Weed control

I cannot exactly determine the cause, but the garden has been plagued by weeds through this year. The easy answer is to consider that I might be less motivated to keep after weeds when they’re small, which then go to seed to exacerbate the problem. And, who could blame me, even if this is true (and I don’t believe it)? I hear of gardeners who claim to enjoy weeding and other mundane tasks, but I don’t, never will, and can’t understand how this is possible.

One thing is certain, there is rarely such a thing as a low maintenance garden, and when one gardener expects to manage nearly an acre without assistance, there are likely to be times when things get a bit out of control. This year, there has been one problem after another in the garden, from plants killed and injured by winter that have required hours of labor in removal and pruning, to complications from drainage issues in the rear garden that continually worsen, and now weeds that consume too much time that should be devoted to leisure. I know, this sounds a lot  like every other year, but I feel certain that this has  been worse.

At this point, I’m determined to lessen the amount of labor required to manage the garden, and no, this doesn’t mean I’ll consider turning portions of the garden back to lawn as my wife suggests. As always, I’m inclined to add to the garden rather than subtract, and I’m thinking that the best way to solve this weed dilemma is to cover as much bare ground as possible, as quickly as possible (also, as inexpensively as possible, by the way).

I notice that areas in the garden that are covered by aggressive spreaders have many fewer weeds, which is not a revelation of any sort, but which I’ve avoided planting in part through principle that aggressive plants in general should be avoided. But, large portions of this garden are planted with trees and shrubs, so I suppose that if a vigorous ground cover is planted there are likely to be few conflicts.   Chocolate mint in early October

At the far back corner of the garden I’ve planted a variety of mint which has spread to cover an area that was subject to erosion caused by runoff from neighboring properties. The mint is hemmed in by a large magnolia (which is now dead, but not yet removed) and blueberry shrubs so that the area is too shaded for the mint to expand very far. I expect that mint is the worst of the aggressors, and that by comparison violets and bugleweed will be easily managed if planted on a larger scale.Purple leafed violets

Periwinkle (Vinca minor), violets (Viola), and bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) are planted in small patches in the garden without creating a problem worth mentioning. In fact, violets have seeded themselves into areas that confound me as to how the seeds got there, and I suppose the problem is that violets could eventually move into areas where they’re not wanted. Like weeds. But, as I consider the pro’s and con’s, the decision is weighing heavily in favor of turning these low growing beasts loose to cover as much as ground as they please, and to worry about their over exuberance later.

Already, I’ve begun to transplant pieces of violets and sedums that have sprouted where they serve no productive purpose. A small patch of violets growing in a crack in the driveway is easily dug out. and with a minimum of attention it is easily transplanted to a shaded spot of moderately moist soil beneath a wide spreading Japanese maple. Under this tree I’ve planted the marvelous yellow leafed ‘Sun King’ aralia (Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’), hostas, hellebores, and a winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureo-marginata) that has recovered nicely from the winter. The violet is a small, purple leafed variety that was planted long ago so that I don’t recall the cultivar, but in any place it’s seeded it remains low and spreads to fill any open space. This is what I’m looking for, though I’ll need to keep a watch that it doesn’t bother the lower growing hostas and hellebores.Sedum

In sunny, dry spots I’ve moved a few pieces of a variegated sedum (also of unknown nomenclature) that were found growing in ash at the bottom of the fire pit where garden scraps are tossed to be burned some day in the future. The low growing sedum was planted in small areas of gravel beside the stone patio, where it has filled to form a mat that is rarely penetrated by weeds. The tiny bits have been transplanted to areas that I consider dry and sunny enough, and where the light green and cream foliage will be well suited as a backdrop for the darker foliage growing above.Chocolate Chip bugleweed in mid April

In past years I’ve had a bit of problem growing bugleweed, which I’m certain seems impossible to believe for gardeners who have had issues with its aggressive nature. It’s been along ago enough that I don’t recall if the location where it failed was too wet or dry (or too sunny), but then a few years ago I planted the small leafed ‘Chocolate Chip’, and it has behaved quite well and spread only a little further than I anticipated. It has occasionally wandered into the lawn that is thin from a smidgen too much shade, but this has been easily managed and I don’t mind at all if the lines between lawn and garden are blurred. I much prefer the bugleweed to lawn, and it’s not as if it’s taking over any more than a small section.

So, this is my late summer project, though the mild and relatively damp mid summer has allowed me to get a jump start on it. In early September I’ll splurge to purchase a few pots each of a few other interesting cultivars of bugleweed, and there’s a silver leafed viola that I have my eye on. Each of these containers can immediately be split into a handful, and I’m hopeful that it won’t be long until these work their magic to cut my time spent weeding to nothing at all. Or, at least enough to make up for my growing lack of motivation.

Almost recovered

Only recently have I moved beyond disappointment over damage done in the garden by the winter past, and already I’m distressed that autumn is close around the bend (with winter inevitably to follow). Though the garden has recovered substantially, constant reminders loom so long as I delay removing two evergreen magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) that have died along the garden’s rear margin.

For months the magnolias remained as I excused that the surrounding soil was too saturated, and why make a sloppy mess of this small section of lawn while removing the trees? Then, the ground dried a bit, but why undertake such a project in the heat? And so  on, though the summer has been mild and dry enough that I will not have to sink to the ankles to cut out the dead trees. The project is not a big one, certainly simpler than the ordeal in cutting numerous branches of the ten feet wide spreading paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha) back to live wood. I was disconsolate when the splendid winter flowering shrubs were chopped to a fraction of their previous size, but now they have revived with encouraging vigor.Oakleaf hydrangea in August

Mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) that were killed to the ground have grown back nearly to their full size, though with so much energy committed to recovery they have only recently set flower buds. As temperatures cool in September I expect more flowers. Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, above) suffered little or none, and in fact the oakleafs have grown with unusual exuberance, with several requiring drastic pruning so that neighbors are not overwhelmed. A large swamp maple (Acer rubrum) that was downed in a December ice storm allowed more sun into the side garden, and several hydrangeas that had bloomed sparsely have enjoyed their new found scattered rays of sunlight.

Panicled hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata) also escaped damage from the cold, making it easier than ever to recommend these sturdy shrubs. So what, they don’t flower in the spring along with every other shrub. This should not be considered a fault, though they are less than spectacular when the masses flock to garden centers in the spring. No doubt, once they get around to it, the flowers of these hydrangeas hold their beauty far longer than any other in the garden. The massive panicles retain their attraction long into autumn, with the flowers of some cultivars becoming more enthralling as they age (which is also true of some gardeners, I suppose, though this could be due in part to failing eyesight).Tardiva hydrangea in August

The only nay that can be said about exceptional cultivars such as the old and most recently neglected ‘Tardiva’ (above), and the new standard ‘Limelight’, is that these grow much too large for many small gardens unless the gardener is fully committed to an annual hard pruning pruning that is not so easily accomplished. But, even this has been addressed with modestly sized versions, ‘Little Lime’ and others that flower as abundantly, though the blooms are more appropriately sized for the smaller shrub.

I’m saddened that the treasured Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha) continues to decline, I suspect as a result of increasingly poor drainage in the rear garden as much as from the winter that has likely sealed its fate. Foliage on the tree is sparse, with many branches bare, and there are few flowers and buds. Tiger swallowtails (and Japanese beetles) will be disappointed by this scarcity, but already they have found the hybrid Gordlinia (x Gordlinia grandiflora, below) with flowers that are the equal of Franklinia’s, but slightly larger in size.Gordlinia in mid August

Two gordlinias also suffered the effects of winter, but these have rebounded to grow vigorously with lush foliage and abundant blooms. When these were planted it was supposed that they would be more sturdy than the troublesome Franklinia, which is weakly rooted and prone to difficulties if soil and care are not optimal. Despite soil that has become too damp in recent years, the Franklin tree has survived my inattention for fifteen or more years, so it’s had a good run. But, now I fear that it cannot be revived from this fragile state, and it’s doubtful that it can survive another year. While disappointing, there is no constant in the garden. It changes daily and weekly, and the gardener accepts that there will be struggles along the way.

A bumblebee’s paradise

Bumblebee on toad lily in August‘Sinonome’ toad lily (Tricyrtis ‘Sinonome’) begins flowering in early August in this garden, several weeks earlier than other cultivars. When first opened, the tepals do not spread fully, so that bumblebees that are so numerous in the garden must pierce the base of the flower to obtain its nectar (above). Somehow, this seems like cheating, but it has no obvious effect on the flower except that the mechanism by which pollen is distributed is bypassed. The implicit agreement between pollinators and flora is that pollen is dispersed in exchange for nectar, and in another week or two the bumblebee’s obligation is fulfilled as the flowers open fully to allow access beneath the pollen laden anthers (below).Miyazaki toad lily and bumblebees ‘Sinonome’ is a somewhat vigorous grower that spreads amicably around its neighbors, stopping immediately at the point where even a lanky stemmed geranium begins. Some care must be taken to manage other perennials not to encroach on the toad lilies’ domain, so that the gardener is rewarded with flowers on one cultivar or the other from August until frost. The flowers of ‘Sinonome’ are smaller and less substantial than other toad lilies, but the earlier flowering is reason enough to include it in the garden.Worcester Gold Blue mist shrub in August The half-woody stems of yellow leafed blue mist shrubs (Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Worcester Gold’, above) died back to the ground after a cold winter, and then with a cold spring, growth emerged later than is typical. In recent years only the outermost parts of stems have required pruning, but with a handful of days below zero it is not surprising that stems died to the ground.Hint of Gold blue mist shrub The foliage of ‘Worcester Gold’ and ‘Sunshine Blue’ fades long before flowers begin to appear in late July, but while in bloom the foliage is of little concern. A more recent introduction, ‘Hint of Gold’ (Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Lisaura’, above) has woodier stems that demand only minor spring pruning, and foliage is larger and the yellow color more bold. It seems not to flower as heavily, but the contrast of foliage and flower is more vivid. ‘Hint of Gold’ and variegated ‘Snow Fairy’ and ‘White Surprise’ flower a few weeks later, so there will be delightful blue mist blooms long into September.

Where are the butterflies?

Several butterfly bushes (Buddleia) perished over the winter, and just now at the start of August have I given their loss much thought. One, and perhaps a second died as a consequence of persistent dampness in the lower garden, and since the shrubs died over the winter the first thought is to blame cold for their death. In fact, I am quite certain that they were weakened by overly moist soil, and then cold did them in.Butterfly on Miss Rub butterfly bush

There’s little debate that butterfly bushes are nearly a weed, and of course in many areas seedlings must be carefully managed if a sterile cultivar is not planted. But, many were killed in area gardens this past winter, and in damp soils such as in my rear garden they are subject to failure regardless of winter temperatures. Longtime gardeners understand that there is no plant that cannot be killed under the right circumstances, so, despite these failures I’ll consider replanting one or two when I get around to considering these things next spring. In a drier area, of course.Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on butterfly bush in mid July

One butterfly bush sprouted a few weak leaves from the roots late in May, but with the first heat these withered. With no further show of life, the shrubs were chopped out, and I’ve had little reason to think about them since few butterflies have been seen in the garden through the early parts of this summer. I am quite certain that the lack of butterflies is not due to the absence of the buddleias since they favor vitex and Joe Pye weed equally, and various other flowers to a lesser degree.

A hummingbird moth visits Homestead Purple verbena

A hummingbird moth visits Homestead Purple verbena

I have tried various verbenas through the years, often  with confounding results. A white flowered verbena flourished for several years until it finally faded and disappeared, and I’ve planted the bright purple flowered ‘Homestead Purple’ (Verbena canadensis ‘Homestead Purple’) several times. ‘Homestead’ is somewhat perennial, though the main body of the plant rarely returns after even the mildest winter. Instead, a rooted branch tip or three sprouts in spring, and the dead branches of last year’s plant are cut away. Thus, ‘Homestead Purple’ migrates through the garden by a few feet each year. If the gardener finds this to be a problem the rooted stems are easily transplanted, I suppose.

Butterfly on verbena

Verbenas of all sorts are flowering machines. While many perennials flower, then rest a short while before resetting blooms, verbenas flowers nearly nonstop from mid spring until frost, and certainly this must be the explanation for their poor performance through the winter. In any case, ‘Homestead Purple’ must be watched and managed so that it does not overwhelm other low growing neighbors, and if this is done regularly the gardener is certain to be impressed with its performance. That is, if the gardener can tolerate the color, which is a bit too much for me, though my wife adores it.Tiger swallowtails on Joe Pye weed

The few Tiger Swallowtails that I’ve seen this spring also seem impressed, and nearly every sunny afternoon the Hummingbird moth can be seen sampling its nectar. This moth is seemingly equal parts hummingbird and bumblebee, and fortunately it is less shy than the hummingbird and more gentle than the bee. Bumblebees, of course, are rarely aggressive, except early in the spring I’ve noted that they will shoo me away if I poke my nose too close.Black and Blue salvia in late June

Unsurprisingly, ‘Black and Blue’ salvia (Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’) has not returned this year, and yes, I’ve claimed this in past years only to find that it manages its way out from beneath the wide spreading branches of the paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) by early August. Then, the hooded flowers are visited constantly by pollinators until frost. No surprise is expected this summer. The ten foot wide paperbush was chopped back to three feet after suffering winter damage, and now there is no sign of the salvia, which is likely to have perished from cold and not due to anything about the paperbush.

Despite its somewhat tender nature, I am likely to replant ‘Black and Blue’ salvia when I get around to considering these things again. This will probably happen in spring, though I could be convinced to plant in another few weeks if I see a few choice plants in the garden center.


Accentuate the positive

The pineapple lilies (Eucomis comosa ‘Sparkling Burgundy’, below) are alive and going strong despite a winter that killed too many plants that are considered more cold hardy. There is no explaining this, at least I can’t,  and in the face of conflicting results the gardener is overjoyed by the few improbable successes.Sparkling Burgundy pineapple lily

Certainly, there are complex circumstances that allow more tender plants to survive while a very cold hardy ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’, below) perishes. From the start, I understood that Pineapple lilies were questionable to make it through a typical northwestern Virginia winter, so I would not have been surprised if they had failed. But, ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ appeared this spring as if nothing had happened, and other Pineapple lily cultivars survived, though they came up late and there is no sign that they will flower. Brackens magnolia in mid June

After an unusually severe winter, there is some justification for the gardener to feel that natural forces are conspiring against him. Throw in damage from summer storms, and it’s been a difficult few years for the garden. Several trees and shrubs in the garden have been severely damaged by snow, ice, or wind, and others suffer from a drainage problem that has turned the lower garden to a swamp for long stretches through winter and spring. But, lessons have been learned, and some mistakes will not be repeated. I’ve been wrong too many times to count, but I think the garden will emerge from this for the better, though it will take a few years.Passionflower vine

The Passion flower vine (Passiflora incarnata, above) is quirky regardless of the weather, and particularly so after a cold winter. One year the first growth is seen in May, the next it’s long into June. I didn’t mark the date, but this was a late year for it. But, once it pops out of the ground it takes no time for it to reach the top of its support, and to begin trailing along the wires that have been secured to the aluminum pavilion. The earliest blooms often fall victim to Japanese beetles, and that’s what’s happened again this summer. I thought the beetles were finished since they disappeared from the Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), but they reappeared and none of the July flowers amount to much. Fortunately, when the vine makes its appearance late, more flowers are delayed into August, so there will be plenty of blooms still to come.Yellow passionflower in August

I mistakenly planted the yellow flowered Passion flower (Passiflora lutea, above) on the backside of the large koi pond, where it flourishes. There, it rambles up through Oakleaf and panicled hydrangeas that have grown so wide that it’s difficult to get close enough to enjoy the small yellow flowers. The easiest route to view the vine is to balance along boulders that border the pond. This would be great if I was fourteen and fearless, but with damp rocks and overhanging branches, the footing is just short of treacherous, so I don’t often venture over to see the blooms. Also, this is the favored hangout for the water snake that has taken up residence in the pond, so I must keep a watchful eye for him, and take care of my footing. This is too many things to think about at once, so I’m usually satisfied to visit the purple flowered passion vine instead.

Two weeks away

I have just returned from two weeks away. The garden is pretty much as I left it, though more weeds have invaded and the bamboo that was chopped out a few years ago is sprouting with vigor. Several hours labor will be required to get things back in order.Tansy and daisies in July

I am least concerned while traveling about irrigating the garden since most all plants are well established, and tough enough to tolerate any but a summer long drought. Several storms over the two weeks kept the garden’s ponds full and plants happy.

Along the forest’s edge that borders the garden many small branches have fallen on hostas and plum yews, but there is not enough damage to bother with. One large branch tumbled from a tall tulip poplar in one of the storms, with one end embedding straight down into a small section of bare ground, and the other end resting twenty or thirty feet up into the tree. I must remove it before it falls in a direction that might crush neighboring sweetshrubs (Calycanthus floridus). Certainly, it is a hazard that must be removed sooner than later.Sweetshrub in late April

My wife reminded me that my last attempt at tree work to remove a maple that was toppled in a December ice storm resulted in a trip to the emergency room. She warned that this is not a one man project, but this large branch is considerably smaller than the tree that gashed my forehead, and even if matters go terribly wrong it could not do similar damage. I hope.

I suspect that many gardeners are overly ambitious in undertaking projects that are above their capabilities, though this could possibly be more a characteristic of men than gardeners as a whole. The winter tree removal required the purchase of a larger chainsaw and several hundred dollars payment to the hospital, but I figure that this was just about what a tree company would cost. The tree was removed with little damage to Oakleaf hydrangeas directly below, and the gash healed with barely a trace of a scar. And, I have a chainsaw to show for my efforts.Northern catalpa

When I toured the garden this morning I saw that the catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) has been stripped bare, evidently the work of the Catalpa Sphinx moth, though with no remaining foliage the caterpillars have moved on. With some ground moisture and plenty of growing season remaining, I expect some leaves will grow, and that there will be no long term damage.

If I had been home while the caterpillars were doing their damage, I suppose I would have tried to dislodge them from the foliage, though the tree is a good ways from the nearest water spigot. Occasionally, I catch caterpillars in the Golden Chain trees (Laburnum x watereri ‘Pendula’), but these have pendulous branches that are well within my reach, so the caterpillars are easily removed.Caterpillar on Golden Chain tree

Though there is not a whole leaf remaining, the damage done is not so great that I would have resorted to spraying a pesticide. But, I’ll be on the lookout for the caterpillars next summer if my travel schedule allows.

Summer doldrums

Not every summer is as easy as this. Rainfall has been ample, and temperatures have been moderate. Certainly, more difficult conditions are ahead, since it seems unlikely that summer will treat the garden so gently.Alstromeria in July

Though several plants are continuing to recover from winter injury, foliage and flowers are lush in mid July. Most likely, this will not last. The best that can be anticipated is that evening thunderstorms will continue, perhaps to minimize the stress of summer’s heat, but half of summer has passed without much trauma.

This garden is irrigated only by rain, though on rare occasions I will drag a hose around to water new plantings that might struggle in the heat. Some parts of the country require irrigation to maintain adequate soil moisture, but in northwestern Virginia most plants can manage without.Tiger swallowtails on Joe Pye weed

Many of the garden’s plants demand little attention through the worst of summer, and possibly these are ill served by regular irrigation. In this garden there is no place for weaklings, and though one plant or another occasionally declines in the heat, failures are few.

The small sections of lawn are another matter. Grass is given little attention, and if it fades a bit through the summer I’m not bothered at all since it usually perks up again in September. My preference would be to eliminate more lawn to plant a few more trees, but my wife demands that no more grass be removed. At a point, it’s best to know when to yield, and I’m certain I crossed that line years ago. So, the lawn will stay, but I’ll do as little as possible to care for it.Golden Full Moon maple

Many trees and shrubs in this garden are long established, and with deep roots they show little ill effect, even in the driest, hottest summers. The deep red of a few Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) will fade a bit in the heat, but ones that are partially shaded hardly show a hint of this.Skeeter's Broom Japanese maple in July

The native River birch (Betula nigra) is notorious for pumping up with lush growth through spring, but then dropping an alarming number of leaves in the heat of August, particularly when planted in dry soils. No harm is done. In this garden birch and shrubs that prefer moist soil are planted in ground alongside a swampy meadow that rarely goes dry, so these show little effect through the summer.Mountain mint in July

Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) is native to the area, and as it reaches peak bloom in July there is no evidence that summer heat is a concern. Today, bees and wasps are occupied gathering nector so that they pay scant attention as I poke my nose too close. Blooms of the native mint will attract pollinators long after summer’s heat has passed.