Thursday, March 29, 2012 6 comments

Birdhouse mania and memories

My Dad loved making birdhouses.

As soon as he’d arrive at the mountain cottage in Cashiers he’d head for his shop and start planning a new project.

He lovingly crafted homes for bluebirds and gave them to everyone in the family (and anyone else who’d take one.) Then he started worrying about the bats and their living conditions, which led to more sawdust flying in the workshop.

Once every bat in Jackson County had its own residence, I suggested we work on some fancier houses next time I visited. We made a couple that looked like country chapels, and one that had little gators glued all over it. I cherish the memories of those days together.

Sadly all of Dad’s houses are now gone. A curious squirrel destroyed the last one in 2010.

But a new birdhouse tradition is about to take flight.

The birdhouse is not a modern invention.

Historians tell us there is evidence of birdhouses in Turkey prior to the Ottoman period of the 1500’s.  The small structures were built to protect birds from rain, wind and harsh sun.

European clay birdhouses originated in Belgium and Holland during the 15th and 16th centuries. Unlike those created to give birds shelter, these houses were first used to trap chicks and eggs for food.

Native Americans crafted simple houses from birch bark that included a platform for feeding. When English and German settlers arrived on the east coast, the Indians shared their secrets for building sturdy houses to help birds breed and multiply.

Today many birch bark bird abodes are made the same way they were in the 18th century. But next to the rustic ones, you’ll also find birdhouses that look like 50’s trailers, Victorian castles and a See Rock City barn.

Only thing missing here is a tiny Sears and Roebuck catalog
Dad would’ve loved the privies. 

Since I plan to dedicate our new woodland path to him, it only seemed right I put up houses he would’ve admired.

He’d be pleased to know that the local flock can now set up mountain housekeeping in style.

And as he always said, “Every birdie’s welcome.”
Tuesday, March 20, 2012 1 comments

And Suddenly it's Spring.

During my first spring in the mountains I discovered a new plant.
Yesterday I walked down to see the new stone patio by the waterfall. There I was greeted by a most unwelcome welcoming committee. More about that later.

On the way slipping and sliding down the side of a hill (the steps up to the house have been torn out) I spied a tiny yellow flower.

At first, 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 turns 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.

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

And oh by the way, the snakes are back, too.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 7 comments

Leading You Down the Garden Path

Courtesy of Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

Two important gardening events occurred last Wednesday.

First, the New York Times published a feature article about winter color in the gardens of Montrose, the historic 19th century estate not far from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The piece described how the mild winter has affected the gardens – amazingly, tens of thousands of bulbs were flowering in late January. I wondered if this was the earliest bloom on record since the time the gardens were created.

The original layout dates from 1842 when Governor William Alexander Graham and his wife Susan, (with guidance from UNC landscaper Thomas Paxton) first built the complex of gardens. Three generations of Grahams grew up at Montrose, including my friend (and fellow gardener) Meg’s father.

In 1977, Nancy Goodwin and her husband Craufurd purchased the 61-acre property and began expanding the scope of the landscape. Since that time the couple has transformed over 20 acres into an interlocking tapestry of themed gardens that fascinate season after season.  Something is blooming at Montrose every day of the year.

A gardener since age seven, Nancy Goodwin is renowned for growing bulbs and rare plants from seed. Her hand-sown hardy cyclamen in colors ranging from white to magenta, carpet the ground for weeks. This year they started putting on their show in early December.

More dazzling flowers can be seen at Montrose at the moment including hellebores, primrose and flowering apricot. 

But it was the photo of snowdrops lining a woodland trail that caught my eye because of another event going on the same day.

Starting a woodland path from scratch.

Wednesday afternoon we began building a trail from our house down to the waterfall.

Our woodland trail includes steps and mulch walkways.
There is no official design aside from some rough pencil sketches. There is no landscape guru to show us the way. Just a desire to get from here to there without falling down the mountain or ruining my jeans slip-sliding my way to the bottom.

I hadn’t thought too much about possible plantings until I saw what Nancy Goodwin had done with a woodland path at Montrose. Suddenly the prospects seem endless.

Hardy winter-blooming plants for the coldest months, ferns in the summer. Bulbs galore! Maybe a few funky birdhouses sprinkled strategically along the trail!

I’m taking photos every day and will document the project as it progresses. I’ll keep you posted as more ideas sprout.

And I’ll inquire about the first date for planting snowdrops.
Sunday, March 4, 2012 4 comments

Is the love for roses wilting? I think not!

Hybrid teas may need a bit of TLC, but I still sing the praises of The McCartney Rose.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the Sacramento Bee published an article saying gardeners are losing interest in cultivating the Queen of Flowers.

 The piece talks about the economy, the collapse of the California rose industry and bankruptcy of former giants like Jackson & Perkins. It also talks about the perception that hybrid teas, once adored for their high-spiraling blooms, fragrance and long stems, are too prissy and high maintenance for today’s busy homeowner.

As an accredited horticultural judge for the American Rose Society (and a Consulting Rosarian) I feel compelled to comment.

If interest is truly lagging there is much blame to go around.

 For starters, many hyped hybrid teas (and other varieties as well) simply aren’t good plants. I went back and looked at the All-America Rose Selections for the past few decades. It’s true, Peace and Mr. Lincoln are still around, but what happened to Taffeta (1948), Matterhorn (1966), Apollo (1972), Mikado (1988) or Whisper (2003)? They are on the rubbish heap where they belong.

Over the years, gardeners have bought these roses only to have them fail. After that, they are reluctant to try again.

 Many of the large nurseries market their bushes for 3-4 years then drop them in order to promote newer varieties. Some really fine roses suddenly disappear from commerce.

 In addition, roses that grow splendidly well in California may sizzle in Alabama or sulk in South Dakota. Every rose does not fit every region of the country.

Then along came humble Knock Out. Anxious for an easy-care alternative, many gardeners trashed their traditional bushes and replaced them with the disease-resistant shrub that doesn’t look or smell like a rose.
Don’t get me wrong – Knock Out is a wonderful landscape innovation. You can pretty much plant it and forget it. But those who grow it exclusively are missing out on some of the greatest pleasures in gardening.

 The folks at David Austin English roses have gotten it right setting up trial gardens around the US to see which of their bushes are best suited to which region. And they don’t abandon old favorites for fresher faces. (The Heritage rose I planted 20 years ago is still as vibrant and available as ever.)

 Before we moved to the mountains, I had shrub roses, mini-floras and floribundas in my Maryland garden along with a few hybrid teas. The fragrance of The McCartney Rose and porcelain beauty of Pristine were worth the extra 15 minutes a week it took to treat them with an aerosol anti-disease spray.

 I don’t believe “fancy” roses are dead. I think those of us who are cheerleaders for the Queen of Flowers need to work harder to let gardeners know there are fabulous, disease-resistant, fragrant varieties out there. Varieties that don’t demand a great deal of time or effort.

But do deliver more bang for the buck than any other blooming plant.
Friday, March 2, 2012 4 comments

Getting Off the Ground

Over the years I've come to realize that writing and gardening have a great deal in common. Both are solitary pursuits. Both can be extremely rewarding and incredibly frustrating. Both can foster tremendous success and smashing failure  -- sometimes within the same day.

There is a unique anticipation that accompanies the start of each new project, a blend of excitement and dread that comes from not knowing exactly how things will turn out. There is the endless task of editing, whether it is trimming a paragraph or shovel-pruning a disappointing rose. There are the hours of painstaking, meticulous work others never witness.
Mostly, writers and gardeners share the challenge of starting with nothing, a blank page or a bare patch of earth, with the expectation that a mixture of creativity and elbow grease will result in something special. 

Here’s hoping The Dirt Diaries will be just such an endeavor – a combination of tales from the garden, growing tips, news from the rose world and humor. Enjoy! And let me hear from you.