In Praise of the Boxwood

The boxwood gods have always smiled upon me.  Despite what I’ve read about gardeners having difficulties with Buxus, every single boxwood I’ve planted in my garden has performed admirably while asking almost nothing in return.  (I only wish I could find such favor with whatever wrathful deities oversee Camellia and Viburnum.)

I have eight varieties of boxwood growing in my garden.  I know because I just went outside and counted them.  I have Buxus microphylla ‘Franklin’s Gem’, B. microphylla ‘Winter Gem’, B. x ‘Green Velvet’ as well as the five featured below.

One of my favorites is B. microphylla ‘John Baldwin’…what a jolly chubby fellow!  I have this guy planted in a teeny patch of soil between a brick patio and a screened-in porch and right now he is the only thing keeping that space from being a little wasteland of dead leaves and empty pots:

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I have another ‘John Baldwin’ planted in rather heavy shade, under a black walnut tree, where he gets regularly peed on by a large Labrador retriever, and he just carries on without complaint.  What a star!

I notice that on a major growers’ website it says you can substitute ‘Dee Runk’ for ‘John Baldwin’ but I am going to have to raise a SERIOUS objection to that recommendation.  I also have a B. sempervirens ‘Dee Runk’ growing in my sideyard:

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and I would say, yeah, go ahead and substitute her for ‘John Baldwin’ if you are also okay with substituting, say, Grace Kelly for Richard Dreyfus.  (Tip: not all pyramids are alike! Some are slim and lithe, some are dense and compact!)

I love all my boxwoods.  They are not flashy but they are stalwart.  They are like your friend who doesn’t throw a glamorous dinner party but who can always be counted on to give you a ride to your colonoscopy.  Stalwart & true.  They have color at the time you need it most.  In winter, when everything goes brown and gray, they retain rich shades of green, sometimes tinged with bronze and amber and orange, like this B. microphylla ‘Golden Dream’:

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My ‘Golden Dream’ is planted under a cherry tree right by the sidewalk out front; it NEVER gets supplemental water, and it gets peed on by any number of neighborhood dogs.  Last winter a branch broke off under the 30 inches of snow we got in January; I simply tied it back on with twine and it soldiered on as though it hadn’t been brutalized by the one of the heaviest snowfalls in decades.

I tend to buy my boxwoods in small sizes.  They are said to grow very slowly but I have found that they usually grow a couple to as much as several inches a year. That’s good enough for me.  I’m only 45 and won’t be retiring to my villa in Provence until I’m at least 60, so I have time to watch them grow.

When you go to the garden center you can go to the boxwood aisle and, if you are the Queen of Sheba, pick up a fully grown boxwood for $249.99.

Or you can go to the one-gallon section and get the same thing in a diminutive version for $16.99.  I bought this teeny little B. sempervirens ‘Variegata’ last spring and planted it in a place where it will cheer me up on dreary, gray winter days.  It is only bringing me about 8″ worth of cheer right now, but in five years I am hoping it increases to 24-36″ of cheer in lovely shades of cream and green.

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Here is another boxwood in my yard:

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Notice anything different?  I bought this one at Home Depot.  It was relatively cheap for its size, and its label mentioned no specific cultivar — just generic B. sempervirens.  And although I still appreciate it for the splash (blob?) of green it provides in the winter garden, it is certainly inferior to the plants I bought at quality nurseries.  I think the difference is that it lacks any definite shape; in fact, Buxus ‘Amorphous Blob’ is probably an apt name for it.

Supposedly, boxwoods need evenly moist, well-drained loam” but they DEFINITELY aren’t getting that in my yard.  Besides maybe Prince Charles and Martha Stewart, who actually has well-drained loam?  No, even though boxwoods are favored by royals and aristocrats, they will perform just as loyally for all of us peasants.

 

 

Winter Red, Green Panda, Blue Trout

Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’

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Garden Trout

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Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’

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Fargesia rufa ‘Green Panda’; Aspidistra elatior ‘Alahi’; Danae racemosa

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Confused forsythia bloom

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Gah!

I’m all for celebrating insect life in the garden, except when it’s something like this:

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My son enjoys jumping past these azalea bushes in our front yard on the way to the front door.  Luckily he spotted this behemoth before he brushed past it and angered its occupants.

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Removing the hive was a scary process, but the denizens (which we surmised were Bald-faced Hornets) weren’t overly aggressive and luckily I didn’t get a single sting.

Later, my son opened it up to investigate, and we discovered the architecture of the hive: layers upon layers of thin walls protecting the eggs in the middle.  We felt a bit guilty at having laid waste to this tiny society.

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But sometimes the humans come first.

(Photos by Charlie Gray)

A Private Garden Transforms into a Public Garden

I recently visited a private garden near Frederick, Maryland called High Glen.  I would link to it, but at the moment it does not have a website (though it does have a Facebook page).  Its lack of online presence is mostly due to the fact that, since its inception in the 1990’s, it has been an exclusively private, family-owned garden.  The owner of the house and gardens is a real estate developer who carved out his own bit of paradise among the rolling farmland around Frederick.

It was an interesting trip, not only because it’s a beautiful garden, but because it’s in the process of becoming public.  (Now that development has reached his own doorstep?) the owner has decided to move out, but to transform the site into a public garden that he hopes will become a “national destination” within the next 10 years.

The horticulturalist who led the tour showed us a drawing of the ambitious plans for the garden:plans

The master plan includes a Grand Allee, Wet Meadow, Woodland Garden, Asian Valley w/ Teahouse, even a large area set aside for some Earth Sculpture.

What I found fascinating was being able to witness the very beginnings of these plans.  For example, here is the future Woodland:

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As you can see, it’s not very woodsy just yet.  The trees were planted just a year or so ago in what is currently a vast swath of lawn in the front of the property.

Here is the current driveway and entrance to the property, with a beautiful Silver Maple standing watch:

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A new approach will be built, along with a large parking lot, horticulture center, and teaching gardens, on another side of the property.

And now for the “Grand Allee” (drumroll….)

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They have planted two double rows of Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) which will (eventually) be a rather stunning grand entrance from the parking lot to the center of the property.  I can’t wait to come back in ten years or so to see how much the grandeur of this allee has increased.

Here is a shot of the main axis of the property, with nice views of the rolling Maryland hills in the distance:

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Alas, here is a glimpse of what’s to come.  You can see the encroaching development in the distance:

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I guess people are figuring out that Frederick, Maryland is a nice place to live.  And everybody who moves to a nice place always wants the development to stop as soon as they move in.  Unless of course you are the developer himself!

Moving along to another part of the garden….does this look familiar?

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The owner is apparently a big admirer of Dumbarton Oaks, particularly the Elliptical garden there.  So he’s paid an homage to that garden by planting an identical double ellipse of Carpinus caroliniana with a fountain in the center.  This was the first year the trees were big enough to pollard.

Here are a couple of other random cool features of this garden:

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The homeowners had created a rather stunning Mediterranean/dry garden.  Hopefully this will stay.

Everybody needs a dedicated Bocce Ball space in their yard:

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And while we’re at it, a sparkling pool landscaped with excellent tropicals…

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The owners have cultivated this perennial border for many years, but it underwent a renovation recently.  The borders were bumped out a few feet, and more shrubs and small trees were incorporated:

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Right now, the gardens seem only to be open to the public for special tours like the one I took.  (My visit was organized by the awesome Green Spring Gardens.)

The master plan won’t be fully implemented for another 7-10 years, but if all the plans are realized it will be a stunning public garden.  Unfortunately, the surrounding farm country looks like it will be largely lost to development, but at least there will be this lovely patch of green preserved to remind us of what used to be.

Franciscan Monastery

A few images from last weekend’s visit to the Franciscan Monastery in Washington, D.C.

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hands

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peace sign

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Parents’ House

Grapevine Christmas Tree

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Family Pictures

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Dog Treats

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Opening Presents

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Cleaning Up

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Leftovers

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Winter Outing

Testing out a new camera phone and trying to take pictures of nature with a companion who wanted to be featured in every shot.  At Green Spring Gardens. Alexandria, VA.

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Annie Dillard — Suburban Pilgrim

For years I have worshipped Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her Pulitzer-prize winning meditation on nature written back in the 1970’s.  I keep a copy of it on my Kindle, and whenever the world feels too much with me, I like to retreat into a few of its pages.  Her descriptions of giant water bugs and mating wood ducks, intertwined with questions of creation and invocations of the great philosophers and scientists, are beautiful and strange and calming.

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Dillard was living near Roanoke, Virginia, at the time she wrote it, and Pilgrim gives the impression that it was a solitary existence, that she was living in a secluded cabin in the woods, like Thoreau or Muir, spending her days trekking along the streams and through the fields without much human contact.

But no.

When I discovered that this was not true, when I discovered that Dillard was living in an ordinary suburban house with her husband when she wrote Pilgrim, I felt betrayed.  And part of me still feels it is a deception. To describe the wonder of the praying mantis egg cases but fail to mention that they exist in the shadow of a 1960’s brick rambler seems, at best, disingenuous.

Earlier this year The Atlantic published a piece about this revelation that the wildness in Pilgrim was really an illusion deliberately created by Dillard.  The article gives some interesting insights into Dillard’s motivations for creating this illusion.  Turns out she was afraid that her book would not make it into the the canon of wilderness literature if she didn’t portray herself as the archetypal solitary wanderer, or if she revealed that her surroundings were blemished by other human beings.  Heck, she was also worried that the American public wouldn’t accept a wilderness narrative written by a woman, but happily that turned out not to be true.

Here is an excerpt from the Atlantic article describing Dillard’s reaction to discovering how her readers perceived Pilgrim:

“Even still, [Dillard] said, before publishing Pilgrim she hadn’t realized how wild she’d made the valley seem. “I didn’t say, ‘I walked by the suburban brick houses,’” she told me. “Why would I say that to the reader? But when I saw that reviewers were acting like it was the wilderness, I said, ‘Oh, shit.’

Please.  I have a hard time believing that a writer as shrewd as Dillard wouldn’t realize exactly what she was doing when she wrote the book.

Anyway, my favorite passage from the article is this one, which reminds us that our wanderings through suburbia CAN be as awe-inspiring as Dillard’s were in Pilgrim if we take the time to look:

“But in many ways, her mundane surroundings make her achievement even more impressive. Other writers have hunted down awe-inspiring experiences in far-flung places: on the Pacific Crest Trail, in the wilds of Arches National Park, or among the glaciers of Southeast Alaska. But Dillard walked around her own neighborhood and captured a world that was buzzing with wonders and horrors.”

Yes, here in suburbia there is too much lawn, there are leaf blowers, plastic wishing wells, and basketball courts.

There are giant inflatable snowmen.

I guess forty years ago Dillard felt she had to pretend those things didn’t exist in order to write about the natural wonders among them.

Here’s hoping times have changed and that we now understand that the real illusion is the idea that all wilderness is “out there” and not (to paraphrase Thoreau) right under our feet.  Here’s hoping we can all recognize the wildness and wonder even in our suburban wanderings.

P.S.  Here is an excellent blog post by David Ryan which includes pictures of Tinker Creek and the neighborhood in which Dillard wandered.

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