Come Spring

Witchhazel ‘Diane’ and Japanese beautyberry

A good month away from the equinox and vibrant color wakes up the winter doldrums. Brand new ribbons of  witchhazel contrast with wrinkled amethyst berries of Callicarpa dichotoma, Japanese beautyberry. Beautyberries, like viburnums, are one of the last berries to be eaten by the birds, seeing them through the hungry days of late winter.

Spied the first robins, poking for worms below the pines on the walk past the potting shed the other day. Smelled a poor dead skunk on the road. Sure signs of spring. The forysythia, spicebush, and lonicera buds are swelling, Hellebores beginning to bloom. There will be a cold snap, which will distress the fruit growers, but spring is swelling up now.

Ruby red ‘Diane’ (Hamamelis x intermedia, a cross between Japanese and Chinese varieties) has heralded spring in the hollow for many years. So glad we did not cut it to the ground after extensive storm damage a few years ago, and left a solid structure of old branches instead. Nursing along and thinning the new growth on this treasured specimen is a pleasant pruning challenge.

The rusty red of the broom-sedge in the east meadow echoes the old season with the copper color of winter-overed beech leaves. We plan to bushhog it at the end of the month, before deer or other animals start nesting for the spring. It’s always good to walk a field like this before mowing, not only to look for nestlings, but to spot rocks and other impediments.

Winter broom-sedge (Andropogon virginicus)

Rainfall is up over the last weeks, though we’re still recovering from a deficit of 11″ last fall. It’s good to hear the creek running and sop around in my boots. Mud season is welcome. We’ve been blessed with little snow or ice.

Out with the old, in with the new.

February beech and broom-sedge

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Hollow Horizon

Hollow Horizon

Holidays start here in the hollow on December 21st with the winter solstice and run through the new year. Late autumn and early winter open their arms to us as the planets turn and tilt in the winter sky.

Orion begins to rise in the south shooting his arrows upward as he sinks into the black night and one cannot help but think of Lord Tennyson’s Locksley Hall where

“Many a night from yonder ivied casement, ere I went to rest,

Did I look on great Orion sloping slowly to the west.”

We especially love getting emails from NASA to sight the International Space Station. Winter gives the widest horizon. Watching that intrepid beam of light chugging along around 17,000 miles per hour just 254 miles above us, filled with the best of humanity working toward common knowledge never fails to inspire me. They’ve got a long way to go to catch up to Captain Kirk and Dr. Spock, but still.

Seeds from the hollow

Harvesting random seeds this year brought back memories from Monticello, sifting and saving seeds in the long-gone greenhouse on rainy days, rubbing knees and elbows and sharing stories with old friends Bucky, Rich, Craig, Skip, Peggy, Colin, and Vejay (the “pretty boys” that summer).

Days long gone but memories like seeds live on.

Picked just a bit of running cedar for the holidays from the little patch that ekes out its existence on a north-facing slope up the road that abuts our land. It runs from the mountain laurel that flourishes under the utility line cut down the bank through yellow birch, Christmas holly and smooth hydrangea.

Although I’ve seen morel and ginseng hunters parked along the road in spring  – fall and winter bring white trash deer hunters who strew their Miller Lite cans, liquor bottles, fast food wrappers, and occasional carcasses – I’ve never noticed anyone poaching the running cedar. No one knows it’s there but me.

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Last of the Nasturtiums

November Nasturtiums with “capers”.

I love picking through the cool nasturtium leaves before the first frost – this year, the night of November 10, down to 21 degrees. Filling the house with their flowers and spicing up salads with their peppery seed heads that substitute for capers is a ritual of fall here in the hollow.

Nasturtiums, moon vines, Tom Torrance’s castor beans, jalapenos, and zinnias all fell to the freezing temperatures which used to come around mid-October when I first started paying attention to such things. Picked a nice mess of sorrel for Peter Boyer’s Carr’s Hill recipe. They’ve stood up to the cold along with lettuces, arugula, romaine, and parsley.

Roses, – climbing ‘Sombreuille’, ‘Iceberg’, and ‘Penny Lane’  – have had lovely autumn flushes. ‘Penny Lane’ already showing deep crimson hips. Now that the nasturtiums have died down, we can weed the asparagus patch and topdress with stable manure from our kind neighbors who keep horses up the road. Amended the roses last spring with a few five gallon buckets of it and they’ve done well this season. Manure – the old standby of Gertrude Jeykell, William Robinson, Henry Mitchell, and the like.

The blueberries we planted from Mike McConkey’s Edible Landscapes in Afton have settled in well. With the assistance of a knowledgeable nurserywoman, we chose 3 different Rabbit-eye types (‘Powder Blue’, ‘Sunshine Blue’, a dwarf, and ‘Ochlockonee’) which are supposedly adaptable to our increasingly hot and prolonged summers.

We picked up a scant half inch of rain over the last week, but still the creek runs quiet and Albemarle County is running a deficit of groundwater. We’ll hope for some deep snows to renew us come spring.

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Hollow Eclipse

How low-tech can you go?


The solar eclipse came to the hollow between 2 and 3 pm Monday, August 21st in lovely sunny skies with just a few poofs of cumulus clouds. We weren’t in the zone of totality, but I did see a good chunk eaten out of the sun at the peak and the air took on a cool ethereal quality. I was surprised how well the white paper at the bottom of the pinhole viewer reflects the sky and clouds as well as the sun. NASA’s DIY video was great! And I enjoy looking at the sun with it even without an eclipse. It’s fun to catch that little ray inside a box.

Eclipse Sky

It was good to have an otherworldly experience after the horror and terror of the weekend of August 12 in Charlottesville where neo-Naziis and white supremacists rioted and killed Heather Heyer, a local citizen who worked as a paralegal and was protesting against racism and religious bigotry. People were beaten in the streets during uncontrolled mayhem. Armed thugs roamed Market Street in front of the library. The Police stood down. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it and I just watched it on tv.

The wings of violence and death are brushing up against us and I feel their feathers on my face. I take comfort in the celestial dance, so remote, so beautiful, so removed from human folly. I often study the night sky and take out my National Audubon Field Guide to the Night Sky when I need to escape worries here on Earth. I recommend it. We’re lucky to have a good night sky here in the hollow even if it is like looking up into an oculus.

Back here on the ground Tom Torrance’s castor beans are creating a pink glow in the garden and combining well with the tall sunflowers sown a few months ago. Love them in the flower arrangement above, but they are messy. Just like life.

High Summer Hollow



























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Sexy Beech

It was only a few years ago that our 27 year old American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) began to display its imperfect dioecious flowers, male and female separate on the same tree, and produce beechnuts. The pendant, globose flowers at the bottom of the twig are male; the single reddish bump at the end the female, ready to receive pollen and bear her fruit. I never tire of this beautiful tree in all its seasons.

This older beech dominates the west garden between us and the road; a younger specimen, planted for my 50th birthday 17 years ago, is making her presence felt in the east meadow, gradually straightening herself on the slope where she’s planted. She’s all leaves still, yet to give forth her flowers.

This is the first year we’ve really managed this area as a natural meadow since its decline as a hay field over the years as the invasive native yellow wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) made her way in. John cut it with the Gravely in late winter and we’ve cut a path along the creek since. Have seen the lyre-cup sage blooming. I like walking along between creek and meadow.

As I age along with our landscape I pay more attention to the bones and have less time and interest in weeding and tending perennials. I like to prune the trees and shrubs and fill large spaces with Siberian iris, Aster tartaricum, and sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium).

As we tend the land around us we learn more about ourselves.

Milo in clover



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Early Spring

Early Spring,
Sprung wire,
Daffodils all mixed up.

The daffodils are all mixed up this year. As we staple up the fallen wire on the vegetable garden fence, I see ‘Ice Follies’ out first instead of the usual little ‘Tete-a-Tetes’ and ‘Carleton’ trumpets which usually lead the spring show.

We’ve had the warmest February on record and a very dry season since going into fall last year. Very little precip over the winter and lots of wind, but I think it’s the lack of sustained winter chill that’s confused the daffodils. Things seem to have settled down now and mid to late season cultivars like ‘Salome’, ‘Thalia’, and ‘Twin Sisters’ (always the last to bloom) are still just showing foliage. ‘Hawera’ and ‘Segovia’, out on the slope beneath the east meadow Beech just showing foliage, and seem to be late.

Limed the lilacs today on the advice of Peggy Singlemann, Director of Grounds at Maymont, who I had the good fortune to meet again at the Piedmont Landscape Assn. Seminar last February. I was bemoaning the effect of warm winters on lilacs and wondering what to replace them with, but she reminded me that all they really want is their old wood cut out and some lime to sweeten our naturally acidic clay loam.

Despite the daffodils, trees and shrubs – red maple, redbuds, dogwoods, spicebush, and viburnum – are right on schedule. The hills still bare, redbuds just swelling their buds, spicebush coming into bloom, dogwoods still tight. Birds are singing with their cries of love and home, or sex and territory, however you choose to look at it, but it is beautiful nonetheless.

It seems all is coming early, rushing on just like my life as I get older. The garden tells us what we want and I see that my fantasies of year-round greens and cover crops are just that and what I really love and want to spend my time caring for are the trees and shrubs and the creek bank. I want to keep my axial views clear and hone the bones of the garden.

Happy Spring from the Hollow!

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Bonfire Winter

After a week or so of intermittent rain we found the perfect window to burn our three-year-old brushpile. John and Milo are watching over some large old logs left from the Derecho wind damage as well as smaller twigs and woody garden debris that wasn’t suitable for the compost pile. At this time of year, many of the old leaves have blown or rotted away in the woods, making for safer conditions than earlier in the fall when it was so dry and the woodland floor was covered with flammable leaves. Mid-January is also a good time for the bonfire because no animals or birds have nested yet.  The potash left around the perimeter will go on as amendment to the vegetable garden.

A light dusting of snow heralded the waxing moon of January earlier in the month. Our winter has been very mild so far, with no ice or prolonged cold temperatures. Some people think this will encourage high insect populations this coming summer. I hope this wet month will help reduce the 6-7″ rain deficit we entered autumn with and set us up for a good spring flowering. Last year’s dogwoods, redbuds, azaleas, and other flowering woody plants were spectacular so it’s possible they will take a little rest after expending all that energy. We shall see.

The concrete lions’ feet bench is a year old now. Its color suits the beech and fence and you can sit on it either way, contemplating the now nearly thirty year old tree (quite young for Fagus grandifolia) or turn around and look through the garden gates back toward the house and east meadow. It draws us out into the garden and makes a satisfying picture framed by the gates. The  buff gray bareness of winter always makes me appreciate the bones of the landscape even as I miss the verdant greens of spring.

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Hollow Swag

Over the years as Christmas trees have become a bit much, we celebrate the season with swags, a simple old-fashioned way to decorate with outdoor greenery. Placed in prominent spots around the potting shed and porches, they brighten the month or so between Christmas and the New Year. Birds feast on holly and nandina berries among the magnolia, holly, pine and spruce John brings home from Carr’s Hill. When their time is over, they go on the burn pile or the compost heap. Sometimes I spread them over winter beds to keep Zsa-Zsa from scratching!



The winter solstice is approaching and our weather has veered from the teens to the 50s and 60s as the polar vortex and jet stream have their way with us. Sitting on the leeward side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we are sheltered from many of the storms that work their way across the country. We took advantage of mild weather to clean up the delta by the creek and prune the old redbud and witchhazel outside my office window.



Hellebores have a rich green color that is welcome during these dun-colored times, along with the old American boxwoods, inkberries (Ilex glabra), and the beautiful patch of poet’s laurel (Danae racemosa) given to us by the dear Brockmans from their garden in Charlottesville. Wallace passed away this year and Jean has gone to live somewhere else and their beautiful spot will go into other hands, the fate of all gardens. We must enjoy them while we can.



Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year from the Hollow!













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Bad Gardener’s Harvest


Even the bad gardener can reap riches. Malabar spinach, tomatoes, garlic chives, basil, parsley and jalapenos fight their way through the weeds. Self-seeded zinnias, marigold (an old single French type that approaches 3′), globe amaranth (purple and cherry red) and Nasturtium ‘Jewel Mix’ light up the overgrown garden against the airy froth of the asparagus fronds.

The asparagus patch received the most care this year, weeded, composted and mulched with stray twice plus extra water. The younger crowns put in over past several years are establishing. The crowder pea ‘Pinkeye Purple’ is bearing tender green-bean tasting pods, a much better choice for late season than the scarlet runner bean I tried last year which threw off beautiful red flowers atop its teepee but produced no beans whatsoever.

Getting tomatoes in late turned out to mean an extended harvest, and Lemon Boy, Sweet 100 and Big Boy are still producing. They make a sweet juice. Lemon Boy is noted for its low acidity and has a beautiful color. A self-seeded cantalope is overgrowing the tomato cages and making good fruit. It’ s been around for a few years now, probably from one thrown in the compost pile. Longer hotter summers are good for melons.

Fall ripens all around us. Yellow wingstem and mauve Joe Pye swirl in the meadows, with an occasional dash of cardinal flower, walnut leaves drift down like a shower of golden coins and the cicadas make their noise at night.

Lobelia cardinalis

Lobelia cardinalis in creek

My garden boy needs some help and we are looking into buying a riding mower. The Gravely walk-behind and the “Mosquito” push mower just aren’t cutting it anymore!




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Summer Afternoon

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Summer simmers in the hollow. We’ve just gone through a week of temps in the  upper 90’s steeped in soupy humidity. Thunderstorms reverberate around the hills more afternoons than not and we’ve measured just under a half inch this week with more to come. Yet the shade of the old ash tree seedling John transplanted so many years ago from Carr’s Hill still beckons through the shade to the meadow of swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed-Susan, and the ubiquitous yellow wingstem, also called the yellow ironweed (Vernonia alternifollia).

Tomatoes and peppers are coming in, the Malabar spinach is lush – you can almost taste the deep green iron from our clay loam soil. Following through on my resolution to have something going on in the vegetable garden at all times, I sowed kale, radishes, carrots and miscellaneous mesclun on the 17th – plus all my old seed packets from previous years – and have had great germination. The key is to sow seeds that want the warm soil and will segue into fall. Have found an old schedule from John Scheepers that tells what to sow according to weeks after Final Frost Date (May 15th for central Virginia). 7/15 – 8/1 calls for carrots, beets, broccoli and kale, with arugula, radishes, salad greens, spinach, and Swiss chard.

After a disappointing – virtually nil – yield from the showy scarlet runner bean I grew last year (great flowers, no beans; turns out it doesn’t like the heat!), I’m trying a variety of cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), also called southern pea, an unfortunately named cultivar called ‘Pinkeye Purple Hull’, a bush variety that does not need trellising. They are supposedly a good hot weather crop for fresh or dried peas and thrive in poor soils and hot situations, a staple for poor people of the South. I’ve been using thinnings (4-6″ between plants) as sprouts in stir fries.

The old Jeffersonian Pelargonium inquinans thrives in the decades old turquoise pots we got from Lewis Ginter. This is the iconic geranium Rembrandt Peale is caressing in his father’s famous painting. I make starts each year from several mother plants and John uses them at Carr’s Hill as well.

hollow garden 142 - CopyThe glazed pottery makes it through the winter just fine all cleaned up and empty when we remove the sunken nursery pots that hold the geraniums.  Still beautiful and gives Zsa-Zsa a place to pounce from.

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