Narcissus ‘Replete’

I’ve stopped planting tulips – they rarely bloom more than one season. When I want annuals, I plant flowers that bloom from April to October. But I do plant 25-50 daffodils each fall. Below is ‘Replete,’ a double variety my husband bought at Terra Ceia Farms in Eastern North Carolina. Images on the Internet show them as white with pink centers. They are not. But the colors and form are beautiful. Their heads tend to droop from the weight, so they’re especially lovely planted where they can be viewed from below, on a slope or atop a wall. And like most narcissus, each spring they produce more blossoms.

Narcissus 'Replete'


Early Spring

A mild 2011-12 winter meant early arrival of spring.  Today is March 11, and azaleas are beginning to flower.  Daffodils have been in bloom for more than a month.  Tulip foliage is up.  Viburnum and chinese snowball are budding.  Tips of hostas are poking out of the ground.  I should’ve finished spreading pine needles weeks ago – I fear stepping on new growth as I work in the gardens.

Below, the ‘Orange Dream’ Japanese maple is already beginning to leaf out. This is one of my favorites, an Ebay purchase from 2 years ago.  Although it has doubled in size since I planted it, it’s not even 3 feet tall, and its adult height will be only 9 feet or so.  If it survives until then, it will be a knockout in the garden.  Its leaves are spectacular – chartreuse bordered with orange in early spring, bright green in summer, and gold in fall.

'Orange Dream' Japanese maple

'Orange Dream' Japanese maple


Working with stone is physically satisfying.  It requires precision, strength and stamina.  Stone is rugged and permanent, and its roughness feels good to my touch.  It’s comforting and warm in the sun and cool in the shade.

There was a lot of hardscaping in place when we moved to this house.  A long, mortared stone retaining wall stands next to the patio that was created from square concrete pavers.  Melon-sized rocks border two of the gardens and trail alongside the steps to the “Lower 40.”  Small boulders weighing a couple hundred pounds each are scattered throughout the center garden.  Bricks set into the ground diagonally in a rickrack pattern also border several areas.

Building the patio for my secret garden was my first attempt at working with stone.  Suddenly, stone began to catch my eye … a neighbor’s dry stacked stone retaining wall … huge boulders parked in gardens of the large homes in the wealthier areas of town … wire enclosures containing potato-sized rocks at the garden center.

A friend joked, “When you start coveting piles of gravel at the stone yard, you’re out of control.”  I was just about at that point.

After 3 boulders were delivered for a project last year, I wanted to hug them.  Yes comma that is weird.

Cypress mulch paths (click to make Sandy even larger)

My 2nd hardscaping project was an easy one:  make a brick border for the mulched paths, to help keep pine needles in the gardens and mulch on the paths. I dug trenches, spread sand, set the bricks, spread more sand, and the borders were done.  They looked fine.

My 3rd project was more daunting.  Bianca had used dozens of flagstones as individual stepping stones around the center garden.  Despite my repeated attempts to set them into the ground in a comfortable pattern for walking, they were awkward – the path was sloped, the stones were slippery, and visitors had to keep their eyes on their feet instead of the garden.  Replacing the flagstones with mulch was an easy solution, but it left me with a jumble of jagged rock sitting in a corner of the garden.

In the Lower 40 is a 30-foot-long path that connects 2 entrances to that area.  Grass wouldn’t grow in the deep shade there, and the hard-packed dirt turned to mud in the rain.  It was the Devil’s Tramping Ground of our garden.  With the flagstones I’d removed from the center garden I built a walkway there.  It took a couple of weekends to dig out the bed, spread sand, and arrange the unevenly-shaped stones in the sand.  More sand and then pea gravel filled the crevices.  Landscape edging helps keep the sand, gravel and stones from washing away in our heavy rains.

Flagstone walkway

It’s not a professional-looking job, but it will do.  Along one side I planted variegated liriope.  Along the  other I tacked down a dead vine that my husband had pulled out of a tree, and I planted sweet woodruff to soften the vine’s rustic look.

This led to hardscaping project #4.  A small and shady dirt pad near the new flagstone walkway was useless space, but there was room for a chair and a small table.  Tucked next to a heavily wooded area, it would be the coolest spot in the yard on the hottest afternoons.

Mini patio

Some old moss-covered pavers from the side yard, too slick to walk on, made the perfect 4’x5′ patio.  A nandina, when full-grown, will provide a little privacy.  An old wicker chair, a cheap metal table and pots of impatiens and caladium completed the project.  It’s a lovely spot for reading in the late afternoon.

Dry creekbed, future water feature?

Above that patio is a long, hilly, dry creekbed that I created 2 years ago.  One of the dogs had dug into the ivy there and revealed an old clay drainpipe.  I pulled away the ivy, lined the gully with rocks of many shapes and sizes, and planted ferns, horsetails,  hostas, and other plants.  I assumed the clay pipe led from the house’s gutters and that water would spill into the creekbed when it rained.  But no — the pipe is cracked somewhere, and water burbles up out of the ground and spills down the steps instead.  Now I dream of digging up that hillside, using rain barrels to catch the runoff from the gutters, and installing a real water feature with boulders and waterfalls, splashing into a pool beside my tiny patio.

What makes a gardener?

If someone had told me 40 years ago when I was a teenager sweating behind a push mower that one day I would love working in the yard, I would’ve thought they were crazy.

Mom was a gardener and a good one.  Something was blooming all the time in her yard.  I still have canna lilies and clematis and euonymous and Carolina allspice that she passed along.  And I’m sorry to say, many of the things she gave me didn’t survive, because I didn’t know what to do with them except plop them in the ground and hope for the best.  Moisture, sunlight/shade, fertilizing, pruning … I was ignorant.

How does a chore turn into a hobby and a thirst for knowledge and then a passion?  What provokes that transition?  Is it inborn, hidden under the surface, a seed that slowly germinates, grows and blooms when it’s given enough loving care?  Or is it something like explodes into life, like a weed long-dormant until it’s awakened by rain and the sun’s warmth?

Mom loved her gardens.  They were pretty, I thought at the time, but they didn’t inspire me to become a gardener.

Mystery iris, April 2011 - do not remember planting these

When Bianca showed me her gardens as we were contemplating buying this house, it was April and the azaleas and dogwoods and Spanish bluebells and Wild Sweet William turned the entire back yard into a sea of white and lavender and pink.  Owning that didn’t make me want to be a gardener.

Spending years pulling up vinca minor with its vines as thin as dental floss; yanking at knee-deep English ivy; digging up giant clumps of liriope that had strayed into the gardens, gasping in the cold or sweating in the humidity … certainly didn’t make me want to be gardener.

I can’t pinpoint the “aha” moment, but I now have an unrelenting desire to work in the gardens.  If I can’t sleep at night, I fantasize about creating a water feature or a dry stack stone wall or combining certain colors in the patio garden.  Sometimes it’s the other way around — I can’t sleep at night because I’m thinking of the gardens.

Sandy the Yellow Lab, with April azaleas and ajuga

My husband says this is my medium, like a painter uses watercolors or oils.  I’ve never thought I was creative, leaning more toward the conformist rather than the experimental.  But when I take photos of the garden, and suddenly I notice that the flower and foliage combinations have the soft dreaminess of a Monet painting, I realize that this has become my means of creative expression.

Secret Garden

In the spring of 2008 I visited my sister and her family in Florida.  My brother-in-law had turned their sandy, nondescript back yard into an oasis filled with tropical plants, building a party patio as well as some secluded seating areas.  I wanted a reading nook similar to the one he made for my sister:  a comfortable place to sit alone with a book or with a friend and a glass of wine.

One of my neighbors had given me dozens of 18” square concrete pavers that she no longer needed.  I had used most of them as stepping stones in another part of the garden.  I wondered if I use the broken leftovers to create a little patio in a dead zone of space off the center garden, where a large pine arose from a mess of tangled ivy.  Four paths converged here; it needed to be a destination.

I pulled up the ivy, dug a flat pad, spread sand, and fit the broken pavers into a roughly 4’x8’ rectangle.  I laid bricks to border the front of the patio and swept sand over the pavers and bricks to hold them in place.  I planted dwarf mondo grass around the front and sides of the patio to help prevent the nearby mulch and pine needles from migrating onto the patio.  I planted cast iron plants on one side and northern sea oats, a rhododendron and a nandina on the other.  Behind the patio I planted a small, volunteer aucuba, a volunteer winter honeysuckle, and a puny-looking viburnum, moved from its original crowded and gloomy location.  Two comfortable teak chairs and a matching table fit the patio perfectly.  Clay pots filled with caladium, coleus and impatiens brightened the area with color.  I hung wind chimes on a nearby dogwood.  This is where my husband and I have a glass of wine and catch up after work.  It is quiet and shady and cool.

My secret garden isn’t so secret … it’s directly in the sightline of the patio, and until the shrubbery around it grows larger the next-door neighbors can see me out there.  But I like to pretend I’m hidden from the rest of the world.


Every how-to book on shade gardening that I’ve read recommends hostas.  I wonder if there is a shade garden anywhere that doesn’t contain them.

Young Aphrodite

When we moved to this house, there were dozens of hostas in the gardens, of two varieties:  Aphrodite, with large glossy leaves and stunning, fragrant white flowers; and a plain green variety whose name I never learned.  The latter are the first of the hostas to leaf out in the spring, but otherwise they are unremarkable.  Many of them mysteriously disappeared over the years, and I found out why as I pulled ivy from the gardens – one area was crisscrossed with varmint tunnels.  Adding a bulldog/shepherd mix to our family in 2009 helped reduce the population.

At that time, I knew nothing about hostas.  To my eye they were boring.  Despite Aphrodite’s showy flowers and glossy leaves, I wasn’t impressed.

A friend recommended  I was overwhelmed with the feast of hostas on that website.

I began adding new varieties to the gardens from Plant Delights, “big box” stores, fancy garden centers, and farmers markets.  Friends divided theirs to share with me.  A photo of a hosta garden in a nearby city — with all shapes, sizes, textures, colors and patterns nestled against each other — inspired me to try to create a similar look.

Every day in springtime I walk through the garden, peering into the pine needles to search impatiently for those first spikes of tightly coiled hosta foliage.

When (if) the hostas grow together as they do in my dreams, I’ll post a picture.  Below is a partial listing of the hostas in my gardens:

Flower of the Aphrodite

Great Expectations – late arriving, early-blooming, medium-sized, yellow centers with deep green margins

Paul’s Glory – chartreuse centers, dark green margins, lavender flowers

Krossa Regal – tall, vase-like shape, dusky blue leaves, slug-resistant

Young Regal Splendor

Regal Splendor – a sport of Krossa Regal, with a 6′ diameter spread; same dusky leaves, edged with yellow

Dawn’s Early Light – the most brilliant hosta to emerge in spring, a neon yellow-green … and I’d post a picture if the dogs hadn’t trashed it this year.

Blue Angel

Blue Angel – its large, thick leaves are slug resistant, and its blossoms are nearly as beautiful as Aphrodite’s

Sum & Substance – I won this on Ebay and have had it for 5 years;  it hasn’t grown as large as expected (yet)

Stained Glass – similar to Paul’s glory

Zounds – brilliant yellow foliage that lights up the garden

Loyalist – mine are very small — perhaps they don’t like their location (on a hillside that the dogs use as a shortcut); they have creamy white centers and deep green margins


June – the word that pops into my head whenever I see June is charming — it has small, perfectly formed leaves with chartreuse centers and green margins

Wide Brim – similar to Patriot (see photo below) but with yellow margins

Gold Standard – this is a big beauty that emerges green and is bleached to pale chartreuse by late summer – I love that pop of color so much that I painted a bench to match

Patriot or Minuteman?

Minuteman and Patriot – I get these two confused — both have green centers and creamy white margins; one emerges much earlier in spring than the other; their tight, ruffled foliage is gorgeous but looks a little ratty by late summer

Albo Marginata – large; green centers with very thin white margins


Striptease – soft green leaves with a lighter stripe of green in the center which is edged with a thin white line … love this one

Tokudama – large, heart-shaped leaves, deep green in the center, lighter green margins

Sun Power

Sun Power – a large hosta with an appropriate name — when the sun hits it in the late afternoon, it glows as if lit from within

Now that we have a relatively clean slate …

In the mid-2000’s, a blight hit the dozen or so dogwoods in the back yard.  Nearly every one died over the next 3 years.  I miss them — in the spring the blossoms looked like clouds hovering over the gardens.  But their absence meant that the gardens were more open, easier to view.  Deep shade became dappled shade.

My goal was to maintain a tamed woodland while adding specimen plants.  Each winter I spread a thick layer of pine needles over the newly-cleared gardens.  Within a few years, the weed count had dropped dramatically.  The pine needles enriched the soil that fed the acid-hungry azaleas and camellias, and they cloaked the gardens in a soft copper that allowed the evergreens and hostas to shine in the growing season instead of disappearing in a tangle of vines and weeds.

The foundation was laid, and I was ready to experiment with new plants.