Home & Design

Green Acre #445: In Praise of the Rose of Sharon

Cut branches—with blooms—from a Rose of Sharon fill a vase just in time for dinner guests to appreciate. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

If non-native, invasive plants upset you, please avert your eyes, snowflake.*

UNTIL THREE days ago, I didn’t know that cut branches of the Rose of Sharon would do quite nicely in a vase—if there are buds on the branch, they’ll continue to open. Sounds really dim-witted, right?

We had guests coming for dinner and the vase behind the sofa was empty, and I do like a powerful bunch of greenery in it. With minutes to spare before arrival, I dashed out to the curb and clipped a few branches from one of the Rose of Sharon bushes we’re cultivating alongside the curb, one branch with several buds and a single flower, though I didn’t expect that to last—maybe we’d get the evening out of it—before it shriveled.

With hibiscus, of which this is a hardy variety that survives freezing temperatures, the flowers open and are lovely for just one day, then poof. The flowers on the branch I cut stayed open and are continuing to open. Why is this surprising me?

We’ve been growing Rose of Sharon plants for decades. Some are in the backyard, some in the back alley, others along the curb. Such jolly non-natives with their purple, white and pink, all sprouts or offshoots of a red-and-white hybrid that the Prince and Baby bought me 30-some years ago for Mother’s Day.

Ick, or words to that effect, I said when I saw it. What an old-lady plant. Feh. But it was a gift from my loved ones, so it was planted (and neglected), and it grew and grew and became a small tree that hides the dining area of the back porch from neighboring eyes. The red and white flowers make me feel like I’m in the South of France, not 12 blocks from the US Capitol.

Now I’m an old lady, and I’m quite happily surrounded by them. We planted an offshoot in one of the two main garden beds; it came up purple. Others were added elsewhere from time to time—we never knew what color they’d be. They do breed like rabbits, although most sprouts disappear before they develop. I’ve never managed to care why.

Once planted, in whatever dirt you have handy, they’re completely trouble-free, they’ll grow like weeds and bloom prolifically from June through frost—one of few flowering plants to do so. Around here, the crape myrtle, a spectacular tree that I do so love, looks like hell for far too long, dead-looking branches amid the tulips, still dead-looking when the roses begin to scent the air. If the flowers on the Rose of Sharon come out as summer begins, it’s a leafy and green backdrop for spring bulbs and flowers.

*I say this most affectionately, as my preference is also for native plants. But sometimes . . . stuff happens.

Green Acre #444: Bird Stuffing

A feathery vitrine found through a Google search. And there are LOTS of them!

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

I KNEW THERE WAS a reason I subscribed for over 100 bucks a year to World of Interiors, a British magazine with a bit of a cult following (see 100 bucks a year). 

This month, in the section called “Aesthete’s Library,” writer Mitchell Owens features the now-out-of-print Maisons de France, a book published in 1950, when France was scratching a recovery from the “deprivation, occupation, and genocide” of World War II. Showcased are 96 residences . . . gathered into an “album of domestic escapism,” that were selected from the pages of French design magazine Plaisir de France. 

On page 57, should you get your hands on the September issue (you won’t find it online) is the perfect repository for one’s dead parakeets (or canaries, doves, or vultures if you have). Would that I had noticed this before the deaths of Vinnie and Shakira, Buddy, Bossy, Blue, and Boychic. . .  Peaches escaped, so she doesn’t count. Still with us are Cooper and Bonnie, who appear happy and healthy enough.  

They were with us in pairs (we’re not insane). Each death was a tragedy. With each demise we swore off birds, but dammit, they’re entertaining, colorful, and make a design statement, which is, to my mind, the bottom line.

Getting to the point of the story: Filling a niche in the dining-room wall of a “suave country home” is an arched “vitrine of taxidermy birds set into the boiserie,” also known as wood wall paneling. Within the vitrine, which appears to be about 7 feet tall, is a small leafless tree, espaliered* against the back wall, with what appear to be 7 or 8 small colorful birds, presumably budgies perched on the branches. Judging from the number of photos of stuffed birds I found by Googling (see photo above and on the front), such displays were considered quite chic in Victorian homes, and are apparently collectible today. Keep your eye out!

So! To the point: Instead of a burial under the Kwanzan cherry tree, currently our feathered friends’ plot of eternal repose, Vinnie, Shakira, and those that followed could have been with us forever, some with wings spread as if about to take off, others  sitting placidly, watching us dine.   

Is this not the perfect accompaniment to oeufs cocotte or poulet chasseur? No feathers flying or raucous chirruping in the middle of dinner (they do like to chime in, opinionated little sots. The live ones, I mean).

Our friend Robert had his black cat taxidermied, a move I find strange. He’s an artist and architect of some renown, so one doesn’t question his sometimes peculiar ideas. Where has he put said cat, I have yet to see. 

*Espaliered plants, says the agriculture wing of the University of Nebraska, are most often fruit trees trained to grow flat against a wall, which is useful in tight, confined areas where wide-spreading shrubs or trees won’t work. And that is all I have to say about gardening this week.

Green Acre #443: A Store to Swoon Over

A tabletop extravaganza at J. Brown & Co.; shop exterior shown on the front. / Photos by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

LET ME MAKE one thing perfectly clear: I can’t afford much of anything at J. Brown & Co. in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. Oh, perhaps a $35 napkin. One. 

That said, I can never pass up a visit. 

The little shop on upper King Street beckons, firstly, with a riot of plants outside the front door. That has nothing to do with the store’s contents, but the sight is so alluring it empties my lungs and causes my knees to go weak. It is a fantasia of flowers in pots and planters, spilling with color under a yellow-and-white awning. Pulling me in. 

Which is what happened the other day with a visit on a whim, Baby and me. Lunch? she said. Thrift-shopping? Ah, so. 

It was our first stop. When thrift-shopping you need to prime the eye. At J. Brown it is more than the goods, which are out of our range. It is the ideas that spill onto each surface—the glitter of crystal, the interplay of extraordinary patterns of china, the heaps of pillows that invite a wallow, the big round table that commands the center of the shop, always dressed so elegantly, plate upon plate upon service plate, embroidered napkins, ornaments interspersed and in the center . . . 

This is actually the subject of today’s screed, a monumental, near ceiling-tickling floral centerpiece.  

Surely, you’ve read at least 12 times that your centerpiece should be low enough that guests can see one another across the table. 

What we have here is the opposite, an arrangement so tall that it explodes above the heads of the diners, creating an umbrella of flowers in a towering glass vase. What a heavenly triumph! 

Of course, it would get messy should you have a chandelier above your table, or a ceiling fan (which I have) or particularly low ceilings. Yet the effect is so glamorous, dazzling, gob-smacking that it could be well worth moving the dining table to create head room. 

Do also note, if you visit J. Brown the brick floors. This near-trompe-l’oeil masterpiece, which appears to be ancient, one might believe the store was at some point a stable, imaginatively resurrected as a home design shop. 

It is not, Brown explains with a twinkle—he seems to love yelling this story—the bricks, which are about an inch thick, he laid himself about 20 years ago, when he had just bought the building. They were cheap—like nothing for a box of many—at Home Depot. He bought many boxes, neatly laying the bricks from doorstep through the main level, up a short rise of steps and into the next room. The bricks were then scuffed and well distressed, giving that patina of age, then covered with mortar, which was then scrubbed off, letting the residue settle for some texture. Several layers of polyurethane were then applied. 

Glorious. Do visit.

Then hit the thrift shops. Fake it till you make it. 

J. Brown & Company, 1119 King Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22314; 703-548-9010.

Green Acre #442: Going for Garlic


By Stephanie Cavanaugh

DESPITE THE blazing heat that says otherwise, we are headed into fall. Nice fresh breezes, a little nip in the morning and evening, not enough for the fireplace, maybe, but if you’re rushing the season you won’t be sloshing about in sweaty new boots much longer. 

It’s also one of the best, perhaps the best, time to plant perennials, with many favorites in bedraggled state on sale—they will revive—and the earth still warm so the plants’ little legs can reach down and wriggle about, getting settled and building strength to take off next spring.

It’s also time to divide overgrown plants, like hostas, daylilies, liriope, bee balm, and such. 

You can pretty much just yank them up, brush off the soil, and either cut the root apart with a sharp knife or pull apart the plant, making smaller clumps. Replant these, water them well, and you’ve doubled or tripled the size of your garden bed, for free. 

Then there are poppies to be planted, maybe. There seems to be a difference of opinion here, and I add no intelligence to the subject, having never managed to grow a single poppy since I started gardening 40 years ago. Or so. Give or take. But I’m always checking to see if I can find some miracle variety that will defeat my black poppy thumb. 

I love poppies. Those big bright heads with the big black eyes, a big bed of them bobbing about is mesmerizing and, if you’re headed for Oz, might be soporific. 

Now. Some say sow seed in spring, others say do it in the fall—the latter if you like to have an early spring crop. You can sow again in spring for a later display. A field of poppies! Sounds wonderful?

Nothing to it, they say. Just toss the seed, scratch it around the soil, and lightly water. Go to it Dorothy . . . poppies! Nothing. To. It.

It’s also time to consider next year’s crop of insects—and plant garlic, which not only dissuades ants, worms, stinkbugs, aphids, root maggots, carrot flies, and Japanese beetles (among other nasties) from nibbling at your fruit trees and flowers. It is also essential for warding off vampires, which are particularly troublesome in late October. 

Just find a nice big, firm, tasty head of garlic—a visit to a farmers market might be in order here. The bigger and more pungent the cloves the better: Their children will inherit the traits. Separate the bulbs and peel off the tough covering that surrounds each clove, leaving the papery skin on for protection. 

Plant 6 to 8 inches apart, cover with a couple of inches of soil topped with a light layer of straw or mulch.

In spring, coiled leaves will emerge. These are called garlic scapes. You need to cut these so the energy goes to bulb growth, not greenery, but they’re edible in salads and pesto. Meanwhile, the garlic heads are growing underground, getting fatter and yummier.

Dig the bulbs in mid-July, lay them out flat on something, and dry them in a dry spot. They cure in a couple of weeks. 

Eat and repeat. 

Green Acre #441: Fall Into Spring

An Akebono tulip from the Colorblends catalogue. On the front, Pink Cubed.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

THE MOST SPECTACULAR tulip display I ever saw was in front of a salmon-painted townhouse a few blocks from my home. 

A front garden, about 15 feet deep and about as wide (though interrupted by a sidewalk), was solidly inlaid with tulips the precise hue of the house. It was as if someone had taken a giant paint roller and had run it from the sidewalk to the house and then up to the rooftop. A breathtaking whoosh of color.

I did not return to see the petals fall, preferring to keep that glorious sight in my ever-mind. Stupidly, I took no photos, which would have been an aide to that ever-mind, which sometimes doesn’t last as long as I expect. 

I’m thinking of this while flipping through the new Colorblends catalogue, which found its way through the letterbox this afternoon. Last year I was a few weeks late— hey, it’s still summer—suggesting you buy bulbs now, not waiting for sweater weather. The best bulbs sell out fast! Or at least the bulb you’re particularly salivating over. 

The easiest way to achieve a carpet of tulips is to flip to page 70 of the catalogue, or click on the link, for the section called (and rightly so) BedSpreads

These collections, which seem intended for queen- and king-sized beds, blend four or more varieties with a range of bloom time, height, and color. 


Gamay,* for instance, includes six varieties of pink and purple tulips that begin blooming at the start of the season (around the time you see the first daffodils) and continue through late spring. Somewhere mid-spring the highs and lows, darks and lights, are all in bloom together for a splendid wave of color and texture. The assortment runs $250 for 600 bulbs, $912 for 2,400. 


Beaujolais* is a sweet mix of five varieties, a sweet combination of palest buttercup yellow and several shades of pink, all timed for a mid-spring blast. It’s a short run. Pow. Over and done. Yank the bulbs and plant your summer bloomers. $215 per 500 bulbs, $760 for 2,000. 

Have only a twin bed-sized space, or a crib? There are many more-modest singletons and collections, such as the enchanting Akebono, a semi-double pale yellow flower that has a bit of a rose blush on the outside petals. Just $22 for 25 bulbs. 

Pink Cubed

If you’re still into Barbie come next spring, Pink Cubed combines three gorgeous bloomers that start with the daffodils and last through spring. $42 for 100. 

Tulips may be the highlights of the Colorblends collections, but they also offer   daffodils, hyacinths, allium, and amaryllis. The company has been my go-to for the last few years, with breathtaking, well-priced, and well-described bulbs, and the staff is terrific. Shipments are made at the perfect planting time for your area, so you’re not stuffing bags of bulbs in the coat closet for a few months. If their slow arrival makes you nervous, call them. They’ll cheerfully give you a heads-up on when your bulbs should arrive. 

Now off to Costco for a little comparison-shopping. 

*BOTH Gamay and Beaujolais are already sold out. Dang it. I warned you. Maybe you’ll be besotted with something else . . .

Green Acre #440: And Now, a Barbie Garden


By Stephanie Cavanaugh

EXACTLY WHEN does mansplaining begin? Is it something guys are born to do, or is it learned? I’m going to posit that it starts when they begin to speak.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term (though, if you’re a woman, you’ve certainly experienced it), Webster defines mansplaining as, “explaining something to a woman in a condescending way that assumes she has no knowledge about the topic.” This usually goes on for a while, sometimes a very long while, in which the woman is expected to sit/stay, listen, and acknowledge the man’s rightness.

Case in point. The other day, my 3-year-old grandson, Wesley, was lecturing his mother, my daughter (also known as Baby), on the horrible mess she made of his books in his playroom. They were pulled from the shelf and left in heaps on the floor. He wanted to let her know, quite firmly, and exhaustively, why this was a terrible thing to do. It was a mess.

This tirade was performed without pause to let her explain that she was just organizing.

There’s a video, and it is very funny. It’s also alarming. Wes isn’t yet toilet-trained.

Have you seen the Barbie movie? It’s a hoot. I would suggest you not take your male person—go with a girlfriend. Not that guys shouldn’t see it, but they’ll sap the joy, the uninhibited laughter, that bursts from female viewers. Oh, does Greta Gerwig skewer the mansplainers—and trucks. I shall say no more.

It also needs to be seen on a big screen, the details are so delicious.

Once you’ve seen it, you’ll need a Barbie garden, one filled with pink flowers and sass. Perennials soft and sweet like roses and peonies. Add punch-drunk-annuals accents like zinnias and cosmos. Now insert something unexpected, like a flourish of grasses with fabulous pink plumage to perk up your patch.

I’d never heard of or seen Pink Muhly Grass until last year, first in endless pop-up online ads, and then in a garden near me, where the owners had planted it as a border in front of their townhouse: A fantastic mass of wispy-poof pink plumes, it looks like cotton candy. I had to have it, and much as Baby slapped my hands—Ma! It needs sun!—I bought a clump, which has done nothing, as expected. It’s alive, though. Barely.

Should you have sun, the grass grows to 3 or 4 feet and blooms from July through September. Or should, if you’re not me. Plant it now, if you’re a month from first frost.

Pink Pampas Grass is another sun lover, native to South America, that throws off gigantic, feathery pink plumes that range in shade from shy to shocking. Able to grow an inch a day, they say, it can also escape boundaries and smother its neighbors—so beware where you plant it. But what a screen it makes. One clump can expand to 8 feet wide and 12 feet tall. For pink flowers, look for the ones called Rosea and Pink Feather.

Redhead Fountain Grass sends out puffs of pink midsummer, before most grasses show off their plumage. Another full-sun lover, the flowerheads resemble liatris, the plant is drought tolerant, it grows to 3 or 4 feet, and the pink fades to silver over the winter, for year-round beauty.

Now, kick off your Manolos. It’s Cosmo time!

For a great tutorial on these and other ornamental grasses, click here.

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Green Acre #439: Bathe, Birdie, Bathe

The bird bath found on Facebook. There are variations of this do-it-yourself creation all over FB, Etsy, and elsewhere online. / Photo on front from iStock.By Stephanie Cavanaugh

MY FRIEND the illustrious architect and artist Judith Capen hates “one-of” ‘s: the last of a dozen wine glasses, a lonely platter, a single sconce shade. Or a hand-me-down that you shuffle about, and about. Sometimes there are three-ofs, which is honestly not much better. 

The Prince and I have many of these odd things, the detritus of a lifetime in one place. Things that are pretty, but also pretty useless. 

Toss them, she says. Yard-sale time. Or just kick them to the curb and let someone else say, Oooh pretty, and take them home to do nothing with for a decade or two. 

So, when I came across a bird bath on Facebook, constructed of such strays, I thought, Yes! I can do this.

It’s like Swedish Death Cleaning, getting rid of things you don’t need or use so those who are faced with your home after your sad demise are not saddled with the job. And, you’re not actually getting rid of anything! You’re repurposing. What a hoarder’s dream.

What we have here, in the photo above, from the ground up, is a colorful Moroccan-style candle holder. It’s set upside-down on a solid thing to give the structure stability. Sitting on top is a kind of bobèche, an amber glass “collar” that may have belonged to a chandelier. On top of that is a green water glass filled with clear glass marbles. Repeat with another bobèche and another water tumbler and one more bobèche atop that. Then a pie plate is set on a mosaic glass platter.

The whole thing is glued together, except for the pie plate—which we’ll get to—and, Voilà! A bird bath that would be at home in Wonderland. 

I know I have everything to create one—including a mirrored Moroccan-style candle holder. Also, some really sweet margarita glasses, pink with green stems, that I picked up somewhere years ago and have not used once. How could I let those go? And, I have enough plates and platters and unused vases and cups and saucers and bowls to take this to six feet, if I have enough glue. 

Though, one could start with a pan on a platter on a bowl (glass or pottery—metal could burn birdie footsies), possibly no glue, which would take about 12 seconds. 

Around now, and especially now, birds need water more than food. When it’s dry and hot, they’re frantic for a drink. Just set out a shallow bowl of water and see how they flock. 

If you’re fearful of mosquitos, which are particularly nasty this year, just change the water in the pie plate each day. This is why it’s not glued down: You lift and dump and fill each morning. Mosquitos prefer standing, turgid, disgusting water. Not the cool,  clear stuff. So, no issue. You get the joy of watching the birds splash about while you have a gin and tonic on the porch. 

And if the bird bath falls over and smashes to bits, pat yourself on the back for getting rid of things you weren’t using in the first place—and start on another.  


Green Acre #438: Fake News

The Cavanaugh manse from below. Are the blooms live or are they Memorex? (And for those who are even older: Which twin has the Toni?) / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

IT’S TIME once again to discuss the judicious use of fake flowers in the garden, pots, and window boxes. 

About now, you’ve thrown in the towel on seeing a blossom this season on the plumeria, the bird of paradise, or the hydrangea (bad pruning!). The peonies have developed a fuzzy rash and need to be lopped to the ground. Oh, that would be me, but you probably have a few sad-looking, or dead, plants. 

Maybe you went on vacation, bad you, and the gorgeous, lush, enchanting garden you left just a week or so ago gagged in thirst and collapsed in a sad tangle. 

Or, a raccoon demolished the herbs, your toddler made you a “bouquet,” or the next-door hound lifted his leg one too many times on the zinnias. 

These are not disasters! They’re opportunities to visit a Michaels or other craft store, or let your fingers do the walking around Amazon, and gather a clutch of absolutely indestructible artificial flowers and greens that owe their good looks and unnatural health to substances unknown in nature.

I revisit this subject every year because every year there’s another issue. Early on, there were the lilies—there was a little sun in the garden back then. The lilies would come up all pink and splendid and then the flowers would expire and I had a clump of green sticks to look at for the rest of the summer. 

Why I was moved to try wiring on some fakes is lost in the mists of time, but damn they looked good. So good that, most of the time, I even forgot they weren’t real. I’d remember only when a guest gasped in admiration at my brilliance: They’re growing so far past the season. HOW do you do it?!

Now, artificial flowers can be tacky. But there are ways to make them seem amusing, or très drôle. Saying anything in French provides an air of elegance, n’est-ce pas? Practice saying it while waving a bejeweled cigarette holder, cigarette not necessary.  

You want subtle. The flowers and greenery should look as natural as possible: no oddball colors or unnatural-looking leaves (strip these off!!). And keep the fakes to 10% or less of any border, planter, or box. When you weave those fine mystery-substance stems into a living arrangement the eye just assumes they’re real.  

For instance, my white Bird of Paradise (which is white in name only, since it refuses to flower) now has two flowers on a plant that bends under the porch ceiling (this variety grows to 30 feet, an event I did not anticipate when buying).  These are not the fabulous birds one see in the tropics, with their strong beaks and colorful plumage; they’re kind of thin and wimpy. One’s kind of pinkish, the other is orange. But! They look real because . . . really, who would choose fakes like these? 

(Baby found them somewhere for free and gifted them to me.)

My three second-floor window boxes are another story. Because they’re so high up, there’s no way of telling what’s fake and what isn’t. Multiple misfortunes decimated my accent plants this year, leaving me with (real) spikes in the center, sweet-potato vine in the front, and ivy on the edges. And two big gaps in each box. 

I planted the most deliciously salmon-colored fake-silk—NOT PLASTIC—geraniums, a Michaels find, in the gaps. Looking up at them, you’d never know it. These will last for years. Just make sure you remove them after Thanksgiving, when geraniums would normally not be in bloom.

If you love geraniums, as I do, you’ve possibly, probably, had issues with them midsummer. They don’t much like baking heat and won’t do much if any flowering, though the foliage will be fine. If you have them at eye level and want to goose them a bit, get a bunch of fakes, strip off the foliage (that’s always a giveaway), cut them apart, and poke just a few flowers amid the greenery. Stop. That’s quite enough. 

You can do this with other flowers as well: Just remember the 10% rule and keep them as natural-looking as possible. 

Meanwhile, my two lower window boxes have mostly done well—except for something I put in (I forget what now) that didn’t make it, leaving a patch of dirt doing nothing. For this I have a collection of faux greens, plastic in fact, though of a non-shiny variety and a subdued shade, that work well as a filler—and could also be used in tricky little naked garden spaces. 

You might call them garden toupées.  


Green Acre #437: Gardening by the Numbers


By Stephanie Cavanaugh

A. MARY, MARY, quite contrary, why won’t my flowers grow?

Q. Let us turn to Alexandra, mother of the Midsized Garden, a British site that I follow. After all, she writes with that authoritative accent that makes one sit up, listen, and obey. Daringly, I have taken liberties with her words, as I do, adding a little this and that, here and there, but here’s the gist.

The No. 1 reason for blooming failures is, she says, you’ve planted the plant in the wrong location. A sun lover in the shade, a shade lover in the sun, plants that like bogs set in clay as dry as Death Valley in August . . . and so forth. 

If you move it, it shall blossom. Sometimes it’s not even much of a move; a few inches over and all’s well. Of course, moving anything in late July is a fraught enterprise. But it can be done, as long as you promise to water faithfully and pray to Flora, the Roman Goddess of Flowers, lest Phthisis, the Greek personification of decay, rot, and putrefaction (the name even sounds nasty, like spitting. Try it), come calling.

You’ll have the most success with moving smaller plants during the height of summer—perhaps those you planted a couple of months ago. Just make sure they’re watered, and don’t go on vacation unless there’s a lot of rain in the forecast.

No. 2. Old plants. Eventually, all plants die; one can take that to the bank. But a seemingly young and healthy specimen might stop flowering, or flower stingily, after a few years. It needs to be dug, divided, and replanted. The bad news is you might not see flowers this season. The good news is, next year you’ll have several plants that (given you put them in the right location) will be primed to flower. 

If they’re nice and healthy, albeit not doing anything notable, wait for fall to do your dividing and planting. You don’t have to risk death, and the plants will have a head start for next year.

No. 3. Sowing seeds too late—and don’t I know this one. Annuals need 14 to 21 days to germinate, then 90 to 100 days of growth before they flower. Do the math, which I never do. I do have to stop doing this myself; planting seeds in July is just tossing money in the wind. 

For example, DO NOT try to grow cosmos in July. Even if they sprout, the chances of seeing a flower are about nil. Instead, see if they have some left at the garden center.

No. 4. Deadhead. Hurray! A remedy you can fearlessly apply right now.

As soon as a flower shrivels, nip it off. Alexandra says the reason flower-growers have such an abundance of blossoms is that they deadhead even before the flowers droop, so new ones are constantly taking their place. 

A minimum of three times a week with the snippers should do it. She does mention one nutcase who does it three times a day, though the results are said to be glorious. 

No. 5. Pruning flowering perennials at the wrong time can decimate a season’s growth.

Cut the rose too late (and too hard) in the spring, and gone are this year’s flowers. Hydrangeas are tricky beasts: Some flower on old wood, others on new, and messing about at the wrong time can mean disaster for the season.

A great hydrangea primer is here.

No. 6. Ah, a tricky one. Too much or too little fertilizer. Don’t assume that a lack of flowers is due to a lack of fertilizer: Sometimes it’s from too much. You might get voluminous growth and no blossoms. 

Finegardening.com explains it all….

And if all else fails, plant fakes. I’ve put off the subject once but really will tackle it next week, in my usual tasteful manner. 



Green Acre #436: A Garden to Fly For

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

COOPER MIGHT remember living in the greenhouse, flying over the jasmines, perching on the bird of paradise. Maybe not, after all she has a bird brain. 

Coop is a parakeet as white as a ghost, white as a sheet, as white as snow before the dogs pee all over it. We named her after Anderson Cooper. The whitest bird we’d ever seen, named after the whitest man imaginable. We thought she was a guy bird, and then found out she’s a chick. 

As I mentioned, Coop once lived in the greenhouse off my second-floor office, along with two other budgies, tragically lost. Don’t even ask. Then My Prince dismantled the greenhouse—that was well over a year ago, though we still have the idea of rebuilding bigger and grander. 

Coop was in mourning—or her buddies and her free-flying habitat—until we brought Bonnie home, named for my little sister because we brought him home on her birthday. Oh, yes. Bonnie is male. *

After an Internet search confirmed which plants are safe for birds, Bonnie (top) and Coop can enjoy a garden habitat of their own. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

They’re happy together, cuddling on branches, snuggling in the hollowed-out coconut house we’ve provided. It doesn’t seem possible, looking at them, that they could both fit in that small space, but there’s nothing much to birds but feathers. Try holding one, if you have a chance. Give it a little squeeze. They’re shockingly skinny. 

I saw a photo somewhere a couple of years ago of a fine Victorian cage from Thailand, I think. A huge, ornate thing, warm wood with brass bits and a cupola. I would like that, but unless I find one on the street or in a thrift shop, anything like it would set us back thousands. This is unlikely.  

Instead, the birds share a rather handsome black metal cage that in a bird’s view would be two stories, I suppose. A double-decker with a domed roof. Roomy enough for them to flutter about. We don’t let them out: When they occasionally sneak out they are nearly impossible to retrieve.

They like carrots, Edith Piaf, and being outside. Which is where I’m going with this . . .

Each morning I stock them up with food and water and roll the cage onto the back porch, pushing it tight to the rail so they can feel close to nature. They skitter about, cawing to their fellow birds, though they rarely visit, which seems strange and a little mean. While it often seems they don’t care a twig if we’re out there or not, they’ll chatter if I take the newspaper to the porch and become positively exuberant if we have guests. 

So. The other day I’m having my coffee and reading the paper at the porch table and I noticed the birds nibbling the leaves of the Rose of Sharon, which butts up against the railing. I could tell this was an ecstatic experience for them because their little beady eyes rolled back in their heads and you could practically hear the moans of pleasure.

I immediately yanked them away from the rail to consult the Internet on the safety of chewing the plant and lo—it was fine. Not only that, I came across a list of plants that are perfectly safe for birds to eat, which gave me the idea of creating a garden inside the cage for them, that I started forthwith. 

Filling a small Japanese vase (this just felt like an Asian thing) with florist’s foam and water, I jabbed in branches of the Rose of Sharon, which looked swell. The birds were put off by it at first but then seemed to enjoy the hide and seek-iness of the arrangement. 

Maybe I’ll hang some spider-plant babies from the top rails, and plant a bottom tray with hen-and-chick succulents, and a small Boston fern—or a bouquet of leaves. They say African violets, orchids, and roses are fine too, but I have a feeling the birds are going to find them too delicious, and replacements could get costly. 

A forest in the cage. Sometimes I impress myself. 

*Figuring out the sex of a parakeet is not tricky, but the bird has to be at least 6 months old to make a positive ID. That’s when the cere, or hard bit around the nostrils, turns blue for boys and brown for girls. When Coop and Bonnie came home, they were too young for us to tell. 


Green Acre #435: Nature’s Way

A mass of coneflowers is one highlight of this native garden. / Photo above and on the front by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

LAVENDER SPILLS onto the sidewalk, rudbeckia floats purple flowers above a sea of milkweed and goldenrod. Down a walk, the tiny, sweet faces of summer-blooming iris bobble amid a tangle of yarrow, peonies, black-eyed Susan, and liatris. 

Over it all flutter butterflies, bees, and less-pleasant ankle biters. That’s what a “native garden” will do for you—equal parts eye-popping beauty and . . . extreme itch. 

A woman ambles by. It’s a neighborhood treasure, she burbled. I walk by often.

The house and quarter-acre native garden, just outside Washington DC in suburban Virginia, is about to go on the market. I suggest spraying for mosquitoes before that happens. 

Another cascade of color in this Virginia garden, soon no doubt to be bulldozed by a developer. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

Baby about bit off my head. The bees! she yelled. Oh, right, save the bees. I have two ankles and can spare one. 

Baby and her mother-in-law are a team of two Realtor/developers who restore, rebuild, and build new houses. One rarely hears I-love-my-mother-in-law stories, but this is one. The two have been working together for years (they also get their nails done together). 

A couple of guys created this corner Eden and tended it for 15 years before selling and moving to Germany. I don’t know why, just reporting. It appears they’ve shared the bounty, since many of the homes that line the street sport similar, if far smaller-scaled plantings. There’s just so much!

However. Even I, an avid preservationist or pack rat, depending on your viewpoint, consider the little ranch house that accompanies the garden a tear-down. (Baby and the MIL decided to flip it when interest rates rose and the price of the project grew too steep.) While it would be fun to tart up if one (me) had to, going far out with design feels reckless when the price tag exceeds $800,000 and you have resale in mind.  

Built in the 1950s, the house is a tiny place, with a master bedroom that you could barely shoehorn a queen-size bed into and two other bedrooms that are even smaller. There’s zero architectural interest—a nicely redone galley kitchen, though. 

No! No! yells My Prince. I’m getting a lot of abuse today. 

It’s a middle-class home, the kind people sought after WWII, he insists, even getting a little teary over it. The kind of home where Mom’s in the kitchen, your 2.5 kids bike the quiet streets, Dad comes home, and dinner is at 5:30. Donna Reed! Father Knows Best! It’s wonderful, he says. Those were the days. Old coot.

A developer has shown interest before the house is officially on the market; he’ll tear it down and build a mini-mansion, like others going up in the neighborhood. Of that, I’m sure. 

The house won’t be missed (by me), but the garden, how tragic to let that go, and once again I’m sure it will be let go. That’s what developers do: plow under the plantings, they’re just in the way of progress. Such a nuisance, those pesky hydrangeas.

We’re here to save what we can—digging for treasures to cart off to our own homes. The ground is so well tilled and improved that the plants come up easily, roots intact. They’re all sun-lovers, so it’s a bonanza for Baby, whose large garden is nothing if not sunny.

Our haul will go to the Prince’s patches, along the alley fence behind our house and the tree boxes out front beside the curb. Our neighbors have volunteered their hoses and water bills, if not their backs, to the effort. It will be a community cutting garden, with masses of flowers for bouquets. 

Just watch your ankles.


Green Acre #434: Space Invaders

Look carefully: This may be the only blossom ever from this trumpet vine. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

IS IT TIME once again to discuss the judicious use of spray paint and fake flowers in the garden? 

Why, yes, it is!

Heat and lack of rain have been killers for some things (I wish, at the moment, it would kill the young mother across the alley cooing to her baby in the little blow-up pool; I hate baby talk). My two lower window boxes have been doing fine; the three upstairs are struggling. They’re under the house eaves so don’t get much rain, when rain there is. They also get too much sun, hard to believe when I spend so much time cursing the shade.

Oh, shut up, little mama, I will have to muzzle you. She sounds like a horse. A high-pitched whinny Huhuhuhuhuhhhhha every five seconds, I swear. 

We’ll save the fake plants and spray paint until next week because. . . . Suddenly breaking news . . .

Dateline: Washington DC, July 9, 2023, 8 am:

There is a flower on the orange trumpet vine. 

So far, this plant has been a supreme waste of invasive space. One flower in the decade since it was planted. Oh, it’s a lovely shade, though. I spent many minutes admiring it. Even getting my glasses so I could admire it more closely, dangling above the pond. Then I took a photo. It may be the only one we get, so memorializing it seems appropriate. 

I am queen of the invasives—arm-wrestle me for the title if you wish. There’s the trumpet and the white flower vine and the rose of Sharon and the vinca and honeysuckle and the never blooming wisteria, my prize, which flounces across the garage roof, and to which I’ve devoted a great deal of cyberspace in the 40—FORTY—years since it was planted. Stupid thing. My Prince was on the roof—the garage is freestanding and at the end of the garden—thwacking away at it the other day: The Kwanzan cherry’s branches are now a complete umbrella over the garden, reaching from the porch steps across the entire backyard, where it has become entangled with the vine.

Note: Forty years. Prince and his Irish skin. Brutal heat. Blazing sun. Black roof. I watch from the kitchen window, planning his funeral.  

Everything fights with everything for wall space in this garden. 

Speaking of which. Well, speaking of gardens, anyway. Have you thought of planting corn as an ornamental screen? I imagine not. 

We went to our first movie post-Covid yesterday, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,* co-starring the always delightful Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I love her sarcastic eyes. Out in time for dinner at Las Placitas, our favorite of the many Mexican (Salvadoran) restaurants in the neighborhood. They have tubs of corn plants outlining the patio that have actually corned, or whatever it is corn does.

These are not dracaena, the ornamental houseplants that are also called corn. These are the fruit-bearing—Wait! Is corn fruit? Well, on investigation, some call it a fruit, others a vegetable, and others a vehicle for butter. So, I guess we could say they fruited. 

Whichever, they looked very cool and tropical, in the context of margaritas and guacamole. I once suggested growing them to Baby, who in a previous house had a view that deserved screening and no money or patience to grow something tall and permanent for shielding.

She screwed up her perfect little nose. Corn? she snorted. 

However, corn is so easy to grow (I imagine. See wisteria). And it grows as high as an elephant‘s eye, they say**. It’s also interesting-looking, if not pretty, with its silky tops.

How does one do it, and when? It’s best to plant seed in full sun in April or May if you want to see cornlets, but you can start it now, in early July, if you’re just going for fast height and foliage.

Or buy the plants already started, Home Depot offers a six-pack for $5.98. You’ll quickly have a screen and you might see a corn.

*Antonio Banderas has third billing in the film in which he’s seen for about five minutes and is so grizzled he’s scarcely recognizable. Is that??? one says. Yep, one answers. The big question is WHY is he in this movie, on a fishing boat in Greece, for maybe five minutes. I can find no answer. 

** Rodgers and Hammerstein, who wrote Oklahoma!, whence originates “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” were both Jewish boys from Manhattan, meaning they had about as much knowledge of corn growing as . . . I do. 



Green Acre #433: Taking the Longwood View

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

I WAS GAWKING at the mammoth baskets of begonias dangling over a vast, perfectly green lawn and was nudged out of the way by a docent. 

She was giving a tour and I was in the way, though I’m not sure how. There’s plenty of elbow room under the glass dome of the Longwood Gardens Conservatory, in Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley, which encloses 4½ acres of flowers and palms, pools, fountains, and fanciful ironwork. 

We’re in the East Conservatory, one of twenty gardens within the structure and home to 5,500 types of plants, we’re told. Among the gardens there’s an orangery, an orchid house, a palm house, and a water garden. Flower lined paths lead from one to the next.

Most are accented by hanging baskets of flowers and ferns that are beyond imagining, including a 70-year-old rabbit’s-foot fern (Davallia fejeensis ‘Major’) that’s 9½ feet in diameter and weighs nearly 1,400 pounds, our guide said. My 6-foot-something Prince stands beneath it, and is dwarfed. Get OUT from under there!

I’m ecstatic when I can hold over a Boston fern from one year to the next, always a pathetic sight by April, and its continued existence a real cliff hanger.  

How do they water these suckers, I’m wondering, imagining some high-tech system like the ones they use at Safeway to water the veggies, where sudden mists drift over the cauliflower and fog one’s glasses. 

They use hoses, the docent said, pointing to a small metal cap in the walkway. This pops open, and the gardeners pull out a hose. The baskets are lowered for watering. With a hose? 

In all my visits, I’ve never seen anyone working here, said one listener. 

The crew arrives at 6am, the docent tells him. They fluff and fix and water until the doors open at 11am.

This is not the only greenhouse in the 1,077-acre park. Another is set aside for growing and nurturing the plants. If any are misbehaving on the grounds, they can be swooped up and replaced. 

Extra plants, by the way, are offered for sale (rather pricily, but what price perfection?) in the gift shop, along with hats and seeds and books and gifts.

Longwood Gardens, in very brief, was created by the grandsons of a Quaker farmer named George Peirce. They carved a 15-acre arboretum from the 402-acre farm, for their collection of trees and plants that by 1850 was one of the finest in the nation.

In 1906 businessman and philanthropist Pierre duPont bought the land as a personal retreat, opening it to the public in 1921, and created the Longwood Foundation for its future management. From there it grew. 

Today, it is one of the finest, and largest, botanic gardens in the world. 

A flower walk off the administration building is lined with seasonal displays; this opens out to other gardens other moods. One minute you’re waltzing through Paris, shaded by an allée of trees. Over a hedge is England, and a topiary fantasy.  Over here, an immense Italian Water Garden with touches of Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s retreat. Wander farther and you enter a Wyeth painting, The Meadow, spiked with wildflowers and grasses. There’s nothing to be heard but songbirds and crickets and the soft rustle of breezed leaves. 

There are also magnificent fountains, whole gardens of them, and light shows, and special events throughout the year, but especially at Christmas. Human food and watering are offered at three cafes, and there’s a picnic area if you pack your own. 

It helps to visit on a Thursday, which we did. While I suppose there were plenty of visitors that day, they were swallowed by the immense space. Minutes go by without seeing another soul. Weekends, while still pleasurable, can get hectic.

The wonderful thing, said Baby, who played hooky with us for the day, is that there’s little here that’s out of reach. 

If you’re a connoisseur of such, there are plenty of exotic plants to be seen, though in their most common form they’re familiar to even the most casual gardener (see:  begonia). But the colors and textures are so artfully combined, enchantingly mixed, it’s a brilliant lesson in garden design that could entice even a beginner to get down in the dirt. 


Longwood Gardens 1001 Longwood Road, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Open Sunday, Monday, Wednesday 10am–6pm; Thursday, Friday, Saturday 10am–10pm.
Closed Tuesdays. Ticket prices, click here.


Green Acre #432: Garden Remedies From the Kitchen


By Stephanie Cavanaugh

ON THE EIGHTH day, the Lord sayeth, My jungles appear withered, the hibiscus hath ceased its bloom. With a firm hand He reached for the Miracle-Gro™ and seeded the clouds, which drenched the greens, and lo! the flowers burst forth in multitudes. And the Lord looked upon his work, and it was good. 

You don’t really think they fertilize the jungles with Miracle-Gro, do you? I’m certain you don’t. 

Jungles grow quite happily without interference from manufactured fertilizers, though I’m only now giving this serious consideration.

The storms that promise to blow through this afternoon and tomorrow are perfectly timed for an early summer bout of fertilizing, bringing the wished-for bumper crop of flowers. 

However, this morning I found myself searching fruitlessly for my jar of Jack’s Classic Blossom Booster. This plant elixir came highly recommended on some website or other, promising bananas, hibiscus, and other tropical plants growing to vast scale and heaving off flowers the size of Aunt Ruthie’s poitrine, which was very generous. 

I assess no blame for the missing stuff, though it wasn’t my saw, leaf-blower, stash of bike parts etc. that have no business in my potting area. (Condemning the little foibles of others is not my thing). 

My tetanus shots are up to date. Just saying. 

Anyway, the missing Jack’s (and several other potions) got me to thinking about God and jungles and what else I could use on my plants that’s around the house and doesn’t require Amazon or a trip to the garden center.

While several sites caution that home brews don’t work with the dazzling speed, or promise of such, of prepared plant foods, they are cheap, safe, and will gradually improve your soil, flowers, vegetables, and fruits. Specifics are in the links.

The Magic Potion. Per home-improvement guru Bob Vila, a mix of Epsom salt, baking soda, and (just a touch of) household ammonia will boost leaf growth, ward off a host of blights, and promote healthy roots. Easy to mix and costing just pennies, the mixture, he says, works brilliantly on most plants.

Coffee grounds. Acid soil lovers like azaleas, hydrangeas, blueberries, and lilies thrive on a sprinkling of fresh coffee grounds. It makes a nice mulch too. According to gardeningknowhow.com, coffee grounds will also keep slugs and snails away—and keep the cat out of the flower bed. Cats don’t like coffee. There was no mention of dogs.

Bananas. Wisconsin is into bananas as well as cheese, it seems. Wisconsinpollinators.com suggests chopping the bananas up and burying them in the garden or in flower pots. As they decompose they release potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and various minerals, all of which make plants happy. You can also dry the skins, then grind them in a processor or coffee grinder and bury them directly in the garden.*  

Eggs.  Adding whole eggs to the garden sounds like a rotten idea. In fact, eggs’ nutrients are in the shells. Crush them and mix with soil for an organic fertilizer that balances the pH and boosts calcium. As a bonus, wild birds are attracted to the shells too.  

 Fish water. Aquarium water accumulates nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and ammonia, plus beneficial micro-organisms; same goes for fish ponds. The nutrients are already diluted and can be added directly to indoor and outdoor plants. If you eat canned tuna, sardines, and salmon, the left-over juice they float about in is nutrient-rich: Add it to your watering can. If you can stand the smell. Also, this may attract cats. 

Vegetable water. Don’t dump the water from steamed and boiled veggies: It’s a fine source of nitrogen, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Cool it down and use it on house and garden plants for a free boost. 

* My Prince stuffs the peels from his morning bananas in a jug of water, which becomes infused with nutrients. He scoffed that I’m even mentioning this since when I use it, I never top up the water after dumping it on plants. This is correct! He does it so much better than I do.


Green Acre #431: Rolling in (Shades of) Green

A shady garden, with some color (thank you, caladiums, right forefront) around the edges. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

YET AGAIN this year, I will not be seeing any semblance of Versailles from the back porch steps. For all my planning and dreaming and finger-crossing and spitting (to ward off the evil eye), my shady garden is, once again, what it is. A spattering of successes drenched in a rain of errors. 

And we started out so well this year.

In times like these I turn to Henry Mitchell, a ray of light. The dearly departed Washington Post columnist always mixed advice with humor and bits of life from his own city patch. 

Like me, he had what he called a “cat run,” typical of city gardens. A narrow yard about 40 by 100 feet, possessing no inherent charm, just that which he managed to create. 

Unlike me, he dwells on the positive.

In a chapter on summer, from The Essential Earthman, Mitchell says of this point in the year (or inches from it), “There is a brief time in July when the gardener has nothing to do but enjoy his flowers,” calling it “a time of leisure.”  

Hoo-hah, I say. My mood is as dark as my garden.

Phyllis, the 20-year-old mophead hydrangea, always a reliable beauty that announces the beginning of the left border, went into cardiac arrest last fall, for no reason I could figure. She’s coming back, but there’ll be no flowers this year,  another green thing doing nothing. 

When you garden in the shade there are many green things. Ferns, of course, and ivy, philodendron, palms, monstera, and elephant ears among them. I do enjoy the shades of green, the mix of textures, but . . .

Completely lost is the mock orange that, for years, blossomed by the pond. We have others, but this was the only one that had a scent. And what a scent it was! 

Another elderly mock orange, by the back porch rail, decided not to bloom at all. It’s right next to the Don Juan climbing rose, which normally reaches the second floor, ravishing in sight and perfume. 

The pittosporum, a 3-year-old, still has no sign of flowers—which should be clusters of creamy white and intensely orange-scented. It’s healthy enough. And green. Sigh. 

My kiwi has grown into a small tree. It was in fragrant bloom when I bought it, about six years ago, but nothing since. 

I’m still waiting, praying, that this will be the year that the plumeria will finally bloom along with my little collection of birds of paradise. 

When you have so little space, every failure or delay feels like a disaster, and when July rolls around there’s little to be done about it. 

O! where is the color of yesteryear?

Thankfully, I dumped a bunch of caladium bulbs into a tub in late April. They’re beginning to emerge and can fill in the dead spots. Such lovely soft leaves and mellow shade of pink, large enough to have some impact. You can, maybe, still buy some already up and potted. 

My two rose of Sharon plants have grown into small trees; one is white with red centers, the other pale purple. They just began to flower the other day, eye candy. 

The Meyer lemons are (relatively) spectacular this year. One has three lemonettes—a bumper crop!—they should be ripe in December or January, if the squirrels don’t get them. Three lemons is enough for three tarts! The other, brought back from Florida this past January and nursed along indoors, was full of blossoms last week. The flowers fell off, as they do, revealing little fruit nubbins. Dare I hope for fruit, or will they frizzle? 

The hibiscus is full and showing a few buds, Alice (my white hydrangea) is a mountain of snow, the jasmines are blooming, the anthurium is covered with heart-shaped flowers, and the mandevilla’s velvety pink blossoms are flourishing on the porch railing. 

Never mind. I’m gonna sit back and enjoy what I have. Thanks, Henry. 


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Green Acre #430: Curse of the Black Walnut


By Stephanie Cavanaugh

Q: I HAVE A black walnut tree in my small backyard and can’t get anything to grow anywhere near it. Could it be cursed? 

A: No. No, it’s not cursed. It’s a black walnut. A beautiful tree with magnificent wood and delicious nuts, BUT . . .

I’m glad black walnuts were not on my radar when we needed a tree in the backyard. We were in an angry mood, my Prince and I, when we went tree-shopping. This is not the best way to buy something that would be with us for decades. Possibly you know that.

See, we had these townhouses that went up behind our home in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington DC. Four stories tall, blocking the previous view from the back porch of nothing but sky, an invasion of privacy—theirs and ours. 

(I could say something here about the congressman’s wife who left her bedroom blinds up while dressing, but I won’t. We had a nice clear, pornographic view.)

Packing our umbrage into the truck, we headed for Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville, Maryland, which tends to many of our whims and fantasies. 

We want a beautiful tree that will grow fast. Fast. We need to hide a terrible view, we (meaning I) said. And, we want our privacy back. Now. 

So, we loaded a 12-foot Kwanzan cherry with a root ball the size of a Mini Cooper into the truck and tootled home. With the help of several neighbors, it was hauled into the garden. As promised, it grew fast and fabulously: 15 years later it’s 30 feet tall with a 15-foot canopy.

I suspect the giant neighborhood black walnuts had a similar genesis. Probably planted in the 1970s when the neighborhood had a lot of do-it-yourselfers with a Peace Corps/hippie aesthetic; one can imagine the gleam in the eyes of the planters. Not only would they hide unsightly neighbors, but there would also be free nuts, and the wood could be used for kidney-shaped coffee tables and kitchen counters and such. Tools were amassed. 

The trees still stand, untouched by ax or saw. 

Some years ago I wrote about Ken Jarboe, a neighbor who bought a townhouse near the Marine Barracks with a backyard filled with nothing but clay soil and weeds. But for a massive black walnut tree, it was a blank canvas. 

Envisioning a Japanese garden, he added three cherry trees, a dogwood, and a meandering white stone path, “for a river effect,” he told me. 

Everything died—except the black walnut, which has a lifespan of 250 years, give or take a decade. 

The tree weeps a substance called juglone, which is toxic to most other plants in its vicinity. While its russet-colored sap is useful in hair and clothing dyes and wood stain, juglone dripped along that white stone path made it look like “a smoker’s teeth,” said Jarboe. “Instead of a nice river effect, it’s the Anacostia River on a bad day,” he added.

Gardening pro Melinda Myers suggests not putting susceptible plants within 50 feet of the tree. And make sure you account for the tree’s rapid growth (about a foot a year), and eventual height of 120 feet and 50 foot width.  

That goes for your neighbor’s tree as well, which Maggie Hall and her husband, Gary Humfelt, found out when nothing grew beneath the branches of the enormous tree next door (which had taken root inside a garage and was allowed to grow right through the roof, “which made the garage pretty useless as a garage,” she told me). 

“We loved it because it was handsome and provided widespread shade over our yard in the brutal heat of a DC summer,” she said. “But we hated it because it poisoned the soil.”

After several years of struggle, and many expensive floral failures, they discovered the black walnut was the culprit. “The only plant that survived the ravages of the poison were begonias. Not that they exactly flourished,” she said.

Among the plants that should limp along beneath the mighty canopy, are squills and snowdrops, for an early spring show, says Myers. For summer through fall, hosta, lungwort, Solomon’s seal, and Canadian ginger are known to be tolerant as well. 

Forget removing the tree and cultivating roses. “The juglone remains in the soil until the roots, nuts, and leaves totally decompose,” she says.

One more thing. Forget relaxing in the tree’s generous shade as the nuts ripen. They’re hard, heavy and fall off the tree with “such an extraordinary force that the only way to safely spend time in the yard,” said Maggie Hall, “is by sporting a crash helmet.”


Green Acre #429: Going to Pot in the Garden

iStock photo.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

THE BEAUTY of gardening in pots is that the plants can be moved. 

Disaster with the asters? Drop a pot in the spot. (That clever wordplay was accidental, by the way). 

Not sure where to stick a little bush? If it’s in a pot you can move it about until it says, Yes! I love it here!

Have a clutch of bulbs of who-knows-what color and afraid of a clash? Stick them in pots until they flower. (You can, by the way, overplant bulbs with something pretty; the bulbs will grow up through whatever’s above.)   

Sad story. That hollyhock I bought with such hope a couple of weeks ago drooped in misery. I suspected this would happen, given my shady habitat, but bravely I forged forth. I did see a blossom, one sweet pink flower, and that was it. It’s in a pot, so can easily be dumped in the trash.  

This is another pot point. When you want something that you know will not work, treat it as you would a bunch of cut flowers. You know those won’t give you more than a week or so of pleasure, but you buy them anyway. So you buy a plant you crave for color or memory or some such and when it flops, out it goes. 

It’s tough, I know. Some people, like My Prince, hate my disposable attitude. But should you have a friend who loves to resuscitate the mortally ill, you can pass the wretched thing along. 

There’s been a photo over my desk, on the board I keep for such things, reminders of I WANT (as if I need to be reminded). The photo has been there for years, and as it often happens (for me) some semblance of it comes to life, eventually. In this case it’s a garden heavily shaded by a tree of some sort, beneath it are greens—ferns and shrubs and hydrangeas that appreciate a somewhat gloomy life. Scattered about are several beautifully painted pots, lofting more ferns and shrubs, giving the space levels where there had been none. The vivid colors also serve as flowers where flowers don’t care to bloom. 

My point being, you don’t always need blooming plants to create a brilliantly colorful space. Paint a pair of chairs Chinese red, add a table with a mosaic top. Portuguese, Chinese, and Mexican pots are a riot of color and pattern. The French have such a way with blue.  I’ve always wanted a Balinese umbrella, one with lots of fringes and a little cupola on top.  That alone could take the place of a garden of roses. No deadheading necessary. 

Broken pots, though—I know these have become a thing. But once you’ve seen that thing for the 45th time, it’s time to try something new. 

On the other hand, pots that are broken and set upright can be charming in almost any setting. Most of ours have been found on sidewalks, foundlings. We have a wealth of fusspots in this neighborhood who toss their whatnots when they show a ding, or are just ready for a replacement.  

Such discoveries are so much more rewarding than (depending on the girth of your wallet) logging onto Amazon or Frontgate and whipping out a credit card. 

Green Acre #428: Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

One of the mixed borders at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh. / On the front: giant alliums. iStock photo.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

BIKINIS IN JANUARY have never made sense to me. I have zero interest in summer clothing (cruise wear—is
it still called that?) when I’m hunkered down in down.

On the other hand, it makes total sense to focus on gardens in January, though digging and planting and mulching are months away. There’s so much planning to do, much of it misbegotten—but there’s plenty of time for revisions before you make real (read: expensive) mistakes. 

 Ah . . . daydreaming about roses and such is so lovely when you’re sitting in front of a fireplace, or a TV set displaying a video of a fireplace.  Magazines that feature gardens: elegant, cottagey, one color, 100 colors . . . Rev those gray cells for spring!

Beginning in January, we anticipated a glut of gardening in the pages of top design magazines like House Beautiful, Architectural Digest (AD), and Elle Décor. Alas, months passed, warm weather approached, the fingers itched for dirt, the brain for inspiration, and there was little to be found. Even magazines dedicated to gardening, such as Flower, were focused on table settings and flower arrangements. 

So, June springs forth and what do we have? A whole lot of interiors painted beige. Beige, see, appears to be the new gray. Not only are there no flowers or gardens in these magazines, there’s little color. The words austere and boring come to mind. 

Thank god for RuPaul’s shoe collection in AD, a two-page symphony of hot pink, hot red, cool turquoise, and metallic gold. All with spike heels and platform soles to give his 6’4” frame a lift. 

In a break from beige, RuPaul’s house is mostly white walls and black trim with bursts of primary colors in the furnishings. I could live here.

But where’s the garden? Maybe there isn’t one. No, in a photo of the pool (white walls, black and white cushions) a landscape architect is credited, though there’s nothing to be seen of his work besides some greenery sprawled over a wall. Nice pool, though.

Though they do a fine job of covering gardens online, Veranda alone nods to the season with a flower-filled solarium on the May/June cover of the magazine, and a handful of features that include short takes on exceptional spreads—great ideas for those who happen to have, for instance, 250-foot borders flanking the path to the chateau.

There are also several gardens that feature a pleasing eclecticism, mixing formal and informal plantings, such as the prairie garden in England that features a mix of ornamental grasses and wildflowers. Another idea: keeping plantings neat and orderly near the house and increasingly loose and wild as you approach the forest. This does hinge on having a forest. 

Then there’s a pet peeve of a trend which I’m happy to see so I can rail about it. Ceramic sculptures that climb walls. The spread in Veranda features branches of foxgloves, poppies, hyacinth and such. Created by London-based artist Kaori Tatebayashi, these are “precisely wrought” replicas in “ethereal unglazed white stoneware.” They’re intended to cover a wall, like 3-D wallpaper.

Imagine the dust! The ick! How do you clean them

On the other hand, it won’t be long until they’re beige.