Reading Your Garden

A portion of the author’s garden shows her goal of assorted shapes and sizes. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

Every morning I send a photo email out to three friends. Originally this was to assure them that I still was breathing, but gradually another purpose formed: These photos showed me aspects of the garden that I had never observed. The camera sees garden scenes that my eyes, alert as they are, fail to perceive.

Now, I hasten to mention that I’m not a photographer. I don’t fiddle around with cameras, nor do I spend time editing photographs. Instead, I grab my iPhone to take pictures of something that might please my friends while assuring them that I’m still among the living.

I’ve talked before about the wonders of Euscaphis japonica, the Korean Sweetheart Tree that the late JC Raulston introduced to the American market. However, this photo displays a scene that I had never observed before. Totally opened, the heart-shaped seed pod has 10 black seeds still clinging to it. By the next day the seeds were lying on the ground. I thought this was one cool photo, catching a brief moment in the life of a seed and its seedpod.

You might assume from this photo that this is one seedy tree. Rest assured that these seeds will not germinate until they have undergone a definite cold-warm-cold period that is hard to replicate here. In the 10 years I’ve had it in the garden, there have only been two successful germinations that were quickly acquired by avid fans.

Euscaphis japonica, the Korean Sweetheart Tree, displays its heart-shaped seed pod and seeds. Photo by Kit Flynn.

The longer I garden, the more I think that growing sustainable roses is the way to go. Blackspot is an unavoidable fungus in our soil, successfully killing many of the hybrid teas hybridized in the 20th century. When I now take a picture of a rose in bloom, many comment on the rose whereas I become fixated on the foliage. Clean foliage to me indicates that perhaps I’m doing something right.

The beauty of a rose lies not only in its bloom, but also in its foliage, if free of fungus. Photo by Kit Flynn.

The photograph at the head of this article demonstrates something I aim for in the garden: an assortment of sizes and shapes. On the right is a small Japanese maple with small delicate leaves. The Camellia japonica “Jacks” behind it has larger leaves that are offset by the almost coarse leaves of the windmill palm. In front of the whole scene are the spikey fronds of Crinum “Super Ellen.” I also like the medium-sized leaves of the Fatsia japonica on the left, intermingling with the rose “Miracle on the Hudson.” Somehow this fits my vision of “Organized Chaos.”

Now, this might not be to your taste, which is fine. We all strive for different attributes in the garden after all. The camera has captured a still life of a scene that pleases me—in real life my eye tends to concentrate on the individual plants rather than incorporating the whole scene.

Not all the news is good, however. Four years ago, I had two thriving Rosas “Peggy Martin.” Because this is a rose that survived the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, I assumed it would thrive in my garden. One has, but the other one began slowly to fade, so slowly that I failed to recognize what was occurring. Ultimately, when finally noticing she wasn’t thriving, I assumed that she wasn’t getting enough sun; when my neighbors took down two trees, I assumed she would make a comeback.

However, I had forgotten how superb she once was.

The “Peggy Martin” rose in her heyday. Photo by Kit Flynn.

Today, she is clearly dying. Why, I do not know.

The “Peggy Martin” rose, dying, for reasons unknown. Photo by Kit Flynn.

The plants around her are thriving (Phlox paniculata “John Fanick” was cut back as it was the end of its bloom cycle). Much as it saddens me, I shall take her out and replace her with either a Passiflora incarnata or a Bignonia “Dragon Lady” this spring. I’ve ordered both of these vines and shall eventually—I trust—make up my mind.

Because she wasn’t performing well over the past three years, I failed to take any photos of her to contrast with the one displaying her in her full glory. Over the years I had forgotten what a glorious contribution she once made to the garden. Could I have saved her? Who knows?

Sometimes the camera takes a picture from a different angle than one you’re used to observing. I took this picture of Begonia grandis from an opposite position than one I typically walk—and realized that this clever begonia had created its own perennial border by filling in spaces between sturdier perennials that had already finished blooming.

This clever begonia had a mind of its own, filling in spaces along a perennial border. Photo by Kit Flynn.

That is the beauty of the camera’s eye: It focuses on aspects that our own eyes have missed. It’s also a great way to refresh one’s memory. One fall day I noticed that a Fatshedera lizei was in full bloom, whereas none of the other ones in the garden had even begun to produce any buds. Does this particular Fatshedera always bloom in early September or was this an aberration?  Thanks to the camera I now have it on record so I will be able to answer this question in the future.

I used to keep a gardener’s diary listing the changes in the garden until I realized that keeping a visual one was much more effective. The camera can quickly highlight your garden glories and, in my case, the sad reality of when it’s time to say goodbye to a beloved plant. I have found the iPhone one of my principal tools in maintaining a garden. Try it—and you might see its benefits.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at

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1 Comment on "Reading Your Garden"

  1. Gerald Moore and Joyce Nereaux | February 10, 2023 at 7:46 am | Reply

    We are thrilled to have found your writing. We gardened extensively for decades in Upstate New York but found ourselves surprisingly ignorant of the growing conditions in Chapel Hill. We are still struggling along after eight years but feel sure that your experience and advice is going to make life easier. Thank you. And by the way, we completely support your stance on keeping politics out of the garden God know, there are few places left where one can escape.

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