A Seasonal Tour


A glory in Virginia. Muddy roads and paths aside, it’s the season we wait for, plan for, live another year for, right? The crocuses and chiondoxas have left the stage, the daffodils are up, and everyone’s awaiting the glamorous tulips, including the deer. I have largely given up on tulips. For me, it’s the earliest flowering cherry, the Okame, which announces, often in a snow, that spring is in the wings. Then all at once, friends and relatives are flying in from out of town, wanting to visit Monticello, even to drive to Washington DC to see the cherry blossom festival, and there’s way too much to do! Like planting out those fifty flats you brought home from the nursery in place of all the time-lapse weeds. If you’re like me, the only thing is to begin, and your stamina will grow. Roll the boulder of your old inertia out of the way and get going.

The first flush of the roses will reward you. Speaking of which, there is something irresistible about the heirloom French rose, Fantin Latour– the only rose in our garden, despite its prominent spot at the gate, that doesn’t repeat. The appetite for roses is never satisfied of course, but this one has abandon, giving itself in such a lush, climactic bloom that for a little while I am nearly quenched and can move along to admire the beauty of other things, such as irises and baptisias, and all the fresh (unmessy) catmint.


By now the roses are a little blowsier, more lax in the heat of July, or, as Vita Sackville-West once said of them, “rich as a fig broken open.” I won’t go on about the affront of the Japanese beetles, except to say that I spend the bookend-hours of the day flicking them (with the thirst of a serial killer) into a wet and soapy grave. Nor will I rant about the deer, or the nervy, dive-bombing catbirds who take a staggering share of our berries. Better to behold the butterflies, flitting from milkweed to zinnias, or the hummingbirds sipping on the black and blue salvia. Another favorite sight is the tree, Sophora japonica: its creamy flowers teeming with drunken bees, or its almost-as-stunning ornamental seed pods, hanging in ripe, bean-like clusters.

Summer is when the wonderful pineapple lily blooms, its strappy leaves juicy-fresh, despite the usual weeks of drought that make a gardener frown at what she sees (foliage in tatters and wiregrass and nutsedge everywhere).  Which brings me to another observation. It seems that gardeners– even the dreamers among us who like to wander contemplatingly (or vacantly) along their paths and borders– never sit. This, in spite of having placed inviting chairs and benches all around.


I’m under its spell. That golden blueness everywhere. The muted, seedy flower heads, the workhorse roses reviving again. The Japanese anemone, ‘Honorine Jobert,’ a little shredded maybe, but a blooming machine. The second shift of asters, and the grasses, and the dahlias.  And then above all else, because we have so many here, the firelit Japanese maples.

Light is the hero of the landscape now. Lower in the sky, the sun gives everything a warm glow on the slant. There’s a sense of fullness to the garden; an abundance of rustling sounds, as though the plants are leaning in and whispering to each other; and we’re privy to it, out there gathering seeds and planting bulbs, while the whole tableau is burnished with the tawny softness of age. I love the strength of perennials in autumn, putting out roots instead of new growth; a kind of last assertion before retreating.

Frosty mornings, when it seems the plants have all exhaled at once, their breath caught in the chilly air, the scene becomes a beautiful, ethereal event of silver webs and crystalline forms, before the golden blueness warms the day again.


As much as I love bloom and color, and the exuberance of plants tangling along from spring into autumn, winter is the time to see the bones of the garden, which, I am here to report, will either make you feel good about yourself as a designer or very bad. Still, even if you deem the only thing to do is do the whole garden over, you should be glad to be having a little break from bugs.

Winter is the time to put your feet up by a fire, and to read and think about buying more plants. This is nice to do by a window, looking out at the snow. Hopefully not the damaging kind, which is very anxiety provoking, burying and erasing everything you’ve worked so hard to keep alive, but rather one of those gentle, hydrating snows of under a foot in height, or a magical dusting, which gives an otherworldly, stone-like architecture to your English-style hedge.

If and when you venture outdoors, as you probably must, there are plenty of winter flowers to admire: hellebores and snowdrops, creeping phlox and mahonias, the tricky but stunning bergenia. At some point, usually in late February here, the Cornus officinalis, a week or so before its cousin, the Cornus mas, will burst open in the very happiest of yellows. It is then I begin to feel the long dark of winter giving way, and so take my nose out of catalogues to smell the daphnes and sarcococca, the wintersweet and witch hazels, the corylopsis and grandmother-scented Prunus mume. Along with the sun, they help me to recover from the beastly cold.