Hot and Dry Weather: Survivors in the Garden

Hot, dry, windy summer weather can be extremely stressful for plants in the garden. Temperatures in Gloucester have hovered near 100º for the last several days, topping out at 102 yesterday. Life seems to be fading from much of the garden. I am usually found hiding inside during intolerably hot weather, however in the late afternoon, I’ll take a stroll to check out heat tolerant plants that shine through the high temps. Several shrubs and perennials are doing well. Here are two that stand out:

The ‘Becky‘ Shasta Daisies, Leucanthemum superbum, that I planted en masse in early spring for our June ‘wedding garden’ are still going strong. I have been rewarded a hundred times over with waves of showy pure white blooms… great for admiring and great for cutting. They’re the 2003 Perennial Plant of the Year and are proving to be heat and drought tolerant. All they ask for is sunshine and a little deadheading.

Becky Shasta Daisy

Hardiness: USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9

Light: Full sun

Soil: Growth is optimum in moist, but well-drained soil

Bloom: June to September.

Another favorite that I’ve blogged about a couple of years ago is the Blackberry Lily or the Leopard Lily, a plant that is three plants in one.

1. In the spring, we are rewarded with blue green leaves than fan out in an attractive pattern much like an iris. Indeed it is a member of the iris family.  Familiarly known as Belamcanda chinensis, after a DNA analysis, the new classification is Iris domestica.

Iris-like leaves of the blackberry lily

2. In mid-July we are blessed with a multitude of small orange and red lily-like flowers, each blooming for a day then twisting like tiny wrung out rags before dropping from the plant. I’ve not read anything about the nectar of this flower but have observed a variety of insects actually competing over the sweet fluids.

Blackberry Lily and Sweat Bee

Blackberry Lily and red ants

3. In the late summer and fall and winter, the 3-lobed pods that are green and swelling now, split open to reveal the glossy fruit that resemble blackberries. These will fall from the plant and self seed or stems can be used for flower arrangements. I adore all three phases of this colorful summer perennial.

Belamcanda chinensis

Image via Wikipedia

It will reproduce by seed and by rhizomes which may be divided and shared. Plant rhizomes under 1″ of soil and allow to dry between waterings.

Hardiness: USDA Hardiness Zones 5-10

Light: Full sun, partial sun, partial shade (I moved my plants from full sun to partial sun and they seem less stressed)

Soil: Well-drained; grows taller in fertile soil.

Bloom: July and August

Zones: 5-10.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

A Winter Vertical Garden

Vertical walls, living walls, green walls – no matter what you call it, growing a garden on inside or outside walls seems to be a hot trend in gardening and much in the news these days. Whether it is good for the atmosphere or whether a vertical garden causes more harm for the environment than good, I am uncertain. Vertical gardens originated in France, migrated to the West Coast and moved east from there. While some believe these gardens may save the planet, others say the electricity needed to supply water outweighs the benefits.

Portsmouth NH, one of the oldest cities in the country, is where I came upon a vertical garden yesterday that seemed to be struggling to survive one of the toughest New England winters of late. The garden was installed in September, 2010, on the aged brick wall of Cava Restaurant in a narrow old street named Commercial Alley.

John Akar

Needless to say, I was intrigued and while studying the plants that looked like they’d had seen better days, the owner, John Akar, appeared in the Alley, proud as a papa about his vertical garden. He said the installers had just visited the garden and declared the roots on all the plants healthy and vital.  Cava Restaurant is proud to own the first outdoor vertical garden in New England with hearty native New England perennials chosen for low maintenance and their semi-evergreen nature.

Although the wall looks a little like woolly mammoths that have been skinned and hung to dry, I can visualize flowing tussock grass, the purple leaves of coral bells, the red berries of bunchberry, lacy Christmas ferns and wintergreen soon providing a lovely atmosphere for diners on the patio of this popular restaurant.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Eat Your Flowers!

For me, it’s always around this time of year that winter seems to go on forever. I’m simply DONE with appreciating the lovely shapes and textures of a winter garden. I’ve been teased by a few warm days and I need to see flowers and I need to touch flowers and I need to plant flowers. But I had no idea I needed to taste flowers.

White chocolate mascarpone cups with rose water and candied violas

Fellow master gardener, Marion Baker of Duchess of Gloucester Flowers arranged an educational workshop on common garden flowers that are edible. I signed up early. Marion provided the flowers and the popular chef at Gloucester’s Inn at Warner Hall, Eric Garcia, prepared the mouth watering delicacies.  Just entering the room set for high tea, I was hit with a visual smorgasbord of color that cured my winter flower withdrawal at a glance.

Chocolate truffles rolled in lavender sugar

I learned that not only can your eyes appreciate the beauty of flowers in the garden, many of those same flowers can dress up and flavor the foods we eat. While Marion lectured us on flowers we can eat and those that are poisonous, how to harvest, how to keep our harvest fresh, and the dangers of pesticides, we were served tea and an array of flower-infused, garnished or tossed choice treats from the kitchen at Warner Hall.

Marion and Eric

While we sampled from the table, Marion gave us recipes, shared her abundant knowledge and Eric added great cooking tips. We asked many questions and shared stories and we ate and we learned and we sipped our tea. I was fulfilled. Now I think I can make it through the rest of the winter.

Some of the other delicacies served were:

-Cream cheese and edible flower mix on crackers

-Smoked salmon, Boursin cheese and edible flowers on crackers

-Cheese selection of smoked cheddar and paprika, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Wisconsin

-Pear, lavender and cornmeal cake topped with pears glazed in wildflower honey

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Slice it, Dice it with Fiskars

According to the manufacturer, the Multi-Snip is the ultimate tool. “It slices! It dices! It washes the dishes and makes your bed.” Well, it doesn’t do all that at my house but it has fast become an indispensable gardening tool for me.

I was introduced to this handy tool at a master gardener meeting where our County Extension Agent wore one in a sheath on his belt, displaying it and saying he couldn’t do without it. It was his most used tool in the garden. I bought two of them on his word, one for me and one as a gift for a gardener son.

The Multi-Snip features four tools in one: pruning/multi-purpose snip, fine-edged knife, serrated kniife, and wire-cutting notch. It comes with a sheath that hooks over a belt or pocket to keep the precision sharp blades covered. This is important as the blades can cause injury if not used properly.

It’s a perfect snip for soft or smaller woody stems. As Fiskar says, “…when it comes to garden chores, there’s nothing this handy device won’t do. It clips wayward stems, slices twine, eats through burlap bags, and even cuts wire.”  Check it out at Amazon or a good gardening store. It is a versatile small tool for gardening that I highly recommend.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Historic Garden Week: Behind the Scenes in Gloucester VA


APRIL 2011. It’s that time of year when Garden Club of Virginia members across our great Commonwealth are connected to one another with a common purpose: Historic Garden Week in Virginia. Forty-seven garden clubs and more than 3,000 members under the umbrella of the Garden Club of Virginia issue invitations to “America’s Largest Open House,” April 16-23, 2011. More than 250 gardens, homes and historic landmarks in Virginia will be open for tours, programs, and events.

Event chairs have been working around the clock for a year or two organizing their individual tours including floral arrangements for the homes, hostesses to greet visitors in each room, parking, transportation, photography, publicity, programs, lunches and much more. The work of advance planning and logistics of each tour is staggering. It takes the cooperation of all members of the clubs and their communities at a very high level. Most of all, it takes the generosity and philanthropy of the remarkable homeowners to make all the tours possible. For a year or two, homeowners have been preparing their homes and gardens to be able to invite visitors inside some of the most lovely homes and the most beautiful gardens at the pinnacle of springtime color.

The mission of the Garden Club of Virginia is to inspire a love of gardening, conserve our natural resources and to educate our own members and the general public. These missions are accomplished through the tour and other programs throughout the year. Another important mission of the GCV is to restore historic gardens and landscapes in Virginia. The proceeds from Historic Garden Week are used to fund these restoration projects. To date over $14.5 million has been raised to restore more than 50 historic garden properties across the state.  Over the years, funds from Garden Week have restored notable historic gardens at the Pavilion Gardens of the University of Virginia, Woodlawn, Bacon’s Castle, Monticello, the Executive Mansion Capitol Square, and other historic Virginia sites. Click here for complete information on GCV historic garden restorations.

View of Millford Haven on Gywnn’s Island

The following tour took place in 2011: In the Tidewater counties of Gloucester and Mathews, the Garden Club of Gloucester is planning a most interesting tour on Saturday, April 16, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Four unique and lovely waterfront homes on four different and distinct bodies of water will roll out the red carpet for a multitude of visitors to explore two historic counties with over 350 combined miles of shoreline and where most roads lead to water. The view from each home site is unmatched. From vistas over the tranquil Severn Creek with historic Warner Hall Plantation as a backdrop, majestic cliff-side panoramic views of the Piankatank River, historic and bucolic Pepper Creek where eagles and osprey soar and nest, and white sandy beaches along Milford Haven, named by early Welsh settlers, that opens directly into the majestic Chesapeake Bay. Visitors will take note of lovely salt-tolerant gardens filled with ornamental grasses and blooming woody shrubs and colorful bulbs.

Windowsill Garden at “Sweetgrass”

You will see original garden art, a butterfly garden, a woodland walk with native plants, raised bed gardens, a rose garden and more.  With Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester to mentor our club and communities, we’re fortunate that this part of the state is known for its daffodils.

Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in April

Fields of yellow punctuated with vibrant tulips growing amongst vivid azaleas and beneath flowering dogwood will greet visitors in both counties.  A box lunch will be in Gloucester at Short Lane Ice Cream with a grand finale desert of the best homemade ice cream I’ve ever tasted. A sit-down lunch will take place at the White Dog Inn in Mathews County, an experience to remember. Come to visit us at the beach on April 16!  You can find all the details about our Gloucester-Mathews tour and advance discount tickets here.

Have I got your attention?  I hope so and I hope you will be persuaded be our guest in Virginia the third full week in April, 2011 and travel from community to community to visit in some of Virginia’s best homes and gardens.  Supporting the tour will give you the satisfaction that you have helped preserve historic Virginia gardens, all open to the public. For detailed schedule information on Historic Garden Week 2011, click here.

Stay tuned in the weeks to come for highlights on other HGW gardens across the state.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Race Against Time

There is nothing more beautiful in the spring landscape than an azalea, a member of the genus Rhododendron. Fifteen azalea species are native to the eastern part of our country and gardeners are becoming more appreciative and knowledgeable about them. Whether white, pink, red or orange or any combination of these colors, the native azaleas are said to be the most fragrant of all azaleas. These natives grow naturally in woodland settings beneath tall hardwood or pine trees where the sun is filtered and the soil is acidic.

In Gloucester, we feel fortunate to have fellow resident, George McLellan, a landscape designer who values the native azalea. He is a member of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society and chairman of the Species Study Group. He knows his azaleas well, as he does everything else in the world of gardening including native plants, trees, bulbs, perennials, the uncommon, the rare and newest hybrids. He also knows his birds and is a regular on our birding walks where, if asked, will take time to share horticultural knowledge along the way.

Last week George also shared an azalea success story. Recently, on a tiny postage stamp plot of undeveloped land in Gloucester surrounded by a sea of man-made surfaces and buildings, a sign went up announcing the construction of a new fast food restaurant. George and fellow ARS member, Jim Brant, with no time to waste, took shovels to the tiny woodland site to save a native azalea.

Growing under the pines were Pinxter Azaleas (Rhododendron periclymenoides), a wild azalea found from Massachusetts to Georgia and Alabama. The name Pinxter is the Dutch word for Pentecost, named thus by the colonists because it bloomed on Pentecost, 50 days after Easter. It can grow to 6-8 feet tall with clusters of long-tubed pink to white flowers with a wonderful sweet fragrance. George and Jim were able to save some azaleas before dozers leveled the land, paved and built the restaurant in record time.

Protected in New York state, the species is obviously not safe from harm in Virginia. The azalea is certainly fortunate to have friends in need.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Predator vs Prey

Here is a little quiz for you. Is this a good bug or bad bug?

It’s quite possible that you’ve never spotted this well-camouflaged bug called a Wheel Bug (Arilus cristatus) in your garden, one of the largest of the assassin bugs. It is fairly common in the eastern part of the country, a slow-moving member of the Hemiptera (half wings) order of True Bugs that includes stink bugs for one.  The adult pictured is resting on the outside of our screened porch. A semicircular structure appearing much like a cogwheel on the thorax gives the Wheel Bug its nickname. No one knows the function of this armor-like wheel but it is thought to add protection from predators.

The answer is:  this is a GOOD BUG for the garden but it comes with a caution.

All True Bugs have long straw-like mouthpieces that fold up beneath their body that most insect pests use to suck up juices in plants. Not so with the Wheel Bug or other assassin bugs in this order.  Their mouthparts are used to suck the body juices of other insects. In the photo  above, the Wheel Bug’s mouth is visible as a red tube beneath its long head. It waits in ambush to prey upon caterpillars, aphids, Japanese beetles, sawflies, stink bugs and other pests of the garden. It plunges the tube into an insect, injecting an enzyme and within seconds, the prey’s organs have been dissolved. It then sucks out all fluids much like a spider does. A little gruesome sounding, yes?

juvenile Wheel Bug- Wikipedia photo

It is an especially beneficial bug in the garden and should be ignored when seen around the yard. Don’t run and fetch a pesticide.  Maybe you’ll see one this fall as numbers of Wheel Bugs have increased, perhaps due to the proliferation of its pest cousin, the stink bug. Where there is an abundance of a pest, we are lucky that Mother Nature supplies us with an effective predator.

A word of caution: do not handle the Wheel Bug. It is a benign insect and seeks out quiet, hidden spots, however it is not particular where it will stick its sharp tube when it feels threatened. And due to the enzyme, it is a painful poke.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

We could all use a ‘Soft Caress’

Mahonia eurybracteata, ‘Soft Touch’ mahonia

At a garden show a year ago I finally put my hands on a plant that I had only read about: ‘Soft Caress’ Mahonia (Mahonia eurybracteata), a new introduction marketed through Novalis’ Plants That Work.  The leaves of this plant were nothing like the spiny holly-like leaves on the mahonia that grows in my garden. This plant really was soft. The leaves were long and graceful, looking a bit like bamboo.  I knew then that I would eventually own one.

There are around 70 species of mahonia plants around the world, with North America’s native Oregon Grape Holly (Mahonia aquifolium) being one that we know well.  Named after Bernard McMahon (1775-1816), a horticulturist and one of two men selected by Thomas Jefferson to receive and grow these Pacific Northwest seeds from the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Mahonia aquifolium, Oregon Grape Holly. Click photo.

Last week I finally stumbled upon a young ‘Soft Caress’ in glorious bloom at a nearby nursery and I snatched it up.  It’s tucked into a more shaded spot in the garden, close enough to the house that the lemony yellow racemes of blooms will be visible from a window. Later in the winter, bluish berries should replace the blooms. I expect ‘Soft Caress’ to be a relatively fast growing evergreen, reaching about 4-feet in height and I’m certain it will continue to give interest and structure to this zone 7 garden throughout the winter months.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

The Snake is Gone… I think.

Maggie knows it's in there!

Maggie knows it’s in there!

I heard it rattling through dry leaves before I glanced over and saw the Northern Water Snake slowly disappearing into the pachysandra garden on the edge of the property. (See Where Have All My Frogs Gone?) He had been warming himself on the fieldstone path as I passed by this garden. Could he really be leaving us? It’s been two weeks now and he has not returned to our little frog pond garden.  And, magically, two new frogs have found the pond.  My fish numbers are lower but they will recover. All is well in our small aquatic paradise.

With the snake gone, I knew this was my window of opportunity. Today I waded knee-deep into the garden that borders the pond, armed with loppers and pitchfork and a stick to drive away anything scary. Chop, chop, dig, dig. I slowly cut back the cotoneaster, dug up large sections of the spreading Black-eyed Susan and all of the variegated Japanese sedges, leaving the fieldstone visible.  I left alone the poor sun starved Blue Sedge (Carex flacca) that once gracefully flopped over the rocks along the border. It will rebound.
img_2198If the snake makes it through the winter, he will probably return to the pond next summer, however the shelter he found beneath the overhanging branches and flowers is gone.  Let’s hope he keeps on truckin’.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Our New Rain Barrel

We love our new rain barrel. We’ve been in the market for one since spring and finally decided on the Kyoto 75-gallon barrel made by Koolatron, a Canadian company with warehouses in the states and elsewhere. It didn’t cost an arm and a leg and the barrel is is able to withstand extreme temperatures that we occasionally have in our temperate zone. It came well packed and ready to use. I pulled it out of the box and at 18 lbs., I could lift and easily carry it to its chosen location. At this time, there is only one color available: sandstone.

No rain barrel is particularly lovely but this one works for us. The 75-gallon capacity is the primary reason for selecting this product. We diverted our gutter directly into the barrel and I attached a net to the end of the gutter for easy removal of leaves. The screen guard lid on the top is heavy duty but the larger holes allowed mosquitoes to enter and breed.  We solved that problem by attaching porch screening to the bottom of the lid.

The brass spigot works great.  It is threaded which allows me to attach a short hose to fill sizable or bulky watering cans or buckets.  Lower than the spigot is a clean out spout, the black cap seen on the footing.  It screws off for cleaning of sludge buildup.  There is an overflow valve on the top rear of the barrel that we attached a permanent drain for a rain garden, not knowing if this would work or not. It works! A recent 1 1/2″ rainfall filled the barrel and nicely watered the rain garden.

The most surprising thing for me for how quickly the barrel filled in any rainstorm. At first, I found myself running out and checking the level. “Oooo, we have two feet of water!”  But now, I just know I can fill my buckets and water those plants that need it between rainfalls. This one works so great, I do want to add more barrels.  And I tell myself, it’s one small step for the environment but a giant step for our gardens.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

A Garden Stitch In Time

Caterpillars of all shapes and sizes, both moths and butterflies, are invading areas of the garden at this time of year.  Some, like the black swallowtail caterpillar, I welcome; others are pests, like the Eastern tent caterpillar, and then there are a few that interest me, like the Redbud Leaffolder.

A tiny moth caterpillar, the Redbud Leaffolder (Fascista cercerisella), has turned some of the tree’s lovely heart shaped leaves into a patchwork quilt by folding or rolling the leaves. These black/white striped caterpillars pull a corner of the leaf over and ‘stitch’ the edges together with silk thread while they consume the leaf from the inside. I have opened some of the leaves to have a peek inside. I found several caterpillars in each fold and I was met with a flurry of movement.  The caterpillars twist and jump, eventually falling to the ground as an escape.

A tiny leaffolder moth visits lamps at night

The adult is a teeny black moth with white spots. I have read that that these common moths breed twice a summer. I would not describe our tree as infested and I’m not ready to use pesticides.  I’m watching and waiting. If I sense a problem, I’ll first try picking the leaf and stepping on it to squish the inhabitants.  Pesticides will be the last option and it would have to be ruinous for the redbud before I take that final step.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Potato Harvest

The potato plants have looked brown, nearly dead, for a week, a sign that the tubers were ready for harvesting. This is always a rewarding adventure for mister gardener, a time to savor after weeks of hard work in the garden.

Two days ago, he raked away the straw surrounding the plants and sunk his garden fork into the first hill of potatoes. Imagine his excitement when up came a fork full of enormous spuds! Hill after hill told the same story. Conditions this year, whatever they were, resulted in a bumper crop of potatoes…. abundant and huge!

It took a couple of days for mister gardener to finish digging all the hills of potatoes. But when the job was done, one fourth of the garden surface was covered in five different varieties of potatoes, waiting to be picked up. All have been gathered in bushel baskets and moved into a cool, dark corner of the garage.

Two of the colossal Yukon Yellow potatoes were cooked and mashed tonight, feeding six of us at dinner with leftovers to spare for potato pancakes for breakfast. I look forward to making the annual switch from pasta and rice to potatoes.  Whether boiled, baked, fried, roasted, there’s nothing that says comfort food quite like a potato.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

The cat’s away…

… and the mouse has played all week.  For several days, I’ve had the house and kitchen and garden all to myself while mister gardener becomes mister golfer in New England with our son.  Not having the mister here takes the hands off the clock for me. He is so scheduled that I always know what time of day it is by the particular activity he is performing.  Coffee: 6:45 a.m. Mail: 10:30 a.m. Lunch: 11:30 a.m. and so forth.

This week I awoke when the sun hit my eyes. Breakfast could be a piece of cake or a bowl of Reese’s Puffs (both leftovers from grandchildren a week ago). I puttered around the yard every morning weeding, edging, and simply sitting for long periods enjoying the Zen of the pond, connecting with the gardens, the birds, the blooms, the stars, being a part of something much larger than me. I did not feel idle and unproductive. Quite the contrary. I was recharging my inner being, my essence, my thoughts and ideas, all that is easy to lose in the distractions of daily life.

When it was too dark to see, it was time for the dogs and me to come inside for the night but then again I could find myself back outside before bedtime, sitting or walking on across the dew laden grass, enjoying life in the nighttime garden.  Very late suppers could be sauteed squash and tomatoes from mister gardener’s abundant crops or cheese and crackers or it could be another bowl of Reese’s Puffs.

I cherish these few days I had with the dogs, the cats, the flora and fauna of the gardens, and the cosmos. But I do look forward to mister gardener’s return and the hands returning to the clock. We both should feel refreshed and revitalized with our batteries fully charged.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Box Turtles in Our Garden

It is on wet, misty mornings like the ones we’ve had this week that Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) are encountered lumbering across roads in search of worms and other insects. If I’m on foot, I’ll simply help the turtle across the road. If I’m driving and it’s safe, I’ll pull over, activate my flashers and move the turtle to the berm, if possible in the direction it was heading.

The Eastern box turtle is most likely the best known turtle in Virginia, named for its ability to tuck in its head and legs and close up like a box, a defense action that causes thousands to be crushed beneath the wheels of automobiles each year. Deforestation for development is rapidly consuming the habitat of these gentle creatures that have survived for 250 million years. They have not been declared an endangered species although they are protected in some states. Once so numerous in my childhood, it’s apparent to me that the box turtles are disappearing from our landscape.

We do encounter these beautiful reptiles in our gardens and lawns in our rural area. Their diet consists of insects, fruits, mushrooms, berries and vegetables. Our dogs ignore them in the grass, the cats take a wide berth but I tell mister gardener that the greatest threat in crossing lawns is the tractor or lawn mower. It’s a good habit to always mow when the grass is dry and turtles have found cool shelter under mulch or leaf litter in the borders.

This male box turtle does not have the usual red eyes but does have bright orange legs.

Recently, while a passenger in my neighbor’s car, I said, “Stop the car! There’s a turtle.”  We were the only car on the road so I jumped out and helped a big male box turtle to the edge of the road. Upon returning, she said, “I’d never do that. How’d you know it wasn’t a snapping turtle?”  Had I known she didn’t know the difference, I would have brought it back to the car to show her.

Concave plastron is best indicator of male box turtle

A box turtle’s carapace, or top shell, is domed and each turtle is colored in a varied pattern of yellow or orange on brown.  The hinged lower shell, the plastron, is an indicator of the sex of the animal. Males have a concave shell and the female’s lower shell is flat. Males will often have bright red eyes, but not always! Females have brown or yellowish eyes.  The male carapace is brighter and their legs can have

This box turtle is approximately 20 years old

bright orange or red scales. The tail is longer on the male and their claws on the rear legs are thicker and more curved. The turtles you encounter could be 50 years old or more as their life span is over a hundred years. The approximate age of a turtle can be gauged by counting the growth rings on the bony plates of the carapace.

Although we have other species of turtles in the Commonwealth, the box turtle is our only terrestrial turtle. Others, such as snapping, musk, painted, spotted, so forth, are aquatic. Welcome these good-natured and ancient animals if you see them in your garden but avoid the temptation to pick one up elsewhere and bring it home. It’s now thought that they are territorial and will try to return to the original site.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Virginia

They Did it Their Way

Through the garden gate

From the street in this west side Richmond neighborhood, you would never know that behind the dense growth of winter jasmine, tall bayberries, plump boxwood and red-tip photinia is a garden gate that opens to a compact, well-designed landscape. Soothing greens with varied textures and shapes entice you to enter through the gate and explore.  I always enjoy an invitation to this charming garden. There’s something magic and restorative about the cool spaces in the dappled light of tall trees.

The couple who lives on this lovely property designed the garden layout themselves and every bed was developed and planted by them. The space has been embellished through the years to become a lush tapestry of foliage punctuated by colorful treasures of flowering trees and perennials. It’s obvious that this garden is their retreat, a place to enjoy the outdoors and fulfill their passion for gardening. It’s great fun to stroll through the grounds with them for he showers her with credit for aspects of the garden and she returns the praise.

The rear of the home opens onto a terrace that flows into a small grassy lawn. Steps away are several garden paths that beckon. Birdbaths, benches, sculpture, bridges and lighted pagodas are focal points along the woodland journey. A clear stream winds through the shade providing interest and a home for many small visitors. Native plants and new cultivar discoveries pepper the landscape.

Following the brick walk along a natural rise, a border of  boxwood, variegated hostas and liriope edging become the nucleus of this garden. A hand crafted martin house beneath a golden rain tree is a reminder of the birding paradise the couple has created.

Exiting through the garden gate, we are not disappointed by what we encounter. A colonial garden house, designed and built by the owner, greets us in this space.  I’ll say no more. A photograph of this structure is worth a thousand words.

The newest feature in the landscape, the Charleston Garden, bids a welcome to enter and rest on one of the benches. High stucco walls, beautifully designed brick walks, statuary, a pool with splashing water and colorful fish, and cool green groundcover, invite you to linger. With a daughter living in Charleston, the couple made numerous visits, falling in love with the courtyard garden designs.

I’m sure readers will agree that the owners have created an Eden…. but I might be a bit biased. On an earlier blog entry, I whisked you away to California to visit my sister’s whimsical garden in San Diego. This time you left your stresses at the gate and toured the garden retreat of my brother and his wife who live in Richmond.

For another view of his garden house, click HERE.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Snake Attack!

No, no, not me but my newly hatched Carolina Wrens in the Williamsburg bird bottle. I was edging the borders near the garden shed when I heard the adult wrens raising a commotion. I just figured old Jack, our cat, must be sunning near the daylilies. I kept the shovel moving along the edge. But after a few minutes I turned and glanced over my shoulder, following the escalating noise. What I saw was a shocker. To my horror a 3′ snake was hanging from the shingles of the shed roof with his head at the nest entrance. The adult Carolina wrens were in turmoil with other birds joining in the pandemonium.

Dropping my shovel and running, I reached up and knocked the snake from the roof. It tried to scurry away but I stopped it. It turned direction and tried to escape over the grass but I stopped it again. It then curled into a vent of the shed, vibrating its tail in the dead leaves like a rattler to frighten me. I was not intimidated. You see…. I like snakes.

I was wearing garden gloves so I gently reached down and captured the snake behind the head and supporting its body, I picked it up.  I was holding an adolescent Eastern Rat Snake (Scotophis alleghaniensis) that was as terrified of me as the birds were of it.  As adults, these snakes are solid black with cream colored bellies but the young are hatched with a distinct black and gray pattern along the back. My snake’s pattern was still visible beneath the black.  Many people come across the juveniles with their clear markings and mistakenly believe they found a copperhead.

Rat snakes are plentiful in Virginia and their numbers seem to be growing due to our fragmented forests. Snakes prefer the edge of woods to be able to sun themselves. Their average adult size is about 6′ but they can grow one or two feet longer.  They are non-venomous and usually quite docile. Believe it or not, young ones like mine can make good pets (if you want to stash a supply of dead mice in the freezer or watch them constrict live mice or lizards). They will eat a wide variety of animals from rats (duh!), mice, lizards, moles, rabbits, squirrels and…. birds. One of their easiest prey is in the bird nest, either eggs or baby birds, for this is the snake well-known for climbing. If you ever see a dark snake in a tree or in a bird house, it’s probably the rat snake. Last summer, one scaled the smooth side of my neighbor’s garage refrigerator and dined on her baby birds in a nest. Unfortunately, that was its last meal.

After letting mister gardener photograph the snake (he used zoom so he wouldn’t have to come too close), I walked it about a half mile down the road, released it and watched it slither away and find shelter beneath a downed tree. “Don’t come back,” I warned. “I know you must eat but my little wrens can’t be on your menu.”  Returning home, I watched the traumatized wrens fuss around the nest for over two hours, checking every shingle for a possible hidden predator. Eventually they resumed feeding their young and resumed singing 24 hours later.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

I NEED A New Garden Shed

click to enlarge photos

After a Garden Club of Virginia trip to the Eastern Shore for a two-day visit through spectacular private gardens, I returned home with ideas and brainstorms and plans and visions for what my gardens could be. My mind was swirling with mental images of new designs, new plants I must have, and dreams of doing it all by myself.

First of all, I want to redesign my garden shed. Mine is a working shed. It smells a little too much like Holly Tone, tools line an entire wall, mud must be swept out regularly, and spooky spiders like to hang out in corners. The interior of the garden house I saw on the Eastern Shore is what I must have. It was a bit eclectic with an array of natural collections and yet it was peaceful and serene with the soft painted interior… walls, ceiling and floors… that provided the perfect background to showcase the garden collections. On the wall were penned thoughtful garden or natural world sayings by well-known people in history.

I looked around for a chair. There was no chair but if there had been a chair, a bit of soft music and a glass of wine, I might still be in that garden house. I think the owners left the chair out on purpose!  They knew visitors would fight over it.

Did I mention there was a chandelier?  Sigh.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Keukenhof Gardens

It was cold, blustery and rainy when we visited the Keukenhof Gardens near Amsterdam but we were quite warmed by the breathtaking colors in the bulbs, the shrubs and perennials in the over 80-acre garden.  Open only from March to May, the garden receives approximately 800,000 visitors from all over the world during these few short weeks. Approximately 7,000,000 bulbs have been planted by hand each year since 1949 by growers all over the Netherlands to exhibit their hybrids.

We spent the entire day here with Brent and Becky exploring the ten miles of paths and seven inspirational gardens, indoor exhibits, art exhibits, gift shops, flower arrangements, lakes, fountains and so much more. Despite inclement weather, the garden was quite crowded.  We saw people of all ages braving cold temperatures and drenching rain from babes in strollers to the elderly.  We shared their enthusiasm.

Click to enlarge photos.

The Netherlands

Today I am tiptoeing through the tulips in and around the historic village of Alkmaar, the Netherlands with Brent and Becky Heath of daffodil fame and with members of the Garden Club of Gloucester and friends. The brilliant fields of bulbs were visible from the air when landing in Amsterdam, then through the windows of our bus as we traversed villages to Alkmaar about 50 miles north.

muscari fields

The Heaths are well-known in this area and have used the grounds around here for raising and developing varieties of bulbs.  We are learning first hand knowledge of the manic tulip culture of 17th century Europe, the bloom that dominated culture for generations.

As we travel over the next few days, I will attempt to share photographs of beautiful gardens… although internet access is not readily available.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester



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

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

Happy Vernal Equinox

At approximately 1:32 p.m. Eastern time, we will experience the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. This is a time when the sun appears vertically above a point over the equator and is considered the first day of spring and celebrated worldwide by dancing, fire, music and feasts.  It is a holiday in Japan, the beginning of the Baha’i calendar, and the day Christians use to calculate the date of Easter, the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. To view photographs of vernal equinox celebrations in other countries, visit National Geographic’s website.

Because of the tilt of the Earth’s axis we in the Northern Hemisphere, begin to receive the sun’s rays more directly. The growing season officially begins and food supplies from agriculture and nature will soon be restored to our tables. Mister gardener has tested his soil and plowed his garden. Today the potatoes go in the ground.

Happy Spring! Happy Vernal Equinox! Happy Gardening!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

My New BFF in the Garden… Maybe.

On Sunday, I knew the forecast for today must be favorable when mister gardener announced his plans for golfing.  As he backed from the driveway this morning, I waved a quick goodbye from the front door and exited the back door before he was out of sight. The sun was shinning, the sky was blue, and the air was warm. All I needed was a light sweatshirt in this 63 degree weather. I looked forward to a full day in the garden without interruptions or breaks. I rolled up my sleeves and checked the list I jotted the night before.

Gloves? Check. Shovels? Check. Pitchfork? Check. Hose? Check. Clippers? Camera? Check. The first project on my list was the transplanting of a dogwood. This was not any common dogwood, but a Cornus officinalis, a Japanese cornel dogwood.  Three years ago, my Ohio son gave me a sapling that sprouted beneath his glorious 35-foot Japanese cornel dogwood.  I planted the foot tall baby in my plant nursery and protected it through several seasons until today. It’s time for this tree to become a specimen.

The Cornus officinalis is lesser know than its close relative, Cornus mas, the cornelian cherry dogwood.  They both sport delicious large yellow early blooms before the leaves appear, around the time the forsythia blooms. I’ve been told that it is very difficult to tell the two species apart unless species nearby one another can be compared. The Japanese variety has larger flowers and blooms earlier than the cornelian.

Japanese cornel dogwood exfoliating bark

The bark of the tree is showy and exfoliates in small curls, even on my tiny four-foot Japanese variety.  It produces bright red oblong drupes in the summer, edible but tart.  With the wonderful bark, blooms, berries and easy care, what more could you want?

Late in the day, mister gardener dragged in the front door, very sunburned and tired, as I dragged in the back door, very dirty and exhausted.  We each professed to having optimal adventures as we collapsed in pure contentment at the end of our extremely long day.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester