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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New Horizons

It’s an ill wind that does no good and the storms of January along with the demise of our beetle-doomed Ash have opened up the east meadow. Our new horizon will make for a sunnier microclimate and serves as a welcome symbol of a new beginning after this dreadful winter.

Back-to-back snowstorms ripped branches from the old walnuts and downed the Sassafrass grove at the end of the meadow walk. We lost power for a week and learned how fragile the grid really is. County roads are lined with debris that rivals the damage of the Derecho ten years ago and I know I’m not the only one who wants to put the winter of ’22 behind me.

The old Lenten Roses (Helleborus orientalis) from the University bravely endured being smothered in ice and have burst forth with luscious mauve blooms. Other seedlings have greenish-white blossoms. Unlike many of the newer hybrids, these old ones sport large handsome foliage that serves as an evergreen groundcover when not in bloom. They seed prolifically and make a charming cut flower.

It’s heartening to know that one can still learn new plants. I discovered the Japanese Cornel Dogwood (Cornus offcianalis) growing along steps at the International Student Center at the University. Its bright red drupes were striking during winter. It’s very similar to the Corneliancherry (C. mas) and indeed has the same dirty gold colored flowers in spring, but the bark is attractively mottled much like that of the Kousa Dogwood. It has made a nice specimen on the bureau below our beloved Peter Boyers still life.


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Christmas Hollow

Got back to the hollow from NYC a week ago. We hopped the train right up ~ AmTrack out of Charlottesville ~  because we were drawn like a magnet to the “Companions in Solitude” exhibit at the Met that included a 12th century series of Chinese paintings called “The Garden of the Inept Administrator” which was meant to illustrate “a safe haven for the pursuit of spiritual cultivation alone or elegant conversation together.”

Sounds like the hollow to me.

Poet’s Laurel and Lenten Rose

Our little patch of Poet’s Laurel/Danaae racemosa continues to inhabit the  eastern corner by the chimney but does not seem to spread. It gets no special care. Makes a nice evergreen groundcover with the Lenten Rose/Helleborus orientalis. There are many modern hybrids of the Hellebore like the ubiquitous ‘Pine Knot Strain’, but this UVA seedling is quite vigorous and handsome. Both plants are of Asian origin and would make a nice combo with Pieris japonica. In the dead of winter one longs for green.

Seed-heads on High Line

Sycamores saw us up to the city and back. Such a lovely tree.


In the city, pollarded on the streets




and gracefully reaching for light in parks and courtyards.




In the hollow, framing the sky of home.



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