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Friday, March 15, 2019


I love this time of year in the garden when it is not quite spring, but winter is loosening its grip. Days lengthen, the sap rises, and the bluebirds return to build their nests. Not much is blooming yet: just the daffodils and the frost-proof cups of cream and pink that grace the hellebores. The trees have not leafed out. And yet, for a gardener, it's as exciting a time as the build-up to Christmas morning. So much is promised. Possible. Palpable.
Dreaming of the iris in bloom...

Some of the best markers of growth in this season as the equinox approaches are the iris. Spurred by weeks of heavy rainfall the green blades of Siberian and Japanese iris have begun thrusting their knife-points free of the dead foliage at their crowns. Vigorous stands of swamp-loving Louisiana iris never shed their green foliage, not even through the coldest part of the season, nor does a wildly vigorous stand of the native blue flag iris, I. virginica, which I planted in standing water at the low spot beside my garden shed. But now the growing stalks brighten and glow as if flames are burning inside them, with the virginica and the Socastee river iris selection, I. versicolor 'Swords of Murex,' sporting purple-stained blades at the base.
Iris virginica plants getting their green on.
Most of the beardless iris species I grow are water-lovers, including the exceedingly rare and beautiful Foxcroft Full Moon, a white I. pseudacorus with violet stitching on the falls. In addition to needing moisture, beardless iris must have acidic soil to perform well, with a pH no higher than 6.5, and Carolina clay is made to order. In this respect the beardless iris are the complete opposite of bearded iris (I. germanica) which require dry conditions and alkaline soil, preferring a pH of 7 or above.
Iris sibirica blades emerging in spring.

I grow a few cultivars of tall bearded (TB) iris in a plot inspired by British gardener Beth Chatto's gravel garden. The TBs are slower to show new growth than the beardless ladies, but in late March the blades will begin to thicken as flowerbuds swell in their protected sheaths. The TB bed is exposed to full sun all day (one aspect of their cultural requirements that they share with most beardless iris). 
Tall Bearded Iris 'Wench' in my garden.
It slopes slightly to encourage sharp drainage, and is amended with lime and mulched with gravel to keep the soil sweet and prevent the rhizomes from rotting. This is not an easy task in our humid climate, and it may be why I have lost so many of the pretty little dwarf varieties that never rise very far above the damp soil. I have sworn the dwarfs off but for the blushing beauty, 'Chanted,' which is still clinging to life.
Standard Dwarf Bearded Iris 'Chanted'

Not to worry. In some years, starting in early April and continuing through May, I get a splendid display of blooms from the few tall workhorse varieties I keep on: 'Lemon-Lime,' 'Afternoon Delight,' 'Gypsy Dancer,' and a glamorous iris passed along from a gardener at my former church, ironically named 'Wench.' (The iris, not the church lady.)  For the most part, however, the TBs resent sharing space with the other plants in that bed: the roses, peonies, and daylilies. As far as TBs are concerned, paradise is a dry, empty field occupied entirely by their own kind. I can't offer them the space and exclusivity they desire.
TBs 'Lemon Lime' finish their show in early May, as southern peonies and Siberian iris take over.

A chummier species of iris is I. tectorum, or roof iris. 'Alba' blooms in mid-April at the foot of my variegated Japanese maple, Acer palmatum 'Beni-schichihenge.' These clumping iris happily rub shoulders in the filtered light beneath the tree with wild columbines, bugleweed and a cherished, small-leaved Buxus microphylla started as a cutting from a boxwood in writer Elizabeth Lawrence's Charlotte garden.
Iris tectorum 'Alba' appreciates the shade of trees.
Here's the hallmark of an excellent garden plant: I've divided the patch of tectorum many times and it never complains.

Nor do my beardless iris pile on much agony. The consistently cold weather we experienced last winter had a positive effect on the Siberian iris cultivars I grow, as well as my southern peonies; both species of plants need a certain amount of cold dormancy to do well, and they got it. People unfamiliar with South Carolina's upstate region are always surprised when I tell them how cold our winters can be, especially here on our little mountain above the Spartanburg plain.
Alice in the snowy garden.
In the ten years we've lived in Traveler's Joy, we have never had a snow-free winter, and have occasionally endured single-digit freezes. (That doesn't mean we don't get hot summers… Lord help! Equatorial.)

Benefiting from the deep-freeze, a small plot of I. sibirica 'Sparkling Rose' that I'd planted and forgot about a few years back suddenly threw out a multitude of fat budstalks last spring. When the flowers bloomed in April, they were dazzling. 
I. sibirica 'Roaring Jelly.'
It was the same for I. sibirica 'Roaring Jelly,' and a clump of I. sibirica 'Ever Again,' a hybrid introduced by iris grower Currier McEwen. The latter grew so vigorously in its first year in my garden that by the second year I was able to take a piece of it to share with my daughter in her Raleigh plot. I bought this three-gallon pot of 'Ever Again' at the farmers' market in nearby Cowpens from a member of the Spartanburg Men's Garden Club for the remarkable price of $5. I told him it wasn't enough, but he argued back that it was the end of his day and he was ready to be done with the pots and go home. I've longed to return to the market and buy more plants now that I've seen these iris perform, but the farmers market never reopened after that spring. Cowpens mayor, are you listening?
I. sibirica 'Sparkling Rose'

The Siberians get their bloom going in late April or early May. Following them in the iris blooming cycle are the Louisiana irises. Modern hybrids of these swamp-lovers sport flowers in all the colors of the rainbow, but I take most pleasure in those with the wild Iris fulva as one of their parents. The warm terra-cotta tones of fulva aren't seen in other beardless iris, but they are glowingly apparent in the stand of I. louisiana 'Red Dazzler' which grows in my rain garden. 
LA iris blooming with loropetalum.
These dark red flowers are sensational blooming against a background of Loropetalum 'Red Diamond,' and dragonflies love them. Also, they remind me of a gardening friend who taught me a good deal about iris and who has since passed away. I think of Dawn and smile when the dazzlers bloom.
LA iris 'Red Dazzler after a rain.

Japanese iris, I. ensata, close out the iris season with a grand finale. They are tall and dramatic, with flowers spread like flashy handkerchiefs atop the stalks. I grow I. ensata 'Wilderness Warrior' in a spot where she is protected by Itea 'Henry's Garnet' and an old-fashioned pillar rose, 'Souvenir du Dr. Jamain'; otherwise my pair of rescue dogs would flatten the stalks and the beautiful mauve and white flowers along with them. My favorite ensata cultivar is 'Nikko,' a stunner in the sunny May garden with broad, marbled blooms of purple and white featuring bright yellow signals.
I. ensata 'Nikko' in my garden.

In addition to the showier types of Japanese iris, I grow a species-type ensata which may or may not be I. ensata 'Emotion.' I've moved it so many times, once across state lines and then several times within this garden, looking for the best site to show off its graceful, elongated falls of deep, marine blue. It seems to be happy now in its sunny bed beside the blueberry shrub, where Holly-Tone satisfies the needs of both fruit and flower, and where the irises amplify the color of the ripening fruit.
Orange cat with blue iris.

I've bought a couple of different cultivars from Walter Hoover, the Japanese iris specialist who owns Charles Street Garden in Saluda, NC. He and his wife are among the dozens of excellent nurserymen and women who bring their wares to Hendersonville's annual Garden Jubilee. I wouldn't miss the show for anything, except a book event, and one of those kept me from attending on Memorial Day weekend last year. 
I. ensata 'Carol Johnson'
I swore I'd not miss another year's jubilee, but then I discovered that the Swan Lake Iris Garden in Sumter, SC, which I've longed to visit for their iris festival held when the ensatas bloom, is being held on the same weekend. May, to a gardener, is an embarrassment of riches.

*     *     *

Anyone who has read my fiction knows that I'm heavily influenced by Greek and Roman mythology. For that I credit my Duke-educated teacher of freshman high-school English. How that long-suffering man ever found his way to our confederacy of dunces in the trackless wilderness is a mystery, but I'm grateful he did. Mr. Rumsey started us on Camus, bless his heart, but gave up after two weeks, collecting all our unread copies of The Stranger and replacing them with his own mimeographed pages on the pantheon of gods and goddesses on Mt. Olympus. We ate up those bawdy tales of vanity, passion and vengeance like they were Junior Mints -- I even wrote a comic skit about Zeus and his jealous wife Hera that was performed by my bolder classmates.
Hera and Iris.

I remember being fond of the minor goddess, Iris. She, along with Hermes, were the gods' messengers, but while Hermes used his winged heels to fly between Heaven and Earth, Iris traveled only on rainbows. Anyone who has seen a field of bearded iris in bloom or watched dragonflies landing on a stand of purple Siberian iris flowering in a pond will appreciate how appropriate this symbol is.

In one of the few myths involving Iris, the messenger is enlisted by Hera to help a young queen named Alcyone, whom Hera pities. Alcyone and her husband, King Ceyx, shared a great love for one another and couldn't bear to be parted. Howevr, Ceyx decided he had to consult the oracle in Delphi about some knotty matter of state and so left his queen behind as he set off across the sea. Naturally, since this is a Greek story, it ends in tragedy: the king's ship is swamped in a storm and everyone drowns, Ceyx included. Meanwhile, Alcyone is home in their kingdom, praying and making sacrifices to Hera for her husband's safe return. This is why Hera orders up a dream for the clueless widow, as the goddess can't bear to witness Alcyone continuing to hope and pray that her beloved will come home. Iris dresses in her cloak of many colors and travels down the rainbow to the Vale of Sleep, instructing the god of slumber to craft a dream and send it to Alcyone, showing her how her husband died. 

Alcyone discovers her husband's drowned body.

The day after her dream, the queen goes to the shore and sees her husband's corpse washing in on the tide. She leaps into the sea, planning to die alongside him, but here the gods intervene (and the question is: why didn't they intervene earlier and save Ceyx??) They turn Ceyx and Alcyone into kingfisher birds and allow them to fly together over the waves. 

In Greece, the kingfisher female lays her eggs on the beach in winter, doing this only during the seven to ten day period when the winds are calm and the seas quiet, permitting her to nest atop the eggs. This calm, happy period in winter came to be called Halcyon Days, in honor of the devoted queen.
Pipit jonquillas.

For gardeners, this is our season of halcyon days, almost better, in its way, than the full-blown flummery of May. All our devotion through the cold, dark days is being rewarded with color and growth. With beauty. All that seemed dead is coming back to life.

Can one hope for anything better than that?

*     *     *

The two-day Garden Jubilee is held in downtown Hendersonville, North Carolina, on Saturday, May 25 & Sunday, May 26, 2019 from 9am-5pm both days of Memorial Day weekend.

Swan Lake Iris Festival in Sumter, South Carolina, is held annually on Memorial Day Weekend. In 2019 hours are:  Hours: Thursday, May 23, 6 - 9pm; Friday & Saturday, May 24-25, 10am - 6pm; Sunday, May 26, 10am - 5pm.

The American Iris Society (AIS) sponsors events all around the country and its website provides a wealth of information about iris species and cultivation.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019


In a weak moment of idealism last year, I asked my husband to give me a Little Free Library as a Christmas present. These are the windowed boxes mounted on posts and filled with books which mark the front yards of certain progressive communities. The books are free for the taking: passersby are urged to "take one now and leave one later," but the box is meant to remain full of used books for all ages and interests whether or not neighbors replace the ones they take.
Little Free Library #75394
More than two months later, the wooden library FK gave me, already listed on a national registry as Library #75394, remains in its box in our study, along with the cans of paint and the specially designed post meant to hold it. Nearly a decade into our sojourn in Traveler's Joy*, South Carolina, I'm growing less and less clear on what the word "community" actually means in this town, except to realize that a library does not belong on my lawn. Bob,* the local real estate agent who sold our home to us on Kent* Street in 2009, recently confirmed our unscientific observations that the neighborhood is shifting rapidly away from a community of working class owner/families into an assortment of tenants in rented properties.

The adult children of our former neighbor, Miss Donna*, two doors up on our side, held on to her home after her death three years ago but rented out Miss Donna's rundown property across the street to a raucous, chaotic family that keeps pigs in the backyard and regularly dumps mounds of debris in the storm gutter. Last week one of the pigs got loose. I see the pigs as an improvement on the pit bulls the family kept before, but when the pigs are troubled or threatened, they scream with unearthly vigor. This was the case when the sow broke out of her pen and lowered herself into the green expanse of the neighboring lawn. She could not be coaxed homeward, and when four children and their grandmother pulled on her tail to convince her, she shrieked like a woman being burned at the stake. They finally rigged a rope around her neck, strung it under her belly, and the kids towed her uphill by lifting her hind legs off the sidewalk and dragging her backwards, wheelbarrow-style. The pig screamed "wee-wee-wee" all the way home.

Ossabaw hog.
In the small white house next door to us, the retired fireman whose notion of "getting some fresh air" involved driving through his backyard in his Buick, and who once turned down my offer of homemade wine by telling me, "no, no, that'll have me seeing double and feeling single," passed away in January after a long illness. Before moving in with his son in Charlotte he told me to help myself to the peonies and iris his wife had tended in the beds that bordered our property. I did, and now I think on Gerard* whenever the peonies, of an old-fashioned scented variety which may be 'Shirley Temple,' glorious notched petals of blush and white, bloom in my garden. Now that his son is listing the house for sale with Bob, the beds will be tilled over. We're hoping for good neighbors next-door, but looking around Kent Street and its environs these days, we're not optimistic.
Passalong peonies blooming in May.
A few days ago, on a morning when the rain had finally stopped and the sun emerged, my dog began scratching at the front door. Alice usually barks or growls when strangers approach the porch, but this frantic scratching at the weather-stripping was a new behavior. I looked out through the glass storm door and saw a woman collapsed on the sidewalk in front of my house.

Some remnant of instinct from my years living in a large American city told me that this was not a person suffering from Type 1 diabetes or heart failure; she seemed youngish for a heart attack but was just the right age for a drug overdose. Since I was still in my bathrobe, I called 911 rather than going outdoors. As I was on the phone with the operator the fallen woman rose to her feet, unsteadily, and walked away down Kent Street, seemingly headed for the gas station on Abbey* Street. This is where all the vehicle-less people living in the Section 8 housing at the top of the ridge must walk to obtain their beer, cigarettes and microwave meals. I told the operator to cancel the emergency, but she promised to send local police to look for the woman, in case she was in medical distress. By the time the Traveler's Joy officers arrived on my doorstep, however, she had vanished.
I looked out and saw a woman lying on the ground.
That evening, I pulled my cart into the checkout line at Food Lion and saw the same woman, no longer unsteady, standing in front of me with a friend whose groceries were being rung up. She was just as I'd described her to police: a petite white woman with dyed pink hair pulled into a topknot, wearing a frayed denim jacket, jeans, and a backpack. As she stood talking with her friend I had a good view of her face. It was covered in sores, the kind usually caused by long addiction to crystal meth.

Should that have really shocked or unsettled me, that habitual drug-users are living (and overdosing) in my neighborhood? Logically, no. It's been apparent to my husband and me for some time that while by all outward signs Traveler's Joy appears to have few functioning businesses and virtually no industry, there is a 'shadow' industry that thrives here with the tacit support of local government. This is the business of slumlording. Bringing change or prosperity to town by means of new business or development has been consistently discouraged by some old-timers who have expressed their objections openly. They believe that such change would inevitably result in higher taxes on property-owners. It would also inevitably cut down on the number of people living in Traveler's Joy who survive by means of entitlement programs such as WIC, SSI, veterans' and disability benefits. Such people are desirable as renters because they pay their landlords with government-guaranteed funds. (See Matthew Desmond's excellent nonfiction book, Evicted; Poverty and Profit in the American City, for an explanation of how and why owning rental properties in low-income neighborhoods can be profitable.)

The owners of these rental properties in Traveler's Joy are primarily the adult children of long-time residents, such as the heirs of our deceased neighbors on Kent and Cedar streets. Typically, they inherit land and property and pay almost nothing for the upkeep of that property, while economizing on already low taxes through creative means. The tenant house across the street from us that has given us so much grief (and now I can't stop worrying about the older boy who runs everywhere in his bare feet. Considering the pig-pen in the backyard, he is a prime candidate for hookworm…) …this house is listed on tax records as the primary residence of the owners. If it were listed as an income property the taxes would be higher. In fact, the sibling-owners live in another county and another state, respectively, and are rarely seen on Kent.

Kent Street: playing on the debris pile.
The squalid mobile home on nearby Cedar, occupying the high ground above our garden and those of Gerard's and Ramona's, is owned by another member of a "founding" and therefore favored family. Over the years, this mobile home and its muddy yard have housed a fast-cycling procession of tenants who have generated deafening noise, trash and abandoned animals. According to tax records, the owner purchased the lot and the trailer in 2005 from a man for whom he held power of attorney; in selling the property to himself he was charged the princely sum of $5. This property-owner is one of the most successful slumlords in Traveler's Joy. He owns an entire trailer park of shabby single-wides occupying a narrow strip of land on the ridge-top above Cedar Street, and now, over the objections of homeowners and a couple of the more civic-minded town councilmen, has installed a second trailer park identical to the first on land dug out from the cliffside below the original plot.
I know from conversations with local law enforcement officers that the initial park of one dozen single-wides crammed on to an acre of land comprises a troubling concentration of unlawful activities that tax the tiny police force here. In one trailer, I was told, the three inhabitants boast four homicide convictions among them. And yet no one seems to believe that the man who collects rent from all the residents bears any responsibility for creating the situation. No one will acknowledge that the que sera sera attitude of town government in this respect is part of what makes the location desirable for residents engaged in harmful or illegal activities.

Rental property in Traveler's Joy.
When I first came to Traveler's Joy it was hard to accept the town's practice of permitting property owners to charge rent for dwellings that are unfit for habitation by human beings. (See my earlier post, 12/04/13, "The Tenant House") Drive down any road into or out of town and you will pass mobile homes without glass in the windows, plywood nailed over the gaps. You'll pass houses lacking modern heat and working kitchens, with partially collapsed roofs or floors. The questionable set of values at work here presumes that poor people are lucky to get any kind of roof over their heads, even a partial one, while holding that a property owner with the moxie to charge money for such appalling conditions has every right to do so. As the former mayor once told me at a town meeting when I objected to the town's lack of oversight in such situations: "You can't go trampling on people's rights." It was clear to my husband and me that his use of the term 'people' on that occasion was meant very specifically to refer to those of his friends and kin who owned such properties. The rest of us could butt out.

I'm not naïve enough to think this is an isolated situation. I suspect this brand of protectionism is thriving in many small southern towns, where regulation is habitually ignored and the good ol' boy practice of cronyism insures profit for the favored few. Meanwhile, homeowners and local police departments in these towns must cope with the effects in their communities of increasing poverty, petty crime, drug use, transiency and the kind of social ills that are symptomatic of a burgeoning underclass, such as we are experiencing in Traveler's Joy.

When he was campaigning last summer, the new mayor told us that our town was coping with an alarming rise in shootings and drug-related crimes, something that isn't widely known without a newspaper in the community (The Traveler's Joy Times* was forced to close in 2010.) The mayor blames the escalation of violence here on gangs from a troubled community across the border in North Carolina expanding their operations here. I wonder if the changes in our demographics have also contributed to the reduction in revenues that the town receives. Traveler's Joy has run a budget shortfall for the past five years, and in the current fiscal year the coffers proved to be half a million dollars short of expenditures.
Main Street in Traveler's Joy.* A few days after this photo was taken,
the town chopped down the holly tree, along with the others growing nearby.
No explanation was given.
In trying to understand what's going on in my neighborhood and my town, I came across an analysis from the Brookings Institute that seems to speak directly to the changing make-up of certain residential blocks in Traveler's Joy (and, in fact, to communities all over America where high levels of unemployment and drug use go hand-in-hand with a shortage of economic opportunities and low levels of education). In this report, authors Isabel Sawhill and Paul Jargowsky refer to a study done in 1988 by Sawhill and Erol Ricketts that focused on those behaviors which seemed to be held in common by members of the "underclass." Not only do these common traits tend to limit the individual's chance of achieving the American dream for themselves and their children, but they reduce the social benefits for the neighborhood as a whole by providing social models that are self-defeating.  Here's the pertinent portion:

"They defined the underclass as all those living in census tracts with very high concentrations of certain behaviors. Specifically, the tract had to be one standard deviation above the mean for the country as a whole on all of the following indicators: proportion of teenagers dropping out of high school, proportion of women heading a family, proportion of households on public assistance, and proportion of prime-age and able-bodied men not in the labor force. The underclass is then defined as those living in these troubled neighborhoods, regardless of whether they themselves engage in such behaviors.

Instead of focusing on individuals, however, Ricketts and Sawhill emphasized neighborhoods because of the tendency of these dysfunctional behaviors to concentrate in certain areas and to become normative or quasi-normative for the adults, and especially the children, growing up in these neighborhoods. If many of one’s friends are teenage mothers, for example, then it is easy for any individual teen living in the neighborhood to see this as an acceptable, perhaps even a desired, lifestyle. But the development of such norms—norms that are at odds with mainstream expectations—leads to a diminution of social mobility for those growing up in such neighborhoods and imposes costs on the rest of society."
Back of Main Street.

You may argue that the absence of a Little Free Library on my block is not much of a "cost" to the neighborhood at large. You would be right. And yet I feel diminished every time I walk into the study and see the large cardboard box pushed up against the window, the one that releases the fragrance of planed wood if I lift back the flaps and peek at the library, still in its packing material. Giving up on the idea of free books is like giving up on my dream of a home, the one I imagined we were making here. Were my expectations too high?  Almost certainly. But I also believe that the people largely responsible for fostering our town's current crisis and risking its future are people motivated solely by profit, and such motives will not produce an appealing, livable community for the rest of us. I can only hope that the caring friends and neighbors we have come to know in Traveler's Joy, those hard-working well-intentioned people who lend their voices to the town council, who support the public library and the schools, and who are even more dismayed about the negative forces at work in Traveler's Joy than I am, will find a way for the town's rosier prospects to prevail.

For the time being, however, the library stays packed up, as do our plans for improvements to the house and garden. We are waiting to see if we can weather this storm.

*The name of my town, its people, its streets and its former newspaper have been changed.