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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A Clean Slate

I had dinner with friends I’ve known for years and stunned them with word we were moving to a new house a few miles away. And right away one of them asked, “What about your garden? What will you bring with you?”

I hadn’t thought about that. I mean, this isn’t just the place where I brought home my infant son 16 years ago. The green thumb I inherited from both parents was born here, a fusion of Mother, who ignores plants to robust health, and my father, whose gardening alchemy seemed channeled, full of soul and spirit, a communion of sorts.

We thought for years we would rent out this house after we found something else. But now it looks like we won’t. I mean, I can’t just start digging up plants. That’s not right. After all, my flashy elements are portable, like the Angel’s Trumpets, which I grow mainly in pots. I grow the giant zinnias from seed and I have plenty of cleome collected in a glass jar.

But what about the starburst hydrangea? I love that dainty but robust plant. I’ve never seen another like it. I really don’t think I can leave it behind. It’s too special.

And what about the tea roses? They strain to bloom every spring. When I moved in, the elm outside my back gate was on the small side. But with each year it throws more shade over the roses in my yard. It is a wonder the roses bloom at all now. The blush rose bush in the row of four is dead, in fact. The yellow rarely blooms at all. The dark red, the one with the deepest spice scent I’ve ever known, occasionally blooms. Only the fuschia retains hints of its former glory

If I were a new resident, I might just decide the roses had to go. But couldn’t I take them to the new house? I have the room. I have the sun. What is the ethics of this?

After all, I’ll be leaving so much behind in these small spaces — the peony bushes, the Stargazer lilies, which grow more beautiful every year. There’s a dogwood tree and the holly and many hostas. Linda gave me the big beautiful blue green hosta before she left to move back to Alabama. The others, all colors, also were gifts. I bought the bleeding heart to have something blooming early, in the shade. I’ve put in new bulbs every year, all kinds of things. Those I’ll leave, of course.

Then, I keep remembering what happened next door, when a neighbor sold her house after her mother-in-law fixed up the back yard as a gift. It was so beautiful. There were many plants, flowers and a small tree. The neighbor asked through the agents if she could take a few hostas and the new owner said no.

Then, most of the plants died, the hostas, the roses. The new owners didn’t move in for a while and it was a very hot summer. I tried to save them. I trained the hose over the fence every chance I got, but it wasn’t enough. Then, when the new owners did move in, the back yard became in reality a bathroom for the resident large dogs and the rest of the plants died. Even the pretty little tree was killed and had to be pulled out.

Still, I know the answer to my friend’s question. It will break my heart to say goodbye to these plants I’ve nurtured over the years. — my first offspring of the earth, so to speak. But I will have to let them go. All of them (well, maybe not the starburst). And I will start all over.

A clean green slate.

Published in: on May 5, 2010 at 1:33 am  Comments (6)  
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The Tree Said Hello


I am drawn to a certain crepe myrtle just outside my back gate. I have always loved them and this one is particularly beautiful. My son recognized this at a very early age, too. He would run to this tree and stand in it, just stay there, quietly.


I would sit on the bench nearby and wait for him until he was done communing. Even though this was not like him to do this. He was the kind of active boy who usually ran to the big pines out front and climbed, fast, before anyone could yell him into a stop.

I remember, because I had lots of trouble getting the pitch out of his clothes. Sometimes, of course, this was not possible and I had to “pitch” plenty of them.


So I wasn’t really surprised the other day when I walked by my myrtle and saw an accessory waving in the wind. It looked like something I would wear as a necklace. Or as an earring. It was a dried plant cap, attached to a gossamer thread from a spider web.


It was really cute. I went outside at night with a flashlight to see if it was still there. It was. I knew it would photograph well in the night.


Look at the markings on this tree, behind my accessory.


However, the bark on my myrtle not as dramatic as one out front, which is beloved by my friend and neighbor C. Which makes sense. You wouldn’t know it right away, but C. has more flair. She is a government bureaucrat, conservative dresser, initially very quiet.

But if you are out early on a weekend morning, you might see her coming out dressed in a formal riding habit. C. has a horse she keeps stabled in the country and goes riding with a friend. She is a lawyer married to an Irish chef she met overseas as a young woman. He fell madly in love with her and pursued her from afar, persuading her, finally, to marry him.

She loves my gardening and has very strong opinions about the plants. She says they remind her of earlier times when people decorated with large blocks of color via the flowers. She thinks the hostas and nursery flats of impatiens and pansies are boring. So there.

It makes sense that the crepe myrtle she has claimed as hers is one of quiet drama. Routinely, she dons gloves and collects her tools and carefully trims the suckers that try to grow from the base of the tree, which stands guard just outside her bedroom window. Her cats sit on the sill and watch the tree, too, which has vivid coloring.


There’s a new crepe myrtle out front now, to the side. I think the young tree is watching people, trying to see who resonates with this new plant life. I look forward to seeing who it chooses. I bet we’ll know by next summer.

new tree

It’s funny how nature leaves little gifts sometimes. Walk slowly. Open your eyes. See. Really see.


Published in: on November 16, 2009 at 6:15 pm  Comments (7)  
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Stolen Angel


My favorite Angel’s Trumpet was taken from in front of my house last week. My big white. I couldn’t believe it.

This was a cutting I had pulled from the first angel I had ever managed to grow. I planted the mother plant in the ground and got only one bloom. Still, I was thrilled. I heavily mulched it, all winter, but it died anyway. Middle Atlantic winters are brutal on plants like this. Too many freezes.

This past summer, I lost track of the slips I had kept the previous winter and rooted. I thought all the pots were pink. Then one big pot turned into a beautiful white. I even wrote a blog post about it. It was gorgeous and I was so happy to have a piece of the old white angel with me still.


Then, as the cold descended, I cut all the angels back in their pots, the two whites and the three pinks. I was letting them have some final time outdoors before bringing them in for the very long winter. They won’t be able to go out again until at least May. So three angels were in the fenced back yard, two out front.

And then there was only one out front. The pink. I kept looking and looking. Surely I was mistaken. It just couldn’t be. But it was. The white angel was gone. I’m down to only one white, the one I brought as a slip up from Alabama this summer.

I admit it, at first I was simply outraged. Quietly so, I’m not much of a surface rager. It takes some doing for me to really blow my top. Still, I was mad. How dare “they.”

Then, I decided to view the theft in a way that allowed me to come to peace with it. The trumpet had been cut way back, it was no longer blooming or even leafed out in green. It was basically a pot of sticks. This essentially is what it looked like (this is one of the pinks, but you get my drift):


So, I had to imagine the scenario this way: The thief knew what he-she was getting. The stealer had seen the blooms outside my home and couldn’t stand it any longer. Seeing two pots outside, shorn of their blooms and most leaves, just sitting there, well, it was all over but the crying (for me). Gone. Taken to another home to be nurtured and cared for and coaxed into reblooming indoors in a few months.

Even my husband said, “You’re known for your plants. I’m not the least bit surprised.”

So, I quickly brought the remaining angels inside. I’m not sure what this means for next year’s outdoor blooming season. I’ll deal with it when it comes. They need the full sun to bloom and that’s the only space I have for that.

Although, the truth is, we’ve been talking about moving. My husband has talked about it for years and I’ve resisted. He brought it up again Saturday, this is something he really wants. And what I didn’t say is that losing the angel made me really think about it this time. We wouldn’t move that far. We would stay in the area because my son likes his school and we need to be here for several more years.

And then there was the home for sale I was drawn to just the other day, the one quite near my son’s school. It is not much bigger than the one we are in now. But it is off the road and private and as I said to my husband, “Look at that, straight out of storybook.” He agreed. The notice said the home had a lovely, private backyard adjoining a wooded park area. Woods! I grew up in a house with a woods out back.

I thought when we drove past that house, “This is the perfect home.”

In some strange way was that angel a sign? Angel on the move? I’m not the angel of course, not even close. But still. We’ll see.

For the time being, I decided to focus on other things. On the fact everyone in my world is well. That the big white angel is no doubt fine and being loved by someone who needed him, knew his worth. That the teen boy was spending the weekend away playing a sport he loves, rooming with several of his many best friends (I can say without fear of being overly boastful that this boy has the very useful gift of friendship).

So, his parents went to an Octoberfest party postponed until November by rain. The husband bought beer for the host and I put together a small bit of bounty from my fall garden for the hostess.


If you look closely you will see two tiny origami swans hidden in the bouquet. These exquisite paper gems were made by my favorite sushi chef, who gives them to me by the handsful when I drop by May Island to pick up food for my family and my favorite (vegetarian) dishes. I hid them in the flowers for the little boy of the party house to find after the party.


The cool, crisp fall evening was a sigh of relief after long days and nights of rain. We ate brats from the grill, spƤtzle and German potato salads. We talked and laughed while children ran and shouted in the yard.


One little boy helpfully warned us shortly after arrival that “a dinosaur is outside the gate” and later told me “t-Rex is out there but he’s dead now.” There were marshmallows roasted on sticks over a fire. And fireworks. Well, sparklers.

And when a little cherub of a girl could not get her daddy to put the German music back on after popular consensus booted it from player, she did not miss a beat. She simply changed tactics. Not yet talking, the little pixie went straight to a new friend, my husband, led him to the table with the music, pointed to the CD and got her wish. Because he is a pushover for miniature charm.

And then we had pie. The universal sadness balm.


Goodbye my angel. Godspeed, wherever you are.

goodbye white

Published in: on November 15, 2009 at 6:09 am  Comments (14)  
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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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