Sukevine Summer

The Verbesina is beginning to bloom, marking the beginning of the end of summer. Commonly called wingstem or yellow ironweed, Verbesina alternifolia is an aggressive native perennial fond of moist open woodlands, fields and riverbanks. It invaded the hollow some years ago, chasing the milkweed out of the east meadow and even encroaching on the house up against the foundation. It lurked outside the windows and stained the stucco where its leaves rubbed up against it.

When I first became aware of its ubiquitous presence, I mistakenly assumed that anything  capable of taking over existing plantings so quickly was non-native, an “alien invader” that I needed to battle. I made the fatal mistakes of not identifying the plant I was dealing with and assuming I could control the poison I was applying to my soil.

I began a campaign of eradication, being careful, I thought, by not spraying, but making individual cuts instead and swiping the stalks with a dab of Round-Up.

Somehow I managed to kill my only Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum), the one I used to look up through to see the swallowtails supping on the mauve globes of its flowers. I did not know I had only one and that it would never come back. No other patches along the creek or in the meadow have come to replace it. It was the 0nly one I had and I eradicated it through my ignorance.

Like a many-flowered sunflower, 6-8′ tall, the Verbesina towers over me now as I walk down the meadow path, spangling the creekside and giving a golden burnish to everything. It makes me think of the Sukevine, that pernicious fecund plant that cast its pall over Cold Comfort Farm. I have learned to love it. It taught me a hard lesson.

Our tendency toward regarding unwanted plants as the enemy and using whatever means necessary to remove them increasingly disturbs me. Many “good” gardeners I know think it’s okay to unleash their hatred and desire to destroy upon plants, that it’s a good outlet for those feelings. But I believe the urge to kill everything that doesn’t suit us to be a serpent in the garden and we should be careful before we start killing things we don’t understand.



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Hot Time in the Hollow

The exceptional prolonged heat of this quarantine summer has taken its toll, perhaps more on the gardener than the garden. Many plants thrive in the humid heat of Virginia and our droughty beginning lapsed thankfully into regular rainfall. Tithonia, Zinnia, Rudbeckia, Cleome and Four-O’Clocks love the heat and moisture, feeding hungry butterflies, bees, moths and hummingbirds from morning til dusk while brightening the house inside.

Yet July saw record-breaking sustained temps of 90 degrees and above. This is not the climate I knew when I first came to the hollow decades ago. The AC runs all day. The house is shut up. Tempers flare. But the Earth keeps turning and inevitably the weather breaks. Days become shorter and remind us, along with the compost pile, that all things change.

Nothing remains the same except the garden’s seasons and the gardener’s blessed tasks. Now is harvest time in the hollow for tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, zinnias (which must be cut regularly to forestall seed-set) and basil (which likes to be pinched). Even the bad gardener’s weedy domain provides abundance.

A nice mid-summer hatching of yellow and black swallowtails made up for the meager spring crop this spring. So far no sighting of the great Monarch but it’s still early for the migration and one hopes.

Growing the classic ‘Genovese’ basil as well as ‘Thai Siam Queen’, which I have learned to like. Seedling-grown ‘Cut and Come Again’, ‘Oklahoma’ and Dahlia type zinnias remind me of the old days at Monticello when we would grow the old varieties under Peggy Cornett’s kind and knowledgeable supervision and dear Joan Veliquette taught me how to pick cut flowers for the great arranger Dawn Woltz. I still strip them of their leaves and plunge stalks neck-deep into water as I cut.

August is the time to order bulbs (you cannot have enough Snowdrops, Galanthus varieties, nor daffodils, Narcissus var., both of which are deer-proof), and sow or purchase starts of autumn/winter vegetables like collards, kale, spinach, turnips and the like. In the Charlottesville area, Eltzroth-Thompson, Southern States, Ivy Corner, Ivy Nursery and 5th Season all offer fine plants. and have any bulb you could fancy and the garden centers will have their bins full later in the fall.

Our patch of Naked Ladies, Amaryllis squamigera, in front of the dark Beech is a  perennial favorite and has flourished this fecund season.




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Hollyhock Summer

For a brief shining moment in mid-June my hollyhocks rivaled Childe Hassam’s celebrated watercolors of Celia Thaxter’s garden on Appledore, one of the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire where she entertained and beguiled the leading American musicians and painters of her day and documented the growing of her beloved flowers in what Alan Lacy called a mastery of English prose, My Island Garden (Houghton Mifflin, 1894). I am beguiling my summer with a re-reading of this classic which was re-issued in 1988.

One of the most charming pictures she drew was of the music room (bare wooden floors with scattered small rugs of “warm green moss”) that opened onto the “piazza” above the flower beds: “The shelves of the tall mantel are splendid with massed Nasturtiums like a blazing torch, beginning with the palest yellow, almost white, and piled through every deepening shade of gold, orange, scarlet, crimson, to the blackest red; all along the tops of the low bookcases burn the fires of Marigolds, Coreopsis, large flowers of the velvet single Dahlias in yellow, flame, and scarlet of many shades, masses of pure gold summer Chrysanthemums, and many more – ”

Unfortunately, here in my world, the nasturtiums, which I love for their capers as well as the pungent blossoms, succumbed early on to an infestation of rabbits (a story in itself), and the hollyhocks after their initial effusion have been overtaken by the inevitable orange rust that speckles their leaves from bottom to top.

I started the “Outhouse” series (irresistible since we have one, a relic now but in use before we put the indoor plumbing in back in the late ’80’s) from seed and grew it for a year before it yielded its biennial flower. They take up a lot of space, one whole season without flowers, and then must be cut down and their large woody stalks disposed of, leaving a great gap. A lot of trouble for a brief display and I see why this old-fashioned flower has fallen out of favor. And yet . . .

Hollyhock dolls!



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June Tune

June hums and thrums into summer.

Bees, dragonflies, hummingbirds and butterflies – swallowtails, fritillaries, painted ladies – fill the sunny daylit air. Moths – luna, sphinx and their motley myriad ilk – bats and fireflies light the night.

One of the charms this season has been the fondly familiar individuals we get to know from the quotidian chirping of the nesting birds. Billary, the relentless male cardinal, bashes himself into all ground floor windows twice daily, leaving crusty little crimson fluffs of virility up and down the glass panes. He dive bombs fearlessly directly into my face from the witch hazel across from the desk window, pecking fiercely back and forth along the window sill, then off again to assault the casement around the corner. His liquid chirp and familiar bumping wake me each morning.

We have learned to distinguish the wren’s bold out-sized call each afternoon as it circles the arc of the meadow. Little tiny brown thing making its might yawp. Little Ricky, the indigo bunting shaped like a turquoise torpedo, carries on an intermittent Carribean conversation atop the Sycamore snag. It’s the perfect bird clock, much better than the ones that hang inside.

Only two stalks of the old Chinese ‘Regale’ (the one P.G. Wilson risked his life for on the mule trail) have survived a handful of  late frosts despite John’s faithful sheeting. Our low spot by the creek is a classic pocket for the cold air. This has been the absolute worst lily season ever, coinciding with surrounding vineyards that have suffered here in central Virginia and western Albemarle County. Somehow the peaches seem to have escaped and fragrant early yellow clings are on the local market. We bought a beautiful little quart over the weekend from Spring Valley Orchard just up the road.

A bad year for lily flowers does not mean the plant itself is harmed, just as frosted early magnolia flowers don’t harm the tree. The foliage will continue to feed the bulb during the summer as long as it is green and the bulb will grow and form flowers for next spring.


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May Day! May Day!

An SOS from those stranded at sea and the embodiment of Whitman’s “ever returning spring”, May Day is the call of the season. We’re all islands looking for connection now.

This time of quarantine and canceled garden tours is one of the most beautiful springs in memory. Never has it been more spangled here in the hollow.

Billows of dogwood, spirea and viburnum ebb like creamy froth into the canopy of the woods and spicebush swallowtails dance yellow and black along the creek. The matrix of grasses, sedges and wildflowers weaves its magic web in the meadow.

The pandemic becomes pedantic, explicating the truth of the most enduring cliches:

Live every day as if it’s your last. Don’t take the little things for granted. Be grateful for what you have. And of course, you never know when it’s the last time. I had my last Margarita at the Guadalajara in Charlottesville in February with all my old Morven friends. We planned to meet again in March.

Yet, hasn’t it always been true that we don’t know what the future holds? Live like there’s no tomorrow. Is that a good thing?

We will join Candide in this best of all possible worlds and turn from philosophizing to tending our gardens.

John’s cover crop of kale, peas, crimson clover, and vetch (!) has been a great success. Sowed in late summer to cover bare ground before the wedding, the kale fed us all winter and into spring along with pea tendrils and kale flowers and tender new leaves for spring salads. The chrome yellow flowers are abuzz with myriad pollinators – bumble bees, honey bees, carpenter bees, wasps, and tiny flies of all kinds.

Dozens of zinnias, four-o-clocks and hollyhocks started from seed in March await some good warm soil and last frost date of May 15, along with early starts of tomatoes, jalapenos, arugula, parsley and cilantro from 5th Seasons in Charlottesville. The fellow who helps around here, my beloved, is weeding and prepping their beds and spreading last year’s compost on the asparagus bed.

Over the years I’ve seen the importance of letting things go to seed, especially Narcissus and the minor bulbs. You never know what’s going to re-seed, so why not give everything a chance? Many little daffodils from my collections pop up in the outer meadows.

This is our first year with the lovely Camassia leichtlinii ‘Caerulea’ and the third (once we stopped mowing it down) of the classic Lewis & Clark C. quamash, or Indian Hyacinth, both available from Van Engelen. I am very anxious to let them drop their seed as they’re supposed to be good naturalizers. Lewis’ journals describe seeing large swaths of the Quamash in Idaho along the Lolo Trail that from a distance looked like clear blue water.

Am making a note to divide our old bearded iris patches late this summer so they’ll start blooming again next spring. The one thing the gardener always has is hope.






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One More Spring

When I open my eyes each morning I see the hillside out my window and look to see if spring has come to the hollow. Especially this season I have looked, like the girl in the O. Henry story.

Our bare deer-browsed woods are always gaunt with the last chill of winter, a monochrome brocade of browns and grey. Each year I yearn for the return of spring colors when the tulip poplars feather the horizon with their brushstrokes of tender green and the redbuds and bluebells shimmer like watercolors.

Even in the cruelest time there is beauty. We heard the peepers March 26. Saw a newly-hatched luna moth on a walnut trunk up from the potting shed. Honeysuckle and Viburnum scent the air.

The bluebirds flit about on the walnuts down by the old equipment shed (lots of walnuts here in the hollow); phoebes build their nests under the eaves. This year we have not swept them away to save the stucco or deter the black snakes.

This year I cannot bring myself to kill anything and I welcome the carpenter bees who love to colonize the old front porch as they sip the early viburnum (V. x ‘Eskimo’) and honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) flowers. I used to spray insecticide up into their holes and push in steel wool.  Now I bow down and let nature take her course.

A happy consequence of no longer buying fresh greens from the store is a re-discovery of Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s wonderful Gather Ye Wild Things, University of Virginia Press, 1980, where she treats edible native plants (with recipes) in a lovely prose: “Where the redbuds bloom too high, beyond my reach, I console myself with violets.”

I wish I’d written that, but I console myself with foraging for violets and dandelions in our front yard, watercress from the little rill across the road, rubbing buds off the trunks of our redbuds and eating it all up for dinner.

For which we are truly grateful.



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Surprise, Surprise

Our hills still blessedly hold their breath before bud break and in the words of the poet, Philip Larkin, we have time to contemplate “earth’s immeasurable surprise”.

We had a mild winter – only had to run the water on the drip a couple of times and still have a bit of wood left over. It has been a long cool spring with daffodils blooming in stately succession from earliest ‘Tete-a-Tetes’ through mid-season ‘Ice Follies’ and large-cup yellows (‘King Alfred’ types, probably ‘Carleton’).

I highly recommend daffodil mixtures. I have been happily studying a miniature and large- cup narcissus mix I got from Van Engelen’s decades ago (, using the invaluable Daffodils for American Gardens, by Brent and Becky Heath. It’s so much fun to pick an assortment and try to find them in the beautifully illustrated encyclopedia.

Hot quick springs can shove them all out at once like cookies from the oven and the procession devolves into a short-lived riot. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The flowers are peaking now while lush spears of foliage push up late season ‘Twin Sisters’ (N. biflorus) and the little ‘Haweras’ and ‘Segovias’ out on the slope below the east meadow beech where we placed our rock of ages a year ago last March.

A beautiful cleft stone we found in the woods that says it all as far as I’m concerned. We hope to rest here someday, above the creek.



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Winter Bouquet

The greeny-yellow stamens of the alder – perfectly matching our beloved Peter Boyer still life – are spending their pollen on the old bureau, dusting the furniture instead of pollinating the cherry red pistils that would await the wind if I had not cut the branch and brought it inside. How we squander nature in the service of art.

I used to love using the alder to illustrate monoecious plants (one plant, two sexes) with imperfect flowers. Unlike magnolias, which have “perfect” flowers  enclosing pistil and stamens within the same petals, or hollies, which have female and male flowers on separate plants, alders display separate, “imperfect” male and female flowers on the same plant, the fertilized pistils developing into woody cones later in the year.

                                                The wonders of nature never cease.

This time of year is bare and brown in the hollow, especially because the deer browse everything so closely. I look for winter bouquets everywhere. In addition to the alder, I’ve been tending a vase of sassafras twigs for weeks now, watching the buds slowly swell. This lovely native, S. albidum, is one of my favorites not only for its early spring yellow puff ball flowers, which I await with great anticipation, but in fall its mitten-shaped leaves color purple and red.

I have loved forcing winter branches ever since an elementary school project which I continue to remember vividly 65 years later: the array of different vases and bottles on the bureau in the dining room, checking them every day with Mother to see how each had progressed. The miracle of flowers blooming inside the house from old wood.

But my favorite winter bouquet has always been the snowdrop, Galanthus elwesii, with its  pure white and tender green ready to brave anything.




When brought indoors, it’s like porcelain.

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Pale Tints of Winter

I love the pale tints of winter when the trees are bare against the pinky blue sky and the rich brown contours of the hills surround us down here in the hollow. Our twiggy oculus opens up clear as a bell, like the twist of a telescope.

I can see the Big Dipper now rising in the north when I look out from the bedroom window late at night, up over the shed roof glinting through the tracery of the walnuts. We are so low the Little Dipper never rises above our horizon no matter the season. In summer, the leafy canopy obscures half the sky. Winter is stargazing time.

I get out the National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Night Sky and begin again to study the constellations and stars – Orion, Betelgeuse, the Gemini with Castor and Pollux and Cassiopeia on her throne. Arcturus, Sirius beckon.

Winter reveals the ground as well as the heavens and the harsh outlines of the new creek wall cry out for hundreds of bare root Christmas ferns and bluebells to soften the bank we shored up last spring. We planted Lewis & Clark’s Camassia on either side of the steps last fall. Shown below with Shelton Sprouse our rock man who restored Monticello’s vegetable garden retaining wall and made our hearth on the old new addition some decades ago.

I like planting masses of bare root groundcover in the spring, so much easier to pop in than pints or quarts. Existing native spicebush (Lindera benzoan), along with Siberian iris (I. sibirica) and the yellow flag (I. pseudacorus), flourish in the moist delta abutting the creek. I am wondering whether to add Japanese varieties, non-native of course, but they would love the water. So far, Iris (as well as bluebells [Mertensia virginica] and fern [Christmas and Ostrich]) have proved unpalatable to the deer which is crucial in our heavily-browsed area.

We had a successful bonfire just after the solstice. It was a good burn. Perfect conditions, calm and dry.  Some large logs dated back to the Derecho storm years ago. All were reduced to a fine ash and we are ready to begin again. Always a lot of biomass to dispose of in the garden and you can’t compost it all. We are fortunate that our thirty some acres allow us the space to burn.

The garden and the land around us, if we pay attention, allow us space to dream, repair past mistakes and give it another go for a new year in the company of nature. For that we are thankful.


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Spicebush Autumn

Some people are sad when autumn comes. They say it reminds them of death and decay and the coming of cold, cold winter. But here it’s always been a beautiful time of renewal for us, the time of our wedding anniversary (34th) when the season wraps itself up and the young, hot, careless, fecund days of summer give way to the beautiful harvest of our affections and the bounty of the land and family.

Heather and Josh’s wedding in October was such a special time.

I especially love the last gasps of the marigolds and zinnias with the sleeping sated bees spending the night in their hearts just as we nestle down here in the beauty and bounty of the hollow.

Before the big blow brought in the cold temps and blew all the leaves away, spicebush (Lindera benzoan) made a spectacular show this year. Even now, the golden hickories, shagbark (Carya ovata ) and pignut (C. glabra), along with bright tangerine-colored native persimmons (Diospyros virginiana), color the hills. First frost on November 2 (two weeks later than regular mid-October date when I moved out here thirty some years ago) gave them that custardy texture that shows they’re ripe. I ate two for breakfast this morning.


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