Slow and steady

In a garden’s early years, the gardener is perpetually in a rush. Impatiently, he fertilizes and frets over every bug and black spotted leaf that he fears will set the garden back. More important than tomorrow is today, and fast takes priority over slow and steady.

And then, a decade has passed. The gardener is not so anxious, and it’s likely that a plant or two that was jammed too close in his haste to fill the garden, must now be removed. With a more mature garden he is more relaxed. A tree lost to disease, or in a storm, is not the catastrophe he would have imagined years earlier.

The center of the rear lawn was kept open until the kids went off to college. Fifteen years later Blue Atlas and Alaskan cedars, redbuds, and Japanese maples have grown considerably. Still, this younger part of the garden is less shaded than others.

I recall a morning, possibly twenty-eight years ago, when my wife and I looked out the front windows to see cows on the loose from a neighboring farm lumbering through the front lawn. There wasn’t much garden at the time, but I was panicked that newly planted beech and Japanese maples might be trampled. Fortunately, little damage was done, and now the beech and maple tower over the garden. The farm and the cows are long gone, replaced by homes, and the garden has expanded. Small trees have grown to cast deep shade, and large swaths of lawn are now small patches between gardens that obscure the view from one end of the property to the other.

Seedlings of ‘Chocolate’ Joe Pye weed contrast with ‘Banana Boat’ carex. Seedlings vary from dark foliage that matches the parent, that is long gone, to much lighter in color.

In this mid September, fallen leaves of the beech cover a stone path, though not as many as after a typical, drier late summer. The progression into autumn is evident, from falling leaves of beech and serviceberry, to ripening berries, and leaves of dogwoods beginning to turn to crimson. After a cool and damp late August, temperatures are warmer in September, but lacking summer’s heat and drought, the garden is unusually lush. Certainly, there has been another summer as damp, or as cool in twenty-eight years, but none that I recall.

The passsionflower vine dies to the ground each winter. With an early start to spring growth the vine will overgrow its support, but this year it barely reaches the top.

The few brown stems of the bluebeard shrub are not concerning. In twenty years this has been seen before, with no ill effect come next spring. This section of the garden was replanted in recent years after a bamboo grove was removed.


Sun King and other late summer beauties

The floral display of ‘Sun King’ aralia (Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’, below) is of minor consequence, though the small, satellite shaped flowers are interesting and certain to attract bees. ‘Sun King’ is most remarkable for its brightly colored yellow foliage, and its size, growing nearly to six feet tall. I notice little difference with the shrub-like perennial growing in part sun, or shaded beneath branches of a wide spreading Japanese maple, other than growth is slightly stunted in the deeper shade. 

Summer, and particularly late summer, has been kind to the garden. Consistent rainfall has been most beneficial, but there are no complaints about the lack of severe heat. In the worst of summers, ‘Sun King’ will scorch with part sun exposure, but not this year. Few plants in the garden show signs typical of late summer except flowers, berries ripening on beautyberries, hollies, and dogwoods, and foliage of dogwoods has just begun to change color.

The oddly named ‘W-Ho-ping Toad’ toad lily (Tricyrtis formosana var. grandiflora ‘W-Ho-ping Toad’) grows vigorously, with a more open form than other, more common toad lilies. While ‘Sinonome’, ‘Miyazaki’, and ‘Samurai’ are most commonly available, other cultivars are found only from specialty growers. The common cultivars are excellent to start your collection.

A mutation with a branch of mixed white and purple berries on this purple beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma) did not return this year. Beautyberries are unremarkable shrubs through most of the year, with clusters of small flowers that are minimally ornamental. However, in shade to part sun beautyberry is exceptional from late summer until frost.

The choice between white beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma ‘Albifructus’) and the purple berried shrub is a personal preference. Both are vigorous shrubs that are best placed to the side of the garden so they do not stand out through much of the year when they are plainly green. Most years, after typical winter cold beautyberries must be pruned to eliminate dead branch tips. With the warm winter this year, no pruning was necessary.

Canyon Creek abelia grows vigorously and flowers prolifically. Its habit is upright and loose. There are many abelias with more compact forms, but none with more abundant blooms.

‘Summer Ice’ daphne grows vigorously in full to part sun. Here, it is planted in part shade which slows it down a bit, and decreases flowering, but only a little. While daphnes have a well deserved reputation for being finicky, ‘Summer Ice’ and ‘Eternal Fragrance’ seem to be the easiest of the lot. Both flower from early spring until frost.

‘Eternal Fragrance’ daphne is beginning its fourth or fifth period of flowering, with scattered flowers at all times in between. This daphne started to flower in late winter and will continue until freezing temperatures.

‘Othello’ ligularia grows in shade beside one of the garden’s ponds. Its foliage is attractive, but unfortunately, it is placed so that it is hidden from view.

Weekend planting

Several hours of this past weekend were occupied by planting. Also removing, which is often more work and not so pleasurable, but large parts of a variegated hydrangea had reverted to green. This hydrangea often was damaged by freezes, and thus rarely flowered, so chopping it out was a year or two overdue. As with any project, the problem is getting started. Once shovel is in hand, I’m good to go, though the going is not as effortless as forty, or even ten years ago.

Three reblooming Encore azaleas will fill the space where the hydrangea was removed. One azalea would do, but it would look a little lonely for a few years among other mature plants.

The weekend’s planting was pretty simple, with removal of the hydrangea and replacing it with a few large azaleas, and another problem area. A narrow strip of lawn between a wide spreading Japanese maple and a cypress long ago faded mostly to mud, and though this was the convenient path to the small patch of lawn in front, it had become a bit of an eyesore. The few tufts of grass were easily skimmed off, and another azalea and a few tiarellas and sedges (Carex) were added to fill the space. Probably, these will be crowded out eventually as the maple continues to spread, but azaleas, tiarellas, and sedges are easily moved if it comes to that. Now, I’ll be a bit less likely to drag mud into the house after wandering through the garden.

I’ve found that tiarellas perform exceptionally as ground covers in shady spots. While coral bells (Heuchera) are prone to fading in dry conditions, tiarellas do not, and many have striking foliage.

As usual, my wife was not enthusiastic about any of it, except the mud part, if that occurred to her. A waste of money, to her thinking. There’s too much garden already, she says, so she suggests that I remove two for every one I plant. Of course, this won’t work, and as for the immediate projects, I waited too long to be rid of these problems. After a pleasant summer with too little activity I was happy to be digging again.

Early September flowers

The first flower of a seedling of ‘Miyazaki’ toad lily (Tricyrtis hirta ‘Miyazaki’, below) is larger and earlier than ones expected soon on the nearby parent. ‘Miyazaki’ seems particularly fertile, with numerous seedlings in recent years, though curiously, none this year. Seedlings appear identical to the parent plants, but I am interested to follow this one to see if flowers are larger, or if this is only wishful thinking.

A year ago, foliage of ‘Miyazaki’ suffered in a short bout of late summer heat and drought, but even in full sun there are few leaves with any damage in this early September. While toad lilies are recommended for shade, there is little doubt that flowering is increased with exposure to sun. The ideal exposure is likely to be full sun through most of the day, with shade from the late afternoon sun. In shadier spots, growth and flowering are disappointing, and in moderate shade there might be no flowers at all.

The shrubby Gordlinia (Gordlinia x grandiflora, above) continues in flower since early in August, and with more buds there are likely to be flowers through the month. This large shrub replaced a Franklinia that failed to survive in a damp spot, and while flowers are identical, the evergreen leaves of gordlinia do not change color in autumn. In a September with early cool weather, flowers of Franklinia occasionally persisted until leaves turned to burgundy. But, even without significant autumn leaf coloring, I am thrilled with the long flowering gordlinia, and the promise that it will prove sturdier than Franklinia.

‘Hint of Gold’ bluebeard (Caryopteris clandonensis Lisaura, above) is now at its peak bloom, and certainly bees have noticed. ‘Hint of Gold’ tolerates summer heat better than other yellow leafed bluebeards, with less fading, but flowers are delightful on all. I’ve seen mass plantings of bluebeards that are stunning, but with limited space I’ve planted only single shrubs. In any case, every garden is improved with one late summer flowering bluebeard or another.


A late summer update

Typically, spent flowers of Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) can be seen for months, but in this oddly damp and mild summer, growth has nearly covered all blooms. This is, of course, of little consequence since flowers have faded past the somewhat attractive pink that persists for weeks. This has been a remarkable year for growth and flowering of Oakleafs, and several require pruning so that neighboring shrubs are not overwhelmed.

Remontant (reblooming on new wood) mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) are budding again, which is hardly a surprise and perhaps a bit surprising that this wasn’t seen several weeks earlier. A year ago, delayed flowering in spring due to late freezes pushed late summer bud development several weeks later, with sparse flowering in early summer, and very few blooms in late summer and early autumn. Flowering was exceptional through this spring following a lesser bout of spring cold, and better flowering is expected in September.

Usually vigorous seedlings of ‘Espresso’ geranium have faded badly in recent weeks, while a cultivar of New Hampshire geranium is unaffected by summer. The seedlings would benefit from a late summer shearing, but there is too little time for them to make much of a show, so why bother? Probably, this should have been done a month ago.

A few of the red leafed Japanese maples have faded through the summer. This is not fading as in fading from good health, but color draining out of the leaves. The worst of the maples were troubled by heat and dry weather early in summer, but ones with some shade have fared better. Green leafed maples look at least as good as in early June.

Good news, there will be spring flowers

Excellent news. Buds are forming on the variegated leaf, red flowered ‘Cherokee Sunset’ dogwood (Cornus florida ‘Cherokee Sunset’, below). For whatever reason, there have been no flowers on the dogwood in recent years. I’ve been resigned that perhaps there would never be flowers again, so this is a pleasant surprise. Also unusual is that the leaves, that are prone to powdery mildew, are mostly clean at the end of August, which is remarkable after a rainy summer. I suspect that the lack of mildew could be related to flower buds forming, with more energy devoted to bud formation rather than working just to survive. I can’t see anything else that’s changed, though the gardener should never say that nothing’s changed, since changes are often not obvious.

Small flower buds can be seen at branch tips of this Cherokee Sunset dogwood. Though outermost leaves have bleached in the summer sun, there has been little sign of powdery mildew that has plagued the dogwood in recent year.

Otherwise, the garden is about as good as could be expected for late summer. Roses are a bit beaten up from leaf spot that is unavoidable without spraying, even ones that claim not to require spraying. These typically look very good until July, when leaf problems appear to varying degrees. Now, they’re not horrible, but it would be impossible to argue that they are immune to foliar problems.

I’ve noticed that paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha, below) have grown exceptionally this year, crowding neighbors that I supposed were safe from their spread. Many references list the mature size of the shrub as four feet tall and wide, but several are now six, maybe seven feet tall, and at least ten, probably twelve feet across. Obviously, this was not planned for when they were planted, and years ago some neighboring plants were moved to accomodate their growth.

No doubt, the recovery of the paperbushes from freeze damage several years ago is complete. After consecutive cold winters, several feet of dead wood was pruned, reducing the large shrubs from ten feet across to three. Now, they’re back, bigger than ever, and I wonder where they’ll go from here. Fortunately, perennials and smaller shrubs have been moved out of the way except for a yellow leafed spirea that cannot be transplanted and will probably be lost in another year. There are two more in better spots, so this isn’t much of a bother.

On occasion, the gardener must decide to remove an overgrown shrub, or not, but there is no consideration that the treasured paperbushes will be removed. There are few enough flowers in the garden in late winter, and if temperatures are mild, paperbushes can begin flowering as early as late January, though a month or six weeks later is more typical. I am baffled that paperbush is not more popular, even a bit further to the south where it is best suited. As is typical of many gardeners, I suspect, the more uncommon a plant, the more it is favored, and so it is.

The perplexing yellow toad lily

While toad lilies (Tricyrtis) grow like weeds in this garden, with numerous seedlings and some requiring transplanting to avoid overcrowding, I am continually disappointed that yellow flowered cultivars have not survived more than a year, and occasionally weakly into a second. Certainly, this is not for lack of trying.

While yellow flowered toad lilies are far from the only plant to fail, or to fail more than once in this garden, I am confounded that an otherwise vigorous perennial should be more fragile due only to flower color. Very likely, the culprit to blame in these failures is me, despite pledging with each loss that the next would be given preferential positioning.

Undermining each pledge was my near certainty that toad lilies are tough enough to tolerate my neglect, so there is little doubt that I did nothing besides provide a location that seemed well suited to any toad lily. The first plantings of common cultivars were puchased from the garden center in one gallon containers, and with a larger pot of roots there was never a problem. More unusual types have been purchased by mail order from specialty nurseries, and while I appreciate their efforts to offer out of the ordinary plants, the smaller two and three inch pots are not well suited to my lack of attention after planting. But, I am compelled to try again, possibly for the last time. 

So, another order has been placed to arrive in mid September. I’ve planned the spot for planting in part sun, with shading from the late afternoon heat, and before the new toad lilies are planted I’ll work a bit more on soil preparation than in the past. I suspect that the failed toad lilies were planted into any old soil, which is fine for long term survival, but possibly a problem if they’re allowed to dry out soon after planting. By working in some extra compost, I hope to make the soil more moisture retentive, and with cooler temperatures in September the situation should be as ideal as I can make it. 

Can I survive without the yellow flowered toad lilies? Of course, but I’ve enjoyed considerable success with other toad lilies, including a handful or two that are not common varieties. All flower for extended periods in late summer, with flowers of several extending until the first frosts of early autumn. I’m delighted to try again with a few yellow flowered toad lilies.