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A Hard-won Prize

Tuesday, July 27, 2021


 I’m not the first to observe that the best thing about plants is making more of them. I may have missed my calling. I could so easily have been a greenhouse rat, a professional plant maven. A tastemaker, a horticultural influencer. I can pretend, anyway. I grow a lot of things, and I pass them on to family and friends like a joyful gnome tossing gold coins from a treasure chest. “Here. You’ve GOT to have this plant. This is the greatest plant. It doesn’t look like much now, but come the end of July, it’s going to send out some hot pink flowers that will drive you mad with joy.”

Speaking of mad with joy...look at this beauty! 

 I have for years been enamored of a hibiscus named Creole Lady, which I ordered from Logee’s Greenhouse easily a decade ago. I’ve seen lots of nice hibiscus, and I love my glorious yellow and red "The Path," but this one, one of the Cajun hybrids, carries special voodoo magic. 

Early in the morning, her sails start to unfurl.  

Then, BAM!

In come the peachy sunset's hard to say what my favorite stage is, but this one, ohh.

 Just before closing, it goes all pale yellow and silver. Amazing. 

My decade-plus love affair with this plant has deepend into a mature "I don't want to live without you" love.

 I like its growth habit, its leaves (dark green and shiny) and its enormous flowers, six inches across, with that bewitching color-changing habit. This is the same flower, at the beginning and the end of a summer day. The progression happens faster when it's hot. 

 By the time the yellow and silver flower falls, a new bud is opening with those heady sunrise tones, and you get to do the whole swoony thing all over again. It’s a drama queen and I love it with all my heart.


I’ve taken many cuttings of Creole Lady over the years, and every single one of them has turned black and died. My impetus to propagate this plant is several-pronged. First, it’s the best hibiscus I’ve ever seen. Second, it’s really hard to find—there is one grower in Florida currently offering it, but he’s usually back-ordered for six months or more. Third, I can’t keep an individual hibiscus for more than five or six years, because they get too big. Like, scraping the greenhouse ceiling big. Tree big. Redwood big. 

 Fourth, my greenhouse is prone to midwinter freezes, when the gas cuts off and everything dies. I have been burned so many times that I’ve learned to keep a small Creole Lady on hand as insurance, one that I can keep in the house during cold snaps, just in case the greenhouse freezes one single-digit night (which is always when it happens). To go from a glorious tree full of coral and violet blossoms to a sad rack of limp rags is Very Hard on the Heart. But it has happened to her, and to me, several times. Such is the gas supply from our well: erratic and faulty.

 This is why I need an understudy coming along all the time. I’m completely neurotic about it, moreso with time, because Creole Lady is getting harder and harder to obtain. When Logee’s stopped carrying it, I ordered one from Winn’s Exotic Hibiscus one January, and finally received a small, spindly plant at the end of June. I had prepaid, but had to remind him that I still wanted it, and then it finally shipped. With endless love and attention, that spindly plant—grafted onto a stronger rootstock, I might add, because it’s so hard to root—is a magnificent three-year-old. And I’m already foreseeing the time when it gets too big to handle, and I will have to replace it with one whose pot I can lift.


You see, there has been a rolling succession of Creole Ladies in my life. What happens with hibiscus in my greenhouse, if they don't die by freezing, is that they all eventually outgrow their welcome. Last January, I finally gave up on the enormous five-year-old Lady who had been frozen down to bare sticks in a gas outage,

 slowly came back into full glory, got huge, 

then became infested last winter with small green aphids that I absolutely could not get rid of. I was spraying that plant twice a day and still it was a living green mat of aphids, infesting everything else in my tiny greenhouse. It was no longer an asset. Attached as I was, I had to get rid of it. But before I dragged her enormous pot out into the snow and kissed her goodbye, I took three small cuttings. It was January 21, 2021.

 Hastening to add that I had an understudy from Winn! or I'd never have euthanized the giant plant.

I washed the cuttings, dipped them in rooting hormone, and put them in clean wet vermiculite in a clean plastic cup. I made a humidity tent with a second clear plastic cup. I provided gentle heat from below with a five watt aquarium heater meant for bettas. The cuttings sat there for weeks, bathed in full-spectrum light from a grow lamp, doing absolutely nothing. Two turned black and died. One stayed green. But it was April 30—three full months—before a tiny white root protruded from its base. You can see the other cutting is black and rotty and dying. That's par for the course. 

 By June—five months later—the lone living one had five roots perhaps a half-inch long. I tried a couple of times to remove the top cup, to get it used to ambient humidity, and each time the leaves wilted like a damp Kleenex, giving me clear indication that it intended to die, and die soon. Back on with the humidity cup. The cutting sulked. The summer got hot and I removed the bottom heater. Still the cutting sat, doing nothing. One day in early July I was alarmed to see two of its leaves turning yellow. They fell off. The stem started turning black. Oh no!! I was desperate. Clearly what I was doing wasn’t working. Time to change things up. 


I removed all but one leaf, reasoning that it would lose less water through one leaf than four. I repotted it and its puny roots in real potting soil, and then I put it outside in light shade on my chipmunk-proof propagation table. It would no longer have a humidity chamber. This plant was on its own. It was now or never. And that cutting started putting out green shoots and then it made new leaves. By golly it was alive!! It was growing! I had my tiny understudy!  It had been agonizingly slow, but somehow I’d blundered through and done it.  (Three year old Creole Lady in back).


Now all I want to do is try again. That was fun. And I am a true masochist. 

But with good reason. LOOK AT THIS PLANT.

My Favorite Room in the House

Wednesday, July 14, 2021


My favorite room in the house isn't even in the house...

I think it's pretty clear that I love where I live. That's what this blog is really all about. I love this part of Ohio, and I love the homestead Bill and I made here. Since Bill died, I've gone at the place with a vigor that surprises me.  I am suddenly and urgently aware that my time on earth is limited, and I'd better make this sanctuary and my home surrounds the best I can while I have the strength and energy to do it. Being sequestered out here alone lit a fire in me to improve my surroundings. Although I've been working hard at this since spring 2019, and had a year's jump on everyone, I think the pandemic starting in early spring 2020 did that to (and for) a lot of people. They launched into home renovation, yardwork, gardening projects, got new pets, maybe started feeding and watching birds. And that part of it was good, the new focus on aesthetics and our surroundings. 

I had to do something. There was so very much to do, most of it having to do with beating back the strangling jungle that had overtaken the grounds. With that sort of semi-under control, I had a little time to look at the house and gardens. There had always been a problem area by the side back door. When the people who built the house lived here, there was a garage in what is now my basement, with a gravel drive leading down to it, and a double garage door on the side of the house. As a result, the ground there is tightly packed gravel. And what happened every time we got a hard rain was that water rushed down over the compacted gravelly soil and right under my basement door. I didn't like that, but I dealt with it for 29 years.

 I dug what I called a Hillbilly French Drain which was a trench that ran across the low part of the lawn, meant to catch the water before it came under the door. It worked pretty well, but when the grass grew back over it, Phoebe and I nearly broke our ankles stepping into it when we went to hang out clothes. That happened more times than I care to remember. 

In this photo you can see everything slopes down to that back side door.
 I got really tired of mowing the corner near that door. I couldn't get the rider mower in there, and wound up having to whack and hand-pull the grass and weeds that sprang up there. Ugh! I hated doing that.

So in January 2021 I had a patio installed, to pave over the problem area and give us an outdoor space to inhabit. In the process, Thomson's Landscaping of Marietta, Ohio installed a real French drain, visible as a black line behind the revelers, with a  system of pipes and gravel and well thought out drainage (pitching the patio to drain away from the house, what a concept!) to preserve the integrity of the basement. 

The kids were thrilled, and we sat on the new patio even in February.

As spring came on and the skies got bluer, Curtis and I would bask out there on sunny mornings. It was heavenly! What a difference some pavers can make! I don't know why it's sooo much more appealing to sit on a patio than on the lumpy grass. It feels official, like you're in a room. Things don't bite and sting your ankles. You can have dinner and furniture on a patio. You feel like you belong there, as if you are Somewhere, moreso than if you just plunk a lawn chair down in the grass.

As the grass grew this spring, I swiftly realized I still had an annoying corner to mow, to the left of the patio. And I had always wanted another flower bed down along that wall of the house. Mo' flowers, mo' betta! So I called Brian at Thomson's again and told him what I was envisioning: a big fat raised bed where I could grow more flowers, and NOT have to mow the dang grass.

I was SO excited when Thomson's was able to stick to the promised schedule and get out here in late June, while I still had some 2021 growing season to play with! Brian designed a kind of modest, slender bed. I stubbornly paced out a bigger, fatter (and far more expensive) one. Yep. That's what I want. Big fat raised bed. I didn't mind having to climb up in it to plant and weed it. I can still do that, so I want to.

As the bed went up, Curtis snoopervised and kept morale high. I saw him getting a lot of lovin's from Chris and Lenny. 

Oh, it was so exciting to see it take shape over the next three days!

When the soil finally went in, Curtis figured it must have been put in for him to dig in! We had made him an excellent Cur Sandbox! 
This dog will do something like this once, just to make me hee haw, and then never do it again.
He knows one doesn't dig up flower beds. He just wants me to know he *could* if he wanted to! 

I couldn't wait. I went to Angel's Greenhouse in Boaz, WV, and found the MOST beautiful plants still for sale. And on clearance, even. Wow. He is such an amazing horticulturist. I felt incredibly blessed to still find great plants for sale. So well cared for, they were totally rootbound but not showing it in the least.

I also found some really groovy "Magellan" dwarf zinnias at Lowe's, planted five to a pot. I love zinnias almost as much as the butterflies do. Bought two pots of them and sawed them into five parts with my garden knife, then planted the liberated plants in long planters to ready them for the big new bed. I babied and watered them in the shade while the bed was being constructed.

A couple of Salvia victoria that had to be dug up were given the same treatment. 

Finally, the new bed was filled with soil and ready to plant!!

Chris tells a story on Lenny, concerning a prank he played with the ultra-stinky compost mulch that darkens the top of the beds. But don't miss Curtis' star turn as lover and digger in this little clip. I loved having these guys work here, playing Creedence and swamp rock on their portable radio.

I put everything in the evening the bed was finished. I was ready, Eddie! 

What fun. I had dreamt of doing something with this side of the house for years, but never pulled the trigger. Now was the time. It had gone from a weed bed with scattered stepstones to a place someone would want to linger. It was thoroughly civilized. Please admire that sharp corner. Lenny split the blocks with a chisel so they'd appear hand-hewn like the rest. Niiice.

While they were at it, Chris took it upon himself to clean up the lines around my pond area. What a difference that and a little mulch made! 

If I'm guilty of anything, it's not having enough negative space around my plantings. 
I need to work on that. Things get way too crowded. I could divide and thin everything and have bushel baskets of plants to get rid of. 

I waited to plant the existing bed until I got the new one in. Glad I did. I wanted them to color coordinate.

Inasmuch as anything I do is color coordinated...what I do is throw together as much color as possible.

I couldn't resist adding a few more cockscomb, these new ones sort of spiky and purple. Liam can find the scent in any flower, and sure enough they were fragrant. I watched them for awhile at WalMart and saw they were full of bumblebees, which tipped the balance for me. (In late June and July, I get my colorful annuals wherever I can).

Some visitors to the new beds, attracted by the Very Stinky Mulch, included a Virginia Giant
hoverfly (Milesia virginiensis)

also known by its folk name, News Bee, for the way they hover in front of your face as if they have something important to tell you...

and one that was new to me, a Rainbow Beetle (Tarpela micans) whose name should be self-explanatory. Wowwweeee.

With the disturbance, Fak the copperhead was temporarily routed from a resting place in the old flower bed, and moved peacefully and slowly to his crack in the patio.

So this is the story of my new patio, and my Big Fat Bed, and my new favorite room (on) the house!
When I have a choice, I'll always choose to be outdoors. The view is so much better. 

I have been watching the private lives of a pair of orchard orioles and their fledglings. 
I've learned a lot.

Inhabiting that new room for all I'm worth. 
It's a good life, and I'm thankful to be here to live it.


Phoebe is 25!

Sunday, July 11, 2021


It's all here, waiting for you, my dear. The Three Graces are watching, shading their eyes against the sun, watching for your car to come around the sharp curve.

                The barn swallows are waiting, standing on the picnic table, watching out the driveway.

Fak is in his crack, waiting for the familiar fall of red hair, the smiling face that means Phoebe is home! 

The indigo bunting watches from the post Daddy put up so many years ago. He sings to while the time away. 

Curtis waits breathlessly. Will she still remember me? 

Is she ready for cur kisses?

Your beautiful brother awaits his best friend and sister, rolled in one.

The house, scrubbed to within an inch of its life, is waiting, too, and the butterfly weed is at peak. 
Calling all fritillaries to gather around for the birthday girl!

 The flamingos were hung by the tractor with care, in hope that Young Phoebala soon would be there. Out on the lawn they'll go for your birthday dinner!

You've been so very far away, halfway 'round the world, in landscapes so strange, rugged and beautiful.

Visiting your true love, hoping to be together for good soon.

You've sent pictures home that made our hearts glad.

It's been one heck of a summer. Who has a summer like this? Only you! The rest of us are home, mowing our lawns, pulling weeds, and drinking lemonade.

Wherever you end up, I hope you're not too far from the sea.
You don't want to keep a mermaid, schooled in oceanography, from her element. 

Or, for that matter, a merman! May you be together for good, and soon!

I wish Oscar could come to your party. I'd tell him to bring a sixpack.
On second thought, we could use a case of that. He is a man of substance, soul, skill and kindness. 
And please bring the sweet pooch Arafo! We miss him too!

I love how you keep your heart just for him, locked away, safe
but ever open to the charge of nature, which always restores.

All this is to say I'm in awe of you, honey. The way you navigate your life is something to behold. The choices you make, the way your forge off on your own path. Your sense of place, and the way you fully inhabit a place, finding everything to love about it.

 I can't wait to see what your life's next chapters will hold. 
You do your dad proud with your logistical mind, and your drive to excel.

In work and life, always doing more than is called for 
makes doors fly open whenever you knock.

We're waiting for you, back on the farm

The beauty farm, the place where you became you

Beautiful, with-it, Apgar 10-scoring you.

Oh, what 25 years will do.

Now you're home, and you've checked in to the spa where all you have to do is eat, sleep, love, laugh, and drink it all in. It's been one heck of a journey from North Carolina to Atlanta to Boston to Lisbon to Tenerife to La Gomera and back. 

Happy birthday, sweet Phoebe. Love, Mai


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