My $5.00 Redbud Trees

A landscape designer friend told me I should not be buying those $5.00 trees that line the sidewalk in front of the grocery store. “They won’t last,” she says.  That might be true in many cases but, bargain shopper that I am, I cannot resist.  I figure it’s a cheap gamble and I’m a planting fool. Sometimes it does not pay off but sometimes it actually does with gusto. Let me tell you about my wonderful $5.00 redbud that has become my oddity specimen tree.

I really love the Eastern redbud tree (Cercis canadensis). It seems to be drought resistant and has a high tolerance to salt. Before the leaves appear, thousands of small pink flowers burst open along the truck and branches. It can be planted in full sun or part shade and it thrives in a variety of soil types. If you check out the tiny blooms,  they look much like the pea bloom for it is in the same family. Following the James River along the Colonial Parkway to Williamsburg, the pink redbud blooms usually open about a week before the dogwood. I find myself planning additional trips to Williamsburg to be a witness to the redbuds blooming among the glorious dogwood trees. It is a sweet welcome to spring each year.

click to enlarge

Well, here is my oddity $5.00 redbud tree. It bloomed pink with one trunk for several years. When additional trunks began to emerge, I allowed them to develop to balance the tree and the tree began to bloom white AND pink. This baffled me for a couple of seasons. The lovely heart shaped leaves were identical. Did I have a grafted redbud that grew on a white redbud root?  No, I did not. I discovered as the tree aged that it is actually two trees from one pot.  The white redbud (Cercis canadensis f. alba) may have developed from a seed that sprouted in the same pot.  Examining the trunk, one can see that the pink redbud has a rougher trunk than the smoother white redbud trunk.

click to enlarge trunks

Mystery solved.  My landscaper friend just scratches her head and agrees that this $5.00 was very well-spent. This summer, I am taking cuttings from the white redbud and trying my hand at propagation.  In a few years, I may have a border of white redbuds!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Touched By A Rainbow

The strangest phenomenon occurred during dinner tonight.  Mister gardener and I were just finishing our meal when he shouted, “Rainbow!” I glanced up to see a brilliant rainbow moving along the shoreline of the river.  It was raining but bright outside when I grabbed my camera and ran toward the water. Probably an illusion, but for a few seconds I felt I could reach out and touch the colors.

Part of the excitement was the pot of gold that would surely be on the beach but the other part of the excitement was being this close to a rainbow.  I never thought it was possible.

The colors in the rainbow were bright. I could almost see distinct red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet move out of my reach. I was joined by mister gardener at the shoreline as the rainbow drifted across the river.  At one point it was joined by a weaker twin.  Within two minutes both rainbows were over a mile away.

By the way, unless our treasure is buried in the sand, there was no pot of gold on the beach. Rats.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

A Woodland Jewel

Pink Lady's Slipper

This woodland flower’s location is my little secret. A neighbor who lives within shouting distance summoned me two days ago to take a walk in the woods to see a special flower. “Bring your camera,” she said. She wanted to share her Pink Lady’s Slipper ( Cypripedium acaule) that was found by her mother-in-law forty years ago. With care, we moved through the pinewoods watching every step we made until we came upon a small colony of pink blooms. Her native orchids grew in the dappled light of loblolly pines in a thick, moist cushion of leaf litter.

click to enlarge all photos

Breathtaking would be a good description of the small pink blooms. Each plant is comprised of two leaves near the ground and a stalk that bears a single flower looking much like the dainty slipper for which it is named. The pollination process of Pink Lady’s Slipper is interesting. Attracted by the bright color, bees enter through a slit that runs down the front of the bloom. Once inside, the insect appears trapped, however it can escape through a different exit after squeezing beneath the pollen on the stigma. Then it’s on to the next bloom. Between 10,000 and 20,000 seeds are produced in a seedpod. Because seeds do not have endosperm or food storage, they require a special soil fungus in order to digest food for growth.

The Pink Lady’s Slipper is fragile and should never be dug up or picked. Transplanting of this plant, more often than not, kills it because of the needs of the plant. Endangered in some states, it grows very slowly, taking many years to mature from seed. But in the right location, it can live for twenty years of more. I’m honored that my neighbor trusted me enough to share her lady’s slipper. I will keep the location of her orchids private and the only bloom I took was with my camera.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Brown-Headed Nuthatches have moved in….

Click to enlarge photo of nuthatch

I am overjoyed about the current residents of mister gardener’s newly constructed bluebird house. A few days before their arrival, I received a forwarded article from the Northern Neck Virginia Audubon Society on a study by Dr. Mark Stanback of Davidson College in Charlotte, NC.  The United States Golf Association Wildlife Links sponsored a two-year study of the importance of pine forests density and nesting competition between bluebirds and brown-headed nuthatches.

The study focused on golf courses where bluebird boxes were distributed. Dr. Stanback found that the density of pines had little to do with nest competition between both species yet his studies found that the small nuthatches are attracted to the bluebird boxes. Bluebirds would routinely evict resident nuthatches from boxes with the standard 1.5” bluebird openings. When the openings were reduced to 1.25”, too small for bluebirds, the nuthatches in North Carolina were regular bluebird box occupants.

I’ve had year-round brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) for the past three years and they nested somewhere in the pine forests. But just as I read about Dr. Stanback’s study, here they are going in and out of the new bluebird chapel in the azalea border.  But what’s this?  In and out were the neighborhood bluebirds, too. We needed to take immediate action. Mister gardener quickly overlaid a 1.25” opening atop the 1.5” opening. Like magic, it worked.  Mr. and Mrs. brown-headed nuthatch are nesting. The bluebirds still sit on the steeple and leave their messy calling cards but they can no longer enter the nests. UPDATE: Dr. Stanback has notified me that he is now advising 1″ openings, rather than 1.25″, to discourage sparrows. We will make a new 1″ opening as the 1.25″ can also allow titmice, the only birds we see the nuthatches chase from the area.

Dr. Stanback’s study concluded with an encouragement to golf courses in the nuthatch distribution range to make a subset of course boxes with smaller entrance holes and that 1/3 of the current bluebird boxes be provided with small holes. The brown-headed nuthatch is in decline in the Southeast.  Always thought to be caused by the loss of old grown pine, this study offers a different hypothesis: competition with the burgeoning Eastern Bluebird population is causing the decline of the brown-headed nuthatch.  Well, well, well….

USGS Patuxuent Wildlife Research Center -Brown-Headed Nuthatch Range

The Virginia Bluebird Society offered the following supportive statement on their website:  “Considering the availability of inch hole spacers, the current health of the bluebird population and the plight of the nuthatch, it seems reasonable to ask bluebirders in appropriate habitat in eastern Virginia to dedicate a subset of their nest boxes to this dull colored but charismatic cooperative breeder.”

Our bluebirds in Ware Neck are plentiful and bluebird boxes dot the landscape on our property and across the county. I am thrilled to learn of this latest study. The proof that it works is right in our own backyard and I encourage others who have an empty bluebird house and the brown-headed nuthatch in their yard to give this a try.  It worked for us. Thank you, Dr. Stanback!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Gardening While Old

The following article was written by fellow Gloucester master gardener, Celeste Dudley, who, with her timely tips and tongue in cheek humor, educates the public in a weekly column in the Gloucester-Mathews Gazette Journal. This week’s article deals with advice on gardening for older citizens.

Let’s define the terms before we have this conversation. “Gardening” is the application of time, muscle, and money to your home grounds for the purpose of providing joy, exercise, and real estate property enhancement.  You are “old” when 75% of your contemporaries garden on the window sill of their assisted living facilities.

Passionate gardening without guilt is enjoyed by the old only when they readjust their standards of perfection. Lawns, for example, do not need to look fine enough to pass inspection at the Masters tournament. Take off your bifocals and if your lawn appears to be smoothly green, it passes.  The alternative is a lawn service that will use the funds you have set aside for a cruise. This may be just as well; most men, I expect, would rather admire green grass than blue sea when the blue sea means dressing for dinner.

The square footage of lawn should be in inverse proportion to the age of the gardener. In place of sweeping lawn have deep borders composed of trees and shrubs.  By choosing small flowering trees such as dogwoods, shadblow, fringe tree, vitex, and redbud as well as shrubs such as azalea, witch hazel and weigela, you have year-around color and interest with very little effort. Smaller evergreens, well mulched, can bridge the space between shrubs and lawn. The use of ground covers the return without being coaxed make gardening easier.  Pachysandra, epimedium, and ajuga serve in shady spots and creeping phlox and herbs like thyme blanket dry sunny places where grass is reluctant to grow.

None of these plants require a lot of care. If you have been taking moderately good care of your soil, it is fertile enough for trees and shrubs and simple ground covers. When these plants are established they do not require additional fertilizer. In fact overfeeding results in lush growth that is prone to winter or storm damage. If your landscape has a sunny spot for a vegetable garden, use raised beds. Hard to imagine, but just a foot off the ground makes planting and harvesting half the effort! For those of us who failed Carpentry 101, there are kits that go together as easily as Lincoln logs. They are costly but dining on that superb produce will guarantee you will gardening long enough for the vegetables to balance the cost.

Some chores are inevitable.  If you have had the foresight to install drip irrigation, congratulations! It is prudent and effective.  Walking may be healthy but lugging that hose can trip you up and waste water.  Fill the watering can half full and slowly water only those newly planted treasures.  Your older shrubs will outlive you anyway just by taking their chances with what nature provides.

Tricks and Props

It is a good idea to carry a stout stick for balance. I noticed I was hauling my heavy spade with me, using it as a prop, so I acknowledged the need for the branch-converted-to-stick my son made for hiking uneven trails years ago.  Actually, leaning on a stick gives you more to purchase with the other arm.  If you are reluctant to be seen using a cane or a stick, remember that we elders become invisible with age.

Perhaps you have been dumped unceremoniously by a lightweight folding chair or stackable plastic chair. Senior gardeners merit a safe and sturdy perch while they admire past effort and plan future endeavors. Treat yourself!

Mulching is the key to preventing weeds and loss of moisture. I don’t have a place to have a whole load deposited so I buy it in small two-square-foot bags. Larger bags are less expensive but a bad back is costly.  You make the judgment call.  Usually I decant the mulch into a pail, helpful in scattering it exactly where it is needed.

I have spent a lot of time trying to simplify my planting without great success.  As plants die, I heave out the remains and let their neighbors fill in the gap.  Because I find diversity refreshing, I don’t have the numbers of one species that would make a garden more stylish and easier to manage.  I do let plants like the black-eyed Susan spread at will since weeds don’t make a dent when that Rudbeckia shoulders them out.

Much as I love roses, I am content with a few old shrub roses and the new disease-resistant ones, leaving the glorious hybrid teas for the young with more patience and skill. One fragrant bloom in a small vase cheers me; I truly don’t need dozens.  Generally I leave the flowers outside as an excuse to visit them.  Perhaps the old are like the very young, easily delighted by the interplay of light and color in the blessed out of doors.

To read more of Celeste’s articles, visit the master gardener website.


Our porch is probably our favorite room in the house during the warmer months. It’s where mister gardener drinks his morning coffee and reads the newspaper. It’s where we love to sit and watch the dozens and dozens of hummingbirds that battle at nectar feeders. It’s a nice place to end the day without experiencing biting insects. BUT right now it is practically unusable.

A yellow haze is clogging the air. The loblolly pines (Pinus taeda L.) are reproducing. Although the loblolly’s pollen does not cause allergic reactions, it does cause a different reaction in most people. Lines at the car wash are longer these days. Our black dogs are both ‘Old Yellas.’  The fish pond is yellow. Leaves are yellow. And the porch is yellow. Windy days like today are dreaded. A little rain is always welcome to wash the pollen to the ground.

The pollen is sticky. We make a valid attempt to wash and vacuum the porch regularly or the coated surfaces form a difficult to remove thick mat that eventually turns a darker not so pretty shade of yellow.

Forest biologist Claire Williams, who studies airborne pollen at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, NC, says that during peak pollen season in late March and early April, loblolly pines shed millions of pounds of pollen into the air. Although most of that pollen lands nearby, perhaps in our porch, Williams and her colleagues discovered viable pine pollen as far as 2,000 feet in the air and 25 miles offshore. I think the pines are here to stay.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Sapsuckers, Ginkgoes and Hummingbirds

A pair of yellow-bellied sapsuckers spend the winter months hanging from my suet feeders but they have another feeding trait that annoys me. They drill holes in my tallest ginkgo tree.  Sapsuckers are the woodpeckers that make the series of small round holes that line up in neat little rows around the trunk of trees. From the holes, they lap up the oozing sap with their rough tongues and dine on any insects trapped by the sticky substance.

Our winter resident sapsuckers are migratory woodpeckers. They have now left Gloucester, following the sap trails to their northern breeding grounds in forested areas of Canada, the northeastern United State, and the higher elevations of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee.

And they’ve left me with a ginkgo full of holes. I’ve read that the holes do not damage a tree and are purely cosmetic. I’m not convinced of that. The holes they have made in this ginkgo are numerous.  When I hear their telltale Morse code knocking on the ginkgo, I often open the door and clap my hands to send them back to the suet or the woods. However, they know I’m all bark, no bite, and they rarely fly. They simply hide like a squirrel on the far side of the tree until I give up.

But in Mother Nature’s wisdom, she makes sure there is a reason for everything and order in her kingdom. She has taught me appreciation for these small woodpeckers for they provide needed sustenance for other creatures.  I have seen squirrels, insects, and other birds at those ginkgo holes at a time of year when food sources are scarce.  Widely known among bird watchers is the fact that hummingbirds arrive during the migration of sapsuckers. It is the sap and the insects that are trapped within that sustain the tiny birds until nectar flows from flowers.

The sapsuckers are long gone and the first hummingbird has arrived to feed on the ginkgo sap and insects, my newly mixed nectar and the blooms of our new Red Buckeye tree.  If a hummingbird could smile, I know he would.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester


Of all the glorious blooms that are appearing in our spring garden, the corylopsis or winterhazel may have the grandest display of all. Planted beneath the boughs of an ancient tulip poplar, it is a graceful open woody shrub that puts on a spectacular spring show in this semi-shade location.  In March, before any foliage appeared, pendulous lemon-colored flowers dangled along thin arching stems.  The 3-inch long panicles, thick with clusters of yellow flowers, appeared in such quantity that they illuminated the otherwise leafless garden.

The shrub, found growing wild in the woodlands of China and Japan, is planted elsewhere as an ornamental in protected areas of zones 5-8.  It will do well in moist, well-drained acid soil and seems to be  resistant to pests and diseases.  The fragrance of the blooms is sweet, similar to witchhazel, a family relative.

Michael Dirr says about the winterhazel, “In full flower, they are as beautiful as any plant that could grace a garden.”  I do agree!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester