And the winner is …..

The Perennial Plant Association has selected False Indigo, Baptisia australis as Perennial of the Year for 2010. This not a hot, newest introduction, but an old time, sturdy native.Baptisia australis

In my garden baptisia was set up for failure. The subsoil excavated to build my large swimming pond was mounded on the lower side of the sloping property, and though the soil’s not horrible, the mound is quite steep and dries out in an instant. I had no illusion that this area would ever receive a drop of water except from Mother Nature, and would be seen by casual visitors only from a distance across the pond, so plants on the backside of this slope needed a bit of height. How’s that for a challenge?

Baptisia has proven a perfect choice, not only tolerating the poor, dry soil, but thriving. I don’t believe that native plants are necessarily more adapted to drought than non-natives, but this native is tough as nails, has nice blue-green foliage, and tall spikes of bright blue flowers. Wonderful!False Indigo - Baptisia australis

The baptisias in my garden are seedling grown, not clones from cuttings or division, so each of the six has a slightly different habit, though they bloom concurrently in early May in northern Virginia . One grows taller, fuller, and more stout than the others, with more glaucous foliage that shows no sign of stress through the hottest, driest stretch of summer.

On several occasions my wife has cut the black seed pods that follow blooming for an interior display, and I fear each time I brush the brittle shells that the seeds will burst forth to cause a considerable mess. Though they rattle around the dried pod remains intact.

There are named selections, and a yellow bloomer, and I have no doubt they are fine plants, but Baptisia australis is a delightful choice for the hottest, driest, sunniest spot in the garden. A fine choice for recognition as Perennial of the Year.

Wild flowers

Beginning in late February with helleborus and snowdrops, then crocus and daffodil, dogwoods, redbud, and magnolia, through December with late autumn blooming camellias and mahonias, there are more flowers in this garden than I could possibly count. There are single daisies and double peonies, dainty blooms and monstrous hydrangeas, and flowers with amazing coloration and configurations.

Some flowers are ordinary, colorful en masse, but not distinctive, while others are a masterpiece of composition, superior to anything man can create. Better to be seen close up, where unique shapes and patterns can be appreciated fully.

For a large planting bed, look to tulips and daylilies, shrub roses and azaleas. Here, color matter most, lots of it, and viewing is intended from a distance. In my overplanted jungle of a garden, the remaining open space is precious, a nook here and a cranny there, and the quality of the bloom is more important than the quantity. These are the plants on my spring shopping list.  

Iris, especially Japanese iris (Iris ensata variegata, above) that thrive in the shallows of the garden ponds and in damp ground. There are more versions of this plant than I could possibly collect, and each is a delight, with bright colors and distinctive markings.

Siberian and Louisiana iris, and, well, just about any variety will be a splendid addition to the garden. I have found these to be a low maintenance, pest free, perennial solution in difficult wet areas. A handful of varieties will assure a month or more of bloom, and I’m certain to add a few (maybe more) this spring.

Peruvian lilies (Alstromeria,above) are said to be somewhat aggressive, but in this garden where are they to go? At every turn there are trees or shrubs to shade its path, limiting the spread of even the worst offenders, so I’ve experienced no problems at all. Peruvian lilies bloom for months, and there are few blooms that can compare to their beauty. I have hardy types in the garden, and a couple tender ones wintering in the basement.Passion flower vine

There are annual and hardy perennial forms of Passion flower vine (Passiflora, above), and while the annual varieties of many plants are often more colorful, the winter hardy passion flower common to the Washington D.C. area that I’ve planted is a marvel, second to none in beauty. Similar to many vines, it’s a fast grower, so it needs a bit of attention to keep it in bounds, but it’s well worth the effort.   

I began a few years back with one Toad lily (Tricyrtis, above) and was enamored with the small, oddly shaped late summer blossoms. This, of course, led to planting another, and another, and this year I’ll need to add a few of the yellow flowering types. To the thinking of some this is reason enough not to get started at all, but why suffer a garden without a beauty so grand?

The flowers of Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus,above) are not so colorful, nor so odd as to standout in the garden, but the reddish-brown blooms are unusual and sweetly fragrant. This woody shrub grows with an open habit in my shady garden, but will be more compact with more sunlight. This spring I am determined to locate the yellow flowering variety I have seen at the University of Georgia botanical garden.

When I find it, and the other treasures planned for spring purchase, the garden will still be far from complete. There are too few years in this lifetime, and too many flowers of incomparable beauty.

Favored conifers

I thought there were more evergreens in the garden, but looking about on a cold winter afternoon I’m surprised by the openness, the lack of enclosure, even in a mature garden with dozens (perhaps too many dozens) of large trees and hundreds (yes hundreds!) of shrubs. This place is a jungle late April through early November. Then, you can barely see where you’re walking, much less across the garden, but now I can see neighbors’ houses to the south and west property lines. I try not to look in those directions.

Japanese Umbrella Pine

Japanese Umbrella Pine (Sciadopitys verticillata)

The long boundry to the north is the sunniest border in the garden, and here large evergreens shelter the winds and shield the view of the closest neighbors. In this mixed garden that runs roughly parallel to the property line (but with a nagging gap that requires mowing) there are cherries and dogwoods, a magnificent weeping beech, and katsura, but also large evergreen Colorado spruce (an assortment of grafted blues), two varieties each of cryptomeria and southern magnolia, cypress, and a collection of tall hollies covered in red berries that the birds will feast on as the winter progresses.

Between the tall borders (a sliver of mature maple and poplar forest runs along the south and west border) there are numerous evergreens, some rather large, and others, dwarf types (though they may have grown larger than you or I would expect). No matter the season I am fond of the evergreens, but they stand out so much more today, and since there are no blooms in the garden in early January, this seems appropriate for today’s chat.

Bacheri spruce

Bacheri spruce, a grafted Colorado spruce

By number there are more spruce varieties, mostly Colorado spruces with varying shades of blue (above), each the color of a clear sunny sky until placed next to another, which makes one or the other dull by comparison. With space between, each is extraordinary. My particular favorites are the more dwarf, but not miniature, pendulous and globose spruces that are appropriate for planting in all but the smallest properties.

Acrocona spruce

Acrocona spruce

Two Acrocona spruce (Picea abies ‘Acrocona’), though young, are quite marvelous in spring when new pink/red cones form at the branch tips. The irregular growth habit could be more precisely called ‘flopping about’ than the broad upright that it will become with age, for it has no form, neither weeping nor upright, but displays branches splayed in every direction. Though rarely sold in garden centers, this is a gem, albeit an oddly shaped one.

Horstmann's Silberlocke fir

Horstmann's Silberlocke Korean fir

The seed cones of the Korean fir ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’ (above) are no less beautiful, though more concealed by the curved, silver-backed needles. This is a unique, slow growing conifer that is not well suited to the summer heat of Virginia, but struggles along with a bit of shade from the late day sun.

Descriptions of weeping and dwarf are cast upon a surprising number of conifer forms that seem to defy these categorizations. Particularly, the weeping forms of Norway spruce might hug the ground or ascend straight to the heavens, though with pendulous branching. Many weeping conifers are trained onto a three foot stake so that the growth habit might not be readily apparent, but in either form these are excellent evergreens demanding notice in the garden.

Gold Sun cypress

Gold Sun Lawson cypress in January

Many of the conifers with colors of yellow and gold (mostly Chamaecyparis, or cypress) fade with the lack of sun through the winter, but ‘Gold Shower’ Lawson cypress (above) remains a beauty with arching branches with blue green foliage that will turn bright yellow with new spring growth.

The conifer shades of blue and green are not dependent on the sun, and these are most treasured. And so, with each journey through the winter garden the list of have-to-gets grows longer.

After the blizzard

Most traces of almost two feet of snow three weeks back have disappeared from the neighborhood. Except in my garden!

A stand of mature trees bordering the southwest shades the property so that snow and ice linger for weeks after the rest of the world has thawed. The roots nestled below this thick white blanket don’t know what they’re missing. It’s a bit frosty and they’re well protected for now.

I’ve made the rounds of the garden a few times to check that evergreen branches have sprung back to shape, and most have, although the four foot tall and wide Rheingold arborvitae is now half the height and twice the width with branches splayed in every direction. I don’t know if it will have enough vigor to regain its original dimensions, and, if not, it had not quite recovered from deer nibbling away at its soft foliage a year ago and won’t be missed too badly.Nandina berries in December

The tall nandinas (before the snow, above) arched to the ground under snow’s weight, but they now stand nearly upright, leaning only slightly more over the stone paths than before. I expect they will straighten further by spring, and if they need further assistance the weight of the heavy clusters of berries is easily pruned. The prolonged cold will mean that most of the nandinas’ leaves will drop, as it is semi-evergreen in this area, though it’s survival is not in question.

For several days following the blizzard the fallen snow was undisturbed. No doubt I wasn’t venturing outdoors, but evidently our usual wildlife visitors were bedded down as well. The first tracks appeared the third day, right through the drifts that covered our front porch. No, not the UPS guy! One of our neighbors’ cats, and why it braved the snow to pay a visit I can’t figure.Mahonia Winter Sun in January

With the deep snow, then heavy rain and severe cold, I didn’t get out into the garden to wander around for more than a week, but it looked pretty much the same, only colder and whiter. The flowers of ‘Winter Sun’ mahonias are fading (above), and early signs of the purple fruits are evident, but the winter blooming camellias are snuggled tightly in bud, so there’s not a bloom to be seen.

There are plenty of tracks in the now ankle deep snow, in fact, there are tracks everywhere. Deer tracks I can tell, and cats, and I assume the others to be racoons and fox, groundhog, and probably skunk and possum, though I don’t know which will be hibernating and which will be foraging at this time. I’ve turned the pump off on the large swimming pond, so it’s frozen over (with the exception of a small hole I keep open to vent gasses and protect the koi) and snow covered except for a path worn down the middle by a small-pawed critter.Holly berries in January

The hollies are heavily berried (above), so there’s adequate feed for the birds, and I assume that the voles, moles, and chipmunks are scurrying beneath the snow creating mischief, as they are wont to do. Thus far the deer have avoided the evergreens sprayed with repellent, perhaps there will be blooms on the winter and spring blooming camellias this year.

And now, as the groundhog is probably settling in for another six weeks of winter, I’m doing the same. There will be a break in the cold soon, and the snow covering the garden might melt so that I can get a jump on the spring cleanup. And then, within a few weeks, the early iris and snowdrops, and helleborus will be blooming, and the blizzard will be only a memory.

Reflecting on a winter’s eve

Winter is the season for pondering, what could be, what can be? What happened, and where did I go wrong? (It’s a long story)

'Blush' Nandina a red leafed sport of Firepower

My one acre garden has been expanding for more than twenty years, and is overflowing with common dogwoods and viburnums, redbuds, nandinas and hollies, lots of this, a few of that, and a handful of oddities. I don’t suppose that the whole is a sensible design, but that matters little. I love plants, and crave those I don’t possess.

'Flirt' Nandina - a new introduction, a red leafed Harbor Dwarf

I would like to expand my dwarf conifer collection, and there are many Japanese maples that I lust after, but how could I possibly squeeze one more tree into the garden? And the winter garden, it must have more blooms, perhaps not this year, but next. I’ll get a start on it in March.

Needle palm

No doubt a bit more lawn will disappear this spring, despite the protests of my wife. Certainly space can be managed and the budget stretched for a hardy palm or two, and if they don’t prove to be sturdy enough then several of the new nandinas (see Flirt and Blush photos above) will work splendidly. A few Encore azaleas are needed to fill in my collection, and of course there will be room enough to cram in a truckload (or two) of whatever, and the whatever’s are easy to find.

'Crystal Falls' mondo grass

Seed catalogs are arriving by the day, and specialty catalogs filled with annual and perennial jewels. I’m too lazy to grow anything from seed, but I’ll make lists and snip the photos that catch my eye and wait until the garden center is stocked. Waiting is the hard part, dreaming is easy.

There is no warmer way to spend this chilly winter’s eve.