Friday, February 28, 2014

Living on the edge

A ride through my daughter's Atlanta neighborhood yesterday reminded me of the perils of living on the edge of a hardiness zone.  Many of the camellias that had burst into bloom over last weekend were looking very sad. This well-loved plant is hardy here, but the flowers that open in January and February can turn to mush overnight with a hard freeze.

 Is it worth it, then, to grow these broadleaf evergreens?  Absolutely.

In January 1982, a camellia bush at the little house was killed to the ground by the eight-degree-below- zero reading on the thermometer.  That's when all the loquat trees around Atlanta were put out of business permanently.

But the camellia came back from its roots, and I had to prune it last year by some eight feet to get it down to roof level.

John Newsome of the North Georgia Camellia Society told me long ago that red flowers don't suffer as much bud damage as the light pinks and whites.  I've been watching my new plantings like a hawk.  Over last weekend, several varieties I put in last spring had flowers to open up.  Before the freeze, I picked all the blooms and have been enjoying them inside.

But, I have only small plants.  It would be impossible to pick every flower from large, well-established bushes.  One of the casualties I see most often is my neighbor's C. japonica 'Debutante', a light pink variety.  This is a very floriferous plant, so the long row of bushes will be covered with flowers.  Then, a freeze will come along, and overnight, the lovely blooms turn brown.

In recent years, we've been lucky in Atlanta.  The mild winters had made many of us forget that camellias are living on the edge here.  Still, there are many old shrubs that have survived for decades.  We're not like Savannah or Charleston when it comes to camellias, but we can still enjoy these beautiful  flowers on and off, depending on the weather.

Above:  Camellia japonica 'Nuccio's Gem' - a very good white for this area.  I've seen blooms hanging on in late April.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

How an informal garden was made from scratch

I can't count the number of times people have said to me, "I don't like formal gardens.  I want something free form and not so stiff."  Perhaps the individual expressing this opinion was picturing something like Versailles, where clipped hedges might include bedding plants in the middle of strict geometric outlines - probably not suitable for most home landscapes, for sure.

I really don't know what their vision was, but I do know that informal gardens without at least some structure can cause a person to wonder what is wrong.

For instance, once in Denver, I scouted a garden that was often on tours.  I could see its appeal.  It was jam-packed with interesting plants.  There were whirligigs sticking up here and there, an attempt at making the garden seem whimsical, I guess.

But, the garden wouldn't do for a TV show, as there was absolutely no structure to it whatsoever.  It would have appeared as a jungle.  Yes, it was informal to the max, but for me it was more chaos than anything.

I personally like straight lines, but then they suit my house.  The garden above was made from scratch, and it evolved into a loose-form collection of plants.  The difference was - even though it was informal - it still had structure.  Note the bricks outlining the beds.  Most of the beds were originally lined with rocks placed in circles around trees.

As the gardener - in this case Margaret Moseley - added more plants, the rocks were moved out from the trees and took on different forms, not necessarily circles.  Evergreens like Camellia japonica, Camellia sasanqua and boxwoods served to anchor the beds and provide a backdrop for perennial flowers and deciduous shrubs.

Eventually, the garden became a series of irregular-shaped island beds, connected by bright green grass paths of varying widths.  There were at least two straight paths, too, so you never knew exactly what to expect.  The best description I can think of is this is a collection of smaller secret gardens, where the visitor rounds a corner and is always surprised to see yet another display of flowers, shrubs and trees you never knew were there.

But, an informal garden, to be pleasing to the eye, needs outlining and structure.  Margaret has birdhouses and birdbaths in several locations.  She also included a grouping of benches and chairs and made two or three arches to pass from one area to another.

I chose a photograph taken in winter, so it can be seen that, although this is definitely an informal garden, there is still structure to anchor the eye.  Sometimes it is a tree trunk.  Sometimes it's a well-rounded shrub, like the red Camellia japonica 'Governor Mouton'pictured here.  It's not just beds surrounding an expanse of lawn, where you can see practically everything at once.  The magic here is that you are constantly making discoveries, and therein lies an informal garden that is both beautiful and at once intriguing.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Wishing for that special dark hellebore

I used to travel all over the country (and once to Canada) to scout gardens for our series, A Gardener's Diary on Home & Garden Television (HGTV).   Sometimes, I would wind up in nurseries because oftentimes the owner would have a display garden.

The ones I remember best are the Mom and Pop kind, where someone had started off with a garden, and then had marked off a section to sell plants.  Usually, these were very specialized nurseries.  One woman in Marin County, California, had a wonderful garden with a wide variety of plants.  She also was crazy for geraniums (not the red kind we think of in summer, but the real genus of mostly spring to early summer perennials).  She had an entire section of her property marked off with pots of geraniums for sale.

It was in her garden that I saw black violas for the first time.  I was not so much enamored of their beauty, but of their strangeness.  The plants were all the more intriguing, because she had paired them with a lime green ground cover.  The jet black violas were not for sale, and nowadays I guess they aren't all that special.  You see black pansies at the big box stores around Halloween.

In the state of Washington, on the Kitsap Peninsula, I went to another garden with a specialty nursery.  This time it was black hellebores.  Why did I like them?  I don't know, because they actually were not all that pretty.  Again, just strange.  I did kick myself for not buying one, just for the intrigue.

But, what I do love for their aesthetic value are the dark, dark, dark maroon and purple flowers - almost black, but not quite.  I have photographs of such colors represented in roses, Louisiana iris and perennial verbena, among others.

I took the above photograph at Piccadilly Farm in Bishop, Georgia.  This is another specialty nursery with a display garden.  For years, the nursery has kicked off its season with an event called Hellebore Days, always the first weekend in March.  Although the nursery has expanded its offerings, it was long famous for its Lenten roses (Helleborus x hybridus, a.k.a. Helleborus orientalis).

The day I was there, all the dark hellebores had already been sold.  Another missed opportunity, but I did come away with a variegated boxwood (which I don't think has grown an inch since I bought it;  in all fairness, it has been moved three times, and I think it's reasonably happy now).

I'm not going to make it over there this year, but I will eventually find one that is as dark and dusky  and as beautiful (to my mind) as this one.  That's what makes gardening so much fun - the thrill of the chase, and finally to obtain that rare plant you've always wanted.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Eight years later, a special flower returns

When everyone was talking about the Beatles the other week, I wondered how many people could say where they were the exact moment they first heard "I Want to Hold Your Hand".  For me, it was Christmas of my freshman year in college.  I was home for the holidays and was walking through our den.  All of a sudden, I stopped in my tracks.  A song was playing on the intercom system, set on a local radio station.  It was so different from anything I had ever heard.  I was instantly taken in.  When I got back to school in January, everyone was Beatle-crazy, including me.  In fact, I still am.

Likewise, I can remember the moment I saw a Helleborus niger in person for the first time.  The late Jitsuko Johnson was walking through the Southeastern Flower Show.  This was when the event was held at the old Sears store on Ponce de Leon Avenue.  She was carrying the pristine white flower in a green Perrier bottle, ready to enter it in the horticulture competition.  I stopped Jitsuko and asked her what sort of hellebore this was.  I knew of the Christmas rose, but at the time, I didn't know anyone who grew it.

My praise was so effusive that Jitsuko offered to give me a plant.  Sure enough, one day she showed up at my house with the perennial, which can be finicky to grow.  The next winter, however, mine had three blooms.  This was in the mid-1990's.

Fast forward to 2006.  Due to the course of events that played out that year, it seemed like a good idea to put my house on the market.  I was sure it would sell quickly.  A woman whom I knew through one of my parents' caregivers said she would love to come get some plants before I moved.  She came to my house, and we walked around, talking about what she could take.

One day when I wasn't home, she brought her son and dug a lot of plants.  One of them was my Christmas rose.  Although she only took only half the clump, there must have been very few roots left.

My house did not sell (thank goodness), and I ended up staying here.  My Christmas rose languished, though.  It put out new leaves every year, but no blooms.  I was particularly upset because in the interim, Jitsuko died of acute leukemia.  She had been such a special friend, and so I particularly cherished this flower she had given me.

Back in January, I saw that I was going to have a bloom.  I covered the tender bud with leaves, and it survived the five degree night and extended cold.  Then, right before we were expecting ice and snow, I checked on it.  It was up pretty far, although not yet unfurled.  I built a tent out of sticks and magnolia leaves to protect it.  Amazingly, the tiny structure held up against the elements.

Two nights ago, after having been gone during the daylight hours, I went out at dusk to check on the bloom.  It had opened and looked perfect.  But it was too dark to photograph.

Yesterday morning, I held my breath when I went out with my camera.  The flower was a couple of days old and not at its freshest, but it was a welcome sight.

For the future, I'm going to put some lime around the base (the plant is in the woods next to some Helleborus x hybridus) and see if that will help promote more blooms.  I know there are all sorts of new and improved introductions of Helleborus niger (and I want to acquire some), but this particular one will always be special to me, a reminder of a beautiful friend and a great and generous gardener.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A bird's eye view from Paris

My friend Carol Tessier, whom I met while skiing in the French Alps in February 1971, has a beautiful garden on the outskirts of Paris.  Not only has she created gorgeous flower and shrub borders with all kinds of fascinating plants, she also does wonderful flower arrangements (Carol is an artist and worked at the Louvre for years).  At Christmastime, her daughter got married in a chateau, and Carol did the decorations.  They were magnificent - all sorts of red berries and leaves and pine cones and dried hydrangeas from the garden which she had sprayed gold and a subtle shade of red.  On a mantle, it looked like there were red grapes intertwined with golden branches (Carol said she almost fell into the Seine taking clippings from trees).  Carol receives this blog, so I may have the grapes wrong, but every arrangement was fabulous.

During our January 28th snow, Carol had noted my wailing about how the hellebores were still not blooming.  She cut some lovely ones from her garden and created this striking combination (another photograph showed a faded hydrangea with leaves that picked up the maroon and silver green of the flowers - stunning).  In this arrangement, I was stumped as to what the other leaves were.  Since Paris is cold this time of year,  I assumed they were from her conservatory.  Here's what she wrote in answer to my efforts at identifying what she had used:

"Your guess on the cyclamen is right and also the caladium (I picked the
small new leaves) which I have in the conservatory. Unfortunately I don't
know the name of the purple spiky leaved shrub which I have had for ages in
the conservatory. I've looked on the net and can't find it anywhere. As it
was getting a bit too big I'd pruned it and the leaves were so beautiful
that it inspired me to do the arrangement. When I was young I was in charge
of the flower arrangements at home and was very proud. I'm sure this passion
stems from then. I can also vividly remember picking flowers before going to
school for the classroom."

Carol, whose family is English, grew up in South Africa, where she was surrounded by gardens.  I am from a small town in Georgia and spent my days roaming around the various gardens on our property.  Every spring, I would pick bunches of daffodils to take to school.  Little did we know on that ski trip so long ago that, despite having grown up on two very different continents, we would share a lifelong passion for flowers and gardens. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A very different February 11th

A year ago today, February 11, I took this picture in the yard at the little house.  This hellebore, which I've had for 25 years, came from the late Berma Abercrombie, who was a founder of the Georgia Daffodil Society and who was active in the national society.  She lived in what is now Chattahoochee Hills, but when I grew up I knew it to be between the communities of Rico and Roscoe in unincorporated Fulton County.  On her farm along the Chattahoochee River was a cement marker that said "Coweta County" on one side and "Campbell County" on the other.  That part of Fulton (Atlanta is the county seat) was Campbell County until 1929.

Anyway, Berma had a very refined and extensive collection of the genus Narcissus, with bulbs from England and Australia and from top American hybridizers.

She also grew chrysanthemums and iris and was active in those societies, as well.  Her peonies were well-known and large and floriferous, like those you see up North.

Once when I was out at her farm during daffodil season, she dug this hellebore (among others) and gave it to me.  I isolated it, thinking that I would only have this same color from the seedlings that grew up around it.  That's not the case with hellebores (I'm talking here about the Lenten rose, now known as Helleborus x hybridus) - they don't come true from seed, although the original will remain the same.  Thus,  I still know exactly which one she gave me because of its beautiful color.

I'm looking out my window now, anticipating the "catostrophic" ice storm that will come in overnight.  The cardinals seem to be more desperate this morning than usual.  Do they know what is on the way? I'm already dreading sitting here in the cold and dark.  I do have a gas stove and hot water heater and some firewood (why didn't I splurge and get those gas logs?), so it won't be unbearable.

I have covered the one bloom on my Helleborus niger with some leaves.  This plant has struggled to come back from being divided in 2006.  Finally, I have a flower, and I fear it's up too far to escape injury by heavy ice.

As for the above hellebore, it's not open yet, and the buds are still fairly close to the ground.  It's raining now with some suspicious looking drops that are not supposed to be there until tonight.  It's a very different February 11 this year.  Last year, it must have been cold, as I am wearing a glove to hold up the above bloom.  But, there was no precipitation, and daphnes and camellias were in full bloom.

After this is all over, which should be by Friday, I'll go up and see how everything fared.  I'm not worried that this hellebore won't live, because hellebores thrive in much colder climates than ours.  I just hate to see the blooms destroyed.  What a difference a year makes.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Surrounded by boxwoods

I've always said that in my next life I want to come back as Louise Poer.  I'm joking, of course, but I wouldn't mind her frequent trips to England and France to visit gardens.  Most of all, I'd like to be in her garden every day.

Louise is a garden designer, and in her own tiny garden, she packs a big punch with the use of boxwoods.  She has a huge variety of shrubs, vines, ground covers and perennials, as well.  And there's color, too, in the form of seasonal flowers (roses, foxgloves, sasanquas, phlox, clematis, hydrangeas, to name a few).  But mostly it's boxwoods that make up the backbone of the garden.

The result is that the garden is beautiful on any given day of the year.

Louise is also a pro at layering in the garden to make use of every inch of ground space.  No matter where your eye takes you - to ground level, to waist high, to eye level and upwards to two stories, you'll see something interesting going on, plantwise.

This particular scene is not exactly representative of what she does.  In other parts of the garden you'll see broadleaf evergreens, lots of variegation and billowing shapes, all beautifully blended.

But, for some reason, this little vignette, which has probably been changed several times since I took this photograph, is particularly appealing to me.  This is a small brick terrace off the conservatory sitting room (I can't think of what else to call it; it looks like a greenhouse, but it has a solid roof; the word "sunroom" doesn't work either).

I imagine that the chair you see is made mostly for ornamentation, but I believe I could take some cushions and install myself with a good book and find this a very comforting space.  My favorite color is green, and I love boxwoods, so I wouldn't mind being hemmed in and listening to the sound of birds splashing in a shallow fountain and feeling the warmth of the sun bringing out the fragrance of this beloved shrub.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The cat likes this idea for a narrow side garden

Out of the thousand or so columns I wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the one concerning this garden scene elicited a lot of comments (in the days before you could comment on-line;  I just remember the snail mail that came in about it).

What happened here was that the homeowner/gardener took a narrow, messy space between her neighbor's property and the side of her own house and made a charming pass-through garden.

I have a "before" picture that shows English ivy crawling up the side of her house (which is to the right, out of frame) and thickly hugging the ground where the diamond-patterned stepping stones are.  There was no way I would have walked the length of her house.  No telling what lay beneath all that thick greenery.

I find this a very inspiring garden idea because the homeowner was able to clear the ivy herself, buy the stepping stones and mulch and lay out the path.  She did find a handyman to build the arch and gate, which are her own designs.

This photograph was taken from the entrance to the back yard, looking towards the front of the house.  The gardener was able to use a lot of textures - ferns, a conifer, broadleaf evergreens, the smaller foliage of boxwoods - to create a nice composition.  Along the path, she had planted hydrangeas (the garden was on the American Hydrangea Society's annual tour), and it looks like she had a splash of pink color from a climbing rose on the left.  In the foreground, the ground cover is golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea').

Sometimes you leave a garden with your heart beating so fast because you realize that you could create such a space yourself.  That's how I felt when I got into my car.  You wouldn't even have to be a gardener to emulate this idea and improve the side of the house that is so often neglected.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

When is a garden really a garden?

I wish you could have seen this very spot some 20 years ago.  There was nothing but a sloping lawn down to the street.  The house was in plain view from the circle of the cul-de-sac.  And, my friend, who loved gardens and often had Rosemary Verey as a guest in her home, was frustrated.

So, noted garden designer Ryan Gainey took my friend's love of French gardens and transformed her front lawn into a usable space and made it inviting, even in winter.

Retaining walls were built, and crytomerias were planted along with cherry trees and viburnums and a cascading Lady Banks rose.  The plantings surround the space which leads to the front door (it is to the right of this area).

Fast forward to this past December.  I took this photograph to show that a "garden" needn't be boring or neglected in winter, nor does it have to have bright colored flowers.  Somehow, the ice cream parlor looking chairs are very cheerful.  I don't know that my friend ever sits out there, maybe on a mild, sunny day.  She has another wonderful garden on the other side of the house that is an absolutely stunning parterre, with variegated and solid green boxwoods made into a knot garden, in homage to the late Rosemary Verey.

I'm having to re-think my whole garden thing.  All the plants that are so delectable to the deer need to be moved to the farm where there is a fence.  I'm going to have to rely more on shrubbery and textures and different colors of green to achieve the look I want.  I'm almost - but not quite - resigned to the fact that I'm not going to be able to grow all those flowers I've dreamed about for years.

It has taken me a long time to realize this.  For years, I had no full sun anywhere on this four-acre property.  Then, three years ago, a neighbor's giant oak tree was uprooted in a storm with straight line winds.  The tree fell on the circa 1927 cottage and obliterated half of it.  In the same storm, a very tall pine tree began leaning in the direction of the house.  I had to have it taken down.

So, that left me with a few spots (not many) of full sun.  The trouble is that I need retaining walls and a deer fence to have any hope of growing sun-loving perennials and annuals in a garden setting.  Foxgloves are about the only flowers that work, and they are scattered about in no particular pattern, just where they have reseeded.  

What I have been able to do, though, is work on structure here at my house, so that I have two new areas that have the good bones of a garden if not all the plants I want.  I still have a lot of experimenting to do.  For example, just when I think the deer don't like Hydrangea macrophylla like they do the paniculatas and arborescens ('Annabelle'), they eat certain lacecaps.

All in all, I'm having to rethink my definition of a garden.  I don't know if I'll be able to let go of my desire for masses of roses and great swaths of perennials cascading over paths.  That's what I love best at heart.

Monday, February 3, 2014

A white flower - devil or angel?

It was windy and weirdly warm yesterday afternoon when I got out of the car at the farm.  I wanted my dog to get some exercise by running over the fields, and I wanted to check out the area within the large fenced-in vegetable garden where I hope to have a cutting garden.

I've been looking through photographs recently (I'm up to over 23,000, which is ridiculous; I could spend a couple of months deleting and culling pictures - if only I'd done it all along!).   I'm looking for  flowers that are good for cutting.

I took this photograph in a garden which was very popular back in the 1990's.  It was on several tours, and we taped an episode of A Gardener's Diary on HGTV there.  I would visit often, because the garden's creator always had something wonderful going on.  She was a genius at plant combinations. That was the days of taking slides, so that is what this is - a not so clear slide that has been converted to digital.

Still, I like looking at this combination.  In front is gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides).  I was looking at the light pink flower in back and assumed it was a peony.  But, it took me a couple of seconds to realize this couldn't be.  Gooseneck loosestrife blooms in June, well past the time when the peonies are finished here.

I now remember that it was a very light pink mophead hydrangea, something I've always been seeking. A friend brought me a bouquet from her garden which contained such a flower.  She rooted it for me, and I kept it in a container so it wouldn't touch the acidic ground and turn blue.  Mine is pink, but much darker.

But back to the gooseneck loosestrife.  This is a flower which spreads by rhizomes and can take over an area in one season, crowding out other plants.  I once observed an entire bank of the flower in Asheville, N.C., and even though the owner was complaining about the plant, I was slightly envious.  This is a great cut flower and looks so good with other flowers that bloom in June.

I had the plant at one time, but I couldn't get it established.  So, I'm willing to try again and see if I can get it to grow, knowing I may have to pull it out if it starts misbehaving.

There are several flowers that you want to stay away from.  The red and green alstroemeria is too difficult to get rid of if you ever get that started.  It forms tiny bulblets that multiply quickly and ruin flower beds.  Still, that's a great cut flower, too, but probably too dangerous for a controlled landscape.

So, I'm compiling a list, and for June I'm going to include gooseneck loosestrife.  Some people would consider it a weed and a thug, but I believe (I may be wrong) that I can keep it tamed and enjoy some beautiful early summer bouquets.  I'll let you know if this is a devil or an angel.