Small wonders

You can’t miss them! Sunflowers, that is.

From across the garden, or across the highway, sunflowers (Helianthus, below), annual or perennial, make a bold statement in the early Fall. Big and bright, even the compact growing varieties grab your eye with masses of golden yellow blooms. Subtle, they are not.P1012551

In stark contrast, Toad lilies (Tricyrtis) are far more restrained. From a dozen paces you might scarcely notice their blooms. Standing directly above you could be intrigued by the mottled coloring, but on hands and knees you’ll fully appreciate the beauty of the flowers.P1012584

No, get closer. I’ll need my reading glasses. The architecture of the flower is unlike anything in the garden, and the colors magnificent.P1012579

In this garden there is room enough for sunflowers to tower above neighbors, brazenly calling to visitors “see me”, but the prime real estate belongs to the toad lily, usually fronted by a stone path (better for kneeling).

Near the bluestone entry path to the upper garden, a variegated leaf toad lily stretches for light tucked beneath an aged dwarf hemlock and under the arching stems of Ostrich fern, and above the ground hugging blue star and a small leafed ivy. I am surprised each year when it survives against these more aggressive adversaries, but there it is. Good sense would dictate moving it to a more suitable location, but I suspect the roots to be hopelessly entangled, and this toad lily seems to be faring well enough without my assistance. P1012572

Others have more fortunate circumstances, in partial sun or shade, but always placed in the most obvious positions to be seen by visitors. At the juncture of two paths you must pause to carefully decend dark stone slab steps, and there is another variegated leaf toad lily, taller and fuller due to its sunnier location, and across the path another, more spreading than upright, with shiny green foliage and a lighter shade flower.P1012508

Though recommended as a shade loving perennial for the damp woodland, several hours direct sun each day will encourage more vigorous and compact growth. I’ve found that tall varieties benefit from pinching a time or two through the Summer. Blooming is delayed a week or two, but more numerous, stout branches are gained. Otherwise, I’ve found toad lilies to be completely carefree, unbothered by insects and undemanding of supplemental irrigation.P1012369

There are dozens of varieties, but I hesitate to recommend one over other delightful choices. And don’t try just one, start with several, and you’ll be happier still.P1012367

After a few years, once you have a small collection,  you’ll be able to split them easily with the sharp chop of a spade, and spread them around, or give a slice to a friend. If you have a division to share of one of the yellow flowering types, they’re next on the list to add to my collection.


Hitched without a glitch

For those who followed this journal in past weeks you might recall that our eldest son was to be married on Sunday.  Not in our garden, but we were expecting out-of-town visitors to drop by the house, and if you drop by you’re probably going to tour the garden.

I discovered midway through the rehearsal dinner that I was expected to make a toast to the soon-to-be-newlyweds (I have no doubt that I was informed earlier, I guess my listening skills need some improvement), and in my ad-libbed exuberance I invited the whole crowd back to our place afterward.P1012591

So, we had a crowd working their way in pitch black (no moonlight) over irregular stone paths and down treacherous stone slab steps (that can be a bit difficult in daylight) through the jungle to the swimming pond and fire pit (above). Fortunately, a few wise souls had key chain flashlights, so everyone made it without injury. The father of the bride misstepped into water where two large boulders bridge a pond with a small gap between, but otherwise no catastrophes.

I had gathered loose sticks and a few well seasoned logs for a fire, but we had light rain a couple days earlier, so starting the fire was a struggle. But that was it, no disasters. One wet shoe. I don’t deserve such good fortune.

More importantly, the nuptials the following day went smoothly, and the deed was done.

The day after, the garden had survived the festivities better than the rest of us. No beer bottles floating with the koi, no squashed coneflowers, just smoldering embers from the fire, hardly any evidence of visitors.P1012569

An adequate number of late Summer bloomers showed enough color to satisfy the daylight visitors. The Encore azaleas (above) were just beginning to flower, but the blue reblooming hydrangeas each had several large mophead blooms, and many perennials were in full bloom.P1012587

The small white blossoms of Seven Sons Tree (Heptacodium, above) have faded, but then it’s quite delightful when the calyx turns red for another month of color. Seven Son is not rare, but an uncommon and underutilized small tree, and I’ve been quite pleased with it in my garden. It’s form is much like a shrubby crapemyrtle, the flower clusters not so large or striking, but it is colorful for two months when few trees are.P1012596

The Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha, above) is in the waning weeks of bloom, but is beginning to show some Fall foliage color, a lovely contrast of large white flowers and orange-red leaves. The first buds opened in early August, a gardener should be overjoyed with two months of bloom, particularly in late Summer. A branch that has split will require some surgical repair later this Fall, but I think that it will be accomplished without much effort, and hope that both branches can be salvaged.

There will be numerous projects begging attention in coming weeks, but as October approaches we appreciate the fading delights in the early Fall garden, and the wonder of the beginning of a family.

Autumn Encore

Bravo! The end of the blooming season is near, and quite a year it has been.

Spring started slow, but once flowers appeared cool temperatures kept them going longer. Though the late Summer was dry in the mid-Atlantic, we rarely experienced extreme heat, and the late season blooming crapemyrtles, hydrangeas, and perennials performed well. A superb year in all.P1011899

But wait, we’re not finished yet! The end of September is creeping up, and there are numerous flowers remaining in the garden. Coneflowers, Japanese anemones, toad lilies, sedums, and goldenrod are still in bud with several weeks of bloom to go. The remontant hydrangeas (those that bloom on new growth and rebloom such as Endless Summer and Penny Mac) rested through late July and August with only a few blossoms, but are heavily budded with the cooler weather of September and will bloom well into October. Knockout roses will often flower through mid November.P1010727

Encore Azaleas have been promoted in more southern climes as blooming through three seasons, but in more northern zones they dependably bloom only in Spring and then late Summer into October. Though they have pushed aside the “Spring blooming only” azaleas on garden center shelves, many people are still surprised to see azaleas blooming in the garden in October. P1010729

In my garden, a handful of varieties that have bloomed without fail for years are heavily budded and just beginning to show color, which will last for a month or more. The photos here were taken October 14, 2008, and the azaleas continued to bloom into the second week of November when extreme cold moved in, more than six weeks of flowering last Fall.P1010731

There are more than twenty varieties of Encore azaleas, but I’ve had best success in Fall blooming with a handful, and have found that flowering is enhanced by more sun, though not full sun.  P1010730

The best performing in my garden are Autumn Amethyst, Autumn Empress, Autumn Princess, Autumn Rouge, Autumn Royalty, and Autumn Twist (my personal favorite with bicolor blooms). Even when I forgot to spray Twist last Winter and deer nipped the branch tips it grew strongly and bloomed late in the Spring on new growth.

I’m looking forward to an Encore performance this Fall.

For further information

See the Encore Azalea website for photos and information about all varieties, and check out their digital magazine for additional photos and cultural information.

Love me not

Every unfortunate soul professing to be a gardener has experienced a disastrous error or two, and perhaps more than they care to recall. I know I have. Today we’ll delve into a comedy of errors, some of the spectacular failures from my more than thirty years in the garden, and end on a more positive note with a few successes (if any occur to me).

P1012497Saying that I should know better is no help at all. Several months ago I read a garden columnist espousing Cardinal Rules of good garden design. I didn’t score well, but I’m quite happy with my garden of horrors. Some tragedies have occurred despite full knowledge of the risks, others are due to a “plant first, plan later” mentality common to gardeners (at least I think it is).


I suppose that most gardeners are aware of the hazards of running bamboos, yet curiosity can get the better of us. I’ve planted four different bamboos, three low growing, running types and one clumper, a Fargesia that causes no problems at all. I took some precautions in siting the runners to prevent their escape, but they can put up quite a fight.

P1012526I’ve found that these running varieties won’t grow through or under a house (though it wouldn’t surprise me to find a shoot popping up in the middle of the garage), they are reluctant to grow into heavy shade (so mature trees will act as a barrier), but they will grow under walks and patios, and they’ll push up through a crack in the driveway. I’ve been able to exert some measure of control by cutting off new shoots as they surface, but heaven forbid that I should neglect to keep up for a month or two.

P1012524I believe that my wife has determined her mission in life is to rid the garden of the bamboos, but I’m rather pleased with them. At least I haven’t planted the tall, rapid running yellow bamboo that is occasionally used for screening, though I’ve been tempted by the black stem bamboo, which is nearly as thuggish. Though I’m content with my bamboos, I would recommend only the fargesias, others should carry a warning label.

Wisteria and other vines

Almost twenty years ago I built a fine, heavy timber arbor at the foot of the driveway and planted a Chinese wisteria to climb it. For years I pruned its abundant growth to keep it somewhat in bounds, and the blooms were a delight. But nearby the threadbranch cypress grew so that the wisteria became tangled with its branches, and then one season the massive trunk of the vine crushed the eight inch timber.

I could see the situation was beginning to get out of hand, so the wisteria and arbor fell victim to the chainsaw. The garden had grown under the arbor, so the wisteria roots remained. I presumed that suckers would sprout from the roots, and they did. And seedlings came up, and I pulled and sprayed and pulled more, but they kept coming. You would presume with no leaves the vine would run out of energy and give up the battle eventually, but I’m convinced it will outlive me.

This is my nemesis, perhaps the one plant I wish had never been planted. There are other wisterias purporting to be less aggressive, particularly reblooming varieties like ‘Amethyst Falls’ that expend more energy on flowering and less on being a menace, but I’m not tempted by them. I admit to being a slow learner, but I never forget.

There have been other vines through the years that have proved too aggressive, but have not been quite as troublesome. The Chocolate Vine, Akebia, is a fine plant with lush folige and interesting small dark flowers, but mine got away and nearly devoured our small deck. Six or seven years later new shoots pop up occasionally. Not such a pest, but potentially a problem for the surrounding forest was the beautiful variegated Porcelain Vine (Ampelopsis). The shiny berries are preferred by birds, and though it is a wonderful garden plant, it will seed about with abandon, and is considered a dangerous invasive. P1011950

I have settled on clematis and passion vine for climbers. Passion vine is a bit aggressive, but the flowers so beautiful, and even the most vigorous clematis are easy to keep in bounds.


Before the days of the Internet as an easily accessible garden reference, information about invasive plants was not widely available, and porcelain vine and others were frequently found in gardens. I’ll quarrel with a few plants determined to be “invasives” that are a problem in one area, but not in others, but there are plenty of great plants without using those that will escape your garden into the wild.P1011946

P1012134There are some plants that I’d like to add to my own invasive list. The Goldenrain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata, flowers above and seed pods at left) has lovely small yellow blooms in mid Summer, followed by interesting seed pods like small Chinese lanterns. Unfortunately, each pod contains hard, black, round seeds that germinate as a carpet under the tree, and pop up everywhere else in the garden. Every year I’m tempted to turn mine to firewood.

Planting too close

If you’ve followed this journal through the year you know I frequently comment on the hidden treasures I find that have been overwhelmed by larger neighbors. Some refuse to succumb, others disappear quietly.

The root of my problem is that I can’t quit planting. I see a plant that I just have to have, and I get it without any thought to where it might fit in, or even if it will. Once in hand it has to go somewhere, and it will probably work between this and that for a few years, and when it becomes a problem I’ll take care of it then. And that’s the end of that, until three years later when one or the other has to be moved or be lost and I’m too busy, or lazy, and it doesn’t get done. This happens a lot.

Planting too close to the house, walks, and paths

I mentioned my wife’s fascination with bamboo earlier, and she gets nearly as excited over plants that tumble onto the walkways and garden paths. I’m trying to cram as many plants in as possible, and she’s running about with her snippers cutting away every branch that strays into her path.P1011837

Today she’s threatening a large spiraled boxwood and a hinoki cypress that have obstructed the flagstone path from the driveway to the rear deck. Yes, they are too close, and yes, they’ll continue to grow. I don’t have the answers, I only know the damage wrought by her pruning.

Other areas are beyond the control of her pruners. The stone path up the slope on the far side of the house has been abandoned. The stepping stones go up the hill, then disappear into a jumble of hostas, ferns, and overhanging nandinas for ten feet, then the path reappears. I could divide and transplant the hostas and prune the nandinas, or just move the path, which is probably easier.

Enough disasters for one day! Lest we end the day on a sour note, here are a few of the joys of the garden. P1011600

Ponds are good

I have six ponds, and can’t imagine my one acre garden without them. I spend less time caring for the ponds in a month than I do in a week on the lawn, and they’re far more beautiful and enjoyable. With little effort and expense with the exception of electricity for the recirculating pumps, the ponds are crystal clear, and alive with colorful koi and goldfish, frogs, and dragonflies.

Plant flowering trees and small trees with colorful foliage

I’ve decided that the essential elements to garden design are building a structural framework of paths, patios, garden ponds and buildings, and P1012057then framing the plantings with small flowering trees or those with colorful or interesting foliage. Shrubs and perennials are planted to complement the trees, the shade is never overpowering to the eye, and allows sun and shade loving plants to thrive. Even plants that demand full sun will appreciate a break from the scorching Summer heat.

There are considerably more successes than failures in this garden.

The reader might think that this garden is a series of disasters, and it is true that every day, each week and month there are problems and failures. But, most plants thrive with little effort by the gardener, and every day holds immeasureable beauty.

A September wedding …..

thank goodness it’s not in our garden.

Our eldest son is to be married this weekend in the garden of the Airlie Conference Center in Warrenton, a fine old formal garden considerably more appropriate for a wedding than my jungle. Since our home is only a few miles away, I’m certain that we’ll have out-of-town guests drop by, so the wife has been scurrying about preparing the inside. I’ve taken the hint (I’m not a total idiot), and done a bit of clean up in the garden.

I’m usually quite content to have a pile of nursery pots stuffed under the hydrangea, to have hoses I rarely use scattered about, but not this week. All that will be gone. Not that the garden is manicured, far from it!P1012509

But I think that it will do quite nicely. We’re not in the full blooming glory of May, but there will be plenty of interest for anyone who cares to browse about. Franklinia and Seven Son trees are still in bloom, though past their peak, and the blue hydrangeas have begun their Fall blooming cycle with the cooler temperatures we’ve had the past couple weeks. My wife will be cutting hydrangea flowers as centerpieces for the rehearsal dinner, so, though there are eight or ten plants, they might all be stripped bare. The large white blooms of the pannicled hydrangeas have faded a bit, but still show well.P1012211

The gathering point in the garden is usually the stone patio and pavilion (above) near the swimming pond. Japanese anemones, sunflowers, asters (at bottom of page), salvias, Snow Fairy variegated and yellow leafed P1012523Jason and Worcester Gold caryopteris, and four or five flavors of coneflowers and several of toad lily (at top) bloom nearby. The tropical elephant ears (left), bananas, and cannas (below) are at their lush peak, and I’ve brought to the back large tubs of variegated ginger, and Fuchsia and others in bloom that have been stashed for the Summer near the shady front pond.  P1012272

I’ll gather some dead sticks (there is quite an abundant supply), and find a log or two to fill the firepit since guests seem to like it, even on the warmest evenings.

The rear lawn is struggling, to put it kindly, and visitors to the garden must cross it. A creature of some sort has been digging in the bare spots, probably after grubs, so there are craters scattered throughout the lawn, then a variety of creeping weeds that I have no interest in eliminating, unless the purpose is to turn the lawn to garden. My wife prefers some lawn, and has put a halt to expanding the garden further, so if guests are horrified at the sight or sink ankle deep in a muddy gopher hole, it will be her fault.P1012492

I’m quite happy not to be father of the bride. The stress level is high enough on our side of the aisle (though I’ve been assigned only to show up, and perhaps dance at the reception if I can’t feign some injury). With luck I’ll be able to avoid trouble and escape without much screaming about what an insensitive cretin I am. I’ve been practicing being agreeable, quite a change, I’m not sure I like it.

Ask the Garden Guru

The Garden Guru is an occasional series featuring seasonal questions selected through a rigorous, time honored journalistic tradition in which the Guru makes up the questions, then answers them. If you wish to ask your own questions, feel free to submit them and the Guru will pick the ones he knows and include them in the next addition of “Ask the Garden Guru”.

Do I need to mulch my garden this Fall?

Perhaps, but better to err on the side of too little rather than too much. A good part of my business is selling and installing mulch, but I also see the damage caused by too much. Adrian Higgins wrote a fine piece in the Home section of the Washington Post the other day about mulch volcanoes (click to view) and the dangers of excess mulch.

P1012484If there is still a covering of mulch, unless it’s down to bare ground, don’t add more. I’m not a fan of adding more to freshen up the color because mulch loses its color rapidly, so unless you’re mulching for a party or to sell the house this week, mulching to get back the dark color isn’t a good value. You can achieve a measure of result by raking the mulch to turn over the sun faded pieces, but again the color doesn’t last long.

If you decide to add mulch I would never recommend a covering of more than two inches, unless you are mulching a tender plant for the Winter to protect its roots. If mulch is too thick it might shed water instead of preserving it, and there is a real possibility of  mulching against trunks and stems that can be injured, and of roots growing up into the mulch. Also, some plants, such as azaleas and rhododendrons, prefer to have only a slight covering over their root, and even established plants can die when beds are remulched.

Why do the weeds on the side of the road look better than my garden?

SolidagoWeeds are well adapted to their environment. Often, the plants in our gardens are less so. This is not a native, non-native issue. Plants that survive in miserable conditions, thin soils, gravel and road construction debris, are suited to that situation. Many will make poor garden plants, poor foliage, short lived blooms, or they will seed prolifically.

Also, roadside weeds seldom have gardeners tinkering about, moving them here and there for better effect, mulching and spraying, and applying composts and fertilizers and whatnot to improve blooms. Plants are usually best served by planting and getting out of the way.

What is a fool’s paradise?

P1012212My garden, your garden, any that is expected to perform without a series of annual and regular tragedies. Plants will get bugs, there will be droughts and floods, the hound or the kids will tumble through coneflowers, and …… well I’m sure you get the idea. Any expectation otherwise is foolish. The gardener must learn to enjoy the successes, large and small, accept the inevitable failures, and move on.

What is a sustainable garden?

P1012391aWhat it is, and what some try to make it are different. To a large extent “sustainable” has become an argument for native plants, when there are plenty of non-natives that are adaptable to our conditions without care, and without spreading themselves about and forcing the native vegetation out.

Sustainable gardening should make sense to all, to create a garden without the need for excess watering, without the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, a garden that is long lived and impacts the natural environment in a positive manner. The nature of gardening should demand that we are responsive to these ideals.

If I start a garden will I live longer?

Very likely yes, but your back and knees will ache so that somedays you’ll wish you hadn’t.

September blooms

The light morning rain yesterday was a welcome relief. Two weeks with relatively low humidity and no rainfall, following a three week hot, humid, dry stretch, has sapped ground moisture and stressed the Spring blooming perennials so they look ready to jump into dormancy. All will be fine next year, but they’re a bit haggard now.P1012464

Tuesday’s rain was barely enough to keep the dust down, more is desperately needed, but better than none at all. I don’t irrigate my Virginia garden, so despite deep digging the planting beds, they’re parched. With visitors in town next week for a family wedding I’m nearly inclined to drag the hose around, but I’m afraid the plants will get spoiled and demand more attention later.P1012186

Much of the garden still looks happy despite the stressful conditions, with many delightful late Summer bloomers. For some, the timing is a bit too late to plant for color this year, but others are just beginning their show. Over the past weeks we’ve seen coneflowers, salvias, geraniums (Geranium ‘Rozanne’ above), hydrangeas, caryopteris, butterfly bush, abelias, and a bunch of others blooming through the hottest, driest days of Summer. P1012488

In the coming weeks we’ll see Sedums, Toad lilies (Tricyrtis), Asters, Sunflowers (Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ above), Goldenrod (Solidago), and Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium), along with others that have momentarily slipped my feeble mind. And we must not forget the Fall mums (though I haven’t room in the garden for even a few, top of page photo, and below).P1012465

Though most people utilize mums as a disposable annual, they are cold hardy and a useful perennial. They require a regular pruning regimen, or will grow loose and leggy, much like many other perennials, and exhibit far fewer blooms.P1012494

More widely accepted as perennials for early Fall blooms are the Asters (below). Many are pruned in a manner similar to mums with flowers covering the foliage for several weeks.P1012484

There will be much to cover over the next weeks. With a bit more rain over the next couple days perhaps we’ll get a little moisture back in the ground to green things up.