November 17, 2022

Lovettsville, VA

Dear Scott,

It says something about my scattered state of mind and work ethic at the moment that I have five half-finished articles up on my desktop and I’m ignoring all to start yet another in the form of a letter to you.  I could go out into the garden and see the same issue mirrored there…but I’d rather not as it is raining a million gallons at the moment – the remains of Hurricane Nicole heading up the coast.

Gold Award

Perhaps you’ve heard…

Those half-thoughts and half-projects will have to wait. Garden or Laptop, I’m not in flow for any of them, and you can’t create when you’re not firmly in that state.  You can do, certainly. You can put your head down and make yourself complete time-sensitive tasks – and you should, and you must – but create? No.  You need unfettered access to the creative, problem-solving mind, and then enough discipline to keep the window open.

Here we go......

Here we go….

It’s probably why you’ve been wandering around the garden half-heartedly dragging hoses.  No flow. And no I’m not referring to one of the numerous disturbing references on aging that were littered throughout your last letter.  I simply get the distinct feeling that you are uncomfortable in a non-creative state. 

I’m not throwing stones, because I sure as hell am.

My unfettered mind is currently fettered by all the thoughts that show themselves two weeks into the glorious fall foliage season. They taint the affair I am rekindling with the garden-lover who spent the summer verbally abusing me.

Hoses, spiggots, ceramic pots, last of the tropicals seeking succor, piles of leaves killing grass and needing a go-over with the mower, generators to test, spider-webs draping windows I can’t reach without a cherry-picker, algae coating stairs and cars and decks (the downside of cool, stream valley living) ….all those things that visit me in the early hours of the morning and sit on my chest and say “Winter is coming Marianne….winter is coming.”

Gold Award

Perhaps you’ve tried to forget…

It’s a shame those thoughts are so pervasive, because otherwise I could drown myself in the sexiness of autumn.  Which is another article I never finished.  About three weeks ago I was lying in bed, deep under a down duvet in the earliest hours, watching the sun slowly illuminate the trunks of trees on the ridge above and feeling a cool breeze on my face gently coming and going from the open window – it was like being kissed awake.

Spring can’t top the richness of those sights and scents; and summer is just one big exciting rave with intermittent hangovers.  And for all its quiet beauty, winter carries a very big stick. The wooden Rungu of the Maasai springs to mind with its polished heavy knob at the end. Beautiful. Deadly.

But alas, November has lost its luster (and lust) and I suppose the article will have to wait for next year.


Susan’s Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ – snapped a pic when I visited her for lunch last week.

However, before I drift away from the topic of autumn, I am in full agreement with you over the extraordinary level of foliage color this year. And in agreement over having no flipping idea why or when or what or how it is made so.  I have often heard that it is tied to moisture levels by those who purport to know what they are talking about, but our contrasting moisture experiences (that is an unfortunate phrase that needs a rewrite) can put that one to bed.

And though day length must affect the initiation of that process, it cannot affect the intensity, as day length is the same every year.  So it’s got to be temperature – and more specifically night time temperature — which has been gentle and lingering with just a few wicked dips. A tender dance.

For the most part, yellow is the predominant theme here from floor to ceiling.  The vast woodlands of tulip poplar, sycamore, pawpaw, and spicebush see to that.  We also have several species of hickory which take ‘Burnished’ to a level that could teach Benjamin Moore a thing or two.  Sassafras is just abundant enough to provide a little red-orange contrast, as do the native dogwoods. 

Thus, my mission in planting for fall color has been to add as much red and orange as possible. Acer, Stewartia, Parrotia, Hamamelis, Cornus…etc.  I’ll be adding your Acer palmatum ‘Koto No Ito’ to the list.  That is one handsome tree.  And here I thought I had the game wrapped up with a A. palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’ and Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’.

Hydrangea quercifolia

H. quercifolia ‘Pee Wee’

If I had to pick one plant for extraordinary color it would be Hydrangea quercifolia – it’s not so much that it is red, but that it is red and green and orange and yellow and whatever else it chooses to be that year – in one leaf.  Honestly this season I swore there were translucent leaves losing all color at their tips – almost cream – while the rest of the leaf blushed deep scarlet.  And it holds its leaves for ages, which must be factored into choosing plants for fall color. 

I grow ‘Pee Wee’, ‘Snow Queen’, ‘Little Honey’, ‘Ruby Slippers’ and the straight species.  And I need to get my hands on ‘Snowflake’ – double-flowered drooping panicles that will break your heart. Do you grow it?

Gold Award

It’s just that I don’t think you won any Gold Media Awards this year, did you?

Re: Collecting and Decollecting Plants.  I am doing similar things, with similar thoughts. Or rather, I have slowed down the collecting and am happily decollecting where it is warranted.  I’m doing the same thing in my kitchen. Intensely freeing and opens up so many opportunities.  I don’t need to have a plant just because someone else thinks I do. Or 126 cookie cutters.

Speaking of freeing, November became No NO NO! social media for me, so I apologize if your recent Facebook overshares have been inexplicably ghosted over the last two weeks. Not that I’m accusing you of counting your likes….

Nessa looking magnificent and blending in with the leaves around here.  She apologizes she hasn’t been following your FB posts either.

Honestly it’s been so fantastic to take a break that it will be hard to get back in harness. Take thirty days off in that world and there’ll be a new platform to learn by the time you get back, your best friend may have had a baby, your father may have climbed Kilimanjaro, your daughter may be three seconds from starting an Only Fans page, and you’d never know because few people ever share information in any way that doesn’t affect the most people for the least amount of effort. 

However, I plan to come back in the saddle and not the harness. One disturbing thing I have realized over the last two weeks is that there is no such thing as people- watching anymore (well, by anyone other than Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg).

No such thing as staring into space – sitting quietly with thoughts. Because that’s what I’ve been doing in lines, on benches, and anywhere else I might have taken my phone out of my pocket.  

It really is exceptionally freeing.  It’s also exceptionally funny/disturbing/dystopic to watch others experiencing their lives behind a phone – either looking at it, or looking through it.

Yes I know I know, my tombstone will read: Here Lies Marianne Willburn. Gardener. Buzz Kill.

Well, buzz or no buzz, flow or no flow, I need to don my slicker and get out to the garden and take out the lantana as they are so unpleasant to look at after the freeze has bested them. 

It’s one of the few faults of tropical and subtropical plants: after a long period of hanging onto their looks, they suddenly go downhill faster than a Hollywood starlet who just paused a 30-year Botox and dermal filler habit. Aging gracefully not in the lexicon I’m afraid; and those you have chosen not to save need to be grubbed out before they take all the attention away from the Audrey Hepburns of the garden.   

Here’s to doing it like Audrey.  Us too.



P.S. One of my metasequoias suddenly graduated from ‘forgotten sapling’ to ‘adolescent with potential.’ Love that burnished orange autumn color, however much others may disparage this fine tree as hackneyed.


Gold Award

Now how on Earth that get in there?