Spring Thaw

The sound of dripping is the sound of spring.

Windy days have kept the thaw from being too muddy and everything is ready to burst into life with abundant moisture and warming temperatures. We await the equinox on the 20th when the sun crosses the celestial equator and day and night everywhere are of equal length. Heard the peepers driving from Charlottesville towards Afton on Sunday afternoon on Dick Woods Road, but haven’t heard them yet in the hollow. Down here, being low makes us a frost pocket.

Gave a talk on the Layered Garden to the venerable Piedmont Master Gardeners (piedmontmastergardeners.org) this morning, a fine group of local horticulturists who do a lot of good in the community. Among many other efforts, they’re launching their Healthy Virginia Lawns Program, and continue to operate the invaluable Help Desk at the Virginia Cooperative Extension office (434) 872-4580.

Narcissus 'Little Beauty'

‘Little Beauty’

We added 100 of the Van Engelen miniature Narcissus mix last fall to the existing planting under the old privet and it’s good to see them coming up. I am late on my seed order but want to get the old ‘Gem’ series of small-flowered marigolds – Red, Tangerine, and Lemon – as well as the trailing Jewel nasturtium and moon vine from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I bought the rest – Malabar spinach and scarlet runner bean from Southern Seed Exposure packets at Integral Yoga in Charlottesville.

The red maples are coloring and the old winter constellations of Orion and the Pleides are falling below the horizon.



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Icy Winter, Old Wood

February has given us winter after all. Woke up this morning to 10 inches in the hollow.

We are fortunate to have forsythia brighten inside as we gaze out upon the snow. Cut about a month ago, its old wood bears inexorable flowers, a lesson to us all.

Forcing is a lost art. I well remember it as a home project in elementary school – jars of branches lined up on the old dresser in our dining room –  but no one has patience or space anymore to let cut stems cure in water for a few weeks before they reveal their treasures. Not only spring flowering woody plants like forsythia, witchhazel, cherry, dogwood, and viburnum, but deciduous trees like maple, oak, and beech will unfurl their buds for you if you wait long enough.

Lord knows no one outside Boston has any right to complain this winter, but temps in the low teens and single digits remind us here in central Virginia that Zone 7 still means an average winter minimum of 0 – 10 degrees. Yet not all is dormant. Narcissus foliage pokes up bravely from old snow and Galanthus (Snowdrops) is stalwart. Witchhazel ‘Diane’ blooms ruby red against the white.

003Mid-February – typically, Valentine’s and Presidents’ Days – is the traditional time to prune back evergreen hollies to reduce size or shape for hedges or topiary: Chinese (Ilex cornuta), Burford and prickly ‘Rotundifolia'; Japanese (I. crenata) ‘Helleri’, as well as native inkberries (I. glabra). All can be cut back into old wood and hard pruned for size and shape this time of year. Wait until the snow melts and give them a boost with compost or Holly Tone to keep up a good dark color.

Spring will not come until March 21st with the equinox and proper alignment of the planets, yet the days have been getting longer since winter solstice in December and even in the bitter chill there is birdsong in the mornings and afternoons. Sparrows, chickadees, cardinals, junkoes, crows, bluejays, and bluebirds are active as the Earth stirs beneath her stillness.

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Winter Buds

New Year's Beech

New Year’s Beech

Apricot leaves and buds of the great beech (Fagus grandifolia) that dominates the west garden give delicious color to our frozen landscape this first week of the new year. Well within Zone 7 minimum of 0F to 10F, we’ve been hovering  in the teens at night for the last week, highs only in the 30’s.

Bathtub tap on low flow, electric blanket plugged in, wood fire burning, Zsa-Zsa and Milo’s water bowl inside – you know it’s winter in the hollow.

Zsa-Zsa lounges by woodstove.

This week will institute Beech Watch, through March and April when the leaves finally unfurl in a display that, to my eye, rivals the blossoming of the cherries as a symbol of spring’s beautiful regeneration. Stay tuned to see what I mean.

Hollow Beech in January

Hollow Beech in January

Look for Piedmont Landscape Association’s 32nd annual seminar on February 18, 2015, at The Paramount Theatre in Charlottesville, Virginia, (www.piedmontlandscape.org or www.theparamount.net), featuring noted landscape designer Julie Messervy, eco-edible forester Dave Jacke and divine tree hugger Joan Maloof.

Cut branches of honeysuckle bush (Lonicera fragrantissima), witchhazel (Hamamelis sp.), dogwood, redbud, pussywillow (Salix sp.), and any of the deciduous trees like oak, maple, and, of course, beech, to bring inside. Change the water weekly and watch them open up. It’s a miracle.

Beech Buds

Beech Buds

Happy New Year.




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Northern Sea Oats/Chasmanthium latifolium

Northern Sea Oats/Chasmanthium latifolium

The middle of October is glory time for our native grasses. The hayfields, pastures and ditches of Albemarle County are lush now with purple top, broom sedge, Indian grass, foxtail, pink Muhly, and love grass, to name but a few.

The Chasmanthium pictured above has settled into the hollow for many years now. It spreads very aggressively through seeding, thrives in sun or shade, feeds and shelters the birds and provides fillers for fall bouquets. It’s seen here through the potting shed window with the furrowed bark of a tulip poplar and a grove of walnuts in the background.

I’ve followed several local meadows since April in preparation for the talk I gave this afternoon at Monticello’s Center for Historic Plants – CHP’s pollinator meadow at Tufton Farm; the meadow at Boar’s Head Inn; and the Murray Morris meadow at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville have all opened my eyes to the thrumming life and beauty in these restorative plantings.

If you plant or nurture a meadow, make sure you have a path through it.

We have long lived with our meadow in the hollow, and to see this ecology replicated in public landscapes is heartening. The New York Times recently wrote up the newly-opened meadow at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, apparently a very popular attraction.

The warm golds and bronzes of the grasses mirror the buttery hickories and oaks above them; wine-stained maples and blackgums reflect back the reds and pinks of switch grass and pink Muhly.

In the spring, I have my doubts, but come fall there’s no question for me that this is the climax of Nature’s beauty in Virginia.

Hollow meadow

Little bluestem, partridge pea and rudbeckia, Murray Morris Meadow

Little bluestem, partridge pea and rudbeckia, Murray Morris Meadow

Bundoran Farms, Albemarle County

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Naked Ladies in the Hollow

Naked Ladies

This was the best year yet for naked ladies (Lycoris squamigera), a long-lived old-fashioned southern bulb that puts up mysterious foliage in spring only to die down and resurrect in late summer with tender pink stalks of lavender tinged amaryllis-like flowers. Let the foliage ripen to yellow before you mow it down and be careful not to cut the flower stalks that come up later. Ours have the advantage of the dark background of the great beech that dominates the garden.

I cut the last of them a week or so ago to save the energy they would have expended on making seed. Fall always vies with Spring for me but I end up preferring autumn for nature’s perfect beauty. I love to see the first scarlet burgundy colors of Nyssa sylvatica, literally “nymph of the forest” ( aka black tupelo, blackgum, pepperidge tree) at the edge of the woods along with Virginia creeper, the clear yellow of goldenrods and the invasive native wingstem.

Marigolds and nasturtiums also capture the fire of the sun. We love to bring late flowers into the house this time of year.



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Dog Days

Milo snoozing

Milo snoozing

The equinox passed on June 21st and even though each day gets shorter until late December, it’s high summer now – called “dog days” from ancient times, it’s the period from July through August when the dog star, Sirius, rises in conjunction with the sun. Early this afternoon I heard a red fox’s wild cry and just saw the behind of him trotting into the woods.

Fireflies rise each evening here in the hollow from the moist green meadow, blinking like Christmas lights against the dark tree canopy of the woods, happy in their habitat that is so rapidly despoiled elsewhere. Butterflies and fritillaries sup on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) at the edge of the creek and nesting birds feed their young with countless caterpillars, though I believe Doug Tallamy and his graduate students at U. Delaware counted a particular phoebe’s take one day. See his Bringing Nature Home to get a glimpse of the magic web our plants and insects make.

Orange butterfly weed (A. tuberosa), milky Queen Anne’s lace and black-eyed-susan dot the sunnier parts of the meadow.

After several years of diseased tomatoes, this year’s batch is growing well with dark green color, no leaf spots and good fruit set: Big Boy, Lemon Boy, Mr. Stripey and cherry Sweet 100 all look good. I’ve always rotated tomatoes to a new plot each year, so I suspect the difference is purchasing starts from a different garden center. I think the old one had infected stock.

Have been harvesting lower leaves of Malabar spinach (Baseslla rubra – see www.johnnyseeds.com) which I fell in love with last year when I profiled Georganne Arave’s garden in Virginia Gardener Magazine (www.vagardener.com). They climb like morning glories, so you need a trellis of some sort. I’m using an old tomato cage and also have a row at the base of the wire deer fence. There’s something about those deep green, fleshy leaves that just cries “Eat me, I am good for you!”

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Long Cool Spring

Spring Beech

Spring Beech

Spring is taking its time coming to the hollow. The creek is running high, making rills over the stones.

We took 2+ inches of rain the other night and soaked it all in. I think of our poor fellow-citizens in the west who are burning up from fire and drought and here we sit in an Eden of moisture.

Even with late frosts that culled low-lying peach orchards here in western Albemarle county, the Regale lilies have not been nipped (yet). Many people have told me what a hard winter this has been, and I’ve seen a lot of deer damage and cold burning on broad leaved evergreens like camellias, nandinas, and boxwood as well as yellow tips on bulb foliage that shows extreme temperatures.

Peonies are beginning to bloom. Fortunately cool weather has kept them from opening up to all the recent rain. ‘Festiva Maxima’ just showing her burgundy flecks. I love its light lemony fragrance. The old deep rose one from Blenheim smells more heady. Single ‘Pink Charm’ with her golden stamens is stinky, so watch out when you’re selecting peonies for fragrance.

Strawberries beginning to ripen. Larkspur and cleome seedlings up. Tomato seedlings and jalapenos wait to be planted in soil that has finally warmed.


Long cool spring

Long cool spring


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Late, Late Winter

Red Maple blooms in hollow.

Red Maple blooms in hollow.

As we watch a heavy wet snow fall this St. Patrick’s Eve, red buds of the native maple and good old ‘Diane’ witch hazel belie this (surely!) last gasp of winter. The stately beech that dominates the east garden shows bronzy tips and early narcissus, ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Tete-a-Tete’, along with yellow and purple species crocus dot the beds.

Snowdrops have been blooming for a month now and the Naked Ladies (Lycoris squamigera) are showing their broad foliage in clumps in the turf. Their tender flesh pink trumpets will bloom nude in summer springing straight up from the grass.

I remember the hot spring a few years ago when all the bulbs bloomed at once. This spring promises a prolonged progression of early, mid and late blooming bulbs. We will go into spring well-watered and with as good a cold spell as we’ve had in years, which some say will have a good effect on controlling insect populations.

Snow falls,

Buds burgeon.

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Hollow Sky

Hollow Sky

Hollow Sky


The hills make an oculus down here in the hollow. We look up through it like a kaleidoscope. In winter the twigs are etched black against the moonlight.

Though we lack the greater horizons of ridges or the shore,  the tree tips focus with their own special filigree as the planets and constellations rise from the east and make their way across the southern expanse. The Gemini stare and the great square of Pegasus fills the empty dome above the garden to the west.

Full moon in hollow

Full moon in the hollow

The full moon rose in a clear sky last night for the first time this year and Jupiter, the Great Star, danced around it. I stayed up late enough to see Orion “sloping slowly in the west” as it did for Tennyson at “Locksley Hall”. Standing on the little balcony off the upper bedroom I hear the creek running as strong as it did when I first came out here so long ago. Light glints as it flashes along.

As we grow old along with our landscape, the bones of it become more important than the more intensive aspirations of youth. At this point, I’d rather sit on a bench in front of the great beech and watch the leaves unfurl or stroll through the meadow along the creek than fuss with flower borders and sowing greens on a 2 week schedule.

The vegetable garden is virtually abandoned and I’m focusing more on tying the climbing roses and maybe adding a Clematis montana ‘Rubens’ in the corner than a spring seed order. Am I old enough to admit that I don’t enjoy the grubby grind of working a vegetable garden?

What really draws me now to the garden is cleaning out the winter beds with my trusty sling blade that Johnny keeps so sharp -using the old reliable Felco folding saw to prune the ancient vitex to reveal its oriental habit and re-laying the rock border to make room for new lilac sprouts from a resurgent ‘Mr. Lincoln’. We transplanted him across from lanky white-flowered ‘Miss Wilmot’ last year to give him more sun and he seems to be settling in.

The garden progresses with the new year and drags the gardener along with it.


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Cold Winter


Cold front comes into Hollow.

Cold front comes to Hollow.


Winter comes early this year. The woods are browsed bare by deer and arctic winds have blown away the last leaf, except for a flat top of red oak at the top of the hill above the east meadow.

There is a dearth of acorns, though we did see hickory nuts at the edge of the woods beneath the pignut and shagbark hickories. Even the alien autumn olive in the lower garden is denuded.

The great winter constellation Orion has begun to peek over the hill and when I go out to “take a lunar”, I think, of course, of Tennyson’s Locksley Hall:

“Many a night from yonder ivied casement, ere I went to rest,

Did I look on great Orion sloping slowly to the west.”

But here in the hollow I watch him come up from the east, low at first, climbing higher as winter progresses.

There’s beauty in the bone of winter cruel though it may be. The solstice occurs on the 21st of December, when the sun is at its lowest arc on the shortest day of the year.

Every day after that, the Earth tilts back towards summer.


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