Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Where the trucks have trouble, the aster grows

Last weekend was my college reunion at Vanderbilt University.  My friend Jane Hindman Kyburz (my little sister in our sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta) drove me up and back to Nashville.

On the way there from Atlanta, we passed over the mountain at Monteagle and started downhill.  This part of the trip is tricky.  Big semi-trucks have a tough time on both sides.  As we descended the mountain, I looked to the right where there is this beautiful valley that stretches for a long way.

When I first entered as a freshman, there was no Interstate 24 going from Chattanooga to Nashville.  We had to take U.S. 41, which was a treacherous road.  Seems I remember that it was three lanes, and part of the time, you would take the middle one to pass.  I know it was always scary, and big trucks usually had you backed up on one side and were right on your bumper on the other.  The whole trip from Atlanta to Nashville took six hours, mainly due to this part of U.S. 41.  There were tons of little tourist places that featured snakes or bears or other kinds of animals.  The road hugged the side of the mountain, and you took your life in your hands to pull off anywhere.  Suffice it to say that I wouldn't have been looking at wildflowers at age 19 or 20, especially when I was in fear for my life.

Coming back the other day, though, I was able to look over into the forest on the side of the mountain.  I couldn't believe it.  Wild blue asters were everywhere.  I'd never noticed them before. There's something so thrilling about seeing scads of native wildflowers growing with abandon.  These asters, similar to the ones above, were mostly along the edges of the woods.  There was no way to stop and explore (not the time to do it anyway; we were exhausted).

This part of Tennessee (which is such a beautiful state) has lots of caves and native flora.  Once, when my daughter was a student at the University of the South in Sewanee (at the top of this mountain), our family explored several of the caves.  It must have been spring, because we saw all kinds of native heuchera in bloom, and blue Phlox divaricata was strewn about the forest floor.

I took the above photograph in Diana Mendes' Atlanta garden.  She had several clumps of blue asters, all some sort of American native.  The blue flowers were a perfect backdrop for her pastel chrysanthemums and orange and pink roses.  Diana doesn't keep a record of the names of her flowers (if she sees something she likes, she buys it), so I'm not sure which one this is.  There are several good blue daisy asters - 'October Skies', 'Bluebird' and 'Radon's Favorite' - to name a few.  All are charming American flowers that look great in a fall garden.

Monday, October 29, 2012

One little plant does all that

It's one of those times when you have to be there.  Try as I might, I couldn't get an angle on how big this mass of golden yellow daisy chrysanthemums was.  I guess you can look at how it's creeping up onto a rose right beside it and extending back in the other direction, as well.  And, if you could imagine that the half-hidden pink chrysanthemums on the left formed an impressive clump of their own, you might understand its impact in the border along Diana Mendes' driveway.

What makes the scene amazing is that this display came from one tiny plant, which, back in the spring, was just a small tuft of green leaves.

Diana has many different colors of daisy chrysanthemums in her Atlanta garden.  The earlier blooms, like ' Single Apricot Korean' have already faded to nearly white (they start out as light apricot - a great selection to have), but the later ones - the oranges, burgundys, reds, pinks, blush peach, bright orangy-red and pale yellow - were breathtaking and blended beautifully with the roses - red, various shades of pink, cream, orange, mauve-blue and a deep wine color.  Of course, everything is set off to great advantage by the purple Mexican sage and blue asters.

I'm not sure what damage today's brutal winds (my driveway is covered in limbs of varying sizes; this after I threw what I could into the woods to clear a path for a car early this a.m.) has done to Diana's garden, but the day I was there was calm and balmy, sort of Indian summer-like weather.  I think those days are over for this year.

I'm glad I got to see this magnificent garden on a glorious fall day.  Tonight, it's going into the 30's with big wind gusts (I know this is nothing to compare with what my sister-in-law Sallie Hodges is getting in Abingdon, Va., where it is already snowing, and what my daughter, who just called from Brooklyn, N. Y.,is about to go through.  She just called to say she was getting cabin fever and could I tell her how to play Crazy Eights.  I couldn't.  As many times as my daddy and I played this card game at the kitchen table, I'm drawing a blank, except to know that eights are wild - or are they?).

Anyway, maybe the sight of these golden chrysanthemums will bring a bit of cheer on this otherwise rather ominous day for so many people up and down the Eastern seaboard and into the Appalachians.  I know that even on such a blustery day, I'm thinking about how I could have all those chrysanthemums next year.  They'll be behind my future deer fence, of course.  It must have been fun to be Diana and step out into her front yard and see all that colorful beauty on lovely fall days.  Something to aspire to, for sure.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Diana's magical garden

It's fall, almost November actually, and who would think the above scene (photograph taken yesterday morning) could exist?  This is only the tip of the iceberg.  Diana Mendes' garden in Virginia-Highlands is overflowing with colorful flowers, so many, in fact that I made 104 pictures and would have made more, but my camera battery ran out and Diana needed to be on her way.

I kept asking Diana the name of this rose or that dahlia.  Diana says she buys what she likes and doesn't worry about labels or keeping a log of every flower.  That's understandable, given the amount of plant material just in this October garden.  And, this is not even considering the breathtaking display of poppies, peonies, larkspur and roses (and dozens of other April-May flowers) in this very same patch of ground.

Because she has plants from so many sources, surprises pop up now and then.  Look in the blurry background of this photograph.  The little white daisy-type flowers are part of a huge patch of wild looking asters that appeared this year.  In fact, there are two such clumps that take up a good deal of space.  Diana says she has no idea where they came from.  They'll get to live out their bloom this year, but if they appear next year, they'll have to be culled from the garden.  "There are too many things I want to plant," says Diana, who is thinking of adding more dahlias to her growing collection.

I photographed Diana's garden on October 29th of last year.  There's no trace of the white asters.  The roses look different, too.  I don't remember seeing the one in this photograph.  And, some red roses that grew on a short, compact shrub last October were much taller this year.  Diana had also planted more dahlias.  Mexican sage, which actually survived the winter, is a dominant feature in this year's border, as well.   I didn't get the full impact of the latter, Diana says, because a lot flower branches were broken off in the rains that came a couple of weeks ago.

In tomorrow's post you'll get to see a display that is pretty amazing.  Diana bought only one plant, but you should see what happened.  She can't explain it, but the flower must have liked the conditions in her border along the driveway.  Be sure to check back for more from this spectacular garden.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

I was eight years old when myAunt Helen died of breast cancer.  She was 47.  For weeks, I had heard Mother talking about how her sister was suffering so.  I was terrified and remember praying so hard for her not to die.

Then, in the middle of one night, the phone rang.  I heard my mother say to Daddy, "Helen's gone."  I was devastated.  Aunt Helen looked a lot like my mother.  She had a lovely voice, and there are times,  even all these years later, that I can remember how she sounded.

My cousin Anne, who was 13 at the time, was the youngest of five children.  Mother worried about her having to come home to an empty house.  She spent some time with us that summer.  My brother captured a picture of her leaning against our kitchen counter.  Another photo shows us engrossed in a game of Candyland (probably to appease me).  I'm happy to say that she is alive and well and has a great family of her own.

I dare say there are few of us who haven't been touched by breast cancer.  The disease struck one of Aunt Helen's three daughters and took the life of one of her grandchildren.  Two more of my aunts died of the disease, as well.

 So, what does this story have to do with the above photograph?  This is Hydrangea arborscens 'Invincibelle Spirit'.  If the flower looks familiar, it is the pink version of Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle', the popular white mophead that is widely planted both in the U.S. and in Europe.  This is one of the Proven Winners series, and the firm that distributes the plant is donating $1.00 for each 'Invincibelle Spirit' sold to The Breast Cancer Research Foundation.  The hope is to raise a million dollars for the cause.

With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month and a good time to plant hydrangeas, you might want to consider adding this pink flowering arborescens to your collection.  The photographs in the Proven Winners catalog are stunning.  I saw a new planting a couple of years ago when the selection was just introduced, and it looked like the hydrangeas were well on their way to becoming a showy addition to the garden.

The Proven Winners catalog states that 'Invincibelle Spirit' is easy to grow and reliably pink.  The blooms start off as a rather deep pink, with the flowers changing to light pink as they mature.  Here are some more attributes listed by Proven Winners:  both cold-hardy and heat-tolerant, it thrives from Mobile to Manitoba; reliable flowers bloom every year, even after harsh winters; flowers are pink no matter what the soil is like; reblooming.

There is one drawback to this plant.  If you live in deer country as I do (or rather in the City of Atlanta's deer district), the hydrangea will have to have some sort of protection.  I used to have native arborescens all up and down my driveway and at the edges of the woods.  Now, since the introduction of deer to my neighborhood, not a single native hydrangea remains.  The deer strip my Annabelles, so I need to think about relocating them until I can get a deer fence installed.

Other than that, this would be a good plant to have.  As with other arborescens (there's a huge white one called 'Incrediball'), the flowers appear on new wood, so you would cut the plants back in late winter/early spring.  This will produce more flowers and ostensibly bigger blooms.  Proven Winners also encourages donations to The Breast Cancer Research Foundation.  Visit for more information.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

How a designer thinks, I think

We're back in Louise Poer's garden. This photograph was taken in October year before last (or was it last year?).  Louise is a garden designer, and although I've seen some of the work she's done for others (fabulous), it's her own garden that intrigues me.  How does she come up with the things she does?

I do know that she always attends Scott's Antique Market on the second weekend of every month.  She  has come up with some great finds there.  I'm betting the rock planter with the boxwood spiral was purchased at Scott's.  I think someone made the bird feeder for her.  She might have had the twigs added to make the house more interesting.  It's sitting atop some twisted tree trunks or limbs.

Also, I wouldn't think of a Boston-type fern as something I'd want to put out in the garden like this, but it's really effective.  I don't know where she stores these in winter.  Come to think of it, maybe in the daylight basement at the farm.  Her helper spends weekends down there, and last winter the basement looked like an upscale orangerie, with great looking houseplants that had obviously summered outside.

The bark you see is a limbed up Leyland cypress.  Since this garden is small and walled in, Louise has cut all the hollies and Leylands way up to give the lower plants room to breathe.  You'll notice also, that  this is a green garden.  The only color here is the aucuba that is speckled in yellow (is it 'Gold Dust'?  Maybe.)

The different textures make this scene interesting.  In the background, you can spot the tropical looking Fatsia japonica, with its big, glossy palmate leaves.  Then, the foliage of a hydrangea is in the foreground.  If you were to stand where I was standing when I took this picture, you'd see a garden chock full of plants, most all of which are green.  Louise does add color, but it's almost like she can take you into a lovely world that doesn't depend on flashy flowers (she does have roses, hydrangeas, foxgloves, delphiniums, camellias, sasanquas and some other flowers). It's just that she mostly thinks in green, which I think is a good thing.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Miss Etta's chrysanthemums on steroids

I don't know if it's the selection of chrysanthemum, if it's the soil or the full sun or the fact that there seem to be no insect pests for this flower, but I could hardly believe my eyes when I went to the farm on Sunday.

For years, Mother had some dusky pink daisy chrysanthemums that grew in her zinnia border.  I don't know when they disappeared - sometime in the 1980's, I guess - but my mother was determined to have those daisy chrysanthemums again.  Her original "good cut flower" was given to her by the late Berma Abercrombie, who called the flower 'October Pink.'  Those particular chrysanthemums, which would last a month in a bouquet, were no longer in Berma's garden either.

Miss Etta Taylor (actually, she was Mrs. Etta Taylor, but in our little town, we called adult women "Miss", whether they were married or not) gave Mother a little clump of her pink daisy chrysanthemums.  The plants spread like wildfire, but Mother was chagrined to see that the flowers were not exactly the same.  Miss Etta's chrysanthemums were great in the garden, but not as good as the others for bouquets.  Mother was one for having only flowers she could cut, so she was mildly disappointed.

Both my mother and Miss Etta are gone now, but the robust daisy chrysanthemums have taken on a life of their own.  The clump you see above was planted last year.  Leonardo Laureano, who spends weekends at the farm and has restored Mama's flower beds and then some, divided some of the chrysanthemums that are planted on the other end of the border, next to the carport.  That bunch is thriving, too, but I couldn't believe how these few plants had just exploded into bloom in just one short year.

I have divisions of this same plant.  Mine look fairly good right now, even after the deer pinched them back for me about five times.  But they don't look anything like this (with hundreds of deer at the farm, why don't they bother the flowers there?).

When I asked Leonardo what he did to achieve this magnificence, he just laughed.  I do remember seeing a narrow little space he'd dug out at the corner of the back porch.  Where he got the black dirt that was there, I don't know, but the chrysanthemums certainly liked it.

A few years back, I had brought a few tiny plants from the farm to put at the little house, where they bloomed some despite being in the worst dirt ever.  But when they had been reduced to nubs by the deer, I dug them in the hottest, driest summer and gave them to Jane Kyburz, who has a charming garden around her 19th century historic cottage in Marietta.  When Jane mentioned the other day that the flowers I had given her had gone crazy, I didn't realize she was talking about Miss Etta's chrysanthemums.  How they lived to be "fabulous", as Jane put it, I can't imagine.

Even though this is not the daisy chrysanthemum Mother wanted, she still marveled at how the plants performed.  Some of them were even growing out of the asphalt, but bloomed like crazy.  This has to be one strong flower.  I don't think this is what is known as 'Ryan's Pink'.  Of course, for me, these will always be "Miss Etta's chrysanthemums".  Whatever it is in truth, it's certainly a good variety to have in the garden at this time of the year.

Note:  You can see a photograph (taken in October 2010) I posted on September 30, 2011, of the flowers by the carport.  At the other end, next to the porch, there's nothing.  Compare with the photograph above.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Sometimes a simple border is the answer

I've mentioned many times before that my mind and habits are so chaotic that when it comes to gardens, I'm always drawn to ones with simplicity and order (there are many exceptions, of course).  Not that the above border isn't high maintenance, which it is - note the edging to the grass, the clipped boxwoods both in the border below the brick wall, and the line of boxwoods on top.

Still, I call this a simple concept, and just looking at it makes me feel calm.  I'm trying to think where I could have such a border to include evergreens (as in the boxwood balls above) and then change the fillers with the seasons.  If the ground didn't fall away from a stone wall at the back of my house (it needs another very tall - read "expensive"- retaining wall in order to create a long, flat space), this would be an ideal border to have.  When my ship comes in, I'm going to do this.  It may be a while, but that's something to look forward to.

This photograph was taken in October, so it's heartening to think that here in Atlanta, something could look so good this late in the season.  Of course, in theory I would like to do this, but I'd probably have a hard time restraining myself and would want to stuff the areas between the box balls with too many things.

I was just reading through piles and piles of newspaper and magazine stories about my 96 year old friend Margaret Moseley.  One of her pieces of advice was to keep your garden full, but don't over plant, even though you want every flower you see.   Margaret particularly loved to quote her much-admired guru, garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence, whose famous line was:  "Once I had a lovely garden, and I ruined it with plants.

That's what I would do, I'm sure.  But I'd like to think I could use restraint and create something as pleasing and peaceful as the scene above and have it look this good in the month of October.

Friday, October 12, 2012

I like cotton candy and 'Cotton Candy'

One of my favorite times of the year when I was growing up was the week when the Southeastern Fair was held at the Lakewood Fairgrounds.  My parents took us (maybe when I was older, I went with friends; memory is vague on that one).  I do remember, though, my daddy making me go through the big buildings to look at cattle and pigs.  I never understood his fascination with this.  It was the worst smelling place.  At least, when Mother dragged me to see the dahlias and all the canning products lined up, it was slightly more pleasant, if boring.

More interesting, of course, were the rides.  I hate to admit that I was such a chicken when it came to anything more dangerous than the Tilt-O-Whirl.  I would ride the ferris wheel, but when they brought in that giant double one, I was too afraid to go.  When I went to school the next day, I greatly regretted not mustering up the courage to ride it.  Everyone was bragging about how high it was and that you thought you were going to die when the top wheel came rushing down.  To this day, I wish I had ridden that thing, although I might really have died when the wheels flipped.

The fair was one of the few places I got to have cotton candy.  I loved everything about it - the pink color, the strange, almost metallic feel when the frothy stuff finally condensed in your mouth.  It felt like you were swallowing a piece of 0000 steel wool.  But, it was delicious, and even though it doesn't appeal to me now, it was by far the treat I liked best in my childhood (snow cones being second).

Sorry to go off in such a direction when I meant to talk about that above flower.  It's just that the name Camellia sasanqua 'Cotton Candy' sent me off into a reverie of cool nights and the excitement of walking down the midway and seeing all the rides whizzing around.

These days, the thrill I get is from seeing beautiful flowers, especially in the fall.  'Cotton Candy' is one of the stars of Margaret Moseley's fall garden.  Early on, Margaret planted many different sasanquas.  While some camellia aficionados looked down on the lowly sasanqua, considering it valuable only for grafting japonicas, Margaret was busy collecting varieties with beautiful flowers and dark, evergreen foliage.  As a result, her garden looked like spring by the end of October.

In recent years, she's added even more interesting selections that have come on the market.  One of the most reliable, though, is Camellia sasanqua 'Cotton Candy'.  I've seen it used as an espalier, and from a distance it looks like a climbing rose on a thick, dark green backdrop.

"It's always loaded with flowers," says Margaret.  "It's beautiful every year and blooms a long time."

Margaret has convinced me that sasanquas are way underplanted in Southern gardens.  I can attest to their value in her landscape.  Also, around town, I've noticed more and more of the plants.  They're great while in bloom, but the dark foliage is good to have in the garden year round as a background plant for other shrubs and flowers.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Interviewing roses

My friend Jane Kyburz always gets me tickled when she's about to go somewhere important (like a college reunion or a big wedding).

"I'm starting to interview clothes," she will say, meaning she's looking through her closet to see if anything will work for the occasion.

I have my (fill in the blank) college reunion coming up.  Jane is a year younger than I, but she's from Nashville and went to Vanderbilt with me.  So, she's driving me up to stay with one of her friends.  It's Vanderbilt's Homecoming so maybe she'll see lots of people she knows, too.

I haven't interviewed my clothes yet.  Truthfully, there's not much hanging in my closet that I feel like talking to. I do know that whatever I end up taking will be either black or gray, with an outside chance of a navy blue sweater, depending on the weather.

However, I have begun to interview roses for some new sunny spaces I have.  My first candidate is the English rose 'Pat Austin'.  I took the above photograph in Bob Clinard's Atlanta garden at the height of the rose season here.  Thus, the blooms are fresh, and the foliage looks great.  I haven't interviewed this rose in August to see how it looks.

But, thank goodness for the Internet.  I was able to look up what people said about Pat.  I took some information from several sources, and the opinions varied greatly.  I do think I know a bit more about the rose now.  Here are some of the comments:

(From a nursery, a glowing report):  "...bathed in stunning coppery bronze flowers with peach overtones at the ends of the stems from late spring to late summer.  The flowers are excellent for cutting.  It has dark green foliage throughout the season;  tends to remain dense right to the ground, not requiring facer plants in front.  Beauty fresh fragrance; abundant blooms."  The only drawback?  Spiny, meaning I guess that it's really thorny.

(From a comment on a blog):   "Great repeat (meaning blooms).  Mild, pleasant fragrance.  BIG drawback:  fades quickly.  TERRIBLE for cutting/vase."

(Yet another comment on a blog):  "Very healthy foliage; blooms constantly; no disease; very vigorous; in heat, the blooms don't last long."

(And another one):  "I just stuck it (meaning 'Pat Austin') in relatively poor soil where it receives hot summer sun, and it's growing like gangbusters.  It's the first rose I've ever tried."  (!) - my exclamation. 

Three people said that during the first two years, the flowers were too heavy for the stems and drooped.  All cleared up eventually when the plant grew stronger.  "It's worth the wait," one commenter said.  Another person posted a photograph of a beautiful 'Pat Austin' in a vase with other flowers.  Maybe the all-caps, TERRIBLE guy had one of the early droopers.

But, I say, who can argue with the color?  The rose allegedly grows four feet high by four feet wide.  And, it's fragrant, and I am a sucker for orange roses.

What would make me buy this rose, more than anything else said?  Someone from Orlando, Florida, in Zone 9 said this:  "No diseases; very vigorous; very healthy foliage."

If Pat has good foliage in Florida, then I think there's hope for this one.  Another interview coming soon.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Oh, to find this exact plant!

I rushed out to Margaret Moseley's this morning to pick up some newspaper and magazine clips.  If I could just get focused and organized, I want to write a book about Margaret, who has inspired a generation of gardeners.  She loaded me down with publications featuring her garden.  I'd forgotten about some of them - even ones I wrote.  As Danny Flanders, former Home & Garden editor at the Atlanta Journal & Constitution, said, "Margaret is a garden writer's dream."

It's true.  She has so much good advice to offer and so many funny stories to tell that it is going to be a challenge to pull everything together.  You find that you don't want to leave anything out.

I remember one day I was out there, and Margaret was acting distracted.  Finally, she confessed that she was anxious because the baby blue birds were going to fly out of their box any second (what is the word for this?  I can't think. You birders will know immediately).  Anyway, we were standing right by the box, and all of a sudden a head poked out.  I put my camera up and caught the baby just as it was half-way out of the hole, and then it was gone.

Margaret finally confessed to me that she had wished I wouldn't come that day, as she was afraid she'd miss out on the event.  In the end, she was happy I had caught the action.

Today, as I walked to my car, I stopped once more at Margaret's Chinese abelia along the driveway.  I have admired this shrub ever since I saw it at the Atlanta Botanical Garden years ago.  It doesn't look like any abelia you're thinking of.  This particular shrub looks like a fountain, with lilac shaped flower clusters.  The blooms form in July and are white and pink.  By this time of year, they've faded to green.

I've seen very few of these in Atlanta.  I bought one, but it is not the same as Margaret's.  It's nice, but the flowers aren't in the shape of pointed clusters.  Kathryn MacDougald had one that with the flowers in ball-shaped clusters, and it was really good, too.

I met a gardener in Raleigh, N.C., where the shrub is very popular (perhaps because of the proximity of the J.C. Raulston Arboretum, where they say this particular abelia attracts more butterflies than any other plant on the grounds).  When I said we hardly ever saw Chinese abelia in Atlanta (he had several like Margaret's), the man was incredulous.  He thinks, as do I, that it should be in every local garden.

Apparently, this abelia is not as hardy as the hybrids, but I read somewhere that it is growing happily in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York.

I will continue my search for one like Margaret's.  I had tried to layer it, but it didn't work.  Now, I need to try to root it.  This would be a great cut flower for our arrangements at church.  My friend Benjie cut some of mine for an arrangement, and it held up beautifully.  This was earlier in the pink and white stage, which was nice.  My very favorite, though, is this cascade of green.  On one side is yet another fountain of Camellia sasanqua 'Pink Snow.'  Talk about a fabulous combination.  Margaret really has an eye for beauty.  I hope I'll be able to convey this amazing talent very soon.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Abie and the ginger lilies

A Southern Living article about Margaret Moseley, written by Steve Bender, starts out thusly:  "Some people capture memories in photos.  Others preserve them on video.  Margaret Moseley grows her memories in a garden filled with plants handed down by generous gardeners.  From a comfortable chair in her sunroom, she says, 'I think I can name every friend I have just by looking out there.'"

I can't look out of any window of my house and see such memories.  But beginning in August and going through October, I can walk out of a door, and I immediately think of Abie Little.  Abie, who died September 24th at age 85, gave me some ginger lilies many years ago, and I have been captivated by their sweet fragrance every year since.

Abie was a true character.  She was an avid bridge player, and in her younger years sang with symphony choruses in Norfolk, Virginia, her hometown, and in Richmond.  In fact, she met her husband Pete in rehearsals for Bach's Mass in B-Minor.  Abie did a lot of unorthodox things like take her four boys on camping trips across the U.S. and Canada.  She even piled them into an old Volkswagen bus when they were ages 11, 13, 15 and 17 and took them camping throughout Europe.

She was a highly accomplished gardener and filled her large flood plain lot on one of Atlanta's most prestigious and beautiful streets with wonderful plants.  She had a long line of camellias of every color and stripe along the highest point.  She also had a path of yellow primroses which bloomed every April next to bleeding hearts and hostas.  Ginger lilies thrived in the ever-moist conditions, and Abie was forever giving the plants away.  She was a dedicated volunteer at the Atlanta Botanical Garden and Southeastern Flower Show, and past president of both the Atlanta Begonia Society and the Gardenia Garden Club.

On her frequent trips to England, she would inevitably bring back seeds of primroses of every color.  These flowers (except for the yellow cowslips, Primula veris) aren't reliably perennial here, to say the least.  However, she would coax them into bloom at least for one year, if not the next.  Once in a while she would call and invite me to see ones that had actually come back.  Abie kept trying, and when she moved to a smaller lot, she finally had great success with some pink ones, this after years of sowing seeds.  She was not one to give up easily.

My introduction to Abie, though, was not through the gardening world, although we connected that way later, but through tennis.  She was an Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association member for almost 30 years and played until age 82.  I was petrified every time I stepped onto the court across from her.  She played what I'd call an unorthodox game (they say her bridge playing was like this, too); she was a master of placing the ball just where you were not.  I dare say I ever won a match against her, even when we were playing just for fun.

The photograph above shows yesterday's bloom on one of Abie's ginger lilies.  I walked out to feed the birds and caught the sweet fragrance.  It so happened that I had not picked the individual flowers as I often do to bring in the house.  I can put just one small flower in my kitchen, and the heavenly scent will waft through the surrounding rooms.

I loved that her sons described her as "a hardy perennial."  She was truly that, despite the fact that many of those stubborn primroses were not.  When someone said she was one of a kind, a son piped up and said she was more like "one and a half of a kind."  I feel lucky to have these ginger lilies to remind me of such an extraordinary and engaging person.  I will certainly treasure them for the rest of my life.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Nothing like peonies

When I got married and had a house (all 800 square feet of it) of my own, the first thing I did was plant some peonies.  I had admired my mother's big, fragrant white ones ('Festiva Maxima') and the medium pink one (unknown, and unfortunately gone) that bloomed between two boxwoods in front of the house.  Mother's peonies flowered profusely and were very old - given to her by a Mrs. Thomason in our town.  It was said that the peonies came from Mrs. T's mother-in-law, which would have put them back at least to the turn of the century (19th to 20th, of course).

My peonies, bought from a cheap catalog, did not fare so well.  I remember planting them in a deep hole I dug.  At that point in time, I had no idea that in the South, the red tips should be almost at the surface of the ground.  Peonies need a good bit of cold to set flowers, so that's the reasoning there.  I had some foliage come up for a couple of years, and then any trace of the plants disappeared.

In my first centerpiece for the Atlanta Journal & Constitution, I wrote about Berma Abercrombie's daffodils.  In that article, I also gave some advice from Mrs. Abercrombie about growing peonies in the South.  She had old varieties from her mother-in-law, as well, and the plants were as big as boxwoods and covered with blooms.  It was she who told me that ants do not hurt peonies and that it was normal to see the creatures crawling up and down the stems and onto the buds.

Mrs. Abercrombie was the one who set me straight on how deep (or rather how shallow) to plant peonies.  Another thing she did was in the fall, she would take wood ashes from the fireplace and put them around the plants.  Then, in the spring, she made an indention in the ground around the peonies about 10 inches from the stem.  In that circle, she put copper sulfate as soon as the red tips broke through the ground.  The copper sulfate, she said, helped ensure that all the blooms opened.

When the late perennial plant guru Barbara Allen read this, she called me.  She had brought her father's peonies from the North and didn't want to take any chances with them.  She went a couple of years with few blooms and then purchased the copper sulfate.  The results were phenomenal.  Her father's peonies were loaded with flowers, and the application of the chemical became part of her spring routine.

Before she died, Mrs. Abercrombie gave me a jar of copper sulfate.  I have been remiss in using it.  This past spring, I didn't have a single bloom on my usually prolific 'Mrs. F. D. Roosevelt.'  I won't let this happen again.  This month, I'm going to clean out my fireplaces (which should have happened already) and put plenty of ashes around the few peonies I have.  Of great concern are the two pieces of 'Festiva Maxima' I moved from Mother's.  A well-intentioned friend with a weed eater kept cutting the plant's foliage to the ground, so that I barely found the roots to salvage.

I know people in the North who are reading this are amazed.  Peonies are a given in cold climates.  Depending on their location, they can do well here, too.  The ones pictured above were part of long rows in a field at Ruth Mitchell's house in Lamar County, which is south of Atlanta.  When she and her late husband Dennis tried to move some of them, they had a rough time.  Ruth said the roots seemed to go down six feet, and they had to give up the effort.

One last piece of advice from Mrs. Abercrombie.  You'll have better luck in the South with early and mid-season peonies.  The late-blooming ones will have a hard time with the early onset of summer heat.  I think that's part of what happened with some I purchased.  Year after year two of the plants would put up good foliage and some tiny buds.  But then it got hot, and they never did anything.

Someone once said to me, "It's not worth even trying to grow peonies.  The flowers just don't last long enough."  The blooming period for these fabulous flowers is short.  Still, it's worth it to me to bring those giant blooms in the house and enjoy their beauty and fragrance, even if it's for a fleeting moment.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Tending the early October garden

For 11 years, I went around the country (and once to Canada) to scout gardens for A Gardener's Diary on HGTV.  I loved meeting the people.  There were such interesting stories out there (our contention was that every garden, no matter its size, had a story), and every one was different.

One of my favorite episodes was shot in Pennsylvania.  I didn't scout that one, so I learned about the remarkable Joanna Reed as the show was edited and then finished.  She had a large garden, and well into her 80's was out there every day.  Visitors were welcome, and just about anytime someone would walk into her garden, they would see something wonderful - an unusual flower, an interesting shrub that might be a variation of a common plant, a small rare tree brought to her by a plant explorer.

The secret to Joanna's garden was that she was a meticulous dead header.  Every time a flower would start to fade or a leaf would turn yellow, it was snatched up and composted.  Joanna segregated the different types of garden debris into categories - weeds that needed to be totally removed in one pile, reseeding annuals in another, and so on.  The result was that her garden, though crowded, always looked good.

In the photograph above, it's early October.  The Rudbeckia 'Indian Summer' is still blooming, so no problem there.  And one thing that is usually problematic - the spent foliage on day lilies - has been taken care of.  You will notice that the day lily leaves (in the foreground) look pretty fresh.  Margaret Moseley always took the shears to her day lily foliage, cutting it back after the plants had finished blooming.  She said it had never hurt the plants, but she would get a new flush of leaves that would continue to look good until frost.

So,  go out and check your day lilies, and see if any yellow leaves remain, or if there's a tan stalk that once held flowers still standing, cut it down to the base.  Likewise, remove the brown, crinkled leaves on your clematis vine that are unsightly, and so on.  The issue is, of course, having time to do all this.  Ideally, if it's done all season long, the duties aren't so onerous.

But, I'm the last person in the world to be telling people to keep on top of things.  I can't even keep my kitchen table cleaned off for more than 24 hours.  In my dream garden world, I'd be out there like Joanna and Margaret, chopping away at unsightly leaves and faded flowers.  I do think that's the way to have a nice-looking garden during the waning days of the season.

Monday, October 1, 2012

An unexpected plant in an unexpected place

I've written before that I'm not one to "think outside the box."  In fact, when someone tells me to do that, I freeze, and my mind goes completely blank.  I think part of it is that I don't understand what they're driving at.  Or, perhaps I'm just one of those people incapable of coming up with cutting edge ideas.  That's likely the case.

But I can discern when a gardener or designer has done something extraordinary that is entirely unexpected.

A particular case I'm thinking of is represented in the above photograph.  If someone asked me to picture a container set in a garden, I would immediately conjure up an image of mixed flowers and foliage spilling over the sides of a terra cotta pot.  Never would I picture an informal rock planter as seen above.  Nor, would I think of a single architectural plant that doesn't resemble anything else in the immediate surroundings in terms of texture.

Yet this structural plant (perhaps an Agave geminiflora or something similar) catches the light in this early fall garden in Atlanta.  Other matching planters have been placed as the connector, or centerpiece, of intersecting lines of clipped dwarf boxwood in a repeated "X" pattern.  Never in a million years would I have thought of such a design, but the prickly plants stand out in contrast to the other foliage, and the effect is eye-catching.

In this particular garden, summer plants have largely been pulled up, and winter flowers just planted.  You can see a pansy (maybe a viola - hard to tell) right at the base of the container.  Still, the day I was there, a few zinnias and rudbeckias were still looking good, as were some roses.

I'm not sure how hardy the container plant is, whether it will last through the winter or not.  I suspect it had been there for a while and that the owner gotten her money's worth.  I do have a photograph that shows the whole area, but from that angle, you don't quite understand the impact of the prickly sprays of green in rustic pots in such a formal design.  It's definitely a combination that's"outside the box", but quite an effective one, to say the least.