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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August Lily Hollow

Hosta ‘Royal Standard’ is the star of the garden this time of year. I love its clean lavender-tinged white and green and the way it splays itself out like a fireworks off the corner of the front porch. ‘Royal Standard’ is sizeable enough to make a statement and takes a good bit of sun without burning.

Various bees and night moths visit it, so it gives some sustenance, though it does not nurture native caterpillars as the nativists would prefer. I let the flower stalks go to seed as the leaves yellow later in the fall. Of course the deer love it and I go to the trouble of preserving this specimen with Imustgarden’s deer repellent, an organic with kelp that works well. It seems to last a long time and I replenish it after rains. Worth the trouble for this icon of late summer.

Hosta ‘Royal Standard’

Started seeds of the Money Plant, Lunaria annua. Refrigerated for 2 weeks then took another few weeks to germinate, but I have a nice flatful of little seedlings that I hope to put out this fall. Lunaria is a biennial that reseeds where it’s happy somewhere in the shade. Its spikes of blossoms – white or pale purple – are fragrant and turn into opalescent seed pods that can be dried for arrangements. Always nice to be nurturing something along.

Lunaria seeds

The autumn equinox comes in late September but the Earth has tilted and as the great poet Iris Murdoch said, the days “are weary of summer.” The first sign of the changing of the seasons here in the hollow is the falling of the golden walnut leaves. They waft through the air in the afternoons like coins tossed out by the gods.

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Dog Day Hollow

The meadow is producing luscious forbs for bouquets ~ white yarrow, flea bane and Queen Anne’s Lace dotted like stars among the native grasses. Green sedges provide dramatic contrast with their seed heads and arching sepals. The Chicago Hardy Fig in the back corner has a nice crop, in its second full year now but not yet ripe. John has been bringing home Brown Turkey from Sprigg Lane.

As autumn turns to winter Sirius will sit at the foot of his master, the hunter Orion, and become the brightest star in the night sky, but during the sultry days of summer he rises unseen with the sun.

To the Greeks, the dog star foretold evil times of heat and fever and one could perhaps say the same in 2022, but here in the hollow our bubble of paradise persists and for us it means musky night scents of Nicotiana alata ‘Fragrant Cloud’ and the flutter of hummingbird moths as they weave through the bright white trumpets held like candelabras against the darkness. I do love a white garden around the porch. Lovely with early morning coffee and twilight drinks.

The orange Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, is of course the iconic nectar flower of the monarch butterfly, the latter declining for years and just placed on the endangered species list. Swamp milkweed, A. incarnata, its larval food, is a taller pink-flowered variety that thrives in moist meadows, currently making seed pods that will burst into angel wings when ripe in the meadow. Who will come to them now? Doug Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home tells the story of a planting of natives that attracted long-lost pollinators so we must hope for the best.

Unripe seed pod Asclepias incarnata


Everyone is commenting on the dearth of insects this year. Every one is precious now and each swallowtail, fritillary or cabbage moth I see is cause for a double take and close attention. As summer progresses, I see more and more and am grateful for the habitat we have to nurture them. They are like angels to me.

The Earth has miraculous powers of regeneration, but we must help her and change our ways. Will we see this happen? Can there be green shoots from our current evil days?

Swamp Milkweed


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Birdsong Hollow

Spring into summer birds have been building their nests in the hollow.

Billary, long-time resident cardinal, wakes us in the morning and closes the day when he makes his rounds atop the trees circling the front yard, declaring loudly, exuberantly, the last of the sun on his chest, that this is his home. He and his family live in the brush by the creek, angels flying too close to the ground.

Bluebirds join them in attacking the windows during the heat of the day. Billary bashes with such force I think he’s going to break his head. The bluebird flutters softly. Carolina wrens nest in the fig, the potting shed and anywhere you hang a cap, and Phoebes do a tag team to feed their fledglings all day long under the front eaves. There’s a wren fluttering about on the old front porch with dried stems stuffed in its mouth.

It’s like living in a Disney film. No sign of the serpent yet here in paradise.

Late spring began with the blooming of the perfect porch vine, Jasminum x stephenense, an ancient specimen gently pried from Peggy Cornett’s Belmont back yard in Charlottesville decades ago. I can still see her strong fingers teasing the little seedling from the soil.

Jasminum x stephenense

The solstice a few days ago saw us just past the peak of the Regale Lilies. Hummingbirds have begun visiting the scarlet geraniums at the top of the walk, quickly probing each floret for its nectar, but there is a dearth of other insects – few bees, only a solitary battered black swallowtail. Are the voracious birds taking them all for their young or is there something more sinister afoot?

Have just finished digging bulbs from the pathway in the east meadow, in the nick of time while I can still see their ragged yellow tendrils. I like to dig bulbs that need to be moved as they go dormant, leaves turning yellow. You can still find them and they can be stored to dry in flats over summer, re-planting in the coming fall. The pathway was full of an old Van Engelen mix called The Narcissus Grand Mixture. Wonderful how they multiply.

As the creek has eroded over the years, especially with periodic flooding from heavy rains which gouge the banks, the path that runs along it has crept uphill, hence the old daffodils that used to line its edge. This year we’ve begun rock work that will stabilize it for our foreseeable future. Lacing branches and brush in the arms of eroded creeks can help also, but they sometimes wash away and need to be rebuilt.

As does everything in the garden.



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Blue Hollow

Lewis and Clark recorded in their journals that when they first saw vast fields of Camassia on the Lolo Trail west of the Cascade Mountains, they mistook it for a lake because of the iridescent blue.

The Indian Hyacinth (Camassia quamash), I believe the one L&C brought back to the east, has a sturdy little flower, a little over a foot tall. I find I prefer the grace of the taller Leichtlin’s camass, (C. leichtlinii ‘Caerulea’) which Van Engelen’s bulb catalog classifies as an heirloom.

Camassia leichtlinii ‘Caerulea’

Van Engelen’s lists just under a dozen different Camassia cultivars and several species, but they’re all that ethereal blue. Also called the Wild Hyacinth or Quamash, it naturalizes in moist dappled shade or sun, feeds the bees and coexists with deer. Though they (or the groundhog!) did browse the foliage when it first came up, flower stalks proceeded to develop and all is a cerulean mist these early days of May.

Camassia combines with ferns and golden ragwort (Senecio aureus).

Golden Ragwort

Track down the beautiful 2003 edition of Common to This Country, Botanical Discoveries of Lewis & Clark, by Susan H. Munger, illustrated by Charlotte Staub Thomas, for lovingly detailed maps and renderings of the plants L&C botanized.

Cannot let a Spring posting go by without commenting on the horrors of over-mulching and indeed, I’m beginning to think, mulching in general, especially the thick applications of shredded hardwood that seem to be the established status symbol for the suburban set –  a brand new carpet for outdoors to show you’ve spiffed things up.

When I was a gardener at Monticello many years ago, I learned the ornamental beds lining the flower round-about were not mulched in keeping with Jefferson’s practice and that of the 18th and 19th centuries in general. With regular cultivation or “scratching” of the soil to keep weeds down and seasonal applications of compost and dehydrated chicken manure, the plantings were vigorous. Thick smothering mulch made from ground up trees and bark is a 20th century phenomenon.

Mark of Shame

Mulch volcanoes around trees have long been condemned as a badge of shame marking the ignorant land owner, but I see it everywhere this Spring, smothering crowns of perennials and groundcovers, blocking oxygen from the soil and shedding water like a duck. Weeds can’t penetrate it, but neither can anything else! Much better to use compost or better still, oak or other deciduous leaves. Some people shred or mow them, but dedicated naturalists prefer to leave them whole so as not to destroy the insects that make their home within.

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The Bluebird of Happiness

The Bluebird of Happiness just visited. He pecked on the window and retreated to the witch-hazel outside my office window, framed perfectly by the grey bark and dusky red flowers of Hamamelis x ‘Diane’ . He sat still for me to take his picture. Pecking on the back window now.

One thinks of Chuck Bukowski’s poem ~ There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out. . . . Just like I feel after this long winter.

Trees in the hollow are still bare, but Forsythia has been in bloom for several weeks now, the bright gold wands just beginning to fade, and the daffodils are peaking. Scorned by native plant lovers and sustainability soldiers, Forsythia will always be a welcome icon of Spring to me and performs at least the humble environmental service of sheltering myriad birds and generations of rabbits.

We are having a lovely long daffodil season, started off last month with the miniature cheery ‘Tete-a-Tete’, a bright yellow ideal for marking pathways and edges, through mid-season King Alfred types with their iconic screaming yellow trumpets, nicely toned down with ‘Ice Follies’, a white and pale yellow large-cup variety with a similar bold substance, excellent for cutting.

‘Ice Follies’

Fragrant Triandrus types like ‘Thalia’ and the Tazetta ‘Geranium’ fill a room with their perfume. The season winds down with a variety of late-bloomers: ‘Segovia’, ‘Hawera’, ‘Sun Disc’ and the latest of all, old “Twin Sisters” (N. x biflorus, a wild hybrid of N. poeticus var. recurvus and N. tazetta.)

I bring out Brent and Becky Heath’s indispensable Daffodils for American Gardens each Spring and refresh my memory.

Now is also the time for fresh flower salads with the violets and dandelions beginning to bloom (tender young leaves are great sources of Vitamin C and calcium); redbud blossoms, like little pink and white peas, are also good. Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s Gather Ye Wild Things is a great inspiration.

Common Violet

Spring keeps pecking at our hearts until we let it in.


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