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.



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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!

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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

The Weeds are Laughing Again

Who says gardening isn’t fun? Not the weeds.

“Look at her, down on her knees again. At least she knows who her bosses are.”

Lesser celandine, a weed I imported to our garden. A case of mistaken identity

Lesser celandine, a weed I imported to our garden in a case of mistaken identity, see March 2012 post

Sometimes they cut me some slack, and I think I have reclaimed ground. How tidy! I gloat. I fall into that old, smug trap of smelling victory.

“Just give us a little time,” they murmur. “Just give us a little time.” (Weeds have such hubris, don’t they?)

Or maybe not. When I return for a survey, there they stand, poised, like young monarchs. Yet again, I, the mistress of the garden, must humbly kneel before them.

We love it: the sweet autumn clematis vine. It loves our garden so much it's taking over

We love this vine: sweet autumn clematis, but it’s taking over

Now, to save face I am only going to talk about five vexing weeds. I am ignoring the rambling old faithfuls — poison ivy, Virginia creeper, Japanese honeysuckle, and catbrier — that had boldly claimed squatters’ rights long before we took over (or so we thought).

Nor will I deign to acknowledge those perennially pesky lilliputians that swarm the garden like green, ground-hugging gnats from late fall to late spring, summer, too.

Pennywort, lover of moist southern gardens. Once you have it you never lose it

Pennywort, lover of moist southern gardens. Once you have it you never lose it

I’m sure there are other contributors to horticultural disarray in our garden but denial induces memory lapse, for which I apologize. I certainly would not wish to snub a weed. Heavens, no.

Faithfulness is prized among weed societies. Such an insult would provoke instant weed-revenge by the ever alert weed-brigade. So, here they are, the unbeatable five, spotlighted in infamy.

Solanum Horse Nettle

Solanum carolinense  Horse Nettle in lovely bloom. Note spines on stems

I have a shaky truce with horse nettle. It sneaks in, quiet, crafty, among thick stands of azaleas, rudbeckia, hydrangea, barely noticeable until I see it flowering as I wander the garden purely for pleasure (an odd sort of pastime for a neurotic gardener).

“Not this time,” I say, “Those flowers will be gone long before they can make yellow berries.” I work my fingers down to ground level, get a grip and pull. “Oh ho, don’t mess with me,” says the nettle.

Doggone, that plant got me again. Spines everywhere, under the leaves, along the stem. “Why do I go bare-knuckled after this plant when I am always guaranteed a ration of prickles in my fingers?”

Pretty berries on horse nettle

Pretty, tempting berries on horse nettle

And is the plant gone for good? No! And that’s where the truce comes in. My puny pull only puts a negligible crimp in the nettle’s frolic. Left behind are miles and miles of tough fibrous roots underground ready to go to work. I’m not exaggerating. This weed has managed to populate an entire country. I must content myself with cosmetic banishment.

Sorry, bumblebees, you’ll have to do without the pollen. And moth caterpillars, you know who you are, the ones with asbestos jaws, you’ll just have to do without your favorite leaves. And apologies to any birds or rodents who may like the berries. But tell me, how do you all manage to survive the alkaloids in this plant that are poisonous to us and most other mammals?


Artemisia vulgaris Mugwort looks good enough to eat, doesn’t it?

Look at the mugwort in this photo. Isn’t it the most luscious-looking chrysanthemum-lookalike? From what I have read, this plant is edible. Why don’t I just cultivate mugwort as a groundcover and use it as a substitute for spinach? (Ignore my passing thoughts.) Anyway, in full-up ratty bloom it is by no means a pretty groundcover.

Trying to sort this interloper from a bed of chrysanthemums requires the visual acuity of Wile E. Coyote with a microscope. Worse yet is assuming you have a nice stand of chrysanthemums, then finding this brazen impostor hogging the show. Another blow to a gardener’s ego.

As for pulling or digging its roots, can’t be done. They are world travelers. So, since horse nettle has already bruised my ego and my fingers, I don’t waste time on mugwort. Early in the season I pull, fast, fistsful of healthy upstarts. I’ll catch the rest later. Maybe.

If I were Chinese I would love this weed because I could harvest the leaves to add zip to my summer stews (After all, I’m always cooking stews on hot summer days). Or dry them for tea leaves. Or even use them to flavor the rice cakes I don’t eat.

Lizard Tail

Saururus cernuus Lizard Tail, a permanent addition to our garden

Lizard’s tail (Saururus cernuus) I first saw lizard’s tail blooming deep in the swamps of eastern North Carolina. Wouldn’t it be charming in our pond? It was. It is. But Leapin’ Lizards, it leaped from our pond into a garden bed about fifty feet away, strong white rhizomes ready to carry it to the next kingdom. Maybe that’s why its nickname is water-dragon.

Truth be told, I take great satisfaction in probing, probing, probing, until I gently extract the long, knuckly, neon-white rhizomes of this pesky pop-up. I try to ignore the snap that follows a too-impatient tug: surprise! a fresh pop-up will be waiting to rise from the pipeline. During summer dry stretches I savor the Lizards’apparent retreat. Smart plant, avoiding the worst of our weather! Come the rains, though, the plant arises, like a dragon from the deep, to savor its rebirth.

In bloom, the plant is appealing, even dramatic. That pure white glow comes from white stamens, for the plant has no petals or sepals. The seed heads, decidedly not appealing or dramatic, are rangy and weedy. But for anyone who is going native in a wet/moist garden, this plant is truly a forever-investment. Your heirs will so appreciate your thoughtfulness. Would anyone like some starters?

Trumpet Creeper

Campsis radicans Trumpet Creeper invading camellias

When we had pine trees, trumpet creeper climbed their trunks and tangled masses bloomed bright orange in summer and hummingbirds lived and drank among them and life in the tree tops was bountiful.

There were so many vertical choices for the vines they were content to bush out along the boles and were not bothersome in flower beds. But hurricanes felled the pines, and that was a major catastrophe for the trumpets – and for me.

Since then, lost trumpets have been wandering the premises aimlessly in search of sun and support. As they creep, they put down roots, much like that fairytale pair who scattered bread crumbs along their path. That didn’t work so well, but trumpets are so much more. . .permanent.

We have news for you trumpets. We’re stopping you in your tracks. When I have time to do methodical weeding, I follow each vine to its source and cut it about an inch from the ground. Then I paint the cut surface with straight glyphosate (usually sold as Round-Up).

Sigh. . .I know this product is verboten in a garden, but I’m desperate, and it’s the only time I use it. I carry only small quantities in small sample jelly jars that are set into larger containers to prevent tipping. I use cheap disposable brushes from the hardware store and keep them with the containers. Once I cut I never look away from the stem until it’s painted. If I do, the stem can drop back into detritus, invisible, and live to grow again.

I can only stand so much of this cut-and-paint: constantly crouching and shrugging off mosquitos. But little by little I am making inroads on the tyranny of the trumpets. They may be gone in ten years or so, and so might I. It will be a race to the finish.

Cross Vine

Bignonia capreolata Cross Vine reaching for the roof

Crossvine is the Artful Dodger in the garden. It is trumpet creeper on steroids with tendrils that worm through, over, under and around anything they can grasp, so brazen I have no doubt that they could swallow up snuff boxes or pocket watches if such be in their paths.

Crossvine took my breath away when I first saw its yellow-orange blooms hanging in festoons from a neighbor’s tree one spring. That was twenty-five years ago. I had to have it, not just for me, but for the hummingbirds, too. As it happened, I already did have it. When I finally took a good look, a really good look, I found it exuberantly crowning a black locust tree. (So much for being alert to what’s living in my own garden.)

We admired the happy spectacle for a few years, never considering the black locust beneath, which, apparently, was not so happy about the spectacle because it died.

Did the loss matter? Not to the crossvine. Its roots simply bounded up into a raised bed, defying gravity for a taste of good soil. It’s still there today and would be up to the roof of the house and in through the windows if we did not keep clipping, ripping and pulling.

Vines now haunt fence posts and rails, mowing down polite plants to reach the sun, but none has had the colossal bloom that foundered the locust tree. I tried cut-and-paint, but it’s not worth the effort. They return like champs. Maybe some day when I am chopping I will pause to look for the cross that is said to be in a cut stem.

One of several bumblebees working the last of the monarda

One of several johnnie-come-lately bumblebees catching the last of the monarda

Well, it’s a coolish day today. I think I will join the bumblebees  and show the weeds who is the boss of this garden. I will go out and prick my fingers on horse nettle, tease mugwort out of chrysanthemums, probe for lizard’s tail stolons, poison trumpet creeper stems, and tear down cross vine. All while they laugh and promise to come back.

Who says gardening isn’t fun?

Posted in garden maintenance, Invasive Plants, invasive vines, weeds | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Umm….Good Morning?

Dispatch from Susan in New Hampshire

Well, I woke up this morning and hearing noises, I thought there were squirrels at the birdseed again.

You see, we had kept the birdseed in a closet in the house (I know rule #1-don’t keep birdseed in the house), but in 17 years we never had pantry moths….until this summer.

We moved the seed outside, but have never had a lid for the can. For some reason we had only thought about squirrels and chipmunks. DUH!

How surprised I was to see this little (OK big) guy enjoying himself on the front porch when I was expecting to look out to find a couple squirrels. He wasn’t even really eating the seed, but rather licking the inside of the can.

I’m not sure what to think about this, but I’m sure we’ll make a little more noise from now on upon leaving the house. He was darn cute though, and very tame, although probably sad that the blueberry harvest has been ongoing and is almost done. Will probably be back for the feeders.

The first picture is a haul from one morning about a week ago. That’s really when he should have been here in the blueberry patch.

He was VERY tame. He heard Mike coming through Tom’s room. That’s the first picture when he looked up. Didn’t even really move.

Lumbered around the yard quite freely and stayed on paths, etc. Seemed very comfortable here and then finally ambled off down the brick path, across the driveway and out into the back woods.










Ed Note: Protected blueberry bushes can be seen in the upper right of the last photo. Susan has seen the bear once since, incidentally quite healthy with a coat of fur that shined in sunlight, checking the porch for the pail and ambling about the yard, undisturbed by clanging and clatter, before wandering into the woods.

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Good to the Last Drop?

etigswallowTuning out the world,  a female eastern tiger swallowtail, missing its “tail,”  sips deep from a brownie boy daylily

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