New Year’s Eve

Tonight I will gather with friends for a while at the home of neighbors as I “take a cup o’ kindness yet” and not forget our wonderful old acquaintances of “Auld Lang Syne,” but later we will be home with family when we count down the seconds to the new year as the ball drops on Times Square.

At midnight, if the clouds cooperate, we’ll step outdoors and see the second full moon of the month, a blue moon.  It isn’t actually the color blue but the name is indicative of how rare the two moons in one month event occurs.  Blue moon is linked to the saying, “Once in a blue moon.” According to National Geographic, the last time a blue moon occurred on New Year’s Eve was in 1990 and the next blue moon we’ll see on this date will be in 2028. Visit the National Geographic site to learn more tidbits about our moon, such as, astronauts say that lunar dust smells like spent gunpower or learn how the moon was formed from a chunk of earth.

Happy New Year!

Sycamore or less?

At the time mister gardener and I acquired our property, I was dismayed to note that the only shade tree on the river side was a large American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), a pretty ordinary native tree, I thought, that would leave us with a massive leaf cleanup in the fall and an exfoliating bark cleanup and a seed ball cleanup as well.

Found in most states east of the Great Plains, the native sycamore tree can grow to massive heights of 100′ or more and can live 500 years. It possesses the largest leaf of any tree in America, a maple-shaped leaf of three to five lobes that can be a foot wide. It’s a very easy tree to identify on the horizon. The most distinctive feature is the mottled, camouflage-like bark with stretches of smooth, pure white near the crown that stands out in the winter landscape.

An early landscaper suggested we replace our medium-sized sycamore.  I am extremely glad we did not heed his advice for we have grown to know this tree and admire the goodness about it in spite of the mess it shares each fall. The tree has thrived in its location in the center of our yard. In ten years it has grown quite large and it does supply us needed shade in the heat of summer.

The most surprising discoveries for us were the benefits and safe harbor the tree provides our fine feathered friends.  At any given season of the year, the tree is a Tower of Babel for the world of birds.  With my binoculars aimed into the branches, I see families of bluebirds, flocks of finches, cedar waxwings and other birds eating the seeds from the fruits, the ‘buttons’ that hang one from each stalk. Mourning doves, cardinals and all the well-known ‘tweety birds’ species find a haven in the branches of our mighty sycamore tree, including a hawk or two.

Sycamore stories abound in America as the tree has a rich heritage.  Not only was the tree of value to the Native Americans, it was a familiar sight to our westward progressing forebears as they settled near rivers where the trees thrived along the banks.  One book I remember reading years ago, Where The Red Fern Grows, tells of a boy living in the Ozarks in the early 1900’s, whose passion was hunting with his dogs.  I still can picture the scene where the boy chopped down a beautiful old sycamore to kill a raccoon.  Perhaps that distant memory is why I could not chop down our sycaMORE, not less…

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester


Weather conditions have been unusually wet this winter. We’ve had rain, snow, sleet, freezing temperatures and now we are having unusually warm days. Fog often greets us on these mild mornings. It’s a bit of an eerie feeling to stand on the pier that virtually disappears into a blue abyss.  Sounds on the river are sharper. Geese and ducks are out there somewhere communicating with one another.  Although they can’t discern shapes or movement, the labs know very well that someone or some dog stands on a neighboring pier.

On land, wooded scenes that we hardly notice as we pass on a regular basis take on a ghostly and unnatural appearance in the blue haze. However, the story changes as we view each tree separately.

In the seas of fog that we have been experiencing, the most interesting features are always the individual trees. Details that we miss on any given day are embellished in the most humble of trees. We notice the form, the shape, the separate trees in a copse, the angles, and the splendor that we may have overlooked yesterday.

I keep a library of photographs I have taken of trees in the fog.  Although photos are an imperfect reproduction of what the eye experiences, they are reminders of the grandeur of a tree and of the benefits to the natural world.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester


It’s Christmas morning and the only creatures stirring are mister gardener and me.  Two sleeping offspring are still snug in their beds. Who knows if visions of anything dance in their heads?  The gifts are all wrapped and under the tree just waiting for chaos that will surely be.

All the early morning activity is taking place in the kitchen. The turkey is in the oven, the stuffing is made, and pies, cakes and Christmas candies are in nature’s deep freeze on the porch. Mister gardener has harvested all that he can from the winter garden.  Brussels sprouts and broccoli will be on the menu for a late afternoon meal served to 18 family members.

We are looking forward to a magical day. Here’s wishing you the best of the holiday season and an appreciation of  of the wonders of our natural world.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

All I Want for Christmas….

Dear Santa, Honestly, I’ve been pretty good this year… err…except for that one time, but I hope you still have me on your Nice List.  I don’t need diamonds or pearls or designer purses this year but I have a Christmas Wish List that I hope isn’t too hefty.  It’s just a Wish List which means I don’t all have to receive all of these goodies.  One or two of these things would make me smile.

1. Gloves. I’m really, really hard on garden gloves.  In one season, I either wear a hole in a pair or I am missing the mate (the dogs?). I like those gloves best with fabric backs and rubber on the palms.  I promise to be better about not leaving them on a bench, tree limb or on the ground for the dogs to find.

2. Bulbs: Gosh, you don’t have to go far, Santa. Brent & Becky’s Bulbs are just down the road and they’re having a 50% off sale on bulbs for indoor forcing.  I’ve already planted my outdoor bulbs this year but it would be fun to have a few blooms inside this winter.  You’d better be quick though.They’re only on sale until December 21.

3. Fine Gardening Magazine: Santa, real gardeners, just like I aspire to be, get to the meat of gardening in this bimonthly journal.  Even the ads are worth reading! The English Garden is another magazine that I would pore over and read again and again and again.

4. Gardening Book: It would be fun to curl up this winter with a hot cup of tea and Ken Druse’s Planthropology. Or how about Piet Oudolf’s Designing With Plants?

5. Black and Decker cordless  18 volt leaf blower:  This lightweight rechargeable leaf blower is just the ticket for me to clean the hard surfaces around the home.  All I need is 15 minutes and I’m done.  No gasoline. No extension cord.

6. Troy-Bilt 20 volt lithium-ion battery trimmer: All my edging dreams would come true with a battery that holds a charge for one hour. The time I would save over hand edging would allow me to develop another bed.  My long-term goal: all beds, no grass.

7. For a Christmas surprise (and birthdays and anniversaries), I would love to find a truckload of compost from the facility in Yorktown!

8. Drip Irrigation: It’s hard to think about water right now with our saturated soil but the droughts will someday return and I want to be ready.

Well, that about does it for this gardener.  I’d sure like to know what other gardeners have on their Wish List for Christmas.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Splish Splash. We’re Taking A Bath

Downpours in our area four days ago and an all day soaker today have left Tidewater engorged and the rain has no place to go.  We’ve had flooded roads and full ditches and a washout of our small bridge crossing our natural pond. With freezing rain, wintry mixes and blizzard conditions in other areas of the country, our wet weather is not of interest to anyone but those of us mired in it.  Mister gardener’s fancy dancy weather station does not like the waterlogged weather either.  It is refusing to show us how many inches of rain we’ve accumulated.

Temperatures hovered in the 40’s today and the rain did not let up.  I canceled my Christmas shopping plans and wrapped Christmas gifts all morning, followed by a mid-afternoon beat-the-bounds walk to see how the soggy property was faring.

Even the high and dry field stone path puddled water around my feet

Water streamed off the roof all day onto camellias, laurels and foster hollies

At least the bald cypress is planted in the right place!

Our natural pond spills past the cattails

The only animal I encountered on my wet and wild walk was this Great Blue

Goldfish pond is high and the fish are liking it

The perfect words to describe our weather appeared in cascading water in a drainage ditch today.

There has been no weather alert for flooding and my tiny WeatherBug on my computer has not begun its chirping. All signs point to drying weather and a bit of sunshine tomorrow!  Hurrah.

Our OMG Christmas Tree

We will put up our Christmas tree this weekend.  It was bought early in the season, had the bottom of the trunk cut off, placed it quickly in a bucket of water and stored in a sheltered spot just waiting for this weekend event.

Since my childhood, picking out a cut Christmas tree has been an important family affair.  Trees must undergo much scrutiny by family members of all ages. We always arrive early on our favorite tree lot, usually on the very day the trees arrive and we spread out to check for crooked trunks, ‘holes’ in the branches, a split trunk, the perfect tip at the top, freshness, height, width, and needle length. It’s an annual process that we take seriously.  Every opinion is heard and weighed, but, of course, as the Decorating Chairman, my vote might hold a bit more weight than others.

There is controversy and debate over which is the ‘greener’ option, an artificial or a cut tree.  From a distance, today’s artificial trees are amazingly real looking and last for years. But to manufacture an artificial tree, pollutants are released, and these trees, made overseas, are not biodegradable. As real Christmas trees grow, they absorb CO2 and they are recyclable.  Post holiday, we take our trees deep into our woods where they become part of a living brush pile, a winter haven for birds and other small animals.  However, factoring in the impact of mass transportation of trees and possible chemicals used in the management of tree farms must be considered.  What tree you select for your Christmas is a very personal decision.

Although we’ve planted our share of live Christmas trees and cut our own from tree farms, a cut fresh tree from a trusted local business now works for us, a perfect tree that we will garnish with ornaments either handmade or selected by our family and friends, ornaments that awaken cherished family memories of Christmases past and new baubles that will make memories for the future.  Our family loves to share their individual decorating techniques and talents with one another. The journey to each of our homes has already begun through long-distance photo albums online or actual visits to each home where an OMG Christmas tree is the focal point of the trimmings.  I am ready at last to embrace the spirit of the holiday!

Remember when buying a cut tree:

  • buy early
  • choose a tree with green needles
  • avoid drooping branches, brown or falling needles
  • Check for straight trunks
  • Avoid trees with split trunks
  • cut off a couple of inches of the trunk
  • place in water
  • store in a sheltered spot away from freezing and thawing
  • never allow your tree to be without water!

A Holiday Tradition: The Christmas Bird Count

I have never met a gardener who didn’t like birds. Some are passionate bird lovers and other gardeners feed them or simply enjoy seeing them in the gardens. Birds bring color and life into your gardens and are interesting animals to study.  With bird habitat vanishing and weather patterns changing, it is vital that we collect data to track the health of bird populations and identify trends for conservation.  Time is drawing near for the largest and longest-running wildlife survey that exists, the Christmas Bird Count or CBC.

The Christmas season marks this exciting time for birders as they brave the winter elements for one full day as citizen scientists.  The CBC is a program of the National Audubon Society, where over 55,000 volunteers are up at the crack of dawn to count all the birds they can identify by sight or sound in a 15-mile diameter in one day.  The count that runs from December 14 through January 5, collects data on all birds seen in each circle and is compiled and used to track the health of bird populations.

Folks do not have to be die hard birders to take part in the count.  Less experienced counters are paired with experienced birders who head up each field team.  All that volunteers need is to bundle up with warm, waterproof clothes and boots, birding binoculars and/or a spotting scope, a good field guide, and a few snacks and water.

The Chesapeake Bay area is rich in bird life and several groups count in this area. Much of our group’s time is spent on the beachfront identifying and counting waterfowl and shorebirds on and over the water.  Starting out on the banks of the Ware River where estimates of waterfowl are recorded, we slowly work our way around the peninsula to the North River, then we move toward the interior of our circle through wooded areas, back yards and across fields.  At dusk, when all is finished, we gather to complete our data and raise a glass of cheer to another successful count.

Wintertime is a great time to watch birds.  The leaves are off the trees making the birds more visible to bird watchers. And, of course, there are some birds that are visitors only in the winter. More Yuletide volunteers are needed for the CBC.  To find out about the count in your area visit the National Audubon Society website. To see count data, visit Bird Source, a joint project of the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Labrotory of Ornithology.  Check it out!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

The Osage-Orange

It was a thing of real interest when Meriwether Lewis sent osage-orange tree (Maclura pomifera) cuttings and seeds back from St. Louis to President Thomas Jefferson in 1804 and in 1806. According to a letter from Lewis, the trees did not take, but since then it has been planted throughout America and can be found just about everywhere.

I am thankful for the two female trees that drop fruit nearby my home.  It’s the time of year that I gather them, for, like many Virginians, I use the fruit for Christmas decorations. Colonial Williamsburg often uses them instead of apples, impaling them on nails on cone-shaped wooden forms, then using boxwood and holly to fill the spaces between each fruit or they are used on wreaths and swags along with other natural items like nuts, berries, cones and fruit.  I always have a bowl of osage-oranges mixed with nuts, berries, cones and pine on the dining room table at Christmas.  It’s a festive look and the fruit can release a delightful citrus aroma.

Called osage-oranges by most folks, the fruit is also called hedge apples, horse apples, or monkey’s brain. It is a bright green wrinkled ball about the size of a grapefruit, a relative of mulberry and fig trees.  The Osage Indians prized the wood of the tree for bows and war clubs and early settlers prized it as a living fence for livestock.  Until barbed wire, thousands of miles of this thorny pruned hedge kept farm animals in place on The Great Plains.

It is native to a small area of Texas and Oklahoma, but the absolute largest osage-orange tree, the National Champion and American Forestry Hall of Fame osage-orange tree does not grow there.  It grows right here in Virginia at Red Hill, the home of Patrick Henry.  It has an eighty-five foot span and is sixty feet high.  No one knows the exact age of this remarkable tree.  We know it postdates Henry as he died in 1799 before Lewis and Clark sent the first seeds to Virginia.  A wonderful legend has it that a tree was given by Lewis and Clark to his daughters after his death and they immediately planted it in front of Red Hill.  I like that…

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester