Home & Design

Green Acre #21: Of Mice and Woman


Photo above and on the front, iStock.




This Green Acre column was first published on September 14, 2016. We’re rerunning it this week to give LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” a week off.

IF YOU’RE SQUEAMISH about mice you can stop reading now. I am rather fond of them. Indeed, consider them near-pets. Such fluffy little bits they are, with their wriggly pink noses. So unlike the termites and ants that are the antithesis of cuddly.

Have you ever seen a stuffed termite?

Also. Did you know cob webs are made by spiders? The Prince told me this, though I find it hard to believe, even after Googling it. I do not consider spiders pets either.

We do have a grand-dog, Tallula. She’s a mix of Plott Hound and lab, in other words a very large brown mutt, who visits for a week or so each year, when Baby and her Personal Prince Pete are off to some covetable place or other. But she is not a regular tenant.

Ah, mice.

Throughout the summer they are busy elsewhere, possibly Vermont. Now, suddenly they’re back and rummaging about, getting settled in their little niches and crevices for the colder weather that will soon be arriving.

Hullo! I say. Welcome home!

I particularly enjoy their company on wintry evenings, bundled under my down quilt, fire crackling, nose to book. Such happy little things they sound, rustling about the candy wrappers that sometimes find their way to the floor beside the bed, intermingled with the rumpled pages of six-month-old copies of The New Yorker, a toppled tower of paperbacks, and a dusty sock, or two.

We have several that romp around downstairs as well, most frequently in the kitchen, where they skitter across the counters when the lights are out and we’re immersed in something cultural on TV, like “Survivor” or “Dancing With the Stars.” They are usually unnoticed except for our occasional need for refreshment.

If I have pause, it is only on the occasions when we have guests and I notice one or several flitting across the room, which always surprises me since they tend to be so shy. Admittedly it is a behavioral issue that needs addressing. Should they survive The Prince, we will work on it.

Last year, having tried with no success the poison and the snappish trap, he laid in a supply of glue traps, devices that fill me with such disgust, I can’t tell you. While there are several, perhaps even more than several, people whom I would enjoy seeing stuck to such things, chewing their feet off to get free, I cannot countenance doing so to our plump little friends.

The Prince dealt these disgusting traps like cards around the house, no doubt chuckling to himself as he went. Behind the sofa went several, more were dropped behind the bed, behind the stove, under the kitchen counters, and around the basement.

That time, the only thing that was caught was my foot, clad in a pale pink sneaker that had been purchased in a dreadfully chic Georgetown shoe shop with pink and white striped walls and black chandeliers and shoes racked on glass shelving to reveal their red soles. French they were, these sneakers, and terrifically expensive, at least originally. I pulled them out of the bargain basket next to the front door. I felt so . . . Bardot padding about in them, even if they had absolutely no arch support and the little metal things around the eye-holes came quickly detached.

OUT! Went the traps.

His most recent announcement, of a few days past, is that the health department would shut us down were we a restaurant.  Now really. Does he honestly believe that these sweet little creatures are any dirtier than Lula (as she’s called for short), who lolls around in mud puddles with her filthy tennis balls, licks her rump with a tongue coated in god knows what, and then plants that tongue on his face?

Back again came the glue traps, the only thing that works, he claims. I told him FINE then, but if any of our mice are caught YOU will handle the SITUATION.

And this morning I hauled him out of bed at 6am to do just that. For there, on the kitchen counter, was a sweet little mouse SCREAMING for help.

He was displeased. I was more so. I told him I’d rather he go buy a tiny gun that he could put to the mouse’s tiny head and—pow.  But this torture on torture?

Later this morning, while dusting up because Margot is coming to dinner—she’s German and therefore does not appreciate concepts like A Little Dust Makes for an Interesting Woman—my Swiffer got caught in a trap under the dishwasher (where there should be a bottom panel but I assess no blame for its absence). I found another trap tangled in the fringe of my mohair throw, which was artfully draped over the arm of the living room wing chair.

This is neither here nor there, I’m just saying.

And then I was on the Internet trying to find out how to clean my computer mouse, which has gotten fidgety, and I tripped across instructions for FREEING A MOUSE FROM A GLUE TRAP.

Is this not fate? I’m almost eager now to trap one just so I can free it.

Anyway, all you need to do is coat the mouse and the trap with a little oil, being careful not to drown the mouse, “NEVER USE ANY KIND OF PETROLEUM, SYNTHETIC OR LUBRICATING OIL . . . and do not submerge the mouse’s mouth and nose in the oil,” the instructions stress. I love instructions.

If the mouse has gotten really stuck, you might have to poke it a bit, but use something well padded because he or she is probably pissed off—even if you had nothing to do with its predicament—and might nip.

Now place the oily mouse on its oily trap into a plastic container with a lid and “lock it down” because the mouse will work its way free in a few minutes and leap for the safety of behind the stove.

They suggest driving the mouse to a place far away, at least a mile, otherwise it will come right back. A fairly ridiculous suggestion in the middle of a city.

Personally, I would make the gesture of releasing it into the garden* where it might consider partaking of the hospitality of one of our neighbors. I might even point out a promising direction or two.

* See how cleverly I managed to insert the garden into this column, which is theoretically about gardening?

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie is working on a book about urban gardening. Perhaps she will even write  about gardening in her next column. To see earlier columns, type Green Acre into the Search box at the top right of the page.

Green Acre #66: How Does My Ugly Garden Grow?

WE’RE HEADING INTO late summer, and everything that’s going to be in bloom either is or was or is about to be.

Among those that are not are the gardens that give one (meaning me) pause to think: What on earth were they thinking?

I featured one such some months ago; here are a few more that tempt one (me again) to bang on the doors, or lurk about waiting for the inhabitants to emerge, and then say, in wide-eyed, startled and ever so innocently curious fashion: This is quite a sight, what is your theme?

But one is fearful, very fearful.

For instance there is . . . .

The Penitentiary

This house must harbor people who do not like to garden, do not like outdoor work at all, do not like . . . the color green? / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

The less said about this garden the better, but I will try. A fringe of green (which qualifies it as a garden) makes a valiant effort along the perimeters of a chain-link fence that defines perhaps the least welcoming entry of any home on DC’s Capitol Hill.

Perhaps the residents consider it a carefree patio. Swept free of debris and leaf (difficult to do considering the trees that line the broad avenue it faces) and so neatly bricked from steps to stoop that chairs and tables would sit perfectly steady, with no need of a matchbook or wadded gum to prop uneven legs and keep the coffee from sloshing. That is, if there were furniture, which there never is.

The thought blossoms: What anger led to this? Consider the effort to upend and flatten the soil, the tedium of laying brick against brick against brick. This cannot be a happy place.

The house is occupied, the gate is ajar today. Someone is breathing behind the tinny slam of the storm door.


A Double Whammy

Hard to know what the concept here once was. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

Where does one start with this?

Clearly, someone had a concept. A patio? Perhaps a plaza? There’s a centerpiece of raised bricks, a surround for a dramatic focal point—in this case an artificial shrub. I cannot tell what material it is—it’s kind of papery, with a little sheen. But its importance to the tableau is indicated by the brick pedestal on which it sits and is underscored by the gaily striped chain that fends off prospective thieves. Slightly northeast of the urn in which the “plant” is displayed is a gray plastic elephant sitting back on its haunches. It appears to be braying. This is possibly the home of Republicans.

I like the pink ball pushed back under the front porch. In design circles this is known as a group of three and provides an imbalanced balance, you see. No? Perhaps a future column will deal with it.

In one of life’s happy little coincidences, the next-door neighbors have installed lush green plastic carpeting up their front steps. The result being that if you’re standing in front of these two houses, you just don’t know what to look away from first.

Is It Coming . . . or Going?

That lonely red tulip in the rear left proves that someone once thought of this as a garden . . . with flowers. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

One day, some months back, I was loitering on a corner waiting for a friend and, looking without looking, I realized that my eyeballs were being assaulted by a dirt patch that obviously, at some point, had been attended to—and at some point later was not.

Notice the sad red tulip standing singularly in the far left corner. Follow the flagstone walk to where the daffodils, their foliage mingling with some valiant weeds, have given up blooming. If you’ve ever raised daffodils you know that’s nearly as impossible as eradicating dandelions (though why you’d want to eradicate the latter, I don’t know. Cheery harbingers of spring, I say! And then they turn into that fuzzy fairy fluff that you make a wish and blow on. Wow. I suddenly realized, even dandelions don’t want to live here).

And that white box sticking up from the dirt in the foreground sure is . . . white. Well, dirty white. Such a tastefully subdued shade of white. Yes?

Meanwhile, the black rope that is coiling snakelike around the border appears to be a vestigial watering system. At least I hope it is.

There are lights installed should you wish to have a clear view at night.

Putting the Fun in Funerals

One wonders what is *not* in this “garden display.” / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

Then there is a complete mystery that I’ve saved as the grand finale, since it appears to feature a bier, which it might well be.

This arrangement was begun a decade or so ago, perhaps in celebration of Saturnalia, since it materialized just before Christmas but is hardly jolly. A street tree in front of a typical row house, just a few blocks from mine, was draped in a jumbled collection of multi-colored flashing lights that appeared to have been dropped from a great height and left where they landed, some coiled, some stretched.

The holidays came and went, but the lights remained.  A rectangular construction was added, surrounding the tree box—four horizontal metal poles with ball finials atop each end post. Just the sort of construction one would expect to prop up a coffin. Painted chalk-white, it contained—or rather, restrained—an eccentric collection of artifacts that included miscellaneous statuary, Mardi Gras beads, shiny Christmas balls and unpleasant-looking greenery. Over the years this sidewalk display expanded to include a ceremonial arch, bridging the air space between the tree and the front yard, which was itself embraced by chalky painted chain link and festooned with pin wheels, more beads, vines, lights, barbells, silver plastic sheeting draped like bunting, and several American flags rippling bravely above. Oh yes, and a Beware of the Dog sign.

At some point, a seven-foot tower of red-and-white-painted PVC pipes was erected, with a planter atop spewing caladium and dripping a snarling undercurtain* of morning glory and moonflower vines.

An ever-growing tangle of solar panels ensures that it all stays eternally aflame.

Here’s the approach to the Garden As Funeral Home, complete with an arch linking the front yard to the street tree with its embellished tree box. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

This spring the assemblage inspired a tree box fronting the adjacent house; it features doll’s heads and wind chimes in addition to the lights, etc. It’s growing. Like mold.

What is all this stuff? What does it mean? Methinks someone has been doing some serious tripping for a very long time.

The neighbors next door to these two, with their pretty little gardens and tasteful arrays of flowers, must be right pleased.

*Undercurtain, spell check tells me, is not a word. But shouldn’t it be?

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie writes about city gardens lovely and not so. You can read earlier columns by typing Green Acre into the search box at the top of the page.

Green Acre #65: Guests in the Garden

Illustration here, below and on the front by Edward Huse / www.edhuse.com.

“DID YOU HEAR a thump?” My Prince yells upstairs to me from the kitchen, where he’s washing the dinner dishes (he’d vacuum them if he could).*

“Yes,” I yell back from my desk, where I’m industriously playing Level 2034 of Candy Crush (eat your hearts out, Candy Crush freaks). In fact the thump was large enough to disrupt my concentration, leaving me with two jellies after 96 tries.

The empty house next door is being renovated so I immediately suspect a break-in, someone clambering over the wall

between the properties and envisioning My Prince heading off to do battle with a wooden spoon, his weapon of choice—he once dispatched a would-be mugger with one, though that was years ago, before our neighborhood became home to $1,000 baby buggies and nannies warbling to their wee charges in Mandarin Chinese.

I leap up and run five feet onto my porch (I don’t do marathons) and gaze down into the garden as The Prince gallops upstairs with a flashlight. A raccoon is sitting on the lower porch roof, licking its paw and not in the least disconcerted by the light’s beam. He (or she) ambles to the edge and slips down, landing with a soft thud on the sofa below.

The Prince races downstairs again, muttering about his fish pond, and I follow less recklessly.

“There are two,” he calls from the garden steps. “A little one and a big one and they’re just sitting here staring at me like,  ‘Got something to eat, buddy?’ Someone must be feeding them.”

Which, truthfully, occurred to me. What would they like, I was just asking myself. Cat food? I could get them little bowls for water and food.

But the look on my beloved’s face dissuaded me from such a notion (at least while he’s around).

The next morning, there were little paw prints all over one of the porch sofas. Did I tell you I keep them heaped with white pillows? Make yourselves at home, little bandits, I trust you had a nice rest.

We used to have an opossum visit nightly, sitting on the wall between our house and the neighbor’s li

Illustration here, above and on the front by Edward Huse / www.edhuse.com.

ke the Cheshire Cat, eyes catching the light in a gaze neither welcoming nor offputting, just strange. I liked having him there, though he turned out to be a she, giving birth under the porch (much goes on with our porches) to a whole litter of baby possums. I found it adorable and was thinking of how charming it would be to have a dinner party with a line of them sitting on the wall staring down at our guests. Those opalescent eyes.

The Prince, however, called animal control and was advised to put a pan of ammonia near their nest. Mama picked up each chick or cub or what-have-you by the scruff and took them away, I have no clue where.

We had a cat for a while, even though neither of us is a cat person. In fact The Prince sneezes at the sight of one.

I had been slipping food to a scrawny kitten that was being neglected by neighbors, when one day I noticed this moth-eaten orange cat, chowing down at the kitten’s bowl out back.

The cat was orange and we called him Orange. Once, when he stole into the house, he went into the Prince’s closet and peed in his shoes, then sprayed his . . . essence . . . about like a fire hose. He was not a house cat. We called a vet who said he’s no doubt feral and to stop him from spraying he’d have to be neutered but was unlikely to put up with the recovery, for various reasons.

Day after day he’d return. At first he’d skitter away when I came close, but gradually, by ignoring him and just talking to myself about this and that, he became used to my presence.

Then I took to sitting on the ground near him and just chatting. He’d twitch his ears some and eye me askance but didn’t run. One day, he let me touch him.

My intention was to give him a damn bath—he really was foul. Maybe because being an outdoor soul he was used to getting wet in the rain and so wasn’t fearful of water, I eventually did. Every couple of weeks, when he’d explored something particularly rank, I’d bring out a basin of warm water and shampoo, dump him in, and soap him up. That cat loved baths. He’d arch and purr and rub hard against my hands.

Orange was around for several years. Since he couldn’t come inside, the Prince built him a winter nest with insulation and bedding and so forth, altogether cozier than inside the house, I assure you. We keep very chill around here. Preserves the skin, you know.

Then, one summer day I noticed he was getting awfully thin and smelled in a way that was not healthy. Having lost my beloved beagle, Bagel (who found me in a parking lot in New York, by the way), several years before to kidney disease, I recognized the odor and knew Orange was passing as well.

But still, he wanted a bath. I gave him a long one, soaping and massaging as he mewled and gazed at me with such pleasure and dare I say love, or at least affection? I dried him with a towel so his mangy fur fluffed as best it could.

And then he ambled off and was gone.

Though the raccoon and the opossums and the cat may be gone, we still have hearty troupes of mice, lightning bugs, mosquitoes and squirrels traipsing through. It’s possible we’re also the new home of a vole, or is it a mole? Just this morning I noticed strange humps in the dirt and a rude tumble of coleus—yes, the same coleus I crowed about last week.  One of my pathetic successes with growing anything from seed.

What do you suppose moles, or voles, like to eat?

* Baby would say this is an unnecessarily snide remark.


—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie writes about all the living things that inhabit her city garden. To read earlier columns, type Green Acre into the Search bar at the top of the screen. For more on “wild Washington,” click on this post.


Green Acre #64: Garden Memories, If I Can Remember Them

Dappled sunlight, yes, but the Cavanaugh acreage is mostly a shady, shady place. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

WHAT ARE THESE green stalks coming out of the large terracotta pot on the back porch steps? I thought I’d emptied it when the elephant ear bulbs emerged. I potted the bulbs early to give them a sun boost before moving them into the garden where they fill bare patches quite prolifically.

The resulting pot of dirt sat there for a week or so while I drank coffee and contemplated its emptiness, thinking about what I might use it for. And lo! One morning a green thing emerged: It was stiff and pointed and seemed to grow at an excellent pace, whatever it was. Until My Prince hung a soaking hose over the railing and crushed the stalk.

So I watched some more. And lo! More green things began an energetic upward thrust (it’s very hot today, can you tell?).

I think they are bananas.

This is exciting, if it is so.

Out front there has been a similar thrill of unidentifiable stalks. Now these, I thought, were possibly bananas, but they’re

The author thought that spike of orange was ornamental ginger (though how it migrated from the back yard to the front was a mystery). But she heard otherwise from her daughter; see Comments. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

not. Last week, small knobs formed at the tips and just yesterday went spreeee in a flurry of orange frittle.* Ginger! My ornamental ginger. [Um, no. See Comments, below.] I thought I’d left that for dead last fall when I was too lazy to take it out and put it in cold storage. Apparently not.

I also don’t recall moving it to the front yard. I love a mystery.

There was a time, years and years in fact, when I kept track of everything I bought and planted. There are entire notebooks of notes. Sketches of my minute terrain and lists of what went where so I knew what to expect the following spring and what I should buy to fill in.

There were also, helpfully, little tags with the names of the this and the that, allowing me to answer authoritatively when people asked what’s this? and what’s that?

No longer. No tags, no notes. It’s a gardening high-wire act. I really haven’t a clue.

Now I do recognize the stalwarts: the hydrangeas, the azalea, the mock orange, the rose—the perennials. Notes were once taken about these, so their names can be found. They are also either evergreen or bloom on old wood so their positions in the garden are always secure. They grow without fear that I will stick something on top, or trample them underfoot.

It’s the other stuff, the ephemerals, as it were. Sometimes they reemerge, sometimes they go poof, gone.

How did I lose Queen Anne’s Lace, about as invasive a weed as ever lived, which has never put me off wanting it? I struggled for years to establish a crop, patiently drifting seeds from their heads, or attempting to transplant them from the junk yards where they grow most prolifically, with absolutely no human interference. Last year, finally, a scattering of flowers emerged and I cooed and applauded and you’d think the plants would be thrilled to perform for me again this year. Not a sign.

And the charming pink and lavender daisy-headed cosmos, such reliable re-seeders, have entirely disappeared.

On the other hand. The elephant ears are ridiculous. Owing to the winter that nearly wasn’t, they hid underground and

The lower window boxes at the front of the house are blasting away, complete with potato vine and spiky little yews (maybe) that look like nothing so much as Dr. Seuss-style lollipops. / Photo here and on the front by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

emerged laughing, just when I’d bought and planted their replacements. So this year there is a stampede.

Meanwhile, the coleus is up. A rare success among the seeds started this year. A whole packet of seed, two lousy plants. Maybe there will be more since these just emerged, such lovely, tender deep pink and green leaves, providing what little color this terminally shady garden offers in mid-summer.

Around the front of the house, the lavender plants in the lower window boxes, the centerpieces that I was so boastful about in a previous column, have departed. They’ve been replaced with these . . . things . . . that might be yews. I instantly lost their tags. I adore them. Not just because they look like Dr. Seussian lollipops, but because they are the same acid green as the potato vines that drape the box fronts, one poking up, the other ruffling down. Between these two, and the supporting cast of flowers (both real and fake), the boxes are developing into a fantastic sight.

Oh yes, this reminds me, there might be one other success with seeds (bang on wood). There are moonflowers in the boxes that—if all goes as planned, which it probably won’t—should mingle with the potato vines and burst into saucer-sized white flowers that, with a little luck, will go off like doorbells of decadent scent in our entry.

By the way, did you know rosemary is making news as a boon to your memory? (This is one of those discoveries that were already discovered centuries ago. “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember,” said Ophelia, thinking of Hamlet; and Shakespeare was hardly the first to take note of the herb’s heady powers.) In a rare triumph of gardening, the rosemary plants in my upper boxes are still thriving one year later and available for eating. Or sniffing . . . I’m not sure what one is supposed to do.

Or maybe I already forgot.

*apparently not a word, but shouldn’t it be?

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie writes about gardening in a little city plot, with little sun and not much science behind the plantings. You can read her earlier columns by typing Green Acre in the Search box at the top of the screen. 

Green Acre #63: 10 Steps to the Perfect French Garden

I GOT SO INSPIRED by Bastille Day last week, I began musing on the nature of the French jardin, preferably a Provençal one. Follow this simple path and be transported. Allons-y!

1. Start with a chair. You know the one. Bamboo framed and laced with black and white webbing. (It couldn’t always have been plastic . . . it must have been something else at another time. Lambskin? But plastic will do.) Set one or four in the garden and you have instant France—poof!

Faux bamboo all-weather wicker (meaning plastic) stacking bistro chair, $147.74 on Amazon.com. Granite-and-cast-iron bistro table from Bonnecaze Absinthe & Home, $399 through Houzz.com.

2. You do have two table choices, depending on the size of your patio. There is the classic round bistro table, the surface of which might be tiled, or wood, or stone. You may cover this with a French tablecloth; the cloths come in such lovely shades of orange and yellow and green and blue, with sheaves of wheat or lavender, but not tea pots, printed along the border. If you have space, consider a wooden farmhouse table of a length to seat 15 or 20, whatever is your usual Sunday dinner guest count. In this case, you might employ benches along the sides in addition to your café chairs.

From Terrain, a 10-foot-long reclaimed teak dining table, $2,898 at shopterrain.com.

3. Now, you need to set the table and chair upon something, and while there are surfaces that could pass—brick or flagstone come to mind—ideally you have pea gravel; the small, pale, tan stones that wedge in your espadrilles and dig a hole in your heel. Pea gravel is the ultimate French courtyard material. You come away from a walk across it instantly fluent in French. Ooh! Ow! Ouch! Or rather, Zut! Merde!

Bulk pea gravel is $333.50 for 5 yards (whatever that means) at The Home Depot.

4. Ideally, your house should be made of stone, with a bit of moss creeping up the walls, with very large shutters covering the windows. Americans tend to have wholly wrong shutters, far too small and flimsy to shut over the windows in the event of a storm, or to keep the icy blasts of winter out of the lounge. Your shutters must close over the windows, or at least look like they can, with cast-iron shutter dogs holding them open against the walls.

Cast-iron rat-tail shutter dogs, sold in pairs, $18.50 the pair from John Wright. jwright.com.

If your home is not stone, one would hope for brick. And the brick must be painted the lively colors of Provence. Take a cue from one of those southern French tablecloths and think Dijon mustard, tangerine or buttercup yellow paired with the clearest possible blue. The trim and the door and the body of the house have to zing off each other, but harmoniously, s’il vous plait. Of course, window boxes must be overflowing with blossoms that play with your color scheme.

5. While a case might be made for a border or pots of lavender, there is no plant more quintessentially French than the hydrangea, or more exactly, the blue hydrangea, which is the blue of an utterly cloudless sky after a rain, when all of the humidity has blown to Des Moines or Baton Rouge. You might flank the door with boxwood topiaries, or you can move the lemons and such from the orangery to the gravel for the summer, but the hydrangea is the essence of it all.

Now wield your secateurs and élaguer* a few branches for the table. Ah….

6. Yes. The table, by which I mean the table setting. Again two choices. Either white stoneware, the sort with the raised pattern along the border (I passed up a set at Miss Pixie’s reclaimed furniture a few years ago that I still kick myself over. Baby told me I had quite enough china. Oh, why do I ever listen to her?). Pair this with ivory-handled dinnerware and jelly glasses, and pick out a minor color from the tablecloth for your napkins, which must be cloth, not paper (see below).

White dishes in the “Fruit” pattern from Gibson Design, available at Replacements.com. Tablecloth from the Poppies Jacquard Collection, from $90 to $139, depending on size, at La Cigale. lacigale-usa.com.

Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have inherited Grandmère’s Limoges or Sèvres china and and her silver, this is a glorious place to set it. Matching is not essential; in fact, it is beside the point, which is above all the cultivation of unselfconscious chic. Fretting and fussing is so American; you must appear not to care. Squint a little, purse your lips and practice a Gallic shrug. Ne vous cassez pas la tête about it.

Big linen or damask napkins to catch the juices of the poulet are essential: They are easier to care for than you might expect. Wash them, fold them over once and stretch them flat. They will dry quite smoothly, and be softer to the lip than napery flattened with starch and an iron.

7. Ah yes, the chicken. I’m so glad I brought that up. You want to look really French? There is nothing like having a few chickens pecking the pea gravel. Consider the Coucou de Rennes, such fun to say! And the Gauloise Dorée sounds  decadently like smoking, which you really should take up. They’ll wander around your ankles as you dine, and if the clucking gets too irritating you can always eat them.

Coucou de Rennes. Photo by Édouard Hue via Wikimedia Commons.

Gauloise Dorée. Photo courtesy Le Ferme de Beaumont.

8. Now add music. While youthful French President Macron exhibits a fondness for the electronic dance music of Daft Punk, we’ll bet that First Lady Brigitte prefers Piaf. Create a Piaf station on Pandora and pipe it onto the patio. Pandora will automatically increase your level of cool, adding everything from Carla Bruni to Serge Gainsbourg to the mix.

9. Do have a ruin in the background, if at all possible.

10. You can also add olive trees, grapevines, fountains or a reflecting pool with swans. (Swans are important, without them the pool and garden might verge on Italian, which is somewhat similar, but much louder, and features lasagne.)

*Merci, Violette Capelluto-Schor. Élaguer means to prune.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie often has visions like this. To read earlier visions (um, columns), type Green Acre in the Search box at the top of the page.

Green Acre #62: The White Garden

This house in Washington DC has captured the magic of the white garden. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

I KNOW I SAID I’d write more about pools this week, but it’s too hot. Join a pool. Fill a copper horse trough and splash about. Run through a sprinkler. Think cool thoughts. A white garden helps with that.

If you’re otherwise occupied during summer days when the flowers bloom,  and as often as not away on weekends or busy being air conditioned, a white garden brings magic to the night.

A few blocks from me on Capitol Hill in Washington DC is a small frame house, painted white, with black shutters and a red door, very country in the city. A long brick path leads from the front gate, wandering through a border that only flowers white, from early spring through fall.

The mix of blossoms is simple enough: The early peonies are met by great sprays of white clematis with faces the size of salad plates; these tumble together with repeat-blooming white roses over the black wrought-iron fencing, then frolic their

Vigorous vines of clematis can easily wend their way around the garden so as to interact with other white blossoms. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

way through the border greenery, with dusty miller providing a silvery accent.

Pots of white impatiens stationed along the walk can be moved here and there to fill in the inevitable gaps left by a summer vacation.

A helpful sign is posted on the gate, explaining what you’re plainly seeing but, given the oven-like heat, may not have the mental energy to comprehend:

“The white garden is an informal gardening style that is similar in design to the English cottage garden. The open and informal design creates associations with romance, peace and elegance. The white flowers are mildly and densely spread throughout the garden’s green areas, creating a luminescent sight that is especially powerful in the twilight.”

In this case, twilight is prolonged by the soft glow from the lamp posts along the sidewalk, the flittering of fireflies, and the twinkle of little white lights in the red-leaf maple beside the front door, which frills above the patio table and chairs.

Beyond brilliant, white flowers can be fabulously, devastatingly, decadently perfumed, and usually most powerfully scented in the evening or at dawn, just when you’re around to enjoy them. Consider jasmine and lilies, honeysuckle, moonflowers and nicotiana, orange and lemon and grapefruit (if you have a sunny spot to winter them over)—all are white, or available in white.

One could pass out from such a cacophony of scent, lying there like Dorothy in the field of poppies leading to Oz.

Yes, I know her poppies were red. Stop being so literal. It’s tiresome.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie writes about her garden and the gardens of others, as the mood hits her. You can read earlier Green Acre columns by typing Green Acre in the Search box at the top of the page.

Green Acre #61: Beachy Keen

AT THE BEACH The Prince collects rocks and shells. He wanders, head down, sometimes for hours, looking not at the ocean, but at the bits washed up onto the sand. He’ll return to me, lying on a towel, nose to book, clutching his treasures.

“Look at this one!” He’ll say of a craggy gray hunk of something. “It’s millions of years old,” he’ll tell me, eyes bright with wonder.

“Yes,” I’ll squint up at him. “It is. Wonderful.” My approval pleases him.

“And this one, the color!” he’ll sigh. Of course it’s wet, and therefore is shiny, and the lovely coral hue will fade as it dries. But I don’t tell him, why pop his bubble? He’s just a happy boy at the beach.

Going to the beach for us usually involves an airplane to Florida where Number One  Sister perches eight floors above the least-crowded stretch of sand in South Florida. Here we can sit on the front terrace and see hardly a single soul.

We’ve been visiting her here every year for the 25 years or so since she moved south from New York. Being beach people, we have made numerous tropical island hops between times. That’s a lot of rocks and shells. Most of them, in my snooty opinion, not in the least worth the effort. And all of them have to be heavily hauled, dragged, schlepped and shoved onto the plane home.

At home, the bags are emptied onto the back porch, where the collection sits in sandy memory until I figure out where to hide them. Dump any one of our garden pots and you’ll find a layer or two of who-knows-what-from-where, serving as drainage.

On a side trip one year to Key West, we were wandering along Duval Street just where clever and cool met T-shirt honky-tonk and came upon a little shop whose entrance was marked by a small claw-foot tub encrusted with shells.

These were beautiful shells, perfect—scallops and bullas and little conchs, even the shells that were cut in half to expose their inner whorls and pearly centers were precisely measured. They were all shades from tawny and tiger-striped to white, and interspersed with pearls and bits of sea glass that caught the sunlight.

I was overcome with the thought that this was either one of the most fabulous things I’d ever seen or a tacky margarita-fueled horror that would only be considered wonderful here in the Conch Republic, or a Carl Hiaasen novel. *

Meanwhile, I fantasized it into the middle of the garden back home. A wallowing pool. For me. If I’m being honest, unless I’m lying facedown in the water with a mask staring at fishies, I rarely do anything at the ocean besides sit in the water and read—sometimes I stand and read, if I need exercise. I can just as well do the lying about in a tub, surrounded by ferns and jasmine and parlor palms, bringing the tropics to Capitol Hill. One can make a margarita anywhere.

And it’s practical! When I’m done for the day, I figured, just pull the plug and water the plants.

There was even a how-to book handily for sale at the shell shop, with instructions for encrusting your own tub (or bird bath, chandelier or grotto) with shells. Shell Chic, by Marlene Hurley Marshall, with photos by Sabine Vollmer von Falken, is still for sale on Amazon. It was brand new at the time, August 2002.

All we needed, besides $35 for the book, was a claw-foot tub, rustproof paint, a ratchet gun (What’s that? Ask the Prince), silicone adhesive, beach glass, pearly beads and shells. A whole lot of shells.

But a creative snap! I thought, studying the diagrams.

So in addition to his usual bag of rocks and shells, we now had my bag of shells—collected at shops with cunning names like Shell World and Joyce’s Shells & Gifts, places I had theretofore averted my eyes from, along the 98 miles between Key West and Key Largo and the highway north to Sister’s.

I recall being eager to get home and begin, a sop to vacation’s end.

Only guilty reminders remain of this project: A strand of cowries, I think they’re called, hanging on the back porch; heaps of loose shells, many now broken, in the dusty wicker basket I like to think of as my craft box; and strands of fake pearls and bits of sea glass.

I suppose I could have glued these bits to something else, but my enthusiasms often fade as quickly as they appear,  particularly when it comes to arts and crafts. If it can’t be done in 10 minutes with a paint roller or extra-large knitting needles, forget it.

Meanwhile, My Prince, bless him, continues to keep an eye out for that claw-foot tub. Amazing that despite how everyone seems to be tearing them out for glass-walled showers the size of small rooms with benches and multiple heads for rain and steam and hoses for the hard-to-reach spots, old claw-foot tubs are both hard to find and bloody expensive. Shouldn’t he have found one in the trash by now?

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie says that her next column will feature five almost-instant ways to wallow in water in the garden—maybe 10, if she can think of that many. 

* If for some reason you don’t know who Carl Hiaasen is, go immediately to the library or a bookstore and enjoy.

Green Acre #60: Making Art in the Garden

These sticks are place holders for flowers to come. Just think of them as an art project. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

I’VE BEEN LIMPING around Capitol Hill in Washington feeling sad for myself; my hip replacement won’t happen until September. Today I’m saying I fell off the trapeze as explanation for the cane. Another day, another story, anything but aging joints.

Before I left the house I looked at my camera, my near-constant companion, sitting on the kitchen counter. Looked at it for a good 20 seconds or so, and then said, nah. Don’t feel like schlepping it and it’s gonna rain again and just don’t feel like it.

So of course I am stopped in my tracks by a fascinating collection of twigs painted in woozy stripes of purple and blue and Chinese red, massed—there were many—in a garden border behind a wrought-iron rail.

It’s a newish border, so the plants haven’t yet filled in the blanks, and though there are flowers, they are widely spaced, with the twigs massed in the blank spots, and I’m thinking—This is wonderful! And I’m also thinking, there are people in this neighborhood who would do this little twig thing so seriously, buying twigs of some exotic wood, and then looking at them this way and that, and then measuring off the distance between stripes and so forth . . . or hiring someone to do it for them.

But here is someone who took a bunch of twigs, painted them and stuck them in the earth and they . . . look like flowers.

So after I completed my hobble around Eastern Market and had written an elegy on various life complaints over a San Benedetto peach iced tea (delizioso!) at Radici, I went home, grabbed the camera and, because I’m in pain and it’s now getting late, hopped in the car and drove the two blocks back to the house with the sticks.

Illegally parking at the corner, and quickly snapping this way and that before looking up and, hellooooooooo.

There’s a young woman, with a billow of black hair, perched on the doorstep watching me. And I say, Oops, and explain that I’m writing this piece and I love the sticks and she says, “My mom did them and she’ll be so happy you like them. She’d like to meet you but she’s in the shower . . . then hopped up and skittered into the house, dragging Mom out in a flowered muumuu of sorts, with soaking wet hair dripping fetchingly on her shoulders and I say . . .

Why sticks?

“Because it was raining and raining,” she began. “And I was looking at these sticks I’d piled up for kindling and thinking I had some paint and also thinking about the neighbor’s daughter who was disappointed that I didn’t have pink flowers last year . . . ”

Which she still doesn’t. She now has a collection of sticks painted violet, blue and Chinese red amid a border of perennials, still in the, shall we say, subtle stage.

And I say, What I love is how they read as flowers!

She laughed. “A woman walking down the street the other day said, ‘Those are the most interesting flowers! What are they?’ And I told her, ‘They’re sticks.’

“If it keeps raining, I’ll make more,” she continued, adding this bit of wisdom: “No matter how unsuccessful an art project is, if there’s a lot of it, it looks great. “

Which is, I think, quite true.

Think about The Gates, the 2005 installation by Bulgarian artist Christo—7,503 saffron-color “gates” (more like flags)  planted in New York’s Central Park, fluttering a path. One gate is a gate. But thousands?


—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie wanted to write about how Radici’s ladies’ room was out of toilet paper, but we wouldn’t let her. To read earlier columns—about gardening—you can type Green Acre into the Search box at the top of the page.

Green Acre #59: Lighting Up the Night Garden

ONE IS SOMETIMES GRATEFUL that things around here move at the pace of a mortally wounded snail. Isn’t one?

We have no electricity beyond a single outlet on the back porch. The rather charming bronze lanterns that flank the garage door are purely decorative. See, we’ve been waiting for this electrician who does a lot of work at the Capitol to show up. It’s been (quite) a few years, though My Prince informs me that the wait will be worth it. He’s the best. I suspect he must be retired by now.

Meanwhile, I have been provided an(other) opportunity to be creative with glitz and candles. While less convenient than flipping a switch, candles are so much more romantic. Right? Sigh.

For the porch, I pulled the rather alarming wiring in a thrift shop chandelier, stuck votives in the crystal cups, and duded the contraption up with glass grapes, crystals and various doodads.

Dotted about the garden are numerous small metal lanterns, Moroccan in feel, that I suggest are only enhanced by a patina of rust. The occasional bejeweled bird repurposed from the Christmas tree, adds a glisp* of light here and there. A tall verdigris tinted candelabrum seemed too light to break the glass garden tabletop (Surprise!). It is now planted elsewhere in the garden. A flotilla of votives replaced that tabletop experiment.

This has all been very pretty at night, though of course the issue was lighting all of those the candles. I have a vision of myself doing so—as usual wearing something drifty, long and white, floating along angelically with a long brass taper, instead of flip-flops and a Bic. So much work, candles. But so charming.

Then, last summer, LittleBird Nancy did a post on lighting, mentioning these LED lights from Terrain, then on sale for 25 bucks. These Stargazer Cascade Falls lights, had about 15 strands studded with bulbs about the size of rice kernels strung along nearly invisible copper wire, which is handy for twisting this way and that. Absolutely worth stringing an extension cord. A single set tangled in the branches of the (regrettably unscented) mock orange that hovers over the backyard table like a giant leafy umbrella creates an ethereal light show. Alas, the 4-foot set no longer seems to exist, at least from this source (it was really quite adequate for any reasonably normal person), but they do stock a Hollywood-scaled number,

Randall Whitehead, a San Francisco-based lighting expert, holds the makings of a fantasy landscape in his hands.

with 32 seven-foot light strands for $78.

On a more modest scale, Terrain has these delightfully itty-bitty iridescent battery-operated bubble lights, 15 feet of them on copper wire for $28.

I do love garden lights, and it almost seems worth the procrastination over the electrician, since many of them are now solar- or battery-powered, and we’ve saved the expense of wiring—even though the garden has been only semi-visible for 30 years.

There are solar spotlights for the trees, step lights, path lights and accent lights—in an extraordinary variety of shapes, and materials, and even moods. If you wish to waste a day, check out www.Houzz.com, the home decorating and housewares website that eats hours like pistachios. Observe the pot-bellied Echo Valley Byzantium Mosaic Kaleidolantern, with its “stained glass” shade. I would like this just so I could tell guests what it is with a straight face.  If I had a pool, I’d certainly want an Ellipsis solar ball with 16 color-changing options, but might make do with a globe on a stand for a summer séance or as path lights.

Fabulous for a garden party are solar-powered Chinese lanterns. Make magic with many, in different sizes, strung high and low in the trees, or along a garden path. They come in an array of delightful colors, reds and pinks, greens and purples, and most enchanting of all, white. For sizes and colors, the best selection I’ve seen is at Paper Lantern Store. These are nylon, not paper, so one would expect them to have a reasonable lifespan. The paper lanterns, with their metal cages tend to rust, which turns the shades to . . . crap. They also tend to stop working after a few evenings. But either paper or nylon, for a special occasion? Wow.

By the way, if your garden is sun-challenged, as mine is, most solar lights have back-up batteries.

Speaking of which, battery-powered pillar candles and tapers are now near-ringers for real, with wax bodies and flames that appear to dance on their wicks. No dripping on the tablecloth, and no hurricanes shades required.

San Francisco–based lighting designer and author Randall Whitehead offered up a trio of cheap and chic LED and solar lighting ideas. I love his idea of a flood light masquerading as a rock. Lowe’s home-improvement store has them for $29.98. They’re great for spotlighting trees and other large garden features—though they might overpower the gnome. If used at full power they’re 24 times brighter than standard solar lights. Fuss free, they go on at dusk, off at dawn.

Laser lights, which have bedazzled our night garden for the past few years, have become so cheap it’s a sin not to have different colors for each season, like Whitehead’s suggestion of lavender for summer. “Green laser lights say Christmas,” he says. “As do those red lasers that are also available. The lavender light is festive without being holiday specific—it creates little fairy lights in the trees and shrubbery.”

These do need to be plugged into something, and you have to play with the direction—anything in the light’s path will block the sparkle. I shoot mine down from a second-floor window, to cover the widest area.

Randy also plugs solar lighting for the patio umbrella, which creates a lovely puddle of intimacy, circling the table with warm LED lights. Toss in prosecco and a strawberry napoleon with fresh whipped cream and . . . talk about uplifting. “And, you can see what you’re eating,” he adds.

These are a snap to assemble, honestly. The little solar box pokes up through the umbrella’s top flap, and the strands, one for each rib, attach with clips.

One note of LED caution: To cast the most flattering light, always look for the word “warm” in the description, otherwise you’ll bathe in a cold glare reminiscent of an interrogation lamp.

*Glisp is not a word but should be.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie writes about gardens and the outdoor life and decorating same: “It’s crap on crap—my favorite thing!” To read Stephanie’s earlier columns, type Green Acre into the Search box at the top of the page.


Green Acre #58: Garden of Misery

In the beginning (left) and in the now (right), LittleBird Stephanie’s garden has grown but has never been what you might call “finished.” But then what garden ever is? Notice the clothesline in the adjacent yard on the left; it seemed to be sagging constantly under the weight of those blue jeans. / Photos courtesy Stephanie Cavanaugh.

THAT THE GARDEN is never finished is as fine a realization as I’ve ever had, if I could just keep it firmly in mind.

Right now, I am wallowing in a slough of despond.* Facebook has reminded me, with one of those cheery little reposted photos of year’s past, that I once thought the garden was done. That I had years ahead when I could happily flit about beneath the cherry blossoms in a billowing caftan, glass of white Bordeaux in hand, Piaf on the speakers, considering whether or not to pull the single weed that might mar my border.

This did not come to pass.

There on Facebook was a photo of my tiny garden (before it knew it was a garden) alongside the garden as it had grown over 30-ish years (as have I—I think those jeans I’m wearing were a size 2, which might be an exaggeration).

On June 11th of whatever year past, the garden was flush with flowers.

At the head of the path is Margot, the blue hydrangea on the right. She’s waving at Phyllis, the pink hydrangea across the way. I see there are already purple blossoms on the rose of Sharon, which tickle the top of the photo over there in the right corner. How beautiful it was, which is why I cared to take a picture.

What a long way it had grown from the miserable dirt patch in the picture on the left, with the  clothesline that seemed always to be sagging under wet blue jeans just visible over the wall. A older friend, who was then probably about the age I am now, had come to Capitol Hill from Cleveland Park.  Standing on the back porch, dripping mink and diamonds, she glanced over the wall and cooed, “Darling, how charming.”

The only good thing to be said about the straight path of cracked concrete that led from house to the garage is that it provided a fairly private, and blessedly short, track (okay, you don’t have to believe this but it’s true) where, after Baby was born, I ran laps like a rat in a trap, hoping to get back into the size 2s. This also did not come to pass.

After some years the path was replaced, becoming  curved and pebbled, not comfortable on bare feet, but lovely—like a dry streambed. Vines covered the walls, the garage roof: ivy, wisteria, trumpet, honeysuckle, clematis.  A small fish pond burbled then and burbles today, just beyond Phyllis. There may have been koi that year; when the raccoons discovered that gourmet dinner we switched to those goldfish that go for 10 cents each at the pet shop, the ones considered feeder fish for your boa constrictor or anaconda. These survive unmolested. Raccoons have such rarefied taste.

The garage door My Prince found on Massachusetts Avenue. A fine old house was being demolished on the west side of the Capitol; the door, with its gothic arch, was leaning against a dumpster. He sanded, and fitted, and painted it turquoise, in an ode to Key West (where I’d always prefer to be).

As I glare out at the garden this morning, perched as usual at the top of the back steps with coffee cup in hand and newspapers strewn about the floor, I note that Margot is limp and Phyllis has no blossoms, the rose of Sharon is gasping for air rights. The lilies are kaput. Even the elephant ears, which should be huge by now, are dragging their feet (if elephant ears can be said to have feet), and the flower seeds I’ve strewn and strewn are nowhere to be seen.

For the first time in years I notice patches of dirt where something is supposed to be in full bloom.

This after all my blather a few months back about the upside of global warming.

The Prince hauled himself to the roof the other day (I’m getting to the point, bear with me), and while I planned what I would wear to his funeral he called down that the cherry had topped the roofline, which, if you count the above-grade basement, makes it three stories up.  It’s about as wide.

Planting a Kwanzan cherry in a small yard is insane. If I tried to retake the early photo today, you would see nothing but leaves.

We knew this day was coming, having looked up the variety right after we bought it—a perilous habit, that—and realized that in not too much time the garden would be smothered. The tree was purchased in a fit of pique—a perilous habit that too—to obscure the townhouses that were built behind us, four-story monsters grown in what was a school parking lot,  meaning we once had a clear view of the sky, which is a precious thing in a city.

Certainly, I thought, we’ll move before . . . But no, we never do. We stay and molder.

Of course, a Kwanzan cherry is a spectacular sight when it’s in bloom, and if we ever do decide to pack it in and head for the Keys, we should time selling this place for the two days when that takes place.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie, when she’s not hunkered down in the slough of despond, writes about gardening hits and misses. You can read all her Green Acre columns by typing Green Acre into the Search field at the top of the page.

 * I am reminded here of The Pilgrim’s Progress. I can’t recall in what absurdly early grade I was forced to read that book, perhaps sixth? The only things I remember are the title and the phrase “slough of despond,” a place in which I consider myself with peculiar frequency.

Considering my flinging the phrase around here, it felt obligatory to look up the actual context, and not the haphazard contexts in which I have placed it in my life. Quoth Wikipedia: “The Slough of Despond is a fictional, deep bog in John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, into which the protagonist Christian sinks under the weight of his sins and his sense of guilt for them.”

Ah yes, the weight of sins, the guilt. And I’m Jewish. Imagine what this phrase would have done to my tender psyche had I been a Christian. This might not appear to have anything to do with gardening. However!

  1. The words individually involve no mention of sin or guilt: A slough is defined as a) a swamp, and b) a situation characterized by lack of progress or activity. “Despond” means a state of unhappiness and low spirits. So calling my current gardening state of mind a slough of despond is perfectly accurate.

Green Acre #57: 10 Fast and Fabulous Tips . . .

THE MOST DELICIOUS garden I ever saw was postage-stamp-sized, as was the house. One of Washington DC’s tiny alley dwellings, just one room deep. A minuscule galley kitchen opened to a garden perhaps eight foot square, with just enough room for a café table and a pair of bistro chairs. It felt huge, however, thanks to mirrors hung on the high fence walls reflecting fabulously lush tropical foliage. There was wine, of course, and music drifting from the house. A turtle or two waltzed by.

A little whimsy never killed anyone.

There are tricks to creating such an atmosphere; feel free to liberally borrow—and add turtles, perhaps frogs.

1. Plant a pot—but make it a beauty. The Cheltenham Thistle Urn from MacKenzie-Childs makes me weep, but if $695 turns you green, try painting one yourself.  Or repurpose something you already have. My upside-down Victorian umbrella stand does double duty, showing off an orchid (at the moment) by lofting it high above the border. Baby found a silver-plated punch bowl at the thrift shop and filled it with coleus and sweet potato vine. I just bet there’s a wedding gift in your closet that would make a spectacular planter.

2. Spray paint is your friend. Dead boxwood? No problem: Spray it green. Same goes for dead patches of grass before the dinner party. If you love briefly flowering plants such as astilbe, the kind that leave a dried brown frond once their brief season of bloom is over, pick a color, any color, and spray. It will last the season with no harm to the plant. For a dramatic accent,  wouldn’t a cluster of six-foot-tall Chinese red bamboo poles look cool in that corner? Or gild an ornate junk picture frame and hang it from a tree, hopefully framing something pleasurable.

3. There’s no end to what you might drop among the petunias, or dangle from a tree branch. Scatter shiny Christmas balls. Try a pearlescent bowling ball in a shocking shade, say pink, in a sea of green. Have a Balinese umbrella handy? Cast some shade.

4. Fast-growing annual vines are a speedy solution to an eyesore, such as a telephone pole or sign post. Morning glory and moonflowers, with their honeyed scent and creamy flowers that open after sunset, are naturals. They can also be trained to dance along a fence line, or smother a railing. This year I’m using a lacy wrought-iron headboard—a found object—for my cherry red mandevilla. Washington residents toss out the most fabulous stuff.

4b.  Major eyesores, such as trash cans, or husband detritus, require major screening. Amazon has assorted bamboo screens, and they ship so you don’t need to schlep. Also at Amazon? My favorite (totally accidental) find: a rain forest shower curtain that could distract from any mess or tiny garden space.

5. Elephant ears, banana plants, philodendron and parlor palms (Chamaedorea elegans) all do brilliantly in our tropical summers, growing huge and quickly filling space with intense drama. Plant some in the ground, others in pots, to create interesting levels. As a bonus, philodendron and  palm leaves can be cut and put in vases (both will last for weeks), to bring a touch of the tropics indoors.

6. Flower holders. You know those pointy-bottomed green plastic things with the rubber caps that individual flower stems are sometimes presented in? They’re also great in the garden, like when you’re having a garden party and are in despair of blooms. Grab a big bunch of flowers at the market, break them apart, insert stems into the holders and tuck the holders in the foliage. Most florists will sell them to you, or you can buy a pack of 100 floral water tubes from Amazon for 10 bucks.

7. No list from me would be complete without . . . faux flowers. My upper window boxes are always punctuated with fake geraniums. I mean, why bother? Geraniums don’t do well when it gets July hot, anyway. I don’t have sun enough anymore for lilies, but when I did I always wired “silk”  blooms to the stems when the flowers faded. They even fooled me. Note of caution: Make sure they look real, and do NOT overdo; you want this to be a private little titter, so keep it to a stem or two.

8. Mirror, mirror. He of the tiny garden that opened this piece had a giant mirror in the corner, doubling the size of the space, the density of the plantings and the squint of sunlight. Mine is a vaguely Moorish screen, turquoise-painted wood inset with large mirrored panels, that has the same space-enhancing, enlarging effect on my back porch.

9. Linen is a plant, I think. A brilliantly colored French tablecloth, treated to withstand water, can stand in for a dearth of flowers. Summer whites are classic cool. Hang curtains (somewhere)—very Daisy Buchanan if they can drift about as you laze on a lounger. Ikea’s tab-topped Matilda sheers are $19.99 a pair and easily hung—or just thumb tacked—anywhere. Continuing with the whites, you know what makes a great summer throw? A painter’s drop cloth. Drip the rosé? Just drop the cloth in the wash. And don’t forget pillows—you need heaps for wilting upon.

10. Light up the night! A crystal chandelier in the garden never grows old. I ripped out the wiring in a junk-shop find, strung it with crystals and beads, and use votive candles on it. Chinese lanterns are cheerful, and laser lights are a delight (if already bordering on the overdone), and candles are, of course, essential. One other thing I’ll try again this year is tossing about edible glitter and tucking fairy lights into the ground cover. It will be, I imagine, as if hundreds of lightning bugs have come to roost (or whatever it is they do.)

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie writes and writes and writes about gardens, real and imagined. To read earlier columns, type Green Acre into the Search box at the top of the page.

Green Acre #56: Yards and Yards of Park

Chill out under the waterfall or cool your feet in the Yards Park pool. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

‘FOR THREE YEARS cranes have been at work in Southwest DC erecting the first phase of a waterfront aimed at putting the city’s smallest quadrant on the map for locals and visitors alike,” said Jonathan O’Connell in a recent Washington Post project update. “Beginning this summer, the fruits of that construction—visible to anyone passing through on Interstate 395—will be open for business as new apartment towers, hotels, piers, a 6,000-seat concert venue and some of the city’s priciest new condominiums are set to open as part of the city’s largest new development, dubbed the Wharf.”

There will also be endless waterfront dining options along the mile of shoreline, 500 boat slips and 2,600 parking spaces.

Meanwhile, several years in and just around the bend, is Yards Park which, despite a raft of awards, remains one of Washington’s least-discovered pleasures.

At the west end there’s the baseball stadium, which alternates concertos by the world’s Taylor Swifts and the thwack of Nats games, punctuated by fireworks. To the east is the walled fortress of the Washington Navy Yard, for which the park was named. This bustles industriously on weekdays but is nearly abandoned on weekends.

Bridging the two is the Park. There are marvelously cool gardens and fountains, a futuristic soaring bridge, restaurants

Bring a pillow and a book and snag a shaded  lounge with a water view in Yards Park in Southeast Washington DC. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

and sidewalk cafes, a lawn for sunbathing and a quiet glen with built-in lounges on which to doze or read. There appears to be an unspoken code of silence under the trees. The quiet people are here, doing quiet things like sketching out fantasies involving George Clooney or turning the attic into a master bath, reached by a ladder up the bedroom wall, with a claw-foot tub in the eaves—a thought that floated up to me during one Sunday-morning idyll.

Tables are built in a concrete scallop above the Anacostia River, with a ringside view of the water and of some occasionally fascinating rubbish drifting by. Harris Teeter is handy for gathering a picnic—or you can pick up burgers at Five Guys or something from one of the ritzier joints (bring your own candles and china) such as risotto al pescatore from Osteria Morini. If the last place won’t hand you a carry bag, they do offer delivery via www.trycaviar.com.

An enormous shallow pool for wallowing has concrete pads for I don’t know what, posing like Greek statues maybe. The Kardashians would find a use. There’s a waterfall at one end to jump through (in the tropics that would be the swim-up bar, but you can’t have everything. I suppose).

The pool has no whistle-blowing lifeguards (yet), no admission gates or fees, no eyesore sign of regulations. Just a bunch of contented adults cooling their heels and kids splashing mindlessly about as they do. Probably peeing in there as well, which is why no adult has ever been seen sitting down.

The park is fronted by a segment of the Riverwalk, which is actually 20 miles of walking, biking and running trail on either side the of the Anacostia, a beautiful river that leads into the more famous Potomac, and then turns a bend to meet the more ballyhooed Southwest Wharf.

Behind the park, office buildings and apartments with terraces and rooftop pools are turning parts of the neighborhood into a condo canyon. New townhouses mingle with old on side streets. A few nice hotels have gone up. There’s a fancy gym for the aspirationally svelte and a trapeze school offering curbside entertainment, or classes if you’ve got the guts. Whole Foods will open shortly.

Despite its brand-newness, this area is the oldest in the Federal City (which did not include Georgetown), dating to the 1790s and the construction of the Capitol and the Navy Yard.

The wading-pool design reflects the series of inlets carved like gapped teeth into the river bank, which once led to wharves where marble and sandstone arrived from far-flung places for the building of the Capitol. This was then horse-hauled up 8th Street SE, now known for two of the town’s hottest restaurants, Rose’s Luxury and Pineapple and Pearls, then west on Pennsylvania Avenue to the construction site. Foodstuffs also arrived for the original Eastern Market, which was erected here in 1805. *

The area continued to bustle until after WWII, and then fell into disrepair. Public housing mingled with a handful of derelict row houses. A few corner stores and bars were interspersed with a random assortment of buildings containing mysterious (because who then was interested?) public works.

Then, about 20 years ago, a series of extremely tedious meetings was held that eventually spat out a half-assed Plan to put up a monolithic corridor of office buildings with no space for shops or restaurants. Workers, it was eventually agreed, could take a shuttle bus to Barracks Row for lunch.

That’s enough of that story.

I don’t recall mention of the park or the Riverwalk in the several boring years I spent representing Capitol Hill businesses at interminable meetings, at which the high point was donuts.

Amazingly, a new neighborhood emerged and somehow, someone, got this park done. Now it just needs a few visitors. Or does it? Maybe not. Forget I said anything.

* Eastern Market was rebuilt in 1873 in the adjacent residential neighborhood of Capitol Hill.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie knows a well-planned park when she sees one. To read her earlier Green Acre gardening columns, type Green Acre in the Search box at the top of the page.


Green Acre #55: Life and Death at the Edge of the Sidewalk

A deep pink Knock Out rose is flanked by a pair of hostas and surrounded by ivy. / Stephanie Cavanaugh.

WHATCHA DOIN’ there, Greg?” Bob said, chuckling to himself as he hovered over the bent back of the man I usually call My Prince. “Buildin’ my coffin?” He was missing a few talking teeth, so this was a little mumbled.

“It’s a planter,” Greg said through a mouthful of nails, hammering away. “A flower box.”

“What you need that for? We got flower boxes.“

Which was and was not true. One morning, 30-some years ago, we suddenly noticed black tires sawed in half, with jagged points along the rims, lining the sidewalk. One for each house, marching down the block. There was some manner of dirt in them, and a straggly clutch of flowers. I don’t recall what. Possibly marigolds.

It was a school project, we found out. Announced with some pride. Beautifying the neighborhood. The kids had made them, which made our hearts ache, they were so horrible. We didn’t have the strength to remove them, at least right away.

A year or so passed, which brings us to the sidewalk coffin. But first . . .

A retired plasterer, Bob had lived on our block for who knows how many years, in a house identical to ours, but different in the way these old row houses on Capitol Hill morphed over the decades, some restored and becoming cool, some not.  (Still having individual rooms and a marked absence of granite, we’re now among the not cool).

Bob was old, though he may well have been younger than we are now. He was hobbled and wrinkled but always cheerful, always willing to lend a hand. As long as the arthritis let him.  

As opposed to his wife, Esther, a shrewish woman who never talked to us directly. They had a son, who we knew only as “boy,” though he was about our age, early 30s at the time. “Boy!” Esther would bellow from the front or back porch, “Boy! You come in here now, it’s time to eat.” Or time for whatever else she had in mind for him. Back then he’d be known as “simple.” I never heard him speak.

Boy helped his dad, trying to learn a trade rapidly being replaced by wallboard. The two  expertly plastered our cracked bedroom ceiling and a soft spot in the hallway, while Greg watched and learned.

And then My Prince built the planter. It’s pine, I suppose, and I suppose I could verify that but I don’t want him to know what I’m writing, so I won’t. He always has a correction or 10.  A box, about six feet long, four wide, three deep. Yep, looks like a coffin.

Over the years we’d try this and that and this and that, colorful cheap things like zinnias and cosmos, intended to loft themselves above the bed of ivy that we’d planted as filler. Cheap because up until about five years ago, chances were, whatever you planted would flee in the night, you learned fast around here.

Sadly, but appropriately, everything we’ve ever planted in the coffin died. Except the ivy, which spills over the sides and down to the pavers.  We blamed the giant, magnificent, elm—one of the grandest in the city, we’re told—that spreads a massive canopy each summer, filtering the sun.

Now that we’re a hoity-toity neighborhood of thousand-dollar baby buggies and $250-per-person dinners at Pineapple and Pearls, you’ll most likely hold on to your hosta.  So we upscaled our experiments, trying dinner-plate-sized hibiscus, angel trumpets, azaleas, in search of something that would grandly announce, We’re here.

Instead, one after the other struggled pathetically, withering, rotting, turning to brittle sticks. I would fool myself at first, assuming that whatever it was I planted was just settling in. I’d put my trembling eye to it each morning: What’s that! A new shoot?  But, no. It was just another plant dying.

Bob died too, though he was buried in a proper coffin. Soon after, Esther and Boy moved down south somewhere and other members of their extended family moved in. When they died or scattered, the house was gutted and gussied and bought by a French family. Alex plays the ukulele and sings Beatles songs on the front porch, which is neither here nor there.

I was dog-sitting last week, which is actually leading to a point. The dog in question decided to be incontinent all over our rugs. Turn around and she’d peed again, and stood glaring. Not sick, just . . . pissed.

The Knock Out rose in its coffin-shape flower box by the curb. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

After consulting with her parents, we took her home, none of us too pleased, but it was the only solution. We’d go over three times a day and walk her. And on these walks I noticed roses. Beautiful roses, pinks and reds and yellows, deeply scented and clambering along fences, up walls, some even under trees.

A rose for the coffin had not theretofore been a thought, so fragile was the dapple of sidewalk sun. But some roses have now been made close to iron-clad, they say.

Knock Out roses, which emerged several years ago, and of which I speak, are as close to a fake rose as one could wish. Perfectly boring, entirely scentless, but pretty blooms, flowering endlessly from early spring. They were, at first issue, only available in red. Now they’re offered in several shades, including a very deep pink, which goes particularly well with the gray-green of the house and the deep purple front door.

So we trucked over to Lowes where the large ones were on sale for $20—you don’t need a boutique garden center for these things, they’re common as dirt.  

And the Prince, yet again, improved the soil in the coffin and buried our new pet, flanking it with a pair of hostas that were also on sale. Even in its first moments (which might be its best moments) it is a charming sight.

I am, for the moment, content.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie writes about gardening in her own personal patch of Washington DC. You can read her earlier columns by typing Green Acre in the Search box at the top of the page.

Green Acre #54: Making Something From Nothing

Sedum snipped from the back garden is taking off in the right corner of this window box. In the center is a French lavender cleaved in two—the other half is in an adjacent box. Ivy spilling over the sides provides a permanent frame. Seasonal additions include sweet potato vine, which will ruffle down to the ground by August, pink geraniums, a mystery plant that is doing very well—I always think I’ll remember its name, and don’t. With a little luck, the moonflower seeds will sprout, flower and scent the late summer night air. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

I’M EXPERIMENTING. Snipping this and that, a pinch here, a chop there; fearless in my propagating.

Thirty-odd years ago, just having moved to a house with a clothesline and a twig of a tree in the little back yard, I wanted an instant garden. An ancient book, long turned to mulch, had a chapter that suggested one could immediately create a fabulous border by interspersing fast-growing shrubs and annuals with slower-growing perennials, the latter being the plants you eventually wanted to be the stars of your garden. When the permanent plantings matured to your liking, you yanked out the understudies.

Fat chance with My Prince, a borderline hoarder who rarely gets rid of anything. It took me three years to get him to agree to remove a yucca, which did erupt dramatically with great white-flowering panicles bursting from brutally pointed spikes. While such flamboyance is always among my first orders of garden business, this plant, which sat beside the patio dining table, was always unappetizingly covered with ants. If he wouldn’t remove that, how could I talk him into deliberately removing healthy vegetation? I have a hard enough time explaining that annuals are intended to last just one season.

What a waste of money, he says (and says) about buying flats of begonias and impatiens. Sigh. In a way, however, he’s right. There are so many more interesting plants to be gathered, or purloined by stem or seed. One just needs to be willing to wait for results and not weep when he stomps on or yanks them in one of his fits of helpfulness.

Someday I’ll discuss how he learned to edge a path—watching his Uncle Ed, who drove a Cadillac and therefore was to be respected, tame the lines of the walkway to the house. Phooey.

Returning to the subject at hand. The rush for the finished garden no longer matters as over the years I have discovered . . . patience! The excitement of making more plants from bits of those I admire and then eagerly anticipating the results: watching the dirt, waiting for a bud to emerge; fretting that the bud, when it appears, might be a weed, and not even an interesting one—like sometimes weird-looking babies are more captivating than those Gerber types, you know?  They smile at you gummily, not yet realizing they’re not Brad or Angelina, enchanting.

Weeds can be like that too. Last year there were these oddly ugly carroty-topped items that cropped up in the front garden. As I have a habit of lazily strewing seeds before a rain, I thought they could be something. My neighbor Peter and I spent much time standing around contemplating them. As doing nothing is far easier than working, a tactic we both appreciate, I left them alone. And, lo! I was suddenly gifted with lacy stands of Queen Anne’s lace. They’re so invasive they’re said to be nearly impossible to eradicate, which always delights me.

Returning, yet again, to the subject at hand. So many plants multiply with ease.

Once more I offer the wandering Jew, which does yeoman service as filler, wherever it is you need one—hanging basket, window box or border. Stick a stem in soil and there it goes. Sedum is about as easy, fat stemmed and juicy, busily free-flowering. There was a clump overgrowing near the pond that I experimentally clipped last summer, sticking a couple of sprigs into the corners of the window boxes where they quickly went mad, staying green all winter, which is always a blessing, and just now beginning to flower a mildly lively pink.

Geraniums are amazingly easy to propagate. You can make a pretty respectable-looking pot of them, including flowers, in about 10 minutes. Break one apart, dip the stems in rooting compound, stick them in dirt. The end. I have not bought a geranium in years.

A few weeks ago I held my breath and whacked a French lavender of particularly heady scent into two, one part for each of my lower window boxes. They’re doing brilliantly, shooting florets into a spray against the glass.

Along those lines, if a hanging basket of whatever I’m hungering for is cheaper than the market pack, I buy it and gently break it apart, retaining the roots on each clump, then planting the bits, thus making much more out of less. If this seems a stupid tip to you, swell. It took me years to be that daring.

While you can Google any plant for growing tips, Plant Propagation, by Alan Toogood, published by the American Horticultural Society covers it all, with photos and illustrations that make it easy for even the most casual gardeners, a group that includes me.

He covers everything from separating bulbs and gathering seeds, to telling you when you might expect results from your efforts. Some plants take off in days, others take years, which is fine information to have. You can have only so much patience.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh
Read more of Stephanie’s Green Acre posts here.

Green Acre #53: A Garden Feast for Mothers (and Others)

“THERE IS NOTHING like the first hot days of spring when the gardener stops wondering if it’s too soon to plant the dahlias and starts wondering if it’s too late.” Angst about gardening is perennial, so the words of Henry Mitchell, the Washington Post’s Earthman, who wrote his column for 25 years before his death in 1993, live on, and on.

Wise and witty, he’s still being discovered. Take a Google. The number of recent references to him are stunning. Dive right in with The Essential Earthman, because . . . it’s essential.

There are other books that I return to time and again for inspiration; most are still in print—or findable on Amazon.  They tend to verge on the fabulously overblown, which is how I like things.

Thomas Hobbs comes first to mind. The Jewel Box Garden and Shocking Beauty  Dazzlingly photographed, filled with extraordinary juxtapositions of this and that. Flip a page, any page. Here a cobalt blue bowling ball nests beside a terracotta pot, surrounded by orange dahlias. A teal blue pot of nothing startles in the midst of shady garden greenery. If you want drama in the garden, look no further.

Then there’s design legend Tony Duquette (1914-1999), the man who gave me more courage to fake it—though I had a tentative toe in before I actually dropped $75 on the book of his work, written by Wendy Goodman, that carries his name and covers it all. Now I kind of delight in things going wrong. It’s an opportunity for play!

The volume is huge. It makes a great doorstop, when I’m not drooling over pages of insane color and clashes of materials. The man did everything, from interiors to jewelry to stage and movie sets to costumes for the original Camelot. His gardens were the antithesis of serious. Stage sets for the outdoors where plants were rather . . . secondary to his notions.

If you don’t have a garden but wish you did, weep not. Gardenhouse by Bonnie Trust Dahan from Chronicle Books brings the outdoors in, adding garden furniture and ornaments—and a plant or two, or at least a large branch—to every room in the house. I especially love this book in the last dregs of winter, when spring is just over . . . there. But not here yet.

A Day With Claude Monet in Giverny, by Adrien Goetz,  is a smashing present for the gardening pro, the day dreamer or the totally delusional. Beautifully slipcased and splendidly illustrated, this is Rizzoli’s latest addition to Flammarion’s popular “A Day With” series, taking readers through the picturesque French village and on an intimate tour of the artist’s home and the gardens that inspired him.

It’s compact enough to tuck into a bag and serve as a tour guide, should you be lucky enough to be heading to Normandy. My only quibble is that the font used for the text is so bloody small and faint that you might need readers, even if you don’t usually wear them. If the gardens are impossible to replicate, the photos provide an inspirational tutorial on creating a smashing still-life on the sideboard or mantel with jugs, bowls, fruit and flowers.

A couple of weeks ago, Southern humorist Julia Reed was in town, signing copies of her latest opus, Julia Reed’s South: Spirited Entertaining and High-Style Fun All Year Long, at Ann Mashburn, the Georgetown boutique of striking women’s wear with equally striking price tags—which is another story (Ed. note: Indeed it was). Prosecco and cheese straws were served while Julia charmed fans in the sunlit space and I fumbled my cane and dripped my drink attempting to photograph the scene.

Emilie Sommer, buyer for the East City Bookshop, a little gem of a bookstore on Capitol Hill says, “Readers love Julia Reed for her wit and her recipes and they can enjoy lovely photographs as well. This is the perfect book for anyone who appreciates gardens, entertaining, or both.”

Emilie also singles out The Flower Appreciation Society, by a pair of British floral designers, Anna Day and Ellie Jauncey.

There are no tortured and constipated arrangements or preciously displayed single stems to be found. “They instruct on arranging flowers in every way possible, from jars to floral crowns and headpieces,” she says. The flowers pictured flow and blouse this way and that, relaxed, natural and breathtakingly beautiful. Take a drool at their blog.

And then there’s the perfect book for the novice veggie gardener lusting to stuff a wild zucchini. American Grown: How the White House Kitchen Garden Inspires Families, Schools, and Communities,” Michelle Obama’s tale of tilling the White House soil and creating a kitchen garden is a best-seller at the store. “Everyone loves Michelle Obama,” says Emilie, with a wistful grin.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie really loves gardens and gardening books. You can read a year’s worth of her columns (not all at one sitting) by typing Green Acre into the Search box at the top right of the page.

Green Acre #52: Green with Envy Over Yellowwood

Yellow and white peonies in full blousy bloom at the National Arboretum. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

AMERICAN YELLOWWOOD. I’m expecting to be tripping over this tree constantly now. You know how it goes? You’ve never heard of something fabulous and suddenly it’s everywhere, often to the point of never wanting to see another one again.

The prequel. My Prince and I went to the National Arboretum on Sunday and engaged in one of our usual exhausting tête-à-têtes, here in abbreviated form:

“What’s that?” he said, pointing at a white azalea, of which there are approximately 432,000 in bloom in the arboretum, never mind the city.

“An azalea.”

“And that?”

“Another azalea.”

“One’s white and one’s pink?”


“What’s that?”

“An azalea.”

“It’s purple.”

“Yes. This is the azalea garden.”

I’m not getting around too easily, so these comments are being exchanged from the sagging seats of our almost entirely yellow 1987 Mustang convertible, which looks most respectable with the top down. It’s even sportier at high speeds, when the bits of original red paint flash by like sprightly exclamation points, or blood spray. Close observation is not our car’s friend.

The yellowwood tree calls for a splendid picnic in the Arboretum’s rose garden. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

We’re driving because there’s a hip replacement in my near future, a remarkably abrupt disability. There I was, hopping around Havana in late January; now I’m hobbling around with a cane—though I use it, in part, to maximize the drama of my condition. It is also useful for pointing, general gesturing and swiping at the shins of youth, who no longer notice me. Are you at that point yet? No? You will be.

The Prince does not like the cane. It makes him feel old. Him. Old.

We’re also driving because there’s nowhere convenient to park. It’s stupid visiting this place on a Sunday, if you have an option. Eventually we found a spot, reasonably close to the visitor’s center, where yellow and white peonies like blousy daisies nod their heads in a sunny border and the roses, always a destination this time of year, are not too far away. While they’re not yet at their peak—give it another week—those in bloom are heavenly; their scent mingles most delightfully with big pots of citrus: orange and lime and clamondin—a hybrid that falls somewhere between a mandarin orange and a kumquat. All are heavy with both fruit and flower.

While I was sniffing at one such, I looked up and froze. Hovering above me was what looked like a massive white wisteria tree, completely covered with panicles exuding a delightfully soft fragrance— if it were any stronger, one (meaning me) would pass out.

“Yellowwood,” was engraved on the little sign at its base. Have you ever heard of it? As I said earlier, I haven’t, though they’re apparently common as dirt further south.

It’s the kind of tree that demands a picnic beneath its panicles. But not your peanut butter-and-jelly-and-a can-of-Pringles-tossed-in-a-plastic-bag-from-Safeway kind of picnic. Oh no, this is your Dean & Deluca kind of picnic, requiring a woven basket of the sort you strap on the back of your roadster. For $128, plus wine, of course, they have such a one, stuffed with prosciutto, Italian salami, Purple Haze chevre and coconut cashews, among other delicacies.

This feast should, of course, be laid out on a proper blanket, perhaps a white antique cotton popcorn bedspread, with fringes around the edges. I have one which I’m willing to part with for $399.99.

If you have a spot for such a tree, I’d suggest you plant it. I do not, but I know who does. I immediately alerted Baby who has a properly scaled dirt patch to the right of her deck in Raleigh, land of the fried Ho Hos. And she replied, “I’ve seen these! I emailed you last year when I discovered one in Asheville! Oh man, want want want.”

Okay, so, I wasn’t paying proper attention.

Casey Trees, a D.C.-based nonprofit, with the mission to “restore, enhance and protect the tree canopy of the nation’s capital” says, rather gracelessly, that the yellowwood “is recognized as having one of the best flowering displays of flowering trees with its white or pink drooping flowers. Although rare in the wild, the yellowwood is hardy and can easily be an urban ornamental tree as it tolerates a wide range of acidic and slightly alkaline soils.” It can grow 60-80 feet tall, which is apparently medium-sized somewhere else. Consider yourself warned.

They are pricey. The 6-foot to 8-foot trees I’ve come across, in my admittedly brief research, are more than $300. However, planting a yellowwood in DC qualifies for a rebate of up to $100 from Casey Trees, one of the few bargains to be had in this city. A host of other trees also qualify—we got a rebate on a red leaf maple a few years ago.

By the way, the arboretum keeps a calendar of monthly highlights on its website. Besides the yellowwood, the trees and plants that are in bloom right now are said to include rhododendrons, azaleas, flowering dogwoods, crabapples, late-flowering cherries, Japanese-quince, Asian magnolia, woodland wildflowers, tree peonies, lilacs, dove-tree, species roses and spring-blooming camellias.

I suspect that, with this early heat, the lilacs are about over—but if they’re not, the arboretum’s collection is truly one of the greatest shows on earth.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh
Gardener Cavanaugh won’t let a silly hip issue get in the way of her enjoying spring planting.  To read more of her columns, click here.

Green Acre #51: Scents of a Garden

wisteria in full bloom

Wisteria galloping across a roofline. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

THE HOUSE SMELLS  delirious. Flowers blend into a Jo Malone concoction: rosemary, lavender, wisteria, geranium, with a faint underwhiff of dirt filtering through the open windows, filling the house with fragrance. A hint of dirt is a thing, you know, in your costlier, more complex, fragrances.

I’m a little surprised at this pungent kaleidoscope, as the day is chill and damp, not the humid warmth I expect we need to cajole such a lavish bouquet.

The rosemary is doing well in the upper window boxes; there are three across the front of the house. I planted it with some hesitation, late last summer, when my latest notion for a permanent centerpiece had flopped, as usual. While rosemary survives in our gardens, remaining green through the winter, always a plus, the shallower depth of window boxes presents a challenge when the temperature dips below freezing for a stretch. And rosemary can be overpowering, perhaps too much so for a bedroom window.

Don Juan climbing rose and mock orange blossoms

Don Juan climbing rose and mock orange blossoms create a natural bouquet. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

Now pushing two feet tall—really making a statement up there—they turned out to be surprisingly mild, and handy for a stew or two. So I was planning to add a few more to the lower boxes this spring but, as these things happen, while poking about a garden center on Sunday, the Prince and I were gob smacked by a French lavender of particular allure. Rather costly, I thought, at $9 for the pot. But it was large enough to split, which I did, whacking the hard root in two. It’s doing quite nicely.

I’ve gotten surprisingly good at dividing and propagating, but that’s a story for another week.

We also bought sweet potato vines for the box fronts, lovely acid green ruffles that cascade over the boxes and drop, reaching the tops of the lower windows by August. These obscure the fact that some of the geraniums, so cheerfully pink, are fake. This is, as I’ve said at least once before, a neat trick, a floral trompe l’oeil that delights the eye—but only if done subtly, just a few frilly pops of artifice mixed into an honest display of flowers and greens.

So the fragrant lavender floats up to billow around the rosemary, a delightful pairing, and mingles with our neighbor’s wisteria, a massive thing that drifts along her roofline in a flotilla of purple blossoms so voluminous it could threaten North Korea. Hers is the right sort of wisteria (Japanese), as opposed to our wrong sort (Chinese), which howls at us from the depths of the garden, throwing off a meager scentless bloom or two each year—hidden within mountainous foliage. If you’re going to put up with this malicious, highly invasive monster that strangles anything in its path, it should at least bring a sweet-smelling spring flower show. You’ve been warned.

Threading it all together is the absolutely intoxicating scent of the mock orange that blooms beside the pond. I’ve snipped sprigs and branches for vases, scattered about the house, so I can stop here and there and close my eyes and drift.

It all clips by so fast, these April scents. But soon the Don Juan rose that clambers up the back porch railings will be in blood-red bloom, and the honeysuckle that smothers the back fence will add its syrupy note. I don’t like to go anywhere for long this time of year; sitting still and sniffing is such pleasure.

If you’d like to explore scented gardens, the Prince bought me a delicious little book several years ago: Fragrant Designs, from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. There are plants perfect for evening, for the yard and for containers; the needs of each, and growing tips. The reading is almost as tasty as the sniffing.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh
 To read previous columns of our unstoppable urban gardener, search for Green Acre in the Search box at the top of the screen.

Green Acre #50: Would You Hire Me . . .

Above, a neighbor’s Datura in full flower. It’s also called Angel’s Trumpet, either because it’s so beautiful or because it’s so deadly, Datura was the poison du jour in Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder: Miss Marple’s Last Case. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

I AM A NEW MEMBER of the American Horticultural Society. While this sounds impressive, it’s no big deal. Just give them $35 (or more if you’re so moved) and they send you a membership card that you can stick in your wallet. In my case,  the card will immediately fall out and be ink-stained and sticky with jelly bean guts and various other substances that mysteriously lurk in the bottom of my bag, which is neither here nor there, just saying.

The Society’s website says that membership entitles you to a subscription to The American Gardener magazine, discounts at 300 public gardens throughout North America and the Cayman Islands (which I think needs explanation, if not exploration), online member resources, the annual seed exchange and special events.

This weekend is the annual plant fair at the Society’s headquarters, River Farm in Mount Vernon, a 25-acre spread that was once part of George Washington’s estate. The sale, which will include plants and tools, is open to all from noon to 4pm on Friday (with a 10am opening for members), and 10am to 4pm on Saturday. I’m hoping The Prince can be coerced into driving me, as we’ll need to bring the truck for all the completely unnecessary plants I’ll want to buy. I do not have space for one more. . . .

Meanwhile, my first issue of The American Gardener arrived yesterday. It is marked March/April and has articles on small trees and fast-growing vines, which certainly should appeal to a city gardener hungering for a little patch of shade and quick cover for a trellis or wall. While the tree tips are still handy, one finds that one should have started planting vine seeds 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date, which happens to be April 21 around here. And not one of the wildly beautiful vines featured cares for shade, which is my garden’s most prominent attribute.

Perusing the website, between rounds of Candy Crush—I am now at level 1820 and hate to think of how much of my life has been spent getting there—I notice the section for freelance submissions to the magazine and am appalled to find myself woefully unqualified. For someone who writes about gardens, I really know nothing about nothing.

Among the “topics of particular interest” that they enjoy publishing:

Profiles of individual plant groups. I have knowledge of several, but I doubt they’d be interested in how I’ve gone wrong with them.

There are the various lilies that I planted for decades in too much shade. These, I can firmly state, will grow very tall (if they grow at all) and throw off a few flowers and then sit there cluttering a wee shade garden with their twiggish stems, which is an exceptionally boring sight. As is still the case with several other of my miscreant plants, once the flowers were spent I’d wire on “silk” lilies, which were perky all season, if scentless.

The wandering jew? Tradescantia pallid, and its ilk—some are purple, some striped with green, and so on—is so handy for filling spaces where something else has died. Stick your finger in the soil, insert a bit of stem, and water or don’t. They grow like weeds. (If you wander through a garden center, chances are you’ll find a bit of one broken off on the ground. Stick it in your pocket, break it any which way into inch-long sticks, put them in a pot and you’ll have a plant in about a week.)

Mock orange. There are, apparently, 60 varieties of this mammoth shrub, which doesn’t fruit (which is why it’s called “mock”) but does blossom in springtime with hundreds of small white flowers that one hopes smell sweet. I have found you can’t necessarily trust the grower on that last. I planted three before I found one with the honeyed memory I was seeking. Can’t tell you which it is, though, since I lost the tag.

Innovative approaches to garden design. I doubt they’d be interested in my fake flowers, amusing pots and statuary, laser lighting and other tricks I employ to obscure my failures.

Plant research. Well, this I do, and then I ignore the advice, which is why I have so many furiously invasive vines and miserably lanky climbing roses. Plant hunting is a subset of this category, and this I also do; each year buying a number of irresistible plants that I know from my research are doomed.

Plant conservation and biodiversity. My weeds grow like weeds—does that count?

Environmentally appropriate gardening. Snicker. Let us parse the term “environmentally appropriate.”

People-plant relationships (horticultural therapy, ethnobotany, community gardening). I have a relationship with my plants. It is no longer a soothing one, if it ever was. I am now thinking of a condo in Florida, where I sit on a terrace and watch the ocean, which needs no help from me. The thought of community gardening makes me itch. Spell-check does not like ethnobotony, by the way. [Stephanie: That’s cuz it’s ethnobotAny! You’re welcome.] I don’t either. Doesn’t the word have a racist reverberation? Where is this magazine published, anyway?

Plant literature and lore. Yes, well,  I’m always on the lookout for literature that provides disaster-distraction tips; this seems, however, a doubtful topic for this audience. Lore? What does this even mean? How to poison your spouse, as Agatha Christie might, with a lovely datura? That, I suppose I could write about. . . .

They’re also looking for articles that illustrate useful gardening techniques such as “grafting, pollarding, or propagation.”  Right.

One wonders why I write about gardens, not just once, but every week for, as of today, 50 weeks. And that’s only for Birdy here. I have been foisting my floral incompetence on whoever would have me for the last 25 or so years, and expect I’ll continue. I sure wish someone would send me to a spa in Bali or something.

Meanwhile, I’m going to Virginia this weekend and buying a plant, maybe two.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh
LittleBird Stephanie does keep writing about gardening; we just can’t stop her. To read previous columns, search for Green Acre in the Search box at the top of the screen.