Porch Postulating on 45 Years in One Garden

High on a Hill in Utica, Indiana

We welcome back one-time Garden Rant partner Bob Hill, who has stayed in one beautiful place for a long time.

A few very random thoughts while sitting in a screened-in back porch in Utica Indiana in early April of 2020 while mulling over 45 years of home gardening, the memories, connections and friendships born of all that – if not the meaning of life.

Phlox subulata beyond the garden gate.

This may be the much needed and finest spring in all those years, a rain-blessed chronological PowerPoint of purple hellebores, fragrant witchhazel, pink flowering almond, magnificent magnolias, the shy, blushing ‘Pauline Lily’ redbud, screaming yellow Kerria, butter-yellow Weigela, deep red crabapples and simple white daffodils with yellow centers. The latter well predates our four decades in this place in a 160-year-old farmhouse. I can’t look at them without thinking and wondering about those who planted them.

Kerria japonica

Carl Sandburg – a Midwestern Dude who first left school at age 13 to drive a milk wagon in Galesburg Illinois – came up with a pretty nice poem about the misty undefined side of life:

The fog comes

on little cat feet

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on

I get the same feeling sitting on the back porch watching green spring slowly creeping in on trees and shrubs from ground up. You can see it, almost feel it. On the warm days you can experience the changes from morning to night. There’s no one good word for that. “Hue” doesn’t get it. “Subtle” is overused. In spring the green comes on little …what?

I gave GOOGLE a shot at it and its explanation involved “diffuse-porous wood anatomy” and the “relation of foliar phenology to xylem embolism.”

Let’s move on.

Can there ever be enough Virginia bluebells?

If had to pick one flower that brings home spring to me it is the Virginia bluebell. We have one huge patch across the drive now being assaulted by bright yellow wood poppies creating a bicameral carpet of color in our fern garden, itself crossed by an old wooden bridge.

I love everything about the bluebells, their happy morphing into pink, the joy of speaking their Latin name…Mertensia virginica.  I am so smitten by them that last year I ordered 100 more and have added clumps in every fertile, shaded nook and cranny on our place. Maybe future owners will wonder about who planted them.

Magnolia ‘Daybreak’

Our back porch offers a visual parade of magnolia trees staging a shameless beauty contest. The problem is those Butterflies, Elizabeth and Marilyn cultivars planted about 25 years ago are now so tall I can only see their flowers through the tops of other trees. This is because I pruned up those magnolias way too high to allow passage under them while planting other ornamental trees now also grown too tall.

That’s because when you first begin gardening with two acres of wide-open pasture and an insane desire to plant one of every bush, shrub and tree known to God it’s just hard to see where all that might lead. Most of those plants were six foot or less. Besides those wonderful yellow Butterfly magnolia blooms do look good pinned way up there against a blue April sky. And nobody gets a 45-year do-over.


A single purple iris is blooming just outside our back-porch door, one of a now overgrown clump that badly needs dividing. So show me an iris patch that doesn’t need dividing. The iris was a gift from my wife’s Aunt Helen, who gave us a pickup load of flowers when we moved onto our mostly barren eight acres 45 years ago.

Aunt Helen, who grew up on a southern Indiana farm, was old school practical, caring, a fine seamstress and no-nonsense tidy. She could also grow roses in a milk bucket. She just had the knack, her yard covered with mostly common but very healthy plants she handed out to others with pride.

Everyone’s favorite Aunt Helen story was of the time she was having what were thought to be serious health problems. An ambulance was called, but Aunt Helen wouldn’t get in it until after she finished doing the breakfast dishes. Every gardener needs a patch of Aunt Helen iris of some sort.

Speaking of memories, a splash of yellow, pink and red tulips, is now opening not far from the porch and Aunt Helen’s iris. The tulips were purchased at the famed Keukenhof Tulip Gardens in the Netherlands on a visit there a few years ago. Something like seven million tulips were on display in fields, rows and vivid living art beyond words. Those seven million tulips are replanted every year. The show was shut down this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Seven. Million. Tulips. Fields of Silence. No spectators. No awe-struck patrons. Sad.

‘Double Take Scarlet’ quince

For damn near egotistical, in-your-face red color, the Double Take Scarlet quince hanging out with the green boxwoods owns our neighborhood. As is often the case, with we who overplant, this cultivar got lost in semi-shade between some aged deciduous hollies and a clematis taking ownership of a big 1860s trellis.

The quince made some visual noise last year. This year it went absolutely hey-look-at-me bonkers; the red growing ever deeper as the sun disappears over the barn. I can sit on the porch and watch it disappear, then damn near hear it hollering for attention in the gathering darkness.

Close to it – although not exactly a soul mate – is the redbud ‘Pauline Lily.’ Truth be told, if Pauline defined all redbuds people would stick to dogwoods. First found in the mountains of West Virginia, and named for the wife of its discoverer, Colin Lily, its flowers are pale pink to white. I like the feature. That neighborhood needs to calm down a little.

Off to my right is perennial porch-watching favorite, the three-flowered maple or Acer triflorum if you must. I like it because it’s got a nice shape, exfoliating bark, great fall color and it’s never in a hurry to do any of it.

I’m getting that same feeling myself.

Former Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Bob Hill wrote more than 4,000 columns and feature stories, about ten books and several angry letters to bill collectors in his 33 years at the paper. He and his wife, Janet, are former guides and caretakers of Hidden Hill Nursery and Garden in Utica, IN., a home-made, eight-acre arboretum, art mecca and source of enormous fun, whimsy, rare plants and peace for all who showed up. Bob’s academic honors include being the tallest kid in his class 12 years in a row. 


  1. Such a wonderful account – and beautifully written. We too are having our best spring in some time – solace during a very difficult period. Our house was built 44 years ago by the man who sold it to us, and I know that he was grateful that we would love this bit of land just as much as he and his wife did. I am planting bluebells myself, and every time I walk by the kerria on my way to the woodland garden I think of Lloyd and Jeanne who planted it and called it Charlie Bush after the man who gave it to them.

  2. What a wonderful column. I love thinking about the people who planted flowers years and years ago. It’s like a big hello from the past every spring!

  3. This lovely article is balm for my stir crazy soul. I poked around a bit in the garden today and noticed with joy that one of my hellebore’s “babies” is blooming this year for the first time. The scillas are also blooming in the lawn despite a nearly marriage-ending early mowing by my husband last spring. Alas, I have not a single Virginia bluebell, but will get right on it ASAP.

  4. And here I just finished a blog complaining about how the last freeze wiped out our redbud bloom and pulverized the magnolias. Not my favorite spring, sorry. But nice writing, Mr. Hill!

  5. You are so right about Virginia Bluebells! Mine are lovely this year. But the Spanish Bluebells are crazy wild. I have a love hate relationship with them. The Kerria is so happy adding much needed color to my back yard. Thanks for a sweet story.

  6. What a lovely essay of joy tinged with melancholy, with Sandberg poem still ringing the tune. For me, the sadness was palpable in contemplating the Keuchenhof Tulips going unseen by the masses. Is it too late to fly a handful of drone cameras over there and broadcast that riotous optimism as we take in the world digitally?

  7. I can relate strongly to Bob Hill’s poignant article. Looking back on 45 years. Ir was 55 years ago this spring that I took a year off from sailing to add to the plants on our 3/4 acre wooded lot. I muse on all the changes that have taken place in those years. The successes and the failures. The three (I think) Mertensias have multiplied and cover an entire bank and many have been transplanted to another bank. The Chiodoxas are competing with the Bloodroot throughout the front and back woods. Thanks again Bob for your writing.


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