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 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!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 3 Comments

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

How I Got to See the U.S. Botanic Garden

Steven, our pathfinder and Bob my partner-for-life on the steps of the Capitol Building

Steven, our pathfinder and Bob my partner-for-life on the steps of the U.S.Capitol Building under a dusky sky

If you are in Washington DC during the holiday season, spend some time at the U.S. Botanic Garden

The carillon bathed in fall colors on a sunny day

The capitol carillon bathed in fall colors on a sunny day

I had no intention of visiting the garden or even its conservatory during blustery November days when dry leaves were flying and limbs were cracking, but the unplanned excursion turned out to be a real treat.

We’d squandered our capital of balmy, clear-blue-sky days early on, sightseeing before the weather turned nasty. We’d lunched al fresco in the Sculpture Garden tucked between National Gallery and Natural History while ice skaters tooled in comfort around the pond-turned-ice-rink.


Moments before this shot, kids were climbing the gnarly tree

We’d taken tourist bus rides. We’d walked through Chinatown but refused to wait on lines for nearby Ford’s Theatre.

We wondered whether we should stop at the National Portrait Gallery, then decided to add it to our growing list for another visit.

Instead we chose to gawk at Trump’s remodeled Post Office.

Most especially we were overwhelmed by no end of history one could mine from artifacts and models and posters and photography on display at both the Newseum and the Capitol Visitor Center. Meccas for history buffs.

Monuments and memorials. Yes, we saw many of them. Palpable, deep-felt expressions reminding us of cataclysms in our country’s history.

Flag raising at Iwo Jima. As you circle the monument the flag appears to change position

Statue based on the photograph of raising the flag at Iwo Jima. As you circle the monument the flag appears to change position

I was a child during World War II, and whenever we went to the movies, between the double features, we would watch a Movietone News report on the war, so the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial held special meaning for me.


Eleanor Roosevelt

Not a single edifice, this memorial  takes you through a meandering series of outdoor rooms and gardens. You can reach out and touch the images sculpted in bronze, but you don’t because  you feel like you may be intruding on the life and presidency of this man. Cascades of waterfalls along the way symbolize the arc of the presidency and the struggles of the era.

A special niche honors Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, takes you through a passage between a pair of granite monoliths, “despair,” toward a single monolith, “hope,” which features a sculpture of the peaceseeker. It is based on King’s words, “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

A fragment of thevast wall

A small fragment of the vast wall

The stirring Vietnam Veterans Memorial of highly polished gabbro, a wall of names reflecting clear skies and shadow people is crowded with seekers of solace casting tokens of remembrance at its base.

Nearby is the bronze statue of Three Servicemen, black, brown, and white. They seem to embrace a spirit of brotherhood despite the divisiveness in the nation.

The Vietnam Woman's Memorial

Red roses on the Memorial, a dying soldier cradled

Equally profound is the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, a poignant reminder of the role of women in the war and the tragedies they witnessed – and endured.

Trees here and everywhere along the Reflecting Pool are dressing for fall now: leaves gold and russet, twigs bare and boney

The Korean War Veterans Memorial becomes a larger-than-life platoon of 19 men in combat gear on patrol among low juniper amid rivers of polished granite, the group then reflected back onto a polished and etched granite wall, so that the 19 in the field become 38, in recognition of the historic 38th parallel.

Larger-than-life warriors framed by contrasting fall foliage

Larger-than-life Korean warriors framed by contrasting fall foliage

Grandest of all, perhaps is the World War II Memorial. An ellipse of pillars, it lies in the shadow of the Washington monument at the end of the Reflecting Pool.

Fifty-six wreathed pillars  recognize states and territories, and a pair of triumphal arches honor the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. It all suggests an ancient amphitheater, the plaza and  fountains within inviting people to play. And play they did.

A portion of the World War II Memorial

A portion of the World War II Memorial

Reliefs of battle moments are mounted in bronze throughout the monument, but we did not find the inconspicuous engravings of Kilroy. There are two.

And finally, the Lincoln Memorial. Quiet, reverent, glowing at night. Crowded during the day with people on holiday, many taking family photos under the kindly gaze of Abe. Kids being kids, some can’t resist using the slopes along the steps as old-fashioned sliding ponds.

Serene above the milling crowds below

Serene above the milling crowds below

There are many moods here along the Reflecting Pool. Visitors to the Vietnam and Korean War memorials are meditative, thoughtful, hushed, even reverent, recalling memories of loved ones.

Memorials dedicated to events in the distant past evoke another response. The tone is lighter, visitors  playful, breezy. They may be awed, but the perspective of time has muted the pain of personal tragedy.

These fledgling cherries are not sure whether to bloom or shake off their leaves, or do both

These fledgling cherry trees are not sure whether to bloom or shake off their leaves, or do both

I had one solo day to spend in the National Gallery of Art, a short, 10-minute walk from my hotel. Cold. No hat. No cozy coat. No scarf. No gloves. (Who packs winter clothes in 70-degree weather?). My pathfinder was gone. No bread crumbs to follow. The map didn’t match the roads. And all those old gray buildings with columns!

After 40 minutes of wandering in the vicinity of the Capitol Building, I stopped. Having started walking from New Jersey Ave NW, I was now crossing New Jersey Ave SW. My keen sense of direction told me something was not right.

The White House vegetable garden

The White House vegetable garden on a sunny day

I retraced my route — I think — and lo, there was the Botanic Garden. I recognized it because it was the only gray building with wreaths. A place to get warm. A place to get directions to the National Gallery.

What began as a quick stop became a destination. A winter wonderland. Models of capitol landmarks created from woody plant parts were set among lavish banks of blooms. Hydrangeas –‘Nikko Blue’ and ‘Fuji Waterfall’ — and miniature pink and white poinsettias were punctuated by kaleidoscopic tropicals. And Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost,’ an all-time favorite of mine, tucked in everywhere, frothy, fairylike stars filling voids, then spreading to create a tapestry of their own. Surely, this was a delectable vision of the Capitol in winter.

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The display will be on until January 2, along with a miniature railroad and a huge, decorated tree not in evidence during my visit.

P.S Yes, in case you are wondering, I did eventually get to the National Gallery of Art, East and West buildings. However, before leaving each site I made it a point to get specific, very specific, directions to my next destination, including exact location of entrances. Helpers at Information Desks are so — helpful!

Posted in Uncategorized, Washington DC | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Fifty Ways to Lose. . .That Special Plant

Fifty Ways to Lose. . .That Special Plant

Maybe not 50, but the couple dozen methods below have been extensively field-tested over a thirty-year period by seasoned experts (the author and fellow gardeners) whose experience and credentials are unshakeable.

Let’s count the ways.

(Photos of plants you see here are the survivors, many with tales to tell.)

A faithful trooper, if the deer don't find it first

A faithful trooper, if the deer don’t find it first

1. By far the quickest, No-Work Method. Buy that Special Plant with Good Intentions. Then leave it in the pot somewhere and forget to water it. Very effective. Later, if you happen to notice the Shriveled Special Plant and have a change of heart, you can dunk it in a pail and use the Soak-It-For-Several-Hours (or Days, if you forget again) remedy. Wait a while (hopefully you will not forget about the plant again) for some sign of green, and if seen, rely on Good Intentions for further treatment. Or, you could just bury it in the trash.

Oops, I lied. I can't even imagine why I took this picture.

Oops, this doesn’t look promising. I can’t even imagine why I took this picture, unless I wanted a Before and After. Notice the evidence that I actually watered!

2. Corollary to #1 but requires more work and may take longer. Put the Special Plant directly in the garden as soon as you purchase it, water it well, and forget about it. July or August should take care of the rest.

3. Plant too deep. This promotes crown rot. After some months, maybe years, the Special Plant, which has never really thrived even though you tried to water and fertilize it more or less regularly, will have a sad, wilted look. A gardener can speed up the rot process by giving the plant copious water. (Gardeners feel virtuous when they think they can revive wilted plants by watering them — it’s an ocd with them — so you can consider watering to be a mission of mercy, even if it doesn’t work.)

It took years before this native honeysuckle thrived. It drapes over a white quince

It took years before this native honeysuckle thrived, probably not getting enough water, but it persisted. Now it drapes over a white quince

4. Plant in poorly drained soil. This is the Dry-Out-or-Drown Treatment, something like extreme waterboarding over alternating rainy and droughty spells. Eventually the roots give up and rot. This may come under the category of illegal torture for a Special Plant but there are no penalties as of this writing.

5. Give your Special Plant Special TLC by spraying it–oops! That was supposed to be fertilizer, not weed killer. Best if spray containers with chemicals are marked – the smell test doesn’t always work.

These came from a piece given to me by a motel owner in Cape May NJ where there is now a parking lot. I cried when herbicide applied by the power company drifted. I was thrilled when they bloomed many years later

These came from a piece given to me by a motel owner in Cape May NJ where there is now a parking lot. I cried when herbicide applied by the power company drifted. I was thrilled when they bloomed many years later


6. Corollary to Method #5. Spray herbicide on weeds growing around the Special Plant. “But I swear there was not a bit of breeze.” Get the drift? On the flip side, now you can buy another Special Plant to replace the original, and you have a chance at trying #1 again.

7. Plant under a big tree. This can be a long and lingering death and really not worth the time and effort, as big trees always win. You know you are in trouble if you have to use a pickaxe to get through the roots to make a hole. (Having said all this, even as I write, and after much discussion and even more chopping, we are implementing #7. Folly of follies, we are planting under large native trees where ferns and quince — test plants — have already languished. As I was saying, we are experts at this.)

These azaleas were nestled snug in the shade until Hurricane Isabel swept through. They toughed it out in full sun until shade returned several years later

These azaleas were nestled snug in the shade until Hurricane Isabel swept through. They toughed it out in full sun until shade returned several years later

8. Your Special Plant is potbound but you buy it anyway because it is on Special. This gives you a head start on losing it as most of the roots are already dead and the ones that are alive can’t escape the tangled death trap. If you like to take bets on long shots, you can tear into the mess of roots with a sharp knife and wrestle them apart until one or two limp, white roots appear. Unfortunately, you must delay further treatment for the plant because you are now in such pain you need a trip to the hospital for emergency rotator cuff surgery.

Two survivors! The peace lily was a gift from Susan 30 years ago. It took years, but this beautiful pink 'Preziosa' hydrangea has fully recovered from a dose of organic and probably acidic fertilizer that turned its blossoms gray for many years

Two survivors! The peace lily was a gift from Susan 30 years ago, been divided and repotted. After a bare-root transplant, this beautiful pink ‘Preziosa’ hydrangea has fully recovered from a dose of organic (and acidic) fertilizer that turned its blossoms gray for many years

9. Corollary to #8. If you are feeling in the mood to rescue a plant, you can buy a Sad Sack from the Sale Rack. Be aware that you are already starting with a handicap. The “I can do it, I can revive this plant” dedication is an extreme reaction to subconscious guilt among gardeners at the number of plants they may have already killed using Methods #1 or #2. Note that frequenters of Sad Sack Racks are generally optimists in the habit of saying, “These plants just need a little TLC.”

Years. Years. Years it took, and several moves before this native coastal azalea from a verge about to be mowed finally thrived and bloomed

Years Years Years it took, and several moves, before this native coastal azalea dug from a verge on a woodland about to be lumbered finally thrived and bloomed

10. Pile on the mulch to kill the weeds and because everyone else in the neighborhood is doing it. This is a non-intuitive way of killing a plant, as you think you are being virtuous, industrious and aesthetically correct all at the same time. Too much of a good thing can choke off the oxygen that roots need and smother plants. You can also promote crown rot if the mulch is touching the stems of the plant. See Method #3 for a discussion of crown rot.

Not a strong grower for me, this Annabelle hydrangea, wilty in sun and of stingy bloom in shade, but it survives

Not a strong grower for me, this Annabelle hydrangea, moved several times, wilty in sun and of stingy bloom in shade, but it survives

11. Corollary to #10. The surest way to lose Special Plants like azaleas or rhododendrons is to dress them up with a mulch of marble chips. Marble chips leach lime, and these acid-loving plants cannot tolerate treatments with lime. I once saw a pretty little bed of rhododendrons mulched with marble chips slowly give up the ghost over a couple of years. I never suggested a change of landscaping to the owner because he and his nurseryman had Mafia connections.

The famous peach iris! Such a grower, I gave pots of it away. And then I lost it. This is a daughter, now flourishing, from a friend's flourishing patch

The famous peach iris! Such a grower, I gave pots of it away. And then I lost it. This is a daughter, now flourishing, from a friend’s flourishing patch

12. Fall in love with a stand-out plant that nobody in your neck of the woods grows. (There’s usually a reason why.) People will stop and say admiringly, “What is that Special Plant?” Pretty soon they will say, “What is that Special Stick?” And after a while you will have a ready-made hole for a new Special Plant.

Ive never had to coddle spirea japonica. Sun or part shade it's a reliable performer. Here with Missouri primrose

I’ve never had to coddle spirea japonica ‘Shibori’. Sun or part shade it’s a reliable performer. Here with Missouri primrose

13. Promise to coddle a plant that is tender in your zone, or whose foliage is ice cream for deer, or whose roots are veggies for voles, etc., etc., etc. Since we all know that Good Intentions precede lost plants, you have not damaged your instincts for losing plants.

A tale of five plants. The variegated Solomon's Seal thrives, the miscanthus 'Morning Light' shines, and the azalea blooms purple each spring. The rose couldn't handle the copetition and the oxeye daisy is only an annual

A tale of five plants. The variegated Solomon’s Seal thrives, the miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ shines, and the azalea blooms purple each spring. The roses couldn’t handle the competition and the oxeye daisy is only an annual for me

14. Step on the plant. Hard. Not intentionally, of course. Accidentally, when you are working in a bed with small plants and you have taken a vow to watch where you step, but you are clumsy and you forget that pretty salvia when you are backing out of the bed. I claim temporary loss of balance due to age as an excuse, so I don’t come off as an out-and-out klutz. You can choose your own excuse, if you must.

This columbine is an example of a plant I could have steped on accidentally. Fortunately, I didn't.

This columbine is an example of a plant I could have stepped on accidentally when it was small. Fortunately, I didn’t.

15. A super easy way to kill a Special Plant, almost as easy as Method #1, is to pull it out because you mistake it for a weed. (Sometimes we are not as alert in the garden as we think we are.) If you realize it quickly enough, and you have regrets because you rather liked that particular Special Plant, you can search among your piles of weeds until you locate the unfortunate. Which you will recognize easily as it is probably the only wilted plant among otherwise healthy-looking weeds. Then replant it with blessings. Alternatively, you may not realize the loss until the piles are gone. Or, you may not realize the loss until much later, after you have forgotten that you ever weeded the area, in which case you can put another notch in your trowel for mastering Method #15.

Early purple iris is a standout in this area. But it took years before donations from friends survived. Azalea 'George Tabor' in the background

Early purple iris is a standout in this area. But it took years before donations from friends survived. Azalea ‘George Tabor’ in the background

16. Plant a sun-lover in shade, or vice versa. Plant a moisture-lover in dry soil, or vice versa. Because, after all, directions for planting are only suggestions. This gives you such variety of lethal methods. You can fry’em, crisp’em, drown’em, starve’em, or just let ‘em drop. Caution: These methods do not always work. Some plants have not read books and may actually rise to the challenge of environmental hostility.

17. Corollary to #16. Locate a plant in the perfect spot after you’ve done all your homework. Confound it, it dies, when it absolutely should have lived. Just goes to show how excellent your instincts are.

Canna 'Tropicana' wasn't always a standout. Leaf rollers decimated my cannas for years. Lately they are giving me a reprieve

Canna ‘Tropicana’ wasn’t always a standout. Leaf rollers decimated my cannas for years. Lately they are giving me a reprieve. Rudbeckia laciniata in the background, a survivor and an agressor.

18. Corollary to #17. You have not found the perfect spot for that Special Plant yet, so you heel it in somewhere, only temporary digs, mind you, but enough effort to forestall death by Method #1. You keep looking for the perfect spot, and maybe it takes a year or so, maybe more. By now you may have forgotten about the plant, or it may have died, or, quite possibly the plant has put out roots to China and beyond and is thriving. In which case your only choice is to leave it in this imperfect spot, or excavate it and proceed with any of the methods listed here.

I had no idea where this woolly summersweet would go when it arrived in the mail, so I found a temporary spot for it. It thrived and I dared not move it because pollinator wasps love its blooms

I had no idea where this woolly summersweet  (Clethra) would go when it arrived in the mail, so I found a temporary spot for it. It thrived and I suffered inertia, so it stays. I dared not move it because pollinator wasps love its blooms

19. Occasionally you may feel pangs of guilt over your success. In which case, you can put a plant in rich soil when it would prefer lean soil. To compound matters, you can over-feed it until it gasps “No more!” This is called No-Guilt gardening because you have worked hard doing all the “right” things.

I've had this clemais so log I've forgotten its name. By late summer it is playing dead, but it comes back with vim and vigor each spring

I’ve had this clematis so long I’ve forgotten its name. By late summer it is playing dead, but it comes back with vim and vigor each spring

20. You may want to hide your air conditioner or heat exchanger behind plants. This may sound like an excellent landscaping idea. There is, however, usually something like a cyclone around these installations, with lots of hot air, which (like people) many plants dislike. Experimenting with a variety of plants in these conditions gives you so many ways to expand your repertoire of plant annihilation.

I love salvia, but it doesn't like our heavy wet soil. So far this one is trying, but it is too young to call it a true survivor

I love salvia, but it doesn’t like our heavy wet soil. So far this one is trying and looks promising for next year, but it is too young to be called a true survivor

21. Forget where you’ve planted something, or even that you ever planted it. To forestall this memory lapse, sane gardeners put labeled stakes next to the plant, or they keep records with dates, kind of like family trees (no pun intended). Insane gardeners with short memories simply rely on the Superior Memory Method to remember, which ultimately dooms the plant. Occasionally, however, the forgotten plant actually lives. If you happen to be a sane gardener who uses plant markers, but your plant has died despite your good records, by all means, leave the marker in place, as it now becomes a memorial.

I could never forgetting planting these pink gump azaleas. Those on the left grew beautifully. Those on the right played dead a lot, so I wound up transplanting them 8 times before success

I could never forgetting planting these pink gumpo azaleas. Those on the left grew beautifully. Those on the right played dead a lot, so I wound up pulling them out, coddling them for a year or so, then replanting in new soil, oh about six times

22. Ignore suggestions about spacing plants. One never seems to have enough room for all those new plants that bewitch you when you shop in spring. Strange elixirs in the air can result in cars packed so tight they develop a green glow. When you sober up, you will have to bear the consequences of your addiction, probably by cramming your purchases into garden ghettos. Still in delirium, you will make some delusional promises to eventually manicure the mob. Before you know it, the sprawlers will riot beyond bounds and the rest will become collateral damage.

A friend gave me my first Missouri primrose, which I then shared with Susan and so many others. When I lost it, I gathered rosettes from Susan, who was throwing them out and they've been running wild ever since

A friend gave me my first Missouri primrose, which I then shared with Susan and so many others. When I lost it, I gathered rosettes from Susan, who was throwing her successful multipliers out and they’ve been running wild ever since

23. Wander around the yard with that Special Plant in hand. Ignore the caveat to choose a spot that has moist but well drained soil. You don’t quite know what this means, and anyway, you can’t be expected to keep all these technical terms in your head, so you simply rely on your Infallible Judgment, your Superior Memory, and your Good Intentions.

24. You have a Bundle of Tricks in your bucket now, you will surely be successful.

Surprise! This is the After from the sad bed above. Once established the hydrangeas have grown and bloomed wel

Surprise! This is the After from the sad bed above. Once established the hydrangeas have grown and bloomed well. Note driftwood poking up

Posted in Creating a Garden, garden maintenance, spring bloom, summer bloom, Tips for Planting, Uncategorized | 2 Comments