Sunday, October 4, 2020 5 comments

Dusting off my winter weather crystal ball

For the past few weeks I’ve been noticing lots of acorns on the road while taking my morning walk. It seemed to me there were more than I remember seeing last year. So, I was wondering if this meant we are in for a bad winter, or if there are just a ton of acorns around.

We’ve only lived full-time in the mountains since 2011, but I have been visiting this breathtaking area of the country since I was in high school. I’ve spent many a happy day sitting by a waterfall listening to tales of catamounts, panthers, owls and wildflowers that possess magical powers.


You can’t help but be fascinated by the stories, superstitions and mountain lore handed down from generation to generation. For example, legend holds that if you see a butterfly first in spring, you will be smart. But if you spy a fence lizard first, you will be lazy.


Extra large spiderwebs signal bad weather
 Of course, much of this lore deals with atmospheric conditions and the behavior of animals. So, after seeing all those acorns around, I decided to revisit some of the signs old timers rely on for predicting the weather.


Here are a few of my favorites:


* If robins are seen near a house during the fall, the winter will be cold.


* If October 9 is a sunny day, the following winter will be cold and snowy.


* If squirrels eat the bark off a tree, look for a cold winter coming up. (Also, if a squirrel has an exceptionally bushy tail, watch out.)


*   When hogs carry sticks in their mouths, bad weather is ahead.


*    If smoke blows to the ground, it will soon snow.


* If you see raccoons and possums feeding during the day, there will be bad weather within 12 hours.


* When the new moon rises with its points turned up, there will be no rain.

Owls hooting late in fall is a bad weather omen

*There will be a winter snow for every morning fog in August.


*If you harvest onions with thin skins, the winter will be mild.


*The brighter the fall foliage, the colder the winter.

We had a snowy winter the year I took this photo


*If the woolly worm has a narrow brown or orange band, winter will be harsh.


The woolly worm stories have been around since Colonial times.

   Thin brown bands supposedly mean bad weather is ahead. Wide brown bands indicate a mild winter is in store. A totally black woolly worm weather tells us weather will be severe. And you’ll need to break out the snow shovels if you see a worm with light brown or white bands.


The legend was bolstered in the late 40s when a Dr. Charles Curran of  the American Museum of Natural History studied woolly worms for eight years and said they predicted the weather with 80% accuracy. Since that time, other researchers have not been able to replicate his results.


    Today, the National Weather Service says the worm’s coloring and band size are based on its age and the length of time it has been feeding. The caterpillars shed their skins a number of times before they become adults and their colors can change. 


  According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, woolly worms or banded wooly bears are not really worms at all. They are caterpillars, the larva of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia Isabella) and can survive temps as low as -90 degrees. Isabella moths are common from northern Mexico to the southern third of Canada.


    Okay, so woolly worms can’t predict if I need to buy a heavier winter coat. What about the acorns?


A recent article from News5Cleveland explains: "Most trees and shrubs form their fruit and flower blossoms that bloom in spring during the previous summer. If the weather was warm and the rains abundant, then the tree was not stressed and formed enough fruit buds to produce this big acorn crop this year.”


I take that to mean the fruit buds that resulted in this year’s bumper crop of acorns may have been formed by the tree in 2019. That makes sense since some varieties of oaks require two growing seasons for acorns to mature and drop.

I also understand that every few years, for no apparent reason, oaks produce an overabundance of acorns  Evidently this has more to do with self-preservation than weather. Scientists have yet to explain exactly why this happens.

So, it looks like there will be no glam winter coat for me!

This final bit of weather lore was a new one on me. Apparently if you cut open a persimmon you’ll either see what looks like a fork, spoon or knife. The explanation of what weather may follow (depending which utensil you spy) is too complex for my teeny brain.


Here is my suggestion for determining whether we’ll have a bummer winter or balmy winter: slice a few persimmons, check out the tails of every squirrel that wanders by, look at all your trees to see if bark is heavier on the north side, and make a note of any halos around the moon.


Then, flip a coin.








Tuesday, September 1, 2020 7 comments

Gardening in the time of Covid


This past January 23rd, I traveled up to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville to judge the roses that were part of the Biltmore International Rose Trials.


To many it seemed strange to be evaluating roses in the middle of winter and folks wondered what in the heck there was to see. I explained that as part of the trials, we judged four times a year and in January, I was looking for vigor and diseased foliage.


It took no time at all to eyeball the few dozen bushes in the trials and write down my observations. So before long I was off to admire all the gorgeous plants blooming in the Conservatory. Then I took a spin around the garden gift shop to see what treasures I couldn’t live without.


Little did I know it would be my last trip to the Biltmore and my last evaluation after almost nine years as part of the International Trials. We did not know then what was lurking around the corner.


It was business usual in late January and early February when the hellebores bloomed. 



By late February my pansies needed to be refreshed and the local garden center was happy to oblige with some perky new plants. I was already thinking about spring and all the perennials I wanted to add to the garden. 



That garden shopping spree never happened.


Instead, when we were in lockdown, I had to be content with the garden as it was. But I am not complaining. I am grateful. Having my little patch of earth to tend was a blessing in strange, difficult and sometimes frightening times.


No matter how disconcerting the news, the garden chugged along, unveiling the pleasures of spring with each passing day.


The clematis bloomed. 





Then the roses. 



                       'The Lark Ascending'



                                 'Edward Degas' 


And in the forest, I found intriguing new discoveries like the Barometer Earth Star (Astraeus hygrometricus) fungus.



The hydrangeas were the best ever. The daylilies, too.






Dahlias and coneflowers are now signaling summer is on the way out and fall is in view.



What will happen in the next few months? Unfortunately, my crystal ball is on the blink. 




But the garden will be there, getting ready for its long winter nap. 

And I will be grateful.















Tuesday, July 7, 2020 22 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.