About Mary Gray

I am an avid gardener and have had a long fascination with landscapes, both natural and man-made. I recently acquired a fancy new dSLR camera -- which I am completely unqualified to use -- but I hope to use this blog to record my upcoming photographic adventures. Perhaps with enough practice I'll be able to produce some Ansel Adams-ish photographs, but in the meantime I'll probably be posting a lot of pictures of my own garden. With enough Photoshop manipulation, I can probably get it looking pretty good.

Corona Garden Diary 4/4/20: Tent City

On a drive through the neighborhood today, I noticed that two large tents had been erected in the front yard of one house.

Neat, I thought.  What a great way to keep the kids entertained during the shutdown.  Setting up the tents, decking them out with makeshift furnishings, imagining the tents are Indian teepees or castles — that would keep the kids occupied for hours!

Then my thoughts turned a bit darker as I imagined a different possibility.  What if the tents didn’t belong to the kids but to one of the parents?  What if the family togetherness  just got to be too much and Mom or Dad finally decided to social distance themselves right out of the house?

I wondered…..what possible scenarios could drive a person to flee the ones they love and take up residence out by the mailbox for a few days/weeks/months?  A couple came to mind:


“Mom, you know how you’re always talking about how I should take initiative?  I’ve decided to start a You Tube channel featuring my sick drum skills.  So I just have to set up my kit in the family room, mmmkay?”

“Honey, I have decided that now is finally the time to become a Sourdough Bread Artisan.  I will just need to keep this bowl of festering goo in the fridge for the next 10 weeks. Oh, and ignore the giant stack of dirty baking pans in the sink.  I will take care of those at some point in the future.  Now let’s watch TV together for 16 hours while the dough rises.”


***toilet flushes***

“How many squares of toilet paper did you use?”

What? I don’t know.”

“Well, it better not have been twenty, like last time!  We need to ration!”

“I am not going to ration my toilet paper.  I live in an advanced civilization.”

“You won’t be saying that when you’re using rye bread to wipe your butt.”


“Hey, are you serious?  You didn’t refill the water reservoir in the Keurig after your last cup of coffee??”

“Are you serious?  We’re in a pandemic, and you’re keeping track of who fills the water reservoir?”


“Look at that dirt you tracked in the house.”

“We’re in a pandemic, and you’re worried about a few specks of dirt?”



“Did you wipe that box of crackers with Chlorox before you put it in the pantry?”


“Did you wipe the grocery bags?”


“Thank you for the BLT.  Did you wipe the tomato with Chlorox?”

“Did you want me to wipe the tomato with Chlorox?  Do you want to die?”

“Do you want me to die?”

“Do you want me to want you to die??”

***death stares***


“So how was your online meeting?”

“Really rough.  I need to relax now.  Will you bring me a lemonade?”

“Oh, sure, sure.  Hey, I could overhear your meeting.  It’s funny, your boss sounds a lot like Gordon Ramsay.”

“Heh-heh.  Yeah, okay….so?  Maybe he does sound like Gordon Ramsay.  What’s your point?”

“Does your boss scream at you and call you a donkey??


“Uh-huh.  So which team are you on at work?  The red team or the blue team?”


“I rolled a six.  That means I get to take twenty-four of your peasants and expand my feifdom into Dad’s territory.”

“No, you can’t take his peasants unless you have a vassal card.”

“What??  I hate these European games! Where does it say that in the rule book?”

“Chapter 14, section 5.”


So if you notice tents starting to pop up around your neighborhood, consider who might be inside.  If you see tricycles and bags of Skittles scattered in the grass, that’s one thing.  But what about that tent littered with Terra Chips wrappers and Bartles & Jaymes empties?

And is that a little white flag poking out and waving slowly in the April breeze?




Corona Garden Diary 4/1/20: You’re Wearing THAT?

In these difficult times, it’s only natural to take a step back and reflect on what’s truly important.  Your family, your friendships, your health, sure, sure…but let me ask you this:

Is your gardening wardrobe meeting all of your needs — practical, emotional, and spiritual?  Is your gardening attire suitable to wear during a possible global economic meltdown but also fashion forward?

Or are you still going outside every day in that disgusting t-shirt from that Fun Run you did in 1996?  If so, let’s get to work on that.  What else do you have to do?

I think you will find this next image inspiring.  It’s an ad that appears at the back of my English Garden magazine in almost every issue, and it shows how those clever Brits have eclipsed us Yankees not only in gardening but in gardening fashion!


Man: “My shovel has disappeared into the mist.”  Woman: “Nigel, come back to the yurt.  I made scones.” 

Just because the man is wearing the same outfit your great-uncle Jimmy wore as a dockworker in Baltimore in 1935, just because he looks like he is about to walk into a pool hall and punch somebody in the face, doesn’t mean he’s not the pinnacle of garden style.  It’s the 21st century! If you aren’t wearing work clothes made from wool or flax — or spun from straw — you will simply not be trending.

Notice what it says in the text about how this couple is going to pass these bespoke garments on to the next generation.  Can you say the same about those Hanes sweats you wear out in your sad flowerbeds?

Check this out.  Here is the couple’s only son. It didn’t bother him that mum and dad didn’t pass along their vast seaside property; he is happy to have inherited the tan pants.gardenclothes2

He would be smiling except that the wool overshirt has caused excruciating rashes all over his torso.  But like a true Brit he keeps calm and carries on: through weeds, viruses, Brexit, or dismal English weather.

Friends: the lesson learned is that we can overcome any obstacle as long as we stick together and as long as we are properly attired in heritage rural workwear.



Corona Garden Diary 3/30/20: No, April isn’t Canceled

In the wake of Virginia governor Northam’s stay-at-home order today, I saw a headline that said “April Canceled.”


Clusiana tulips ‘Cynthia’.  They close up when the sunlight starts to fade.  When they are open they are yellow.  When they are closed they are pink.  I like these little pink spears.



Blue & Gold.  My old high school colors.


Wood poppy.  (Stylophorum diphyllum) Another “good spreader”


Redbud ready to pop

DSC_2357 (2)

Epimediums are a terrific groundcover.  Here they are growing right at the base of a black walnut.  They spread slow but steady.


Solomon’s Seal.  A steady spreader.  I started with 4 plants 3 years ago.


New foliage on Oakleaf hydrangea with last fall’s burgundy foliage hangin’ on.


April canceled?  The gardens have not gotten the message.

Corona Garden Diary 3/25/20: Good Spreader/Bad Spreader

It all started out innocently: a tiny plant that hitchhiked its way into my yard in the pot of a coralberry bush that I purchased from a nursery a few years ago.  I planted the coralberry in the fall, and in the spring I was delighted to find a robust new perennial with starry yellow blooms growing beneath it.

By the end of that first summer, there was a healthy patch.  Believing I had found a perennial groundcover that actually thrived in my difficult backyard, I enthusiastically transplanted patches of this plant in about five different places.  And that is where the story takes a disturbing turn.

The following spring (May 2018), the original location looked like this (it’s the groundcover to the right of the path):


The epicenter 

I was soon to learn the name of this intruder: Packera aurea, also known as Wuhan Golden Groundsel.  Ha.  Actually, this interloper happens to be a North American native, and I have seen it touted on quite a few blogs and articles as a great native groundcover. I suppose it could be, but based on my experience I would put a giant asterisk next to this recommendation.  If you plant it, plant it in only one place and then watch it!  I have spent the last couple of years trying to flatten the curve on the spread of this plant, which for me has been rampant and exponential.

DSC_2342 It is a pretty plant in some situations, but it also has the potential to look rather weedy, as above (though the struggling Skip Laurel doesn’t help this tableau).  In a woodland garden, a few patches of it would be delightful, but in my semi-shady-but-not-quite-woodland backyard, it has spread like a ______________, overtaking everything in its path.

Packera aurea is difficult to pull out of the ground as well.  It seems to have two kinds of roots: large, fleshy ones and fine, fibrous ones and both seem to reach deep into the soil.  The roots quickly entangle themselves into the roots of nearby plants.  Here it has grown underneath a sedum and sent up shoots clear through the formidable crown of a mature plant.  Note all the little baby Packera that I am desperately trying to keep at bay with assorted mitigation efforts.


Packera aurea spreads aggressively through its roots, but the flowers also produce tens of thousands of dandelion-like seeds that, in April or May, drift through the air and land in all sorts of fun places, like nestled between the rhizomes of iris:


This is some fun weeding.

It also seems to be perfectly happy to become a lawn replacement:


So yeah, if I had to do it all over again, I would have instituted a travel ban against this particular native.  Based on the positive reviews this plant has received from other sources, I gather that it’s not a scourge in every situation.  But this is a perfect illustration of how most gardening advice should be local, and how not all native plants are created equal.


The original epicenter as it looks today.  Social distancing efforts between the Packera and other plants have shown promise.  It may be some time, however, before things return to normal.

Take, for example, Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells). This native spreads in the best possible way: slow, steady, and polite.


Eleven or twelve years ago I bought three Virginia bluebell plants from the native plant nursery Nature By Design.  Since I bought the plants in August and Mertensia are dormant in the summer heat, it looked like I was buying three pots of dirt.  But what a great payoff the following February and March: lettucy foliage pushing up into the cold, followed by violet buds, then electric blue bells!

And while Virginia Bluebells do spread, they do so slowly.  Do they ask permission before spreading their roots into a new space?  Not quite, but almost.


Site of first bluebell planting.  It has grown to an 8′ x 12′ patch.  Also note satellite plants popping up a few feet away.

Over the past ten years, I have noticed that new Mertensia plants will appear within a five foot radius of established plants.  I am not sure if this spread is down to underground roots or to seeds popping out into surrounding soil, but the spread is certainly not aggressive.


As the bluebells fade in May, I usually dig up a few clumps and place them around the yard.  Placing them next to hostas is ideal because as they go dormant the hosta fills in the empty space.

Virginia Bluebells also seem less assertive because they go dormant in the summer.  They put on a spectacular show in the early spring, but then they retreat backstage and let other plants step up.


Another transplanted clump.  This one will also slowly spread over the coming years.  


Tete a tete daffodils with a transplanted clump of bluebells

Should you tire of seeing jolly blue blossoms during the gray skies of early spring (i.e., if you are a psycho) you could easily pull out unwanted plants and share them with a lucky friend.

Upshot: not all spreaders are the same.  Not all will conquer your entire garden in the blink of an eye.  Gardeners must never panic.  However, it pays to watch, learn, and intervene when you must.


Corona Garden Diary 3/22/20: Two Views on the Ornamental Cherry

Here in northern VA, the cherry blossoms are at their splendid best.  Down at the Tidal Basin, at least some tourists are showing up to view the iconic Yoshino cherries (check the Bloom Cam to monitor the social distancing).


There are a couple of different ways to view the cherry trees:

a) that they are to be revered as symbols of ephemeral beauty, that they should be contemplated in the spirit of hanami to remind us that life is short and we should make the most of it (this view courtesy of the Japanese)


b) that they are a nuisance and “messy as hell” (this view courtesy of my dad)

The topic of spring blooming cherries came up when I visited my dad this weekend.  Since we both have mature Yoshino cherry trees growing right next to our driveways, we bonded over the pros and cons of the tree.  While I tried to tout the merits of the pale pink blossoms as a wondrous harbinger of spring, Dad was more circumspect:

“The petals fall on the cars and stick like hell,” he said.  When I pointed out that the Japanese celebrate the beauty of the delicate blossoms scattered on the ground as the flowers fade, my dad had a different take: “It looks like an army of birds has shat on everything.”

I envision families in Japan gathered to contemplate the fleeting nature of life as they gaze upon the white-pink petals fluttering to the ground.  Meanwhile, my dad scrapes the petals up with his snow shovel and dumps them into a trash can.

Dad’s getting older though.  He’s nearly 84, moving slowly these days, and I realize that one day I will miss his cranky takes on cherry trees.

Hanami.  Life is fleeting.

Corona Garden Diary 3/21/20: Wisdom From Deborah Silver

For today’s diary entry I am going to defer to an excellent blog post I read today by Deborah Silver because it’s better than anything I could come up with.

I have subscribed to Deborah’s blog, Dirt Simple, for many years now and it is one that I always take the time to read when it appears in my inbox.  Deborah is a garden designer in Detroit and also owns a store called Detroit Garden Works.  I love her blog because her writing is completely free from snark and because her belief in the power of gardening to make the world a better place is evident in every post.

Her most recent installment is about how March — in Michigan, at least — is the cruelest month for gardeners.  This surprised me.  How could March be worse than January?  With her descriptions of landscapes laid waste by months of severe weather, Deborah makes a convincing case.  Only in March is the extent of the damage revealed: dead grass, ravaged evergreens, and “stony silence.”  In my corner of the country, March is unreliable but far from bleak.  Hellebores, daffodils, crocus are in full glory.  There is mud and debris, but there are also days where the temperature tops 70 degrees.  We’ve got it easy here.

So my heroes today are the northern gardeners and their incredible resilience and optimism through dark and punishing winters.  What an inspiration to read such a message of hope today.  Thanks Deborah!


Corona Garden Diary 3/20/20: Grateful for the Outdoor Spaces

I am guessing that a lot of suburban folks who took their yards for granted — or maybe even saw them as more trouble than they were worth at times — are appreciating them right now.  The family next door has 5 kids under the age of 11, and I hear shouting and laughing and games from that direction at least half the day.  My county keeps saying they plan to start distance learning, but so far they seem unable to initiate it, so for now all the young ones have an awful lot of time on their hands.  Lucky are the parents who have an outdoor area where they can shoo the little ‘uns when the togetherness gets to be too much.


Frogs plopping around in the drainage ditches near my house.

On my recent walks, I have noticed far more people than usual out doing yard work or even just sitting out on their porches.  I love it.

A small yard or balcony might not offer the same options for restless kids, but can still uplift your spirits.  A breath of fresh air, a potted plant, a view of the wider world: again, things we all took for granted now seem like gifts.

I hope that apartment dwellers with no outdoor space at all at least have access to a park or garden.  (Public parks and gardens are on a long list of many things that I will value all the more post-Corona).


Marsh marigolds lighten the gloom at one of my local parks.

For those with limited access to the outdoors, or for outdoor lovers in general, here is an excellent virtual tour of the grounds of Mt. Cuba. Sadly, Mt. Cuba is not open to visitors at the moment, but their virtual tour will give a taste of what is out there waiting for you.