Plant Sale at Paca House

Folly with BuckeyeIt’s spring and plant sales are popping up everywhere. And I love plant sales more than a hoarder loves yard sales. One of my favorite spring plant sales is at the Paca House and Gardens in Annapolis, Maryland. Really, what is not to like about a plant sale at a historical garden that you get to see without having to pay the usual entry fee? It has become a bit of an annual tradition for me and one of my gardening buddies and we pretty much turn it into an all day thing by lollygagging over lunch at a local haunt talking about what plants we bought and where we are going to plant them and so on and so on. And not to be left out, I’ve recruited my dear sweet husband to do all the driving and negotiating those tiny alley sized roads in downtown Annapolis. He just drops us off at the sale and then comes round to pick us up an hour or so later. We also let him buy lunch — it works out splendidly.

Never been to Paca House? Well, me neither – not actually. I’ve only seen the back of the place from the gardens. But I’m sure it is quite lovely inside the house and I’m sure I’ll go there one day but not this year.  I’ve actually never seen the front of the house either since we always come in from the rear on East Street right by the Water Witch Fire Station #1 in Annapolis. And every year I take a photo of the Water Witch #1 and tell myself I will look this up on the internet and find out some more about a Water Witch Fire Station. And this year I did!

waterwitchWhat I found out was that this is not a fire house anymore. It has been “re-purposed” into office space. Rats! What is the good of having a cool looking fire house when it is not used for a fire house anymore? Oh well, it once was one of three fire houses in Annapolis: Water Witch Company on East Street, Independent Fire Company No. 2 on Duke of Gloucester opposite City Hall, and Rescue Hose Company on West Street next to Loew’s Hotel. The three fire houses were consolidated into a new facility located on Taylor Avenue….so no more Water Witches….in Annapolis, that is. But there are Water Witches in Port Deposit/Conowingo and somewhere in Cecil County so all is not lost. Out there somewhere is a water witch just waiting to put out a fire or two. But knowing that doesn’t help me get to the bottom of why it is called a water witch rather than a pump house or a fire station in the first place.

I seem to recall something from my childhood about water witching being another name for dowsing and guys who would come out to your property with bent willow sticks to help find water. But I never heard them called water witches. But this is pretty much what I found out when I checked good old reliable (sometimes) Wikipedia for water witch. But it doesn’t tell me how a fire station became a water witch…..was it the job of our very first volunteer firemen to go out and find water? Of course, there is the obvious connection of fire trucks pumping water but I’m not sure that really explains it. On the other hand, I can just imagine a volunteer fireman walking around with a bent willow stick witching out a good spot to dig while the town burns down all around him.  Oh well, if anyone knows, leave me a comment so I can stop wondering about it and get back to the gardens at the back of the Paca House, which, by the way, was probably established right about the time that old Water Witch #1 was founded so the estate was, no doubt, a big potential customer for the Water Witch in case of fires.

house rearSo William Paca House (to be precise) was built by the gentlemen for which it is named between 1763 and 1765 making it, as the brochure says, a beautiful example of a “Pre-Revolutionary War” home and garden. Now, aren’t we thankful that those dastardly British skipped Annapolis on their way to burn Baltimore during the War of 1812? Otherwise, we’d not have this example of the houses built prior to the war. As for William Paca – he is known hereabouts as being a signer of the Declaration of Independence as well as for being the Governor of Maryland for three terms.

The house is a Georgian mansion and I realized I wasn’t exactly sure what made it a Georgian mansion as opposed to say, a Federalist mansion. I’m not really up on architecture so I had to take a moment and look that up too. (Now, you’re wondering if I will ever get to the part about buying plants. Maybe not, but I promise to show you something of the garden as we go.) Turns out Georgian architecture refers to the “styles” that were current between the years 1720 to 1830. And you know why? Because those were the years when Kings George I, II, III, and IV ruled in England. So for a hundred years or so the King was named George and the architecture became known as Georgian. If you want to know more about Georgian architecture, look here.  Essentially, the houses are simple 1-2 stories, kind of boxy, and very symmetrical with the front door in the center of the house, with rectangular windows capped with elaborate crowns and cornices with decorative moldings/dentilwork. I think maybe when the Levitt Brothers pared them down in size, dropped the fancy moldings and made them affordable for all Americans (certainly on the East Coast), lost the “mansion” part and became those “colonials” so popular in America today…built some years after the Revolutionary War, of course. For those of you who live around here but didn’t know, the Belair section of Bowie, MD was built by Levitt and Sons.….the Levitts didn’t just build Levittown, you know……they were building those houses everywhere.

lawnAnd moving right back to the gardens: So my friend, Glo, and I grabbed our cardboard plant boxes (or whatever they are called) and started filling them with herbs and native plants. The plant sale area is laid out such that you get to spend some time looking at herbs and vegetables, then you walk up through the wall and into the bottom part of the garden and then back up the walkway and through the garden wall (it is a walled garden after all) and into the area where the rest of the plants – annuals and perennials – are laid out to be sold. So, on your way, you get to tour the garden. So, with our boxes about halfway full, we found a nice place to stow them giving us plenty of time to explore the two acre walled garden before tackling the annuals and perennials.

One thing I always notice about this garden is the pollarded and espaliered fruit trees. Pollarding does get my attention and I do find myself thinking that it is really akin to butchering the trees. The pruning technique is radical (to me) but has been used in Europe for many (hundreds of) years. I recall seeing trees that had been pollarded when we visited Amsterdam several years ago.

pollard belgiumThe trees lined the streets but looked more like huge sculpted tree menorahs than trees. I asked about the trees and was told they were mostly Linden Trees and would look lovely when the foliage grew back in spring. In this country, we see this process used on Crepe Myrtles – extreme pruning leaving the trees looking pretty horrible (to me) in spring. But the trees do seem to recover okay although they look like sticks and then sticks with powder puff leaf balls before they ever start looking like trees again. I will say that I do not pollard the Crepe Myrtles in my yard and they bloom just fine…..for those who would say the process means more blooms. Proponents of the technique say that it makes the trees live longer because they [the trees] are always having to recover and renew themselves and are never allowed to grow old [as trees go]. (You should read that sentence like you are a snobby hoity toity landscape designer who never deigns to actually get his hands dirty.) I’m not sure I buy that explanation but I do like the explanation that, in Europe, they do not have a problem with large tree limbs falling into power lines in those towns with pollarded trees during storms……because there are no large limbs to fall….now that makes sense.

fig treeAt Paca House, there are two ancient figs that are pollarded (or appear to be) and are also trained against the brick garden wall. As it is early spring when the plant sales are conducted, I have never been able to see the figs with leaves. But the ancient-looking gnarled tree trunks are quite impressive even without the leaves.

fruit treeNow, the apple trees on the other hand are trained and espaliered to make a low edging to the walkways. I have never seen this before and I do not know what the technique is except to call it espaliering….or, making short walls out of trees. In years past, I have seen the trees filled out and marveled at the effect. And, yes, I have seen the tiny knee-high trees (some peach but mostly apple) with lots of setting fruit so I have to assume they are very productive trees regardless of their height. In the last couple years, the garden appears to have been re-vamped completely and the little apple tree walls have been removed (I suppose they get too old and start dying out) and new trees have now been planted and are now in training. Just the thing to get me back next year so I can see how the trees have progressed.

apple archThere is also an apple tree archway that provides a covered entrance to another part of the garden that is pretty neat – no other way to describe it. It is just pretty neat to walk through an archway that is an apple tree or maybe several apple trees together. I like to imagine just taking a stroll in the garden and reaching up overhead and picking a little snack and you go from the vegetable garden to the topiary garden….find a bench….read a book….gardens can affect you that way.

herb gardentopiaryThe garden is really pretty formal with gigantic hollies pruned into perfect cones and a centrally placed circular herb and rose garden that should be lovely later in the year.

veg gardenThere is a side/kitchen garden comprised of maybe ten raised beds that appear to have been planted in but so far no little sprouts are showing this early in the year although the Rosemary and Lavender is growing like weeds…..err, maybe more like herbs.

long viewIf you stand just at the back of the house, there is a broad graveled walk that goes all the way to the summer house at the very back of the property. There is also a pond with a lovely arched bridge just before you reach the summer house (or folly as I would think of it).

folly closeBut what always grabs my attention is the beautiful and very large Buckeye just to the right of the summer house. It is always in full bloom just in time for the plant sale each year. I fell in love with it the first year I went to the plant sale. I guess I had never really seen or noticed a Buckeye Tree before so didn’t realize they bloomed. When I asked about it, I was informed that the tree was a very special Buckeye – it was a cutting from a tree that was on George Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, down near Alexandria, Virginia. I am not clear on whether or not the seedling was taken from a tree that George Washington actually planted or just one that is planted there today as being consistent with trees that George might have had on his estate. I think maybe the latter because I do not think Buckeyes live so long….but you never know. For want of a better name, the lady I asked just called it the George Washington Buckeye but I think it is really a Red Buckeye Tree.

Buckeye bloomWell, you know I had to have one….and you know they just happened to have a seedling on sale right there at the plant sale that very day….and you know I had to buy it right on the spot. What else could I do? I brought it home and potted it up – it wasn’t much more than a stick after all – and I nurtured it (sort of) for a couple years and when it got big enough (bigger than a stick), I planted it in the ground. It is doing splendidly and this year produced its first bloom – a beautiful red bloom just like I had seen on the mother tree. Not a single regret do I have in buying that tree… very own bit of history and connection to good ole George right in my front yard.

mybuckeyeSo, now we’ve circled the garden and it was time to get back to the good part – buying flowers. And, as it turns out, there’s not much to talk about for that part. They had mostly native plants and plants that might have been planted in gardens back in the 1700’s. I bought a couple more hollyhocks to replace the one I had bought last year. Since hollyhocks are biennials, last year’s plant is doing well and should bloom this year before dying out. The two new plants will grow this year and bloom next year. It’s a circular process that means I’ll have to keep putting in new hollyhocks each year to replace the ones that bloom and die. Not as good as perennials but better than annuals. It keeps a gardener digging in the dirt year after year after year.

stashI also got the herbs I had mentioned and some Swamp Milkweed in my never ending quest to attract butterflies and, specifically, Monarchs to my flowerbeds. And a little Thyme and Bronze Fennel (love that color). I did not get Rosemary this year – just haven’t had luck with it in the past. But I did get a Cardoon plant to try… sounds so Madagascar so why not? And then there’s the Hyacinth bean vine for the trellis in the Hosta bed and a new little lemon colored miniature Hosta and a Moonflower vine for a hanging pot for the deck and……well, you get the gist of it, I filled my box so the good folks at the Paca House got their money’s worth out of me….til next year, that is. (Oh, in case you’re wondering, the box was full…..I just forgot to get a picture before some of the plants were planted.)

Costa Rica – First the Birds

It never fails to amaze me that I can get on a plane in a bit of a snowstorm in Baltimore, Maryland and, within a couple of hours, get off that plane in Miami, Florida – just about 972 miles away – to find blue skies and warm breezes. But let’s not stop there. We traveled on to San Jose, Costa Rica – a total of roughly 2098 miles – and we are slap dab in the tropics. All in the space of a single day – Bazinga! There you are, in another country almost in another hemisphere and you’re stripping off layers of jackets and sweaters and long-sleeved shirts trying to get down to something more fitting for summertime weather.

kingfisherWe landed in San Jose in the afternoon ….just in time for their version of rush hour. A driver picked us up at the airport and transported us to our hotel for the first couple of days in country. The driver had a very young and very nice assistant who spoke enough English to make the journey a little less hectic. It sounded like he told me that the locals call rush hour, “dunde pickle”. I know very little Spanish – you know, the basics – “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you”, “where the heck is the bathroom” – so I cannot tell you what the young man was really saying to me or whether or not I was even hearing the phrase correctly but it does have a ring of truth in it no matter what the language. I can tell you, having experienced more traffic jams in my life than I care to, you are usually in some kind of a pickle or another when you’re stuck in traffic so “dunde pickle” sounds like a pretty good interpretation to me.

bg tanagerWe arrived at a beautiful hotel that seemed to arise out of nowhere. We were riding along down a crowded street where all the houses looked the same and included forbidding wrought iron fences and gates, some with razor wire strung across the tops of the fences, when we came to a imposing stone fence and ornate gateway hiding beautifully landscaped gardens and an old world style lodge. The Hotel Bougainvillea was as charming and lovely as the name implies…and there were tons of bougainvillea growing and blooming everywhere. I am not really sure if we could ever have found the hotel by ourselves. In the case of Costa Rica, I have learned that it is probably best to leave the driving to someone else. But I will leave traffic and the hotels in Costa Rica for another day; today, it is all about the birds.

red legsWe went to Costa Rica to see birds. And birds we saw. In the twelve (12) days we stayed in Costa Rica, we recorded 188 species of birds. All but a handful of these were birds we had never seen before…..all life birds for us. One of the very first species we saw was a gorgeous Baltimore Oriole and do not think that the irony of traveling two thousand miles to see a Baltimore Oriole was lost on us. But the pair of Orioles were beautiful and started us out right. For the next eleven days we traveled to three different locations in the country looking for and enjoying birds in a variety of different environments.

I won’t try to include a list of the birds here but I have recorded the birds at I have annotated the lists at to be “shared” so, if you are so inclined you can review the list there or you can view the list here. In all, we took more than 1000 photos and then when we got home and looked at all of them on the computer screen, I think I may have deleted roughly about half of them. My standing joke is that when I show photos of the birds I have seen, all of their names begin with “blurry” as in, “Here is another blurry eagle photo”.   I like birding and I like taking pictures but I hate carrying around a large camera so I make compromises about the camera size and capabilities so I get some basic photographs that work for me but certainly will not win any awards. I am sharing some of the bird photographs that came out best and not necessarily sharing photos of the birds that impressed me most.

quetzalThe bird that was probably the most photographed bird by everyone we encountered on the trip was the Resplendent Quetzal. Even our guide stopped pointing out all other birds when a Quetzal came into view. We were staying at the Sevegre Mountain Lodge in the cloud forest where the Quetzals live and everyone there was fascinated with the birds. The driver that delivered us to the lodge and two days later returned to pick us up was totally besotted with the Quetzal. He told us that the bird was the national bird of Honduras and seemed miffed that Costa Rica had chosen the lowly but common Clay Colored Thrush (also called a Robin) as its national bird. He (German – that’s pronounced Herman as he told us right from the start) told us that he had not seen a Quetzal in more than 4 years and that most Costa Ricans lived their whole lives without ever seeing a Quetzal. It reminded me of our own Bald Eagle and how exciting it is for most Americans to see a Bald Eagle for the first time.

I have to pause a moment to remind everyone as I was reminded while in Central America that we from the United States refer to ourselves as “Americans” but we are not the only “Americans”. In point of fact, anyone living in the western hemisphere (North, South, and Central America) can correctly be called “Americans”. But, although this was pointed out to me, I suspect most citizens of Canada, Central and South America do not always want to be bunched in with the United States. Sometimes it is good to be “American” and sometimes I think the non-USA folks do not necessarily want to be included in the mix with us North-but-not-Canada Americans.

Okay, enough politics and back to Quetzals and our driver, German. To finish up the thought, as we were driving out of the valley on this rough, washed out, gravel (washboard all the way) road with an incline of about 80 degrees, German saw a man with a scope on the side of the road and promptly stopped the van, jumped out and rushed over to see the Quetzal that we had just spotted in the tree. As he stopped, I told him that we had seen several Quetzals while at the lodge and that “it was okay by us” if he didn’t stop to view this one. He jumped out of the van and called over his shoulder as he ran that “it is not okay by me”. So I got out and grabbed my binoculars for one last look at one of the birds. What else could I do? Interestingly enough, the nice young man at the side of the road with a scope with a digiscope/camera attachment graciously offered to let us take a look at the bird through his scope. German, in excitement at seeing a Quetzal, just started taking pictures with the nice guy’s camera. The nice guy, amazingly enough, seemed to understand and didn’t say a word… least that I heard.

cc thrushI mentioned the Clay Colored Thrush which is Costa Rica’s national bird. And I must say that German, for one, wasn’t very happy about that but “What can you do? The Government says it must be this way.” The Clay Colored Thrush, also called a robin by most people we met there, is very common and can be seen pretty much throughout Costa Rica. Perhaps it is the fact that Clay Colored Thrushes are so prevalent throughout the country that made it the ideal candidate for national bird. After all, it would be difficult to find anyone who lives in or visits Costa Rica who hasn’t seen or heard the Clay Colored Thrush. It was one of the first new birds we encountered and one of the last we saw before departing for the airport on our way out. It is a beautiful cinnamon color, looks very much like a robin in shape and form, and seems to sing from dawn to dusk every day. Of course, I was advised by one of our birding guides that American Robins are not really robins, they are also thrushes. It seems that English colonists settling the US saw the birds and, thinking they looked quite a bit like the robins in Europe, promptly named them American Robins. I haven’t researched this but it makes sense. I’ll put it in my notes as something I should check on another day.

potooThe most unusual bird we saw had to have been the Great Potoo. And this was like a “bonus” bird in that I’m betting most birders who go to the country for the first time might not have the opportunity to see this bird. Our guide, Eric, knew another guide who knew someone who had spotted the bird in a tree in front of a private residence. They painted a big sign on the side of the road that says, “Potoo” so the guides in the area would know which house. I tried to imagine someone painting a sign like that near a house in our neighborhood back home….wouldn’t the homeowner’s associations just love that? Not to worry, Eric had contacted the homeowners and gotten permission to bring his birding groups to see the bird. It was pretty awesome. Of course, I say we saw the bird but I have to tell you that this bird has to be the most well-camouflaged bird known to man. It is definitely the hardest to see that I have ever seen. The bird is nocturnal and spends its days sitting motionless on a limb of a tree. It looks exactly like just another dead branch jutting out of the tree. Even when Eric set the scope up to view the bird, it was amazing to think that there was a bird there at all. The photo here is the best I could get considering the lighting was not great (late afternoon) and the bird was so well concealed – in plain sight. The homeowners did not speak any English but they offered us fresh fruit and told us (through our guide) stories about the Potoo and its habits. And they advised that the Potoo was a parent and there was a baby. Now, I was having enough trouble differentiating the bird itself from the tree and now they tell me there is a baby somewhere up there on that limb too. And there was! You had to view it through the scope and wait patiently. Every 5 minutes or so, the little guy would peek out from the adult bird’s feathers and gave us a quick view. It was nothing more than a little ball of fur that made me wish I could see more but it was not to be – he was safe in mom’s (or dad’s) feathers. What an experience that was.

motmotNow my favorite bird was the Motmot. I don’t know whether it was the name or the funny call it made or the beauty of the bird itself but I really liked the Motmot. We saw two different ones, the Blue-Diademed (or Crowned) Motmot in the rainforest and the Turquoise-Browed Motmot down near the Pacific coast. Both were very beautiful and, after seeing the first one earlier in the week, I was thrilled to see a second type on our very last day of birding before we headed home.

mountaingemFiery hummingbirdJerry’s favorite bird was one of the hummingbirds. And there were hummingbirds everywhere. If you hang out a feeder in Costa Rica, you will get hummingbirds absolutely (apparently). We saw 17 different species on our trip. Now that is like sensory overload when you consider that we only really have the 1 species in Maryland, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (although there are a couple migrants that pass through now and then). We visited a privately owned preserve called Bosque De Paz and spent several hours just sitting outside at a pavilion watching and photographing hummingbirds. Now, you might tell yourself that I should be a hummingbird expert at this point. Nope, not a chance. I have to go through all the photographs and try to figure out which is which. I have the names written down but the birds all run together in my mind. I’m thinking that there must be a more organized way to identify the birds associated with the photos but, if there is, I didn’t do a very good job of it. But, I do know that Jerry’s favorite was the White-Throated Mountaingem. We had seen the Purple-Throated Mountaingem near Basque de Paz; the White-Throated Mountaingem was spotted at Sevegre Mountain Lodge. Now, the males of the two species are quite gorgeous but it is the females that captured Jerry’s heart. He was smitten from first sight.

caracaraI would be remiss if I didn’t mention the bigger birds. The two Tiger Herons, Bare-Throated and Fasciated, were both beautiful birds. Of the raptors, the Laughing Falcon, the Swallow-Tailed Kite, the White-Tailed Kite, the Yellow-Headed Caracara, and the Black Hawk and its cousin, the Mangrove Black Hawk, were all spectacular. The Black and Crested Guans were also pretty amazing. I quickly ran out of adjectives to use and started to attempt to use a little Spanish here and there saying the birds were “mucho bueno”. Eric (our ever patient guide) suggested I might try British phrases like falcon“splendid” or “fascinating” instead when I ran out of colorful words to describe the beautiful birds. Guess I was doing a pretty good job of butchering his language and he figured getting me back to English would be a good idea.

Now, of course, we saw Macaws, Parrots, Parakeets, and Toucans. Some we saw flying over the hills and valleys near the house where we saw the Potoo. Others we saw at the rainforest at La Selva Biological Station. La Selva is a part of the Organization for Tropical Studies which is an institution owned jointly by a consortium of universities and is pretty much a “must see” for anyonetoucan visiting Costa Rica. We spent several very hot and humid days at an eco-lodge called Selva Verde near La Selva. I would like to say I got some wonderful photos of the Toucans and Parrots and, especially, the Scarlet Macaws but, alas, those dratted birds liked to stay high up in the trees hiding in the branches and leaves. We got good views of them but not so good photographs. Those were some of the first photos I deleted when I got home. Oh well, gives me good reason to go back to Central America in the future and try again.

I know I could go on for hours remembering the birds and I could make you all totally crazy with my stories but I think I will save some stories for the next blog or for when I see you in person. Please do not run away when you see me coming wearing my brand new Costa Rica t-shirt and toting my big book of blurry bird photographs. I promise I won’t make you look at all of them….at least not in one sitting.a woodpecker