When I See Cleome, I Think of You

The cleome reminds me of Alabama, of long stretches of green hill and field and wood. But it also brings to mind a tall, skinny boy and a stunning, unexpected romantic gesture.

The spiky flower that comes back year after year looks like the Wild Honeysuckle that grew in the woods behind my childhood home in north Alabama. My father tried to transplant a bush or two into the yard, but they never grew outside those woods.

I loved the flowers that cascaded from the Rhododendron canescens. The blush blooms and spiky stamens set the woods on fire. I’ve never tried to grow them here in northern Virginia because I can’t imagine they would survive. So instead I scattered seeds one year from some cleome I’d brought up from Alabama. They’re not the same, but they’re close.

And every year, when I see that first spiky pink bloom, it takes me back.

I remember the knock on the front door. My father opened it. He looked outside and no one was there. He went out on the porch. I followed. Then he said, “Well, there goes that boy, running off into the woods. He left you something.”

My father pointed to the porch step and a huge stack of Wild Honeysuckle, my favorite flower. Which that boy knew. That boy and I had exchanged taunts for ages, never saying a nice word to each other that I had recalled.

I was a young teenager holding onto my tomboyish ways. I was mad about the flowers. At first. I think I charged into the house, slammed the door. Then I went back and got the blooms, put them in water. I remember being puzzled. Why did he do that?

I never asked him about the flowers. He never mentioned them. We stopped taunting each other. Then, he moved away.

I forgot about the flowers, about the boy, for a while. But obviously they were a gesture that said so much more than the boy was capable of saying.

Something along the lines of: I care. I always have, that’s why I bug you. I have to leave now. I’m sad about that. I know you love these flowers. I hope you will remember me.

And I do. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, know this: Every single summer when I see the cleome, I think of you.

Published in: on July 13, 2010 at 3:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Better Gardening Road

When I realized, finally, that I would never be an orchid grower, I shifted to plan B. I would grow flowers that looked like orchids.

After all, isn’t that what we do, or should do, when we run into life’s inevitable disappointments? We move on. We focus on other things. We lose that “great love” and find out later he/she wasn’t actually good for us after all.

Regardless, in the best of all worlds we find out that life is in the journey.

So, I found some bulbs that looked to me like orchids. And they shook up my garden in that lull time between the blooming of the lilies and the unusual-for-here Angel’s Trumpets and the masses of zinnias, some of which eventually reach my height.

I picked up some bulbs called Pink Tigridia, from Costa Rica, the flower pictured on top of this post. Actually, I planted them and promptly lost the label. I went on Facebook and a woman I grew up with, my new botanical guru, figured out the name for me from her reference books.

Doesn’t it look like an orchid?

I bought some other bulbs that looked like the white orchid I lost, but even wilder. This one is the Hymenocallis.

People are walking by the flower patch out front and stopping, looking at these odd blooms in wonder, asking me what they are. They aren’t orchids, certainly. And that’s fine.

I have my own path. And this one is strewn with wild, unusual colors and shapes taking up residence among the staid hostas and evergreens. Blooms that have never been in my prim neighborhood before in these shapes and configurations.

This was another reminder to be true to myself, both personally and in a botanical sense. It is the much easier road. And in the garden, the beautiful one.

Published in: on June 15, 2010 at 4:41 pm  Comments (4)  
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Gardening, and Life, Unforced

I failed, again. The orchids died during the winter. I just can’t grow them.

Maybe impatience, watching too carefully and an improper setting too close to heating vents doomed the orchids. But that’s okay. Because I’m through with the needless trying, in gardening and other aspects of life.

I’m no longer envious when I see others in the flow, doing something so easily. Well, maybe a little. But I don’t need to try to duplicate the ease of others now.

Because I have my own zone. My garden, for instance, is distinct, unique to me. The blooms fit my personality. Like the old-fashioned, predictable zinnia, which in my garden is anything but.

Aunt Re had her African violets, which were perfect, not a spot on them. In fact, you had to stare a moment to make sure they were real.

She was a sweet woman, a worrier. The violets must have liked being made over. She kept them in a room with a big sliding glass door covered by drapes she would pull open and closed throughout the day, carefully calibrating the light just so.

She never had the children she wanted, and lavishly loved her nieces and nephews, making us feel special. We all responded in kind. Most of us, to this day, when asked about our favorite relative, will answer, “Aunt Re.”

Then, there’s the baking. For years, I’ve made a little southern butter cookie called brown-eyed Susans. They have a chocolate splash on top with a sliver of almond. I’ve given out the recipe, but no one makes it the way I do. That and pecan bar squares, which a friend in Tennessee told me how to make and people often request it now.

Once, a woman I knew who was an excellent cook insisted I was giving out those recipes with altered ingredients on purpose, so others would fail. Which was ridiculous. I’m happy to share and even offered to hold a “baking class” to try to find out what these cooks were doing to make the cookies hard.

With all baking, for instance, I follow the specified time broadly, but I watch and check too. Sometimes the items just need to come out of the oven sooner and that can’t be predicted.

I know when something is done by looking at it, touching it, sometimes. Plants are the same way, the ones I grow just feel right to me, they look right. So the orchids are the last ones in my wasted effort category.

Like relationships with the people we care for, I don’t force them or try too hard now. There are so many beautiful blooms out there, so much love. And I am safe in the knowledge that somehow, like these surprising Hymenocallis bulbs, they will find me.


Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 7:30 pm  Comments (2)  
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Watching My Terrain, Too

I kept snapping away at the star-like lily with my camera. This is the first year for these spectacular bulbs. And they have such an unusual appearance that of course they are right at home in my wild garden.

The sweet new neighbors, who fly helicopters for a living, eyed them suspiciously. I suppose if you have such a precarious career, you might need a more tame bloom to provide calm in your off hours. The Hymenocallis, Greek for “beautiful membrane,” is definitely not tame.

So, I clicked away on my knees, then practically lying down on the sidewalk at one point, trying to get the pinwheel blossom centered in exactly the right background. The blossoms, radiant white trumpets pushing from a base of long spirals, look best in contrast against grass or bushes painted deep green by the warmth of spring.

And what about us, I wondered? What setting looks best on us?

I remembered how I looked when I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t talking about it, but the state of my mind and heart were in plain view.

I lost so much weight people were calling me “emaciated.” And I cut off my long curly hair, not in a flattering short cut, but in a pixie or nearly a buzz cut. I wore much beige, khaki clothing, nondescript. I wasn’t sure my gender was particularly obvious, in fact. I wasn’t engineering my silent scream on purpose. I wasn’t even aware my state of mind was so obvious until I saw pictures much later.

This happened several times over the course of about a decade, during my first marriage. Then finally I left that life. My hair grew out, for good, and my clothes regained their color and flair. I often have on shawls now, light in texture but vivid in color.

I carefully watch my terrain now. The flowers I grow taught me this.

Published in: on May 17, 2010 at 11:19 pm  Comments (3)  
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Story Time in the Garden

My garden will be different this year. I want it to be like a storybook. That’s because I’m clear, finally, about the “autobiography” aspect of gardening. And that means it is time for substantial editing.

Planning hasn’t been a priority until now. My garden has been the whimsical me with a dash of sentiment laced with a big dollop of the crowd-pleaser. I’ve also cared for some plants beyond their time, maybe, because they’ve always been here. The roses in the back, for instance.

The elm outside my back gate was a youngster when we moved here almost 17 years ago. But now it soars over everything, throwing shadows over everything much of the day. The roses don’t like that. The dogwood and my holly reach into the elm branches, not a love embrace. I’m always having to call on somebody to please trim the tree back.

But it is time for another pair of eyes to look over my garden spaces. Someone who won’t be sentimental. Someone who wasn’t the new mother who saw those roses in bloom for the first time after moving in during the harsh winter just before the baby was born. Who had been hounded by such postpartum depression that she boarded a plane with her 3-month-old during a snowstorm and flew home, to the sunshine, and never wanted to come back.

But her husband kept calling, asking her to come home. And he kept telling her about those roses.

And then, finally, I was standing at the back door and there they were.

I never expected such a profusion of reds and fuschias, which were followed by creams and yellows. When I first saw those roses, I could have sworn I heard music from somewhere, under the leaves and branches. But that was just the sound of my spirit, lifting finally, after being held down by months of despair.

This year, I don’t plan to spend so much emotional capital on trying to save plants that need to be moved, or need to move on. I’ll plant other roses if I need to, for June, my birth month flower. And I’ll plant seeds for the tall, wildly colored zinnias the neighbors expect from me now. And I won’t stop growing Angel’s Trumpets, they are an addiction now.

But I intend to be even more specific with my gardening writing and editing, so to speak. Because the garden is my story, the one I show to the world. And one thing I have wanted for a long time is the Camellia. At least one shrub, maybe two.

The Camellia is the Alabama state flower. Other than magnolias and honeysuckle, nothing reminds me more of Alabama. But this is not something I can just run out and buy on a whim. I need the kind that is cold hardy.

So this is the time to consult experts, people who run quality nurseries and landscaping services. This is their lifeblood, after all. Consider them matchmakers.

William L. Ackerman, retired from the U.S. Arboretum, said colder winter started damaging and even killing the spring-blooming Camellia Japonica and the C. sasanqua in the late 1970s.

C. oleifera, a white flowered species from northern China, fared better. So the Arboretum began a breeding program to develop cold-hardy plants. A substantial group exists at nurseries today, Ackerman said. Within that group, he said, there is “a specific cultivar best suited to every special location or situation a gardener may have.”

I am in that group. Looking for something specific, a Camellia love match. Something with a glossy green leaf, a splash of flower. Which takes me, in my mind’s eye, to the place in the photo posted at the top of this article — home.


Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 9:26 pm  Comments (2)  
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A Gardener Released


For years I was the timid gardener.

There were roses in the back yard when I moved into this house. But with each year the elm outside the back gate got bigger, shadowing the roses, which strained to produce fewer blooms.

So I planted tulips to take advantage of the spring sun. But the squirrels stole most of them. I sent my little son and his friend after them with water guns once, and a neighbor scolded them about being “mean.” Mean?

I did manage to get a few daffodils and bleeding hearts to stay in the ground and bloom. Also peony, white and red, which I love. But peony, like a first kiss, is so fleeting that it is gone before you can properly appreciate this bloom’s full sensuous nature.


But when the elm is in full leaf, the sun is gone from the back yard, which has a tall privacy fence. I grew tired of having a small burst of color in the spring and then mainly hostas. I needed a tall riot of color, blankets of it. So I went to the front where I had a solid block of sun a good part of the day.

Here is what happened, from the beginning, in pictures.


I had lots of failures and things I didn’t care for, in particular. The Angel’s Trumpets I brought up from Alabama as seed and tiny shoots leafed and leafed and finally put out exactly one bloom. Still I was ecstatic. It gave me hope.



I wanted the flowers to be strong, to not depend on chemicals. So I spent several years amending the soil, bringing in bags of top soil and peat and this and that to get a good mix that somehow felt light and airy and well, right. This year I added the pulp from the organic vegetable juicing I’ve taken up. I didn’t use poisons. There are enough of those in the world.

I have mainly planted seeds. Somehow, these have worked better for me. I discovered that the flowers and I needed to start the journey together, from the beginning. I watched them carefully. Just the plants and me.



But I was still being timid. I was out front where the foot traffic was heavy. It was hard to lose myself there. People walked by and spoke and chatted and gave their opinions about my handiwork.

This is the Washington, D.C., area., just over the Potomac River bridge in Virginia. There are lots of people from other places here. But the Virginians love their old-fashioned, unchanging sameness. Red brick colonials. And the plantings following suit.

I changed that in our little corner of the world.

The cleome were the first of the wild things. My mother had lots of it in Alabama. So I brought back seed in pods to plant in front. It took off like wildfire. One friend, a psychologist from Boston, shuddered when he saw it. “WHAT is that thing? Straight out of Star Trek,” he insisted.


Mother had always grown zinnias too. I cut a bouquet while visiting and it cheered up the house so. The flowers lasted and lasted. That’s it, I said, zinnias too. The nurseries had the same variety, State Fair or something. Small, only a few colors. I wanted tall and vibrant. So I went for the seeds.

Bent Zinnia

There were times they didn’t do well, so I learned to bend over a young zinnia plant, cover it with soil and it would grow long along the ground and push up new shoots and blooms. The picture above is all from one plant!

I planted lillies. Each year they grew bolder, as I did.


And dahlias. These low-to-the-ground but showy orange flame blooms are the favorite of some neighbors. And they just keep coming back every year, despite the cold Middle Atlantic winters that freeze them every winter.


I found my gardening sense of humor with the dahlias. Dahlias or zinnias, please stand up.

this dahlila

I have a fondness for the starburst hydrangea. I think because it isn’t the usual.

flowers 008

This year my something new was purple bells.


But the star of the show is always the zinnia. I hate to thin them, so I keep taking over little plots of earth I find.




They range from minis to California giants that grow as tall as me (5-5). Blocks of vibrant color, sometimes I feel like I am painting with plant life.


side too

This year I grew two new colors, white and a green called envy. New neighbors I had never seen before were coming around to see this one.


And of course as much as I love the zinnias, for the joy they bring me, for the attention they get and for the bouquets they bring for months, the angel’s trumpets captured my heart. After playing coy for years, they burst forth. And bloomed and bloomed and bloomed.

whitetrumpet1016 013


So, is it any wonder that through my front door the following things have been on my walls for decades? These representatives of an inner life, pieces of art I selected for myself and which were selected for me.





These paintings, some abstract, are of flowers and plants. Two are of places in the deep South where it is warm most of the year, where I yearn to be.

Proof that a not-so-timid flower gardener was inside all along. Waiting for the right conditions. To be born aloft by the completing elements of soil, sun, water and air. Finally, set free.


Published in: on November 10, 2009 at 4:03 am  Comments (8)  
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The Elm Made Me Do It


(Special thanks to the writer of Secret Cottage Garden for showing me I was on the right track all along, even when I didn’t know it: Mary Delle
<a href="http://secretcottagegarden.blogspot.com/&quot; and of course someone who inspired me to write about it all, Ms. Moon, blessourhearts.blogspot.com)

I have fallen in love with the big elm just outside my back gate. I resented this tree for years. The wood giant drops seeds and dead leaves all over my patio. But my former dislike had roots in the tree’s glory, the full leaves that block the sun, keeping my back yard in shade during the summer.

Not to mention the times it has tried to strangle my holly and my dogwood tree.

Crowds holly

My old tea roses bloom lavishly in the spring, before the elm wakes up properly. Then I have to settle for a bloom or two here and there for bouquets.


Between the shade and aggressive squirrels, I also can’t grow vegetables back there. No bright, splashy sun lovers. Only shade plants. So for years the back has been neglected.

But I ignored what this big elm was telling me with the big fat leaves and long arms that blocked the sun during prime growing season. Go to the front. Show yourself. Don’t hide in the back, behind the privacy fence. You have something and you don’t even know it.

So I did. I started cultivating the small plots in the front of the house, little squares of dirt that had been lying fallow, covered by mulch and defined by monkey grass. With her permission, I pulled out the dead lavender that a neighbor had planted on my side and hers. Dogs with careless owners had promptly killed these with daily markings.

The neighbor was thrilled that I was working on the plots, even though my style was undefined and hers was: English gardens, precision, careful cuts and frequent trims. She even owns a chain saw. But her work for the Secret Service meant she was away frequently and she had no time for gardening. She happily turned it all over to me.

At first I bought plants from the nursery. They were nice, but I was not satisfied. So I started buying seeds. Better. I was enjoying myself, experimenting, shaping the beds, putting my imprint on it all. Letting the garden grow on both sides into riotous shape and color. No English garden this!

That’s when neighbors started coming out of the woodwork. Yes, with the occasional disapproving glance. The architecture is prim and proper here, all red brick and white columns. The plantings run to hostas, evergreens, impatiens. In the fall the mums and pansies are broken out.

Except for my wild garden. And the yeas for this rare color riot far outnumber the nays. We need this, they say. It is different. It breaks the sameness and brightens our day.



Before the wild garden, I had been so timid. In that front plot, I had planted two miniature rose bushes from Trader Joe’s. They were nice. Sweet. Tiny. One still blooms, a reminder of my timid time.

And every year these roses are dwarfed by zinnias grown from seed, some old and some new. Angel’s Trumpets multiplying in height and number like wildfire now that I am not just talking to them, but listening to their needs. Starburst hydrangea. The flame orange dahlia, which survives every winter even though C., who designed the ghost lamp in my previous post, says “they don’t come back here, how do you do it?”

Well, I started putting the pulp left over from my vegetable juicing into the soil this summer. But the dahlias were coming back before that. I do give the flowers a bit of Miracle Gro now and then, sprinkled on the ground, no mixing it in water or such carrying on for me. So, I just love them and they respond.

The elm was behind it, really. The elm pushed me to the sun, to the front. I had grown vegetables with my father as a child and again in a plot rented from the county and shared with a friend. But I had never tried my hand with flowers. It just finally seemed the thing to do.

At last, I listened to that small, still voice. And it was saying you are a gardener, you were born to this. You are not alone. We are with you.

Show your love.

beach 00008

Published in: on November 5, 2009 at 5:55 pm  Comments (11)  
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Ghostly Light


This is my neighbor’s wonderful Halloween display. He threw some old lace curtains over a lamp post in the middle of a garden setting, secured with some clips.

Underneath, the “face” is quite scary. It is a mask. You can catch a glimpse of it underneath the veil.


I love this kind of display. Very grownup. Very spooky. It also incorporates, of course, the garden.


In looking through blogland, I’ve noticed that readers seem to love the photo blogs. Few words, many many photos. These blogs are absolutely lovely. Some are pure poetry, lyrical. They capture life.

So, my question is this, I wonder. Is the writing over? I still will write, even into the void. I am posting pictures now because they illustrate the words. I can’t not write, after all. But I just wonder whether there has been a fundamental shift forever.

Anyway. On to the next season. You know what I mean. In the style of the new wordless order, you’ll see a bit of it here, in this visual.

halloween 159

Published in: on November 1, 2009 at 3:31 pm  Comments (9)  
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Requiem For A Garden

Garden Gone

I had to say goodbye to the wild garden.

Powdery mildew was spoiling the zinnia leaves, it always does this time of year. And the men came to say they would be by the next day to put in the bushes in front of the basement window well.

The bushes I don’t even want, really. This is the husband’s initiative. We had some monster hollies taken out and he thought it looked too bare and yes, in the winter that’s true. But still.

It was too early. I’m bereft.

The regular walkers, the bikers, they’re gone now because the riot of color that drew them to the front of the house for months is gone.



My neighbor D., whose big white dog I love, who says he needs the zinnias, hasn’t been able to speak to me. I understand. I feel cold all the time, aimless.

And what about the neighbor woman slowly losing herself to some sort of memory deterioration? The one who used to go to the community pool around the corner every afternoon and stand, grasping onto the chain fence with her fingers and stare into the water for long periods of time before I convinced her to go by my house and see the flowers. We would stand and stare at those astonishing blooms together. She loved every single one of them, as I did, with childlike wonder.

I never minded when she repeated herself, enthusing about this bloom and that. Like a mother with an incredibly beautiful baby, I never tire of the praise. She even complimented me for working in the garden in my bare feet. I rarely take off my shoes outside (I’m a tender foot). But it just feels right in a garden.

It started out this way in the spring:


And then, after the zinnia seeds came in, the garden became this:




So now I have some Angel’s Trumpets in pots to keep me from, you know, calling the suicide hot line.

White Trumpet


And if you peek around in back you’ll find a few of these:


But all in all, I’m just sad. I realize now more than ever I’m meant to live where it’s warm all year. Where the seasons don’t change. Where I can keep the growing going in the sun and the heat. I don’t get tired of the hot. So I’ve been quiet, listening to talk about enjoying the cool and the changing leaves. I don’t say anything.

Because now I’m like the woman who used to stand at the pool fence. Instead I stand at my window, wrapped in shawls against the cold, peering out at bare brown soil, where a riot of color used to vibrate in the wind and sun and the rain, lifting hearts all around.

The End

Published in: on October 20, 2009 at 8:56 pm  Comments (13)  
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