Lovettsville, VA

May 7, 2022

Dear Scott,

As much as I hate to stress you out with yet another ambiguous deadline by immediately answering your letter, I find I have so many thoughts about it that it is simply impossible not to. 

I think you summed up March in the MidAtlantic/Midwest/Northeast quite succinctly.  In reference to my bravery for walking professionals around my garden during the Mud Time, what do you think the Prosecco was for? I couldn’t very well stop you – my only hope was to dull your senses.


That’s more like it – syneilesis, geranium and brunnera in April

 “Some ugliness in evidence” is a magnificent understatement – many thanks for pulling your punches.  As we donned our boots, our coats, hats, wet-weather gear, bear-repellent, and rose-colored glasses and walked outside, you reached for your good camera. Bless your heart.  

“Will I need this?” you said, half-serious, almost daring me to say yes. Your good camera I’m afraid was not up to the task. Even Nessa, stately and regal in her Irishwolfhoundedness looked bedraggled and beaten through your lens (though that could be an operator issue). My heralded black fence stood out like an unfortunate pimple on the stubbly face of an adolescent boy. No you didn’t need your good camera my dear, unless it was to shame me. 

Wait just a minute……

Cinnamon fern — awarded Best Emerging Foliage every year here.  Here nestled into some lamiastrum.


March is winter pretending to be spring, and not doing a good job of it.  It’s also the only time other gardeners have to visit one’s garden because they are so desperate to get away from their own which they know they’ll be bound and shackled to for the next three months.  In fact, visiting other people’s gardens in April, May or June casts suspicion on your own credentials as a gardener.

Nevertheless, I’ve been doing a lot of visiting other people’s gardens in April — pics below — and am just about to do something quite unexpectedly wonderful in that same line. More about that in a second.

gardeners in garden

Walking one of the best gardens in Virginia – Bill and Linda Pinkham’s garden overlooking the James River.  Linda is a daylily breeder – Bill, a talented potter, and the couple started and ran Smithfield Gardens Nursery for many years – a mecca for treasure-hunting gardeners. 


Brent and Becky heath

Brent & Becky Heath – Becky couldn’t join us at the Pinkhams because she was working her tail off putting gorgeous summer bulb orders together for customers all over the country. World’s hardest working woman. I had to stop by and say hello on the way home. [This photo also serves as the reminder you asked for to order more bulbs for fall. Now.]

daffodils with brent

Each of Brent’s cultivars has a story – a child’s name, a favorite employee, a associative memory – it was a rare treat to walk with him picking flowers and hearing the history of each.


daffodil cut flowers

And this is why we must say yes to visiting other people’s gardens even when our own is calling.


harper garden

Pam Harper’s garden in Seaford, VA awakening in the early morning hours. Pam is the author of Color Echoes and Time Tested Plants and three other excellent books.  Still tending this massive garden at 92!


An earthly paradise in Seaford – the herons were nesting in the trees, fighting over territory in the early hours.


Ripley Garden in the rain

Playing in the rain with Janet Draper and her magnificent Ripley Garden just off the National Mall in DC. Steve Owens comes out every year from his remarkable nursery – Bustani Plant Farm in Stillwater, OK, to deliver GORGEOUS plants (specializing in a lot of tropical color) to the US Botanic Garden, The Ripley, Chanticleer, Meadowlark, and private estate gardens. Just one man and a superstuffed van. Great day. Got some amazing plants.

The truth of March is self-evident and I cannot deny the ugliness, the muddiness, the mess, and your words; but, just as gently criticizing the partner of a friend who is complaining about that partner will elicit an immediate defensive response that will leave you gasping for breath in its viciousness, I have found myself walking around the garden, snapping quick photos and muttering “How’s THAT for ugliness Scott?!?” Or “Not so ugly NOW, is it Scott?!?” Ah the human brain…what a thing it is.

Still, I find it outrageous that you should come to me in March and I to you in July.  Completely and ridiculously unfair.

So many wonderful things have happened round here since your visit, quite literally the day after.  Three wonderful things in fact.

The first was the professional re-grading and graveling of the area outside the barn – you know, where we dodged puddles and squelched our way over to other, slightly less ugly spots?  We have been putting off this job for a long time, knowing it to be expensive, and somewhat ugly itself.  It’s so tough to spend money on something that doesn’t feel like a luxury – re-roofing a house or replacing a heating unit are similar jobs – and quite contrary to what the moneychangers of DC think, money does not droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven round here. Every penny is counted.

However, the wonderful thing about this wonderful thing was that it DID feel like a luxury once it was finished.  It rained hard that evening and in the morning I walked down to the barn in my slippers marveling at the fact that I could.  Dry, dry as a bone.  Well, a fresh, slightly damp bone in any case.  I did a quick run with the ancient golf cart to get a load of wood from the woodpile (we had gravel laid to form a lane back there too), and to my delight I wasn’t forced to participate in a Monster Truck Mud Madness event as per usual. Absolute BLISS.

gravel drive

The day after you left. A vast ugly expanse, yet incredibly beautiful if you know what the alternative is. That little coral-barked maple in the foreground is doing well after being laid flat on the ground by the floodwaters. But as you can see, March takes the last of the “winter interest” out of everything. One of winter’s star performers, dull as an old penny.

Once this has had a chance to pack down a bit, we will dress it with more expensive pea gravel, but honestly the blue crush and run gravel is not as bad as I imagined.  It has outlined the different perimeter beds, and by laying the lane back to the woodpile too, the serpentine bed is also defined on its back end (which is a damn sight more than most of us can say these days).

Also, after discussions with the grader, it looks like we can go ahead with building a second pergola after all to create a courtyard here.  I was going to extend the hügelkultur to protect the barn from extreme and rare flooding, but it turns out that in this spot it is best to allow the water (if it comes) to flow slowly and shallowly over a wider space, decreasing its rage.  However I did get a grader’s stamp of approval for my existing berms and hügelkultur which saved the vegetable garden and other plantings further up stream. It’s all a matter of stages, working toward a vision.

gravel and barn

And a quick snap today. After about two inches of rain yesterday, there are only tiny puddles remaining.

The second wonderful thing that happened was that, just before you came, I was given a fabulous gift of over 2000 snowdrops from a friend who knew of an old property going under the chop and who had permission to take shovelfuls of them.  Fat, glorious bulbs.  Actually there were still a cool thousand sitting in the garage whilst we were sipping mimosas and scarfing scrambled eggs upstairs.

This wonderful thing must be seen in two ways: A) The possession of that amount of snowdrops, free of charge and rich with provenance; and, B) The obviousness and cost-effectiveness of the fact that with all the other things going on around here, I simply had to hire someone to help me get them in before they dried up.

That second bit is important. It meant that I hired someone.  To work in the garden.  Huge.

That second bit is also important because it leads to the third wonderful thing that happened after you left.

Lovely Sara planted snowdrops as I weeded and pruned and generally tried to wrestle this place into a state of post-March; and in between battery chargings for the Power Planter auger which I gave her to plant them (#notanad – #noseriouslytheydidn’tpayme), she would help me.  She’d even move mulch to cover the bits I had weeded, and then she would move on to clean up the outlined, but as yet uncultivated mess of the Serpentine bed, thus freeing me of the self-same job (which, quite frankly I’ve given up on until I finish planting it).  I found myself hoping the batteries would charge a little slower as I watched the outline of that bed truly emerge, free of chickweed and despair.

The PowerPlanter. Unbelievably useful.

Scott I was hooked like a junkie on heroin.  I started to think of the things I could sell in the barn – in my living room – to keep this glorious high going.  Sara has come twice since then but sadly, this profligate nonsense must now end until perhaps the autumn.  But at least I got a taste of it…I sampled the joy of saying “could you clean up x” or “plant those there.” My sadness in losing the high of it is balanced I think by knowing that those who grew up with that sort of thing from birth can never experience the profound joy of it. I actually feel sorry for them.  And then I don’t.


One other thing that happened round here – new chickens. But after all these years, ready-to-lay pullets. What a miracle! Laying the week after they arrived.  These are Red Stars – a cross between White Rocks and Rhode Island Reds – and extremely tame.

Yes, the money must go for other things…including the other news I have for you.  A ridiculously last minute trip to the UK to attend the May Great Dixter symposium!  I cast off the chains of middle age when presented with a cancellation spot and said “Yes!”  I’ve been tracking those symposia since the children were small and so was my garden. I even considered faking my own death and attending with whatever credit cards I could find in the house, but figured Mike would clue in to the international charges and send Interpol and it would get embarrassing. Handcuffed at Dixter – hmmmmm. Yes, this was the better way – just needed to wait fifteen years till my student loans were paid off.

Which we did. By ourselves. With great sacrifice. Just sayin’

I’ve been thinking about the Dixter symposia since back in these days – Here am I with little ones at Oatlands Estate in nearby Leesburg, Virginia, having just walked them around the four acre walled garden, plied with sandwiches and threats. Damn they were cute.

Oh I shall be unbearable when I get back – I think I may come out to Cultivate in July simply to bore you with all the details.  I tried to get hort friend and fellow travel nut Andrea Gasper to come with, but she selfishly put her son’s graduation ahead of staking perennials in Sussex.

However, unbeknownst to me, the hilarious, witty, and way too much fun, Leslie Harris of Into The Garden With Leslie Podcast fame cast off the same chains at the same time (there were two spots available).  From the discussion we had on her newest podcast about it (drops May 14th), we are going to have to work hard at not giggling in the back of the class. The thought of Fergus Garrett letting 12 random strangers touch any part of Dixter except maybe a weedy patch in the neighboring field or one of the habitat piles makes me grin (in sympathy).  Methinks we will be heavily chaperoned less we break the Dixter magic. 

Mentally I feel twenty-five again. Pity my back doesn’t know it.



P.S. Please treat Michele well tomorrow on Mother’s Day.  It’s not fair that she should be lumbered with a sixty-plus-year-old child when she works so hard.

P.P.S  Oh and the Chelsea Flower Show is part of that trip.  Yes, I shall be unbearable.

irish wolfhound

Nessa patiently waiting for the ducks to leave before she steals her breakfast egg.