May showers bring …May flowers

A deficit has become a surplus. The month began with rainfall totals a bit below average, but that is a distant, soggy memory.

The garden is a lush jungle of foliage and flowers, the monstrous hostas  arching over the paths, rain soaked branches of stewartia heavy with flower buds tumble over the granite bench by the small pond that is almost covered by a weeping green Japanese maple. The oxygenated rainfall brings life to the garden that a sprinkler system can’t match.P1011598

This gardener is delighted. May can bring scorching heat, or frost, often only days apart. Only ten days ago two nights fell to the thirties. Summer’s heat will be with us soon enough.

The end is near for the parade of Spring flowering trees. Stewartia and the fragrant blossoms of tree lilac and various late blooming magnolias will open shortly, then we’ll allow a brief interlude before the crape myrtles, the Seven Son tree, and finally the Franklinia flower through early Fall. Tropicals, annuals, perennials, and flowering shrubs will feed our fixation for flowers in the meanwhile.

The procession of dogwoods in bloom, which began the second week of April, will extend several weeks longer. The native dogwoods, flowering before the leaves appear, started a bit later than usual, but with cool temperatures the blossoms held on until a day long storm (a horrible day with driving rain and cold winds) blew them off. The Rutgers crosses, Stellar Pink and Celestial, followed closely. My Stellar Pink is planted in the shade of a large Black Gum so it came into bloom late, but is still at its peak. The Chinese kousa dogwoods are flowering now, and will continue through early June.P1011576

There are several (five? We’ll count in a moment) kousa varieties in the garden, all in various stages of bloom. Three are green leafed varieties, one, an unknown cultivar, might be Milky Way with bushy, almost shrublike growth. It is planted in shade far too heavy to have a reasonable expectation that it should bloom. The kousa Galilean (above) is planted in nearly full sun, grows splendidly, but flowers sparsely.P1011593

The third of the green leafed kousas is the pink flowered Satomi (above), which has large glossy leaves, blooms nicely, but in the heat and humidity of northern Virginia the flowers are rarely a full pink. I’ve seen Satomi with deep pink blooms in Oregon with its cool days and cooler nights. It rarely is as colorful here, but it’s still a wonderful tree.  P1011594

Lest I lose count, there are two kousas with variegated leaves (so five it is), Samaritan and the shrublike Wolf Eyes (above). With little contrast due to striking white and green variegation on the leaves, the flowers are hardly evident from a distance. Still, an excellent small tree.P1011629

Just off the rear deck, overhanging one of the garden’s ponds is the tree lilac Ivory Silk (above), a delightful fragrant tree quite carefree with resistance to powdery mildew and a compact growth habit. However, be prepared for a tree, not a large shrub. I believe that mine blooms heavier every other year, though I don’t remember if this is the on or off year. The huge clusters of flowers cover only half of the large tree, so I’m guessing that this is the sparse year. Other trees should rejoice if their blooms were half as spectacular.P1011627

P1011614Last week offered a peek at the Big Leaf magnolia (left, two days ago,above, fully opened today, tomorrow fading fast) with eighteen inch leaves and flower buds the size of my fist. The sweetly scented bloom, similar but more slight than the southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), has opened, though it won’t last long. The Big Leaf grows to huge dimensions, with huge leaves, and huge blossoms more than a foot across. My kind of tree, but necessarily to be avoided on smaller properties, or where a rough textured monster is not appreciated.

DSCN0011Sweet Bay magnolia (above) is also a bit rugged, a semi evergreen multitrunked native tree that is most appropriate planted on the margins of a garden. The small fragrant flowers are not particulary showy, but it is a nice tree to fill out your native tree or magnolia collection, and great at the wood’s edge.P1011565

The spireas are beginning their month long blooming season. This one is Goldmound (above), an unlikely pairing of yellow foliage and pink flowers. Little Princess is a nice green leafed, pink flowering, compact mound that blooms at the same time.DSCN0005

Last week, the yellowflag iris in the swimming pond were blooming. They’re fading, but the Japanese iris are beginning their short, but delightful, period of bloom. Most of the Japanese iris are planted in in fine gravel in several inches of water (except the one above that is just outside the pond).

Though their blooms are shortlived, by planting several varieties their beauty is extended through several weeks. No doubt there will be photos of the others as they flower later in the week.

Spring pond tour

I’ve neglected the ponds long enough. For weeks it’s been nothing but flowers and more flowers. Finally, Saturday was sunny and warm, so the raft was brought out of storage (actually it spent the Winter tucked under  the Silver Cloud redbud) and launched into the swimming pond for a couple hours of peaceful floating. The waterfall is loud enough that neighbors’ mowers are barely audible. The water was a bit chilly to start, but not enough to keep me awake.P1011484

There are six ponds in my one acre plus garden, one dirt bottomed and five with rubber liner, recirculating pumps, and waterfalls. That is, perhaps, an oversimplification because there are nearly a hundred tons of stone and boulders, and an assortment of filters and other components. The ponds range from just over 100 square feet to more than 1,400 square feet in the swimming pond.P1011539

I built them myself. My son, the lead pond builder for Meadows Farms, assisted in moving the 500 pound fifty by fifty foot rubber liner into the swimming pond, but otherwise I shoveled every scoop of dirt, lifted every boulder, sweated the sweat, and suffered the aches and pains of someone too old to be messing with this foolishness. Each pond was more than a labor of love, more an obsession.

Far too many times I get an idea that I’m hung up on, tomorrow the materials are planned, then ordered, the next day the digging begins. One day there’s a nice stretch of lawn, the next a pond big enough to swim laps in. I’m certain that everyone else is just like this, aren’t they?

There is a practical side. As the head of Meadows Farms landscape department I want to experience building and maintaining different features to understand as a builder and end user.P1011607

There are plants and materials that I’ve experimented with in my garden and discarded as unworthy, or as too pricey. I’ve redone the oldest pond, which dates almost twenty years, at least five times as I discovered new methods and technologies. I think that it’s pretty settled in now. A large weeping maple threatens annually to hide this small pond forever, but a little pruning here and there opens it up.P1011600

One time each year most of the ponds get a thorough cleanup, emptying the water, cleaning debris that has dropped to the bottom, cutting old foliage off the pond plants, and cleaning the filters. The swimming pond has never been cleaned. I’ve no intention of ever pumping 25,000 gallons of water out and refilling it, and fortunately, the gravel bog upflow filter keeps the pond clear year round.P1011601

When the weather warms in a couple weeks you’ll find me afternoons and weekends lazily floating with the koi, daydreaming and watching the birds romp in the waterfall, dragonflies whizzing about.P1011571

On occasion through the year, I’ll update the changes in the ponds as iris, waterlilies, and lotus bloom, and as the cannas and elephant ears grow to monstrous proportions. Today the ponds are fairly spartan, the plants in and around the pond not fully developed this early. In another month they’ll be lush with growth, and the character will change.P1011569

The yellowflag iris are past peak bloom now, and the first of the waterlilies blooming. The buds of the Japanese iris are a few days from opening. The koi are ravenous, the frogs are sunning themselves on warm granite boulders at the pond’s edge.

When I’m not working, this is where you’ll find me.

Slow down … be happy

I hate trends, jargon, psycho babble, and landscape architect-speak (curvilinear, spatial planes, and such). “Studies” bother me.

DSC00118My wife recently prepared a talk for a public speaking course about studies that show health and intellectual benefits from being in the garden. I can’t imagine how you can put a number on this, but they did, and the benefits were considerable. I know that I’m happier in the garden, but my wife can testify that it certainly hasn’t made me any smarter.

P1011495I’ve seen some recent blogs about a “Slow gardening” movement, and I’m sure that the fellow who named the trend has probably been practicing it long before. I’ve been “slow” forever, but figure as a gardener that I’m stuck somewhere in between. I had to move from my last house when I ran out of room to garden, so in the new place (twenty years “new”) I have too much of everything. Plants are too tall, too wide, scratchy, floppy, too shady, grow too fast or slow, but I’m obsessed and determined to cover every square inch of my little space on the the planet.

With too many plants and too much ground to cover, March and April are near panic, not “slow gardening”. Otherwise, the place is an ungodly mess. When it’s well under control (to my thinking), you’d likely still think that it’s a jungle.P1011484

I reap the rewards beginning in May. The work is never done, but as I meander through the garden most afternoons I’ll pull a couple weeds, prune a wayward branch or two, and take care of a handful of odds and ends that are too trivial to be called work. Then, I’ll plop down on a bench or stonewall, or float my little raft out in the swimming pond, and vegetate, chill out, relax. A few short weeks of hard labor buy six months of paradise.

P1011400aWhat do you do when you get there? Flowers are nice, but there’s so much more. I can wander for an afternoon, amazed at buds, or leaves. Mesmerized by koi, a dragonfly zipping to and fro, or a tussle for territory in the pond by two frogs bellowing for a mate. Watching a hawk gliding on the breezes far overhead, or making his getaway with smaller birds in hot pursuit. What crimes has he committed?

I try not to be too organized or follow rules (or common sense?) too closely. There’s plenty of time for that in my life away from the garden. I want to enjoy each moment, but I can’t help anticipating the peonies, or the unfolding P1011408buds of iris. Redbuds were later than average this year, but the native dogwoods right on time. The garden journal documents the ebb and flow within the garden, encouraging me to follow the interaction between weather and flowers and leaves, to witness the delights and failures through the seasons, and compare over decades.

I choose this frenetic pace to feed my compulsion. I “need” one (or more) of everything, not only the newest, but the oddest, the one with the biggest leaves, and the one that probably won’t live around here, but “what the heck”. I’ll forsake my sanity for a month (or two) to keep it the other eleven. Rushing back and forth in March to finish the day’s tasks prior to the late Winter sunset, there’s always time to stop (usually gasping for air) and appreciate the delights that each season brings to the garden.

Which brings us to the garden today.P1011502

The flower buds of Big Leaf magnolia ( Magnolia macrophylla) are swelling, ready to unveil their huge blossoms. They last but a few days, but I await their arrival each year. The tree is coarse textured, not beautiful in leaf or flower, and far too large for most gardens, but I know of no other tree with larger leaves, so of course I must have it.

P1011501In contrast, Goldenchain Tree (Laburnum x watereri) is reluctant to grow in the heat of my northern Virginia garden, though it has been given partial shade in an attempt to provide a cooler and more hospitable home. My goldenchain is a weeping variety, grows and blooms sparsely, but is surviving against all good judgment by the foolish gardener.

All the hostas have returned, even the ones repeatedly eaten to the ground by deer the past couple years. The leaves are smaller, much like when they were newly planted and less vigorous, but if I can keep the deer away they will be full size next year.P1011518

Visitors to my garden often remark on the huge leaves of hostas that are inaccessible to deer, and theirs’ never grow so large. As if I had some secret formula, or applied compost or manure tea, or some such potion to get such dramatic results. The credit belongs elsewhere. I plant and forget.P1011511

‘Black Lace’ elderberry, planted earlier this Spring, is blooming. I planted a yellow leafed elderberry some years ago, but it faded through the Summer. I’ve seen Black Lace in southern nurseries in the Summer, so I have a measure of confidence that it will do well. The dark leaves are dissected much like a Japanese maple’s.P1011506

Another plant with dark foliage blooming now is the ninebark ‘Diablo’ (Physocarpus). Mine is planted on the shady side of a border planting of flowering trees and large evergreens, so it holds its color through the Summer rather than fading to green. A wide spreading Silver Cloud redbud is planted in front, so its ill mannered form is mostly concealed.P1011479

Most of the roses are in bloom (Sunny Knockout above). I have no interest in planting varieties that require any care other than cutting them down to size every year or two, so I have planted Knockout roses, Flower Carpet (which I have found very disappointing), Home Run (sad foliage), and Drift roses (planted last year, so too early for a verdict).  Rainbow Knockout has proven troublesome, but otherwise, Knockouts have proven to be wonderful flowering shrubs. For doubters, forget that it’s a rose. You’ll be happy that you planted a Knockout.

And, of course, this is why we garden, slow or otherwise.

Stumblin’ through May

My back is killing me!

The wife and I drove down to Georgia to visit our son over the weekend, my first weekend away from garden chores since early March. The major tasks in the garden are long ago accomplished, but there’s always a weed to pull or an errant branch of this or that to prune while I’m puttering around. 

Driving through the mountains in southwest Virginia on the way back I heard reports expecting temperatures in the low thirties overnight for the next couple days. My garden’s a lot lower elevation, so I knew it wouldn’t get quite that cold, but could drop low enough to be concerned about the elephant ears, bananas, and other tropicals I hauled outside a week or two ago.

Few gardeners can resist the temptation to plant annuals or haul the overwintered tubs of tropicals outside well before the last average frost date, which is usually about now. I’m no exception, though I’m aware that I might need to haul them back inside for a night or two, which I did yesterday. Thus, my aching back. I’ll haul them back out of the garage in a day or two, certain now that it’s not possible to have more cold this Spring.  P1011454 

There are plenty of new blooms in the garden, but I had to revisit the large nandina just off the deck that has a couple different clematis twining through. Last week there were a few flowers, but today purple and white blossoms cover the upper third. P1011456

The clematis are humble, ordinary purple Jackmanii and white Henryi, but the blooms are wider than your hand and as delightful a combination as I can imagine. In two weeks the flowers will have faded, and you’ll hardly know the vines are there.P1011460

The mountain laurels are nearing peak bloom. I’ve said before, I like the buds nearly as much as the flowers.P1011467

The peonies are in full glory. I’m not a collector, with only a few common varieties, but I enjoy watching the small buds grow each day until they explode to make you wonder how all that flower fit in that bud.   P1011480

A week ago, we caught the first of the yellow flag iris growing in the shallow, bog area of the swimming pond. Look now, every bud at its peak.P1011470

Caesar’s Brother, a Siberian iris, showed purple poking from its buds late last week, but now a few flowers have opened. This iris likes damp soil, but not standing water like the yellow flag and Japanese iris, which are still a few weeks away from blooming. Mine are planted in a depression intended to direct water into the dirt bottom wet weather pond at the back of the garden. They seem quite happy to be there.

There are many others in bloom today, we could go on for some time, but we’ll wrap things up with some colorful foliage. I encourage you to look to enjoy more than just flowers in your garden. Leaves, needles, buds, and bark can provoke considerable wonder. P1011471  

Tricolor beech is painfully slow to establish, but there is no better large tree if you have the room they require. Mine seemed not to grow an inch for five years or more. Now it’s a splendid tree.  P1011476

Black Gum is another that is a bit difficult to transplant, slow to establish, but a marvelous tree with dark shiny green leaves, and amazing Fall color. This one is a selection called ‘Wildfire’, with red growing tips.

I’ll return in a few days, in better health and over these nuisance back pains, and certainly with warmer days bringing much more rambling through the garden.

A rainy night (and day) in Georgia

My wife and I drove down to Georgia for the weekend to visit our son Zach, who’s in grad school at the University of Georgia. He was a bit gimpy from back surgery a couple days earlier, but while his fiancee went to friends’ wedding we went to the State Botanical Garden. UGA is somewhat the center of the horticultural universe with Michael Dirr covering woody plants and Allan Armitage the perennial plant world.

My son is not in horticulture, but in a chemistry PhD program. Who knows where that came from? Undoubtedly his mother.

P1011447P1011449Our visit was brief as a thunderstorm was approaching, but we did a quick once over of the main areas, and I grabbed a couple shots to bring home. Georgia is about a month ahead of my northern Virginia garden, witnessed by blooming Oakleaf hydrangeas, whereas mine don’t have buds yet, Kousa dogwoods past peak bloom, and southern magnolias in flower, when mine is in tight bud.

The gardens feature an indoor tropical area and extensive outdoor theme areas, edible gardens, formal gardens, and so on.P1011452

Many of the plants found in this Georgia garden are also used in the landscapes of the mid-Atlantic region, and I have a good number in my garden.

P1011453Anyone serious about their garden should make a point to visit a local arboretum or public gardens to see mature specimens and to get design ideas for plant combinations.

Sunny days are here again!

After nine or ten days of rain, and scarcely a glimpse of the sun during that time, sunny days have returned. Though the temperatures are cool, with nighttime lows in the forties, blooming plants have picked up the pace. There are flowers popping out all over the garden, and buds that will open in days on many others.P1011429

We had family visit over the weekend, and it was pointed out to me that some of the paths through the garden are completely blocked. (It happens every other year, why would this year be a surprise?) The large leafed hostas haven’t fully opened yet, but they cascade over the uphill path on the side yard. I told my mother that our garden snakes lurk there. She was not amused, but she did follow the group pushing through the still damp hostas and nandinas.

I was cutting back some dead wood on a grouping of hydrangeas the day before, kneeling down, looked up for a moment, eye to eye with a snake. Not a big one, about the thickness of a finger, but a foot and a half long. I’m not a screamer, but I was a bit startled, as was the snake. He scurried away, as did I. There have been more numerous encounters this Spring than usual, which I have no explanation for.

Though I’m not fond of snakes, I tolerate them in the garden since they’ve not done harm as far as I can tell. A few years ago they were caught in the act snatching goldfish from one of the ponds, but now the koi are much too large for these small snakes.P1011409

We’ll hurry away from this snake discussion back to the flowers and foliage that make the garden such a delight in mid May. The native dogwood blossoms dropped in a huff during downpour more than a week ago, but now the Rutgers dogwoods are blooming. Stellar Pink, a misnomer to me since its blossoms rarely have pink of any substance, is flowering and will for several weeks, a week longer than the native. It is open branched and more upright than the native, but I think a valuable addition to the garden.P1011418

P1011422As the Rutgers dogwoods (developed at Rutgers University) fade in a couple weeks, the Chinese dogwood, Cornus kousa will begin to bloom. Until then, the leaves of variegated leaf kousa varieties Wolf Eyes (above) and Samaritan (left) are nearly as ornamental as the flowers, and in fact the flowers don’t show well above the green and white leaves. The green and yellow variegated Cherokee Sunset dogwood (below) with dark pink or red blossoms is quite slow growing, but a beautiful small tree with flowers before the leaves appear. P1011420

P1011416The redbuds are past bloom by several weeks, but the red leafed Forest Pansy (at left) is at its prime now. The new leaves look like glossy wet paint. The leaves on Silver Cloud redbud are not large enough to show off their coloration. Give them another week and the leaves look like flowers from a distance. P1011403

Also in its glory now is the Fringetree, Chionanthus virginicus (above). The ribbony flowers on this native tree are quite short lived, but they are a wonder while they last. I have several trees, one a single trunk that sends suckers every year wanting to be multi-trunked, and the others with multiple trunks. Both are pest free and undemanding, excellent trees for a small garden or a small space in a large garden.

P1011430The first flower on the Red Knockout Rose appeared today. The Pink, Rainbow, and Sunny will soon follow. Rainbow has been a disappointment with poor foliage and some disease problems, but the others bloom from now (mid-May) almost to Thanksgiving with very little of the problems typical to roses. I’m not willing to spray plants to prevent fungus or pests that are common to roses, so they were banned from my garden until the disease resistant varieties were introduced, starting with Flower Carpet roses. Though Flower Carpets have performed far worse than promised, the marketing for Knockout roses has been understated. I’m certain that they are scorned by rosarians as too common, but for the rest of us who enjoy a long blooming, low care plant, Knockouts are as good as any flowering shrub.P1011412

Hanging out by the swimming pond with the family over the weekend I saw that the buds of many of the irises were swelling. The Japanese iris are a week or two from blooming, but the Yellow Flag, Iris pseudoacorus, bloomed the next day, and the dark purple Ceasar’s Brother will likely unfold later today or tomorrow. The yellow flag are planted in gravel (no soil except silt) in several inches of water in the filtration area of the big pond. They are called an invasive aquatic by some groups, but mine are spreading quite slowly, probably because the gravel limits them. They bloom only a short period, but are delightful, and the upright sword-like leaves naturalize the pond margins. I prefer the Japanese iris with their longer lasting, larger, and more colorful blooms, but both are quite nice.  CLEMATIS3 

P1011423Clematis have popped into bloom. Prolific in flower and growth, Montana rubrum blankets the railing and lattice beneath my deck. There are thousands of blossoms, followed by aggressive growth that is a bit of chore to keep in bounds, but manageable compaired with other vines that came before in this spot. Other clematis are much more tame, growing slowly up through the tall nandinas they are trained onto for support. Though they have far fewer blooms, they work perfectly in this situation. The large flowers make a show, but the vine recedes into the background afterward.

 P1011426And finally, a new purchase in bloom, Peruvian lily, Alstromeria, often seen in floral arrangements, has wonderful flowers, a long period of bloom as long as it is sheltered for cooler Summer temperatures, and is hardy below zero Fahrenheit as long as it’s well mulched. I rarely pay attention to take care of those details in the Fall, and cold sneaks up on me, but this one is worth the effort.

This weekend I’m headed south to visit the eldest son in grad school in Athens, Georgia. I hope to make some time to visit the arboretum. No doubt there will be many chores to catch up on, and much to see when we return next week.

What’s that blooming next to the highway? Part 2

One after another they bloom. We call them weeds, but many of the flowering plants on roadsides are the same ones we buy in garden centers. Some are unremarkable, others delightful. Some capture our eye, and we wonder, what is that, and will it grow in my garden?

In early May flowers are popping up in the gravel at the roadside, in the watery ditches, on the grassy shoulders, and poking from the edge of the woodlands. P1011398

Growing on fence rows and the understory of the forests’ edge, Japanese honeysuckle has become one of our more invasive plant pests. The blooms are highly fragrant, but the vines will twine through, around, and over just about any competitor. There are non-invasive honeysuckles, such as Goldflame (Lonicera heckrotti), that are highly recommended garden plants, but Japanese honeysuckle is a bad idea.

Last week’s featured weed tree was the Paulownia, with light purple panicles that resemble wisteria’s, except that they face upward rather than hang down. This weed of the week also looks very similar to a white wisteria.

P1011394Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a fast growing, weedy tree that is common on roadsides because it will grow in any soil, seeds prolifically, and sprouts numerous suckers from its roots. The trunk and branches often have sharp thorns strong enough to puncture a tire. Small trees are used for fenceposts because the wood is  strong and rot resistant. The flowers are quite fragrant.

There are garden worthy selections of black locust, and like many other weeds, I’ve grown it in my garden. The variety ‘Frisia’ is a beautiful tree with the same fragrant flowers, but lacy yellow instead of green leaves. I had to give up on mine eventually since it insisted on seeding itself about the garden.

The book I write someday on gardening mistakes will be a long one. I’ve probably learned more lessons than a garden club or two by planting nearly every plant deemed invasive at one time or another, but you shouldn’t feel the need to experiment with lovely plants that flourish on the side of highways. I can assure you, it’s a bad idea.