Friday, December 27, 2013

Margaret gave us winter stories

The life of a garden columnist in winter was pretty bleak.  When I started off at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1988, I did profiles of gardeners.  It was a weekly column, so it was akin to having a term paper due every Monday.

It was also back in the dark days before e-mails, but in the era of FAX.  I would come up with my story and fax it down to an editor.  An assistant would type it into their system.  I could go over my copy umpteen times and be so positive that everything was correct, but more often than not, there would be a mistake when it was re-typed.  Some weeks I would open the paper and burn with shame over a typo or a quote mark that was wrong.

But, as cumbersome as the process was then (I also had to assign a photographer, and I almost never agreed with the pictures they took), the hardest part was finding someone to let you in their garden during the winter months.  I ended up with way too many greenhouse stories that weren't all that riveting.

And then in 1994, I was introduced to Margaret Moseley.  She had begun gardening when she was 52, meaning that if she was born in 1916, that made it around 1968 when she started planting shrubs and trees.  She didn't have as much choice as we do today, but she scoured nurseries for plants she wanted.  The smart thing she did was plant a lot of winter-blooming camellias which eventually grew to form the backbone of her 3/4-acre garden.  So, no matter what the season, those dark green leaves made everything else look good.

She knew just where to put the camellias, and she also planted Arum italicum, daphnes and hellebores, as well as ferns that were evergreen (holly fern and autumn fern come to mind).

All the garden writers gravitated toward Margaret in the winter because she had something in bloom every day.  One editor finally asked me not to mention Margaret in every column.  The next thing I knew, he had her on the front of a January issue of the Home & Garden section, showing off her collection of winter-blooming plants.

The above photograph shows how she used a particular camellia (Camellia x 'Taylor's Perfection') - a real jewel of a flower - to mark the beginning of one of her "secret" paths.

I've arrived late to the camellia party.  I have a five-year-old 'Taylor's Perfection', but the deer eat the buds and some of the foliage.  Last year, I put in ten new camellias, and this year I want to plant some more.  So far, there are nice big buds on most of them.  After the rains this weekend, I'm going to get out the deer repellent and see if I can keep up with a regular spraying schedule to get through the season.

Oh, and I must mention that Margaret was still planting camellias well into her 90's.  She says it's never too late to plant something you want.  Every time I go out there, I come home empowered and ready to dig.

Someone last year said, "But think how old you'll be when these bushes are mature."  I guess I'll  follow Margaret's advice:  "Go ahead and plant as many as you can," she says.  "If you're going to live to be that old anyway, you might as well have some camellias to enjoy in winter."

Monday, December 23, 2013

"This Christmastide" was back!

The Sunday before Christmas is a special time at my church.  By that day, all of the decorations are up, and the church looks beautiful.  The huge Christmon tree in the sanctuary twinkles with lights, and the limestone columns and transepts are hung with wreathes and garland. On the altar is a giant arrangement (with greenery from my yard and from the farm).  It is really quite magical.

But, in recent years, something has been missing.  My family joined this church (we have something like 7,000 members) some 25 years ago.  For some reason, Peachtree Road United Methodist did not seem all that big.  It had a small town feel, and the music was out of this world.

Soon after we joined, the choir started the tradition of singing a very beautiful Christmas song called "This Christmastide" (also known as "Jessye's Carol").  A lovely piano introduction led off, and then a soprano began a solo.  She was joined then by the choir or an ensemble.  The song has several verses, and there is a big buildup towards the end.  Then, the last verse is sung quietly again by the soprano.  It is one of the most beautiful Christmas songs I've ever heard.

One reason that it is so special to me is that my late husband and my children loved it so.  At the end of the sermon on that last Sunday of Advent, you'd hear the introduction, and the four of us would squeeze hands and hold each other during the lovely melody.  My husband was not the type to do this sort of thing, but he, too, fell under the spell of "This Christmastide."  The song was performed again on Christmas Eve, and we'd hold hands once again, there in the dark with the lighted trees.

My husband died suddenly in the summer of 1999.  That Christmas, my daughters and I kept up our tradition of holding hands while listening to this song that had so much meaning for us.

One Sunday a few years ago, my older daughter flew home from New York in time for the Sunday service, and my younger daughter had driven home from law school in Charlottesville, Virginia, to be there to attend the service to hear "This Christmastide."  I had a supply of tissues ready, which we always needed.  But then sermon was over, and the final hymn began.  No "This Christmastide."

I couldn't believe it.  Another friend who considered this song a Peachtree Road tradition was equally upset.  He and I rushed up to our new minister to ask him what happened.  He had never heard of the song and knew nothing about it.

In the years that followed, there were a couple of abbreviated renditions with a soloist, which had none of the drama of the crescendos, and bore no resemblance to the original.  I obtained a copy of the music and would play it on Christmas Eve when a family from our church joined us for dinner.  But, none of us could sing, so I ordered several recordings from ITunes.  Nothing came close to the Peachtree Road choir.

My older daughter and her husband arrived this past Friday night, so as we rode to church on Sunday, I told her not to expect "This Christmastide."  It was okay, she said.

But, at the end of the sermon, Scott, our choirmaster came down to the chancel piano along with several members of the choir.  Could it be?  Then the familiar arpeggios began, and I grabbed my daughter's hand.  All of the past Christmases came rushing back, sitting there, the four of us - our original family - on the pew in the old sanctuary, holding hands and misty-eyed, in the quiet of the moment of this great season:

"Green and silver, red and gold.
  And a story born of old.
  Truth and love and hope abide,
  This Christmastide."

Friday, December 20, 2013

Looking forward to winter

Yesterday, I went to visit Margaret Moseley, who at 97, is as upbeat and lively as ever.  And how wonderful that her mind is so good.  She said she is looking forward to winter.

Now, that's something you don't often hear a gardener say.  In her case, it has to do with the fact that over the years she has planted so many camellias, daphnes and hellebores.  The camellia pictured here - Camellia japonica 'Magnoliaeflora' was beginning to bloom yesterday.  The shrub is full of buds.

Margaret opted not to go outside with her daughter Carol and me, so we took her a bouquet of these exquisite flowers.  The minute we walked in with them, she knew exactly what they were.

"I just love this camellia," she said.  "Sometimes the blooms are five inches across."

Some of the flowers had just a touch of brown on the blush pink petals.  I was surprised that they were in such good shape, seeing as how we have had temperatures every morning in the upper 20's.  Normally, a light colored, fully open flower will turn brown.

We found several without a blemish and took them in to make a bouquet for Margaret.

"Look at these," she said.  "Everybody who can grow camellias ought to have this one."

How many times have I heard Margaret say this, but if anyone can recommend plants for our climate, she certainly can.  Having lived through almost 50 years of trial and error and hands-on gardening, Margaret has definitely earned the right to dispense advice.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Here's a good Christmas present

Yesterday, I dropped by one of the big box stores to forage for some Christmas tree trimmings.  I do this every year so I can make a garland for my front staircase.  I don't feel bad, because I buy my Christmas tree there every year.

I still need to plant some pansies or violas for an elderly friend, so I went into the plant section to see if they still have some.  They do.  I really need to get this done next week while we have some good weather.

As I was browsing, I came across several containers of Viburnum macrocephalum.  I rarely see this plant for sale, which I find odd.  It's extremely easy to grow in this area, and the shrub, which can reach the size of a tree, gives you a full month of interest in the spring and can bloom again in the fall.

The giant snowball usually starts forming intense green domes in March.  As time passes, the domes become more rounded and turn to apple green.  Within a couple of weeks, a big, hydrangea-like ball has formed, and the color starts to lighten.  Another week will pass, and the flowers turn a mint green.

Then, by mid-April usually (one never knows these days - could be lots earlier, could be later as happened in 2013), the balls turn snow-white.

I looked at the five gallon containers and thought, "What a bargain."  This time of year, people buy Honey-Baked hams that cost a good $15 more than the $19.95 asking price for some sturdy plants.   The ham is gone within a couple of weeks, but this shrub is very long-lived and blooms reliably.

Here, it is, pictured at the back of Margaret Moseley's east Atlanta garden.  In my book, Margaret Moseley's A Garden to Remember, the shrub is also shown in its rounded, apple green stage, set against a dark green background of Leyland cypress.  The latter is as breathtaking as the white flowers.

Already this season, I have gone shopping and ended up with gifts for myself.  I fear that I am going to go back to the big box store and give myself another Viburnum macrocephalum.  I have plenty of space now, and the deer so far (knock on wood) have not been interested in either the foliage or the flowers.  If Margaret can have several in her garden, I don't see any reason for me to deprive myself of this great beauty, even though the gift won't be obvious until spring.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Would love to have these exact seeds

There's still time left to plant poppy seeds in Georgia.  As much as I love all the cherry-red poppies and other colors that have morphed from my mother's original shaggy flowers, I would love to have some seeds of this exact poppy.

I took this photograph in Monet's garden at Giverny.   The colors were so unusual and intense.  I'd never seen any poppies quite like them.  There were other poppies in the garden, but this particular patch stood out.

A friend is sending original poppy and larkspur seeds from Margaret Moseley's garden.  Margaret's daughter Carol had the site plowed so that the bed can be re-established.  I'm excited to see what will come up.  I'm betting there were seeds that have been lying there for the past few years, just waiting for some sun and clear ground to germinate.  That happened when I cleaned out my mother's garden alongside her house.  As soon as the earth was bare again, the poppies sprang up.  It was so exciting to see them again.  Mother had not been able to garden for a few years, and the grass and weeds had taken over her once-prized poppy bed.

Last fall, the man who keeps vegetable gardens at the farm, planted seeds from Mother's poppies.  There was this incredible wide row - at least 75 feet long - of mostly bright red flowers.  I'm hoping he'll do this again.  I'm sure if the ground is cleared, the flowers will pop up again.  About a week after everything had bloomed out, and the seed pods had formed, the whole row turned into a mass of yellow, with goldfinches having a field day in the sun.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The holly orchard was a good idea

I could just imagine my friends' faces when I walked in with their gift - a big bucket of deciduous holly - the kind you see in many upscale decorations, like in hotel lobbies and department store windows.

Also, I would save money for the church.  Instead of buying branches of these prized (and expensive) berries, I would walk in with armloads to use in our giant arrangements on the altar.

Evergreen holly is beautiful and will forever be a symbol of Christmas for me.  I have two large Chinese holly trees here on the property.  Most years they have a heavy berry load.  This year is no exception.  The only drawback is that the leaves are so sharp, I never fail to get pricked to the point of drawing blood and an occasional infection.  Still, I've cut branches or twigs to use at Christmas almost every year for the 40 years I've been here.

I also have two other types of holly.  A very loose Burfordi holly that does not get enough sun to form a thick shrub like the ones at the farm.  But these have good, loose branches and lots of berries, so they can be used in church arrangements for something to give a curved line at the bottom of the composition.

There's one more evergreen holly here that is much more refined than the regular Burfordi.  I thought it was the dwarf form, but it has prettier leaves and more nicely formed clusters of berries than the common Burfordi.

But, what I really want is a deciduous holly orchard, like the one at Elizabeth Dean's nursery, Wilkerson Mill Gardens (pictured here).  I stopped by one day just as she had cut scads of branches to take to a market.  I almost died of envy.  She also had cut some wonderful evergreens to sell - different chamaecyparis, some 'Little Gem' magnolia and variegated false holly.  Her truck looked like my idea of magicland.

So, two winters ago, I bought six 'Winter Red' deciduous hollies at an end-of-the-season sale.  I also bought two golden deciduous hollies.  So, I had eight females, but the nursery only had one male left.  At that point, I should have conducted an all-out search for another gentleman.

I planted the hollies in three rows, with the single male in the middle of the middle row.  Despite a lack of good rain, the stick-like shrubs survived.  I kept going and scratching places to make sure there was green inside.

Then, that next spring, I didn't see my hollies.  I had planted them inside a fenced-in garden that someone had made on the farm.  After walking for a bit, I found them.  They had been moved to form a long row along the fence line. This was done, I'm sure, because I had planted the trees in a way that would disrupt several rows of crops.  I didn't know which was the male.  He could have been anywhere in the row.

Last year, some little green berries formed in the spring, but not on all the plants.  By late summer, they had all dropped off.

This fall, right before Thanksgiving, I went down to my row.  I counted six skinny bushes.  Five of them had red berries, but the gold ones were no where to be seen.  I knew what had happened.  Some beans had grown up onto the plants, and the gold ones must have inadvertently gotten cut down.  The shrubs are not much to look at during the spring and summer.  They could have been mistaken for scrub trees.

I could tell that I would have at least a few short, berry-laden branches for some small arrangements, like in a julep cup.  I wasn't ready to surprise friends or impress my Flower Guild team at church, but I was nevertheless thrilled at my limited prospects.

Then, we had a hard freeze a day or two before Thanksgiving.  That should not have been a problem.  I've seen 'Winter Gem' bushes grown into small trees and still bearing red berries in late winter.  But, after that freeze, I did not have a single berry.

Did the birds get them?  Or, had the plants been too close to the fence so that the deer could reach through?

I'll never know.  I do know where the lone male is - he had no berries, and he was in the middle of the long row.

So, I need to consult with the man who tends the garden.  I want to buy some more plants and extract a promise from him that they won't get moved this time.  And, I need another male or two', in addition to some more females.  This time, I'll mark all the trees with surveyor's tape and make sure the males are well-placed.  The gardener says he will fertilize the plants in the spring.

I've already calculated how old I will be when my trees look like Elizabeth Dean's.  But that's okay.  If I live, I'm sure I'll still delight in having holly branches to give away.  I don't think I'll ever be too old to love beautiful, natural decorations at Christmas time.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Floors from long ago

Obviously, I had not put any effort into the greenery in the silver punch bowl, and my boxwood wreathes weren't my best effort, but this is not about anything to do with a garden.  It's about the floors of my dining room.

Today is my daddy's birthday.  He was born in 1911 and lived until just a few weeks shy of age 93.  By the end, he had dementia, but it had not robbed him of his sense of humor, nor of his get-up-and-go attitude.

I look back now and think how hard he worked and how much energy he had.  Every year when we would take our annual vacation to Florida, he would hook our boat to the back of our station wagon so he could take us water skiing on the intercoastal waterway.  He and Mother went to every football game my brother ever played in, and they were president of every parents' organization that existed.  One time, Daddy played in a basketball game against our high school teachers.  Just as the final buzzer rang, he, with his ridiculously baggy shorts, threw the ball from half-court and made the basket.  The crowd went wild.

Daddy grew up on a farm, and from what I could glean from the stories my mother would tell, he was pretty much neglected as a child.  His two siblings were at least 20 years older than he.  When he went to first grade, he learned that if you put up a Christmas tree, Santa Claus would come and leave you oranges and candy and a toy.

So, when he was six, he went out into the woods and cut down a holly tree with red berries.  He put it up on Christmas Eve and hung a stocking by the chimney.  That next morning he ran in to find everything as it was.  No candy or oranges or toys.

I think this is why he spoiled my brother and me so at Christmas.  He was the mayor of our town, and he had a painted wooden three-dimensional sleigh and reindeer installed atop the community center.  He strung lights across the highway that said "Merry Christmas".  He did the same at our house.

But back to the floors.  We grew up in an 1852 brick house in town.  It was in the middle of five acres, with all kinds of vegetable gardens and lawns and places for hide and seek.  At the back, Daddy planted an apple orchard and made a fenced-in pasture so my brother and I could have a horse.

Next door to us lived an eccentric lady who dressed in a man's overcoat and shoes.  Her house was old, too.  After my parents moved out to the farm, the old lady died, and her house was abandoned.  I was starting to save materials to build our house here in Atlanta, when I thought about Miss Janie Mae's wooden floors.  I asked Daddy if he would see if they could be salvaged.  He told me that the fire department was about to burn her house for practice.

So, before they had the chance to put a torch to her historic home, presumably built in 1866, he went over and got all the heart pine floors that had not rotted.  In my house in Atlanta, I have wide boards in three rooms (they came from the ceiling of the attic), and the floors you see here in my dining room and living room.  The wood sat for years in an airplane hangar on the farm until we built our house.  The individual boards were like lead, very thick and dense.

I've thought about Daddy all day, realizing that it was he who got the windows and doors for us, in addition to the wood for the frame of our house.  When I wanted cobblestones for the courtyard, he took one of the dump trucks from his business, and he and my husband picked up 4,000 of the Belgian granite blocks that had been in downtown Atlanta.

I love the floors in my house.  I had wanted to restore an old home, but we had this property, and having the old materials (we used slate that came from a school house in Hapeville, Georgia, for the roof) helped the house look old from the beginning.

So, thank you, Daddy, for getting that crowbar and saving those 150-year-old boards from extinction.  They always look good at Christmas with all the greenery and always remind me of a dear man who did so much for his family.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Sunny view for a gloomy day

Yesterday was one of those days when I couldn't seem to get my chin up off the floor (oops, two prepositions together, but seems like I need them both).

First, I woke up too early, and when I finally got up, it was dark and foggy outside.  My flashlight was barely working (reminder:  put flashlight on my list, along with light bulbs), so I was stumbling up to the mailbox (a long trek).

Then, I started my annual anxiety attack over getting a Christmas tree.  There's a reason for the latter.  Every year, my late husband and I would go to pick out a tree.  I wanted to see lots of options, but he hated having to unwrap and hold up trees for me.  His max was three, and then it got unpleasant.

The Christmas after he died in June, I went to the same big box store.  When I walked into the Christmas tree section, I burst into tears.  It felt so lonely, and now I had no grouchy person to show me even one tree.

Late yesterday afternoon, I set out for the store.  It was drizzling when I arrived.  A nice worker offered to hold up a tree for me.  I wanted to see more, and he said, "No problem."  Then, it started pouring rain.  I had a raincoat, but he didn't.  I kept apologizing, but he assured me he was mine until I found the right tree.  I spotted what I thought was a good one, all tied up and lying behind a couple of others.  With the calmest attitude, he grabbed the heavy tree and stood it up for me.  It was perfect.

I must say that I am so lucky that I can buy a real tree.  And, I have the grower of the green pumpkins (see the day after Thanksgiving's post) who will put it up for me on Saturday.  This is now a pleasant experience.  My husband and I had to call in a third person to referee our getting it in the stand in the living room.

Today was another foggy, gloomy day.  No rain, but very damp all day.  I was in a much better mood, but I still wanted to look at some bright sunshine and another scene besides the bare branches and the last of the leaves (mostly oaks) smashed on the driveway.

The day I took this picture, it was bright and sunny.  I was in this garden at noon, the very worst time to take a photograph.  Still, the overexposure helps me in this dreary weather, although having that Christmas tree here safe and sound and without a tear shed made it a pretty good day anyway.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Looking for larkspur

Here in the South, cool season annuals like poppies, larkspur and bachelor's buttons need to be planted in the fall for bloom the following May.  Margaret Moseley's daughter Carol is re-doing Margaret's famed poppy patch (it was on the cover of two of Southern Living's books) at the back of Margaret's garden, and we're using seeds from my own mother's poppies.

Carol had the space plowed and and raked over, so that it is now only smooth, bare earth.  If you throw poppy seeds into grass, especially tall grass, they won't germinate.  I learned from expert poppy grower Ruth Mitchell that the tiny seeds need sunlight to germinate.  They also need smooth, bare ground.

Margaret, who is 97, kept her poppies going for decades.  The original seeds came from a plant given to her by an elderly friend from her youth.  In the last few years, the poppies have steadily declined, and grass has taken over.

I suspect now that the ground is clear, Margaret's own seeds will emerge.  That's what happened to my mother's poppies.  Her flower garden became overgrown with weeds, and not a single poppy bloomed for several years.  Then, I finally took the time to clean out the garden, and presto, the next May there were lots and lots of Mother's shaggy, cherry-colored flowers.  The seeds were there all along.

I contacted Diana Mendes to see if she had saved any larkspur seeds.  Those are her plants in the above photograph of her spectacular May garden.  Margaret also had larkspur growing with her poppies.

Diana had not specifically saved any seed - hers re-seed every year without having to save any extra.  I'm going to a couple of stores tomorrow to see if there are any packets of larkspur for sale.  For years, I took the Farmers and Consumers Market Bulletin, published by the Georgia Department of Agriculture.  I knew there was an on-line edition, so I thought I'd see if any ads for larkspur seeds were in the Flowers For Sale section.  I was stopped abruptly when I tried to log in because I am not a subscriber.  Now, one must pay for a subscription, so I wonder if many people are placing ads for seeds these days.

Most likely, some of Margaret's larkspur seeds will germinate.  I'm sure they are hidden there in the ground with the poppy seeds.  But, I think for good measure, I'll try to find a packet or two.  By next April, we ought to know if the larkspur came through, if I don't find any to buy.  I'd rather be safe than sorry, though, so I am going to try to come up with some.  I'll issue a report on the progress next spring.  I think by next May, Margaret will have a brilliant poppy patch once again at the back of her garden.