The Spring Garden Show

Late winter garden shows are an interesting experience, particularly when you’re the one building the garden. We begin with an empty concrete floor Monday afternoon, and by Wednesday a garden appears that looks as if it’s been there for years. The photos below show the progression building Meadows Farms’ garden at the Capital Home and Garden Show in Chantilly, Virginia beginning midday Monday and finishing at noon Wednesday. The show opens Thursday evening, February 25, and runs through Sunday Februsry 28.

I have been designing show gardens for fourteen years, and find that many people marvel at the effort and beauty of a garden that will stand for only four days. Of course, that is our intent. We want to create a garden with no evidence that it was begun a few days earlier. The rootballs and pots that the plants are grown in have been buried and covered with mulch, and flowers and trees have been forced in greenhouses to be at their peak bloom so visitors to the show can experience a taste of the spring to come.

What does Meadows Farms get out of it?
First, we enjoy creating the garden as much as you enjoy seeing it. A garden show affords the opportunity to develop a dream garden, without budget constraints. Second, our intention is to impress you so that you’ll call our Landscape Department if you have a project that requires our design and installation skills, or to encourage you to visit our garden centers to purchase plants and gardening supplies.

If you’re in the area stop in and say hello. I’ll be there most of the time, and we’ll have landscape designers staffing the garden throughout the show to answer questions and help you with ideas.


Only a few weeks away

Finally, I took a walk through the garden today, but it might be awhile until I try again.

I’ve seen some grass through the melting snow on sunny properties, but mine is shaded from the afternoon winter sun, and the snow remains knee deep. I was exhausted from the effort of walking twenty steps.

I managed a loop around the one acre garden, and I was both pleased and disappointed with the damage I witnessed. Boxwoods (above), nandinas, and mahonias are bent to the ground, their fate uncertain under a thick blanket of snow, but I expect they will recover with a bit of attention. Multi-branched hollies, arborvitae, and junipers are bent, but with few broken branches, so they are likely to recover with some pruning and strapping branches together in a few weeks.

A large branch of a thirty foot cypress near the swimming pond in the back garden has bent to a severe angle, I fear too far to be able to pull back into shape. I’ll try to envision the tree without the branch to see if it can be removed without disfiguring the tree, or whether the entire tree must come down.

The saddest injury is to a twenty foot Brackens Brown Beauty magnolia, a lush, dark green leaved evergreen that is extremely cold hardy, but apparently not resistant to snapping off major branches and the tree’s top in a heavy snowfall (above). Of the three southern magnolias, Alta and Greenback have more upright branching, and suffered minimal damage. Once the snow has melted enough the allow a closer look, I’ll remove the broken limbs and assess whether the tree is salvageable. I’m not optimistic.

Though temperatures have risen into the forties today, spring seems far away. Arnold’s Promise witch hazel (above) should be blooming in a week, and could despite the snow if we warm up a bit more. Helleborus will often show their nodding flowers in late February, but if they do so it will hidden beneath the cover of snow in this garden. More likely they will bloom weeks later than is usual. And, the black stemmed pussy willow (below) should be at its peak shortly, but I was too exhausted to venture the last fifty feet to the back border to see it.

In spite of my pessimism, spring will arrive in a few short weeks, and soon enough these sorrows will be forgotten, though the ache from the labor of clean up might remind us a while longer. Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata “Royal Star’, below), will bloom in my garden in early March, though Dr. Merrill was a few days earlier last year.

The Japanese flowering cherry Okame (below) will follow closely, then Jane magnolia, and all will be right again. Whichever trees that must be removed will be missed, but the open space will allow others that have been too cramped to show off, and of course, there will be room enough to add a few more treasures and stretch the spring planting budget. With that thought I am feeling much better.Okame cherry

Planning a garden pond

Every garden should have a pond! I have five, six if the wet weather, dirt bottom pond is included, and nothing in the garden, not the hellebores or irises, the mahonias or Japanese maples, provides greater enjoyment. Of course I started with one (as you most likely will), then on a whim added a second pond nearby, but hidden from the first by a large threadleaf  maple, ferns, and tall nandinas.

As often happens, at least in this garden, inspiration triumphs over good sense, and a third pond with a long stream became essential. Then a fourth along the front entry walk, and the next year the large swimming pond was constructed, because what could be more delightful than swimming with the goldfish and koi (like swimming with the dolphins in your backyard, except you can’t grab a fin for them to drag you around the pond).

I expect that you will not be guided to such an extent by impulses, so you will begin with one pond, and thus there is every reason to get it right.

First, and foremost, your pond must be situated to enjoy it fully, preferably in full sun, but if you regularly lounge on a shady patio, that’s where is should be. Not nearby, right next to it. If you have a deck, build the pond as close as possible, so that you look over the edge and see water.

People often imagine the lovely view of their pond in a distant corner of the garden, but once they have it, they realize it should be closer. So, a chair is placed at pond’s edge, then a small table to set your book down while you’re admiring your fish, then a patio is built so the family can be together in the area they enjoy so much. Considerable effort and expense are avoided by building the pond nearest the area where the family spends their time outdoors.

How big?
Bigger than you expect. Despite warnings to the contrary, my first pond was too small, under seventy five square feet. The second was double this size, and the swimming pond is thirty five by forty feet. Somewhere in the middle is ideal, but one hundred twenty five to fifty square feet is about right.

Fish? And other critters?
Of course we cannot fully enjoy the pond without fish. Goldfish will do, even the cheapest ones sold as feed for larger fish will quickly grow, and many are better than a few. Koi are considerably more expensive, but can grow quite large and live many years. I purchased the smallest, cheapest I could find, and they have grown quickly and spawned plenty of babies that cost nothing. After a few years you’ll have sufficient numbers to give some to the neighbors.

Other critters, frogs, toads, turtles, and dragonflies will arrive without invitation, and cost you nothing.

Plants are a must to naturalize the edges of the pond, and in the water. Aquatic plants help to keep the pond’s water clear, provide cover for fish from predators, and many are quite beautiful and require a minimum of care. A word of caution, a few aquatics grow very aggressively, demanding frequent pruning, and others are considered invasive to natural waterways.

At the pond’s edge we want plants to blur the edges that show that your pond is a manmade creation, to flop over the boulders and river gravel. These low growing shrubs and perennials should be planted as a part of the pond’s budget and not as an afterthought.

How to keep it clean?
If constructed properly, the pond is less maintenance than the lawn or garden it replaces. With five ponds my yearly maintenance is only an hour or two per month, and many months require none at all. There are differing ways to reach this low maintenance goal, but the easiest are to build with a pump to recirculate and aerate the pond’s water and a filtration system to prevent algae and green, murky water. Filtration can be as simple as a pond skimmer and rock and gravel to line the inside of the pond, or UV lights and sand or bubble bead filters. A clear water pond can be achieved completely without chemicals and little labor.

Can I build a pond myself?
Ponds need not be complicated to be enjoyable, and many people can construct them on their own. However, the labor can be back breaking, and the liner and stone are bulky and heavy. A professional pond builder will design and build a pond that you can enjoy for many years without spending all your free time maintaining it.

Of course, chapters can be written on each of these topics, and many books are available to provide more in depth information. If you have specific questions about ponds I would be happy to address any that I have skipped over.

Today and tomorrow

Today there seems a need for a dose of optimism. One snow after the other has left a deep snowy blanket covering the garden, and spring seems so far away. In fact, the gardener’s spring is less than three weeks ahead. Gardener’s spring, of course, refers not to the seasons as determined by the path of the planet around the sun, but to the time when plant growth begins, roughly the beginning of March in northern Virginia.

The prospect of helleborus and witch hazel in bloom in a few short weeks hardly seems possible with so many feet of snow drifting in the howling wind, but the snow will melt and spring will arrive sooner than we expect. 

That’s the breaks

My short driveway is an asphalt valley between two tall snowcapped peaks. Beneath the thick snowy blanket are roses, nandinas, liriope, hollies, camellias, a fernspray cypress that is growing too wide for its proximity to the drive, and an old weeping theadleaf Japanese maple that encroaches on the drive by several feet. No doubt there are problems under there, but damage from the weight of the snow won’t be evident until it melts, perhaps for weeks.

Six foot tall nandinas bowed under the snow's weight

Following the heavy December snow there were  a few broken branches on the large hollies, and a host of bent branches on the tall junipers and hollies. The nandinas were arched to the ground, but all have since nearly recovered their form, and damage from that storm will be fixed with a few snips of the pruners.

Though I haven’t traveled through the back garden since the latest blizzard, I see from a distance that a large branch of an evergreen cypress has split (which was a poorly developed crotch that I failed to repair when the tree was younger, so I’ve gotten my just desserts). I expect a few more problems than from the earlier snow, but not enough to be bothered about, and none that compares to the damage I’ve seen in the neighborhood, and heard of from acquaintances.

A branch of this large cypress has broken from the snow and wind

Trees ripped from the ground, roots and all
When I hear about a large evergreen that has blown over, exposing the roots, I know that we’re talking about only one plant, Leyland cypress. They have weak root systems, and in sandy soils that don’t allow a strong foothold like the clay soils predominant in this area, Leylands blow over with regularity. With hundreds, perhaps thousands of pounds of snow clinging to the branches, and a bit of breeze, they will fall in an instant.

Is there  a chance the tree can be saved? Don’t bet the farm on it. First, the roots are exposed, freezing and drying out. It’s likely they’ll be dead or badly injured before the tree can be righted. Second, roots have been torn, mangled, and broken in the process of being pulled from the ground, not a good thing for any plant, but particularly not for a finicky tree that often resents transplanting. Third, how do you dig a hole, pull the monster upright, backfill soil without leaving huge air pockets that will fill with water and probably kill it if all else doesn’t, and then support it so it doesn’t blow over in the next puff of a breeze?

You don’t, so save your money and effort to plant a tree to replace it.

One half of the split trunk of my large American holly snapped off
Well of course it did. It was bound to happen, sooner or later. Weak crotches of evergreens and deciduous trees will fail eventually, though, of course, deciduous trees are rarely a threat to split under duress from snow. It should be plain to see that we can’t reattach the severed limb, so cut it up and dispose of it, and we’ll see if the remainder of the tree has enough fullness to save.

What to do with the splinters left behind? Wait for nicer weather, then make a clean cut, trying to leave an inch or so of the trunk so that the cut might heal. All of this is probably much ado over nothing, as the tree will probably be so unsightly without its missing half that the cut will be made to remove the remainder and be done with it.

The top half of an evergreen tree has snapped off
The first issue is that the trunk or branches are probably still attached to the tree. If they don’t pose a safety hazard there is no reason that this project can’t wait a few weeks. The damage is done and there’s no benefit to you or the tree in attempting repairs in nasty weather. If the damaged branch blocks a driveway, or is in danger of falling onto the house you might have to take care of it sooner. In many cases this is a task for a professional with the proper climbing and safety equipment.

There’s probably not much that can be done to save the ornamental value of this tree in the short term. Many evergreens will grow a replacement leader (main trunk), but it can take years before the natural form is regained. With some large evergreens, particularly pines that are most vulnerable to injury, it might be impossible, and the only realistic solution will be to remove the entire tree. So, the answer is, the trees are unlikely to die from the injury, but each will need to be evaluated for their ornamental value.

The branches of this Chinese Snowball viburnum are bent to the ground

The _________ (supply the plant of your choice) has been squashed
This one is more hopeful. The snow will melt, and most branches, even those you’re figuring have been crushed, will spring back after a couple weeks and look nearly as good as ever. If they don’t bounce all the way back you can help persuade them by pruning some off the top, and with a lighter load the branches are more likely to spring back into shape.

For now, exercise some patience, sit back and wait for the snow to melt, then take a tour of the garden on a warm, sunny day to assess the damage. Take along your pruners. There will be a bunch of small broken branches, and some larger limbs that can be pruned easily.

Is there anything good that comes of this much snow?
Of course, there’s always a bright side.  Plants most often die in the winter months from a lack of available moisture and drying winds. You don’t need me to tell you there’s plenty of moisture, and the snow’s so high that plants are buried and not exposed to the wind. Also, roots are protected from subfreezing temperatures by a snowy blanket of insulation. Your plants are better off than you suspect.

… and again

In the early hours of this February snow six deer passed single file through the forest edge behind our home while my wife and I lunched on chicken soup and sandwiches, gazing out the kitchen window at the rapidly accumulating snowflakes. The last in this leisurely procession walked with a prominent limp, a result, I am quite certain, of not looking before you leap. All were quite thin, which I assume is not unusual for this time of the winter.

I felt a momentary guilt for spraying the deer repellent that has made the evergreens in the garden unpalatable, though I did see a day earlier that deer had found a lone liriope through the melting snow of three days past, and nibbled the foliage to the ground. I was tempted to expose the remainder of the grouping to save me from the task of having to cut them back in March.

With many more inches of snow today the groundcovers will not be exposed for several weeks in this shady garden, but I suppose the deer will find enough arborvitae and yew in other parts of the neighborhood to survive.

We have made a considerable effort to make this garden an attractive home to wildlife, but as the collection of hosta and other prized plants were decimated by deer my wife threatened drastic actions, including purchase of a gun. I took this no more seriously than her threats against the mice in the basement, the woodpecker that has pecked holes in our stucco chimney, or the squirrels who reside in our attic (all of which were threatened with violence), but I have noted the limits of her tolerance so that I might avoid my blood being shed should I prove to be too great an annoyance.

The snow, of course, has become tiresome as spring was nearly in sight. It’s likely that the hellebores blooming will be delayed under this snowy blanket, and the early daffodils, crocus, and iris won’t poke their heads above ground for several weeks. Still, in a short while there will be juicy tulips for the deer to feast on, and all will be well, though repairs from this snow’s damage might last well into March.

As quickly as I regain energy enough to write again, we will discuss the damage the winter snows have done to the garden, and what we can do about it.

Here we go again

The snow is piling up …. again! And so, what else to do but relax with a good book, perhaps even a gardening book, or work on the spring seed order, or compile the list of perennials that can’t possibly be lived without.

Today I have completed reading The Explorer’s Garden: Shrubs and Vines from the Four Corners of the World by Daniel J. Hinkley, with tales of hydrangeas, viburnums, edgeworthias (below), and mahonias found in foreign lands. This is adequate inspiration to survive the winter a bit longer.Edgeworthia in March

Though the garden is covered by a white, snowy blanket, with renewed enthusiasm I have concluded that my project for this spring will be to rejuvenate the lower half of the dry, shady garden between the house and the sliver of maple and poplar forest that borders the property, an area perhaps fifty or sixty feet square. When the garden was younger, and shade from the maples was less intrusive, a Forest Pansy redbud was planted equidistant from the house to the forest edge, but as shade has crept closer, the redbud has declined.Oakleaf hydrangea

Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, above) planted beneath the arching trunk of the redbud have grown thin, and bloom weakly, possibly due to the thin, dry soil as much as the lack of sunlight. At other points in the garden, given more moist conditions and a few hours of sun, this hydrangea grows thick and blooms beautifully, and the autumn color is spectacular and prolonged.

With less than stellar performances from the redbud and hydrangeas I often choose to simply ignore the area, detour around, try to forget this troublesome spot. Further up the slope the stone path that runs parallel to the side of the house is hopelessly obstructed by large leaf hostas and arching branches of tall nandinas. To stray from the path inevitably leads through a stretch of mud, and care must be taken to avoid carrying that into the house lest the wife put a stop to all this nonsense and demand more paths, and mulch, all of which seems like so much labor. And so you can see that the reasonable solution is to avoid the area altogether.White Dogwood

But, at least for today, or until the spending of dollars and labor must begin, the plan will be to concentrate efforts to add a few evergreens that will tolerate the shade, and perhaps a flowering understory tree or two that will lend a bit more substance. Certainly the native dogwood (Cornus florida, in bloom in April above) will do well here, and the upright columnar plum yew (Cephalotaxus) will offer a winter presence currently lacking (and the long dark green needles lend an interesting textural element not found in other shade plants).Aucuba Gold Dust

The gold splashed forms of aucuba (Aucuba Gold Dust, above) planted nearby have nearly recovered from being nibbled to near death by deer a winter ago, and with my newfound commitment to spraying the deer repellent, both gold and green leafed aucubas will work wonderfully, so there is another evergreen, and both beali and Winter Sun mahonias (below) have grown splendidly, so there’s another.Mahonia 'Winter Sun' in December

Without the threat of deer I can resume collecting  hostas, and with the dark evergreen plum yew and aucuba the huge gold leaves of Sum and Substance will work particularly well. Helleborus (below) have done quite well in this dry shady location, and this is an excellent opportunity to expand my collection of these fine late winter bloomers. Now we’re getting somewhere!Hellebore in February

My wish list of perennials to plant this spring has included mostly those preferring sun, but I will reconsider and attend more to those for shady gardens. With these final touches I’m confident that I can bring this together within a reasonable budget, but if not, the result will be so marvelous that stretching the budget a bit won’t be painful at all.