Even the word brings fear and dread to gardeners. We hope we are at the end of a prolonged drought combined with record-breaking heat. The flowers we expected to peak in early fall look stressed instead of in their glory and many haven’t bloomed yet. Crocus flowers cheer us up in the scree now, and the C. speciosus flowers are smaller than usual, while C. kotschyanus, under the metasequoia look as they should. We have hoses out along the paths, and although we are not watering the beds generally, we keep the plants in pots and urns moist and we give in and water plants drooping in distress. The nursery and propagation areas are carefully watched and regularly watered but the lack of moisture distresses all of us, and we check the forecasts many times a day, always hoping for some promise of rain. It came this weekend—not the rain, but a forecast of a real soaking rain in a few more days. Suddenly, our mood changes and we begin to think of new plantings of bulbs, some from nurseries, and others from division of thick clumps planted here years ago. Young trees, and hardy perennials will go into their prepared sites and our focus turns to the woods. In the past we have seen the first snowdrop flower by now, so perhaps, by the end of this week we will find a nodding snowdrop as a sign of the new season. I had just finished writing this when the rain began to fall, first as mist and by the end of the day, a real shower.
We have record-breaking heat and drought but maintain our optimistic hope for rain; however, even without our much-needed moisture, there is activity below ground. Summer flowers begin to droop and new flower buds fail to appear, but a few signs declare the arrival of fall. The light changes. No longer does the sun shine from directly above us but instead comes at an angle, giving us more shade. Summer dormant bulbs appear just above the soil, first as bulges, then as tips of green, and finally as a flowering plants. Lycoris radiata var. pumila, appeared more than a month ago and is now ripening seeds just as its larger, later relative, L. radiata is in full bloom. Between the peaks of these two red-flowered bulbs, we celebrate every flower on Rhodophiala bifida. We have one fertile bulb so finally can increase our collection from seeds. Starting from seed is always best, for although the plants are slow to grow to blooming size, we get variations in size and color of the flowers. Masses of colchicums bloom in the Colchicum Garden, producing flowers in various sizes, shapes and colors from white to shades of violet-pink. This is always an eagerly awaited sight and a sure sign that summer is about to end. Although the first autumn colchicum flower appears in late August, the last one won’t open until October. This is an amazing performance, for when the flowers open, there are no roots on the corms and that gives us the perfect time to divide and move them without disturbance.
Cyclamen anticipate fall in mid-summer with a flower here and there in the woods. Why this one and not that one? The first one this year wasn’t the first one last year and that is part of the mystery of plants. Sternbergias appeared in August with their bright yellow cup-like flowers that look comfortable in our heat. The later, larger ones are just now blooming in the woods and in sunny places in the front gardens. We dig, divide, and move the bulbs as soon as we see them poking up through the soil. As we dig to remove weeds in the rock garden we come across crocuses with extended bloom stalks, but no roots, and, of course, we impatiently await the sight of the first snowdrop!
The garden never looks the same two days in a row much less two years in a row. Indeed, it
doesn’t look in the evening as it did in the morning. Most daylilies open each day and look
fresh throughout the daylight hours but exhausted by night; but there are some that would be
more correctly called night lilies—Hemerocallis citrina (syn. H. altissima) bloom at night and look
exhausted by morning. Either way, none of my daylily plants look the same two days in a row.
Rain lilies are in full bloom now and each morning the areas where they grow look different because most
forms and species have flowers that last only a day.
Zephyranthes smallii, a medium yellow
reblooming species, has flowers that stay open all
the night and the next day. Not only that, they
continue to produce new flowers throughout late
summer. The dianthus walk contains many clumps
of this species making that garden a cheerful early
morning welcome for several months.
Verbascum chaixii blooms from spring through
summer; however, it isn’t always at its best. In the
early morning listen the flowers glisten with dew
but by late afternoon, they droop from the heat
and by the next morning they have recovered their
glory. After they ripen their seeds, we cut the stalks
to the ground and have only a few weeks to wait
until they are back in bloom.
Often, we plant small trees,
such as styrax, which give us flowers in mid-spring,
only to discover in a few years that they have outgrown their allotted space and
after a brief display of flowers, we have dense shade and greedy roots, which
take up the moisture we had counted on for our summer display of annuals and
perennials. We remember that special spring when they were the right size for
their space. Daffodils, carefully planted and spaced, eventually grow into thick
clumps and no longer bloom. Rescuing daffodils is one of our favorite winter
tasks as we change this year’s plea for help
into a broad mass of recently divided bulbs and eventually a
spectacular display of flowers. Whether plants live or die, they present us with challenges, the most
delightful of which is a mass planting of a something, which came to our garden as a single specimen. The
worst of which is a mass of weeds, from an unexpected bully.
Spring annuals are over, their seeds collected and cleaned, and the old stalks pulled out to
make room for summer plantings. We go from bed to bed weeding, planting many of the
annuals and tender perennials we had in place last year, while we remember what didn’t work.
Some of the colors just don’t go together. There were bullies, which took up more space than they deserved or, more importantly, than we were willing to give them. The dahlias receive a weekly pruning even though sometimes it means we have to cut away promising buds ready to open.
We cut back most of our summer phloxes knowing that the new growth will be fresh and healthy and the flowers, though delayed, will bloom just as the summer reaches its peak.
We inspect all plants in the nursery, looking for those that need dividing, repotting, or tossing into the compost pile, while we look for desirable plants in the garden to propagate in order to make them available to interested gardeners. After a thorough reexamination of the deep not-for-sale cold frame, we found nearly forgotten plants, including Cypella plumbea, and Clematis acuminata. It is just about impossible to stay ahead of grass, which has seeded into the dianthus walk. As we remove the grass, we scatter the seeds of Omphalodes linifolia, cut back Geranium sanguineum, and remove excess self-sown seedlings of Hibiscus trionum. Adequate rains mean the soil is still moist, relatively cool considering our 90° days, and we plant hoping that with a minimum of care, our tender perennials will settle in quickly. This is a time of great expectations!
We experienced a dreadful period of heat and drought during the last three weeks of May. Most of our late spring annuals managed to put on their annual show, but the flowers were small and plants looked stressed. Large fissures appeared throughout the gardens but we continued our policy of watering only when we feared death for small, recently planted trees and beds. When we saw forecasts promising abundant rain, we planted the soft color garden concentrating on plants with pale flowers. Now there are Salvias ‘Wendy’s Wish’, pale yellow and orange lantanas, and verbenas, pink-tinged ricinus. Costus speciosus and Breynea disticha came out from the basement and went into the aster border. Xanthosomas went into the soil beneath the metasequoia near the smoke house. Suddenly the summer garden began to return. Mid-summer annuals began to bloom in the sunny gardens, but the garden looked unkempt with dying annuals. We have no choice but to leave poppies, larkspur, nigella, calendulas, and eschscholzias to ripen their seeds. By the end of the first week in June, the large crevices had closed, and we began daily trips to collect seeds. We always visit the areas with plants that had the most special colored flowers lured there by the joyous sounds of goldfinches that have little to do except eat and sing. Rain lilies responded, as they should—with masses of flowers on Habranthus tubispathus var. roseus in the dianthus walk.
We usually consider the last half of May the peak of our spring display of spring annuals, some of which grow from self-sown seeds that fall when and where they ripen. Others grow from seed carefully selected by us in early June. This is the time when we are most critical of the sections of the gardens where we have masses of nigella, larkspur, and poppies. We search for the brightest colors—scarlet, red, purple, and raspberry.
We look for larkspur with flowers that are white or in shades of pink, lavender, or blue. We constantly look for groups of blue or white nigella (love-in-a-mist). Years ago we had pink as well, but lost our strain of that color. When we find just the shades we prefer we mark them with strings or tape so we will know which seeds to collect.
The perfect person would probably pull out the plants with discordant colors but that is very difficult for us to do, because, if the truth be known, we like them all. Now we are thinking of next year while we enjoy the fruits of last year’s labor. There are two gardens where we finally have the preferred colors in masses—the south of the boxwood border, and the little garden at the back of the house. All we have to do is make an early morning visit and pull out the freshly opened wrong-colored flowers before the bees get to them. We will now dry, store the seeds as they ripen, clean them, and sow them in November with visions of next spring’s display in our imagination.
When I open the front door during the first week in May, a flood of fragrances greets me. Even without knowing the date, I realize this special time has come. Many sections of the garden vary in their peak times, but the Dianthus Walk is always right on schedule. Short plants growing in well drained, gravely soil make up this border. Many old dianthus from previous gardens here and from other old gardens give it the name. They aren’t fancy but they are all fragrant and in the humidity of early May the scent is powerful. Pastel shades of pink to white dominate the picture but there are other colors and forms. All winter I saw mounds of silver on moonlit mornings and one by one crocuses, then tiny narcissus, and then masses of Phlox subulata announced the approach of spring. A few volunteer verbenas with brilliant white flowers bloomed throughout the winter. The verbenas have to go—too big, too smothering when they settle down into summer growth—but they add just the right amount of height for right now. To appreciate fully the intricate plantings of this garden one must walk along the brick path to see tiny forms of chives with blue flowers, low-growing veronicas Vv. peducularis ‘Georgia Blue’,‘Waterperry Blue’, and prostrata. A few sedums and orostachys provide a base of leaves above the gravel and below that we have thymes. The thymes, some of which have spread onto the brick path, were carefully selected for color, heat tolerance, and fragrance and they bloom with delicate pink or white flowers. The real treasure in this low garden is Omphalodes linifolia, grown from seed sown every fall. Pure white flowers above gray foliage almost 1 foot high provide an airy delicacy not often seen. This garden, as most, has presented us with problems as it aged. In the 1980s, when we first made it, we planted Tulipa clusiana, which blooms in spring, is an appropriate color, and heat tolerant. The seeds, which germinated easily, have produced mature, flowering size bulbs and now, we have a real show of these lovely, yellow flowers. The problem is that as their foliage dies down, they smother whatever grows (or grew) beneath them. When summer approaches the character of the Dianthus Walk changes with bolder colors, especially on Geranium sanguineum, and in August, masses of tall, fragrant Lilium formosanum underplanted with rain lilies bearing white, pink, or yellow flowers greet me as I head down to the gate to retrieve the paper. A stroll down the Dianthus Walk is a wonderful way to start the day.
Last week Gary and his brother, David, made the final cuts on the great White Oak and left about 10’ of the trunk standing. While standing in the bucket of a bucket truck they removed chunks of wood slowly and carefully and lowered each into a trailer. When they finished, they counted the rings and gave 162 as the final count. This process took a very long time and at the end we discovered we had a bucket with about 3’ of sawdust, the rock garden with about 8” at the base of the tree, and a light coating throughout the entire bed. Fearing death to many plants and a major impact on the garden itself, we decided to remove the sawdust if possible and began picking it up and putting it into containers. Realizing this job might last for months, Gary suggested vacuuming with a heavy-duty shop vacuum cleaner and we began the process this week. The top layer was relatively easy to remove but the lower, wet parts were harder so the current plan is to work slowly and remove the sawdust as each section dries between showers. When we finish, we will spread coffee grounds over the entire area to replace some of the nitrogen lost during the decay process and plant clematis which we hope will climb on the trunk along with the Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’, and put a birdhouse on the top.
Now is the time to pollinate primulas so we went back to last year’s plantings along the new primrose path through the woods where, to our delight, we found healthy plants with lots of flowers. Each day we choose the best of our favorites, find a pin-eyed and thrum-eyed plant, transfer the pollen, then make a note of the location. Hand pollination is much more likely to give the result we want so we don’t miss an opportunity to increase our numbers.
We have had three successive frosty nights, and hope they will be the last of this season.
Each day brings forth emerging buds at ground level, newly opened flowers on trees and shrubs, and swelling leaf buds throughout the garden. Yellow, chartreuse, and shades of pink and purple are the main colors but there are subtleties of shades.
Along the edge of the field on the west side of the property masses of daffodils bloom, many of which haven’t been divided during our forty-two years here. They were planted in rows as if in a furrow made by a plow and always make us think of the very first spring which was one of discovery. We found other old forms throughout the garden that year, even some in the woods, most of which have now come into the main planting. This is an excellent time to divide bulbs—better in many ways than waiting until the bulbs settle down. We can see where they are needed, where others are growing, so we don’t dig into dormant clumps in late spring, and can see those which are struggling in their current locations.
When we look up, we see the fluffy, pale pink flowers on weeping cherries, deeper pink ones on peaches, and magenta redbuds, the earliest being Cercis siliquastrum. The freshest of chartreuse leaves on the willows hover over the Blue and Yellow garden. Small fluffy corydalis in white or shades of blue or red spread throughout the woods and are a welcome invitation to bend lower.
Trillium pusillum var. undulatum opened with wavy edges and tinges of pink on the underside of the petals. This is our most exciting trillium because it is one of several which is spreading through various sections of the woods. We found a large patch, smothered by hellebores, rescued it, divided the clump into sections, and planted them in the newly cleared triangle near the pond. Trillium decumbens is as beautiful in leaf as in flower. Medium green leaves hover just above ground with their bloom buds vertical looking as if they are about to expand and they are! T. cuneatum has opened in many places, but is still tightly closed in others.
Anemone blanda, always a welcome sight in the woods and in the rock garden, is being smothered by Ipheion uniflorum now naturalized beneath the metasequoias and spreading into the nearby lawn. Carefully we dig out the tubers and replant them away from their invasive neighbor. The flowers come in white and shades of blue and pink and dig out others seedlings that appear in the road and paths in the woods.
Blood-root stops us in our tracks to look and compare the flowers. A quick glance reveals a brilliant white flower, but upon closer inspection we see extraordinary differences—more petals, wide or narrow forms some with tinges of pink, and early or later appearances.
At this season, we go down to “the bottom” of our land where snowflakes have now replaced the snowdrops and Hyacinthus orientalis are at their peak. We found both of them on this property but have added other forms to extend the blooming period. Both are naturalizing through seeds and division. Seeds are most exciting because that way we may produce something different, perhaps even better.
Nothing could be better than to be here in the garden at this season.
In February, we expect to see the peak of our winter flowers and this year is no exception. Witch hazels are in full bloom and best viewed when backlit with the sun. Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ can look dull when seen up close on a cloudy day, but brilliant when the sun shines through its wispy orange petals. H. mollis ‘James Wells’ retains its leaves but brightens the driveway edge with fragrant yellow flowers.
The late snowdrops don’t match the earlier displays at Montrose, but a large planting of Galanthus gracilis produces a gentle flow of twisting gray green leaves and small, but numerous flowers. Large drifts of unnamed varieties give us one last excuse to crawl about and look for “the different ones” to transplant for increase and future drifts. Most of the double flowered forms are late to open their green and white petals often with intricate patterns such as those on G. nivalis ‘Blewbury Tart’. Many Prunus mumes produced fragrant flowers throughout January and February although some of the flowers were ruined by cold nights while others were discovered more by their incredible fragrance than by their flowers.
Magnolia x ‘Donna’ just cannot wait for spring and has many opened flowers. We know the next freeze will turn them brown but we finally learned to be grateful for little blessings and enjoy them whenever they open. Colchicum hungaricum ‘Valentine’ bloomed right on schedule and remains full of elegant, small lilac flowers with more buds yet to open. Throughout the woods many hellebores are at their peak, so we continue to pollinate some of our favorites—mostly species.
Tiny Narcissus cyclamineus requires a special visit in order to see its tiny flower. We had to have the daffodil shaped like a cyclamen, although increasing it is difficult. The small, but profuse Crocus tommasinianus has seeded into the lawns, woodland paths, and throughout the rock garden. Most often we leave them where they choose to grow, but we rescue those in the lawn and plant them in the woods where they grow and bloom with cyclamen, hellebores, and the last of the aconites.
Jasminum nudiflorum, January jasmine, has been very slow to open this year. I found only one flower on Christmas day so it seems more like a February jasmine this year. We are about to reduce the size of our hedge, which has insinuated itself into an adjacent bed filled with sternbergias and into the lawn near the garage, thereby almost closing the path. It is time for editing!
The great white oak is slowly coming to earth thanks to Gary and David, who carefully cut the wood into small chunks and lower it with a crane. They discovered a cluster of rocks in the interior of the tree about 30’ above ground with solid wood above and below but rotted wood and debris in the middle. We cannot imagine how that happened. We can feel the approach of spring with winter weeds going to seed, longer days, and spring flowers in bud
There is no question about it. Winter, with its unpredictable timetable, has arrived. This week we will have daily temperatures near or below freezing with high winds and also at least one day when we approach 70°. We are often asked when the garden will be at its winter peak. In general that happens during the second week in February and it looks as if that will happen this year.
Adonis vernalis has two fully opened flowers with more just emerging from the ground. Helleborus niger line the Mother-in-Law walk and Hh. vesicarius and thibetanus have flowers ready for pollination. Some of the other species bloom now—Hh. purpurascens, dumetorum, viridis, orientalis, cyclophyllus, and odorus, and hellebore hybrids bloom throughout the woods. We continue to cut off the old leaves, which sometimes seems a Herculean task but it is worth the trouble. We get down at ground level and look into the interior of the flowers.
Our large planting of Galanthus gracilis has created a carpet of grey-green leaves and tight buds of pure white petals held together with a green spathe. A warm, sunny day will see them open. The “amphitheater” has masses of Galanthus nivalis and aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) in bloom. Most of our aconites have brilliant yellow flowers but some have pale yellow ones. The pale ones just appeared here by chance after our initial planting about 30 years ago. We are just waiting for purple crocuses, miniature daffodils, and Cyclamen coum to complete this display. Cyclamen coum has been slow to open this winter. I can still count the number of flowers open but within a week or so there should be drifts of carmen, pink, or white flowers in many sections of the woods.
Throughout the garden a few Prunus mumes have open flowers while other forms have buds open far enough to indicate the color of their blossoms. A few young seedlings have made their debuts in the woods. This small tree has always been a sign of spring in mid-winter, long cherished, but often damaged by below normal temperatures.
Daffodils bend to the ground on cold mornings but usually straighten up as the temperature rises. There are more and more in bloom and each one seems a miracle. Each day brings forth new growth, more flowers and a new appreciation of this, my favorite season.
Christmas was a lovely, cold day and I spent it listing the flowers in bloom. I had anticipated the day and kept an eye out for promising buds but when the day came, I found fewer open flowers than usual. The daffodils which had bloomed earlier, were droopy because of recent freezes; most of the white quinces had promising fat, white buds, but without a stamen in sight. It was especially disappointing not to find a single Christmas rose—not a hellebore or a rose. The disappointment of that day was quickly forgotten as more and more hellebores opened their flowers in the next few days. More cyclamen and narcissus bloomed and the fragrance of Chimonanthus praecox filled the air along the driveway and along the mother-in-law walk. X Sycoparrotia semidecidua lives up to its name with yellow leaves and swollen flower buds along its branches. The parrotia parent gives last year’s leaves their bright yellow color and early winter endurance. Galanthus plicatus‘ Three Ships’ made its proper statement on Christmas day and more and more snowdrops bloom now with Galanthus gracilis filling an area in Stubble Field, hybrids growing south of the large planting of G. elwesii var. monostictus and several large groups of G. elwesii Edward Whittall Group almost at its peak.
Last week we began cutting back the hellebore leaves from last year. When the flower stalk is taller than the old leaves, I believe they no longer give the flower buds any protection and there are several reasons why we believe it is best to cut off old leaves. They may harbor fungus, which can remain viable in the soil and affect additional plants. The leaves hide some of the flowers as the stems lengthen and may smother many small plants, such as aconites, anemones, and cyclamen that bloom at the same time. Aconites and Crocus sieberi opened last week–more than 2 weeks later than usual.
We began clearing the sections of the woods where we left off last winter and removed fallen sticks and branches, dug ivy, periwinkle, honeysuckle, small and unwanted trees, and removed some hybrid hellebores and epimediums. Part of the challenge of gardening is to recognize when desirable plants outgrow their designated places. Some hybrid hellebores and the matting forms of epimediums can produce a controlled area where nothing else can grow, but they are too great a challenge for cyclamen and other less vigorous plants. We love this season and spend every minute we can searching for flowers, planning for next year, and, of course, we have another group of snowdrops to divide and plant in a new area.
Christmas List 2018
Berries or Fruit:
Hedera helix ‘Poetica Arborea’
Ilex decidua ‘Pocahontas’, ‘Finch’s Yellow’, seedlings
Ilex opaca ‘Carolina Cardinal’
Liriope muscari, black berries
Nandina domestica, yellow and red berried forms
Poncirus trifoliata ‘Flying Dragon’
Camellias, mostly unidentified C. japonica
Chaenomeles ‘Crimson and Gold’, ‘Chojubai’
Chrysanthemum ‘Golden Lida Thomas’
Erica carnea, pink
Galanthus elwesii “Sandra Lutz”
Galanthus elwesii var. monostictus
Galanthus plicatus ‘Three Ships’
Helleborus niger x argutifolius (H. x nigercors)
Helleborus x hybridus
Helleborus x sternii
Mahonia unnamed seedling
Mahonia x media ‘Charity’
Mahonia x media ‘Lionel Fortescue’
Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’
Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’
Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’
Spiraea thunbergii ‘Rosea’
Verbena canadensis white, purple
Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Summer Snowflake’
We had perfect weather for our snowdrop walk in late November. The only problem was that the snowdrops were not at a peak. This week they will be at their 2018 peak, because no two seasons are alike and this year they were slow to open.
We have three species of galanthus in bloom now: the early flowering Galanthus peshmenii, and G. reginae-olgae, both of which had flowers in late October. Several weeks later we saw the tips of G. elwesii var. monostictus and now they are fully open.
I first obtained this form of snowdrop just after Thanksgiving in the late 1980’s when I purchased a package labeled “snowdrops” on sale at The Farmers Exchange (now Southern States) in Hillsborough. I planted the bulbs under the metasequoias and expected to see flowers in mid-winter. That first year, I saw nothing but leaves, but the following year I was shocked to see flowers in late fall. At that point in my gardening life I knew nothing about fall blooming snowdrops. When the original plants multiplied into clumps I decided to see if they would grow at the edge of the woods.
By this time, 1998, we had begun to clear the area just below the aster border and I had space with large trees but little undergrowth. The bulbs quickly multiplied into clumps with many flowers, so in 2003 I imagined the woods full of snowdrops and began dividing and replanting them about a foot apart, one bulb to a hole, at the northeast corner of that section. Year after year, with my gardening helpers we divided the largest clumps until we declared The Snowdrop Woods full. Following that we did a mass planting of this same form of Galanthus elwesii at the top of one of the ridges where the land had been terraced for erosion control in the 1930s, so in 2009, we planted the ridge near our cyclamen walk. After that we planted across the slope above the ravine between the western edge of our property and woodland garden. And last winter, 2017, we put more than 4,000 bulbs on the southernmost ridge, above the flood plain. By this time, we realized we had many forms of this snowdrop, which leaves us crawling along all of the plantings to look for “different” ones—those with faces, or more than one mark on the cup of inner tepals (petals).
We have a new planting of snowdrops with faces (3 years old) in an entirely different section of the woods, which we call Holly Ridge, and are still waiting, more or less patiently, for them to increase enough to divide. Before these snowdrops finish blooming, we will have other species and varieties in flower and we look forward to seeing at least some galanthus until late February or early march. No, I will not cover the entire woods with snowdrops, but I am not finished yet!
Hurricane Michael left more destruction than Florence. We had relaxed because we expected only prolonged rain and we did have that; however toward the end of the day the winds increased and brought down some of the largest trees in our woods. A poplar fell across two fences; osage orange (Maclura pomifera) crushed the compost pile; the top fell out of one of the cypresses near the animal shelter; and a very large oak broke off at the base and lies at a right angle across the nearby trees. We were fortunate. There is no damage to the house, buildings, or garden. Due to the storm, we are later than usual removing microstegium in the woods.
In fact everything is late, even crocuses, but finally we have C. caspius blooming beneath Cedrus deodara and in the lawn in front of the house. White tinged pink flowers with a bright yellow throat mean, “watch your step”. C. tournefortii has flowers mixed with Cyclamen hederifolium beneath the metasequoias and has spread into the lawn nearby as well as into the dianthus walk and beyond. We don’t grow Crocus sativus easily. We have only one corm in the rock garden with a flower. C. speciosus blooms in many shades of purple-blue as well as white and brightens the rock garden and the cyclamen walk. C. boryi, beneath the metasequoias, has a small mass of cup-shaped white flowers.
The first snowdrops finally bloomed yesterday in the woods—well, almost bloomed. I could see clusters of flower stalks with pointed buds facing up. Galanthus reginae-olgae and G. peshmenii confirmed that fall is really here!
The best news of the past month is the newest member of our family. Mazie, a small black, white, and brown dog came to live with us just before Michael arrived and now welcomes our visitors with a bark and a wagging tail.
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.