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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Thankful Still

Turk’s Cap gourd and lichen beard on hollow bear

The hollow continues to be a paradise of woodland, meadows, fields and garden and our luck is still holding, but the world and time intrude with the continuing pandemic in the outside world (which variant are we on now?). Still we are thankful.

November through December is prime time for bulbs. Many people rush to get them in the ground in October, but by now the earth is nicely chilled – first frost date wasn’t until November 2 – and it’s a lovely task for sunny afternoons. I always tell my clients, get them in the ground before the new year and you’ll be okay and if there are still any left over after that, get them in the ground anyway!

This fall we’re planting the lovely white Narcissus ‘Thalia’, a Triandus type (several pendant flowers per stem, faintly fragrant) , and the Summer Snowflake, Leucojum, both of which we divided in late spring.

Narcissus ‘Thalia’

If you want to extend bulb plantings you already have, dig up a patch next year when the foliage has yellowed (indicating all nutrients have been absorbed), knock off as much soil as you can and let them dry over  summer in a shady place. Ours sit on a shelf  in the potting shed spread out in a single layer in a plastic nursery flat.

When planting, discard any bulbs that are soft or mildewed. Aim for 6″ deep, but I’ve found over the years bulbs will work their way downward to their proper depth if given half a chance (as will we all). Don’t worry about watering.

Leucojum aestivum/Giant Snowflake

Late fall is also the time when our native witchhazel, Hamamelis virginiana, lights up the woodland edges with her pale gold, scenting the air with a faint astringency. Asian witchhazels bloom in spring (showy yellow ‘Arnold’s Promise’ and cherry pink ‘Diane’ are favorites), but the surprise of autumn bloom, not afraid of winter, always cheers me.


Hamamelis virginiana/Virginia witchhazel

Can’t end without mentioning two books that have stood me in good stead over the past year:

I keep The Cloudspotter’s Guide, by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, ready to hand as I continue to learn about the clouds. You will never look at the sky the same way again.

Passalong Plants, by Steve Bender and Felder Rushing, is a marvelous compendium of old-fashioned garden staples with great photos and wonderful stories by the authors of the people they’ve met who pass them along.

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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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