A Gardener’s Weather

It’s the middle of March and they are bickering in the heavens again.

Move out, you Old Goat, you’re done, finished.

Old goat, eh! I’ll show you. Want a blast of wind chill? And some crusty barbs of ice? You—you—you Spring Chicken.

Just waiting. . .

No problem. I’ve got a picnic blanket of warm sunbeams ready to throw over all those fancy schmancy ice crystals of yours. Ha, ha, ha ha they’re turning to mush already.

That’s nuthin’, I’ll tear that goofy blanket of yours to shreds. Got some nice sleet goin’ here. And maybe wrassle up a wind and bring me down some pine cones and gum balls while I’m at it.

Foggy day in March

Why you – you — you Old Goat, I’m blowin’ you up north for good. I’ll get that Sound water movin’ and I’ll flood those canals and rivers so bad you’ll never get back.

Just try, Spring Chicken, ‘cuz I’ll blow you right back south across the Sound and dry up your precious canals.

That’s it! Time for a tornado.

Hah! Can’t do it without me.

Late afternoon polishes the tree trunks

What to do? We innocent gardeners are caught between the two warriors. We slog in February’s rain. We watch our plants sprout green on balmy days, then shrivel in a freeze.

Occasionally there are signs of a truce. Usually late afternoon, if the air is still. A waning, hidden sun, not to be denied, lights pearl clouds. The land gleams like polished pewter. Maybe a kittenish breeze nudges the clouds off, and pewter blends to gold and honey. Until dusk brings on lead.

A north wind laid these daffs down, but they are ready to rise again

The soil is cold and mucky when I dig. They say you can ruin the soil if you work it wet, but I can’t wait for the bickering to end.

Shiny earthworms squirm when I uncover them.

Turn out the lights, they seem to say, we don’t belong out here.

Daffodils love these pitched battles. Sisters of Winter. Cheerleaders of freezes. What’s a little fracas to them? In an over-cooled sun-drenched ice-box, they snap upright, fresh as ever, and nod me good day.

‘Poet’s’ Narcissus has bloomed reliably for twenty years, despite upheavals when I am rummaging in its bed

I am the daffodil detective.

Once the spears push out of frigid ground, I am out there checking, running my fingers around the base to find that telltale flower-bud bulge.

Obviously, the narcissus to the left passed the test easily, which delighted me to no end.

(In the interests of complete disclosure to readers, daffodils have never paid me for these consults.)

This old quince stands as a sentinel next to our front path.

Their playmates are forsythia, quince, and bridal wreath spirea.

An unruly trio, as bold as the daffodils, elbowing for territory, their gauzy, gaudy costumes turn heads up and away from weedy ground.

Farm fields ignore the tumult.

They wait, bristling stubs, last year’s leavings, and green weeds.

Weeds by definition are always green.

Hellebores, too, revel in early spring

Red maples pay no mind to the weather. They seem always to be on time., spattering crimson blossoms in tree branches along roadsides and in swamps.

Red maple blooms on a moody day. Note mistletoe in upper left

Hazy foreshadowing of a new season. It’s a short dance for them, though, they are cast off in a few days, bits of flotsam.

Delicate pollynoses will follow them very soon, flung away in a haphazard search for fertile landings.

Before other trees are even thinking about their offspring, (heck, the beech tree is still only losing its leaves and the oak has not yet begun to let its catkins fly) red maples are finished for the year. They can coast along on whatever weather summer brings.

Bridal wreath spirea, an old shrub, takes more and more territory each year, if we let it

In deference to the venerable oak, it takes a season to grow an acorn. But that nutritious kernel will become the staff of life next winter for forest creatures.)

Bradford pears are punctual, too. Never mind their willingness to go rogue and squander pollen, they are first to flounce.

Crisp, paper white blossoms reflect off my neighbor’s street lamp each night. Sheer filigree of light banishing a circle of darkness the way a full moon shines up the night.

Where there is sunlight, Carolina jessamine festoons trees in our woods

While Jupiter and Saturn chase each other across the ecliptic like good soldiers on a march that never ends.

Forsythia fades but mischievous Carolina jessamine takes up a yellow banner for Spring at the end of March.

It scrambles over fences and weaves through trees, splashing sunshine where you least expect it.

Bright constellations of spent petals swirl in currents driven by breezes. I see the currents clearly because they are marked by streamers of pollen.

Pink flowering almond, an old favorite in gardens, loves early spring

Pine pollen is cosmic dust come for a visit. Yellow clouds sweep in, coat cars and trucks, stain roads, invade the sinuses.

The yellow haze dusts plants with yellow flour, streams down waterways. Gusty rainstorms collect random grains and clump them in yellow rivulets that weave unseemly patterns on roads and cars. They linger until the next downpour (or a car wash).

Gentler raindrops rearrange pollen on leaves into tiny crescents, like fine old needlework.

A late-blooming forsythia surprises us each year after the early bloomers fade

Canada geese make regular noisy tours of our slip while the seasons are tugging. Checking out digs? Goofing off? Impressing a partner?

On a day when Spring seems ascendant, a pair of wood ducks are loafing, until a Canada goose casually sidelines them by flexing feathers. We do not see the pair again. Size matters, I guess.

Prospective parents investigate our waters each spring, then leave. Apparently we lack the finer amenities for raising young.

I see a streak across the water. Otter?

They’re around, and you can see them if you ride the canal. We smell the sea when they choose to dine on fresh water mussels off our point.

Unfinished beaver business?

The beaver that gnawed his way through winter seems to be gone. He finished off some good-sized saplings and chewed some hefty sprouts from a rising red bay.

We spent big bucks to drop a girdled 60-foot sweet gum soon to topple inconveniently. And what, do you suppose, a beaver would do with a tree like that?

They say the sound of trickling water triggers dam-building in beavers, so Bob stuffed a rag in our heat pump outflow pipe to mellow its gurgles.

The ploy seems to have worked, thank goodness.

Redbud blooms burst on a warm sunny day

It’s a whippy windy day. The sun is blinding white and the sky is crystal blue. Clouds are scudding and I hear shrill cries.

The osprey are back, or she is lately back and he, having come early for their rendezvous, is glad to see her arrive.

They fill the skies and cross the sun, their large shadows swallow me up.

Careening and dipping and diving, screeching or cooing, looping away and together, climbing to vertical until there’s almost a stall, challenging the gusts, knowing they can always recover from a ripping wind. Having a glorious time.

Forgetmenots. I can’t get enough of them. Too soon they go to seed but their offspring arrive dependably

When the osprey soar and the shadbush blow, I know that the bickering has ended and Spring has finally booted Winter out.

Redbud and crabapple, box turtles and sliders, forgetmenots and tent caterpillars will stir.

Spring blues and early swallowtails will flutter.

A single azalea blossom will poke out, and the weeds will disappear in a mountain of bloom.

Oh dear, tent caterpillars share the spotlight with jessamine

Eventually, deprived of their ice box, daffodils will sprawl in this new sauna, limp but greedy for a last bit of sunshine before they go under.

Later, as I trim the layabouts, I wonder whose idea it was to plant so many.

Fast forward to late April. Gardeners’ conversations now run to how dusty the soil is, how cracked the mud in the ditch is and how we need rain.

Unless it’s been windy, rainy and cold for a week. (Winter’s last mischievous gotcha?). Then the conversation turns to kaboomed blooms, littered lawns, soggy soil, and lost moments in a green world.

Either way, tee shirts begin to replace jackets and Summer is fast closing in on the skirts of Spring.

An early native azalea, ‘Varnadoe’, on a glittery April afternoon

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Special For Camellia Lovers

Only camellia lovers can understand how a Gang of Eight could capture our hearts so completely that we created a special place for them in our garden twenty-five years ago. Then, capitalizing on our soft spots, they managed to wheedle us into adding another 80 or so as companions.

C. sasanqua ‘Jean May,’ a dependable, large fall bloomer in our garden

Those great big neon blossoms! How they seduced us! This year in particular they’re busting out all over.

It’s a banner blooming season.

So what could be more appropriate for us than to run around the garden taking pictures and updating our series on camellias.

And pinching ourselves that we live in the south, where camellias are king.

C. japonica ‘Lady Clare,’ an all time favorite with camellia growers

We shall always be grateful to the Virginia Camellia Society for introducing us to such flamboyant royalty in the garden.

They offered hands-on workshops and seminars. They freely answered our questions. They taught us to air layer plants. They were dedicated to their camellias.

All this at the Norfolk Botanical Garden where a premier collection of over 1700 camellias attracts visitors from all points.

Formal and stately, C. japonica ‘Nuccio’s Gem’ is a heavy bloomer, too

I’m proud to say we led some outdoor workshops, too, specifically on vole control (since we had intimate experience with the characters).

For several years we air layered their heirloom plants in spring and potted them up in fall for sale by the Botanical Garden.

Gradually we learned.

As we did the hard work of preparing soil, planting and pruning, and responding to an assortment of environmental assaults, from barely visible scales to mighty hurricanes, we developed our own perspectives on growing camellias. We tell our stories in chapters that are linked below and in the sidebar.

C. japonica ‘Taylor’s Perfection’ in late afternoon sunshine

You can follow us from our first heady infatuation with the Gang of Eight (Camellias in our Garden) to our serious attempts at growing them: purchasing, siting, planting, pruning, fertilizing, and managing diseases and pests.

We tell how our camellia garden was destroyed and regenerated.

And how could we not discuss air layering, the easiest method we know of propagating our favorites? Our piece on wildlife talks about Most Wanted (birds and bees) and Least Wanted (deer and voles and squirrels – squirrels?).

C. japonica ‘Hermes,’ a long bloomer and a flairboyant addition to our garden

Choosing Camellias, Landscaping with Camellias, and Companions for Camellias are three new additions to our series. We hope that some of the pointers and suggestions strike a chord and give you some new, aha! ideas.

As we tied up the series, we realized that camellias aren’t very different in their needs than most other plants. Much of what we discuss can be transferred to the care of other plants.

Regarding photos, we identify as many camellias as we can, those that were named when we purchased them and some we propagated. Once we began air layering unknowns we found out how difficult it was to put an accurate name to these beauties. Even experts were stumped. Eventually, we found that names didn’t matter. Their exquisite blooms in our garden were their identity.

Another Nuccio introduction, C. japonica ‘Nuccio’s Pearl’

Our camellias have taught us patience – it takes a long time to raise a camellia.

They’ve opened our eyes to the kinship of soil to plants, the links between healthy life teeming underground and plant happiness.

We’ve watched the sun cross the skies each day and seen its glow on our camellias.

We’ve had a good time experimenting and growing.

We know now that when you plant a camellia, you are planting for a future that is beyond your lifetime.

We hope you enjoy our series on camellias as much as we enjoy growing camellias. You can view the cast of our characters in the gallery below, including the original Gang of Eight. You’ll also find their portraits incorporated into the series.

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Camellias in our Garden       Siting and Planting Camellias

 Pruning and Fertilizing our Camellias       Insects and Diseases of Camellias

Camellias Become  Collateral Storm Damage       Camellia Recovery and Care

Air Layering Camellias     Wildlife and Camellias

Choosing Camellias     Landscaping with Camellias    Companions for Camellias

Special for Camellia Lovers

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The Whiny Gardener

Caution: Viewer discretion advised. Pictures are not pretty.

You have problems?

Every year it’s the same. I spend the month of February whining. Plants should be up and coming on February 1st. We’re in the south. It’s 40 degrees today! Spring should be here!

Why is it so late this year? Things are still looking dead. How can that be?

I scratch some bark off a branch. Just a test, mind you. If there’s green underneath I know the dead twig is still alive.

Uh oh, I guess I scraped this plant before. There are scars from three other scrapings this year.

I start to feel a little guilty.

Tools all ready. Nobody around

If I do any more of this, the plant will really be dead. Well, if they didn’t look so dead, I wouldn’t have scraped them to pieces. It’s their fault, not mine, I whine.

Fortunately, one day it’s March and the sun warms things up. Finally, spring!

I thought it would never get here. I see some green buds so I stop whining.

My favorite weed, the one with white flowers that spit seed all over and sing “We’ll be back next year.”

OMG, where did all these weeds come from? Why are there always so many weeds?

And why did spring come so early this year? Couldn’t it have waited a bit?

And how will we get everything done? We’ll be working every day till next winter.

I’m exhausted from all this whining. I take a nap.

The latest in garden decor?

I know, I’ll make a list of what needs to be done. It’s always better when you have a list.

Here is my list

1. Weed
2. Rake
3. Prune
4. Fertilize
5. Mulch

That should do it.

At least the pot can stay. Where else would I stash the weeds?

How nice, only five things, nothing to it. Now I can stop whining and take another nap.

I’ll get started tomorrow.

Feeling pretty smug, I give myself a little tour of the garden.

Uh oh, I see a couple of things that need fixing. I’d better start another list.

Nothing quite as much fun as tearing out ivy. . .

Here is my second list.

1. Ivy choking hydrangea, has to come out.

2. Lesser celandine smothering a couple of azaleas. Coming up everywhere else, too. That can’t be good.

3. Seedling beautyberry. Forgot to pull it last year, now a hunk muscling out azalea.

. . .unless it’s digging up lesser celandine

4. Those pretty purple jobs, annuals planted them all over last summer, what were their names? Dead now and rooted to China,  I’ll need a shovel.

5. Planter boxes in the courtyard. Did we really have butterflies last year? What a mess.

6. Maximillian sunflower, love it, but rhizomes and new plants everywhere.

7. Ditto for green-eyed coneflower, keeps invading the bed.

Green-eyed coneflower hidden under those sticks, another invader

This is a terrible list. I do not like this list. If I have to do all this extra stuff, I’ll never get to doing anything on the first list.

I can’t figure how all this super-growth happened on my watch. I guess I’m not very good at noticing. If there were a Gardener’s Army I would be court martialed and sentenced to pulling tiny seedling weeds, the ones with roots that break off when you pull them, for the rest of my life.

There’s a path somewhere, oh, that comes under “Rake,” in the first list

Here I thought we were ahead of schedule for cleaning up. We’d raked some paths and transplanted some plants (whose bark had been scraped to make sure they were still living).

Now, we’re way behind.

We’ll have to work dawn to dusk, and maybe even in the rain.

I make another list of what I like to do best in the garden.

At least I can skip hurricane clean-up, the last of it is finally taking care of itself, after 14 years

Maybe I can do this list first.

1. Buy plants.

2. Buy more plants.

3. Plant seeds that will not need help from me.

4. Plant small plants in good soil.

5. Give Bob the big plants to put in clay or rooty soil.

Just what am I supposed to do with the mess the beavers made?

6. Ask Bob to dig up shrubs and transplant them.

7. Water transplants once in a while.

8. Deadhead perennials and do light pruning.

9. Ask Bob to do the heavy pruning.

10. Weed when there are not too many weeds and they are easy to pull and they promise not to come back.

11. Did I mention buying plants?

What I truly like best is sitting in a comfortable chair with a nice hot cup of tea and telling everybody else what to do in the garden. Then I wouldn’t do any whining at all.

Look at these lovely hellebore seedlings I discovered when tackling #1 on the first list. Don’t you think I should drop everything and transplant them?

Posted in garden maintenance, Uncategorized, weeds | Tagged | 4 Comments

Memories Chase This Gardener’s Brown Blues

Nothing like February to bring on a gardener’s Brown Blues. Brown leaves, brown stems, brown grasses, brown scruffy seed heads (broken-down brown) and, incidentally, gray days.

A rogue fog sweeps a wan winter sun away

A rogue fog sweeps a wan winter sun away

Not to mention that all this brown has to be cleaned up before spring. It’s enough to make a body want to give up and move south to greener pastures. (Oops, we already live in the South.)

Oh quitchyer belly-achin’. Camellias are starting to bloom, quince is popping, daffodils are poking, hellebores are dressing up, and nothing could be growing faster or greener than the weeds.

Thanks for that cheer-up. Next you’ll be telling me how great weeds are as a groundcover. Now you’ve given me the Brown-Green Blues.

Don’t be such a curmudgeon. Spare us the whining. Be still and hibernate with your memories. You’ve got about 30 years worth. Bring them center stage.

All of them? Please. No. Seven or eight will do quite nicely. All right but I’m going to talk about it all — the good and the bad, the happy and the sad.

Okay Okay, just quit singin’ those Brown Blues.

memcrabbloomThe old crabapple is no more. It was a hero during Hurricane Isabel in 2003, blocking pine trees that would have fallen on our house. But it never truly recovered from the battering. It kept blooming its heart out, until, after twenty-five years, what a crotchety, shrivel-berried shell of a tree bumping hard against the house it had become.

Remember Newton’s old action-reaction theory? Now the sun lasers the camellias and their knickers stand deep in puddles once routinely sucked up by crabapple roots. Maybe the crepe myrtle (maximum height 10-12 feet) we planted to replace the crabapple will kindly moderate. One garden saga played out, another just beginning.

memcrabbackThis crabapple behind the house is managing old age with style. It was flattened under a fallen pine during Hurricane Isabel and had to be helped up without tearing its trunk, then roped up to a maple tree until it could remain upright on its own.

memswalLast monarch butterfly of the season. This female hovered here for a couple of weeks in November along with two sisters, teetering on wiry stems and sipping from long, tubular flowers of pineapple sage, sharing small pools of nectar with honeybees in honey-warm sunshine. What joy they gave us! We worried, too. Would they be wise enough to escape before the first frost?

memswaldedOne cold morning we found a monarch butterfly nestled amid rusty leaves blown under a step. Immobilized. Small and fragile among the detritus of autumn. Where have the others gone?

memhydOur favorite picture of hydrangeas. They used to cascade with hostas and ferns down to the dock in the benign shade of pines, sweet gum and maples. We could never take much credit for the show. They were happy with no help from us. When trees toppled during storms, king sun presided and hydrangeas needed rescuing.

memdockbedThey’re replaced today by a new look: a jostly mix of Joepye weed, St. Johnswort, New York ironweed, boltonia and perennial sunflowers. Exotic cafes for insects on brilliant summer days.
memplntsaleThe last garden open house and plant sale. For a few hours every year on a Sunday in May, our street would be lined with cars and trucks. Visitors could stroll paths and see the parents of our potted plants growing in a garden. It was a time for meeting new gardeners and connecting with dear gardening friends. But once that “opening bell” rang, lollygagging turned into a mad dash to buy. Gardeners would leave with wheel barrows full of new plants to try.

This annual event supported environmental causes like creating brochures on wetlands and offering scholarships to high school seniors. But all good things must end, and we wanted to move on from planning, propagating, potting, fertilizing, weeding, watering, labeling, and photographing (whew!) our newbies to blogging about them.

mempartyThere was always a happy gathering at the end of the day, good food and good fun. We liked the gatherings so much that at some point, we shortened the plant sale so we could have more time to socialize (even in the rain.) We may have eliminated the sale but not the festivities.

memevgfrogs2Contented visitors to our postage-stamp pond years back. The two pictured here obviously didn’t have any interest in us. But one summer a frog took up residence who would talk with us. Really! But only during lunches in the gazebo and he always stayed hidden.

memfroglilyWe chatted. He croaked. We chatted. He croaked. If we paused too long before answering his croak, he would prompt us with a few more croaks. Impatient? We would reply, but once we headed off to do chores, he would turn silent. There’s nothing quite as intellectually stimulating as chatting with an invisible frog.

memmessbtGrandpa and Tommy drag the remains of hollies into our brush pile. These dwarf Burfords were the first plants we put in thirty years ago, one on either side of the front steps. We loved them. Each spring when we stepped out the front door, we would smell their tiny but sweet-scented blooms and hear that particular buzz that comes from contented honeybees. Fifteen years later,  spring was silent. Truly wild honeybees were gone.

memburfMeanwhile, the “dwarf” hollies grew and grew and we chopped and chopped, and they liked our chopping and turned into big lumps. We said, we needed something classier next to the front door. We limbed them up into elegant small trees with elegant round crowns. In a year the elegance was buried under overblown growth that threatened our very entry. Chop. Chop. Chop down.

memhollytrukHere is a Burford holly planted that has plenty of space. This “dwarf” has been limbed up to create a handsome small tree that now dwarfs our truck, Ranger. We prune it when storms deform its crown or when growth becomes too exuberant.

memberriesIts berries are sumptuous even under a winter jacket of pine needles.

Last spring this Burford holly was sweet and buzzing.

memyuletidesnowWisps of snow on ‘Yuletide’ camellia. This is one of Bob’s first successful air layers. Air layering is a spring and fall ritual here that has seen the birth of new plants and new friendships. (For more on this, See Air Layering Camellias in the sidebar.)

This photo comes from friends who managed to catch blooms still fresh from a capricious snowfall on Christmas day. The blooms will shrivel and turn brown from the frosty cold, but my what a transitory treasure they are.

memmgtourMaster Gardeners visit in the rain. They’re hardy fellows. It’s another annual tradition. They pile in a van to come see the spring show, have lunch, and while away the afternoon in the tranquillity of our garden.

But wait, half the group has disappeared to drier terrain on the porch. I guess, today, lunch is more a draw than the garden.

memchrysChrysanthemum ‘Sheffield’ was a surprise. It came as a single-stemmed stowaway hidden among a thorny old rose bush being cast away by a good friend. Rambling and rambunctious, you can pull Sheffield, tromp it, whack it back when its bodacious spirit momentarily vexes you.

memchrysglobIt blooms reliably, but you must be patient. Buds fatten and gleam in sunlight for days until you are sure they will burst. When they come round in late fall, they brighten the garden and offer caches of food-on-the-fly to late insect visitors. I love to give Sheffield away because I know it will come back to me next spring. (The original rose, alas, was not quite so hardy.)

membobsoilMy favorite memory of all. Master Digger Bob working in the garden to make it grand. Here he is removing the remains of an old root ball from a toppled pine. We’ll use the composted soil in more “formal” areas.

The sun has broken through the fog. The day has warmed. My Brown Blues are almost gone.  I’ll have a go at whacking away at last year’s leftovers.

Posted in Creating a Garden, garden maintenance, Master Gardeners, plant sale, propagation, Winter | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Weather Outside Can Be Frightful

January’s winter storm was a piker compared with past whoppers. Barely two inches of snow fell, but a long winter’s night of sleet managed to pull it all together and put on a good show.

Now that's a real snowstorm. Sign on lamp post says Canoe Crescent. Beneath the piles is a battered canoe

Now that’s a real snowstorm. Sign on lamp post says Canoe Crescent. Beneath the piles is a battered canoe

Cold weather and slick roads kept us suspended. Animals scurrying round for food left a maze of prints on skimpy but crunchy snow cover. A low-flying hawk thought the frenzied activity was worth a few fly-bys, but whether he was successful I do not know.

The blast of freeze was soon followed by a whisper of spring. Mind you, just a whisper, not a promise. The flag across the way, frozen to its pole, floated free in breezes from the south. Pocked white ground cover wasted into dingy brown under a haze of sunshine gold. Even honeybees were out scouting for pollen, dicey business (maybe fresh camellia blossoms have offerings), no straying far from home base.

Such benevolence will, in a day or so, give way to gray skies and cold rain, which will, in a few days give way to sunny days and lovely sunsets, which will. . . Oh never mind, let’s skip winter’s bouncing ball and dream of spring bulbs exploding and frozen buds smiling into blooms.

But with the dreams, keep the memory. Grand snowfalls look grand. Piker storms look . . . hm-m-m . . . interesting. . .Still, they can leave their special stamp.

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Posted in Blizzard, ice storm, snow storm, Uncategorized, Winter, Winter Gardens | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

A Small Tribute to a Silent Partner

Well, shame on us. All these years we have taken Ranger for granted. We never even took a picture of him – I mean one of those posed portraits, like gardeners do with special daylilies, or camellias, or roses. Except once in 2003, when he looked like he had the measles after Hurricane Isabel. (We can’t honestly count that one.)

Leaves shredded by hurricane winds plastered the Ranger, parked on the front lawn to escape tree damage

Leaves shredded by hurricane winds plastered Ranger, temporarily parked on our front lawn to escape damage

In fact, mostly we tried to keep him out of pictures, because we wanted the garden to look high-falutin’. Ranger definitely did not add a high-falutin’ tone to our plantings.

The other day we took count, and we realized we’ve been living in the South for thirty years. Twenty-five of those years were with Ranger.

I’d say we’re almost southern now (though our northern roots still go pretty deep) and Ranger played a big part of that change in perspective.

We took pictures of other trucks clearing storm damage but none of Ranger

Other trucks clearing debris were ever so much more interesting than Ranger.

Today, Ranger, our 1992 Ford pick-up truck, is bruised with dents, leaks, rust and clouded paint, but we count on his being there with us all the same. (Even if we haven’t taken any portrait pictures of him.)

Ranger has been a rollicking good partner all these years: hauling mulch, carrying loads of “cotton dirt,” or peanut hulls, or over-sized timbers – even palettes of bricks.

Photos of the car,but none of Ranger hauling hundreds of plants

We took photos of the car carrying plants we purchased, but none of Ranger hauling plants we sold

Plants, too, hundreds of them over years of trekking to plant sales. Often loaded so heavily, Ranger seemed to groan as his chassis sank to within a hair of the rear axle. He could run for miles on fumes without a grumble.

After Hurricane Isabel, Ranger rose to yet another challenge. When pine trees fell on the house, they damaged plants in our front bed. We eyed the plants. We eyed each other. Digging out was not an option.

Wouldn't it be nice to have a picture of Ranger heaving shrubs. Instead, we took a wheelbarrow

Instead of snapping Ranger tugging shrubs,  we snapped the wheelbarrow

The Captain roped up each plant and, one by one, tied their ropes to Ranger’s hitch. As Ranger revved and heaved, the ropes threatened to shred to tatters. Ranger slid and his tires spun and gouged the grass, but those stubborn shrubs finally broke loose from their moorings.

Did we take a picture of this Herculean achievement? Nope. The wheel barrow was more interesting.

It wasn’t all pulling and hauling, though. Lazy streams and hazy reflections, and herons croaking, and osprey keening, and turtles basking lured us out of the garden and into some of the prettiest wild areas you can find in this country.

Cruising on Yeopim Creek, just minutes from our house

Pleasure cruising on Yeopim Creek, just minutes from our house

So we installed a roof rack on Ranger.

Some days we would load up with canoes (until they got bashed by hurricanes) or later, kayaks for paddles on one or another of the creeks that lace the land here.  Light cargo then, if you don’t count the weight of four riders squoze into a cozy cab — and ample lunches.

There were work days, too. We explored and mapped launch sites for paddlers and helped set mileage markers in rivers. Along the way, we  created A Green Guide to the Albemarle on our web site (AEA on the Web.org). Ranger carried us on every trip, but he never made it into the photos.

Formal portrait of our chipper shredder, which wasn't nearly as good natured as Ranger

Formal portrait of our chipper shredder, which is vexatious compared to Ranger

Ranger’s been running for 85,000 miles. For those math-inclined souls, that’s only 3400 hard miles a year.

The transmission still has gears and the engine still chugs. The gas gauge has given up, but so have our joints.

We’ve replaced springs, gas tank, tires, mirrors, windshield, lights, fan belts. The doors creak. When Ranger balked at carrying heavy wet loads of compost we added helper springs so he could carry more weight.

The tailgate is recalcitrant.

The driver’s seat is frozen in place, so the short-legged one balances on the edge when she has to drive. (Rarely.) The local body shop refused to refurbish.

Incidental picture of Ranger hiding in the woods.The fire was more fun

Incidental picture of Ranger hiding in the woods. The fire was more fun to photograph

The Captain, now promoted to Chief Engineering Officer (CEO) took the challenge. He chinked leaks and buffed sore patches.  It took him days, but lately Ranger has a faint whiff of respectability.

Except that the bed is usually littered with detritus. We park in the woods.

As long as we are gardening, we will never sell Ranger. (Not that anyone has offered to buy.)

While we can still count on Ranger to forge ahead each season, we are not interested in investing in a shiny new vehicle with new-fangled gimmicks that will make us feel guilty if we don’t spit and polish.

Wouldn't it be nice if we had a picture of Ranger in the snow?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a picture of Ranger in the snow

Even now, this winter, ignored for weeks, Ranger has been patiently waiting with a ton of drainage rock in his bed.

One day, when the rains stop sluicing, we will heft the bags of rock into the wheel barrow (whose portrait is above) and channel wayward puddles.

Note to fellow gardeners: If you garden in a swamp, plan to spend some time slogging.)

We took 25 pictures of trucks paving our road. So much more interesting than old dependable Ranger

We took 20 pictures of trucks paving our road. So much more interesting than old dependable Ranger

Anyway, after twenty-five years, Ranger’s got the flavor of an old-time southern truck, but without the gun rack or dog kennel. And I guess that means we have a certain southern flavor, too.

Bob turned 80 this year, and I will soon follow. When you think about it, I guess you could say that we are growing old with Ranger.

And it’s been good.

Our good neighbor, Carole, who drives a Cadillac, has this to say: “I laughed so hard about Ranger the truck. After George passed away and the kids helped clean out the shed you being the best neighbors on earth Bob told them they could use the truck to haul the stuff to the dump when he noticed they were trying to get everything in my car. They came in to tell me and I said oh please no I don’t want to scratch his truck or mess it up. I swear that truck looks really, really, really good for its age. I always thought it was on the new side. . .”

A leisurely paddle in one of the most scenic places in North Carolina, Merchants Millpond State Park. Ranger stayed behind in the parking lot

A leisurely paddle along one of the most scenic waters in North Carolina, Merchants Millpond State Park. Ranger stayed behind in the parking lot

Good friend Steve, whose property dates from George Washington’s surveying days, adds: “SWEET news letter! I think you have adjusted great to “southern” life, and so glad we became good friends. You guys have been so good to us, and please know Bob’s advice along the way influenced me a lot on my barn project life. And what great times we’ve had square dancing. . .” (Ranger hauled tools and material for work on the barn.)

And, finally, a portrait of Ranger in the garden he helped to create by hauling tons of compost and mulch. He's shiny, isn't he. That's because it just finished raining and we wanted to

And finally, a portrait of Ranger in the garden he helped create by hauling tons of compost and mulch over decades. The bumper’s seen some action, but see how shiny he is. Still wet from rain. After waiting all these years to feature him in a photo, we wanted to flatter him as much as possible

Ranger, we salute you!

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October On My Mind. . .Still

Faded now, but traceries in the garden awaken memories.

October is that cusp of December reluctant to take leave of August.

Joepyeweed during August

Joepyeweed during August. . .

October is enjoying, and waiting, and leftovers, and firsts and lasts, and looking back, and looking ahead, and knowing which way the wind is blowing.

October is energy after the dog days of August.

Still, no need to rush to put the garden in order or snug up tender plants

August sun is squinty.  October sun is golden and casts sharp shadows.

November skies are lumpy and gray.  December sunsets wash pale and luminous.

. . .in October

. . .and in October

August sounds hang on humidity, distant: lawn mowers and swimming pool laughter, katydids.

October sounds travel sharp on clear air: rat-a-tat roof repair, clackety skateboards, crickets, chainsaws.

First snowfall in December is hushed, leaves quiet crystals.

In October you exchange shorts and teeshirts for long pants and long sleeves.
For gardeners it’s frissons of shoulda-coulda-woulda banished instantly by fervent promises:

Goldenrod, begins to bloom in August, but still going strong in October

Goldenrod blooming begins in August, but still goes strong in October

Even if August is hot, I’ll cut back and tidy up. . .

I’ll document, I’ll coddle, I’ll weed and water. . .
I won’t be seduced by siren plants. . .

I won’t cram. . .

I’ll use common sense. . .

I’ll remember all these resolutions.

But not now. Now I’ll just wait. . .

When will they open? Spent plants wil be cut down in winter

When will they open? Spent plants wil be cut down in winter

Wait for those tight, stubborn, shiny chrysanthemum buds to fling wide and splash color. . .

Wait for pineapple sage to open its drooping red spikes so fluttering sulfurs can take a last sip.
(The brush of their leaves against my nose is heaven-scent.)

Wait for the fringe tree to spin gold and the Japanese maple to flame red. . .

Wait to cut away sprawlers-in-bloom,
And seedheads from Joepyeweed, sunflowers, and ironweed, leftovers for late foragers.

And they are here.

Storms have walloped sipping bugs this year, but now they are back, hustling blossoms like pickpockets in a crowd.


Early morning dew creates its own artistry

Yes, I will wait until November or December to cut away.

But in December I will see deep into thinned woods on sunny days and spy on amber leaves rustling skirts in the last fancy dress ball of the year before cold gusts catch them and whip them into oblivion.

For now I will simply enjoy. . .

A trio of swamp sunflower, clematis and

A trio of swamp sunflower, surprise clematis and ginger lilies in mid-October

Enjoy the last energetic flush of roses before the first frost, and, surprise, a tardy, rogue, jackmanni clematis blossom
Enjoy the last plumbago blooms, or maybe there will be a few more if December is kind
Enjoy the last monarchs, the last swallowtails, the last bumblebees working the last of the basil and agastache
Enjoy the smell after the last mowing, and the last, late fling of abelias.
Enjoy the sparkle of tall grasses in late afternoon sunshine.


Surprise lilies, Lycoris, multiply and brighten a fall garden

Smile at ruffles of starry white asters I once invited in from the roadside. Now they take for granted my hospitality.

Admire Maximillian sunflowers ruling the heights and seducing hungry insects, while bright red naked ladies steal the show. (It’s a southern garden thing, but not Baptist.)

And then wonder how I will rout the yellow ruffians next spring.

Fresh from last night, happy on an old tree stump

These toadstools seemed to sprout overnight, happy on an old tree stump

Oh yes, mushrooms, too, the razzle-dazzle of recyclers. They are everywhere this year, loving our damp weather, secretly turning trash into good earth.

Is it the rabbits or squirrels that nibble them?

In all good conscience I should tackle some chores.
Too much rain this year. Plants don’t understand Savings Accounts.
So they squander their currency in rampancy.

The profligacy must be collected, tamed, chastened. That’s what gardeners do.
Pruners and rakes and barrows come out, for a while.

An October treat makes up for the graffiti

An October treat makes up for the graffiti

There is graffiti from storms. In droughty years there is little graffiti.

This year, storms dropped limbs branches twigs, limbs,branches twigs, and twigs and twigs and twigs. . .

They clutter paths and trip me, they crash like missiles into beds. . .

Dry leaves lay about on plants like dirty dishrags and brown pine needles catch on branches like broom straw. . .

Pine cones crunch under feet and sweet gum satellites roll off the rake like stray marbles.
Somebody burns graffiti and smoke drifts, pleasant until you realize later, indoors, that it has joined you, part and parcel.

At least a butterfly finds them pleasing, probably a satyr

At least a butterfly finds them pleasing, probably a satyr

Afternoons are quiet now, no fledgling chatter or solo tenors, though starlings can make a ruckus in the trees, nattery, gossipy, until, at signal they’re off.

Why don’t they polish off our luscious purple beautyberries? Ripe now, but losing their lustre.
Yet gardeners along the coastal flyway complain about gluttonous (or hungry) migrants gobbling their berries the instant they ripen. There’s never a happy distribution of abundance.

Exactly whose berries are they?

Miscanthus and Sparkleberry

Miscanthus and Sparkleberry

Holly berries will stay fresh and bright, though. Reserves for late winter

Squirrels and birds do routine checks on crabapple and hawthorne berries.

Nobody checks the chokecherries.

The mockingbird has long since devoured the elderberries he guarded with gusto.

Fruit flies invade in October, take leave in November.

Thousands of Osmanthus fragrans blooms, inconspicuous but heady

Thousands of Osmanthus fragrans blooms, inconspicuous but heady

A million tiny blooms of tea olive scent an offhand breeze, awaken faint memories of Pond’s cold cream we used so many years ago, in our twenties, when we didn’t need to, fade to dusky yellow, then litter the porch in dusty brown piles.

Later, holly tea olive cousins will continue this lovely fall tradition.

Ginger lilies, too, flavor breezes, heirloom sweet like wilted corsages cast off after prom night.

Camellia sasanqua 'Setsugeki' strong and healthy here, one is actually a tree

Camellia sasanqua ‘Setsugeki’ strong and healthy here, one has become a tree

The first camellia blossom. Happy surprise! Did we not expect it? This one pure white with yellow stamens that bees forage. Fresh, delicate, simple. When spent, the petals of these sasanqua camellias drop singly, cover the ground in ripples of color. Their blooms are Melanies next to the Scarletts that spring will bring.

Time to look forward. I search for plump, healthy buds, signs of contented plants, promises of new color for new seasons.

They are there, as promised: camellias, azaleas, hydrangeas, viburnum, and glorious spring forsythia, tucked into sheaths against freezes. They shore up a gardener’s implicit faith.

Roadside escapees taking refuge in our garden, these starry asters complement fall plants

Escapees from the wild take refuge in our garden; starry asters complement late blooming turtlehead

Everywhere cotton grows the air smells rank and sweet. Airborne herbicide has browned the plants and bolls show bushy-tailed, waiting to be plucked. Snowy fields pocked with dark stalks bake in sunshine,

While puffy misty seed heads on wild thickets of groundselbush evoke fallen clouds.

I miss soybean fields turning yellow. Nowadays they turn brown like the cotton fields.

In December the same fields will be shorn and flat, punctuated by round, dark brown bales of shaven castaways.

A roadside grass that aways dazzled me in sunshine. I found it at a native nursery, now it oves our ditc

A roadside grass that aways dazzled me in sunshine. I found it at a native nursery, now it Loves our ditch

At night the hard white light of a full moon spreads out and lights the land better than a flashlight in my hand. It slips through our windows and filigrees the floor and prisms the dew that streams down the skylight and soaks the grass like rain. Leaves glitter from the gift in morning sunlight

You don’t have to water plants much anymore.

The last spiders catch me in great webs they’ve traced at night.

Reflections of autumn

Reflections of autumn

A great big muddy-orange pumpkin streaked gray rises above the fields while the evening is still blue.

Linus, do you see it?

UFOs land on cotton fields at night, intense lights on octopus arms casting black shadows.

By daylight they are gone, leaving trussed-up cotton inked with big numbers like 2378 in open trailers.

Ichabod Crane mists curl above ponds and meadows and swirl in folds across the road beneath starry skies, dance before you like shimmery ha’nts.

Witches fly in October, or is it spent plants and dry leaves sighing in the wind?

Time enough to banish them in December.


And wait for spring.



Posted in fall bloom, garden maintenance, Native Plants | Tagged | 2 Comments