Embracing Change

Lavendula x intermedia ‘Grosso’

The one constant in a garden is change.  Plants grow and sometimes die; a sunny spot becomes shady; a tree comes down and makes a sun garden where you just planted ferns; and then there’s the hand of the gardener.

About this time of year I start thinking about what changes I might make.  It’s a nice time because the distraction of the abundance of summer is past, but deciduous plants still have their leaves and perennials, although fading, are still in evidence.  I find it an easy time to assess structure and think about additions and deletions (I can be quite ruthless).

This morning I was assessing my Terrace Garden.  My, oh my, how this space has changed.  I prefer to document my garden in pictures, so let me show you how it has evolved.

To set the stage, most of our garden started as turf grass.  On one side of the house a gentle grade sloped up to the high point of our property.  This slope, 40 feet long by 20 feet deep, has a grade change of about six feet or 30 percent.

Grass slope – October 2002

I could see this slope from the upstairs windows and thought it would be interesting to create a pattern of some kind.  Inspired by medieval knot gardens, I planted three interlocking diamonds of Lavendula x intermedia ‘Grosso’ – 150 plants.  Go big or go home, right?

Newly planted lavender with wattle for protection from running dogs – March 2006

First year’s growth – September 2006 (lots of turf removed)

For those who haven’t grown 150 lavender plants in a particular pattern … to keep this looking good in spring I had to clean out the leaves that caught in it, prune it after the new growth broke, cut down the spent flowers in summer, and shape it up a bit late in the year to keep the pattern evident, all while working on a slope.

Lavender knot looking quite lumpy bumpy – October 2009

After six years of this ridiculous endeavor I decided to terrace the space.  Slow on the uptake, but I got there.  I actually had some nice guys build the two new stone walls as I had decided my stone laying days were over (until we built the pond, but that’s another project).  My planting idea was to trial perennials in the terraces.  As a designer, I like to try plants out before putting them in someone else’s garden.  This was to be my perennial laboratory, testing new introductions and trying out interesting combinations.

Turned out that this was quite fun and lovely to look at in the growing season.  However, I was unimpressed with the look during the off season, which for us is four or five months depending on the weather.  It just didn’t look good long enough and while not requiring the extravagant maintenance of the Lavender Knot, it did take a good bit of work to keep it ship shape in summer.

Terraces planted with perennials – June 2013

Enter the dwarf conifer and dwarf shrub phase in 2015.  I removed most of the perennial material and started collecting small woody plants.  The dwarf conifers give year-round interest, the small woody shrubs add flowers, colorful foliage, and nice bark in some cases.  And I still have some perennials such as hardy geraniums, for some summer punch.  (You can see my current plant list at the bottom of this post.)

It will take some time for all of this to grow in, but I have great expectations for a stunning look that is much lower maintenance.  I’m sure I’ll have to shuffle a few plants around down the road.  This morning I decided to add more Calluna next spring.  It is colorful and evergreen and does well given the good drainage.

Calluna vulgaris ‘Winter Chocolate’

I‘m glad to have had all that lavender.  I look back and remember how excited I was to try that.  One thing that does not change is Dido –  did you notice him on the wall in the top picture?  He has been steadfast through all the changes and waits patiently for what comes next.


Acorn Hill Terrace Garden 2017
Current Inventory
(Easy lookup in my MBPT Garden Records under Terrace Garden)

Dwarf Conifers:

Cedrus deodara ‘Feelin’ Blue’

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gold Fern’, ‘Kaemeni Hiba’, ‘Maroke’, ‘Nana Aurea’

Juniperus conferta ‘Golden Pacific’

Picea abies ‘Little Gem’, ‘Pusch’

Picea rubens ‘Hexenbesen’

Pinus parviflora ‘Aoi’, ‘Ibocan’, ‘Miyajima’

Pinus sylvestris ‘Hillside Creeper’

Tsuga canadensis ‘Von Helms’, ‘Winter Gold’

Thuja occidentalis ‘Congabe’

Dwarf Shrubs:

Azalea ‘Lemon Tea’

Daphne x transatlantica ‘Eternal Fragrance’

Deutzia gracilis ‘Nikko’, ‘Spilled Wine’

Eleutherococcus sieboldiananus ‘Variegatus’

Fothergilla gardenii (Eastern Form)

Hamamelis vernalis ‘Quasimodo’

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Little Honey’, ‘Pee Wee’

Ilex ‘Rock Garden’

Ilex x meserveae ‘MonNieves’

Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ ‘Kaori Hime’

Spirea ‘Dolchica’

Spirea japonica ‘Alpina’

Perennials & SubShrubs:

Calluna vulgaris ‘Winter Chocolate’

Erica darlyensis ‘Mediterranean White’

Geranium ‘St Ola’, ‘Patricia’, ‘Rozanne’

Knautia ‘Mars Midget’

Lavendula x intermedia ‘Grosso’ (yes, couple still there)

Salvia sclarea var. turkestanica ‘Alba’ (biennial)

Sedum – many types

Note:  there are a few trees planted in the mix such as Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck Purple’ and Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’




Dahlia Delights

Dahlia ‘Creekside Brantley’ 

When the garden is winding down and looking somewhat haggard (and no doubt this gardener as well), there is always the surprising delight of the Dahlia.  So much color and flounce at season’s end!  There is a proper way to grow these beauties which involves digging and dividing tubers, carefully storing for winter, planting out and staking, bud pinching, etc. etc. etc.  For the lazy gardener (again, me), Dahlias are annuals that occasionally make it through a mild winter.  Wasteful you may say, but I buy my Dahlia tubers at Bullington Gardens’ spring plant sale so my waste becomes a small contribution to a garden that I enjoy.

Dahlia ‘Aitara Caress’

Bullington Gardens has a wonderful Dahlia Garden cared for by the wonderful Brian Killingsworth.  The collection of over 400 plants includes many of Brian’s registered ‘Creekside’ cultivars.  To celebrate the splashy September show, Bullington Gardens hosts Wine & Dahlias.  This year’s event was a great success and the late September evening could not have been more perfect.  Congratulations to John Murphy, Director, and all of the many tireless volunteers!

The cactus and informal types are my favorites.  Click any picture for a close up look.

Dahlia ‘Snoho Storm’


Dahlia ‘Cherokee Beauty

Unnamed 2016 Creekside Seedling

Unnamed 2014 Creekside Seedling

Dahlia ‘Goshen Giant’

Dahlia ‘Hollyhill Hello Dolly’

Dahlia ‘Crazy 4 Jessie’

North Carolina to New York and Back

Chihuly, New York Botanical Garden

This has been a summer of coming and going … visitors coming to our garden, Acorn Hill, and us visiting gardens both public and private.  (Click on any of the photos for a closer look.)

The Bullington Gardens tour of six private Asheville gardens, including ours, was a big success.  The tour was full, the weather cooperative, the box lunch delicious, and of course the gardens were wonderful.

Lots of friends have come through the garden this summer which I have encouraged as it is in tip-top shape for the tour.  I actually coasted on my gardening for about a month after the tour before I had to start picking weeds again!

We’ve just returned from a wonderful trip to the Hudson River Valley and New York City.  One day we toured Kykuit, the Rockefeller Estate, and followed this the next day with a visit to Innisfree Garden in Millbrook, NY.  The Kykuit garden is classically designed with wonderful geometry and perfect axial views.  By comparison, Innisfree is completely organic in design.  A wonderful juxtaposition!

In NYC we walked the High Line.  It was so interesting to finally be there after reading so much about this park.  My overall impression is that it is wildly popular … it was packed with walkers.  Had I stopped to look around too much, I might have been swept along in the tide of people.  What a treat for New Yorkers to have this park slicing through Manhattan.

We finished our visit to New York with a stroll through the New York Botanical Garden.  The garden was a treat in itself, but we were fortunate to visit during the Chihuly Exhibit.  I’ve seen these works in photographs, but to encounter them in the garden is stunning.  Their beauty is obvious, but upon close inspection I was amazed at the complexity of the structures and wondered at how the pieces were installed perfectly each time.

In each of these gardens I found the thread of art mixing with gardens.  Kykuit is full of both classical sculpture and modern art.  At Innisfree, water and stone become art.  The High Line is peppered with an array of commissioned sculpture and painting.  And of course, NYBG’s display of Chihuly glass made that visit so special.

Modern Art at Kykuit set against the Hudson River

Water Spray & Standing Stones, Innisfree

After this wonderful trip, I feel refreshed and inspired.  I am thinking of introducing art into my garden, and although I’m unsure of where to begin, I will look to the many wonderful local artists in our North Carolina mountains.

And in all of my garden visiting, what did I overhear so many times … “What is that plant?”  If only they had Muddy Boots Plant Tags!

Oak Leaves and Oakleafs

Oak Leaves

Magicicada, the 17 year Cicada, is doing its thing in parts of Western North Carolina.  Driving into our cove you can really see the cicada damage on the oaks.  If you’ll recall from the last post, the females lay their eggs by slitting open a branch and inserting their little baby bug eggs.  This causes the branch to flag (turn brown and droop) and eventually fall off (click on picture at right).  These insects prefer oaks, although they will lay eggs on other species.  On big established trees, this typically does no long-term harm.  Small and newly established trees as well as fruit trees may be severely damaged.

I have been concerned about my many Japanese Maples and two small dogwoods.  Most of the maples have been in the ground for awhile, but several are small and delicate.  Luckily, I have had no serious damage on any of these – good news.  My neighbor and fellow gardening nerd Elizabeth has had serious trouble with her orchard – bad news.  The last time around (17 years ago) her peach trees were killed.  This is not because of the mechanical damage done by the bug, but wounds to the cambium left the trees open to disease.  This year she covered with row cover and has her fingers and toes crossed.

I am looking forward to the day that I step outside to … nothing.  The droning racket has us all about half crazy.  Gidget, our German Shepherd Dog, enjoys them as an abundant and easy to catch snack.  Good protein, but really Gidget – Gross!



Oak Leafs

Hydrangea quercifolia
Straight species growing under a Red Oak in dense shade

It is well and truly Oakleaf Hydrangea season.  Although every season is pretty good for this plant.  Wonderful floral display which is happening now, the flowers last and last turning a dusky rose later in the season, burgundy fall color, and peeling cinnamon-colored bark for winter interest.  Adaptable to a wide range of situations including full sun, full shade and dry or wet soils, this is an outstanding plant for many gardens.  Blooms on old wood so if you have to, prune just after flowering.  I have several in my collection, including the straight species which is native to the South Eastern US.

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Semmes Beauty’
Large (8′ – 10′ H & W), with stubbier flower racemes.  Very floriforous.

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Pee Wee’
Dwarf, smaller in all its parts (3′ – 4′ H & W)


Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Little Honey’
Yellow-leafed form, smaller (4′ H x 5′ W)

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snowflake’
Gorgeous double flowered form, large (8′ – 10′ H & W)

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Ruby Slippers’
Giant flowers that mature to deep dusky red, smaller (4′ H x 5′ W)

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Semmes Beauty’
This planting is from two suckering shoots of the original shrub, planted four years ago

Back to Bugs
I couldn’t resist including this picture of a frog sitting next to a deceased Cicada, hmmm

On Broods and Blooms


Magicicada from Carnivoraforum.com

Elizabeth, my friend and neighbor a mile down the road, saw the emergence of Magicicada Brood VI about a week before I did.  She warned me, “They’re coming!”  Now, the 17-year Cicada is in full swing (or full sing) in many areas in Western North Carolina.  Although I’ve experienced this phenomenon before, this is the first time I’ve been concerned about the impact on the garden … our garden will be on tour next month.

So, I’ve recently learned a lot about this intriguing and, for me at least, somewhat creepy insect.  First of all, this bug lives underground for 17 years.  That is nearly enough time to get a kid through high school!  So what do they do underground that whole time while a kid is learning ABCs, 123s, and that boys really aren’t that icky?  They tunnel around sucking on tree roots.  Wow.

Then, they all somehow know on a certain night to abandon their root-sucking, emerge from the ground, climb up anything stable and begin to molt, leaving behind a creepy, crunchy exoskeleton hanging on plants.  For a little while, they hang around in their new adult bodies, drying off and hardening up the new exterior.  The males head off to the tree tops and start calling other males to join in the sounds-like-a-car-alarm song and soon the females show up for the bug orgy.

Even though these bugs have FIVE eyes and can see perfectly well, they will fly into you, land on you and, if you’re like me, generally skeeve you out.  Picture a five-year old girl skipping rope in the driveway and a 2” long, red-eyed bug flies up her top and buzzes around until someone whips her shirt off before she passes out from fright … that was me.

After a good long sex fest in the tree tops, the females select a suitable branch on a tree or shrub, make a slit in the branch with their ovipositor, lay their eggs and then die.  What a life!  For this activity, Cicadas prefer deciduous hardwood trees such as Oak and Maple, but these gals will lay eggs in other species too.  The branch that is used will often flag, or die, decorating your tree with dead brown branches until they finally fall off.  The only real danger for ornamental trees is small or young deciduous trees that can’t withstand the loss of a lot of branches.

According to an article Periodical Cicada (Magicicada cassini) Oviposition Damage: Visually Impressive yet Dynamically Irrelevant by William M. Hook and Robert D. Holt (Am. Midl. Nat. 147:214-224):  The widespread oviposition damage from periodical cicadas did not have any important effects on successional dynamics of the host plants, suggesting that the trees appeared to compensate sufficiently for physiological damage during the emergence.  Photo credit Cicadamania.com

In other words, it may look bad, but periodic cicada damage won’t harm the forest in any significant way.  I purchased some ¼” square netting which I am using to cover small or newly planted Japanese Maples and perhaps a couple small Dogwood trees.  As for everything else, Que Sera, Sera.

There is real concern for fruit trees, which I won’t go into here.  My somewhat silly summary is based entirely on my own cursory knowledge of this insect’s life and behavior and there is much more to read and know about Magicicada from people who are informed and enthusiastic about this insect and its place in the ecology of the eastern hardwood forest.  Two good links are:

Information and record sightings at:  http://magicicada.org/magicicada/

From an enthusiast:  http://www.cicadamania.com/cicadas/

And now, to counteract the skeeve-factor of this post please enjoy some pictures I’ve recently taken of my Peonies!  Click the picture for a closer look.

Paeonia ‘Bowl of Beauty’

Paeonia ‘Sarah Bernhardt’

Red and White Peonies

Mixed Arrangement

Dogwoods and Snowbells and Beeches, Oh My!

Cornus VENUS

Cornus VENUS

Our garden is nestled into the Eastern Hardwood Forest of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. We are surrounded by oaks, poplars, hickories, maples, and many other wonderful trees. Amongst these giants, I have planted some little gems. Some native, others not, many acquired in quite small pots – fun to watch them grow and develop. Many are real show-stoppers right now.

Our native dogwood, Cornus florida was so showy this year. The floral bracts, which can be a little yellowish some years, were bright white. Cornus kousa comes along a bit later, but right now Cornus VENUS is magnificent in my garden. C. VENUS is a hybrid of slightly complex parentage, but essentially a cross of C. kousa and C. nuttallii. The floral bracts are incredibly large and beautiful.

IMG_1069Showy for a different reason, Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ has lovely variegated leaves and a layered architecture that gives it the common name The Wedding Cake Tree.  This tree was given to me by a local nurseryman as a mere twig and I have lovingly watched it develop into a beauty.  Another variegated dogwood, Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’ has a variegated leaf, but is much more diminutive in stature and is great for small, partly shaded gardens.

IMG_1061Next up, Snowbells.  Styrax japonicus is best sited where the dangling flowers can be seen from below.  Ours is planted next to an outdoor shower and as it has grown, I’ve pruned it so the flowers make a delightful canopy for any bather.  A few years ago, my friend Sieglinde and I made a pilgrimage to the Piedmont of NC and visited Nancy Goodwin’s garden Montrose in Hillsborough, the JC Raulston Arboretum and Plant Delights Nursery, both in Raleigh.  A very fun trip for a couple of plant nerds; we really had the truck packed with plants on the way home!  My most treasured acquisition from that trip is Styrax obassia (pictured left) bought from Nancy Goodwin who propagated it from cuttings of her magnificent tree.  It is flowering for the first time this year.

Most recent is my Styrax japonicus ‘Evening Light‘, a purple-leafed form.  It is newly planted, but full of flowers.  The leaves are mostly green, but some information that I’ve read indicates that it takes a couple of years to produce the purple foliage.  Hmmmm.


Lastly, Beeches.  In spring of 2005 I planted Fagus sylvatica ‘Riversii’.  I so admired the ancient (well, at least 100 years old) European Beech at Biltmore Estate, that I had to have one at Acorn Hill.  At the time there wasn’t much around it but grass and a Hemlock hedge behind it.  I’ve since added many garden rooms that will eventually be in the shade of this tree.  One of my favorite things about this tree is how the supple new growth extends and hangs like earrings from the branches.  Eventually the new growth hardens off, but I love this stage.  The leaves emerge pale copper and gradually darken.


I also have a small Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck Purple’ which is columnar.  Ten-year growth is 25′ H x 6′ W and ultimately it will make 50′ H.  I have it planted in the Terrace Garden now, but in a year or two I’ll find it a permanent home.  It too has the droopy new growth.

The Beech at Biltmore was cut down last year; it had been in decline for more than a decade.  The trunk was amazing, like a giant elephant’s leg.  I spoke to it each time I passed by.  They’ve planted a new one in its place which will no doubt delight visitors for a great long time.

Fagus sylvatica Biltmore Jan 2013

Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea’, Biltmore Estate

P.S. I must also mention Fringe Tree as both our native, Chionanthus virginicus, and the Chinese, Chionanthus retusus are blooming their hearts out.  Below is C. retusus with a sculpture made by Aunt Belle (self-portrait?) nestled against its trunk … Oh my!



The Color Purple

After two days of planting, I strolled around the garden snapping a few pictures and snipping a few flowers.  Lot’s of purple in bloom right now!

Rhododendron catawbiense

Rh Catawbiense

Lysimachia atropurpurea ‘Beaujolais’ (not invasive like some others)

Lysimachia atropurpurea Beaujolais

Clematis ‘Belle of Woking’

Belle of Woking

Two kinds of Erysimum


Clematis ‘Silver Moon’ (one of the few that tolerate a good bit of shade)

Silver Moon

Aquilegia ‘Winky Purple-White’ with Euphorbia robbiae

Aquilegia Winky Purple-White

Clematis (unknown variety)


Mixed Iris


Happy May Day!

I Dare You to Keep Your Hands up the Whole Way

Roller CoasterDo you remember being a kid and going to the amusement park?  It wasn’t just going, it was also waiting to go, remembering how much fun you had the year before, thinking about the new rides you might try this year, seeing all your old friends and maybe meeting some new ones.  That’s how this garden season feels to me.

January and February – your parents tell you can go to the amusement park during spring break, so long as it doesn’t rain.  You’re thinking ahead to the new plants you’ll try like Alnus glutinosa ‘Imperialis’ – if you can find it; plotting out a new annual combination that includes Zinnia ‘Benary’s Giant Lime’ and Salvia ‘Amistad’; being sooo organized that you’ll get everything done on time and the garden will be spectacular this year!

Zinnia-elegans-flowersMarch – you are finally at the park and have lucked out and gotten a seat in the first car of the biggest roller coaster.  The car begins its slow chug up that first big hill – tick tick tick tick tick tick.  
Slow and steady, by St. Paddy’s day you’re on track with your clean up, your pruning and fertilizing, you really have things in hand.  Toward the end of the month you’re starting to feel a bit of pressure because instead of pruning the boxwood, you ripped it out in favor of Ilex crenata ‘Hoogandorn’ which took longer than you expected but looks really good and will be a lot less trouble, and it’s finally raining buckets which is great … except it’s on your day off and you can’t get outside.

salvia amistadApril – you are at the top of the biggest hill on that roller coaster and you can see for miles.  Your heart is in your throat, your eyes are wide open, you throw your hands into the air and dare yourself to keep them up the whole way!  
You are a masterful gardener, you are planting and weeding and fertilizing and watering and mulching.  Day after day you get another job done well and you can see all the way to the date in June when your garden will be open for a tour and you’ll be cool and collected and everything will be perfect including the weather!

May – you’ve crested the hill and you are flying down at top speed, whipping around curves, zinging through tunnels then back out into bright light and up another steep climb. 
You’re scrambling now to hit all of the important plant sales, squeezing in a terrific seminar, visiting your friend’s garden because her Enkianthus is blooming like never before and another friend’s native Azaleas are simply stunning.  You’re still pretty much on track, but the plants are starting to stack up on the driveway if you could just get one full day in the garden you could get them all in the ground.

June – hands still in the air, you are grinning from ear to ear, eyes watering, you see ahead one final loop-de-loop before you come screeching to a halt, hair looking like Einstein’s, laughing and gasping for breath!
 All your big jobs are done, you are grooming and tending this gorgeous creation, the rain has been enough but not too much, the other gardeners who will be on tour the same day are feeling great and the tour volunteers are thrilled that they’ve sold all the tickets.  You’ve just got this one important conference at which you’ll be presenting your new business, arriving home only one day before the tour but it’s all good!  The tour day arrives and wonder of wonders … the sun is shining and you’re having a good hair day!

July – Hey, there’s no line for the Tea Cups!


Dragon Replaces Cat
Plus tips for recording your garden on the go

IMG_8428Cat Topiary (you see it, don’t you?)

At the intersection of the West Walk and the Fireplace Walk I had planted three Buxus microhylla that were extras left from a landscape installation.  I thought an evergreen note in a mostly perennial area would be nice.  I occasionally shaped them up into a soft arrowhead, but last spring I realized that I had ignored them a bit too long and they had grown into quite a large blob.  I sat on the porch steps and stared at the blob for a long while.  In a fit of inspiration, I grabbed my pruners and made my first ever topiary – a cat (only really imaginative people can see the cat).

I was entertained by this little project and proud of my work, but came to realize that I’m a bit too busy to keep a crisp shape on a topiary that is line-of-sight just outside the door.  The cat got shaggier and shaggier and finally had to go.  Dennis cut the shrubs down with his chainsaw and pulled out the stumps with his big iron bar.  I tidied up the corner with some mulch.

Corylus Red DragonSo when I came home from the nursery last week with an impulse buy – Corylus avellana ‘Red Dragon’ – I had the perfect spot waiting for it.  This plant is new to me and is described as similarly contorted compared to the old Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, but with a less dense canopy so the twisting branches are visible when the plant is in leaf.  It is also less susceptible to Eastern Filbert Blight and the leaves are red!  I underplanted the Corylus with Alchemilla erythropoda, thinking that the chartreuse flower of the Miniature Lady’s Mantle will be splashy with the leaves of the Red Dragon Contorted Filbert.

As I have been planting this spring, I’ve been making records in my Muddy Boots Plant Tags system.  My tip for you regarding new plants is this:  I use my smart phone in the garden to create a new record just after planting something and enter the basic information such as the botanical name.  If it’s a plant that I’m going to attach a tag to, I will assign a tag number and hang the tag on the plant.  I assigned a tag to the Corylus, but did not tag the Alchemilla.  At the end of the day, I spend 15 or 20 minutes at my computer filling out those records with the date, where I planted it in the garden, where I bought the plant, a data sheet, and maybe a note or photo.

Helen the Demure DragonI am hoping that Corylus ‘Red Dragon’ settles in comfortably in my garden as dragons seem to find their way here to Acorn Hill.  I have a dragon planter sculpted by my good friend Nels, a demure dragon named Helen greets people as they come up the walk, and our pond is designed on the Chinese myth of the Dragon’s Gate.

Noticing this trend (eeeck) my friend Mae gave me a funny sign that I’ve hung in the conservatory.  I guess that’s right …dragon sign

Upside of Downsize

PeonyPeony ‘Festiva Maxima’ by Sunny Supensky

Last week I met with Marilyn, a client with whom I worked several years ago to design her back garden.  In the intervening years, she moved house twice and has landed in a lovely condo with great views and a bit of gardening space to put her stamp on.  She is 73, but gosh, you’d never know it.  We sat at her kitchen table and came up with a lovely scheme.  She is just as excited about her new, much smaller garden, as she was when she had a half acre and I’m really glad for her.

Click the drawing to see Shady Brook up close.

This got me thinking about my sister Sunny.  She too has recently downsized house and garden.  Her acre woodland, Shady Brook, had pathways through great stands of Rosebay Rhododendron, a high canopy of poplars and oaks, masses of Cinnamon Fern and of course a lovely brook.  Sunny created small gardens that you would come upon at the turn of a path and each had names:  Brookside Garden, Asian Garden, Hansen Garten (in memory of my sweet shepherd Hans).


Sunny and I are close, but I was a late child – she’s nearly 14 years older than me – and she was gardening long before me.  Though I enjoyed her enthusiasm for her garden in my younger days I didn’t start gardening until my 30’s and she was a well-seasoned gardener by then.  I finally caught the gardening bug (in a very big way) so we had this wonderful interest to share and still do.  When she told me she and her husband were moving to a condo I knew it was right for them, but wondered about having so little space to garden.  She didn’t bring much in the way of plants with her from Shady Brook, but she did dig a gorgeous Peony ‘Festiva Maxima’.

Sunny has always been one to live in the moment.  She’s glad to have made the garden at Shady Brook, but is also glad not to have so much to care for (just ask her about leaf clean up!).  She now has more time for another enthusiasm – painting.  She has done some really wonderful floral paintings among other things and has just finished a painting of that same peony (the painting at the top of this post).

Zinnias & PetuniasShe hasn’t given up gardening completely though.  When they moved last spring, she and I made a sweet planting of zinnias and petunias along her back patio fence.  Just yesterday she told me that this year her fence planting will be Elephant Ears and she already has the plants.  I can’t wait to share a cuppa with her on her patio to enjoy them.

I wonder if I’ll ever be ready to leave Acorn Hill … it is a lot of work, but of course a labor of love.  If and when I do, I hope I take with me the same enthusiasm I see in Marilyn and Sunny for whatever the next creative endeavor might be.

Some Snails are Great

IMG_0765Begonia ‘Escargot’

IMG_7570A couple years ago a wonderful gardening friend organized a walk through some local gardens for a small group, me included (lucky). In one charming garden, we all took note of a half-barrel brimming with Begonia ‘Escargot’. After many oohs and aahs, the garden owner told us, “Oh I just stuck three plants in there” referring to the barrel that we were admiring. We all agreed that it was a must have plant for next summer.

IMG_9391Occasionally I lose track of the ‘must get this plant’ list from year to year, but this Begonia really made an impression on me. As soon as the threat of frost was past, I found a nice Begonia ‘Escargot’ at a local nursery and potted it up. It was big and blowsy in no time and I put it in the Courtyard next to another pot with fine textured plants. The spot gets a bit of morning sun, then shade the rest of the day.

IMG_0756It is hardy only in Zone 10 – 11, so as temperatures began to slide last fall I brought the plant into the conservatory (garage). This is an unheated space with bright indirect light for a few hours a day in winter. I watered it perhaps every ten days or so.

Just the other evening we had a little birthday party that included a couple of visiting dogs, so we gathered in the conservatory with the big garage door open. Someone commented on how good that Begonia was looking and inquired about its care. I nonchalantly said, ‘Oh, nothing special’, and it’s true. There was a general discussion of how particular the plant could be, so I’m chalking my success with Begonia ‘Escargot’ up to luck.

I was lucky to be on the little garden tour where I saw it spilling over the big barrel, I am lucky to have fun friends who bring their pups to a party, and I’ve been quite lucky growing this particular plant and can’t wait to reintroduce it to the garden for another season!

Who doesn’t like Hydrangeas?

Hyd. Blue Deckle FlowerHydrangea serrata ‘Blue Deckle’

I have one design client who told me, “Absolutely no hydrangeas of any kind!” Really? Well, she’s the only person I’ve meet who doesn’t like at least one species of this wonderful genus. There are so many garden-worthy hydrangeas that offer more than just summer blooms.

DSC_0040 (2)Last week, Amanda and I pruned Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’ in the Formal Garden. Hydrangea paniculata is a big plant and should be sited with this in mind. I planted six of these in a 30 foot border for late summer effect – ‘Tardiva’ blooms later than most paniculatas – with the intention that they would be pruned hard each spring to keep the size right. Once you know the rules, feel free to break them. This species of hydrangea blooms on new wood so spring pruning will not cut off the summer flower bud. It is spectacular in late summer and the faded flower heads are striking against a winter sky.

HydrangeaquercifoliaLittleHoney_Univ. KentuckyAnother terrific plant is Hydrangea quercifolia, Oakleaf Hydrangea, a true year-round plant. In both sun and shade, this hydrangea offers a lovely floral show in early summer, burgundy fall leaf color, and a nice architecture and peeling bark to enjoy in winter. Hydrangea quercifolia blooms on old wood, so I carefully remove last year’s flower without cutting any wood which carries the current year’s flower buds. Newer varieties offer smaller size such as ‘Ruby Slippers’, and interesting gold leaf color on ‘Little Honey’.

Hydrange 'Annabelle'

I see Hydrangea arborescens growing in our woods here in western North Carolina. In its natural environs it is quite unassuming, but varieties selected for the garden are big and blowsy. An old favorite is ‘Annabelle’ which has great balls of white flowers. Inevitably, as soon as the flower heads reach their peak size we get a rain storm and the heavy heads bend over with the weight of the water. I learned a trick on a garden tour a few years ago … that is to plant a low evergreen hedge in front of ‘Annabelle’ so she has something to lean on. I have a row of Buxus microphylla var. koreana planted in front of mine – for now. (I am gradually replacing my boxwood with Japanese Holly, but that’s a story for another post.)

Hydrangea arborescens ‘Incrediball’ is supposed to have sturdier stems. I’ve planted a couple of these very near the ‘Annabelle’ as a pseudo-science experiment. The flowers on ‘Incrediball’ have not gotten as large as ‘Annabelle’ and the hard mid-summer rain hasn’t materialized at just the right moment. Results are still out. A couple pink varieties have hit the market, but I prefer the white. I have planted a single of ‘Haas Halo’ which is more typical of the species with a lacecap flower, but showier. Not much to write home about yet, but it’s only been in the ground about 18 months.

As for pruning Hydrangea arborescens, this is another plant that flowers on new wood, so I prune last year’s stems to about eight inches in early spring. You can actually cut these to the ground, or as Michael Dirr says in his Manual of Woody Plants ‘mow it down’, but I leave a bit of the old stems as support for the new ones.

IMG_3264Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Endless Summer’ – having a good summer!

IMG_3096I have only the briefest comment on Hydrangea macrophylla … it is a truly lovely spectacle of summer, that is when the flower buds are not ruined by our typical late frosts. I’ve had incredible shows and total busts. I have Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Light-o-Day’ which has a variegated leaf that gives the plant some interest regardless of bloom or no bloom.  Seen here with Astilbe ‘Deutschland’ and Hosta ‘Blue Angel’.

There are many other wonderful hydrangea species and I recommend Dirr’s Hydrangeas for American Gardens as the ultimate reference.  Hydrangea serrata ‘Blue Deckle’ is one of my treasured plants. It grows in a pot and over winters in the conservatory so I never miss the flower.

Getting the Garden Ready for Spring

Mr Boots & Gidget SmallMr. Boots & Gidget

Believe it or not, tomorrow is the first day of Spring. March came in like a lion for most of us and some still face frozen earth and piles of snow. Here in the mountains of western North Carolina we see a light at the end of the tunnel and are optimistic that March will, in fact, go out like a lamb.

We’ve started getting things in order. That includes getting all our garden records up to date in Muddy Boots Plant Tags. It’s a good time for us to share a bit of information about how we use the application and we hope this will help you be more successful and satisfied.

Getting Ready to Input Plant Information
Before we start inputting and updating plant information, we get all our notes together and put all the photos we plan to update into one folder on our computer. We also resize our photos so they upload more quickly. This is more of an issue for people like us who live in a rural area and have slow internet speeds. The photos that come directly off a smart phone are typically about 3-4 megabytes in size. Photos that come off a digital camera can be far larger – 10 megabytes or more. We resize our photos to about half a megabyte, or 500k. Even if you don’t resize your photos in advance, the application will reduce the size after the upload to ensure that they load more quickly when you’re viewing them in Muddy Boots Plan Tags.

The notes we gather about the plants include:

Once we have this information together we’re ready to start adding it to the application.

  • We add the plant record and the datasheet link.
  • We add any photos we have of the plant.  We keep photos over time to document how the plant looks during different seasons and over several years.
  • We add journal notes where appropriate, such as when it was pruned, fertilized or has exhibited a striking bloom.  We think of journal notes as something akin to a diary for each of our plants.
  • We add a plant tag if appropriate.  We don’t tag all of our plants, but since we’re preparing to be on garden tour again this June, we’ll be sure to tag the plants of greatest interest.  This makes a better experience for our garden tour visitors because they can scan the plant tag view all the details, photos and notes about our plants on their smart phone or tablet.

We hope this helps you make the most of your of Muddy Boots Plant Tags.

Happy Spring!  Mr. Boots

Fairview NC Town Crier Gives a Shout Out to Muddy Boots

The Town Crier is a local newspaper in Fairview, North Carolina with quite a following. The folks there were nice enough to do a write-up about Muddy Boots Plant Tags in their March 2017 issue. It is purely a print publication with the full 32-page publication posted online as a PDF at their website.

They covered everything nicely from the innovative nature of the Muddy Boots Plant Tags concept to the interactive QR-coded plant tags to the robust garden record-keeping web application. Thanks very much Fairview Town Crier.

We’ve included a clipping, courtesy of the Fairview Town Crier.

Fairview Town Crier Article - March 2017

Read the full 32-page issue of the March 2017 Fairview Town Crier HERE»

Garage cum Conservatory

My RoomHappy Picture Found Online Somewhere

Every year just before the first hard frost we do the big pot shuffle, moving pots into the garage to overwinter.  Some are brought in because the plant is tender; some because the pot might crack.  There is just enough light to keep things going that don’t go completely dormant, and it is warm enough that nothing gets close to freezing (although our kitchen, which is just above the garage, is pretty cool in the dead of winter).

My sister laughs at us because although we have a large garage we rarely put a vehicle in it.  I don’t know why this is, but we are not car-in-the-garage kind of people.  I’m sure it would be different if we lived in Chicago.

Dennis Dismantling Broken Garage Door

Last year we had to replace the original garage doors when the spring broke on the remaining operable door.  We chose some snazzy looking doors and I doubled the number of windows to give more light and create my ‘conservatory’ effect.  I got this idea from a picture (see above) I found somewhere online of a garden room.  It is one of my happy pictures – I have a whole file of these – that I look at and just feel happier.

In anticipation of getting these lovely new garage doors, I ruthlessly cleaned out the garage.  I gave away tons of stuff, recycled what I could, and hauled off the remaining bits that no one would want or could use.  It’s amazing how liberating it is to get rid of clutter.

New Doors with Double the Windows
Gidget (Ripley)
Baby Gidget

Once the new doors were up, I cobbled together my space.  I organized my tools, tidied up the potting bench, found some inexpensive wicker chairs and laid down an old carpet that Miss Gidget had left teeth marks in.  I lined the wall with metal shelves for summer things like hurricane lanterns and baskets and got a closed cabinet for the unsightly stuff.  I organized the potted plants to surround my little sitting area.  Viola!  Now I can be IN my happy picture.  Nice on a day like today when it’s snowing.

Sarah Susanka, author of The Not So Big House and many other books, wrote that ‘rooms’ should do double or even triple duty.  Our garage is a Conservatory, Garden Shed, and Yoga Studio. Gidget and I like to do our Down Dog in here … I contemplate A.p. ‘Mikawa Yatsabusa’ and she contemplates the chewed up corner of the rug.


My Happy Place

In a pinch I could squeeze a car in, but only if a blizzard were heading our way.

Meadows on My Mind

IMG_4792This past week Amanda Lavallee, my gardening co-conspirator, and I gave a talk on Magnificent Meadows.  What we both came away with is that it is a really complex subject.  The simple bit is why do it at all:

Create an ecosystem that is friendly to humans, pets, and wildlife

Over time, requires less inputs of time, water, fertilizers, herbicides

Beautiful to look at and be in

I have designed a few meadows and Amanda has had a big hand in managing them.  She will tell you that the first two years are a challenge (weeding, weeding, weeding), but if you can get to the third year things start to smooth out.  By then, the management becomes occasional weed scouting and a big once-a-year cut-down and rake-out.

IMG_4796Montrose, Hillsborough NC

Future Meadow, Acorn Hill

The first and probably the most important step is to clear the area of existing vegetation.  I shorted this step in my own garden and paid for it by having to start over which cost me a full year!  This meadow-to-be, inspired by a planting I saw at Nancy Goodwin’s garden Montrose, was cleared 2013, cleared AGAIN 2014, left fallow 2015, planted out 2016.  Then the drought started … it’s a long-term undertaking.

Newly Planted Meadow

Next on the really important list: select a plant community that will thrive in your conditions.  Don’t fight the site! Plant ‘plugs’ or small plants closer together than you typically would for quicker coverage and more weed suppression.

Once planted, weed, water, weed, water, weed.  The first year of the meadow below saw an awful crop of crab grass.  We spent a lot of time that summer eradicating this nasty problem.

Meadow Planting, Year 3

By year three, the meadow should be looking just as you imagined it.  But don’t expect it to stay that way!  A meadow is a garden of a different kind.  It is not filled with individual plants, it is a whole thing unto itself.  Plants will move around, some will die out, others may take over more than their share of real estate.  But this is the fun of it!

Treat it like a science experiment and you will enjoy the process … well maybe not all that weeding.  To take a deep dive into this complex subject, read any or all of these wonderful books:

Garden Revolution, Larry Weaner & Thomas Christopher

Meadows, Christopher Lloyd

Planting in a Post-Wild World, Thomas Rainer & Claudia West

The American Meadow Garden, John Greenlee


Little Early Bulbs

Helleborous niger & Cylamen coum

Helleborous niger & Cyclamen coum (a corm)

As a garden designer, I tend to look at the grand gesture.  My wonderful art teacher, Ms. Lindaberry, told me that to appreciate a painting I should stand back from it and squint.  I do this with gardens.  That way I get the bold brush strokes of the composition; the color, the balance, the textures.  But of course, the details are important as well.  At this time of year some of the sweetest details can be found in little early bulbs.

I was introduced to these little gems by an artist of another variety, my friend Sieglinde who is a landscape architect.  I’ve always known about the big bold daffodils and tulips, but her enthusiasm for dwarf Narcissus like ‘Hawerra’ and Iris reticulata got me hooked.

Crocus tommasinianusIf not for her, I likely would not have Crocus tommasinianus which is currently blooming in my garden.  This is one of the earliest Crocus to bloom, is very cold hardy, and less (slightly?) appealing to rodents.  The flowers open in the morning and close in the evening and on cloudy days.  Average to gritty soil with good drainage is important for success with this little bulb.  They are lovely up close and in a big drift that you can squint at.

Iris 'Katherine Hodgkin'Blooming now in Sieglinde’s garden is Iris ‘Katherine Hodgkin’.  It is a bulb, not a rhizome, and is in the Reticulatas class.  This is definitely a ‘detail plant’ as it is subtle and complex in its coloring and spreads slowly.  Sieglinde gave me a little quantity last fall and I put them in a pot.  Hers are up and blooming in the garden; nothing yet from them in the pot.

About a week ago, Sieglinde and I walked our dogs at Biltmore and came across this cheerful little daffodil.  We’re not certain which one, but best guess is an old heirloom variety; we’ve seen this growing locally near old homesites.IMG_0403

One of the best things about these little bulbs is the foliage.  It’s short and tends to be grassy looking and fades into the next wave of plants more gracefully than some of the larger bulbs.  (Although I wouldn’t be without some of these anyway, even if their browning leaves look ratty just as the garden is ramping up for summer).

No bulb devotee should be without Bulb by Anna Pavord.  This book is beautiful to page through and a terrific reference.   I’ve used it for this post.  If you planted by her Bulbs by Season lists, you could have bulbs blooming just about all year.

Photo credit to Sieglinde Anderson for Helleborous niger and Iris ‘Katherine Hodgkin’.

February Fragrance

Edgeworthia Bloom
Edgeworthia Bloom

When you think of fragrance in the garden, what are the first things you think of:  roses, peonies, maybe magnolias?  I think of spring and summer plants for sure.  But February brings some wonders too.  I’ve recently mentioned Daphne odora, which is now fully open and perfuming the Pond Garden.  There is also a small-but-growing Edgeworthia chrysantha which has the most interesting flowers.  The buds form in the fall and (if the stars align) open in February.  The bud is a tight bundle of pale tubular flowers that dangle like earrings from the plant.  One by one these flowers open, expressing a most wonderful soapy smell, like the best French milled bar.

The Spirea thunbergii ‘Mt. Fuji’ is wide open and I thought I got a soft, sweet whiff as I passed by.  I’ve since put my face in the plant, not really detecting anything.  Was it the newly opened bloom that smelled or perhaps the warmth of the day that brought up the fragrance?  Nothing else around the plant that I could see was in bloom.  Hmmm.

Narcissus cyclamineus

Yesterday I asked my good friend, Sieglinde, what smelled good in her garden.   She took a walk through and reported back.  In addition to her Daphne and Edgeworthia, she’s enjoying a common grocery store white hyacinth that was a birthday gift last year that she had popped in the ground.  More typical of Sieglinde’s spectacular collector’s garden, she mentioned Narcissus cyclamineus and Cyclamen coum that she finds have a lovely light fragrance and surprisingly, her Galanthus nivalis which she noticed when she brought them in for the vase.  She said, “There is sort of a general fragrance in the garden, fresh but not distinct, earthy. If it rained there might be more fragrance even from grasses coming up.”  Nice.

Many Witch Hazels, Hamamelis, bloom in February and some can be quite fragrant.  The most desirable, in my opinion, are types that don’t hold their leaves from the previous year which obscures the floral display.  I found a great article on Hamamelis published by The Scott Arboretum that ranks various Hamamelis on leaf retention and fragrance, Ranking the Sights and Scents of Hamemelis.  One of their favorites is H. x intermedia ‘Jelena’ which I’ve been meaning to add to Acorn Hill.


Perhaps next February I can include H. ‘Jelena’ in my February Fragrance list.

A 30 Second Video Overview of Muddy Boots


Muddy Boots Plant Tags is a web-based software garden record-keeping application to help gardeners keep records about their plants and gardens. It’s simple to use and allows gardeners to keep journal notes, record information about their plants, upload pictures, and it’s integrated with an interactive QR-coded plant tag that can be scanned with a smart phone. Gardeners can access their information from their computer, tablet and phone so they can take their records with them into the garden. It’s an innovative way for gardeners to do what they’ve always done: make notes, keep garden records, label plants, and organize pictures of their garden to tell a story.

A Snake, A Friend, and A Plant

A snake, a friend, and a plant go into a bar … Just kidding!  These three words connect to make quite a nice garden story.

We live in a mountain cove in Asheville, NC.  The cove has a central four-mile road running through it with lots of little side roads that wind up the mountains on either side.  It’s a lovely setting, but it makes it hard to get to know your neighbors because everyone is tucked away.  Enter THE SNAKE.

Black Snake (2)
Click for a larger version of Snake

Driving into the cove one afternoon, I came upon a woman driving out of the cove who from the open window of her car was trying to encourage a lovely long black snake to move off the road and avoid getting squished.  I stopped my truck, hopped out and stomped around the snake until he decided the nice warm road was not worth the bother of these two raving women and moved off into the wood.

Naturally, we had a good laugh and introduced ourselves.   After a bit of where do you live, oh, I live just up the road, and was it you who was building something up there this summer and what was that, it’s a new root cellar and potting shed, I’m really into gardening … we became instant FRIENDS.Elizabeth

Turns out, Elizabeth has lived in this cove for thirty years and has made the most remarkable garden.  Even though we are just a mile down the road from one another, she’s on a moist east-facing slope and I am on a sunny, south-facing knoll.  Elizabeth’s woodland garden is filled with spectacular stands of native Rosebay Rhododendron, deciduous azaleas, and masses of native ground covers such as monkshood, cohosh, trillium and trout lily.

To this she’s added a wonderful collection of ornamental shrubs and trees, one of which is a delicious Daphne odora.  This PLANT has been in her garden for many years.  It is planted along her drive near the front door so she can enjoy the exquisite fragrance this time of year.  Outstanding plants woman that she is, Elizabeth propagated cuttings of this Daphne and I am the lucky recipient of one those rooted treasures.

IMG_0370Though Daphne odora is listed as Zone 7, this specific plant has been quite happy in a protected spot in Elizabeth’s garden.  It may be a particularly hardy cultivar, but that information is lost (if it was ever known).  My cutting is looking healthy in its second year, blooming like mad and perfuming the whole pond garden.  I can’t say that I’ve treated it particularly well, but it does have good drainage and that’s a must for Daphne.

I am so pleased to have both Daphne in the garden and Elizabeth as a friend.  It pays to help others, even a snake.