Fourth of July

Among my earliest memories is one from a Fourth of July celebration back when I was just a tadpole – perhaps 1949. My sister and I sat on the hood of our parents’ 1938 Buick, a big black sedan, and watched fireworks way past my bedtime. Red, white and blue rockets zoomed skyward, filling us with awe. Now, all these years later, I am awed by red, white and blue flowers that climb up towards the sky. No booms, but plenty of blooms. Right now many clematis vines are ready to show off in patriotic colors in your garden.

Blue clematis (name not known)

Blue clematis (name not known)

Clematis is a showy vine that confounds many. Unlike most flowers, these come in several different colors – including red, white and blue. Surely you’ve seen showy 4- to 6-inch blossoms on vines growing up trellises. Those were probably clematis. But sometimes gardeners plant the vines and are disappointed. They can be a little fussy. In fact, I have two that I planted earlier this summer that seem to be sulking. I know, however, that within a year or two (or sooner, hopefully) they will start growing vigorously. I have provided them with good soil, some organic fertilizer and a structure they can twine around.


What clematis vines need are hot tops and cool bottoms. They require rich, slightly moist soil that stays cool, but plenty of hot sunshine on the ascending vines. To do that, mulch the roots well with chopped leaves or ground bark mulch. And plant a medium-sized perennial – or more than one – in front of the vine to shade the soil from the afternoon sun, helping to keep the roots cool. An astilbe is about the right size, or perhaps a Shasta daisy.


I called plantsman Gary Milek of Cider Hill Gardens and Galleries in Windsor, VT for suggestions for good patriotic red, white and blue clematis varieties. He said there are two great red ones: ‘Niobe’ and ‘Cardinal Wyszynski’. The latter one is a Polish variety that is free flowering, meaning that it will keep blossoming and growing taller all summer, a definite plus.

Cleamtis recta close-up

Cleamtis recta close-up



White clematis include a variety called ‘Henryi’, which since it shares a name with me, I should get. Gary Milek said it can easily grow 8 to 10 feet up from the ground in one year. Another white one he likes is ‘Gillian Blades’, which has white blossoms and yellow anthers.


Right now I have a white bush-type clematis in bloom, known as ground clematis or by its scientific name, Clematis recta. This gets to be about five feet tall, and unless it is very well supported, it then flops over. Mine is growing in front of a stone retaining wall facing east, so it gets little afternoon sun. My bush is nearly six feet wide right now, but will die to the ground in winter.


The individual flowers are not impressive: each 5-petaled blossom is only an inch and a half across. But there are lots of them. Flower clusters are loaded with them, and the stems are nice and strong, hence great in a vase, and keep well when picked.


Come fall, I’ll have another round of white clematis blossoms when my ‘Sweet Autumn’ clematis (Clematis paniculata) comes into bloom. Like the bush-type, this clematis has small blossoms, and lots of them. And they are fragrant, or can be. I had one previously that was not fragrant, but generally they are.

pink Clematis

pink Clematis


Of the blue or purple-blue clematis, a variety called ‘Jackmanii’ is well known and very popular. It is tough as nails, thriving even after hard winters. Like many, but not all, clematis, it dies to the ground each fall. You should prune it back to within a foot of the ground in the fall or first thing in the spring. Other clematis vines do survive the winter, and should just be trimmed to neaten them up after their early summer blooming.


According to Gary Milek, a truer blue (for the Fourth of July theme) is ‘The President’. It will grow 8 to 12 feet tall, and have two flushes of blooms: early summer (May-June) and then again in fall (September-October). Like many clematis, it has good winter interest: the seed heads are fluffy white, persistent structures.


Other great climbers in patriotic colors? Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala,subspecies petiolaris) is a fabulous white vine. It will attach itself to brick or rock walls, but needs help to climb a wooden wall. These great vines are slow to start growing after planting, but really get vigorous after 5 or 6 years. Your patience will be rewarded. As they climb, they extend short branches, loaded with big white flower panicles that seem to defy gravity. And they thrive in shade, or part shade. Great for the north side of a barn, where I have mine.


Then there are the red roses. The Canadian Explorer series, developed in Ottawa, are very nice. ‘William Baffin’ is my favorite climber. He grows 8 to 10 feet high, and is technically a deep pink. But that’s close enough for me.


So if you want something to grow up to the sky, there are plenty of choices. I just wish I had that 1938 Buick (which went to the junk yard in 1961). Sigh. Maybe I’ll go buy another climbing clematis to console myself.


Henry is the author of 4 gardening books, and a children’s chapter book about a boy and a cougar, Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet. His web site is


Hot Air Ballooning

(Published in the August Citizen September, 2010)


When I was a grade-schooler back in the mid-1950’s I read a lot during the summer. We had no TV, no electronic games, and obviously there was no e-mail or Facebook to suck up my time.  I rode my bike, I swam, I played badminton with the next door neighbor, and I read books. Lots of books. My favorite series was about a pig named Freddy who was a detective and an adventurer.
The books were written by Walter R. Brooks who created a pig who could talk to the farmers who owned him, Mr. and Mrs. Bean, and to the other animals: Jinx the Cat, Charles the preening rooster, Hank the old white horse and Mrs. Wiggins, Wogus and Wurzburger the cows. Freddy could, somehow, type with his little trotters and was an accomplished poet. In my favorite of the series, Freddy and the Perilous Adventure, Freddy the Pig commandeered a hot air balloon and he and a few friends set off in it. I have wanted to do so ever since.

Filling the Balloon WIth Hot Air

July 6th was the one-year anniversary of my sister Ruth Anne Mitchell’s untimely death. I dreaded that the approach of that day, that memory. My friend and companion, Cindy Heath, asked me if we could do something to make that day something to look forward to, rather than dread. I thought of Freddy the Pig and decided we should sign up for a hot air balloon ride.
We took off from a tiny airstrip in Post Mills, Vermont with Brian Boland, a delightfully eccentric guy with a dark bushy beard and sunglasses that hide his eyes. Brian not only flies hot air balloons, he collects them and has a museum  of all sorts of interesting stuff – cars, sidecars, balloon baskets and much more. He and friends built a life-sized brontosaurus out of scrap wood not long ago at the edge of the air strip. Brian exudes confidence, and with good reason. He is in his 40th year of ballooning, and has flown 8,133 flights – in 24 nations.  
A hot air balloon is a wondrous thing. Point a stream of hot air (created by a propane burner) into the mouth of a multi-colored, rip-stop nylon balloon that is 75 ft tall and 55 ft wide, and it will gently lift you up. There is no jerky motion, no jet-propelled angst as your body is slams against an airplane seat. In fact, there are no seats. We stood in a wicker basket for the flight. There are no waiting lines, no airport security, no tickets to lose. In fact, Brian forgot to ask me for the fare, and I had to remind him that we needed to pay after the chase car returned us to our car.

Flying High in Vermont

So there we were: Brian, Cindy and me. And Freddy the Pig, though only I could see him. My sister Ruth Anne, an American who adopted Ottawa as her home 40 years ago, might have been there in the balloon, too. She loved ballooning, and once had floated over the Serengeti Plain at dawn, hovering over wildebeest and eland and elephants.
I loved looking down on trees and farms and twisty dirt roads. On Lake Fairlee and little homemade ponds. From time to time Brian would squeeze the handle of the propane heater, producing a blast of hot air that would, a few moments later, bring us slowly, gently higher. There are no quick movements in a balloon, and never did I feel even the slight bit nervous.
We watched kids from Camp Lochearn walking down the road to get their evening ice cream in Post Mills, a chase car following them in case a camper got tuckered out or developed a blister. (Are kids a bit overly tended-to these days?). One hundred kids waved and hollered and wished they were up there with Freddy and me. We flew over my favorite plant nursery in Thetford Center, Vermont, giving me a different perspective on a place I’d visited countless times to buy trees and shrubs. We floated over Interstate 91 and I felt a bit sorry for the folks hurrying along at 70 mph while we floated listlessly in the breeze.
The temperature on the ground that day was in the nineties – one of those hot days I generally dread. But up in the balloon we were comfortable, though the heat and humidity limited our long distance views of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and made our photos less than distinct. Still, I felt like Zeus as I looked down on the world.

Floating Above Still Water

We approached the Connecticut River, but the winds were not right for a river crossing. Shortly before the sun disappeared Brian spotted a postage-stamp parking lot at a boat launch on the Pompanoosuc River. He gave directions to our chase car and Tina Foster, the driver, arrived and screeched to a halt. He threw down a wide nylon web line to her so she could guide us in. Brian called out to people at the boat launch, asking for help pulling us toward the designated stopping point. They did. Brain pulled a cord to release hot air from the balloon, and we gently descended. We landed spot on.
Even when we landed the adventure was not over. Half a dozen people helped us fold up the balloon, including Sophie, who appeared to be about 7 years old. We chatted and drank champagne and soft drinks with some of those who helped us – and found points of connection spanning decades and continents. It was a wonderful evening. I just wish my sister could have been there with us – but who knows? Maybe she was.
If You Go:

Where: Post Mills, Vermont, 20 minutes from Hanover, NH and Dartmouth College
Who to contact: Brian Boland, Balloon Vermont, 802- 333-9254
Cost: $260 /person for a 60-90 minute flight
Lodging: The Silver Maples Lodge and Cabins offers a package including lodging for 2 nights, Continental breakfast and the balloon ride for 2 adults for $725. or 803-333-4326. Silver Maple Lodge is one of Vermont’s oldest continuously operating country inns, with the main building dating back to the late 1700’s. Located in Fairlee, VT, just a few miles from Post Mills. (802) 333-4326 (802) 333-4326 (802) 333-4326 (802) 333-4326