That Was Then – This Is Now

It is late November and with earlier (often spectacular) sunsets, moderating temperatures and gardens now showing signs of dormancy, there’s a distinctly different feeling in the air. It seems like it only took a few days for the seasons to change and the landscape is quickly following suit. When acorns pelleting our roof become a constant and replace the sounds of chirping birds, I know the backyard’s path will soon be cold and covered with sharp objects. Gone are the days when I could open the backdoor and, barefooted, impulsively run out to investigate something new in the garden. The paths are now covered with fallen limbs, unripened vegetables, debris and those sharp, spiny acorn caps demanding shoes .







That’s not to say there aren’t incredible sights right now: like many other people, Fall’s landscape is one of my favorite sights. This is a season when, if desired, there’s a lot to explore in addition to enjoying the changing foliage and some of the changes take a little more patience to discover and appreciate. As my warm weather morning ritual of exploring becomes occasional rather than daily, I’m constantly amazed at the discoveries found right outside my door. Some are planned and anticipated, while others can be a delightful, unexpected surprise. The other day, desperate for some color to bring inside the house, I scoured the garden in hopes of gathering a few greens, perhaps some color, to put in a new vase. I was amazed to see the return of the beautiful dahlia that wooed me out of bed after August’s surgery and could not have been more delighted with the asters and toad-lilies dotting the garden’s beds:








This is a time of the year to appreciate change and remember how things looked during the traditional blooming season. My low growing, late blooming tube clematis c. heracleifolia that was covered with sweet purple blooms only a few weeks ago has been transformed. Gone is the purple and in its place are these spectacular seed pods adding an intriguing shape and almost metallic color to the bed:





The amsonia’s blooms are one of my early summer favorites and now, as the flowers are a distant memory, I’ve come to appreciate this beauty all the more as the leaves turn into their own wispy, apricot, spectacular sight providing a lovely backdrop for the late season willow leaf sunflowers.

That was then . . . This is now.




As I made my way around the yard, I passed beautiful bushes, specifically noticing their unique growth patterns, the colors of their bark and the distinct shapes of leaves now changing color that before, I probably didn’t appreciate because I was so busy looking for blooms. This is the time of year to appreciate the “bones” of the landscape and I fall in love with the garden all over again. As I wound my way to check in on the woodland section of the yard, something very bright – VERY pink – caught my eye. It was tiny and took some effort to get down on the ground to meet it at eye level. How delightful to find some cyclamen blooming in a part of the yard where I know they weren’t intentionally planted . . . not by someone with two hands and a trowel, that is. What’s more, I have a lovely pink cyclamen growing out of a rock! Obviously someone with four legs has been helping me garden this year:











In the woodland area, the most nostalgic part of the garden because I’ve tried to plant things to remind me of treasures I discovered while growing up in Cleveland, the only evidence of my efforts was with the bright red seeds (which I hope will scatter and take hold) of the Jack in the Pulpit.

That was then . . . This is now:








There’s beauty in plants that once bore brilliant flowers: their shape, seeds, pods and changing leaves are intriguing and have a unique aesthetic only found this time of year. The fothergilla that was so delightful in the spring when covered with fluffy white blooms is just as beautiful now as the shrub is ablaze with colorful leaves and the honeysuckle that bloomed wildly over a trellis all summer is now adorned with bright red berries. In the Green Bed, the remaining shape of the once brilliant blue plumbago strikes a particularly lovely sight even without the color as the remaining shape and richly colored leaves resting against a boulder is a gorgeous seasonal sight.









That Was Then . . . This Is Now

Fall Into . . . Brookside

Labor Day is a distant memory, the kids have been back at school long enough to be in the swing of the academic year, football season has started, the World Series has begun (GO TRIBE!), the sun is setting earlier and yet? So far, autumn still feels a little like summer. Halloween approaches (in fact, some department stores have already leapt ahead with Christmas displays) and cooler weather clothing is now in the closet but still, it doesn’t quite feel like it’s time to think about nature’s transition into another season. This is a time of the year when I still yearn for the summer’s vibrancy and look at my garden and see some color yet it’s hard to ignore the withering plants and wonder where the summer has gone. August was cruel with heat, little rain and oppressive humidity. As the seasons change, NOW is a fabulous time to explore the beautiful public (and private) gardens – no matter where you live – and see the remaining beauty of Summer and the spectacular, unique and unexpected sights of Fall.

In the DC Metro area, we have a number of fabulous gardens to explore: River Farm. Ladew Topiary Gardens, McCrillis Gardens, Meridian Hill Park, Dumbarton Oaks Park, Green Spring Gardens, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and each holds a unique feeling. Because McCrillis and Locust Grove are close to my home, I visit them often and am very familiar with each path. I know Locust Grove’s Native Garden and have enjoyed watching it evolve over the seasons. Its’ natural beauty and meandering trails are accessible, peaceful and always provide spectacular views. McCrillis, too, is a natural, serene setting and in my opinion, it is beautiful year round but many flock to it in the spring for their tremendous inventory of azaleas. Over this past weekend, my husband and I decided to walk through Brookside Gardens ( in Wheaton, Maryland because we haven’t been there since their recent extensive renovations and needed a glimpse of whatever summer color remained and experience those unique senses so specific to this season.

Simply driving into the parking lot – before you even go down any of the trails or explore the multitude of diverse, themed gardens, this is what you are treated to:

img_3167After going through the Visitor Center and entering the grounds, it’s immediately apparent that Brookside’s attention to detail encompasses just about everything from seating . . .


. . . to how the gardens are organized. Whether you’re in search of gardens highlighting native plants, intrigued by the Fragrance Garden, Aquatic Garden, Rain Garden, Butterfly Garden, Trial Garden and/or more, Brookside has it. It also has two Conservatories and programs year round. There’s is no “best” time to explore Brookside’s 50 acres – it’s a place with year round interest and unique beauty, events and activities. For those who only go to Brookside during the winter holidays for their amazing Festival of Lights, I encourage you to continue the tradition and add another season to the roster. No matter when you go, you’ll be delighted and there’s so much to explore.

There were a few areas I thought were particularly well done and original, starting with the “outdoor school” garden. Even more exciting? It was filled with excited families exploring the area, aware that through nature, all can be taught (and learned). The area is designated by this sign img_3171

and surrounded by a white picket fence. Inside there are separate “subject” areas, such as math, music and science, using plants and decorative objects to unify the “lesson plan. As we wandered through the area – (we brought the average age UP a few years but we didn’t mind) – we, too, were engrossed in the day’s lessons. The explosions of color and use of a little stage area, quotes on signs and groupings of plants to attract and identify pollinators excite a student of any age:

















Exiting the Outside School we entered, appropriately, a vignette garden dedicated to COCKTAILS!!! We were greeted by a succulent covered figure carrying cocktail glasses in her hand:


The Cocktail Garden is an appealing way to display plants that can easily be grown in your garden and used in your kitchen. The display (pictured below) shows how cleverly plants can be identified and better yet? Recipes are available for visitors. It was fun exploring those beds and seeing not only what kinds of plants can be used for consumption, but just how beautiful they are in a garden setting. In fact, many of them, such as lavender and mint, are things you probably already grow. Brookside includes some more unique ingredients, such as Meyer lemons and jalepenos, and the point was well made: think about how you can use plants in your garden for aesthetic as well as practical purposes. It doesn’t have to be one or the other:  img_3196










Leaving the Cocktail Garden to explore new areas brings the eye to so many exceptional sites: the thistle growing in a bed of brilliant textures and colors (nice of the swallowtail to pose on that thistle, wasn’t it?), beds of blooms with so many colors it looked like an Impressionist painting and areas clearly transitioning to a new season and proudly displaying the beauty of seed pods and changes in the coloring of leaves:















Wandering through Brookside was a beautiful reminder that certain crocuses do bloom in the autumn, that sedum and roses can entwine and coexist beautifully and that containers can be exciting:  img_3185














Brookside’s displays of unique fountains, paths, a gingko themed canopy can be enjoyed while looking at the plants surrounding a body of water or crossing a bridge over aquatic gardens. Said differently? By wandering through such a beautifully planned and well thought out garden, it’s clear that whether one is planting a garden bed, figuring out what to place in a container or adding elements for visitors to sit for a break, they can co-exist perfectly, reinforce nature’s theme and unique beauty and, in fact, be functional, too.  img_3238




As we walked under the beautiful purple plant covered arches to make our way to the exit, I couldn’t help but find exceptional beauty only found this time of the year – seeing the seed pods and other changes in plants reminded me not only to enjoy the season we’re currently in, but that now is a time with a whole lot of hints about what’s yet to be explored:  img_3225


Unwrapping Gifts After The Holidays

Amaryllis Bouquet

Amaryllis Bouquet

I don’t know about you, but even though many of the traditional winter holidays are over, I’m still opening presents. In fact, it seems like every day I discover new “packages.”

These gifts, enveloped in nature’s wrapping paper, are a treat. Sometimes they’re a surprise and catch me off guard, a few develop over time and others have been anticipated after careful planning. Enjoying these gifts isn’t temporary and the delight can last for a long time. The gifts I’ve been opening won’t be returned to a store: they’ll return to bloom next year (I hope).

Typically, it’s not until the warmer months of spring before I begin my morning ritual of walking through the garden to explore what exciting changes developed while I wasn’t looking but with December’s unusually warm temperatures, assisted with a copious amount of rain, people were flooding (pun sort of intended) the Internet with unusual blooming sights. The saucer magnolias, flowering quince and camellias in full bloom in South Carolina, cherry blossoms in D.C., forsythia in numerous zones and countless observations of the telltale green tips of spring bulbs breaking the earth’s surface are photographed and shared all over social media.

Cherry Blossoms

Cherry Blossoms

The last of the winter blooming camellias in our neighborhood are fading but I’ve seen more hellebores than I can recall from previous winters. In my garden, Ivory Prince is a delightful holiday gift – especially admired because they begin as lovely white blossoms and within just a matter of a few days, they begin to develop into a gorgeous, unusual shade of green. I have three lush plants lining the entrance to the garden and it still startles me to walk to our front door and see bright, healthy, colorful blooms outdoors even though it’s cold enough to see my breath in the cold night’s air.



Hellebores - Prince Ivory

Hellebores – Ivory Prince


Hellbores - Prince Ivory

Hellbores – Ivory Prince





What I wasn’t expecting was the number of treasures I discovered in the garden’s beds. I see the daffodils are about an inch above the ground’s surface; the camass, allium, tulips, snowdrops, scillia, anemones and others are not far behind. Little green dots, like tiny gifts tossed out into the garden’s beds, are strewn everywhere . . .

Spring Growth

Spring Growth

Spring Growth

Spring Growth







Just seeing the green packages are a gift in and of themselves – when they burst open, revealing their identity and displaying their lovely characteristics, it’s like unwrapping a gift all over again. They are gifts that keep on giving. Yesterday’s garden stroll did not disappoint – it was like being on a treasure hunt and I was intrigued, curious, surprised, excited and simply delighted when I saw signs of change and the beginning of new growth.

One of the most unexpected and exciting gifts was in the Green Bed where I saw violet shaped distinct dark green leaves with white highlights. I’ve had a lot of cyclamen plants indoors, especially at this time of the year and I know asarum splendens/ginger and cyclamen coum were planted in the Green Bed and Native Beds but I wasn’t sure, without a flower, if I could identify the plant. When I looked under those lush, healthy leaves and looked closely, I saw gorgeous bright pink flowers beginning to emerge and knew the cyclamen plants were about to bloom. What an exciting, precious gift!



Cyclamen Blossoms

Cyclamen Blossoms

Osteospermum are blossoming, pansies are still vivid and the green of plants which typically are gone by now still dot many landscapes. It’s a different view, especially in comparison to last year at this time – instead of seeing the shapes of plants frozen in position from chilly temperatures and a flat, winter dormant landscape, I’m surprised by the pops of color in unexpected places.  





Indoors, things are also fun and I’ve enjoyed “unwrapping nature’s gifts” for weeks – no specific date on the calendar necessary. The paperwhites continue to blossom and scent the air, orchids have returned to bloom, my waxed amaryllis bulbs have produced a dizzying display of brilliant red blooms and my traditional amaryllis, “Caprice” is growing so quickly it seems like it doubles in size daily.

Waxed Amaryllis Blooms

Waxed Amaryllis Blooms


Amaryllis Caprice

Amaryllis Caprice










Until we’re blanketed in white and most of nature’s gifts will be unwrapped indoors, I think I’ll keep exploring the outdoors in hopes of more presents waiting to be discovered . . .  





Falling Into Focus

In the vivid, glorious display of summer, it’s easy to become enchanted and overwhelmed by the plethora of colors, textures, blooms, scents and options. A well-planned garden can be interesting and colorful in autumn but in general, the majority of gardens are becoming less varied and lush. A lot of us look to the changing leaves for our “color fix” and it takes more time and patience to appreciate the detail and unique characteristics of fall.

St. Michaels Maritime Museum

St. Michaels Maritime Museum

In late September, we were lucky enough to attend a wedding in St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore. Held at the Maritime Museum, the wedding embraced the area’s natural beauty, history and atmosphere into every element of the wedding. A wedding in St. Michaels would be beautiful any month of the year – but I had to wonder, if the town’s inherent beauty had been swathed in the brilliance of summer blooms would I have taken the time to notice and appreciate the subtle, unique, seasonal details?

St. Michaels, MD.

St. Michaels, MD.

In some ways, I think it would have been easier to decorate the rustic museum with grand floral displays rather than allowing the setting’s beauty speak for itself. Using carefully selected, subtle flowers incorporating nautical elements, the autumnal wedding embraced the time of year and setting. The wedding was warm, personal, elegant and beautiful.

Wedding Flowers

Wedding Flowers

With a cocktail hour in the Maritime Museum and dinner in a clear-sided tent overlooking the water, it was easy to see how a season (and setting) influences and accentuates the beauty of such a happy event.

Wedding Cake Made by Bride's Sister

Wedding Cake Made by Bride’s Sister

Wedding Flowers

Wedding Flowers






Table Setting

Table Setting









The weekend in St. Michaels continued through my birthday and we enjoyed a memorable evening with dinner at the Inn at Perry Cabin, watching the Harvest Moon rise early in the sky, climbing above the boats in the harbor:

Harvest Moon Rising - Inn at Perry's Cabin

Harvest Moon Rising – Inn at Perry’s Cabin

As the sun set, the Harvest Moon’s brilliance outlined the boats and made a pattern on the water’s surface. The evening concluded with a front row seat for the total lunar eclipse from our hotel room’s balcony. The beauty, and scent, of a moonflower vine was the evening’s punctuation mark.  Harvest Moon














When we returned home to real life in Bethesda, I looked at my parched, tired garden and sighed. Wasn’t it only a few days ago when I was so flush with blooms I had bouquets to spare and didn’t notice the blossoms’ absence in the garden?

After some rain, and with a few additions selected and planted by Serena Masters Fossi, I went into the yard armed with pruning shears, yard trash bag, my camera and a lot of hope. I was delighted to post a few pictures of the garden in early October – the Native Bed had a few blooms, some annuals were holding on and every bed had interesting shapes, textures and shades of green.




Creeping Succulent

Creeping Succulent


After posting a few pictures of the dwindling number of blooms in my garden, my friend Kelly said, “the close-up is a spent garden’s best friend.” She’s right – by taking time in the garden and focusing – literally – on what was present, I noticed beautiful things that might have been lost during those lush months.

Easily, I would have missed the delicate blossoms on the succulents in a terra cotta pot near the entrance to the yard. They are tiny – really, really tiny – and if the astilbe, Lady’s Mantle, hellebores and ligularia had been blooming, I would have missed these little treasures:

Blossoming Succulent

Blossoming Succulent

If I were still obsessing about The White Wall with the White Chiffon Rose of Sharon, Cleome, Mandevilla and clematis vines, would I have bothered to take the time to look at the pot of Hens & Chicks (as I referred to them on Facebook – they are “Hens & Chicks Gone Wild”) on a table? They’ve thrived on neglect and the pot is chock-full of purple tinged succulents with baby chicks dangling over the side of the pot.







Hens & Chicks

Hens & Chicks

As I went through the yard picking up the branches, pruning and bringing in things that shouldn’t stay in the yard during cold weather, I once again tried to focus on signs of life and the current garden’s view. Heavy rains brought down acorns – they sounded like grenades hitting our roof. Annoying in the middle of the night (and scaring our dog, Alice) but in the light of day – I thought they were lovely. I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to clear the yard of them – they really do cover the entire backyard – but for now, I think the shiny brown nuts and goofy looking “hats” are fun:

My "New Groundcover"

My “New Groundcover”

Scattered throughout the different beds are dots of color. Instead of being lost in the cacophony of color during summer, they now stand out and make a statement, as if they are asking for the spotlight. I think they deserve the focus:

Helianthus "First Light"

Helianthus “First Light”

Anemone - "September Charm"

Anemone – “September Charm”









Tricytris sinonome

Tricytris sinonome









Last week, we spent the afternoon in Middleburg VA and, just as St. Michaels showed autumn in its full glory and I’ve discovered a newfound appreciation for the way autumn is appearing in my own garden, Middleburg put on a beautiful seasonal show. The streets were lined with lovely shapes and colors typical of autumn, several gardens showed clever blends of herbs and blossoms and window boxes decorated historic buildings. Remaining summer blooms blended easily with autumnal additions and together, they adorned a lovely town with unique seasonal characteristics.

Middleburg - Window Boxes

Middleburg – Window Boxes

Window Boxes

Window Boxes


Window Boxes

Window Boxes





What would autumn be without the Fall Trademark – pumpkins and gourds? Just as previous Behnkes blogs have beautifully described and photographed the many varieties of pumpkins, I was happy to see the unique characteristics of different pumpkins and gourds casually placed on the stoops of many buildings.  IMG_8089

Pumpkins, gourds, fall blooms and changing leaves are, to me, “Autumn’s Anthem.” This is the time to shift our focus and embrace the nuances so specific to this period of time on nature’s calendar. “You can see a lot by just looking” (Yogi Berra) is exactly what autumn is all about. Whether you’re walking through your neighborhood, exploring a town, taking a drive to see autumn’s landscape and/or tending to your own garden, I hope you, too, appreciate the distinct flavor of the season.  IMG_8085

Mysteries of March

As much as I love my summer ritual of walking around the garden to see what’s growing, I also relish early spring’s routine; hunting for signs of life. Just as I’m thrilled when blossoms burst open, I love spring’s purple carpet of crocuses covering the backyard and finding tender foliage tips strong enough to break through the hardened ground after a cold, icy and snowy winter.






No matter the season, or plant’s growth stage, the ritual’s motivation is simple and consistent; nature is engrossing. The fleeting, fresh exuberance of spring flowers sets the stage for summer’s color parade, fragrances, continuous change and in some gardens, harvests. And just when summer’s glory (and work) begins to fade, in walks fall with its own color palette and signs of change.

I don’t think I could live somewhere without distinct seasons, though I’m told that even in areas where the temperature is relatively consistent year round, there are subtle differences between seasons.  I just have a hard time imagining spring without associating it with the excitement of finding fresh buds on trees and/or discovering the treasures planted in late fall. Crocuses, daffodils, tulips, wisteria and alliums announce that it’s only a matter of weeks before it’s safe to put out pansies, geraniums, impatiens, primrose and annuals.  








Springing forward signals it’s time to anticipate the Cherry Blossom Festival. The trees look dormant to my uneducated eye but the experts say blooms are only weeks away with the peak occurring somewhere around the second week of April.  With Cherry Blossom time comes brilliant quince bushes, Scotch Broom, clematis climbing over everything from mailboxes to trellises, dramatic saucer magnolias, redbuds (I can’t wait to see my new weeping redbud), the delicious smell of lilacs, ants doing their duty on peony buds and azaleas . . . to name a few. Azalea festival dates will soon be advertised – an annual event I rarely miss.  




The sounds of early spring are as unique and special to this time as changes in the landscape. Without as many leaves to hide behind, brilliant red cardinals are easy to spot and their coloring is a beautiful contrast to whatever snow remains. I’m not facile with birdcalls but I think I hear songbirds and the Mourning Doves distinct lament. My garden ritual includes listening for new sounds and quietly watching for nesting behavior.

Late spring is a perfect time to find nests as birds carry nesting materials in their beaks; they unwittingly lead you to their nest(s). Just be sure to watch from afar and take note of their behavior rather than inspecting, up close, the nest’s progress.  If possible, walk quickly past the nest to catch a glimpse or else you might give a potential predator all the details they need.   




Last November, nothing would do but to refresh the spring garden by planting new varieties of bulbs for color, height and a dash of drama. As much as I would like to do the planting myself, my spine has other ideas and I need help with many gardening tasks. With my gardener (Serena) we laid out a general plan for the new bulbs knowing that it’s especially important for me to be able to see growth from the tall kitchen windows — the truth is, when I’m having a bad “pain day” it’s really difficult for me to get shoes on my feet much less traipse through the soggy, sometimes slippery, garden path. Serena said she knew exactly what she wanted to plant along the meandering banks of the dry stream bed – something tall, colorful and new to my garden. She didn’t reveal more and I didn’t want to know. I wanted, and want, to watch the mystery unfold. I’m pretty sure I know what she planted but the foliage is new to my garden and I’m excited to see what emerges.

Growing plants can be a great surprise and I enjoy watching the story unfold.  Many of the new bulbs are a mystery and although some foliage provides a reliable clue, it doesn’t mean the mystery’s solved in its entirety – sure, I know what a daffodil looks like when it’s only an inch out of the ground but I don’t know what kind of daffodil it is.  And I can wait – that’s part of the fun.  





So far, March is coming in like a lamb (not a lion) and signs of garden growth surround me.  The beautiful green foliage dotting the landscape is a yard littered with mysteries. Much of what grows in March is a mystery to me. What is it about the appearance of those green tips that gets this gardener’s heart racing? Is it the appreciation for another season’s encore performance? The anticipation of what will emerge in the coming weeks? The delight in finding life?  Or is it all of the above?

This morning I solved a few more mysteries; snowdrops, hellebores and a few grape hyacinths opened in today’s sunny, moderate temperatures. I noticed more bulbs beginning to shoot up leaves – one is in the area where I planted the coveted trillium last year. Could it be? Am I going to be that lucky? Why is there no sign of the Jack-in-the-Pulpit or is it too early?  What are these other lovely green clues?  













No, don’t tell me the answer. I’d rather read the story cover to cover and hope for a terrific revelation that, I hope, will repeat next spring.  






Time to Fall Back

The end of October and things are changing rapidly.  Time flies by, doesn’t it?

This is the time of year when many gardens start fading in earnest and it’s difficult to eek out much color or delight in the transformation. Sure, there’s foliage and change but let’s be honest, it’s not the same as spring.

Springing Forward seems like growth, anticipation, discovery and embracing the challenge of new plantings.  Falling Back feels like regression.  But it shouldn’t. Maybe Falling Back should be viewed as one of those trust exercises when someone willing hands over control and falls blindly into the cradle of supporting arms to break one’s fall.

A garden falls back and it’s beneficial.  Plants need to go dormant, the ground benefits from the time to “regroup” and restore its energy for another season of growth and gardeners enjoy a slower pace.  Falling back for my garden, and for me, is a time to rein things in a little more.  I definitely miss the morning routine when I walk around the garden to explore what’s new and cut flowers to bring into the house but I also look forward to the first snow, coaxing bulbs indoors and winter’s holidays.  I like a fire in the fireplace and for now, I’m OK with sweater-weather.  But just for now because I know it’s only a matter of time before I start looking for the first spring bulbs and look longingly at my sandals.  I’m nothing if not inconsistent.

This weekend we change our clocks and, for one day only, benefit from another hour in the day. One day only – hear that weather forecasters? I’m so tired of hearing them say “the days are getting shorter” because you know what? They are not getting shorter (or at least not measurably for the average person) – last time (sorry) I checked, ALL days are still 24 hours.  There may be fewer hours of sunlight as the sun sets a little earlier each day but no, the days are not really getting shorter.  




For anyone Falling Back this weekend, try to think of it as a beautiful time, not a loss. It’s when our plants go to sleep, curl up under the ground’s surface, replenish their strength and get ready to delight us when we Spring Forward.  Sleeping Beauty, perhaps? There’s always life in the garden, even when the signs are subtle.  Just coax those bulbs indoors and watch the roots take hold if you need a reminder.

Looking Deep Into Nature

I vividly recall driving from D.C.’s airport with my aunt and uncle to their house in Chevy Chase, Maryland when I first moved to the area in 1979. It wasn’t the excitement or anxiety about moving halfway across the country to begin my career that was so memorable nor was it the anticipation of being with my favorite aunt and cousins. I was looking forward to being with them, hoped I would enjoy the job and positive Washington D.C. could be an exciting new city.

What made the drive from the airport so memorable was the route. It made such an impression that to this day I can retrace every turn. We drove to Chevy Chase via the Rock Creek Parkway and I was slack-jawed. A winding road through a natural park with pedestrian bridges, plantings, a creek, paths, jogging trails, a view of the back entrance to the National Zoo and signs to a nature center running through the heart of our nation’s capital? Oh come on! I grew up in a suburb with wide streets lined with old trees and big front lawns with gardens and went to college where winding roads, pedestrian bridges and land was plentiful – I was moving to a big city so what was this charming road doing in what I knew to be an Important City?

The charm of Rock Creek is simple and obvious.  Rock Creek is woodlands and meadows in a city. Drive, walk, jog or bicycle through the park and whether you are in Maryland or the District is immaterial – within one “park” there is access to an amphitheater, fishing, the zoo, picnic sites, riding stables, an old gristmill, wildlife and . . . rush hour traffic. Talk about diversity! More than once I’ve looked longingly at the lovely homes with views of the park, thinking how amazing it must be to have the Rock Creek as one’s backyard.   




Rock Creek is one example of nature’s accessibility. Exploration is for those aware of their surroundings and willing to take a little time to engage. In my suburb, for example, the nature sanctuary Locust Grove (see Locus – Locust Grove post) is in the shadows of a popular shopping mall and the entrance is on a major road.  Inches away from traffic there are bat houses, a 100-year-old sycamore tree with benches under the branches welcoming story time, parties and educational events. The nature center has summer camps for kids and I can easily envision Locust Grove as a location for family reunions, weddings and quiet walks.  It’s on the beaten path but often ignored as people pass the entrance, too involved in “getting somewhere else” to bother turning into their parking lot.  




There are several resources I love; some are applicable to the D.C. Metropolitan area and others are not. I mention them for readers in the D.C. area but more importantly, for those who are not.  Our area might have sights unique to the nation’s capital but everyone has access to nature’s monuments.

I was given the book “Capital Splendor: Gardens and Parks of Washington, DC” by Barbara Glickman (text) and Valerie Brown (photography) and strongly recommend it for residents and visitors to DC.  It beautifully captures in words, and photos, 32 parks or gardens in the D.C. Metropolitan area.  I’m familiar with many and embarrassingly unfamiliar with others (they’re now on my “bucket list” to visit, explore, photograph and follow throughout the seasons).

After one particularly lively afternoon of “garden talk” with my friend, Kelly, I was introduced to the joy of Amy Stewart’s book “From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden.”  I’ve read some of her columns, enjoy a blog she contributes to (GardenRant) and her newest book, “The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks” is on my “to read” list.  For anyone interested in a completely engrossing book about the joys, mistakes, aesthetics, science and applications of gardens and gardening, “From the Ground Up” is a must read – especially for the enthusiastic gardener in the throes of establishing their first “real” garden.

Family and friends are usually a dependable source for recommendations about plants, garden resources, interesting reads, unusual sightings and for soliciting advice, guidance and/or inspiration (among many other things) but I was a little more surprised when I got a book recommendation about nature from a more unlikely source . . .

With a lifetime of orthopedic issues, I’ve spent considerable time in physical therapy and am currently in an intense program to address some spinal issues. The main room in the physical therapy office has large windows overlooking dense, mature trees. One day I noticed an active cardinal nest and casually mentioned it to my therapist, Quentin, because he, too, enjoys nature. Knowing I adamantly cling to my amateur birdwatcher status, Quentin suggested a book he enjoyed – “How to be a Bad Birdwatcher” by Simon Barnes. I haven’t read it yet but Amazon describes it as this:

“Look out the window.

See a bird.

Enjoy it.


You are now a bad birdwatcher.”

I’ll take it.

As often happens, friends and colleagues tend to come and go as life’s circumstances direct logistics, schedules and priorities.  Although I began work in the D.C. area in a special education school, I returned for a Master’s degree and began working in the healthcare industry for the majority of my professional career. The friends I made while teaching were a close group and we had a lot in common.  Often, we would get together on weekends, go out after work and sometimes travel to the beach together for a get away.

I’ve kept in touch, on and off, with one friend, Lisa, from my teaching days. While raising our kids in different schools, neighborhoods and synagogues, pursuing our own careers and interests, Lisa and I hadn’t been in touch as regularly as we would have liked. In this newish era as quasi-empty nesters, Lisa and I have reconnected and when she surprised me with a lovely, meaningful, personal gift: “New and Selected Poems” by Mary Oliver, I was touched by the thoughtful selection and insight.

It amazes me to pick up Mary Oliver’s poems and read something that resonates so deeply.

“The poppies end up their

orange flares; swaying

in the wind, their congregations

are a levitation

of bright dust, of thin

and lacy leaves.”

Passionate gardener and gifted writer, Vita Sackville-West’s “No Sign Posts in the Sea” is one of my favorite books though the interpretation to nature relies on the reader.  As a gardener, Vita was outspoken, preferring an exuberant and extravagant approach to gardens (as long as the profusion of color and varieties were within borders) and many find her approach inspiring. She wrote about gardening in several long poems but I believe all her work applies to nature.  I love the way she gave plants personalities (unruly, difficult to cooperate, stiff, delicate . . ..)

There are gardening blogs, YouTube videos, Facebook pages, websites, catalogues, apps . . . you name it.  I am not aware of the majority of what’s out there. Most days, I’m lucky just to be able to post a blog.  But this post would not be complete without mentioning a few favorites in case they are of interest to you. Please note I am not including the many amazing offerings through educational organizations and/or government and other entities:

  • – My all time favorite resource for solar garden lights.  They often have fabulous items on sale and their products are guaranteed for two years.  Batteries are rechargeable and many of the glass votives are recycled glass. They offer accessories and gardening tools in addition to lights.

  • – Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology’s on line guide with everything from birding basics to bird cams, bird guides, information about their programs and applications to identify nests.  Easy application to narrow down potential birds by location, different calls, seasons, location of a nest and more.
  •  – Great plant encyclopedia with pictures and good, basic information.
  • – Premiere association for public gardens in North America.  APGA’s 500 member institutions are located in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Canada and seven other countries. APGA is committed to increasing awareness of public gardens throughout North America.
  • – The Nature Conservancy is the leading conservation organization working around the world and is supported by over 1 million members.  Their track record includes protecting millions of acres of land and thousands of miles of rivers around the globe.
  • – Audubon’s mission is to inspire others to appreciate, understand and protect the natural environment.  The Society’s activities, opportunities to volunteer, news, listing of sanctuaries, programs and other news is all available through the website.
  • – Whether you’re familiar with Behnkes because you visit the nursery or shop on line, Behnkes is a go to for information about local events, sales, landscaping, gardening articles, weekly emails, on line shopping and more. Their blog page not only has its own wonderful blog, but it also lists an incredible array of resources (including a list of local bloggers – yours truly,, is carried by Behnkes.)
  • – Oh, I think I’ve blogged enough about this, don’t you? But it really is the best way to learn about what’s going on in your own yard and/or around the world. There are numerous citizen scientist programs to take advantage of and the contributions we make through observations help professionals keep track of increasing and decreasing bird populations.
  • – What can I say? This amazing site has posts from opinionated gardeners and has been online for over 6 years (a long track record for a “gardening” blog). It has a tremendous following among bloggers, writers, landscapers and other professionals.  It is irreverent, opinionated, innovative, funny and complete. I love the way it weaves together information, causes, news and gossip.
  • – Doesn’t their motto say it all? “Inspiring People to Care About the Planet Since 1888.”  Supporting their mission is easy because National Geographic makes it accessible and engaging.  Given the array of offerings, reaching every demographic and level of interest, it would be difficult not to become involved.
  • – WFF is a beautiful, superior resource with a strong history and decades of success – gardeners can depend on WFF’s quality. The website’s fun because they preview plantings being tested for future sales and even if you don’t live near Litchfield, Connecticut, WFF’s use of social media allows everyone access to their horticulturists for advice. I bought my first day lily bulbs from their catalogue almost 30 years ago and today, they’ve traveled with me from garden to garden, and are blooming more magnificently with each year. They are also the source for our family’s annual traditional of an amaryllis bulb.  

If you live in the D.C. Metropolitan area and would like to take a walk through some of the most beautiful gardens, sanctuaries and parks in the area, here are some that come to mind (I know there are plenty of others):

Our connection with nature is inescapable; it’s up to us how to engage, apply and learn.

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Albert Einstein


Gorgeous Enough To Make An Angel’s Heart Run Wild

By Contributing Blogger – Kelly Day Rubenstein

Growing up in Minnesota, azaleas were a rare treat generally limited to visits to my grandparents in the South.  Azaleas can be grown in Minnesota, if your level of commitment is high and your expectations are low.   I’d been spoiled during my childhood days in the Smoky Mountains, where azaleas grow wild.  The flame azaleas, the best known being the orange variety, are an extraordinary sight.   It seems hard to believe that they (along with their white and pink siblings) were never cultivated. They’re along the Blue Ridge Parkway; you can see them across the mountains; it feels like God just put them there. Nobody else did.  




Washington, DC is a lot closer to North Carolina than it is to Minnesota.  The official flower might be the American Beauty rose, but, in reality, it should be the azalea.  Washington is wild for azaleas; and surrounding Maryland and Virginia follow suit.  (Which leads me to wonder why Maryland picked the Black-Eyed Susan.  Colorful and native, yes, but they hardly leave me breathless.  Virginia chose the native dogwood, an area favorite, which looks lovely with azaleas.)    But there is trouble in paradise: the Washington Post’s garden columnist has actively campaigned against azaleas, saying “Florally, it’s a binge banquet for three weeks followed by a diet of gruelish greenery the rest of the year.”  The word “nauseating” was also thrown around.  (Probably directed toward the “Pucci color combination,” which I love.)

I suppose that to some extent that it is true.  My garden, in suburban Maryland, has more azaleas than any other shrubs.  The home’s original owners, enthusiastic and skilled gardeners, replanted a large slope covered with honeysuckles and poison ivy with over 100 varieties of azaleas. This wasn’t an arbitrary act of an ordinary azalea enthusiast; the previous owner was Head of USDA’s Soil Conservation Service (as it was known then) and took the selection of plants very seriously.  Although many shrubs were lost over the years, the variety astonishes me.

Not knowing their proper names, I’ve given them nicknames.   The soft red is the first to arrive.  



The “orchid” is a delicate lavender number that lights up with sunshine from behind (and looks rather like a real orchid up close).



The apple blossom azalea is consolation for my lost apple trees, chopped down by a subsequent owner (If only they’d been cherry trees, how poetic it would be!)

The pink-throated azalea has a very distinct look, carrying two shades.  Near the center of the bloom, the pink deepens.  




The largest of our blooms is the giant magenta.  






The hot-pink bee azalea makes me wonder what azalea honey would taste like.  

And there are the whites and the corals, the cherry red and the deep-purple…

So, yes, everything is in one basket.  We have a couple of glorious weeks in which I can hardly believe that all this beauty belongs to us.  Then, the azaleas fade away, as they are now, with a few remaining reds and pinks.  All will settle into “gruelish green” soon, but the memory of that smashing, unphotographical vista will stay with me.

When I was child, I heard the term “Georgia Peach” from my aforementioned Southern family.  I assumed that it meant a sweet and pretty woman with a nice complexion.   That is, until I had a truly fabulous Southern peach bought from a roadside stand.  This was a rich, pure delight with a flavor that knocked my socks off.  All peaches before and all peaches since have paled in comparison.  I remember this peach like a soldier might remember a beautiful, charming, compelling woman.  He’d spend his three weeks of leave just trying to be in the same room with her, and she’d be worth it.

Spending time on Kelly’s porch, especially when the azaleas are at peak, is admittance to a private tree-house wrapped in a rich, colorful tapestry. Her beautiful photographs convey the variety, textures, species and details few Washingtonians have such intimate access to (hence proving that the vista is, indeed, photographical.) Thank you, Kelly, for sharing treasures captured so beautifully in this post.

Wrong Place, Right Time

Because Emily is out of pocket at present, I volunteered to step into the breach.  Big shoes to fill!

Some gardeners like January.  The architecture of the garden can be clearly seen.  A canvas of possibilities presents itself (especially when viewing those obscenely alluring plants in the catalogs).  And, allegedly, weeds are in abeyance.  On that last point, I’m inclined to disagree.  USDA suggests that weeds are “species that are considered undesirable by some segment of our society.”  That presents a lot of latitude.  Can a nursery plant be a weed?  In my yard it certainly can.  In fact, I prefer the definition of a weed, “a plant growing in the wrong place.” A very serious gardener created my garden in the 1960s, who was succeeded by someone very fond of change.  There is a mixture of plants, most of which I love and nurture.  But there are the plants that I loathe and make half-hearted efforts to kill.  Among my least favorites are nadina.  The nadina in flower bed beneath the window refuses to respond to my repeated attempts to off it.  I suspect that the only thing it would respect is Brush-B-Gone; I’ve not yet been driven to that extreme.   It is not a pretty nadina.  It does not grow berries.  It does not change color.   It merely crowds out more desirable plants.  But come January, my feelings change.  Amongst the abandoned pots and dead annuals, it is green and living and much needed.

It is also sheltering some variegated lemon thyme, which will be much appreciated come spring and summer.






I will also admit that the nandina in my backyard (a different variety, apparently) is producing lovely berries and provides a spot of color amidst all the brown.


Sometimes, it’s not so much that the plant is wrong as it is inadequate.  The gardener convinced me to keep the “ratty tree,” as I call it, to soften the fence line and give some winter interest.  If half close my eyes, I can delude myself into thinking that it might be something found in Japanese garden.  January can freeze your judgment as well as your plants.




The plant that I hate the most is mahonia.  I had a very bad experience with holly bush once, which has left me scarred for life literally and figuratively (ok, it’s a very tiny scar, but still).  I have a strong aversion to spiky plants (roses excepted).  I see no purpose to coexisting with that dangerous mahonia most of the year.  But, in the dead of winter, I admit that it does have something to contribute beyond feeding my neuroses.  

Of course, there are weeds which, to me, will never be anything but a weed.  The neighbor’s bamboo grows taller and more robust every year.  Unless the National Zoo’s Pandas decide to relocate to the suburbs, I see no purpose to this bamboo’s existence.

Located a good 15 yards away, is a new sprout.

Not everything green is good, even in January.

Personal Note – This beautiful post was written by my close friend and fellow gardener, Kelly Day Rubenstein, Kelly and I spend considerable time discussing All Things Garden Related (among other things) and she graciously contributed this post during a time when personal circumstances make it hard for me to blog. As I am sure you’ll agree, Kelly’s contribution(s) to RootsInReality are welcomed any time, no excuse(s) necessary.  Thank you, Kelly.

Locus – Locust Grove

A rare November day when a walk outside is more enticing than staying inside with a good book – what a treat! Tired of walking Alice around the neighborhood, I took advantage of the weather and headed over to Locust Grove Nature Center.       






I probably drove by the entrance to Locust Grove – off busy Democracy Boulevard – thousands of times before pulling into the parking lot.

Once there, it’s hard to believe you’re just minutes away from a shopping mall. It’s tranquil and, like everything else, constantly changing. There’s no “good” or “better” time to go – whether covered in snow, leaves or wildflowers, the trails lead you through a natural setting ripe for exploring. There weren’t very many cars in the parking lot and most were closer to the indoor tennis courts than the sanctuary’s entrance. Sometimes there are school buses and/or a caravan of mini-vans but it’s one of the few places in Bethesda where parking’s free and plentiful.

I walked around the deck of the Observation Center noticing how all sides had windows with beautiful views of the park and the center’s bird feeders and houses.


Given the time of year, I didn’t see anything more than a few woodpeckers, pigeons, blue-jays, cardinals, hawks and wrens but I know Montgomery Parks has an on line list of the different birds visitors might see during each season. 


The Observation Center has year round programs, an interactive exhibit and is built around a life sized Oak Tree Exhibit. Peering into the windows I could see the evidence of some art projects and what looked like science projects in progress. Propped up on the steps outside the door was a pumpkin line up and I remembered the night hikes they do on Halloween. I think they have bat houses, too. I remember signing a permission slip for the twins to do a stream study at Locust Grove when they were in first or second grade at The Harbor School. The school encouraged packing an extra set of clothing and they came home from school that day with their muddy, smelly clothes shoved into a plastic bag. It took a few cycles in the washing machine to get them clean – well worth it because without that permission slip I wonder if I would have discovered Locust Grove on my own.

In the years since that first introduction, I looked into the camps offered during the summer and other seasonal programs, like maple sugaring in February. When the twins were young I thought about doing a birthday party there (how could you not like the one called the FBI – when kids act like detectives by investigating Fungus, Bacteria and Invertebrates?) but somehow it never worked out – just one of many challenges to celebrating the twins birthday(s).  




I walked around the little pond and remembered the twins trying to find frogs and tadpoles there and in the stream running throughout the park. Ugh, I also remember how we were one of the few families that kept an aquatic frog, brought home as a tadpole in a baggie, alive for years and years.




I don’t know why I never noticed the trellis before – all covered with twisted vines; probably wisteria jumbled up with something that blossoms in the summer, too.

I headed down the stairs towards the trails




and looked at the massive Sycamore tree. I don’t know its exact age but it must be close to 100 years old. I love the wood benches and stone fireplace and wish I had taken the twins there for one of the story times or other programs.  





Sorting through pictures the other day, I found a group of photographs taken on a gorgeous September day when my friend Denise and I took our kids for a walk through Locust Grove.  The kids are looking for minnows and turtles in the streams that were deserted while I was walking Alice.


I was surprised by how low the water was but wasn’t surprised by the number of trees that had obviously fallen recently, whether during the derecho in June or in October from Sandy.  

Some of the old trees had massive, exposed root systems and it looked like they were barely anchored into the banks on either side of the stream. It was as though the trees were pulling away from the water or the ground had been washed away, leaving the roots bare.    






I wonder if the twins felt tortured when I took them for walks or if they have good memories of those times. Did I save the placemats we made of leaves and colorful crayon shavings melted between sheets of waxed paper?


As I headed back to the car I noticed things I had previously passed by and thought about how much there is to explore.    

Yogi Berra was right – you really can see a lot just by looking.