An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

October 31, 2013

The Road to Little Egypt


     Despite pulling a double, Vanessa drove straight through the night from Philly. Turning onto the familiar dirt tract, the sun was barely rising, but it gave her enough light to dodge the deeper puddles left by the last high tide. It had yet to sink in that she was here, especially after the last visit. It had been almost 15 years since she’d been in Little Egypt, and only then to attend her grandmother’s funeral.  After the train wreck that turned into, Vanessa couldn't imagine ever wanting to see the place again. But a phone call she was too busy to answer had set this trip in motion. After she’d gotten to all of her patients, there was time to sit and check her voice mail.

 “Hey Nessie, this is Treena. I know you probably don’t give a damn, but they say the old bastard will be dead before Thanksgiving, that ‘zema is kickin’ his ass good. If they be anything you wanna say, you better come say it soon.”

     He was awake earlier than he wanted, surrounded by his tubes and his tanks, listening to the numbing sounds of the air conditioner. Though it was late in October he still needed it to cut the humidity and ease his breathing, but the machine’s constant whir made it difficult to tell what was going on in the rest of the house. He couldn't remember if Treena had come home last night or not. She had given him his pills and then headed to the club. She may not have gotten her mother’s good looks, but she certainly got her taste for stepping out, as well as her taste for the bottle. She was his only child still living in Little Egypt, and despite her flaws, he was glad to have her around. The rest scattered as soon as they were able, ungrateful all of them. He didn't like to think about how much worse his boys would have turned out if he hadn't tried to show them what hard work was, and if he hadn't beaten at least some of the wild out of them.  After his wife ended up in the creek, he did what he could to teach the girls what women were for, but they didn't make it easy. His children couldn't care less with what he had to put up with all those many years just so he could keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.  He was a man, and those rich white bitches spoke to him like a child. All the while he stood there feigning a smile, hat in hand, saying nothing but yes ma’am so they would crack open those purses and begrudgingly throw a few hard earned dollars his way. They, their bridge clubs, prized azaleas and yapping little dogs, could all go to hell.

     Knowing it had never been locked, Vanessa came in through the kitchen door. She was greeted by the smell of stale cigarettes, and the sound of the faucet dripping on yesterday’s dirty dishes. Moving through the cluttered living room, she wasn't sure if that was the same worn out furniture she remembered, now covered by leopard and zebra throws. The floor creaked and gave a little as she walked down the hall. Pausing in front of her father’s door, where a no smoking, oxygen in use sign had been tacked up, she briefly closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and then grabbed the doorknob.

     His sour train of thought was broken by Treena coming through the door, and none too soon. He needed her help getting to the bathroom before he wet himself. But this wasn't Treena, it looked like his wife, but how could that be?  She’s been dead for years, was she here to take him with her? Not that they needed an excuse, but the shock caused his lungs to let loose with a powerful round of coughing and spasms, and his bladder emptied anyway. It wasn't until she opened her mouth did he recognize his daughter Nessie.

     On the long drive south, Vanessa had plenty of time to rehearse everything she wanted to say. How he left so many scars, internal as well as external, on her, her sisters and her brothers. How his idea of parenting left a trail of stunted human beings, drug addicts, alcoholics and yet another generation of abused children. How what he referred to as father’s privilege, was known as child rape and incest everywhere else.  How if he wanted to know why only one of his children still spoke to him, and why none of his grandchildren knew him, he need look no further than his own black heart. As if having him as a father was not scary enough, he wove terrifying tales of child-eating monsters in the woods and marsh surrounding their house. But she wanted him to know that he was the only monster to have ever to set foot in Little Egypt.

     Vanessa entered the room knowing clinically what to expect from the final stages of emphysema, but she was stunned by her father’s appearance, and thoughts of any confrontation gave way. Here lay the man who has loomed so large in her head, whose decades ago actions still color every facet of her life, now small and weak like some unfortunate hatchling. Under the white sheets he was all barrel chest and stick legs, waving a thin brown arm erratically through the air in her direction. After her father fell into a horrible bout of coughing, she turned on the table lamp, and rooted through the contents of the nightstand until she found an inhaler.

Good morning daddy, it’s Nessie. Let me try to get some of this in you, then I’ll go get something to wipe that mess off your face and get these sheets and your clothes changed. Maybe when you’re feeling better I’ll get you some tea and see what might be in this house for breakfast.”

You can read my other Halloween fiction here, here and here.

October 27, 2013

Eastern State Penitentiary

     In celebration of Halloween, I thought I would share some of the photos I took this summer at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which many sources list as one of the most haunted places in America. Though I try to keep an open mind about things paranormal, I remain a skeptic at heart. However, if any place has a chance to be haunted, it would be Eastern State. Frightening things have taken place here, but on a warm day in August, the only presence I felt was that of the other sweaty tourists.

Front Entrance (1)


Terrace Garden (2)

Central Tower

     Eastern State opened in 1829 and was the first "modern" penitentiary, growing out of a movement to reform all public institutions that began with the American Revolution. Each prisoner had his or her own solitary cell with a flush toilet, running water, skylight, and central heat, adjacent to a private exercise yard. Prisoners were kept in solitary, without being able to contact any other inmate, and had limited interaction with the guards. During time away from their cells, they were kept hooded. It was hoped that this solitary life, the word of God and productive work would give the prisoners time to reflect upon their crimes and to become truly penitent. Obviously as the prison population grew, and times changed, so did the way prisoners were treated at Eastern State. However, its unique, first-of-a-kind wagon wheel layout, and its high minded aspirations, drew people from around the world to see it, and it became the model for over 300 other prisons across the globe. Eastern State closed in 1971 and sat abandoned for years, before it was sold to the city of Philadelphia and reopened for tours.

Cellblock (6)

Cellblock (7)

Cellblock (1)

Cellblock (2)


Cell (2)

Cell (3)

Cell (5)


     Some cells were less spartan than others. The one below was Al Capone's.
Capone's Cell

Cellblock (3)

Hospital Gate

Barber Chair

     In contrast to the bleakness inside, a colorful, lush, and wild garden is maintained outside by neighborhood volunteers with the help of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
Terrace Garden (8)

Terrace Garden (3)

Terrace Garden (4)

Terrace Garden (1)

Terrace Garden (12)

     If you are ever in the Philly area, I highly recommend touring Eastern State Penitentiary.  You might ask why you would want to, but trust me, it is fascinating, and judging by the crowd, I was not the only one who thought so. I took many more photos while I was there, and you can see a good portion of them here.  

I will leave with a few facts from the ACLU:
- With only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prison population – that makes us the world’s largest jailer. 
- Since 1970, the U.S. prison population has risen 700%. 
- One in 99 adults are living behind bars in the U.S. This marks the highest rate of imprisonment in American history. 
- One in 31 adults are under some form of correctional control, counting prison, jail, parole and probation populations.

October 15, 2013

Bloom Day - Well Sated

     Last month's Bloom Day found me lamenting the lack of rain. Well that lack continued until last Tuesday when rain finally visited the area, and like many guests, it stayed too long. To keep it company the rain also brought along several of its closest friends, strong winds, gray skies and flooding tides. Yesterday the sun shone for the first time in a week, and my eyes, having grown accustomed to the darkness, hurt when the clouds parted. However, I knew the only time I had to take pictures would be between rains on Sunday, so here are my soggy Bloom Day photos.

Pseudogynoxys chenopodioides - Mexican Flame Vine
Pseudogynoxys chenopodioides (1)

Pseudogynoxys chenopodioides (2)

Salvia leucantha - Mexican Bush Sage
Salvia leucantha (2)

Salvia leucantha (1)

Portulaca x 'Yubi Yellow'
Portulaca x 'Yubi Yellow'

Poncirus trfoliata - Hardy Orange
Poncirus trifoliata

Dendranthemum 'Bolero' - Chrysanthemum
Dendranthemum 'Bolero'

Cuphea ignea 'David Verity' - Cigar Plant
Cuphea ignea 'David Verity' (2)

Cuphea ignea 'David Verity' (1)

Callicarpa americana - American Beautyberry
Callicarpa americana

Cestrum aurantiaum 'Orange Zest'
Cestrum aurantiaum 'Orange Zest'

Solenostemon scutellarioides - Coleus
Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Dipt in Wine'

Solenostemon scutellarioides (1)

Stachytarpheta mutabilis 'Coral' - Porterweed
Stachytarpheta mutabilis 'Coral'

Ajania pacifica - Silver and Gold Chrysanthemum
Ajania pacifica

Tricyrtis hirta - Toad Lily
Tricyrtis hirta

     Garden Bloggers Bloom Day is held on the 15th of each month and is hosted by Carol of May Dreams Gardens. You should pay her a visit and tell her I said thanks. 

October 13, 2013


     Yesterday I carted my son and a teammate of his to a crew regatta on the James River west of Richmond at Robious Landing Park. Weather-wise, it was another miserable day, in a week long string of miserable days, where it has alternated between fine mist, downpours and everything in between. As is the nature of these events, it was a long day, but at least the setting was nice. I had plenty of time to explore the park's trails between races, and it was good to see one of my favorite rivers. Despite being only a couple hours from home, the climate and species are different. Winters are a little colder, the summers are a little sultrier, and there is no chance any of the plants will ever have to contend with salt water. The forest is free from the tyranny of loblollies, and deciduous, bottomland hardwoods flourish. It even smelled different, like the aroma you get when a black walnut husk is split. Another thing that struck me were the grape vines, some as big as my thigh. I had half hoped to see some fall color, but I know that is still a couple of weeks away, but any time spent in the forest is good, fall color or not, wet weather or not.

The River James (2)

River Woods (4)

River Woods (6)

River Woods (7)

River Woods (5)

River Woods (2)

River Woods (3)

October 3, 2013

Busman's Holiday - Maymont Park

     After a delicious lunch at Lewis Ginter, we got back on the bus and headed across town to Maymont Park. This was far from my first visit. I was taken there frequently as a small child, and on one occasion a mule in their zoo tried to eat my coat, while I was still in it. Once when I was older I walked there while my mom or dad played softball nearby, and oblivious to the time of day, I ended up getting locked in and had to carefully scale the fence to get out. As a young adult I rented an apartment down the street and found the park a great place to clear my head. A lifetime later, after I discovered horticulture, I was flattered by an invitation to be a landscape judge for their annual flower and garden show (when such shows actually featured flowers and gardens). So I was excited when Maymont appeared on our trip's agenda. It was my first visit in nearly 30 years.

The Dooley Mansion
\Dooley Mansion

     Maymont was once the country estate of the James and Sallie Dooley who bequeathed the entire property, gilded age mansion and its contents included, to the people of Richmond for use as a park. The city ran the park from 1925 until 1975 when the Maymont Foundation took over day-to-day operations and began raising money for long overdue renovations.

Happy lantana smothers the path to a gazebo.
Lantana and Gazebo

     There is much to see at Maymont, but true to our natures, we were most interested in the gardens. The two largest are the Italian and the Japanese, which are connected by waterfall and a run of interesting stairs. There is a large pergola flanking the Italian garden with a domed room at one end. I remember this pergola as a wonderful tangle of wisteria, but that is gone now. Peggy Singlemann, the director of horticulture, told us they had to dig out 2' feet of soil in each bed of the garden in order to remove all of the wisteria's roots and seedlings. She also told us that she found the garden's original urns buried under a brush pile. The most amazing thing she told us was that she and two other people are the only horticulturists on staff for the whole park. Like us, they could do very little without the help of volunteers.

Italian Garden (3)

Italian Garden (5)

Italian Garden (6)

Italian Garden (8)

Italian Garden (7)

Italian Garden (4)

Italian Garden (1)

Fountain Steps

Waterfall Japanese Garden (3)

Crooked Way

Acer Palmatum (2)

Acer Palmatum

     What I took away from my visit to Maymont were certain similarities it has in common with the place I work. Both are municipally owned properties, with aging infrastructures, that are managed by a non-profit foundation (or in our case a society) of dedicated, hard working volunteers and employees.