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 (www.vanengelen.com), 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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September Summer

As all good gardeners know, celestial autumn doesn’t begin until the Equinox on September 23rd, and late, late, late summer has its languid charms. In the words of the great novelist, philosopher and poet, Iris Murdoch, in her poem, “September”,

Skies are a milder azure, night has a colder finger,

Bland the days linger but they are weary of summer. . . .

Here in the hollow the white flowers of Cleome, Zinnia and Nicotiana float around the front porch where I hear the busy buzz of  bees first thing in the morning and sit on the glider at night to watch fat hummingbird moths whir about.

The small-flowered Zinnia angustifolia has become a staple for summer. It thrives in heat and sun and keeps on blooming til frost. Old-fashioned Nicotiana alata and N. sylvestris make dramatic Dr. Seuss-like statements in the border, releasing their heavy perfumes after dark. Along with 4 O’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) and the native jewel weed (Impatiens capensis) these have been reliable pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant annuals. They are forming seeds now which I will soon shake over the beds to re-sprout next year.

Jewel Weed (Impatiens capensis)


The days may be weary of summer, but I love its brave flowers and the sounds of cicadas, crickets, frogs, bees, jays, hawks and geese as the planet wheels toward fall.



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Garden of Immigrants

July Bouquet

Any good garden is a garden of immigrants.

A foundation planting composed solely of Japanese holly, Nandina, Liriope and Pachysandra  is a sterile old-fashioned, unenlightened landscape, of which I have seen many that linger into the 21st century, offering little sustenance to native pollinators and even less to the eye.

Diversity gives us color, variety, opportunities for many different kinds of life. Sticking to just one idea – whether it be vast beds of hostas or Chinese junipers or a pedantic restriction to flora indigenous to Albemarle County – limits our scope and opportunity.

Our July bouquet illustrates a happy combination that proves the rule that the best arrangements are made from flowers of the season: black-eyed-Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) and river oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) are native perennials, both quite invasive in their own way, but welcome components of our low-lying meadow and borders. The icy blue Vitex (V. angustifolia) is from China. Jefferson, who loved to collect rarities, had specimens at Monticello. They will grow quite large if left to themselves, but can also be trimmed yearly in spring like a Buddleia to keep them in size.

Although it ranks zero on Doug Tallamy’s  list of plants that sustain larval insects in his influential Bringing Nature Home’, nevertheless, Vitex along with other non-natives like butterfly bush (Buddleia) do offer summer nectar to butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. Tallamy is right to emphasize the value of native plants as hosts for caterpillar larva – the classic example being the Monarch butterfly’s need to lay its eggs on milkweed (Asclepias vars.), but we must not ignore the value of summer nectar or twiggy winter shelter whatever its source.

This is a fraught subject among horticulturists, gardeners, and people of good will all across our land.

Can we keep a garden or a country “pure”, forever protected from contamination by seething life that presses from all sides? Can we? Or can we cultivate and guide the surge of life so that we can live in harmony?

Can we?


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