Come visit! Duck Hill is open to the public Sunday, June 3 from 10 am to 6 pm to benefit the Garden Conservancy. The roses are at their height, foxgloves continue to bloom, and poppies dance in the vegetable garden.

Find directions and details on the Garden Conservancy website:

The first of the early roses are in flower at Duck Hill, taking over from the lilacs and tulips in what we think of as the May lull, before the big splash of peonies and the voluptuous rose blooms of June. The sweetness of these first rose flowerings is beguiling–in soft yellow, white, and pale pink, single and double, rarely more than three inches in diameter, inevitably richly scented. Their foliage tends to be fernlike and not affected by the disease and bugs that summer brings. The Father Hugo rose (R. hugonis) and its hybrid, Rosa x cantabrigiensis, seen here with some old-fashioned Oriental poppies, are peppered with palest yellow flowers along their arching branches.

The Scotch burnets are in full bloom, varieties of R. pimpinellifolia, small graceful bushes in the three-to-five-foot range. The species are white–single-flowered, as is this one next to our dwarf Korean lilace hedge, or double-flowered.

But there are lovely pink sorts such as the one by our greenhouse, and even yellow hybrids. Harrison’s Yellow is one, an old dooryard rose, with rich butter-yellow flowers that are loosely double. Bosco and I once came upon a whole grove of this charming rose flowering near an ancient oak tree in a Pennsylvainia field, all that was left of an old farmstead.

March 25

White Forsythia

White forsythia, as Abeliophyllum distichum is called, has been in bloom for the last week at Duck Hill, a month earlier than usual. The four-petaled flowers are similar in shape to those of forsythia, but are tiny, opening white from pink buds in chocolate casings. The little flowers stud the arching branches profusely in the same manner as forsythia, but are intensely fragrant, throwing their honey sweetness into the air so that just passing by the bush is a heady experience. (Think how fragrant our land would be if the real forsythia had a scent!) Abeliophyllum is a delicate shrub with none of the brassiness of forsythia, showing its fairy-white beauty best against an evergreen background or, like snowdrops, on an overcast day.

Winter aconites are suddenly flowering with our common snowdrops underneath the old apple tree at the beginning of our woodland path. I love this cheerful bulb, almost as early to bloom as the snowdrop, each cupped flower colored glossy slicker-yellow, resting on a deeply-cut, dark green ruff of a leaf. It is officially known as Eranthis hyemalis, and is a member of the buttercup family. Like snowdrops and daffodils, aconites are not palatable to marauding critters (large or small) and are wonderful flowers for naturalizing. Plant aconites under deciduous trees where they will get spring sunshine and summer shade and gradually they will seed and spread about. I brought a tiny clump of them, maybe a half-a-dozen bulbs, from my old house when I moved to Duck Hill thirty years ago, and each year the little flowers have increased, cropping up here and there and now making a generous carpet. If you do not have a friend who can give you a few from her or his garden, order the tubers early from a bulb company and plant them in the fall as soon as they arrive. Aconites usually flower in early March, but this year they are making their appearance a week or two early.

Maybe twenty-five years ago, I sat next to a venerable and elegantly-dressed gentleman at a garden-related dinner party and admired the sprig of boxwood in his lapel, its tiny dark green leaves edged and dipped irregularly in creamy white. I asked him for its name, Buxus sempervirens ‘Elegantissima,’ he replied. He said it grew in his garden, and I immediately wanted this unusual (to me) boxwood in mine. Shortly thereafter I found and planted a tiny rooted cutting, which is now a presence in our small yellow garden, having grown to a height of about six feet. It adds a lively light touch to the garden. We do not protect it this time of year and, so far, it has survived all the vagaries of winter weather. I love to cut long inside branches of it for winter bouquets, and in this way I give it an annual pruning as we are supposed to do to bring more light and air into the center of the bush. 

January 12

English Weather

Despite a short spell of frigid cold, we have had so many days this early winter of mild weather with the thermometer hovering around fifty, early-blooming perennials and shrubs are lulled into thinking spring. I have never seen the Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, flowering for the holidays as it does in England–until now. One patch opened shyly in late December, and now two patches are in full flower a good month and a half before they usually bloom. The difference between the  Northeast and Britain is that we don’t have consistently temperate weather, and those beautiful pink-tinged white saucers will inevitably get slammed by bitter cold, ice and snow later this month and in February. One of the things I most love about hellebores is how long their flowers linger, glamorously dressing our small strip of woodland all of March, April, and May. These Christmas roses might be exhausted by then.

The little white corydalis, C. ochroleuca, is sure to be flowering by the first of April. In its quiet, charming way, it continues to bloom without a pause through spring and summer and fall, usually, finally, giving up the ghost some time in late November. But here it is late December, and, despite a night or two when the temperature dipped into the teens, one small clump at the foot of our kitchen stone step is still in flower. We have had such peculiar balmy weather to start the winter that spring shrubs and perennials are spurred by the warmth into plump buds and even flowers.

But the little corydalis is in a class by itself, flowering valiantly throughout the growing season.  It is a charming plant for stone walls, rockery, and gravel, liking shelter and a little shade, seeding about when it is happy, coming up in different spots each year. The leaves are typical of the corydalis family, blue-green, delicately scalloped and fern-like, and the flowers droop in clusters of tiny trumpet with yellow throats. C. lutea is a yellow form, more commonly seen than the white.

December 22

Christmas Red

Our big winterberry bush (Ilex verticillata) cracked at its base, unable to withstand the weight of the snow in the freak October storm. Its branches are now added to the pile of debris from the storm waiting to be chipped, and their perfect,  round, glossy red berries–so treasured for Christmas decoration–are dry and shriveled. Usually I cut the winterberry branches I want for the holidays sometime in November before the birds get to them, for they are often picked clean by December. I store the fruited branches in a bucket of water until I need them. But this year, for that touch of red in holiday bouquets, I am relying on the linden viburnum, V. dilatatum ‘Erie,’ shown above, which is planted along our driveway and is still ladened with shiny fruit. The berries are small and slightly oval in shape, but born in such profusion they offer quite a show. This viburnum never looks shabby–the fruit will linger through most of winter, and the graceful mass of twigs on the eight-foot shrubs will be dressed all spring and summer with broad, lustrous, ribbed leaves. White discs of flowers cover the branches in May.

November 11

November Consolation

Lately, walking around the garden, all I’ve been able to see is the damage from the snowstorm of October 29. Broken and beheaded magnolias, dogwoods, crabs, lilacs, redbuds, halesias, willows, holly, winterberry, bayberry, smokebush, some split to their core, others reduced to lopsided specimens. Nature’s way of cleaning the slate a bit, we say to ourselves, trying to feel better. But in the soft sunlight this morning I was distracted from all the destruction by the late autumn color of shrubs and trees that managed to come through the storm unscathed. The fothergillas, for instance, are ablaze with gold and scarlet. These are marvelous shrubs for our gardens, thriving even in situations where they get only a few hours of sun. They are related to witch hazels, indigenous to the mountains south of here, but perfectly hardy in our northeast gardens, and unfazed by pests or disease. They flower in May, curious white bottlebrush blooms that smell of licorice. Their leaves are handsome all summer. Even leafless, I find their twiggy growth picturesque.  But they are at their showiest now in autumn dress and a glad sight to our eyes. Our native sweetspire, Itea virginica, compliments the fothergilla with its arching branches of wine-red leaves. I have planted both these shrubs in clumps at the beginning of the woodland. Clethra lights up the woodland path with its buttery yellow leaves.

 And by the barn road, the lovely small multi-trunked tree, Parrotia persica, is glorious right now as it turns orange and gold and crimson. It contrasts nicely with the maroon leaves of a dogwood next to it, both unhurt by the storm. Stewartia pseudocamellia is another treasure that stood up to the snow and is on fire now with gold and orange leaves. If you peer in among the golden leaves you glimpse the gorgeous bark of the tree, exfoliating into a mottled pattern of cream and tan. The spectacle of these November beauties is surely compensation for our loss.


Do admit. Hydrangeas add punch to the garden with their blowsy blooms from summer right through fall and into winter, their fat plumes turning from green to chalk white to pink to rose to buff. Of course I am referring to the Hydrangea paniculata hybrids such as ‘Limelight,’ ‘Tardiva,’ Quickfire,’ and ‘Little Lamb.’ From August on, I depend on them for my big bouquet in the library, their showy blooms mixing well with flowers from the meadow and garden such as the tiny-flowered black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia triloba, and sprays of goldenrod, or, as now, the berries of autumn. Right now, I have a pitcher of ‘Limelight” mixed with branches of Viburnum dilatatum ‘Erie’ behind the library sofa. This viburnum is at its showiest right now with masses of tiny deep red berries littering the 8′ shrubs. The leaves are deep green and leathery, touched with bronze by the end of this month. Even after the leaves have dropped the fruit will linger, finally eaten by visiting birds.