Out of the mud

Finally, I’m able to walk into the back third of the garden without sinking to my ankles in mud. Forecasts predict that this short dry spell could end soon, but I’m thankful that I’ve been able to mow the small section of lawn without having to winch the tractor out (again). Besides the lawn, the wet early summer has not been much to complain about, though the gardener will always find something. Branch tips of ‘Skeeter’s Broom’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Skeeter’s Broom) have defoliated, I suspect due to the constant dampness, and though I don’t expect much in the way of growth this summer, I hope that there is no permanent damage to the roots.

Monarch butterfly on Joe Pye weed. Swallowtails and bees are regular visitors, and occasionally Monarchs.

Monarch butterfly on Joe Pye weed. Swallowtails and bees are regular visitors, and occasionally Monarchs.

On a sunny afternoon there will be several, or a dozen Swallowtail butterflies on one large Joe Pye weed.

On a sunny afternoon there will be several, or a dozen Swallowtail butterflies on one large Joe Pye weed.

This garden is not irrigated, so regular summer storms are greatly appreciated as long as winds are not severe (except in the small section that remains damp through the year). Many shrubs and perennials prefer damp to dry, so in late July there are few signs of the heat stress that is typical for mid summer. And, with plentiful blooms, there is a constant buzz from pollinators (above). Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) is dangerously at peak bloom. The vigorously spreading native attracts numerous bees, hoverflies, and nasty looking wasps so that the gardener must take care not to venture too close.

A wasp on Mountain mint

A wasp on Mountain mint

Though it rarely persists through even our mildest northwestern Virginia winter, I cannot resist planting a few dozen bulbs of Abyssian gladiolus (Acidenthera murielae, above) every few years. I order these in mid winter, figuring that there must be too few blooms in August, though the number of flowers in the garden today surely dispels that thinking. In winter, it seems that there are always too few flowers, and there is certainly no harm in having a few more at any time.

Abyssian gladiolus are not dependably cold hardy, but the bulbs are cheap and the flowers are welcomed in mid summer.

Abyssian gladiolus are not dependably cold hardy, but the bulbs are cheap and the flowers are welcomed in mid summer.

In some gardens rose glorybower (Clerodendrum bungei. below) is an unwelcome and aggressive nuisance, but here it is too shaded to spread too far. Also, it’s planted beside mountain mint so the two have the opportunity to fight it out for dominance. So far, the mint has prevented glorybower from spreading, though the shade from a large katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) is more likely to be the reason. While the flowers of the suckering shrub are lovely, I initially planted it when someone told me long ago that its foliage smelled like peanut butter. It does, somewhat, but unpleasantly, so I avoid touching the leaves as much as possible. It is quite convenient that the pleasantly scented mountain mint is only a few feet away.

The flowers of rose glorybower are lovely, but the foliage is most politely described as "stinky".

The flowers of rose glorybower are lovely, but the foliage is most politely described as “stinky”.

 

Back to the garden

After two weeks away, I’m quite relieved that the garden has not become the disaster I feared. While traveling, the gardener envisions many thick stalked weeds sprouting above shrubs with a ground hugging crop spreading seeds below. Certainly, some weeds have popped up, but not in alarming abundance. I will catch up with maintenance quickly once I gain the courage to brave the heat, after being caged in a cool vehicle for four thousand miles.Gilt Edge toad lily

Last week, my wife forwarded photos of the first blooms of ‘Gilt Edge’ toad lily (Tricyrtis formosana ‘Gilt Edge’, above), and of the green heron that has discovered our koi pond. A blue heron regularly visits the shallow, bog area of the pond, but the much smaller green heron must stand nearer the pond’s edge. We think that the birds have been mostly unsuccessful in capturing the pond’s koi for a meal, though a three year old was recently found several paces from the pond. My wife suspects the herons might have better luck with the pond’s abundant frogs.

Too large to to fit beneath anthers of the the toad lily's flower, bumblebees circle the bloom, piercing through the petals

Too large to to fit beneath anthers of the the toad lily’s flower, bumblebees circle the bloom, piercing through the petals for nectar.

While I expected to return to find some new blooms, I am a bit surprised by the number. Probably, I shouldn’t be, but after seeing the garden daily for months the gardener fails to realize how quickly one flower fades while another begins. Fortunately, I’ve missed very little while traveling, and this morning and afternoon I’ve spent hours catching up. But, not in labor, though a few weeds have been plucked.Sparkling Burgundy pineapple lily

The clump of pineapple lilies (Eucomis comosa ‘Sparkling Burgundy’, above) is a bit further along into bloom than I expected, and after a week with little rainfall the heavy flower has collapsed into the neighboring hydrangea. Other pineapple lilies, and clumps divided from ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ do not show any signs of flower spikes, and perhaps they will not bloom this summer.Passion flower vine

The passion flower vine (Passiflora incarnata, above) has reached the ceiling of the summerhouse, where it will be encouraged to trail along a wire that is anchored into the beam that extends between posts. The first bloom has arrived, which I found engulfed in a mass of Japanese beetles. Once these were dislodged, the flower was unharmed, though beetles are likely to damage many early flowers. There are many buds, and as the vine continues to spread there will be many more in the next two months.Joe Pye weed

The Joe Pye weeds (Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe’, above) growing beside the koi pond are flowering. and ones in the wetland that borders the rear garden with a bit of shade are nearly in bloom. Behind the garden are several native Joe Pyes that arch far over head, but ‘Little Joe’ grows only chest high, a more appropriate size for this garden. On a cloudy day only a few pollinators visit the flowers, but with bright sunshine there will be a variety of bees and swallowtail butterflies (below).Swallowtail butterflies on Joe Pye

Stubborn persistence

To avoid discouragement, the gardener must accept repeated failure. Despite best efforts, plants will be lost to cold or drought, to wind and ice, and occasionally to neglect. Others will suffer with circumstances less than ideal, showing meager growth, but managing to survive without too much concern by the gardener.

Mophead hydrangeas have suffered in recent winters, dying to the ground but recovering substantially be early summer. Here, 'Pistachio' hydrangea has its first flower, a bit late, but many more buds will assure flowers through the summer.

Mophead hydrangeas have suffered in recent winters, dying to the ground but recovering substantially by early summer. Here, ‘Pistachio’ hydrangea has its first flower, a bit late, but many more buds will assure flowers through the summer.

The non-gardener complains of his black thumb, but plants are lost in every garden. The gardener is distressed by losses, but not discouraged. Instead, he marvels at the successes.

Variegated sea oats

After two severe winters a splendid yellow rose was lost. Instead, variegated sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium ‘River Mist’) were planted to fill the space. Thus far, the variegated grass has not seeded like the green version that becomes a bit of a nuisance.

To survey this garden, losses from three decades are barely evident, though the gardener is occasionally reminded of disappointments. Visitors, and perhaps readers, are likely to suspect that losses are rare, that the gardener has an innate skill that avoids common frustrations. Wrong again. If there is an attribute that keeps the gardener satisfied for decades, it is stubborn persistence.

Pumpkin hypericum has died to the ground in recent winters, but it grows vigorously and flowers in early summer. The colored fruits that follow are distinctive.

Pumpkin hypericum has died to the ground in recent winters, but it grows vigorously and flowers in early summer. The colored fruits that follow are distinctive.

No doubt, the gardener earns some credit for selecting the correct plant for a location, just as he kicks himself when neglect through a dry spell kills a freshly planted toad lily. In recent years, more plants than I care to admit have been lost to overly damp soils, and several treasures have been toppled by wind or ice. There seems no alternative but to press on, to plant again and know that joys will outnumber miseries.

The top third of the low growing 'Shaina' Japanese maple was killed a year ago. My wife argued that it was too unsightly to remain,  but the garden is a long term project and a year later it is much more presentable. In two years the damage will no longer be evident.

The top third of the low growing ‘Shaina’ Japanese maple was killed a year ago. My wife argued that it was too unsightly to remain, but the garden is a long term project and a year later it is much more presentable. In two years the damage will no longer be evident.

 

Toad lily seedlings galore

After three decades in this garden it seems that too often I am baffled by one thing or the other. There is no need to delve more deeply into why I know so little, but rather we will discuss today’s mystery.Toad lily in late September

I have grown toad lilies (Tricyrtis) for eight or ten years, and older plants have spread vigorously in girth. At no time have I noticed seedlings of any sort, until this year. Now, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds. So many, that my wife is convinced seedlings should be weeded out before they take over (not that anything of the sort has ever occurred in this garden, with few exceptions).Toad lily in early September

I am curious to see what becomes of the seedlings, though at this point I don’t know where any more than a few could be transplanted for observation. I’ve instructed my wife (nicely this time) to let them be for a while until I can figure what can be done with them. Someday, something must be, since there is not space for fifty or a hundred toad lilies growing so close together. So, in a few months, or perhaps next spring when they have grown a bit larger I’ll dig most of them out. Some will be transplanted, but with the numbers growing some must be discarded. Though the seedlings show little variation today, with a dozen or more varieties in the garden there could be natural hybrids.

An unidentified hellebore flowering in early April

An unidentified hellebore flowering in early April

I go through this every year with hellebores, that seed prolifically with hundreds of seedlings each year. I started years ago by planting a handful of hellebores, and kept planting new varieties that caught my eye, but half or more of the plants in the garden are seedlings. With many dozens of flowering size plants there are now so many hundreds of tiny seedlings that it would take a garden three times this size to hold them all. I hope to pass many along to my sons who are beginning gardens in their new homes. Everyone can use hellebores, I think, and soon there are likely to be as many toad lilies as they’d like also.Toad lily

A year ago I planted several new toad lilies (as I do most years), and one that was purported by the grower to be the earliest to flower (Tricyrtis latifolia ex SICH 1735, above and below). In early July it is on its third flower, while others are only beginning to bud with most flowering in late August and September. The flowers of this toad lily are small and almost yellow, and as it grows perhaps it will have less ornament than others with larger blooms, but at this point I’m quite pleased to extend the season of toad lily flowers a month earlier. Perhaps one of the seedlings will one day become such a treasure.Toad lily

Away for a few weeks

I will be traveling for a few weeks, on business, so don’t send wishes for an enjoyable vacation. In fact, it’s a nice break to be out of the office for a while, and I’ll be visiting many long time acquaintances who own the nurseries our company purchases plants from. I’m always enthused to see old friends, and what’s growing for next year, though after the first thousand miles on the road and few thousand acres of plants the repetition can be a bit mind numbing.

There’s a chance that I’ll miss something, or a few somethings in the garden while I’m gone. One thing or another is always just about to happen, and I travel only sporadically, so there are few times I’m not in the garden as soon as a bulb emerges in February, or a flower opens in mid July. Just before I’m leaving there’s lots of stuff that will go on in the next days and weeks, mostly good, but also a few not-so-goods.Japanese beetles on Ostrich fern

On the negative side, Japanese beetles are already working on the Ostrich ferns (above). Nothing bothers ferns, not deer or rabbits, and there are no problems with any of the other ferns in the garden. Just beetles on the Ostrich ferns, which leaves them tattered until they die down in frost. I suppose I could spray to kill the beetles, and no other insects do anything more than perch on the ferns, so there would be few unintended victims. But, I don’t spray, so I’ll live with the tattered ferns for a few months. They’re still green if you don’t pay close attention.

I made a big push to get weeds under control a week ago, but regular rain has encouraged more. I figure when I get back some will be tall enough that I’ll have to dig them with a spade. The lawn will be cut before I leave, and it’s a good thing there’s not much of it since with the rain it will be a foot tall when I return. I could pay to have someone cut it, but I don’t like to have strangers with power equipment at the loose in the garden.Spigelia

The Indian pinks (Spigelia marilandica, above) are ready to flower. They’re late. Deer nipped the tips a month ago just before I sprayed the repellent, and I’m certain this set them back. The pinks have not spread as I anticipated, though the clump has thickened up a bit this year. They don’t flower for long, and after blooming there’s not much to talk about with unremarkable green foliage, but I’m anxious for the clump to grow so there will be many more of the splendid blooms. Sparkling burgundy pineapple lily

Flower spikes on the pineapple lilies (Eucomis) are almost there, though these last for a while once they start to bloom, and I suspect they’ll be slower to flower than they appear today. I think two weeks from now might be just right. The purple leafed ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ (above) clumps are further along than the green leafed varieties (that I don’t recall the names of), though the leaves are not so purple since they’re partially shaded. I’ve split ‘Burgundy’ several times, and though pineapple lilies as a whole are not supposed to be particularly cold hardy, they have gone through the last two winters with no problems while plants that are described as much more cold hardy have failed.Hummingbird on Red Hot Poker

Pineapple lilies are always a big hit with non-gardeners who visit, and I’ll admit that I favor them also. I would plant more, but their price is a bit steep and too often they’re listed as not as cold tolerant as the ones I’ve planted. Another south African native, Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia, above) is growing its first flower spikes, though a friend has had flowers for weeks. I think these will be flowering a week after I’m back home, and I’m anxious to get around to purchasing a few more in late summer. New introductions that I’ve planted flowered from August into October, and the spiky foliage fits in just about anywhere with some sun.Mountain mint

The big clump of Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum, above and below) is just starting to flower, and again it has spread, though there’s not much more space it can grow into unless it kills off a couple trees (which it won’t). Bees are already beginning to buzz about the tall mint, and once it reaches full bloom in a few weeks you don’t dare come too close. If you’re looking to take inventory of all possible bees, wasps, and  hoverflies, they’re all to be found on Mountain mint on a sunny afternoon. I’ve found that they do not appreciate being disturbed. And, there’s no worry that I’ll miss anything. The flowers persist into September.Mountain mint

 

A few daylilies

On occasion, I regret not having planted a broader array of daylilies. Not often, but today I’ve seen the tall, but otherwise ordinary, yellow flowered ‘Hyperion’ poking out from between shrubs in a garden up the street. Mostly, I would like to have the height of the flower and grass-like foliage, and not necessarily the too common yellow. Another neighbor has left the native, orange flowered Hemerocallis fulva (below) to spread through the drainage ditch by the road, and a week ago this was undeniably superb.Hemerocallis fulva

If  you have visited these pages in the past, you’re likely to be aware that I am an incurable collector of plants. There are collections of too many trees, shrubs, and perennials in the garden, but thus far I’ve been at least somewhat immune to the charms of daylilies. Not that I despise them, for they work nicely to fill gaps between more favored shrubs, but daylilies are not so favored that I must have hundreds, or even dozens.Joan Senior

Once, there were more in the garden than there are today, but as evergreens spread I was not inclined to take even a few moments to transplant them to a sunnier spot. Every once in a while I miss the creamy white ‘Joan Senior’ (above) that was planted long ago, but eventually disappeared under a wide spreading cypress. More than once I’ve looked to see if there’s even a bit of her left, struggling beneath the cypress, but no, she’s gone.Daylily Happy Returns

The daylilies remaining in the garden are common, and ordinary, but they fulfill their purpose to cover an open space, and to flower unobtrusively without demanding any care at all. In fact, they must be sprayed monthly with a repellent to keep deer from nibbling them to the ground, but hostas and toad lilies, and many others in this garden must be sprayed, so this is done without complaint.Daylily

Quite by accident, one daylily that was destined to be lost has revived. A lone red flowered daylily (‘Pardon Me’, above, I suspect since it is the most common red) was crowded beneath a dwarf spruce that became less dwarf through the years. I don’t recall seeing a flower, and little foliage poking from beneath the spruce in recent years, but then the spruce was damaged in successive years by snow. After much agonizing it was decided the spruce must be removed (to the delight of my wife since it obstructed her view of one of the ponds now visible from the kitchen window). Without the shading of the spruce, ‘Pardon Me’ has spread and is now flowering, though now I’m concerned that my wife will demand that it be cut back so that it doesn’t flop onto the stone path.

The summer garden

Some trial and error is to be expected while creating a garden that is satisfactory through the seasons. A superb garden in spring is easily devised, when dependable rainfall and moderate temperatures encourage splendid blooms and lush foliage. But, planning a garden to shine through the heat of summer is another matter. I have tried a bit of this and that over three decades in this garden, and expect that after another decade (or two) I’ll nearly have it figured out.

Asiatic lilies flower in late June, then stems are hidden by daisies that bloom through mid summer.

Asiatic lilies flower in late June, then stems are hidden by daisies that bloom through mid summer.

In this garden (as in many gardens I suspect), the issue is complicated by varied conditions, from extreme dry shade to spring fed standing water. And, if this was not challenge enough, in its second decade the soil in the lower third of the rear garden turned marshy after a developer’s retention pond raised the water table. Long established holly and witch hazel faded, then succumbed to the constant dampness. Most recently, this section of garden was recreated with shrubs and perennials better suited to the saturated ground.

Blazing star (Liatris spicata) grows happily in damp soil.

Blazing star (Liatris spicata) grows happily in damp soil.

Of course, this area with standing water requires no additional irrigation, but also, the remainder of the garden subsists only on rainfall. The inclination from the start was to plant Japanese maples, small flowering trees (dogwoods, redbuds, stewartia, silverbell, and many more), and shrubs (hydrangea, viburnum, nandina, mahonia, and others), with perennials planted in the gaps between. The deeper roots of woody plants allow them to better tolerate summer’s extremes, and after years of growth the shaded ground does not dry so quickly. Also, while soaring temperatures discourage outdoor labor, woodies require little attention from the gardener who prefers lounging to deadheading.

Red leafed Japanese maples will fade in the summer sun to varying degrees. A bit of shade will help to retain foliage color.

Red leafed Japanese maples will fade in the summer sun to varying degrees. A bit of shade will help to retain foliage color.

Still, with continuing additions to the garden, the gardener discovers which plants will tolerate the heat of summer and the lack of ongoing maintenance (abuse?). While rainfall in Virginia is typically adequate to insure survival of all but the thirstiest plants, others become so sad and tattered in the heat that they detract from the garden. Hostas that thrive with more sun in a damp summer will turn crispy along the edges in a dry year. Mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) flower best in full sun, but appreciate a break in mid afternoon. Lacecaps are tougher through winter’s cold, and also are more resilient against the summer sun.

Lacecap hydrangea tolerate more sun than mopheads.

Lacecap hydrangea tolerate more sun than mopheads.

Catalogs detail that one plant or another is best in part sun or shade, but experience shows that the toad lily (Tricyrtis) performs best with more sun so long as there is adequate, but not too much moisture. Daylilies require sun to flower at their best, but will flourish in any condition except saturated ground. And hostas, that appreciate damp, deeply cultivated ground with light shade, will grow contentedly in the driest shade without irrigation.

Daylilies flower without a care in full sun.

Daylilies flower without a care in full sun.

In a large garden, the trial can be long, and the errors many, but in time some mysteries are revealed. Others would require another lifetime to discover.