Wednesday, August 28, 2013

If there could be some roses


The February after I married, my husband and I decided we'd like to have a rose garden.  We bought those packages with the pretty pictures you see at the grocery store.  We picked out several colors.

We had moved into a little cottage in the woods, surrounded on all sides by tall trees, all of them deciduous.  That meant in winter, there seemed to be plenty of sun.  We planted the roses, not bothering to prepare the ground or adding any compost or fertilizer.   In March, the bushes began to put out and looked healthy.  By late April, there were fat buds, and in May we had some blooms.

But by that time, the sunny space was not sunny anymore.  In fact, it was in pretty deep shade.  Soon the black spot started, and the yellow leaves dropped off.  By the end of the summer, there were mainly just green stems.

I can't remember how long the bushes lived - not very long, I'm sure.

Twenty-one years of writing about gardens, going on tours, scouting for a TV show - one would think I could grow anything.  When I had to take down an enormous white oak tree that hung over my house, I was delighted to see I had sun, so much in fact, that the English ivy covering a tall bank all died from the western exposure.

I could see, too, that there were some spots outside my den window of what seemed to be full sun - enough to grow roses.  So, I put in my order, had some heavy iron arbors installed and piled on the compost and garden lime.  The roses came in April, and soon I had thick buds forming.

That lasted about a week.  My assumption that the deer wouldn't come right up to the wall of the house was wrong.  In one night, they ate every bud.

But that wasn't the whole problem.  The patches of full sun I'd counted on weren't there anymore.  I started moving some of the plants to the back terrace where the sun blasts almost all day long.  Things were fine until the chipmunks found it amusing to dig the plants up.  I put rocks all around the roots.  They just moved the rocks (how, I don't know), and had the plants out of the soil by the next day.

I am not going to give up.  I want roses.  I'll never have anything like the display in the above photo I took in the village of Giverny in France.  But, when things settle down a bit, I'm going to throw myself into making a success of at least a few climbing roses.  I don't know quite how I'm going to deal with the deer (the Milorganite molded with all the rain, and I used up I don't know how many bars of Irish Spring soap), but I'll figure out something.  A high school classmate told me I need to string up some fishing line, so I'll try that.

Next May, I hope to report here that I will be looking out of this window at a mass of roses.  I'm having a deja vu that I've said all of this before.  I'm comforting myself that I have spent all my time writing a book and just haven't had a moment to work outside.  There truly is one spot of sun, and I mean to coax some big, blousy roses out of the space.  I may even have a rose or two in October, as I just saw a bud emerging on a very spindly plant.  If I can outsmart the deer, this may actually happen.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

On this very day in August


It has been 42 years since I read William Faulkner's Light in August.  I remember some of the characters - the doomed Joe Christmas, in particular.  But, what I remember most was that this very violent, brooding novel should have had its original title, Dark House, not a title that suggests any kind of beauty or brightness.

With the passing of years, I've come to notice that there is indeed a special light unique to the waning days of August.  I can contrast this with the light here in Georgia in the month of May. The latter has a quality that gives you hope of the summer season to come, of warm days and soft nights.  But there's something rather plaintive, yet decidedly beautiful, about the way the sun filters through the trees and lies over the land in August.  I notice it most in the afternoons, when a few leaves are floating down prematurely from the trees lining my driveway, and the light seems to come in at more of a slant.

Actually, no one's seen much light around here this entire summer.  But, today it's there.  I'm looking out right now at the beauty of the sunshine falling on the leaves of the clipped box holly next to the French door.  It's hard to describe; it's almost bright, yet with a kind of softness, as well.

The photograph above was taken on August 22 two years ago.  This is a garden that depends mostly on  green, with splashes of color as the seasons ebb and flow.  The light I've seen today and in other years in August is not evident above.  There are specks of light coming down, but they are harsh (I probably took the picture at noon, when the dappled light was at its worst).

Still, this is a beautiful garden for the 22nd day of August and is an example of the role different textures can play in a composition.  I just wish I could have captured the special light of August on that day.  I'll have to try again soon.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Looking for a peaceful scene in chaos


By no means is losing your land line phone and your Internet service for three days a serious situation.  Not even when you have a deadline and no way to attach an important part of a book that is in the making, and not being able to do so will cost at least a week's delay in the already tight publishing schedule.

Watching people telling about losing everything in recent floods, or seeing someone explain that his house was destroyed by a quick-moving fire, or worse yet, hearing about a parent who lost a child after a long bout with leukemia or from a sudden automobile accident - those are serious situations.

But, when one lightening strike seemingly a few miles away knocked out my new AT&T U-Verse system, you'd have thought the world was coming to an end.  I won't go into the fact that I let myself be talked into converting after having called to see why the regular billing system had not yet switched me over to my credit card.  Definitely a mistake.  Nothing has worked right since.  I'll take this opportunity to warn you.  If it's not broken, don't fix it.  Especially with this system.  The repairman, who finally arrived seven and a half hours late as dark was falling, said he had been brought up from Miami to help out with all the problems with this new "innovation".

Anyway, on two of the three "out" days, I had a Bobcat here, moving some earth to create parking spaces at my house, which is hemmed in on all sides by forest.  I was already nervous about doing this and worried about the money I was spending.  When the man arrived to survey the work to be done, he pointed out that a large tree had fallen from my yard onto the fence of the neighbor's tennis court.  The top branches reached all the way to the net.  I knew this was a phone call I didn't want to make.

So, I roamed about like a caged animal, feeling all out of sorts, getting nothing done.  I couldn't write this blog, since I had no access to the Internet.  But, what I could do was look at photographs.  I scrolled through some garden scenes and noticed that the ones that appealed right at that moment had only the color green.

After I first married,  I wanted to grow every colorful flower I would see in a catalog.  Trouble was, most of them required full sun, something I didn't have.  I would plant them anyway and watch as they would develop weak stems and sad looking flowers.

It took me 25 years and I don't know how many visits to gardens to realize that just green alone can be beautiful.  Now, I'm often drawn to all-green scenes with different textures and hues (I still long for bright, colorful flowers to cut).  This photograph happens to be on my computer at the moment, and if I would take down a lot of the clutter on the desktop, it could be very soothing indeed.  Actually, it is calming anyway.  The Bobcat man has gone (although I liked him, I felt only dollar signs melting away in the roaring of the machine), and two workers are here making a nice garden space (the other half of my fairly new arch garden).  I think when this is all done, and the mud has disappeared and the cobblestones and pea gravel are in place, I will feel at peace with the world.  Well, at least until the neighbor calls again.

Note:  This scene (rocks are calming, too, I think) is in Bill Hudgins' Atlanta garden.


Friday, August 9, 2013

Stalking the crape murderers


Crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) are a fixture in summer landscapes throughout the Southeastern United States.  The shrubs/trees lend color to interstate highways, city streets and country lanes with hues ranging from white to light pink, deep rose, pale to dark lavender, watermelon red and lipstick red.

But not everyone can grow these heat loving plants, even if they are in Zones 7-9.  I remember standing in a beautiful garden in Seattle on Lake Washington.  It was one of those rare clear days when you could actually see Mt. Ranier.  I was transfixed by the snow-capped mirage and also by the range of vivid colors in this garden on the site of a former holly orchard.

The gardener had plants that people in Atlanta can only dream of - dark maroon, almost black leaved European elderberry (Sambucus nigra) that actually had grown into a giant shrub (here, they remain small and struggle with the heat).  She also had other plants with gorgeous dark maroon or chartreuse foliage that had actually stayed that way in mid-summer.  Plus, her dahlias were spectacular.  We can grow them, too, but they are best in late summer and fall and need to be heat-tolerant types.

Why, then, was she struggling to grow a crape myrtle?  We looked at her specimen, and she said apologetically that she knew the climate wasn't right for the plants.  "I've never had a bloom," she said.  "But, I keep trying."

Last month, I drove from Atlanta through South Carolina to Durham, North Carolina.  It was an embarrassment of crape myrtle riches.  Every shape and possible color was represented.

I don't have any crape myrtles at my house. I don't have enough sun.  Mother had light pink ones at the farm.  I went out on a steamy July day in 1973 in my long-sleeved, high-necked Priscilla of Boston wedding gown and posed for a picture.  Had the photograph been in color when it appeared in August in the newspaper, one could have seen the flowers of tall crape myrtles in the background. (An aside here - I had worked so hard on a tan, and that fact, combined with the whitish lipstick in vogue then, made me look like the "too-tanned girl" in the Seinfeld episode.  I winced when I ran across the clipping recently).

But back to crape myrtles and the title to this post.  I have sort of made it a game to i.d. the crape myrtles that have been severely topped in late winter.  I didn't do it on my drive to North Carolina, but I'm constantly playing a guessing game in Atlanta.  I can usually tell, because the branches seem longer and floppier (or is this the natural growth habit?  It varies so).  People do this, I guess, to control the size, and also because they believe it promotes more blooms.  A popular horticulturist and lecturer calls it "crape murder".

Woody plant expert and author Dr. Michael A. Dirr is experimenting with sizes and colors of crape myrtles.  He has introduced some that are truly dwarf like bright red 'Cherry Dazzle'.  There are others that never reach the heights of the well-known white flowering 'Natchez'.   Thus, nowadays, you can have about any size crape myrtle without any brutal chopping.  In the photograph above, the flowers were on plants that were maybe six feet tall.  They had never been topped and had reached their full-grown height.  Note that the flowers are standing upright.

I've not had any experience with crape myrtles, but I've observed plants that apparently had once been cut back, but the practice hadn't been continued.  In winter you could see knots and deformities on the limbs.  At our church, we have four beautiful 'Natchez' specimens that are not pruned back, but they are tall - maybe to 20 feet.

There is a long row of dark lavender crape myrtles on City of Atlanta property not far from my house.  They are cut back every year in late winter.  In summer, flowers appear only at the tips of the arching branches and aren't very showy. I always wonder what the trees would look like if they had been left to grow naturally.  Is this what the horticulturist means when she says crape murder?

One last thought.  I love the allee of 'Natchez' crape myrtles at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.  As you walk close, you are amazed by the richness of the multi-colored bark.  I'm wondering if you get this beautiful bark on trees that are cropped.  Maybe some of you with experience can weigh in on the subject.  Meanwhile, I need to be careful because this habit of crape murder stalking makes me a distracted driver.  I would like to know, though, if the practice is a crime, or not.


Note:  For the last two months, I have been working furiously on finishing the book about Margaret Moseley's garden.  I never dreamed it would take so much work.  I was on a deadline and had to put everything else aside, including this blog.  I hope to be back up and running on a regular basis soon.  My daughter is getting married at my house on October 5th, so there's another full-time job.  I confess I'm waking up before five o'clock every morning, worrying about everything that could go wrong.  By mid-morning, I'm okay and can see how it can all be a lot of fun.  We shall see.