Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Goodbye to old (100 years plus) friends

This past Sunday, I arrived home from church to find some limbs down from a giant white oak next to my house.  I looked up and saw something ominous.  Two large limbs were resting on another lower limb.  It was a matter of time until they all came crashing down. 

The time came that very afternoon.  I had gone to visit an elderly friend, and when I returned at twilight, it looked like a large tree had fallen into the parking lot.  One glance up, and I knew that it was over.  This tree that had probably stood for 130 years was doomed.  There was a gaping hole in the canopy where other limbs had broken off in the impact.  

The city arborist came yesterday and made the terminal diagnosis.  Then the tree man came and remarked how my air-conditioning bills are going to skyrocket and pronounced that it will cost a fortune to take it down. 

This is all sad enough (not tragic in the overall scheme of real tragedies, of course), but I think I've lost my mother's prized 'Festiva Maxima' peony.  This is certainly not a rare flower by any means, but it is special because it was given to her by Mrs. Thomason in our town.   The latter had brought it from her childhood home and then shared it with Mother, so it had to be well over 100 years old.  I rescued the plant when I discovered that a well-meaning young yard person had been cutting it down with a weed-eater.  There was no foliage left, and I foraged around and found the tubers, which broke apart when I dug them.  I brought three clumps home and planted them.  Only two survived.

On June 18, a tree fell onto a 1926 cottage at the back of my property.  For days, the tree rested on the area where the peonies were planted.  They were struggling anyway (only one bloom in three years), but now that the tree is gone, I can't find any trace of the plants.  I keep watering the spot, hoping that underneath are those red eyes that will return next year.  I don't have the heart to scratch around and see if they're there.

The photograph above is of Milton Kuniansky's 'Festiva Maxima'.  I actually have another plant that I dug when a friend moved.  It's plenty healthy and has produced several flowers in the few years it's been here.  So, it's not the fact that I can't get another peony just like the one Mama had, with the giant, pure white, tissue paper blooms splotched with red (and so fragrant).  I just hate it that I lost a century old friend that was so special.  I can console myself, though, in thinking back on the many gorgeous bouquets the plant provided over a very,  very long period of time.  

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A lot going on

I used to love those pictures where you had to pick out something that was wrong or missing.  Or, sometimes there would be a busy drawing, and they gave you a list of items to find - usually hidden faces and such.

We're back in what I'd call an "extreme garden" on Lake Martin in Alabama.  The energetic gardener (that is an understatement) is constantly adding cultivated areas and editing and improving on already established spaces by adding more rocks and plants and water features.  

As many times as I've looked at this photograph, I keep finding things I'd never noticed before.  It's hard to tell which plants are included in the scene, since most everything is green.  Still, the combination of different types of leaves with stone and water creates a pretty picture in this very large garden.  

So here goes a little quiz.  Find the following:  (1) oakleaf hydrangea  (2) iris  (3) a face  (4) Japanese maple (5) calla lilies.  You may have to click on the photograph, then click again on the larger picture to get to full screen to see some of the details.

If you want to see more of this garden, look up the photographs posted on July 14 and July 15.  More lovely scenes to come.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The case of the mysterious orchid

The date was April 15, but I don't remember the year.  I had just gotten home from a day in a fabulous woodland garden we were featuring on HGTV's A Gardener's Diary.  I started walking up my driveway just at twilight, looking at the woods and trying to figure out how I could make my English ivy-covered hills look like the garden I'd just seen.  It had contained wonderful native plants - a collection of native azaleas, masses of the not-so-common atamasco lilies, trilliums, foam flower and double flowering dogwoods, to name a few.  

All of a sudden I saw something yellow sticking up about 15 inches out of the ivy.  I did a double take and realized it was a flower.  I made my way about 20 feet up into the woods.  I looked down and stared  in disbelief at what was obviously an orchid.  The broad, striated leaves looked just like the leaves of  lady slippers, native terrestrial orchids we'd just seen that day.

But this flower was amazing.  I'd never seen anything like it.  If you looked at the individual florets, they looked like miniature versions of the orchids we used to receive for proms (was it just our high school, but did anyone else go through the dyed black orchid phase?  I look back at my sophomore year, a picture taken in my living room with my date; a garish black orchid pinned to the waist of the eight foot wide blue billow of froth that was my prom dress).

But back to my woods, and the amazing discovery.  The next day, I called my neighbor Nan, who is sort of our resident naturalist, to come identify the flower.  She (with a stack of heavy books) and her husband (with a fancy camera) arrived to examine the yellowish-peach colored flower stalk.  She leafed through all the books and finally shook her head.  She found a similar flower, but it was pink.  She pronounced that there was no such terrestrial orchid native to Georgia.

I can't remember how long it was (maybe even the next year) until I found out the name of the orchid from three different sources, all at about the same time.

I had sent a picture (no e-mails back then, and no digital cameras) to Don Jacobs, a botanist who was also a plant explorer and had a small nursery with rare plants.  Another glossy photo had gone to Ron Determann, director of the conservatory at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.  The day after I mailed the pictures, I happened to be looking through Tony Avent's catalog from Plant Delights Nursery outside Raleigh, N.C., and all of a sudden I saw a picture of similar orchids.  But they were Japanese.  I was sure my orchid was native, as it was all by itself there in the middle of the woods in Atlanta, Georgia.

I was wrong.  Don Jacobs called first to tell me that it was a specimen of Calanthe discolor, a genus of terrestrial orchids native to Japan.  Then, Ron Determann offered to come look at the flower, but he was almost sure that it was a calanthe.

Ron did come and confirm that this was indeed a Japanese orchid.  In the meantime, I had discovered more flowers around a stump near a dry creek bed.  These flowers, which I had never seen before, had the same striated leaves, but the colors were different.  Three of them were white with brown.  Another was yellow-dark apricot, much like lone, much taller one I first discovered.

This year, not one of the orchids flowered, but new foliage did appear.  I need to clean the ivy from  around that stump and see if that will help with the blooms.  I don't want to tamper too much with the micro-environment, but, because it's been so hot and dry,  I don't think it would hurt to bring in some more humus from the surrounding woods.  

So, where did these orchids come from?  Was there a gardener around here a long time ago who planted them?  But, in the three decades I had lived here, I'd never seen a single bloom until that April day.  Surely I would have noticed something.  Most of the people who lived here when I came in August 1973 have either died or moved away.  There's no one left to ask.  I'm afraid this is one of those mysteries that will forever go unsolved.   

Friday, August 26, 2011

Some ideas for a shady path

A former staff writer at the Atlanta Journal & Constitution e-mailed to say she has been enjoying gardening since she retired (exception:  the last month in the heat and drought).  She's done some vegetable gardening with success, despite the fact that a rabbit took a liking to her beans.

Her current project is putting in a brick and concrete paver walkway on one side of her house.  She's doing the work herself, although her "ax-wielding husband" is taking care of clearing roots.

"It's looking good," she said, "and I'm planting a garden alongside it.  Camellias, boxwood and hollies and some hostas and hellebores."

When I read her list of plants, the above scene popped into my mind.  This is once again the work of garden designer Louise Poer in her own pocket-size garden.  Along the curving stone path, Louise has mixed different textures - ferns, hostas, aucuba, hydrangea, clipped boxwood, ornamental grasses and the wide evergreen leaves of cast iron plant - to create an almost jungle effect.  There's a Camellia sasanqua hidden back there, as well.  

For even more contrast, Louise has used variegated plants.  Note the green and white ivy going up a tree.  Some of the boxwoods that look white (due to the sunlight and my camera) are actually variegated.  The trunks of the trees also provide texture, as does the pebble planter.

If you click on this picture, then click again, the photograph will fill the screen.  Then you can get a closer look at the plants.  There's a lot going on here that provides some great ideas for a shady garden, large or small.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

In Flanders Field the poppies blow

For many reasons, I have a great appreciation for the beautiful Flanders Field poppy (Papaver rhoeas) that you see growing all over Europe in the month of May.

First of all, I remember as a child walking by Moseley's store on Main Street where elderly men were selling red plastic poppies on what is now called Veterans Day (November 11).  Back then, we called it Armistice Day, referring to the day the armistice was signed in 1918 to end World War I.

 Later, Mr. Adams, who owned the corner store where I bought candy bars and basically rotted my teeth out, stopped me one day and had me sit down with him and Mrs. Adams while he told me the story of the trenches.  I was surprised, as he had never said a word to me other than telling me the amount I owed him for my treats.  I was deeply touched.  He was the only WWI veteran I ever knew personally.

Also, it was because of the WWI poet Rupert Brooke ("If I should die, think only this of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England.") that I ended up with my husband.  Our blind date was not going well, and he was about to take me home.  At a stoplight, I said something about Rupert Brooke.  It so happened that my (future) husband had made a pilgrimage to Rupert Brooke's grave on Skyros in the Greek Islands.  We discovered that we both loved the WWI English poets (mainly Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon), and he had all of their collections of poems and memoirs.  Instead of going home never to see each other again, we went to his friend's house where we talked until 5 a.m.  Later, after we were married, we made a trip to the trenches in France and found the grave of Wilfred Owen, who was killed a week before the Armistice.

After my husband died suddenly at age 56, I found a packet of Flanders Field poppy seeds in his desk.  Ever since, I've intended to get some seeds and plant them.  I did learn from Ruth Mitchell, the gardener featured in the pilot for A Gardener's Diary on HGTV and whose poppies are in the photograph above, that you have to have bare ground to get poppy seeds to germinate.  And here in the South, they have to be planted in the fall.

Why talk about this in August?  Because it's a good idea to order the seeds and prepare the ground ahead of time.  By next May, you should have a good stand of bright red (Ruth Mitchell called the color "lipstick red") flowers.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Naughty but nice

The other evening I was walking up the steps on the side of my house when a sweet fragrance stopped me in my tracks.  I looked down and saw the white starry blooms of Clematis terniflora (formerly known as C. paniculata and C. maximowicziana) looking like something that ought to be in a fairy tale wedding.

Sweet autumn clematis blooms in August here in Atlanta.  I remember a wedding reception at a gardener's home years ago.  The date was August 21st, and the garden was breathtakingly beautiful, due in part to a wall covered in sweet autumn clematis.

Clematis terniflora is from Japan and is also known as Virgin's Bower.  The frothy white flowers are followed by attractive silky seed heads.  It is extremely easy to grow.

But that is about the extent of the vine's good points.  It is horribly invasive, and it is unattractive in winter, when it can look like an impossible tangle of brown, crispy stems and leaves.

The above photograph was taken at my house two years ago.  I could look out the library window and see this fabulous mass of blooms covering a hemlock hedge and scrambling up into a dogwood tree.  It was beautiful, but it made me a little uncomfortable seeing how fast it had grown from the previous year.

Last summer, the deer discovered the vine and left only the flowers they couldn't reach.  This year, I have just a small patch growing on the ground, or rather covering some English ivy, another foreign invader.  I have to admit, though, that the pure white flowers are exquisite against the dark green.

Sweet autumn clematis is in Category 3 ("exotic plant that is a minor problem in Georgia's natural areas....") on Georgia's list of invasive plants.  Right now, if I could get into a kayak and go down the part of the Chattahoochee River near my house, I would be able to see sweet autumn clematis gone truly wild.  This time of year, trees and shrubs on the banks are smothered by the misty white flowers, which spread by seed.

What to do?  You can still buy sweet autumn clematis, and if you stay after it (you should prune it almost back to the ground in late winter; actually, I've chopped it off after the first freeze of autumn, and it came back fine), it can be a thing of beauty and provide fragrance at a time when there's not much going on in the garden.  Just remember, though, it can get away from you in a hurry, so proceed with caution.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What is she thinking?

For years, I've been trying to figure out how Louise Poer comes up with ideas for her garden.  She lived in England for a time years ago, and that probably had a great influence on her.

But still, this is such a complicated garden - tiny though it is.  As I walked around yesterday (Louise apologized in advance for the fallen leaves - all four of them), I tried to analyze the components that make this such a pleasing space.  It's hard to do.

Obviously, the boxwoods, clipped into many different shapes, give the garden structure year round.  But then she's put a planter with a windmill palm - which looks tender but is hardy - in the middle of an area that is decidedly non-tropical looking.

And the boxwood cones you see in the foreground are planted in the walkway, rather than up against anything.  What made her do that?

Louise wasn't home, but in the past I've asked her how she comes up with ideas.  Like many other artists, she just laughs and says, "I don't know.  I just do what comes to my mind."

Monday, August 22, 2011

A walk in the parc

On a gray overcast day in February 1966, I stepped out onto the Tracodero in Paris, and like every tourist before or since gasped at the sight of the Eiffel Tower looming before me.  It was the beginning of a love affair with Paris.  I went on to spend a semester in Aix-en-Provence that year and fell equally in love with the south of France.  

It's not that I don't want to visit other European cities over and over, too, but I just can't seem to get enough of Paris.  I worked there for a year after college and still have friends from that era.

In May 2010, I traveled to Paris with my best friend from grammar school and two of her friends.  We stayed in an apartment in the Ile St. Louis.  While they went off to visit sights they were interested in, I decided to go to some places I'd never seen but always had on my to-do list.  One was the Parc Monceau, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, and located nor far from the Arc de Triomphe.  

I think I had a map or small guide book with me, because I remember reading that the Parc Monceau had the most beautiful toilette in Paris (not that there's much competition).  It's located in the lovely classical rotunda near the entrance, and I must say it lived up to its reputation.

But back to what else I saw in the park.  I was entranced.  It was a beautiful May day, and joggers and pinickers and office workers and hoards of school children were all enjoying the park.  I thought back to long ago when I visited the more formal Jardin de Luxembourg.  I didn't know the protocol, and I sat down in one of the park chairs to watch the children with their sailboats.  All of a sudden, this elderly lady came up and demanded I give her money for just sitting down.  It ruined my day.

The Parc Monceau is much, much smaller than the Luxembourg gardens.  And, it's more informal and to my mind what a park should look like.  There is a columned pavilion around a pond with a huge weeping tree (probably a willow; I can't tell from my photograph - looks too large for a weeping cherry).  Ducks float lazily in the canals.  Both wide and narrow gravel paths wind through the park, and drifts of flowers are planted everywhere.  

And the trees.  Very large, old trees with gnarly trunks; big, spreading beeches; recently planted laburnums dripping with long golden chains; chestnut trees in blossom; unusual variegated pagoda dogwoods and too many other specimen trees to mention.

The above floral display consists of yellow and orange cheiranthus (a.k.a. wallflower) interspersed with almost-black tulips.  This is a combination we could copy here in Georgia, even though you don't often see cheiranthus.  I have a friend who has large masses of it she planted from seed.  I'm not sure if it's too late to plant for next year (it's treated as a cool season annual here; if you can find the seeds, it's worth a try; plant now), but I know you can still buy dark tulip bulbs.  Cheiranthus should do especially well in places in the U.S. with well-drained soil with a high pH.

On your next trip to Paris, check out the Parc Monceau, if you haven't already.  You could take a picnic or just sit and watch the world go by.  Or, since the park has Wi-Fi, you might even get in a little Web surfing.  I like to walk around and look at all the trees and flowers and watch the ducks glide around the lovely dark water. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Having a ball

Back in the last century (that sounds so long ago - I'm talking about the 1990's), lots of gardens had gazing balls.  I don't know if that's the case now.  In the last few years, I've been on several garden tours, but I don't recall seeing any of the colorful balls that you used to see, oftentimes in funky gardens (but not always; the above garden is anything but funky).

I think this is one of those garden ornaments that goes in and out of vogue.  The Victorians used them extensively.  Known also as witch's balls (to ward off witches that might come to your front door; apparently witches couldn't look at images of themselves) and garden globes, the gazing ball dates back to pre-Renaissance times in Italy.  It's been in gardens ever since, and while there may be a slight lull in their popularity, there's no shortage of places to buy them currently (Amazon and even have them for sale).

One of my favorite uses of a garden globe was by a Dayton, Ohio, gardener.  She had placed a ball covered in different shades of blue mosaic pieces on the ground in her perennial bed.  Growing around it was Geranium 'Rozanne', a beautiful blue flower that blended wonderfully with the colors on the sphere.  Another great combination was in a country garden outside Chapel Hill, N.C.  A bright red reflective ball stood on a pedestal surrounded by the light purple Aster tataricus.  

The above photograph was taken in Bernadine Richard's expansive garden in Sandy Springs, Georgia.  There's something very whimsical about that blue ball floating among the water lilies.  Gazing balls were also called Globes of Happiness.  I like this moniker best.  It seems fitting for the above scene, which brings a little cool to this hot August day. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

I could write a book....

At least once a year Bill Hudgins and I get together to discuss doing a book on his garden.  We talk about how I'll write the book and how he'll get a professional photographer to follow the garden through the year.  So far, I haven't written a word (except for a newspaper column about him and a magazine article on his previous garden - that was forever ago), and I'm not sure if that photographer has ever made one picture.

But, we really ought to do it.  Bill is extremely humble about his talent and the amazing feat he has achieved on a three acre wooded site.  My adrenalin gets going just thinking about all the beauty he's created using hundreds of kinds of Japanese maples, which he has collected since he was in his 20's, and literally thousands of boxwoods that provide structure for wonderful collections of shrubs, trees, ferns, bulbs and ground covers.  He also has a nice collection of strategically placed sculptures (usually I glaze over when someone says "sculpture garden", but not at Bill's).  And, I have to add that no one does containers as well as Bill.  You walk down one of the many stunning paths that wind through the woods, and you'll come upon a giant Italian urn with a weeping fastigiate maple standing ten feet tall.  Every time you turn a corner, you're asking yourself, "How does he think all this up?"

There's this very confident and successful businessman in my Sunday School class who is justifiably proud of his own garden and collection of Japanese maples.  Last fall, he asked me to take him to Bill's garden.  It was a cool, overcast day - the perfect conditions to get the full effect of the blinding colors of the maples with the green of the boxwoods.  I think the guy was so taken aback and bedazzled that for the first time I can ever remember he was at a loss for words.

The photograph above was taken years ago with my old camera, but it gives you an idea of the eye Bill has for form and texture.  I can't wait for fall when I'll post some more pictures of the garden.  You won't believe it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Japanese scene and the forbidden photograph

I hope you will allow me a bit of garden tourism.

On a hot, muggy day in July, I visited the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  I took a lot of photographs, trying to capture some summer color.  The area badly needed rain, so a lot of the flower beds weren't at their freshest, and some things looked hot and dry.

Toward the end of my three hours there, I started looking for scenes that were cool and peaceful.  There were lots of people sitting and taking advantage of the ponds and waterfalls of the Japanese gardens, so I had trouble getting just a garden shot.

Finally, I found the place you see above.  There were no people around.  But, just as I framed the photograph, a big group of tourists who were Mennonites or of some similar group started walking through.  I kept thinking of how you're not supposed to take pictures of the Amish (I guess this is true of other sects, as well), so every time I would perceive a lull, I'd click, but it would be too late.  I don't know how many pictures I took of this scene, but I finally got one that didn't have people, or so I thought.  When I returned home and looked at all the pictures on my computer, the one with no people did not exist.

At any rate, you can still see how the Japanese gardens had fine examples of how to use texture to create beauty.  Just to the right of the women is a stunning specimen of the weeping katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum 'Pendula').  There were many Japanese maples and some conifers which provided a good contrast to broadleaf evergreens and ferns.

Just to be sure, if you were at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on the last Thursday in July, I apologize for taking your picture if I wasn't supposed to.  I hate not to share this photograph, though, because the place was so beautiful.  If I'd had time, I would have waited it out, but it was just too hot.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A rosarian in any other place is still a rosarian

The local gardening community was greatly upset when word got out that rosarian Anna Davis had decided to downsize, giving up her large home with the billowing roses we'd all marveled at for years.   She had been a regular on tours, and her yard literally stopped traffic in her neighborhood.  The rumor was that she was moving into a cluster home.

I had a friend who lived in the same development where Anna had relocated.  I kept hearing that Anna would have another garden, but I couldn't imagine how.   The houses were so close together, and if they had any yard at all, it was the size of a postage stamp.

I needn't have worried.  It wasn't long before Anna was back in the pages of magazines and was, as always, graciously willing to put her garden on tour.  She had turned every inch of her 1/4 acre lot into a garden teeming with flowers.  Not only did she have luxuriant roses climbing here and there, but she had added clematis - some in large masses, some twining up through rose bushes, others growing on variegated English holly - along with foxgloves, rhododendrons, ferns, climbing Schizophragma hydrangeodes 'Moonlight' and scores of charming ground covers.

And what of my concern about the houses being too close together?  You can see from this photograph how Anna took advantage of the long narrow space, creating an entrance to the back garden.  If I remember correctly, her neighbor was very cooperative.  I would have been, too, especially if I could look over into a colorful paradise by day and enjoy the lovely fragrance of roses on balmy May nights.

For more on growing clematis with roses, see Anna's article

Publish Post

Monday, August 15, 2011

A time to plant

Every year that I've grown foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea), I've faithfully gathered the tiny seeds as they mature at the end of May or early June.  I usually scatter them about where they'll have a chance to catch on.  Few of them do.

But this year, just the right conditions must have occurred.  In June, I started noticing little foxgloves popping up in several places around where they'd been last year.  Years ago, I had put down some landscape cloth to try and keep the weeds at bay along a brick path.  The seeds must have loved the conditions.  The plants were thick as thieves and growing in the loose dirt on top of the cloth.

In addition, it looked as if I had a foxglove nursery in another area where I had thrown out seed several years ago.  I put bricks around the emerging seedlings to mark them, and then I realized the bricks were probably on top of some seeds that wanted somewhere to go, but couldn't.  I was right.  I moved the bricks, and sure enough, more plants came up.

Then disaster struck.  On June 18th, a tree from a neighbor's yard fell and smashed in the entire back of a little 1926 cottage on my property where the foxgloves were.  I had to call in a tree company to remove the giant oak (the neighbor's tree; my insurance and deductible, because the tree was still green).  Right in the line of fire (the path the tree men had to take to get their equipment in) were the foxglove seedlings.  Many of them were smothered by the tree's canopy, which must have spread over at least 60 feet. 

 I could see the seedlings down under the huge limbs and leaves, but there was no way to get to most of them.  I was able to wedge myself down in a few places and cut the landscape cloth and lift out the little plants.  They turned out to be so shallow rooted that I was not able to save them all.  For the rest, I could only hope.  However, once the tree was removed and cleaned up, I couldn't find a single one.

All was not lost though.  That other patch wasn't harmed and is growing like crazy.  In fact, I need to start thinning the plants and doing some transplanting.   I keep waiting for rain that would soften the earth, but it looks like that's not going to happen.  I need to step up the watering.

These particular foxgloves are biennials.  They will bloom next spring, produce seed and then the plants will die.  While I've heard of people planting the seeds in August and then moving the plants in October, I'm thinking the seeds need to be in the ground by June.  I'm only basing this on my experience this year.  In other years, I've neglected to note the date when the new plants emerged.

The foxgloves in this picture were grown from seed.  The gardener threw the seeds around his garden after the flower pods had dried.  Every year, he has a good crop.

Soon, the nurseries will come alive again after the long, hot summer.  When you see foxgloves for sale, go ahead and grab some.  The foliage will look pathetic over the winter as it freezes and thaws, but things will perk up next spring, and the flowers should be blooming like crazy by early May.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Tropical splendor on steroids

Just yesterday I rode by TV and movie producer Tyler Perry's house (probably not the right word for his humongous dwelling overlooking the Chattahoochee River).  All along the road were the same huge plants you see in this photograph.  Fitting, I guess, for such a grand entrance.

The adorable child above belongs to an Atlanta attorney who turns his yard into a tropical paradise every summer.  He has all sorts of palm trees (some of which he wraps and mulches in winter), banana plants, gingers and many types of elephant's ears.  He lives on a regular street, so when you are driving along and seeing yards with azaleas and box hollies, you do a double take when you get to his house.  It's amazing.

August is when this elephant's ear, Colocasia 'Thailand Giant', starts to reach its peak.  It grows to nine feet tall, and the leaves are a good five feet long and four feet wide.  It's not hardy in the temperate U.S., so it's a one season deal.  I called my friend at Randy's Perennials and Water Gardens in Lawrenceville, Ga., (they specialize in tropicals) to ask when you would put this plant in the ground so it could reach its maximum size.  Without hesitation, he said April 20 for the Atlanta area.  Up north, though, you'd have to wait until after your normal last freeze date.  I do know someone near Philadelphia who grows 'Thailand Giant' every year, so it can reach its potential in colder climates.

A few years ago, I wrote a column about the aforementioned Atlanta attorney.  I was curious as to why someone would go to all the trouble to dig up elephant ears and wrap palms and banana trees.  His answer:  “Tropical plants remind me of good times, of warm breezes and vacations.  I can look out of my window, and I’m transplanted to a different place.  I’ll spend five days in my office negotiating deals, and on the weekend, I can feel like I’m in Miami.”

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The happy accident

In the pilot for A Gardener's Diary, which aired on Home & Garden Television for 11 years, Ruth Mitchell, the gardener we visited, was talking about a mass of verbena that had clambered over a stump and was mingled with some low-growing roses.  It was a lovely combination, and when Erica Glasener, the host of the show, asked Ruth how she came up with the idea, Ruth answered with a laugh, "It was a happy accident."

I can't tell you how many times throughout the years we produced the series, gardeners would say, "It was a happy accident."  Sometimes, Erica would use the line to comment on a scene in a garden when there was an unplanned combination.  Of course, the editors and Kathryn (the executive producer) and I would jokingly apply the phrase to all kinds of situations, so a happy accident of some sort was always happening.

The picture you see above was a happy accident, for real.  An elderly couple who had been gardening for years asked me to come and identify the tree and vine that were blooming behind one of their huge rhododendrons.  I was so relieved that I recognized the plants.

The semi-evergreen vine, Bignonia capreolata, is native to the eastern part of the U.S.  If you drive up I-75 in Tennessee in May, you'll see tons of it climbing over trees and rocks in the median.  The species is reddish brown on the outside with a yellowish center.  The flowers in Tennessee appear mostly brownish yellow, if my memory serves me correct.  At the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the reddish-orange selection 'Tangerine Beauty' covers one of the arbors along the walk leading to the conservatory.  It makes a fabulous display in spring.  Another way I saw the vine used was in a back yard with a tall canopy of trees.  The gardener had installed chains that connected the trees and had strung 'Tangerine Beauty' all along the chains.  It was great looking, with those red trumpets hanging in a scalloped pattern above the ferns and stone paths below.

The white fringe tree is also a native.  Chionanthus virginicus is known around these parts as Grancy Gray-beard.  It's very showy when it's covered with big, fleecy blooms in May.  Although it's native to the eastern U.S. from New Jersey to Florida, it will also grow in parts of New England.

Even though both of these plants are native to the southeastern U.S., they will grow in a lot of places around the country.  You would want to seek out 'Tangerine Beauty', as it flowers more heavily than the species, and the color is more predictable.  It's hardy from Zones 6 to 9.  The American fringe tree grows in Zones 3-9.  This means a lot of us could enjoy this happy accident.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A path deconstructed

Ever since I took a picture of this path in Rhoda Ingram's garden outside Griffin, Georgia, I've tried to deconstruct the elements that make it so appealing to me.  At first view, it seems a very simple composition - a curving gravel path lined with some sort of cement block pavers with various plantings along the way.

But, I think it's the blending of formal and informal elements that makes it so pleasing.  For instance, remove the more formal clipped boxwoods, and the scene loses some of its personality.  Then, imagine if the path were straight instead of winding in a gentle curve.  Taking away this informal outline would certainly make the path less appealing.  I love the fact that some of the ground covers spill out into the walkway and how the tall, columnar form of what appears to be an Italian cypress (in the background on the right) adds an important line to the overall composition.  

When I came back from taking this picture, I tried to figure out where I could make a similar path.  Unfortunately, I have very few flat places on my property.  Still, I can see ideas I could borrow to create something comparable in feeling.  I'm going to keep studying this photograph, and I think I'll eventually figure out what to do.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

William Bartram's bright red discovery

In my treasured copy of the 1996 issue of Garden Design magazine is a section featuring some of the great writing of American botanist William Bartram (1739-1823).  I don't know how many times I've read these pages where Bartram, a native of Philadelphia whose father John Bartram was the chief botanist of the American colonies, writes about his travels in the southeastern United States.

It literally makes my hair stand on end to read his accounts of coiled up rattlesnakes, alligators and water moccasins, all of which he came in close contact with as he was exploring the swamps of Florida and Georgia.  It was on a trip to Georgia's Altamaha River that he and his father found a tree resembling a gordonia, with white, magnolia-like flowers.  William Bartram returned and took seeds and propagated the plant.  Accounts vary, but the tree was last seen either in 1790 or 1803.  It has not been found in the wild since, and all specimens of Franklinia alatamaha are descended from the Bartrams' seeds.

As to the photo above, this is another native that was first described by William Bartram as he explored the shores of an island in Lake George in northern Florida.  He says of Hibiscus coccineus, "This most stately of all herbaceous plants grows ten or twelve feet high, branching regularly, so as to form a sharp cone.  These branches also divide again, and are embellished with large expanded crimson flowers.  I have seen this plant of the size and figure of a beautiful little tree, having at once several hundred of these splendid flowers, which may be then seen at a great distance."

The flower pictured here was growing in Milton Kuniansky's garden in Atlanta.  The perennial, hardy to Zone 7, begins blooming in late July and continues through August.  The plants usually reach six feet tall in cultivation.  The exquisite red flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds.  The leaves have the distinction of closely resembling those of a marijuana plant.

If you want to grow this lovely native, be sure to plant it in an area that you can keep moist.  I've found that it will tolerate a short spell of drought, but since Hibiscus coccineus is native to swampy areas, it appreciates continuous moisture.  If you give it the right conditions, it's very easy to grow and a great way to provide color in the summer garden.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Once upon a garden

Just as a true writer has to write, Kathryn MacDougald has to garden.  No matter where she has lived (and she's had to move several times in recent years), she's immediately created a beautiful garden. 

Kathryn is my business partner and executive producer of A Gardener's Diary.  She is also a garden designer.  I have long marveled at her talent and taste; she can turn the ugliest duckling of spaces (both interior and exterior) into something fabulous in no time at all.  When my daughters come back to Atlanta for a visit, they always want to take friends to see what Kathryn has done to her interiors.  Every room is stunning.

The garden you see here was built over two decades.  Kathryn is a rockaholic.  She rescued the big stones from a house that burned next door to me.  She also singlehandedly built a cobblestone driveway that is out of view of this photograph.  She hauled and installed every heavy Belgium block, and there must have been thousands.

What you can't see in this photograph, taken the year before her husband's family sold the three-plus acre property, are the perennials hidden by the tall poppies.  Kathryn was forever changing the plantings, and you could rely on discovering the very latest introductions and learning some new and intriguing plant combinations.

But alas, this garden is no more.  The log cabin, dating from the early 20th century is gone, too.  The latter was sold and dismantled so it could be reconstructed elsewhere. The rocks and cobblestones are stored at a friend's farm.

Today, if you ride by the property, you can catch a glimpse of a big new house being built over the area where the garden and log cabin once were.  On the one hand it seems sad, but if you go by Kathryn's present home, you feel better.   She's got lots of things growing (many plants have followed her from house to house; others reside with friends and relatives), and already her garden is something to be envied.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Rhoda's magical realm

In the late 1980's, an Atlanta garden designer who loved looking for out-of-the-way nurseries was driving near Griffin, Ga., when she spotted a rusted sign that read "Meadowlark Nursery."  Deciding she would take a chance and see if the business was still going, she turned off the busy highway into a narrow, unpaved lane.

"I felt like Alice falling into Wonderland," she said.  "Here was one of the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen, completely unexpected and hidden from view.  I couldn't imagine what the story was behind it."

What the garden designer had stumbled onto was the garden that Rhoda Ingram has been planting and refining since 1946.  Rhoda grew up in a gardening family in New England and Florida and married a Georgia man whose family owned a 340 acre farm.  With no professional guidance and only her "innate sense of how things should go," she transformed some 40+ acres of former cotton fields into a parklike landscape that is actually a series of gardens within a garden.

Rhoda's first efforts concentrated on creating gardens around several cottages originally built for family members.  Each house was different and had its own distinct garden, including Rhoda's own white clapboard house which is surrounded by thousands of boxwoods and looks out over rolling lawns.  Dogwoods, deciduous magnolias, azaleas, flowering shrubs, bulbs and roses are planted by the hundreds throughout the compound which is intersected by charming boxwood-lined lanes that connect the cottages.

 In the early 1990's, Rhoda estimated that she had some 30,000 boxwoods, most of which came from her failed nursery attempt in the 1970's (the advent of the big box stores which sold cheaper box hollies and ligustrums cut into the sales of more her more refined English boxwoods; also, people were not yet interested in the newer plants she had discovered on trips abroad).   Since that time, she's rooted thousands more boxwoods and used them to create even more gardens around the property.  In the 1960's, she also began collecting trees after a visit to Kew Gardens in England and now has a mature arboretum with many rare species.

The scene pictured above is a recent addition to Rhoda's gardens and illustrates her love of classic design.  When I first went there in 1989, most all of the gardens were in front of her house and around the cottages.  There was only a greenhouse in the open fields in back.  Now, that several-acre area includes all sorts of gardens, pathways (some informal), allees, orchards, a lap pool and many secret nooks and crannies and narrow passages.   

I am always fascinated by someone who can look at a blank space and imagine a garden there.  Rhoda has done it hundreds of times over.  It would take months to explore all the areas she's created and take in the breadth of what she's accomplished.

Although Rhoda now uses a walker to get around, she still directs her grandson in creating yet more gardens within her magical realm.  The gardens are available for weddings and special events.  To see more of Rhoda's design work, visit their Web site:


Thursday, August 4, 2011

On the inside looking out

I remember a song called, "I'm on the Outside Looking In."  Well, here we are in a fifth floor apartment in an historic building on Peachtree Street in Atlanta on the inside looking east towards Ansley Park, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods.

My friend Jim Landon has lived in this wonderful space for years.  He's a Harvard educated lawyer - now semi-retired - and a fantastic gardener.  Although he spends a lot of time at his house in Highlands, N.C., where he has an expansive garden, it was here in this window box that he cut his teeth, so to speak.

 The window box is 22 feet long, two feet wide and two feet deep.  Jim used to keep it chock full and rather wild looking.  For a long time, he had silver lace vine (talk about a rogue grower) trained to frame the window.  A lilac bush grew in the box along with other shrubs like hydrangeas.

When this photograph was taken for the newspaper, Jim had changed things up.  The vine you see framing the window is Wisteria frutescens, a U.S. native that is way tamer than the Chinese thug.  In late April- early May, the sweetly scented racemes resemble five-inch long purple clusters of grapes.

For structure, he covered two pyramids with evergreen Confederate jasmine.  In May, the plants are smothered in white star-shaped flowers that perfume the air.  Between the two pyramids are alternating dwarf boxwoods and cast lead ornaments in the shape of fruit baskets.  On either side of the pyramids are plantings of variegated Gardenia radicans.

That giant window you see couldn't be open on this steamy hot, mid-90's day.   But, in spring, on milder summer nights and in the fall, the open window - coupled at times with a full moon rising over the trees to the east - makes this room is a magical place to be.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

When is a flower too big?

My uncle Calton always seemed larger than life.  A tall man, though not portly, he had a great booming voice that filled a room.  His cackling laugh was infectious, and he was a great jokester.  

Married to my mother's older sister, he once pulled a prank on my grandmother.  Every morning she would go out to gather eggs in the hen house.  One day, she discovered an inscription on one of the eggs:  "Prepare to meet thy God."  Word spread quickly throughout the countryside about this warning from above.  The egg was placed on a pillow, and people from far and wide came to the house to file by the portentous sign.

I can't remember the end of the story, and everyone who told it is gone.  It could be that many people never knew the truth behind the egg doctored by Uncle Calton.   I don't think anyone ever told my grandmother.

Another bigger than life fact about Uncle Calton was that he grew dinnerplate size dahlias.  I remember pulling up to their house and seeing tall staked plants lined up like soldiers, each with its large flat head staring down at the ground.  The flowers were huge and gaudy, but at the same time fascinating.  Keeping with the larger than life theme, Uncle Calton claimed the secret to the size of his flowers was elephant manure.  To the great embarrassment of his children, he would boast about his stockpiles of manure, gathered when the circus was in town. 

All this long detour to say that I was reminded of Uncle Calton's dahlias when I took this picture of my friend Tutta Glass.  Hydrangea paniculata 'Grandiflora' is the largest of the paniculatas that bloom in August.  The flowers grow even larger if the bush is pruned in late winter.  You can see that the bloom weighs the stem down (this particular plant was one of two trained into standards), making for an odd looking spectacle.

I do love these summer flowers, and now there are some cultivars in between the species, which I think is too small to be effective and doesn't have a nice habit, and this large cultivar 'Grandiflora,' which can grow to ten feet.  'Limelight' has flowers that are somewhat smaller, but still pretty large.  'Little Lamb' is a more compact plant.  I'm trying out 'Silver Dollar', which so far is my favorite of the paniculatas.  It's sort of the "just right" size of the ones I've seen so far.  Like 'Limelight', it's supposed to turn pink in the fall.  Right now, I'm seeing a brown petal or two, so the jury is still out.  Still, the white blooms tinted with chartreuse are beautiful next to a container overflowing with dark purple, velvety petunias - a combination I want to remember and try again next summer. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A garden revisited

It was August 1988 when I first went to see what Ted and Pat Plomgren had done to their back yard.  At the time, the couple had just started on a project that would provide over two decades of enjoyment, hard physical labor and a place to satisfy their passion for plants, collecting and garden design.  

To say the least, a lot has taken place in the Plomgrens' back yard over the years (as the crow flies, they live about a mile from my house in Atlanta).  They started with a sloped back yard that contained a motley assortment of undesirable trees, mainly messy sweet gums.  At the time of my first interview for the newspaper, the trees were gone, and the garden consisted of a new stacked stone retaining wall with a rustic fence on top, a perennial border and a hybrid tea rose garden.

The Plomgrens' garden, which has been on countless tours, in magazines, books, newspapers and on TV, is always evolving and now includes a charming arrangement of rustic outbuildings and structures, and most especially, plantings the two never envisioned at the outset.

For instance, the rose garden is long gone because of the demand for constant spraying.  And, the swimming pool the couple planned for the lower level was never built ("Thank goodness," says Pat.  "We would have had it filled in by now.").  At one point, the scene you see above contained a simple wooden pergola covered in 'New Dawn' roses.  Where you see the patterned box garden were two stone lined rectangles that held brightly colored poppies.

The Plomgrens worked with Atlanta garden designer Jeremy Smearman who helped them visualize the different areas.  In future posts, I'll show you some other wonderful features in this garden and pass along advice from the couple and their designer.  

You'll notice in this photograph, taken in August, that flowers are scarce, but the garden is still beautiful. Thus the following advice from Jeremy:  "Have a good backdrop for your plants.  It's human nature to want color when you're just starting out.  For the Plomgrens, we've used lots of Korean boxwoods to form borders.  As a result, the flowers look better when they're in bloom, and you have a year round presence."

Monday, August 1, 2011

Straight to the point

For Atlantans who go on the Atlanta Botanical Garden's annual Connoisseurs' Tour, this is a familiar sight.  Readers of garden books and magazines will also recognize international garden designer Ryan Gainey's handiwork.  I've learned something new every time I've stepped into this wondrous creation.  The garden changes with the seasons, and you can always expect the latest plant introductions and trends to be represented in unusual ways.  I'm forever coming away scratching my head, saying, "How did he think of this?"

This is a path you can see if you're standing on the sidewalk beside Ryan's house.  If you're there on Mother's Day weekend, the second weekend in May, you'll see roses overhead on the arches.  This photograph was taken in June, and you can recognize oakleaf hydrangeas in their last moments of glory.

In years past, I've seen this path crowded with thistle and other plants that were in vogue at the time.  Here it is tamer, and the clean outlines can be appreciated along with the placement of certain plants along the way.  Still, it's the sort of cottage garden I like, with organized lines flanked by some order and some chaos.  For example, an oriental lily is hanging out ready to bloom on the right hand side.  For structure, clipped boxwoods appear as balls in the foreground, while those closer to the focal point - an urn holding an agave - are pyramidal with leveled tops.

This is yet another garden chock full of design ideas that would be fun to try.  I've just looked back at this batch of photos and realized how many treasures there are to share from this one place.  I've been going to this garden now for at least 25 years, and every single time I've come away overwhelmed at Ryan's genius and excited about all the possibilities out there in the garden world.