Monday, March 30, 2009


I don't think I saw a speck of snow until I drove up our driveway.  We have several piles, remnants of our plower's work.   One of them is quite enormous, but as I recall, there was still a fairly good supply of compost under there.  I shall be optimistic and believe that it's mostly soil.
Meanwhile, there is the usual mess:                         
I will tend to this soon.  When it's not so damn cold.  And wet.  In oh, about a month.

A few notes to brighten an otherwise very grey and damp homecoming:

Various heaths, the white one in brave full bloom, and the red one...just plain joyfully outrageous, surrounded as it is by bleakness and woe.  Sorry the picture of the red one (Winter Chocolate?) is so poor, I'll try to do better.

I grow them here, where it goes below -10 from time to time, without reliable snow cover and in a very exposed southwestern exposure.  They survived the worst winter ever, a few years ago ('06? I am not a journal keeper.  No, this blog does not qualify).   What is the secret?  I have no idea.  Heath-loving gremlins.  I have also lost some.

Customers will ask why one of a particular plant has died, when the other(s) has not.  They seem to imagine that gardening is a precise science.    

Another plant that I find gratifying at this time of year is the Sedum Angelique: 
                            This photograph doesn't come close to doing it justice.  In the cold days ahead it will become a brilliant rosey red, and as the weather warms, the succulent foliage becomes a brilliant chartreuse.   And it's a groundcover, growing contentedly and rapidly in any soil that isn't overly wet.  If it spreads to much, it's very easy to pull up.  Definitely one of my favorites.

As is this fine specimen:                         Ajuga 'Chocolate Chip'.  Looks like total yuck at the moment, but soon it will regain its bronzy tones and burst forth with cobalt blue blooms.  I'd grow it even if it didn't flower; in fact, I'd probably prefer it that way.  I use it between stepping stones and it takes plenty of abuse - foot traffic (human and large bouncy dogs) and occasional dog pee (our dogs are generally very well behaved but they have their moments).  Another groundcover - I find groundcovering plants more and more useful (not to mention cost-effective).  My favorite favorite book on groundcover plants is Perennial Groundcovers by David MacKenzie.  This book will help move you beyond your vinca/pachysandra phase, if you're still stuck back there.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Spring on I-95

Of course it has been nicer to spend three months of winter instead of two in Florida.  And as a result, I am driving north a month later and seeing Spring at various stages (spring, sprang, sprung?) along the way.  My brother-in-law asked me to notice where there were no longer new leaves bursting forth, and still just winter-grey twigs:  A born New Englander like me, he has decided to head south for the next portion of his life.  He is focusing on Charleston, South Carolina and southward, which I think is wise.  Charleston is a delightful small city but he might be happier a little further south, and where swimming beaches are a bit more close-by.  Somewhere perhaps like St. Augustine, Florida, America's oldest city - established in 1565.  That of course is nothing to folks from much of the rest of the world, but for us New Worlders, it's downright ancient.

At any rate, I think it was somewhere in North Carolina where things began to look less vernal.  Yes, there are forsythia and daffodils in bloom here in Woodbridge, Virginia - but the deciduous trees are still very grey; there is barely a hint of the green surge that is soon to come.
The lovely view from my hotel room.

Seeking something botanical in this evening's room is a challenge, the following is the best I could do:
Those two reddish things are leaves.  The artwork is of a type very popular these days in hotel/motel rooms and at inexpensive art emporiums.  When I was an art school student there was a "movement" involving the collaging of various elements, usually including photographs from the artist's childhood, with a nostalgic effect though of course it was "high art" so nostalgia was certainly impermissible.    In these motel pieces it has all been highly sanitized and everything has become a mush of beige that will blend inoffensively with any decor.  At any rate it does not interfere with one's sleep.

On the other hand, there is the wallpaper:  It makes me think of the short novel  (or is it a long story?), The Yellow Wallpaper, not really the sort of story one wants to be reminded of when alone in a strange room.

Unless you are me, who has packed for her reading material M.R. James's Collected Ghost Stories.  They are not all wonderful, but a few have definitely crept into the dark untended corners of my brain.  I have always enjoyed a good (usually English) ghost story, but I had not read any for years until recently, when I saw that my husband had bought this book.  He had set it down after reading only one or two stories and not having been remotely disturbed.   But then, he doesn't comprehend my visceral fear of spiders, either (large ones only, and yes, I know they're wonderful.  They are messengers of Death, though, so keep that in mind.).

Saturday, March 28, 2009

On the Road Again

Canned Heat?  Willie Nelson?  Both.

Made it to Hardeeville, South Carolina today.  Which is an accomplishment, since as I first started my journey this morning, I checked to make sure my wallet was in its usual spot.  It wasn't.  Lost or stolen, and knowing me the former is far more likely.  I should tie anything of importance to my body.

Said goodbye again to our doorfrogs, who seem to be getting much livelier as the weather warms up.  They leap around and hurl themselves about with what seems like abandon, landing on one's leg or for example this morning, on Sally's bottom.  The frog moved on immediately and Sally looked puzzled until the next thing distracted her.
Sally is our 2 1/2 year old Miniature Australian Shepherd.  Here is a photograph of her beautifying herself on the beach.

Tried to take some nice pictures of the emerging seagrape leaves, which are amazing olive green pinkish colors, maybe the color of alien baby flesh. 

And to end the day on a gardenish note, here is the bit of botany from my lovely room at Holiday Inn, where I was treated very sympathetically by the woman at the reception desk.  I thought the reflection of the lampshade was a nice touch...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Natives, Frogs, and Farewells

Philip and I are on a very big learning curve, since there are so many genuses and species we've never heard of here.  I refuse to attribute it to my advancing age, but I seem to have more difficulty remembering the Latin names these days.  In the past it was a snap,  though it may have helped that I had a few years of Latin in school.  But the plant names here...Coccoloba uvifera, Rapanea guineensis, Xanthozylum fagara...!  Since I'm a snobbish northeasterner, I have a theory that the more south you get, the sloppier they were with their Latin.  Those names just don't seem right to me!

Our house is shaded by several Jamaican dogwoods (Piscidia erythrina or piscipula).  The word "dogwood", by the way, has nothing to do with dogs but refers to the fact that the wood is hard enough to make "dags" or daggers.  At least, that's the derivation for the common name of those dogwoods from the genus Cornus; I'm not so sure how the Jamaican dogwood came to be called that.  It's other common name is fishpoison tree.  The leaves and branches were used in the past to stun fish which were then easily caught.  It's a traditional herbal remedy for neuralgia, migraine, insomnia and other nerve disorders.  But at our house, it's just a useful shade tree, and a bit of a weed - a typical member of the Legume family, seeding around so that if we didn't pay attention, we might have a dogwood forest.

I am leaving here tomorrow, and sad to go.   Still, it's spring up north and there is much to look forward to; including messy gardens in need of serious cleanup...I am a lazy fall gardener:  I like Kathy Purdy's description at her blog, Cold Climate Gardening, of one's energy shifting toward indoor instead of outdoor cleanup as the cooler weather sets in.

I will miss our door frogs who snooze the day away above the window next to our front door:

And I will miss all of the exotic textures that I see here, such as these:

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Scruffy and Unkempt

A friend and solidly experienced gardener (English, no less - so obviously particularly knowledgable!) who has vacationed near our Florida home, commented that she didn't care for the landscape here - Referring I suspect to the great messiness that surrounds us, the lack of large shade trees perhaps, and nothing in sight resembling a more traditional perennial garden.  

I will grant you that Gertrude Jekyll would mostly likely not enjoy the scenery here.  The sun, heat, and wind are harsh; and many areas are flooded during summer rains and then subjected to merciless drought during other seasons.   Plants along the road take on a silvery cast from the dust during the long dry spells.  Trees fall or lean over during high winds, and continue to grow, misshapen by our standards of upright neatly pruned perfection.  Nature here is a lunatic bonsai master.

There are plenty of tidy gardens, don't get me wrong.  There are rows of Royal Palms , Coccolobas and Hibiscus pruned within an inch of their lives, to be seen around many corners...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Under Foot and Over Head

Here's a lovely idea I linked to from The Inelegant Gardener's blog:

Pair that with a lovely green roof such as this,

 and you're all set, inhabiting a truly green world. At least until you step beyond your front door. 

Good Morning

The sad countdown, three more days and I'll be on my way northward. I see it's 23 degrees up there this morning. It's 65 here. I'm sure I'll barely notice the difference (NOT!). Fortunately the situation should be improving up there very shortly.

Yesterday someone drove their pickup truck into a conservation area near here, and the heat from his truck started a brush fire. It was up to 15 acres and near a few houses, but the firefighters got it under control. Well, nothing like a (barely) controlled burn for tidying the landscape..
.     ....and for cleaning out your car.

I expect he'll think twice about going off-road next time.

We get permits and do burns on our property up north every now and then. It's wonderful to watch the new growth emerging after a fire.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Hula Girls

There is often a discussion in these parts as to the correct way to prune the native palms, Sabal palmetto or cabbage palm.  My impression is that Republican types e.g. golfers, like to see a tidy palm with any hint of a brown frond eradicated; whereas the more liberal sort prefer a looser (Republicans would say messier, unkempt, irresponsible, etc.) more relaxed appearance (gentler, smarter, etc.), i.e. leaving on all dead foliage and going for that "old Florida" look.   We go both ways on our property, opting for a little more neatness close to the house, and letting it all hang out elsewhere.   No dogmatists here!  I will confess to a mild preference for the tidier look, but I amuse myself by thinking that those trees with a full skirt of dead fronds bear a marked resemblance to hula dancers:

See what I mean?  Perhaps this explains why most palm tree collectors are men...  

At any rate, we have been told that it's allright to cut off the brown fronds, but a very bad idea to cut off the green, living ones (here's a very helpful lesson in palm pruning) - Why anyone would want to do so is a bit of a mystery to me, but apparently that is exactly what many landscaping companies do, leaving sad-looking trees behind that look as though they've exfoliated after a shocking experience: 

Philip has been very busy in his effort to free our property of the air potato, Dioscorea bulbifera.  This is one of many buckets he has filled of this nasty invasive vine.  It will no doubt be an ongoing project, comparable to our eradication of bittersweet and poison ivy from our yard up north.  There is plenty of the latter here as well, enjoying the Florida climate.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

This Time for Sure!

Almost another year has passed.  We (husband Philip and moi Victoria) have been in Florida again for the winter and very soon I must leave this Paradise and go back to my job in Massachusetts.  I actually enjoy getting back to work - There are worse jobs than working at a garden center, and these days those of us who are still employed should certainly feel good about it.

Forget the virtual assistant stuff - Who has time to figure it all out?

Last winter we bought a house down here,  in zone 10 west coastal Florida.   We are about 1/4 of a mile from the Gulf of Mexico and have an acre and a half of land.  It is a challenging gardening environment, sandy and calcitic, nothing I would call soil: 

Not very inspiring, I suppose - But it is to us.  The native plants do fine here, even despite the current drought: Marlberry, Myrsine, wild olive, wild lime (watch those thorns!), wild coffee.  Hmm, there seems to be a theme here...There will be much trial and error, as there always is.  I once had a customer tell me she'd been gardening for years and had never lost a plant.  I theorized that she used only plastic flowers - how else could that be possible?

At this point in our lives we can be here 3 - 4 months a year (D.H. can manage it a for bit longer than I, a benefit of being a professional gardener in a northern clime) so plants we put in must be able to hack it without too much supervision.  Philip has put in irrigation to get new plantings started, we will have a friend turn it off once the warm weather rains begin.  We will plant a minimum of 75% native plants...This brings up the whole "native" issue - Down here, the word refers quite clearly to plants that are at least Florida natives, if not natives to this precise latitude and longitude.  Up north, you will find that native could mean native to New England...or to North America.  And which North America?  pre- or post colonial? and on and on. At any rate, we are conscientious.

We were greatly inspired last week during a tour of several private gardens in the Miami area,
 all designed at least in part by Raymond Jungles, a well-known landscape architect in these parts.  We were even lucky enough to sit with him and his lovely fiance Gina at lunch - enabling us to grill him with just a fraction of the many questions we have as neophyte tropical gardeners.