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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Asparagus Patch

Beech unfurling

Beech unfurling

Carpenter bees humming in their vertical mating frenzy – saw dust falls on the paper as I write beneath the roof of the old front porch – the beech unfurling her glorious curls: this is the time to stalk through the rows of asparagus, hunting their eponymous beetle. The adults are orange with black spots, easy to spot on tender green fronds, but they drop off with the slightest motion and slip easily through the fingers to scuttle away beneath the mulch.

I’d say I’m getting about 50% – not a satisfying crunch like a Japanese beetle, but a gratifying squishy finality nonetheless. The slim eggs deposited like little spikes along the stalks are easy to rub away. With such a small patch, the direct organic approach of manual murder without pesticides is ideal. God knows what commercial growers do.

Here in the hollow spears reliably poke up around Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. The ten new crowns we added in March joined the remnants of our original patch transplanted 6 years ago from the open garden to the safety of the deer fence. I harvest nothing thinner than a pencil and cut the thicker ones with a sharp paring knife a bit below soil level so the cut stalk doesn’t dry out in the air. New crowns should be allowed 3 years before any harvesting.

After a few seasons of neglect, this spring we added compost, mulched with straw, and have the very best intentions of keeping the rows well weeded and watered through the season. The patch and the gardener’s hopes live on.

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Birthday Kite

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Kite flies over old outhouse in east meadow.

Spring in the hollow means the ides of March and birthdays for its mistress, Milo, and the east meadow beech. Milo turns 14, I turn 66, and the beech, planted for my fiftieth, turns 16. We are all thriving.

015 - CopySpring is coming in like a lamb, with no severe weather and all the mid-season daffodils peaking – ‘Ice Follies’ and Leucojum, the giant snowflake, in their glory, early Tete-a-Tetes fading, and late comers like ‘Salome’ coming on strong. ‘Pink Charm’ peony has broken ground. The old white redbud is just coming into bloom and spicebush (Lindera benzoan) has been out for a week or so. Saw the first spicebush swallowtail on my birthday, the 18th.  Got to be a good sign.076 - Copy

Planted Wando English peas two weeks ago (mid-20th century variety, “the most productive pea for late sowings where heat is a problem” – I remember Peggy Cornett and Peter Hatch used to plant it at Monticello) with dogwood branches for pea stakes, from the tree we reluctantly took down because it interfered with the view. No regrets. Sometimes you must be brutal in the garden.

Pea stakes and asparagus patch

Pea stakes and asparagus patch

Added half dozen Jersey Knight asparagus to renew the old straggly bed; a reliable male variety, to join the one I already have here in the hollow.

Happy spring!

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New Year

Cold front comes into Hollow.

Pale Tints of Winter

The new year swept into the hollow with the great blizzard of ’16 which proceeded to dump 2 feet and more here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge but has proven to be a benevolent storm, with no power outages, good plowing,  kind neighbors, and a quick thaw. Near 60 F is predicted this coming week. We will be sopping around in mud for some time and all gardeners are grateful for the lush moisture that awaits the turn of the seasons.

Everyone was worried about bulb foliage spurting up in the warm spell before Christmas, but the slender spears have easily slipped back into dormancy beneath the snow, ready to awaken again as the pale tints of winter give way to the acid green and chartreuse of spring.

The new bench graces the beech garden beyond the deer fence and allows us to commune with it unimpeded. The bones of the garden come out in winter – the benches and seats, the beeches and ash on the central axis, the dark evergreen of the American boxwood, the ragged russet of the grasses against the cobalt blue of the old gazing globe. Witchhazel ‘Diane’ throws the ruby red threads of her cold flowers against the azure sky.

 'Diane' Witchhazel



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Hollow Moon

Late summer new moon

Late summer new moon

The new moon is waxing, accumulating size like a burning candle, as we prepare to leave the hollow for the coast. I watched it rise yesterday evening and will watch again tonight its almost tropical aspect above the tulip poplars and black walnuts that rim the sky.

“Bland the days linger”, wrote the great poet Iris Murdoch, “but they are weary of summer.”

If my astronomical information is correct, we will return to a spectacular eclipse of the full moon. In between, we’ll see in the autumn equinox on Ocracoke Island Wednesday, September 23rd at 4:24 am with a bottle of Thibaut-Janisson, a fine Virginia sparkling wine from Afton made in the Champagne tradition.

Autumn approaches with near-drought conditions in Charlottesville and surrounding counties as a calm hurricane season has deprived us of usual soaking rains. Any trees, shrubs or perennials planted last spring need to go into fall well-watered. Don’t waste your water on established plantings, which must take their chances, but focus on 1-3 year old woody plants that still have a chance to get a foothold.

We always look forward to traveling southeast through the ecological regions from the foothills through the piedmont to the shore and experiencing the contrast of the ocean’s roar against the quilted quiet of the hollow.

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Hi, Summer

Milo and summer border

Milo and summer border

High Summer

First walnut leaves falling

Yellow against a wall of green.

Cicadas start their thrumming

Calling autumn in again.

High summer is upon us. The cicadas have started to sing. Lightening bugs still rise from the meadows.

Tomatoes are ripening and very healthy, despite laments I’ve heard from other gardeners about blight from the multitudinous rains. Adrian Higgins at The Washington Post is ripping his out! Ours are mulched with compost and straw. This year we’re growing trusty ‘Early Girl’,’ Better Boy’, ‘Big Boy’, ‘Mortgage Lifter’, ‘Lemon Boy’, and ‘Sweet 100’, all in old wire cages except for one ‘Mortgage Lifter’ trained to a single post.

This is the first time I’ve made an effort to consistently snip out leafy growth from axils and I believe it’s made a difference in the vigor and fruit production of the plants. Plus, it’s a pleasant task in the dusky early evening, making my fingers smell of tomatoes and reminding me of when Mother would tend her little plot in the back of our rental houses in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

Scarlet runner beans

Scarlet runner beans

So glad I went to the trouble of getting the old-fashioned floppy Nicotiana ‘Fragrant Cloud’  from Eltzroth-Thompson in spring. They’re in their glory in high summer. Nobody grows them much because they sell more of those awful squat hybrids like ‘Nikki’ that come in muddy pinks and ugly reds and don’t smell at all.

After night truly falls and it’s black outside, the heavy cloying scent of ‘Fragrant Cloud’ wafts through the screened windows and nocturnal moths flit about – an enchanting element by a porch or patio, along with white Cleomes and moonvine, to give any sunny white garden an evening glow.

The Japanese beetles are very bad, doing lacework on zinnias, sorrel, basil, and the old Geranium inquinans from Monticello. I do a periodic extermination with a bucket of soap and my fingers, but I always feel like a Nazi hunting down Jews, if you’ll forgive the ugly expression. I have a hard time with the omnipotence of the good gardener, the easy ability to choose so surely who shall live and who shall die.

Who shall live, who shall die?

Who shall live, who shall die?

I think of dear old Tom Hardy, the great English poet and novelist, who as a boy was hired by a farmer to throw stones at the crows to keep them out of the fields and thought to himself, why shouldn’t the birds be able to eat, too?

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June Lilies – Smells Like Summer

Lilium regale

Lilium regale

 Lilium regale

Steamy summer lilies

perfume the humid air,

Trumpets stuffed with sticky pistils

and golden stamen dust,

Myriad pollinators’ fare.

Humid, hot, musky weather has heightened the fragrance of late, late, late spring. Summer solstice is June 21st, but heady scents have wafted about for quite some time now, enticing us toward full summer, especially in the dark. What smells so good right now?

The stars of the garden are the Regale lilies which have been glorious for weeks during this beneficent season. Sweetbay magnolia, (hard-to-find evergreen cultivar ‘Henry Hicks’) anchors the corner of the front porch, with annual Nicotiana alata ‘Fragrant Cloud’ scattered through the border, popping out white at night (which you must take some trouble for. Eltzroth-Thompson and Monticello’s Center for Historic Plants in Charlottesville grow them each year but sell out right away. You can grow your own from seed.) Night moths love it.

Wild honeysuckle and multiflora rose, the bane of native plant champions who fight their aggressive ways, still scent our rural night air with the haunting resonance of the South. In counterpoint, native milkweed is thriving, feeding fritillaries, swallowtails, and butterflies of all sorts. I believe ours is swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), with more of a pink flower.It smells like talcum powder, a heavy sweet scent. I think I see the common milkweed (A. syrica) in the ditches now, with more of a purple hue.

Milkweed Meadow

Milkweed Meadow

Bright orange A. tuberosa spangles the roadsides in dry sunny spots. Asclepias species feed many, many pollinators, including the iconic endangered Monarch butterfly. We must plant them everywhere – roadsides, medians, neighborhood drain fields, perennial borders, lowlands, wetlands.

Fritillary and Milkweed

Fritillary and swamp milkweed

I spoke to the Piedmont Master Gardeners ( in April and attended one of their “Through the Garden Gate” tours recently and am so impressed with the wealth of talent and commitment in the gardening community of Albemarle County and environs. Check out your local Master Gardeners and see what they’re up to.


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May Day – Peonies, Planets, and Stars

Peony 'Festiva Maxima'

Peony ‘Festiva Maxima’

It’s a good peony season here in the hollow, beginning with the old ‘Pink Charm’ John brought from the University, first given him by Mrs. Hereford for the Carr’s Hill garden back in the 70’s. It’s a single form with large golden stamens and a brazenly stinky scent! It’s followed closely by the classic ‘Festiva Maxima’, many people’s favorite, with blood-red flecks in the middle of their double icy hearts and an innocent lemony fragrance.

Peony 'Pink Charm'

Peony ‘Pink Charm’

These early peonies are said to bloom best for the warmer climates. Very hardy in their home countries of Japan and China, Wyman says: “Able to withstand temperatures well below zero, it is especially cherished where winters are long, cold, hard and snowy.” But I have always thought of it as a belle of southern gardens. Another early one is from the old Blenheim estate near Monticello, a double deep rose-magenta with a very sweet scent. Peonies are said to often out-live the ones who planted them.

Now that the Festivas are beginning to tatter away, ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ (very showy with burgundy stripes) and ‘Gardenia’ (purest white) are beginning to fatten their buds. Mild weather has extended all the bloom times and with these two later ones, we should go into June, barring, of course heavy rains, wind or hail.

But it’s been a beneficent spring and we rarely have hail in the hollow. After all that flowering, the great beech has produced a few sprays of nuts. I hope it will bear every year now and feed the foxes, turkeys, jays, and deer.

Beech flowering

Beech flowering

The Regale lilies have budded with no emergency sheets needed for a final late frost, a first. Lightening bugs are beginning to rise out of the meadow and the frogs begin to croak in the evening.The creek rushes on, still running high. I think of our poor fellow citizens in California vainly painting their lots green.

Covering lilies April, 2010

Covering lilies April, 2010

Our clear nights have been cool with spectacular skies. Not much light pollution out here (although we occasionally see the glow of Charlottesville to the east), but even though our horizon is narrowed to a leafy oculus by the hills that surround us, what we see when we look up we see pure and bright. The winter constellation Orion no longer sets to the west. The moon is waxing (John gave blood and I’m starting seeds) and Venus is the evening star. The Big Dipper wheels to the north, but we’re too far down to ever see the Little Dipper.






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Who Are the Violets Now?

Common blue violet/Viola sororia

Common blue violet/Viola sororia

Who are the violets now

That strew the green lap of the new-come spring?

Shakespeare, Richard II

Purple and blue stain the landscape. Virginia bluebells and violets thrive in the moist places this cool season along with fern and bleeding heart, all reliably deer-resistant. You can eat the petals as well as the young leaves of the violet.

As we plant to rejuvenate and restore habitats, we must remember early spring larval food for butterfly and other pollinator caterpillars as well as nectar for the adults to sip later in the summer. Violets feed the great spangled fritillaries; spicebush and sassafrass host the spicebush swallowtails which have newly hatched here in the hollow, just as the various milkweeds nourish incipient monarchs.

Narcissus jonquilla simplex

Narcissus jonquilla simplex

This is the peak of a prolonged daffodil season with  mid-season Segovia and Salomes just beginning to fade and Haweras and jonquillas coming into their own. A good succession of bloom can be got from the early cheery yellow Tete-a-tetes followed by the old Bari Conspicuous (an heirloom introduced 1869 that was here in the hollow when I came), then Segovia, Hawera, ending with the very late N. biflorus, the old Twin Sisters, that always marks the end of daffodils for us (and have not yet shown their heads). and are reliable mail order sources for all kinds of bulbs. The Heaths’ Daffodils for American Gardens is the indispensable reference.


American beech/Fagus grandifolia

American beech/Fagus grandifolia

After sitting still for weeks, the beech has begun to burst into life, the male buds swelling in a coppery haze with the females still tightly wrapped in their dark brown barrels. In all seasons, this is to me the most beautiful of our native trees, loving the lowlands and the company of holly.

Rainy beech

Rainy beech

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Spring Thaw

The sound of dripping is the sound of spring.

Windy days have kept the thaw from being too muddy and everything is ready to burst into life with abundant moisture and warming temperatures. We await the equinox on the 20th when the sun crosses the celestial equator and day and night everywhere are of equal length. Heard the peepers driving from Charlottesville towards Afton on Sunday afternoon on Dick Woods Road, but haven’t heard them yet in the hollow. Down here, being low makes us a frost pocket.

Gave a talk on the Layered Garden to the venerable Piedmont Master Gardeners ( this morning, a fine group of local horticulturists who do a lot of good in the community. Among many other efforts, they’re launching their Healthy Virginia Lawns Program, and continue to operate the invaluable Help Desk at the Virginia Cooperative Extension office (434) 872-4580.

Narcissus 'Little Beauty'

‘Little Beauty’

We added 100 of the Van Engelen miniature Narcissus mix last fall to the existing planting under the old privet and it’s good to see them coming up. I am late on my seed order but want to get the old ‘Gem’ series of small-flowered marigolds – Red, Tangerine, and Lemon – as well as the trailing Jewel nasturtium and moon vine from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I bought the rest – Malabar spinach and scarlet runner bean from Southern Seed Exposure packets at Integral Yoga in Charlottesville.

The red maples are coloring and the old winter constellations of Orion and the Pleides are falling below the horizon.



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