Thursday, December 29, 2011

A path leading to somewhere wonderful

I don't know the owners of this garden - I wish I did.  I'd like to tell them what they've done - forced me to break one of the Ten Commandments:  "Thou shalt not covet."

This photograph was taken on a garden tour one June.  The garden surrounds a rambling country style house (clapboard with a shake roof) hidden in the woods on a winding Atlanta street.  It's a huge garden, with paths that lead through the woods and out into sunny spaces.  It's one of those gardens you can't see all at once. The scene here is one of several entrances that run off the gravel parking in front of the house.

The owners have managed to make you think there's something both along the way and at the end of the path - and there is.  The first path I took led under an iron arch and through a beautifully planted woodland to a big, flat (rare in Atlanta) manicured lawn hidden in the woods.  Mature conifers, hardwoods and blue mophead hydrangeas surrounded what must serve as a place for children to play or maybe an area for bocce ball or croquet.

I love the entrance you see above - the Clematis armandii on the left next to ferns;  boxwoods, dianthus, Provence lavender;  I'm assuming the purple shrub is either loropetalum or barberry.  If my memory serves correctly, this entrance leads to the back of the house where there's a large, rectangular potager.  The latter is enclosed by a rustic fence outlined in clipped boxwoods.  Fig trees grow just outside the fence on the opposite side.  Strawberry plants covered the tiny slopes around the vegetable garden. This latter was almost too painful to bear.  To top it all off, there was a billowing pink hydrangea with huge blooms growing at the corner.  At the other end was a cheery mix of cottage type flowers.  I recognized one of the Saul brothers' designer coneflowers, blooming merrily away.

The view from the vegetable garden was down another path (I didn't even have the heart to take it), where you could see graceful conifers interplanted with shrubs.  A big farm bell - the kind you'd use to call everyone in for dinner - was mounted on a tall wooden post across from the vegetable garden.

I am kidding about the coveting thing; well, sort of.  I can feel my heart beating faster as I describe what I saw. This garden had just about everything I love - great trees, many shrubs, ferns, flowers, hydrangeas, ground covers, hidden paths that lead you to somewhere wonderful.  I'm sure I saw espaliered apple trees, or at least a line of apple trees down a path that was closed off.  I hope it will come on tour again, and I can explore it further.  There's a wealth of ideas here for just about anyone, no matter what your climate.  I'll let you know if I find out any more about the garden and its creators.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Deep in December, it's nice to remember

My minister gave a sermon not long ago and quoted J.M. Barrie, the Scottish born novelist and playwright who wrote Peter Pan.  Barrie, while addressing a group of college students, offered this insight.  "God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December."

I love this thought, and many years it would ring true.  For our friends in more northern climes, it probably does.  But here in the Southeastern U.S., we've had a mild December (although today was  cold and windy; lows in 30's, high's in the 40's), and many of the roses - especially the ubiquitous Knockouts - haven't really stopped blooming.

But there's nothing like the freshness of a rose in May.  I took this photo on Mother's Day in Anna Davis' Atlanta garden.  Anna is a well-known and respected rosarian and has a stunning garden which she has forged out of a rather small area around her cluster home.

If you were around in the 1960's, you might recognize the line of this entry's title.  It comes from Try to Remember from the Fantasticks.  I never saw the play, but we wore out the album in our sorority house, and I'm sorry to say, I think we twisted the words to make it into a rush song.  Still, I got chill bumps recently when a good college friend started singing the original lyrics.

I've e-mailed Anna in hopes of finding out the name of this gorgeous rose in her garden.  Meanwhile, on this cold, starry night, it is indeed nice to remember the warmth and beauty of that day in May.  J. M. Barrie made a good point.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The purloined book - the mystery remains

Margaret Moseley gave me this clump of pure white Helleborus hybridus (formerly orientalis), or the Lenten rose, one year in the mid-nineties to use in a display at the Southeastern Flower Show.  She also lent me her treasured copy of A Southern Garden by Elizabeth Lawrence.  Margaret had years worth of notes she'd made in the margins of her cherished book.  The copy was worn, but it contained a lot of Margaret's observations on her own garden.  She had underlined passages she liked and circled plants she wanted to try.  

Elizabeth Lawrence was a garden writer from North Carolina, and her wonderful books, written in the mid-20th century (A Southern Garden was first published in 1942), have endured and are still highly readable today.  I think the edition Margaret lent me came out in 1984, but it could have well been the 1967 edition.  Either way, Margaret had personalized her copy, and it was loaded with good information, not only by Margaret's guru, Elizabeth Lawrence, but by Margaret herself.

I had placed the book on an antique iron table in the garden we created for A Gardener's Diary, representing four gardens we had featured on Home & Garden Television.  In Margaret's section were camellias, rocks representing the ones she'd picked up from the roadside to create her raised beds, daphnes, hellebores and viburnums.  A sign explained the garden and told of Margaret's admiration for Elizabeth Lawrence's writings.  The book was opened to the section, "Spring Comes in February".

One morning when I reported for duty at the display, I looked over and saw the book was gone.  We looked for it everywhere and finally concluded it had been stolen.

What puzzles me is this was not a pretty coffee table book.  It was a small, tattered paperback.  A person would have had to climb into the display in order to take it.  Only someone who appreciated Elizabeth Lawrence's writings or who knew about Margaret Moseley's wonderful garden would have wanted such a marked-up copy.  But then, such a person surely would not steal anything, much less something of  obvious personal and sentimental value.

I felt so bad.  I, too, had this edition and had written and underlined all over it.  I could easily have used my own book, but who would have thought?  I gave my copy to Margaret, and as the word got out, she received many other copies from friends.

But, it wasn't the same.  The new edition didn't look anything like the old one.  The cover was different, and even though the original chapters were all there, the book felt stiff and harder to hold and read.

I see that the clump of pure white hellebores (I have other white Lenten roses, but they have freckles) is heavily budded and about to bloom.  It was so generous of Margaret to dig these flowers from her garden to use in the display and then insist I take them home with me.  I just wish I could have taken better care of her book.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Grasses, not grass

In yesterday's New York Times, I saw the obituary of Wolfgang Oehme, 81, who was a big promoter of using ornamental grasses in the landscape.  Along with his collaborator in landscape architecture, James van Sweden, he started a new movement in American gardening that seemed to come as a backlash to the English garden craze that swept this country in the 1980's (the latter is my opinion).

Mr. Oehme (the NYT gave the pronunciation as EHR-ma, which means I've mispronounced his name all this time) was born in Germany and had an early interest in gardening.  He graduated from the University of Berlin with a degree in horticulture and came to this country in 1957 to settle in Baltimore.

I remember when several gardening magazines proclaimed Mr. Oehme and Mr. van Sweden as the inventors of the "new American garden."  They were proponents of ripping out front lawns and foundation plantings at the base of the house and replacing them with flowing ornamental grasses or plants with longer seasons of interest than azaleas, with their two weeks of beauty and fifty weeks of boredom (according to Mr. Oehme).  This seemed all well and good if you had several acres without a tree in sight, but I don't think it caught on with regular homeowners.

Still, even though there was no mass conversion to their ideas, ornamental grasses have become more popular and more available.  I feel quite sure that much of it was due to the influence of these two men.

I have many photographs of ornamental grasses used in containers, in small gardens, in large sweeps in the landscape and as winter interest plants (one I really like shows backlit seed heads covered in frost).  The photograph above illustrates how much fun just one plant can be in a garden border.  This is ponytail grass (Stipa tenuissima) in Ozzie Johnson's east Cobb County garden.  I hate to say it, but it reminds me of my hair in high school when I tried to make myself a blonde.  Still, it shows how interesting grasses can be.

I do have great respect for Mr. Oehme's work, and I like what the obituary said about him.  "Mr. Oehme's favorite way to celebrate his birthday was to have friends join him for a 'weeding party.'"  This sounds like an excellent idea, possibly one with the potential to form another new movement among gardeners.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas came - ready or not

Cedar (some with loose foliage and light blue berries; some with orange tips, but a compact habit);  limbs of the perfect magnolia with the small, glossy green leaf and velvety tan back; a thick branch of variegated osmanthus that looks like holly; a big sack of dark boxwood clippings from my mother's 50 year old bush;  clusters of navy blue privet berries (yes, they are decorative, and much better off where I can dispose of them so they won't make a new plant);  evergreen holly branches loaded with red berries;  pine branches I made sure when I lopped them off were dark green rather than yellowish; old growth ivy from a fallen tree, with huge, heart-shaped leaves;  winged sweet gum branches and one 12-inch piece of mistletoe;  enough Fraser fir clippings to construct a good size Christmas tree.

All this greenery sits on my back terrace.  Inside, on a table, is a stack of wreath forms of all kinds - wire, foam, straw wrapped with plastic, grape vine - in all sizes, from 10 inch to 28 inch - sitting unadorned next to reels of unopened ribbon.  A large cone that was covered in Fraser fir last Christmas rests on the floor, its foam riddled with pin marks.

So, despite the fact that my house looks like an evergreen forest exploded, I didn't finish everything I wanted to.  It's a bad habit I have.  I look at what I didn't get done, instead of what I did.  I am happy to say that the mistletoe (with berries - I know they're poisonous) looks good mixed with boxwood and holly, hanging from three lanterns in the house.  I was determined to use this sizable clump because I was able to pick it without even reaching up - how often do you get to do that?

Contrary to my best intentions, there's no cedar wreath hanging in the kitchen, or any small boxwood wreathes suspended from the dining room windows above the white slip-covered chairs.   I've got to let it go.  I was way too ambitious.  But I did have fun tromping through the fields at the farm and slipping and sliding on the hills around here.

At least the living room mirror pictured above (I bought it from Sam's Club years ago!) got some pine from the farm, and the Christmas tree looks magical.  I had a great time decking the halls, and this morning we built a fire and kept it going all day, lazing around with dogs and reading books we got for Christmas.

This week, I'll take stock of my cache of clippings.  We have to do another big arrangement for New Year's Day at church.  I think I can get some more variegated foliage (I called a woman at our church, and she invited me to come get some variegated holly;  it may actually be osmanthus, but that's okay).  An all green and white winter foliage arrangement could be stunning and will save money on flowers.  If it's successful, I'll let you know.  I can't bear to waste even a twig of all I've gathered.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The fun of gathering greenery

I am no flower arranger.  I can tell you if the arrangement is the right size and proportion, but ask me to start from scratch and end with something decent - I don't have a clue.

But, I am a good gatherer.  To save money, we supplement the flowers at the church (our Flower Guild has to create enormous arrangements to have any impact, since our church is so huge; we call it the "Methodist Cathedral") with greenery from nature.  For my team,  I am the head gatherer, although Peggy Witt forages for good stuff, too.  We both contributed to last Sunday's arrangement, shown above.

Benjie Jones is the chief arranger.  He starts with the foliage, and usually he is inspired by the shape of the greenery.  This time it was the magnolia.  Peggy discovered a vacant lot surrounded by a chain link fence.  Inside were three magnolias with what we like best - small leaves with a pretty back like rusty brown or khaki suede. The magnolias had a wide habit, allowing us to stop Peggy's SUV and crawl up to cut branches.  I know this is stealing, but the part we cut was hanging over the public road.  That was our excuse.  And, after we finished lopping off a few branches, you couldn't tell we'd been there.  Also, we don't do this often.  Well, maybe I do climb up on the right-of-way of the interstate to gather bittersweet.  That requires a getaway driver, though, and I don't like to endanger people's lives. We are always very careful.

Back to the above greenery.  The pine you see on the right side came from my parents' farm.  They bought the land in 1957 and left it to my brother and me.  I go down there every weekend.  My latest forages have produced winged sweet gum branches (will show you those in next week's arrangement), cedar with light blue berries (not used here), and cedar with orange/yellow tips (why this occurs on some  trees, I don't know; I saw some at a very talented florist's shop and admired it;  lo and behold, we had it on the farm - I'd never noticed).  You can see it hanging down on the left side of the arrangement.  Benjie says it adds good texture.

I don't see it, but there's some Fraser fir in there, too.  I picked this up at the Home Depot where they were selling Christmas trees.  I got my tree there and picked up leftover cut branches from the bin.

The evergreen holly hanging down on the right came from my house.  Some of it is dwarf Burfordi holly, but most is the regular Burfordi.  The shrubs at the farm are in full sun and are loaded with berries.  But they've been sheared over and over, so the branches are short.  The ones you see came from my house from an area where there's not a lot of sun.  The branching is sparse, but there are still lots of berries.  Benjie was able to get a "hang down" effect with the longer pieces.

The deciduous hollies (those without leaves) we bought from a floral wholesaler.  The poinsettias were left over from the now dismantled poinsettia tree that we were so proud of.  We took the root ball from the plastic pots and wrapped them in plastic grocery bags (the produce kind) and wired them to sticks.

Oh, and those candle rings at the back.  I made small wreathes for my house from Home Depot Fraser fir, but decided to bring them to see if they'd work on the brass candle holders.  They're on straw forms wrapped in green plastic.  Peggy Witt brought the nandina berries (she has tons at her house), and Wendie Britt had the idea to embellish the fir with the red berries.

So, for the price of the holly and poinsettias (altogether around $100, I'd say), we had a 10 foot tall arrangement (counting the box) that made a great impact.  Our church seats several thousand, and it was packed on Sunday.

What you don't see is the variegated osmanthus Peggy found at a house of a friend.  She cut some branches and used them in the candles rings around the altar table and on the processional crosses.  She gave Benjie and me some; he used his on his front door wreath (spectacular with all the aforementioned greenery); mine is in a mixed green arrangement in my dining room.  Since it's hard to get English variegated holly to grow here, this variegated osmanthus is a great substitute.  I'm going to plant some, for sure.

It makes you feel so good just to tromp around the fields and woods, and second, to see it all come together in such a beautiful way.  I still have some ivy to tap and some more evergreen holly to pick.  Every year, I look forward to gathering greenery.  It's one of my favorite parts of Christmas, and it's a good way to get out in nature and save some money, too.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas in the back dining room

The chandelier is messy, and the photograph is dark.  But, I still want to do another "deconstruction" from a couple of Christmases ago.

I seldom use this room anymore.   It was intended to be a breakfast room, but for years we ate dinner here, so we started calling it the "family dining room."  At Christmastime, my late husband and I gave a dinner party, which we called "Old Friends".  There were usually 14 of us, and some of us ate in the front dining room and some of us back here.  Every year, we rotated, but everyone would joke about being in Siberia when it was his or her turn in this room.

For years, there was no chandelier above the table, only a light bulb.  Ditto the front dining room.  The reason?  I couldn't find any chandeliers I liked (these days, I'm always seeing ones in catalogs that would do nicely - where were they when I needed them?).  Eventually, when it looked like I would have to sell my house, a real estate agent said I had to put something up.  I went to Home Depot and bought two $69 fixtures that were gray with gold highlights.  Hideous, but the shape was good.  I bought some bronze spray paint and had them installed.

So, this was the Christmas when I got some free 'Winter Gold' holly berries from Wilkerson Mill Gardens.  The branches were cast-offs since some of the fruit had shriveled.  I culled the bad ones, and stuck them on the chandelier.  Then, I hastily threw up some cedar I'd picked at the farm.  I also wrapped ivy around the chain, but by the time I got around to this photograph, it was crispy, and I took it down.  I bought the arborvitae garland around the French doors from the youth at my church who sell greenery every year to raise money for mission trips.

The big painting you see in the background came from Scott's Antique Market.  It wasn't old, but something about it appealed to me.  Under it is a big glazed pottery bowl sitting on an antique pine table that my mother-in-law found in Virginia in the 1940's.  The American windsor chair was left by the former residents of the cottage we bought in 1973.  We found it in the basement.  Someone had stripped the paint off the top, but the seat and legs still have old green paint.  One of the handles is broken off, but it sure looks antique and authentic.

The tablecloth on the French farm table (which I hardly ever cover up, because the dark cherry wood is so beautiful) came from Provence.  I have a weakness for Provencal prints, and on trips to the south of France, I'd come back loaded with seat cushions, yards of toile, napkins, duvet covers and whatever else I could cram in my suitcases.

Since the berries were more orange than gold, I put some oranges in a bowl, also purchased in France.  The two French chairs you see came from an antique store in Pawleys Island, S.C.  I threw a white slipcover on a red French cafe chair, since it matched nothing else.

What you can't see in this picture is another cafe chair that you can tell was once painted green, an antique pine corner cupboard from Virginia and a limestone fireplace.

I do love this room, and even though it's not used anymore, I can admire it as I walk through to the back hall.  As time goes on, circumstances change, but it's nice to have things around that remind you of family and friends and of Christmases past.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A holly orchard in my future

In the first couple of years of A Gardener's Diary on HGTV, I selected a garden, or really a holly collection, in Illinois for a winter show.  Bon Hartline, the man who collected the hollies, was a true character and well-known in horticultural circles.  He had hybridized some deciduous hollies, but even more interestingly, and totally unrelated, he built and flew his own airplanes.

Kathryn MacDougald, my trusty co-executive producer, went along on the shoot to direct the crew.  I had told her that I was booking them in a hotel where the Lincoln-Douglas debates had been held.  I truly misunderstood, as I don't think the two famous statesmen could have fit into the tiny Lincoln Motel, which consisted of a low, narrow strip of rooms on one level.  Also, neither Lincoln or Douglas was around in the 1940's when the modest motel was likely built.

Kathryn was not happy about my selection of accommodations, nor was anyone.  Of course, a strip motel had nothing to do with any debates.  However, it was popular with the goose hunters who started their day at 3 a.m., and were outside revving their motors and shouting to each other while the host of the show, Erica Glasener, and the crew tried without success to sleep.

We didn't have cellphones back then, so Kathryn called me from the local Walmart to say they were out buying warm clothing.  It was sleeting and frigid the morning of the first two days of shooting.  Perfect, I said, for a show about hollies.  Very wintry.  That's the atmosphere we want.

When they returned home, I was delighted with the show they came up with.  Bon walked Erica through holly orchards, both deciduous (ones that drop their leaves) and evergreen.  The sleet coming down changed to a light snow.  It was magical.

But then, Bon got Erica to climb into one of his little planes on his grass runway.  I could tell by the footage that when he pretended to rev up the engines and start down the strip, she was terrified.  Luckily, the takeoff didn't happen.

That was at least 15 years ago, and Kathryn has never let me forget the sleet or the Lincoln Motel or the goose hunters.  But since seeing that show, I've wanted a holly orchard.  Well, the other day, I got started.  Better late than never.  I bought one Ilex verticillata 'Winter Red' and the male holly that pollinates it - 'Southern Gentleman'.  Now, I'm irritated that I only bought the one female holly.  Two plants do not an orchard make.  The nursery only had three more, so I've got to call and see if they have any left.  They close on Friday for two months.

All this to say that I am going to plant the two hollies (I'll keep my fingers crossed for more) next week.  They will go in a sunny spot in a river bottom garden at the farm where there is a deer fence.  I'll worry about the birds when the time comes.  For the moment, I'll enjoy the expensive cut stems I bought and think of my future orchard where I'll be walking along (not in the sleet, I hope), selecting berries for my Christmas decorations.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Taking comfort in the Christmas rose

The world is upside down today.  I should have known when I looked out my kitchen window this morning and saw a red fox looking up at an eight point buck, right there together.  What were they thinking?  The blurry picture I took after hastily grabbing my camera doesn't really say.

Yesterday at about this time, I was puzzling over the fact that our church was about to take down the most beautiful poinsettia tree we've ever had.  Our flower guild had spent a fortune on it, and it was up for one day, and that was it.  I was just sick over it.  I hate wasting money, especially in this great time of need, and if we'd only known maybe three weeks sooner, we could have canceled the order and not spent the money.  That all seemed so important yesterday.

But today my head is spinning with deep sorrow.  I am devastated over the loss this morning of my friend Rosa Haynes.  Rosa turned sixty-six Saturday before last, the day after she was taken to the ICU with pneumonia.  She worked all her life cleaning people's homes, although she wasn't as big as a minute.  The instant she walked in, you felt her good cheer and her concern, always for you, and never complaining of her own chronic illness and meager finances.

Rosa was quiet and had great dignity, with never a drop of self pity or resentment for her own lot in life.  She loved animals, and they loved her.  My late pit bull rescue always knew when it was Thursday.  He took up a position at the upstairs window well before Rosa was due to come.  Then, he would go wild with joy when he saw her car top the hill of the driveway.  Helen Fraser, another employer, said that her cat Tomato would have nothing to do with anyone, but adored Rosa, and Rosa adored him.  Helen had been set to take Tomato for a visit when Rosa went to the hospital.  Instead, Helen sent her a tuft of Tomato's fur so she could feel close to him.

Last week, garden designer Marcia Yeager gave me the generous gift of a new Christmas rose, Helleborus niger 'HGC Jacob'.  This morning I went out wandering around, looking at the bird feeders which Rosa had filled so many times over the years and thinking how much she loved flowers, even though she had no place to grow any for herself.

Remembering Marcia's gift, I walked around to the other side of the house to discover that the white buds on the hellebore had opened up.  I dusted off some flecks of mud I'd likely splashed on the plant when I'd watered it.  For some reason this flower brought me some comfort, its face looking out on the chilly morning.

For you, Rosa, heaven will be a place where you'll have your own home with a yard full of flowers and a house filled with dogs and cats.  You'll have your own hummingbird feeder, and, like you did here,  you'll delight when a woodpecker lands on the side of a hickory tree outside the window.  You'll be able to watch over your beloved son and daughter and grandchildren, and there won't be any financial worries.  And maybe best of all, it will be a place where cars never, ever need new tires or break down and leave you stranded on a busy road.

Missing you always, dear Rosa.  You made the world a better place and were such an inspiration to so many, though you were way too humble to ever know it.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Talk of structure and bones

As other garden columnists know, when it comes to the late fall and winter months, it's a challenge to come up with subjects that are topical.  Here in the South, most shrubs and trees are best planted then.  And yes, we do have interesting bark and berries and flowers like camellias and hellebores that provide winter blooms.

But it's also a time when many specialty nurseries are closed, and if you have to provide a source for a plant (which I had to), you were really limited.  And, even though many gardeners had some winter flowering shrubs and perennials, there weren't many people who wanted their gardens photographed in a down time. So, my fellow columnists and I ended up talking a lot about structure and ornaments, and evergreen plantings that we referred to as the "bones" of a garden.

Depending on your tastes and the gardening style that goes with your house, some sort of evergreen structure can often help define spaces and can enhance the beauty of flowering annuals, perennials or shrubs.

For instance, if you take the above photograph of a boxed in border, you can imagine that this area would look pretty good, even in the dead of winter.  In spring, bulbs like tulips, hyacinths and scilla would have a nice evergreen backdrop.  Ditto, pansies and violas.  In summer, a mix of tall and low growing annuals and perennials would benefit from the combination of green and other colors.

When I think of bright flowers which could use some organization and some green structure, I think of the mother's garden in the tear jerker movie Terms of Endearment.  I was never able to watch it again because of the sadness, but I do remember Shirley MacClaine's garish flowers that stuck out like a sore thumb.  It was a comic relief in all the tragedy.

So, a general statement about evergreen structure:  whether you have a garden with formal or informal elements, evergreens will look great in the winter, and make everything else look good in the other seasons, as well.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

View from the top (of my car)

I was desperate.  I needed a photograph of the fruit of the wonderful small tree, Crataegus viridis 'Winter King' (common name: hawthorn) for my column in the newspaper.

There was only one possibility I could think of without driving 60 miles one way - the Publix at a shopping center across town.  I had noticed the trees a couple of years before, thinking what a good choice for a parking lot.  'Winter King' has white flowers in spring, nice fall color and best of all, persistent red fruit in winter.  As a bonus, the bark becomes more beautiful as the tree matures and begins to exfoliate.  Gray strips peel away to reveal a cinnamon color.  Altogether, a great small ornamental tree.

The only problem was, when I drove up to the grocery store, the trees, though usually slow growing, were taller than I anticipated.  I circled around and waited for a parking space next to the trees.  I was in luck.  Someone pulled out after just a couple of passes.

Then, the embarrassing part.  I backed into the parking spot, got out and climbed onto the roof of the car.  At the time, I was driving an SUV (today, I wouldn't be able to stand on my Honda Civic).  Soon, I had my camera pointed at the gorgeous red berries.

"What do you think you're doing, lady?" a gruff, booming voice came from below.  I froze, picturing the manager of the Publix who was going to get me for trespassing.  I turned around to see a pleasant looking man, probably about my age.  He broke out in laughter.

I bumbled out an explanation, telling him all the wonderful features of this Southeastern native tree and why I was going to such lengths to get a photograph.  He said he'd often wondered about the trees, thinking all along they were some kind of holly.

The next thing I knew, he asked if I'd like to have lunch with him some time.  Again, I started fumbling for words.  I had been newly widowed, so I had no idea about what to do.  I said I didn't think my husband would like that.

Did I miss my chance?  I don't think so.  He probably wasn't Jack the Ripper, but it just didn't feel right.  Over a decade has passed since that encounter, so I don't think I could garner such an invitation if I tried this caper again.  I did get a picture - though not the sharpest.  Still, you can see how this is just about the perfect tree for the winter landscape.

Note:  Plant in full sun.  An ideal spot would be in front of a bank of tall evergreens.  That way you can appreciate the bright red color and beautiful bark in winter.  Grows to about 20 feet tall.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Thinking of places I'd like to be

Yesterday was a cold, gray day, and I was doing a bit of daydreaming.

Instead of putting lights on my Christmas tree or vacuuming or doing laundry, I sat looking at photographs, inventing yet another house and garden in France where I would welcome friends and family from home.  

My place would be on a canal where I could watch ducks paddle softly by.  I would have a garden with lavender and espaliered apple trees. There would be a weeping willow hanging over the walls, almost touching the water.  In the spring, I'd pick armloads of lilacs (not something we have a lot of here in Georgia) and big cabbage roses and peonies in June.  The French doors of my small house would lead out onto a terrace covered by an arbor of wisteria (which would not go wild like it does here) where I would host lunches of cheese and bread and carottes rapees.

This scene doesn't have my willow, but I think I can make out some espaliered fruit trees (those may be grape vines).  I like the color of the lilacs, too.  And there's a hedge.  I loved clipped hedges.

I took this photograph year last year when I spent a week in Paris in May with my dearest friend from childhood.  She rented an apartment on the Ile St. Louis, and we ventured out from there.  She had given me a guide book called An Hour from Paris, or something like that.  I chose this little village for a day's excursion, and after some harrowing moments in the wrong train station, we finally made it here as they were closing up the market, which was a disappointment.

But then we started walking along the narrow canals and crossing the bridges.  It was a beautiful day, and we walked to the edge of the town where a river flowed by.  On the other side was a pasture with an apple orchard and cows grazing serenely.  A plaque on an ancient house said Corot had lived there in 1873.

My friend and I are going back to Paris this June, so I'll keep looking for the perfect little village.  I'll  keep this one in mind.  I don't think it's the one, but I really like the idea of the canals around every corner.  At any rate, it's nice to think about fragrant lilacs and lavender and roses and a sun splashed garden while sitting here on a gray, wintry day.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Not tonite, deer

Years ago, at a small nursery on the Kitsap Peninsula in the state of Washington, I saw some ceramic tiles for sale. They said, "Not tonite, deer".  The owner said you could hang them in your garden to keep the deer away.  "It works about as well as anything," he joked.    Even though I had no deer problems, I chose a mustard colored one to give to a friend who did.

But that was then.  Now, I need my sign back.

The above photograph is of the magnificent bark of a Cryptomeria japonica 'Yoshino' that belongs to my friend Claire Crumbley.  It's at the edge of her beautiful garden out in the country south of Atlanta.

This big, handsome trunk is something I might never have.  Claire planted the tree in 1994.   If I subtract 1994 from 2011, that means that in 17 more years, I'll be quite old (who was it who told me, "You should never put off planting.  If you're going to be that old anyway, you might as well have a nice, big tree.").

Cryptomerias are super fast-growing, making them very desirable if you want something tall to screen your neighbor out.  I planted four several months ago.  They were nice and healthy and straight and about five feet high.  The caliper of the trees was not too impressive, but knowing their rate of growth, I figured I'd be cutting foliage for Christmas decorations year after next.

It was not to be, thanks to the bucks around here (I remind you that I live in the city limits of Atlanta; the deer arrived about a half dozen years ago).  I went up one day to find one of my trees broken in half.  Someone had scraped his antlers a little too hard.  The one next to it was missing bark as well, but it was still standing.

Then, on Friday, a tree crew came to take down a 100 foot tall pine tree that had started leaning toward the little cottage that was practically destroyed by my neighbor's oak on June 18th of this year.  Only a few feet away was one of my cryptomerias.  A crew member assured me that they could take down the pine without injuring the small tree.

After the last truck rumbled out of here, I went up to look at the site.  The top of the tree was gone.  I could see some of its foliage buried under the debris from the pine.  I was sick.  I went into my, "I should have..." mode.  I should have gotten them to dig the tree and move it.

But back to the deer.  I examined the broken-off tree and saw that a buck had rubbed it after all.  One side was completely raw.  I don't know if it would have made it anyway.

I know that bucks like little evergreens.  At the farm, just about every spindly cedar and pine along their route has been rubbed.  Same here, plus they've wounded many deciduous trees, too.  Why I thought my cryptomerias would be exempt, I don't know.

After the first wound, I put out some Milorganite (a fertilizer manufactured from Milwaukee sewage sludge; said to deter deer) around the trees.  That seemed to work for a while, but in the world of deer repellents, nothing is forever.  My best bet is to put up a deer fence.  Since I can't afford that right now, I need to get my sign back.  Otherwise, I have no hope for a cryptomeria as beautiful as Claire's.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Snowballs up high

A rainy April day, and I'm once again in Margaret Moseley's garden.  Flowers are everywhere - down low, up high.  Everything is green and fresh.  Camellias and hellebores from the winter garden are still blooming here and there.  Tall blue scilla and a special purple-hued Phlox divaricata have popped up in the beds around tall trees.  Some of the large flowering clematis are out.  Azaleas - mostly in pastel colors - are in full flower along the wide grass paths.  Despite the steady rain, it's a magical place.

The tree above that looks like a hydrangea on steroids is technically a shrub - Viburnum macrocephalum.  
It is the largest of all the snowball viburnums, with giant sterile flowers that sometimes measure eight inches across.  Margaret has at least two of these giants in her viburnum collection.

Viburnum utile 'Eskimo' in yesterday's post usually only grows to about five or six feet.  Viburnum macrocephalum can reach 20 feet in our climate.  This particular viburnum gives you a show for about a month.  First, the flowers that start appearing in March look like lime green half-domes.  As the season progresses, the shape becomes more round.  Then, you have a mass of mint green giant balls.  Finally, everything turns white.  It is nothing short of breathtaking.

One September, as I was driving carpool for one of my daughters, I pulled up to a house and saw a shrub I'd never seen before.  It was the oddest looking thing, with domes of cream-colored flowers.  The foliage looked vaguely familiar, but the leaves seemed to be pointing down.  All of a sudden it dawned on me that this was Virburnum macrocephalum, which will sometimes flower in September.  It hardly bears any resemblance to its springtime self, however.

Okay.  Any discussion of other flowering viburnums can wait until spring.  I just had to include the above photograph while snowballs were on my mind.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dreaming of pure white snowballs

Last week, I got the phone call with a message I've heard many times over.

"You ought to be out here today.  It's the prettiest it's ever been."

It was Margaret Moseley, 95, calling me to say that along her driveway, the sasanquas were creating a cascading fountain of pink and white some 20 feet tall.  Not only that, her Camellia sasanqua 'Yuletide' was covered in red flowers.  "You can't even see the leaves," she said.

I had a doctor's appointment (the kind you book a year in advance), and I couldn't get out there with my camera.  I was sick over this, because that night they were predicting the first hard freeze.  I live 25 miles away, and to get there, I have to go through downtown Atlanta.  If you've ever been here in a car, you know that traffic deadlock can occur at any time of the day.   After 2 p.m., you don't have a fighting chance.

So, I missed the peak of the sasanquas, although I did catch some early blooms.  Next year, I'll know to go at least every 10 days.  I can't miss this again.

I'm going to plan ahead, too, to catch Margaret's viburnum collection in bloom next spring.  It's a situation where I'll need to go often, since all of the shrubs don't bloom at the same time.

Here's one I caught at the height of perfection.  It's Viburnum utile 'Eskimo'.  I must have taken 20 photos of these exquisite flowers.  They were the purest white, and because this cultivar, introduced by the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., doesn't grow as high as the largest snowball, Viburnum macrocephalum (Margaret's are now huge trees - breathtaking, but hard to photograph the giant blooms up high), I was able to get some good close-ups.

Margaret has many viburnums that are sweetly fragrant, and her garden is filled with perfume when they are in bloom.  'Eskimo' doesn't have any fragrance (despite a fragrant parent), but what it lacks in that department, it makes up for in beauty and a more compact size.  This is a good choice for a smaller garden.

I will add that Margaret makes sure her flowering shrubs have a good backdrop.  If this plant were sitting by itself in a lawn, it wouldn't be nearly as showy.  But backed by the dark green foliage of camellias and sasanquas in Margaret's garden, it's near perfection - truly a snowball to dream about.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A simple scene, deconstructed

Kathryn MacDougald, my co-executive producer of A Gardener's Diary on HGTV, always teased me about my idea of having a series where we would show beautiful garden scenes and then deconstruct them.  That is, we would have a gardener point out, say, an arch covered in roses leading to a lushly planted shade garden.  The featured person would reveal that she had used a simple iron arch she'd bought through a mail order catalog, had planted a single climbing 'Iceberg' rose and a jackmanii clematis to grow up together, and made a gravel path lined with tiny hostas, backed by ostrich fern and boxwoods.  The viewer then, would be able to re-create the scene and know exactly how to translate the vignette to his own back yard.

We never pitched that show, but we've continued to laugh about my obsession with always wanting to deconstruct everything I see.

So, what does this have to do with the above photo?  I'm about to deconstruct this tiny scene at the back of my entrance hall.  I sort of thought it was pretty when I absent-mindedly threw it together last year.  I plan to make the same little tableau this year, but it will be more carefully arranged.

First of all, ignore the place in the wall that was never repaired when a pipe broke on the washing machine upstairs.  That's not part of the deconstruction, but if you noticed it, I wanted you to know what happened.

Now, look at the table.  It has a faux-painted top, and when I saw it in an antique shop some twenty years ago, I was willing to sell my soul to the devil to have it.  I was so proud of it - dark green legs and drawers that all looked old and this wonderful marbelized top, worn from its hundred and fifty years of existence.  It was all great until a decorator was at a party at my house and said condescendingly, "Oh, I remember when (name of antiques dealer) had those tables."  THOSE tables?  This wasn't a one-of-a-kind from a village in Provence?  I was crestfallen, especially knowing that it had been criminally overpriced.

Then, there are the decoys.  My husband collected these for years.  Speaking of obsessions, he always wanted a merganser (that's the one with the pointy thing on the back of his head).  When he finally found one at another collector's sale, he was beside himself.  Not a week later, he noticed that the beak had been broken off.  The cleaning lady had come and apparently dropped it on the floor.  It was not a pleasant moment, and he ignored the poor thing from then on.

These aren't his best ducks, and you don't see his prized geese.  And, the shore bird I bought at a flea market.  It's neither old or very well done, but I had always wanted one.

Now, for the arrangement.  Inside that Take it for Granite planter from Home Depot (no joke; that's the name of the company that made this from some sort of lightweight, composite material) are five clear glasses from the cupboard.  They're filled with water and hold boxwood and variegated pittosporum clipped from my yard.

And there you have it.  This year, I'll choose some better ducks, and I'll be more careful with the greenery.  I've just planted another variegated pittosporum, so I should have enough plant material to last many years.  Maybe I'll even plant that imaginary garden scene with the clematis and the roses and deconstruct that for you sometime in the future.  That would be a lot more interesting.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A garden's evolution just outside Paris

In The French Connection, posted on this site on October 4, 2011, I gave an introduction to the garden of my very witty and charming South African friend Carol, whom I met at a ski resort in the winter of 1971.  Carol married Luc Tessier, an architect from Paris, and has lived in France all of her adult life.  For 20 years, she worked at the Louvre, doing workshops for children.  Her young charges would spend an hour in the museum in front of paintings and an hour doing practical and creative work.  Carol also worked with mentally handicapped adolescents and adults.  She published several books, one of which I own (Histoires d'enfants dans la peinture francaise).

Carol is from Johannesburg, and grew up in a gardening family.  According to Carol, her mother, though greatly interested in their multi-acre garden, was the type to stand with her "impeccably painted nails and diamond ring, giving out instructions on what to dig or do".

Although Carol has fond memories of her father and the olives he grew and prepared from the garden, it was her beloved grandfather Bonkie who was her greatest inspiration.  "...I think my real love for gardening came from Bonkie who had a very wide knowledge of plants. When I was about five he remarried and moved to a wonderful large garden not far from us, where I spent numerous weekends pottering around with him and feeding the birds.  I have a special soft spot for hellebores, as Bonkie had a wonderful collection.  He had originally brought the seeds out from England, and I later managed to bring some of his hellebores (hidden in a suitcase) back to my garden in Asnieres."

Carol says her own garden, which is about the size of "a large Wimbledon tennis court", has evolved over the years.  She and Luc originally decided on the shape of beds by laying out hosepipe and looking at the result from an upstairs window.  At first the back of the garden was wild, and her three girls delighted in playing among the lilac bushes.  Eventually, this area was tamed.

She's had to use restraint, Carol says, as her memories of the large South African gardens tend to make her try and pack in too many plants in the given space.  In fact, she says they're often so close that they literally suffocate. "Luc says that he would prefer not to be a plant in our garden!"

Carol took the above photograph of a section of the garden in summer (I'm guessing, because of the pink phlox in full bloom).  Luc may have a point about the crowding of plants, but Carol's artistic talent definitely translates to the garden in this beautiful composition.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Christmas colors in nature

A Japanese maple down the street holds its leaves well into December when it turns a brilliant red.  Others, like the seedling-grown tree next to my side door is totally bare now. When I talked to Japanese maple collector Bill Hudgins last month, he said this was an unusual year.  Many of the trees had turned early, while others still looked like full summer.

I captured this scene in early December one year - Christmas colors in nature.  The cast iron plant at the lower right stays green all winter.  The trick to growing it is to make sure it's in at least medium to heavy shade.  Put them in a lot of sun, and the leaves burn and turn yellow.  I have one plant that was rescued from a site about to be bulldozed.  It's doing okay now, but the deer decided to sample it a couple of years in a row.  So far, this year, no one's partaken of the dark, striated leaves.  Northerners would know this as a house plant.

At the top right is a plant I love.  Florida leucothoe has been renamed Agarista populifolia from Leucothoe populifolia.  It's one of the few broadleaf evergreens that works in heavy shade.  In fact, it needs to be in shade to maintain the dark green color as shown above.  The shrub is native to the Southeast, especially in the deep South where it grows along streams.  At our church, we use the foliage from a Flower Guild member's garden.  She has a 40 foot long hedge.  The foliage lasts so long that we can use it from week to week.  The only drawback is that the hedge is pruned in early spring, and the new growth is too fresh to last in arrangements.  I just read that this leucothoe is easily rooted in summer.  I've got to get this going, as I have plenty of shade and would love to be able to cut the long, arching stems for arrangements.

Here's the only drawback.  Cast iron plant grows great in places like Charleston, New Orleans and Savannah.  It does well in Atlanta, too, but it can be hurt when we have wild dips in temperature in winter.  My plant did survive a cruel cold spell a couple of years ago when the fig vine on a wall was killed to the ground.  Florida leucothoe fares better, but I don't think we've been tested since the early 1980's, when two years in a row, we went to below zero degrees.  Dr. Dirr says it will grow from Zone 6 or 7 to Zone 9.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The year of the golden holly

It was my lucky day.  December 6, 2008.  I stopped by Wilkerson Mill Gardens near my hometown of Palmetto, Georgia.  Elizabeth Dean and Gene Griffith are the husband and wife owners of this nursery that has provided gardeners everywhere with wonderful, unusual plants (they're open only on certain weekends in the spring and fall; most of their business is mail order from

At any rate, Gene and a couple of other guys were sitting by a fire out in the open.  I looked and saw several branches of the deciduous holly, Ilex verticillata 'Winter Gold', lying there, waiting to be thrown on the pyre.  I began to protest, and Gene pointed out that these particular branches had some bad places and couldn't be sold.  I begged for mercy.  They didn't look so bad to me.  Gene graciously let me have the doomed holly.

Back home, I culled the offending berries (there weren't that many) and attached the branches to a chandelier in my breakfast room.  I added some cedar from the farm, and if I do say so myself, it looked beautiful, although a little sloppily done.

Next, I found a Provencal tablecloth I'd bought in France but never used.  It was mostly green and yellow with a few gold touches.  In the middle of the table, I put a glazed green and terra cotta bowl (also purchased in France) and filled it with oranges.

That room, with a mixed green garland around the French doors, looked really pretty.  The orange berries held up just fine.  I meant to send Gene and Elizabeth a picture, but never did.  Maybe I'll post one a bit later in December to show how lovely the almost-lost berries turned out.