A perfect magazine garden?

Not mine, not a chance.

Where do the gardens in magazines come from? Perfect plants with spotless leaves with amazing plant combinations spaced just right.

P1012121If I photograph anything more than a closeup of a flower there are leaves torn to shreds, holes from black spot or slugs, yellowing, brown, and broken. Plants are crammed into impossibly small spaces, neighbors flop and invade others’ space, and paths and patios are hopelessly overgrown and hidden. Chaos!

I can recall a day I thought the garden looked magazine ready….. one day in twenty years! But my memory’s not what it used to be, so it was likely my imagination. Still, I can’t imagine trading places. My broken down, bug and weed infested garden will do just fine. There are blooms nearly every day of the year (I haven’t figured out flowers for mid December through late January, but have plenty indoors), and colorful leaves, needles, cones, and bark should I tire of blossoms.

When I began this journal I figured the day would come when there would be nothing in the garden to discuss. Deep into the Summer doldrums, I suspected a lull after three weeks with barely a drop of rain, but blooms are popping at every turn. Several crapemyrtles are blooming, with the holdouts heavily in bud.P1012124

The white Natchez, which blooms occasionally in mid June in northern Virginia, held out until the second week of July for me, then was closely followed by Sioux (pink), the shrub-like Burgundy Cotton (below, with dark burgundy leaves and white flowers), and Pink Velour (above). Centennial Spirit and Arapaho have plenty of buds, but are several days from blooming.P1012102

The dwarf Cherry Dazzle is loaded with buds, but won’t begin to show color for another week. This is a selection from the Razzle Dazzle series of dwarf crapemyrtle introductions, and the only one that I’ve found with some merit. I tested others and found they lacked good foliage or blooms, grew poorly in my garden, or suffered a bit of each. But Cherry Dazzle has nice dark leaves, a compact rounded shape, and is covered with red blossoms for four to five weeks. P1012117

Franklinia (above, the flower opened today and already visitors have found it) is just beginning to bloom, but has enough of a story that we’ll discuss it next week. And by that time the Seven Son tree (Heptacodium) should be in bloom, since the buds are showing the barest bit of white, so that will keep us off the street another day. P1011980

Black mondo grass is nearly past bloom, but I haven’ t fit it into past weeks’ journals, so I must before it’s outdated. It’s slow to spread (which is good if you want it to stay put, or bad if you prefer it to fill an area) and quite low care. The flowers aren’t much to see, but there they are, and a nice enough plant it is. The strap-like leaves are not truly black, but nearly so.P1012080

The amazing blooms of the Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata, above) have opened, probably late because I had to replant from a cutting taken from my sister-in-law’s garden. To keep it under some semblance of control it is easier to confine this prolific vine to a container, and last year I neglected to water it, then left the container unprotected to freeze (It’s a wonder anything grows at all around here!). It is a complexly structured, beautiful flower.P1012096

In past weeks we’ve witnessed the delightful progression of hydrangeas, and now the Pannicle hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata) are beginning their month long bloom. I’m uncertain of the name of this one (above). I thought that it was Tardiva, but the pannicles are stubbier, and another in the garden that I’m certain to be Tardiva is a week from full flower. There are a number of similar Pannicled hydrangeas, all without fault, fine plants for the late Summer. P1012100

Last week I jumped the gun and noted the yellow leafed caryopteris, bragged on it as irresistible, then featured a skimpy photo. A week later represents its beauty more fully, now run to the garden center to pick one up! On second thought, one is nice, a grouping is enchanting.P1012106

Caryopteris is a subshrub, not quite woody, so that it often requires radical pruning in early Spring to remove dead wood. Nearby in my garden, Butterfly Bush (Buddleia) requires similar treatment. Large growing types often are pruned nearly to the ground to keep within bounds, but this small, compact variety requires only pruning dead branch tips.P1012129

And finally for today, a candidate for worst color combination is the spidery flower of Dill weed entangled in a bright pink rose. I am color blind enough not to be offended by any but the most severe combinations, but this was too hideous even for me, so you must imagine the pink background. In my defense, the Dill is a volunteer that returns annually from seed, and the lacy foliage through the rose is a wonderful companion until the flowers arrive.

Definitely not suitable for a magazine.


The dog days of July

The new hound in the neighborhood came to visit Sunday, foraging through the garage for tasty treasures, skittering away when I opened the door on my way to the garden. His small, fur ball companion lingered to yap a bit, then scurried back to the calls of the neighbor. Down the path to the rear garden I spied one of the local cats, no doubt considering himself a skilled bird hunter (though he always goes home empty handed).

DOG1Nowadays, my wife and I have only loaner dogs, a brief overnight or two stay with our son’s greyhound, who carefully steps his way over the rugged stone paths. Quite a contrast from the floppy eared sister hounds (Daisy and Minnie,at left) who grew old in this garden, who bounded and tumbled as pups, dug until the garden was rid of moles, and who rested their weary old bones in the shady stream. They collected gardening shoes, and oddities of every sort from the neighbors’ garages, and invited themselves to many a nearby cookout.

Gardening is easier without hounds, but not better.B 033

Most recent stray thunderstorms have managed to avoid the garden, or rained enough just to keep the dust down for a few hours, not nearly enough to replenish the abundant moisture from several weeks past. The hostas and many perennials have lost their early vigor, but others are remarkably fresh, at their peak during the dog days when heat and humidity stress the garden and gardener.B 005

The cool early Summer has delayed the blooming of crapemyrtles. Even the large growing white Natchez, which can flower in mid June, has just begun to show color in this northern Virginia garden. Sioux and Pink Velour have followed closely, but Arapaho and Centennial Spirit are budded and a week or two from bloom.

The dwarf Cherry Dazzle crapemyrtle suffered damage when my wife got a bit carried away burning sticks in the firepit, but the singed leaves were quickly pruned away. It is just beginning to bud, I’d guess that blooms will appear in two or three weeks, and stay in full color until the end of September.P1012058

P1011979The Pineapple lily (Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ – in bloom above, and looking very pineapple-like three weeks ago at left) next to Cherry Dazzle was also damaged, but the flower remains intact. As soon as the bloom fades I’ll allow the neighboring variegated caryopteris to cover it.P1012047

The variegated green and white leafed caryopteris has lagged behind all year. It came out of dormancy late, was slow enough to grow that I feared it wouldn’t, and now is well behind the yellow leafed varieties that are beginning to flower. The contrast of bright blue blossoms and foliage of the old Worcester Gold or improved Jason’s Sunshine is a delight. I seldom meet a soul who is not enchanted by caryopteris once they have seen its display.

Each stroll through the garden brings pleasant surprises, sometimes a forgotten daylily is found tucked beneath a holly grown unexpectedly large (not anticipated, but I should know these things if I gave it more than a second’s thought), or a magical color combination. P1011990

Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ is scattered through the garden, poking its sword-like leaves from under that and between this to find the sun. Near the driveway it flops over the dwarf blue Globosa spruce, though it was not so blue the past couple years after it was transplanted from some other location where it had probably gotten in the way. I have been known to “snatch” larger transplants, rather than taking the proper time to perform the task properly. The result is a sulking spruce, off color while deciding whether to succumb or not.

So, this combination did not exist prior to today. Perhaps it is hideous to others who see colors better than I, but I thought the combination was wonderful.

And now I’ve gone on far too long for one day, so I’ll close with the last of the Oriental lilies (or Asiatic, I don’t recall. Nor do I know the variety since I bought an inexpensive mix. I know, I can be of little help in recommending plants when I don’t know what I’ve planted.) P1012060

Nearby the giant white Calla lily is struggling since some manner of wildlife dug the largest part of two bulbs that had proven quite dependable through several Winters. It will not bloom this year, but I’ll make note to protect it this year, a reminder of times when the hounds would bury bones and sticks, and perhaps dig just for enjoyment. That, I will not remember fondly.

Beat the heat

I’ve returned from two weeks on the road for business. The garden seems to have survived, though barely a drop of rain has fallen in the three weeks of July.

While other parts of the country swelter in extreme heat, thus far my northern Virginia garden has experienced moderate temperatures and low humidity (at least for this area). Following abundant rainfall in May and June, less than one-tenth of an inch in July threatens to dry this once lush oasis to a crisp. Good fortune might bring some storms at the start of the week.P1011899

Few plants seem bothered by the dry conditions. Hydrangeas in sun wilt a bit through the heat of the day, but revive by nightfall. The P1012046remontant types, Endless Summer, Blushing Bride, Penny Mac, and Mini Penny are nearly in full bloom, though my wife occasionally cuts flowers to bring indoors or to give to friends. The past Winter killed several to the ground, but they have grown to more than three feet height and width, and bloom on new wood.

P1012055Two varieties of variegated leaf hydrangea rarely bloom (flowering buds don’t survive the Winter), but the foliage adds color to the Summer garden. This differs from the remontant hydrangeas that will bloom on new growth, and wood from the prior year.P1012075

Oakleaf hydrangea is a dependable bloomer and delightful shrub for the forest edge, with large, long lasting panicles. Today, Oakleaf has been showing color for more than a month, and the flowers remain attractive long after they’ve dried, followed by crimson foliage in the Fall. A wonderful plant.P1012063

Nearly in bloom is Tardiva hydrangea, soon to be a ten foot tall mass of white pannicles. I prefer the upright blooms of Tardiva rather than the old favorite PeeGee which flops about, dragging blooms through the mud. Limelight and others are similarly delightful, with color for well over a month.


The colorful leaves of Silver Cloud redbud light up the mixed evergreen and tree border, appearing from a distance to be in flower throughout the Summer. The colors fade somewhat as the season progresses, but still a highlight of the garden today.P1012023

Spraying a repellent has kept deer away from the hostas, but hasn’t deterred slugs. Most hostas have holes in their leaves, but the old time Great Expectations has escaped damage, and looks fresher in July than the newcomers. It profits from a location with good light but never any direct sun. A large Koeheanna holly threatens to overtake it permanently, so I must make a note to move it in the Fall. As you can figure, we’ve probably seen the last of Great Expectations.P1012066

On my recent travels through the southeast I’m certain that I saw thousands of mimosas, which seeds itself about with abandon. Mine is a young tree, planted earlier this year, but the flower (seed, whatever), a delight to children as it floats by, is a gem for all to appreciate.

While traveling I was expecting fewer blooms to report on in today’s journal, so I was pleasantly surprised to find more than the time allotted for today will allow. Before we close I must show the otherworldly seed head of the white clematis Henryi (though it could be Jackmanni since both climb through the same nandina). A similar photo several weeks prior did not properly show the beauty of this strange but beautiful seed head.P1012053

Screening plants – holly

Leyland cypress and Green Giant arborvitae are the standards when many people consider plants for screening. Both are attractive and very fast growing, but their mature size may overwhelm many properties. Often, a slower growing evergreen that grows to nearly twenty feet tall is more appropriate. P1011573

P1011328Upright hollies are wonderful plants for this situation. Their growth is moderate, and there are many excellent selections to chose from, offering a range of height, width, berries, and leaf color.

Nellie Stevens is deservedly the standard in this group. Dark green leaves, red Fall berries, and a trouble-free nature earn its stature. Used as a single speciman or in a grouping, Nellie Stevens is an outstanding plant.

P1010755Other excellent hollies include Dragon Lady and Centennial Girl, both particularly Winter hardy, Robin, Mary Nell, and “blue” hollies such as Blue Princess and Blue Maid. Most exhibit a heavy crop of red berries in the Fall and grow to a mature size of ten to twenty feet tall with a broad pyramidal to conical shape.

Few pests bother hollies, and most require no regular pruning or care, except a bit of water until they are established. They are best planted in full sun, but will tolerate a shady spot. Hollies are not picky about soil type as long as it’s not waterlogged.

If your garden design projects include screening plants, hollies are an exceptional choice.

How does my garden grow?

Disorder abounds! If an area of the garden should seem too mannerly, too structured, there must be room for a dozen more plants. Or more.P1011845

In my garden, not yours. Certainly you have more sense than to plant so that one neighbor tumbles over the other, that perennials requiring sun are shaded because some ignoramus planted a large nandina that blocks it, then planted a tree lilac over that . Stone paths are laboriously constructed, then hidden beneath huge arching hostas.P1011849

This journal has been filled with photos of flowers, much like I see in garden magazines that tout the beauty of a garden without ever showing the garden. Gardens are difficult to photograph. Colors and textures fade so that hardscapes, patios, walkways, gazebos, and arbors dominate the camera’s eye.

Today we’ll take a tour through the garden. Don’t expect tidy.

As tours often do, we’ll start in the front, briefly, for this area is small, dominated by a purple leafed beech that was slow to establish, but now towers over the house. The front is obscured by two large ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maples that were intentionally planted close to the house so that visitors must walk beneath them to arrive at the front door. P1011829

The bluestone walk is inset with colored concrete panels of tortoise and koi, but its beauty is best left to your imagination, for it is constantly littered with debris from the maples, and a dogwood and Bloodgood red leafed Japanese maple that overhang from the opposite side.

Take a step up off the front path to a small stone patio (now covered with pots of various tropicals outdoors for the Summer) and a small pond with twin waterfalls, the newest of six ponds in the garden. The pond is oriented facing the house, since the ground slopes away from the street. Neighbors walking a dozen paces away are often unaware of the pond except for the sound of the crashing water.

P1011899Back to the driveway, the right side property line of more than three hundred feet is a continous mix of trees; magnolias, both evergreen and deciduous, hornbeams, several varieties of Colorado spruce, weeping cherry and green leaf beech, Golden Raintree, dogwoods, several variations of holly, cryptomerias, redbuds, and a river birch.

Wherever a gap presented itself, small trees, shrubs, and perennials were planted. On my side of this mass of trees are mutlitrunk fringetrees and Silver Cloud redbuds, two of each planted not as part of a grand design scheme, but they were all that was available. Also, deciduous azaleas, hydrangeas, abelias, and more of this and that. P1011837

To the left of the drive you enter the back garden with three ponds and plants crammed into every nook and cranny. P1011600

The oldest pond has suffered through repeated revisions and rebuilds, is overhung by a large weeping green leaf Japanese maple that must be limbed up each Spring to prevent it from covering the pond. Behind the waterfall is a large weeping Norway spruce, then stewartia, a dwarf upright maple, and variegated Wolf Eye dogwood, underplanted with ferns, mahonia, hostas, heuchera, and spirea.

The next pond cannot be photographed. Plants cover nearly every inch of water surface save two small areas where waterfalls agitate the water. Overhanging hostas, and a weeping Blue Atlas cedar make it more difficult to distinguish that there’s water under there. P1011871

The third pond in this small area begins as a stream of perhaps forty feet in length along a stone path, flanked by sarcococca, spirea, hostas, hake grass, nandinas, and ferns, under a canopy of several large Japanese maples and an amelanchier.P1011881

Below this pond is a small slate patio with a wall of small boulders retaining the slope. The patio overlooks a swath of ill kept lawn that leads to the swimming pond, the most recent addition, and thus the least overgrown area in the garden.P1011896

The swimming pond is thirty five by almost forty five feet and averages more than three feet deep, in places up to four and a half feet. On the low side a curved stone wall retains the pond, and provides access to the lower third of the garden.P1011913

Building the pond was a convenient excuse to add the gazebo, a firepit, stone and travertine patios, and another section of garden. P1011917

The sixth pond, in the back section of garden, is dirt bottomed, built to drain the boggy lawn created by poor grading by the builder. During wet seasons the pond is full, but other times it might dry to a muddy hole. Then, there are sufficient plants to hide it.

P1011855Thank goodness we have reached the end of the tour. Many areas have been avoided in the interest of brevity, or that they are an untidy mess.

I built this garden for me, not visitors and not for neighbors, since most of it is hidden from view. I am happy to spend my free hours here, delighting in the wonders that a garden brings. Next week we’ll return to documenting the garden one flower at a time.

Way down South

For the next two weeks I’ll be touring tree and shrub growing nurseries throughout the Southeast, an annual pilgrimage for thirty years. I’ll be driving, almost three thousand miles over twelve days, and a different town each night, except for two nights in Mobile, Alabama over the weekend.

DudleyMy traveling partner and I will be visiting some of the largest nurseries in the country, several over a thousand acres. We’ll see nurseries that grow only trees and large evergreens, and others that grow smaller plants in containers. Our mission is to evaluate plants for Fall delivery and to project growth to judge their value for Spring.

johnson4Unfortunately, this trip leaves little time for relaxation. We spend twelve hours or more each day in our vehicle, either on the highway or driving through nurseries, and once we get started our goal is to get the job done and get home as quickly as possible. Not that we don’t enjoy the nurseries, and friends that we’ve known for many years, but the highway miles are not fun.

Most container growers capture their runoff and rain in ponds, then filter and recycle the water. The aerial photo above shows a nursery in Georgia with seven large holding ponds. Even with prolonged droughts the past several years their water supply remained adequate. Water is pumped from the ponds to irrigate plants, then returns to the holding ponds by swales and canals.  

Tree growing nurseries usually irrigate by drip irrigation, or sometimes just by relying on nature to provide enough rain. During prolonged droughts they might use large water cannons to cover huge areas.

I’ll be traveling with my camera, and if anything of note happens I’ll be certain to document it.

Summertime, and the living is easy

Thank goodness, most garden chores are done. Now’s the time to sit back and relax.

This has been a wonderful Spring for the garden with an abundance of rain and cloudy, cool weather. Oh, we’ll complain that we haven’t seen the sun in weeks, or that it was too muddy for this and that, but plants are lush and bloomed as well as I can recollect.

In the past week we’ve experienced our first prolonged period of heat, though not too severe. The ponds needed to be topped off  (not a drop was added through the Spring with twenty inches of rain in May and June), and the tubs of tropicals set out for the Summer had to be watered for the first time.Variegated yucca flowers

A scattering of weeds are popping up, but not bad. Most areas of the garden are planted so heavily that there’s no space to grow. In the few open areas, my wife and I pull a few weeds every day while we’re wandering around, and mostly we keep up.

P1011966The Japanese beetles haven’t arrived yet, but they should anyday now. No matter, I don’t spray for them anyway. Hopefully, the blueberries ripen before the beetles arrive so I can get them before they do.P1011947

Now that Spring has passed there are still flowering trees in the garden. Today, small yellow blooms hang from the Golden Raintree (Koelreuteria paniculata). The flowers soon turn to large seed pods that are quite interesting, if you didn’t know that you are about to have thousands of seedlings growing throughout the garden. This is the one tree that I regret planting, but haven’t the heart or energy to cut it down.

Crapemyrtles are beginning to bud and bloom. First the large, fast growing Natchez with masses of white blooms that often weigh down the branches. White crapemyrtles are the staple of the south, but in northern climes pinks and reds are more popular.P1011930

Buds are just beginning to open on the crapemyrtle that I think is Burgundy Cotton, though it might be White Chocolate. I really need to keep better records when I plant something, not depending on my feeble memory years later. I suppose they are similar, and probably both fine plants. The foliage is a dark burgundy, the blossoms white, and I recall from prior years that the flowers persist for more than a month. Sioux, Centennial Spirit, Pink Velour, and Arapaho are beginning to bud, but won’t flower for several weeks, then will bloom into September.

A few years ago I planted several in the Razzle Dazzle series of dwarf crapemyrtles. All but Cherry Dazzle were disappointments, but it is a delight, a compact, carefree rounded shrub with dark leaves that blooms for a month or more. In the past I have grown other dwarfs, Pocomoke and Chickasaw, but they leafed out very late, barely grew, and flowered late, briefly, and sporadically. I rarely pull a plant out, but these two didn’t perform well enough to stay. Further south I’m sure they’re fine plants, but not in my northern Virginia garden. But Cherry Dazzle is a gem.P1011854

P1011847The purple Jackmanii and white Henryi clematis growing in the tall Nandina domestica are reblooming.  I don’t recall this happening any other time, but here it is. Also, the seed head from Henryi  is a delight, reminiscent of a bad hairdo from the Beatles days.P1011965

At the far end of the garden, growing behind a large lilac and Tardiva hydrangea, tucked under a Foxtail Colorado spruce and two Sekkan Sugi cryptomerias, the plume poppy (Macleaya cordata) is nearly blooming. This tall, coarse textured perennial sits on a low mound that was inhabited by my resident groundhog, who has either been more stealthy than last year, or has moved on. Plume poppy is perfectly suited for covering a groundhog’s lair. P1011964

Just a few paces away, a new addition to the garden, a treasure discovered on my recent journey to Oregon, the Korean fir ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’, displays its colorful cones and upturned silver backed needles. A bit more lawn had to be sacrificed to make room. Pity.P1011979

The flower of the pineapple lily (Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’) is ascending from the base of the burgundy foliage. This striking lily is planted next to a  green and white variegated caryopteris, a wonderful foliage contrast except the caryopteris is a bit greedy for space and insists on flopping over its neighbor.  P1011992

A few feet away, tucked under the fine variegated leaf redbud ‘Silver Cloud’ is the Coneflower ‘Coconut Lime’ (Echinacea purpurea). It deserves a showier placement, but there it will stay for now.P1011956

Back to the top of the rear garden, Persicaria ‘Red Dragon’ is blooming, though the flowers are not notable. This is a foliage plant, and quite a good one. A shame that it was planted immediately beside Lysimachia ‘Firecracker’, another red leafed perennial, and even more vigorous than Red Dragon.P1011937

Nearly in bloom, but still of interest, is Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, with long arching leaves.  Of course, I have planted them where the leaves arch over something that you’d prefer they not, a path, or a dwarf spruce (above).P1011986

I think that should be quite enough for today. We’ll complete today’s journal with another hidden gem, sandwiched between an Umbrella pine and a large Koeheanna holly (I sense a pattern, every plant is tucked, stuffed, sandwiched, or jammed). Step over deutzia, and careful not to wobble into the rose, and here sits the daylily ‘Blackeyed Stella’, which I had forgotten was here. Perhaps I’ll remember to check on it again next year.