Tuesday, July 7, 2020 3 comments

Seeing rhododendrons through rose-colored glasses

Roses give you more bang for your buck than most any other plant in the garden.  I have been preaching this fact for many years. That’s why very few “seasonal” plants reside at Chez Hunt. Even my daylilies and clematis repeat bloom. 

Purpureum Elegans
So in the past, my head has not been turned by peonies, azaleas, iris or rhododendrons.

This year, I’ve been giving the rhodys a second look. Maybe it’s because we had a very strange winter with the lockdown and I was dying to see something in bloom. Or maybe it’s because until now, I hadn’t appreciated the variety of colors available.

Catawbiense Album
Rhododendron is a genus of over 1,000 species of woody plants in the heath family. Although they are native to many areas of the world, most of the rhododendrons grown in gardens today are hybrids. 

 According to the Royal Horticultural Society there are more than 28,000 cultivars in the international registry, most bred for the showy flowers.

I saw a bright yellow one outside the grocery store a few weeks ago and almost bought it, thinking how it would be a perfect companion for my native flame azalea. But alas, by the time I made up my mind, it was gone.

Percy Wiseman

My friend Margaret refers to the hybrid rhododendrons (like the yellow beauty) as the “tame” ones in contrast to the native varieties that are just now starting to show color here in the mountains.

The Rosebay is the most common rhododendron in the Smokies. It is one of the largest and hardiest of shrubs, believed to be able to tolerate temperatures of 40 below zero. (Although the leaves do “collapse” and look wilted on super cold days.)

Nova Zembia
 Rosebay thrives near streams and ravines at elevations below 5,000 feet. The flowers range from white to purplish-pink and the wood has been used to make tool handles. I noticed the first few blooms last week.

Native rhodys can vary in color

Last year, there were very few flowers, and I wondered if it was due to the unusual June heat. Now I’ve learned that this variety only puts out a “big bloom” every two to four years. No one knows when the extravaganza will happen, or why.

The name rhododendron comes from the Greek and means rose tree. Rosebay is the variety that is growing all around me.

Rosebay native rhody

Maybe the "rose trees" and the Rosebay are trying to tell this rose lover something.

This year, I am paying attention.

Saturday, May 9, 2020 4 comments

The melodic beauty of my Appalachian spring

Dear Readers, The Dirt Diaries was selected to be featured in The Ultimate Landscaping Inspiration Guide! I am very honored to be included. It is an excellent guide full of gardening inspiration and ideas. Please stop by and take a look.

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

The ballet score Appalachian Spring won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1945 and remains one of the most inspiring works in American history.

But composer Aaron Copeland didn’t have mountains or forests in mind when he started working on the orchestral suite in 1942.

He initially called the score “Ballet for Martha” for the ballet’s choreographer and lead dancer, Martha Graham.

Graham suggested the name the day before the ballet premiered.

Copeland once said “I gave voice to that region without knowing I was giving voice to it.”

And he was often told he’d brilliantly captured the beauty of the Appalachians in his music.

As far as I am concerned, it doesn’t matter that this region wasn’t the inspiration for his masterpiece. 

Every time I hear Appalachian Spring I envision the beauty of the mountains. Especially this time of year.

Diverse and dramatic

The mountains that surround me make up one of the most biologically diverse areas of the world with more than 1,600 flowering plants.

For me, visions of violets begin the season of rebirth. The Halberd-leaf Yellow Violet is usually the first flower I see.

Halberd-leaf Violet
Apparently 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.

The humble violet has been celebrated in myths and literature from ancient times, a symbol of modesty and simplicity. Longfellow wrote that it “lurks among all the lovely children of the shade.”

Shakespeare described the violet as “forward” as it trumpets the awakening of the earth following winter. He also writes the violet is “sweet, not lasting. The perfume and suppliance of a minute; No more.”

Confederate Violet

So we should gather our halberd-leaf yellow violets while we may. Along with the other violets that grow along my trail including Confederate, Common Blue. Pale and several other varieties.

Trillium heaven

A couple of years ago according to folks in the know, a very warm winter caused many wildflowers to go into a tizzy.

Apparently many species flowered up to three weeks early and because of the warmth, the bloom period was very short. Trilliums also appeared early and were quickly devoured by hungry deer.

At that time I was new to the mountains, so I didn’t know what I was missing. Now I do and eagerly anticipate the gorgeous, distinctive blooms.

Catesby's Trillium (maybe)

Trilliums are members of the Lily family and are among the showiest of springtime wildflowers. The local natives sport three distinctive leaves and when they bloom, the flowers have three petals.

American Indians used the plant as an eye medication and women boiled the roots to make a love potion. Mountain folk say if you pick a trillium you will bring on a rainstorm.

Stinking Benjamin
Wake Robin, favorite from last year, is back with its deep burgundy blooms. Apparently that is the “nice” name because I’ve learned it is also known as Stinking Benjamin or Stinking Willie because of the putrid smelling flower. Early herbalists use it to treat gangrene.

A number of Painted Trilliums are growing down by the path. It was a happy surprise because I didn’t see any last year. I’m delighted to have them because experts say they have been virtually bulldozed or picked into extinction.

The white and pink trilliums nearby are beautiful,too. But I’ve become partial to the Painteds.

Every time I see one, I hear music.

Painted Trillium

Friday, February 7, 2020 2 comments

Off with their heads (when and how to prune roses.)

Some Austin roses prefer light pruning

Although the calendar says February, 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 as to what damage Old Man Winter has done, if any. To be honest it’s been very mild thus far. That makes me quite nervous about what March may bring.

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 two of my new roses have died. ‘Flamenco’ aka ‘Ivor’s Rose’ was just planted in September and we’ve had no drastic weather to speak of. I won’t be ordering from that nursery again!

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.

I can prune perennials now, but not my roses
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 iPhone and went to work. (I find an iPhone and a wireless speaker are essential 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, buddleias 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 wimpy 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 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

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.

Thin and shape old garden roses

Most David Austin English roses prefer a lighter touch with the secateurs. 

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.

Cl. Souvenir de la Malmaison

Miniatures and minifloras are your easiest task. A recent study in England 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 chain saw haircuts

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, I now believe the David Austin Rose Food I put down last year made a big difference, so I will be applying it again.

I will also be soaking my new bare root roses in Authentic Haven Brand Moo Poo tea to help them get off to the best start possible.

I’ll use Moo Poo and Alfalfa tea on the roses after the first flush of blooms, then again in August. 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 a few weeks. After all this pampering, my beauties should be more than ready to bloom their heads off in 2020.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020 4 comments

If only our tears could save the roses

The view from Royal Botanic Garden Sydney

These days it is difficult to escape the terrible news about the horrific wildfires in Australia.

People have lost their homes. People have lost their lives. 

And as of this morning it has been estimated that as many as a billion creatures from koalas and kangaroos to bats and snakes have perished.   

Having seen the amazing wildlife there myself, I am moved to tears by their plight.  It’s a helpless feeling. But I will outline ways you can help later. At least you’ll feel like you are doing something.

Apricot Necter

In the meantime, last Friday’s edition of the Sydney Morning Herald opened my eyes to another tragedy. The wildfires and drought have affected many of the beloved gardens in and around New South Wales. Now the officials at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden are faced with the choice of saving some plants and letting others go.

Plants that may not make it include the roses in the Palace Garden.
Unfortunately, many areas of the garden do not have irrigation so they must rely on rainfall to survive. Because of restrictions imposed by the city of Sydney, some parts of the garden have not been watered since October.
Mr. Lincoln
The Palace Garden was first planted close to a century ago and is home to over 1800 roses. These plants were all selected for their ability to thrive without pampering. Many American roses are in the mix. Given the drought and smoky environment however, these bushes must be at their breaking point.

I’m glad I took photos of the amazing display of of 6 ‘Crepescule’ standards. It is hard to think of the second largest garden in the southern hemisphere without them. 

But difficult decisions must be made. Plants like the ancient Wollemi pine will be watered and saved no matter what. Others that are rare or extinct in the wild (including the Cycas semannii) will be spared.

We can only hope that many of the other plants, including the roses, will rally and survive these toughest of times. I have asked the folks at the garden to give me an update on the state of the Queen of Flowers. And what, if anything, American rose lovers can do to help. When I hear, you will hear.


Till then, please consider a small donation to help the struggling animals. The Shoalhaven Bat Clinic in particular is overwhelmed with injured flying foxes and baby bats. These creatures are critical to spreading the seeds of rainforest trees. Even $10 will give the workers hope. Here are the contact details:

The amazing "Flying Foxes" with their 5-foot wingspans

This is the hospital that tried to save Lewis, the koala the Aussie woman wrapped in her shirt:

I took this photo on a dirt road near Lorne, Australia

 My friend Kristin I met while judging a rose show there recommended this group:

This cute little guy was on a golf course

Thank you dear readers for considering a donation.

Sadly, all of our tears are not enough. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2019 0 comments

No room for a traditional Christmas tree? Try a Norfolk Island pine

Kiama, Australia

 Dear Readers,

While we were in Australia and New Zealand, I discovered what turned out to be Norfolk Island pines growing in the wild.  I always think of these attractive trees as indoor ornamentals, but of course they do thrive outdoors, and can grow to impressive heights in their native habitats. They are considered tough trees that make excellent specimen plants.
Planted in Paihia, Bay of Islands, NZ in 1880

In America, Norfolk pines (they actually aren't pines at all) can grow up to 80 feet in USDA Hardiness zones 10A through 11, although they are easily damaged by high winds. 

Here is the original story I wrote for The Christian Science Monitor about using these graceful plants as holiday trees:

The day we set off to find “the” Christmas tree is one of my favorite times of the year. It’s usually the day after Thanksgiving when we’re still stuffed from the holiday feast and in need of an outdoor adventure. I say adventure because the search for my perfect tree can last an entire day.

Before leaving home, I bring down the boxes of holiday decorations and set each ornament out on the dining room table. There’s everything from Woody Woodpecker (who does his famous laugh when you press a button) to pipe cleaner Santas that belonged to my grandmother.

 My rocking horses, glass turtles and miniature carved birds are lined up, waiting to be placed on the bushy, beautifully symmetrical Frasier fir soon after it comes through the front door.

There was no room for a big tree before our big move
Four years ago when we put our Maryland house on the market, we decided not to get our traditional tree.

I discovered I really missed looking through the ornaments – it’s rather like visiting with old friends.

And I missed the festive lights in the corner where the tree usually stood. So I bought a little Norfolk Island pine, added a string of 20 lights, a few bows, and voila -- Christmas tree!

It wasn’t our usual statuesque 7-footer, but it did just fine for that unusual holiday season.

A winter ornamental from the tropics.

Araucaria heterophylla is native to a small island in the South Pacific that was sighted in 1774 during Captain James Cook’s second voyage of exploration. The island was named in honor of the Duchess of Norfolk and the trees seen growing there were estimated to be over 200 feet tall.

Barney the owl glides effortlessly through the tree branches

Here at home, the Norfolk Island pine is almost always grown indoors as a compact houseplant since it is far too tender for most areas of the country.   

The popularity spikes during the holiday season for obvious reasons. But these charming little trees need not be thrown out with the dried-up Poinsettias once January arrives. With proper care they will last for many Christmases to come.

Indoor climate is the key.

Norfolk Island pines are relatively easy to grow and make appealing accent plants all year-round thanks to their graceful branches and soft, touchable needles. They can tolerate low lighting for a brief time (such as during the holidays) but do best when exposed bright light.

I've managed to collect every bird from this series
An hour or so of direct sunlight won’t hurt, but be sure to rotate the tree a quarter turn every two weeks to keep it from becoming lopsided.

Despite their tropical homeland, these trees prefer an environment on the cool side.  Ideally, temperatures should range from 50 and 70 degrees -- anything in the 80’s will likely cause needle drop.

Norfolk Island pines don’t require as much water as other houseplants. In fact, they won’t tolerate saturated soil. Give them a drink only when the top inch or so of soil in the pot feels dry to the touch. Allow some water to run out of the bottom of the container, then discard any excess in an hour or so. 

My vintage 40's Santa

In addition, they don’t like to be pruned – in fact pruning can deform these plants. The only trimming required is removing any dead lower branches. If you prune a tip or healthy branch, the tree will not grow at that spot again.

Gator ornaments are a must
Feed your tree lightly every other month during spring and summer with a fertilizer specifically formulated for indoor foliage plants. Some experts suggest repotting every three years; others say the practice disturbs the roots and isn’t necessary.

I didn’t have my Norfolk Island pine long enough to worry about fertilizing or repotting – I gave it to a neighbor before we moved to the mountains.

But I must confess even though I missed my heirloom ornaments that Christmas, the little tree made our holidays merry and bright.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019 4 comments

Love. And Loss.

Don’t look back.

It’s sage advice that has been offered by notables from George Washington to Miles Davis to baseball great Satchel Paige.

Unfortunately, I had a lapse of good judgement recently and took a brief look at the past. I wish I hadn’t.

You see, not long ago a friend told me our old house in Maryland had been on the market again. I wondered what the place we’d left eight years before had sold for. So, I clicked on the listing and for a brief moment thought I was looking at the wrong property.

The beautiful cottage garden I’d worked on for 17 years was gone. My pond, gone. My glorious roses, gone. The garden that had appeared in the pages of Fine Gardening magazine was gone.

I cried.

A cottage garden for a charming cottage

It all started when we were working in DC after moving back from England. During a weekend sightseeing trip, we stumbled upon the alluring Eastern Shore of Maryland. We later would say it was two hours and twenty years away from Washington.

View of hydrangeas from the water
We looked at property in several areas and eventually found a delightful concrete block summer cottage on the banks of a river off the Chesapeake Bay. The house had been built in the 50s and was just plain cute with its black and white linoleum tiles, retro stove and a screened-in porch that overlooked the water. We closed on the house in November, 1992.

The following spring, I was anxious to start creating the cottage garden look I’d so admired in England – a combo of roses and companion plants. I chose a grassy area by the kitchen door and rolled up my sleeves. The very first rose I put in was a David Austin beauty ‘Heritage’.

Three years later, Chris decided to take early retirement from the Royal Navy. We’d be leaving Washington, so we made plans to knock down the old cottage and build a house in the same footprint where we could live year-round. We dug up as many of the plants as we could before the bulldozer arrived and put them in pots for the duration. 

Whew. Lots of work to do
 In the spring of 1996, I started working on my new garden. First, I had to clean up the rusty nails, broken shingles and plastic cigar filters the carpenters had left behind. Then I really rolled up my sleeves. It took a couple of years, some successes and many failures. But in time, my “tidy mess” (as Gertrude Jekyll called her cottage garden) became a reality.

While everything was coming together, I queried Fine Gardening magazine to see if they might be interested in an article about cottage gardening in general and David Austin English Roses in particular. They were, and my garden and my story appeared in 1999. The article was selected in 2001 to be part of a Garden Design series that promised “America’s Best Gardeners share design secrets.”

Fine Gardening's Lee Anne White photographing the garden
 The pond and the well bed would come later. Neighbor Jim’s Dad dug the hole for the pond with his small Bobcat.

Our late fellow rose lover Frank came over and helped Chris install the liner. The border of ‘monkey grass’ around the pond came from my friend Nan’s DC home. The bed behind the fountain was filled with roses friends had given me for a big “0” birthday and iris that came from Cherry Point Farm, once owned by the du Pont family.

The hydrangeas that lined the porch eventually recovered from being upended during construction, and returned to drawing oohs and aahs from folks travelling up and down the river. 

Boaters sometimes would stop by our dock and ask to take a closer look at the bed bursting with pink and red roses including ‘The McCartney Rose', ‘Kardinal’ and ‘Sexy Rexy’. It was a pleasure to have them admire the blooms.

When we decided to sell the house and move to the mountains, I wondered what might happen to my garden. The buyers seemed very interested in learning about roses. They offered to let me take a favorite plant or two. But we sold the property in March and were off to Australia for a month the day after the closing.

To be honest, I thought the gardening chores might turn out to be too much for weekenders. But I figured should I pass by one day, I’d still see a few of my cheery blooms waving at me. It wasn’t to be.

Still, I have my photographs and my memories.

But take my advice: don’t look back.