Monday, April 7, 2014 2 comments

FINALLY, it's spring

Just when I thought it was going to be bleak, cold and miserable for the remainder of my lifetime, I spied some tiny blooms near the path to the waterfall.

The first one is a pretty little yellow flower with brown veins on its lower petals. I don’t recall seeing this Lilliputian lovely last year, and it may be because the Roundleaf Yellow Violet (also known as the Early Yellow Violet or Viola rotundifolia) often has come and gone before other varieties even appear.

Early Yellow Violet
Once the early spring flowers have faded, the attractive heart-shaped leaves keep growing and can measure up to 5” across by the end of summer. 

It is the only yellow violet in eastern North America with leaves and flowers on separate stalks.

My next discovery was growing right by the stream and turned out to be the Sweet White Violet (V. blanda). The Cherokees used this this plant as a vegetable, mixing the leaves and stems with other greens, sprinkling them with salt and frying them up in fat.

The Sweet Violet is very similar to the Northern White Violet but the sweet variety has two upper petals that are twisted backwards. 

I must point out here that these flowers are all of ¼ inch in diameter so your humble scribe should get some extra brownie points (or a bonus glass of red wine) for figuring out the difference.

The Halberd-leaf Yellow Violets (V. hastata) are also making their first appearances of 2014. 

I’ve read the name came about because the arrowhead leaves are reminiscent of a battle-ax type weapon used in the 15th and 16th centuries.

 I’ll have to take the historians at their word.

Confederate Violet
In addition to these early bloomers, we will soon see other varieties including the Confederate, Beaked and common blue violets. 

Because of the diminitive size they can be easily overlooked, even though the humble violet has been celebrated in myths and literature from ancient times. 

In addition to the violets, the Bluets are back. When I first noticed them in spring of 2012, I thought they were Forget-me-nots.

Upon further review, the jaunty blue flowers weren’t forget-me-nots at all, but Mountain or Thymeleaf Bluets, a member of the Madder family. They are sometimes called “Innocence” or “Quaker ladies” because the flower shape resembles a Quaker lady’s hat. They can grow in open grassy areas, woodlands and along streams.

No matter what you call them, these delicate blooms are a welcome addition to my garden.

And it occurs to me if all these beauties are now putting on their spring show, can the roses be far behind?
Monday, March 17, 2014 5 comments

I think that I shall never see a sight as lovely as a tree

Norway Spruce

The first two winters we lived in the mountains were so mild I never put on my heavy coat.

World's largest Fraser Fir
I don’t have to tell you this year has been different. 

You can’t watch the local or national news without seeing the wrath of Mother Nature. I’m sick of snow and ice. And I’m saddened to see how this winter has taken the lives of so many gorgeous trees all across the country.

So in honor of my friend Les Park’s Winter Walk Off, I decided to take you on a short trip (about 10 miles) to a historic property that is home to some of the most magnificent trees in America.

High Hampton Honeymoon Cottage
High Hampton Inn and Country Club in North Carolina is a haven of southern hospitality where afternoon tea is still served, gentlemen wear coats to dinner and televisions are non-existent. I first visited High Hampton when I was in high school. Days spent there with my Dad are some of my most treasured memories.

Largest Bald Cypress (Fraser Fir is to left)

The estate was originally a summer retreat for the Hampton family. To escape the mosquitoes and heat of South Carolina’s low country, they traveled by train, then horse and buggy to “nature’s playground” where they enjoyed fishing in the mountain streams, hunting, riding horses and sipping mint juleps on the cottage front porch. 

English Yew, English Elm to the left

Wade Hampton III purchased the property from the Zachary family and later, along with Modecai Zachary, built the Hampton Hunting Lodge. They also built the Church of the Good Shepard which still exists today, and a school for mountain children.

In 1890, Carolyn Hampton (Wade Hampton’s niece) married Dr. William Halstead of Johns Hopkins, and the couple honeymooned on the mountain property.

Copper Beach trunk
Dr. Halstead (who was also an amateur botanist) thought the land to be the most beautiful place on earth. They purchased the estate from Carolyn’s aunt and renamed it High Hampton.

The couple traveled from Baltimore each summer and enhanced the property by adding exotic trees and shrubs that still thrive on the front lawn.

A Kentucky Coffee Tree behind Halstead Cottage

Today when you visit High Hampton you can see the world’s largest Fraser Fir, a National Champion Bottlebrush Buckeye, the tallest Bald Cypress in America and several North Carolina State Champs including a Kentucky Coffee Tree and a Black Locust. All were planted over 100 years ago.

Even those without leaves are a sight to behold.
Stone bench and gnarled Weeping Willow

I promise to return and take pictures when they are dressed up in their summer greenery, and ablaze with color in the fall.

But my camera will not do them justice.

Solitude Cove

Tuesday, March 4, 2014 12 comments

Off with their heads II (When and how to prune roses plus new stuff)

Some Austin roses prefer light pruning

Although the calendar says early March, it isn’t too early to start thinking about tidying up the garden for the growing season ahead. 

As I write this, it's sunny and 56 degrees F. (13 C) here in the mountains of North Carolina, so I ventured out to get an idea of the damage Old Man Winter has done.

I wasn’t surprised to find dead leaves everywhere. It doesn’t matter how often we suck them up and turn them into mulch, tons of additional leaves find their way to our front garden. 

I was somewhat surprised to see that a few of my roses and some perennials have died. That has never happened before, but since we’ve had several days of below zero temps over the winter, I guess it is to be expected.

I pruned my perennials, but not the roses
Another unpleasant discovery was that people cleaning the gutters had trampled an area of the garden. At the moment, it doesn’t appear that the little patch of roses and other perennials will recover.

So after assessing the state of the garden, I rolled up my sleeves, got out my Bionic rose gloves, secateurs, mini rake, Cobra Head Weeder and iPad and went to work. (I find an iPad or iPod to be essential gardening equipment since all chores go more quickly when listening to my favorite tunes.)

I bagged the leaves, extracted weeds, and cut back most of my perennials including catmints, hydrangeas and lavenders, but I didn’t prune the roses.

Rule of thumb for when to prune

When we get the occasional nice day in winter, people ask if it’s okay to go ahead and prune the roses. I advise waiting, because if another cold spell comes along, canes can be damaged and you’ll just have to do it all over again. 

In most areas of the country, a good rule of thumb is to prune when the forsythia blooms. Start by pulling off any diseased leaves that have wintered over on your rose bushes. Dispose of them right away -- don’t throw them on the ground or you’ll be inviting even more disease problems. 
Unless you exhibit, don't prune too severely

Then get out your newly sharpened pruning shears and remove dead wood right down to the bud union. 

To help improve air circulation, remove any canes that crisscross, canes that grow into the center of the bush, and any weak, spindly growth. 

Diseased or winter-damaged wood should be pruned to the point where you find light green or white pith. Make your cuts at a 45-degree angle about 1/4 inch above a leaf bud that faces toward the outside of the plant. (In his excellent new book Everyday Roses, Paul Zimmerman says it is unnecessary to cut at an angle to an outward-facing bud eye. But it is too late for this old rosarian to stray from what I was taught!)

Many rose varieties have specific pruning requirements

Thin and shape old garden roses
How severely you prune depends on the type of rose. Unless you plan to exhibit, most experts recommend moderate pruning of hybrid teas, floribundas, and grandifloras leaving the bushes about 18 to 24 inches high.

Hybrid perpetual roses, shrub roses, and old garden roses just require thinning and shaping, so limit yourself to removing only old canes, dead wood, and spindly growth.

David Austin English roses don’t always appreciate drastic haircuts. 

Cl. Fourth of July
Pruning climbing roses can be a bit trickier. Climbers that have only one flowering period should be pruned after they bloom. Take out old, weak, or entangled branches. 

Repeat-blooming climbers need to be pruned while dormant in the spring. Again, remove any old or unproductive canes, then cut back side shoots to pencil thickness.

Miniatures and minifloras are your easiest task. A recent study showed meticulous pruning didn’t really affect the plant’s success at all. So whether you use secateurs or a chain saw, cut back to about half of last summer’s height.

Minis don't mind a chainsaw haircut

After pruning, paint any cuts wider than a straw with a sealing compound (Elmer’s glue will do fine) to discourage insects and disease. 

Roses are greedy feeders so after you've finished, give them a dose of rose fertilizer – in the past I’ve used plain old 10-10-10.  However this year I am adding a special product to my fertilizing program. I will start out soaking my new bare root roses in Authentic Haven Brand Moo Poo tea to help them get off to the best start possible.

Then I’ll be using Moo Poo and Alfalfa tea on all of my roses. The tea conditions the soil so root systems can better absorb nutrients, and it is gentle enough to use on newly planted bushes. I have seen the results others have experienced and can’t wait to give it a try. By the way, Annie Haven says you can spritz plants with Moo Poo to deter pests and disease. I am anxious to check this out.

So now that I’ve tidied up, I’ll be pruning and fertilizing in the next couple of weeks. After all this pampering, my beauties should be more than ready to bloom their heads off in 2014.

Sunday, February 23, 2014 4 comments

Tis the season when roses (and catalogues) cometh

While we were enduring the snow and ice last week I was wondering how many gardening catalogues might arrive while I was stuck at the top of our mountain road.

Sure enough, when we finally made it to the mailbox after three days, a cheery selection was waiting for me including catalogues on wildflowers, veggie seeds, garden supplies and of course, roses.
I'll buy more wildflowers to add to the sunny parts of the trail
It seems I receive new and different catalogues this time of year along with some of my old favorites.  That’s because I’m undoubtedly on a list somewhere labeled “Garden Sucker.” (Also as a member of the Garden Writers Association of America I’m fair game for every gardening business.)

I do at least thumb through every arrival before tossing them in the recycling bin. Having written for the White Flower Farm catalogue and website for a number of years I know how much work goes into each endeavor.

Over the years I’ve learned from trial and error which companies live up to their promises and which simply offer pretty pictures and tall tales.

I’ve had good luck ordering from Bluestone Perennials, Gardens of the Blue Ridge, American Meadows and Oakes Daylilies.  If I ever receive a wilted plant or one that doesn’t grow as promised from any of these companies, a fresh replacement is sent immediately, no questions asked.

Daylilies are growing on me

As I wrote last year, for seeds, it’s hard to beat Renee’s Garden. I used to love her very attractive catalogue and the tantalizing recipes sprinkled throughout the pages. Like many companies, Renee Shepherd has moved to an online catalogue. Sign up for her free E-Newsletter and you’ll receive great garden ideas and yes, recipes!

When it comes to ordering roses by mail my advice is to definitely not believe everything you read. Several years ago I was hoodwinked more than once into ordering from a company that undoubtedly employs the world’s most persuasive copywriter.

My first Climbing Cecile died
The ‘Climbing Cecile Brunner’ I sent for promised “delicate soft pink sweetheart buds and blooms on a vigorous climber... continual blooming...may be grown 20 feet plus into a tree for a gorgeous sight.” This description bore no resemblance to the 3 inch twig that arrived. It didn’t grow, much less bloom.

Now I have several mail order favorites I can depend on without reservation, plus a wonderful new source for miniature roses and minifloras.

Richard Anthony is rose exhibitor and hybridizer who really knows his stuff. As an exhibitor he has 102 Queens of Show to his credit, including three national Queens. Last year he started For Love of Roses, a mail order company that offers 135 varieties of miniflora and miniature roses from 19 different hybridizers. He will be adding 24 more varieties next month.
Fitzhugh's Diamond

One thing I love about Richard is he adds the personal touch to what can be an impersonal business. Last year I wrote to ask his advice on two roses I was considering. I explained I have a small garden and no room for a rose that is stingy with bloom. Although he was enthusiastic about the two I’d mentioned, he recommended a completely different variety. Fitzhugh’s Diamond has turned out to be a real gem for me. So I will definitely be ordering from For Love of Roses again!

Lion's Fairy Tale
Pat Henry of Roses Unlimited in Laurens, South Carolina is another wonderful source of information and inspiration. She believes there are roses for every garden, but that one size does not fit all. She has given me excellent guidance over the years, and I have taken her advice and will be adding two Lion’s Fairy Tale roses to my little patch this spring.

I also plan to visit her garden and will likely come home with more than the two Kordes plants. Take a look at the Roses Unlimited website to see the amazing selection of plants she has available.

My dear friend Cydney Wade is the owner of Rose Petals Nursery in Newberry, Florida – a wonderful source for antique, heirloom and  Earthkind roses. They also have a five-acre display garden where you will marvel at her collection of gorgeous old fashioned roses.

Pink Pet
I will be doing a complete posting on Old Garden Roses soon. With Cydney's expertise, we'll be able to identify the best OGRs on each class and the right zones for her historic beauties. In the meantime, she recommends Old Blush, Louis Philippe, Pink Pet and Perle d'Or as some of the hardiest varieties.

Of course need I mention David Austin English Roses as another of my go to faves? I have been ordering from them since the mid-90’s and have never been disappointed.

So now that the catalogues have come and the websites have been scoured, I am making my list and checking it twice. As far as roses, I am expecting Fighting Temeraire, Boscobel, The Lark Ascending and Heathcliff (among others!) in early April.

New perennials on the way include Centranthus ruber, Speedwell and a yellow nandina.

I’d love to hear about your favorite gardening catalogues, as well as your ordering success and horror stories.

 I’ll report the results in an upcoming posting. Although I can’t imagine there’s a great garden source I haven’t heard about, I’m happy to entertain the thought that one might exist.

In fact, perhaps some new goodies are waiting for me right now. I just heard the doorbell ring.

Monday, February 3, 2014 4 comments

Back to Blackwater

Last week we decided to throw caution to the winter winds and take a road trip to Cambridge, Maryland to visit with friends and attend a dinner party thrown for members of my old book club (the Dorchester Divas) and our spouses.

The snow started flying almost as soon as we arrived at the hotel in South Hill, Virginia the first day of the trip. 

Wednesday morning we inched our way to Virginia Beach and found the roads in deplorable shape. 

Thursday we crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (another white-knuckle adventure) and spent the night with friends in Cape Charles. We finally made it to Cambridge Friday afternoon.

As I've written before, during the 15 years we lived in that area we were treated to an amazing parade of birds: herons, tundra swans, ospreys, egrets, woodpeckers, all manner of ducks, red-tailed hawks and "regular" birds including catbirds and hummers. 

I once photographed seven American bald eagles fighting over a dead duck stuck in the ice. We saw Great Horned Owls land on our dock. 

We watched the sky darken as thousands of Canada geese headed back to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge from the local cornfields. We listened to the haunting cries of the loons at night.

Now that we've moved to the mountains, I realize how very lucky we were to have so much wildlife on our doorstep. We took it all for granted. So knowing I would be close to Blackwater on the trip, I packed up all my cameras in hopes of finding some exciting photo ops.

Blackwater was established in 1933 as a refuge for migratory birds and today encompasses over 27,000 acres of tidal wetlands, freshwater ponds, open fields and forests. The refuge is one of the chief wintering areas along the Atlantic Flyway and can serve as home to as many as 50,000 geese, ducks and tundra swans during the fall. 
From an earlier visit on a sunny day

20 species of ducks and over 250 varieties of birds can also be seen there along with 35 species of reptiles and amphibians, all manner of mammals and the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel. 

You can motor through the refuge on the 4-mile Wildlife Drive, or walk and bike along the Drive and various trails. An impressive new Visitor Center opened in December where you can watch live video on the Osprey Cam or Eagle Cam. 

The Eagle Festival is held every March.

Unfortunately the day I was there, it was too windy and cold to walk or even get out of the car. Still, I managed to get a few nice pictures.

And despite the miserable conditions, it was good to be back.

The view across the creek from our old house

Monday, January 20, 2014 4 comments

Home fernishings

Scientists tell us that ferns have been around for as long as 400 million years.  

Eons ago, before much of anything interesting existed, ferns covered much of the prehistoric terrain. In the company of club moss, horsetails and other ancient plants, ferns flourished, died and decayed, creating a cycle that possibly contributed to the formation of rich coal deposits.

Because they were hardy and adaptable, ferns evolved in all but the world’s most hostile climates. Along the way, a host of diverse varieties appeared -- some were water babies, others epiphytic. 

More than 10,000 species of ferns have been identified, and many more await discovery. Approximately 200 species, including the familiar Christmas fern we have here in the mountains, still populate the temperate areas of the United States.

Prior to the 18th century, naturalists knew little about the intimate activities of ferns. Spores were not associated with reproduction, and since no one ever observed any seeds, people concluded ferns possessed supernatural powers. In time, the delicate plants were linked to good luck and the ability to make one’s self invisible.

In medical circles, ferns were used to treat lunacy, stop bleeding and cure baldness. Ferns were also employed to deter witches and predict the future. Even in recent times, a relative of the decorative rabbit’s-foot fern has been touted as a potential cure for cancer. 

Today, for the most part, ferns are valued as airy, ornamental accents – when they decide to cooperate. Modern in-house fern cultivation is about as predictable as it was in the 1840s when plant enthusiasts first attempted to grow ferns indoors. The Victorians quickly discovered what we know all too well in 2014: some ferns make it; others don’t.

So if ferns have been around for more than 400 million years, why can’t most of us keep a plant with such a track record looking good for even a few weeks? The answer isn’t as complicated as it seems. The fact is we can successfully raise ferns – if and when.

If we have the proper light, and when we select the right plant. If we provide adequate humidity, and when we water at the correct times. It can be a delicate balancing act.

Experts agree that light and humidity are the keys to success. In most homes across the country, humidity levels hover around 25 percent. A 40 to 75 percent level is necessary to keep ferns fit and healthy. In addition, ferns despise cave-like conditions. They need light – bright light, and a dose of liquid houseplant fertilizer monthly, except in winter.

In choosing the right home for your ferns, your best bet is a well-lit bathroom. The Boston, staghorn, maidenhair, button, petticoat, and “footed” ferns are all ideal for the bath area. The Boston fern and rabbit’s-foot fern in particular will thrive in a bathroom with good southern exposure.

In other areas of the house, choose a window with bright afternoon sun and set the plant on a tray of pebbles to increase humidity. The tray should be as big as the spread of the plant so water can evaporate around the leaves. For homes with bright morning light, the bird’s-nest and holly fern are good choices.

Once you have the right humidity, the right light and the right fern, you must tackle the tricky watering problem. Plant manuals plainly state that when leaves turn yellow or brown, the fern is a victim of over- or underwatering. Which one? You can either cut back or step up your watering program. If the plant dies, you guessed wrong.   

To avoid these problems, try filling your plant saucer to the brim with water, then let your fern sip it up all week. Since most ferns come from moist environments, they don’t mind having their feet wet. As an alternate method, water your plants thoroughly until the excess runs into the saucer two or three times a week. 

Whichever method you choose, mist your plants occasionally and be sure to give them a dose of fish emulsion monthly. They’ll thank you for it.

By now, you may be agreeing with the experts that raising ferns is definitely a challenge and probably an art. Then why do so many of us still feel compelled to adopt a fussy fern?
The answer begins at the garden center. Every fern on display looks lush, green and irresistible. It’s easy to envision one of these healthy specimens gracing some lackluster corner of the den or bathroom. So home it goes. Then, even if it eventually winds up looking like a faded watercolor, the desire to try again triumphs.

Hope continues because they’re beautiful, they’re unique, and because no summer porch is truly complete without the delicate presence of at least one Boston fern.
But mostly, we will keep attempting to tame the fractious fern because, despite our 21st century know-how, there is something magical about a plant that has survived since long before the dinosaurs.

And no doubt, with or without our help, ferns will be around for another 400 million years.


Sunday, January 5, 2014 9 comments

Farewell 2013. Thanks for the memories.

The roses almost floated away with 30+ inches of rain in July

When I was a kid I used to hear people say how quickly time passed as they grew older. And my reply was always “are you kidding? It’s at least a million years between Christmas and summer vacation.”

Now that I am approaching a certain age, it seems those folks were right. If pressed for an explanation, I could not tell you what happened to 2013. I remember falling asleep before the ball dropped in Times Square to end 2012. And I recall watching it drop the other evening to usher in the New Year.

Luckily I have my photos to nudge my memory as to what happened in between. 

I discovered some new waterfalls while walking this past winter. No worries about bears and snakes so I feel confident about wandering around in the woods.

My Shortia bloomed along with a host of other new wildflowers including Soloman's Seal and Shooting Stars.

Shooting Star

Soloman's Seal is a native that blooms in April and May

Shortia Galacifolia

We visited Christopher Carrie and his wonderful Mother Bulbarella and enjoyed an afternoon seeing their wildflowers and spectacular rhododendrons.
Rhododendrons thrive outside Clyde

A fox, barred owl, turkeys and assorted bears stopped by this summer.

One of our more interesting visitors

Memorial Day was memorable at the Biltmore where I was greeted by the intoxicating scent of over 2500 roses and did research for an article on the International Rose Trials. (I am now on the judging panel which is quite an honor.)

Doug Gifford invited us back to see his unforgettable mountain garden and once again, we were gobsmacked.

In early October I once again judged the Garden Club of Virginia Show at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond. A perfect bloom of Randy Scott stole the show, but the Butterflies Live! exhibit stole my heart.

The Conservatory at Lewis Ginter

A Chocolate Pansy landed on my sleeve – that means good luck!

My iBook The Dirt Diaries earned a 5-star rating in early October!


 A new adventure for the Hunts! Dear friends invited us to join them for a few days in Nantucket, an area of the country I'd never visited. What a feast for the senses.

Virtually every home and business displayed spectacular window boxes
Cranberries are still harvested from this bog

We'd had so much fun in New York last December. we decided to go back for the sights, the sounds, the lights. And an encore performance of A Prairie Home Companion.

The fabulous Garrison Keillor talks about Lake Woebegone

Bright lights, big city
The  tree beside the skating rink at Bryant Park

Of course all year long I looked for birds who were willing  to have their picture made. Some cooperated, others skedaddled. That is only appropriate because for me, this year simply flew away.