My Redheaded Gardening Hero

Why do I write a gardening blog? I have asked myself this question many times and I’ve also been approached recently by friends and acquaintances asking me the same question.

First of all, I have found something I love to do. Write. For many years I floundered, wondering what my talent was in this world. I wrote my first post with the idea that if I hated the process of writing I would stop and try something else. But, I have to say, I love it. I love words and the English language and expressing oneself well and then feeling proud of your work when you are done.

When I think of gardening and writing, I often think of Thomas Jefferson (also a redhead). He was not only one of our founding fathers of this nation but also a passionate gardener, architect, designer and writer. He wrote a journal about his gardening exploits that was later published under the title Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book. Although some parts are a little difficult to decode, it is a wonderful book that I enjoy getting from the library from time to time.

Jefferson wrote that some of his happiest times were spent in his garden at Monticello, his home in Virginia. The book is a mixed bag of many different things, such as lists of plants that he wanted to seek out, or vegetable seeds that he experimented with planting. Many times he wrote about the weather and how it affected the garden. Sometimes he wrote about problems he was experiencing in his orchard of fruit trees. Interesting stuff.

In one entry, Jefferson wrote about receiving seeds of the Cherokee rose from the governor of Georgia and planting them “in a row of about 6 f. near the NE corner of the Nursery.” Seeds! I loved turning the pages to find out if the seeds flourished. Rose seeds! Amazing!

The really inspiring thing to note is that Jefferson kept this journal of gardening records from 1766 to 1824, two years before his death. The journal was started before the Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence with very few lapses up until his death. During this time he not only served as president but before that he served as George Washington’s Secretary of State. At one point, he wrote to President Washington trying to get out of serving:

“I have, therefore, no motive to consult but my own inclination, which is bent irresistibly on the tranquil enjoyment of my family, my farm, and my books.”

Jefferson’s letters to friends ran heavily with reports on seeds and soil, experiments with plants, and notice that he was sending them something. He would often put together boxes of seeds and acorns and ship them to a friend for planting in their own garden. Inside the package, his letter would tell in minute detail planting instructions.

Looking back, I like to think of Thomas Jefferson as the first Redhead Garden Writer. The ancestor to all of us garden writers. Maybe writing and gardening go hand in hand. Maybe this is why I write.

I would love to have seen Jefferson with a computer and the ability to research plants, order seeds online, and talk to fellow gardeners over the Internet. What a long way we have come!

If you have the ability to visit Monticello, I highly recommend doing so. It is open to the public and you can enter the house and walk through the beautiful gardens. They have a book shop and nursery filled with plants and seeds for sale. My lovely fig tree and Sweet William flowers were purchased on our visit.

For your enjoyment I have included a few notable quotes by this incredible man and gardener:

“There’s not a sprig of grass that shoots uninteresting to me.” -Thomas Jefferson at the age of 43

“I’m still devoted to the garden…although an old man I am but a young gardener.” -Mr. Jefferson 25 years later

“I have often thought that if heaven had given me my choice of position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.” -Thomas Jefferson

The portrait of this great man at the top of this page was painted by Rembrandt Peale in 1800. The picture of Monticello was taken in 2010 by YF12s (CC-BY-SA).

Southern Magnolias and Southern Grandmothers

Whenever you think of the southern United States most people think of the movie Gone With the Wind and plantations, cotton fields, and mint juleps. No offense to Hollywood, but when I think of the glorious South with a capital S, I think of Magnolia trees. They represent the South in all of its gardening glory more than any plant or tree I can think of.

Magnolia flower

In fact, in my opinion, the Magnolia tree is the loving, sheltering grandmother of the gardening world.

I only had one grandparent, my maternal grandmother. My other grandparents had died by the time I was born, and my grandmother was the only example of the older generation that I had. And boy, was she a great example! She was a very loving, strong, kind, and God-fearing woman. She persevered the last 30 years of her life, living alone after her husband had died. She taught me so many things about life, love, relationships and God.

No one ever left her home hungry, sad, or without being prayed over. Even the robber, who broke down her door and was bleeding with cuts to his arm, was prayed for, by her, before he left out the door, carrying her valuables. She was a strong, resilient woman.

And just like my beloved grandmother, the Magnolia is strong, powerful, and resilient.

Within our town, we live very close to a wonderful park. It not only has play equipment for the kids to romp on, and, of course, the ubiquitous picnic tables. It also is an arboretum. Our little town has done a smashing job at planting countless trees of every kind. So many young 10 to 12 foot trees are there, planted for our kids and our kid’s kids to enjoy. But over in the front-probably planted 80 years ago-stands…

Two tall, magnificent, majestic old Magnolias. And just like a loving grandmother, they sit at the park with open arms to the children of our town. And when I say open arms, I really mean it. These Magnolias have the most wonderful branch structure I have ever seen. Perfect for tree climbing! In fact, my six-year-old would rather climb the tree than slide down the play equipment. The branches on a Magnolia grow so close to the ground and their leaves are so big and full, it hides any little visitor climbing within. Perfect for a child to feel as though they have their own little fort or house.

When planting a Magnolia, think long and hard before you do so. The classic evergreen Southern magnolia with large, glossy leaves and huge, fragrant white blossoms can grow gargantuan in size. The stiff, leathery leaves cannot break down in compost, so leaving them hidden under the low branches is a good option. Grass and groundcovers cannot exist under them due to the heavy shade they create. But if you have the space, it is a Southern iconic beauty. Just like my grandmother, God rest her soul.

Love to all and happy gardening!

(Note: I was unable to catch the magnolias in bloom while taking pictures for this article, so I used Alan Van Dyke’s image from the Wikimedia Commons at the top of the page. Thanks!)

Buddleia – My Shining Star

When we bought this lovely house and started gardening here, I was surprised by how well my butterfly bush performed year after year. I had never owned a buddleia before and never thought that much about them. It’s funny how the plant you don’t try that hard with ends up being a shining star in your garden.

I love the way it resembles a fountain of flowers behind my English style bird-feeder. I’m glad I planted it outside my breakfast room window. It’s wonderful to look out the window and see it in all it’s snowy glory. When I walk out on our deck, butterflies come and go, to and from the showy flowers, making a flight path over my head.

If you don’t have a buddleia, I highly recommend you acquire one. They come in many different colors and many are even fragrant. It has not been bothered by any pests and it tends to be rather easy to take care of.

Buddleias bloom on current season’s wood. In the late winter to very early spring, you must prune it almost all the way down to the ground. I generally prune it to approximately 1 to 1.5 feet tall. Over the course of the growing period it reaches 6 to 8 feet tall!  Deadheading the flowers is recommended, but due to the slope where mine is planted, I do not clip off the flowers. The last time I tried, I took a tumble down the slope and decided other gardening chores would be less dangerous.

In the future, I plan on trying other buddleia colors and forms. There are new dwarf forms and even some with orange flowers. I’m glad I chose a white variety. The white flowers shine beautifully at night with a full moon. Many times at dinner in our little breakfast room, you can look out and see the floating white flower-heads suspended on long branches. What a lovely view it brings to me and my family. Dinner and a show! Love to all and happy gardening!

Bits and Pieces and In-Between

I think I have entered that part of the season that I call “in-between.” Summer is coming to a close and Autumn is not really here yet. In the southern part of the United States, it is still very humid and hot! Our little ones are going back to school and fall clothes are still packed away, waiting for chilly weather.

In the garden, it’s a little like the end of a school play. Everyone has witnessed the drama and now everyone is standing around with a cup of punch and a cookie, waiting to go home.

A lot of my perennials have bloomed like mad and are now waning. Flowering trees have done their thing and are setting fruit. Due to the large amounts of rain this summer, some of my annuals didn’t get deadheaded properly, so they are underperforming. Weeds are unfortunately prolific, also due to the ongoing wet weather.

But…there are some interesting things going on.

My lemon grass grew to a huge size. The pictures below are of when I first bought it and today, respectively. I also made sure to use the exact same pencil for scale. I was warned that at the end of a season it could approach the size of a Volkswagen. I was unhappy with the taste of it. It was not pronounced enough for me. It might be due to the overwhelming amount of water it received.

I also noticed that a lot of my plants acquired red or orange leaves due to stress. I have seen this happen in a very hot, dry summer but never due to a deluge of rain.

My Meyer lemon has lots and lots of fruit. Just like the Italians, who grow citrus in pots and move them inside during the winter, I have lemons until the middle of December. People visiting around the Thanksgiving holidays, at first think they are fake. A holiday decoration. They are so sweet and luscious, I try to think of special things to do with them other than just using them for tea.

ZinniaZinnias are one of my favorite annuals and it performed well this year. When I see them, I always think of my oldest son, Nathan. He convinced me to grow them one year. I used to be a Zinnia snob, thinking they weren’t as sophisticated as salvias, roses and coneflowers. They won my heart, pumping out brightly colored discs. The butterflies and birds agree with me.

Catnip in the compostCatnip sprang up in one of my homemade compost bins. After witnessing how well it worked as a mosquito repellent (see my previous post), I didn’t have the heart to rip it out. I hope it reseeds itself around on the ground and anywhere else it wants to grow in the garden.

Coneflowers in Kindergarten

I love perennials. The idea that they go away in the winter and then come back every spring is magical. I know they don’t always flower as prolifically as annuals, but their loyalty every year makes you want to hug them.

My favorite thing to do with perennials is pot them up and place them on our deck. It’s kind of like our version of plant kindergarten. They spend a year in a pot on our deck and if they perform well they get placed in elementary school in our garden. (Please forgive the school metaphors, but we are getting ready for school in our house.)

My garden really is similar to a school classroom in that every plant in my garden has its own strengths and weaknesses like individual kids in a class. The tiny, feathery flowers are put in the front, so the teacher can keep an eye on them. The big, overgrown, shrub that looks just like a football player, sits in the back of the class, sometimes driving the teacher crazy.

I guess kindergarten really does relate to so much of life. Even gardening.

My current little kindergartener on the deck is coneflowers. They really are a wonderful plants. They come in several colors. My coneflower is white with petals that stretch downward when fully open.

One of the great things about coneflowers is that tiny finches love to eat the seed that the flowers generate. The birds hang on to the bobbing flower-heads and pull the seeds out of the center of the flowers. It’s fun watching them act like acrobats in a tiny circus.

Last year, my kids and I watched a tiny yellow finch visit our kitchen window every day. We would hear a tap-tap-tap and look up to see him hanging on the window sill. It’s almost as if he tapped to just say hello. How are you humans? Everything okay?

I guess I need to find a place in the garden to put the coneflowers. They can be planted, in the garden, in the spring or fall. They did very nicely on the deck. I’m a proud plant Mommy.

Gardening Through the Tears

Willow tree

My curly willow tree bit the dust.

I am always so supportive to other gardeners when they lose plants. I tell them that a dead plant is an opportunity to dig it out and try something new.

When I lose a plant, I can’t ever be that philosophical. I’m always upset. The time taken planting and getting it established. All that love and nurturing and watering.

It’s heartbreaking.

My husband said, “Don’t tell your readers you lost a plant!” But really I should tell you that. In gardening you win and you lose. Gardening is all about the dreaming, planning, expectations, loving, watering, feeding, hoping and then sometimes things don’t go as you expected.

I knew when I planted a willow they are notorious for being sickly, and catching every disease that comes by. But I fell in love with a willow I saw in another person’s garden. Their willow tree reminded me of an exotic Caribbean man with long curly branches like dreadlocks. I was sucked in by the exotic charm of it. I had to have one. Unfortunately, mine never flourished like the one I saw in another garden. It mostly limped along, sometimes being nursed through diseases, only to rally again and show a little promise.

You would think I would be glad to be done with it all. But I think I mourn not for what it was but what I dreamed it could have been. At some point soon, I will get excited about what to put in its place. But for right now, I am sad that I have to get out my saw.

Loving the Art of Bonsai

Fall colored bonsaiI was thinking and studying about gardening even when I was a young girl. At the age of 5 or 6, I found books on the art of bonsai in Rich’s department store in Atlanta. As a child, I was mesmerized by the intricacies of the tiny trees. I marveled at the step-by-step pages that showed potting and pruning techniques. I knew when I got older I wanted to create these tiny living sculptures.

When I became a married adult, I wanted to try this fascinating hobby that I had read about. I contacted bonsai experts in my area and also a local bonsai club. I was so excited to attend classes to learn this amazing art form. I was even more intrigued with the location of the classes.

They were held at a monastery in a rural part of our state. The monks had perfected this time-consuming art and sold finished trees, pots, and raw material to the public. They also, at that time, held classes. It was an amazing adventure to sit in a class taught by these gentle monks. Some who looked to be about the age of 60 but later I found out were in their 90’s. This was one of the many ways for the monks to be self-sufficient, along with baking and selling many wonderful types of bread. It is a wonderful memory of a very creative time in my life.

I have enjoyed through the years belonging to the Atlanta Bonsai Club, going to seminars, attending bonsai conventions, taking classes from bonsai masters, and seeking out bonsai nurseries across the country. I have created several beautiful trees and unfortunately lost a few when we moved due to the freezing temperatures in moving trucks. I’d like to share photos of my most recent specimens. Both trees are Trident Maples and achieve a beautiful color in the fall. The Japanese inspired stand was made by my loving hubby who is great at building beautiful things.

The actual word bonsai means “tree in pot.”  The training that a tree goes through to make a bonsai is very technical. It also requires special tools and varying sizes of copper wire.

Bonsai is a type of pruning and training, not a specific variety of tree. Many types of trees can be used as material for bonsais. Some trees to think about using are:

  1. Japanese maples
  2. Various pines (white pine, mugho pine)
  3. Maples (red, white)
  4. Junipers
  5. Boxwoods
  6. Azaleas
  7. Cryptomerias
  8. Cypress

I highly recommend reading Bonsai: Special Techniques by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Keep Your Bonsai Perfectly Shaped by Herb L. Gustafson, and Miniature Living Bonsai Landscapes by Herb L. Gustafson.