Monday, December 29, 2014 7 comments

Farewell 2014. It's been a Fab year.

In last year’s Farewell address I noted that I’d blinked, and 2013 somehow disappeared. Overall it was a pleasant year, but not one packed with unforgettable memories.

2014 has been strikingly different.

It all started with a road trip from the North Carolina mountains to Cambridge, Maryland for a dinner party thrown for members of my old book club (the Dorchester Divas.) It was a wonderful reunion, but the weather was ghastly and we swore we'd never travel during winter again. But I did manage to get out to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge which is one of the chief wintering areas along  the Atlantic Flyway. Despite the wind and cold I found a few photo ops.

February marked the 50th anniversary of my exclusive interview with the Beatles when the Lads arrived at Miami International Airport to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was a dizzying month filled with newspaper and radio interviews, and misty-eyed walks down Memory Lane.  The hero was John Lennon and our story appeared on the front page of The Miami Herald on February 13, 2014. I also wrote a remembrance for The Christian Science Monitor.

April brought the return of the hummingbirds and my invitation to judge at the Biltmore International Rose Trials.

Hummers returned on April 12th

I am honored to be a member of the permanent Biltmore judging panel
Seeing such beautiful roses and visiting with so many rose-loving friends was an unforgettable experience. A shrub called 'Miracle on the Hudson' flew off with top honors.

Rosy fun with Chris VanCleave, my Chris and Teresa Byington
The always spectacular Biltmore Rose Garden
Another important anniversary was celebrated in June – the 25th year since my first date with a certain officer in the Royal Navy.

Later that month we set off on another road trip visiting friends in Williamsburg, Virginia Beach, Maryland and DC on the way to judge one of my favorite rose shows at Longwood Gardens.
The wild onions of Yorktown
American Pillar (a hybrid wichurana) at Longwood

In August I wrote my second posting about the historic trees at High Hampton in Cashiers, North Carolina, including the world's largest Fraser Fir.

National Champion Bottlebrush Buckeye

The trees at High Hampton are magnificent. The gardens aren't too shabby either.

Labor Day ended with a nasty surprise as Chris was rushed to Asheville for emergency bowel surgery. He was in Mission Hospital 11 days and we wondered  if we would have to cancel our big trip in October we'd been planning for almost a year.

Did we make it? What other special anniversary was on the calender?

Watch this space...

Sunday, December 7, 2014 12 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 Barn 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.

My vintage 40's Santa
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.

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.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 4 comments

Don't sweat over fall rose care

Dear Readers,
Better late than never. I am in Australia and meant to post this sooner. And for those who read the last post about the flying foxes, they are now gone from the Royal Sydney Botanical Gardens. More on that story to come.

In a time when pumpkins and mums dominate the garden landscape, it’s a treat to see some of my favorite roses making their final appearances of the season. 

Cooler temps give Sally Holmes a pretty fall blush
These last roses of summer can often be the sweetest – the nip in the air deepens the colors and the blooms themselves are sometimes a bit larger than usual. Best of all, I don’t have to worry about pruning or fertilizing until 2015. I can just sit back and enjoy the fall show.

Of course, there are a few chores to be done in the rose garden before winter sets in. But the list is pretty short for most areas of the country and includes more  “don’ts” than “do’s.”

Munstead Wood
For starters, don’t cut your roses back in the autumn. If you prune now you’ll just suffer dieback and will have to cut back more severely in the spring.  Wait until the forsythia blooms in your area before breaking out the secateurs. 

An exception would be Ramblers that bloom on old wood  -- if you wait till next year to tidy them up, you may well cut off potential new flowers. Trim about one-third of the growth now and cut out any dead canes.

I also suggest trimming back bushes that have developed extra long canes. In my garden, English Roses such as James Galway and the hybrid tea Elina have thrown out eight-foot canes. I trim those back to waist height so they don’t whip around in winter winds injuring themselves, their neighbors or me.
Trim back taller roses like James Galway

Don’t trim off rose hips, the colorful fruits that form in the late summer and early fall. They often turn lovely shades of orange-red, and are a signal to the bush that it’s time to get ready for a long winter’s nap.

Hips are a treat for the eyes and the birds

Do tear off and destroy any leaves that display signs of disease or insect infestation. Also dig up and discard any bushes that have died. Never put diseased leaves or dead roses in your compost pile.

Do identify any bushes that might need extra winter protection. Most of the newer shrubs and miniatures don’t need special care.

Darcey Bussell can bloom into November
If you aren’t sure whether a variety is tender or not, play it safe and add an 8” mound of soil, compost, leaf mold or other organic material around the base of the bush. Check with an American Rose Society Consulting Rosarian in your area for additional advice and winter protection tips.

Finally, scour the catalogs when they arrive and start thinking about new plants you’d like to add to the garden next year.

It’s a flight of fancy that will transport you away from the woes of winter.
Sunday, October 12, 2014 2 comments

Hanging around Down Under

Dear readers, 
I originally wrote this article for The Christian Science Monitor while we were in Australia for son Sam's wedding in 2011. We're heading back Down Under soon, this time to meet baby Poppy. I wonder if the grey-headed flying foxes are still in the botanical gardens? I'll let you know!

Here is the original article. Enjoy!

Just after we sold our house in Maryland, my husband and I visited Australia for a well-deserved holiday and son Sam’s wedding.

One of our first sightseeing stops was the Royal Botanic Gardens where we checked out the Queen of Flowers and learned that Australian roses suffer from many of the same pests and diseases we cope with in the US.

The Sydney Opera House can be see from the gardens

Not long after visiting the Palace Rose Garden, we wandered over to the Palm Grove, where I spied what appeared to be some hefty coconuts hanging from the trees. 

Imagine my surprise when one of the “coconuts” suddenly started shrieking, unfurled its wings, and flew over my head on a path toward the Sydney Opera House.

Suddenly, one of the "coconuts" took off

Grey-headed flying foxes

What I thought were hundreds of hanging fruits turned out to be a colony of grey-headed flying foxes. Named because the faces of the creatures resemble a fox (I didn’t care to get close enough to confirm that), they are actually one of the largest species of bats in the world.

Flying foxes weigh as much as two pounds and have a wingspan of up to five feet. Although they generally feed at night, the bats often take a noontime zoom around the gardens. No wonder folks at the snack bar suggest sitting under umbrellas while dining. 

The bats are reputed to be very intelligent, with large eyes and an acute sense of smell and hearing. During their nightly sorties, they can venture as far as 25 miles from their campsite at the gardens. 

And because they are one of the few species that pollinates the flowers and spreads the seeds of rain forest trees, flying foxes are a vital part of the local ecosystem.

They’re messy guests

Sadly, though, they are considered a messy nuisance anywhere they decide to hang out.

And since they are damaging the trees in areas such as the Palm Grove, the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service has granted the gardens permission to begin a two- to four-week noise disturbance program to encourage the bats to settle elsewhere.

A similar program succeeded at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne.

The gorgeous Sydney skyline

Thursday, September 25, 2014 7 comments

How to grow Mums. (If you must.)

Mums have been popular for hundreds of years, but not at my house

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. 

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

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. With a little luck and a lot of water, you should have loads of blooms that will last well into October.
As for me, I’ll still be enjoying my roses.

Sunday, September 7, 2014 3 comments

I think that I shall never see, Part 2

The world's largest Fraser Fir

Back in March I wrote a Dirt Diaries posting called “I think that I shall never see a sight as lovely as a tree."

In kind of a tip of the cap to Joyce Kilmer, I visited nearby High Hampton  to see what winter had done to some of the most magnificent trees in the country.

World's largest Bald Cypress

Bald Cypress in August
For those who may not have seen that posting, High Hampton Inn and Country Club in North Carolina is a haven of southern hospitality where afternoon tea is still served, gentlemen wear coats to dinner and televisions are non-existent. I first went to High Hampton when I was in high school. Days spent there with my Dad are some of my most treasured memories.

The estate was originally a summer retreat for the Hampton family. Wade Hampton III later purchased the property and along with Modecai Zachary, built the Hampton Hunting Lodge. They also built the Church of the Good Shepard which still exists today, and a school for mountain children.

Copper Beech trunk

Copper Beech

In 1890, Carolyn Hampton (Wade Hampton’s niece) married Dr. William Halstead of Johns Hopkins, and the couple honeymooned on the mountain property. Dr. Halstead (who was also an amateur botanist) thought the land to be the most beautiful place on earth. They purchased the estate from Carolyn’s aunt and renamed it High Hampton.

Kentucky Coffee Tree (behind cabin to the right)

Today when you visit High Hampton you can see the world’s largest Fraser Fir, a National Champion Bottlebrush Buckeye, the tallest Bald Cypress in America and several North Carolina State Champs including a Kentucky Coffee Tree and a Black Locust. All were planted over 100 years ago.

I was told this tree was a Weeping Willow

It's actually a Weeping Beech

I took pictures of many of those trees five months ago and promised to come back to show you what they look like when dressed up in their summer greenery.

National Champion Bottlebrush Buckeye

So here’s how they all looked this summer. I’ll return to see them ablaze with color this fall. 

But my camera still won’t do them justice.

The trees were magnificent. The gardens weren't too shabby either.