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.

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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.




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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.




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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.

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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.




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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.


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Solstice Hollow

December ushered in a full moon. Now at its end the winter solstice sees it waning, high in the sky like an angel’s fingernail in the mornings. Our night skies have been spectacular, with sporadic International Space Station sightings, Cassiopeia rising in the northeast and Orion riding down the west. The pines on the driveway hill obscure due north and I’ve never been able to spot the Big or Little Dippers. Jupiter has been prominent, very bright and high. Mars rising ruddy over the meadow just after dark.

We are blessed in this particular fold of the Blue Ridge to be amazingly free of light pollution and though our horizon is drawn inward by the surrounding hills, it is clear and in the winter absence of leaves, surprisingly multi-dimensional as contours reveal themselves.

The creek is running briskly with regular rains, more predicted this Christmas weekend with snow and ice and temps in the low teens. Brought in all the potted herbs from the deck. A real winter. Only a few of the woodland beeches and oaks have retained their leaves and all is bare. The garden beech shows a rim of reddish buds wrapped like tight silk parasols against the sky.

Twigs with beechnuts brought inside look like graceful dancers.

We are making a determined effort to rogue out the privet that’s infested the little dell across the creek. Spent an afternoon cleaning up the little delta across from Milo’s Bend where we planted an Amelanchier sprout from Fran Boninti at the base of the native one that broke in last winter’s snow. A large dark greenstone covered in sea green lichens is more prominent now, its face flush with the slope below the Amelanchier. A vignette to ponder as we pass by the place of dear Milo’s demise.

A scattering of young hemlocks and a large mountain laurel thrive along this north slope of the creek as it runs through the east meadow. They’ve grown over the years and make a real evergreen presence in the woods now. Keeping the meadow path mowed has opened up the woodland hill that parallels it and the edge is becoming familiar to me. Walkways, paths and windows make the garden.

New Year’s day will see the dismantling of the corner table that accumulates my life over the year. As we sip a bottle of a local champagne – Thibeaux-Janison from Afton – all will be filed away, the table, chair and lamp washed and polished, library books dusted and we’ll start all over again.

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Hopeful Hollow

Broomsedge, Butterfly Weed and Beechnuts sow hope in the hollow. From Thoreau’s Faith in a Seed to Marc Hamer’s From Seed to Dust, the regenerative powers of nature have provided fodder for our musings on the meaning of life. Walking through the grasses in the east meadow and winding back to make my evening pilgrimage to the old Beech by the road, seeds pop out against the bareness of the leafless hills and remind me that it’s all ephemeral and never-ending at the same time.

At the end of the meadow path is the Pandemic Dogwood, planted the fall of 2020. I spent that winter visiting its buds and wondering if I would see them flower in the spring. Two springs now and counting. It suffered severe bark damage from deer rubbing before I had the sense to put up chicken wire and is sustaining itself by a precarious thin line of cells that I find most inspiring.

Just before the last rain we planted a few flats of the bulbs I dug last summer from the meadow path and beneath the now removed ancient privet. The path crept closer to the creek over the years and eventually ate its lower border which the bulbs had marked – Van Engelen’s Narcissus Grand Mixture, a succession of showy naturalizing types. Another mix of their miniatures was wasted beneath the privet – too far away – and will show off much better in the bed below the kitchen table window up against the turquoise Vietnamese pots.

A surprise spring flower embryo encased in each papery knob, it felt good to plant them in the moist soil. We unearthed a toad who was miraculously not harmed by the spade!

The hollow has entered the dull brown period of autumn with candy red spicebush berries long gone and only shriveled Beautyberries left to emit a dull amethyst. The mockingbird pecks at them desultorily. From now through winter our color will come from blue skies, redbirds and pottery.




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Hollow Fall

Sunset is like stained glass this time of year. Sunny days and cool nights without any freezes have given us a prolonged show of reds, golds, and yellows with all their permutations among maples, hickories, oaks and spicebush. I’ve been struck by the colors of the oaks this year – ruby through scarlet reds, coppery golds.

We’ve long been without rain and have had to regularly water the new Beautyberries (Callicarpa americana) and Itea (Virginia Sweetspire) we put in a few months ago. They suck it up. So important that transplants go well-watered into fall.

American beautyberries are not nearly as graceful as the Japanese (C. dichotoma). They do not hold their leaves or berries. They look like sticks now and I have cut them back to 12″  instead of waiting for spring just because I can’t stand to look at them anymore.

I never cut the Japanese beautyberries this time of year. They arch like bowing ballerinas over the creek and in the border, still holding their now chartreuse leaves against rows of amethyst beads. Most of the American berries are gone, eaten, I believe, by blue jays. Though a few catbirds pecked about a bit early in the season, the Japanese beautyberries will persist, their desiccated fruit providing late season nourishment for the birds that stay through winter.

The east meadow beckons for a walk every afternoon and as I walk away from the house, I feel like Sara Teasdale ~

“Down the hill I went, and then

I forgot the ways of men.”

Coming back, Deer’s Tongue (Panicum clandestinum) catches fire backlit in the setting sun. Native, as is its cousin Switch Grass (P. virgatum), it looks more like bamboo.

The hills are ablaze as we go dry into November, but the creek still runs and the cistern’s overflow splashes among the Sassafras and ferns across the creek.

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September Song

Migrating catbirds have stripped the Spicebush (Lindera benzoan) and resident cardinals join in pecking away at the Japanese Beautyberries (Callicarpa dichotoma ‘Amethyst’). Have not noticed anyone eating the much larger, fatter berries of C. americana, incongruously called French mulberry, both with that beautiful ethereal color. Will cut the Americans back to a foot in spring to thicken them up, but leave the Japanese to fulfill their naturally arching habit.

I love planting berries and flowers for the birds. It’s much more satisfying to me than luring them to fight over store bought seed and sugar mixes. There’s no dispensing, cleaning and general maintenance chores involved, just giving them the plants they want for food and shelter.

A fortuitous patch of Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) along the front porch affords twice daily shows of a couple of hummingbirds swooping through to nuzzle each orange trumpet while through the day and into the twilight plump black bees poke their whole bodies inside with just their little legs sticking out.

This last day of September has us hunkered down waiting for the rain and winds of Hurricane Ian flying from its devastating journey through the middle of Florida. It looks like a Derecho on the maps, heading straight for Roanoke, a hundred miles south. We will see how the hollow will handle it, rain flooding through the Beech and the low spot off the back corner of the house, sluicing down to its lowest point to pour into the creek, then rushing off eastward toward the Bay. We are riparian. We ride the waters.

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