Thursday, January 21, 2016 4 comments

A bear and a Queen are part of the buzz about bees in the UK

The plight of pollinators across the pond

Last March I wrote an article for The Christian Science Monitor talking about the alarming decline of honeybees in America.

Give bees a chance” discussed factors behind the disappearance of pollinators, and outlined things gardeners could do help struggling bee populations.

Recently, I visited England and learned that bees there are also in danger. 

Unlike in the US, Colony Collapse Disorder is not an issue in Europe. However, the varroa mite, viruses, pesticides and industrial farming are all believed to have contributed to the loss of more than 50% of the bee population over the past two decades.

There are also fewer grassland habitats and wildflowers in the countryside thanks to sprawl and new agricultural practices. As a result, two UK honeybee species are now extinct.

The buzz about shrinking numbers of honeybees has mobilized concerned citizens and help is coming from all manner of honey lovers including Winnie-the-Pooh and Queen Elizabeth II.

Visit to download kid and bee friendly activities
The British Beekeeping Association recently launched a new campaign (Friends of the Honeybee) encouraging children to lend pollinators a hand. Pooh’s 10 simple steps include planting a flowering tree and building bee habitats.

Buckingham Palace is the Queen’s official London home. The Changing of the Guard in front of the palace has long been a major tourist attraction, but visitors seldom see the 39-acre walled oasis behind the 775-room royal residence. I was fortunate enough to be included in a walking tour last month.

The Queen’s Garden is aptly named because Her Majesty oversees all landscaping decisions. The garden features 6,500 plants, 420 trees and 35 types of mulberry. The various garden “rooms” including a formal rose garden, are connected by 2 ½ miles of gravel paths. The original landscape design is credited to Capability Brown.

80 varieties of birds have been spotted there, along with, bats, foxes, hedgehogs and 20 tawny owls.

In 2009, two Italian honeybee hives were placed in the garden as requested by the Queen. Two more hives of these “placid” bees were added the following year. An expert from the London Beekeepers Association tends to the 200,000 bees, along with a specially trained royal gardener.

Busy bees: the Royal Hives are on an island in the Queen's garden. (Courtesy Daily Mail)
All four hives are located on a man made island in the middle of the garden’s 3.5-acre lake. The island is virtually untouched and is part of the Long Grass Policy, where over 350 varieties of wildflowers are allowed to go through a full cycle of growth, including seed spreading, before grasses are cut in late August. The plants reproduce and sustain themselves without help from the eight gardeners on staff.

Bees can also visit and harvest nectar from 600 other plants in the main garden where something is always in bloom. These busy bees produced 420 jars of honey last year. The Queen is said to enjoy a bit of royal honey on her breakfast tray.

The Long Grass Policy is just one of the initiatives employed at Buckingham Palace to keep the Queen’s gardens as “green” as possible. According to Gardens Manager Mark Lane, 99% of green waste is recycled on site. Grass cuttings, twigs, branches and soiled straw from the royal stables are shredded and turned until rotted sufficiently to be used as mulch. Even tree stumps are allowed to rot naturally.
F&M's hives are painted in their traditional duck egg blue.
Not far from Buckingham Palace, the legendary Fortnum & Mason, purveyors of fine foods, has added four 6-foot tall beehives to the roof of their flagship Piccadilly store. Shoppers can watch the “gentle” Welsh Black bees on the bee-cam. There is a waiting list for the honey.

Surprisingly, beehives were on the roof of the Macdonald Hotel where we stayed in Windsor. Visitors can take a peek at the hives in action through glass windows overlooking the roof. Each window is inscribed with a bee fact such as  “Honeybees account for 80% of all insect pollination.”

You can even name and adopt a bee for £1 through Plan Bee, the firm that cares for the bees at the hotel.

Beehives are also located on a barge moored to Tower Bridge, and on the roof of the National Portrait Gallery. And more people are inquiring about beekeeping every day.

It appears things are beginning to look a lot sweeter for honeybees in Britain.
Beehive at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London

Friday, January 1, 2016 7 comments

Farewell 2015. I'm not sorry to see you go

To borrow a Shakespeare phrase, it has been a foul and fair year. Some health issues interrupted the summer, but fortunately all has been resolved. 

Despite missing out on a good part of our gardening season (and a few other foul bits), we've had some pretty terrific moments in 2015. Here are a few highlights. 

Wishing you all the best for 2016.

We started building a new rose bed in February

My rare Shortia bloomed in April

I was back judging the Biltmore International Rose Trials in May
And back at our friend's gorgeous mountaintop rose garden in June

The critter cam on our trail caught some surprise visitors
We flew to England in September to attend Chris Naval Academy Reunion

We visited the Garden Museum in London

And saw amazing Joe Pye Weed at Savill Garden outside London

At the reunion
I toured the Queen's Garden at Buckingham Palace for an article on pollinators

Windsor Castle at night

Back home in time for a gorgeous fall in our mountains


                                    Happy New Year, friends!
Friday, November 27, 2015 2 comments

Three new David Austin beauties head to America in 2016

I attended the Chelsea Flower Show in May 1991. That year, a Silver Medal was awarded to a garden called Gothic Retreat. If I saw it, the plants and design have completely slipped my mind. You see, I was so gobsmacked by the enormity of the show and the variety of blooms, I didn’t know which way to turn.

I trained Cottage Rose as a climber
That year a hybridizer named David Austin introduced three roses I later grew in my Maryland Garden. Cottage Rose, The Dark Lady and Evelyn remain among my favorites.

But Mr. Austin was not new to Chelsea – in 1983 he unveiled two of his new, old-fashioned “English Roses” to the world, Graham Thomas and Mary Rose.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Chelsea photos courtesy David Austin English Roses
In 2014, David Austin English Roses secured an 18th Gold Medal in the Great Pavilion awards. Their team of eight worked for five days to prepare the display in the main marquee. Those readers who recall my posting about the 2013 Austin stand may not believe it, but that year’s presentation was even more stunning.

And in 2014, the show was a also family affair.

David Austin Senior, David Austin Junior and his son Richard were on hand to celebrate the award.  In addition, one of the 2014 Chelsea introductions was named Olivia Rose Austin after David Junior’s daughter.

Olivia Rose Austin (courtesy David Austin Roses)

Because the variety is named for a family member, it had to be something special. Olivia is the first offering in their disease-free line and has been in development for almost ten years.  The rose features soft pink rosette blooms and a fruity fragrance.  The Austin folks believe it might be their best rose to date.  

Now, this stunning rose and two other English beauties will be available to American gardeners in 2016.

The second new introduction, The Poet’s Wife, has really caught my eye. Technical Manager Michael Marriott says it is a rare color in the David Austin pastel palette – an unfading rich yellow. It is a low grower, ideal for the front of the border. The fragrance is described as lemony, becoming sweeter and stronger with age.   

The Poet's Wife (courtesy David Austin Roses)

The final new rose to make its debut next spring is The Lady of the Lake, only the fourth rambler to be added to the English Rose collection. It promises to grow 10 to 15 feet or more with long, slender flexible canes.

Unlike many ramblers, it repeat flowers throughout the summer and boasts a fresh citrus scent. Michael Marriott reports it may only be hardy to USDA Zone 7, but I intend to give it a try here in the mountains, even though we are Zone 6b.

Lady of the Lake (courtesy David Austin Roses)

So there you have it. The roses that caused crowds to swoon at Chelsea year before last are headed across the pond. You can place your orders now at David Austin Roses for spring delivery.

If you have a rose lover on your Christmas list, you might want to give a gift certificate. My family gave me one last Christmas and I used it to get a Darcey Bussell tree rose for my new garden. What a holiday treat!


Of course the Austin folks presented three more roses at Chelsea this year: Desdemona, The Ancient Mariner and Sir Walter Scott.

Since I’m married to a former officer in the Royal Navy, The Ancient Mariner will be on my must-have list when it becomes available

Wait a minute ­– I’m already getting my heart set on another rose before the 2014 Chelsea winners make their appearance at my front door?

If you have a bad case of English rose fever like me, I suspect you can relate.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015 9 comments

London's Garden Museum fascinates with Tradescants and treasures

Just before we left on our trip to England, I wrote about some of the gardens and sights we planned to visit there.

In London Calling (London gardens that is), I mentioned the Garden Museum and how much I was looking forward to going there. 

The museum is housed in the former St. Mary-at-Lambeth church

We stopped in on a dreary Tuesday afternoon and were greeted by the news the museum was about to close for an extensive redevelopment program  and won’t be reopened until 2017. Even though activity was winding down, we found the exhibits and grounds intriguing.

A selection of garden gnomes from the final exhibit before renovations
How many garden designs did Jekyll plot at this desk?

The main exhibit was Gnome & Away: Secrets of the Collection, which featured a grouping of antique tools and objects of interest to gardeners. Other assorted goodies were on display elsewhere in the museum including Gertrude Jekyll’s desk and an American pink flamingo.

An early miniature garden

Outside we wandered through the recreation of a seventeenth century knot garden planted in honor of intrepid plant hunter John Tradescant and his son. Both men traveled the globe to find new plants (and parts of exotic animals) to bring back to England. John the elder was also gardener to Charles I.

Even though it was late September, the garden was still lovely. I can just imagine what it looks like in spring and summer when topiaries are at their best, and the old roses and herbaceous plants are in bloom.

The Knot Garden from above (Photo courtesy London Garden Trust)

The knot garden itself is planted with species either introduced by the Tradescants, or grown in their Lambeth garden, which has long since disappeared. Most plants in the modern garden are labeled with their country of origin and year they were introduced to the UK.

One of the fascinating things on display is a copy of “the catalogue to the John Tradescants’ Ark, cabinet of curiosities and botanical garden.” The Ark was considered to be one of the wonders of 17th century London. Father and son opened the garden and “cabinet” to citizens (at a cost of six pence to get in) and in effect, created London’s first public museum. 

The Tradescant catalog lists an Alegator (sic), Rattle Snakes and a Dragon

Astonishing rarities were reportedly displayed including the “hand of a mermaid, a pelican, a small piece of wood from the cross of Christ and all kinds of foreign plants.”

The Tradescant family tomb is adjacent to the knot garden and is one of the most important churchyard monuments in London. Panels carved into the sides of the monument depict objects from the Tradescant collection. 

An alligator and a nautilus shell are among carvings on the tomb

If you love garden history, the information about the Tradescant catalog, tomb and plants in the knot garden is well worth the price of admission.

But I was sorry to learn I had missed some truly extraordinary earlier exhibits.  One on War and Gardens included a scrapbook of pressed flowers from London bombsites collected by a teenager just after World War II. There was also an array of Wills Rose Cigarette Cards from World War I, and stories of gardens behind the lines.
I loved these rose cigarette cards so much I bought one on eBay

I am delving into these stories with the gracious help of the Garden Museum, and will be writing about it all very soon.

I look forward to finding out more about these wartime gardens. 

And I truly look forward to returning to this treasure of a museum in 2017.

Welcome Americans!!

Sunday, September 6, 2015 5 comments

London Calling. (London gardens , that is.)

We're heading for Jolly Old England next week to attend Chris' Naval Academy reunion, visit friends and family, and meet up (hopefully) with some Facebook and blogging buddies.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper holiday without squeezing as many gardens as possible into the itinerary. Since we’ll mainly be in the London area, we’ll be spoiled for choice with dozens of historic houses and gardens nearby. Here are a few places we hope to visit. Photos to follow!

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Photo courtesy Kew Gardens

Arguably the world’s most famous garden, Kew allows visitors to explore 300 acres of gardens and botanical glasshouses, including the breathtaking Palm House. Its collection includes over 30,000 different kinds of plants. The rose garden was totally redesigned in 2008 and now is home to over 100 varieties of the Queen of Flowers. 


Chiswick House Gardens

According to the English Heritage website, Chiswick House is a glorious example of 18th-century British architecture. The third Earl of Burlington, who designed this elegant Classical villa, drew inspiration from his "grand tours" of Italy.

The gardens, beloved for centuries, were the birthplace of the English Landscape Movement and have inspired countless gardens including New York's Central Park. A major project to restore and revive the gardens was completed in 2010.  

Chelsea Physic Garden

London's oldest botanic garden, Chelsea was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful  Society of Apothecaries for its apprentices to study the medicinal qualities of plants. The four acre green oasis has one of the oldest rock gardens in Europe, a Victorian Cool Fernery, beds of medicinal plants, botanical order beds, glasshouses, rare plants and tender species, plus the largest olive tree outdoors in Britain. At one time it was one of the most important centers of botany and plant exchange in the world.

Savill Garden

One of England’s finest ornamental gardens featuring 35 acres of interconnecting gardens and woodlands.  A few of the themed areas include The Spring Wood, The Summer Wood, The Hidden Gardens, The Summer Gardens, The Glades, Autumn Wood, The Azalea Walks and The New Zealand Garden.

We were last there in 2007 and since then, a rose garden has been added. Can’t wait to see how many of the 2500 bushes are in bloom.

Fenton House
A London gem, Fenton is a 17th century merchant’s house set in beautiful walled gardens which combine formal borders and a sunken rose garden. There is also a working kitchen garden and a 300-year-old apple orchard. The bee colony housed in the orchard produces honey that is available to buy.

The Garden Museum

After reading this description, I can’t wait to visit this place. In fact, it is close to the top of my list.

“The Garden Museum's permanent display includes a collection of antique tools exploring garden history. Temporary exhibitions and events also take place throughout the year. Outside, in the recreation of a seventeenth-century knot garden planted in honour of John Tradescant, intrepid plant hunter and gardener to Charles I, are the tombs of the Tradescants and Admiral Bligh of the Bounty. Topiaries, old roses, herbaceous perennials and bulbs give year-round interest, and most plants are labelled with their country of origin and year of introduction to the UK.  “

Buckingham Palace

Last winter, after an episode of Downton Abbey, we watched a wonderful documentary on PBS about The Queen’s Garden at Buckingham Palace. The program followed the garden over a year’s time, exploring the history and the natural history of this royal treasure in the center of London.

It was a fascinating look at a garden most of us will never get to see in person. Except, I am thrilled to announce I will be included in a private Press Tour of the Gardens and the State Rooms later this month.
Photo courtesy Tourist Information UK.

I can’t wait to see the royal bees, the Queen’s favorite roses, rare flowers bred exclusively for Her Majesty and all the other amazing sights there.

So watch this space for all the dirt on the Queen’s spectacular horticultural digs.

Until then, cheerio!

The knot garden at Great Fosters Hotel. We stayed there last trip.

Friday, July 31, 2015 6 comments

Where the wild things are

We think a fox family lives near the trail

The "critter cam" Santa brought me for Christmas is the gift that keeps on giving.

Dad loved the mountains and wildlife
As many of you Dirt Diaries readers recall, we built a small nature path  in memory of my Dad back in 2012. 

We've always wondered what cool things were happening on "Curly's Trail" at night or when we weren't looking. (Was there a Sasquatch or zombie on the loose?)

So I set up the camera (a Browning sub micro) on the last post you can see in the accompanying photo.

That stairway is about 30 yards from our deck and leads down to the stream and a little waterfall. 

The camera takes a photo of anything that moves within 100 feet of its view, night or day. 

 The resulting picture includes an information bar that displays the time, date, moon phase and temperature.

A raccoon heads towards the stream

 That’s great unless you forget to turn the camera off when someone is working in the area. We had 150 pictures of Alfredo’s legs when he was sprucing up the trail and patio by the stream.

Caught the head of a pileated woodpecker

 Some of the critter pictures have been surprising. We didn’t realize there were so many deer around. (As long as they stay away from my roses, that’s okay.)

The deer love my hostas and wildflowers.

We thought we might catch a glimpse of a bear since they’ve visited our deck several times. None yet. We’ve seen owls around, but thus far they haven’t shown up to have their portraits made.

The discovery that a bobcat had been sauntering around the trail was a true shock. I often work down there in the new rose bed Alfredo built for me last spring.
Yikes! Mr. Bobcat strolls along the trail at lunchtime

We’d heard they do live in Western North Carolina, but no one in our community has ever seen one. Until they take a peek at the photo on my iPhone.

From now on, I’ll be looking over my shoulder when I’m down by the trail tending to my beauties.

Because we no longer have to wonder where the wild things are.

They’re right here in our very own garden.