Sunday, March 30, 2014

Who would have dreamed?

It's rather misleading to focus in on one single flower in a fabulous garden that is chock full of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, perennials and re-seeding annuals.  But, I have a new camera, and I haven't figured it all out yet, so my best photograph turned out to be of this Iceland poppy.

The background:  Sharyn Altman lives on a lovely pond in Augusta, Georgia, where she has made an expansive garden that is just dreamy.  In February, a brutal ice storm hit the area, and did huge damage to the garden, which extends all the way around the house, with most of the big areas on a broad peninsula surrounded on three sides by water.

This is the same storm that brought down the Eisenhower Tree at Augusta National.  You can still see debris everywhere, and it will be years before the area makes a recovery.  In Sharyn's garden, several shrubs were lost, and the jury is still out on what will come up this spring.  One big heartbreak was the loss of a beech tree that had been the nesting place for barred owls for years.  Sharyn had even placed a bench along a path so her grandchildren could watch the baby owls fledge.  She has put up a barred owl box, but there are no takers, as of yet.

What is extraordinary to me is that Sharyn and I were high school classmates.  Who would have ever thought we'd reconnect through gardening?  She was easily one of the prettiest girls in our class, and time has been more than kind to her.  She looks exactly like her Homecoming Court picture in the high school yearbook.

Anyway, Sharyn invited me to spend the night at her lovely home when I went to Augusta last week for a book signing.  On Wednesday, when I arrived, she drove me out to Nurseries Caroliniana, a place that had long been on my bucket list.  I had heard many lectures by its co-owner and famous plantsman Ted Stevens.  My heart was beating double time as we walked around the nursery, which is known for offering unusual plants.

Sharyn is a regular there and was able to capture people to walk around with us.  I ended up buying a camellia with a very, very dark maroon flower, a pink snowball viburnum and the white Viburnum plicatum forma 'Popcorn', which is pictured in my book, Margaret Moseley's A Garden to Remember. The shrubs were just planted today, so I'll be watering them this week with the weather turning warmer.  Of course, I'm still thinking of the hard-to-find Abelia chinensis I left behind.  I am counting on propagating one from Margaret Moseley's shrub, which is the exact form I want.  Ted Stevens probably had the same one, but I was short on room in my packed car.

Back to Sharyn:  She has a butterfly house, where she has plants for the caterpillars to eat once they emerge.  She gives lectures on butterflies and is active in many gardening circles.

You could tell just by walking around that, despite the damage that was done, there will be a ton of flowers, shrubs and trees coming into bloom in the next few months - poppies, larkspur, foxgloves, native azaleas, roses, viburnums, kousa dogwoods, just to scratch the surface of this amazing garden.

I admit I had a few rumblings of envy as we walked around the garden paths.  While I have spent time photographing other people's gardens and writing their stories, Sharyn has created a garden with rare and wonderful plants and has built up a wealth of knowledge of horticulture.

But I am thrilled for her and have the greatest respect for anyone who can plant Iceland poppies (Papaver nudicaule) and get them to bloom in Georgia.  That alone is the true measure of a great gardener.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Memories of daffodils and days gone by

I finally made it up to Jim Gibbs' gardens, which he has opened to the public.  The trouble was, how does one choose out of 200 hundred photographs of daffodil fields that stretch uphill and down and seem to go on forever?

It was late afternoon by the time I got to walk the paths, and the crowds had dwindled somewhat.  I was delighted that so many of the flowers were backlit by the sun.  I kept getting down almost to the ground to catch the light coming through the petals.

I broke down, however, and chose this photograph which gives you a sense of how the flowers fill the valleys of the expansive garden.  I also loved looking up at hills covered with daffodils - mostly white and yellow - as far as the eye could see.

But, in that late afternoon light, the scent of the flowers overwhelmed me, taking me back in time to my childhood home.  I've mentioned before that I grew up in a brick house built in 1852.  It had high ceilings and huge windows with wavy glass.  The floorboards in my room were 12 inches wide.

My daddy tore down the wooden back part of the house and replaced the wing with brick - not nearly as pretty as the handmade ones on the front.  But, in the new part, Daddy put in a large picture window that looked out on pecan trees, an apple orchard and a small brick smokehouse that matched the beautiful old bricks made before the Civil War.  All through this area were daffodils.

The people who lived there before my parents moved to the property across the railroad tracks from Main Street had planted so many wonderful trees and shrubs.  They'd also planted a lot of different kinds of daffodils.  Mother added to them, but most had come from a family who lost the house in the Depression.

So, when I was up at Gibbs Garden, I was not so taken by the dazzling beauty of thousands upon thousands of daffodils in bloom as I was by the unmistakable fragrance of the flowers - that scent that takes you back to the early springs of your childhood.  Picking bouquets of daffodils was something I did every year.  I would bring fistfuls of flowers in, and Mother would wrap the dripping stems in paper towels and then enfold the bouquet with tin foil.  The next day, I would present the flowers to my teacher.

I hope I didn't take any to my first grade teacher.  She was so mean.  Every time I think of her, I remember her taking a ruler and slapping the bare feet of a boy who didn't have a lot of advantages, as my mother used to say.  We were sitting in a circle, each reading a passage from Dick and Jane, and he was not able to do his part.  Instead of encouraging him gently, she whacked him with the ruler when he didn't know the words.  He would try and fail, and she would hit him again.

But I digress.  I probably did take Miss Nellie some daffodils, but I shouldn't have.  The teachers I had after that were more deserving, I think.  Well, maybe not my third grade teacher.  She was not the kindest soul, either, and she had a yard full of camellias and probably daffodils, too.

This has been a strange month.  If you're in Michigan and reading this, I'm sure you're wondering how there could be yellow flowers out in the yard.  I've had some forms of narcissus for over a month now, even though the ones that usually bloom by the first of February were late in coming out.  And, with everyone I've picked, I've been taken back to that beloved yard of my childhood, where each flower burst with hope and renewal and the promise of a full spring to come.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A little garden goes a long way

For the past few years, I've gone just about every Sunday (sometimes Saturdays) to visit someone who was a big part of my life - "Miss Hazel" Jackson.  I knew her two ways.  First, as long as I can remember, she was the bookkeeper for my daddy.  For decades, she would sit at her desk in his hardware store which was sold in the early 1970's.  After that, Daddy opened a railroad business, and Miss Hazel moved down there and kept things in order.  She retired at the age of 83.

She was also the mother of my best friend growing up.  Her daughter Linda and I did everything together.  We even dressed alike sometimes (like Easter of the third grade).  We had identical lime green fluffy dresses, navy blue "duster" coats, black patent leather shoes and pocketbooks and some matching lime-green contraption in our hair.  Linda's looked great, but mine sent my blondish hair into two giant fuzzy balls on either side of my head.  Linda isn't ashamed of the picture of us, but I am.

After my parents died in 2004 and 2007, I adopted Miss Hazel as my other mother.  She had actually been my mother's best friend and visited her almost daily.  She was Mother's confidante and had the most gentle, sweetest manner about her.

Then, it came Miss Hazel's turn to be semi-homebound.  In her early 90's, she began using a walker, but her mind was as sharp as a tack.  Since getting to church was such a hassle, I would play hymns for her while she sat and listened.  Neither of us could sing, so we had to make do with just the music.  She was always so appreciative.  I enjoyed our sessions because I was able to revisit all the old hymns I knew from childhood.  We would go on for at least an hour or more, flipping through hymnbooks, including the old Broadman Hymnal with shaped notes.  This is the first hymnbook I knew growing up in the Palmetto Baptist Church.  I still remember the page numbers to some of my favorite songs.

Since Miss Hazel spent part of her days in a chair by a big window, her son and I set up some bird feeders.  Miss Hazel called the visitors "my babies."  Then, I got the idea to make her a garden right there where she could see it.  Her peonies on the other side of the house were out of view, as were the camellia bush and some azaleas.

A friend, Richard Grace, brought a truckload of super-heavy cobblestones from the stash at the farm.  We used them to make an oval shape.  Then I started digging.  It was like trying to get a shovel into concrete, the ground was so inhospitable and hard.

Eventually, though, I piled on enough good soil and manure to get some things growing.  In the fall, I'd set out pansies around the pink and red 'Knockout' roses.  The latter would sometimes bloom until Christmas.  Every year, I would add something - Asiatic and Oriental lilies, 'Becky' daisies, black-eyed Susans and daffodils, to name a few.  I moved some daylilies from the side of the house into the bed.  A 'Mini-Penny' hydrangea I put in didn't bloom for four years, so I took that out.

In summer, I planted those red begonias that grow up rather tall.  I also planted tibouchina (which is blue) and a mandevilla (pink one year, red the next) to last until frost.  The crowning touch was a bird bath, a Mother's Day gift from her son Eddie and daughter-in-law Peggy.  This latter made the garden look very official, and the birds loved it.

On the last Sunday in February and the first Sunday in March, I arrived to find Miss Hazel sitting at the computer on the sunporch, playing solitaire.  We had our hymn sing, as usual, and read the news from the Palmetto Baptist Church.  I promised her that the next week we'd go for a walk outside if the weather was pretty.

But, when I got there for my visit, I found her sitting alone in a darkened room, totally incoherent and very ill.  She was still in her bedclothes and weak as a kitten.

I won't go into the ensuing events, but last Sunday morning - a week later - she died.  I'm still processing how sudden it all was.  I know that things can change fast when you're 93 years old, but it all seemed to come about out of the blue.

Sunday is coming up again, and it will never be the same.  Miss Hazel served as a touchstone to my childhood and my hometown and my parents.  She was the most gentle person, always hard-working, never said an unkind word about anyone and always so appreciative of the hymn playing and the little garden outside her window.

Pictured above is that garden in late spring of last year.  It was the view Miss Hazel saw from her chair.  I also planted some borders in front of her house with yellow tree roses, ferns, and seasonal annuals.  Last year, a pink, re-seeding petunia appeared and was absolutely beautiful (where did it come from?  I will never know).  Confederate jasmine was trained up to the roof on either side of the porch.  She could see this garden when she sat and played solitaire on the computer.

That little oval garden was surprisingly difficult to get started.  And, in summer there were so many mosquitoes, I would have to saturate myself with Deet to go out there and weed.  But, it will be the most important garden I'll ever plant, and I'm so glad that for a few seasons, this dearest person could watch the flowers grow and the birds splash around.  Actually, I think I got so much more out of all of it than did she.  It was so comforting to be in her presence, and I will miss her so much.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Rescuing the flowers

It was the quickest of rescues.  I arrived home last evening after having been gone for most of the day.  I had only a few minutes before I had to head out to dinner.  The good thing was that it was still light out, and I could see what I was doing.

The predictions for last night were for temperatures in the mid-twenties.  That meant that the camellias that were open would not make it.

While it's true that a red or any dark camellia will fare better in the cold than light-colored ones - especially the whites - I wanted to bring in as many as I could pick.  That proved impossible to do when I got to my new red ones.  There were a lot of blooms open, and they were pretty small.

So, I grabbed 'Taylor's Perfection' - that's the big open medium-pink one not quite in focus, and a couple of the reds (I have two different ones, and both names escape me at the moment - actually, they may escape me forever because I don't remember where I put the tags).  The pink one in the middle I have the name of somewhere, but it is almost too perfect to be true.  I did finally plant a 'Pink Perfection', but that's not it. This is a bigger bloom, although none are as big as last year.  You look at it and think, "How can anything be this precisely formed?"

Everyone is talking about the paltry camellias this year, but not Margaret Moseley.  I went out there last Saturday, and every shrub - many 15-to 20- feet tall - was loaded with flowers.  I don't know why they weren't hurt.  Even the light blush-pink 'Magnoliaeflora', which has been blooming since December, was laden with flowers.  I don't understand it.

You can tell I'm no arranger.  I threw a few of the flowers in a couple of bowls and got out my new camera.  I left my old trusty one at Margaret's, so when the weather warms I'll go out and retrieve it.  I'm not sure what to do with this new fancy one, so I was lucky I even got a picture.

But, back to the camellias.  The white ones didn't make it into the picture - too many brown edges.  And, I just checked, and the red ones I couldn't pick look no worse for the wear.   They're actually a deep rose color when you get up close.  They have a French name like 'Le Comte de Something'.  I think the flowers will be bigger next year and maybe deeper red like I remembered when I planted them last March.

As we know, camellias can be iffy around here, but if you're in Chicago or New Hampshire reading this, I doubt you have any sympathy.  My kitchen counter is laden with vases of daffodils, and I have white quince and spirea branches in the hall.  Given all the cold weather we've had, this really isn't a bad show at all.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A garden gate that changed fate

In 1991, a photographer from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and I set out on a mission to write a garden book.  At the time, I was writing each week about gardeners.  I was fascinated by the fact that many people devoted their lives to a specific plant or genus of plants.  For example, I had a cousin who traveled all over the world to camellia shows.  He even had a camellia named for him.

Our idea was to go around the Southeast and find as many specialty gardens as we could.  We had a publisher in Atlanta who said she could not give us an advance, but she would publish our book.

So, we started up Interstate 85, and our first destination was Charlotte, North Carolina.  The area had been hit hard by Hurricane Hugo, which had barreled into the South Carolina coast and headed inland.  So, our first gardener apologized profusely for so many downed trees that had not yet been cleaned up.

His specialty was rhododendrons.  My friend had some donated film and snapped hundreds of pictures.  Meanwhile, I wrote furiously every word he said about growing rhododendrons in areas where summers are hot and humid.  We had already pre-planned that each chapter would contain a list of the top ten selections for the Southeast.

A couple of weeks passed, and we headed back up the same interstate, this time veering off to another place in North Carolina.  This is the garden that changed our lives.  Set around a 19th century frame farmhouse was a huge rose garden.  The octogenarian creator of this expansive garden had begun years before rescuing old roses from construction sites and gathering cuttings from cemeteries and old homesteads.  She called the main part of the garden where these roses grew "The Sanctuary".  

When you walked through the gate above, though, you walked onto large lawns bordered by masses of antique roses that she had collected from around the world.  If it hadn't been for the hideous stinging deer flies, this would have seemed like a wonderland.  I had only a film camera at the time (my professional photographer friend was taking slides), and my pictures could not begin to capture the beauty of the place.

Also, there was no way to describe the delicious fragrance in the air.  I remember passing down rows of huge, billowy roses that looked like they belonged painting by Redoute´.  Roses cascaded from trees and smothered fences.  It was an incredible sight.

On the way back down I-85, my friend and I started talking.  It's too bad that everyone couldn't have seen what we just witnessed.  The only garden show on TV at the time was Victory Garden, we noted.  On that series, you'd get a very short, maybe six-minute tour through a garden.

Why not have a television show that would give an in-depth visit to the garden?  You'd get to know the gardener, find out all the tips for growing roses like that, and you'd be inspired to take some of the ideas and apply them to your own back yard.  It would be a sort of "Charles-Kuralt-visits-the-garden".

By the time we got to Atlanta, we had composed a letter to Ted Turner, the only TV mogul we knew at the time.

I won't go into how this all unfolded, but with another friend, we created just such a show called A Gardner's Diary.  We featured only one garden for the entire half hour (actually, 22 minutes and 53 seconds).  And, we managed to get it aired on Home & Garden Television (which was just launching; we were one of the original shows that launched with the channel).

On Sunday, our minister was talking about how one event could change the world.  Many events have changed my world, but one of the most important was walking through that rose-covered garden gate.  It was a lucky day for me, and I'm glad to say I haven't encountered any deer flies since.  They almost kept me from staying in that garden long enough for it to lead to something important and life-changing.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Thank you, Berma Abercrombie, for your daffodils and for my career!

There are people who come into your life, and maybe without realizing it at the time, steer you onto a path that will change you forever.

One such person for me is the late Berma Abercrombie.  When I was just married and became interested in planting my own flowers (both my parents were passionate gardeners), I would go down to my mother's and admire her borders around the house and the rows of flowers she would plant in the vegetable garden.

I hadn't paid a whole lot of attention during my high school and college years - too interested in other things - but when I had a house of my own, I wanted bouquets on the table like I had growing up.  My mother always claimed she only wanted flowers she could cut.  That's funny, because one of my favorite gardeners and actually a garden guru for me, never thinks of flowers for the house.  She likes them in the garden.

Anyway, I would ask my mother where she got a particular day lily or a chrysanthemum or an iris, and the answer was almost always,  "From Berma Abercrombie."

So, when I lucked (literally) into a chance to write a "try-out" article for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mother called Berma Abercrombie to introduce me.

It turned out that Mrs. Abercrombie was known all over the United States for her expertise in the genus Narcissus.  She also had a refined collection of rare daffodils from all over the world, planted around her 19th Century house on a large farm along the Chattahoochee River in south Fulton County.

I went out on a very cold February day.  About a half-mile from her house, I started noticing patches of yellow narcissus lining both sides of the road.  As I would find out later, these were escapees from Mrs. Abercrombie's garden.

We sat inside near a large picture window that didn't really match the house.  It turned out that Mrs. Abercrombie was also an expert in ornithology.  Unfortunately, she had advanced macular degeneration, so she used high-powered binoculars, which she held at an angle (she had peripheral vision only), to do her bird watching.

Beyond the feeders laden with sunflower seeds, were waves of daffodils.  These, she explained, were called 'February Gold', a particular favorite of hers.  Everywhere around the house were other daffodils, but she asked me to come back in March to do any photography.  That's when the peak of the season would be.

I returned the next month to finish my interview.  The garden editor of the AJC ran the article on the front page of the Home & Garden section.  In fact, the pictures taken by a newspaper staff photographer took up 3/4 page.

So, it was because of this extraordinary woman, who founded the Georgia Daffodil Society and was active on the national level with the American Daffodil Society, as well as the Hemerocallis, the Iris  and Chrysanthemum societies, that I got a job I loved, writing about gardeners.  Every year after that, I visited her when her daffodils were in bloom and again when her giant clumps of peonies put on a show.  The newspaper editor was so impressed with her that he hired me to write a regular column, which I did for the next 21 years.  Out of my work there came a series on HGTV, A Gardener's Diary, hosted by Erica Glasener, and produced by Kathryn MacDougald and me.

It is ironic that this diminutive dynamo (could I have it right that she was four feet, seven inches tall?) would have made such a big change in my life and steered me into a wonderful career in the garden world.

I can't even begin to say here all the things I learned from her.  The photograph above shows the mailbox where she kept her gardening tools.  I still have the hellebores she gave me from around that big tree (which is no longer there).  I would drive away from there with big bouquets of the most interesting and beautiful narcissus.  The fragrance would be so strong, I'd have to roll down the windows of my car to keep from fainting.  It was a magical place with one of those rare gardeners who would have been revered, no matter where she had lived.

My visits to her were before there was digital photography, but from time to time, I will show you some  other views of her fabulous gardens.  Her nephew Buddy Garrard and his wife Virginia have done a wonderful job of preserving this beautiful land.  And, Virginia has had a great time watching over the garden and adding things of her own.  Mrs. Abercrombie would have loved that.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The gray day seems brighter at Giverny

It's not even fair to compare this Georgia day with the one, say, in New York City.  My daughter lives there, and she says it is relentlessly brutal.  The snow, the wind, the frigid temperatures, and the grayness of it all.

But, I confess I have not looked on the bright side of things today.  First, I fell asleep on the sofa last night, even before they were finished with the red carpet parade at the Oscars.  I awoke to see Twelve Years a Slave announced as best picture.  Thank goodness, I had recorded it all.

But then, I tried to go back to sleep and lay there for what seemed hours.  I finally dozed off only to wake up at my regular time to a light rain.  It took a while for my coffee to kick in, and mid-morning I realized I'd forgotten about my Tai Chi class (which is supposed to help me de-stress, but I'm still waiting on that).  As the day went on, the skies seemed to get even darker, and the wind picked up.  And, by mid-afternoon, I fretted about the fact that I hadn't gotten much done except laundry.

So, here I am.  I haven't filled out the form to try to keep my 2014 property taxes from going up again.  I also didn't make several important calls that were on my list, and now it's time to exercise.  It's just been one of those days when negative thoughts loom up from nowhere.  I had a bout of sadness that my old life was gone (it pretty much went away on June 17, 1999, when my husband died suddenly around six o'clock in the evening).  Then, I started thinking of mistakes I had made after that, and on and on.

I promise I know all the things that should have averted these negative thoughts.  Have an attitude of gratitude (I'm usually pretty good about this), count your blessings, think of the people who don't know where their next meal is coming from or how they're going to have any heat for their children to keep warm.  Actually, that latter line of thinking doesn't work for me, and I end up shedding tears for all those living in poverty and struggling each day.

So, let me change gears here.  A friend from North Carolina called to say she'd just received the book I wrote and loved it.  That made me feel much better, as the book has now gone into a second printing and will be widely available on-line in the slick hard cover edition later this week.

Then, I started going through photographs and landed on the most recent ones I took at Giverny.  The flowers, the lawn, the lovely trees - all of this somehow helped turn my mood around.

So, I'm looking out at the cold wind and the trees swaying back and forth.  It's almost dark, but I'm feeling much better.  These somber days don't come too often, thank goodness.  And, tomorrow I get to talk about my book to some garden lovers in another city.  I'm looking forward to the event, and tonight, I am going to do my best not to fall asleep on the sofa while making another attempt at the Oscars.  This time, I can hurry through the parts I don't like.  I already know who won.

Tomorrow is a new day, and I'm looking forward to thinking about gardens - a sure way to get out of the doldrums, even on a cold and disagreeable gray day.