peony3Things have been rough at work lately.  Test scores have plummetted, students are troubled, many teachers are talking mutiny or early retirement.  Morale is generally in the toilet.

On the drive home from work, I find that stopping for a large chocolate chip cookie and a Frappuchino from Starbucks is often just the pick-me-up I need to transition from work to home, where I will be greeted by a gregarious old yellow lab and a still-very-wiggly seven-year-old boy, both of whom will be requesting play and attention.  (The martini, slippers, and newspaper are nowhere in sight!)

Anyway, lately I have been indulging in another covert little ritual before I enter the house, which helps my cares float away almost as well as a cookie or a martini. 

Only this ritual isn’t fattening!

See what I do is, I pull into the driveway and get out of the car kind of quietly.  I don’t slam the car door too hard because if I announce my presence, dog and boy will likely come bounding out of the house to greet me, which is totally sweet and everything, but this particular little ritual requires solitude and quiet.  So here it is:

I grab my purse and keys, but instead of going in the house right away I tiptoe into the side yard where I have planted a little cloister of scented plants — peonies, roses, some scented geraniums.  Bordered on one side by a tall hedge of evergreens and on the other by our house, this little area is completely private — no neighbors or pedestrians can peer in.  And in the afternoon it is drenched in golden sunshine, so fragrances are at their peak. 

All it takes is a minute or two meandering down the walkway, bending down to smell the ‘Festiva Maxima’ peonies, drinking in the warm perfumy smell, to begin loosening that hard little knot of stress that I often bring home with me. I move on to the ‘Therese Bugnet’ rose, lighter, sweeter, and fruitier than the peony.  This particular specimen is kind of gangly, and the blooms themselves are nothing to write home about aesthetically, but the aroma has earned this rose a place in my garden. 

If I’ve had a really bad day I will also crouch down and breathe in the amazing spicy fragrance of Geranium ‘Biokovo’.  If an especially strong hit is needed I brush the leaves with my hand a little.  From a distance this geranium appears to  just sit there at the base of some shrubs, minding its own business, but it offers an incredible treat for the nose if you bother move in a bit closer.

Yup, a few moments alone in the sunshine sniffing flowers and I’m ready to face whatever awaits me indoors: dirty dishes, cluttered tabletops, games of Candyland, bring it on!

The older I get, the more I appreciate how things smell.  I know that sounds a little weird, but it’s true. 

My mother, age 78, no longer has a sense of smell.  Several years ago, she was out taking a walk and fell, hitting her head on the sidewalk.  The blow left her with a long scar over her eye and apparently scrambled some olfactory nerves.  She cannot smell the food she cooks for Sunday dinners, she cannot smell her favorite Bath and Bodyworks lotion, and she cannot smell flowers.  (On the positive side, she also cannot smell skunks, dog-doo, or burnt popcorn, so it’s not all bad.)

If you had to lose one of your senses, I suppose your sense of smell would be the least devastating, but still, it’s a loss.  And now that I have become a gardener, I think that missing out on fragrance would be a serious loss indeed.

This past weekend I visited a local farmers’ market with my husband and son.  The vendors set up their stalls in the large parking lot of a train station, so it’s not exactly the most bucolic setting.  But as we drove into the lot in my husband’s Mustang (top down) we were greeted by the most divine fragrance!  It just came pouring over us.  The source?  Mounds of honeysuckle at the edge of the woods that bordered the concrete lot.  The stuff was just smothering the poor trees, and I know it’s mega invasive, but Lord did it ever bring some joy to that sad old parking lot on a June morning.  Drinking it in, I remembered the vine that grew on our chain-link fence growing up.  I remember plucking the flowers, pulling the stamens out, sucking the nectar off the petals.  Is this a universal childhood memory?  Long live honeysuckle.

Another time that I was pleasantly assaulted by fragrance was on a long road trip to Canada a few years ago.  There were five of us crammed in the car for the eleven hour drive to Niagara Falls — including two teenagers and a cranky toddler.  The mood had been soured early by a speeding ticket I’d received on the Pennsylvania Turnpike (that whole highway is a trap!) and so tensions were high when we stopped somewhere in New York to switch drivers.  We’d pulled over onto a small gravel shoulder at an exit, and when I got out of the car I was bowled over by it.  Sweet heaven! Utter deliciousness in the air!  I looked up.  Towering over us was an expansive grove of black locust trees, the creamy blossoms exploding with scent.  What I remember thinking: I want to stay here.  I don’t want to get back in the car.

The longer I garden, the more I appreciate and plant for fragrance — even if, as with peonies and roses, it is short-lived.  Interesting smells –whether they are soothing, provocative, romantic, whatever — add that layer which elevates a garden from a mere place to an experience. 

Planning a garden to please the nose is harder than planning a garden to please eye.  Year-round color? No problem!  Year round fragrance?  Much harder.  Right now I have a big gap between my Sarcococca and my Fothergilla, and November-January is basically a dead zone smell-wise. 

Besides the ones I’ve mentioned, my smelly plant list includes: lavender, sweetbay magnolia, kolkwitzia, lindera (when you crush the leaves they smell like Pine Sol), Pink Dawn Viburnum, and various herbs and annuals in the summer.  I would love to hear any recommendations you all have for fragrant plants to assist me in the expansion of my aromatic paradise.

The Optimism of Tiny Trees


I have a vivid memory of eating a Red Delicious apple when I was seven years old and, afterward, regarding the dark seeds embedded in the core.

I asked my dad if I planted one of the seeds would we get apples on our own tree next year?  No, he said.  Not next year.

Then when?  

Dad guessed it would take about seven years. 

I would love the next part of the story to be that I planted a seed that very afternoon, that I grew up with the sapling that emerged, that I was married under that tree twenty years later and that I make pies from the fruit every fall.

But what I actually thought when my dad told me that was: seven years — that’s forever!  I would be fourteen before the tree got big enough to produce apples (never mind that its apples would probably be more like sour golf balls since it wouldn’t come true from seed).  The idea of waiting so long for the payoff of planting an apple seed was inconceivable.  I couldn’t even conceive of myself seven years into the future.

To plant a tree from seed, even a modest one like an apple, is no small thing.  To plant the seed of a grand shade tree, like a white oak, now that is a real leap of faith. Knowing you’ll never see its ultimate grandeur, knowing that it will outlive you, your children, maybe even your grandchildren – to plant that seed is a gift, an act of sheer optimism.

To this day, I’ve never planted a tree from seed, though I’ve planted many small saplings, and I’ve found that even the saplings require an abundance of patience, an ability to delay gratification that I’ve only acquired in mid-life. 

I’ve had a tiny paw-paw, a volunteer transplanted from a client’s garden, growing in my backyard for the last three years. I’ve got it planted in the shade and it’s taking its time. Each year it puts out about five pretty green leaves. This year there might be six. I’m losing patience, but I really want those Zebra Swallowtail butterflies, whose larva feast on paw-paw leaves. For now it stays.

Last summer I planted another baby tree, a wee ‘Cherokee Brave’ dogwood that’s now about thigh-high.  It leans a little, and its broad leaves are way out of proportion to its spindly trunk.  It has the same comical look as those skinny teenage boys you see who have huge feet and hands.  It hasn’t grown into itself yet.

One day it will reach fifteen, maybe twenty feet, with rosy blooms arrayed along its stretching limbs. I can see it.  One day I will look up at it instead of down.  Will that take longer than seven years? 

In seven years I will be forty-nine. 

No sweat.

*I meant to have this post written in time for this month’s Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Trees, but alas, I was tardy.  But please take some time to read more about Trees from my fellow garden writers:

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN


I Gotta Git Me One o’ These Outdoor TVs

While reading the latest issue of Better Homes and Gardens, I stumbled upon a new (to me) trend in outdoor living:

Outdoor Televisions!

Phew!  It’s about time.  I was getting so bored and fidgety just sitting out on my patio with, like, no electronic devices whatsoever, wasting lazy summer evenings in quiet conversation with family or watching the birds and butterflies. 

Have a fancy beach place?  I am sure you are sick and tired of staring out into the azure sea, letting the rhythm of the breaking waves rejuvenate your spirit.  Those days are over, my friend, because now you are free to ignore the beauty of God’s creation and tune into The Kardashians on your very own al fresco TV set!

Now that’s living!

Growing weary of the happy splashing and laughter of kids playing outside in the water?  Hey, no problem, that’s nothing an 80-inch LCD screen installed poolside can’t fix: 

Your kids will be sedentary and mildly depressed in no time!

I like this next set up a lot:

Hot-tubs are no longer about such things as “romance” or “intimacy” — no, your hot-tub experience is not complete unless you have a giant digital television peeping up at you over the hedge.  Make sure to position it so that it looks like it wants to get inside the tub with you and appears sad that you’re not inviting it in.

Here’s my favorite:

Why watch The Big Game on your embarrassing little 90″ screen in one of the sixty comfortable rooms of your giant white mansion, when you can watch the action on a fifteen foot screen out in the blistering sun in the middle of your featureless grounds?  This TV is a bit steep at $620,000 but they throw in the trained Irish Setter for free to make you appear a bit more humanized and less like the materialistic and vapid creature that you are.

Woo-hoo!  Let’s hear it for Trends in Outdoor Living!

Is Designing Solo the Best Way?

Photo Credit: US Mission Geneva

Photo Credit: US Mission Geneva

In the Final Comprehensive of my Landscape Design Course, we had to work in teams of three. I was in a group with two other talented people (both professional designers), and our task was to redesign a small park on the campus of GW.

We brainstormed. We sketched. We had meetings — many, many meetings. We discussed. We argued. We tried to change one another’s minds and we attempted compromise.

[Read more...]

Where’s Walnut?

Some of you may have been wondering what has happened to Black Walnut Dispatch over these last few months. Why so few posts? Has Mary been ill? Has she been writing a book? Has she been involved in some amazing new garden project?

Loyal reader, I shall now reveal to you the reasons for my blogging negligence. Without further ado, here is what I have actually been doing lately instead of blogging:

[Read more...]

Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Memory and Plants

I’ll I’ll be honest.  I had a hard time figuring out how to approach this topic.  As I have mentioned before, I am New Dirt and not Old Dirt, meaning I do not come from a long line of gardeners, but rather picked up this obsession at age 36 with no influence from parents or grandparents.  Like Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, my conversion to a life of gardening was sudden and complete.  (Whether or not Constantine was pruning Euonymus at the time of his revelation, as I was, is not clear.)

[Read more...]

The Art of Abandonment

A few miles south of where I live there’s an old DC prison complex which used to be known as Lorton Reformatory.  Several years ago, they shut the place down and transformed a few of the larger buildings into a new “Arts Center” where painters, sculptors, and other creative folks can rent studio space and teach classes.

[Read more...]

The Designs in My Mind

“I have a new vision for the backyard.”

I say this to my husband as I gaze out the kitchen window, assessing the lawn, trees, and borders. It is all unsatisfactory! All of it!

He looks at me with suspicion as he sips coffee. My urge to create new territory is not new territory for us.

“Does it involve ripping out something you’ve already planted?” he asks.

How much should I tell him?

[Read more...]


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