I'm a gardener who also writes. Writing about gardening combines the best of both activities.

Homepage: https://piedmontgardener.wordpress.com


New moon.

Vernal equinox.

Light will not be denied.

All are awakening.

Up are wildflower stems and flowers.

Up are beets, lettuces, spinaches, and onions.

Up are migrating warblers from Central and South America.

Up are nests as procreative urges are obeyed.

Up are spirits as warm sunshine releases everyone from winter’s captivity.

Thank you, Spring.

We are awake now.

May your bright flowers lift all to joy.

May all hearts open with Light’s return.

May the best path forward be illuminated for all who dwell on this blue-green jewel,

Our only Earth.



Reckless Abandon

It has been much too warm here in the Southeast Piedmont – except when it is too cold. Rains have been generous – except when the clouds are nowhere to be seen. As a gardener, I track weather forecasts closely, but that is not doing me much good these days. I have watched hourly forecasts change within the forecasted hour. It seems no one is quite certain what to expect from Mother Nature anymore.

Honeybees are busily visiting Cornus mas ‘Spring Glow’ flowers.

We humans are the cause, of course. So thoroughly have we disrupted patterns of ocean and air that the planet oscillates more wildly with each passing month. Flora and fauna work hard to adapt and survive. Insects have wakened at least six weeks ahead of schedule here. Waters of creek and wetland have warmed. Spring peepers and chorus frogs sing lustily day and night, and the American toads joined the chorus weeks ago – at least six weeks ahead of their “normal” time.

Wood ducks are pairing off and displaying courtship behavior.

It seems to me that birds are also pushing up their schedules. Plumage is brightening, territorial displays abound. Procreative dances are well underway.

Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ achieved peak bloom this week — about three weeks ahead of previous years.

Landscape flowers, especially the ornamental non-natives that adorn most yards, are in full, glorious bloom. Daffodils nod their yellow heads in strong south winds. Snowdrops and crocuses have nearly finished their bloom times. The non-native deciduous magnolias in my yard are either blooming or about to bloom – again, at least a month ahead of previous years.

All seem to have thrown caution aside, embracing the warm air as a sign that spring has arrived. Humans, too, are giddy in the warm air – donning shorts and t-shirts, picnicking in parks, working on early tans beneath the strengthening light of the sun.

Planted ten years ago, native Hamamelis vernalis ‘Amethyst’ is in full bloom — this plant’s “normal” time.

Those paying close attention may notice that winter has not ushered us reliably into spring just yet. About once a week here, night-time temperatures still dip into the mid-twenties – before they surge back into the fifties and sixties for five or six days – before they dip again. No matter what your local big box garden center may be trying to sell you, I beg you, do not try to plant summer vegetables or flowers in your gardens or planter boxes yet. They may not die outright, but they will never thrive.

In my greenhouse, spring vegetable seedlings are just emerging. Will my normal planting schedule doom these plants to an early demise by summer-like heat?

Long-range weather forecasts are hinting at a major disruption of polar air that will send it all downhill into the continental United States. Some models believe this surge of arctic air may be quite dramatic – and prolonged.

I worry that the reckless abandonment of respect for winter cold will result in freeze-killed tender vegetation, disappearance of insects currently feeding frogs and birds, and frozen/starved chicks in nests built too soon. I pray I’ll be proven wrong.

For the first time this year, Amethyst Witch Hazel dropped its leaves as the flowers peaked, providing a dramatic display of color in the winter landscape.

For now, I walk our five acres, admiring precocious blooms while urging leaf buds to remain tightly shut at least until mid-March. I caution birds and frogs to delay egg-laying until air remains consistently warm.

But reckless abandon has killed caution. No one is listening to a plant-obsessed white-haired woman muttering to trees and birds.

, , , , ,


Blooming Today

Now that winters here in central North Carolina no longer even try to remain cold for more than a few days at a time, something in my yard blooms every month of the year. Most of the plants currently blooming are not native to my region; they are non-invasive ornamentals I planted years ago, and they do all attract pollinating insects on days warm enough for them to fly. Here are a few photos of what I saw as I walked our five acres this morning. Note that you can click on any photo to see a larger image.

Flowering Apricots (Prunus mume)

Both of my trees are struggling with a fungus that will likely kill them in a few more years. The beauty and fragrance of their flowers is intoxicating on a chilly winter day. The local honeybees always visit when the weather is warm enough for them to fly. I’ve forgotten the name of the pale pink-flowered cultivar, but the deep rose-colored bloomer was sold to me as cultivar Peggy Clarke, although there appears to be some debate about that.


These non-natives are so poisonous that the deer do not even nibble them. Mine are spreading, and I am currently attempting to eliminate them from the landscape, because they migrating into the area where a substantial natural population of bloodroots flourishes.

January Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum)

This early bloomer is often mistaken for forsythia, which actually blooms almost a month later in my yard. Despite the name, it has no fragrance, but it is not invasive, pollinators visit the blooms, and the cheery flower color brightens cloudy winter days.


These two are smaller species that bloom before the bigger ones usually seen. The cottontail rabbits always devour them shortly after their buds appear, unless I spray the plants with a deterrent.

Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica)

This non-native tree has spectacular exfoliating bark and golden autumn leaf color that stops all visitors in their tracks. It is in the witch hazel family; its inconspicuous flowers are tiny, but pretty when viewed closely. On warm days, honeybees visit the tiny flowers.

Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas)

I planted this non-native dogwood-family member because its bright yellow flowers appear very early, and because its fruits are supposed to be favored by wildlife. Unfortunately, my plants never set fruit. It has been suggested that I need another one that is not genetically related to the two I’ve got. I’m mulling on that. Meanwhile, the small bright yellow flowers undeniably light up the winter landscape.

Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)

This beloved herb has flourished for years nestled among large boulders in a front garden. Not native, of course, but it seasons many of Wonder Spouse’s culinary masterpieces. It blooms off and on all year, but always produces an initial burst of blue flowers in late winter.

Ozark Witch Hazel (Hamamelis vernalis ‘Amethyst’)

This beauty is technically native to the Ozarks west of here, but for me that’s plenty native enough for here. You cannot argue with its abundant knockout-gorgeous purplish strappy flowers, and its fall leaf color is also quite spectacular. The strong, clean fragrance of the flowers carried by a chilly late winter wind lifts my spirits every time I catch a whiff.

Red Maple (Acer rubrum)

Although technically not quite yet in bloom, these swelling flower buds point to an imminent explosion of red flowers within the next few weeks. I believe their arrival is the first true sign that spring approaches. Even before these native trees start, the local elm species (Ulmus spp.) open their inconspicuous flowers to unleash their pollen on winter winds. They started doing that here yesterday. I know, because my allergies went crazy as soon as I stepped out the door yesterday and today. I must now pack tissues for every walk around the yard.

Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus)

Fruiting bodies, not flowers, I know, but these beauties stopped me in my tracks on this morning’s walkabout. My friend with fungus knowledge assures me that these are edible oyster mushrooms, but we’ll likely leave them for local wildlife to enjoy. They are growing at the base of a fungus-killed tulip poplar. Fun fact I learned when I researched this mushroom: it is carnivorous. Its mycelia kill and digest nematodes, likely as a way to obtain nitrogen.

The weather seers are calling for cold rain for most of the next two weeks. Today’s blossoms will likely turn to watery mush. However, more blooms are imminent. Some will be late flowers on the above plants, but many more flowers of other plants will appear before long.

During breaks in the weather, my friend and garden helper, Beth, and I — sometimes with the additional aid of Wonder Spouse — are attempting to clean up overgrown sections of the yard. The task is eternal, especially because it is constantly slowed by unanticipated discoveries — new plants in unexpected places, sleeping frogs, friendly Ruby-crowned Kinglets curious about what we’re doing.

It is those surprises that prevent the work from becoming drudgery, and they help this aging gardener hold on to the child-like sense of wonder that gets me out of bed every morning in time to catch the day’s sunrise.

, , , , , ,

Leave a comment

New Year: Time to Deepen Connections

Dec. 21 sunrise with crescent moon

Note: This is a long post. If you’re not a big reader, all four of the scientists I write about below can be found in numerous great videos on YouTube. Go forth and watch and listen to learn more about their work than I could describe here. Also, please note that, by necessity, I have attempted to summarize the life’s work of four amazing people. Omissions and inaccurate details are likely.

Frozen streamlet that winds among 45-foot tall bald cypresses

Last week was a rough, even disastrous, weather week in North America. Brutal cold covered most of the continent; precipitation in frozen and unfrozen forms created challenging holidays for many. Wonder Spouse and I were fortunate. With no travel plans, we hunkered down at home, watching the outdoor thermometers drop to single digits and appreciating the beauty of sun sparkling on the adjacent frozen beaver-built wetland.

We were without power for only two hours, so we were always warm and safe. However, we did lose access to internet/cable/cell service for over three days. The isolation from social media — and the bitter cold — allowed me to indulge in a luxury usually reserved for vacations away from home – I read all day and through the night until time for bed.

A doe tests the ice.

First, I read Dr. Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest. I’m not sure how, but I did not know of this author and her life’s work until my friend and irreplaceable garden helper, Beth, put a copy of this book into my hands and urged me to read it. Thank you, Beth.

Reading To Speak for the Trees reminded me of related work by Dr. Suzanne Simard, so I acquired and read her book, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest.

Late December fall foliage on Hammocksweet Azalea (Rhododendron serrulatum) with next season’s flower buds

By the time I was done, my brain was bubbling over the similarities and differences in their approaches to saving our planet. Comparisons between these works and the work of Dr. Douglas Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home, Nature’s Best Hope, The Nature of Oaks) and Dr. Edward O. Wilson’s Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life kept me awake as I pondered how to combine what each author offers into a message for this new year.

What commonalities do these authors share? They are all scientists with Ph.D.s. Dr. Beresford-Kroeger, now 78, has two doctorates – one in biochemistry and the other in biology, which allows her brilliant mind to approach botanical puzzles from two different angles and then synthesize her results in ways unachievable without her dual perspectives.

The larger of the two coyotes that routinely patrol our five acres

Dr. Simard’s Ph.D. is in Forest Sciences. Now 60, her ground-breaking research on mycorrhizal networks in forests is mind-blowing. I can only assume that the timber/forestry industry is mostly ignoring her work because, in the short term, applying her research to their methods would be less profitable. No matter that, in the longer term, by ignoring her work they doom themselves and the planet to a climate-change nightmare from which we cannot recover.

Tallamy and Wilson

Dr. Tallamy’s Ph.D. is in Entomology. Now 70, his research centers on insect-plant interactions and how those interactions affect species diversity in animal communities. Judging by his popular nonfiction titles, his research has led him to conclude that planet-wide increasingly rapid loss in species diversity of animals and plants is largely due to human destruction of insects and their habitats, because he views insects as the foundation upon which ecosystems rely.

Dr. Edward O. Wilson died on December 26, 2021 at the age of 92. Often referred to as the “father of biodiversity,” among his many achievements were two Pulitzer prizes for general nonfiction. His Ph.D. was in biology. His last book, Half-Earth, pulled no punches. He laid out a strong case for how much trouble Earth is in due to catastrophic world-wide species loss, and he proposed a solution, which he explained in that book. My understanding of the book is that his proposed solution was to preserve the 50% of our planet’s ecosystems that are still mostly intact and functioning. The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation continues his work. Its stated mission is to “reimagine the way we care for our planet.”

A red maple recently felled by beavers frozen into dining inaccessibility

Dr. Tallamy’s proposed solution for saving biodiversity in the United States is a concept he introduced in Nature’s Best Hope: Homegrown National Parks. His organization’s Web site offers concrete steps every landowner in the US can take to reverse, or at least slow, biodiversity loss, one yard and one neighborhood at a time.

Both Tallamy and Wilson provide hard data on species loss, the implications of that loss, and offer ways to reverse that loss. They both point to man-created climate change and native habitat destruction as key factors responsible for our biodiversity nosedive. These men are/were passionate about their life’s work, but as men of science, their approach is highly intellectual and reason-based. I am sure they love/loved the natural world just as much as I do, but as men, as Scientists, I suspect it either never occurred to them that they might be leaving out a key part of the equation, or if they did, they deem/deemed it imprudent to acknowledge factors that must be integrated into any truly effective solution for saving our planet from human-created climate-change-driven devastation.

Amethyst witch hazel’s first few flowers emerged despite the deep cold.

I refer to factors that, until they were quantified by Dr. Simard and Dr. Beresford-Kroeger, were ignored because, I think, brilliant heart-focused minds were needed to see beyond the parameters of traditional biology/botany-based scientific inquiry. Outside-the-box maverick minds were needed, minds that intuitively understood that their deep love and knowledge of the natural world was as much tied to their hearts as their brains.

Beresford-Kroeger and Simard

Dr. Beresford-Kroeger had the great good fortune to be trained in ancient Celtic knowledge of the natural world by residents of a rural hamlet in her mother’s native Ireland. Orphaned at a young age, this community where some of her mother’s kin lived, recognized in Diana a hunger for knowledge, a brilliant mind, and a willingness to respect intuitive knowing, which she always backs up with scientific experiment in her traditional university-based studies, to explain the truth behind the Celtic folklore knowledge of her ancestors.

A Great Blue Heron endures cold water in hopes of snagging breakfast.

After relocating to Canada, she has worked with the indigenous peoples of her adopted country, the First Nations. Using her knowledge of biochemistry, she has isolated many compounds in plants with medicinal properties that explain their valued use by indigenous groups. Living among the forests of her adopted country, Diana’s intuitive respect for its magnificent forests continues to drive her work. She long ago did the math regarding the key factor producing climate change: world-wide deforestation. Her research has led her to believe that the only way to slow and reverse the runaway freight train of climate change with all its consequent destruction of ecosystems on land and in the ocean is to return forests to our landscape as quickly as possible. By her calculations, if every person on the planet plants one tree for the next six years, we might be able to save ourselves. Visit her Web site for more information.

Seeds of Two-winged Silverbell (Halesia diptera) rattle in winter winds.

Dr. Simard had the great good fortune of growing up in a multi-generational family of Canadian loggers, who worked the north woods with respect and great effort. The forest was always her home. She got her doctorate in Forest Studies because she wanted to continue her family’s legacy, their connection to the forests that fed them and all life around them. Her intimate knowledge of her native forests, keen observation skills, and a brilliant, curious mind led her to identify the critical importance of the forest’s fungal communities. Her scientific work continues to demonstrate how these fungal networks – ubiquitous in a healthy forest – serve as communication and nutrient highways for the trees whose roots are embraced by fungal filaments, called mycorrhizae. Revelations from her work are mind-blowing on many levels, but what got me most excited is how Dr. Simard’s work dovetails with Dr. Beresford-Kroeger’s work.

Mother Trees

Both of these brilliant women have come to the same conclusion: trees are sentient. On some level, most, if not all, plants are sentient. Their conclusions are based on science. Beresford-Kroeger identified compounds in trees that are biochemically identical to neurotransmitters in human brains. Her forest studies repeatedly demonstrate how trees work together to nurture and protect themselves in ways that the traditional ecological paradigms I learned cannot fully explain. I think traditional ecology practitioners have noticed some of this coordinated intentional dancing between forest species, and they knew it was important, but mechanisms have not been well delineated, I suspect, because Traditional Science still believes humans are the only intelligent species on our planet.

This large river birch (Betula nigra) toppled across our creek during summer storms. Still connected to the earth by its roots, it is now our Birch Bridge, and, I suspect, still serves as a Mother Tree, by Simard’s definition.

Dr. Beresford-Kroeger identifies what she calls Mother Trees, pivotal large trees of certain species that communicate with and nurture all that grows around them. This reminded me of Tallamy’s identification of keystone species, which he identifies as specific native plant species – especially trees – that are critical to the health of the ecosystems in which they reside. He assigns keystone status to a plant according to how many different species of insects rely on it to complete their life cycles.

The Sweet Gum Bridge, another victim of summer storms, also still serves as a Mother Tree.

Dr. Beresford-Kroeger’s Mother Tree designation is based on her knowledge of biochemistry. She writes:

“Mother trees are dominant trees within any forest system. They are the trees that, when mature, serve up the twenty-two essential amino acids, the three essential fatty acids, the vegetable proteins and the complex sugars, be they singular or in polymeric form of complexity, that feed the natural world. This menu protects the ability for all of nature to propagate, from the world of insects to the pollinators, to birds, to the small and larger mammals.”

She describes how Mother Trees exude their arsenal of biochemicals to protect and nurture the surrounding plants:

“Mother trees can feed and protect other trees within the expanse of their canopy. They are the leaders of the community we call forests. And across the globe, forests represent life.”

Seeds of mullein and goldenrod growing in a meadow planting still feed foraging sparrows and finches.

Simard also uses the term Mother Tree. In her work, they are the large, old trees in a forest. They are the sources of complex fungal communities that pervade the forest humus layer. They are the lynch pins of forest ecosystems. The mycorrhizal network ties together all forest residents. When Mother Trees are cut down, their roots dug out to create flattened earth, those nurturing connections are brutally severed. The forest cannot regenerate successfully, because its heart – Mother Trees – have been removed. Simard’s Mother Tree Project offers more details.

My Conclusions

I’m a big advocate of science. So are the four researchers whose work I’ve briefly described here. But the two brilliant women – Beresford-Kroeger and Simard – have my greatest respect. They have devoted their lives to outmaneuvering male-dominated Traditional Science by incorporating the tools of that discipline into a broader perspective – a perspective that native peoples around the world always knew: all the residents of our planet are alive with sentient spirits that are not like ours but are nevertheless demonstrably real and therefore deserve our respect.

Smilax berries remain ready to feed hungry wildlife as winter deepens its grip.

Failing to respect our fellow residents on the planet, whether tree, butterfly, or fungus, is why humanity is up against a climate-change crisis that it’s almost too late to reverse. All four of the researchers I’ve described have trained numerous younger folks, and that training continues. But will these new young minds be able to save Earth? I worry that the forces of greed responsible for erasing forests and over-fishing oceans will continue to ignore the consequences of their actions until it is too late to reverse them, and before younger generations can reprioritize humanity’s relationship with Earth’s other occupants.

It seems to me that the best hope for this ailing planet is regular folks like me and you. We all may not understand the science, and we don’t like being told what we should and should not do, including what plants we should grow. But I am hoping that if more people learn about the work of Simard and Beresford-Kroeger, they will realize that, above all, this is about love. This is about nurturing – a concept most of us know personally. We know how critical nurturing is to human development – how much difference a good mother – or an absent mother – can make to the life of a child. Now that we know – via scientifically published and validated studies – that the absence of nurturing – love – is the reason our world is melting, drowning, burning all around us, perhaps now we can view our landscapes from a fresh perspective. Perhaps more folks will recognize their critical role as nurturers of their landscapes, working with Mother Trees – and planting more of them – to save our beautiful planet for future generations.

Broom sedge still offers a few seeds for hungry birds.

Simard concludes her book thusly:

“It’s our disconnectedness – and lost understanding about the amazing capacities of nature – that’s driving a lot of our despair, and plants in particular are objects of our abuse. By understanding their sentient qualities, our empathy and love for trees, plants, and forests will naturally deepen and find innovative solutions. Turning to the intelligence of nature itself is the key.”

For this new year, I invite my readers to go forth and deepen your connection to the natural world. If you live in an apartment, start with a house plant or a potted plant on a balcony. Take frequent long walks in parks and forests. If you own a piece of land but you don’t know its residents, get outside and learn the names of the plants and animals that share your space with you. Acknowledge your critical role as a co-nurturer of this planet we all share. The experts all agree that we are running out of time to avert full-scale climate disaster. But if enough people of every age and economic status reconnect to Mother Earth, perhaps we can save her.

Sunrise on December 30, 2022. Happy New Year to all!

, , , , , , , ,


Child Light, Soul Light

I do not remember this photo – who took it, where, when – but I can guess. I was probably about five years old, and my paternal grandmother, Lorez, almost certainly was the photographer. On her visits, Lorez always brought what I deemed to be fancy clothes for me to wear. And she always put me into ladylike poses that were entirely alien to my nature. Note the stiff posture and the clasped hands – that was never me. But I can see my happiness – in the eyes more than the mouth. Most of all I can see I am happy because I am among friends – members of the Green World that have been my companions from my earliest memories.

This happy child is standing among a towering field of broom sedge (Andropogon virginiana). Behind her are oak trees still holding on to most of their leaves despite the chill evidenced by my scarf and jacket. Such places were common in rural North Carolina in the 1960s. Abandoned farmlands returning to field, then forest, were everywhere.

I’ve always loved the way stands of rust-brown broom sedge rattle in winter winds, providing cover for birds and small mammals foraging within their shelter. I love the way I can see this child’s happy soul, surrounded by friends as she poses for her grandmother.

I believe all children, especially the youngest ones, show the light of their pure souls to the world every moment. The light they bring into the world hasn’t been darkened, or worse, extinguished. They greet every day with joy, and any adult with all but the most hardened heart can’t help but feel lighter around these glowing souls.


This solstice in my hemisphere is all about the return of the light of the sun. Nights grow shorter, days grow warmer, slumbering earth wakens to bird song and spring flowers. But we don’t need to wait for light’s return. We carry Light within us always.

Call it heart, or soul, or whatever you like, but I am certain every child enters the world equipped with a sacred spark of Divine Light and a plan for their soul’s work. I have been fortunate. Despite dark times, my Green World allies ensured that I always had enough light to see my way back to their embrace. I feel certain that my ever-deepening knowledge of the Green World was always meant to be shared with others. I take the work seriously – writing and speaking to those who want to understand the native plants and animals of the Southeastern Piedmont, where I have lived and gardened since I was a small child with an open heart.

As my part of Mother Earth begins to tilt her face toward Old Sol’s light, I am deepening that commitment by writing a book describing what I have learned about gardening in my region for over half a century. In it, I recount how my gardening approach changed as the environment changed around me and my awareness of threats to native flora and fauna grew more alarming. Embedded within my story are ecological principles that explain the lessons I learned the hard way. Every chapter includes a section offering concrete steps that property owners can take to create vibrantly healthy green worlds of their own. My hope is to reduce the frustrations of trial-and-error gardening for new or less experienced gardeners. A description of a favorite plant or group of plants concludes each chapter.

My goal for the book is to empower anyone from anywhere with the knowledge they need to work effectively with my beloved Southeastern Piedmont environment, reducing frustrations and creating beauty while also providing healthy habitat for native flora and fauna. Two publishers asked for proposals but eventually declined to publish my book. Thus, barring unforeseen developments, I’ll be self-publishing. Right now, I’m still writing, and then I must figure out the best publishing option, so my book won’t be available for a while yet. But one way or another, I am determined that my soul’s work is going to see the light of day.

On this Winter Solstice, I invite my readers to contemplate their inner lights. If that feels difficult, try gazing into the eyes of photos of your child selves, or perhaps the eyes of your children or grandchildren. Have you unintentionally allowed your light to dim? Perhaps it is time to reawaken your light as Sol reawakens Mother Earth. I think we can all agree that more Light will benefit all of us.

Happy Winter Solstice.


My Latest Garden Experiment: Growing My Favorite Beverage

Camellia sinensis var. sinensis

I’ve been growing some of my own food for 45 or so years now. Part of the fun of that experience is the opportunity to try growing new kinds of food. With varying success, I’ve tried most culinary herbs and quite a few different varieties of garden vegetables. Often, our favorite fruits and veggies are too tender for farm production, so the only way to have them is to grow them ourselves. This past October, we decided to expand our garden repertoire to include tea plants. Yes, you can use a vast array of native and herb plant leaves to brew tasty beverages, but our new plants are the source of what most tea drinkers consume: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, and Camellia sinensis var. assamica.

Camellia sinensis var. sinensis f. Rosea

Cousins to better known ornamental camellias like C. sasanqua and C. japonica, tea camellias do not produce large colorful blooms. Their magic lies in their leaves, most of which contain an array of compounds that include methylxanthines – caffeine. Another tea cousin – C. ptilophylla – is sometimes called cocoa tea, because instead of containing caffeine, the leaves of this species contain a different compound, theobromine, which is also found in chocolate. Leaves of cocoa tea don’t taste like chocolate, but they do contain much lower levels of caffeine – a potential source of decaffeinated tea without the decaffeination process!

It is my understanding that certain tea varieties are best used to produce certain types of tea – black, green, and oolong, for example. But, ultimately, the tea created depends on how harvested leaves are processed. I’m planning to stick to trying to produce green tea, because the process is not as elaborate as for other types.

Numerous honeybees were visiting every tea camellia flower during our visits this past October.

As with growing any perennial crop, whether nut or fruit trees or blueberry bushes, tea plants require several years to attain a size sufficient for harvesting. And it would take many more plants than I have room for to produce enough tea leaves to keep me supplied year-round with my favorite beverage. However, as with growing any special food crop, even a few cups annually of tea produced by my own plants are treats worth savoring as I bask in my tea-growing accomplishments.

Tea Growing in the Piedmont Region of NC

I’ve known about tea camellias for some time, because of a well-known nursery that’s just a fifteen-minute drive from my house: Camellia Forest Nursery. This nursery has been in business for over 40 years and is well known as the finest source of camellias on the US East Coast. Peruse their catalog of options at your own risk; they are intoxicatingly tempting. Even to this native-centric Piedmont gardener, these evergreen Asian beauties are hard to resist.

Fall-blooming field of tea camellias.

I have not succumbed to temptation mostly because the ornamental species require protection from deer munching, and because even with five acres, I’ve only got room for a finite number of plants. Tea camellias, I’ve recently learned, are more deer-resistant, because of the bitter compounds like caffeine in their leaves, compounds not present in their ornamental cousins. I’ve always known that Camellia Forest Nursery owner, David Parks, offered a few tea camellias, but I had missed the development of Camellia Forest Tea Gardens within the grounds of the nursery.

Camellia Forest Tea Gardens

One of the nursery’s greenhouses full of tea camellias

As the name implies, Camellia Forest Tea Gardens offers an astonishing array of tea plant options – overwhelming is the word that comes to mind when you stand among the rows of blooming tea bushes on an autumn morning as I did this past October. Wonder Spouse and I attended a tea-planting workshop in early October to learn tea-planting methods first-hand from David Parks’ spouse, Christine Parks, the owner and energetic force behind the Tea Gardens. Christine is gainfully employed full time by a company in the Research Triangle Park. The Tea Gardens operation is her weekend job/passion/obsession.

With the help of equally passionate volunteers and two part-time employees, Christine continues to expand her tea fields. A new building being erected beside the fields will house tea-processing equipment on the lower level and a tea-tasting/sales/display area on the upper level. Even without that equipment, Christine and her team have been processing small batches of tea from the leaves harvested there. Throughout the year, she offers workshops on tea and also tea-tasting events, many of which are free. Visit their web site for more details.

Christine has literally written the book on tea growing. She and a friend and fellow tea fanatic, Susan M. Walcott, co-authored a book published by Timber Press, which you can order from them here

Wonder Spouse practices his newly learned tea-planting skills.

In the workshop, we learned that if your land grows blueberries well, you can successfully grow tea camellias. In fact, the planting process that Christine demonstrated that day resembled the same process I use for planting blueberries and native azaleas. The keys are excellent drainage and somewhat acidic soils. Her biggest growing challenges are the occasional very cold winters we still get here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, and voles, which tunnel into root systems and damage the bushes.

To deal with the occasional cold spells, she recommends C. sinensis var. sinensis, which handles most random freezes with no more than a few cold-damaged leaves. C. sinensis var. assamica is more cold-sensitive and has been killed to the roots more than once at the Tea Gardens. They do re-sprout from the roots, but that’s an erratic way to try to create a harvestable plant.

Christine Parks demonstrating planting technique using Permatill in the bottom of the hole.

To deal with voles, Christine and her team add a manufactured sterile product called Permatill to their planting holes. In my area, gardeners add this mix to planting holes for spring bulbs like tulips and lilies for the same reason the Tea Gardens staff add it to their planting holes. Voles do not like tunneling through the rock-like bits of PermatillPermatill also improves soil drainage.

Our Tea Plant Acquisitions

Christine Parks demonstrating how to plant tea camellia seeds.

Christine Parks is constantly testing new tea varieties – results of cross-pollination between the plants in her field. Tea plants bloom in the fall. When Wonder Spouse and I were there in October, the field was buzzing with industrious honeybees and other pollinators collecting (and depositing) pollen. The fertilized flowers produce abundant seeds. Christine and her team trial many seeds, because, she told us, you never know when you might get an extraordinary tea plant from such crosses. At the end of the workshop, she gave out handfuls of seeds to class attendees and showed us how to plant them. I am proud to say that all of the seeds she gave me have germinated. I’m not quite sure where I’m going to eventually plant all the seedlings, but I’ll be growing them in pots for at least a year, so I have time to think about it.

Recently germinated tea camellia seedlings in our greenhouse.

Meanwhile, Wonder Spouse and I also purchased three tea plants from the nursery – two different varieties of C. sinensis var. sinensis, and because I like a challenge, one C. sinensis var. assamica. All three are planted inside an empty bed inside my vegetable garden, where the soil is rich and well-drained, water is easily accessible, and a sturdy deer fence protects the plants within from most plant nibblers. I picked varieties that Christine says make excellent green tea – my daily tea of choice. It will be a couple of years before the plants attain harvestable size, and then the key will be to prune them attentively to maintain the bushes for maximum productivity. It’s all explained in her book.

Tea-tasting attendees toasting to our delicious good fortune.

At the tea-planting workshop, Christine provided samples of one of her tea blends. It was the most delicate, wonderfully complex tea I’ve ever enjoyed. When we learned she was offering a bigger tea-tasting open house event a few weeks later, we returned and enjoyed several additional wonderful teas harvested and prepared by Christine and her team. We also met a lovely British couple who were in town visiting their daughter. They saw an advertisement for the open house and could not resist sampling American-made versions of their country’s signature beverage. They were kind enough to allow me to photograph them for this article.

That day, I also wandered among the blooming tea plants buzzing with pollinators. In addition to the pollen collectors, I encountered a healthy Asian Praying Mantis lurking among the bushes, hoping to snag a pollinator snack, and in an area beside the bushes planted with zinnias to attract pollinators, I spotted a late-flying Monarch butterfly – on October 30!

Christine and her team offer workshops on tea-planting several times a year. They also hold open tea-tasting events, and have two scheduled for the last two Saturdays of this month from 3:00-4:00 p.m. In the email she sends to subscribers, this is how she describes these last two events of the year:

  • Saturday, December 17: Sunny Day Oolong: a smooth and easy oolong, withered in the Carolina sun
  • Saturday, December 24 (Christmas Eve): Summer Garden Green: warm, flavorful, fukamushi style green

Tea samples, plants, and her wonderful book will all be available for sale at these events. And if you buy three tea sample packages, you’ll get a fourth one for free!

Note that Camellia Forest Nursery (where the Tea Gardens are located) will be open on Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4:00 p.m. If you live near Chapel Hill, NC or plan to be in the area, and you’ve got tea lovers and/or plant lovers on your holiday shopping list, you might want to stop by.

A tasting sample of one of Christine’s green tea blends.

, , , , ,


Grateful for Good Earth

About a decade or so ago, scientists discovered convincing evidence that the smell of rich, compost-filled earth stimulates the production of “feel-good” compounds in human brains. Yes, there is a reason that gardeners are happiest when outside playing in the dirt. Beneficial soil bacteria emit gases that stimulate human brains to boost levels of serotonin and norepinephrine – cheaper than medications and with no potential side-effects!

Of course, even if you aren’t getting your hands dirty every minute in your garden, odds are high you feel better when you’re spending time among fragrant and colorful flowers and nurturing an array of vegetables for your table. However, without good earth, flowers and fruits cannot flourish. Sure, you can try dousing them in chemical fertilizers and spraying them with insecticides, but those plants will never be as healthy as ones grown in good earth.

Very few new home sites are blessed with good earth. Any topsoil that was there was scraped off by bulldozers. Exposed clay was compacted by heavy equipment, leaving “soil” unable to receive rainwater gifts. Instead, water rushes downhill to flood intermittent and permanent streams – too much, too fast, and often filled with polluting fertilizers and other chemicals. It takes effort to rebuild these wounded places. But the return on your efforts to create good earth is critical, not only for the gardens you may want to plant, but for all the native birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, fungi, and beneficial bacteria that rely on good earth.

The key, of course, is to add as much organic material as you can to your soil. If you don’t have a compost pile, create one. If you are blessed to have a yard with sizable trees and shrubs, cherish every deciduous leaf that falls. Southeastern woodlands left to their own devices build up layers of decomposing leaves that feed every creature in the forest, directly or indirectly. Leaving fallen leaves beneath your trees and shrubs will help heal your damaged soil, rebuilding good earth.

We know that all soils are not created equally. Certain parts of our country are known to be ideal farmlands. Certain parts of my state – North Carolina – are known for their rich farm soils. But all that good earth is disappearing at alarming rates – about a million acres/year – lost forever, replaced by subdivisions and strip malls. Such good earth cannot be recovered. Greed-driven “development” is starving the future of our children and grandchildren.

A number of nonprofit conservation organizations are trying to slow this destruction of good earth by offering farm owners ways to preserve their lands in perpetuity, offering alternatives to the siren song of corporations that only view land as a vehicle for profit, blind to the blessings of good earth. I am grateful for the efforts of these groups, grateful that they understand the blessings of good earth. When you are contemplating your year-end charitable donations during this holiday season, I encourage you to support a land trust near you that is working to preserve local farmlands. There will not be enough food to feed the hungry if the farmlands that grow the food disappear.

This American Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the good earth that nurtures our brain chemistry, our stomachs, and our spirits.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!


First Freeze

This morning marked the first freeze on our five acres. Our outdoor thermometers tell me the temperature has lingered at 29 degrees Fahrenheit for at least four hours, possibly longer – more than enough to signal that autumnal preparations for winter should be nearly completed.

Deciduous leaves of tulip poplars, sweet gums, sourwoods, red maples, black gums, dying green ashes (victims of Emerald Ash Borer), spicebushes, beautyberries have already discarded at least a third or more of their summer leaves. Oaks, always last to leave the party, are only just beginning to release their leaf bounty to the forest floor.

Strong winds ahead of recent cold fronts ripped off many leaves before today’s freeze. Swirls of dancing red and gold would leap into stormy air, then tumble down together, a few leaves plastered by raindrops to windows.

This morning’s freeze brought an entirely different kind of leaf fall – a peaceful release. First singly, and then more and more as the morning sun kissed them, trees gently let go, their leaves drifting as they floated to frosty ground.

It is time for extra blankets, cups of steaming beverages, and winter meditations. May the season bring peace to all.

Do not disturb until spring.


Syncing with the Season: Autumnal Equinox

I can feel it. Can you? The strong push of our first serious cold front arrives later today, abruptly escorting summer out the door, making room for the arrival of the autumnal equinox at 9:03 EDT this evening. It is time to synchronize our systems to this turning of the seasonal wheel.

The natural world has been readying itself for the last month. Leaves have been browning and dropping prematurely, calling it quits early, thanks to a two-month drought. It is impossible to walk anywhere in my yard without risking web face. Mama spiders of all kinds have spread their traps wide to catch as much prey as quickly as possible, fuel for the laying of their egg sacs. Most of the American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and spicebush (Lindera benzoin) berries are gone, devoured by birds fattening up ahead of migratory travels. American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) fruits still linger, at least until traveling troupes of American Robins spot them.

Late-season wildflowers bloom on valiantly despite the drought. Asters abound as do tickseeds, various sunflower family bloomers, and Spotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata) in the wildflower meadows on my hilltop. Floodplain bloomers continue with enthusiasm. That soil is still moist, thanks to the work of beavers. Here, Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) and abundant Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) mingle with Crown-beards (Verbesina helianthoides) and Late-flowering Thoroughwort (Eupatorium serotinum). River oats seeds dangle in breezes. Swamp Milkweed seeds float on silken parachutes, drifting to unknown destinations.

Great Blue Herons still stalk shallow creek water for fish or frog meals, while a Belted Kingfisher flies overhead, uttering its rattling territorial call. My wildlife cameras tell me the white-tailed deer are gearing up for mating season. Groups of heavy-antlered bucks strut through the dark, sometimes stopping to tussle with each other, antlers locked. A mama raccoon strolls by with two youngsters almost her size following. A solitary opossum waddles past, stopping briefly to dig at something it smells in moist soil. A coyote patrols the dark, seeking unwary victims. All the creatures know it is time to fatten up, secure a winter stronghold, readying themselves for summer’s unwinding into colder seasons.

As I walked my yard this morning, I took a lesson from surrounding flora and fauna. I slowed my pace. I stopped often to savor the beauty of late bloomers, give thanks for abundant walnuts and pecans dropping from laden trees, and the still-ripening sweet Italian peppers in my vegetable garden. Syncing with the autumn season feels good. I am done with summer, ready for a slower time, a fresh start, a dance with gold and crimson fallen leaves in crisp air.

October Skies aster

Welcome, Autumn! I am ready for your arrival, grateful for the constancy of the turning of the seasonal wheel, comforted in knowing that winter’s meditative slumber will soon be upon us.


New Magazine Articles

Hi, folks! This is just a quick note to let you know that the latest edition of the magazine of the North Carolina Botanical Garden has just been released. When there’s an electronic file on their site that I can link to, I’ll add it to my Recent Publications page. Until then, you can get a taste of this edition’s contents via these photos of the first pages of the articles I authored.

For those of you interested in acquiring native plants for your yards, this edition of the magazine should be helpful.

, ,


%d bloggers like this: