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 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.
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.
View from Blue Heron
Back from the annual coastal pilgrimage. Split a bottle of Afton’s Thibeaux-Jamison for the autumn equinox, looking out at the Atlantic from our Blue Heron perch in Nag’s Head. Clinked our rings in the surf.
Pea Island and Ocracoke led us down to Wilmington on the Cape Fear River, a perfect jumping-off point for family and friends in Southport and Carolina Beach.
I am always struck by the contrasts between our foothills and the shore. The quiet versus the sound, the sea birds versus the cardinals and wrens who sang me awake this morning, the expanse of sea level versus our cloistered hills.
It is good to go away and re-connect with family and friends. And it is good to be home in the hollow.
Looking eastward in the fall
Getting ready to head for the coast for our traditional celebration of the autumn equinox (this year on September 22nd). This closes the season on a lush summer which saw our groundwater in Albemarle County replenished for the first time since the great drought half a dozen years ago. I can hear the creek at night just like when I first came to the hollow in 1985. I would have dreams of murmuring conversations and wake to the lullaby of the creek.
For the first time in many years, we do not head back to the cottage at Jennette’s Pier at Nag’s Head, for many reasons. Family and friends beckon from Wilmington and Southport and we will see Ocracoke, our honeymoon lo, nearly 28 years ago, but the real reason is the fake beach we found last year.
I remember never knowing how the coast line would be re-figured each visit, after the various hurricanes and storms that etched the Outer Banks most every fall. Sometimes we tip-toed along a narrow strip of sand up against steep dunes carved out by the waves and had to hurry back before the tide came in.
After the final bit of the old wooden pier got washed away from Isabel, they re-built a giant one out of concrete that needed a guaranteed wide beach for weddings and surfer conventions. Thank God for Pea Island Reserve a few miles south, but this part of the Banks is gone forever.
I have relished for many years heading out from our hollow in the foothills down through the piedmont, toward the coast and shore, and teaching the first Sustainable Landscape has made me even more aware of the precious ecologies of our region. The documentary Ribbons of Sand celebrates this fragile heritage.
Off we go.
Summer solstice Regales
Summer solstice on the 21st inaugurated a season full of fragrance with Chinese trumpet lily ‘Regale’, sweetbay magnolia and swamp milkweed layering sweetness through the air. Most garden scents are even stronger after dark in the heat when it’s still. I’ve been watching the moon rise and breathing the heady heavy air all week.
The rose is ‘Penny Lane’, a climber from Heirloom Roses, Rose of the Year in England, 1998. Good clean foliage, vigorous growth, lovely classic double fragrant flowers that have had a second flush since first beginning to bloom over a month ago.
‘Penny Lane’ climbing rose
Have a few more old-fashioned Nicotiana alata ‘Fragrant Cloud’ to set out where the daffodil and Leucojum foliage is gone. Using zinnia, nicotiana, white cleome, and larkspur in hot dry front beds that are vulnerable to deer when Milo slumbers.
Ostrich Ferns by creek
It’s chartreuse in the hollow, all yellow-golden green. The frogs sing in the evenings and the creek gurgles just as it did when I first came here many years ago. Since then we’ve known seasons so dry there was nary a sound, so we rejoice in a prolonged, cool, wet season with sounds of splashing all around.
Tomatoes not in ground yet, nor have sunflower, cleome or zinnia seeds been sown. This is a good year for the lazy gardener as it’s still so cool. They say the 17-year cicadas won’t hatch out until the soil temp is 64 degrees. Have had a great spinach and lettuce/greens crop and the strawberries are just starting to fruit. So full of water, the rain has been good for them.
The Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are particularly nice, very high this year, at least 4 feet. They spread beneath the walnuts and the old autumn olives, never bothered by the deer and with nice brown fronds over winter.
‘Little Gems’ in last snow
Drip, drip, drip. Our third snow has melted. This coming spring will be a wet one and those of us who remember the last drought appreciate mud. This is a good thing. It means we have moisture deep in the soil and plants will not be stressed coming into the growing season.
The only real downside is that you can’t dig and muck about when it’s wet because you’ll destroy the structure of the soil, smooshing all the air out of the pockets between the particles. It will turn to goop and not recover well. So don’t do it. Resist the urge to tramp around on bare soil especially out in the vegetable garden or to dig planting holes until the soil drys out to a crumbly – not sticky – texture.
While you’re waiting for the winds of March to do their work, you can start clearing all the fallen trees and branches that are littering the landscape. With last summer’s derecho wind storm and the last two heavy snows, there’s more bio-mass on the ground than I remember seeing before. With soil moisture high, many trees just tipped right over and giant saucers of roots dot the hills and roadsides.
Giant Tattershall white oak rootball
Fortunately here in the hollow we don’t have anything as big as our neighbors a few miles away, though we do have a couple of small trees that tipped out and quite a few large trunks and branches on the ground. The walnut, hickory, black cherry and tulip poplar will be good for firewood after it seasons. We’ll use twiggy branches to layer along the steepest sides of the creek where erosion is worst to catch more organic debris to build up the banks over time.
The rest we’ll burn. I expect it’ll be a season of bonfires all through the countryside this year as people try to deal with all this wood!
Honeysuckle Bush (Lonicera fragrantissima)
With extreme variations in the jet stream alternating the arctic with the balmy, it’s a wonder how few flowering plants seem to be early this year. Everything seems pretty much right on time.
Honeysuckle bush opened mid-month. I smelled it a few days ago as the sun went down, temps in the 50′s. The little snowdrops have been up, with fresh patches every day. They’re very nice with the dark green inkberries in a moist shady spot.
The hybrid witchhazel ‘Diane’ has been blooming for a month now, still in her glory, shimmering in the setting sun, a fortuitous placement outside my office window.
The common Lenten rose, Helleborus niger, is making growth. I can see the appeal of the hybrids, as these seedling grown ones are a bit coarse for me, but their total deer-resistance, longevity, and shady habitat make all hellebores a must-have for the woodland and/or country garden. Do check out the hybrids. The ‘Pine Knot Strain’ is popular with single and double blooms ranging through shades of purple some with white picotee, meaning edged in white.
But the latest to bloom here in the hollow is ‘February Gold’, a fragrant cyclamineus daffodil (with swept-back reflexed petals) known for its extremely early flowering. Right on time.
Narcissus ‘February Gold’
Camellia japonica in April
Even in the icy heart of winter flowers bloom. Look for my upcoming column on Camellias in the February C-ville Abode www.c-ville.com .
Hellebores are showing their leathery stamina now. I understand why some people dislike the common orientalis and niger varieties in all their coarse fecundity. But they’ll freeze right down to the ground and thaw out like troopers. Many new hybrids have showier flowers and the deer don’t eat them so what’s not to like? Always consult Cole Burrell on Hellebores.
This morning in the biting sunny cold I walked through the east Pavilion gardens at the University, beautifully maintained with magnificent American hollies, magnolias, and boxwood. Many flitting birds and fat squirrels among the shrubbery (hawks have been spied on grounds) which is faithful to native plants with attention to Jefferson’s preferences, although he did not leave any specific ornamental plan for the spaces inside the serpentine walls he designed.
The lower garden of Pavilion VI, with the ancient spire from Oxford’s Merton College in the center, has a thick old patch of Hellebores in the far corner. I visit it for the varied collection of early spring bulbs, but nary a one was in sight on this cold winter morning.
No need to worry if bulb foliage gets frozen. Most bulbs are native to the Mediterranean and Asia and are genetically wired to withstand low temperatures. If a sudden freeze threatens early flowers, pick them for the house.
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’
At home our witchhazel ‘Diane’ came into bloom last week, bursting forth in her full ruby glory outside my office window. When the sun sets behind her she glimmers in a fuzzy halo of pink. The occasional crinkled coppery leaves are a counterpoint in texture and color. She freezes just fine.
Nature paints her canvas with clouds.
Cirrocumulus, Cirrus, and Altostratus layer the sky looking south from one of the high points of the hollow. Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotter’s Guide, The Science, History and Culture of Clouds is teaching me as I re-read it over the years how to look at the sky.
It’s changing all the time and its face is open for all who will look up to see.
January in the Garden – Cleaned up the asparagus patch and all the old marigolds in the upper bed with a nice little bonfire the other evening. Will rake out the nitrogen ash and add more wood ashes for March peas. The rest of the winter wood ashes will go on the lilacs and boxwood. We’re abandoning the old compost heap (too far away and overtaken by walnut trees) and beginning to sheet compost inside the vegetable garden fence. Planted about 150 tulips just after the first of the year mostly the lovely classic white ‘Maureen’. (November would have been ideal but if bulbs are firm and healthy, get them in the ground no matter how late.) If you can protect them from deer, tulips are wonderful for cutting. They supplement John’s flowers up at Carr’s Hill since we’re about two weeks behind the city out here in the hollow.