Friday, March 30, 2012

Yes, we do have wild azaleas

Before we started out on Sunday, Richard Grace, who is an expert on vintage military jeeps, asked if there were any wild azaleas on the farm.

No, I said.  I went on to explain that I was surprised there aren't more native flowers besides the buckeyes that are all through the woods.  There had been a tiny patch of bloodroot on a hill, but it's been years since I've seen any evidence of the plants.  I would think there would be trilliums and trout lilies, but I've never seen any of those, either.  In late summer, there is a lone cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) by the creek, and I've also seen a fire pink (Silene virginica), but that's about it.  Oh, and an Itea virginica along the creek, but I believe that's no longer there.  I'll know later on in April.

After stopping at the wild Easter lilies, we started across the wide shoals.  I looked down toward the property line and saw a mass of light pink.  Stop, I yelled.  I jumped out and went sloshing down the creek with my heart beating wildly, and there they were.  One on each side of the water.  I'm almost sure this is the Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens), although I didn't detect any fragrance.

What you see above are the thick buds that will open up into orchid-like blooms of pink and white that look like honeysuckle on steroids.  I chose this photograph so you could see the wide shoals and the 1950 jeep in the background.  Those buds may be open this weekend.  I'll be sure to go and see.

One word about the location.  I've mentioned that I used to go all around the farm, starting when I was 12.  These shoals were a favorite spot, with wide flat surfaces that stepped down with tiny waterfalls.  Through the years, family and friends have had cookouts and picnics down there.  It is a magical place, spoiled only if the flight pattern into Hartsfield-Jackson happens to be overhead.

To get to where the azalea was on the near bank, I had to pass over a place that still gives me chills.  Once, as my fellow 12-year-old friends, Mary Alice Langley and Linda Jackson and I were making our way through the craggy, misshapen trees along the water, I almost stepped on what I thought was a huge dark, thick snake coiled next to a tree stump.  I screamed, and the three of us ran a mile without stopping, through the fields and back up to the old, abandoned farmhouse where I had parked the jeep.

I had recounted the story countless times and always insisted that it was a giant water moccasin.  When I told Richard, the jeep owner, who knows all about snakes, he said that was impossible, that there aren't any in this part of Georgia.

I don't know what I saw that day; if it was a snake, it wasn't a skinny one.  It was years before I dared climb to the same spot.  Then, when I finally did, I wasn't even sure where it was.  I think the stump had rotted.

Nevertheless, I was cautious last Sunday, as I had to climb up and over the place to get to the exquisite pink blooms.  You can bet I was looking down the entire time.  One can never be too careful.  An errant water moccasin could have lost his way, like the one must have done so many years ago.

Note to native azalea experts:  Could this be Rhododendron arborescens in this area?  I am sure it was not a flame azalea of any kind.  I'll check again this weekend to see if I detect any fragrance.  I'm pretty convinced it is R. canescens.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Would Miss Jekyll approve?

I'm just wondering.  How do I get involved in things I know will stress me out and take a lot of time?  Didn't I make a pact with myself that I could and would say no when someone asked me to do something out of my comfort zone?

Yet, here I am.  I just got home tonight after a three day marathon, trying to pull a little scene together for the Cherokee Garden Library at the Atlanta History Center.  There was a big lecture there tonight by garden historian Judith Tankard.  Her newest book is Gertrude Jekyll and the Country House Garden (Miss Jekyll was an English garden designer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).  It was a wonderful talk to a packed house.  A huge success - well, almost.

In the 1980's, I went crazy over English gardens and devoured any book by or about Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West.  A bit later, it was Christopher Lloyd, Rosemary Verey and Penelope Hobhouse.  I knew well what Miss Jekyll's huge borders were like,  how she put hot colors in the middle and went to pastels on the ends.  She loved gray foliage, and leaned towards purples, pale blues and whites.  More than anything, I wanted one of those 100 foot long borders.  Hard to do, when there's not a single flat space on your property or even an hour of sunlight.

But as to the photograph above.  When the nicest person asked if my designer friend Benjie Jones and I would do something for the lecture, it seemed so far away.  But, about two weeks ago, I started having nightmares.  The nice person wanted something besides just a flower arrangement.  I suggested borrowing a Lutyens bench and incorporating some flowers.  Miss Jekyll collaborated with the young architect Edwin Lutyens on countless English manors  (and one French one that I have visited and have written about here).

I tried to pick out flowers that might have been in her borders.  Delphiniums and alliums, for sure.  Some iris and lilies and agapanthus.  There was nothing pink at the wholesaler's except for some stock, which was a funny color.

Another designer, Susan Higley, helped us, and we made borders (no potted plants allowed in the hall) from an English boxwood that was destroyed when a tree fell on my little cottage.  When it was put together, we had to camouflage the oasis with hellebores from my friend Peggy Witt.  She had insisted I take all she had in her front, and thank goodness, I did.

When the bench came this morning, I was shocked.  It had been weathered teak in the garden, which would have looked perfect with the flowers.  But the owner had thoughtfully had it pressure washed and cleaned, and the flowers now looked garish.  Not the weathered scene we had counted on.

Oh well.  The lecture was a huge success, and when some people sat down on the bench, it all looked much better.  Trying to make an English border in an 18 x 18 inch space is not a good idea.  I'm afraid that somewhere in England, Miss Jekyll is turning over in her grave.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The orchid thieves

My daughter Anne is a senior publicist at Simon & Schuster in New York.  She recently worked with Susan Orlean, whose latest book is about the original Rin-Tin-Tin, but who also wrote The Orchid Thief, which had great success.  I remember it as an unsettling story set in Florida.  It gave you an idea of the lengths people go to in order to find an elusive orchid.

But those are tropical orchids, and many of them grow in trees with not so much as a grain of soil.  The ones pictured above - Bletilla striata - are terrestrial orchids.  Someone posted a picture of their bletilla on Facebook, and it created quite a stir.  Several people described their tender, tropical orchids which they'd coaxed into bloom and wondered if these were related.  Not many realized that there are hardy orchids that are great for the garden and more cold tolerant than they appear.

The hardy orchids (Bletilla striata) you see above belong to Milton Kuninansky, who has several patches of them growing in his Atlanta garden.   A few years ago, Milton gave me two plants, and now I have three.  Every spring I look forward to seeing the ribbed, papery leaves unfurling from the ground, followed by the magenta flowers on dark stems.  But this year, there's a problem.

After I read the Facebook entry, I went up to check on mine.  Orchid thieves!  The normally long leaves were short and ragged.  Yes, there were blooms struggling upward, but they looked as if they had been cropped, as well.  The deer had selected these plants and ignored everything around them.  I was dismayed, to say the least.

So, I thought I'd better check on some other orchids I discovered some years back.  These I wrote about in an older post entitled The Case of the Mysterious Orchid, on August 29, 2011.  I won't repeat the story, but I will say that for the first time, my original discovery, which is pictured in that post, now has a friend.  There are two distinct plants that will bloom this year.  In addition, I removed some ivy from around a stump and uncovered three more that have bloom stalks.  These latter orchids are quite different from Bletilla striata (which also comes in a white form).  Kevin Holcomb of Atlanta identified the mystery plants for me.  He has a collection of terrestrial orchids, and you can see his comments on the August post.  I was delighted he could make this identification for me.

What I need to do immediately is to make a big circle of Milorganite around the plants in the woods (I've already treated the bletilla), and hope it will keep the deer away.  There are six or seven does that travel together, and they pass very close to where the now not-quite-as-mysterious orchids are growing (actually, I'll forever wonder how they came to be there).

One odd occurrence.  When I wrote about Bletilla striata for the Atlanta Journal & Constitution, I received several letters from a prison.  I never knew if they were for real or not.  Why would a garden orchid could stir up so much interest among inmates?  Another orchid mystery I'll never solve.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A wild ride to the wild Easter lilies

I was twelve years old when my parents bought a farm outside our little town.  At the time, Daddy had an old Air Force jeep, which is the vehicle I learned to drive on.  In small towns, we took to the roads early, and by the time I was 13, I had already burned out a clutch on the "three in the floor", navy blue jeep.  One of my favorite pastimes was to gather a load of friends and bounce them all over the place as I went way too fast over the fields and splashed through the rocky shoals at the farm.  The highlight was to dump everyone into the pasture and have them run for their lives from Pudgy the fierce bull.  Sort of an early prequel to The Hunger Games.

Fast forward, um, several decades.  I am back on a beautiful Sunday afternoon (yesterday) in a 1950 Marine Corps surplus jeep, driven with a good bit of bouncing by my older brother's childhood buddy Richard Grace.  He is the go-to person for military jeeps in the U.S.  Once again, I'm riding on the outskirts of the familiar fields and through narrow trails underneath oaks and beeches and pines, and, sorry to say, a lot of sweet gum trees.

But yesterday, there was a mission.  Last spring, as Richard and I were looking for deer trails (I was determined to find some antlers that had been shed; no luck), we came across a huge expanse of granite.  It had been a wet spring, and the mossy top was saturated.  The moment I looked and saw huge patches of narrow glossy leaves, I knew what I'd stumbled upon - Atamasco lilies, or Zephyranthes atamasco.

But it was too early.  There was only foliage.  Time passed, and by the time we rode the jeep to the site, there was one white lily left.  At least I knew.

On Friday, Richard called to tell me he had been to the granite outcropping, and there were hundreds of lilies in bloom.  I said I'd be down on Sunday, although it was going to be hard to wait.

At last, we made our way through Sweet Gum Circle and up to Arrowhead Hill, where we have found pottery shards and arrowheads, and then back down to enter the narrow paths of Kudzu Tangle.  Finally, after changing gears and climbing up a hill where you have to duck or get hit by a branch, I could see them in the distance.

I had chills. It is so thrilling to find native flowers in the wild.  I was bedazzled by the sight and spent a half-hour taking pictures of the all the clumps and many single flowers.  The lilies are pure white and about 12 to 15 inches tall on rather slender stems.  The older ones have a pinkish cast.  There were still some buds, so we hit it just about right.

The only disappointment was the existence of foreign invaders like privet and honeysuckle.  I also clipped some vicious thorns from the middle of several of the clumps.  I'm going to work on ridding the area of these obnoxious interlopers.  Still, their presence didn't take away from the wonder of observing these members of the amaryllis family, hidden in the woods.  I've heard them called wild Easter lilies and also Dead Soldier lilies.  I need to contact my friend who told me about the latter common name.  This means that hers are in bloom, as well.  As the crow flies, she doesn't live very far away.

On the way back through another part of the farm, I discovered something else.  You'd have thought I'd found a treasure chest.  More on this later.  For the time being, I'm thrilled to have captured images of these lilies, as they will disappear later in the season.  I wonder if they were there when I nearly killed my 13-year-old friends.

The photograph above is not my best, but you can see my dog and some more lilies beyond and get an idea of how it must have been to come upon these beautiful flowers in such an inhospitable place.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

I know it's broad daylight, but...

I could write a book about the barred owl goings on around here.  I used to hear a loud clucking sound, and inevitably I would see an owl soon after.  I finally learned that he was sharpening his beak (I hope this is true; someone told me that).

One time, I saw a pair sitting on a limb with their heads together, like lovebirds - way before the day you had a convenient camera on your phone to seize the moment.

Another time, a couple of skinny young ones had flown from the hollow, across the driveway in front of me to a high limb on the other side.  I watched as their new downy feathers drifted down.

Sometimes in the mornings, I'd walk out and feel something watching me.   Sure enough, there he (she?) was, sitting on the crook of a young hickory tree, close enough for me to see every marking.  He just looked at me, then turned his head 180 degrees to check on the noise behind him.

My late sweet dog Deion and I were walking up the driveway around twilight when I saw the owl spread his wings and dive bomb my beloved dog.  No harm done, but it did scare me.

I love listening to their calls to each other in the evenings.  The other night, I heard one further down in the woods, toward the river.  The last two years, they haven't been hanging around so much.  I hope they'll be back.

More wildlife on later posts:  No pictures of the coyotes, though.  They're too quick.

No chickadees need apply

"Sorry, this one's taken."  Enough said.

Is this berry any good?

Yesterday, I forgot to publish the post I'd written.  So, I thought today I'd put in a series showing the wildlife I encounter around my house.  Just this morning, there were two hawks screeching overhead, and the smaller birds were putting up a terrible fuss.

I live in the middle of four acres of woodland in the city of Atlanta.  I've seen a lot of wildlife here, the most surprising being a wolf.  Yes, a wolf.  One night when we still lived in the little 1926 cottage at the back of the property, my husband and I were going out for the evening.  We'd left our new puppy on the deck.

Just as we were about a hundred feet from the street, we stopped.  There was a wolf standing in the middle of the driveway.  My husband said, no way, that's a German shepherd.  "Look how tall it is.  It's a wolf," I cried.  We drove on, and it ran off into the bamboo grove.  I made my husband turn around, and we put the puppy in the house.

A couple of days later, I read in the paper that Congressman Larry McDonald was missing a wolf.  His mother lived directly behind us.  We weren't the only ones who had spotted the wolf.  Others saw it, and finally someone was able to capture and return the creature to its owner.  Tragically, much later, Congressman McDonald died on the Korean flight that drifted into Soviet airspace and was shot down.

Now, to the happier photo above.  I have a bluebird box on the deck at the little house.  Here's a papa bluebird, sitting on a nearby bench, contemplating the berry he's gathered.  Possibly food for the little ones?

A blurry sign - The Book of Revelation?

It happened the 19th of December 2011.  It was maybe nine o'clock in the morning when I looked up to see a buck looking down at something orange.  It was a fox.  The two were much closer than in this picture and standing side by side, one looking down at the other, and one looking up.  I froze.  Then I ran from the kitchen window to find my camera.  By the time I returned, here's what I was able to snap.

Seconds later, I photographed them (clearly this time), but each apart.  Was this like the lions lying down with the lambs?

The phone rang.  It was my friend Rosa's daughter.  She was crying hysterically.  I could make out that she was saying they had given her mother chest compressions, but she had died while her daughter was listening, on her way back from spending the night in the mountains. "I would never had gone," she said ruefully.  No one had figured on this turn for the worse.

I called my friend Helen, also a friend of Rosa's.  I told her about the deer and the fox.  "Rosa was telling you good-bye.  You know how she loved animals."  But, I protested, we only talked about cats and dogs, never wild animals.

A cat or dog wouldn't have gotten your attention, Helen pointed out.

I don't much believe in this sort of thing, but I don't think I'll ever look out my kitchen window and see this combination again.  Whether or not there was any meaning here doesn't much matter.  I will forever look at this picture and feel comforted.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The giant who came to Atlanta

My late mother-in-law used to come to Atlanta from Virginia every year around the first of April.  Although our peak is early this year, the first week of April was reliably the height of the azalea-dogwood extravaganza. We would ride around the neighborhoods, and she would always say the same thing, "It looks like a giant has taken a paintbrush and flung it out over Atlanta."  Not a spring goes by that I don't think of her and how she delighted at seeing the splashy colors of the season.

She would really love it this year.  Everything is happening at once.  The dogwoods are out; some quince is still holding on; azaleas are blooming, giant snowballs are turning from mint green to white, Yoshino cherries are at their peak, and there are a few late daffodils holding on.  Scilla is flowering at least three weeks early; a few late camellias still have flowers as do some of the deciduous magnolias, and pansies and violas are at their most brilliant.  Let's see:  redbuds, some pear trees still white, yellow Carolina jasmine and halesias with their white bells.  And, how could I forget purple wisteria?  Saturday, in my hometown, I went past one of the biggest patches I've ever seen.  I have a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with this thug, which I inherited from previous owners.  Still, the scent is nice in the morning, and the clusters of flowers are lovely.  I've come a long way in eradicating it since the era when it climbed every tree and formed purple castles high above.  My neighbor down the street has a later blooming white wisteria that doesn't seem as sinister.

This morning, I came down Habersham Road and almost wrecked the car at the sight of a yellow banksaie rose in front of my children's pediatrician's house.  Every year, I look forward to seeing this species rose resembling a light yellow fountain flowing to the ground from a tall pine tree.

The photograph above was taken at Kathy Rainer's house on Peachtree Battle Avenue in Atlanta.  You couldn't see this Lady Banks rose from the street - it's on the side of her house.  The first time I ever saw it, I remember walking around the corner and gasping at its size and the spectacle it made as it tumbled down from a balcony.

Tomorrow, we're supposed to have storms.  We need the rain, but I'm wishing I had taken my camera today to try and capture some of the incredible sights.  I imagine it will be even prettier in the next few days.  I don't think the giant has completely finished with his yearly job.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tucked away in the garden

I just dropped by Louise Poer's house to deliver something and, camera in hand, was ready to see what was happening in her garden.  She's always changing things or adding new plants and objects, so one never knows.

But, there was a sign on the door that said, "Baby asleep".  I was crestfallen.  On the front of her house, trained along the eaves, was a yellow Lady Banks rose in full bloom.  Over the front door and to the right near the garden entrance, the Clematis armandii still had a few flowers left.  I was dying to go through the gate and around the house, but her dogs were barking like crazy.  Although she always says to come on in, I figured the dogs would only get worse as I passed by her side and back windows.

Anyway, I've got to go back to see what's there.  For the moment, I'll settle for a previous photograph of this little scene that is tucked in a border along the main path.  Louise scours Scott's Antique Market which comes to Atlanta the second weekend in every month, and she is always finding the neatest stuff.

Louise is an animal lover, which you can tell when you walk into her garden.  A bluebird box is always occupied during the season, and there are all kinds of topiary shapes, the newest being a butterfly.

I particularly love this little house that sits on the ground near the back wall.  Every time I go over there, I bend down and peer into it.  One never knows what might be in there.  In this photograph, a verdigris bird had taken up residence.

Maybe in a few days I can go back over to Louise's.  Things are popping so fast now.  Bill Hudgins called to say I should come over because things are blooming so far ahead of time.  Here's hoping for a cool down, but no freezes to hurt the tender growth.  So much to see - so little time.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

No ivy in sight; it could happen

This morning, Kathryn MacDougald and I went once again to the AT&T store to figure out our cell phone bills, something we do quite often.  My blood pressure held steady, I'm glad to say, but it may have been the first time ever.  I'm crossing my fingers that the fiftieth time is the charm.

Anyway, on our drive there, we started talking about the house where Kathryn lives now.  She and her husband are renting, and, as she always does, she's out there gardening and having a ball.  I asked if she'd like to stay there permanently.  She said she didn't know if she could stand to live very long with so much English ivy around her.  The four acres that go with the house are covered in the evergreen vine.

That's the way it is here (I'm just around the corner from where she lives).  When we moved to this property a zillion years ago, English ivy was already here.  It covered the hills and valleys, went up the trees and tried its best to grow into the 1926 cottage on the back of the lot.  For a long time I didn't try to fight it until I could no longer stand it going up trees.  That's been a battle, but I'm doing pretty well.  The ivy is a cinch compared to Chinese wisteria, which makes this place look like a purple fairyland at the moment - the only time you can forgive this impossible-to-deal with thug.

One year, we went on A Gardener's Diary at Dr. Ferrol Sams's home in Fayetteville, Ga.  He took us all around his woods which he had filled with native plants - Piedmont, Florida and flame azaleas, a double-flowering Florida dogwood, lady slippers, foam flower, trilliums, Atamasco lilies, bald cypress and on and on.  The only non-native I remember was a Davidii involucrata (a.k.a. dove tree, handkerchief tree, ghost tree).   My Suburban broke down, and I was late to the shoot.  I decided to walk by myself down into the woods.  All of a sudden it smelled as if I had run into a giant cat litter box.  The odor was strong.  Then I remembered.  The dove tree.  Cat urine.  That's the scent it emits when the long white bracts are at their peak.  I looked up, and there it was - the largest I've ever seen, the papery white"handkerchiefs" hanging from the branches. A sight to see.

But, I'm off course here.  I came back from Dr. Sams's woods and decided I could no longer let the ivy dominate.  I had to make good wide paths like he had made, so I could have lots of native plants to see at close range.

I'm still covered in ivy, but I see scenes like the above photograph in an Atlanta garden and think how fun it would be to have a part of this ivy-choked woodland cleared to look like that.  Plus, I've never seen an arbor I didn't like.  This one is very appealing.

So, yet another goal for the garden.  A tamed path that winds through the woods, covered by a rustic arbor.  I'm not sure if this is locust wood they've used, but I'm guessing it is.  Right now, I'm about to go out and walk the deer trails (always looking for antlers; a buck that jumped across the driveway in front of me yesterday still had his).  But, I'll also be looking for the right place to do something like the homeowner did above.  There's something very soothing about the scene.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Thinking of another time when spring came too soon

On this last day of winter, if you are anywhere in the dome of heat that is covering the middle and eastern portions of the United States, you are probably wondering, "What is going to happen to spring?"  Many of us are watching records being set, with consecutive days of 80 degree weather.

Already in Atlanta, azaleas and dogwoods are blooming - some are even at their peak.  It is an unusual year, but I'm remembering a spring when we had planned a shoot for A Gardener's Diary, and for one of the only handful of times, we had to cancel.

In the 1940's, Rhoda Ingram, who last year celebrated her 90th birthday, began planting gardens that eventually covered over 30 acres on her farm near Griffin, Georgia.  Year after year, she added dogwoods and azaleas, in addition to many other spring flowering plants, including viburnums like the one pictured above; she also had a collection of deciduous magnolias and many rare trees and shrubs.  I would go down there every year and almost faint over the extraordinary beauty of the place.

Over the decades, Rhoda had kept a good photographic diary of bloom times.  Some years, things would bloom at the same time, putting on a dazzling show.  Other years, the flowers came in succession.  But, she could pretty much rely on the dogwoods and azaleas being at their peak around April 4.

As a scout for the TV series, I was the one who set the dates for the shoots - always a gamble.  So that year, we chose April 4th and 5th.  When March came, I watched in horror as the temperatures rose, and plants bloomed prematurely.  Rhoda and I would talk, and increasingly it became clear that I had made a bad call.  By March 20th, the show was over.  I drove down to her farm on April 1st to see if anything could be salvaged.  When I arrived, I was greeted by thousands of dried brown azalea blossoms all along the boxwood-lined lanes that wove through the property.  The only color was a yellow Lady Banks rose that still had flowers, but was on its way out.  We canceled the shoot for that year.  Although it seemed like an eternity, we were able to go back a couple of years later to do an episode.

But back to the photograph above of Viburnum macrocephalum.  It was taken on April 6, 2008.  Yesterday, as I rode through a residential area of Atlanta, I saw several shrubs (some the size of small trees) already at this stage.  Others were even further along, with more white flowers than green.

My own plant is still in the apple green stage, but in two days, the blossoms have changed from dome-shaped to round.  I am hoping the flowers will be at their pure-white peak on Easter Day, which is April 8th this year.  We shall see.

Note:  A word to all those who live in zones where this plant will grow (N.C. State Arboretum says Zones 6-9):  Although I see more and more of these wonderful plants, I'd like to recommend that, if you have room, you add this to your garden.  Viburnum macrocephalum is the largest of the snowball types.  It has no fragrance, but with gorgeous big, hydrangea-like balls that sometimes measure eight inches across, I figure it doesn't need a scent (although nothing perfumes the garden like the ones that are fragrant).  V. macrocephalum is also very easy to grow.  Mine lived in a pot for years, then was planted at Kathryn MacDougald's house, then moved back here.

The first photograph I have is a slide taken in the late 1980's or early 1990's.  The date was April 21, and the sight was breathtaking - a trio of shrubs on a slope overlooking a garden pool.  I have many views of this shrub and will pick one to share with you soon.  I'll also let you know of the plant's progress.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Dreaming of France

There's not much in this scene to qualify as a garden photo (maybe the hedge in front of the first building on the right;  I love how the French will have a random hedge coming up out of the sidewalk), but I keep looking at it over and over and thinking of ancient stone and vines growing up walls and roses covering an arch and espaliered apple trees behind an iron fence that's been painted a million times.

I think I mentioned that my dear friend from grammar school (we didn't call it elementary school for some reason) is renting an apartment in Paris in the Ile St. Louis at the end of June.  The apartment itself is hideously furnished, but the view is amazing.  You look right out onto the flying buttresses of Notre Dame across the bridge on the Ile de la Cite.

Here's the disappointing thing.  I have always wanted to see the roses in bloom at the Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne and also at the Roseraie de L'Hay in the Val-du-Marne, not far from Paris.  The Web site of the latter says to come between mid-May and mid-June for the best flowering.  I'll miss it by a week.  Maybe it's not warm in Europe this year like it is here, and the roses will hold off.  I sort of doubt it, though, as I remember being in Paris in late May, and already roses were blooming.  We shall see.

I'm really posting this particular photograph because it's been a rough week, and looking at the water and the trees beyond is very calming.  At the end of this village, the canals flow into a wide river.  On the opposite bank is an ancient orchard and a peaceful meadow where cows graze in the bright green grass.  It's a good place to think about when your head is spinning with a million different things you have to do.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Name that plant

Someone asked me recently how to take care of a poinsettia fern.  I asked for a picture and received one. I honestly didn't have a clue about this plant.  Chances are, if it's a tropical or house plant, I don't know it.  It's embarrassing.  This happens more than I'd like.

I think it was well over 20 years ago that I was driving along Sandy Plains Road in Cobb County.  All of a sudden out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a group of light pink, spiky flowers.  What in the world?  It was too early for larkspur or foxgloves.  I was going too fast with cars behind me, so there was no way to slow down or even look in the rearview mirror.  Wow.  I would like to have those flowers, I said to myself.

It was several years later when I learned what I had seen.  I found out when a woman brought a forced branch to the Southeastern Flower Show.  Dwarf flowering almond - Prunus glandulosa.  This isn't something I knew about growing up, but later I learned that Margaret Moseley had grown both the white and pink double forms for years.

A couple of years ago, I received a call from an elderly woman.  I can't remember how she had my phone number, but she wanted to see if I could tell her what she had in her yard.  When she said it had three foot tall, fluffy pink spiky flowers, sort of like a peach tree would have, I knew instantly what she was talking about.  Again, the dwarf flowering almond.

The above plant was given to me about 15 years ago by a woman in Athens, Georgia.  A professor at the University of Georgia who wrote a book on vernacular gardens had referred me to this gardener, and I was charmed by her friendliness and by her love of flowers.  I cherish the plant, even though it is in bloom a short time.

I need to move the shrub.  It is crowded in with a gardenia I rooted, and both deserve a better home.  I think I have a place where I can plant both shrubs and have the evergreen back up the deciduous shrub.

Dwarf flowering almond is probably more of a passalong plant than one you'd find in nurseries, but I still take joy in the fluffy pink flowers.  My woody plant guru, Dr. Michael A. Dirr, doesn't think much of the plant and calls it a "bargain basement shrub of many discount stores" and adds that it appears "distraught and alone in summer, fall and winter." This is never going to be a popular plant, but for at least a week in March, I'm glad I have it in my yard.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Viburnums are just around the corner

I nearly had several wrecks today driving around Atlanta.  Things are popping so fast.  I was counting on using some Lady Banks roses for something on March 28, but I don't think that's going to happen.  I could see some yellow showing already, and with temps about to stay in the 80's (!) for a while, I think they'll have bloomed out by the time I need them.

This morning, I talked with Margaret Moseley who is making amazing progress.  I'm sure it is a struggle trying to keep her indoors.  Mike Weathers, who helps her on Thursdays, says there is plenty to see in the garden.  I'm guessing that her viburnums, especially the fragrant ones, are about to bloom.  The macrocephalums are loaded this year, and today I even saw one already showing some white.  I remember when these largest of the ball-shaped viburnums were at their peak on April 21st.  It's definitely going to be earlier this year.

Pictured above is Viburnum x burkwoodii 'Mohawk'.  I'm guessing that the large red buds are really putting on a show at Margaret's right now.  I took this photograph at Wilkerson Mill Gardens with my old camera, so it had to be before 2006.  Looking at the background, you can see that the deciduous trees have not yet leafed out, leading me to think this was sometime in March.

But, for you people who know about butterflies (I think of my high school classmate, Sharyn Altman, who, I must say, looks exactly like she did umpteen years ago when we were in school), isn't it unusual to see these swallowtail (hope that's the kind) butterflies out this early?

This is one of the fragrant viburnums.  It has strong, spicy perfume.  In autumn, its foliage turns a brilliant orange-red.  I also think it's pretty hardy; Dr. Dirr writes that it has bloomed in Ithaca, New York.  'Mohawk' won the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Gold Medal Plant Award for 1993.

I'll give you a report on Margaret's viburnum collection in the near future.  I'm also looking forward to seeing Hugh Schutte's pink snowball, V. plicatum 'Kern's Pink'.  A few years back, the Flower Guild at church had a plant sale.  We only had a few of these sought after viburnums, and Hugh bought two.  One hasn't done well in its spot, but the other, he says, is loaded with blooms.  He has one of the few that hold their pink color.  I'm going out there to photograph his when it's in bloom.  I secretly wish I'd held one back for myself.  Maybe I'll run across one sometime soon.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A garden turns to the East

Bill Hudgins called me yesterday and assured me that, despite the early spring, it is going to be a good year.  I hope he's right.  One thing I know is that I am looking forward to seeing his garden again.  I may have OD'd on the fall color of his Japanese maples (I couldn't help it; I can't tell you how many I did not post, but wanted to), but I am just as excited about the trees as they unfurl in spring.  The colors are spectacular, ranging from deep burgundy to light salmon.

Bill's garden is going to be on the Atlanta Botanical Garden's Gardens for Connoisseurs tour, which is held every Mother's Day weekend.  But, Bill said I should come in a couple of weeks.  He always has plenty of spring bulbs, and maybe I can get a series of shots that will show the garden as the season progresses.

Knowing how I love French, English and Italian gardens, Bill sort of apologized for the fact that his garden is now taking on a more Japanese influence.  He's been to Japan several times lately, and he's adding more Asian plants, like farfugiums (they've changed the botanical name;  I liked ligularia better).

But, no matter what Bill does, it will be wonderful.  He has such an eye for blending different textures, something I think is a real talent.  I like the way he knows the right plants to place next to gray boulders or how he prunes one plant, but leaves the next one in its natural form.  He says he's opened up some views and has been more conscious of his setting - a woodland with natural streams.

My heart is pounding in anticipation, and I will give us all a sneak peek at what we can expect on Mother's Day weekend.  I know of at least two other gardens I love that are going to be on the tour, as well.  If you live within striking distance of Atlanta, I think it's well worth an excursion.  If you're going to your mother's on Sunday, there is a full day of garden touring on Saturday.

The above photograph was taken at least seven years ago, possibly in April or May.  Even then, you got an idea of how Bill blends different leaf colors and textures.  I love the light green of the Ostrich fern against the Japanese maple that is still red, but looks as if it is about to take on its summer color.

Many thanks to Suzanne Boesl who just happened to e-mail me yesterday to say that the episode of A Gardener's Diary featuring Bill Hudgins (it's called Mad About Maples) is currently playing on  I just finished watching it, and my heart is racing, yet again.  Go to and put in A Gardener's Diary and Bill Hudgins or Mad About Maples.  You'll get to see one beautiful garden.

Monday, March 12, 2012

An arrangement that's not as simple as it seems

My mother used to say that I would make a drama out of anything.  I've come to believe she was right.  I  look at the photograph above, taken yesterday at church, and I don't see the lovely arrangement.  I see a dozen stories that almost ended in disaster.

The background:  Saturday night was the wedding of the daughter of an assistant minister and counselor (and author of several books, I might add).  The bride and her mother had requested our Flower Guild team, because of a friendship with Benjie Jones, who usually does the altar.

We had long anticipated what her flowers would look like, sort of English garden-y.  First, we planned to use the urn you see above.  Peggy Witt (our other arranger) discovered it in a storage room a couple of years ago, and our team has used it almost exclusively ever since.

But, about a month ago, another team used the urn and noticed water all over the marble.  They had to take their arrangement down and mop the floor (underneath the marble is the place where they hide the concert grand piano when it's not in use).  The team captain decided the urn was no good because it leaked, so she threw it away.

On that Sunday, when I got word of what had happened, you'd have thought they'd thrown my daughter  in the trash and ground her up.  I went haywire.  I called up the innocent volunteer, saying we had to have the urn back.  She called a church staff person and had all the dumpsters checked.  Apparently, the trash people had come overnight and taken the precious urn away.

But luck was with us.  The head of maintenance at the church said no trash had been collected and that the urn had to be in one of the dumpsters.  Unfortunately, it lay at the bottom of the one the cafeteria uses.  We'd had a church-wide luncheon that day so all the food waste had been thrown on top of it.  I still feel bad for the poor guy who had to retrieve it.  I know how it is to spend hours in a dumpster full of cafeteria food.  When my younger daughter got retainers, the orthodontist told her never, ever to put them on a food tray.  The very next afternoon, I was in the dumpster at her school until dark, when at the bottom of the sludge, I finally felt the wires of the expensive contraptions.

But back to the arrangement.  We ordered hydrangeas, roses, lilies and snapdragons from the wholesale place.  We also had six stems of Alexandrian laurel (Danae racemosa, which I have in my yard, but not enough to share).

But what helped make this composition so beautiful was the magnolia.  At Christmastime, Peggy discovered a vacant lot surrounded by a chain link fence.  Three large magnolias had branches that spread way out to the road, so we figured they would not be included in the "NO TRESSPASSING" sign.  We've only cut a few pieces (good for the tree to be pruned, really), but it took some doing, like standing on the top of Peggy's SUV with loppers.

The aspidistra came from Peggy's yard.  We had used it a couple of weeks ago, and had counted on using it again, but someone had thrown it away.  I pulled several pieces from a trash can full of debris.  Now I see why this is called cast iron plant.  It had been in the trash for at least a week with no water, but it was still plenty fresh.  Those are the long, broad leaves hanging down on the right side.

Then, look at the lower part of the arrangement on the left and also at the top in the middle.  That's flowering peach from the farm.  My mother planted the trees in different colors probably 40 years ago.  I'd been down there a couple of days before and knew the flowers would be perfect, but had no loppers with me.  A friend came by with some bolt cutters, so I was able to get some fluffy branches to add.

Finally, Benjie, our designer, was diagnosed with heart disease, and Friday night, before he was to create the long anticipated arrangement Saturday morning for the evening wedding, he came home from the hospital after a catheterization.  It was a close call, because if he'd had to have a stent, they would have kept him overnight, and he would have missed the window to do the arrangement.

As you can see, it all came out pretty well.  A couple of hydrangeas wilted overnight, but they were likely still fresh for the wedding.  The bride and her mother were pleased, and Benjie is going to be fine. After all, those are the things that really matter.

Friday, March 9, 2012

One more camellia for the season

Yesterday I pulled into the parking lot of an abandoned office in my hometown.  The property is for sale, so I felt it was okay for me to identify the giant camellia that's growing on the side of the building (actually a house converted to an office).  It was Camellia japonica 'Lady Clare'.  I confess that I have been driving into that parking lot for the past several months.  There are some smaller plants under this monster bush, and I wanted to see what the flower looked like before I asked permission to dig.  I think the "babies" are part of the original plant, rather than any kind of seedling (do named camellias produce seed?).  On the other hand, to my knowledge, camellias are not stoloniferous.  The one plant nearest the base did have a 'Lady Clare' bloom on it.  The taller ones away from the trunk had neither flowers nor buds.

I could use some more camellias, even though it will be many years before the 20 inch high plants reach maturity.  'Lady Clare' is a very old camellia and a popular one in this part of the country.  This particular plant is in blazing sun, so it has very dense foliage and is absolutely smothered with blooms.

But, the camellia pictured here is not 'Lady Clare' and has nothing to do with the above story.  This is 'Taylor's Perfection', which is actually a japonica hybrid from New Zealand.  Who else but Margaret Moseley put me onto it (I struggled with using a different photo of a huge cluster of blooms atop her 10 foot high shrub, but vetoed it due to bad light in the background;  this is a bloom down lower on the plant).

Another amazing gardener, Rhoda Ingram, who turned 90 last year, gave me 'Taylor's Perfection' a couple of years ago.  One can understand why it has "Perfection" in its name.  The blooms are so lovely and the color is such a clear pink, it's hard to imagine anything prettier.   The flowers are truly dazzling when they open up and are so finely formed that they appear almost artificial.  The foliage is narrow and unfortunately has proved tempting to the deer.  They've only bothered one side, so I'm hoping they are rejecting this as a food source.

It won't be long until the camellias are finished for the season.  But just now, as I scrolled back through several dozen photographs, my heart was pounding as it does so often when I want every flower I see.  This weekend, I hope I can get out to a local nursery that specializes in camellias and see what they have.  On my list are:  'Magnoliaeflora' (blush pink), 'Nuccio's Gem' (white) and 'White By the Gate'.  Oh, and I need 'Pink Perfection' and 'Berenice Boddy' and so many others, now that I think about it.  This is going to be difficult.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

How daffodils made a difference

When I was young, my mother would take me to Rich's department store in downtown Atlanta.  That's where she did most of her shopping and where I bought most of my clothes.  I even got my wedding dress there, and to the great chagrin of my bridesmaids, their dresses, as well (one bridesmaid said they looked like a line of creamsicles marching down the aisle).  I defend myself in that there wasn't much choice at the time.

If you live in and around Atlanta, you know that Rich's is long gone.  But in my mind, I can still see just about every floor on both sides of the bridge.  I can also picture myself, tagging along with my mother and being almost sick with boredom and impatience as she studied the flowers in the horticultural exhibits which were held in the department store.  I particularly remember her lingering over the daffodils, because they belonged to someone my mother greatly admired - Berma Abercrombie.  Never did I dream that the person who grew those flowers would one day change my life forever.

It would take days and days for me to tell you about this remarkable woman.  The short version is that she was a charter member of the Georgia Daffodil Society and several other plant groups, and that she and another woman would regularly take all the blue ribbons at the Rich's show.  She was known to daffodil hybridizers all over the world.  She even raised special cattle because their manure was particularly good for flowers.

Many years later, when I was working for a magazine, I had this idea that I sent in to the Atlanta Journal & Constitution.  I suggested that they needed to profile the fascinating people who were gardening and specializing in certain flowers.  It would be a great way to introduce plants and get advice from experts on how to grow them.

I sent a letter outlining what I thought they should do.  As fate would have it, someone I knew had just started working at the paper and intercepted my letter.  She showed it to her editor, and he called and asked me to write a sample article.

In the meantime, my mother had told me more about Berma Abercrombie, who lived near where Mama grew up between Rico and Roscoe in south Fulton County.  I called her up to set up an interview.  I went there on a cold, windy day in late February.  As I neared her house, I started noticing daffodils growing in the ditches along the road.

Berma was a diminutive woman who suffered at that point from macular degeneration (she was in her 80's).  We sat in a cozy room in her antique farmhouse, surrounded by daffodil (more correctly, narcissus) catalogs from as far away as Australia.  While she had only some peripheral vision, she was still able to point out several types of flowers in her yard, including her beloved 'February Gold.'  She also had bird feeders set up outside a big picture window and used binoculars to watch the action.  In addition to her interest in horticulture, she was a respected ornithologist, as well.

A month later, my sample article on Berma took up almost the entire front page of the Home & Garden section of the Atlanta Journal & Constitution.  At that point, my career took a major turn, and I began what would be a 21 year stint as a columnist for the paper.  Berma's article drew all sorts of attention and brought in offers from magazines.  This all eventually led to the collaboration with two partners to create A Gardener's Diary on HGTV.

Once again, I've left out so many interesting facts about Berma Abercrombie's accomplishments (I haven't even mentioned her incredible peonies, nor the day lilies, iris and chrysanthemums she grew).  Most of the photographs I have of her yard are in the form of slides.  Soon, I hope to have these converted to digital images so I can show you more of her flowers (oops.  I have to admit that these are not her daffodils shown here).

It's pretty amazing to look back now and realize that this one person changed the direction of my life.  It is so fortunate that her nephew and his wife (yet another wonderful story) have restored the farmhouse and taken care of the land where Berma enjoyed gardening and sharing her prized flowers and her great knowledge with so many others.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The hunt for the red camellia

Back in the early 2000's (that sounds so weird), I went to a garden in the Tidewater Virginia area.  The owner and I were walking down this long, shady path, really more like an allee, since it was straight and rather narrow, when I stopped dead in my tracks.  There, in front of me was the reddest, most beautifully formed camellia - really one of the prettiest flowers I'd ever seen.

"What is this?" I asked.  "I have to have it."

"I haven't the slightest idea," came the answer.  "It was given to me without a tag.  I'm not sure it even had a name.  It could be an unnamed variety."

I rather doubt that latter statement, because if a flower is that magnificent, it would have surely been selected and named.  I was disappointed, but figured I could find a similar one somewhere.

The following winter, I did see a photograph in the Monrovia catalog of a stunning, large red camellia that had to be the twin to the Virginia camellia. I was ecstatic.  But then came the let down.  You may remember  the year sudden oak death fungus was discovered in Monrovia's camellias in one of their California nurseries.  Every plant had to be destroyed.  This camellia was one of them.

But, that's the fun of being a plantaholic.  I will find that big, red-red camellia again.  A couple of times recently, I've stopped my car to see if what looked like a large red camellia could be the one.  So far, there have been some good ones, but not one is quite red or large enough.

I took the above photograph in Margaret Moseley's garden last Friday.  This flower isn't as big, but the color is close.  She has a book with pictures of just about every named Camellia japonica, so maybe I can find the elusive red camellia there.  It's a formal double, the color of maraschino cherries and maybe five inches across.  It's not a reticulata, because it was hardy in a similar climate to ours.

I just went upstairs to see if I could find the Monrovia catalog, as I never throw anything away.  I had multiple copies from several years, but I can't locate a single one now.  But, I will keep looking.  I think I can find this camellia or one that will do just as well.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Some forgotten hyacinths and pages from My Adventure Book

Yesterday in Sunday School, our former assistant minister taught our class.   He used the animated film Up from Pixar to illustrate his lesson.  Twice, he had us in tears, showing the love story of Carl and Ellie.  As a tomboyish girl, Ellie kept a scrapbook, which she dubbed "My Adventure Book."  The two grew up and get married and saved for a trip to South America, which they never took.  When Carl is old and Ellie has died, he looks at her book, expecting to see great dreams Ellie must have had.  But Carl discovers something.  Ellie has only put their real lives into her book.  That was her adventure.

When I snapped this picture last week of some hyacinths I picked and without much thought put in the living room, I didn't realize that pages from "My Adventure Book" were right there on the top of a mahogany chest.

First of all, I forced these hyacinths well over 30 years ago, then planted them in a place I seldom go in the woods.  Every year, I forget about them until I see their jewel-like color popping up.  I always pick them so I can enjoy the sweet scent indoors.

Next, the piece of furniture itself was bought with my retirement money from five years as a high school teacher.  I can't remember how much I received when I quit, but my husband and I rather foolishly spent every last dime on antiques.

The darkened silver mirror was a wedding present to my maternal grandmother from my grandfather.  I don't know the year - 1902, perhaps.  The engraving - my grandmother's new monogram - is exquisitely done.

The photograph on the left is my older daughter Anne at age six.  It was taken in the south of France, where we rented a house with another couple.  One magical evening on that trip, we had champagne at a hotel in Eze, high above the Mediterranean, where we watched the twinkling lights of Cap Ferrat as dark fell on the sea below.  It was my husband's 40th birthday.

There's a photo from our wedding on a hot, humid night in August 1973.  My dress had long sleeves and a high neck.  You can see my bouquet of gardenias, which ended up rather brown at the edges by the time I tossed it to the bridesmaids.

In the tall silver frame is a picture I tore from my Cole Porter Songbook.  It's of Rita Hayworth (she was so beautiful) and Fred Astaire.  This immediately recalls the many years my husband and I hosted what we called the "Old Friends Dinner" at Christmastime.  It was a mixture of his friends and mine, and we always ended up in the piano room, with raucous singing till two in the morning.  We'd go through music by Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and Irving Berlin and throw in Broadway tunes, as well.  We'd always end up with The Road to Mandalay, my husband's (who was tone deaf - with apologies to his late mother who insisted someone told her he had great musical talent) favorite.  He was a great fan of Kipling, and by some odd chance, I happened to have this sheet music left from high school (I congratulate myself for having practiced until I could master the sections written in six flats).

The photograph of the two old lady skiers was given to me by my beloved friend and fellow adventurer, Kathi Woods.  One day, I'll figure out how to relate the subject of gardening to the story of how I became a ski bum in Taos, New Mexico.   Suffice it to say for the moment that it started when Kathi and I were living in San Francisco and went to the Cow Palace to see the great skier, Jean-Claude Killy.  We got seats on the first row in front of a rolling carpet "slope", but ended up missing the star, as he was elsewhere in the huge arena (did we actually think he would ski on a four foot high carpet?).  Kathi and I and another friend ended up spending the winter in Taos.  Alas, Kathi's adventure ended when she broke both her legs on Friday, March 13th.  By the way, that's Kathi on the left;  the shriveled one is me.

The tole lamp was given to us by Claude Sullivan, who was my husband's friend from the University of Virginia law school.  I had vowed to collect French tole lamps, but only ended up with two.  Claude was one of the "old friends".

On the far right is a photograph taken at Anne's Atlanta Debutante Ball after her freshman year in college.

Last but not least, is the painting over the chest.  This was done by Allen Ingles Palmer, who, in his early years, was an illustrator in New York.  Born in 1910 in Roanoke, Virginia, where my husband's parents settled, Allen Palmer was on his way to a one-man show in 1950 when his single engine plane crashed, and he was killed just shy of his 40th birthday.  This illustration was done in 1936, probably for a magazine.  When photographs eventually took the place of artist's drawings, Allen Palmer became a painter.  We bought another illustration (1937) and a painting that looks remarkably like an Edward Hopper.

Of course, there's much more I haven't told about the stories represented above.  The minister did go on to explain that Ellie left Carl a note, thanking him for their adventures and urging him on to new ones.  That actually begins the main plot of the movie.  I felt like I was getting a green light from this lesson.  After all, I'm still a good bit younger than Carl, and surely there are more adventures to add to the ones I've already collected on this rather small space in my living room.

Friday, March 2, 2012

"There's not a thing out there to see"

I neglected to mention that about as often as Margaret Moseley calls me up and says, "You ought to see my garden today.  It's the prettiest it's ever been," I'll get this answer when I call her up:  "There's not one thing out there to see."

I called around noon today to see if I could come for a visit.  Margaret is making an amazing recovery and is in great spirits.  She said I could come, but warned me that it wouldn't be worth it to see the garden.  "There's not a thing out there in bloom.  It's all gone."

Ha! I know she isn't able to see much from her chair in the den, but I ended up taking 121 photographs today.  It was hard to choose just one to publish.  I succumbed to the iron bird bath again with the Camellia japonica 'C. M. Wilson' in the background, a bloomed out daphne on the left and the foliage of Scilla hispanica coming up in front.  While many of the camellias were on the wane, there were still plenty in bloom.  It was hard to capture an entire shrub (some are 15 feet tall), but I got some great garden scenes, despite the poor light and the fact that it's still winter.

This is funny.  I took the photos first, then put them onto my laptop, which I had brought with me.  After we looked at today's subjects: daffodils, hellebores, ipheion, pearl bush, epimedium blooms and countless camellias,  I went back and showed her other times in the garden.  I put the "view" on full page.  Thusly, we went through the seasons in her garden, dating back to my old camera which gave out in 2006.

"Now can you believe I did all this?" she would ask over and over.  It was amazing to see season after season of garden scenes and shrubs and perennials and trees in bloom.  One photograph showed a fall scene, with a'Yuletide' sasanqua hybrid, loaded with red flowers with yellow stamens.  Above it was the bright red foliage of a sourwood tree she'd planted.  I admonished Margaret for having cut down the 'Yuletide' this past year.  She gave me a scolding look, but admitted that she might have made a mistake. "I remember now I wanted those two reds together in the fall."

It was extraordinary to go back through all those photographs and realize that one person with a helper now and then had planted all these wonderful plants - ferns, hellebores, hydrangeas, camellias, azaleas, rhododendons, viburnums, kerria, flowering apricot, cherry trees, spirea, bulbs, clematis, poppies, roses, iris, ginkgo, epimedium, hostas, daphnes, pieris, michelia, Confederate jasmine, bottlebrush buckeye, phlox, Japanese maples, pieris, crocosmia, daylilies, foxgloves, lamb's ear, ajuga and on and on.

After she had looked at the photographs for at least an hour, she turned to me and said, "You know, I couldn't wait until morning when I'd go out and see what was in bloom.  I just loved it.  I don't understand it.  Why would anyone want to go on a cruise when they could go out and garden every day?"  Something to contemplate.