Monday, December 31, 2012

The seasons in Margaret's garden: Almost spring

Early March.  It's an odd time here in Georgia.  The trees for the most part haven't leafed out.  It's technically still winter, but all around there are signs of what's to come.

At the back of Margaret's garden, the giant snowball viburnum is in its lime green stage.  Eventually, it will change to mint green, then pure white.  This particular specimen of Viburnum macrocephalum is a fairly new addition.  You have to look up high to see Margaret's giant tree form of the same species just a few paces away.  The latter is probably thirty years old or more.

Nearer the house, the fragrant viburnums are perfuming the air - V. x burkwoodii, V. carlesii, V. x carlcephalum and V. x juddii.  Margaret was determined to collect as many viburnums as possible, and she definitely reached her goal.  Most are showy in spring, but several are grown for their colorful fall fruit.  The Atlanta Journal & Constitution devoted a Home & Garden section cover and a huge spread to her extensive viburnum collection.

While this photograph shows what would be a dramatic change in seasons in most gardens, in Margaret's case, winter is subtly blending into spring.  All along through late fall and winter, there has been a succession of camellias;  hellebores, which began flowering in January, carpet the garden floor.  Several specimens of Daphne odora have bloomed, along with Edgeworthia chrysantha, Spiraea thunbergii 'Fujino Pink' and Prunus mume.

So, by early March, the pink and white forms of flowering almond have come out, and a few azaleas are beginning to show.  In a couple of weeks' time, the explosion will be full blown and dazzling.  It just gets better and better.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

If winter comes..a "perfect" flower in Margaret's garden

If there's any one thing I need to heed from Margaret Moseley's advice on gardening, it's this:  "If you see a plant you want, buy it right then.  Don't wait."

Margaret started her garden in her 50's.  She didn't do like I do and say, "I won't buy that shrub or tree because by the time it's mature I'll be x number of years old."  Well, look where I am today.  I am well past x years old.  Many times over, I would have had to cut back the things I wanted and never planted because they'd be way too big by now.

Through the years, well into her 90's, Margaret was still going to nurseries, seeing plants she wanted and making sure they got in the ground immediately.  There was no holding pen at her house.  She would find a place, even if she had to dig out into the lawn and expand one of her rock-lined beds.

I can't imagine how big all the camellias she recommended would be if I had gone out and bought them when I first saw them in her garden.  The one pictured above was planted not all that long ago.  It's a hybrid camellia - Camellia x 'Taylor's Perfection'.  There's certainly a reason the New Zealand hybridizer chose this name.  The flowers are exquisite - very Japanese looking, I think.  It was at least a couple of years after I saw Margaret's that Rhoda Ingram, a fantastic gardener near Griffin, Georgia, gave me 'Taylor's Perfection'.  Only I let it live a year in its container before I figured out where to plant it.  I did not heed Margaret's advice.  I should have a much bigger bush now.  Of course, the deer have sampled some buds, so I don't have nearly as many blooms as Margaret does, but mine is growing and doing well.

So, the "buy it when you see it, and plant it immediately" piece of advice is going in the book, along with lots of anecdotes and "Margaret-isms".  There's a reason every plant society wanted to put her garden on tour and why garden clubs flocked there to see her handiwork.  She got right in there, planted things, moved them if they were in the wrong place or gave them away if they didn't work.  There was no hesitation on her part, and it paid off.

Update:  Margaret had the "cementing" procedure yesterday.  The jury is still out on if it worked.  She was mad as a wet hen when I talked to her this afternoon.  They had assured her they'd put her to sleep, but they didn't.  She'll be in the hospital another week.  Meanwhile, we'll visit her garden some more.  There's a lot to see.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The seasons with Margaret - Summer

I just talked with Margaret Moseley.  She's waiting to be put to sleep to have a procedure done to repair some crushed discs in her lower back (this might not be the right term, but there are some crushed bones low in her back).  Suddenly, on Christmas Eve morning, Margaret, who is 96, couldn't get up out of her chair.  "I was making a pot of chili, and I went to get up to check on it, and I couldn't move.  The pain was excruciating."

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon with Margaret in her hospital room.  We started reminiscing and got so tickled at some of the things that have happened over the years.  Two young nurses came in, and Margaret announced that they were in the presence of two famous people.  They looked at us like we were crazy, which sent us into paroxysms of laughter.  Margaret tried to explain about her garden and how I wrote about it, but all we got were blank, sympathetic looks.

For two decades, I wrote about Margaret in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution and for other magazines.  A Gardener's Diary on HGTV featured her in two episodes.  Southern Living used her garden for a book cover and for two magazine covers.

I took hundreds of photographs of her garden over the years.  Last August, I told her that I was going to compile a book about her garden.  As usual, I underestimated the amount of work.  I thought I could do it in a couple of months.

But, so much had been written about Margaret in other publications and by other journalists, that it took hours and hours just to go through the stacks of books, magazines and newspaper articles featuring her garden.  On top of that, I had stories and anecdotes I'd collected, along with Margaret's own written descriptions of her garden to edit and piece together.

Then, there were slides to be converted into digital.  I would take my computer out to Margaret's, and we would go through the photographs, trying to select the most important ones.  After each session, she would declare, "I can't believe I planted all that."  I couldn't either.

So, my resolution is to have that book published by the time Margaret's 97th birthday rolls around on May 28th.  I visited a local printer to make sure my pictures would work, since I only have a point and shoot camera and am not a photographer.  Most of the digital pictures passed the test.  Some of the converted slides will even work.

The above photograph is a not sharp enough for printing, though.  It's too bad, because it shows one of Margaret's borders in early summer.  But, you get the idea.  Her garden changed over the years - big pine trees fell, plants disappeared and were replaced by new varieties, rogue plants took over beds.  Still, the magic remains.  Her garden has influenced a generation who visited there, and, if I can get my act together, this book may even inspire people like those young nurses in the future.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Merry Widows' Christmas

Every Christmas Eve for the past, say, seven years, the Gatins family has come for dinner at our house.  Tutta (her real name is Laura), who is not as big as a minute,  is the head of the clan, consisting of daughters Julia and Sophie and son Charles. Tutta's sister Rozzie, a beloved teacher at The Lovett School, always comes.

We came up with this idea of spending Christmas Eve together a couple of years after the death of Tutta's husband, Freddie Glass, who was in my freshman class at Vanderbilt.  He and I had remained friends ever since.  I knew Tutta because her daughter Sophie and my daughter Laura were great friends from kindergarten.  Tutta and Freddie both came to my rescue when Chip died suddenly in 1999.  They fell in love and married the next May.  Tragically, Freddie died the next spring from a fast moving melanoma.  The Gatins children had lost their father, Tutta's first husband, when Sophie was in middle school.

But back to the present and the photograph above.  It shows the dining room just before we lit the candles.  This year, there were eleven of us.  My daughter Anne brought her friend Ari Douthit from New York, where they both live.  Julia is married to Brett, and his mother Cindy came from Nashville.

I had pretty much decorated every corner of my house.  In the dining room, I had strung cedar up and over the mirror and mantle.  Usually, I have red camellias to put on the silver service, but not this year.  I settled for Fraser fir I scavenged from the Home Depot and some lethally sharp Chinese holly that grows up by the little house.  In the middle of the dining room table, which is warm pine made into a sturdy sawbuck style (inherited from my mother-in-law), I always place the larger of a pair of wooden goose decoys and surround him with pine cones, fir and holly.

In a silver punch bowl on a stand over between the windows, I made an arrangement of greenery - pine, cedar and winged sweet gum sticks from the farm, some variegated pittosporum from the little house, magnolia from the woods and cryptomeria brought to me by my friend Benjie (I have several of the latter trees in different stages of growth; next year, I can start clipping).  In the windows are hanging boxwood wreathes I made from a particularly dense, dark Buxus microphylla my mother planted 52 years ago at the farm.

I do have something fake in there.  I could never find the chandelier of my dreams, so I bought one with good lines from Home Depot and sprayed it a bronze color.  On the long chain, I have an off-white rumpled cover.  One year, I found some really good fake olive branches at Pier One and attached them to the arms of the chandelier, along with some real sticks from a friend's aronia tree.

So, there we all were last night (when the Gatins walk into my house, it's as if an explosion has occurred, they are so lively and fun).  Although we've all had our individual losses along the way (this year, two of the Gatins children's beloved uncles died), somehow this dinner and the gathering at the piano for some pretty bad singing and then moving on to an hour of dancing seems to sweep all of our troubled memories away, at least for one night.

Last year, I wrote down a passage from Maureen Dowd's column in the New York Times on December 25th.  It seemed to sum up the feelings we all probably have, especially as time takes loved ones away, and the years keep passing by so quickly.   I especially like Charles Dickens' words in the last paragraph:

In his 1851 short story "What Christmas Is As We Grow Older,” Dickens makes the case that the holiday is the time to “bear witness” to our parallel lives, our “old aspirations,” “old projects” and “old loves.”
         “Welcome, alike what has been, and what never was, and what we hope may be, to your shelter underneath the holly,” he wrote.
          Maybe, he suggests, you end up better off without that “priceless pearl” who does not return your love.  Maybe you don’t have to suppress the memory of deceased loved ones.
         “Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, brother, husband, wife, we will not so discard you!” he wrote.  “You shall hold your cherished places in our Christmas hearts, and by our Christmas fires; and in the season of immortal hope, and on the birthday of immortal mercy, we will shut out Nothing!”


Sunday, December 23, 2012

The red that lies beneath

The ground is good and frozen here now, not like it is in Minneapolis by any means, but enough that all the perennials that don't show tufts of green are well hidden from sight.

So, when I stop at the stop sign across from Carl Lashmit and Vosco Angelov's house in Chattahoochee Hills, I can only see their long, earthen borders, which are now bedded down for the winter.  My friend Karen Bradley Villano introduced me to these guys, and I looking forward to more visits with them.  They are the kind of gardeners I would like to be.  Flowers are their main concern, and they are entirely hands-on types who experiment and watch for anomalies that occur (like a chrysanthemum that has popped up and is slightly different from the nearby original).

I took this photograph on an early visit, maybe the first one.  Carl showed me many day lilies - all of them stunning - that he had collected or hybridized.  I love the almost-white, lemon-yellow tinted ones the best, but second I like the red ones.  Of course, in my usual haphazard fashion, I didn't write down which ones are named or those that are surprise crosses that have come up in the beds.  Next year, I'll try to do that.

So, the above red day lily is unnamed for today.  It might well be a famous flower that someone, somewhere hybridized and then introduced.  Still, I love the sunny nature of this flower on this cold winter's day.

Day lilies have always intrigued me.  A flower opens, is beautiful as long as there is sunlight, and by the next morning is withered and spent.  That flower is gone forever.

But if you look closely, you'll see there's a bud waiting to open on the same scape.  The flowers you see above will not exist on the morrow, but a new one will have taken its place.

The obvious metaphor here is that one only has the present.  The flower that was there yesterday will never come back.  The one that is waiting in the bud cannot be seen yet.  All you have is the beautiful flower of today.

Frankly, I don't like the thought of this, as I like keeping the past alive in my mind, and I'm always looking forward to the future.  I like to see life more as one big continuum, where you can appreciate the past, present and future all at once, without any regret or sadness.

So, with only two days left until Christmas, that's what I'm seeing in these beautiful red flowers, now hidden from view and protected and safe in the rich soil Carl and Vosco have provided.  The thought that these day lilies exist is enough to bring some cheer to my heart on this cold December morning.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where were you when...?

For my generation, there was one question we could always answer with certainty.  "Where were you when you heard that President Kennedy was assassinated?"

In my case, I was walking across the Vanderbilt University campus in Nashville, Tennessee, on my way to a history class.  It was my freshman year. That first news was that he had been shot.  Like most everyone else, I was frantic with fear and headed back to the dorm, hoping and praying that he would be okay.  But when I reached the Women's Quadrangle where I lived, we found out that President Kennedy had died.  We were all shocked and devastated and in utter disbelief that this tragedy could have happened.

On a happier note, I can remember where I was on July 19, 1969.  I was out of college then, and a bunch of us had gone to Hilton Head Island, S.C., for a few days.  On the way back to Atlanta, a couple of the guys rented a motel room so we could watch as Apollo 11 landed on the moon.  What I don't remember is if we waited until Neil Armstrong got out of the capsule and stepped on the moon's surface.  But, I do recall all of us sitting around in front of a television, anxiously waiting as the moon's surface got closer and closer, and the spacecraft finally landed.

On a weirder note (confirming that I am a plant nerd), I can remember where I was when I saw the above flower for the first time.  I actually don't remember the exact year, but it was in the mid 1990's, and the month was January.  I had gone to the American Camellia Society headquarters at Massee Lane Gardens near Ft. Valley, Georgia, with noted gardeners, Margaret Moseley and Penny McHenry.

After we had toured the gardens, walking among the camellias and exclaiming over every one (I still have the notes I made of our favorites), we stopped outside the headquarters building where there were camellias for sale.  We all went crazy over Camellia sasanqua 'Yuletide'.  It was so different from most sasanquas.  The bright red, single flowers had a yellow center that glowed.  The dark green, compact evergreen foliage had almost a bluish cast.

The flower you see above was in Margaret Moseley's garden.  I say "was" because Margaret, to my horror, had one of her 'Yuletide' specimens cut down a couple of years ago.  "It had taken over, and I had another one just as pretty," said Margaret, who was 94 at the time she ordered it removed.

Actually, this particular flower may be on the surviving plant, which is covered in red flowers this time of year.  At any rate, this sasanqua has become very popular.  I couldn't find a date for its introduction in the Camellia Nomenclature book, but Margaret, who has a large collection of sasanquas, had never seen this intriguing red flower before that day at Massee Lane.

So, here is a red flower that blooms in fall and winter over a long period of time.  It grows at a medium rate to about 10 feet tall.  According to Margaret, whose surviving plant is now a tree, it's best to prune after blooming if you want the shrub to stay compact.  It's a good plant to see in bloom on a cold, gray day, especially around Christmas time.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"Green and silver, red and gold..."

The title I've chosen for this post has a little story behind it, although it hasn't a thing to do with flowers.

This is Clematis 'Niobe' - and it is red with yellow-gold anthers, and it does have green leaves.  No silver, though.

I had this idea to publish some photos of red flowers during December.  I've been saving this particular one, which I took some years ago in Milton and Davee Kuniansky's Atlanta garden, for just such a time.  This clematis blooms in May and June here in Atlanta, and it has velvety leaves and an almost jewel-tone color.

But what has this to do with my title?  Once again, I'm going off on a tangent.  I have something on my mind that has been bothering me for the last few Christmases.

We had this tradition in our church that the choir would sing This Christmastide (also known as Jessye's Carol) on the Sunday before Christmas.  It was usually a soprano who sang the lead,  but either the entire choir, or several other voices would do the other parts.  It would bring you to tears.  My late husband loved the song, and so did my daughters.  When we'd hear the beginning notes, we'd grab each other's hands.  The song is so beautiful that we'd all be wiping away a tear by the end.

And, the bonus was, we got to hear it again in its entirety at the Christmas Eve service.

Our former minister retired a few years ago, and the next Christmas there was no This Christmastide, either on the last Sunday before Christmas Eve or at the Christmas Eve service itself.  I accosted our new minister to let him know about the tradition.  He had not heard the song so didn't know that we'd all come to look forward to hearing it every year.

Okay.  Long story short.  It was explained to me by the choirmaster that this song had been the idea of our former minister's, and we needed new traditions.  Of course, none of us knew that this was connected to any one person.  I thought it was just the special song of our church.  For me, it also represented the warm times of sitting there with my husband and daughters.

Last Sunday, our minister introduced the song at the end of his sermon.  The catch was this.  The soprano sang it by herself.  And, she started midway through the song.  There were none of the chills you get when you hear the beginning, and none of the crescendos that come with the other voices.  And, it was a week early, so my children from out of town won't get to hear it, even in its pared down form.

Year before last, I did find it on ITunes, but the version (I bought the one by the University of Utah Singers) is nice, but not nearly as stirring as the one we had at our church.  It will have to do, I guess.  I think I just miss that special feeling when you'd hear the first arpeggios that introduce the song and the feeling of anticipation you'd have.  This Christmastide starts off with the lines, "Green and silver, red and gold, And a story born of old.  Truth and love and hope abide this Christmastide."

But away from nostalgia and back to this stunning red clematis.  It was hybridized in Poland (1970) and was awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit.  Every year in the Kunianskys' garden, it has performed well.   I figure if it looks this good in Atlanta, Georgia, it would look equally as wonderful in cooler climates.  A nice red to have and fun to think about this Christmastide.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Do I have the right man?

I'm not sure exactly when I bought some 'Winter Red' deciduous hollies - I think it was last December, right before the wonderful Atlanta nursery GardenHood closed for the holidays.  I also bought two 'Winter Gold' females, as well.  But, which male holly did I buy?  I think it was 'Jim Dandy'.  I do know that my initial purchase was only two red hollies and one gold.  But, I thought better of it, realizing that my dream of a holly orchard wasn't going to come to be if I didn't have more plants.  I went back and got the few remaining female hollies, but there were no more males to be had.

The plants stayed here in Atlanta for a few weeks, and then one pretty winter day, I went down to the farm and planted my "orchard."  I made three rows, and put the lone male in the center.

Later in the spring, I went to check to see if the hollies were blooming at the same time.  That would be necessary to produce a berry set.  I was shocked to find that the hollies had been dug up and moved.  They were now planted in a long row.  I think what happened is that the family who plants a garden at the farm and who have made a deer fence so that I can have some vegetables, too, thought it was inconvenient to have the plants bunched up.  It made plowing difficult.

My concern then was that it didn't rain for ages.  They had watered, but then there was a long dry spell.  I was pleased, though, to find that there were some little green berries forming on the plants.

But then, more drought.  The summer was brutal, and I noticed that the berries had all dropped off.

The other day, I screwed up my courage and checked on the hollies, expecting them all to be dead.  I was surprised to find green when I scratched on the slender branches.  As far as I can tell, they all made it through.

I have a long way to go with my tiny plants when you make a comparison with the photograph above.  These are deciduous hollies at Wilkerson Mill Gardens near my hometown of Palmetto, Georgia.  Elizabeth Dean and Gene Griffith are the owners of a marvelous specialty nursery.  In addition to a red deciduous holly orchard, they have a beautiful row of 'Winter Gold,' as well.  The berries, when they are at their peak in a good year, are just dazzling.

So, my objective is to have lots of berries to use at church and at home.  It's going to take a while, but I'd like to talk to Elizabeth and Gene in the spring to get some advice.  For sure, I need another male.   So far, in my own life, just one male has been hard to come by.  Maybe finding a 'Southern Gentleman' or another 'Jim Dandy' will be an easier task.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Of fragrance in the garden and beyond

When Brad Pitt comes on TV to advertise Chanel No. 5 perfume, it just doesn't sit right with me.  I think it's partly because the ad is so oddly mysterious, but it's also because Brad Pitt just doesn't look like he used to.  In fact, I hardly recognized him at first with his long, flowing hair and all the whiskers coming from every point on his face.

Anyway, Chanel No. 5 is special to me because it's the first perfume I ever wore.  I remember gazing longingly at the glass case at our drugstore, wishing I could have the black canister with the gold trim for myself.  More than once, I was reprimanded by the druggist's wife for using too much of the sample spray cologne on the counter.  I must have been in the sixth grade then.

I guess it was the next year that I opened a package from under the Christmas tree, and there it was - an entire set, including the powder.  I remember the squeaky feel of the white box with black writing.  I loved that fragrance.  It represented everything sophisticated to me, and day dreamer that I was, I pictured myself at a Hollywood party, dancing with Ricky Nelson and Frankie Avalon, both of them intoxicated by my heavenly perfume.  I pretty much wore Chanel No. 5 (actually the watered down cologne spray) to every event from then on, all the way through high school.

In college, when everyone went abroad, the perfume to have was Joy.  I bought some at a hole in the wall discount place off the Rue de Rivioli, but I didn't like Joy.  I let mine sit for years, unused.

I went though a L'air du Temps phase for decades.  Presently, I have some Jo Malone concoction that makes me smell like grapefruit.  According to my daughter, it's supposed to be "fresh and young", neither of which I am.  Nothing has ever come close to the feeling I had with that initial Chanel No. 5, though it wouldn't work for me nowadays.  I seldom wear any fragrance anyway.

But enough about perfume. what on earth is this picture with the bag lady on the right?   (Note: those are not mom jeans, but a faded pair of gardening pants I was attached to at the time).  This was taken over twenty years ago in front of an original stand of Trachelospermum jasminoides 'Madison', a particularly fragrant selection of star jasmine made by Jane Symmes, pictured on the left, a knowledgeable plantswoman who introduced many important plants to the trade. The vine is growing on her early 19th century house near Madison, Georgia.

Jane, who ran a wholesale nursery at her farm, noticed that this particular star jasmine tolerated more cold than the species and produced a prolific amount of blooms.  Hardy as far north as Atlanta, the vine is at its peak around the first of May, and then blooms sporadically during the season.  It's from China and Japan, although in the South, it's known as Confederate jasmine.

 So, why am I writing about this now?  It's not really a good time to plant this evergreen vine, with winter coming on.  It's just that with so many perfume ads on TV, I began thinking about all the plants there are that lend wonderful scents to the garden.  If you plan carefully, at least around here, you can have some sort of fragrant flower almost every month of the year.  And, ever mindful of what things cost, I figure for the price of a bottle of Jo Malone's special blends, I could buy at least three good-sized fragrant plants that would give me the same thrill as that first bottle of Chanel No. 5.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Not one of my smarter moments

Back when I first started writing for the Atlanta Journal & Constitution, the newspaper assigned photographers to take pictures for my column.   This usually worked well, but sometimes it didn't.  For example, I would see a flowering shrub at the Atlanta Botanical Garden that was absolutely knock-out beautiful.  So, I'd decide on a subject for the column and put in for an assignment for a staff photographer.

What happened part of the time is that the photographer and I obviously didn't see the same plant the same way.  I would have in mind a shrub covered in spectacular flowers.  The photographer would zero in on one tiny flower and get right up on it.  So, my description didn't match what you saw.  I would hold my breath every week when I opened the Home & Garden section to see how my words were depicted.  Half the time I would cringe at what I saw.

An example stands out.  The double oakleaf hydrangea 'Snowflake' is normally so impressive, with inflorescences that can be up to 20 inches long.  I turned in an assignment for this shrub, which blooms in May.  In the column I raved on about these huge, pointed blooms with double flowers that were positively magnificent.  What did the photographer do?  He zeroed in on one tiny floret.  I don't know how he did it, but it looked like a small white bloom about the size of a nickel against a dark background - completely removed from the plant.  I was embarrassed after I'd given such a glowing description of what one could expect from this native hydrangea.

I finally bought a camera (no digital back then; all 35 mm slides) and started taking my own photographs.  It was a hassle, as I would have to get them developed, then mail or take them down to the AJC and pray I wouldn't get towed while I ran them inside to the front desk.  When digital cameras and e-mail came along, life got a lot easier.

But, that's all beside the point.  I tried to take my camera everywhere I went, so if I saw something interesting, I'd be ready.  Hence, the photograph above.  It was still in the slide days, and I was riding with some friends in Athens, Georgia, when I spotted the above shrub.  It's Chaenomeles 'Toyo-Nishiki'.  I had long wanted to write about this unusual flowering quince.  It can have a rare combination of red, white and pink flowers on the plant at the same moment.  In this rather grainy slide, you can only see the white and pink, but trust me, when all three colors are on the plant at once, it is beautiful.

So, I asked my friend who was driving to stop the car so I could get out and take a picture.  The shrub was literally sitting next to the sidewalk on top of a wall, so it was at eye level.  I hopped out and took this photograph.

All of a sudden, a wild-eyed man came running out the front door of the house, pointed a shotgun at me, and yelled, "What do you think you're doing?  Get out of here."

"Oh, sir, I just wanted a picture of this beautiful quince," I managed to say.  In my usual way, as my daughters remind me constantly, I started overexplaining.  "I can never find this shrub, and I needed a picture for the newspaper, and I won't say where it is.  And, I thought it would be okay, because we're allowed to take pictures if we're on a sidewalk or street."  I went on and on.

"Get gone," he yelled.  "Now."

So, I ran back and got in the car.  My friends couldn't believe what they'd just witnessed.  I was shaking, and I thought my heart was going to jump out of my body.

In the end, I went back on my word to the gunman.  I published this picture.  But, it was not that year, nor likely the next.  Not that I feared the man would come after me (these days with the Internet, he could find me easily), but I didn't want the paper to get in trouble.  The policy is, or at least was, if you shoot a picture like that from a public street or sidewalk, you're okay.  The only thing here is that the house is visible in the background.

But, thinking about more pleasant subjects.  This flowering quince is a great one to grow.  I remember when I first saw it, I thought it was absolutely exquisite.  I haven't seen another one since, come to think of it, although I do believe they're available in the trade.  This is not the best photograph, and doesn't do the plant justice.  However, if one considers that I only had that quick moment before I was face to face with the barrel of a shotgun, I'd say it turned out pretty well.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What the Vicar of Shirley found

In the late 1980's, someone told me about a phenomenal garden in Lamar County, south of Griffin, Georgia.  It was early May, and I drove down to Ruth and Dennis Mitchell's house in the country.  As I came to a stop sign opposite the house, which was set back from the road, I got the first hint of what was to come.

Under several large, spreading pecan trees was a field of white daisies.  Beyond, I could see swaths of color in front of a white clapboard house.  I was astounded as I drove down the dusty driveway.

At the time, I had been writing for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution for two or three years.  I think the column was called "The Southern Gardener" then (it changed over the years; Southern Living made us stop using that title).  The premise was that I would find interesting gardeners and write up their stories.

Discovering Ruth and Dennis actually ended up sending my life in a new direction.  I was totally bedazzled by the Shirley poppies (there were thousands), the roses, peonies, sweet williams, bluebonnets (yes, in Georgia), the cobalt blue bachelor's buttons, the orange and yellow California poppies, the Flanders Field red corn poppies, the orange cherianthus, the wild petunias in every hue of pink and purple and lavender, the dark pink verbena clambering over a tree stump, the cherry red drummond phlox, the iris, the foxgloves and on and on.  The cottage-type flowers covered several acres.

But, it was the Shirley poppies that almost blinded me.  They were Ruth's specialty and came in the most beautiful colors - a double clear pink, pure white, lilac, salmon, dark rose and red with white edges.  I can tell you that when mixed with the electric blue bachelor's buttons, they would take your breath away.  I rushed back to Atlanta and wrote up their story.  I couldn't believe my luck in finding such a garden and such delightful characters.

Apparently, about a century before I drove down Ruth and Dennis's driveway, a Reverend Wilkes, vicar of Shirley Parish in Southeastern England, noticed a poppy at the edge of his garden, next to a field where the wild red version grew.  The clump of poppies was indeed red, but the flowers had a white picotee edge.

For years, Rev. Wilkes observed the anomaly and began selecting flowers that deviated from the wild red corn poppy.  He developed an entirely new strain, which was still Papaver rhoeas, but with unique, dazzling colors.

So, how did what became known as Shirley poppies send me in a new direction in life?  I did a story on the couple (she was from Lamar County, and he was from England via Australia) for the paper.  I also took a movie camera down there, and having never worked one, came away with several views of my brown loafers.  But, I did manage to capture the brilliant colors of the poppies, mixed with all those other flowers.

Long story short, I ended up showing the home movies to my neighbor Kathryn MacDougald, and after that, we went on a journey to get a show on television (easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye, I assure you).  We shot the pilot of A Gardener's Diary the next May at the Mitchell garden, when the poppies were once again in bloom, along with all the aforementioned flowers (there were lots more, but I'll spare you another list).

The series launched with the Home & Garden Channel (HGTV) on January 1, 1995, and we produced shows for 11 years.

It's sort of crazy the way fate works.  If Rev. Wilkes had not noticed the aberrant red poppies with the white edges and then developed an entire strain of new colors, would I have had a TV show?  I don't think so.

The photograph above was taken in Ruth Mitchell's garden on the day we shot the pilot (you can see the date on my slide down in the right hand corner).  These poppies must have looked a lot like those discovered by Rev. Wilkes.  I have to marvel that a hundred years later, my life took a drastic turn all because of a red poppy with white edges.  If fate can hinge on a particular flower, I'm wondering if something else will send me off in yet a new direction.  It will be interesting to see.