Planning Something Big in the Garden

Big Pots 1It started at Keukenhof Gardens near Amsterdam. The slightest germ of an idea, a tiny seed floating around in the corners of my brain looking for a place to settle in and start to grow. We were enjoying a lovely trip to the Netherlands but they had experienced a cold winter that lasted into the spring so the tulips outside were not doing so good. But inside the pavilions at the Keukenhof, the blooms were amazing – just thousands of tulips and spring flowers everywhere. But the things that caught my attention and held on tight were the potted plants. There were hundreds of pots – pots of all sizes and I found myself thinking that I needed more pots in my flower beds at home.  And it was the big pots that I was liking….big, big pots filled with things……not just bulbs and small plants like geraniums or begonias…big things like lilacs. Lilacs in pots….wouldn’t that be nice?


Lilacs in boxes

Now, I’ve done some experimenting with pots in the garden and have been in the process over the past couple years of raising many plants up from their ground-growing spots and putting them into pots. That started a few years ago when we added the sunroom on to the house.  We had a wonderful Hosta called “Sum and Substance” that was huge and beautiful but right in the way. There was no way it could stay in the ground while contractors were tromping all over the place and digging a foundation and pouring cement but it was in a lovely spot and I knew we’d want to put it back into that spot after all was said and done.  So we put it temporarily into a half-barrel just to get through the building process that would probably include the winter. I fretted over that hosta going through the winter in the pot but I needn’t have worried. It didn’t just survive in the half-barrel, it thrived….so much so that when it came time to put it back into the ground, we didn’t. We just left it in the barrel and placed it right outside the window in its designated plot of ground. It has been there ever since and loving life in its little half-barrel home.

hostaYou guessed it. When that worked, my thoughts fell to other hostas and maybe they’d do well in pots too. So over time the hosta bed down the side of the house is gradually becoming filled with potted hostas. I think of it as the “hostas in potsas” bed and it works (definitely a blog for another day). The hostas love being in the pots. They are easy to move when necessary and easy to feed and water. As I get older, I find that gardening in pots is much easier on the joints – you just do not have to bend over as far to weed out a pot.  Watering can be an issue but since it is primarily a shade garden, watering is not such a difficult chore.  But, other than Sum & Substance, most of my hostas are small plants like those tulip bulbs in Holland.  Big plants like shrubs might be something else entirely.

Pots to tryBut the big pot idea stayed with me and I knew just the spot in the yard that could use a couple big pots to lighten up the corner in summer and provide a little structure in winter….add a couple new “bones” to the garden as it were.  So I started looking around for big pots…..and I was thinking BIG pots. But who knew that BIG pots would be so difficult to find? And so very expensive when I did find some? There’s always the Williamsburg Pottery but I haven’t been there in years and it’s something like three hours away so not exactly convenient.  I hoped there would be a big local market for big pots since every building in/around town seems to have those ginormous pots out front planted with flowers to look like they were just interested in making the sidewalk more beautiful when actually the intent was to block the doors of the building and keep people with car bombs from driving right through those big ole glass doors. But I guess regular buyers with smaller suburban gardens and fewer security problems do not really need BIG pots. Most of the pots I found were big but not so big….big enough for a good sized hosta but not quite big enough for a tree…well, not a large tree like an oak at any rate.  But a large but not so large pot would probably do so I scaled my BIG pot idea down to a more reasonable and manageable size. But I was not going to give up entirely so I went out looking for the biggest and nicest pot that I could afford.

Did I mention that I wanted a colorful pot? After all, it would need to have a little something going for it during the dog days of summer when everything in the garden looks a bit bedraggled and faded out in the heat. Plus having a little color will provide a little “pop” in the garden during winter when everything is muffled in grey and white. Now I was thinking purple or lime green or maybe candy apple red but that might be way too much in this neighborhood even though it would fade out after a year or so. So the colors had to be right. It took a while but I finally found a couple pots – green and turquoise – bright but not too bright – good color but not too much…..not BIG but relatively big and they would fit the corner quite nicely. Perfect.

s jasminew jasmineNow for that corner.  Originally, two types of Jasmine (winter yellow and summer white) had been growing on the fence in that corner but a nasty storm a couple years ago (remember that derecho weather?) had taken a wild cherry tree down in the yard and it carried a portion of the fence along with it. The fence was old so there was nothing to do but replace the whole thing. And that meant the jasmine (winter and summer) had to come down.  The jasmine was not great on climbing so had never really adapted to the new fence on its own so it grew all over the place and badly needed some attention.

before 2The corner by the fence needed sprucing up so we took all the jasmine out and put it in another part of the yard where it could sprawl all over the place.

HibiscusNow for the pots.  We already had a Lilac that was the right size for a pot. I had purchased it some years ago and planted it in the back yard. Unfortunately, the spot turned out to be just a little too shady so the lilac never bloomed. I had thought about moving it but the right spot did not present itself until now. So one salvaged lilac went into one pot. Maybe it’ll do well and, then again, maybe not – we will see. For the other pot, I had several ideas but settled on a Hardy Hibiscus. It would solve a few problems with containment for the hibiscus so was well worth giving it a try. So a pretty pink hardy hibiscus went right into the other pot.  I used cinder blocks to keep the pots off the ground and to set the pots at different heights to give a little extra interest. A little pine bark mulch around the bottom and we’re done. The corner is spruced up with a couple good-sized pots even if they are not BIG pots and they should look lovely year round.


I love it when a plan comes together. Now what else can we do?

shoe garden









Visit to a National Garden

I visited a garden this week.  It was a garden with few flowers although the trees and grass are quite beautiful in the dappled sunlight.  It has been called a garden of stones…..gravestones.   The garden is officially closed right now because it belongs to the Federal Government and is closed now as Congress and the Executive Branch disagree over the nation’s budget and funding.  But the garden is not really closed…at least one veteran will be admitted today.

The Old ChapelThis is Arlington National Cemetery and I am here for the funeral of a friend – a West Point graduate, Vietnam War veteran, career military man. He died several months ago and now we’ve come to honor him and pay last respects at Arlington.  I wait with everyone else in the parking lot in front of The Old Chapel.  Funerals for war casualties and veterans have been conducted in this chapel since it was built in the 1930’s.  I find myself pondering all the military men and women buried here at Arlington – how many funerals have been held here and how many different wars are represented by this place.  I look across the hills and I am struck by the rows of markers….

There are just so many of them.

arlington rowsArlington National Cemetery covers about 624 acres and has been used as a cemetery for war casualties, veterans, and their families since the American Civil War.  It is located on the site that was originally the home, Arlington Hall, and estate of Mary Anna Custis Lee – great granddaughter of Martha Washington and wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  But every school child in America knows that Robert E. Lee wasn’t always a Confederate general. Originally he was also a graduate of West Point Military Academy and an officer in the United States Army before the United States split into two and the Civil War began. He was offered the post of commander of the Armies of the Potomac at the start of the Civil War but, conflicted within himself about the war and loyal to his home, Lee wrote to his wife that he could not fight against the Commonwealth of Virginia. He resigned his commission on April 20, 1861 and became the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and, ultimately, the commander of all the Confederate military forces.

Arlington HallWar brings strong emotions to the surface and, once he left to join the Confederacy, Lee would never be able to go home to Arlington Hall again. Fearing for her life, Mary Anna Custis Lee followed her husband’s advice and fled from her home. The Union Army soon took over the property and used it as an Army headquarters.  Its position overlooking the Potomac River and Washington, DC made it a strategic military position that could not remain in the hands of Confederate sympathizers.   Later, in 1864, when most of the local cemeteries had become filled with war dead, the Army’s Quartermaster General saw the political advantage of using General Lee’s home as a cemetery making it forever “uninhabitable” and ensuring that the Lees would always remember the cost of war.  The land was formally taken from Mrs. Lee for back taxes.  She had sent a friend to pay the taxes but he was turned away and the tax payment was rejected because the owner had not come in person – an obvious ruse by the Government to take the land and punish the General and his family.  Mrs. Lee was able to return to her childhood home one last time before her death in 1873. After the war, Mary Anna Custis Lee’s son, who was her heir and would have inherited the estate, sued the Government successfully and the estate was returned to the family but it was too late…it was by this time filled with the graves of soldiers from both sides of the conflict.  The estate was sold back to the Government for $150,000 (about $3.1M in today’s dollars).  The first war casualty buried at Arlington was William Henry Christman on May 13, 1864.

Since then, there have been so many more…..

arlington rows 2This is the second military funeral I have attended at Arlington. The funerals are conducted with great honor and respect by the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment. The 3rd Infantry is a fully functioning fighting unit but most people are more familiar with the Regiment’s mission to “honor our fallen comrades”.  As I stand in the parking lot, the horse-drawn caisson arrives along with the honor guard. Although our friend was cremated and will be buried in the columbarium at Arlington, a coffin is placed on the caisson’s wagon and the American flag is carefully and slowly draped over the coffin.  At this point, even before the actual funeral service begins, every action by the members of the funeral detachment is handled with solemnity and respect for the veteran being laid to rest this day.  Every step and every action is calculated and filled with tradition and symbolism.  After the service in the chapel, the funeral procession led by the caisson, the color guard, the 3rd Infantry band, and the honor guard will move slowly through the cemetery to the final resting place for our friend.

Caisson for LeeYears ago when I attended the first funeral here, we elected to walk with other friends and family members in the processional.  It is a very moving experience to walk slowly down through the rows and rows of war dead thinking about all the other people who have walked behind other caissons through Band at Arlingtonthe last one hundred and fifty years.  On our return, we decided not to stick to the roadway to get back to our car at the Chapel; we thought maybe we would walk up through the cemetery.  It seemed like a simple shortcut to cut straight up over the hillside.  Within ten minutes or so, we were hopelessly lost. In every direction there were white markers – all the same – row upon row – seemingly going on forever. We Arlington funeral photowalked this way and that slowing down to read the names on the stones, noting the different religions represented and, more sadly, the ages of the young men and women who had lost their lives in battles. The cemetery has 70 sections representing all aspects of war and the “brothers in arms”.  Section 21 holds military nurses and, more recently, there is a section just for casualties for the “Global War on Terror”.  Incredibly (to me), there is a section with Confederate Color Guardsoldiers and a section with former slaves – war may be fought over political and cultural differences but death knows no such boundaries.  There are the usual sections for different military services and different wars and different occupations.  In all, there are about 400,000 souls that have been laid to rest at Arlington and the funerals continue five days a week, about 6,900 per year. There is a three month backlog. The Government may shut-down but the funerals continue here.

And there are just so many of them….

Unknown SoldierUltimately, we found our way up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and decide to stay a little longer to see the changing of the guard.  This tomb is guarded day and night, rain or shine, winter and summer. There is always a guard from the 3rd Infantry marching back and forth, 21 steps right, turn and then 21 steps left….silently and steadily day after day.  There are actually four service men buried in the tomb, one from each of four major conflicts of the past hundred years – World War I, World War II, Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War. The inscription on the tomb reads “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”  I suppose medical procedures and advances in DNA technology in the past decade make it possible that there will never be another “unknown” soldier but somehow I doubt it and wonder how many more will die.  It is sad to think that these young men were lost forever to their families and friends.

Changing of the Guard a the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

But today, we do not walk. There is final short service at the grave-site ending with the honor guard’s 21 gun salute – the sound reverberating throughout the still quietness of the place. Finally taps is played.  Once you hear it, you never really forget the haunting beauty of that lone bugle and the thought of a single soul winging its way up to the heavens.  

Day is done, gone the sun

From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh.

Fading light dims the sight
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright
From afar, drawing near
Falls the night.

Thanks and praise for our days
Neath the sun, neath the stars, neath the sky
As we go, this we know

God is nigh.

A single soul is honored today.

As we leave this garden, I take one look back and say arlington rows 3one last goodbye to our friend and thank him silently for his service. My glance turns into a long last look through the gates and down the hill at the rows upon rows of white marble markers. At once, I am filled with an overwhelming sadness and new tears come to my eyes. I read recently an anonymous quote – “Our flag does not fly because the wind moves it, it flies with the last breath of each soldier who died protecting it.”  Every last breath…..

And there are just so many of them…..


Sources and for additional information on Arlington National Cemetery:

Arlington National Cemetery:


The Old Guard (Wikipedia)

The Old Guard (Official):

Arlington House (Wikipedia),_The_Robert_E._Lee_Memorial

Arlington Cemetery Unofficial Site:

Visitor’s Guide:

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier:

Taps Lyrics, Wikipedia:

Video – Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier:

Taps Video: