‘George Tabor’ shows a purple sport. Note the considerable new green growth

Possibly too green? This energetic growth is outstripping some of our azalea blooms, hiding them so the full “wow” effect of bright blossoms is subdued. Reminds me of why we gave up on Rhododendron catawbiense with its stunning lavender balls that cover walls of healthy shrubs in the cool-climate forests of western North Carolina.  Warm spring temperatures here confused their internal schedules and prompted plants to put out new leaves before the blooms arrived. That meant the “wow” effect was a dud.

Such a nitpicking curmudgeon you are! Can’t you just sit on a bench and enjoy the great wide World of Azaleas in April? Okay. Okay. I’ll set a spell.

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