The redbuds this past week have been glorious, a bit more densely packed with bloom than usual, but nowhere so lavishly displayed as in the Shenandoah Valley, surely, so that a bus trip (the collapse of American passenger trains means that virtually anywhere in the country you have to take a bus or plane, or drive your car) from Staunton to Lexington is an exciting experience for a gardener.
Sometimes there were almost pure stands of redbud, covering perhaps two or three acres. Again, there were large tracts of red cedar (the native juniper, J. virginiana) studded with almost an equal number of redbuds. Sometimes the gorgeous magenta-colored trees were seen against gray rock, sometimes at the fencerow by pastures. They look best, possibly, with Angus cattle, and I hope all Angus stockmen will exert themselves to plant a lot of redbuds in their pastures.
I visited the Lexington garden of the Tom Gentrys, which I guess is three-quarters of an acre divided into different sections. Both husband and wife are keen gardeners and grub a great deal themselves with results that this past week demonstrate how worthwhile it all is.
The front of the house was hung with a fine mature white wisteria, a lavender one at the side and a pink one (which is not behaving properly, they told me) by the telephone pole farther away.
From the roofed terrace out the back of the house you notice a panel of ivy to one side, under some trees, starred heavily with the blue Chinese forget-me-not. It never occurred to me these gentian-blue flowers would grow amid such competition or in such heavy shade. In another place a fine drift of Virginia bluebells was flourishing in almost full sun, disproving my notion that they are happy only in woodlands.
Mary Gentry is the only human on four continents who does not care for the magnificent tulip 'Jewel of Spring,' a soft ivory-yellow with a wire rim of red. Some of hers have sported back to their parent and are dotted with splotches of soft rose. Although the error of her opinion was repeatedly pointed out to her, she still does not care for the tulip. Odd.
On the other hand she grows excellent sanguinarias and trilliums -- fat cones of lilies were coming up here and there among them. A stunning sight in the garden is a mass of lavender, purple, rose and white reaching through a small orchard of lilacs ('Charles Joly,' 'Maude Notcutt' and several others) backed by a very large and massively flowering white crab.
This garden's daffodil collection was a great disappointment to the Gentrys this year, as daffodils generally were a sad failure for most gardeners of our region. It only happens once every 15 years, a fact that hardly consoles the gardener when his flowers last three days instead of three weeks.
Two enormous plants of Viburnum carlesii waft such trillions of perfumed molecules through the air that the Gentrys say it is unpleasant to weed when they are in bloom. For my part, I would suffer happily, since this fragrance is among the most delightful of the year. I grow a descendant of this viburnum, V. juddii, which I like to think is a trifle handsomer and possibly retains its pink blush a little more, and which is probably just my imagination.
A great glory of that garden is the collection of tree peonies; there must be 100 of them. The first one I noticed (not in bloom, of course; that would be expecting entirely too much) was the largest in the garden, a five-foot globe, as I remember it, of the rare and beautiful 'Rock's Variety' which is single white with dark red flares at the center. The Gentrys have raised a most beautiful seedling which is semidouble, almost double, and otherwise very much like its parent.
Tom Gentry is professor of English at Virginia Military Academy and one expects the men there to climb sheer cliffs as necessary, so I was shocked and saddened to hear him say a trifle fatalistically that Paeonia lutea ludlowii dies on him and apparently will not grow in our climate. The National Arboretum failed dismally with them, and I have not yet succeeded with this beautiful plant myself, having just lost about the fifth plant I have tried. I say, however, to all steady gardeners, "Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead," for there is no good reason I can see why this plant keeps dying on us. Sooner or later we shall succeed. We shall fight on the landing strips, we shall never surrender.
And yet I confess to being shaken, seeing so many dozen fine tree peonies in radiant health, and Ludlow's yellow dead. When those at the arboretum died, I attributed it to lack of prayerful watch over them, and when mine kept dying, I attributed it to the hound, the terrier, the roots of a large yew, and my own somewhat slothful way with weeds. But here was a garden where tree peonies are grown very well. Except for Ludlow.
The garden includes good space for vegetables, the land looking beautiful now before planting. A large specimen of 'Paul's Scarlet' hawthorn is heavy in bud, disproving the common assumption that the red thorns of England do not flourish here. Gentry says it gets sad leaf blights later in the season, but clearly it recovers well enough to make a dazzling show every spring. There is also a large clipped box bush, maybe 20 feet high, and a superb specimen of Cunninghamia lanceolata, one of the most beautiful conifers to my mind. Naturally it occupies a spot from which it can drop its spine-sharp branchlets over the widest possible area of the garden. It is painful to weed near this tree. The garden also includes one of the toughest Persian cats I have ever seen, a cream-colored beast who roams at liberty and sometimes does not come in at night, and is often found asleep in daylight hours on a settee on the terrace. He does not do much damage in the garden, I judged, but his eyes show he does not intend to be trifled with -- rather different from the luxury-loving Persians one more often encounters.
Along one wall there were dwarf apple trees looking truly splendid. Mary Gentry agrees they are beautiful in shape, and sweet in bloom now, but what she likes best about them is that in a good year they produce about three apples per tree. This saves her from having to dry, can, bake or otherwise use up a large apple crop. If they bore lavishly, she would have to get cracking, for like all proper gardeners she cannot bear to waste things. The Gentrys do not like quinces, but give them away to people who make tarts and things.
A large fig is laid down every winter and covered with a tarpaulin and mulch with some dirt to keep it in place, and only removed in May. Tom Gentry says this is a nuisance, but is necessary if he is to get a large crop of figs every year. The variety is unknown, he said, but rather like 'Brown Turkey.' It is worth the bother, he finds.
Mary Gentry said of course any garden looks all right in the spring with the tulips and bleeding hearts and lilacs and bluebells and all that, and I refrained from telling her I can think of some that are not especially glorious at the moment. Theirs is the kind of garden, full of well-loved familiar flowers and quite exceptional tree peonies also, that any gardener likes best of all, and I felt happy being allowed to wander about in it.