We watched with great anxiety as Florence was predicted to make a direct hit on Hillsborough and felt a sense of relief as she changed course and headed south. Winds and showers from the storm arrived on Friday morning, September 14, and quickly brought down one of Hillsborough’s oldest and largest oaks. It fell across the power lines and sent the town into a power crisis. Because the tree was too large for the town crew to handle, we remained without power for the day. Montrose was fortunate to have a generator so life went on, without helpers but with little disruption, inside the house. We thought the worst was over until Sunday, when the winds picked up and heavy rain fell without pause. The Eno River overflowed; paths through the woods became waterways; but our major trees remained upright. The gardens were littered with branches of every size and we continue to pick them up, but we believe we were fortunate. Cyclamen bloom as if nothing happened. Sternbergias opened their flower buds, and most of the colchicums look fresh and unblemished. We cut back the damaged perennials in the sunny gardens and we almost look as if Florence never appeared here.
It seemed to happen overnight—light comes later in the morning and darkness earlier in the evening. Colchicums brighten the boxwood border and the woods are filled with cyclamen flowers. The first sight of colchicum flowers is the perfect time to move and divide their corms. Colchicums seem out of sync with most bulbous plants. They bloom before they make their roots, so they will settle into another site quickly. Flowers continue to open and roots appear shortly thereafter with no disturbance. Our attention turns to the woods and, although we still have much to do in the sunny gardens and nursery, we spend the hot afternoons in the shade pulling microstegium. We have made progress eliminating that pesky grass in several areas in the garden by pulling it out before it goes to seed. After we first cleaned off the snowdrop woods, we began on the ridges beyond. When we find bulbs above the soil we plant them in a new place. Nyssa sylvatica, the tupelo, or black gum tree, already has a few brilliant red leaves and we continue to prune and shape up some of the smaller trees, including corylopsis, hamamelis, and loropetalum. Visitors are welcome now that the sunny gardens have matured and tender plants, set in place in June and July, have settled in with fresh new leaves and flowers. Many of our pots and urns planted with tender plants finally look as we hoped they would. Although we prepare for the approach of Hurricane Florence, we continue to work as if tomorrow will be as pleasant as today.
Lovely, much-needed rains came and left the soil damp but not hard. New plants, recently set in the ground, perked up. Grass turned green again and our spirits were uplifted. We mulched all of the sunny gardens with the leaves from last fall and planted the color gardens. We turned our attention to trees and shrubs and pruned out dead and misshapen limbs and water spouts and finally we focused on the giant Juniperus virginiana that grows in full sun north of the driveway. This is a major tree at Montrose and was host to weedy vines including grape, ivy, poison ivy, and virginia creeper. We dug pokeweed, and Geum urbanum, that weedy little geum with seeds that cling to gloves, other clothes, and to Angie, our aged dog. We pulled out lots of trees including a mulberry, dozens of nandinas, privets, and ash trees and then we stood back and saw the tree as we had never before seen it. We measured it and discovered that it is 70’ high, with a tree canopy of 58’, a circumference of 16’ (192”), and diameter of 6’. We believe it is our largest and oldest tree and we feel honored to live with it.
We began our attack on two major pests in the summer gardens—an inula species and Anemone canadensis, both of which were planted here during the nursery years. The problem with these plants is their ability to grow again from the tiniest bit of root. First we removed every scrap of plant visible above ground and all the roots we could find. We plan to use a carefully directed herbicide on the bits that return. Although we hope for success if not complete eradication, we expect control.
More fall bulbs come into flower every day with clumps of rhodophialas in bloom near the corner of the May garden, and Prospero autumnalis, Acis autumnalis, and Cyclamen graecum in bloom beneath the deodara cedar. Cyclamen hederifolium blooms throughout the woods.
The summer continues to produce a few flowers and a lot of complaints. We complain because we are so incredibly dry. When we moved to Montrose and began our garden, I decided to try to make a garden without an irrigation system and without watering the beds in between rains. My solution is to plant them shortly before a rain, to spread mulch over the surface of the beds after we plant, and to hand water the new plants for a week or so. This year has been a challenge. We planted when the weather forecasters led us to believe we would receive rain within a day or two. Alas, we have not had a good rain for weeks now. Dark clouds appear in the late afternoon sky and seem to vanish over Hillsborough. Some of our most reliable plants, which bloom without our adding water, include hibiscus, both chance seedlings and the ones we planted years ago. They look as good as if we had watered them daily. The surprise about this is that most hibiscus have the reputation for craving water. Our favorite, H. dasycalyx, never begs for water and has narrow leaves, a shaggy calyx, and creamy white flowers. This species seeds around in the garden; one of our best plants grows in one of our driest places—right in the middle of a gravel path in full sun. Yes, Hillsborough soil is special! We recently cut the dead limbs and removed most of the lowest branches from a large yew, a Canadian hemlock, and an unidentified corylopsis, which grow near the driveway. Now we can walk under these large trees, see their structure, and look across the bed to the center of the circle garden. Our next challenges are to remove the ivy and poison ivy, which grew in their shade. That will be my job for I am the lucky one—not allergic to poison ivy!
By this time every year we have felt the intense, heavy heat of summer in central North Carolina. We know we have almost 3 more months of this weather and so we look for signs of fall. One of the most delightful small fall-named bulbs, Prospero autumnale, blooms near the deodara cedar. We met this plant first as Scilla autumnalis, and began with one bulb, planted in the rock garden. Year after year that one bulb appeared as a beacon of hope at the beginning of summer and one year I looked more closely and saw a stem containing lots of seeds. From that year until this, we have collected and planted at least one pot full of seeds. The first generation of seedlings went under the deodara cedar where they grew and spread until now we have a mass with seedlings coming up and blooming in the lawn nearby. On my evening walk last week I found a Cyclamen hederifolium with two flowers along the cyclamen path in the woods. We settled into the work of early summer and began clearing off the sunny gardens. We removed more bananas, and Saponaria officinalis, an attractive nuisance throughout the May Garden. We took loads of debris to the compost pile and the brush piles. “Good” debris, i.e. that without seeds or invasive roots go to the compost bins and “bad” debris, that with seeds, woody stalks, or bulbous roots go to the brush piles. Our final challenge this year is the presence of a doe and her fawn, so later this week we will have a deer drive in the hope that she will realize the grass really is greener on the other side. Wish us luck!
After a remarkably cool, pleasant week, we are now in heat of summer. Recent rains keep the lawns and fields green and many newly planted seedlings and perennials settled down in their new locations within a few days. I had hoped to write about yuccas, some with ivory flowers on stalks five feet high. They came and brightened the corners of the beds but most are over now and so we have cut them down. Sometimes we can just bend the entire stalk bearing leaves and flowers, all the way to the ground and it will break off at the base; however, most of the time we have to saw the base of the blooming division to remove it and stimulate the growth of a new rosette.
Masses of larkspur with flowers in shades of blue, white, lavender, and pink continue to bloom while most of the other spring annuals are going to seed. Poppies have lured goldfinches into the garden and they sing all day as they go from plant to plant. Our challenge is to collect the ripe seeds we have marked as special—bright shades of red, purple, burgundy, raspberry as well as pure white. Goldfinches aren’t the only creatures that like poppy seeds. Mice quickly discover the gathered seed if we leave it where can be found in the potting room or law office. This year, we have them in open bags in the laundry room in the house in hopes that the mice won’t find them there, and so far, they haven’t. Nigella is another annual from which we collect seed. We can pop off the seed heads and shake the ripe seeds into sacks, ready to be packed up for sale during our fall open day. While the annuals fade, recent rains have given us the best show of hydrangeas ever and both sterile (mop head) and fertile (lace cap) forms brighten the shady gardens. Where the spring annuals once thrived, lilies and gladiolas now add splashes of color throughout the gardens.
We celebrated the garden on May 12 with an open day and record-breaking heat, which followed weeks of intense weeding, pruning, and weather worries. The poppies were not in bloom, but roses stole the show. Not only were they covered with flowers, but they perfumed the garden in a delightful way. There were sections where the flowers were not very showy but the fragrance made us stop to “smell the roses”, which seemed a trite statement until we actually did it. The star of the day was Rosa ‘Hippolyte’, a shrub Gallica that had grown out into the path and was covered with double, dark mauve flowers. Although this rose blooms but once a year, we are always thrilled to see it. Other roses covered the fences and lath house and we were amazed at the sight of R. ‘Dr. W. Van Fleet’ climbing through a large Chamaecyparis. Three plants of this rose grew along the cedar post and wire fence at the north end of the kitchen garden when we moved to Montrose in 1977. We left them there, replaced the fence, and they have never failed to please us with their profusion of double flowers, fragrance, and delicate pink color once a year. Their more famous sport, ‘New Dawn’ is similar but a little less exuberant possibly because it blooms throughout the summer. Several days of wonderful rains brought forth flowers on nigella, larkspur, and poppies and transformed the sunny gardens into fields of color. We emptied the greenhouses and set many agaves into their usual urns and rain that evening began to change them from anemic-looking specimens to healthier looking plants. We began cutting back asters, chrysanthemums, and teucriums in the hope of controlling their naturally lax habit and welcomed the first flowers on Yucca rostrata, at the entrance to the circle garden. Seeds are rapidly ripening so we collected cyclamen, Delphinium tricorne, and Enemion biternatum and planted them right away. We said goodbye to spring and welcome to summer.
As the flowers on the tree peonies here at Montrose fade and fall, they leave behind many promises in the form of seed capsules, some of which are colorful, all of which won’t ripen until mid-summer. Our focus is on preparing Montrose Garden for open day in two weeks. We pruned the woody salvias by cutting away woody stems without buds or leaves and then removing some overgrown branches to let in light and air to plants nearby. This will help stimulate new growth. Hydrangeas get similar treatment, but sometimes I wonder how appropriate these shrubs are for our climate. Year after year the tip buds expand too far before the last freeze and flowers never develop. This year we cut lower on the stalk in the hope that we will see swelling buds and flowers by June. The Trillium Slope lures us down every day for Primula sieboldii and the Trilliums cuneatum, luteum, lancifolium, and a few grandiflorum continue to bloom and are accompanied by my mother’s yellow ladyslipper orchids, Cypripedium calceolus. Irises bloom throughout the garden—in sun and in shade. Iris tectorum and cristata grow best in the woods, rock garden, and shady areas in the perennial borders while I. sibirica and I. germanica prefer the sunny borders. Aquilegias in almost every color brighten the gardens in both sun and shade. We enjoy the subtle, soft green and brown of A. viridiflora and the yellow form of A. canadensis but our main show consists of self-sown A. vulgaris, most of which are purple/blue, or pink.
Besides weeding, which is our main occupation during this season, we also pot on seedlings, divide plants, and fill in the gaps in the borders. We revised a large section of the Blue and Yellow garden last week, and replaced the aggressive Salvia guaranitica with chartreuse-leaved hostas, Carex morrowii, Irises and a few blue grasses. The Dianthus Walk has never been prettier. A cooler than normal April kept the phloxes in bloom and now the many varieties of Dianthus have joined them with their fragrant flowers in white or shades of pink.
By the end of last week, many of our tree peonies were in full bloom. We have many forms of Paeonia ostii with flowers in shades of pink or white. Most flowers are about 5 inches in diameter with slightly ruffled leaves and all are fragrant. We love seeing them early in the morning when, in order to protect their sexual parts, their outer leaves are gently laid across the pistil and pollen bearing anthers. We stand in the center of the circle garden and breathe in the heavenly scent. Yesterday we discovered a splendid second generation seedling, which we suspect was pollinated by another species. Trilliums fill the gardens along the mother-in-law walk and the entire garden is overlaid with Enemion biternatum’s delicate white flowers. The enemion began to bloom at Christmas! A large planting of Arisaema sikokianumin full bloom lures us down to the new woods path every day and once there we continue to see the spring cyclamen, which continue to delight us. Both Cyclamen pseudibericum and C. repandum have flowers in shades of pink. As for C. hederifolium, it’s all leaves now—big beautiful leaves, which are green overlaid with delicate patterns of lighter shades and some that are all silver/gray.
Last weekend Montrose had what we hope is our last little snow storm for this winter. Large, fluffy flakes began to fall in late afternoon, quickly covered the lawn, and continued throughout the night but by morning, we had a snow-covered lawn and uncovered paths. Clumps of the smaller daffodils, Narcissus bulbocodium and fernandesii, never even bent with the snow and the day was warm enough for hand weeding in the rock garden and dianthus walk. The large planting of Arisaema sikokianum remained half open and those plants are only now showing their pure white knobs (spadix) below unfurling chocolate striped spathes. We spent much of this week weeding out a tiny blue-flowered annual veronica, which was growing vigorously in the sunny garden, and crowding out the poppies we seeded in November. We hope that more poppies will germinate and grow now that the beds are weeded. By week’s end we saw promises of warmer weather and above freezing nights here at Montrose so we transplanted calendulas and eschscholzias at the edges of the beds. Every evening we walk along the new primrose path now filled with plants just beginning to bloom. We walk over the next ridge to see Cyclamen repandum with flowers in shades of pink and visit our largest planting of C. pseudibericum blooming with deep magenta flowers along the road to the pond. The large planting of mid-season narcissus at the edge of the field has begun to fade and the next group are in full bloom. N. ‘Thalia’ grows south of the cyclamen walk and remains one of our favorites with twin white flowers. Let’s hope April is not the cruelest month this year!
February at Montrose Garden left us feeling as if we were in the midst of spring. Blooming magnolias, narcissus, primroses, and bloodroot gave us color and worry. March roared in at the end of last week bringing with it “normal” temperatures, rain, and wind. It's the time of year to prune the shrub roses in the sunny gardens so we removed dead wood and excess growth in the center of each plant. We cut back the longer healthy stalks just above an outward facing bud to direct its growth outward, leaving the center with plenty of air flow. Lastly, we fertilized with Rose Tone. A cold but gentle rain gave us the perfect conditions for planting primroses. These plants were grown from seeds set by us in the spring of 2016 and sown in early fall of that year. The seeds germinated quickly and when transplanted into individual pots, grew into vigorous plants by the spring of 2017. Ideally, we would have planted them in the fall of that year but because we were in the midst of a serious drought, we left them in a shallow cold frame until last week when we selected the best colors and forms for sale and for our garden. Now we have a real primrose path with masses of flowers. With luck, this cool weather will remain with us for an extended period and the new planting will lead us to visit this section of the garden daily so that we will begin the process all over and pollinate the best of each type. We also pollinated several narcissus species as well as the delightfully fragrant roman hyacinth, Hyacinthus orientalis. We started working in the sunny gardens and began to clear off each garden while also thinning the spring blooming annuals so the remainingseedlings can grow into better, stronger plants. We have also been working on repotting and dividing potted plants in the cold frames to get them ready for sale or to be planted in the garden. We divided many species of the terrestrial orchid, Bletilla. Some bulbs were potted for sale while others were saved for stock and some were planted in the garden. Trillium seed that had been sown in 2013 had finally made many tiny, healthy looking plants that were also potted to grow on and sell.
Below you can find the process of dividing and repotting Bletilla 'Innocence',which we grow here at Montrose Garden.
What happened to our winter? Where are those cold nights and crisp mornings when we wear so many layers of warm clothes we can barely move? Those morning when, after moving, pulling little trees, ivy, honeysuckle and other woodland pests, we remove layer after layer? Hydrangeas have begun to expand their buds, the later flowering narcissus are in bloom, and snowdrops droop ready to return to the slightly cooler earth. We even saw the first bloodroots in flower this past Friday. The appearance of these long-awaited plants and flowers excites us but we worry about their survival. Will there be a devastating cold snap to destroy the ever-swelling buds on trees and shrubs? We don’t know. We work outside almost all day every day, even in the winter.
This winter at Montrose we concentrated on our collection of hellebore species, and hand pollinated our favorites hoping to offer seedlings in a few years. We divided many clumps of narcissus, which were growing so tightly together they couldn’t bloom. We dug them, then divided and replanted each one into the area where we have other spring flowering bulbs at the edge of the field. We spend many happy days in the woods, where we cleared weeds and saplings and planted another terrace with snowdrops. This new area is about 100 yards long and Bruce, our fantastic volunteer’s husband, estimated that this ridge now contains about 4600 bulbs all divided from the snowdrop woods this winter. We will start seeds soon for plants to put into the garden when we believe the warmth is here to stay. We divide and replant perennials for sale in fresh soil, and we take cuttings of suitable plants that we expect will root at this season. We don’t stop to smell the roses yet but we do stand near Tony Avent’s great introduction, Edgeworthia chrysantha ‘Snow Cream’, and rejoice that we are able to grow such a treasure.
The images below illustrate the process of pollinating the Hellebore, Helleborus purpurascens. This species is pollinated so that we will be able to collect ripe seed in mid March, the seed will then be sown, and grown on.