Monday, July 6, 2015

The Hydrangea Lady's legacy - the what ifs?

Fifty years ago yesterday on July 5, 1965, I was struck by lightning.  It is amazing that I wasn't killed or that I didn't suffer any permanent physical or mental damage.

This is what happened:  I was working as a lifeguard the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Vanderbilt.  The other lifeguard - my childhood friend Millie - had gotten me the job.  It was a sunny day, but in the afternoon, I heard a distant rumble of thunder.  You could barely make out a small storm cloud out to the west.

I had a history of being afraid of lightning, so I got off the lifeguard tower and walked around to ask Millie if she thought we ought to get the children out of the pool.  Her words were, "If we hear any more thunder, we'll blow the whistle."

I walked back around the pool and climbed up on the metal tower, and BLAM! - a brilliant flash and a deafening crack, followed by earth-shaking thunder.  At the moment the bolt hit (witnesses said I "lit up"), it was as if a giant had hit me on the top of the head with a huge sledge hammer.  The deepest, most intense electric shock went through my body.  The next thing I knew, I was in the dressing room in the club, staring at the burned bottoms of my feet.

Well, I obviously didn't die.  Millie had calmly gotten everyone out of the pool and into the clubhouse.  But the sun continued to shine, and there was not so much as another rumble of thunder nor a drop of rain.  I had a tremendous headache, but that was it except that my feet were tender for a couple of weeks.

So, yesterday, on the 50th anniversary,  I thought about how lucky I was.  Then, I went into It's a Wonderful Life mode, thinking that there would have been no Anne Tate Pearce or Laura Tate Yellig or a 10-month-old jolly granddaughter named Carter Pearce.  Chip Tate would have married someone else and would have had different children.  I couldn't think of much of an impact I've had, but it did cross my mind that there might not have been eleven years of A Gardener's Diary on HGTV or a Flower Guild at the Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, two things I did have a hand in creating.

I didn't get very far with my "what ifs", though, because I started thinking about the post I'd begun working on a few days before about the late Penny McHenry, a.k.a. The Hydrangea Lady and founder of the American Hydrangea Society.  I remembered the story Penny told me when I first interviewed her.  What if she hadn't planted those potted hydrangeas she had received as gifts decades ago? And, what if she had just left them alone instead of figuring out that she wanted more and thus started propagating them.  We would have no 'Penny Mac's, nor any 'MiniPenny's, nor any of the other re-blooming hydrangeas that have one of her hydrangeas as a parent.

And, her daughter Marcia Melick probably wouldn't have the fabulous hydrangea garden she now tends on a precariously steep hillside in Sandy Springs.  For sure, I couldn't have taken the photo of those 'Annabelle's pictured above.  This row is right below Marcia's front terrace, but the entire hillside is covered with descendants of her mother's extensive collection of hydrangeas, along with many other shrubs and perennials.

Marcia is continuing Penny's tradition of propagating in a big way.  Every year in late winter, she goes out into her expansive garden, which contains trails that wind along terraces cut out of the slope, and does her annual trimming of the 'Annabelle's.  Then, she takes the lopped-off branches and pushes them down into the ground, not even bothering with a rooting hormone.  In just a few weeks, the "sticks" start leafing out, and she finds herself with dozens and dozens of new 'Annabelle's.  She has given away hundreds.

After having lost a host of 'Annabelle's to deer, I now have a protected place, and this year I enjoyed a couple of giant blooms up next to my house.  Marcia also gave me a black plastic pot with several "babies," so now I'm going to have tons more flowers next year.

I try not to think of twists of fates very often.  I'm glad, though, that somehow someone told me that Penny McHenry would be a great subject for an article in the newspaper.  She then introduced me to her friend Margaret Moseley, which led me down even a different path to television episodes (we taped both Penny and Margaret twice, years apart) and eventually to a book about Margaret's garden.

Marcia often reminds me that I should have written a book about Penny.  I wish I had, but her influence has been felt all over the world.  I'm just grateful that she planted those first hydrangeas and that I got to know this funny, vibrant, enthusiastic woman who passed along a great gift to us all.

Note:  I have taken the liberty of writing 'Annabelle' with an s at the end to indicate the plural.  That's not really correct, but it prevents you from having to read Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle' over and over again.  Now, I could do a ton of "what ifs", just about the 'Annabelle' hydrangea and how it came to be in so many gardens from just one garden in Anna, Illinois.  We'll save that for another time.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The color purple

Sometime long ago, maybe 40 years or so, my mother planted a potted hydrangea (probably one someone had given her) at the back corner of her house.  It couldn't have been a worse location for a macrophylla.  The site had both a southern and western exposure, and the shrub received the reflection off a white brick wall.  The full afternoon sun and heated glare were brutal.

Yet, the hydrangea thrived, and every year it produced the deepest purple blooms.  And that brings me to the title above.  My husband, Chip Tate, died suddenly on this date - June 17 - sixteen years ago, in 1999.  Sometimes it seems so far away, and other times it's like it happened yesterday.

At any rate, his favorite color was purple, and he always admired Mother's purple hydrangeas.  She would often cut flowers for him when he was down there.

Two or three years after he died, I went up to the family cemetery in Tate, Georgia, and took a bouquet tied with a purple ribbon.  The flowers were the darkest ones I'd ever seen on the shrub.  He would have loved them.

Fast forward to the winter of 2011.  I came home one day to find an enormous black plastic pot in front of the chimney of my house.  A bunch of sticks were coming out of the container, and I was puzzled.  What on earth was this?

A couple of weeks passed, and finally the man who maintains my late parents' property came by and told me he had dug Mother's hydrangea for me.  The roots had gone down very deep, he said, so that's why he needed such a large container.

Above, you can see that when it bloomed that first June, the flowers were a grape color.  The plant was still in the container, which weighed a ton.  But, I couldn't think of a place for the hydrangea, so I just left it as it was.  The next year, lots of blooms came on, but they had turned Pepto-Bismol pink.  I knew I had to make a decision to get the plant in the ground.

Finally, in 2014, I was able to add a new little section to the side garden, so that's where the hydrangea landed, after spending the previous cold winter in a protected place.  Its first year in the ground the blooms were enormous and a darker, rose-pink - but still pink.  Hydrangea expert and nurserywoman Elizabeth Dean saw pictures and thought it was H. macrophylla 'Merritt's Supreme'.  She was encouraging, saying that it would likely continue to deepen in color in the ground.

When the plant was at Mother's, the branches were so brittle and upright that I could not find a way to layer it.  But here, I was able to put down some stems, and now I have three new plants.  The mother plant did not produce a single blossom this year.  But one of the babies has a flower, and I can see that it is headed in the purple direction.

I sort of doubt that I will ever achieve that dark, dark color that would glow in the sun at Mother's.  The plant is in much more shade now.  I'm not sure if that will make a difference.

Still, if I could achieve the color shown above, I'd be very happy.

I'm not going to the cemetery today - it's way too hot.  But, I can look out the window from where I'm sitting and see the one bloom on the new little plant.  Perhaps next year there won't be a late winter freeze, and I'll have plenty of flowers to take to Chip.  I'm pretty sure he would like this color, too, since it is still purple.

There's just something special about hydrangeas - no matter what the color - that conjures up so many happy memories.  I'm so glad the man from the farm went to the trouble to surprise me with this cherished plant.  It was such a nice thing to do.

Friday, June 5, 2015

If I had some sun

I have here on my desk a big Ziploc bag stuffed with all kinds of seed packets.  Long ago, I wrote "Summer Seeds" on the outside of the clear bag.  Many times when I open my storage closet and reach for batteries or nails, the sack falls out, and I am reminded of what I haven't done.

Several of the packets are unopened ones that were bought either by my late husband or me.  Most, however, are envelopes marked with someone else's handwriting.  Several are from a couple, and I am embarrassed that I cannot remember who they are.  One says "Linearis - White Zinnias '94.  This same couple gave me seeds of orange linearis zinnias, as well as pink asters, small blue asters and a commercial packet marked "Hummingbird Garden."  I assume all these other assorted packets - too many to name - are from the same era 21 years ago.

One thing they all have in common is that they are seeds for flowers that require sun.  In 1994, I hardly had a speck of sun on these four acres.  Today, there is one patch up on a slope at the little house that gets the afternoon western sun.  I do have my terrace up here, but even parts of it are shaded now by a maple tree.

So, what if I had a big, flat open space that got sun all day, what would it look like?  First of all, it would not be the Gertrude Jekyll border I wanted in the 1980's.  That would have been a clipped hedge with tons of perennials and shrubs that would start with the tallest in back and taper down to the shortest in front.  It would have been a long, wide border, and the colors would have ranged from cool to hot along the straight line.

Today, I would want a space similar to the one pictured above, where green boxwood hedges have been mixed with plantings of flowers.  I might not have rows of a single plant, like the peonies seen here, but I would want a plan where I could keep things tidy.  A jumbled border for someone with my chaotic habits just would not work.

If you went on the Atlanta Botanical Garden's annual Mother's Day tour, you may have visited this garden.  It's actually a commercial space where garden designer Alex Smith keeps plants for use in his clients' gardens.  I worked there on the Saturday of the tour, and by the time I got to walk around, it was very hot.  I realized that I would have to plant shade trees in this imagined garden of mine, but I would have them in a row, sort of like an allee, with benches set along the way.   Then, the above gardens would be off to the side.  I'd also have paths of tiny gravel (or coarse sand?) that would be easy to walk on.

But here I am back to reality.  I just walked out of my basement door and came face to face with three does, scrounging for food.  They weren't here in 1994 when I accepted those seeds from the couple whom I can't recall.  And, this up and down terrain with some very steep banks is not going to flatten out.  Plus, even though I've lost trees, many more have grown tall and cast a lot more shade like the maple.

The good thing about being a garden lover is that there is always room for dreaming.  For 20 years, I have kept stacks and stacks of cut granite rescued from a house that burned next door, with the intention of someday building a small stone cottage.  That's where I'll have this fantasy sun garden, where the pink climbing rose I bought three years ago will not languish in shade but will clamber over the door of said cottage.  My space won't be as large as Alex's, of course.  It will be manageable, and I will go out each morning and cut bouquets to take to an ailing friend or someone who needs cheering up.

When I first married, I would take seeds down to my parents' farm and plant them.  It was nice - there were no deer there then either.  I made sunny borders and had things just for cutting.  My mother loved cut flowers, and there was always a bouquet on the kitchen table.  She and Daddy had huge vegetable gardens, and Mother would plant flowers for cutting in rows, just like she did the vegetables.

I can't help but be curious to know if any of these seeds are still viable.  I doubt it, but then there's only one way to find out.  I'm too late this year, so I guess one more year won't matter.  My parents are gone now, but there is someone who keeps a fenced-in vegetable garden at the farm.  I could mark off an experimental plot and see what happens.  It won't be the same as having my own sunny garden surrounding my stone cottage.  That day will come, I feel sure.  Right now, I just need to appreciate the fact that it is always a few degrees cooler here in the shade of large, old trees.  There's something to be said for that, too.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Learning from a great gardener

Today would have been Margaret Moseley's 99th birthday.  We lost her one month ago.  It was time for her to go, though, as her body had given out, despite a bright, funny mind that stayed intact until the end.

I came under Margaret's spell in 1994.  I couldn't believe it when I drove into her driveway and saw her garden on a spring day.  Despite a rocky start (the article I wrote about her in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution appeared in black and white on a back page; she did not like that at all and let me know it), she and I became the closest of friends.

It was impossible to go to her garden and not come away inspired.  You caught her enthusiasm for plants, and you vowed to come home and try to emulate everything she did.  You also had a plastic grocery bag filled with dark soil and some wonderful perennial or shrub she had just dug for you.

For years, I vowed to write a book about her.  Not only did I want her garden to be remembered, but I wanted to capture her spirit and enthusiasm, which inspired so many people, not only locally, but all over the world.

So, today I want to pass along some excerpts from Margaret Moseley's A Garden to Remember.  The passages come from the section entitled "Hints."  Margaret practiced several techniques that led to her success in having a year-round garden and something in bloom practically every day of the year. A reporter from the AJC, who wrote a feature article on her after she died, wanted to know if Margaret was humble about her garden.  I had to laugh. "Not in the least!"  I loved it when she would call me on a dark winter day or a hot, humid August afternoon and exclaim, "You ought to see my garden today.  It's the prettiest it's ever been."

Here are some of Margaret's tips that served her well during her four decades of gardening:

-  Don't ever mind moving a plant.  Normally, I have to move things four or five times to get them in the right place...Also, I have no patience in waiting.  If I want a plant moved, I do it immediately.  As long as you can water, you should never fear moving a plant....It's better to get them in a place where they'll have the right amount of sun and shade.
- If you live in an area where gardenias are hardy, plant one every 25 feet.  I have at least a half-dozen kinds.
-Hydrangeas can be easily propagated by layering.  Take a lower branch, scratch off some of the green bark, make a slight dent in the soil, and place that part of the branch in the ground.  Then, secure it with a brick.  Leave several inches past the brick.  After the roots form, cut the new plant away from the mother plant....Azaleas can be layered in the same manner as hydrangeas.
- Place a good size rock on top of the soil next to a new plant, and water evenly for at least a year.  The rock keeps the wind from rocking the roots.  This applies for plants three feet or taller.  I've always done this, and it works.
-Daylily foliage can look unsightly after the flowers are spent.  I cut the foliage back to the ground after they bloom.  You'll get a new flush of leaves, and this will also give other perennials a chance to shine.
- When someone gives me a plant or when I buy one, I make sure it gets into the ground immediately. There's no holding pen at my house.  I find a place, even if I have to dig out into the lawn and expand one of my rock-lined beds.
-Don't plant anything with big roots next to the house.  Also, remember that camellias, sasanquas and hollies get very tall.  They're not good foundation plants.  Plant them where they won't have to be pruned so hard or at all.
- Seize an opportunity.  I thought I would die when I lost a huge limb off my ginkgo tree.  I took advantage of the new area and filled it with blue pansies in winter and golden creeping Jenny and petunias in the summer.  This also created enough openness for the bluebird box.  I have several families of bluebirds every year.
- Plant dogwoods, especially the kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa)
- If you have burrowing critters that are eating roots, place the plant in a black plastic pot with the bottom cut out, and plant in the ground.

Most of all, Margaret cherished her friends, and they cherished her.  We celebrated her birthday with her every year, gathering on her sun porch surrounded by hydrangeas coming into bloom and a special light that shone through the garden and radiated from this remarkable character.  Happy Birthday to one whose heart touched everyone she met and whose soul belonged to every plant she touched.