Red Leaves on Cedar. Nature’s Christmas Tree.



A few weeks ago, this twenty-foot Japanese maple in the backyard was ablaze in red. (No color adjustments have been made to photos). In fall, the leaves were a muted shade of purple-burgundy and, before that, a bright green hue that remained through spring and summer.

This tree of many colors has seen several homes — I couldn’t bear to leave it behind at two different gardens. I bought it two decades ago from a dear, gentle man named John who ran a small nursery beside the home where he lived with his elderly parents. The nursery no longer exists, but  I think about the afternoons I spent on the hillside there, wandering through rows of one exquisite maple cultivar after another.  I’ve misplaced the name of my maple, an out-of-the-ordinary one that I may not find again. No matter. The attributes of this tree stand alone. They bring pleasure to me and others, every season of every year.

There is a little eastern cedar tree –Juniperus virginiana–growing beside the maple in its current (and final) location. It came up as a volunteer a few years ago. When the red leaves rained down from the maple in late November, some of them got stuck in the cedar’s prickly, green branches, reminding me of ornaments on an outdoor Christmas tree. For my photo, I was tempted to place the star-shaped leaves in a symmetrical pattern on the cedar. But I decided not to. Exact spacing is for indoor trees. Nature’s arrangement was perfect, just as I found it.



Dear Blue Mountains

Biltmore Village. Festive Greenery, Art, Architecture.


It was a balmy sixty-five degrees on Sunday — not quite what you’d expect on a December weekend in the Blue Ridge Mountains. After a few hours wandering through Biltmore Village near downtown Asheville, I began to feel festive nonetheless, somehow now caring that it felt more like the beach than the mountains outside.

The village’s old brick buildings and sidewalks are a perfect setting for Christmasy window displays, playful children, and trees in transition from fall glow to winter dormancy. There’s plenty to take in, from roof and window details above, to the herringbone-patterned walks and raised beds below — each filled with colorful tapestries of leaves and branches.

I miss the days when my family would pack into the old Willys jeep and drive through the snow for hot soup and home-made cookies at our good friends’ home in the country . Although snow and Christmas will always go hand-in-hand in my memory, I think it’s important to start new traditions and appreciate what is instead of what was. The village in Biltmore is a charming blend of the past and present to me.

A Little Garden Cabin: Pursuing the Dream

Phase II

It’s natural, I guess, to consider the impact of choices made at different points in life. I found myself doing that recently, when a landmark in my hometown was torn down.

When my son was very young, I looked into a landscape architecture program in North Carolina. The lab time would have required more time from home than I wanted to devote, so I went on to a career in philanthropy and non-profit work. Twenty years ago, I decided to become a non-traditional (older) student and take horticulture and landscape design classes in Tennessee. As I neared the end of my studies, I made plans to start a design business of my own.

Every time I returned to the home place near Asheville, I’d pass a little log cabin sitting empty on the side of the road. It had a warmth and quirky appeal I couldn’t get off my mind; it seemed like just the right place for a little nursery or garden shop. I fantasized about how I would decorate the cabin and set up the plant displays.

Ultimately, the timing (and motivation) for retail was not right for me, but it was for a local woman named Carol. She rented the cabin and established a florist and nursery business, offering garden-related gifts and a limited range of exterior plants. Over the years she expanded the nursery portion and carried a good selection of herbs, perennials, shrubs, and trees, many of them out-of-the ordinary. I liked to stop by and see the latest inventory on my way home. Despite the cabin’s aging, weather-beaten structure, I assumed it would always be there, bursting at the seams with pots and statuary and plants.

The garden shop is just a memory now. The cabin was torn down recently and the site is being prepared for a coffee shop — at least that’s the buzz in the community. The nursery owner said she was ready to go on to other things, adding that it had become a challenge to keep everything watered and cared for. She said she was never able to totally relax in the evenings or on week-ends, wondering if the plants were dried out, knocked over by the wind, or taken by a dishonest passer-by. I’ve worked at a nursery and know that overseeing an inventory of living, breathing things is a challenge. It’s never far from the owner’s mind.

Maybe I’ll stop by for a cup of coffee when the new building is finished. Most likely, the place will be landscaped with the generic hollies and junipers that are displacing plants native to the area. Maybe they’ll get Carol to come back and help them go in a different direction. Either way, I’ll try to go with an open mind. But I’ll always be nostalgic for that sweet little garden shop and the dream I once had to have it for my own.

Thanksgiving: Leave the Light On

The light is always on for family and friends. It’s on for you, too, dear reader, with a big thank you for stopping by.

If you were here last year, you might remember Mary Chapin Carpenter’s sweet “Thanksgiving Song”. It’s definitely worth a re-visit – a chance to hum along and recall the meaning of this old-fashioned (in a good way) day of celebration.

Thanksgiving is one of the last holidays to succumb to pressures of the advertising and shopping machine. But now, even Thanksgiving is up for grabs. I, for one, am holding out — steadfast in my resolve to stay away from the mall. I’m staying home. Preserving life and limb. Eating pumpkin pie and listening to nice music (on soon-to-be-obsolete equipment).

Does Thanksgiving have to change? I hope not. May yours be a happy one, however you choose to spend it.

Disanthus: Rare and Beautiful

Disanthus cercidifolius

Disanthus cercidifolius holds a special place of honor in my garden — and not just because it’s hard to come by in the nursery trade. There are plenty of rare plants that don’t set my heart aflutter, but disanthus is a different story. Named for its redbud-shaped leaves, this medium-size (8-10′) Asian shrub is very striking in fall, yet fits in well with other plants in my mostly-wooded garden. The flowers are similar to others in the witchhazel family (especially ‘Diane’), and are slightly fragrant. The seed capsules are tiny, but beautifully complex. (My camera focusing mechanism rebels when I focus on this flower. Maybe the white spots on red creates confusion in the lens).

The most memorable feature of disanthus is the striking fall color. Usually the leaves are combinations of purple, yellow, and burgundy-red, even orange. This year, they’re mostly yellow. Their shape is definitely similar to Cercis canadensis, our native redbud. When people ask if my plant is a redbud, I bet they’re thinking, “Why would she plant one that’s so straggly, with so many trunks?” I know I’d wonder that, especially if it was before the disanthus bloomed or became its normally resplendent self in October.

If you look carefully, you can see the small red flowers along the now- leafless branches.

To see what’s blooming in other gardens, both hither and yon, visit May Dreams Gardens for this month’s Garden Bloggers Bloom Day postings. 

If We All Hold Hands

For Election Day and Beyond: A Message for Unity

Colorful tabletop at a coffee house near Chapel Hill, NC. Photo 2011.

On Not Discussing the Government

Display, Davy Crockett Homeplace

The thought of having to make a speech made my knees feel mighty weak, and set my heart to fluttering almost as bad as my first love scrape with the Quaker’s niece. But as good luck would have it, these big candidates spoke nearly all day, and when they quit, the people were worn out with fatigue, which afforded me a good apology for not discussing the government.  — David Crockett, 1786 -1836.

Growing up in western North Carolina, I heard a lot about Davy Crockett. He was an icon in southern Appalachia — frontiersman, soldier, congressman, advocate for the poor. He was a complex man, but became almost a caricature when Disney Corporation did a series of television programs about him in the 1950′s. By the end of the series, every child in the southern mountains knew about coonskin caps and buckskin and could sing every lyric about the man who was “born on a mountain top in Tennessee” and “killed him a bear when he was only three.”

I visited Davy’s homeplace in Limestone, Tennessee last fall. It’s not on a mountain top. And I don’t know how a three-year old could possibly kill a bear. The truth about Mr. Crockett lies somewhere beyond the image created by television producers, storytellers, and his fellow politicians. I guess that’s the case for anyone who ever became famous or ran for office.

If Davy was around today, I hope he’d use his humor and clout to remind political candidates, “You’re wearing out the people. Don’t talk about the  government all day!” And with the holidays coming up, maybe Davy could tell the people, in turn“Best not to bring up politics at family gatherings. It can set the heart to fluttering.”

Why So Busy? Rest. The House Can Wait.

Autumn Light, In Sharp Focus

This past year has been a blur of busy-ness, much of it related to home upkeep: roofing, painting, plumbing, replacing boards destroyed by carpenter bees and woodpeckers, doing the planning to make all these projects happen.

This has been a year of re-evaluation, too: Questioning the wisdom of expending so much life energy and resources on the maintenance of property. Thinking about The American Dream of owning a home and immersing oneself in overseeing it, insuring it, paying taxes on it. Thinking about shelter as a concept and about people who are homeless, or displaced from their homes, in places throughout the world. Realizing, on a personal level, that there are important things to do in life, and that time — and energy –are not as infinite as they used to be.

Sometimes, all this pondering is too much, and a seemingly minor event interrupts the whirling excesses of the brain. This time it was in the form of an unexpected beam of autumn light.

This summer, I put two small, wire chairs out near the creek, in order to work on a writing project (or something). I sat by the creek, not paying much attention to my surroundings. I went back inside. The season passed, and I used the chairs a few more times, mainly as a convenient surface to hold pots or garden tools while I was on my way somewhere else. Then, fall came, and with it, unexpected patterns of light and reflection.

One day,  I looked out the window and saw the light focused on my chairs as if to say, “Here’s where you need to be. Slow down. Listen to the sounds of the water. Rest, just for a while.” Resting is not something I do very well. Idleness was not considered a virtue when I was growing up. So now I’m going back to that little girl and gently suggesting that she doesn’t have to be working, or busy, every second of the day. She’ll be glad to hear that, I think.

By the Creek

This is my wish for you, and for myself : Some time to rest. A soothing spot in Nature. Peace of mind. And no housing worries, whatsoever.

Gold Heart Ivy: Promises to Robin

Memories of May

Dear Robin,

Remember how we admired that pretty clump of variegated English ivy (Hedera helix ‘Gold Heart’) along this shady path in Asheville?  And remember how I told you I had that same ivy at home and would send you some cuttings?

You may have noticed that four months have gone by and you still don’t have your ivy. And while I know a few sprigs of Gold Heart won’t make or break your garden, I still want to explain what happened or else you’ll think, “That woman just makes reckless promises and goes on her merry way!”

I took your cuttings in June during the start of that horrible heat wave. (That in itself was a poor choice, horticulturally-speaking). The major portion of the ivy was attached to the west-facing side of a big stone slab, which got extremely hot during those intense summer days. Usually the ivy is fairly blemish-free, but this May most of the plant developed crinkly, brown spots. I did take your cuttings from relatively undamaged new growth — what little there was of it.

Hedera helix ‘Gold Heart’ : heat damage

I watched over the cuttings, but they gradually turned brown and died in the container. The same thing happened the second time around. I usually have a greenish-thumb, but this time: no luck. For one thing, this particular ivy has stems that are more woody than herbaceous; I should have put the cuttings in rooting medium, not water.  Also, I think the plant’s very cellular structure had been compromised — i.e. toasted in hundred degree heat. Gold Heart is not a vigorous grower anyway. That attribute, plus the coloration and pattern, is why I like having it in my garden. English ivyas a general rule, is my nemesis — we continually have to beat it back or else the house would be enveloped by it.

So that is my long, belated explanation of what happened to your ivy.  Ms. “Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire” will sign off now, hoping that all is forgiven, and wishing you glorious days of gardening ahead.


Hedera helix  ‘Gold Heart’ – Recovering