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

Blue poppies and tiny coffins

botanic gardenThis morning we looked out the window at blue skies and decided to go to the Royal Botanic Garden while the weather held.  We walked over to the North Bridge and picked up the bus, with a bit of help from the kilt-clad man at the door of the Balmoral Hotel.  When the ticket taker told us the blue poppies were in bloom, that was all I needed to hear. They have a reputation for being extremely difficult to grow, and because they come from Nepal or China or somewhere I did not expect ever to see them.  They were amazing, so blue and so many of them. blue poppiesThey were even more enchanting close poppies 2

I’m not actually sure that I like that shade of blue, but no matter- we saw them in abundance and that was enough.  (Note that I have since seen them at Kildrummy Gardens among others, so they must not be so rare on this side of the Atlantic.)

As usual, I was struck by the perfect edging and the low-cut grass with tiny daisies, quintessentially British to my American eye.  In addition, we saw the glass houses with lots of begonias and orchids. I could become a begonia collector without too much difficulty… begoniabegonia2begonia3A few more images that took my fancy:

These beautiful water lilieswater lilies

A monkey puzzle tree, just like in books!monkey puzzle

And a Seussian primula.  I wish I could grow these, but they prefer more water than Virginia usually provides.primula

Had a sandwich lunch outside at the cafe with three of my favorite things,  lunch

and walked to the bus stop.  A very nice young woman with her young daughter helped us to find the right stop to get off at the National Museum of Scotland.  

Here, fading just a bit, we wanted to see the early people (Neolithics), the Lewis chessmen, and the strange coffins of dolls found on Arthur’s seat in the nineteenth century and never fully explained.  We saw them all.  The Neolithic stuff was organized by topic so was a bit hard to follow, but we looked for items found on Orkney and found quite a bit.  Here, for example, is a comb from the Brough of Birsay, combthough the majority of items were made of stone.  Those who are interested can find more images of objects here by searching for Orkney.  The Lewis chessmen were as charming as ever, and the strange little coffins  were just as mysterious as ever (though you can find details on what we do know in this article).  coffins A quick tea and cake in the cafe and back home again.  Dinner was next door at Badger, named in honor of the Wind in the WIllows because Kenneth Grahame was born next door at our B&B  and they are both capitalizing on this fact.  It was nice to come downstairs and just have dinner next door – game pie for me (watch out for pieces of shot!) and cheese plate for dessert – while surrounded by charming badger memorabilia.  badgerThen home to pack in prep for leaving tomorrow.

A walk and a cathedral

On Saturday morning we woke much refreshed to breakfast up on the third floor (lots of stairs in this place), stairsporridge and coffee and poached eggs.  It was a beautiful day despite the prediction of rain, so we decided to walk up Calton Hill.   Sun, breezes, and lots of gorgeous clouds accompanied us along Princes Street, past the Scott monument scottand then up the steps to the top of the hill.  An unfinished replica of the Parthenon graces the top.  Known as Edinburgh’s Disgrace, it is just one of a number of structures on the hill.  scott monumentMonuments to Nelson, Burns and other worthies are there, too, but you really climb up here for the views.  On one side, great views of Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags, sun and shadow.  arthur's seatThen looking counterclockwise, the Firth of Forth with views across the water, firth of forthlooking down on the Georgian buildings of the New Town, where we’re staying, and eventually the skyline of Edinburgh’s Old Town from the Castle down to Holyrood.

Back down the hill we took a detour to the Old Calton Burying Ground.  David Hume is here in an impressive little temple, but we were also struck by the monument honoring Scottish-American soldiers in our Civil

We stopped by Waverly Station to pick up our pre-booked tickets to Aberdeen, enjoying this Scott quote posted on a wall, waverleythen walked up and up the stairs to the High Street, aiming for St. Giles Cathedral.  1200px-St_Giles_Cathedral_-_01We had been here on our last trip, but now I was armed with the Dunnett Society guide, showing exactly where that climactic scene involving Lymond and Jerrott took place.  No matter that the altar has since been moved and that the entrances are changed, it was still fascinating to envision the scene.  (So much so that I apparently took no pictures.)

We revisited the Thistle Chapel with its charming wood carvings.  See the angel playing the bagpipes?  thistle chapel

We also noted the chapel donated by the Confraternity of the Holy Blood in Bruges.  We of course have SEEN the holy blood there.  But there was no vial in Edinburgh, so we asked the guide for information.  Well!  She told us with great animation about St. Giles, a Greek who ended up in a monastery in Provence where he spent much of his time in the forest with his companion, a deer.  One day hunters came after the deer and St. Giles took the arrow instead (making him the patron saint of “cripples,” says Wikipedia).  That’s where the Scottish crusaders found him (or found out about him) and brought the knowledge back to Edinburgh.  His arm with a diamond finger ring was donated to the cathedral in the 15th century but was presumably destroyed during the Reformation.  (How the holy blood figured in all this we never did find out.)  Humbled, we walked over to the stained glass window of Scottish saints and paid homage to St. Giles and his giles

After a bit of mild shopping, we continued down the Royal Mile to the John Knox House, the oldest house in the city with some bits dating to the fifteenth century.  Interesting because he and Mary, Queen of Scots, were at odds about religion, but not terribly interesting really.  (Though we did see a painted ceiling and little did we know that it would become a recurring theme.)  Thanks to someone else for this image, showing the original ceiling and a colorful copy on display. John-Knox-0708 

From here, on the advice of the JK staff, we walked to Blackwell’s to find something to read.  For me, two from my TBR list:  Juliet Nicolson’s “A House full of Daughters” and Joanne Harris’s “Different Class.”  A restorative cup of tea (amazing how restorative it is in the UK when I rarely drink tea at home) and a ginger biscuit before heading home.

We were weary enough to get a taxi back and, after a rest, we went to Bon Vivant on Thistle Street for dinner.  VERY noisy but delicious food, not too much. I had cod with chorizo, red pepper, potato and kale, after a light pea soup topped with creme fraiche, marjoram and crab, and AO had lamb, I think.  Followed by a glass of Prosecco and lemon curd (not as good as the rest).  Yum.bon vivant

Back to Scotland

fernWe have a plan (subject to change) to visit the UK every other year, and this was the year.  We wanted to go back to Scotland, and after our visits to Neolithic sites in Ireland and Malta, we were interested in more.  Plus, Alison has always wanted to see Balmoral, the queen’s summer residence, and visiting times were limited.  So it evolved:  Edinburgh to revisit museums and St. Giles (Dunnett alert!), Royal Deeside to visit castles and see beautiful country, and Orkney for Neolithic stuff (and more Dunnett).  June of 2017, here we go!

Our Aer Lingus flight took us to Dublin with an early morning flight on to Edinburgh.  We had an empty seat on the way over to Dublin, so we both slept better, but it’s still no fun.  On the other hand, you wake up and you’re in Scotland, always a plus.  It was cool and rainy when we arrived. We took a taxi to Castle View Guest House, just a few streets over from our old haunt,  Frederick House.

The entryway was not inviting, with bags of laundry and groceries piled on the stairs.  But our room was a good size and the bathroom was modern and spacious.  Since we could not check in at 10 a.m. we simply dropped our bags and began walking (stumbling) along the street.  castle2We loved revisiting the views of Edinburgh castle and other memories of our previous trip as we walked along Princes Street to the National Gallery.  We were drooping but stopped to look at the skating minister skating ministerand the Stag at Bay Monarch of the Glen, a famous Scottish picture that we had missed last time around.  Ford, James, active 19th C; Stag at Bay (Monarch of the Glen)(Thanks,, for the link).  He really is quite magnificent for all that he’s a Scottish cliche.

Outside the museum we came upon a piper, touristy but still fun to see (with the Scott monument in the background, just as grimy as ever).


We had a quick lunch at the gallery cafe, and finally it was time to go back to the hotel, where we had two hours of sleep before dinner.  We defaulted to the Mussel Inn on a busy street on a Friday night.  Deep fried whitebait, our starter, luckily turned out to be tiny little fish, eyes still intact, crunchy and delicious, followed by something fishy and washed down with wine.  Sitting outside, we watched the light on the grey stone buildings mussel innand the people going by.  We saw at least two “hen parties” complete with sashes declaring the mother of the bride and the maid of honor, et al.  Lots of drinking seems to be involved.  We found our way back home and slept like the dead.

Market and churches

(Note:  written last fall but never posted.)

We had a leisurely start to the day, with no tours booked, so we took our time with coffee, news and breakfast.  Then we walked through the Campo to buy dinner for this evening – eggs, sausage, bread, arugula and a strange green called puntarelle that the nice vendor taught me how to cook  with garlic, oil, anchovies, salt, pepper and aceto (vinegar, pronounced ashetto, not achetto).puntarelle

There were lots of other delicious vegetables we could have bought,

but we tried to keep it simple because, by the end of the day, we have no energy for major cooking.

Today is a church day, because churches are where the art is.  We started with Bernini’s famous St. Teresa in Ecstasy in the high baroque church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.  The sculpture depicts the moment when the saint was pierced by the sword of an angel as she was overcome by the love of God.  Whew!  Tucked up in a chapel, it was not as visible as I had hoped but still filled with delicate tracery, a gold smile and throbbing joy.  st-theresaI can only imagine that the photo is a bit blurred because of the ecstasy.

The baroque ornamentation is just as gold and frou-frou as can be, as you can see from this view of the ceiling.della-vittoria

Dazzled but not tired, we walked on quite a way to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore.  The highlight here was seeing a few planks from Christ’s crib – just imagine!  cribYou can see the humble planks behind all the gilt.  It was right up there with the holy blood that we saw in Bruges.

Other highlights were Bernini’s tomb berninis-tomband more beautiful tile work.  Roman tiles really deserve their own post, but here’s a good one for now.  star-tilesAfter so much art and religion, we were ready for lunch.  We stopped at a cafe just across from the church and enjoyed watching the clericals go by – men in robes, women in habits, the real significance lost on me.  Oh, that Uncle Buzz had been with us to explain it all!  We enjoyed our delicous salads and for me a Campari soda, for Alison an Aperol spritz.  Refreshing for the weary art-lovers.

We had stopped earlier at a mosaic tile shop near our apartment, and the artist there told us that if we liked mosaics we should visit St. Maria in Trastevere.  We taxied over to the other side of the Tiber and enjoyed a very old church trastevere-churchwith beautiful gilt mosaics above the altar.  You can also spot them above the portico outside.trastevere-mosaicsMuch as I love the baroque, a little bit of sparkling mosaic was refreshing after our morning travels.  

Walking back home across the Garibaldi bridge we had a great view of St. Peter’s looming above the river.  We’ll be there in a few days…st-peters-and-tiber

Dinner was our market catch.  I have to confess that this picture makes it look slightly disgusting.  But in real life it was warm, fresh, and comforting.  Yum!dinner-at-home

Hope springs eternal

I’ve been wary about growing roses.  Their reputation is for finickiness and the prevalence of diseases that call for chemical sprays.  The plant itself is not lovely, at least not usually.

But when a friend brought me a blossom of “Zephirine Drouhin,” I fell head over heels in love.  That color!  That scent!  Plus, it is almost thornless and can tolerate shade.  I must have one.

But the first one died.  And the second one, found at Roxbury Mills and planted in 2009, did well for a while.  zepherineThough I only got a few blossoms, I was in love.  But sadly, I had an infestation of voles (I’ve since learned that the vole population waxes and wanes.  It’s on the wane now, for which I’m grateful.)  The voles ate the roots and it was adieu to Zepherine.

Undaunted, I bought it again from White Flower Farm in the spring of 2015, and this year it just went to town.

Here is the current, third attempt.zepherine2

As you can see, the plant itself is not handsome, but those blossoms!  You should have smell-a-vision to get the full glory.

On a more serious note, here is a list of its potential problems:

Aphids, leafhoppers, spider mites, scale, caterpillars, sawfly larvae, cane borers, Japanese beetles, rose stem girders, rose midges, rose slugs, rose chafers, leaf-cutting bees, black spot, rust, powdery mildew, crown gall, canker, dieback, downy mildew, viruses.

You see why I was reluctant?

But then I learned from a rose-growing acquaintance about Earthkind roses, developed by the Texas Agri-Life Extension Service.  The Earthkind designation is only for “those roses demonstrating superior pest tolerance, combined with outstanding landscape performance.”

I knew I wanted a rose with fragrance, not too big, either yellow or pink.  The Earthkind site led me to a small shrub rose, Souvenir de Ste. Anne.

“This sport of Souvenir de la Malmaison was bred in England by Thomas Hilling. It was found in St. Anne’s Park, Dublin. The pale pink petals glow with translucent beauty and are very fragrant. It is an excellent choice for mass plantings and borders. Few hips are produced. This cultivar is so outstanding that it was named “Earth-Kind® Rose of the Year” for 2009 by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.”

Since I had not only culled the columbines but dug out the problematic Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen,’ I finally had some space for a plant that likes sun and good air circulation, so I placed my order with the Antique Rose Emporium.

Well, after all that build-up, here’s what I got, earthkind rosebut remember!  This had been in the ground less than a month when it bloomed, so I give it props.  (It would also help if I could figure out how to capture pale pinks, yellows and creams without washing out all the color.)  I’m feeling quite hopeful.

Spring sowing

Poppies, both buttercream and the classic WWI variety, were a great success, sowed in late February and blooming in mid- to late poppies

buttercream poppiesMeanwhile, as you can see from the fallen petals above, the columbines self-sowed with great vigor.  You would hardly know that the great culling of 2016 had ever taken place!  Here’s the sunny garden, still chock full of blue columbines (plus the purple allium ‘Sensation,’ I think).blue columbines I am continuing to pull them out once they’ve seeded, so I’m probably not making much progress…  I do try to shake the interesting colored ones, like this white one, in hopes that they’ll spread and grow next year.white columbine

Additional seeds are sugar snap ‘Anna,’ doing very well this year after a slow start (I sowed them in February but they didn’t do anything for about a month); zinnias and cosmos; and some vines for the trellises.  They’re up but not doing much yet.