Grounded & Blessed

The beauty of Acer palmatum var. unknown against an emerald boxwood green

I was out this morning under an umbrella of roiling clouds, scooping leaves from our two small ponds. With each gust, leaves shook from the trees in dervishes, raining yet more of autumn to float upon the water. But that’s okay. It’s a contemplative exercise, soothing to the spirit, and it’s just so beautiful.

American Bullfrog contemplating Autumn
A Zen moment in the life of an American Bullfrog



At the back pond, on the margin between cultivated gardens and woods, I share the view with questing frogs and tree limbs studded with opportunistic squirrels. On the hill behind the barn, the beech trees rustle with roosting turkeys. I accept the invitation and go for a walk.

Passing by an old boxelder maple in decline, its trunk decorated with leathery Polypores, possibly Phellinus gilvus, though cupped. Further along, other Polypores, this time tiny Trametes versicolor spangle the sides of an old post. I step lightly. If I stay low as I approach the rise to the old TVA pond, I might get lucky, privy to a raft of migrating waterfowl. Instead, I surprise another squirrel and flush out our resident Blue Heron. And right there, a hundred paces up the hill, a half-dozen DSCN0217wild turkeys scratch amongst the beech mast. I climb to the top of the dam, stepping around the crushed and flattened leaves where a deer lay last night. From the tiny hoof prints sprinkling the mud, it looks like Mama’s idea of a good hiding place.

As I stand atop the weir, enjoying the fiery colors of sourwoods, maples, dogwoods,  I know how blessed we are to live here surrounded by nature, that recently recognized – again – prescription for the ills of humanity. Some might disagree. Only along the ridgeline towering now above my head can we get cell phone reception on our flip phone. Internet is available only through satellite with its molasses paced speed; and as a consequence and by choice, neither of us has ever considered a Facebook page – unless you count the one my nieces set up for me as a joke fifteen or so years ago. They used an old second grade picture of me, chubby-cheeked and snaggle-toothed. For all I know, it might still be out there somewhere in the ether.

But John and I ground ourselves every day working in the gardens and striving to preserve what’s left of the history of this farm and these woods. This land was farmedDSCN0328 with care and diligent husbandry for close to a hundred and fifty years, before it fell to a shiftless lot in the 1950’s. While digging another hole for a volunteer Magnolia macrophylla or transplanting another wood fern from up the cove, I still, on occasion, run my spade into a thudding mass of folded plastic, discarded and buried under fifty years of autumns and falling leaves.

It takes caring and mindfulness and plain hard labor to reverse the sacrilege of neglect imposed on a piece of earth. But we are thankful for the work, and blessed to realize we are but small particles in the divinity of nature. And that we must “first do no harm”, and then must never take more than our share.

Autumn SunlightTime to walk back to the house. I cut through the barn and look up at the rafters. No bats, the dusty quality of the guano on the ground below evidence that they’ve moved to winter quarters. Brown Bat choosing to be a loner.



Past the tractor shed, I pause at the new garden pond, again, to dredge out a few more leaves. Looking about me, I see the squirrels are taking advantage of the stone wall, performing their own adaptation of the Nutcracker. Yep, Grounded and Blessed. That’s me.


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New Secret Recipe for Gardenia Success

Gardenia jasminoides "Ruin Garden"

Coquettes all, Gardenias tease with their shiny green foliage and promise of forever; they seduce with their fragrance like silky nights on Delta shores. Only such sirens could make me bend my rule – “three times die and you’re no more”. But after trying every acid, sandy, loamy, free-draining, full sun, shady afternoon, planted high recipe I could find, I called it quits at five deaths. Not another penny did I spend on a soul-stirring Gardenia. But I failed to reckon with the two freebies on offer from a generous plant breeder.

Sinking them in a free-draining, slightly acidic, moist soil, next to our dovecote “ruin”, I recited a little Voodoo and, thinking positive thoughts, crept away lest I disturb the little beauties. They lasted through the summer, began to turn pallid come autumn, downright necrotic during winter, pushed out two new leaves this past spring, and then dropping all their leaves, died.

Skeptic or dreamer that I am, I waited until the end of April – more out of a need to scold myself with the pitiful sight of gnarly roots and branches than to encourage anything like hope – before digging up the Gardenias and starting across the creek to the compost heap. Too tired and discouraged to carry on up the cove, I stopped off at the new garden and dropped them out of sight between a red maple and a box elder stump. Maybe they’d find salvation in death, adding a little humus to the churned up splinters and mud left behind by the deconstruction of the old log barn.

A few weeks ago, I stepped outside into an August morning awash in what already felt like the sweet wine of October. In my arms I carried a tray of Carex ‘Everillo’ mixed with a half-dozen hellebore seedlings. Time to move a few more orphans from the greenhouse into the Spartan landscape I alternately called “Kim’s Annex” and the “Barnless Garden.” The axed box elder made an adequate plant table for the sedges and Lenten roses while I ruminated on where to plant them. Would the hellebores ground the spindly-legged Camellias or perhaps, better yet, skirt the raw rock wall? If wall it could be called with its lofty one stone height.

Gardenia - New Secret Recipe for Success
The Barnless Garden – New Home of Gardenia jasminoides planted with the “secret recipe for success.”



Moving the hellebores from the wall over to the Camellias and then to the Lilliputian forest of Digitalis ‘Silver Fox’, I scooted the ‘Everillos’ over on their stump and joined them to meditate upon the scene. I almost stepped on it – shiny green-leafed twin to the one at its side, both throbbing with rude health and vitality. They – still holding the shape of their late black plastic pots – sat poised atop the ground, side roots exposed, just as I’d dropped them months before. Except for all that burgeoning life.

I’ll keep my expectations low. See how it goes. I doubt I’ll ever see a bloom, but I’ll settle for life. Maybe, after all, I stumbled on a new recipe for cultivating Gardenia jasminoides. If, I can stop myself from throwing a little soil over those roots.  If, I can restrain my urge to treat them to just a little water. If, I can keep my interfering, gardening hands to myself. And if, pigs can fly.


The image above – The Ruin Garden where the Gardenias, sad and forlorn, wasted away to nothing.

Creating a Water Garden for Lilies, Lotus and Frogs


I’ve spent most of my life and career surrounded by plants, the terrestrial kind. But gardeners, we’re always on the lookout for a new challenge and the steeper the learning curve the better. That’s why early spring two years ago found my husband and me digging a hole two feet deep and six feet in diameter in the center of the ammonite-spiral path through Kim’s Garden. Into that hole we sunk a similar sized galvanized livestock tank and filled it with water. Three days later the brown truck backed down the driveway and “Mary” alighted carrying a box the size of a four-slice toaster. Inside, our entire water garden – two hardy (zone 5) water lilies, ‘Perry’s Baby Red’ and ‘Walter Pagel’, a bundle of purple leaf cabomba for shading, red-stemmed parrot’s feather for oxygenating and a batch of frogbit – lay in a nest of biodegradable peanuts.

And then began the time of miracles as both ‘Perry’ and ‘Walter’ rose from the depths to bloom their first spring, and a small khaki-colored frog, dubbed Henry, took up residence.

Every day throughout the spring and summer, we found reasons to detour around our little pond, admiring the reflection of clouds mirrored in the water, contemplating the ripples from a sudden breeze, clearing the fallen debris from surrounding trees. We’d often come upon Henry having his Zen moment among Medusa’s cast stone strands, placed there for his meditative pleasure and his safe escape from the pool. By the end of summer, he was hosting gatherings of his bullfrog buddies and paramours.

But the chill meeting me as I stepped out the back door put an end to my complacency. Time to ready the pond for winter, and we didn’t have a clue how to go about it.

We consulted the experts – a lot of them, in books and on the Internet – many with conflicting advice. To us, at least, it seemed the companies selling pond plants and equipment supplied the most complete information. We compared, sifted, gleaned, and with winter drawing close decided to pick the instructions that made the most sense and to trust our instincts. And in the end, as often happens, it proved quite simple.

In our Zone 7a, water is not supposed to freeze deeper than a few inches, if that; so after the first hard frost, I pruned the leaves on our hardy water lilies back to pot level. To keep the pond clear of rotting vegetation, we removed the frogbit and composted it, dislodging any of the potato-looking buds we found and dropping them to the bottom of the pool (normally a natural occurrence) to see if they’d sprout the next spring. We left the parrot’s feather and the cabomba submerged.

But what to do about our community of American Bullfrogs in the cold dark days ahead? The answer? Leave them to it. They’d pass the winter hibernating, settling among the pots and vegetation at the bottom of the pond or moving to the nearby creek and sinking to its muddy floor, breathing through their skin. Their own type of anti-freeze – high concentrations of glucose in their vital organs – would help in combating the cold.

We spent the next weeks scooping leaves from the pond and enjoying its wildlife. When the bone deep cold began to creep into our valley, John and I did our own hibernating – inside the house with cups of coffee, a warm fire and a stack of books.SAM_2356

The following spring a longed for lotus joined Henry in the pond; then I decided he needed two – Nelumbo ‘Chawan Basu’ and ‘Gregg Gibson’. I never imagined leaves so iridescent, a bloom so beguiling, so full of mystery. I, also, never imagined they’d grow so big, extend so many leaves. I wondered how Henry and his gang managed to find their way out from under all that luscious foliage. Later, I found evidence the gang had been getting up to a little procreation under the lotus and lily leaves. Our family was growing.

Last fall, we, again, prepared the pond for winter. Or so we thought. Weeks of single digit temperatures, over night and late into the morning, froze the pond to a depth of twelve inches, encasing the largest lotus pot in solid ice. Looking into its depths, I thought of Narnia.

This spring, ‘Chawan Basu’ moved to a new home in a deep pot outside the kitchen door. Leaves emerged. In Henry’s pool, the lily pads rose to settle and float upon the barley-cleared water. Looking down upon ‘Gregg Gibson’, I saw no sign of life. Instead, tadpoles, like so many half-licked Tootsie Roll Pops, bobbed among his decimated stems. Taking a back seat to the Oscars, this show kept us mesmerized for weeks, until first one lily pad after another starred its own froglet. And there between cloven lily pad and streaming frogbit, another kind of leaf – rounder, fluted, bluer – floated. ‘Greg Gibson’, tendril crawling over or under its pot had rooted deep in the sediment at the bottom of our small pond, a survivor after all.

Lost Gardens, Lost Plants

Beautiful foliage makes a garden.

Out in the garden this morning, I’m administering last rites to first one winter weary tree, then another.

Rain and snow and sub-freezing temperatures assaulted us here in the southern Appalachian foothills for the entire month of January. February brought record rainfalls. Bad enough the days and days of unrelenting cold and rain, but then the roller coaster ride began. And for three months the garden couldn’t tell from one day to the next if it was July or January.

Out the kitchen door, I follow the gravel path to the old iron gate and step through. Up on the back porch our dogs, Dinah and Charlie, critique my progress. The katsura tree looks heavy with dew. Like an aspergillum a branch dips, sprinkling droplets, baptizing Dinah’s head. Planted fifteen years ago as a four-foot sapling, we now look up at it from our second story, this Cercidiphylum japonicum – the epitome of grace in ascending layers. Witness to our first katsura, maturing in the Gardens of Reynolda in Wake Forest, North Carolina, we bought one on our way home. In the years since, it has become a familiar and beloved part of this place. Only a little frazzled from the last late frost, it looks good.

Beyond the katsura’s reach the sun shines on this back garden for five hours of each day, in spots maybe six. I stop, surprised by an unlikely casualty, deserving of a moment’s silence. Bought as a pair three years ago in a “Fall Bloomers Crepe Myrtle” sale, the gallon-sized Lagerstroemia x ‘Natchez’ twins looked like the before in the old Charles Atlas ad from the 1950’s – pale and spindly and afraid of a fight. Planted three boot strides apart to frame a bird table, the two ‘Natchez’ settled into their new home of loamy clay, made more porous with streaks of leveling sand left over from a septic tank excavation years before our time here. I don’t recall much about the day I planted them, other than it was early fall still miserable with summer weather – bone dry but muggy with gnats. The crepes received the initial standard soaking followed by weekly ministrations until winter arrived to take over. I left them to it.

At the onset of this last winter, they stood over six feet tall – more than double their original size – but still too young, yet, for their trunks to turn sinewy with the glossy burgundy coloration of their Lagerstroemia fauriei parent.

Anyone familiar with crepe myrtles knows it’s a struggle to kill one save with an ax. But on my reconnaissance, I find one of the pair still bare, its limbs dull, the life force surrendered.

I move on.

Two springs back in the buying frenzy of the Arboretum plant sales, I lost control, yet again. Numbered among my acquisitions were a Magnolia virginiana var australis ‘Mardi Gras’, the lustrous green leaves rimed a chartreuse gold; a Cestrum parqui to perfume the hours before dawn; and a Magnolia figo, the banana shrub, zone 7’s all. In the border skimming the creek, only the figo shows signs of recovery, pushing out three lovely, trembling leaves. A blessing in the winter with their “ever greenness”, these magnolias suffer in its icy winds, losing precious moisture through those evergreen leaves. I thought I’d done well siting them all, studying our sloping, undulating terrain, gauging the fall of sunlight, the protection from late frosts. Looks like I got it wrong.

Looking out to Kim’s Garden beyond the blue bench, I see the camellias – so often prima donnas in this garden – have survived and are putting on new licorice-red growth.

I save until last my two, long-coveted, botanical gems. ‘Perfume Princess’ droops, forlorn, denuded but not yet withered. On trial in the garden, the Daphne odora, a new from Tesselaar Plants, was bred by New Zealand’s renowned plant breeder, Mark Jury. It has already survived two winters with little damage, blooming sporadically throughout, exhaling its magical fragrance. But none of us were prepared for the chaotic extremes of this last wintry season. I reach for a stem to check for flexibility, but stay my hand. I don’t want to know – not yet.

And now I approach my Melianthus major ‘Artonow’s Blue.’ Bought just last year, it spent the summer enchanting us all. Each morning, I’d walk out the back door and see the dew pooling in its magical, crenelated leaves – the dew being the extent of the moisture for much of last summer. I think it was the third late-winter temperature soar and plummet when it gave up, dropped all its leaves, the stone wall at its back failing in its promised protection. No longer able to face the skeletal remains of the honey bush, I cut it down. Now I’ll wait. See if it will sprout from the roots.

I stand and look toward the cypress grove. Clematis ‘Polish Spirit’, performing somersaults, sprints to the top of the arbor. I walk through and glance down to the stump belonging to Ficus palmata ‘Icebox’. ‘Artonow’s Blue’ all over again.

But for every tree or shrub or perennial lost – Clematis ‘Pilau’, Dierama ‘Blackbird’, Rosa ‘Desdemona’ – I see a dozen survivors.

The contorted hazel, whose buds looked like tiny fists refusing to open after their first aborted attempt two months ago, now stands half-dressed in glossy green leaves. And the Magnolia sieboldii ‘Michiko Renge’ – the Japanese Empress, the lotus flower – greets me fully leafed, its fourth resurrection proving successful. Michiko’s one remaining flower bud hangs mummified.

Most of those lost had been in the ground less than three years, proving the vulnerability of youth, the resilience of maturity. Having the experience of my own maturity, I’ll wait before I bury my dead, give them the summer, maybe longer. And if those left standing can’t quite muster another revival, I’ll resurrect them with a coat of purple paint – colorful sculpture for winter.

In the meantime, I’ll go inside and order another Melianthus, this time the straight species, purported to be a little hardier. Then I’ll come back outside on the hunt for the “perfect” location to plant it. I read that it needs to be planted three to four inches below the soil line. Before it arrives I’ll study on it, do a little research.



Melianthus –     Digging Dog Nursery

Cercidiphylum japonicum –     Mr. Maple

Finding the Uncommon Fruits Among the Natives

The road was a two-car squeezer of yellow clay captured between ditch banks three-feet high. Yellow clay produces a prodigious amount of dust, and every summer of our childhood my brother and I, feet bared and toughened, kicked our share of it on the lookout for wild plums. My mother called them Bullaces – a name left over from our English roots and the small black plums originating there – as she picked her own supply for jam making. Still another name for the small red and yellow fruits of Prunus angustifolia is Chickasaw plum. But wild plum or Bullace, the names still evoke in me those late, sultry afternoons and the burst of sweetly tart juice running over my tongue. By the time the lightning bugs came out, we’d be grubby and sticky, fighting off the yellow jackets, our stomachs distended with the sweet ambrosia offered along a country road.

Blooming on old wood, the small, white, fragrant blossoms of the native Chickasaw appear before the leaf, looking as if tiny white butterflies were celebrating spring. Hardy in zones 5 to 9, it adapts well to a wide range of soil types, requiring little maintenance once established. Not picky, it can grow in full sun or part shade.

Grown as a small tree (to twenty feet) with its slender, spreading branches and glossy mahogany bark, it makes a lovely addition to a wildlife or fruit garden. But I like it best growing naturally in a thicket or in a mixed native hedge where the flowers blanket the trees in spring and the small red fruits look like baubles for Solstice in late summer.

     Prunus angustifolia provides nesting sites for songbirds and game birds – mockingbirds, bobwhites, brown thrashers. Prairie chickens and domestic fowl find sanctuary inside its thickets.  And small children on long ago afternoons of plum picking might just be able to share the bounty with a curious and hungry deer.

For me it was the Chickasaw plum, for my daughter it was the persimmons off my mother’s tree.

My mother’s persimmon, the native Diospyros virginiana, grew at the corner of their house. Becoming pudding-like when ripe, the fruit would drop from the tree onto the driveway, providing a feast for a little girl and the squirrels chattering above. Once common in valleys and on upland plateaus across the Eastern and Central U.S. south of the Great Lakes, it’s less known now.

When we first moved to our farm in the foothills of the Appalachians, we found a persimmon tree growing alongside the footbridge spanning the creek behind the house. That first year, we watched its fruit turn from green to yellow to amber, anticipating the honey sweet flesh of this “Fruit of the Gods”. One morning we looked out to find the tree stripped. Not one persimmon left hanging. From up at the barn, we heard them – the flock of turkeys that roost in the Beech woods. They sounded sated, full of ripe persimmons.

Although not as high in nutrients as our native Diospyros, many of the Japanese varieties of Diospyros kaki are small enough to be tucked into a border or anchor a corner of the house. At only 10 feet ‘Ichi Ki Kei Jiro’ is self fertile – unlike the native that requires a male and a female – and the fruit can be eaten while still firm. And maybe you’ll stand a better chance against marauding turkeys, or squirrels, or deer or a little tow-headed girl.

Do children still sing “Pickin up Pawpaws. Put ‘em in your pocket”? At six, I didn’t have a clue why I’d want to be picking up something called a pawpaw; so when my class stopped weaving in and out between our desks, I asked my teacher. She just looked at me. But books are marvelous things. I found out it’s the largest edible fruit native to the United States. Years later, I saw my first pawpaw tree, Asimina triloba, growing beneath a canopy of oak and beech. Looking almost tropical – although it’s hardy to zone 5 – it’s a small tree with large drooping leaves and rich purple flowers.  From a collector in Tifton, Georgia comes a variety called ‘Mango’, its yellow flesh tasting like…yeah, mangoes.

For this native you’ll need your best soil – fertile, moist but well-drained. And you’ll need at least two for pollination in order to reap the benefits of the luscious, three to five-inch fruits, tasting of banana laced with a hint of mango. High in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, amino acids and a number of vitamins, the nutritious fruit can be shared in the early fall with deer, raccoons, opossums and most song birds. Although the native can reach a height of thirty-five feet, the hybrids, Shenandoah and Allegheny, top out at fifteen.

Growing naturally in creek bottoms and along riverbanks beneath stands of hardwoods, the native mayhaws, Crataegus opaca and Crataegus aestivalis – too long in the shadows – deserves its day in the sunny garden. A member of the hawthorn family, it is to me, the most beautiful of that distinctive tribe.  In spring the tree bursts into bloom, becoming a blizzard of white blossoms, the anthers tipped in wine. The bees gather in a frenzy of pollination. In early summer the clusters of small, red berries look like garlands on an early Christmas tree, a treat for wildlife. High in Vitamin C, potassium, calcium and beta-carotene, it makes the finest jelly in the country. Just ask the folks of Colquitt, Georgia – Mayhaw Capital of the World.

Check out the website for a thoroughly enjoyable read on the particulars of the mayhaw.

As gardeners we know the benefits of planting native fruits, nuts and berries – nurtures wildlife, the environment, our health – and apples and blueberries have long been part of our landscape. But get a long time gardener or grower talking about the fruit and nuts he grew up eating. You won’t hear a list of benefits. You’ll hear stories. Weaving itself through our memories, our histories, the natural world binds us to our human selves and to each other – if we participate. And what better way to do that than to plant a little orchard of uncommon natives in the garden.

But what about those wild plums? They’re about kicking up dust on a country road, juice dripping off my chin. They’re about childhood and family and beauty and truth. Late last winter I planted my first in what I hope will be a grove of Chickasaw plums out near the chicken house. It bore one plum, plucked at peak ripeness by one of our resident Cardinals. This morning, its bloom buds near bursting promise a crop just big enough to share. And my Alabama ditch bank? Only a memory paved over by progress.



Edible Landscapes, Afton, VA –

Ison’s Nursery and Vineyards, Brooks, GA –

Stark Brothers –

Just Fruits and Exotics, Crawfordville, FL –


Blooming now – HelleboresSAM_2194







The Language of Flowers

Love and Memories in the Language of Flowers


In the Language of Flowers my grandmother would have been a cactus. If dour sprung from a turnip or burdock represented intractable, then her nosegay would have been composed of a prickly pear, a purple top and dock. Or, this is what I thought for a time, for a season, or two.


The rain tracked westward dragging in its wake a breeze spiced with resin. Sitting in lawn chairs rendered shabby chic by hot sun and one too many tropical storms, my mother and I swatted at yellow flies. Slash pines sketched the ground in Whoville shadows, bruising our faces in their retreat from the silvered hide of my Grandmother’s Airstream trailer at our backs.

Clamoring for our attention, orange and yellow marigolds screamed at each other across a stage of root-muscled earth. Pink and purple Petunias pranced like kindergarten ballerinas against a curtain of saucy Caladiums while fiery Zinnias, red-hot pokers and bloody cockscombs cackled their bawdy jokes from the wings. A lone pink waved from a crack in the cement slab beneath our feet.

Two dogs, out for a day of socializing, trotted toward a triple row of black-eyed Susans hedging the show. As if finding the dare , they checked at the corner, looked toward the trailer and launching themselves over the Rudbeckia set off at a dead run; just beyond good rock-chucking distance. Sailing across to the other side, they skidded to a stop, glanced back, moved on, another afternoon meander.

It was a Sunday. Prayers were winding down for my grandmother at the church across the field.

I inhaled the soft southern air and, tilting my head toward a bucket of morning glories sprawling at my feet, asked, “Mom, where in the world did all this spring from?”

Beneath her dun-colored bonnets my grandmother looked out upon a world sorely in need of a good shaking. In her presence I slunk; we all did, hunkering down out of her sight line. Granny loomed to Biblical proportions in a body barely five feet tall.

In her yard pine needles fell with an apology. If she’d felled everything within her domain and dared it to re-sprout, no one would have been surprised. And, yet, here we were ankle-deep in flowers.

“Did Granny have a garden? When you were a little girl?”

My mother looked over at me. Opened her mouth. Closed it. Squinted. Sought an answer in the tall pines. Dropping her eyes to her hands, she began to worry at a honeysuckle stem.

“You know, it was on the tip of my tongue to say all my Mama ever gardened was cotton, peanuts and Dominecker hens. But…” She hesitated, sifting through memories. A car door slammed over at the church across the field.

“I remember the house yard. Had a wire fence around it. Mama used to sweep it with a gallberry broom, punishing it down to bare clay. By the time she passed the broom on to me, the ground next to the fence rose up a good 18 inches higher than the middle; kind of like a dirt farmer’s version of a HaHa.” My mother dropped the stem and popped off a bloom, held it to her nose.

Memory picking, my Mother sorted, discarded. She looked at me. Slowly, light like an Easter sunrise flushed her face, and she began. “But out back, between the smokehouse and the clothesline, there was an old syrup kettle she used to boil our clothes in on wash day. I remember sitting on the edge of it with Jessie picking a bouquet from the flowers planted inside. Four O’Clocks?” She shook her head as if to rattle free their identity.

“Anyway, around the outside of the kettle was a circle of more flowers. Reds and purples, pinks. And then around that Mama’d laid out these bricks.

“And there was a fig tree. We’d play like the leaves were our dinner plates. And Jessie, just a little bitty girl, would scramble up to the top to pick the biggest, prettiest ones. Sometimes we’d lie under it with a leaf laying over our faces, our arms folded over our chests.” I watched a dove shuffle among the pine needles, heard another car door slam over at the church.

“There was a rose, too, climbing over the smokehouse, so burdened down it looked like it might buckle at the knees. The flowers were yellow, like sunshine. Mama called it her ‘Lady’. And another rose looked like a ball gown. Blooms always reminded me of that verse. You know. ‘Of cabbages and kings’”. My mother’s voice was a whisper now.

“There was a bush at one end of the clothesline. She kept it pruned so it looked like a giant toadstool. The line pole shot straight up out of the middle. Mama said it was a tea shrub. The clothesline seemed always full of dungarees, socks, dresses and the like, but the sheets she spread over her tea shrub.” My mother, she’s eight years old, again, lying beneath a fig tree. Her mother sails a sheet into the wind, flicks, holds tight, wins the tug-of-war. It settles to dry atop a mound of green.

“We saw it bloom once, me and Jessie. One flower. Blood red. We didn’t say a word, not even to each other; afraid Mama’d be out there with the cutters. But, come wash day she just tucked the sheets up around that flower, like a blanket around a baby.”

A hawk’s cry jarred the silence. Mom tracked its flight across the sky, her gaze tangling high in the pines. From the church I could hear the sound of a car crunching across gravel, voices.

“On the day Jessie fell I couldn’t find Mama at first. Finally come across her kneeling next to the clothesline. I’d run all the way from school and I couldn’t catch my breath to tell her. Joe come up behind me said ‘Jessie’s hurt.’ One minute Mama was there, the next I was standing all alone staring at a bucket full of wood’s dirt. A coffee can lay next to it with this little bitty vine spilling out, roots all naked and the sun baking down. I set it back in the can, pushed some dirt around it. I still remember the smell, earth and roses and smoky ham.

“Jessie died on a Sunday.”

Memories ended as the ring of bells and the heat from the sun cut through the pines. Noon. We both looked over at the church. I saw my grandmother, a metaphor for the live oak that humanizes so much of our deep south – limbs gnarled, stooped toward the ground by a lifetime of troubles; the Spanish moss swinging from its branches a color match for her thinning hair. She started across the field stepping high, and I thought of the resurrection fern that inhabits the nooks and crannies of the live oak. As she plowed through the fennel weed, lingering rain darkened the hem of her Sunday best.

The following January, weary from her ninety-eight years and another winter, my grandmother left her garden for an eternal spring.


My sister parked out front under a Chinaberry tree. The two of us climbed out of the car, followed by my daughter, Kim. We waited. My mother needed a little time. The house where she grew up, where her little sister died, where a little garden grew out back between a clothesline and a smokehouse, still stood on the land my uncle bought with the ashes of his conscience. But the house had become a kudzu-shrouded shell, rusting tin curling gap-toothed to the sky.

Listening for squeaks of surrender, we picked our way across the front porch boards. Inside, a well of gloom haunted us across the floor. Bricks had tumbled from the fireplace, scattering the smell of soot and sorrow. Cobwebs swung from the rafters.

Accompanied by muffled scurrying, we shuffled across shifting beams and stepped off the back porch to a flurry of crows. Thirty feet to the south lay a jumble of old poplar boards rendered in hickory smoke and brine. Across an echo of purples and pinks, bouquets and laughter, a wizened crone of a fig tree threw up lichened branches to grip a post, axed by rot. From the half-dozen leaves still clinging to a stem, I recognized Granny’s tea tree – a Camellia sasanqua, variety known only to the past.

Thirty years since my grandmother left us, and I wonder in this fickle spring if in an Alabama field a Camellia still lives in a fig tree’s embrace.


There are gardens open to us of such a strong sense of place, they connect us, not only to our pasts, but to who we are now:

Gibbs Gardens – Ball Ground, Georgia

Chanticleer Garden – Wayne, Pennsylvania

Cheekwood Estate and Gardens – Nashville, Tennessee

Winterthur – Winterthur, Delaware


And books that tell us of the elements in the making of such a garden:

The Gardens of Arne Maynard and Gardens with Atmosphere by Arne Maynard

Home Ground: Sanctuary in the City by Dan Pearson

The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift


A White Oak, a Cypress Grove and a Flawed Miracle

Startled from winter’s dark torpor by a thump worthy of a Hagrid, we looked at each other and rose to face what waited outside in the night. The beam of our flashlights swept the path leading from the kitchen to the back garden and caught an opossum poised for escape. Fat though he was on grubs and bird seed, he was too pint-sized for a sound the magnitude we’d heard. Slipping to the kitchen’s side doors, John flipped on the light and aimed his torch down the walk, through the pergola to a scene straight out of our own personal Dark Forest. A cataclysmic force of nature as told by the Brothers Grimm, carrying with it a miracle, flawed but full of magic and grace. Slain by merciless rain and implacable gravity, a massive white oak tree slumped dying across a hundred feet of garden, its massive roots pawing at the wind on the other side of the creek. Its branches, broken and twisted, now lay at our feet, inches from the arbor clothed in ‘Polish Spirit’ longing for spring.

With only a whimper of light to mark our way, we passed down the length of our fallen oak. Out there in the dark, in the path of the great tree, lay the fate of others, wonders all, that I’d planted one by one over these last years. I swung the torch westward and illuminated the Magnolia ‘The Woodsman its fattening buds trembling but intact. Feeling my way, I encountered the slender branches of the young Magnolia pyramidata, all there and accounted for. John swept his flashlight right, then left. The grove of cypress appear unscathed. At last I turned east and looked for the winter bones of my Hovenia dulcis, my Japanese Raisin tree, bought in part for the poetry of its name, and found it still whole and beautiful in this its seventh year. I exhaled. On the way back, I almost stumbled over a small Cryptomeria japonica ‘Black Dragon’, wounded, mutilated – this miracle’s dusky side.

Before surrendering to the torrential storms of this past chaotic winter, the oak had clung to the lowest slope of a wooded hillside that climbed at a roller coaster pitch, teaching a lesson in the tenacity of trees. With the onset of the colder months, the sun sinking ever lower in the sky skirted the ridge line, flashing through the forest of beech, oak, poplar and redbud in a teasing memory of summer and a promise of spring. Along with me the trees dwell in a season of gloom. I wonder if they dread it as I do.

This land has been farmed for close to two-hundred years, tilled first by a moldboard plow behind a team of mules. In the first half of the previous century, mechanization arrived in the hills of Tennessee and a Ford 8N began the circuit of this particular three-acre parcel – year after year – forming a berm like a cresting wave along the creek bank. Thirty feet to the north, the land begins a gentle slope skyward, turning a worn out tobacco field into a swamp.

Our first year we cut drainage ditches that silted full by autumn. We dug again year two. Year three found me standing in water lapping over the toes of my Wellies, contemplating removing the “lip” from three-hundred feet of creek bank bordering the worst of the flooded area. There, fueled by aggravation, bloomed an epiphany. I’d plant Taxodium distichum, a reminder of a childhood spent playing in the cypress bogs of my deeper south.

We planted eight – bareroot, four feet tall. Topping eight feet by their fourth year in the ground, they were already making a difference, their roots soaking up excess water. After a rain days of standing water turned into a few hours. We planted another eight two years ago.

Now on either side of the downed oak, our grove of beautiful cypress trees stood firm – trunks spreading like buttresses, “knees” popping up around them.

Making hay while the sun shone, John revved up the chain saw and cut the oak trunk and larger branches into eight foot sections, stacking the kindling-sized debris in temporary piles for the wrens, chickadees and finches to enjoy. From the confusion of branches, I eyeballed a selection, four to five-inches in diameter, and rolled them into the edging divots I’d made along the garden where I’d extended the beds – yet again. Contributing even in death, the oak would last until I could come up with a more permanent solution, leaving behind its spirit as compost for the soil.

Connecting the ancient roadbed across the creek to the cypress grove on this side, the last of the great tree rests. Almost three feet in diameter, it will remain. A bridge to the other side.



Taxodium distichum –

Hovenia dulcis

Chicken Delinquents




Much bustling and gossiping greeted me and the steaming bowl of grits I carried. I shoved the door to the chicken’s run closed with my foot and slid the brick in place to hold it. Dumping their cold morning treat into their outside pan, I left them to it – harassing each other, screaming hissy fits, sure the morsel their sisters carried in a grit-crusted beak was far superior to their own. I opened the gate to their adjoining run, the one I called their Elysian field.

Up until last spring, this flock of six – three Ameraucana of the blue eggs and three, chocolate egg laying, Cuckoo Marans – foraged the gardens every afternoon with the manners of refined young ladies out for a stroll. Always mindful of their curfew, twilight signaled their return home to roost. Then one warm April morn, they rose from their slumbers possessed by the likes of Madame DeFarge and began to lay waste to the countryside. And the ringleader, one fat Cuckoo defied the sun, defied her curfew, refusing to start home without a chase.

I come from generations of chicken stewards, and with the exception of a sparse number of years bondage in city and suburb, I’ve always kept a small flock. And I’ve always allowed them an afternoon’s foray into the wilds of my garden. Obeying one of the commandments for healthy poultry, I gave them more than adequate housing room and room to roam. But after weeks of second chances, I’d had enough of their marauding and pillaging.

Shortly after, John bought more poultry wire and began enclosing an area adjacent to the existing run, enlarging it to the chicken equivalent of the Superdome, with real turf. Our self-established field mixture of rye, Bermuda, dandelion, ground ivy, wild onion, clover – left to its own devices – would encourage edible critters and provide a gourmet feast for our delinquent fowl. Add in the additional botanical accouterments planted by a hard grubbing gardener and the result was chicken paradise, an Elysian field.

In one corner a ‘Brown Turkey’ fig provides shade in the summer and tempts a greedy flock with it low-hanging fruits come Autumn. An unknown, Arbor Day Foundation crabapple does the same from the center of the run. Better yet, a voluptuous cerise colored bloomer, the Gallica rose ‘Hippolyte’, shelters the hens from predator hawks. For those chickens who prefer a white boudoir, Damask ‘Madame Plantier’ climbs the fence and tangles itself in the Stayman Winesap apple tree outside the field. When the all clear sounds, the hens can shake themselves free of their Chicken Little fright and use the dirt underneath the roses for a dust bath, keeping them free of  mites.

The girls have finished, now, and joined me in Elysian field. One spots a floating seed head and doddles off to sample it. On such a day with the sky pale from the cold, I find it hard to envision a coming spring. The almond trees and the pecans and peaches look gaunt, color absent from their trunks as if preparing for death, beautiful in their resignation. But at the tips of their branches, I see a flush of color like fingers thawing from frostbite. No need to bargain with the gods yet, resurrection is nigh. Maybe it will speak to second chances.



The chicken eye view of David Austin’s ‘Munstead Wood’







The Fragrance of Winter

The flowering apricot, P. mume 'Nicholas', bloom in the winter garden with a fragrance reminiscent of spring behind the garden gates of Old Charleston.



       For days the high temperatures hovered in the 20’s, the lows trembling in single digits. Outside the kitchen window the Full Wolf Moon hung just above the ridge top. I closed the shutters and took myself to bed.

         The next morning I woke to sunlight warm upon my face, and then I smelled it – the slightest promise of a thaw. And inhaling, a hint of something more, like the scent of hope and of memory. Following my nose, I stepped outside the front door and on an exhale was transported to springtime in Charleston a decade ago. Exploring a Hobbit-sized and cobbled street, I stumbled against a pair of tall iron gates wrought in roses and vine. From the garden beyond, reflected in whorls of white and greens and pale azures, floated the same perfume that greeted me that February day at the end of my garden path. That remembered fragrance of white Narcissus and pearled Daphne and cool blue hyacinths blending with the scent of moss on old stone and breezes off salt water.

And then, across a distance of a hundred footsteps, I saw her – Prunus mume ‘Bridal Veil’.  Three years before, along the walk to the hen-house, I’d planted her, my untried treasure from Camellia Forest Nursery in Chapel Hill, NC.

Since, I’ve added ‘Nicholas’, ‘Pink Panther’, another ‘Bridal Veil’ and ‘Peggy Clarke’ – four of them. I placed the the trees where the morning sun would shine on their heads, and they could bask in its light until mid-afternoon. Not fussy or fickle in their needs, the rain and I watered them well the first year, and after that the rain has gone it alone.  Every spring, they get a top-dressing of home made compost and nothing else.

Small trees, flowering apricots range from fifteen to twenty-five feet at maturity, and about that wide. Here, ‘Nicholas’s’ winter silhouette looks like that of  a Tiffany vase or an old-fashioned “Gibson Girl” – narrow hipped and busty. ‘Pink Panther’ is shaped like that same “girl” after too many dishings of clotted cream. In their youth the Peggys remind me a little of Cindy Who. And ‘Bridal Veil’, she weeps and is so beautiful.

P. mume 'Bridal Veil'
P. mume ‘Bridal Veil’



Their fall color? I hate to say, I’ve seldom noticed, what with the Japanese maples, the Katsuras, the bald cypresses, sourgums, sweet gums. The unassuming sisters playing wallflower to their flashier siblings, Prunus mume mostly turns a nice serviceable gold with moments of orangey glory.

In this zone 7 garden, they flower for weeks – the buds continuing to open throughout February and into March – in colors ranging from white, to blush, to rose. (Some varieties hardy to zone 5.)  Only the fully opened blossoms tempt fate in a blustery cold snap. I never pass the fairy-like blooms without gathering a few to float in the seashells I have in every room of our old house. They bring with them  their scent of hope and sweet memories.

Outside now, snow is falling and the temperature is to drop into the teens tonight. But on my walk to close in the chickens for the evening, I passed through my grove of Prunus mume and witnessed their swelling buds. Soon, soon.


Photo Credits:  Camellia Forest Nursery