Hollow Fall

We spent the autumn equinox at the Outer Banks and when we returned, the hollow had tilted into fall, always our favorite time of year. This year makes 36 since I came here as a bride.

The woodland trees haven’t really begun to turn yet except for the dogwoods but color abounds in berries and late flowers. Japanese beautyberry, Callicarpa dichotoma, sprays waterfalls of purple through the mixed border. I confess I prefer it to the native C. americana, variously known as French mulberry or Indian poke, because of the former’s more refined habit. The latter has larger berries, but with much coarser leaves and a heavier blotchier form. Both feed the birds, especially in late winter when I see mockingbirds eating the shriveled raisin-like fruits. Earlier in the season, catbirds visit.

Up until last week the delightful Sternbergia lutea (aka winter daffodil, fall crocus, yellow amaryllis) bloomed for over a month under our poor doomed ash which we will have removed this spring before it totally succumbs to the dreaded emerald ash borer. Elizabeth Lawrence in her classic The Little Bulbs describes them as “like crocuses in form, and like buttercups in color and substance” and you can’t say better than that.

Cooler nights bring out the best in the nasturtiums. This year I grew “Empress of India” and “Old-fashioned Tawny” from John Scheepers along with the usual “Double Gleam Mix”. Empress is quite lovely with dark green leaves and deep red flowers and the Tawny made a nice combination with the orange Zinnia angustifolia.

Nasturtium ‘Old Fashioned Tawny’

Nasturtium ‘Empress of India’

Finally, “the last rose of summer”, which really turns out to be first of autumn, is a welcome souvenir. ‘Don Juan’, a fragrant red climbing or pillar type, has offered enough blooms to make small fragrant bouquets or bud vases and the climbing tea ‘Sombreuil’ , also fragrant, made a poignant vignette with a stray jackmanii clematis bloom.

I remember when our first day of frost was October 15, but those days are long gone. I’m glad the longer warmth of our current climate doesn’t seem to inhibit the rich colors we love so much this time of year. It only seems to prolong the beauty and richness as we ripen with the years.

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White Hot Hollowgarden

When the Verbesina blooms in August I feel like the denizens of Cold Comfort Farm when the infamous “sukevine” strew its lush flowers over that fraught landscape.

Verbesina alternifolila, a native to wooded slopes, open woodlands and riverbanks, is also called yellow ironweed and indeed is very similar in size and habit, but the former wields  a piercing lemon yellow cluster of rayed flowers rather than Vernonia’s dark purple-blue tufts. When yellow swallowtails fall upon the Verbesina, they disappear up to their black lace.

Here in the hollow we continue our surreal existence in Paradise. Somehow in our little fold of the hills, we have so far been sheltered from extreme weather and the ills that seem to beset the outside world.

During the day butterflies and hummingbirds waft through the garden in a Disneyesque fashion and bunnies nibble the green grass in the evening light after the old devil sun has gone down. Creeks and rivers remain low even after copious thunderstorms that accompany day after day of 90 plus degrees. The Earth wafts out her scent in humid breaths on the still air.

An unexpected success has been my random front cottage garden bed which has somehow morphed into a successful white garden – bright in the night with moths. It’s proved low-maintenance and, with a bit of extra care in the beginning, relatively drought resistant.

The star is an old sun-resistant Hosta ‘Royal Standard’ which I faithfully protect with organic deer repellent. It takes up a good 4-5 feet with pale yellowish green leaves and nine graceful wands of lavender-tinged white bells that bees, butterflies and hummingbirds disappear into on sunny afternoons. Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ (which also needs deer repellent) gives a silvery green substance, its broccoli-like florets turning hints of pink and burgundy into fall.

But it’s the annuals that really light up the bed and fortunately they’re both proving to be reliable re-seeders. White Cleome ‘Helen Campbell’  – 3-4’ pure white spider whiskers – and Nicotiana alata ‘Fragrant Cloud’ and N. sylvestris give a cool glow starting in early morning and into the late afternoon through evening. The old-fashioned flowering tobaccos have the added attraction of their heavy sweet scent.

Although not white, 4 O’Clocks, reseed readily into the classic magenta, spotted lavender and yellow hues, releasing their perfume only after sunset or on cloudy days. Perfect skirt for a porch.

I failed this year – I can’t bear to go into the details – at having a good swath of tall zinnias like Cut and Come Again, State Fair and the giant Dahlia types, but was able to manage the narrow leaved bushy Zinnia angustifolia ‘White Star’ which I have seen the butterflies visit. Its small daisy-like flowers give a clear bright white with yellow centers to the border edge.

The pollinators love the white garden and from morning into the soft dark night, bees, moths, butterflies, wasps, hummingbirds, flies, gold finches (they love the seed cones of the Black-eyed-Susans), dragonflies and myriad others make their way into the many-fashioned flowers. A deep purple blue Salvia has proved a hit with her tubular inflorescences.

To sit on the old glider, it’s cool white paint flaking on my arms, and watch the busy creatures zooming through the canyons of flowerscape is the high point of many a day and a blessing for which I am truly grateful.

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Happy Fourth from the Hollow!

Drumstick allium (A. sphaerocephalon) shoots off like a firework from a bed of Black-eyed-Susans for the Fourth of July weekend.

Despite a few beneficent showers we are still within the dusty embrace of the drought that has settled over most of the country. The soil is bone dry and any errant moisture is quickly sucked away. Thankfully, here in Virginia we are not in extremis like so much of the west, but the time for supplemental water has come.

Anything planted last spring or later needs regular watering during the months ahead. Don’t even think about planting anything until we get steady rains that replenish our water table. Young trees and shrubs as well as established specimens need good soakings every 10 days or so in the absence of an inch of rain. Small annuals or perennials from quart or pint pots need it every day until they establish new roots. Water at first signs of wilting, preferably before.

I’m often asked how long to water and the best answer is to time yourself watering each plant until its rootball is saturated and see how long that takes. Water slowly (do not blast with a sprayer like you’re washing a driveway) with a hose until the water pools at the base of the plant. Then let it sink in while you water another plant or two, then go back and keep watering until the pool takes longer and longer to soak in.

I prefer hand-watering by a sentient human being, but well-maintained soaker hoses will do especially if it’s a bed of all the same sized plants like a bank of shrubs or groundcover. It’s difficult to water a mixed planting – annuals, perennials with shrubs and trees together in the same bed – with automatic irritation (oops!) systems since small root systems can get too much while larger ones don’t get enough.

Random reports from the garden:

The rabbit has stopped grazing the gravel path larkspur; it’s quite bushy now.

I’m finding brushing off Japanese Beetles into soapy water much more efficient than crushing them with my fingernails. Get them fast before they fly away. They come in waves on the old single-flowered scarlet geraniums from Monticello that we have in the aqua pots at the front walk. They will also attack Zinnias, but if you check every day, you can stay ahead of them.

Malabar spinach seeds, soaked overnight and sowed directly into the soil, have sprouted in the heat after a week. This tropical annual vine will twine up an old tomato cage and produce succulent deep green leaves the perfect size for sandwiches and salads.

This has been a busy summer for home consults with my clients old and new. Aside from inept watering, one of the most common problems seems to be paying people to weed ornamental beds only to find they’ve uprooted all the Hellebores or merely pulled the tops off dandelions and dock. To these trusting souls I say NEVER LET ANYONE WEED UNSUPERVISED IN THE GARDEN. Paying someone does not absolve you from making sure they know what they’re doing as well as knowing what you want.

Take the time to walk through the area to be weeded and point out what you want gone and what you want kept. Have a pointing stick and don’t be afraid to use it. Explain the difference between shallow rooted chickweed that can be pulled by hand and tap rooted dandelions that need specialized tools to dig them out – asparagus knives, soil knives, trowels, narrow-bladed shovels. Make sure they have the proper tools. Do a final walk-through before you pay them.

As we celebrate the birth of our Republic, the garden reminds us of the virtues of persistence, faith and hope, not to mention the old Roman idea of the wheel of fortune to which everyone is strapped. For all our failings we are still trying to govern ourselves. We haven’t given up yet, just as we go on with the garden.



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High Clover

The hollow is in high clover.

Rabbits come out to graze in the late afternoons, sunlight setting through their satin ears. Zsa-Zsa has put a small dent in the population but without dogs for so many years now, a  colony has established itself in the old forsythia patch by the front walk as well as another clan across the creek.

I’ve only seen one inside the vegetable garden and the damage – so far – is so minimal I assume it’s only the one that makes its way through the make-shift rabbit wire along the base of the deer fence. It’s nibbled a bit of zinnia foliage that’s since grown back and lopped off the flowers from  a patch of larkspur growing at the edge of the gravel path and the raised bed, but nothing further than I can see except an initial tasting of nasturtium. Asparagus, tomatoes, peas and arugula, parsley, cilantro are untouched.

So far these have served as decoy plants to divert from the major zinnia rows and the line of larkspur I sowed along the base of the peas which are doing extremely well this season. Time will tell. Perhaps it’s working it’s way methodically through the garden.

Many homeowners and institutions still routinely kill clover in lawns (I won’t even get into dandelions!). I am appalled that the the deluded and toxic image of a perfect green chemlawn persists in peoples’ minds. Let’s all acquaint ourselves with the concept of “greenwashing” and the people and institutions who profit from it. Routine use of herbicide is a big money-maker. It’s actually a staple of many “restoration” projects.

Closer to home, in a landscape I do my best to steward faithfully, a quick clean-up does wonders. Dead-heading the peonies lets the handsome foliage of the classic ‘Festiva Maxima’ shine with the look of an evergreen hedge. ‘Sarah Bernhardt’, ‘Gardenia’ and ‘Shirley Temple’ followed, giving us nice mid-season bouquets. When the stalks turn tatty at the end of summer, cut to the ground and mulch with compost and other organics, always limiting depth to no more than an inch or so to allow spring buds to poke up.

Regale lilies and phlox follow the peonies.

Dead-heading the climbing rose ‘Sombrouille’, and shrubs ‘Don Juan’ and ‘Penny Lane’ is a pleasant task (I always think of Vita Sackville-West with her secateurs) and keeps them healthy and blooming. Cut to an outside leaflet of five. All I ever learned about roses was from Steven Scanniello (Climbing Roses, Anyone Can Grow Roses) during a magical season at Albemarle House in the old days.

The little dogwood at the end of the meadow has set fruit for the fall. It saw me through the pandemic winter into spring with a lovely veil of white and lures me into autumn with ripeness.

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New Year in the Hollow

Late fall blew the hillsides bare and early winter sees the contours of the land etch themselves against the horizon as they did in spring.

I remember looking out my bedroom window last March at the stark woods, trying to absorb the idea of a pandemic encroaching upon the earth and reaching all the way down here to what has always been my refuge from the world.

I yearned to see life begin again. And it did. Spring, summer, fall and now winter have come to the hollow, bringing the world ever closer.

As I tramp through the broomsedge and deer tongue with the reassuring progression of the seasons, I see more closely the Christmas fern, witchhazel and alder that adorn the  edges of the hollow.

I have become inured to Chinese stilt grass and consider it part of the naturalized landscape, though I know this will appall the nativists.

The older I get, it’s all one to me.

Even lichens open up new galaxies. This is the slate seat of the bench at the end of the meadow path. A little dogwood has set bud for spring out there and reassures me each time I visit. I long to see it bloom.

Sometimes I feel like a princess in a fairy tale, a privileged, mythical creature, walking the boundaries of her gardens, sequestered from reality as in Tennyson’s lines:

On either side the river lie/Long fields of barley and of rye,

That clothe the wold and meet the sky. . . .

Four gray walls, and four gray towers/Overlook a space of flowers,

And the silent isle embowers/The Lady of Shallot.

Yet the work of the garden intrudes and thankfully keeps me from going completely round the bend.

Putting things to bed at the start of winter – burning last year’s brush pile, cutting the asparagus bed, the old dried marigolds and Thithonia – is satisfying work for one who does not care for the sustained patience and thoroughness required for weeding. I also love to burn it all up at the end.

But the birds are still eating the Tithonia seeds, so I’ll wait til late February and early March to burn them when we cut the meadows, leaving seeds and brush to nurture and shelter the birds and other wildlife over winter.

Though the woods are bare, the days are lengthening and we are set for spring.

                                                                Welcome, 2021!






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Sukevine Summer

The Verbesina is beginning to bloom, marking the beginning of the end of summer. Commonly called wingstem or yellow ironweed, Verbesina alternifolia is an aggressive native perennial fond of moist open woodlands, fields and riverbanks. It invaded the hollow some years ago, chasing the milkweed out of the east meadow and even encroaching on the house up against the foundation. It lurked outside the windows and stained the stucco where its leaves rubbed up against it.

When I first became aware of its ubiquitous presence, I mistakenly assumed that anything  capable of taking over existing plantings so quickly was non-native, an “alien invader” that I needed to battle. I made the fatal mistakes of not identifying the plant I was dealing with and assuming I could control the poison I was applying to my soil.

I began a campaign of eradication, being careful, I thought, by not spraying, but making individual cuts instead and swiping the stalks with a dab of Round-Up.

Somehow I managed to kill my only Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum), the one I used to look up through to see the swallowtails supping on the mauve globes of its flowers. I did not know I had only one and that it would never come back. No other patches along the creek or in the meadow have come to replace it. It was the 0nly one I had and I eradicated it through my ignorance.

Like a many-flowered sunflower, 6-8′ tall, the Verbesina towers over me now as I walk down the meadow path, spangling the creekside and giving a golden burnish to everything. It makes me think of the Sukevine, that pernicious fecund plant that cast its pall over Cold Comfort Farm. I have learned to love it. It taught me a hard lesson.

Our tendency toward regarding unwanted plants as the enemy and using whatever means necessary to remove them increasingly disturbs me. Many “good” gardeners I know think it’s okay to unleash their hatred and desire to destroy upon plants, that it’s a good outlet for those feelings. But I believe the urge to kill everything that doesn’t suit us to be a serpent in the garden and we should be careful before we start killing things we don’t understand.



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Hot Time in the Hollow

The exceptional prolonged heat of this quarantine summer has taken its toll, perhaps more on the gardener than the garden. Many plants thrive in the humid heat of Virginia and our droughty beginning lapsed thankfully into regular rainfall. Tithonia, Zinnia, Rudbeckia, Cleome and Four-O’Clocks love the heat and moisture, feeding hungry butterflies, bees, moths and hummingbirds from morning til dusk while brightening the house inside.

Yet July saw record-breaking sustained temps of 90 degrees and above. This is not the climate I knew when I first came to the hollow decades ago. The AC runs all day. The house is shut up. Tempers flare. But the Earth keeps turning and inevitably the weather breaks. Days become shorter and remind us, along with the compost pile, that all things change.

Nothing remains the same except the garden’s seasons and the gardener’s blessed tasks. Now is harvest time in the hollow for tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, zinnias (which must be cut regularly to forestall seed-set) and basil (which likes to be pinched). Even the bad gardener’s weedy domain provides abundance.

A nice mid-summer hatching of yellow and black swallowtails made up for the meager spring crop this spring. So far no sighting of the great Monarch but it’s still early for the migration and one hopes.

Growing the classic ‘Genovese’ basil as well as ‘Thai Siam Queen’, which I have learned to like. Seedling-grown ‘Cut and Come Again’, ‘Oklahoma’ and Dahlia type zinnias remind me of the old days at Monticello when we would grow the old varieties under Peggy Cornett’s kind and knowledgeable supervision and dear Joan Veliquette taught me how to pick cut flowers for the great arranger Dawn Woltz. I still strip them of their leaves and plunge stalks neck-deep into water as I cut.

August is the time to order bulbs (you cannot have enough Snowdrops, Galanthus varieties, nor daffodils, Narcissus var., both of which are deer-proof), and sow or purchase starts of autumn/winter vegetables like collards, kale, spinach, turnips and the like. In the Charlottesville area, Eltzroth-Thompson, Southern States, Ivy Corner, Ivy Nursery and 5th Season all offer fine plants. www.vanengelen.com and www.BrentandBeckys.com have any bulb you could fancy and the garden centers will have their bins full later in the fall.

Our patch of Naked Ladies, Amaryllis squamigera, in front of the dark Beech is a  perennial favorite and has flourished this fecund season.




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Hollyhock Summer

For a brief shining moment in mid-June my hollyhocks rivaled Childe Hassam’s celebrated watercolors of Celia Thaxter’s garden on Appledore, one of the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire where she entertained and beguiled the leading American musicians and painters of her day and documented the growing of her beloved flowers in what Alan Lacy called a mastery of English prose, My Island Garden (Houghton Mifflin, 1894). I am beguiling my summer with a re-reading of this classic which was re-issued in 1988.

One of the most charming pictures she drew was of the music room (bare wooden floors with scattered small rugs of “warm green moss”) that opened onto the “piazza” above the flower beds: “The shelves of the tall mantel are splendid with massed Nasturtiums like a blazing torch, beginning with the palest yellow, almost white, and piled through every deepening shade of gold, orange, scarlet, crimson, to the blackest red; all along the tops of the low bookcases burn the fires of Marigolds, Coreopsis, large flowers of the velvet single Dahlias in yellow, flame, and scarlet of many shades, masses of pure gold summer Chrysanthemums, and many more – ”

Unfortunately, here in my world, the nasturtiums, which I love for their capers as well as the pungent blossoms, succumbed early on to an infestation of rabbits (a story in itself), and the hollyhocks after their initial effusion have been overtaken by the inevitable orange rust that speckles their leaves from bottom to top.

I started the “Outhouse” series (irresistible since we have one, a relic now but in use before we put the indoor plumbing in back in the late ’80’s) from seed and grew it for a year before it yielded its biennial flower. They take up a lot of space, one whole season without flowers, and then must be cut down and their large woody stalks disposed of, leaving a great gap. A lot of trouble for a brief display and I see why this old-fashioned flower has fallen out of favor. And yet . . .

Hollyhock dolls!



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June Tune

June hums and thrums into summer.

Bees, dragonflies, hummingbirds and butterflies – swallowtails, fritillaries, painted ladies – fill the sunny daylit air. Moths – luna, sphinx and their motley myriad ilk – bats and fireflies light the night.

One of the charms this season has been the fondly familiar individuals we get to know from the quotidian chirping of the nesting birds. Billary, the relentless male cardinal, bashes himself into all ground floor windows twice daily, leaving crusty little crimson fluffs of virility up and down the glass panes. He dive bombs fearlessly directly into my face from the witch hazel across from the desk window, pecking fiercely back and forth along the window sill, then off again to assault the casement around the corner. His liquid chirp and familiar bumping wake me each morning.

We have learned to distinguish the wren’s bold out-sized call each afternoon as it circles the arc of the meadow. Little tiny brown thing making its might yawp. Little Ricky, the indigo bunting shaped like a turquoise torpedo, carries on an intermittent Carribean conversation atop the Sycamore snag. It’s the perfect bird clock, much better than the ones that hang inside.

Only two stalks of the old Chinese ‘Regale’ (the one P.G. Wilson risked his life for on the mule trail) have survived a handful of  late frosts despite John’s faithful sheeting. Our low spot by the creek is a classic pocket for the cold air. This has been the absolute worst lily season ever, coinciding with surrounding vineyards that have suffered here in central Virginia and western Albemarle County. Somehow the peaches seem to have escaped and fragrant early yellow clings are on the local market. We bought a beautiful little quart over the weekend from Spring Valley Orchard just up the road.

A bad year for lily flowers does not mean the plant itself is harmed, just as frosted early magnolia flowers don’t harm the tree. The foliage will continue to feed the bulb during the summer as long as it is green and the bulb will grow and form flowers for next spring.


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May Day! May Day!

An SOS from those stranded at sea and the embodiment of Whitman’s “ever returning spring”, May Day is the call of the season. We’re all islands looking for connection now.

This time of quarantine and canceled garden tours is one of the most beautiful springs in memory. Never has it been more spangled here in the hollow.

Billows of dogwood, spirea and viburnum ebb like creamy froth into the canopy of the woods and spicebush swallowtails dance yellow and black along the creek. The matrix of grasses, sedges and wildflowers weaves its magic web in the meadow.

The pandemic becomes pedantic, explicating the truth of the most enduring cliches:

Live every day as if it’s your last. Don’t take the little things for granted. Be grateful for what you have. And of course, you never know when it’s the last time. I had my last Margarita at the Guadalajara in Charlottesville in February with all my old Morven friends. We planned to meet again in March.

Yet, hasn’t it always been true that we don’t know what the future holds? Live like there’s no tomorrow. Is that a good thing?

We will join Candide in this best of all possible worlds and turn from philosophizing to tending our gardens.

John’s cover crop of kale, peas, crimson clover, and vetch (!) has been a great success. Sowed in late summer to cover bare ground before the wedding, the kale fed us all winter and into spring along with pea tendrils and kale flowers and tender new leaves for spring salads. The chrome yellow flowers are abuzz with myriad pollinators – bumble bees, honey bees, carpenter bees, wasps, and tiny flies of all kinds.

Dozens of zinnias, four-o-clocks and hollyhocks started from seed in March await some good warm soil and last frost date of May 15, along with early starts of tomatoes, jalapenos, arugula, parsley and cilantro from 5th Seasons in Charlottesville. The fellow who helps around here, my beloved, is weeding and prepping their beds and spreading last year’s compost on the asparagus bed.

Over the years I’ve seen the importance of letting things go to seed, especially Narcissus and the minor bulbs. You never know what’s going to re-seed, so why not give everything a chance? Many little daffodils from my collections pop up in the outer meadows.

This is our first year with the lovely Camassia leichtlinii ‘Caerulea’ and the third (once we stopped mowing it down) of the classic Lewis & Clark C. quamash, or Indian Hyacinth, both available from Van Engelen. I am very anxious to let them drop their seed as they’re supposed to be good naturalizers. Lewis’ journals describe seeing large swaths of the Quamash in Idaho along the Lolo Trail that from a distance looked like clear blue water.

Am making a note to divide our old bearded iris patches late this summer so they’ll start blooming again next spring. The one thing the gardener always has is hope.






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