Thursday, March 6, 2014
There are people who come into your life, and maybe without realizing it at the time, steer you onto a path that will change you forever.
One such person for me is the late Berma Abercrombie. When I was just married and became interested in planting my own flowers (both my parents were passionate gardeners), I would go down to my mother's and admire her borders around the house and the rows of flowers she would plant in the vegetable garden.
I hadn't paid a whole lot of attention during my high school and college years - too interested in other things - but when I had a house of my own, I wanted bouquets on the table like I had growing up. My mother always claimed she only wanted flowers she could cut. That's funny, because one of my favorite gardeners and actually a garden guru for me, never thinks of flowers for the house. She likes them in the garden.
Anyway, I would ask my mother where she got a particular day lily or a chrysanthemum or an iris, and the answer was almost always, "From Berma Abercrombie."
So, when I lucked (literally) into a chance to write a "try-out" article for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mother called Berma Abercrombie to introduce me.
It turned out that Mrs. Abercrombie was known all over the United States for her expertise in the genus Narcissus. She also had a refined collection of rare daffodils from all over the world, planted around her 19th Century house on a large farm along the Chattahoochee River in south Fulton County.
I went out on a very cold February day. About a half-mile from her house, I started noticing patches of yellow narcissus lining both sides of the road. As I would find out later, these were escapees from Mrs. Abercrombie's garden.
We sat inside near a large picture window that didn't really match the house. It turned out that Mrs. Abercrombie was also an expert in ornithology. Unfortunately, she had advanced macular degeneration, so she used high-powered binoculars, which she held at an angle (she had peripheral vision only), to do her bird watching.
Beyond the feeders laden with sunflower seeds, were waves of daffodils. These, she explained, were called 'February Gold', a particular favorite of hers. Everywhere around the house were other daffodils, but she asked me to come back in March to do any photography. That's when the peak of the season would be.
I returned the next month to finish my interview. The garden editor of the AJC ran the article on the front page of the Home & Garden section. In fact, the pictures taken by a newspaper staff photographer took up 3/4 page.
So, it was because of this extraordinary woman, who founded the Georgia Daffodil Society and was active on the national level with the American Daffodil Society, as well as the Hemerocallis, the Iris and Chrysanthemum societies, that I got a job I loved, writing about gardeners. Every year after that, I visited her when her daffodils were in bloom and again when her giant clumps of peonies put on a show. The newspaper editor was so impressed with her that he hired me to write a regular column, which I did for the next 21 years. Out of my work there came a series on HGTV, A Gardener's Diary, hosted by Erica Glasener, and produced by Kathryn MacDougald and me.
It is ironic that this diminutive dynamo (could I have it right that she was four feet, seven inches tall?) would have made such a big change in my life and steered me into a wonderful career in the garden world.
I can't even begin to say here all the things I learned from her. The photograph above shows the mailbox where she kept her gardening tools. I still have the hellebores she gave me from around that big tree (which is no longer there). I would drive away from there with big bouquets of the most interesting and beautiful narcissus. The fragrance would be so strong, I'd have to roll down the windows of my car to keep from fainting. It was a magical place with one of those rare gardeners who would have been revered, no matter where she had lived.
My visits to her were before there was digital photography, but from time to time, I will show you some other views of her fabulous gardens. Her nephew Buddy Garrard and his wife Virginia have done a wonderful job of preserving this beautiful land. And, Virginia has had a great time watching over the garden and adding things of her own. Mrs. Abercrombie would have loved that.
Monday, March 3, 2014
It's not even fair to compare this Georgia day with the one, say, in New York City. My daughter lives there, and she says it is relentlessly brutal. The snow, the wind, the frigid temperatures, and the grayness of it all.
But, I confess I have not looked on the bright side of things today. First, I fell asleep on the sofa last night, even before they were finished with the red carpet parade at the Oscars. I awoke to see Twelve Years a Slave announced as best picture. Thank goodness, I had recorded it all.
But then, I tried to go back to sleep and lay there for what seemed hours. I finally dozed off only to wake up at my regular time to a light rain. It took a while for my coffee to kick in, and mid-morning I realized I'd forgotten about my Tai Chi class (which is supposed to help me de-stress, but I'm still waiting on that). As the day went on, the skies seemed to get even darker, and the wind picked up. And, by mid-afternoon, I fretted about the fact that I hadn't gotten much done except laundry.
So, here I am. I haven't filled out the form to try to keep my 2014 property taxes from going up again. I also didn't make several important calls that were on my list, and now it's time to exercise. It's just been one of those days when negative thoughts loom up from nowhere. I had a bout of sadness that my old life was gone (it pretty much went away on June 17, 1999, when my husband died suddenly around six o'clock in the evening). Then, I started thinking of mistakes I had made after that, and on and on.
I promise I know all the things that should have averted these negative thoughts. Have an attitude of gratitude (I'm usually pretty good about this), count your blessings, think of the people who don't know where their next meal is coming from or how they're going to have any heat for their children to keep warm. Actually, that latter line of thinking doesn't work for me, and I end up shedding tears for all those living in poverty and struggling each day.
So, let me change gears here. A friend from North Carolina called to say she'd just received the book I wrote and loved it. That made me feel much better, as the book has now gone into a second printing and will be widely available on-line in the slick hard cover edition later this week.
Then, I started going through photographs and landed on the most recent ones I took at Giverny. The flowers, the lawn, the lovely trees - all of this somehow helped turn my mood around.
So, I'm looking out at the cold wind and the trees swaying back and forth. It's almost dark, but I'm feeling much better. These somber days don't come too often, thank goodness. And, tomorrow I get to talk about my book to some garden lovers in another city. I'm looking forward to the event, and tonight, I am going to do my best not to fall asleep on the sofa while making another attempt at the Oscars. This time, I can hurry through the parts I don't like. I already know who won.
Tomorrow is a new day, and I'm looking forward to thinking about gardens - a sure way to get out of the doldrums, even on a cold and disagreeable gray day.
Friday, February 28, 2014
A ride through my daughter's Atlanta neighborhood yesterday reminded me of the perils of living on the edge of a hardiness zone. Many of the camellias that had burst into bloom over last weekend were looking very sad. This well-loved plant is hardy here, but the flowers that open in January and February can turn to mush overnight with a hard freeze.
Is it worth it, then, to grow these broadleaf evergreens? Absolutely.
In January 1982, a camellia bush at the little house was killed to the ground by the eight-degree-below- zero reading on the thermometer. That's when all the loquat trees around Atlanta were put out of business permanently.
But the camellia came back from its roots, and I had to prune it last year by some eight feet to get it down to roof level.
John Newsome of the North Georgia Camellia Society told me long ago that red flowers don't suffer as much bud damage as the light pinks and whites. I've been watching my new plantings like a hawk. Over last weekend, several varieties I put in last spring had flowers to open up. Before the freeze, I picked all the blooms and have been enjoying them inside.
But, I have only small plants. It would be impossible to pick every flower from large, well-established bushes. One of the casualties I see most often is my neighbor's C. japonica 'Debutante', a light pink variety. This is a very floriferous plant, so the long row of bushes will be covered with flowers. Then, a freeze will come along, and overnight, the lovely blooms turn brown.
In recent years, we've been lucky in Atlanta. The mild winters had made many of us forget that camellias are living on the edge here. Still, there are many old shrubs that have survived for decades. We're not like Savannah or Charleston when it comes to camellias, but we can still enjoy these beautiful flowers on and off, depending on the weather.
Above: Camellia japonica 'Nuccio's Gem' - a very good white for this area. I've seen blooms hanging on in late April.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
I can't count the number of times people have said to me, "I don't like formal gardens. I want something free form and not so stiff." Perhaps the individual expressing this opinion was picturing something like Versailles, where clipped hedges might include bedding plants in the middle of strict geometric outlines - probably not suitable for most home landscapes, for sure.
I really don't know what their vision was, but I do know that informal gardens without at least some structure can cause a person to wonder what is wrong.
For instance, once in Denver, I scouted a garden that was often on tours. I could see its appeal. It was jam-packed with interesting plants. There were whirligigs sticking up here and there, an attempt at making the garden seem whimsical, I guess.
But, the garden wouldn't do for a TV show, as there was absolutely no structure to it whatsoever. It would have appeared as a jungle. Yes, it was informal to the max, but for me it was more chaos than anything.
I personally like straight lines, but then they suit my house. The garden above was made from scratch, and it evolved into a loose-form collection of plants. The difference was - even though it was informal - it still had structure. Note the bricks outlining the beds. Most of the beds were originally lined with rocks placed in circles around trees.
As the gardener - in this case Margaret Moseley - added more plants, the rocks were moved out from the trees and took on different forms, not necessarily circles. Evergreens like Camellia japonica, Camellia sasanqua and boxwoods served to anchor the beds and provide a backdrop for perennial flowers and deciduous shrubs.
Eventually, the garden became a series of irregular-shaped island beds, connected by bright green grass paths of varying widths. There were at least two straight paths, too, so you never knew exactly what to expect. The best description I can think of is this is a collection of smaller secret gardens, where the visitor rounds a corner and is always surprised to see yet another display of flowers, shrubs and trees you never knew were there.
But, an informal garden, to be pleasing to the eye, needs outlining and structure. Margaret has birdhouses and birdbaths in several locations. She also included a grouping of benches and chairs and made two or three arches to pass from one area to another.
I chose a photograph taken in winter, so it can be seen that, although this is definitely an informal garden, there is still structure to anchor the eye. Sometimes it is a tree trunk. Sometimes it's a well-rounded shrub, like the red Camellia japonica 'Governor Mouton'pictured here. It's not just beds surrounding an expanse of lawn, where you can see practically everything at once. The magic here is that you are constantly making discoveries, and therein lies an informal garden that is both beautiful and at once intriguing.