One More Spring

When I open my eyes each morning I see the hillside out my window and look to see if spring has come to the hollow. Especially this season I have looked, like the girl in the O. Henry story.

Our bare deer-browsed woods are always gaunt with the last chill of winter, a monochrome brocade of browns and grey. Each year I yearn for the return of spring colors when the tulip poplars feather the horizon with their brushstrokes of tender green and the redbuds and bluebells shimmer like watercolors.

Even in the cruelest time there is beauty. We heard the peepers March 26. Saw a newly-hatched luna moth on a walnut trunk up from the potting shed. Honeysuckle and Viburnum scent the air.

The bluebirds flit about on the walnuts down by the old equipment shed (lots of walnuts here in the hollow); phoebes build their nests under the eaves. This year we have not swept them away to save the stucco or deter the black snakes.

This year I cannot bring myself to kill anything and I welcome the carpenter bees who love to colonize the old front porch as they sip the early viburnum (V. x ‘Eskimo’) and honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) flowers. I used to spray insecticide up into their holes and push in steel wool.  Now I bow down and let nature take her course.

A happy consequence of no longer buying fresh greens from the store is a re-discovery of Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s wonderful Gather Ye Wild Things, University of Virginia Press, 1980, where she treats edible native plants (with recipes) in a lovely prose: “Where the redbuds bloom too high, beyond my reach, I console myself with violets.”

I wish I’d written that, but I console myself with foraging for violets and dandelions in our front yard, watercress from the little rill across the road, rubbing buds off the trunks of our redbuds and eating it all up for dinner.

For which we are truly grateful.



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Surprise, Surprise

Our hills still blessedly hold their breath before bud break and in the words of the poet, Philip Larkin, we have time to contemplate “earth’s immeasurable surprise”.

We had a mild winter – only had to run the water on the drip a couple of times and still have a bit of wood left over. It has been a long cool spring with daffodils blooming in stately succession from earliest ‘Tete-a-Tetes’ through mid-season ‘Ice Follies’ and large-cup yellows (‘King Alfred’ types, probably ‘Carleton’).

I highly recommend daffodil mixtures. I have been happily studying a miniature and large- cup narcissus mix I got from Van Engelen’s decades ago (, using the invaluable Daffodils for American Gardens, by Brent and Becky Heath. It’s so much fun to pick an assortment and try to find them in the beautifully illustrated encyclopedia.

Hot quick springs can shove them all out at once like cookies from the oven and the procession devolves into a short-lived riot. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The flowers are peaking now while lush spears of foliage push up late season ‘Twin Sisters’ (N. biflorus) and the little ‘Haweras’ and ‘Segovias’ out on the slope below the east meadow beech where we placed our rock of ages a year ago last March.

A beautiful cleft stone we found in the woods that says it all as far as I’m concerned. We hope to rest here someday, above the creek.



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Winter Bouquet

The greeny-yellow stamens of the alder – perfectly matching our beloved Peter Boyer still life – are spending their pollen on the old bureau, dusting the furniture instead of pollinating the cherry red pistils that would await the wind if I had not cut the branch and brought it inside. How we squander nature in the service of art.

I used to love using the alder to illustrate monoecious plants (one plant, two sexes) with imperfect flowers. Unlike magnolias, which have “perfect” flowers  enclosing pistil and stamens within the same petals, or hollies, which have female and male flowers on separate plants, alders display separate, “imperfect” male and female flowers on the same plant, the fertilized pistils developing into woody cones later in the year.

                                                The wonders of nature never cease.

This time of year is bare and brown in the hollow, especially because the deer browse everything so closely. I look for winter bouquets everywhere. In addition to the alder, I’ve been tending a vase of sassafras twigs for weeks now, watching the buds slowly swell. This lovely native, S. albidum, is one of my favorites not only for its early spring yellow puff ball flowers, which I await with great anticipation, but in fall its mitten-shaped leaves color purple and red.

I have loved forcing winter branches ever since an elementary school project which I continue to remember vividly 65 years later: the array of different vases and bottles on the bureau in the dining room, checking them every day with Mother to see how each had progressed. The miracle of flowers blooming inside the house from old wood.

But my favorite winter bouquet has always been the snowdrop, Galanthus elwesii, with its  pure white and tender green ready to brave anything.




When brought indoors, it’s like porcelain.

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Pale Tints of Winter

I love the pale tints of winter when the trees are bare against the pinky blue sky and the rich brown contours of the hills surround us down here in the hollow. Our twiggy oculus opens up clear as a bell, like the twist of a telescope.

I can see the Big Dipper now rising in the north when I look out from the bedroom window late at night, up over the shed roof glinting through the tracery of the walnuts. We are so low the Little Dipper never rises above our horizon no matter the season. In summer, the leafy canopy obscures half the sky. Winter is stargazing time.

I get out the National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Night Sky and begin again to study the constellations and stars – Orion, Betelgeuse, the Gemini with Castor and Pollux and Cassiopeia on her throne. Arcturus, Sirius beckon.

Winter reveals the ground as well as the heavens and the harsh outlines of the new creek wall cry out for hundreds of bare root Christmas ferns and bluebells to soften the bank we shored up last spring. We planted Lewis & Clark’s Camassia on either side of the steps last fall. Shown below with Shelton Sprouse our rock man who restored Monticello’s vegetable garden retaining wall and made our hearth on the old new addition some decades ago.

I like planting masses of bare root groundcover in the spring, so much easier to pop in than pints or quarts. Existing native spicebush (Lindera benzoan), along with Siberian iris (I. sibirica) and the yellow flag (I. pseudacorus), flourish in the moist delta abutting the creek. I am wondering whether to add Japanese varieties, non-native of course, but they would love the water. So far, Iris (as well as bluebells [Mertensia virginica] and fern [Christmas and Ostrich]) have proved unpalatable to the deer which is crucial in our heavily-browsed area.

We had a successful bonfire just after the solstice. It was a good burn. Perfect conditions, calm and dry.  Some large logs dated back to the Derecho storm years ago. All were reduced to a fine ash and we are ready to begin again. Always a lot of biomass to dispose of in the garden and you can’t compost it all. We are fortunate that our thirty some acres allow us the space to burn.

The garden and the land around us, if we pay attention, allow us space to dream, repair past mistakes and give it another go for a new year in the company of nature. For that we are thankful.


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Spicebush Autumn

Some people are sad when autumn comes. They say it reminds them of death and decay and the coming of cold, cold winter. But here it’s always been a beautiful time of renewal for us, the time of our wedding anniversary (34th) when the season wraps itself up and the young, hot, careless, fecund days of summer give way to the beautiful harvest of our affections and the bounty of the land and family.

Heather and Josh’s wedding in October was such a special time.

I especially love the last gasps of the marigolds and zinnias with the sleeping sated bees spending the night in their hearts just as we nestle down here in the beauty and bounty of the hollow.

Before the big blow brought in the cold temps and blew all the leaves away, spicebush (Lindera benzoan) made a spectacular show this year. Even now, the golden hickories, shagbark (Carya ovata ) and pignut (C. glabra), along with bright tangerine-colored native persimmons (Diospyros virginiana), color the hills. First frost on November 2 (two weeks later than regular mid-October date when I moved out here thirty some years ago) gave them that custardy texture that shows they’re ripe. I ate two for breakfast this morning.


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September Summer

As all good gardeners know, celestial autumn doesn’t begin until the Equinox on September 23rd, and late, late, late summer has its languid charms. In the words of the great novelist, philosopher and poet, Iris Murdoch, in her poem, “September”,

Skies are a milder azure, night has a colder finger,

Bland the days linger but they are weary of summer. . . .

Here in the hollow the white flowers of Cleome, Zinnia and Nicotiana float around the front porch where I hear the busy buzz of  bees first thing in the morning and sit on the glider at night to watch fat hummingbird moths whir about.

The small-flowered Zinnia angustifolia has become a staple for summer. It thrives in heat and sun and keeps on blooming til frost. Old-fashioned Nicotiana alata and N. sylvestris make dramatic Dr. Seuss-like statements in the border, releasing their heavy perfumes after dark. Along with 4 O’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) and the native jewel weed (Impatiens capensis) these have been reliable pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant annuals. They are forming seeds now which I will soon shake over the beds to re-sprout next year.

Jewel Weed (Impatiens capensis)


The days may be weary of summer, but I love its brave flowers and the sounds of cicadas, crickets, frogs, bees, jays, hawks and geese as the planet wheels toward fall.



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Garden of Immigrants

July Bouquet

Any good garden is a garden of immigrants.

A foundation planting composed solely of Japanese holly, Nandina, Liriope and Pachysandra  is a sterile old-fashioned, unenlightened landscape, of which I have seen many that linger into the 21st century, offering little sustenance to native pollinators and even less to the eye.

Diversity gives us color, variety, opportunities for many different kinds of life. Sticking to just one idea – whether it be vast beds of hostas or Chinese junipers or a pedantic restriction to flora indigenous to Albemarle County – limits our scope and opportunity.

Our July bouquet illustrates a happy combination that proves the rule that the best arrangements are made from flowers of the season: black-eyed-Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) and river oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) are native perennials, both quite invasive in their own way, but welcome components of our low-lying meadow and borders. The icy blue Vitex (V. angustifolia) is from China. Jefferson, who loved to collect rarities, had specimens at Monticello. They will grow quite large if left to themselves, but can also be trimmed yearly in spring like a Buddleia to keep them in size.

Although it ranks zero on Doug Tallamy’s  list of plants that sustain larval insects in his influential Bringing Nature Home’, nevertheless, Vitex along with other non-natives like butterfly bush (Buddleia) do offer summer nectar to butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. Tallamy is right to emphasize the value of native plants as hosts for caterpillar larva – the classic example being the Monarch butterfly’s need to lay its eggs on milkweed (Asclepias vars.), but we must not ignore the value of summer nectar or twiggy winter shelter whatever its source.

This is a fraught subject among horticulturists, gardeners, and people of good will all across our land.

Can we keep a garden or a country “pure”, forever protected from contamination by seething life that presses from all sides? Can we? Or can we cultivate and guide the surge of life so that we can live in harmony?

Can we?


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Lily Watch

Lilly Watch June 5

It’s Lily Watch in the hollow, as the old Regales slowly swell in the warmth of June. Lillum regale, the classic Chinese trumpet lily, was introduced to the West in 1915 by the famed plant hunter, Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson, who literally laid down his life on a narrow mule trail above the Szechuan Valley to bring back seven thousand bulbs to the Arnold Arboretum.


Lily Watch June 7

We introduced them to the hollow decades ago from the mail order nursery Van Engelen where they have thrived undisturbed in full sun and rich Albemarle loam. No fertilizer and no care other than to deadhead immediately after blooms fade and allow the foliage to completely yellow before cutting to the ground. For some reason, the deer don’t eat them though I’ve always heard they’re susceptible to browse. John used to cover them with a sheet overnight  to protect from late frosts, but it’s been several years since we’ve had to worry about that.

Stamens and Pistil, Lillium regale


Now when they bloom they herald summer as they scent the evening air, undisputed stars of the garden, though the more demure Sweetbay magnolia holds her own as to perfume. Butterflies tunnel and bees hover, performing the immemorial task of pollination as the flowers open themselves up and give their all.


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Beech Blossom Spring

American Beech

The habit of a beech grown in the open is like a globe half buried in the earth. To me, it’s one of the most beautiful sights of nature.

We are fortunate to have a property large enough for two specimen beeches. The one to the west, outside the kitchen garden fence, is around thirty years old, planted when our daughter was ten; in the east meadow, my birthday beech was 19 in March and is just starting to grow out of her gangly stage. Fagus grandifolia can live over a hundred years if it is lucky enough to be undisturbed.

John planted both as seedlings from our woods and was careful to incorporate the leaf duff they were growing in into their new soil, as it carries specialized microrhizae that help the roots absorb nutrients. He has a way with trees and has planted many now mature specimens at the University.

The older beech began to bear fruit several years ago. When its monoecious flowers (bearing male and female parts on the same plant) begin to unfold in the hollow, it’s our version of Japanese cherry time. We contemplate individual blossoms as well as the cloudy glory of the whole tree.

Beech Blossom

Although the western one has grown a nearly impenetrable skirt of dense twigs,  the one in the east meadow opens her arms so you can walk up and give the trunk a hug and a kiss. Which I do each time I pass her.

Birthday Beech

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Love from the Hollow

Hybrid Witchhazel ‘Diane’

February is the month of ‘Diane’ in the hollow. A ruby-red cultivar of hybrid Asian witchhazels (Hamamellis x intermedia), I celebrate her each year at this time, the time of Eros, the time of love.

Her twigs force like a starburst for indoor bouquets and she glows in the sunset. No fragrance here (although Dirr discerns a “light” scent), and big brown leaves cling to the younger branches. Older trunks, covered with silvery lichen, are windblown and display the flowers to perfection.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’

Underplanted with Asian beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma), ‘Diane’ makes a lovely picture outside the window behind my computer screen. When the blinds are up I watch the birds flit up and down between them. During December’s two snows, sparrows fed on the dried amethyst berries which persist through winter and something’s always pecking away at the lichens or witch hazel buds.

Beautyberry feeds winter sparrow

Some native plant lovers devalue the Asian species, not only because of invasive tendencies, but because they don’t provide larval food for spring caterpillars that nesting birds feed on. But shelter, berries in fall and winter, and summer nectar are also important to birds and pollinators and I confess to being glad our old autumn olives feed migrating robins and offer respite in its tangled branches from freezing rain in winter.

I believe along with Tao Orion and other permaculturists that there is a place for novel landscapes in the 21st century and that we must not accept an ethic of destruction, often based on herbicides, in the name of saving an idealized landscape.

This winter saw the passing of our beloved Milo who did not quite make it to his 17th birthday, nor live to see another spring. His heart was so big and he taught us so much.


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