Saturday, March 30, 2013

Backing up the bench

One of our episodes of A Gardener's Diary on Home & Garden Television featured a garden in Oregon. I remember several things about that show, even though I never went there in person.

One, the gardeners had shaped a plant of Lonicera nitida 'Baggesen's Gold' to look like a Volkswagen beetle.  That's hard to forget.

Second, they had incorporated several bulbs of Allium christophii into a flower border.  Of course, I planned to copy this, but never did.

The third thing that stuck with me was the two gardeners talking about a bench.  "You always want something at your back," one of them said.  "Otherwise, you feel vulnerable."  I can see why they said this.  Their garden was built on about one of the steepest slopes you can have and still grow things.  The bench in question was set against a sort of hedge of English roses, either 'Heritage' or 'Gertrude Jekyll.'

I don't know how comfortable I would be with roses at my back.  I guess it would depend on the thorniness.  The above bench, or garden seat, as they say in England, looks pretty ideal to me.  It is made cozy by the two variegated boxwoods on either side.  Espaliered on the fence are apple trees, which would yield sweet scented blossoms in spring, then lush green foliage in summer and apples in the fall.  It looks out onto a knot garden designed by the late Rosemary Verey for the owner (my sometimes tennis partner Mary Wayne Dixon) on the site of a former swimming pool.

Another point the two gardeners in Oregon made was that you don't want to grow anything underneath the bench or where you would rest your feet.  I think that's a good idea, as you don't know what could come crawling out of a ground cover.  I would never be afraid to sit on the bench pictured above.  It seems perfectly safe in every way.

So, this brings me to a limestone bench I have.  It is backed by a wall of English ivy, which always seems to be criss-crossed with spider webs. Underneath is just some dirt and a few rogue strands of ivy from the wall.  On one side is a rose that is still in a container from 20 years ago.  It blooms valiantly every year.  Now that I have sun, I vow to free it this spring.

There is absolutely nothing inviting about my bench.  It faces northwest, meaning it gets little sun (a hemlock hedge shades it from the western sun) so is always cold and damp.

I now officially have a new little garden.  Not the dream pocket garden I started last year, which looks like a nightmare.  This one is all new, with cobblestone retaining walls, wrought iron arches, a walkway covered in tiny pea gravel, and a boxwood border on each side.  This is all in the space that was formerly occupied by a giant white oak tree that had to be taken down.

Today, two garden helpers came and moved some tall ivy topiaries I've had sitting around for 11 years. I never knew where to put them.  After one of the workers pointed out that I did not have two matching English boxwoods (they're all in a clump down near the woods), he suggested using the ivy topiaries instead.  I will say he was right.  He's going to fix them permanently for me at the entrance to the garden.

But back to the subject of a bench.  Maybe it's time to move the never-sat-upon limestone bench to a place in the sun.  I have a teak bench I could use, but I like where it is now.  So, I think next week's project will be rescuing what could become a garden seat and placing it where it can fulfill its intended function.  I could have something at my back (a boxwood hedge) and tiny pea gravel underneath.  All I would need would be some time to sit down and just enjoy being outside.  That probably won't happen, but it's nice to think about anyway.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Different years - different bloom times

I took this picture of my friend Mary Wayne Dixon's entrance garden on March 30th of last year.  If I were to go by there tomorrow, there would not be a single yellow bloom showing on the Lady Banks rose.  And, the Viburnum macrocephalum on the left would have only a hint of small apple green domes.  The Japanese maple would still be bare.

You can't see, but the Kwansan cherry trees on the front left already had tufts of fluffy pink flowers by this date.  Today, the Yoshino cherries, which bloom earlier, are barely out.

The cool, well, actually cold, weather has determined the bloom times this year.  Normally in Atlanta we have a peak flowering time around April 1.  This year, it still looks like winter.  About all the color out there is coming from yellow forsythia and magenta red buds.  Loropetalum is in bloom, but it's not showy like the azaleas and dogwoods.

Of course, you people with snow on the ground are probably shaking your heads.  I remember being at the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May.  A woman from Michigan said their daffodils were just then coming up.  Ours peak in February and March.

This year is much like the timetable we had twenty-odd years ago when I first started keeping track of when things bloomed.  Every year is different, but this season is an anomaly when one compares it to the last decade.  In a couple of weeks, everything will have changed, and Atlanta will look like a fairyland.  I can't wait.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

How things can change

First of all, I need to say where I've been lately.  The answer is actually nowhere.  My brother in Louisiana e-mailed me when he didn't see a new post for several days.  Somehow, life sort of got in the way of work, so I have some catching up to do.

I'm including this picture because I have poppies coming up in the gravel around my front stoop.  There was one single pink poppy there last year, and I can't imagine where the seed came from.  There are lots coming up at Mother's house at the farm.  These are left from her very double, cherry red poppies from decades ago.  The one you see in the picture here reminds me of Mother's, although her original ones were a different color.

I took this photograph in Margaret Moseley's poppy patch.  She started long ago with one plant from an aunt.  Poppies are hard to transplant, and she didn't think hers would live, but it did.  After several seasons, the one poppy plant (which had a single pink flower) morphed into a riot of different colors and various shapes.  Some had zillions of petals, and some just a single row.

Last year, I noticed that Mother's poppies had also produced some new colors.  I marked one plant which had blooms that were almost purple and segregated the seeds.  I'll see how they look this year, but I don't think there's any guarantee that I'll ever see that color again.  I did see, however, several mail order sources for some very intriguing colors, like very dark maroon-purple and also a cream one.  In the South, we have to plant poppy seeds in the fall.  I'm tempted to order some of these beauties and put the seeds in the freezer until October or November.

My mother used to be very secretive about these poppies.  Old timers called them opium poppies.  When you see them for sale, they are referred to as peony poppies.  I think the species is still Papaver somniferum, which tells you something.

I guess if you wait long enough and provide bare ground for the seeds to germinate, you'll begin seeing all kinds of colors and flower forms - all part of the fun of having a garden.  I can't wait to see what the rogue ones next to my front door (not a good place for tall flowers) look like.  I will let you know when they bloom in May.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

I'm not recommending Barbizon

Two friends who are traveling to Paris for the first time - one in April, one in May - have asked for recommendations for side trips.  I'm hardly the person to ask.  Most of my knowledge of France comes from living in Paris 40 plus years ago.  However, I have gone back three times in the past several years, and I did take some day-long excursions.  There is one place, though, that I will not recommend.

The town sounded so interesting - Barbizon - at the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau, "like stepping into an Impressionist painting," one Web site said.  Home of a famous school of 19th Century painters, namely Millet and Rousseau.  A picturesque, but out-of-the-way excursion from Paris.  I couldn't wait for the chance to photograph its wonderful hidden gardens.

"Hidden" is the key word here.  The above photograph is the only thing I saw that hinted of flowers.  But first the trip to get there.

Little did I know, but we were doomed from the start.  My friend and I went to the train station a day early to get our tickets.  I bought two round trip tickets and slipped them into my wallet.  Therein lay my first mistake.  The tickets look exactly like Metro tickets.

Not paying attention, I unknowingly used up the expensive round-trip tickets to Barbizon to get around Paris for the day.

When we arrived the next morning, and there were no train tickets, I realized what had happened.  We had to purchase new tickets.  This cost us time, and we barely made it down to the tracks.

It didn't matter anyway, because the train didn't come.  We waited and waited; no one knew anything.  Trains came for other destinations, but none for Melun.  Finally, an announcement.  Someone had committed suicide on the train tracks of our route, and all traffic had been halted.  It was not known at what time they would be reopened.

I can't remember how long we waited, possibly another couple of hours, when finally a train appeared, but on another track.  We almost missed it.  At last, we were riding toward the countryside, and all seemed well.

We made a few stops at small stations.  When we were getting close, I thought I understood the announcer to say "Melun".  I panicked and made us get off the train at the last moment.  We jumped down, and I realized this was not Melun, but a tiny blip of a station.  In fact, there was not even a depot.  The train was already moving, and we ran to try to get aboard. Too late.

Not a soul was around.  Also, there was construction, and we couldn't even get down from the platform onto the only road.  At last, a young worker came along.  I asked him about Melun.  It was the next stop, he said, but there wouldn't be a train for at least another two hours.

I'll hurry this up.  A train came within 15 minutes, and we climbed aboard and got off at Melun, which had a large station.  But, the promised bus to Barbizon did not exist.  We had to take a taxi.  I won't even say how much that cost.  The driver acted like he had never had a request to go so far.

Once in Barbizon, we found a charming village shut tight.  The Bureau de Tourisme was closed for the day. We went into the one open restaurant. After the only waitress ignored us for at least a half-hour, we got up again.  We finally found a bar with no patrons.  Two young men said they would fix us something to eat.  It took them an hour.

I recommended we walk down to the Foret de Fontainebleau at the edge of town.  It had rained recently, so we had to dodge puddles on the path.  We came to some rocks and sat down for a moment, only to be attacked by swarms of mosquitoes.  So much for the forest.

Back in town, I desperately peeked through cracks in walls to see lovely enclosed gardens.  "Open on Friday-Sunday," the signs all said.

We were pretty much stuck in Barbizon.  The only sign of life was an old man who had set out some horrific looking canvases that depicted distorted gleaners bending over picking up hay.

We asked a butcher about the bus back to Melun.  "Only on the weekends," he told us.  I asked if he could call us a taxi, and he did.  We were picked up in front of the man selling the "Copies de Millet".

There you have it.  An expensive side trip on the wrong day.  You are seeing the only flowers in town - a stand of lavender and a few orange day lilies.  Or, so I thought.  On the taxi ride out, we took back streets in a part of the village we hadn't explored.  I caught a glimpse of two flower-filled gardens.  And, I saw lovely plantings along a cobbled passageway.  A missed opportunity.  It was the appropriate ending for the ill-fated day.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The plant that didn't hold true

It was too good to be true.  A pink snowball viburnum.  The above photograph was originally a slide I took back in the 1990's, and is at the heart of a story I wish I could forget.

Here's why:  I had gone with the TV crew of A Gardener's Diary on HGTV to a huge wholesale nursery in Tennessee.  Normally, we didn't do nurseries, but this one had all sorts of wonderful plants and many wild animals (camels, a zebra hybrid which was half solid and half striped, tapirs, giant donkeys from France that were extremely rare, and a terrifying ostrich named Tiny).

Toward the end of the second day of shooting, the owner of the nursery showed us this plant - Viburnum plicatum 'Kern's Pink'.  I almost fainted. It was the pink version of a favorite white snowball viburnum.  What's more, the foliage was a lovely bronzy color.  We were all dying for it.

The nursery owner explained to us that his father had obtained the viburnum from a nursery in Ohio.  The original had been a sport on a plant with white flowers and green leaves.  Where the pink flowers occurred, the foliage had turned a lovely bronze color.

The nurseryman tested the plant for 20 years, hoping it would stabilize.  What typically happened was that part of the plant would be white with green leaves, and the other section would have pink flowers with the bronze foliage.  I would have been okay with that.

Finally, the nursery owner proclaimed that the plant was for the most part stable and could be sold to the public.  So, the following January (we had seen the plant in April), I wrote a column about a very unusual snowball viburnum that had pink flowers.

The response was overwhelming.  The retail outlet in Atlanta I had contacted had acquired dozens of plants ahead of time. They sold out within a couple of hours.  I think that's when the trouble began.

Other local nurseries tried to find the plant.  A different wholesaler in Tennessee claimed to have 'Kern's Pink' and filled orders.  However, it should have been called 'Kern's Gray'.  The flowers that were produced were off-white, with a bloom that looked like it needed washing.  There was a suggestion of pink, but not much of one.  The flowers appeared to be grayish-brown and were very unsightly.  People demanded their money back, and the original nursery obliged.  They had also re-ordered from the second source.  It had been a massive fiasco.

Since that time, I've only come across one person who got a stable 'Kern's Pink' in the original batch.  Hers had all pink flowers and the reddish-bronze foliage.   A few years ago, when I acquired some plants for a sale at my church, the local wholesaler offered 'Kern's Pink'.  I took a chance.  The few we got in sold out quickly.  A friend from my Sunday School class bought two.  One has languished where he planted it, and the other has thrived.  It has all pink flowers and the bronzy leaves.

I looked on the Internet to see if the plant is available.  Most of the pictures show flowers with the slightest tinge of pink.  There is one nursery with a picture resembling the flowers pictured above.  My conclusion is that this is still a gamble.  One person I know who bought the plant in the 1990's gave up and cut down the shrub, which had become huge.  Another friend was about to ax hers, and I talked her out of it.  The flowers on her plant had turned back to pure white, and so the shrub was no longer unsightly.  In fact, it was quite beautiful, but not at all what she had ordered.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

And the winner is.....

Well, it wasn't this one, which is Camellia japonica 'White-By-the-Gate'.  All week, I've been involved in the Southeastern Flower Show, and everything, including this blog, went by the wayside.

This was my 24th year working at the show.  I am not a leader or anything, but I greatly admire all those who've been there for the 25 years and dedicated months of their lives to making it happen.   The show is much smaller now, and I can't help but think of the glory days when there were huge, elaborate gardens and so many flower arrangements, one could never see them all.

But, it's different now.  The recession didn't help.  And people like me are 25 years older!

Usually, the show is held in February, for most years about the third week.  One year, it was too early, and there were hardly any horticulture entries, because nothing was quite in bloom yet, and what was had been frozen by a devastating cold spell.  There were a few paltry camellias.

This year, though, the camellias were the stars.  I took a lot of pictures of the specimens.  They were the best I can remember.  Some that grabbed blue ribbons were 'Magnoliaeflora', 'La Peppermint','Carter's Sunburst', 'Yours Truly',  'R. L. Wheeler', 'Beauty of Holland', 'Grand Slam', 'Black Magic', 'Governor Mouton', 'Dr. Tinsley', 'Show Time' and 'Royal Velvet' (this last was a huge deep maroon flower with golden stamens - knockout).

The theme of this year's show was "What's Old is New Again".  By far, the very old (1875, Japan to U.S.) 'Pink Perfection', a small flower that suits its name, was the biggest winner.  I've wanted this shrub for a long time and haven't been able to find it in a nursery.  There are certainly a lot of the plants around Atlanta, judging from the number of specimens entered.

So, fortuitously enough, yesterday I had to go to Monroe, Ga., to fetch my car (a long story; my daughter's car conked out, so she came and got mine, and ended up with two cars at her work there).My friend Benjie drove me out there, and I kept looking for a nursery someone told me about.  We were about out of the town where it was supposed to be when we stopped for gas.  I asked a young girl inside the convenience store, and she said, sure, it was right behind the station.

So, what are the odds?  Forty miles worth of shopping centers, car dealers, gas stations, and we picked the right one.  We drove back there, and saw a big selection of camellias.  There it was - 'Pink Perfection.'  We drove on to get my car and came back.  I panicked for a moment, thinking someone had bought them all (I was in the wrong place).

So, now I am the owner of this old and beloved flower.  I also bought 'Greensboro Red', two sasanquas ('Cotton Candy') and three 'Prince Eugene Napoleon' (red), the latter dating from 1859 from Belgium.

Last week, I had bought 'Sea Foam', which looks very much like 'White-By-the-Gate' pictured above.  The big buds are opening into large white double blooms.

I have my work cut out for me, but I am a happy camper.  I'll have to do a lot of digging, followed by a lot of watering.  Now, if the deer will not ruin my happiness.  They decimated my 'Taylor's Perfection', but I'm getting a motion light installed on the side of the house where the camellias are going.  Maybe that will work, at least for a while.  Wish me luck!

Monday, March 11, 2013

A magical part of early spring

I'm back in Margaret Moseley's garden in east Atlanta.  There's something I've been trying to figure out for over two decades now.  This is a magical garden.  Practically everyone who has stepped into her back yard has felt that it is different from other gardens.   But what is it that makes it such an appealing place?

This photograph gives me a hint.  I've always thought one factor was the way light falls into the garden almost all day long.  Here, you can see how light and shadows play.  Of course, Margaret's success lies in the plants she chooses and where she places them.  This is Spiraea thunbergii 'Fugino Pink', one of the first spiraeas to bloom in late winter.  The irregular shrub is almost like a wild sculpture, seen against a darker background.

Margaret gave me one of these plants.  I parked mine in a shrub holding border where things will stay until I figure out my deer problem.  Instead of growing to its normal height of three to five feet, my plant formed a couple of thin, upright shoots that are taller than I.  Miraculously, the deer haven't lopped off the blooms.  After it has finished flowering (which it is doing now), I'm going to cut back those long leaders and try for a more proportionate plant.  I want mine to look like Margaret's.

But to highlight a shrub like this, I need more evergreen backdrops.  At the core of Margaret's irregular beds are large camellias and sasanquas.  Although there are no formal lines in her garden, she's made sure the deciduous flowering plants not only get the proper light but have a background that will be complementary.  I think this is a natural instinct with her, part of her extraordinary vision for how to make a plant look its best.

I'm frantically putting a book together of photographs of Margaret's garden, along with anecdotes, her famous sayings and hints for making a successful garden and stories about how far and wide her influence has been.  After reading dozens and dozens of articles about her, one thing stands out.  She has enjoyed every minute out in this garden, constantly changing things up, adding and subtracting where needed, even cutting down beloved trees (a Prunus mume, for example) that no longer worked.  The garden has also been a factor in maintaining good health into an advanced age (she'll be 97 in May).

I came across this photograph while looking back through some forgotten files I had for the Atlanta Journal & Constitution.  Somehow, it seemed to capture the essence of this extraordinary garden - the placement of the plant, the way the light falls on the flowers and the surroundings, the insouciant informality of the rock borders.  I don't think I'll ever understand how Margaret has known what to do. But I have come to appreciate her rare talent for making magic happen in what might have been just another ordinary back yard.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

One of many good things about March

I confess the month of March makes me a little uneasy.  I can't help but think of spring storms and the beginning of tornado season.  Yesterday, it was not stormy, but it was very windy (what else would one expect of March?).  The lights flickered a couple of times, and I picked up a lot of branches that had fallen on the driveway.  I didn't even try for the obnoxious sweet gum balls that every breeze seemed to send raining down.

At my house, the real damage that has occurred from storms has happened in April, May and June.  So, why do I fear March?  One reason is that I once had a bad experience on a plane in the month of March.  This was back in the days when a certain airline painted its jets different colors.  This one was orange inside and out.  My friend and I boarded in Atlanta, headed to Colorado to ski.  She was terrified of flying, so she was already looking pale as we took off.

We bumped up through the air, and instead of that relieved feeling when you're finally above the clouds and in bright sunshine, the interior of the plane grew dark and ominous.  The turbulence got worse and worse as we climbed.  You could see nothing out the window but gray mist.

Then, all of a sudden we started going down way too fast.  Passengers, who had been making noises every time we had experienced a roller coaster falling sensation, now fell silent.  We all grabbed one another.  I was holding on tight to my friend and to the stranger on the other side of me.  This couldn't be right.  We weren't high enough to lose altitude like this.

I tried to look for the flight attendants.  They were nowhere in sight.  Then, we hit, but not the ground.  Presumably an air pocket or updraft.  I don't know how the plane stayed together.  Then, we started bouncing all over the place.  We'd go up, then down and hit hard again.  People started screaming.  I finally saw a flight attendant, and she was screaming, too.

It seemed like we went on forever like that, but it was probably only a few minutes.  Then, we suddenly smoothed out.  The pilot came on and said free drinks for everyone.  The worst was over.

That day, it turned out, was a deadly one on the ground, with tornadoes ripping through the Southern states.  My friend and I made it safely to Vail and had a great week of skiing.

This story has nothing to do with the photo above, except that I took it in the month of March.  I love this shrub, known commonly as winter hazel.  There are many species of the genus Corylopsis.  This could possibly be C. spicata.  I love the pale yellow racemes that appear before the leaves do.  The length of the chains varies with the species.  Once, someone had a specimen at the Southeastern Flower Show that had the longest racemes I'd ever seen, maybe four or five inches.  I tracked the guy down, but he did not know where the shrub had originally come from.

Still, the fragrant flowers of winter hazel are such a welcome sight as the weather warms.  This particular plant is perfectly placed (sorry for the alliteration) against a dark evergreen backdrop.  The effect would not be as spectacular if the pale yellow had to compete against light gray deciduous branches.

So, here's hoping the remainder of March will be gentle (there's a huge snowstorm right this minute in the Northeast) and that we can focus on beautiful, fragrant plants like the corylopsis rather than dark, angry clouds.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Catalogs started it all

I don't know whether to thank or blame the people at Wayside Gardens for my obsession with plants.  After I got married, flower catalogs started arriving at this address.  I began studying them, especially the very informative ones from Wayside, as if they were college textbooks.  That is basically how I learned about plants, although my mother always grew flowers.  During my childhood, though, I took for granted the bouquets that were on our kitchen table.  I loved to go out and pick flowers - daffodils, roses, irises, lilies - but I wasn't interested in cultivating them myself.

When I finally settled down, I was guilty of ordering things that didn't stand a chance of surviving here.  I remember receiving some bachelors' button plants in June, only to watch them wilt and die in the summer sun.  Later, I learned that seeds of these blue flowers had to be planted in fall in the South because they bloomed in April and May and were considered cool season annuals (poppies and ox-eye daisies fall into this same category).

But, I still have some of the plants from my early days of ordering.  The Boston ivy that grows on my house is an example.  Another is a velvety red form of Campsis radicans, which I haven't seen for sale in years.

There came a time when I had to put a stop to my ordering, or even buying plants locally.  I was getting ahead of myself.  I had no places cleared and ready when the plants came, so I'd end up watering them in their containers for years.  I finally gave a lot of them away when I thought I was going to move.  Mercifully, others got planted.

When a catalog came about a month ago for summer-flowering bulbs, I fell victim again.  The moratorium on plant buying is over.  I do have someone now who can help me get things into the ground.  It's a great feeling, and I'm reaping the rewards.

The latest catalog I received features a lot of lilies.  When I went to Carl Lashmit and Vosco Angelov's garden outside my hometown last year, I went crazy.  They had all kinds of beautiful lilies.  I knew right then that I was going to have to figure out a foil for the deer so I could have some, too.  I had already watched my Lilium 'Casa Blanca' plants fall victim to the marauders.  In fact, I need to dig them up and see about putting them closer to my house with some sort of protection (Milorganite fertilizer works for a while, but then the deer wise up, or I forget to put more out; ditto Irish Spring soap and other repellents).

The orange tiger lily above was just one of the many lilies at Carl and Vosco's.  I can envision a riotous mix of summer flowers (the tiger lilies would bloom in late June and July, I think) I could tap for big bouquets.  I now have some sun which has opened up an entire new world for me after 40 years of shade gardening.  All I have to do is figure out the deer problem, which is considerable.  They love lilies, so I'll definitely have to outmaneuver them.

I have a catalog right here in front of me, and I'm going to fall back into my old ways.  I'll place the order and worry about what to do later.  I'll make it work somehow.  I need lilies!