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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New Year in the Hollow

Early December Snowstorm

When you live long enough to notice a change in the rhythm of the land – beyond the vicissitudes of drought cycles; remnants of hurricane winds and rains racing up from the east and Gulf coasts in summer and fall; snowy winters and dry; soggy springs and thirsty – you accrue enough experience to know a fundamental shift when you see one.

Is it climate change, global warming, or just the weather? What difference does it make what we call it when the effects demand action?

Creek running high

We find ourselves surrounded by water. A new spring has sprung across the road at the end of the driveway. What used to be an intermittent trickle turned into a stream that needs a stone bank built by VDOT to keep it from washing across the road as it did with the spring floods, one of which took several lives in Ivy Creek at the end of May, only a twenty minute drive from here. This drains underneath the road into the creek, officially unnamed on county maps, that runs behind our house.

It’s all part of a network that feeds into the Meechum River, which debouches in turn into the mighty James, and onward to the Chesapeake Bay. I would love to learn of a local name for the part that wends its way through this hollow. It will always be Hollow Creek to me.

My New Year’s resolution is to learn more about our waterways – and shore up the banks closest to the house! Old stone walls are deteriorating. I have been in delightful correspondence with the Map Division of Albemarle County and have arranged to have several maps mailed to us.

The New Year beckons with its challenges and promise that nothing will stay the same.

Happy New Year!

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Nasturtium Autumn

Nasturtium and bumblebee

The last of the Nasturtiums have finally withered, eking out their autumn orangeness into the landscape, bleeding into our woodland filigree of coppery golden beech, sassafras and witchhazel, punctuated by the maroon dogwoods which are more vivid this year than I ever remember.

Garden Gate

For some reason we did not get the Nasturtium “capers” this year, peppery seedheads similar to Capparis spinosa, the true caper bush. Perhaps I picked too many flowers this summer and didn’t leave enough to go to seed, though I always  bring them into the house in honor of Celia Thaxter’s An Island Garden, where she describes lining the walls with small vases of Nasturtiums according to their color tones. My mother also grew them in the foundation of our little brick rancher in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and I tended them in the flower beds of Monticello.

There’s something about bringing flowers into the house and displaying them in the perfect vase and spot that changes their nature into art.

Marigolds with Globe Amaranth

The creek is running high. Robins and as yet unidentified grey bird flecked with pale yellow on its wingtips and breast flocked through, feeding on the autumn olive and spicebush. They splashed in the creek for minutes at a time with the water rushing over them while they bathed, then moved on in their migration.

Welcome to the hollow.


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Queen Anne’s Summer

Queen Anne’s Lace with food coloring

One of our favorite quotes here in the hollow is Henry James’

“Summer afternoon – summer afternoon,

to me those have always been the

two most beautiful words

in the English language.”

This summer I picked Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), or the wild carrot, from the meadow and put it in food coloring as I’ve always remembered from a school project around 1st or 2nd grade. A gathering of old friends down at Emory College in Glade Springs, Virginia, brought more reminiscences of this practice (everyone seems to remember a similar experience) and I was determined to replicate it.

The colors are lurid and remind me of the wonder of childhood. The flowers last and last and become more vivid with time. Just like all of us if we’re lucky.

Stumbled across a box turtle on my way to pick the Queen Anne’s Lace. The creek is running high with all the rain we’ve had and he looked healthy and happy making his way toward the water.

Box Turtle

Tomatoes are succumbing to foliar wilts, but have harvested some. ‘Gold Rush’ cherry is doing the best, but all the hybrids (‘Better Boy’, ‘Big Boy’, ‘Lemon Boy’) seem to have devolved into basic sweet orange tomatoes (not that I’m complaining). I think I harvested a ‘Mortgage Lifter’ (the tags got mixed up) which was actually red, but this seems to be a disappearing factor in tomatoes.

We are grateful for Summer.

Queen Anne’s Lace





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Hollow Harvest

Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra)

The hickories are heavy with their nuts at the edge of the meadow. Queen Anne’s Lace, Black-Eyed-Susan, Yarrow, Butterfly Weed, and Switch Grass spangle the sunny spots of our little swath.

All you need for a meadow is a properly mowed grassland and a path.  Even though we have invasives like native yellow wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) and Asian garlic mustard, a bit of Ailanthus and multiflora rose, the ecosystem seems to be holding its own ever since we started bush-hogging each spring in February/March, before the deer start making nests and after last year’s seeds have been well-scattered.

Even the bad gardener gets a handful – of blueberries, tomatoes, and flowers. We’ve been fighting the vegetable garden all summer long (that’s the “Royal We”; I merely supervise), but what with health issues, family visitations, flooding, and other vicissitudes of life, we are going into late summer somewhat weeded with compost and straw spread, and tomatoes ripening, thanks to that fellow who works in the yard.

The undeserved grace of God falls on all of us, and I think of this every time I pluck the hardy sorrel, basil, roses, and the rest that manage to grow out in the garden in our own despite.

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