Readers of this page will find it unsurprising that my wife and I will occasionally disagree about one thing or the other in the garden. In this instance (and in others), I believe it is quite clear that she is misinformed and that I am correct. Perhaps she is only obstinate, knows that I am in the right, but is unwilling to concede the point. I’ll admit to being a bit hardheaded on occasion, but not on this issue, with which I’m certain you’ll agree as you read further.

Japanese Forest grass and sweetbox are slow to become established, but finally make a dense cover.

Japanese Forest grass and sweetbox are slow to become established, but finally make a dense cover.

Today’s issue is my preference for planting low growing plants to cover spaces between shrubs and taller perennials. I have attempted this in recent years, though with mixed results. The goal is to minimize maintenance, particularly weeding, and certainly every gardener will agree that a well established ground cover of just about anything will cut down weed growth. Open ground in the garden will be filled by something, usually weeds, and areas of shredded or chunk mulch, or a cover of shredded leaves retain soil moisture and do little to keep weeds at bay .

Ivy, hosta, and ferns border this bluestone path.The ivy is regularly pruned by my wife to keep it from growing over the stones.

Ivy, hosta, and ferns border this bluestone path.The ivy is regularly pruned by my wife to keep it from growing over the stones.

I believe that my wife’s resistance, aside from only being contrary, stems from the few areas where I planted ivies (above) long ago. Several of the ivies are variegated leaf types that grow disappointingly slow, but there are a few green leafed types, and where these are planted beside stone paths they require a bit of maintenance. Which I can be a bit slow on, until the paths are mostly covered.

This combination of liriope and a dark leafed violet keep weeds in check except for a few sprigs of clover that manage to poke through.

This combination of liriope and a dark leafed violet keep weeds in check except for a few sprigs of clover that manage to poke through.

I don’t recall the timing, but at some point in our twenty-six years in this garden my wife made it her personal crusade to keep the paths clear. Not only the ones to the front and back doors, but also ones that wind through the garden, and about this there have been a few quarrels. At first, only ivies were pruned, but then she moved on to hostas, then stray branches of nandinas and mahonias. Some of her efforts were appreciated, others, not so much.

Barrenwort (Epimedium) makes a dense ground cover in dry, part shade.

Barrenwort (Epimedium) makes a dense ground cover in dry, part shade.

And so, with a bit of history you are likely to sympathize with her until I explain that this garden spreads over most of an acre and a quarter, and besides the small areas that my crusading wife maintains, there is no help for this gardener to manage the remainder of the area. There are moments when I labor as if possessed, and much work is accomplished in a short time, but in recent years the occasions are fewer and the periods of possession are shorter.

Periwinkle grows beneath a Hinoki cypress. This area requires little maintenance and no annual mulching.

Periwinkle grows beneath a Hinoki cypress. This area requires little maintenance and no annual mulching.

So, the experience with ivy, and a few spots of periwinkle (Vinca minor, above) have persuaded me that the remedy for my decreasing energy level is to plant so that there is less open ground. Of course, the additional benefit is that if lovely plants are chosen, the garden is better for it and the gardener lives a few years longer by not working himself nearly to death each spring keeping up with chickweed and spurge.

I have underutilized sedums, but this low growing variegated cultivar spreads moderately, creating a weed blocking blanket of foliage.

I have underutilized sedums, but this low growing variegated cultivar spreads moderately, creating a weed blocking blanket of foliage.

A trial a year ago to plant low growing wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) between shrubs was largely unsuccessful, whether due to deer nibbling the berries and fragrant foliage, the abnormally cold winter, or my lack of care after the small shrubs were planted. Of a dozen or so plants, only a single branch of one remains, and so I have moved on to other ideas to cover these spaces.

Dwarf mondo grass is slow to spread, but once established it needs no care.

Dwarf mondo grass is slow to spread, but once established it needs no care.

A delightful, dark leafed bugleweed (Ajuga reptans ‘Chocolate Chip’) is reputed to be nearly invasive, but that is when adequate moisture is present. In dry, part shade, bugleweed flourishes for a few years, then steadily declines. Today, it isn’t gone, but you’ll have to look hard to find it. So, this was practically a failure, though weeds are more sparse in shaded areas in any case, so this was not so much a problem from the start as sunny areas that grow healthy crops of weeds starting in late winter.

Liriope and Blue Star creeper border this bluestone path.

Liriope and Blue Star creeper border this bluestone path.

I don’t expect that covering all open ground will be a short term project, though some bulbs and perennials might fill the spaces quickly. The question will be, which plants will tolerate the lack of care, particularly irrigation, following planting? The spaces to be filled are widely scattered through the garden, and watering here and there over an acre and a quarter is more effort than I’m able to provide. I will begin planting as soon as the plants can be procured, and with any luck just before a period of extended rainfall. This is an excellent formula for success, and if I have chosen proper plants for soil and sun exposures, perhaps the spring clean up might become a tad easier in years ahead.

Hostas are a bit late to get started in the spring, but a few weeks after they begin to grow weeds are shaded.

Hostas are a bit late to get started in the spring, but a few weeks after they begin to grow weeds are shaded.

Butterfly weedEvidently, I’ve failed. In recent years a a nice patch of butterfly weeds (Asclepias tuberosa, above) has flourished on the dry slope on the back side of the koi pond. Here, it grows and flowers splendidly, but the purpose for planting this patch was to attract butterflies, and there are none. In fact, there’s also hardly even a bee worth mentioning. Certainly, there are plenty of butterflies and bees in other parts of the garden, just not on this orange flowered native that is necessary for the survival of the Monarch butterfly (below).Monarch butterfly on Joe Pye weed

While I often have no clue why things happen as they do, I suppose I have an inking about what’s going on here. The butterfly weeds are sandwiched between a large evergreen and tall growing False Indigo (Baptisia australis) so that it is not easily seen or accessed, and there are no other summer blooms in the vicinity to attract pollinators. A bit of rearranging is called for, though there are limited spaces remaining in the garden with enough sun to suit the butterfly weeds.Butterfly on Mountain mint

The number of pollinators attracted to Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum, above) does not disappoint, and if there was a question that only one or the other could be fit into the garden, undoubtedly, the mint would be planted. It can be a bit rambunctious, filling every inch of open ground, but it’s not too difficult to control, and there’s no doubt that it is favored by bees, wasps, and hoverflies. At any time there are more distinct types of pollinators than I can count, though I suppose a word of caution is required to warn that Mountain mint is not appropriate planted immediately beside a walk of patio where visitors will be brought into close contact with hoards of stinging beasts.Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Joe Pye Weed in mid July

While butterflies and moths are attracted to Mountain mint, on a sunny day there are so many bees and wasps gathering nectar that butterflies opt for quieter environs, flowers of butterfly bushes (Buddleia), Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe’, above), or one of the panicled hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’, below). Even if they never find the butterfly weeds, there’s plenty of nectar to go around.Tardiva hydrangea

 

A single thunderstorm will not relieve the dryness of several weeks without rainfall. But, who am I to complain?

If I had not gotten the itch to plant a few things a week ago I wouldn’t be concerned at all by the lack of soil moisture. This garden has survived spells much drier than this, and I’ve only been concerned about the newly planted hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Little Lime’). This shrub (along with Mahonia confusa ‘Narihira’) was planted in place of three Northern Sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), which are only moderately well behaved in part shade when the soil beneath is covered by a solid mat of small leafed hostas, coral bells (Heuchera), and Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummalaria ‘Aurea’). But, with a bit more sun their abundant seeds germinate in every direction, and they become quite a nuisance.Little Lime hydrangea

The sea oats were dug, stripped of as much soil as possible, and tossed aside beneath tall deciduous azaleas, to be discarded into the compost when I’ve more energy. Certainly, there will be a number of seedlings growing once the grasses are picked up, but at the time this was a lesser concern than getting out of the heat as quickly as possible. In the hot, dry week following planting, the mahonia showed no signs of stress, but as hydrangeas do, ‘Little Lime’ wilted a bit in the afternoon sun. Fortunately, on the day when it remained wilted into the morning, rain arrived.Caterpillar web on Silver Cloud redbud

Several Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) in full sun look a bit weather worn, and the tree lilac (Syringa reticulata ‘Ivory Silk’) that has struggled in recent years looks more weary than usual in late August. Finally, a few of the stinging caterpillars that are larvae of the White Flannel moth have appeared on ‘Silver Cloud’ redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Silver Cloud’), though they are less numerous than a year ago when they defoliated the tree. I don’t expect so much damage this summer, but the caterpillars are hard at work. Sparkleberry holly in early November

This afternoon, without discussion, my wife sprayed an indoor bug killer on two nests of fall webworms in the deciduous hollies (Ilex ‘Sparkleberry’). I wouldn’t have bothered, and why she decided to spray, I didn’t ask, since she knows that I don’t spray for bugs of any sort. I expressed only mild annoyance, though I did mutter loudly as I walked to make certain she had not also sprayed the redbud’s caterpillars.

The hollies have only a few scattered berries this year, I suspect the result of the confusing weather of early spring that is likely to have caused a disconnect with flowers of its pollinator. These things happen, though I’ve seen other hollies in the area with abundant berries. I am not too concerned when one thing or another goes wrong in the garden, since there is always something that is not right, along with many that are better than the gardener has the right to expect.Worcester Gold bluebeard

A few months ago I was quite concerned by the bluebeards (Caryopteris × clandonensis ‘Worcester Gold’) , which are also called blue mist shrubs, and probably also by a variety of other common names. These are semi woody shrubs, so that after any typical winter the half woody stems must be cut back, and the degree to which this is required is determined by the severity of the winter’s cold. This spring, that was to the ground, and I was concerned that they might not have survived when growth was also later than expected. But, most of the gardener’s worrying comes to nothing, and today the bluebeards display no ill effect from the cold or their late start.

Late summer favorites

The gardener is likely to assert that he has only a few favorites; many plants that he is particularly fond of, but only a few that are truly treasured. But, as steadfast as one might insist himself to be, inevitably favorites will change through the seasons. After too many years claiming one plant or another to be most favored, I now refrain from such declarations (mostly) to save everyone (my wife) from reminding of these contradictions.

'Othello' ligularia is a bit too shaded for the foliage to grow as lush as I prefer, but this is an ideal plant beside a shaded pond with a bullfrog nestled beneath its rounded leaves.

‘Othello’ ligularia is a bit too shaded for the foliage to grow as lush as I prefer, but this is an ideal plant beside a shaded pond with a bullfrog nestled beneath its rounded leaves.

There is no good reason that the gardener cannot be enthralled by many plants, and on a particular afternoon one might be most splendid, with another equal or superior the following day. This is most evident in spring, when each day brings fresh blooms, but there are daily wonders in the garden. Even in the dryness of mid August, as redbuds and lilacs appear too tired to go on any longer, many flowers compete for the gardener’s favor.

Early flowering toad lilies will continue blooming into late September while later flowering varieties will bloom until frost.

Early flowering toad lilies will continue blooming into late September while later flowering varieties will bloom until frost.

After a few minutes in the garden this evening, my enthusiasm is running high and I’m set for a trip to the garden center, though I’m certain that with the shorter hours of summer it will be closed. Perhaps tomorrow, though I can procure the latest toad lilies (Tricyrtis) in the mail order catalog that recently arrived. Still, I purchase through mail order sparingly since the larger containers found in the garden center are many times more likely to survive my typical neglect.

Tricyrtis formosana var. grandiflora 'W-Ho-ping Toad'was planted froma four inch pot two years ago. After early struggles, it is now a substantial clump. This cultivar is not likely to become common in commerce, but it's a nice addition to a collection.

Tricyrtis formosana var. grandiflora ‘W-Ho-ping Toad’was planted from a four inch pot two years ago. After early struggles, it is now a substantial clump. This cultivar is not likely to become common in commerce, but it’s a nice addition to a collection.

I often claim that raising plants is less complex than many gardeners pretend it to be, and far easier than self-described black thumbs believe. So long as plants are not abandoned on the asphalt drive, or buried neck deep in a mound of clay, they are quite forgiving. Still, there is merit in a larger root system as a hedge against the moron who plants and forgets, until he wanders by the shriveled remains a week after he has left the unfortunate toad lily to fend for itself in ninety-five degrees.

'Gilt Edge' is one of the earliest toad lilies to flower in early August. Its flowers are narrower than others, so bumblebees often bite through the side of the blooms to gather sweet nectar. Nectar robbing bypasses the natural system of pollination.

‘Gilt Edge’ is one of the earliest toad lilies to flower in early August. Its flowers are narrower than others, so bumblebees often bite through the side of the blooms to gather sweet nectar. Nectar robbing bypasses the natural system of pollination, but smaller bees and hover flies do the job.

Recalling recent years, there is disappointment that several toad lilies have vanished, but more have survived and flourished. Today, the successes are in full flower, or heavily in bud for bloom late in the month. How can I possibly decide against purchasing another couple, or several? Even if there are no newcomers in the garden center, and there are already seven ‘Sinonome’ in the garden, another cannot possibly be a problem. There’s the side yard, where there are only a few, and I would welcome another yellow flowered toad lily or two.

Newly introduced Red Hot Pokers flower later in summer, and continue until frost.

Newly introduced Red Hot Pokers flower later in summer, and continue until frost.

I admit that enthusiasm has also gotten the better of me with Red Hot Pokers (Kniphofia). Older plants bloom faithfully over a few weeks in early summer, but several new introductions planted a year ago flower from August until frost, one flower after another. The hummingbird never tires of them, and these are the first blooms I look for each evening heading into the rear garden. Even before the toad lilies.

Bug week was last week

The past week was devoted to caterpillars and beetles, and to damage to the garden from these beasts. Today, we return to the beauty of the garden, and hope to forget injury to foliage and flowers. Readers looking to witness the carnage, or to match destruction to damage in their own garden should scroll further.Chastetree in early August

After the better part of three decades tending this garden, surprises should be fewer, but are anything but. When confronted by damage from cold or storms, the gardener often expects the worst, that a tree or shrub will not survive, or will require years to recover fully. Then, a few months later, the Chastetree (Vitex agnus-castus, above and below) is growing remarkably to chest height, and today its unexpected blooms are visited by many bumblebees and swallowtails.Chaste tree in July

In April and May, when first signs of growth are typical, none were seen and I expected this large shrub was a goner. For a second winter, above ground growth was killed by severe cold. After all, the chastetree is cold hardy only to zero (Fahrenheit) , and with four or five days with colder temperatures the gardener should expect problems. And, when there are no signs of life by mid spring, well, what else is the gardener to expect?

But then, there are meager signs of growth from the roots, and a few weeks later this becomes more vigorous. In several weeks, growth is nearly back to where it was a year ago, and the year before that, before it suffered through two cold winters. Though chastetree is not regularly planted in northwestern Virginia, I’ve witnessed a few larger plants nearby that seem not to have suffered at all, and I hope this one grows so that it will better tolerate the occasional colder than average winter.  Indian pinks

Indian pinks (Spigelia marilandica) that were nibbled by deer earlier in spring are now beginning to flower. Better late than never. In fact, the pruning by deer promoted fuller branching and a few extra blooms, though I advise pruners are a more dependable means to encourage branching. The wonder is that the pinks were not eaten to the ground since I failed to spray them with a repellent soon enough. Instead, flower buds and foliage at the tips were nibbled, so little damage was done, and now all has turned for the best. I am frequently surprised when expectations for the worst turn to become nothing in particular to worry about.

Beetles, caterpillars, and other trifles

The gardener demanding unblemished foliage in the garden is likely to be satisfied only by spraying poisons potent enough to kill every beetle (and earthworm) within a country mile (or a city block). A more disagreeable gardener might suggest artificial foliage to address complaints. There are no such high standards in this garden (Japanese beetles on Ostrich fern, below).Japanese beetles on Ostrich fern Uppermost foliage of Oakleaf hydrangeas (below) in the dry shade of the side garden has been skeletonized by beetles or caterpillars. The culprits are nowhere to be found, but the minor damage is not worrisome. Nearby, sphinx moth larvae have completely defoliated the catalpa for a second year, though these have also moved on to the next stage of their life cycle. The foliage will grow back just in time for the tree to go dormant in October, but this hardly seems to bother it.Oakleaf hydrangea with beetle damageCatalpa is practically a weed, though this one was planted and not sprouted from seed as so many are in the nearby forest. Unfortunately, in several years the catalpa has not flowered, but I hold out hope. The large leaves, when not eaten by caterpillars, are pleasant enough even if there are never flowers, though its form lacks symmetry and is unlikely to satisfy most gardeners. Most certainly, catalpa is nearly a weed, and most gardeners are happy not to have ones fifty feet tall in their gardens. Of course, it is a treasures in this garden, where asymmetry and bugs are celebrated (except the hordes of mosquitoes, which are tolerated for lack of acceptable measures to be rid of them).

Stinging caterpillars of White Flannel moth on Silver Cloud redbud

Stinging caterpillars of White Flannel moth on Silver Cloud redbud

Curiously, caterpillars that defoliated redbuds (above) and Golden Chain trees (below) in recent years have not reappeared this summer, though I did nothing to prevent their return. Caterpillars that chewed every leaf on one ‘Silver Cloud’ redbud, and half of another last summer were a stinging type, and I did not relish their return, having suffered through too many painful encounters. Still, I did not spray, and the trees recovered nicely.

Caterpillars on golden chain tree

Caterpillars on golden chain tree

Japanese beetles are a scattered few in this garden, perhaps because birds are so numerous, but certainly not because I’ve done anything to limit their numbers. On occasion, I will shoo them off a flower onto which they have convened, which does not seem to deter them for long, but the blooms are preserved for another few hours. Otherwise, the beetles (Japanese beetles on a Gordlinia flower, below) do little damage in this garden, and there is no long term injury. No doubt, there is damage to some foliage, and perhaps this is the cause of the damage to the hydrangeas, but it is too little to cause a bother.   Japanese beetles on Gordlinia flower

No turtles

For no particular reason, my wife and I are disappointed by the lack of turtles in the garden. Only once has one been seen. He lingered in the depths of the koi pond for a few days, the koi ignored him, and then he was gone. Several years ago, a large snapping turtle was seen just up the road, but I don’t think this is what we have in mind.Koi

Even without turtles, there is plenty of wildlife in this garden, though I’m certain most visits are after sundown with little evidence left behind. Occasionally, the sealed container of koi food is knocked off the bench where it’s left for convenience. I suspect raccoons or skunks, both of which are known to visit after dark, but are never seen. Several years ago an exterminator hired to remove squirrels from our attic caught a skunk and possum on consecutive nights. Why the fellow was trapping in the garden, where we know there are a variety of critters, instead of in the attic, we couldn’t figure, and soon after his services were terminated (without capturing any squirrels).Sawfly caterpillars on river birch leaves

With a variety of trees and shrubs, and many flowers, there are bound to be caterpillars and a variety of insects, which of course attract birds and then a variety of predators. To my eye, most of this happens peacefully, though the natural world can be violent, as well as wondrous. A consequence of this world is that one beast eats another, while innocently, I am only concerned that caterpillars are eating the leaves of the redbuds.Dragonfly

I hold dragonflies in high regard, besides the beauty of their bright metallic colors. Dozens occupy the vicinity of the large koi pond, where they buzz about in a seemingly never ending quest to defend their territories. Mostly, I appreciate that they keep this area relatively free of the dreaded tiger mosquitoes that terrorize other parts of the property, which borders wetlands where breeding is inevitable. In fact, there are plenty of potential breeding areas for mosquitoes in the garden, where I have no intention of filling in every mud hole or cleaning up every pot that catches rainwater.Swallowtail butterfly

On a rare occasion a few days ago when my wife accompanied as I walked through the garden, she cautioned as I approached a Tiger swallowtail supping nectar from the Mountain mint. The afternoon was intermittently sunny, and in a cloudy moment there were fewer wasps and bees on the mint. Still, my wife was concerned for my safety, though the wasps rarely seem bothered by my presence.Bumblebee and caryopteris

There are abundant numbers of bumblebees in this garden, and I suspect most gardeners consider these to be gentle beasts. Only in mid March, while feeding on early flowers of pieris, have I found them to be aggressive, though I’m not aware of what it is they could do to harm a person. For a few weeks, I don’t venture too close, taking the long way around rather than brushing past the agitated bees on the path to the back deck.Hummingbird and red hot poker

A hummingbird (or perhaps hummingbirds, though only one is seen at a time), regularly visits in mid summer. The garden has not been planted to attract hummingbirds or butterflies specifically, but when shrubs or summer flowering perennials are planted it is inevitable that some will attract these treasures. I haven’t the patience to be still long enough to capture photos of hummingbirds, but pictures of butterflies are easily captured.Swallowtail butterfly on Joe Pye weed

Mostly, there are swallowtails, and then smaller and less distinctive butterflies and moths. No poisons are sprayed in this garden (though foul smelling deer repellents are sprayed monthly), so beetles and caterpillars are free to feast on whatever their little hearts desire. A year ago one redbud was stripped of foliage by mid summer, and the catalpa has lost every leaf to caterpillars for a second year. For several years, the foliage of Golden Chain trees was eaten, but natural cycles or predators prevent these from being annual problems. The trees recover, though the redbud is not quite as full this year, and I’m thankful that only a few caterpillars have been seen this summer.Gordlinia

I’m reminded that a year ago I saw a large black bear just across the street in early morning, and since we’ve had no repeat visits. I suppose the bear came through the section of forest that borders the garden, but no harm was done, though there were reports in nearby neighborhoods that a few trashcans were tipped over. Still, no lions or tigers, so it seems safe enough to be outdoors.