Wednesday, December 4, 2019 0 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 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.

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. 

My vintage 40's Santa

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.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019 5 comments

Love. And Loss.

Don’t look back.

It’s sage advice that has been offered by notables from George Washington to Miles Davis to baseball great Satchel Paige.

Unfortunately, I had a lapse of good judgement recently and took a brief look at the past. I wish I hadn’t.

You see, not long ago a friend told me our old house in Maryland had been on the market again. I wondered what the place we’d left eight years before had sold for. So, I clicked on the listing and for a brief moment thought I was looking at the wrong property.

The beautiful cottage garden I’d worked on for 17 years was gone. My pond, gone. My glorious roses, gone. The garden that had appeared in the pages of Fine Gardening magazine was gone.

I cried.

A cottage garden for a charming cottage

It all started when we were working in DC after moving back from England. During a weekend sightseeing trip, we stumbled upon the alluring Eastern Shore of Maryland. We later would say it was two hours and twenty years away from Washington.

View of hydrangeas from the water
We looked at property in several areas and eventually found a delightful concrete block summer cottage on the banks of a river off the Chesapeake Bay. The house had been built in the 50s and was just plain cute with its black and white linoleum tiles, retro stove and a screened-in porch that overlooked the water. We closed on the house in November, 1992.

The following spring, I was anxious to start creating the cottage garden look I’d so admired in England – a combo of roses and companion plants. I chose a grassy area by the kitchen door and rolled up my sleeves. The very first rose I put in was a David Austin beauty ‘Heritage’.

Three years later, Chris decided to take early retirement from the Royal Navy. We’d be leaving Washington, so we made plans to knock down the old cottage and build a house in the same footprint where we could live year-round. We dug up as many of the plants as we could before the bulldozer arrived and put them in pots for the duration. 

Whew. Lots of work to do
 In the spring of 1996, I started working on my new garden. First, I had to clean up the rusty nails, broken shingles and plastic cigar filters the carpenters had left behind. Then I really rolled up my sleeves. It took a couple of years, some successes and many failures. But in time, my “tidy mess” (as Gertrude Jekyll called her cottage garden) became a reality.

While everything was coming together, I queried Fine Gardening magazine to see if they might be interested in an article about cottage gardening in general and David Austin English Roses in particular. They were, and my garden and my story appeared in 1999. The article was selected in 2001 to be part of a Garden Design series that promised “America’s Best Gardeners share design secrets.”

Fine Gardening's Lee Anne White photographing the garden
 The pond and the well bed would come later. Neighbor Jim’s Dad dug the hole for the pond with his small Bobcat.

Our late fellow rose lover Frank came over and helped Chris install the liner. The border of ‘monkey grass’ around the pond came from my friend Nan’s DC home. The bed behind the fountain was filled with roses friends had given me for a big “0” birthday and iris that came from Cherry Point Farm, once owned by the du Pont family.

The hydrangeas that lined the porch eventually recovered from being upended during construction, and returned to drawing oohs and aahs from folks travelling up and down the river. 

Boaters sometimes would stop by our dock and ask to take a closer look at the bed bursting with pink and red roses including ‘The McCartney Rose', ‘Kardinal’ and ‘Sexy Rexy’. It was a pleasure to have them admire the blooms.

When we decided to sell the house and move to the mountains, I wondered what might happen to my garden. The buyers seemed very interested in learning about roses. They offered to let me take a favorite plant or two. But we sold the property in March and were off to Australia for a month the day after the closing.

To be honest, I thought the gardening chores might turn out to be too much for weekenders. But I figured should I pass by one day, I’d still see a few of my cheery blooms waving at me. It wasn’t to be.

Still, I have my photographs and my memories.

But take my advice: don’t look back.

Monday, October 7, 2019 2 comments

The days of wine and roses

When we last left you, we were kicking up our heels in Gay Paree.

Next morning, we were cooling our heels on the fast train from Paris to Lyon.   

Relaxing in a velvet-upholstered reclining seat, it was impossible to tell how fast we were going. Someone guessed 200 miles per hour. (It’s actually 180.) All I know is what would have been a 7-hour journey on a “regular” train lasted less than 120 minutes.

All aboard!! (Courtesy Uniworld)

When we arrived, a mini bus met us and escorted the Paris group of Uniworld travelers to the ship SS Catherine. She would be our home for the next eight days as we cruised the Rhone river from Lyon to Avignon. 

Along the way (and at every stop) there would be ridiculous amounts of food and wine. So, after unpacking, we declared “let the fun begin!”
Charming Beaune
Our first actual tour day was a contrast in adventures. We started in Beaune which was the seat of the dukes of Burgundy until the 16th century. There we visited the Hospices de Beaune, founded as a hospital for the poor in 1443. Over the centuries, the hospice monks were given vineyards and they sold their wines to support their work. The wine auction continues today, and has become world famous. 

14th century Gargoyles keep a watchful eye on visitors

The tour of the hospital (also know as Hotel-Dieu) was quite fascinating from the kitchen with huge Gothic chimneys, to the apothecary to the large hospital room lined with ancient beds. There were two, sometimes three patients in each bed. They slept sitting up so “Death” wouldn’t think they had passed, and steal them away. The beds looked like they were made for dolls. It was vivid example of how small people were in those days. 

 Following the sobering tour of the historic hospital, a small group of us traveled by bus through the picturesque hamlets of Burgundy for a wine tasting and luncheon at a medieval fortress.

Chateau de Rully was built in the 12th century and has been in the same family for 26 generations. It is a noted wine estate and is especially well known for its Chardonnay wines.

Our host, the current Count, led us to the 15th century cellar for a tasting of three of his best wines. His young son, next in line to be Count de Rully, served us petite puffy cheese biscuits (I have the recipe!) between varieties.

Mmmm, dessert!
Then came the luncheon in the carriage house. Magnifique! We dined on Beef Bourguignon (in a Chateau de Rully white wine sauce), Gratin Dauphinois and Apple Tart Tatin. I have the recipes!! And, of course, the meal included generous servings of the estate wines.

We were then treated to a tour of the chateau and grounds led by our charming host. After a heartfelt adieu, we returned to the bus to head back to the ship. Most of us drifted off with visions of wine tastings and adventures to come.

Vineyards near Chateau de Rully
 But wine wasn't on my mind. I was dreaming about roses.

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!