peony-3Last year at this time, on a day that seemed especially stressful, I came home to find that my neighbor and fellow gardener Brooks had placed a large and beautiful Itoh peony* on my side steps. She left a note with it to say that it would bloom at this time every year to remind me of my mother, who had just died. At the time, the plant held one perfect bud, which opened within hours of my finding the gift.

I planted the peony as soon as I could in a sunny spot next to the back deck and pampered it as much as it needed through the summer (which was not much) and as it emerged this spring, and indeed, it’s now blooming. The first bud has just opened, and I watched it unfold over the course of about 24 hours. We buried our mother a year ago today, and I am reminded of her long, beautiful life, but also the kindness of so many friends, then and always.

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*(Click on the title to open this post in web browser, where you can see a slide show of the flower changing as it opens.)

Takara™  (Treasure) Itoh Peony’s “key benefits,” according to the plant tag: “Large flowers up to six inches across provide an unusual and exquisite ever-changing blend of colors. When opening, blooms appear mostly pink, but are actually light yellow flushed with deep lavender pink. As flowers mature, the pink and yellow fades to pale white, with a large dark burgundy flare in the center. Hybridized by Don Smith, a leading Itoh Peony breeder.”

April 15

Vegetables for the kitchen garden

Most people think of this date as tax day each year. I prefer to remember that it’s the average date of the last frost in Middle Tennessee, after which serious gardening can commence.

I took advantage of a sunny morning for a trip to Bates Nursery, where I picked up the heirloom tomatoes and peppers I plan to grow this year, plus a few other items to round out the raised bed at Farm in the City and the newly rabbit-proofed beds in the kitchen garden out back.

Spring has a mind of her own, and there’s always the possibility that we’ll get another late cold snap. But I’ve checked the forecast, and unless something unexpected blows through, it looks like cold weather is now just a memory. I’ve even set out basil transplants. Fingers crossed!

Transplants planted today in the garden out back

Sorrel (inspired by my interview with gardener Rob Stein who sang the praises of this “unheralded herb” in a story I wrote for The Tennessean last week.

Italian plain parsley and curled parsley

‘Black cherry’ tomato

‘Straight Eight’ cucumbers


Two pots of sweet basil seedlings, plus an interesting looking plant called ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ basil that someone described as “sort of basil-like, but it’s not that great.” The foliage has creamy white edges, though, and it might be a pretty addition to the basil bed.


Two rows of ‘Blue Lake’ bush beans

One row of California Giant Mix zinnias


Here’s what’s going into the sunny raised bed at Farm in the City community garden this weekend:


‘Black Krim,’ ‘Mr. Stripey,’ ‘Cherokee Purple,’ ‘Green Zebra’ and ‘Mortgage Lifter’ tomatoes

‘Golden Bell,’ ‘Lilac,’ ‘Red Beauty’ and ‘California Wonder’ bell peppers


‘Kentucky Wonder’ pole beans


Spring brings new light and a new fence to Turning Toward the Sun.

Spring brings new light and a new fence to Turning Toward the Sun.

Change is happening in the kitchen garden out back.

I’ve been planting vegetables and herbs in raised beds for a long time, at least two decades and probably more than a quarter-century, in the fertile ground at the back of our city lot in this hundred-year-old neighborhood. Two things have been a constant frustration to successful peppers and succulent tomatoes: increasing shade cast by a ring of venerable old trees, and rabbits.

Because of our wealth of trees, the only time the area gets full sun in summer is for about an hour in the morning and another couple of hours late in the afternoon. Dappled shade the rest of the day causes everything to grow tall and rangy, all stems and leaves and very little produce.

Then rabbits eat much of what’s out there even before some of it has a chance to grow, a problem I’ve tried to solve with an ugly assemblage of chicken wire cloches and cages and wobbly chicken wire fences that keep the rabbits out, but also keep me from being able to get to the plants without taking everything apart.

One day at the bitter end of last summer, I stood out in the middle of the yard looking at the overgrown, under-producing garden and the chewed nubs of bell pepper plants and said to whoever was listening, “Why do I even bother?”

Spring puts everything in a different light, of course. This year I’ve decided to try one more time to grow a more productive kitchen garden, and invest in improvements that might make that happen. First, I removed a small, misplaced tree – a little Liberty elm that was so shaded itself that it had grown almost diagonally and hung low over two of the raised beds — to open up the tree canopy to allow more light. If I read the sun and the remaining trees right, this should allow at least another hour of direct sun onto about half the garden area.

Lettuce transplants in a newly built and shortened raised bed.

Lettuce, kale and spinach transplants in a newly built and shortened raised bed.

The biggest change may also be the most significant: I decided to replace the scattering of chicken wire fortifications, and hired Chad, a friend who is a handyman to build a sturdy, rabbit-proof fence that surrounds all eight raised beds. Two gates will allow access, but once inside, I will be able to reach all the beds easily, and won’t have to move cloches or disassemble cages or bend over fences to plant, weed or pick beans. I will be able to get to the vegetables, and the rabbits won’t.

That’s the plan, anyway. This morning, the kitchen garden out back was a construction zone as Chad and Ryan set posts and cut lumber. They rebuilt and shortened some of the beds to make room for the fence posts and widen a path. They’ve been working carefully around the herbs and early spring vegetables that are already growing, and I’ve moved a healthy clump of golden oregano and a large and lovely sage to new positions in the shortened herb bed. I hope those herbs survive the move, but if they don’t, I understand it’s part of what happens in a garden, which is always a work in progress.

construction 2 web

Here’s another picture of the construction zone at Turning Toward the Sun. In the next few days, I hope to be able to show off these new ideas.

 I happen to be in the Nation’s Capital, and it happens to be the “peak bloom” days of the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival, which draws thousands of people to witness the lovely sight of pink clouds of cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin and all over town.

But that’s not all that’s in bloom right now. Here’s a sampling of other early-spring loveliness in Washington, D.C. 

Saucer magnolias– mostly over in Middle Tennessee, I’d say they are also at peak bloom here.

Daffodils. These little gems are in a park near the Library of Congress.

 Hyacinths, along with tulips and pansies, in a curbside bed near the Supreme Court.

But really, it’s those cherry blossoms that have captured the tourists.


Art + daffodils

Photo courtesy Martin Dillingham / Watkins College of Art, Design & Film

Photo courtesy Martin Dillingham / Watkins College of Art, Design & Film

Students at Watkins College of Art, Design and & Film, where I teach Community Ed classes in creative writing, planted 1,300 daffodil bulbs last fall around the campus’s green space between the lake and the dorm. Some of the bulbs had been donated by the Middle Tennessee Daffodil Society, and they reported on the planting in the group’s Winter newsletter.

Photo courtesy Martin Dillingham / Watkins College of Art, Design & Film

Photo courtesy Martin Dillingham / Watkins College of Art, Design & Film

Before class yesterday evening, I strolled out to the Quad to see the results of their efforts. Here are a just a few of the hundreds that are now up and blooming.

Imagine what this will be like in a couple of years, after the bulbs have had a chance to multiply.

Daffodil-gardenWell done, artists!



Photo courtesy Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art

After a couple of weeks of shorts-and-sandals days and balmy, spring-like evenings, here comes the actual first day of spring with a prediction of near-freezing temperatures in Middle Tennessee. They say it will struggle to reach the mid-40s today, and there’s a 50% chance of rain.

In spite of the chill, it’s nice to see that the great sweeps of tulips that the gardeners at Cheekwood planted last fall – more than 100,000 bulbs — are up and blooming. Yesterday was the opening day of the annual Cheekwood in Bloom festival, six weekends of activities that celebrate spring, and promoters sent this enticing image to show that the gardens are a pretty nice place to enjoy the season any day of the week. The current sculpture exhibit, Steve Tobin: Southern Roots, “planted” in five outdoor areas throughout the landscape, is a bonus.

I plan to get there when the weather warms up a bit and while the tulips are still blooming. Meanwhile, I’ll just continue my daily walks around the neighborhood, where front yards and flower beds are waking up for the new season.

IrisThis morning, I saw the first iris blooming through a neighbor’s fence. Spring has arrived; warm weather is sure to return soon!

Spring forward

The pulmonaria in the front yard bed began blooming earlier this week.

The pulmonaria in the front yard bed began blooming earlier this week.

The extra hour of daylight on Sunday means one more hour to spend in the garden, where buds are opening, leaves are unfurling, and spring’s wild plants are growing like … weeds. It’s a good weekend for cleaning out garden beds, trimming last year’s dead foliage, raking up the last of the fall leaves and enjoying the garden as it returns for the new season.


I was afraid the heuchera had disappeared, but here they are peeking out from under the mulch.

daylight candytuft web

The candytuft is reliable for its early-spring blooms.

daylight clematis web

Clematis will bloom soon, and opens more flowers each year.


Even the dandelions are showing their bright colors.

daylight-mums-webThe mums are coming back. Cutting last year’s dried foliage is still on the to-do list.

What will you do with your extra hour of daylight?


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