Thursday, August 28, 2014

A forgotten shrub rediscovered

Three of us were following Liz Tedder around as we walked through her enormous garden (or gardens within a garden would be more like it) last week.  All of a sudden, I spied a shrub I hadn't seen or thought about in a long time.

It used to be that I would keep up with a lot of the newest introductions.  This was back before you could look up everything on the Internet.  I would study catalogs like crazy and make my rounds of gardens to see what people were planting and experimenting with.  I'd also visit nurseries, checking out anything new and wonderful that had come in.

It's been years since I've run across the blue mist shrub, Caryopteris x clandonensis.  Maybe it's because in recent years I haven't been out in a lot of gardens during the months of August and September when this small plant (three feet tall, at most) is in full bloom.

Caryopteris is a magnet for bees and butterflies.  I didn't see any of the latter, but I tried very hard to capture the bumblebees that were landing on the light blue flowers.  I'm not sure if you can see one in this photograph, but he's there.

Liz says she didn't have much luck with the gray-leaved caryopteris, but the ones with the golden leaves have been successful.  As I was looking at pictures on the Internet, I saw a shrub with much darker blue flowers and golden foliage - Caryopteris 'Sunshine Blue', one of the Proven Winners.  If I had enough sun here, I would love to try that one.

Because of my job at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and then as a scout for A Gardener's Diary on HGTV, I got to see a lot of wonderful flowers and shrubs.  My heart would start racing at the sight of something special.  I confess it was because I wanted that plant, too.  That's how I felt the other day in Liz's garden when I came upon this wonderful shrub I hadn't seen in a long, long time.  When my ship comes in, and I get that deer fence around the one sunny area on this property,  you can rest assured I'll be planting a caryopteris - always something to look forward to in the world of gardening.

Note:  For some reason, on the finished post, the color of this flower appears to be purple and darker than it truly is.  It is  actually light, pastel blue.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Capturing an American scene in a country garden

Somewhere in my clutter room upstairs that contains boxes brought from my daddy's office and my parents' home (this winter, I will go through them, I have promised myself) is a copy of a Garden Design magazine from the 1990's.  In the back is an excerpt from either John or William Bartram's diary.  I have no hope of finding the magazine at this moment, so I'll say that it had to be from one of the Bartrams' botanical expeditions to Florida in either 1765-66 (John) or 1773-1777 (William).

If my memory serves me correctly, Bartram was in an area near the St. John's river.  As he was looking out across a swamp, he saw a brilliant red flower -  Hibiscus coccineus, known as either scarlet mallow or swamp hibiscus.  I can't remember if he got close enough (wouldn't there have been alligators in that swamp?) to the plant to take a sample.  I think he was able to draw the flower, or did he describe it so well that I could see it in my mind?

Walking through Liz Tedder's giant potager, I looked over my shoulder to glimpse this Adirondack chair, which has its origins in New York, with the native American flower from Florida hanging over it.  Seeing two things so uniquely American, caught in a moment in the August light, sent a little chill up my spine.

Scarlet mallow is a perennial that grows from six to ten feet tall.  The year of a terrible drought, a friend gave me a plant.  I parked it in the border at my mother's house where it struggled and did not survive.  I now realize it would have had a better chance in back of my house where the cardinal flowers grow.  I need to give this flower another try, as it is delightful to look up on an August day and see, as Bartram did, a stunning red flower glowing in the sunshine.

Note:  This is an easy flower to grow, especially given enough moisture and sun or part sun.  Hummingbirds love it, and I would imagine it would also attract butterflies.  It blooms over a long period in summer.  Plant Delights in Raleigh, North Carolina, sells the flower, but you might be able to get one from a friend, as this is sort of a passalong plant.  Note:  The leaves are palmate and look very much like marijuana foliage.   That other tall stem in the photograph, with the slender leaves, is a Formosa lily, which blooms at the same time.

Monday, August 25, 2014

100 years later - the poppies grow

I've always been curious about something in Atlanta.  There is an upscale neighborhood near the governor's mansion called Argonne Forest.  Its streets are named for some of the bloodiest battles of World War I - Marne, Verdun, Argonne, Chateau Drive and Chateau Court, the two latter presumably referring to Château-Thierry. 

When I was a student in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, there was a disheveled elderly man who would walk up and down the Cours Mirabeau and "preach" to people seated in the cafés.  He would gesture wildly as he shouted about the horrors of Verdun, where a million soldiers lost their lives in the trenches.  I assumed that the man must have fought there and suffered from a brain injury.  Or, maybe he was senile, and the horror of his youth in the killing fields had come back to haunt him.

Yesterday,  in the travel section of The New York Times, there was an article about the centennial of the outbreak of World War I.  The gist of the two-page spread is about how the Americans entered the war in 1917, turning the tide and driving the Germans back.  The author tells of visiting the areas in France where battles were fought.  He described going into a tunnel in an old stone quarry and seeing all the carvings by men who had been there - some German, some French, some English and then the Americans.  They had drawn or etched all sorts of things - flags, hearts, women, self-portraits, their names and hometowns.  

This prompted me to go into my late husband's library and look for a shell I brought him from a trip to France with my tennis team (I am rambling here, but one of the members invited us to a château in the Loire, which she co-owned with some other Atlantans).  I found the darkened brass shell on the top shelf.  In it was a rusted length of barbed wire my husband had placed there.  The shell was engraved with the words "Somme 1916", a fancy letter "D", and an iris, complete with foliage.  One wonders if the person who so carefully decorated the shell survived the carnage.

To explain further, my husband had an entire section of books of history and poems about World War I. (In fact, he and I are married because of a mutual interest in WWI poets; see my post of Thursday, August 25, 2011, or type "Flanders Field poppies" in the search box of the blog; there, I tell the story of how this all came about).  Every time we went to France, he would make time to visit the trenches in the areas named in that Atlanta subdivision.  On one trip, I accompanied him to the village of Ors to find the grave of one of his (and my) favorite English poets, Wilfred Owen.  Ironically, Owen was killed on November 4, 1918, exactly a week before the signing of the armistice on November 11.  His poems are some of the most graphic in describing death in the trenches.

Now, to the cheerful, sunny scene above, where you can see Flanders Field poppies (Papaver rhoeas, a.k.a. red corn poppy), a symbol of WWI,  growing in Bob Clinard's Atlanta garden.  I am writing all this to say that the NYT article led me also to look for the catalog that just came from Wildseed Farms in Texas.  I had marked the page with the red poppies so that I can order some to plant this fall.  After my husband died, I found a packet of seeds he'd bought but never planted.  I'll keep that one, but I would like to plant some poppies in honor of the centennial of the "War to End All Wars."

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Divide and conquer to make a garden

When does a yard become a garden?  Or, is there any difference?

I grew up with both.  We had a yard, which we didn't call a garden, but we did say "little lawn" and "big lawn."  Then, between my grandmother's cottage and our house was a sort of formal garden with clipped hedges.  Never mind that the hedges were made of privet, the bane of my mother's existence. But the latter were laid out in a formal garden, with two long hedges with a narrow path in between, leading down to steps at the end.  Then, there was a clipped hedge perimeter.  Various shrubs were planted next to the outer reaches - January jasmine, forsythia, weigela and English dogwood.  In one little area at the opposite corner, my grandmother grew dahlias and had a clipped topiary in the shape of an Easter basket with a handle.

Another feature that divided the little lawn from the side garden where there were pecan trees, lots of daffodils and more weigela, was a tall, white picket fence with an arch over the gate.  In the few photographs showing this area when I was little, it looks like a garden, rather than a yard.  Daylilies grew next to the fence.  Over the years, that gate and picket fence disappeared, or likely came into such disrepair that it was removed.  That's too bad.  I'm sure it was a lot of trouble to keep up and to mow around, but it looked charming next to the homemade, 19th century brick of the house.

The point is that the garden pictured above was once - not all that long ago - what I would call a yard.  Well, at least on this side of the ante-bellum house.  On the other side was a boxwood (not privet!) garden, with squares around cedar trees and a long double row of hedges leading to other parterres.

What the creator of this garden did was carve out vistas and put in hedges and trees and shrubs to delineate areas.  The axes go both ways, and you can step into one area and look to your right and left and see focal points.  Go a little further, and you'll pass between twin planters set on antique stones from the property.  Again, you can look right and left to long views.

Walk straight ahead, and you'll enter a formal square with a stone pool in the middle and hedges outlining the enclosed area with space for perennials to pop up.  All this is set against taller trees or hedges that form a background.  Proceed around the stone basin, and you'll walk under a rose arch into yet another long, hydrangea-lined alleé.  It's all very charming and fun to navigate.  There's a discovery around every corner.

It's true that if you're a child you can play touch football in a big, expansive yard with no trees to speak of.  But, where I grew up, that formal garden was the best hide-and-seek situation you could hope for.  We often had slews of children on summer Sunday evenings, and you could always find a good hiding place.

At the farm, there are large stretches of lawn.  You could set up a badminton or volleyball court, or put up a soccer goal (which someone has done).  But, if I had to choose one or the other, I can't help but love the look and feel of gardens within gardens, and all the romance and mystery and discovery such a plan provides.

Friday, August 22, 2014

In the potager of a country garden

Does your vegetable garden look like this?  Just kidding.  What you can see in this view of Liz Tedder's giant potager consists mostly of shrubs and perennials.  On the right is probably the largest baptisia (this particular one is blue and blooms in May) I've ever seen in captivity - or anywhere, for that matter (I did see them in the wild on the prairies of Wisconsin).  On the left, about midway down the box hedge, is Arkansas blue-star, Amsonia hubrichtii, which in a few weeks will become a spectacular cloud of yellow-golden mist.  In the spring, it is covered in light blue starburst-shaped flowers.

Liz calls this portion of her vegetable garden (I'm only estimating the total size to be an acre, probably more) the French area.  If you look back at posts dated June 4, 2014, June 29, 2011, and January 27, 2012, you can get the story of how Liz saved an ugly duckling (a long-neglected 1830's plantation house about 30 minutes south of the Atlanta airport) and turned it into a swan.  And, then she started the gardens, which rival any public gardens I know of (more work for you; if you google Oak Grove Plantation, you'll be led to an article I wrote explaining the gardens in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2008; for some reason, I can't make it work so that all you have to do is just click within this blog; need to ask my daughter how to do this).

In 1992, when we shot the pilot for A Gardener's Diary, a series invented by two friends and me and which aired on HGTV for eleven years, we were in the country garden of Ruth and Dennis Mitchell in Lamar County.  Ruth was in charge of the flowers in this brilliantly-colored, multi-acre cottage garden, and her English-born husband Dennis oversaw a large vegetable garden.

For years, we quoted Dennis, who is shown hoeing some corn slips, while multi-colored bearded iris and bright Shirley poppies wave in the wind all throughout his vegetable plot.  In his British accent, toughened by a lifetime spent in Australia, Dennis says, "A veg-e-table garden shouldn't be just a veg-e-table garden, you know.  You need to get some flowers in there, as well."

Standing in Liz Tedder's elegant concept of a vegetable garden, I thought of Dennis.  There are tons of vegetables (and lots of fruit) in Liz's garden, but like Dennis and Ruth, she has plenty of flowers, as well.  From this view, taken on a very hot, humid day in mid-August in the broiling sun, you get an idea of the passion and imagination (and hard work) brought to this land that, for the better part of a century, was host to tall weeds, scrub pines and rusting machinery.  It is nothing short of phenomenal.

(More to come on the recent visit to Liz's garden).

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The August garden - a time of transition

On a visit to a very large and jammed-packed-with-plants-and-stories garden the other day, I had an epiphany.  As I walked around (we're talking acres of different areas - shade gardens, sun gardens, gazebo gardens, pool gardens, potagers, herb gardens, sunken gardens, even a cemetery garden), I realized there was no way ever to show you even a fraction of what was going on there.  Here it was August, not particularly a time when gardens are at their peak; yet, I came away with 150 photographs.

So, speaking of transitions, to return to my original idea for this blog, I'm going to cut short the long-winded stories about my life (if there's something interesting or earth-shaking that happens, I probably won't be able to contain myself), so I can show some of the 30,000 photographs I have on this computer.  That was my whole idea in the first place.  I like to see garden scenes and different plants so I can get ideas.

The above garden I also visited the other day.  I had gone there back in late May, and I could see there were a lot of paniculata hydrangeas that would be blooming in July and August.  I caught them just as they were turning from white back to green.

This particular property surrounds an ante-bellum, Southern saltbox-style house that is out in the country from my hometown.  Actually, it's right down the road from my great-grandparents' house, which also dates from before the Civil War and is the same style house.

The person who created these gardens took a "yard" and carved out different garden areas, most with an axis and focal point.

More scenes to come, plus photos from the other garden I visited on Tuesday - also an ante-bellum house out in the country, but of a much different style.  

Saturday, August 16, 2014

When "seeing red" is a good thing

Yesterday, it hit me that it was the middle of August, and I had not checked on something.  When I moved here 41 years ago this month, I came into a whole new world.  I grew up on either five or six acres (how I wish I'd written this down) in the little town of Palmetto, Georgia.  Our house was old - Mother always said it dated from 1852, and that the bricks had been made in the front yard.

I don't know if this date was accurate, but judging from the super-wide floorboards in my room, the 12-foot ceilings, the thick walls and the wavy glass in the huge windows, it could have pre-dated the Civil War.  We had lots of trees - 13 large pecan trees, to be exact, plus a number of oaks, and in back, what we called a cottonwood tree (Paulownia tomentosa).  This latter tree shaded a sandy parking area where I played many a game of hopscotch.

We also had lawns, one we called the big lawn for obvious reasons and the smaller lawn right in front of the house.  There were also huge vegetable gardens, an apple orchard, pear and plum trees, and plenty of sun or shade to be in, depending on your mood.  It was an ideal place to grow up.  However,   we had no woods to speak of.

So, when I married, I moved onto four acres, but it was totally different.  There was a tiny 1927 cottage on the back of the property.  It was surrounded on all sides by deep woods.  There wasn't so much as a foot of full sunlight.  Tall trees loomed overhead.  A square patch of weeds and moss was the only thing you could possible refer to as a "lawn."

By that time, Mother and Daddy had moved out to a farm they had bought in 1957.  They had built a house my senior year in high school, and we left what will always be in my heart and mind my "homeplace."  The new house was sitting on top of a hill in the blazing sun.  There had been elm trees around, but they died, one by one, victims of Dutch elm disease.

Meanwhile, up here in Atlanta, I tried to grow things that needed full sun.  I had no success.  Someone had once had some "gardens", with a couple of brick paths and a little concrete pond.  There were also a few boxwoods around the cottage and some azaleas.  Mostly, though, it had been neglected, and with so much shade, there wasn't much I felt like I could do.

But, as time went by, I began to appreciate a few bright spots.  Someone had planted a lot of jonquils on a hill behind the cottage.  And, around that little pond were some red spider lilies.  In spring, tons of snowdrops would pop up.

Our driveway wasn't paved (and still isn't).  It was 1/5 mile from the street.  That first August, I was walking along, and something red caught my eye.  I looked over where, at that time, there was a creek and saw these bright red flowers - a large stand of them - all along the water's edge.

It wasn't until later that I knew that they were wild cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis).  I can only assume they were native to the spot.  Or, it's quite possible that someone who had lived on the property  had planted them.

Every year, they surprised me.  It would come the middle of August, and I would look over into the creek bottom, and there they were.

But one year - I think it was about eight years ago - we had a terrible drought.  Already that creek had dried up due to someone building a 20,000 square foot house on the ridge up the hill from me.  Even though the water had quit flowing (there's an old stone cistern on my property, and there's still some water in it), the area where the cardinal flowers are is still mushy, especially when it has rained a lot.

That one year of the drought, I couldn't see any flowers.  I went down into the dry creek bed and found only a single plant with one spindly bloom.

But then, to my surprise, the next year one plant came back.  Every year since, I've looked down, crossing my fingers that there would be red flowers.  I have not been disappointed.

So, yesterday, I walked out onto the back terrace, holding my breath.  I was so relieved when I saw the bright red glowing in the filtered sun.  I think there is an additional plant this year.  I will definitely put on my long boots and go down there and investigate.

It is amazing to think that a perennial could come back for 41 years.  I can't say if these are plants that have re-seeded or if the root structure has been there all along.  Either way, they've endured, even with the introduction of deer over a decade ago (seems to me I read that the plant is poisonous).  I am especially happy to have these flowers, as the deer have eaten all of the native arborescens hydrangeas and every single hearts-a-bustin'.

It's a happy feeling to look out on an August morning and see red.  I hope the cardinal flowers will come back for many more years, maybe brightening someone else's day in the far-off future.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Excited about my garden on an August day

If you had told me yesterday at this time that I would be outside reveling in the fresh, cool breeze, bright blue, cloudless sky and warm dry sun, I would not have believed it possible.  But here I am in mid-August, out studying this relatively new (last September) garden and trying to figure out what to do next.

If you could have seen what this looked like before, you could scarcely believe the change.  And, it was brought about so quickly that it might have qualified for one of those fake shows where they take a yard in the morning, and by the end of the day you have the rough beginnings of (to my mind) a not-so-attractive garden.   Only in my case, even the day after it was "finished," I could make photographs with just a bit of pride.

So, let me back up.  This morning I was sitting at my desk in the den, looking out the window at the volunteer Rudbeckia triloba that must have come from the compost, or either it migrated from the opposite side of the house, where it did not re-seed.  At first I was irritated at this intrusion because it was blocking the sun from a struggling climbing rose.  However, since I am having to rethink the whole climbing rose situation (the summer sun did not go where I thought it would), I resisted pulling up the two large plants.

It used to be that, from this same window, I looked out at the gray trunk of an enormous white oak tree.  It was well over 100 years old.  I won't go into the particulars, but it finally had to be taken down.  I had the stump ground and let the sawdust sit there for a couple of years.  I spent a good bit of time staring at the area, trying to figure out what to do.  There was no shape to the earth there; it sloped a bit down to a crude path I'd made leading to the back of the house.

When I walked into Perry Walker's wonderful nursery in Jonesboro (Walker Nursery Farms) last spring and saw a black iron arch, I knew immediately what I wanted to do.  Perry had only one in stock, but he ordered two more for me.  An amazingly talented person who works for a high-end garden designer brought cobblestones from the farm (part of the 4,000 I used to have in my front parking area here) to build retaining walls.  He then installed the three arches and set them in concrete.  I had bought 14 Korean boxwoods for the church, but we didn't use them, and I couldn't return them, so I already had material for a small hedge.

I did plant climbing roses, which the deer promptly ate.  My neighbor gave me some Confederate jasmine, so I tried those, since it was too shady for the roses.  The jasmine got fried in the cold this past winter (I need to get 'Madison' jasmine, which is hardier), but one has made a comeback.

Then, my friend Benjie gave me a bench he didn't want.  It is the focal point of the garden.  Actually, that section was done after the part in the foreground.  A "before" picture would reveal a bunch of bricks laid in a haphazard fashion and an awful gnome sitting atop a concrete bowl.  I had also had my bird feeders there for years;  the same weeds kept coming up for years, and I did little about it.  One good thing is that this rectangle was already surrounded on the outer edges by an English boxwood hedge.

Now, as you can see, I can walk on tiny pea gravel (with sharp edges, so that it doesn't roll out from under you) from one end to the other.  Erica Glasener gave me some Louisiana irises, so I divided them and put them on either side of the first arch within the hedges (the amazing builder of the garden brought me some more Korean boxwoods for a second hedge).  I have two ivy topiaries at the entrance.  The tall green clipped bushes you see are a type of Japanese holly.  The "tree" at the left of the second arch is an orange-blooming osmanthus, which sends out a delicious fragrance in September (Erica gave me this, too, years ago).  After it blooms this year, I'm going to shape it up so that it extends over the third arch, but won't come to a point as it does now.  I'll use the clippings in arrangements at church.

What you can't see down at the end next to the bench is a piece of Japanese holly that sprang up and which I am training to become an eventual arch to extend over the bench.  Also, down there in a corner, is a tuteur with a 'Graham Stuart Thomas' English rose.  It does get enough sun, and by next year, it should look good.  Sad to say, I kept it in a pot with scant dirt for over a year, trying to decide where to put it.  It's growing like mad now, though, and I wouldn't be surprised if it blooms this October.

There's one odd thing going on here.  The walkway leading to the side door is slanted.  There was nothing to be done about that, but it does throw the space in the middle off-kilter.  All in all, though, I'm pleased with how the garden is coming along, and this afternoon, there is something wonderful to be seen from my desk - that special "light in August" (thank you, William Faulkner) shining on the Boston ivy on the wall of the house and on the just-trimmed Japanese holly.  It is all quite magical.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Colors, textures - a garden in France evolves

When I was in Paris in late June 2012, my daughter Anne and my childhood friend Linda went with me to visit Carol Tessier and see her amazing garden.

I met Carol in the early winter of 1971 at a ski resort near Mont Blanc.  We've kept in touch ever since. Who would have guessed that the two of us would be discussing gardens some four decades later or talking about gardening styles and propagating plants?  At the time we were only interested in adventure.

Carol is from Johannesburg, South Africa, and grew up amid gardens.  One of her sisters has a famous garden on a farm in a different part of the country.  Carol's grandfather had a great influence on her.  He had a large garden where she spent hours playing and following her grandfather around.  He had a wonderful collection of hellebores.  She managed to smuggle some of his seeds out of South Africa (this was years ago) and now has descendants of her grandfather's hellebores in her own garden.

Carol's garden is hidden behind her home on a narrow street in Asnières on the outskirts of Paris.  This is a simple description, but she has created tightly packed borders of perennials, shrubs and vines, all artfully arranged as to texture and color (Carol is an artist who worked at the Louvre for years).  The evening we were there. we had cocktails on the lawn with Carol's husband Luc and then dinner in the conservatory.  Sitting outside, we were surrounded by glorious flowers in bloom.  I went around with my camera, trying to capture at least a few of her plant combinations.

Above, you can get an idea of just one little snapshot of a marvelous composition of clematis, what appears to be a giant bloom on a climbing hydrangea vine (Schizophragma hydrangeoides, perhaps?) and pincushion flower in the foreground.  She has a lively mix of evergreens and variegated plants all throughout the borders.  Colorful foliage - yellow, blue, maroon - accounts for much of the visual impact.

Carol's garden is so complex and varied that I was curious about how she makes decisions about where to put plants.  I had written Carol an e-mail and asked several questions.  Here's the answer to:  "How did you decide on the style of the garden?"

"I don’t think that we really decided on the style of the garden. It just seemed to gradually evolve. To begin with, we had very little time for gardening as the house was in a very bad state of repair, and we did all the renovating ourselves. We started by planting a bit of lawn bordered by some flowerbeds. We decided on their shape and curve by laying out the hosepipe and having a look at the result from an upstairs window. The bottom of the garden stayed wild for numerous years, much to the children’s delight. They remember their house in the lilac bushes and the swing that Luc made between two trees. But over the years we gradually conquered the rest of the garden and learnt through trial and error, planting the higher plants in front of the small ones and often so close that they literally suffocated!!! With memories of the large South African gardens, I still try and pack too many plants into ours, and still can’t resist buying new ones, even if there isn’t any space for them. Luc says that he would prefer not to be a plant in our garden!!"

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A case of mistaken identity, or rather the author's error

As I wrote yesterday's blog about my mother's yellow perennial, something didn't feel right.  I had thought for years that this flower was Rudbeckia laciniata.  But, I couldn't remember why I thought that.  However, when I looked up that botanical name, I came up with photographs that showed a brown center to almost all the flowers.  There was one that looked like Mother's, but I couldn't see the foliage to verify it.

So, I took out the DVD of Episode 102 of HGTV's A Gardener's Diary, where an identical plant is discussed in a Tennessee garden.  Before I saw that footage in 1994,  I had never seen another plant like Mother's.  I never would have dreamed it could be a rudbeckia (I always think of black-eyed Susans, with some sort of dark or green "eye" in a yellow daisy-like configuration).

In the show, the host indicates that this is a heliopsis.  Sure enough, I looked up images of heliopsis and found an identical flower.  So, why was Rudbeckia laciniata lurking in the back of my mind?  Yesterday, before I looked at the episode, I had thought I'd remembered that it had been identified as such by the show's host and the gardener.  No, they said, it was a heliopsis.

So, I went with that, still wondering where I had gotten the idea that it was Rudbeckia laciniata.  I had been mistaken, I concluded, and went on writing, identifying the plant as likely some form of  Heliopsis helianthoides

This morning, I received this post:

"I think it is possible that your mother's yellow flowers are Rudbeckia laciniata or cutleaf coneflowers — a double variety, possibly ‘Goldquelle,’ ‘Hortensia,’ or ‘Goldenglow.’

This 3′ to 5′ rudbeckia — usually seen with single coneflower blooms — is native to eastern North America. A double variety appeared in 1897 and became popular as an “outhouse flower,” planted to shield privies from view. I have a number of them in my garden here in Rwanda, an import by some previous occupant."

I quickly googled R. laciniata images, and what came up?  Mother's flower - tons of them!  What did I do yesterday that didn't give me the same results?

When I wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I was a rabid fact checker.  I was terrified of making a mistake.  I will say that I didn't make a whole lot of errors, given the number of columns I wrote over 21 years, but the ones I made were huge.  The worst offense was when I said that a yellow form of Boston ivy called 'Fenway Park' came from the Green Monster within the ball park.  I had read this in a catalog that sold the plant, never bothering to check anything else.  That time, all I would have had to do was to walk into my late husband's library and look at a photograph of him pointing to the obviously devoid-of-foliage wall inside Fenway Park.  I received the most scathing rebukes for this.  The paper had to run a correction.

I am readily admitting that my identification of the perennial was a mistake and that Cindy from Rwanda is absolutely correct.  Of course, I am forever going to think of this as an "outhouse flower".  It would be an excellent one for that purpose, as it is tall and would grab your attention away from the structure.

So, thank you, Cindy, for enlightening me.  I will never know why I rejected my first instincts.  I am hereby avowing that the flower in the bouquet above, taken from Mother's garden years after she was gone, is indeed Rudbeckia laciniata, a native American plant that should be in everyone's sunny summer garden, or at least beside everyone's privy.

Note:  I can't resist telling what is in the background of this photograph.  The mustard-colored pitcher I hauled back from France.  I bought that raggedy painting leaning against the tile backsplash in a Provençal village market where I was practically the only shopper on a Sunday afternoon.  The tiles I bought in southern France (I've forgotten the name of the town!) and hauled back on a plane, along with an iron rooster weather vane (this was when you could do this sort of thing).  The jars you see are l-r:  okra pickles I made.  I burned myself on the peppers and had to sit up all night with my hands in a bowl of ice water. I wore rubber gloves when I made the next ones;  a jar of canned tomatoes with 2001 written in my mother's handwriting on a strip of masking tape.  That meant she was 91 when she grew and canned them;  a quart jar of Mother's soup mix, containing Silver Queen corn, okra, tomatoes and baby lima beans from their garden.  It's not marked, but it likely dates from 2001, as well.

Monday, August 4, 2014

When the yellow flowers bloomed

Towards the end of July every year, the above flowers bloomed in the border alongside my parents' house at the farm.  The show of bright yellow continued at least through mid-August.  The cheery yellow double blooms sat atop five-foot tall stems, thus affording a view from the kitchen table of the many butterflies that would alight almost constantly.  Mother would pick the flowers, sometimes mixing them with colorful zinnias, which also grew along the wall of the house.  

In all the years I had the chance to ask, I never found out where this perennial came from.  Many people swapped flowers with Mother, so it could have come from a number of sources.  Also, Mother never put a name to it.  I don't think we ever talked about what the flower was.  I had never seen it anywhere else.  When I started writing a weekly column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1989,  I was constantly out visiting gardens but I never came across this particular flower.

In early August 1994, when we were shooting the first 13 episodes of A Gardener's Diary (this was months before HGTV would come on the air on December 31, 1994), we taped two shows in Tennessee.  One was at the farm of Susan Felts, who sold cut flowers to florists and who also dried flowers to sell.  I didn't go on that shoot, but I watched it being edited.

As I sat in the dark editing room (we used to go at night in order to save money), I watched as A Gardener's Diary host Erica Glasener was walking next to Susan's huge flower borders. The two were discussing what was in the border, when Erica stopped and posed a question to Susan:  "Tell me about the heliopsis over there."  Bingo.  The camera pulled in close, and there it was - Mama's yellow flower.

Susan explained that an elderly lady who had a lot of old-fashioned passalong plants had given it to her.  I thought at the time that Mother had probably gotten a start of the flower from such a person.

For whatever reason, I don't think I ever told Mother I had found out the name of the flower.  Sad to say, I mostly cared about what was happening down there at the time it was blooming.

My parents were huge vegetable gardeners, so the last of July and all through August,  they were immersed in picking black-eyed peas, butter beans (the big brown kind), lima beans, the second crop of Silver Queen corn (which always had worms, although the first one in late June did not), snap beans, okra, tomatoes, squash, watermelons and cantaloupes.  Mother spent the days gathering vegetables and then either freezing them or canning them.  It was a ton of work.

So, now when I see those flowers in bloom (I took the above photograph last Sunday when it was very, very dry and had been for a few weeks), I think back to all those dishes on the table - the fried okra with not a smidgen of green showing, yellow squash casserole, butter beans and black-eyed peas, along with a jar of chow-chow from the previous year, a plate of bright red sliced tomatoes, a round cake of crusty cornbread and of course, sweet iced tea with lemon.  Mama always had dessert, but there would be a bowl of sliced cantaloupe, and then Daddy might bring out some cold watermelon to finish up.

Thank goodness, at the time I never thought that all of this would come to an end.  Vegetables are still being grown at the farm, but of course, it's not the same.  My friend Linda, who has a fabulous and very picturesque vegetable garden on the eastern shore of Maryland, makes chow-chow every year from Mama's recipe.  That helps tremendously when I buy frozen butterpeas or lima beans at the store.  And having Mama's flowers come back year after year, stronger than ever, helps keep all the memories of those wonderful years alive.

About the flower: To tell the truth, I had to get out a DVD of Episode 102 of A Gardener's Diary to remember that this was a heliopsis.  For some reason, I had remembered it as being a strange form of rudbeckia (what was I thinking?).  I'm not sure of the species (Heliopsis helianthoides, most likely), but it is native to the eastern United States and Canada.  What I'm wondering is, given the fact that it does not need to be staked and is obviously very hardy, and the deer have never taken a bite of either the foliage of the flowers, why this perennial isn't used much more often.  

Friday, August 1, 2014

Mama's hydrangea: Phase Two

Back in June, I wrote of my concerns about the hydrangea my mother had at the farm.  To review, it was moved here a couple of winters ago in a giant black plastic container, where it lived for two years.

The first season it bloomed, I was delighted.  The flowers were purple - not the deep, rich hue they had been in the ground at her house, but a lovely grape-y sort of color.  I was thrilled and determined to keep the plant in the container and just have a box built around it.

However, the next June I was horrified at the Pepto-Bismol pink of the flowers and knew I had to get the roots into the ground.

It wasn't until this past April that some workers came and dug a huge hole across from the new arch garden and put the plant into the ground along with a boxwood (just about everything looks better next to a boxwood, I think).  I was fortunate that I had been able to put the hydrangea under the back terrace to protect it from the cold winter.  Thus, neither the blooms nor the foliage was hurt.

Even though there wasn't much time for the color to change, the flowers did turn a rosy color that was very showy - deeper than the frightening chalk pink of the year before - but still nothing you'd pick out in a nursery.   However, the blooms were enormous.

This hydrangea was in full, blasting sun at the farm.  Even though it was tucked into a corner, it lived next to white brick wall with the afternoon western sun bearing down.  The blooms were a spectacular, deep glowing purple at first but crisped up and turned brown as the summer progressed.

So, when the big, rosy flowers began to change color here, I was thrilled.  Instead of drying up to the point where you'd have to cut them off, the blooms began to fade to the approximate colors you see above.  Last week, I could stand it no longer.  I didn't want to take the chance that they'd turn brown, so I cut a bouquet to bring inside, in hopes that the faded flowers would dry and maintain the muted shades of green and mauve.

I took dozens of photographs in all parts of the house, trying to catch the exact colors of the freshly-cut flowers.  The picture above doesn't do them justice, but you can get an idea of how the blooms had turned.  To my mind, they had taken on a new life they'd never had before when they were fried so quickly by the sun.

Elizabeth Dean of and Wilkerson Mill Gardens, a specialty nursery not that far from the farm, wrote to say that she thinks that the hydrangea will be well on its way to turning purple by next year.  If I get those big blooms again in a dark, rich color, I will have hit the jackpot.  In addition, up here where there's protection from the afternoon sun, I think the blooms from June will be a different, but lovely shade in August.  This is just a bonus to having my mother's beloved hydrangea take on a prolonged life in a satisfying new later-in-the-summer color - something that never happened before.

Note:  A word of explanation about the background.  The flowers are sitting atop an antique buffet I bought at a sidewalk market in the Loire.  It cost me more to get it home than the piece cost itself.  Still, it was a good buy;  however, I held my breath until it arrived eight months later, as I didn't know if I would ever see the buffet again.  Next to the silver wine cooler holding the flowers are some of my late husband's collection of antique decoys.  On the wall is a painting by Walter Biggs, who was once the roommate of George Wesley Bellows and a close friend of N. C. Wyeth.  My mother-in-law commissioned the work - a woodsy, impressionistic hunting scene - for my husband's graduation from law school.  The hunter originally in the scene is no longer there.  Apparently, Mr. Biggs wasn't satisfied with it and took a knife and scraped across him.  Before the artist could finish the work, he died, and my mother-in-law retrieved the painting from an easel in his studio.