More Japanese maples than necessary?

Yes, there are more Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) in this garden than necessary, but there is no need to count. There are thirty, or forty-some, but this is not a contest, and certainly there are gardens with finer and more numerous maples. With plants, I can get a little stupid, but my obsession with Japanese maples is most evident in this acre and a quarter garden.

Seriyu is a vigorous green, cut leafed maple. Branches of two Seriyu planted at the front of the house arch over the front walk.

The front of the house is mostly obscured by two green leafed ‘Seriyu’ maples and a red leafed ‘Bloodgood’, and it’s not possible to see more than twenty feet in any direction in the rear garden without the view being blocked by one maple or several. The driveway is partially obstructed by a wide spreading maple (‘Crimson Queen’) with pendulous branches, with another (‘Oridono nishiki’) overhanging the end of the drive. A green leafed, weeping Japanese maple (‘Viridis’, below) forms a wide spreading canopy over one of the garden’s ponds, and so it goes, one after another. Many maples have been here for twenty years or more, with a few newcomers each year.

The arching branches of Viridis maple form a canopy over this small pond and waterfall.

I hear that Japanese maples grow slowly, but most are vigorous in growth. Viridis maple has spread to more than ten feet wide, though only six feet tall.

None of the maples in the garden are rare, though many are ones that are not commonly found in garden centers, and a few recent additions can be found only from nurseries that specialize in growing small numbers of the hundreds of less common Japanese maples. Certainly, several are cultivars that would not catch the eye of most gardeners, with foliage that is unremarkable, and I suppose it could be argued that leaves of a few maples are out of the ordinary to the point that some might consider them ugly. I don’t.

The Golden Full Moon maple was found in the field of a grower in Oregon who left it behind because its trunk was damaged by rabbits. I was happy to plant the scarred tree. A year ago I planted ‘Autumn Moon’ which is similar and supposedly more sun tolerant.

There are Japanese maples that I’ve paid a small fortune to obtain, though I am notoriously thrifty, and a few that were rescued from trash heaps. For years, I lusted after Golden Full Moon (Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’, above) and Floating Cloud (Acer palmatum ‘Ukigumo’, below) maples, and once one of each of reasonable size was obtained, two others soon became available and were added to the garden. No doubt, this is not a matter of proper garden design, nor of good sense. I suspect that I’m not the only gardener who’s gone off the deep end for something, maybe on multiple somethings as I have.

Foliage color of the Floating Cloud maple changes through the year, from cream, green, and pink on new growth, to more green by mid summer. Trees with more sun exposure fade more to green.

The variegated foliage of Higasayama Japanese maple is striking, but it is also fast growing, which is unusual for variegated maples.

In early spring, I’m enthused as hellebores, witch hazels, and mahonias flower, followed by redbuds, serviceberries, dogwoods, and silverbells, but by mid April I must catch up on every Japanese maple in the garden, every day. With understated, but lovely blooms, and leaves that unfold over hours, or days, there is something to keep me entertained for weeks. Colors of emerging leaves are most intense, and while some maples open without much of a show, others stage a production as they slowly unfurl.

The dwarf Shaina suufered considerably in sub zero temperatures several years ago, but with recent growth the damage areas have been covered. Shaina grows to a low mound, and is not particularly distinctive, but it is unusual.

The Coral Bark maple (‘Sangu kaku’) is unremarkable except for red stems on new growth that are most noticeable when leaves have dropped. A year ago I planted the yellow stemmed ‘Bihou’.

In recent years open space for planting has run short, so now the patios are cluttered with pots of newly acquired maples. Today, most are only a few feet tall, and with an exception or two all are trees that will grow only to eight or ten feet tall. There’s a possibility these could remain in containers for years, but if a hole opens up, they’re ready to fill in. Below are a sampling of Japanese maples in the garden, though not all.

The Fern Leaf maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’) is a wide spreading upright Japanese maple with large leaves. It’s autumn foliage color is the best of all maples.

The finely cut leaves of Linearilobum maples are unusual.

Scolopendrifolium maple has deeply cut green leaves and graceful branching.

Bloodgood is the the standard for red leafed upright maples. It can be found anywhere that maples are sold. In front of the house, Bloodgood has grown twenty five feet tall and wide.

The Butterfly maple is variegated with cream and green, and in early spring some pink. Butterfly grows slowly, and after damage in a late freeze a year ago it has mostly recovered.

Shirazz , or Gwen’s Rose Delight, has cream edges. Variegation is spectacular in spring, but the tree fades in sun and summer color is not so wonderful.

This Trompenburg Japanese maple retains its red foliage even though it is shaded. A nearby Burgundy Lace maple fades more in similar conditions.

Orange Dream, one of the Japanese maples added a year ago. The still small tree will remain in a pot on the patio until a spot is found for it.

Crimson Queen Japanese maple is among the standards of weeping maples. It forms a dense, rounded canopy of finely dissected red leaves. One beside the driveway has topped out at ten feet tall and a little wider.

 

 

Strolling the garden with my wife

Yesterday, I accompanied my wife as she strolled through the garden, pruners in hand. Anyone who has followed these pages will be aware of her destructive tendencies, and thus I walked along to distract her and possibly to limit the damage. Along the stone paths, no branch or stray leaf is safe, and she takes particular pride in scalping trailing stems that creep an inch onto the stones. This is not my style of gardening, though admittedly, if she didn’t do the pruning some paths might have disappeared long ago.

Trees and shrubs that overhang the driveway have become a particular annoyance to her, and scars from her pruning are evident along this small section of the garden. I, on the other hand, am quite pleased that arching branches of a ‘Jane’ magnolia and ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maple will finally touch after spring growth across the widest part of the driveway. I am not bothered that local delivery trucks no longer venture down the drive, or that visitors must often make multiple tries to keep a perfectly straight line backing out to avoid a wide spreading, weeping Japanese maple that strays several feet over the asphalt.

My wife does her best (and most destructive) work when I’m not watching, so instead of pruning while on our little stroll, I was fortunate to hear her commentary about every little thing that concerns her about the garden. This is too tall, too wide, I can’t see the sky. Good sport and supportive spouse that I am, I was sympathetic to her suggestions, nodding in agreement (though often with crossed fingers) until we reached the driveway, when she pointed out the butchered growth of a Fernspray cypress and suggested that I remove it to clear a bit of the edge of the driveway, and if not, she’d find someone who would.

The cypress is butchered, of course, because of her attempts to keep the driveway more open, and with the Japanese maple directly across, she figured it safest to chop the heck out of the cypress rather than one of my treasured maples. Happily, my displeasure still counts for something, but of course, I told her there was no way I was doing anything with the cypress. And, with this final suggestion, she went back inside.

Now, let no one say that I don’t pay proper attention while my wife is speaking, or that I don’t consider her suggestions, no matter how impractical or wrongheaded I might tell her they are. Truth is, the misshapen cypress had been nagging at me for a while, and suddenly removing it seemed reasonable. Imagine her surprise when she came back out a few minutes later to see what all the ruckus was about. She caught me in mid cut with the chainsaw, with one of three trunks of the cypress tumbling onto the driveway. To her credit, my wife’s first concern was for my safety as I dodged large falling limbs. The last tree I removed left a large gash in my forehead, which dripped all over the kitchen floor, so I’m uncertain if she was concerned for my well being or her floor. There was, in fact, no danger, and in a short while the cypress was gone, with branches cut up and dragged off the driveway to be hauled off another day.

So, the cypress is gone, along with a dwarf fruiting peach just behind it that once was prized for its garish pink blooms (above), but for too long has been shaded by taller growing trees that surround it, until it finally faded. With the cypress and peach gone, I discovered a tall camellia in full flower that I had completely forgotten about, and the idea began to form on what to do with this new open space. My wife, who didn’t expect that the cypress would ever be removed, had not considered that something else would be planted, but it didn’t take long for her to get the idea. Already, she’s warning me not to plant anything that will touch the driveway. Like I’d ever do such a thing.

Seedlings for sons

Yes, I’ve prattled on for weeks about hellebores that began flowering early in February, and many of which remain in bloom the second week of April. Enough, or perhaps too much, but now seedlings of hellebores are readily identifiable, and again there are dozens, probably hundreds.

I’ve promised, but not yet delivered seedlings to my sons’ (and daughter-in-laws’) gardens. One son is a garden designer who could possibly be (but probably won’t be) too jaded by frilly hybrids instead of the plain by comparison  seedlings, but the other is a chemist who grew up with his brother slopping around in the mud and wading in the ponds in our garden. Gardeners have passed along spare plants for as long as there have been gardens, and no apology is necessary to explain the value of free plants, which are as good or better than ones that hard earned money is spent on. Hellebore seedlings are just as good as ones off the garden center shelf, but the price is better.

Many of first year seedlings (above) must be weeded out, for there is no sense trying to find spaces to transplant more hundreds when there are already hundreds in the garden. There is a danger in doing nothing and letting seedlings crowd one another, and there are several older clumps where seedlings have become indistinguishable from the parent.

Usually, I allow a small percentage of seedlings to remain near the parent plant for a few years, and then they’ll be transplanted, or maybe left for another year or two until I get around to moving them. For better or worse, there are no precise rules in this garden, and usually there’s little harm that comes from neglecting things for a year or two.

While most seedlings sprout in close proximity to the parent plant, some seeds are swept away by rainwater, and often these settle into convenient spots where they are left to grow, though one low spot beneath a Chinese dogwood (above) is becoming choked with dozens of four year old seedlings. These are the ones that will be dug out for the sons since they’ve started flowering and attained the appropriate size to be worthwhile to move.

Native trees for April flowers

Even with lengthening hours of daylight, my morning commute is driven in the dark, with few distractions besides the glare of headlights. At the work day’s end, snarled evening traffic often requires a more circuitous route home, and in early April the drive along winding roads is blessed with numerous redbuds, the occasional serviceberry, and dogwoods ready to burst into flower. Three weeks later, I will be mildly disappointed when the final dogwood blooms fade and the forest turns to lush green foliage.

Early spring flowers are often delayed for days in this cool, low lying garden, and while dogwoods approach peak bloom in the neighborhood, ones in this garden are a week behind. Redbuds are at their peak, and the top branches of the serviceberry that stretch into the sun are flowering, while lower branches are a few days off. Whatever the gardener’s opinion of native plants, and just as with non-natives there are good, poor, and unexceptional choices, there should be little argument that the three trees flowering along Virginia’s roadsides are splendid choices for the home garden.

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

The native redbud is a wonderful tree, growing wider than tall, with delightful blooms in early spring and large, heart shaped leaves. Ideally, redbud will be planted with protection from the late afternoon sun, but trees will thrive in medium shade or full sun. Redbuds and dogwoods do not tolerate damp soils.

In recent years two long established, red leafed ‘Forest Pansy’ redbuds (above) in the garden have been lost, one to poor drainage and the other was crushed when a maple in the forest was toppled in a December ice storm. This spot was becoming too shaded, and though redbuds are an understory tree, they are found at the forest’s edge and prefer a part day sun. ‘Forest Pansy’ is a superb tree, but locating it with just the right degree of sunlight so it turns red, but doesn’t fade in summer’s heat, is a challenge.

There are green and red leafed weeping forms of redbud, which have the advantage of not consuming as much space as the typical wide spreading trees. The green leafed ‘Lavender Twist’ was a recent casualty of over planting, lost beneath a more vigorous purple leafed smoketree.

While fewer gardeners prefer yellow leafed trees, and many suspect that these will fade in the summer sun, ‘Hearts of Gold’ (above) and the more recent introduction ‘Rising Sun’ hold up well in the heat. Unfortunately, ‘Hearts of Gold’ has been overwhelmed by a neighbor’s Bald cypress, and though it survives it is hardly seen. The two redbuds that remain are the variegated ‘Silver Cloud’ (below), which is uncommon in garden centers, but much appreciated in this garden. 

Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)

While redbud and dogwood have a typical, single trunk form, serviceberry (below) is often multi trunked, and even if maintained as a single trunk it will sucker, wanting to be a tall bush. To my eye, this moves it to the edges of the garden, and here it is planted to overhang a small pond at the forest’s edge where it receives a bit less sunlight than ideal. While serviceberry is included in lists for edible landscapes, I have never seen a fruit on this long established tree. Still, it is an excellent tree, perfectly suited to this informal garden.

Dogwood (Cornus florida)

While the native dogwood can fall victim to a variety of ailments, too much is made of this, I believe, for it is an exceptional, and usually long lived tree. Too often, a killing anthracnose (Discula destructiva) is credited for the demise of local dogwoods when the fungus is only a problem at mountain elevations. Certainly, leaf spotting, powdery mildew, and cankers are nagging problems, but dogwoods in this garden have annual bouts with each, and have survived for nearly three decades so far. New dogwood introductions promise spotting and mildew relief, though these varieties are new enough that they remain uncommon in the market.

For the gardener concerned by disease problems, hybrid dogwoods that flower two weeks later (‘Celestial Shadow’ dogwood, below, flowering late April to early May in this garden), and Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa, flowers in mid to late May) are resistant, and vigorous growers. The ideal planting, I think, is to plant one or more of each so that there are dogwoods, redbuds, and serviceberries flowering from early April into June. 

 

 

 

An early April stroll

Words can hardly describe the beauty to be seen on a stroll through the garden in early April. While flowers of magnolias might capture the gardener’s attention, he should not be distracted from other, more subtle beauties.

The pale yellow flower of Elizabeth magnolia was not damaged by recent freezing temperatures.

With neighborhood redbuds flowering, dogwoods follow closely behind.

Fragrant viburnums flower at the forest’s edge.

Yellow flowered euphorbia poke out of leaf clutter.

This cypress spurge claims to be a rampant grower, but now it grows only in gravel filled crevices of a stone patio. A vigorous, dark leafed geranium (Espresso) has pushed it to the margins.

The red flowered buckeye leafs early and the flower stalk can already be seen.

Leaves emerging on this Scolopendrifoliumn Japanese maple.

Emerging leaves and flowers on Lion’s Head Japanese maple.

Leaves and flowers emerging on this Fernleaf Japanese maple.

Catkins on a weeping European hornbeam.

Emerging leaves on a Katsura tree.

 

 

Marvelous (and possibly sturdy) daphnes

Flowers of the variegated Winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’, below) opened near the beginning of March, which is not abnormally early despite prolonged warm temperatures through much of February. In a few years, daphnes have bloomed in this garden in early February, but also the third week of March after a chilly late winter, and regardless of early or late the flowers are occasionally damaged by a late freeze. Winter daphne is dependably cold hardy only to zero, and in recent winters when temperatures dropped several degrees colder, stems were damaged and flowers lost except for the few closest to the ground.

Foliage of Winter daphne can be a little ragged after a cold winter, and after severe cold leaves might drop with lost flower buds and damaged stems.

Hybrid daphnes (Daphne x transatlantica) will tolerate more cold with no damage to foliage through our coldest winter, and often I notice swelling flower buds by early February. First flowers are usually seen by late March, with peak bloom a few weeks later and scattered flowers into November.

The foliage of Summer Ice is a bit tattered after the winter, but it began to flower in a two week period of cold in March.

‘Summer Ice’ daphne (Daphne x transatlantica ‘Summer Ice’, above) was disappointingly small when planted a year ago, not that it was a surprise because I picked it out of the garden center, but it was small enough that I expected it could be years before it would amount to much. To my amazement, it continued to flower, and to grow through the heat of summer to nearly double in size. The variegated foliage of ‘Summer Ice’ is a welcome improvement over the unremarkable green foliage of ‘Eternal Fragrance’ (below), which is also vigorous in growth. My sense of smell is horribly lacking, but most gardeners brag on daphnes’ delightful scent as reason enough to include them in the garden.

Eternal Fragrance daphne flowers from March into November.

Perhaps its scent is stronger, but the fragrance of the later blooming ‘Carol Mackie’ (Daphne × burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie, below) is more noticeable to me. While ‘Summer Ice’ and ‘Eternal Fragrance’ are evergreen, ‘Carol’ will drop its leaves in a spell of typical winter cold. Its flowers are more abundant, but the period of bloom is weeks, not months. 

The concern that I often hear is that daphnes are finicky, that they will up and die for no apparent reason, and probably there’s something to this. I’ve had minor issues with Winter daphne and ‘Carol Mackie’, though not enough to think they’re a problem. I’ve seen no issues with the hybrids, and next to add will be ‘Jim’s Pride’ and ‘Brigg’s Moonlight’. If necessary, something else will be moved out of the way to give the daphnes a prominent spot.

Three decades in the garden

For one reason or the other, few gardeners will be around a single garden for three decades. Staying put for so long is no accomplishment, but there is a benefit in witnessing Japanese maples grow into middle age, to budget a modest expenditure each year that grows to fill a property so that no part feels incomplete. A purple leafed European beech, that grew agonizingly slow for years, finally takes hold, and one day the gardener looks up and admires that it now towers over the house.

The long sought after Golden Full Moon is one of an ever growing collection of thirty five or more cultivars of Japanese maple.

Many plants reach a mature size quickly, and the gardener sees some that come and go. Deer have whittled a hundred hosta varieties to half that number, but the gardener’s failings are responsible for many more losses. A lack of care, of preparation, or planning has imperiled too many treasures, and over a period the gardener learns what will grow (or not) given his soil, sun exposure, and quality of care. The result, I suspect, is a happier balance than in a younger garden, and certainly the gardener’s disposition is improved as maturing trees and shrubs cover more ground and ease his maintenance.

Large and small leafed hostas line this stream and stone paths that wind through the garden.

The garden is ever changing, as a Katsura and other trees shade areas that were once mostly sunny, and roots spread to sap moisture. Some changes cannot be explained, so a corner of the property becomes soggier by the year, finally killing long established witch hazel and holly. The now swampy area must be recreated as a bog garden, and while starting over is painful, there are new plants to discover, and cherish.

Colorful bracts follow the abundant white flowers of Seven Son tree in late summer. This tree was snapped off by a summer storm, and replaced by a Red horsechestnut. A small, recently purchased Seven Son will someday find a spot in the garden. For now, it will grow in a container on the patio beside the koi pond.

The garden (and the gardener) weathers natural catastrophes, wind and hail, ice, and snow that break branches, or fell a favored Seven Son tree. Damage can be done in severe cold or mild winters, and also through summer droughts, though injuries are most often far less serious than the gardener first presumes. Several long time favorites have been lost, but the gardener plants a Red horsechesnut after much consideration, and after a few years the sting is nearly forgotten.

While the loss of the Seven Son was disappointing, the Red horsechestnut planted in its place has quickly become a favorite.

The gardener learns that native does not mean low maintenance, or resistance to pests and diseases. Many are treasured, but a few require regular attention to ward off hungry deer. For years, dogwoods have been plagued by leaf spotting and cankers, but optimism returns each year in April with a fresh set of blooms. A dogwood labeled as pink, but flowering white, was bothersome for a decade, but the flurry of spring blooms slowly erased the disappointment.

Jane magnolia flowers a few weeks later than Royal Star and Dr. Merrill, with blooms less susceptible to late freezes.

Flowers of magnolias are occasionally damaged by late freezes, and the gardener who will be around for a short period is severely discouraged, but this injury is only occasional, and often after the trees have flowered for ten days. If the blooms are short lived this year, they might not suffer again for five, and in twenty of thirty years this has not been a worry.

The front of the house is hidden behind Japanese maples and dogwoods. A purple leafed beech off the left corner of the house has become huge.

The gardener’s interest never wanes. While appearing to be overflowing by mid spring, there are small gaps in the garden to be filled. For the gardener who must collect one of everything that captures his fancy, somehow a space is found for each new acquisition, though no room is to be found to expand the Japanese maple collection, so these must now be kept in containers on the patios. The challenge, as the completion of the third decade nears, is to eliminate maintenance, an absurdly impossible goal, but one that seems within reach as low growing shrubs and perennials are shoehorned to cover every open space.

The gardener learns the rhythm of the property, when labor must be accomplished, and when there is time to enjoy. As weeds are crowded out by maturing trees and shrubs, the period required to maintain this garden grows shorter, and time to enjoy becomes longer. Certainly, this is a benefit of three decades in one place.