Monday, November 30, 2015

The high cost of beech leaves

My foraging from roadsides has caused me some problems as of late.

The Sunday before Thanksgiving a friend from church wanted some bittersweet to take to her second home in Florida for decorations.  "No problem," I said.  "I know where we can get some."

She showed up at my house in her Sunday clothes - heels, hose, beautiful silky cape that I knew would unravel if it ever made contact with a thorn.

So, I relegated her to the getaway car.  We parked on a street off the main road where the wild vine grows.  I had already raided the safest spot for decorations for the Flower Guild luncheon in early November.  This time, I would have to negotiate a much steeper bank on a curve.

I didn't realize how much of a speedway this nearby road was.  I couldn't climb the bank at such an angle, but I could easily reach a lot of the vine, which by now had popped open to reveal the red seeds inside.  I leaned into the bank and the various thorns and cut a good armload before I had to return to where my friend was standing with the car.  I was a mess of leaves, and all sorts of sticks were clinging to my fleece top.

I went back for a second round, and then, to my horror, my friend crossed over and was standing too close to the road.  "Let me help you," she offered, not realizing that she was about to lose her life over a few strands of bittersweet.  After a couple of cars almost nipped her, she retreated and let me finish.

But that was then.  Fast forward to Thanksgiving Day.

Some friends were to come over around one, and I had gotten everything done.  It was about 11:15.

I love taking beech leaves and making an arrangement with red rose hips.  I buy the latter each year from the wholesale florist.  The problem is that beech leaves (I have many of the trees on my property) turn brown before Thanksgiving, all except this one tree about a mile down the road from my house.  For some reason, it retains the mix of green, gold and bronze longer than any of the other trees in my neighborhood.  The only thing is the branches have to picked and used immediately.  By the next day, they will have turned completely brown.

So, with the table all set, I headed for the tree.  I passed it, and as I looked to my left before I turned around in a school entrance, I spied some bittersweet.  My heart started beating fast.  I wanted that bittersweet, too.  But first I would get the beech leaves.

I pulled up onto a slight bank off the road and put my hazard lights on.  I opened my trunk and got out my loppers and headed to the tree and started cutting.  I tried not to be too greedy, but I needed enough to make the arrangement and a couple of extra branches to put in back of my silver service.

All was fine.  I stashed the beech leaves in the trunk and got back in my car.  I still had time to get the bittersweet.

I reached over and felt for my keys in the passenger seat.  They weren't there.  I have a rule that when I stop like this, I put my keys on the windshield.  But, in the excitement of the bittersweet sighting, I hadn't bothered to do that.  Maybe in my pocketbook.  I dumped it upside down.  No key.  I reached beside both seats.  Nothing had fallen down.  I opened the door and looked down.  Nothing but piles of water oak leaves.  No key.

I had left my phone charging at home, so I couldn't call anyone.  I kicked leaves around in a panic and found nothing.

Finally, I started walking toward home.  Immediately a young couple with a cat and dog in the car asked if I needed a ride.  I had my dog in my car, but I couldn't let the windows down, and I didn't have a leash with me.  He had to stay.  The couple dropped me off at the top of my (very long) driveway, and I ran at top speed to the house (I was, by now, wet to the bone) to call my guests and tell them to delay coming.  I explained what I had done.  They insisted on coming to get me and taking me to my car, which was really out of the way for them, but I accepted.

So, the end is this.  I got my valet key (the only key I have left) and started walking.  My friends picked me up at the corner and took me back to the car.  They helped me look on the ground, but no sign of any key.  They asked if I had disturbed the leaves, and of course, I had kicked them every which way in my initial panic.  "Oh, it would have been on top.  You never should have disturbed the leaves."

I've made four trips, the last with a rake, to look for my key.  I've had no luck.  I called several dealers today, and the best price for replacement is $120.

So, that arrangement you see above (which was thrown together at record speed) turned out to be very costly.  I'm still hitting myself over the head for not sticking to my windshield rule, which I made several years ago after making some friends look for an hour for my keys, which were stuck in the lock of my open trunk.  Not one time have I ever veered from this windshield policy since.  Except on Thursday.

Despite everything, we were able to have our meal around two o'clock.  It was a lot of fun, and the food (most of which they brought) was delicious.  I don't know if they were being kind or not, but my friends raved over the beech leaves and said they made everything seem so "Thanksgiving-y."  I certainly hope so, because that one bunch of leaves cost twice what I spend on my Christmas tree.  Oh well, perhaps it was apt punishment for cutting on someone else's tree, which was actually on the right-of-way, or at least that is my take on the location, and I'll stick with that story.

Beech leaves turn brown after they've been cut for several hours.  This was taken the next day.

Roadside bittersweet obtained with great danger flung on the mantle and on iron candlesticks (photo above).

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Gardens I still need to see in Paris

It was late June 2012 and raining hard.  We weren't all that far into the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.  My friend from childhood, Linda Jackson "Charley" Carter  and I had just exited a wonderful small museum she had found out about.  Our plan was to head to the Parc de Bagatelle, a beautiful garden known for its iris and roses, on the far side of the Bois.

The problem was, as good as the Metro system is in Paris, there was no easy route to where we wanted to go.  Also, as much as I wanted to see and photograph the garden, the circumstances were far from ideal.  Also, if we tried to walk the distance - possible,  but a stretch on even the prettiest day - we wouldn't have much time before we had to figure out how to get all the way back to the Ile St. Louis to meet my daughter at our apartment.

So, another visit to Paris, and I didn't get to see the Bagatelle.  I had actually been there when I was 22, but I wasn't paying attention to gardens at that age.

On our last night in Paris, we had dinner with my longtime friends Carol and Luc Tessier.  Carol has a garden jam-packed with wonderful perennials, shrubs, vines and trees.  She offered to send me photographs of the Bagatelle she had taken at peak iris and rose time (shown above).

My friend Charley already has an apartment reserved for next May to celebrate her daughter's 40th birthday.  It will be a while, I'm sure, before I get back to Paris.  Next time, the first item on my agenda will be a visit to the Bagatelle.

The events of last Friday are still fresh on my mind.  I could go to Paris every year for the rest of my life and not get to see everything on my list.  Things seem so dark and gloomy right now given what happened,  but I feel sure the sidewalk cafes will be packed again on beautiful evenings, the lights from the historic buildings will shimmer on the Seine as the bateaux mouches glide along and its many gardens will bloom again, as they have for hundreds of years.

Monday, November 9, 2015

One can always dream of a sunny potager

I subscribe to a very popular blog written by an American.  I'm always amused by the photographs, which oftentimes come from European gardens.  The author is a great designer who takes inspiration from travels abroad.

But where are all those European garden principles the blogger speaks of used around here?  I rarely see them.  Right now, of all the beautiful gardens I've seen in the United States, many have some elements of European design, but there's just something that sets even the simplest garden in England, France or Italy apart. (I admit, I've not been to southern California since I was 24 years old, and that was only at night; however, I've seen photographs from both there and the San Francisco area that reminded me of Europe).  Furthermore, it's been almost a decade since I've traveled to scout locations for A Gardener's Diary on HGTV),  but even back then, I saw very few places that really looked as if they could actually be in Europe.

Not that there's anything wrong with that fact.  We have wonderful gardens here that would stand up to anything you would see abroad.

But there's something about gardens in England, France and Italy in particular that have a quality that appeals to me and is hard to duplicate here.  I'm not really talking about wide flower borders with delphiniums and pleached linden trees, or expanses of lawn and hedges dotted with sculptures.  There's something else I can't quite put my finger on.

Admittedly, francophile that I am, there's no way I can achieve the gardens I deem suitable to go with my house (which is copied exactly from a photo of an abandoned house in Normandy).  First, I don't have the right topography, much less climate.  I have, however, copied the hedges and arbors and tunnels I admire in European gardens.

But, once you get away from the immediate area around my house, you run straight into woods, steep  slopes and lots of shade.

Steep would work fine if there were no trees.  Witness the miles and miles of rock wall terraces that cover the mountains of Greece, for instance.  But thick woods (for which I am grateful) are not amenable to terracing.

When I saw the scene above - a chef of a famous hotel cutting rosemary in a large (flat) potager - I felt a twinge of envy.  The sunny space contained vegetables, herb gardens and an orchard.  The arrangement suited my aesthetic longings exactly - straight lines with hedges; squares filled with herbs; tunnels and arbors, along with grape vines, espaliered and free-standing fruit trees.  There were also several pomegranate bushes laden with heavy fruit.  Roses climbed the tunnel supports, and dahlias and other fall flowers had their own big rectangle.  It was dreamy.  Ducks waddled about, and,  I'm sure, much to the chagrin of the gardeners, a bunny rabbit nibbled away on something green (lettuce?).

Having written all this, let me make one thing clear.  I can name several gardens right here in the Atlanta area that are as beautiful as I've seen anywhere.  Many of them don't have a single element I'm talking about here.  I love informal Southern gardens, in particular.

But, something in my psyche makes me long for those flat, sunny spaces, organized with clipped hedges, long, straight vistas and defined areas brimming with flowers and fruit.  All this seems poignant today when it is cold and rainy and windy, and the tall trees on the ridge above me seem menacing.  I think this will all change when the sun comes out and changes my perspective on things.  It's been a long, rainy spell, and that sets one to dreaming of other places - like this potager - which I saw on a much different type of day.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The first fall without Margaret

You're not sure what season it is until your eye is finally drawn to the deciduous trees and shrubs and hostas and Solomon's seal turning golden yellow or red.   At first, you're way too dazzled by the spring colors - bright whites, light pinks, all shades of rose - tricking you into thinking the month of April has burst forth.

My late friend Margaret Moseley planned it that way.  Year after year, she found new Camellia sasanqua varieties to add to her collection.  She also had a very early Camellia japonica 'Daikagura', and, of course, her roses came into their fall flush and lasted until the first frost.  Several of her hydrangeas put out fresh, French-blue blooms.

This is the first autumn without Margaret, and I've thought of so many things I've wanted to ask her.  I remember how my heart would beat so fast when I got out of the car and saw so many things in bloom.  One of my favorite fall combinations was along her driveway - a fountain-shaped Abelia chinensis loaded with green trusses of flowers next to a 20-foot-high, cascading 'Pink Snow' sasanqua.  At the base of all this bloomed the cobalt-blue ground cover Ceratostigma plumbaginoides.

Margaret's daughter Carol Harris is now taking care of the garden and is even adding some new plants.  It sounds like she's having fun (and working hard) to keep Margaret's treasures going.  October and early November are peak times for Margaret's fall garden.

I hope to be able to enjoy gardening as Margaret did in her later years.  The height of her popularity and pride in her garden came when she was in her eighties.  If I make it until then, I hope to be healthy enough to be out in the garden and always looking for something new to plant.

The other day at church (where we are installing a big new garden), I was bemoaning the fact that I would be 85 by the time the 'Lady Clare' camellia would be ready to cut for foliage for church arrangements.  And then I remembered what Margaret, who kept adding plants into her late nineties, might have said to such a comment.  "If you're going to be 85 anyway, you might as well have yourself a big, pretty plant."