Saturday, July 25, 2015

X marks the spot in this garden

I realized while looking through photographs taken in July that I must have hundreds of scenes from Louise Poer's tiny Atlanta garden.  This is pretty amazing, because her garden occupies such a small space, maybe 10 ft. x 40 on the side of the house.  At the back, I don't think the garden is much wider than the room I'm sitting in.  Again, that section might be 40 feet long, if that.  Despite these tight measurements, the garden is jam-packed and full of great design ideas.

Louise lives in a small enclave of cluster homes, not far from my house.  Once in a while, I will go over there on the spur of the moment (the last time was to get her helper in her high-end garden design business to install a baby car-seat), and the garden is always in pristine condition.  Plus, there's usually a brand new vignette she's created or one I've never noticed before.

While there are spots of color throughout the seasons (foxgloves, delphiniums, roses, lilacs), the beauty of the garden depends heavily on texture, which, after studying gardens for decades, I'm finally beginning to understand a bit better.  When we had the television show on HGTV, gardeners would talk a lot about texture, but in broad terms.  In this garden, it's easy to see.  The small leaves of boxwoods (which form most of the "bones" of the garden down low) are contrasted with grassy acorus, the broad strokes of cast-iron plant, the spiny foliage of holly and the frothy (or spiky) needles of conifers.  In summer, various ferns are plugged into spaces in the ground or in containers, adding yet another contrast to the boxwoods.

Variegation (both white and gold) is also important in this garden, as are different shades of green (bluish, deep and dark, or chartreuse).  As you enter the garden at the side of the house,  green and white variegated Algerian ivy climbs a tree.  There are hostas and ferns in this mostly shady area, along with, surprisingly enough, dwarf conifers (I figure they are placed so as to catch shafts of light).

In this photograph, green and white variegated boxwoods form an "x" at the base of a planter.  The heavy white margins of the leaves brighten this area along a long, curving path.

Louise used to live in England and goes back often (and to other European countries) to look at gardens.  She's not afraid of change and freely admits that she works hard so that she can fund her gardening addiction.

I always get inspired when I open her garden gate.  It's about time to pop in and see what she has going.  It's never a slow time in her garden.  I know that right now, a tall Hydrangea paniculata is arching over the area that leads to the entrance gate.  This is one of my favorite scenes of any garden ever, so, even though I've shown it in the past, I'll go over and see if I can catch it in a different light.  Also, I'd be interested to see if that "X" is still marking the spot.  I think I'll give this a 50-50 chance.  She might have come up with something completely different.  One never knows.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Decisions - if I had this same space

I took this photograph one day in July (in fact, on this very same day) in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, New York.   The garden in front of a brownstone was on my walking route (this was when my daughter lived in a neighborhood near Prospect Park).

As I would pass by various spaces in front of the vintage houses, I made it sort of a game to re-landscape everything.  This is one I decided to keep just about as it is.

It's a little unfair to judge a garden in mid-July in a place that sometimes sees 100 degrees and high humidity (just a few days ago, it was over 100 in Brooklyn).  I could see how this space looked at other times.  Those hydrangeas were likely much brighter in June, and that looks like a weeping cherry tree to the right of the photo.  That would have looked pretty in April.  The hostas tucked in with the rudbeckia (black-eyed Susans), still look as fresh as they might have in late May.

The weeping Atlas cedar looks good year-round and lends nice texture and form to contrast with the globe-shaped tree (what is that?  I can't tell from my picture).  It looks like the owner plugged in dwarf impatiens in the foreground to bloom all summer and into fall.

Although this garden was quite nice, I saw others I'd re-design.  Some people did nothing, and there were just weeds.  You sort of hate to see this, as you can imagine that these four- and five-story brownstones are very expensive.  I guess if you're an absentee landlord or have wearied of trying to keep a garden, you don't really care that a visitor from Atlanta is judging you by what you haven't done.

Speaking of what hasn't gotten done, I should be the president of that club.  I have had in my possession now for many months, twenty fastigiate boxwoods.  I've dragged them all about, trying them in different places.  As I was looking through photographs I took in the month of July, I came across one that gave me an idea.  In fact, I am in the impatient, heart-is-beating-fast stage of anticipation of what I can do that will make good use of those plants, which I had coveted for years.

Some of the boxwoods are growing at a slant, with a slight arch. Others - mostly the shorter ones - are straight as arrows.

I've known for sometime that I am going to use four of the taller ones to form an arched entrance to some steps leading up by the back terrace.  Now I can envision most of the rest forming a series of arches at the edge of the gravel parking area on the right side of the house.  I will need to get some rebar and have it bent and anchored in concrete to form the arches.  Then, I can train the boxwoods on the forms.  I think this will work.  Those straight little ones I'll reserve as accents in the garden on the other side of the house.

Somewhere in my too-numerous books of slides is a photograph of Dan Hinkley's garden at Heronswood, the famous nursery he used to own on the Kitsap Peninsula across from Seattle.  He had trained fastigiate European hornbeams into arches outlining part of the garden (actually, if you Google Heronswood, you can see those arches).  Right now, I have camellias along that edge, but I need to move them - their shape is too irregular for the space.  I think I could do a shorter version of what Dan did.  One of the arches could be bigger and form the entrance to the deer garden (where the deer eat everything at present, but I have hope).

But before I worry about the latter, sunken garden, I want to experiment with these boxwoods.  What I need, in addition, is a trip to England just to visit gardens great and small for more ideas.  In the meantime, I want to go ahead with this plan this fall.  I can't bear to let Elizabeth Dean - who nurtured the boxwoods and sold them to me - know that they have yet to be put in the ground.  But, it's going to happen soon, now that I have a vision.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

An iris lullaby - I mean goodbye!

My friend Kathryn (a great gardener) was dropping me off at my house after yoga class last Thursday. I asked her to wait a minute.  I wanted to show her the sunny space I had planned to turn into a flower garden (the only sun I have at my house; it's not ideal - brutal afternoon sun, in front of the house, in an awkward area).

I was talking about what I planned to put there and pointed to the spot where I had some white flag iris generously shared with me by a member of the American Hydrangea Society (she'd read that I'd lost my white flags some years ago and brought me some).  Kathryn asked where they were.  I looked, and not a blade of foliage in sight!  They had disappeared.  Then, I ran around the corner of the house to look at some taller bearded iris I planned to move - half gone, shredded.  

When did deer start eating bearded iris?  These flowers have been here for three, four, five years or more and have never been touched.

So, panic flew through me.  The iris up on the abandoned lot next door!  There were dozens of them  - all my favorite tall deep, dark purple.  A year ago when they were in bloom, I cut some and took them to church.  I dragged my shovel up there in late May with the intention of digging a few.  I wouldn't take them all, but just several fans to give me a start.  Besides, they needed dividing (my excuse for taking some; there's no one to ask permission, since the owner lives in Russia and apparently has no intention of keeping up the six-acre property).

But, I decided to wait until the iris went dormant in July, the best time to dig - only I never got around to it.

Last week, when I saw what had happened to the iris down here, I pulled on my long boots and the equivalent of a hazmat suit (it was 94 degrees with bright sun) and slogged through the tall weeds up the hill.  

Previous owners - there have been three in my 42 years here - had added many wonderful flowers and shrubs, including this long, curving row of dark, velvety iris.  

My heart pounded when I approached the area where they had been.  Nothing.  Not a blade to be found.  I rummaged around in the Vinca major, up through which the iris had been valiantly growing, but they were gone.  Did the deer eat them last year?  I somehow think it happened more recently.

No, I shouldn't be going up on that property, although I've pretty much kept the English ivy off the big, beautiful trees up there.  And, I confess that I've cut a few branches of pittosporum to take to the church. 

It makes me sad that I did not save those iris.  At least, I would have kept something going that has likely been there for years.  

After I had come down from the hill, I looked out the window to see a doe eating the liriope at the side of the house, right next to where the white flags had been.  I don't care about the liriope.  In fact, they've mowed it down so that it now resembles mondo grass, which I like better.  But then the deer walked over to the side of my house and chomped off a leaf of Boston ivy.  I ran out screaming.  A few weeks ago I noticed they'd eaten a big swath next to the music room windows.  I had splashed some deer repellent on the wall and finally had some new growth.  Now here she was again.

I ran inside and grabbed the container of Liquid Fence, a horrible-smelling thick ooze that you mix with water.  I shook the bottle violently, and all this stuff came flying out onto the tile floor of the hall and onto my leg.  The smell!  The waste of an expensive product!

To put an end to this tale, I rushed out and mixed up a batch of the foul liquid and splashed it on every place I could think of.  I wish I could anticipate what they're going to get into next.  Meanwhile, I am still trying to remove the revolting odor from my front hall.  And, I am still heartbroken over the iris I did not save.   

But, these are the vagaries of loving plants and gardening.  A vole can pull down a beloved hosta as fast as a deer can chew one up.  I'm going to go back up on the hill and try again to find some vestige of these beautiful iris.  Meanwhile, I discovered two fans of the white flags, clipped close to the ground.  Rest assured, they are covered in Liquid Fence.  If the weather cools down, I'm going to start clearing my new cutting garden in the front.  It's going to look funny, especially surrounded by rods rigged with fishing line.  I plan to have some pretty white iris blooming by April of next year, and if I'm lucky, some dark purple ones, as well.  We shall see how it goes.

Note:  The gorgeous iris above are likely Louisiana iris.  The photo was taken on the Atlanta Botanical Garden's tour on Mother's Day of this year.  The iris on the hill are bearded German iris.  They were pretty much the same velvety, dark color.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Hydrangea Lady's legacy - the what ifs?

Fifty years ago yesterday on July 5, 1965, I was struck by lightning.  It is amazing that I wasn't killed or that I didn't suffer any permanent physical or mental damage.

This is what happened:  I was working as a lifeguard the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Vanderbilt.  The other lifeguard - my childhood friend Millie - had gotten me the job.  It was a sunny day, but in the afternoon, I heard a distant rumble of thunder.  You could barely make out a small storm cloud out to the west.

I had a history of being afraid of lightning, so I got off the lifeguard tower and walked around to ask Millie if she thought we ought to get the children out of the pool.  Her words were, "If we hear any more thunder, we'll blow the whistle."

I walked back around the pool and climbed up on the metal tower, and BLAM! - a brilliant flash and a deafening crack, followed by earth-shaking thunder.  At the moment the bolt hit (witnesses said I "lit up"), it was as if a giant had hit me on the top of the head with a huge sledge hammer.  The deepest, most intense electric shock went through my body.  The next thing I knew, I was in the dressing room in the club, staring at the burned bottoms of my feet.

Well, I obviously didn't die.  Millie had calmly gotten everyone out of the pool and into the clubhouse.  But the sun continued to shine, and there was not so much as another rumble of thunder nor a drop of rain.  I had a tremendous headache, but that was it except that my feet were tender for a couple of weeks.

So, yesterday, on the 50th anniversary,  I thought about how lucky I was.  Then, I went into It's a Wonderful Life mode, thinking that there would have been no Anne Tate Pearce or Laura Tate Yellig or a 10-month-old jolly granddaughter named Carter Pearce.  Chip Tate would have married someone else and would have had different children.  I couldn't think of much of an impact I've had, but it did cross my mind that there might not have been eleven years of A Gardener's Diary on HGTV or a Flower Guild at the Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, two things I did have a hand in creating.

I didn't get very far with my "what ifs", though, because I started thinking about the post I'd begun working on a few days before about the late Penny McHenry, a.k.a. The Hydrangea Lady and founder of the American Hydrangea Society.  I remembered the story Penny told me when I first interviewed her.  What if she hadn't planted those potted hydrangeas she had received as gifts decades ago? And, what if she had just left them alone instead of figuring out that she wanted more and thus started propagating them.  We would have no 'Penny Mac's, nor any 'MiniPenny's, nor any of the other re-blooming hydrangeas that have one of her hydrangeas as a parent.

And, her daughter Marcia Melick probably wouldn't have the fabulous hydrangea garden she now tends on a precariously steep hillside in Sandy Springs.  For sure, I couldn't have taken the photo of those 'Annabelle's pictured above.  This row is right below Marcia's front terrace, but the entire hillside is covered with descendants of her mother's extensive collection of hydrangeas, along with many other shrubs and perennials.

Marcia is continuing Penny's tradition of propagating in a big way.  Every year in late winter, she goes out into her expansive garden, which contains trails that wind along terraces cut out of the slope, and does her annual trimming of the 'Annabelle's.  Then, she takes the lopped-off branches and pushes them down into the ground, not even bothering with a rooting hormone.  In just a few weeks, the "sticks" start leafing out, and she finds herself with dozens and dozens of new 'Annabelle's.  She has given away hundreds.

After having lost a host of 'Annabelle's to deer, I now have a protected place, and this year I enjoyed a couple of giant blooms up next to my house.  Marcia also gave me a black plastic pot with several "babies," so now I'm going to have tons more flowers next year.

I try not to think of twists of fates very often.  I'm glad, though, that somehow someone told me that Penny McHenry would be a great subject for an article in the newspaper.  She then introduced me to her friend Margaret Moseley, which led me down even a different path to television episodes (we taped both Penny and Margaret twice, years apart) and eventually to a book about Margaret's garden.

Marcia often reminds me that I should have written a book about Penny.  I wish I had, but her influence has been felt all over the world.  I'm just grateful that she planted those first hydrangeas and that I got to know this funny, vibrant, enthusiastic woman who passed along a great gift to us all.

Note:  I have taken the liberty of writing 'Annabelle' with an s at the end to indicate the plural.  That's not really correct, but it prevents you from having to read Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle' over and over again.  Now, I could do a ton of "what ifs", just about the 'Annabelle' hydrangea and how it came to be in so many gardens from just one garden in Anna, Illinois.  We'll save that for another time.