Monday, September 9, 2019 4 comments

Back by popular demand: How to grow mums (if you must.)

I’ve never been much of a chrysanthemum fan. 

For starters, they smell funny.  Many of the colors tend to be gaudy. And the blooms don’t age gracefully.

This time of year I get annoyed when I see hundreds of them lined up in front of roadside stands and garden centers. I know what the mum and pumpkin sightings mean: I am being pushed into fall when I’m not ready to let go of summer.

I  realize that turning up my nose at these harbingers of autumn means I am out of step with much of the gardening world. After all, garden mums (C. x morifolium) have been wildly popular for centuries.  

So despite being a chrysanthemum curmudgeon, I wanted to offer some tips that will enable you to grow these wretched plants to the best of your ability.

From China, with love

Mums were first cultivated in China, possibly as early as the 15th Century B.C. Several species of chrysanthemums native to both China and Japan were used in an extensive hybridizing program that, over time, resulted in the “domesticated” garden mum.   

Mums found their way to Europe in the seventeenth century where the appealing gold flowers received an enthusiastic welcome. Today, hybridizing continues full speed ahead in the hopes of creating new flower forms and plants that can better tolerate cold. At this time more than 5,000 cultivars have been named. 

Mum care 101                           

Yoder, one of America’s leading mum breeders, offers the following tips which apply regardless of color, flower form or flowering time:

• Always plant mums in a spot where they will receive at least half a day of sun.  Plant in fer­tile, well-drained soil.  Loosen the soil to a depth of 6 to 8 inches and mix in peat moss or com­post to condition the soil and improve drainage. Measure from the center of the plant and space mums about 15 to 20 inches apart.

• Water thoroughly, adding 1 to 2 gallons of water to the soil around each plant.  When rainfall is scant, continue to water as needed to prevent wilting.  Keep the soil moist as colder weather approaches.

• Never fertilize the flowering garden mums you plant in the fall.  All the season's growing is finished by that time.  Plants will not need fertilizer until next spring.

• Mother Nature doesn't prune back plants as win­ter approaches and you shouldn’t either.  Let the brown foliage stand through the winter.  Mulch plants after the ground begins to freeze - not before - with leaves, straw, peat moss or other organic materials.

• Prune away old stems and gradually remove mulch in the spring. Pinch mums back from June through July 15 to encourage bushy growth and a greater show of fall flowers.  

So, there you have it. Everything you need to know to keep your mums thriving from year to year. 

The dry summer in many areas of the country may mean colors will be more vivid this year. Mums in areas that have had excessive rain and heat may bloom later than usual. 

But if you get lucky with Mother Nature,  you should have loads of blooms that will last well into October. 

As for me, I’ll still be enjoying my roses.

Don't want to plant mums? Enjoy them in pots, then discard.


Note: Your vacation in France will continue next posting! 

Monday, July 29, 2019 4 comments

Bonjour France!

Arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport

Decisions, decisions.

Our 30th wedding anniversary is coming up in November so we thought a special trip might be a fun way to celebrate. But where in the world to go?

We loved our holiday in Ireland in 1999 and have always wanted to go back. So, knowing the British Open would be played in Portrush this summer, I purchased tickets for the final round almost a year in advance. Clever girl!

Then I discovered there wasn’t anything – not even a tent – available within two hours of the golf course. Apparently as soon as the venue was announced ages ago, everything including broom closets had been snapped up.

So back to the drawing board. 

SS Catherine (Courtesy

After chatting with our local AAA travel guru Matt in Hendersonville, we decided on a Uniworld Rhone river cruise that included Burgundy and Provence. We booked the 8-day trip on the SS Catherine sailing from Lyon to Avignon, and added two days in Paris to kick it all off.

The Arc was commissioned by Napoleon in 1806

48 hours in the City of Light isn’t much, especially when the first day is clouded by jet lag. But we soldiered on because our old friend Tim (Chris' former Royal Navy buddy now living in France) had arranged an afternoon tour of the city. The guys were quite taken with the car, an old Citroen 2CV. 

Tim, our driver Pierre and Chris

Our guide was knowledgeable but whizzed past things before I had a chance to say “stop!” (There was a shop downtown that sold nothing but rubber ducks that sounded very fun. But by the time I expressed interest, we were on the other side of the city.)

Never mind. I had better luck the next day when Tim suggested a visit to Montmartre. We started at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris (often known simply as Sacre-Coeur). It sits atop a hill that is the highest point in the city. The amazing panoramic views have made it second most visited destination after the Eiffel Tower. 

View from the Basilicia

The church is known for its pristine appearance because of the white stone chosen to build it. The stones come from Chateau-Landon, which is known for its high content of calcite. The same stones were used to build the Arc de Triomphe and the Alexandre III bridge. When it rains, the calcite releases a “bleacher” that keeps the appearance of the chalky white.

While the guys stopped for a beer in one of the scenic cafes, I wandered down to the foot of Montmartre hill where the original Moulin Rouge was built in 1885. Sadly it burned down in 1915.

Along the way I passed an exhibit about the works van Gogh created while living in the area, including his scenes of windmills and garden allotments. From 1872 to 1914, many artists of note lived and worked in Montmartre including Renoir, Picasso,  Matisse, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec.
A Garden in Montmartre by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Montmartre was also where I first saw and became fascinated with “love locks." According to my research, the ritual appeared in Paris over a decade ago after originating in Asia. Parisians and foreign visitors wrote their names with a love message and the date on a padlock. They attached the lock to a fence or some other structure, then threw the key into the Seine, supposedly sealing their love forever.

Beginning in 2015, railings loaded with love locks were removed throughout the city. It was believed the weight of the locks was causing structures to suffer damage or even crumble. In fact, one bridge was reportedly covered in locks weighing a total of 45 tons. More 700,000 keys may be at the bottom of the Seine. 

The tower's original red color was applied in the workshop before parts were assembled.

Speaking of the Seine, the three of us ended the day with a boat tour on the storied river. I didn’t see any keys, but did spy more locks. 

Notre Dame under construction

The Grand Palais

On the journey we were treated to gorgeous unobstructed views of Paris landmarks including the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral and of course, the Eiffel Tower. It was a beautiful end to a brief but spectacular glimpse of one of the world’s most spectacular cities.

Next time! All Aboard. Join us on the Rhone for chateaus, croissants, roses, wine and more wine! Tres bon!

Friday, May 24, 2019 0 comments

Tapping my foot waiting for the roses (again)

A rare mountain beauty, the Pink Lady Slipper

In the 1849 book A Tale of Manchester Life, author Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell observed that a watched pot never boils.

Apparently the same theory holds true for plants we yearn to see flower: A watched rose never blooms.

My roses have been teasing me for the past two weeks, displaying a bit more color every day. But thanks to an unexpected cold snap, the buds have now decided to stay tight indefinitely.

So I turned my attention to the woods.

Spring is a magical time in the mountains and every year I wonder if there might be an interesting wildflower or two lurking just beyond the garden path.  And almost always the answer is Yeah buddy!

Orchids in the wild

Spotting one Pink Lady’s Slipper on the property was a treat, but I actually discovered two! 

Like some other members of the orchid family, these Lady Slippers (also known as Moccasin flowers) will only grow when certain fungi are present in the roots. Obviously whatever it is, we have the right stuff.

I've also added Yellow Lady Slippers purchased from a licensed nursery
Sadly wildflower experts report these exquisite plants are becoming more rare each year. Despite warnings, people continue to pick the flowers or dig up the plants, in which case the orchid is almost certainly doomed. I will be watching my duo (and my new yellows) very closely.

Doesn’t pass the sniff test

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.

Look, but don't sniff.
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.

Although I’ve seen a number of white and pink trilliums growing nearby, my favorite is the burgundy Wake Robin. Apparently that is the “nice” name because it’s also known as Stinking Benjamin or Stinking Willie because of the putrid smelling flower. Early herbalists used it to treat gangrene.

 I’ll take an expert’s word for the aroma and just admire it from afar.

The bee’s knees

Entomologists studying bees have learned they can see four colors – yellow, blue, bluish green and violet. (If I ever meet an entomologist I’ll be sure to ask how they accomplished this feat.)

Sporting flowers of both blue and yellow, Blue-eyed Grass is not only a bee magnet, but a favorite of wild pigs. 

This charming little plant isn’t a grass at all but the smallest member of the Iris family. And even though the flowers last only a day, established clumps put out blooms for several weeks.

Back to the roses

As if trilliums, Lady Slippers and blue–eyed beauties weren’t enough, I’ve spied two native Flame Azaleas on my one-acre patch. The neon orange flowers can stop traffic.

But I digress. The subject was roses, was it not?

And impatience.

However now with all these regal jewels at my feet, waiting for the Queen of Flowers is no longer a hand-wringing, drawn-out ordeal.

It's an adventure. 
Saturday, April 13, 2019 2 comments

A garden diary can make you a better gardener

Get creative when creating your journal (Photo courtesy Esty.)

There’s nothing like early April freezes and blustery winds to make one long to turn the calendar ahead to May. Thumbing through enticing and beautifully photographed garden catalogs helps brighten these dreary days, but doesn’t completely console me. I fear it will take the sight of a jaunty jonquil or the intoxicating scent of a Damask rose to melt away my winter blues.

Fortunately I know exactly how long it will be until I can get a sniff of my first spring posy,

because over the years I’ve made notes of when my roses and other important plants will begin their new parade of blooms.

Climbing Cecile is always first to bloom
For example in looking back at this year’s wall calendar, I’m confident that around April 22nd, I’ll see at least one showy Cl. Cecile Brunner in the garden. It has been blooming around that date since we moved to the mountains and never disappoints. I also know my polyanthas like 'Lovely Fairy' are among the last to bloom so I don't fret if they wait till late May to take a bow.

'Lovely Fairy' is a sport of the original 'Fairy' introduced in 1932

I also know I can plan on seeing male hummingbirds zipping around the garden about that same time. For several years Ive made a note of the first time I spotted the tiny jewels. Last year they were late - April 17th. But according to my notes, theyve arrived as early as April 7th.  

Hummers arrived April 10th this year
 Fireflies will light up the evening sky beginning May 15th -- a sure sign that summer is on the way.

Anticipating the day the garden will burst into bloom can be a tonic on a cold spring day. But having a rough idea of when each variety will be at its best is helpful when planning special events, whether it’s a family bar-b-que or an outdoor cocktail party.

Plan parties for dates when the garden has been traditionally in full bloom

Your “diary” needn’t be more time-consuming than jotting down a plant name on a standard calendar, then updating bloom dates yearly.

Or get a small notepad and keep track of plants you add to the garden each spring. Then while suffering from the winter blahs, go back and evaluate each addition’s performance.

That brief evaluation can be a money saver if you are like me and keep buying perennials  that won’t tolerate the cold in my zone. Note to self: this year when you are enamored with Spanish lavender at the garden center, remember it must be considered an annual!

Lavandula stoechas is charming but only hardy to USDA Zone 8

My diary efforts are fairly simple, but don’t dismiss the idea of doing a more elaborate journal. Some people add photographs, even their own paintings to notations about plants, insects, weather conditions and so forth. Such a journal can be an invaluable garden tool and an informative heirloom.

Keep notes about your tastiest tomatoes
I wrote extensively about my vegetable garden one particular year. I only kept the notebook going for a season, but still enjoy going back to reread my entries. And it’s probably no coincidence I had my best veggie garden ever while I was so attentive.

So if you’re suffering from flower withdrawal and the winter blahs, consider sowing some spring aspirations now in a personal journal or diary.

It may just give your gardener’s soul a chance to blossom early.
Photos in your diary will give you hope beautiful blooms are on the way

Sunday, March 31, 2019 1 comments

And suddenly it's Spring (again)


Yesterday I walked down the trail to place a solar light by the waterfall. There I was greeted by a most unwelcome welcoming committee. More about that later.

Along the way, I spied a tiny yellow flower.

When I first noticed this flower back in 2011, the leaves made me think it might be a member of the ginger family. But after checking out a few of my wildflower books it turned out to be a Halberd-leaf Yellow Violet (Viola hastata.)

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” since 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.”

So we should gather our halberd-leaf yellow violets while we may.

Oh and by the way, the snakes are back too. 

An uninvited guest on the patio was a (supposedly) harmless garter snake.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019 13 comments

Rethinking my garden

Last summer I was asked to submit some of my photos to a publishing house working on several new gardening books. The list of desired pictures was quite specific, so I went back through my entire photo library to see if I already had some of the shots they were looking for.

'New Dawn' arched over the front porch

My library goes back to 2001 when we were living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. During my walk down Memory Lane, I revisited lots of pictures of the cottage garden I’d created while living there. I had forgotten how lovely it was.

The Pond Garden

Front walkway garden

After looking through all those photos, I felt a bit sad thinking about the garden I’d been working on in the North Carolina mountains since 2010. I was suddenly struck with the realization that whatever I’ve been doing here has not been a success. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

Boaters on the Little Choptank oohed and aahed over our hydrangeas

It started off well enough. My husband Chris took cuttings of the hardy ‘Nikko Blue’ hydrangeas that lined the back of our Maryland home. Boaters passing by on the river behind us called us “the blue house” because of the proliferation of blue blooms they could see from the water.

The cuttings rooted beautifully, and we planted them all along the foundation our “new” house here. (We tore out the cheap, ugly bushes the previous owner had put in and started from scratch.) Then I added roses and perennials like I had done on the Eastern Shore.

Centranthus was a great companion for my roses in MD

My first clue that things were not going well was the discovery that the Centranthus ruber and alba that grew like weeds in Maryland did not thrive here. I tried planting them six different times before giving up. Phlox, coreopsis and other old favorites never made it past one season. Still, I soldiered on thinking all would come together eventually.

Some of the roses did well and some just sulked. The big successes were the catmints, daylilies, Shasta daisies and a couple of dahlias. And to my surprise, the hydrangeas went from strength to strength and started taking over.

The best the garden looked was in 2013 when the roses seemed to be happy and some of the perennials blended in quite nicely. Then things started to happen. For example, we had to dig up part of the garden to repair a section of the driveway held up by boulders that was crumbling. We put all the plants in pots and some of them never recovered.

My mountain garden in happier times

Several of the roses that looked so good in 2013 started to regress. Before long I had a bunch of bushes with a single, pitiful cane. New perennials I put in did not do squat. And the lamiums I planted on advice of a local friend started to become a nuisance.

Time to put on my thinking cap and try again.

So, the first thing I am going to do is test the soil again to make sure we have no new issues there. I’ll keep the roses and other plants that have worked and get rid of the poor performers. Then I will look for new ideas for a mountain garden in Zone 6b according to the new 2012 map. (Apparently, we used to be Zone 7a in the olden days.) Your suggestions are very welcome. 

Clematis works in the NC garden, unlike in MD

I have been looking at some of the cottage gardens on Pinterest and see a few things I’d like to pursue. Low-growing dark green ornamental grasses mixed with salvia and lamb's ears, for example.

Of course, we all know a garden is always a work in progress. I’ll be sure to keep you posted on how mine is progressing!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019 7 comments

An American in the English Rose Garden

Me and David Austin

David Charles Henshaw Austin, a self-taught horticulturalist who spent sixty years working to create his vision of the perfect rose, passed away December 18th at his home in England. It was reported he had been “poorly” the past few months. He was 92.

Mr. Austin started hybridizing plants as a teenager and turned his attention to roses full time in 1969. His first big break came in 1983 when his billowy, fragrant rose ‘Graham Thomas’ was introduced at the Chelsea Flower Show. The rest as they say, is rose history. (He went on to win 24 gold medals at Chelsea.)

'Graham Thomas'

Very few people in life leave this world a more beautiful place than they found it. David Austin was one of those rare individuals. He left 230 varieties of his enchanting English roses. And he left many of us with memories of a shy, gentle man who “lived and breathed” the Queen of Flowers. This is my story about meeting the great rosarian in 1998. 

I shall never forget him.

My fave, 'James Galway'

A very successful artist friend once told me a story about the day he knocked on Norman Rockwell’s door. A bashful teenager, my friend only wanted to express his admiration for the great man and tell him of his hopes of becoming a painter.
Much to the young man’s surprise, Mr. Rockwell graciously invited him inside, gave him a tour of his studio, and encouraged him not to give up his dream of becoming an artist.
I felt very much like my friend several years ago during my first visit to David Austin’s nursery in England.
"Jude the Obscure'

As a result of a hybridizing program initiated in the 1950s, Austin captured the appealing features of Old Garden Roses (roses introduced prior to 1867), such as cupped or rosette-shaped flowers, and strong fragrance in bushes that have the repeat bloom and
 vigor of modern roses. I first discovered his roses while living in the UK and immediately developed a fully blown case of English Rose Fever.

I knew I was going to meet the 
renowned hybridizer as a 
result of an article I’d written on the popularity of his roses for Fine Gardening magazine. 
 I expected he’d say hello, autograph the copy of The Heritage of the Rose I’d brought along, and perhaps pose for a photo with me.
Instead, I was treated to a personal tour of his entire operation and talked with him for a couple hours about roses in general and English roses in particular.

Another of my favorites, 'Sir John Betjeman' 

The first stop on the tour was the nursery Rose Garden. Despite the fact it was early October when we visited, hundreds of roses were still in bloom. The garden features over nine hundred different roses, mostly antique roses, English and shrub roses. Pergolas draped with climbers and ramblers surround and weave through the garden.          

Courtesy David Austin English Roses

Within the main garden there are five individual gardens. The Long Garden is the main aisle from which all the other gardens lead off. Here you’ll find an extensive collection of old roses and shrubs. The Victorian Garden is a circular display filled with English roses and modern shrubs. 
Courtesy David Austin English Roses
Another informal garden features wild species roses, hybrids from other countries and an impressive display of colorful rose hips. The Lion Garden is a classic bedding garden composed of a mixture of hybrid teas, floribundas, English roses, miniatures and herbaceous plants.
'Lady Emma Hamilton

The geometrically designed Renaissance Garden is devoted entirely to English roses. A narrow canal runs down the center leading to a “temple” with pillars. ‘St. Swithun’, ‘Noble Antony’ and ‘Molineaux’ were particularly impressive in this setting. While strolling through the gardens, Mr. Austin proudly pointed out the many sculptures crafted by his wife, Pat.
'Crocus Rose'

Next we walked through several greenhouses packed with cuttings in various stages of development. Some of these would later be crossed with other seedlings. Some would move out to the trial fields. The not-so-promising would be trashed. 

The goal at the moment is to develop English roses with more vibrant colors and disease resistance. Mr. Austin is also interested in the creation of new and better cut flowers. 
'Munstead Wood' is fabulously fragrant

Every year, 150,000 pollen crosses are made by hand, that will produce around 400,000 seeds. (Meticulous records are kept of each seedling’s parentage). These seeds are planted after being chilled in a cooler for three months.

Approximately 250,000 will germinate and the resulting plants are evaluated for beauty, character, fragrance, diversity of bloom, disease resistance and potential for use in flower arrangements. 

In the fields, assistants evaluate the bushes for diseases and insect problems. Mr. Austin keeps an eye out for form, color and fragrance in a bloom. He flags those that appear promising with a bamboo stick.
'The Lark Ascending'
Years later, only four to six of the original 250,000 plants will make it into commerce.
I can’t help but wonder if one of the seedlings I saw in the greenhouse, or one of the bushes flagged by Mr. Austin in the trial fields, turned out to be one of my favorite English roses.
Looking back on that unforgettable 1998 day, I like to think I saw 'Darcey Bussell' at the moment she was taking her very first bow.
'Darcey Bussell'