Thursday, May 28, 2015

Learning from a great gardener

Today would have been Margaret Moseley's 99th birthday.  We lost her one month ago.  It was time for her to go, though, as her body had given out, despite a bright, funny mind that stayed intact until the end.

I came under Margaret's spell in 1994.  I couldn't believe it when I drove into her driveway and saw her garden on a spring day.  Despite a rocky start (the article I wrote about her in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution appeared in black and white on a back page; she did not like that at all and let me know it), she and I became the closest of friends.

It was impossible to go to her garden and not come away inspired.  You caught her enthusiasm for plants, and you vowed to come home and try to emulate everything she did.  You also had a plastic grocery bag filled with dark soil and some wonderful perennial or shrub she had just dug for you.

For years, I vowed to write a book about her.  Not only did I want her garden to be remembered, but I wanted to capture her spirit and enthusiasm, which inspired so many people, not only locally, but all over the world.

So, today I want to pass along some excerpts from Margaret Moseley's A Garden to Remember.  The passages come from the section entitled "Hints."  Margaret practiced several techniques that led to her success in having a year-round garden and something in bloom practically every day of the year. A reporter from the AJC, who wrote a feature article on her after she died, wanted to know if Margaret was humble about her garden.  I had to laugh. "Not in the least!"  I loved it when she would call me on a dark winter day or a hot, humid August afternoon and exclaim, "You ought to see my garden today.  It's the prettiest it's ever been."

Here are some of Margaret's tips that served her well during her four decades of gardening:

-  Don't ever mind moving a plant.  Normally, I have to move things four or five times to get them in the right place...Also, I have no patience in waiting.  If I want a plant moved, I do it immediately.  As long as you can water, you should never fear moving a plant....It's better to get them in a place where they'll have the right amount of sun and shade.
- If you live in an area where gardenias are hardy, plant one every 25 feet.  I have at least a half-dozen kinds.
-Hydrangeas can be easily propagated by layering.  Take a lower branch, scratch off some of the green bark, make a slight dent in the soil, and place that part of the branch in the ground.  Then, secure it with a brick.  Leave several inches past the brick.  After the roots form, cut the new plant away from the mother plant....Azaleas can be layered in the same manner as hydrangeas.
- Place a good size rock on top of the soil next to a new plant, and water evenly for at least a year.  The rock keeps the wind from rocking the roots.  This applies for plants three feet or taller.  I've always done this, and it works.
-Daylily foliage can look unsightly after the flowers are spent.  I cut the foliage back to the ground after they bloom.  You'll get a new flush of leaves, and this will also give other perennials a chance to shine.
- When someone gives me a plant or when I buy one, I make sure it gets into the ground immediately. There's no holding pen at my house.  I find a place, even if I have to dig out into the lawn and expand one of my rock-lined beds.
-Don't plant anything with big roots next to the house.  Also, remember that camellias, sasanquas and hollies get very tall.  They're not good foundation plants.  Plant them where they won't have to be pruned so hard or at all.
- Seize an opportunity.  I thought I would die when I lost a huge limb off my ginkgo tree.  I took advantage of the new area and filled it with blue pansies in winter and golden creeping Jenny and petunias in the summer.  This also created enough openness for the bluebird box.  I have several families of bluebirds every year.
- Plant dogwoods, especially the kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa)
- If you have burrowing critters that are eating roots, place the plant in a black plastic pot with the bottom cut out, and plant in the ground.

Most of all, Margaret cherished her friends, and they cherished her.  We celebrated her birthday with her every year, gathering on her sun porch surrounded by hydrangeas coming into bloom and a special light that shone through the garden and radiated from this remarkable character.  Happy Birthday to one whose heart touched everyone she met and whose soul belonged to every plant she touched.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Wedding dreams that do come true

Two things I said I'd never do:  1) Have a wedding outside 2) Have a destination wedding.  Now I've done both, the first twice.

My older daughter's wedding was on October 5, 2013.  She and her then fiance had wanted to have the wedding at Pawleys Island, South Carolina, where our family had vacationed for forty years (we missed the year following Hurricane Hugo which destroyed half the structures on the island).  I said absolutely no, but then ended up having the wedding at my house in Atlanta, a very dangerous thing to do.  My friends helped me (or actually did all the work) to decorate with greenery and candles, fabulous flower arrangements and topiaries.  With all the twinkle and cafe lights we put up, along with chandeliers wrapped in greenery, tons of smilax vine, olive branches and rosemary and a glorious tent, the wedding reception was magical.  The weather, with its 40% chance of rain, held off until 24 hours later, when it poured at the time the reception would have started.

But, here I was again with my younger daughter.  She was not to be dissuaded.  It was Pawleys Island and no compromise.

So, I rented the 19th century Pelican Inn and prayed for good weather and a florist who would know how to transform the place.

On Sunday before the wedding last Saturday, I finally looked at the extended forecast.  Clear all week until Saturday, starting at 4 p.m., a 70% chance of steady rain.  The wedding was scheduled for 6 p.m., followed by the reception - outside, of course, as there is no large room in the Pelican Inn to escape the elements.

When I talked to my brother on Sunday evening, he checked another source:  that prediction had risen to 80% chance of rain.

By Wednesday, though, the wedding planner told me the forecast was improving.  On Thursday, a mighty wind passed through the area, and it was actually too cold to sit on the beach.  With it came a forecast of 0% chance of rain for three days.  Friday was magnificent, clear with no humidity.  The same held true for Saturday.

Still, I have lost years off my life, imagining 100 people huddled on the porch of the Pelican while rain slashed sideways and soaked us all.

Now, to another semi-worry.  How to turn the rustic Pelican Inn into a magical place.  I met with Andrew, owner of Callas Florist at Murrell's Inlet last October.  I told him I wanted lots of twinkle lights and cafe lights suspended from the live oak trees.  I also said I wanted smilax, an evergreen vine that grows mostly in Alabama.  I was worried, though, because in early May, broadleaf evergreens have new growth that wilts the moment it is cut.  We always have this problem at church.  He assured me he could get old-growth vines.

My daughter loves blue hydrangeas and wanted them for her bouquet and for the tables.  I also emphasized that I wanted any big arrangements to be loosey-goosey, which he said he understood.

What he did surpassed my wildest dreams.  He was able to get smilax from a local farm, and there were miles of the green vine.  He outlined the arches of the porches that extend around three sides of the Pelican.  He ran it up the railings of the stairs going up the back of the inn.  Down the road, he wrapped the railings of the rustic little chapel sitting on the marsh with the green vine.

He also used so many flowers I love - white peonies, cabbage-type white roses, green viburnum, blue and white delphinium, white veronica, white lisianthus, blue thistle, white stock and yard greenery.

The photograph above was taken the next morning and shows part of one of two large arrangements that sat on the ledge of the porch.  It also gives you an idea of the ambience he created with his artistry.  In the background is the smilax that outlined the tall arches of the wide porch, with its hammocks, rocking chairs and joggling board.

As you looked down onto the dance floor and out into the live oaks that grow between the inn and the dunes, endless ropes of tiny white lights glittered as dark fell.  Andrew had lined the wooden walkway to the beach with candles and had hung lanterns all through the tree branches.  Larger cafe lights lit the dance floor below the porch.

So, my nightmare of five inches of rain (which actually fell sideways the weekend before when a tropical storm formed off the coast) didn't happen.  Instead, it was a perfect night, with the sun setting  on the marsh across the beach road as everyone arrived at the reception.  As night fell, it all became magical with a million stars suspended from the dark branches of live oaks for as far as you could see.  It really was a wedding dream come true.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The year of the foxgloves

Have you ever had a weird phenomenon occur in your garden and could never quite figure out what happened?

There's no way to know if an event in June 2011 had anything to do with an explosion of flowers the next April, but I can't think of any other explanation.

On the 18th of June 2011, I was driving back from the farm when I saw an ominous-looking cloud in the distance.  When I got within two miles of my house in Atlanta,  a huge oak tree had crashed on top of a building.  I didn't see any signs that it had rained, so I wasn't really sure what had happened when.

However, by the time I reached my house in a very wooded neighborhood, I was dodging fallen branches, and the usual storm debris consisting of small limbs and twigs were scattered along my driveway.  I decided to walk up to the little house and make sure no big limbs were down to block the way.

I had not even reached the parking lot when I looked to my left.  I couldn't believe it.'  A giant ancient oak had uprooted and fallen across a dip in the land and hit another two trees on top of a hill and knocked them down.

My heart sank.  I already had a lot of big tree damage from a month before when a mini-tornado twisted the tops of huge trees and hurled them down into the woods below.  And now this.

After this initial shock, I rounded the corner to the parking lot of the little house.  What on earth?  Where was the house?  I could only see green leaves and limbs.  No cottage. The leaves were way over into the  yard, covering some boxwoods and my patch of hellebores.  Where was the side of the house, the back deck?  The entire dark green cottage was obscured from view.  Wires lay in the parking lot.  It was hard to figure out what had happened.

It didn't take long for me to realize, though,  that a huge oak tree (large double trunks) had blown over from my neighbor's property and crushed the house.  I won't go into the details about the destruction of a house built in 1929, but suffice it to say I was pretty numb.  Part of the brick wall that surrounded the front courtyard was now a pile of rubble.  The entire house was obscured, even the front porch, but I could tell the tree had come from back down the hill.

Long story short, it took several months to repair the damage, as half the house was basically destroyed, along with the chimney.  I had a maddening moment with the neighbor in back, who claimed it was my tree that fell.  It wasn't, I learned, after I paid for a $1,000 survey to dispute the GPS on her cell phone, which she had used to make the claim.  It didn't matter, really, because it was my insurance and deductible that would have to pay.  But, she wanted me to take down several trees that had been damaged during the fall.  These were all on her property, as well.  My insurance company would only allow the trunks to be sawed to the property line.  The enormous remains are still there.

But, this is not really about this horror story.  It's about what happened when all the debris had been cleared from the ground.

All of a sudden, I started noticing little foxglove plants springing up everywhere.  I'd had a couple of plants bloom earlier in May, seeded from years past.  But, now there were dozens of seedlings popping up, not only where the tree branches had reached, but way over on the other side of a hill that hadn't been touched.

I watched them as they grew all summer.  The rosettes became larger, and I knew there would be a lot of foxgloves blooming the next spring.  I even thinned a lot of them out and re-planted them up here.

So, the next spring, beginning in April, I had foxgloves everywhere.  It was crazy.  They were pretty sturdy plants and came in different colors.  I let them bloom out and then saved the seed, which I scattered all over the yard up there.  I removed the old, spent plants.

But, that was the end of that.  The next year, there were few flowers.  This spring, there is one plant in bloom at the little house, and one plant struggling to make a show up here.

So, what happened?  Did lightening strike and charge the seeds that had been lying dormant for years?  And why, when I scattered seeds in the summer of 2012, did I not have many plants come up?

I used to think the time to sow foxglove seeds for the next year was in August.  But, I'm going to give it another try this June.  I need to make sure I have a controlled environment where I can water and weed.  I'm lucky the deer don't bother these plants.  In a couple of weeks, I'm going to fix a place up here (as opposed to the little house in back) for a bed of foxgloves.  I could wait to buy plants in the fall, but I want to give this a try first.

Meanwhile, I'm hoping a terrible storm that did a lot of damage is not what it takes to have a lot of foxglove seeds germinate (the straight line winds also made a tall pine tree lean toward the little house; at great expense I had to have it taken down).

I won't ever know the answer to what really happened, but that's the way with gardens.  You sometimes have these wonderful surprises that you can never really explain.  There are other phenomena - like the yellow Japanese calanthe orchid that popped up in the woods in 1998 - that still have me baffled.  And the verbascum that bloomed so charmingly and was never seen again.  I still look for that plant, just in case it makes a comeback.  One never knows.