According to Mr. Google, phenology is “the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.”  This is how you know when it’s time to plant peas (when forsythia and daffodils begin to bloom), or what bulbs will bloom with what.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes, given climate change, it doesn’t.

So, one success this year is planting grape hyacinths to coincide with tulip sylvestris, an elegant swan-necked yellow tulip that I read about somewhere and planted for the first time last fall.  sylvestris

These grape hyacinths are bigger and bolder than my older ones, and the bees love them.

Another success, at last, is ‘Sun Disc’ daffodils with Virginia bluebells.  Here they are by the oak tree trunk, finally blooming at the right time.sun disc

Other phenological observations are that the cherry trees are beginning to fade, just as the redbuds spring forth.  Here’s a cherry tree in my neighborhood several days ago:  cherry treeAlison’s two gorgeous crab apples are in full bloom right now.  In my garden, there are tulips (the pink ones blooming with the Judd’s viburnum, just as ordered), daffodils, squills, ipheion, snowdrops, and more.  It is an exuberant time in the garden.


“What is a week-end??”

Or, three days in London.  We wanted to see an exhibit (me) and a Vermeer (Alison), so we searched for hotel and flight packages on a whim.  It turned out that we found a great deal – around $930 – for three nights at the Thistle Hotel Trafalgar Square and a round trip flight on Virgin Atlantic from Dulles to Heathrow.  I guess, for some reason, no one much wants to visit London in January?  They are foolish!  So off we went for a long week-end.

The flight was uneventful, fortunately.  We both had carry-on bags that fit the teensy dimensions required by international flights (though VA seems a bit loose about this), so we were able to get off the plane and go right to a cab.  The trip was fine until it slowed way down due to traffic restrictions related to the changing of the Guard (per the cabbie), so it cost a bundle.  Oh, well, dropped our bags, picked up a quick sandwich lunch at Pret a Manger on the Square, and returned to the hotel for the necessary two-hour nap.

Above is the Square as it looks these days, with the (newish) London Eye in the background and a new sculpture in the foreground.  No worries, the pigeons, the fountains and the people making chalk drawings are still the same.

The hotel was perfectly situated for our itinerary, being literally around the corner from the (new) entrance to the National Gallery.  Alison, being a careful planner, had a list of art we wanted to see.  I didn’t take many pictures, but here are a few:

The Pentecost by Giotto is one in a series whose parts are scattered across the continent.  This one portrays the tongues of flame the apostles have as they are filled with the Holy Spirit.  I was particularly taken by the two observers who are admiring the words.

This is a detail from the Wilton Diptych, one of the great treasures of the National Gallery.  It was commissioned by Richard II for his private devotions, and he is the man kneeling.   There are many details whose religious or historical meanings are well described in The National Gallery Companion Guide, or here.  It is not very big but absolutely beautiful.

I loved the Late Gothic style of Uccello’s St. George and the Dragon.  It inspired poet UA Fanthorpe to write “Not My Best Side,” from the viewpoint of the dragon, the maiden and the saint. Notice her pointy shoes.

And here is a detail from Carlo Crivelli’s Annunciation.  The whole thing is quite bustling, commemorating the day when the city was granted limited self-government, so the city itself is featured in the model held by the local bishop.  The Angel Gabriel looks quite business-like, landing as he has in the middle of the street to bring the good news.  The pickle has puzzled many viewers and appears in many of Crivelli’s works.  Here’s a summary of some of the interpretations.

Although this  is not THE Vermeer Alison came to see, it’s always good to revisit old friends.  This is A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal.

An adequate dinner in the hotel restaurant, and an early bed.  Anticipating tomorrow’s visit to the BM and the Scythians!


A castle, a garden, a plane ride

crathes gardenToday we had to bid farewell to the luxurious Gordon Guest House.  Among the joys of the house were the two USB ports in the bedroom, which Martin later told us had been recommended by the tourist board and were usually found only at 5-star hotels.  May everyone get on this bandwagon!  So much easier than hassling with the adaptors that never work as expected. We had our last delicious breakfast and bid farewell to our hosts, hopped in the car and headed for Crathes Castle and its garden on the way to the airport.

As we drove in, we saw women encasing the trees in knitted and crocheted designs – yarnbombing strikes again!yarnbombing

Since the rain was holding off for the moment, we decided to start with the gardens. Wow.  In the 1920s and 30s Lord and Lady Burnett (we never did figure out the family) expanded the existing gardens to make four garden rooms and a series of gorgeous borders in the Arts and Crafts style.  After a very dry spring – everyone kept telling us that the past month had been nothing but sunny and delightful but too dry – they had a ton of rain in two days (note the sign).  So everything was cool and drippy and gorgeous.  

Close to the castle is this room, featuring topiary and a perfect green lawn.  garden roomClose-up of the topiary here:  topiaryWe started by looking at the white border, white border and treeand here is a closeup of the delphiniums.lupins or delphiniumsAt the focal point where four paths meet is this ancient tree, treethen the June border that was in its glory.  June borderThese lupins are a bit stiff and overdone compared to the wild ones in Maine, but they do make a show.  Many of the cottage garden flowers in this border are no longer commercially available, making the border that much more important.  

I was especially struck by the way they stake the plants, using what one of the gardeners told me was fishing nets though of a good thickness, unlike the black netting we get that does nothing but tangle. fishnetIf you have a great swath of plants, it’s a good solution.

From here we scurried through the water garden, water gardencroquet lawn, red garden, red gardengold gold gardenand green garden.  All beautiful, even those that were clearly not yet at their full summer glory.  It certainly helps to have weathered stone walls and perfect edging.  stone wall 2stone stepsstone walksAn old “dovecoo” makes another focal point.  dovecooThis really was one of my favorite gardens, quite traditional but quite stunning.  So here are even more pictures of this amazing place.


After this, on to the castle.  castle from the water gardenUnfortunately we ran into a large group of French tourists with a very loud leader, so we had to make our way through the first several rooms without looking at them in order to get ahead of the humanity.  When we did find our way into the house, we appreciated the horn of Leys given to the family by Robert the Bruce and hung over the fireplace, the painted ceilings (reminiscent of the John Knox house in Edinburgh) painted ceilingand some of the textiles.  The first image is crazy quilt chair seats (!), the second might be applique, the last might be stumpwork .crazy quilt chairscrathes bedspreadstumpwork maybeBut we never did connect with the family in the way we did at Craigievar.  We were also aware of needing to get on the road, so we gave them short shrift.  After a quick lunch in the castle cafe (and a tantalizing visit to the garden shop), we were on the road with the Vauxhall for the last time.  Again the satnav took us on back roads – if only getting to Dulles were this scenic – but we got there in good time.  A bit of confusion finding the rental car return caused a nice policeman to stop us, but he soon realized we were in need of help and he directed us back the right way.

We had a while to wait for the plane to Kirkwall, but at last we were boarding a small plane, quickly flying above the clouds, and just as quickly, and unexpectedly, hitting the ground again.  Kirkwall is flat, wet, and cloudy so far.  The brisk rental car man directed us to our little Ford Fiesta (such a comedown from the Vauxhall!),fiestaand we were on our way to the hotel.

The Orkney Hotel has several virtues: hot showers, strong coffee, and a central location.  On the other hand, the bathroom is out of the 1960s complete with a yellowish light on a string over the bathroom sink, and a pervasive smell of damp or at least mustiness.  But here we are, and it was not so bad (just compared to the Gordon guest house!).  But there is much to explore in Orkney.  Onward!

A long walk on a wet day

Thursday was our free day to walk and we spent quite some time determining which walk to do.  An out and back at Loch Muick (pronounced Mick) on the Balmoral estate?  A walk up behind Crathie Church?  Around Ballater?  At breakfast it came to me: we would do the Muir of Dinnet walk around the loch, flat, 3.7 miles, pretty straightforward. Amanda, Martin’s wife, cheerfully seconded the idea and we were off.

Clouds were lowering but it was not raining when we set off from the visitors center on the signposted Duck path that goes around the loch.  Along the trail was  what I gradually realized was bracken.  (On this trip I’ve seen bracken, gorse, monkey puzzle trees, a Vauxhall (the car we rented in Aberdeen), a railway embankment, rooks (heard them, too), and who knows what else from every English book I’ve ever read.)  There were lovely views, too.

Moving along… We saw an elegant black slug along the path, wearing sleek black leather above and finely pleated silk below.  On the lochs, some kind of ducks – goldeneyes? – birch trees, 

stone walls made of rounded stones, and, unrecorded by camera, hares in a field, and birds on a stone wall in that same field that I think were lapwings, I could see a plume on their heads and they seemed to be black and white primarily.  

We followed the path around and around the loch, seeming never to get closer to the end.  I was looking out for the Pictish cross and we finally found it, quietly impressive partway up a field.  I was sure that the path continued below, along the banks of the loch, so off we went.  The path became stonier and more boggy as we picked our way along, and we finally came to a broken down fence and thought, this is wrong.  Looking more carefully at the map we realized that we should have walked up the hill above the cross, so we retraced our steps and found ourselves on a wide path next to a field (where we saw the hares and lapwings).  

As we came to the end of the field, there was a danger sign about ADDERS, the only poisonous snake in Scotland.  This has got to be one of the best danger signs we’ve seen over the years.

Of course, by the time we saw the sign, we had already walked through the danger!

On and on we trudged, and although it was lovely it was also the longest 3.7 miles I’ve ever walked.  Just at the end it began to sprinkle, so our timing was perfect.  Back at the visitor center, we hopped into the car and drove to the Loch Kinard Hotel not far away.  A quick peek at the garden revealed these cheerful lilies blooming in the rain.

Inside we had the soup of the day – leek and potato – and shared a cheddar and chutney panino.  Very warm and comforting as the rain began to pelt down outside.  

Home to the room with its jacuzzi, which we both thought was nice but something we would never use.  Well, guess again – we both enjoyed taking hot baths and having the jets swirl about our aching legs.  Perfect!


Dinner tonight was booked at the Rothesay (pronounced Rossy) restaurant, started by Prince Charles, with all profits to benefit Ballater, which survived a terrible sudden flood on December 30, 2015.  The dinner was quite good and the service very friendly.  We found ourselves having sticky toffee pudding for dessert – delicious!  And here’s a beautiful bit of salted butter to enjoy:

Bulb madness

Trying to note the bulbs planted this fall before it all vanishes from my brain:

24 ‘Blue Giant’ chionodoxa under the maple tree and in the front garden

24 Anemone Blanda mixed under the oak tree and under the akebia vine

4 ‘Spring Song’ tulips (above) free from McClure and Zimmerman in the walkway garden

In the blue pots in the driveway garden:  three each of Queen of Night, Maureen and Cape Holland.  Perhaps they will even bloom in unison!  Over-planted with pale yellow and white pansies

Visiting the Queen

Balmoral castle

Today was Balmoral day!  (I know, this is all out of order and I never did catch up to last summer’s Scotland trip, but better late than never.)  Luckily there was only a drizzle here and there and by the end of the afternoon there was blue sky and sunshine.  We booked a “safari” on the estate in a Range Rover with a real ranger.   It was worth every penny, truly a highlight.   

George, our guide for the five of us, was very entertaining. Here he is explaining about stags and their antlers. You’ll have to excuse the noise from the car engine, but at least you can get a bit of his accent. 

Clearly he (a 19-year veteran of the castle) has a high regard for the Queen and Prince Philip.  (He did mutter that no one likes Prince Andrew.)  He emphasized how the royals like to relax at Balmoral and that the queen and one of her people like to work together to scrub down one of the houses on the estate at the end of the season.  During the high season, July through early September, they all live in the castle.  But when they come up for a weekend or a couple of weeks, they stay in a house that is smaller and more manageable. The takeaway message is that it’s easy and comfortable for them while they are there.

He traversed, as he said, only a corner of the estate, but we saw a great variety of habitats.  Roe deer, red deer, moors, heather, Scots pines, highland cattle, stags, but sadly no capercaillies or red squirrels.  Here are a few glimpses of what we saw.

Scottish highland ponies are big at Balmoral.  We saw several as we traversed the grounds.  Here’s a close-up view of the special dorsal stripe typical of this variety.  And here are some trainers taking the ponies for a constitutional.

We stopped at one point and walked a path up to a waterfall, a route often taken  by Queen Victoria.

Here  I am at the waterfall, and here is the bridge she had made over it.  

We stopped to see the Finnish cottage, described by CNN as the “Honka Hut (a pine summer cottage that was a gift from the Finnish government and is one of the queen’s favorite spots on the estate.”   But who should pull up but – not the royals, rather three cars of local police.  They were quite friendly and showed us a photo they’d just taken of a stag.  George advised us that some royals might be coming up for the weekend and that the police were likely doing a recce in advance.  We never did see any royals, but it was fun to think that we might.

After the safari we toured the castle, which means only that they let you see the ballroom with several exhibits of Landseer portraits, regalia, and photos of the family (no photos allowed, sorry).    Then on to the gardens:  a glasshouse with plants arrayed on wooden shelves in such abundance that the shelves are invisible.Extensive vegetable gardens that feed the estate, all planned to peak during July and August when the Queen is in residence.

Lovely cutting gardens, these featuring flowers I love and can never remember the name of, there is also a red variety.   It will come to me.

And here it is in a border.  I love it!

I don’t know if this bronze fennel is intentional or if, like me, they find it self-sows everywhere and let it have its head.Oh, to be a gardener there! 

Farewell, Queen!

Summer drought

After the promising beginning in the last post, reality took over.  As soon as I planted some mixed lettuces and the seeds I mentioned, the rain stopped.  For about six weeks we had no rain at all and in the last month we’ve had only a sprinkling.  The seeds did not sprout (except for some self-sown cilantro and ONE carrot), and the mixed lettuces I planted from Roxbury immediately bolted, IMG_20171017_163406while the kale, as usual, was attacked by some kind of bug.  The only thing that thrived was the mustard greens that you see behind the extraterrestrial lettuce.  They are hot!  Cooked down for a bit they are delicious and not so bity.  But all in all, pretty much a failure.  We are promised rain the day after tomorrow, and I live in hope.

Gardening this week, or, Good intentions

Since I started this blog to keep track of my garden, I’m going to write occasional posts about what I’ve actually done in the garden (what a concept!).  I’m sure this is of interest only to me, but I hope that it will help me to plan and keep up with garden tasks, which was one of the original points of the exercise.

It’s early August, so it has been mostly hot and humid, though recent rain and a few lower-humidity days earlier in the week encouraged me to get out and look around.

  • weeded around the sunny border, getting rid of about half the witch grass that infests that bed, especially in and around the yucca
  • weeded the edge of that border along the driveway side, doing my best to cut back the verbena and butterfly bush that wave tendrils around to the annoyance (I’m sure) of my meticulous neighbors
  • speaking of which, the neighbors are parking one of their cars several feet away from the end of their driveway and are draping the hood with a sheet.  Could the crepe myrtle blossoms possibly be the reason??  neighbors
  • decided that next week I’ll cut down the beans and cucumber.  The beans were Anellino Verde from Seeds from Italy, a source recommended by Barbara Damrosch.  Well, the vines have overtopped my new bean solution.  Here it is in the early days,beanpole and here it is now, beanpole2leaning dangerously and not tall enough for the vines.   Worse, despite a few blossoms, I’ve harvested only one – yes 1! – bean so far.  Off with its head.  The cucumbers are bitter even when tiny and worse when they get as big as this.  cucumberI can’t remember the variety but it was a six-pack I picked up at Earl’s.  Yuck.  Can’t wait to pull these out and start sowing some fall crops.  At least the basil and parsley are thriving.
  • hosta trimming time is here, so I methodically went through all of them under the oak tree and decapitated the seedheads.  Here are the before and after.hostas beforehostas after
  • planning to plant fall crops next week (second week in August), including these newly purchased from Renee’s Seedsseeds I must be more fond of radishes than I realized…

A castle, a garden and a cliff (almost)

Today began with a gentle but relentless rain that did not let up all day long. Luckily, it was not too cold so we put on our rain pants and went on undaunted. After a look at the River Dee, river deejust down the street from our guest house, we drove first to Craigievar Castle, stopping on the way to see the Howe of Cromar, a patchwork of countryside, from a roadside layby called the Queen’s View.  Even (or especially) with the mist, it’s a quintessentially British view.howe of cromar

Craigievar Castle proved to be a really good one. It’s made of local pink sandstone and the turrets are said to have inspired Walt Disney. It was built by “Danzig Willie,” more properly William Forbes, a trader with Germany and the Baltic states (shades of Niccolo!) in the early seventeenth century and remained in the Forbes-Semple family (again with the Dunnett references!) until 1963.

The castle features amazing carved plaster ceilings and a huge carved plaster royal coat of arms over the fireplace in the banqueting hall.  No photos are allowed, but if you go to this page you can see an image of the coat of arms. Or try this photo from another traveler:

The antlers!  The plaid!

We went from floor to floor up steep winding stone steps (not for the faint of heart or weak of leg). The family used to spend six months a year here despite the lack of plumbing, heating or running waterup, until they gave it to the NTS. They did install a tub on one of the bedroom floors, but since it had to be filled by hand with hot water from an adjacent wood stove, it was still no bed of roses. It was interesting to see the castle without electricity; if it had been any cloudier, it would have been hard to see some of the details. We loved the photo of the three sisters who were the last children to live here, now in their seventies and still visiting annually, but in the photo lively and curly haired children just a few years older than we were then.

Having had a substantial breakfast, we settled for tea and a date bar from the little shop. It would have been nice to walk around, but the rain was relentless, so we soldiered on to Kildrummy Gardens and castle. It took a while to get there, again on tiny back roads. The satnav led us astray or at least didn’t correct us at one point, and we had to back and fill on a one-lane road, but we made it at last.

The entrance was confusing and we had to leave and start over again, but at last we figured it out. The gardens were designed in the early 1900s on the site of a quarry from which the stone for the neighboring Kildrummy Castle had been taken. It was influenced by Japanese gardens and that’s all I know. The quarry area was just perfect, the pink stone forming a stunning backdrop for trees, rhododendrons, and perennials (including blue poppies again). It continued to rain gently but relentlessly, as you can see in this video.  If you’re suffering in a hot and humid Virginia summer, just play this and you’ll feel better.


Paths led through the garden to the water area, spanned by a bridge inspired by a thirteenth century bridge in Aberdeen city.  We could see the ruins of the castle on the hill above us and decided that that was really all we needed of that. The gentle, persistent rain was actually a great backdrop to it all.

Alison was a very good sport, enjoying the bird and squirrel feeders outside the tiny reception/visitor center while I took one more path so I could see the bridge and the water gardens. We both got to see the famous red squirrels, though they were too quick for me to record.

So now we were headed for home, Ballater, following the instructions of the satnav lady. Alison, looking at the map, murmured from time to time that she was taking us on a strange route – “not the way I would have chosen” – but we innocently proceeded, along the River Don, through small villages and eventually on to a bleak, atmospheric moor. I love this country and stopped for a quick photo but AO finds it spooky so we kept going.

Then, just as the moor was turning back into ordinary green landscape, there was a sign: Caution, 20% grade, showing a vehicle at an alarmingly steep angle. And, it was a blind summit so I couldn’t predict what was facing us once we went over the top. Talk about scary! I hate steep roads anyway, and not to know how steep was alarming. But there was no choice, so I inched along and then could see the hill below. It was very steep, but I did not really think we would tumble upside down if we tried it. Coming up in the opposite lane was a lumbering bus and two cars, one of which darted around the bus just as we were coming down. I said aloud, “This is fine, there’s no problem, it’s going to be okay,” and apparently was convincing enough that Alison believed me. It was only when we were back on a level road that I let out my breath and confessed that I had been scared to death!

I’m still not sure where we were, but the photo displays as Strathdon.  All Wikipedia can tell me is “Strathdon is an informal geographical area. This means that there are no precise boundaries in terms of where it begins or ends. ”  So perhaps we were in Brigadoon??  The photo at top is of a village called Lost in Strathdon, so that must have been where we were.

From here it should have been a straight shot to Ballater, but the satnav kept trying to send us to Braemar.  We ignored her and followed a road sign, finding ourselves parallelling our moor route but this time at the bottom of a valley, and soon enough we were home again. Looking at the Ordnance Survey map later, we saw where she had led us and marvelled…

Dinner tonight was an indifferent meal at the Alexandra Hotel with the advantage of lots of locals.  We had enjoyed the day despite the rain but were happy to lay our heads in our beds.

By train to castle country

It was pouring down rain as we got an early breakfast (goodbye, porridge and poached egg) and took a taxi to Waverley station.  The ride to Aberdeen was uneventful, with lovely scenes of seashores and green fields along the coast.  We picked up a cab at the station and went to the airport to pick up our rental car.  The most helpful and jolly rental people did their best to find us a small car – we had been upgraded to a Jaguar, which we all agreed was too much, so we ended up with a Vauxhall.  (First gorse, then monkey puzzles, now a Vauxhall!  All my English children’s book references have come to life.)  It looked pretty much like this:


The rental people made sure we had “satnav” and programmed it for us so that we could find our destination (taking care of the old ladies? fine with me!).  We edged out onto the highway, which luckily was a very small one, and following the satnav lady managed to turn around and go in the right direction.  She navigated us onto the tiniest of back roads, which was perfectly fine with me.  Within a few minutes we were in the land of sheep and fields and those lovely signs that warn, ominously, “oncoming traffic in middle of road.”  Following our mantra – look right, look left, stay left – seemed to do the trick.

We happened to see the sign for Drum Castle, which was on our list for later, so we impulsively drove down the lane and took the tour.  drumBy the time the last owner died in the 1970s, the Irvine-Forbes family had lived here for centuries.  (Washington Irving – spelling differs over the centuries – is a member of the family.)  It was quite a surprise, not to say a shock, to his two younger brothers to find that their older brother had donated the castle to the National Trust.   But they arranged for a small piece of the land to be nominally theirs, which allowed the title of Laird to go on.

You can only visit the castle by a docent-led tour.  Our docent recited the history and pointed out the plasterwork in the hall, distinguished family portraits, etc.  The high point was the library, with this special reading chair, reading chairbound volumes of Punch (just like every country house I’ve ever read about), punchand this remarkable self-portrait by Hugh, one of the sons of an earlier laird from the 18th century, dressed as the Angel Gabriel.hughIsn’t he magnificent?  And no better than he should be.  (Click the image to get the full glory.)

I also admired this simple little quilt in the cradle.  cradleThe plant sale in the courtyard tempted me but of course I had to refrain, so here is a trough of succulents instead.  succulents

Leaving the castle we saw these cattle behind a fence, reaching up to eat the delicious leaves on a tree.cows in the trees

If it hadn’t been pouring down rain, we might have followed this elderly couple, quite bent over but still persisting.  The grounds include an ancient wood and a formal rose garden, but they must await another visit.

We made our way on to Ballater without any trouble and even found a parking space right in the square. The Gordon Guest House has something like eight rooms, with ours looking directly out on the square and up to the hill of Craigendarroch.  It has high ceilings and a magnificent bathroom with a jacuzzi (which I doubt we will use but you never know) and proved to be the best accommodation of the entire trip!gordon bathroomHere’s a picture of our beds not longer after we arrived.  Can you possibly tell who has which bed???Ballater beds

The owner, Martin, is very friendly, with a strong Scottish accent, and happy to offer recommendations about food, drink, drives, walks, and everything we might need.

We unpacked and set off for one of his suggestions, India on the Green.  (Oddly, our taxi driver in Aberdeen told us that he used to own a restaurant in Ballater but sold it to “the Indians” some time ago.  Then someone else told us that the restaurant had closed because of embezzlement by the son of the owner – something complex and bad.  Could it be the same one?)  Anyway, the restaurant was among the best of our trip so far:  serene, delicious, fresh, perfect. I had the Bangla Fish Malai with scallops, and it was divine.

Like every English village, Ballater has a World War I memorial, this one in front of the church.  Notice how well cared for it is, and notice also the bright sky and lovely clouds at 8:30 p.m.  We’re getting farther north, and the sun sets late and rises early here in the summer…WWI memorial