Milkweed Hollow

The east meadow is in full milkweed glory.

We have a lovely patch of the native common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) spreading up from the creek through the grasses and forbs that make up the meadow. In all my years, this is the best season yet. They have recovered from a disfiguring fungal or insect problem I never bothered to identify (because I wasn’t going to do anything about it) that afflicted them for the past few years and are now clean as the Garden of Eden. Whatever the cycle was, it has completed itself.

It’s heaven to walk among the fragrant drooping pods of blossoms. Earlier in the season, they were covered in orange fritillaries, now it’s bumblebees and other little fliers that swarm when we walk through the path along the creek. Yesterday when we walked in the twilight they rose in a gentle cloud around our heads before settling back down in our wake.

Drought has caught up with us. Days after days of beautiful sky-blue but no rain in sight and the ground is getting hard as iron. All the pots we’ve amassed up at the potting shed give it an Italian air, but it’s a lot of work to keep everything watered. It reminds me of my old days of estate gardening.

The single-flowered Geranium inquinans, one of Jefferson’s favorites, are in bloom in the turquoise pots. Hummingbirds go back and forth between their true scarlet flowers to the orange-pink native honeysuckle trumpets (Lonicera sempervirens) on the vine I’m training up on the potting shed lattice.

Goldfinches have been perching atop the new Monarda fistulosa ‘Claire Grace’, a cultivar with pretty pink-lavender flowers rather than the dark burgundy of the straight species. Saw a hummingbird moth visiting this morning. A front porch border full of flowers is a never-ending show in summer with Nicotiana ‘Fragrant Cloud’ feeding the pollinators through the night.

Posted in Despatches from the Hollow | Leave a comment

Spangled Hollow


Spring sprays confetti through the hollow. Whitebud (Cercis canadensis alba), Redbuds, Spicebush spangle the woods and the dogwoods are just plumping out. We are blessed with one of the most beautiful and prolonged springs either of us can remember. Abundant rainfall, cool temperatures keep it all refreshed. The beneficence of the Earth.

The air is full of butterflies, spicebush swallowtails mostly, which lay their eggs on the native Lindera benzoan that lines the creek. Daffodil season still hasn’t spent itself, starting off in February with the cheery little ‘Tete-a-Tetes’.

There are a variety of colors and shapes beyond the iconic trumpet yellow ‘King Alfred’ types; both early bloomers, ‘Ice Follies’ has a rich white substance that makes a soothing companion. ‘Salome’, a mid to late small cup, has white petals with a delicate rosy pink cup; heavily fragrant ‘Geranium’, a late blooming tazetta, sports bright orange cups; ‘Ambergate’ and ‘Sabine Hay’, late mid-season, go bold with copper petals and bright red cups. Each year I get out my trusty Daffodils for American Gardens by Brent and Becky Heath of famed Daffodil Mart down in Gloucester and re-identify our collection.

Hoop Petticoat/Narcissus bulbocodium

The Summer Snowflake, Leucojum, is in its glory, taking up great swaths of the porch border, a vigorous, deer-proof bulb that can take a moist situation in sun or shade. Lovely for cutting, its pure white green tipped bells droop gracefully from dark green lush foliage. I love to put them in a large glass bowl.

Summer Snowflake/Leucojum aestivum

There is terrible trouble in the world, the Earth afire with hatred, death and disease among family and friends, yet we linger here a while longer in our enchanted hollow, a fool’s paradise perhaps, but our own.

Voltaire’ advice endures and none of us would be the worse for tending our garden.

Posted in Despatches from the Hollow | Leave a comment

Hollow Bloom

We’re blooming inside and out in February here in the hollow thanks to Alder (Alnus), Amaryllis and Snowdrops (Galanthus).

Inside, the late ‘Christmas Gift’ Amaryllis, a holiday present from a friend, has graced our table for a month or so. Cleverly staked with willow twigs that rooted and leafed out in a tender spring green, this magnificent bulb produces one of the most beautiful of the Hippeastrum we’ve ever seen.

The large pure white flowers and creamy buds remind us of an Easter Lily. Once it began flowering, it’s been kept dry and thrives in our sunniest south window. Although I generally compost the old ones and start new each winter season, I might go to the trouble of trying to keep this one going by fertilizing its green leaves all summer and letting it go dormant in a dark closet in the fall.

The black alder (Alnus glutinosa) is one of the outside earliest blooms, our harbinger of spring, dangling its golden catkins powdery with pollen to fertilize tiny purple female buds, a perfect example of a monoecious plant that produces imperfect male and female flowers on the same plant. Although native to Europe, western Asia and northern Africa, the alder is long naturalized in the United States often occurs along our little waterways, as it does here by our creek. There are striking cultivars like ‘Lancianata’ and ‘Aurea’ for the collector who has a wet spot to display them.

The genus Galanthus  has many varieties, from the giant snowdrop (G. elwesii) to the double, G. nivalis Flore Pleno. It loves to be transplanted in bloom, in clusters and takes a moister site than most bulbs. They are lovely poking their heads above the snow and make charming bud vases.

Happy Late Winter from the hollow!

Posted in Despatches from the Hollow | Leave a comment

Illuminated Hollow


Lights on Witchhazel ‘Diane’ (Hamamelis x intermedia) welcome the new year to the hollow.

My celebration of 4+ inches of rain last October was premature. Though we’ve had a few inches over the last week or so, creeping up on us on parched paws, drought still stalks our foothills. Here in the hollow we ride the line between severe drought to our west on the Waynesboro side and moderate towards Charlottesville.

Yet the creek continues to rush over its little fall down by the cherry bench and all seems well on the surface. I’ve often felt our little paradise down here is a secret haven somehow suspended from the woes that are consuming the planet, a portal into a parallel world the way it should be.

Early winter has brought sightings of the great blue heron, a pair of hawks, woodpeckers, bluejays and the ever-present crows who roost in the pines above the drive. I occasionally spy the mockingbird and cardinal in the forsythia tangle and across the road in a devil’s mix of privet, bittersweet and honeysuckle that inhabits the roadside ditch. Watercress is greening up there, too, and just today I saw fresh leaflets floating in the east meadow creek, washed down from last year’s sowing.

Paperwhites and Amaryllis keep us company indoors along with forcing branches of witchhazel and honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima). I have long remembered the class project in elementary school where we brought woody twigs to unfold inside. I can still see the jars and bottles on the dining room table at eye level, that wonderful perspective childhood grants us.

Posted in Despatches from the Hollow | Leave a comment

Thirsty Hollow

Altogether, we had about 4 1/2 inches of rain in September, mostly in little spits of .3″ with one good soaker. October  has started off with another scant .3″ and I am waiting hopefully for an autumn cycle of regular rainfall. The creek has just begun to trickle again and I can hear it faintly from the cherry bench, but the ground is still like iron.

Maples, Nyssas, dogwoods and sourwood are turning lovely muted colors – the birds have stripped the spicebush berries – and I feel like a fly stuck in amber out here in paradise while the world seems to burn all around me with war and natural disasters. Perhaps I watch too much TV and should get out in the garden more.

My current to-do list:

*Clean up last of annuals in front porch and back deck beds, lay down winter mulch.

*Finish trimming wild hairs on forsythia.

*Cut the last two old lilacs down to ground level. The first one has sprouted nicely from the base.

*Weed poison ivy from sourwood and cleft rock. Now is the season that all the random walnuts and poison ivy seedlings are popping up. Good time to walk the grounds with a sharp spade and trowel.

*Deep water this year’s new woody plantings of witch hazel Ryan’s ‘Jelena’, American Beautyberries (Callicarpa americana) and Fran Boninti’s Styrax obassia, the Asian fragrant snowbell.

The Geranium inquinans from old Monticello cuttings (a single flowered scarlet) is showing its autumn colors with the cooler night temps. Have never regretted our glazed turquoise Vietnamese pots.

Posted in Despatches from the Hollow | Leave a comment

Jewelweed Hollow

The drone of bees among the Jewelweed is louder as summer wanes.

Here on the glider porch, their hum and buzz blends with the background of grasshoppers and other small cheepers that sing throughout the day. It is the only sound except for the muted hum of the fan from inside – a perfect late summer chorus.

It began with a solitary bee making his way from blossom to blossom and now I count half a dozen along with a large bumble bee, black and yellow swallowtail butterflies, a small wasp or two and a greenish slender-bodied fly, not to mention the hummingbird (who sounds like a large bee itself) who visits throughout the day. Everyone is busily trying to eat as much as possible before the end of summer and the beginning of their journeys south or into the ground.

The self-seeded border of Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) that I ponder has been a happy accident. A native along our creek, a lover of shade and moisture, it crept into the front porch border and has not been browsed by the deer. Apart from its utility to pollinators, it’s quite lovely as a summer screen as long as it doesn’t bake in afternoon sun.

Pale long-stalked blue-green leaves flutter in the slightest breeze and provide a lush backdrop for the multitude of tiny turk’s cap blossoms speckled tangerine and brown. This 4′ tall panorama is just a few feet  from where I sit on the glider and to watch the play of insects among the forest of flower stalks is a delight. Before frost kills them, they will form tiny green seed pods that explode on contact, fun to show the kids.

If you’d like to collect seed from a wild patch when pods are just getting plump and ready to explode, bend their heads into a baggie before cutting the stalks so they fall in. Then scatter these on top of the ground right away in a moist shady spot. Look for them to sprout next summer after the soil warms up. Don’t amend the soil. They want native acid clay loam.

If you don’t have any at home keep a look out for these lovely natives on your trail walks, especially along streams and ditches and wetlands.

The east meadow is entering its ugly phase with the Verbesina stalks turning black, but there’s still enough yellow and green left to quibble with Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” ~ Nature’s first green is gold/Her hardest hue to hold.

Here in the hollow, we beg to differ.




Posted in Despatches from the Hollow | Leave a comment

Queen Anne’s Hollow

Queen Anne’s Lace, the wild carrot naturalized from our European days, spangles the sunny end of the meadow, up from the damper bottomland that nurtures Deer’s Tongue  and Yellow Ironweed. Along with the native switch grass, their textures weave a matrix Piet Oudolf would be proud of.

The Ironweed  is just beginning to bloom and always reminds me of the Sukevine of Cold Comfort Farm that enveloped its denizens in its lusty embrace. When it showed up years ago in the hollow, I thought it was an invasive and to my shame killed a native Joe Pye while trying to eradicate it. A lesson in ignorance I will never forget. The Joe Pye never came back, but the Ironweed marches on.

The meadow develops as the environment changes, from “natural” causes as well as the hand of man. Sometimes I think man’s hand is a blight everywhere. Even so, the meadow is a lovely thing to live with. It does not stay the same.

John has mowed a good strolling path (6-8′ wide) that takes us under the canopy of the wild cherry (Prunus sp.), past the dolphin bench, on towards the Sassafrass grove, along the creek which runs so softly now during the drought that has suddenly set upon us. It’s a mere trickle now and bound to get worse as

a heat dome  is forecast for next week with the ground already dry as a bone. Thankfully, the spring up the little hollow across the creek to the north that we depend on for our household water continues to fill the cistern to overflowing.

Across the land as rivers run dry, forests burn and lakes and ponds fill with algae and bacteria, we are grateful for our water and the little paradise we live in. Sometimes I feel that we’re living in an enchanted garden with the world going to hell around us.

The zinnias are stalwart in the heat, feeding swallowtails, fritillaries, hummingbirds, bumblebees, dragonflies and goldfinches. I’ve overcome my initial disdain for the bedding cultivar ‘Magellen’ which I got stuck with this spring instead of the old cutting varieties ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘State Fair’ I was looking for. ‘Magellan’ does not have the grace or subtle colors (do not mix the pinks and oranges!) of the older varieties and has short stubby stems, but

when I see the giant landing pads the they offer the pollinators, I bow to the obvious.

Happily, a bit of ‘State Fair’ did show up in a bare spot I seeded earlier in summer with seed collected from last year, bringing a splash of Barbie pink to the grasses at the edge of the meadow. Will continue to collect and sow.

No better proof of their deer-resistance as Long Ear and her herd graze through each evening.




Posted in Despatches from the Hollow | 1 Comment

Meadow Walk

The path to the hollow meadow runs east along the creek, flanked by common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), just beginning to bud now in early June along with patches of Butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) and swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) farther down.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Deer-tongue (Dichanthelium clandestinum) and Yellow Ironweed or Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) run throughout and there’s an abundance of Field Horsetail (Equisetum arvense). The latter two, though native – (the horsetail, a world traveler, is found throughout the Northern hemisphere) – are quite invasive and the horsetail, while rich in nutrients for humans, is toxic to horses and can overwhelm and destroy good grass pasturage.

Our meadow’s just for walking, though, and giving sustenance of course to the insects and animals that follow its seasons. We let it run wild except for rouging out Asian bittersweet and bits of barberry that sprout from bird-dropped seeds. The rule is to bring a spade and clippers on any walk, but sometimes we forget and just wander down the mowed path that ends in a little Sassafras grove with a bench made from discarded University amphitheater balustrades and a piece of slate.

A spring scattering of California poppy seeds over the old burn pile has been a success. We’re not burning brush this season, instead using woody debris to bulwark eroded parts of the creek or stacking it in the woods

Bloodroot (Sanguineria canadensis) and Black Kohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) congregate in the shade back there with a little Sourwood (Oxydendrum arborescens) and bluebird house tucked in at the edge of the woods.

The meadow is not wholly native. Perilla is sprouting and the under-story of the woods is lush with bright green stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum) an inevitable denizen of all the woodlands around us over the years. There is no stopping it. It will run its course like water.

The deer – another force of nature – browse everything else to the ground except for the wood and Christmas ferns which persist in clumps along the creek.There’s nothing stopping them either despite reports of coyotes yipping in the spring.  Multiflora rose tumbles along the edges.

In spite of the aggressive nature of many of these plants, they allow for a remarkable variety.

Lyre-cup Sage (Salvia lyrata), creeping Verbena, Violets and Violas line the pathway and Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus), Buttercups (Ranunculus sp.) and an unknown small starry white flower weave through the grasses. There was a lovely bit of Meadow Rue (Thalictrum polygamum), but they apparently are top on the deer’s menu.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoan) with their pale yellow spring flowers and bright shiny red summer berries stud the upper sunnier creekside. The birds strip them after they ripen but we get to enjoy them for awhile.

We get to enjoy everything for awhile, so we must pay attention.

Posted in Despatches from the Hollow | Leave a comment

Bouquet Hollow

Fill the house with daffodils
Hear the courting birds trill
Earth tilts
Buds break
Winter sleep comes awake.

Spring calls but she’s still stuck in a chilly end to winter. The hills remain leafless with just a few red maples blooming ruby red against the grey, but the hollow cannot help tipping into spring with crocus and daffodils splashing purple and yellow against the golden fields and meadows. It’s irresistible to bring them inside to fill the perfect vase.

Narcissus is one of the few families of plants that is truly deer and rodent proof and the old Van Englelen mixtures of naturalizers and miniatures have served us well over many years with a long reliable succession of bloom. Crocus tommasinianus Lilac Beauty and Ruby Giant come back year after year.

At the other end of winter, I filched seeds from the Murray Morris Meadow at Sentara Hospital in Charlottesville for a few weeks in February and March when I was a regular there and learned first-hand the truth of the healing power of gardens. This perfectly-designed stroll garden, with a path that begins with a steep drop-off at the top of a panoramic view from Pantops Mountain, winds you down toward a pond among grasses and trees that wave over your head, then out into the open again as you circle back up the hill accompanied by birds flitting to and fro.

Oaks, maples, hornbeams and a variety of viburnums dot the slopes, interplanted with thick swaths of grasses and perennials. Switchgrass (Panicum virginiana), Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latiflolia), Broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus), Beardtongue (Penstemon sp.), Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida sp.), Bergamot (Monarda sp.), Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), and Butterfly Weed (Asclepias sp.) provide shelter, berries, nuts and seeds to bluebirds, finches, mockingbirds, sparrows, crows and hawks, with nectar for myriad butterflies, dragonflies and moths.

There’s a lot going on in this diverse human-created ecosystem that respects the lay of the land and offers the comfort that comes from contemplating the enduring beauty of nature. Last visit saw the yearly cutting that sustains the meadow, revealing the rolling contours of the slope and the still-winter architecture of trees and shrubs.

Here at home in the hollow I have to keep myself from pruning the Beautyberrys (Callicarpa japonica) until they see our resident mockingbird through the rest of winter. I saw him out there the other day pecking the shriveled tiny fruits out at the end of the twigs. The city bird settles into a rusty blackhaw viburnum (V. rufidulum) with dark blue shining berries.

This dashing, alert bird with its white epaulets has become my totem this season, perching himself faithfully each afternoon atop a favorite tree or shrub to turn his breast to the last of the sun.




Posted in Despatches from the Hollow | 3 Comments

Winter Hollow

I’ve become entranced by a piece of Spanish moss I pass each day on my afternoon walk. It dangles out in the open from the end of a dead mountain laurel twig like a little world unto itself, resembling nothing so much as a disembodied gnome’s beard. J. R. Tolkien would love it.

The air down here in the hollow where all the springs and creeks run through is humid year round and many of the trees and shrubs are decorated with sea green lichens and mosses growing on their bark. Often people think they are a sign of disease or decline, but they are really signifiers of pure moist air and a non-polluted environment.

Broom sedge (Andropogon virginicus ) is the star of the east meadow, a soft gold fluttering tapestry spangled with polka-dot black seed heads atop tall stalks of old Verbesina (aka wingstem, yellow ironweed). I hope it will spread into sunnier areas opened up where we took the ash down. Deer’s tongue, with the perfectly intriguing botanical name of Panicum clandestinum, has ripened to a bamboo-like parchment tan and lines the mossy walkway down to the bench. All are native.

February is the month to mow the meadow. Then I’ll be walking into spring looking for the first of the lyre leaf sage (Salvia lyrata) and watching the daffodils come up. Narcissus planted last Thanksgiving are poking up their spiky spears along the bank below the driveway pines, many with flower buds deep within the  leaves. I was afraid they wouldn’t bloom this first year after being divided.

Snowdrops have been in bloom for over a month. The ground is like iron now, but after the thaw we’ll transplant the ones left out in the meadow that lived beneath the doomed Ash. They look lost with nothing to ground them. The little bulbs show up best against the rock creek steps and individual boulders. Garden lore says Snowdrops (Galanthus sp.) are best moved when in flower and we’ve found this to be true.

Lonicera fragrantissima, the honeysuckle bush, is blooming, a fortuitously planted trio at the base of the electric pole that, like many an effective screen, does not obscure but leads the eye away. Their delightful lemon scent upon the chill air is the earliest sign of spring. These must be over 20 years old now, twiggy and semi-evergreen.

I think the mockingbirds nest there and it makes a convenient jumping off spot for the blue jays up into the giant beech which, nearing 40, has been bearing nuts for a few years now. Although non-native, the honeysuckle bush was often planted in old orchards because its early blooms attract the first pollinators.

From the mossy world of a lichen to the meadows and woods that surround it, up into the skies, Nature is as small and as large as our eyes can focus. Winter is the time for looking as close and as far as we can see.


Posted in Despatches from the Hollow | Leave a comment