April’s ending with a bloom – perennials

In any garden there are difficult areas, poor soil, too dry, soggy, too many roots, sun baked, or dark as a dungeon. In my garden I have spots with some of all of these, often with a combination of issues that makes plant selection tricky. Mostly through trial and error I’ve discovered trees, shrubs, and perennials that are successful for me in the worst conditions, some that even flourish despite an inhospitable environment and a lack of care by a gardener who plants and forgets.

I take my role evaluating plants seriously, if a plant can make it in my garden it can make it anywhere. I don’t intentionally abuse plants, but my wife will tell you that I have too many, and most survive quite nicely with a minimum of intervention on my part, so if that helps prove a plant’s value this is a good thing. Right?

In horrible dry shade or standing water I’ve found treasures to recommend, a few that are blooming today. One of the most valuable performers for dry conditions is the highly variable euphorbia, or spurge (above), which includes some varieties that to my untrained eye look like cactus, and also trees and tropicals (Poinsettias), but others that are cold hardy and lovely perennials. Through the years I’ve planted a handful of varieties, probably more, and though I haven’t a clue what the names of most are, I’m certain that they are quite common if you’re shopping where euphorbias are sold, and I would recommend each one that you can find that is cold hardy enough for your garden.

That is, except Euphorbia ‘Chameleon’, which I don’t see for sale these days, but after a splendid first year in my garden when it was introduced it has proven to be intolerant of humid conditions, and it succumbs to mildew by mid June, disappearing until the following spring. It has seeded itself about the garden, not in an unpleasant manner, and I don’t mind its temporary stay, but I wouldn’t recommend that anyone plant it.

Now in its second or third spring in the garden since its introduction, ‘Bonfire’ euphorbia (above) has quickly proved to be carefree and dependably cold hardy in my Virginia garden, and quite beautiful with emerging leaves that turn quickly to red in early April and are followed by golden-yellow bracts that persist for many weeks. Mine is planted in full sun, and I would presume that the stunning contrast is more suited to more sun rather than less.

Another euphorbia that I would figure to be best suited to sunny locations, ‘Shorty’ (above) has a similar contrast of emerging red foliage and yellow blooms, but the leaves are needle-like, and the bracts smaller than other spurges. After flowering the foliage turns a soft blue, and remains attractive despite the worst of summer’s heat. ‘Shorty’ spreads moderately around granite boulders in my garden, through river washed gravel, between the stone slabs of a patio, and through the lower foliage of yuccas and any other plant in its path, but not in an aggressive manner, and the spreading plants are easily pulled if they have strayed too far.

I have planted ‘Bonfire’ and ‘Shorty’ in close proximity, and with a nearby weeping blue Colorado spruce and a dwarf ‘Shaina’ Japanese maple, the contrast of gray boulders, blue spruce, and red maple leaves is nearly more exciting than my old heart can manage. I have never paid attention to charts that decorators put together to help the uncivilized amongst us with color combinations, but I’m quite certain that bright blues, reds, and yellows would be frowned upon. In the garden I have found this to be very satisfying, perhaps because foliage colors are more muted than paint or fabric.

On the other end of the garden spurges flourish in the deep dry shade of mature maples and poplars where the primary difficulty was finding a few inches between roots to dig a hole for the new plants eight or ten years past. Here Euphorbia robbiae (above) has spread at a moderate pace, surely a wonder in competition with thirsty, shallow maple roots. Chartreuse flower bracts rise on stalks above the foliage in early April with the color lasting for months. For this most difficult environment Robb’s spurge has proven to be the ideal plant, with a few small plants spreading to cover an area that was several hundred square feet of barren ground and surface roots.

Another favored plant blooming in the late April garden is columbine (Aquilegia). I doubt that the original plants have survived since columbines are short lived perennials, and don’t care, for columbines seed themselves about, though they are not thugs and play nicely with their neighbors. Their flowers are uniquely formed and beautiful, but even following bloom the soft foliage is attractive. In my garden they were planted in nearly full sun, and they grow without a bother, but they have seeded into some open spots that are part shade and this is their preference.

I have a soft spot for perennials that seed themselves (yeah, free plants!), and particularly when they get along well with others. A perennial geranium, or cranesbill (though I’ve never heard anyone call a geranium by that name) that grows in the garden has a neat, mounding habit and slightly reddish, purplish foliage. I have long ago forgotten its name, but it blooms from mid April into May, and then stops, but the foliage remains fresh looking throughout the heat of summer, and a few seedlings grow here and there, almost as if someone with greater design skill than me had placed them. I suppose I have pulled a stray seedling, but not many, and now I have a nice collection of eight or ten nice, mounding plants with reddish foliage that bloom for a month in the spring and then fill gaps, with foliage as fresh as new, and that slowly seed themselves into open sunny and partially shady spaces. What more could I ask for? And free.

There is hardly a plant that brings more color to the shady garden than the variegated forget-me-not, Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ (above), with variegated foliage that highlights a dank, dark bend in a gushing stream that leads to a small, shady pond. The clusters of tiny blue flowers in April are icing on the cake. Brunneras are reputed to be difficult, and I don’t believe that this is one to consider for dry shade, but in this spot along a stream, and another along a deeply shaded stone path, they are highly valued in this garden.

Nearby, but in closer proximity to the Robb’s euphorbia in horrid dry shade, the arching branches and small hanging white bell-like blooms of variegated Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum) add color between the spring flowering camellias and brightly colored aucubas with leaves splashed with gold. The blooms are subtle, best appreciated from close range, and definitely not visible from more than a few paces away, but they are interesting and the green and white striped foliage is pleasant and fresh through the heat and drought of summer.

And of course there is more blooming today, but April is ending, so we’ll call this a day, and when we embark on our next journey through the garden May will claim those flowers as her own. For this week’s end I will have some planting to do, a few annual flowers, a few shrubs, and perennials from the garden center, and a a few oddities acquired through mail order. The dahlia, elephant ear, and banana roots that have been packed away in a cooler in the garage, and the large agaves and other tropicals overwintered facing every sunny window in the house in pots, will be taken outdoors and planted or set on the deck and patios. This is really not so much work as it sounds, and it will be nice to be able to get around the house again.

Perhaps in the next week I’ll get around to updating on the five ponds in the garden, and also the annual update on Japanese maples is a must, so there is much we need to catch up on.


April’s ending with a bloom

The last weekend in April is drawing to a close, and blooms in the garden couldn’t be more abundant. The flowers of redbuds (below, the glossy new leaves of ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud) and dogwoods have faded, though there are a few remaining on dogwoods in the shade, but fringetree (Chionanthus) and ‘Ivory Silk’ tree lilac will be blooming in a few days.

Since the middle of the month we’ve featured the flowering trees and shrubs in the garden, and today we’ll wrap up April with a couple shrubs left out earlier and then some of the blooming perennials in the April garden. The week past was a busy one for me, and I failed to take my customary daily stroll through the garden even once, so I had not seen that the fragrant reddish-brown flowers of sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus, above) have opened fully, and nearby the red bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus pavia, below) is blooming.  The buckeye’s bloom stays for only a few days, so I was fortunate to catch it at its peak today.

The buckeye is planted in the dry, shady sliver of forest that borders my garden, and though the area has less sun than it would prefer the buckeye grows without complaint. At the far end of the property beyond a spring fed, muddy swale, but also along the wooded border, a seedling is growing next to brambles and miscanthus grasses that have reseeded. Eventually I will clear this area, the brambles and grasses will go, but the buckeye will stay.

On the near side of the muddy swale, the side that I call the garden, I have planted blueberries (above) in another area that is often damp from runoff that is directed into a dirt bottom pond at the back property line. The blueberries enjoy the frequently damp soil, though I suppose they would not do so well in an area that was constantly wet. I suspect that the area will eventually be too shady, with a gingko and blackgum shading them in several years, but until then there is adequate sun to provide a few berries for the birds.

Fifteen years ago, or perhaps a few years earlier, I had eight or ten magnificently large blueberry shrubs that were salvaged from a farm that was being developed. For ten years there were abundant berries in late June into July, and I enjoyed a handful of warm berries as I walked the garden on early summer evenings. My wife never failed to warn me that they should be washed before eating, but I don’t spray pesticides and it would not be convenient to walk back inside to wash them and then back out again, so I took my chances, and of course I survived to tell the story.

The large blueberry shrubs declined over the years, and then were removed when the swimming pond was excavated. The new bushes are planted at the back of the garden, and they are still too small to provide many berries, so I leave them for the birds and get my berries from the grocer.

As I surveyed the garden today I realized that more than a few blooming shrubs had been left out, though in fact they have just begun to bloom, and will be enjoyed for a few weeks into May. At the entry to the driveway, along the property border I have planted two varieties of deutzia (Deutzia gracilis ‘Nikko’, above) that are in bloom. I had not intended to plant two varieties, in a small container the spreading Nikko and other, more upright variety appeared identical, and it’s likely that I ignored the nursery tags, but as they have grown they are clearly distinct types. The garden in this area is such a mishmash that the different deutzias are not noticed, but they are delightful and underutilized shrubs with long lasting blooms and carefree bright green foliage through the year. I assume that they are not used more widely because their leaves are deciduous, but they are deserving of greater attention.

Another underutilized shrub is the deciduous azalea (above). While the evergreen azaleas are hugely popular the deciduous types are barely noticed, though their yellow, orange, and red colors are more striking, and most are quite fragrant. Many of the deciduous azaleas grow tall, and their form is less compact than the evergreens, but they are wonderful plants for the back of the garden, or for planting at the wood’s edge. They are pest and care free in my experience, and should be planted more often.

Leucothoe ‘Rainbow’ (above) is also care free, and blooming today, though the lily-of-the-valley type blooms barely stand out from under the arching branches. Rainbow is used most commonly for its variegated foliage, and though I see references in garden magazines that it is used too rarely, I see it quite commonly. I have found that the arching branches can be awkward to use in the garden, requiring more space than one would expect, and so they are often pruned to fit and their natural form is diminished.

The fragrant viburnums are past bloom, but perhaps the showiest of the the viburnums are the doublefiles, Maresi (above) and Shasta. Though they are not fragrant the large spreading shrubs are often covered in white blooms in late April, and no other viburnum can match its splendid fall foliage color. Viburnums perform best positioned in full sun for the better part of the day, but Maresi in my garden has slipped into nearly full shade over the years, and still it puts on a worthy show.

That is it for the flowering shrubs in the garden, and I fear I have overstayed my welcome for the day, so here we will end for now. I have promised to feature the April blooming perennials, and I will follow tomorrow if time allows with the wonderful euphorbias that have been blooming for several weeks, brunnera, Solomon’s Seal, columbines, and clematis, and then later in the week I’ll feature my favorite Japanese maples, and then the first update of the season on the ponds in the garden.

Pity the poor azalea

In today’s garden section of the Washington Post garden writer Adrian Higgins takes the azalea to task, mostly I think, for being so common. I don’t think that he finds any particular fault with them, except that they’re everywhere, and he offers some splendid alternatives. I have a few complaints of my own, and have only a few in my garden, but there’s a nearby garden where azaleas have been planted in groups, ten of one color, then another and another down a long property line. Dogwoods and redbud in bloom are planted at intervals, so the line of azaleas doesn’t become monotonous, and the effect is magical. For several weeks I wish this garden was mine.

Single azaleas in a range of colors planted in close proximity can be jarring to the eye, and I see this too often, but planted in groups, and with some attention to coordinating colors, there are few superior plants in bloom in late April. Yes, azaleas suffer some issues, especially with lacebugs that chew on the undersides of leaves and must be controlled with pesticides to keep foliage attractive. And, in late fall azaleas drop a portion of their leaves, a few or many depending on variety, and so will look quite naked if planted in a prominent location, and particularly at the front of the home.Autumn Twist Encore Azalea

Of the dozen or two azaleas (Azalea Autumn Twist, above) I planted in this garden over twenty years ago, only a few Delaware Valley Whites remain, four or five paces under the forest’s canopy, but in an area with few competing maple roots. With shallow root competition the other azaleas lasted a few years, as many as ten as they declined each season. The fault, of course, was not with the azalea, but with the designer, the planter who punished these fine plants with a most undesirable location. They are gone now, replaced with shrubs and perennials that will withstand the horrid conditions.Autumn Rouge azalea

For years I was reluctant to try more, and of course there are many wonderful alternatives, but I was tempted by the promise of azaleas that bloom off and on throughout the spring, summer, and fall, so I planted a dozen varieties of Encore azalea (Autumn Rouge, above), and a year later another ten. I was careful to avoid the dry shade that spelled the doom of the earlier plants, and I planted the Encores in a range of conditions from nearly full sun to heavy shade.  I’ve been both delighted and mildly disappointed.Autumn Royalty azalea

Delighted by blooms from late April into May (Autumn Royalty, above), and mid September flowers that often last into early November when they are appreciated more because there’s not much else in bloom at the time. Of the twenty or more varieties I’ve tested, not all bloom well in my northern Virginia garden in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. I’ve decided that some are too far north to reset flower buds to bloom a second time, and that a few others are just not vigorous enough to survive without ideal soil and irrigation. The six or seven best varieties are perfectly cold hardy, grow with some vigor, and will bloom dependably twice a year, not spring, summer, and fall as reputed in their advertising which is valid for the deeper south, but not in this area.Autumn Princess azalea

I have plenty of blooms in my garden in April, so azaleas are nice, but not essential, and I could easily be persuaded that this or that is a better choice. However, in October and November I am quite pleased to have planted them, and though they’re not the only blooms in the garden at that time, I wouldn’t be without them. A side benefit of Encore azaleas (Autumn Princess, above) is that they are more resistant to lacebugs, so I don’t have to spray pesticides to keep them looking good.

Today there are a number of plants blooming in the garden that are treasured more than azaleas, but throughout the year there are few more valued. I will respectfully disagree with Mr. Higgins evaluation, and wholeheartedly recommend Encore azaleas. And, I wouldn’t mind a grouping of the good, old fashioned Hershey Red below the hydrangeas near the swimming pond’s waterfall, a few more Delaware Valley’s to bring some light into the forest’s edge, a few of the low, compact Chinzan near the stone patio, and ……

April’s cool

I should not be surprised by the cool temperatures on this week’s end that are not cold, but are a dramatic change from the delightful seventies we’ve had for much of the past several weeks. The weather in the mid Atlantic region in March and April is “variable”, which is to say that there can be snow one day and eighty degrees a few days later.

The temperature swings have not been so erratic this spring, but the eighty degree days, and a few in the nineties (very unusual in April) have quickened the cycle of bloom so that some of the early flowering trees (dogwood, above) faded in half the time that is typical, and others were hurried into bloom. And with cooler temperatures, but not so cold as to injure the flowers, we are in the midst of one of the miraculous periods when some of the early, the mid, and the late converge to bloom simultaneously.

A few days past I featured the flowering trees from my garden, and not to drone on too much about them, but I believe that small flowering trees are the anchor of the garden. They are properly used as focal points, as centerpieces around which shrubs and perennials are placed. While I have seen exceptional gardens without a flowering tree (or a Japanese maple as an alternative), for most of us unburdened by a genius for design it is simply easier to create a pleasing garden design if we place a dogwood or redbud, a serviceberry or fringetree, any of the upright growing Japanese maples, a crapemyrtle, or any of a dozen other superb choices, and then add flowering shrubs and perennials in the gaps between trees.

There are many fine shrubs blooming in the garden in mid April, some that are on schedule and others early by a week or two. The fragrant viburnums are nearly past bloom, their sweet scent not so obvious now with only a few remaining flowers, but the scentless Chinese Snowball (Viburnum macrocephalum ‘sterile’, above) with huge white pom-poms is beginning to bloom, first with a tint of green and slowly turning completely white. The shrub is large, lanky, and awkward after bloom, and I’m quite certain that it would benefit from a hard annual pruning, but I am not apt to keep up with those type chores regularly, so in my garden it could forever be large and lanky. I don’t know if I will be able to ignore this task for much longer since I was notified by my wife more than a year ago that pruning this monster blocking the library windows was a priority, but the shades are usually drawn on those windows, so what is the harm in blocking them? (As a side note, I have found that my arguments are more persuasive in writing than in reality, and I’m certain that I will be chopping this viburnum in half after this year’s blooms fade.)

Just below the Chinese Snowball are several (probably closer to ten, or more) spring blooming camellias (above), a few recently planted, and others nearly recovered from several years of browsing by our neighborhood deer. Since I have begun spraying the deer repellent the camellias (and aucubas and hostas that were particularly devastated along with the camellias in this part of the garden) have not been bothered at all, and now that they will have a second year of growth I will expect that they should begin to grow lush and full again. Certainly they have an established root system, for the deer do not nibble below ground, so growth this season should be substantial. I prefer the fall blooming camellias, since they flower when little else is, but the blooms of the spring camellias are so beautiful and of course they cannot be faulted for flowering when so much else is.

Nearby the fragrant Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus, above) grows, and though I don’t recall ever experiencing its scent (by some twist of fate my sense of smell seems only to capture the sweetest and most foul scents and none in between) I am fond of its unusual reddish-brown flowers that are hardly attractive in the fashion of traditional flowers. In visits to the University of Georgia while my son was in grad school I enjoyed the yellow flowered variety ‘Athens’ at the school’s outstanding arboretum, and I have now procured one that I will soon be planting. The shrub grows with an open habit, and so is not well suited to the front of the garden, but not every shrub must be as dense as a boxwood, and many fine shrubs are not.

Another fragrant shrub, sweetly scented so that even I can’t miss it, is Daphne ‘Carol Mackie’ (above) with variegated foliage and a compact habit that makes it valuable in any position in the garden. Daphnes are reputed to be finicky growers, and Carol Mackie one of the more difficult, but I have had no problem growing it, and in fact a year ago it was nearly crushed under a large maple that fell, and it rebounded with only a few small branches broken and no further apparent injury. When it showed no immediate stress I suspected that the roots must have suffered some trauma, and that the daphne would probably die through the winter, but here it as a good as ever, so what do I know?

Fothergilla gardenii (above) is not widely known, at least I rarely see it in gardens, but its fragrant bottlebrush blooms and fall color distinguish it as more deserving of attention than it receives. I regret that I have planted mine on the neighbor’s side of a thick mixed tree and shrub border, and so in some years I miss its blooms completely when I don’t venture into that part of the garden regularly.

Nearly beside the fothergilla is the compact growing Miss Kim lilac, a delightful fragrant lilac that fits into gardens much easier than the tall, rangy common lilac varieties. Today Miss Kim is a few days from bloom, but a tall lilac in the lower garden (which guards the entrance to a groundhog’s tunnel, though the groundhog has moved on) is blooming with an unmistakable fragrance. The large growing lilacs are subject to all manner of problems, though they grow like weeds, old wood trunks must be cut out from time to time to keep the shrub vigorous. Of course, I have never cut away any until the heavy snow this winter did the work for me.

I don’t hope to encourage anyone to be as laggard as I in accomplishing the minimum of garden chores, but I am often encouraged that nature does more than its share. Once the basic housekeeping has been completed by early April I am happy to lounge about, enjoying, not working, with hardly a care for the list that my wife has set to be done this weekend. I am quite content today, but there are more than a few shrubs, azaleas deciduous and evergreen, and perennials that will have to wait for another day on this tour of the flowers of April. I hope that you’ll visit again in a few days.

April is blooming crazy

They’re everywhere! Blooms, blossoms, flowers, everything that can bloom is blooming.

The magnolias, cherries (above), and serviceberry blooming in March are long past, victims of the ninety degree temperatures a week ago that accelerated their cycle from flower to leaf. I feared the same fate for the redbuds (below)and dogwoods that flowered earlier than is usual, but cooler temperatures arrived in time that these blooms will last for several weeks. There is no better time to be in the garden, surrounded by flowers, with warm days and cool nights. Most of the early season garden chores have been completed, so now is the time to enjoy, and there’s much to cherish.

While trees that flower in March are subject to capricious frosts and freezes, April is somewhat more predictable. Though frost and an occasional freeze are not unusual, their stay is short, and there is far less likelihood that blooms will be damaged. The late spring blooming magnolias are rarely damaged, and I have never witnessed frost injury with redbuds and dogwoods.

In my garden there are several types of redbud, the burgundy leafed ‘Forest Pansy’ (above), variegated ‘Silver Cloud’ (below) with green, white, and sometimes pink splashes on the leaves, a yellow leafed ‘Hearts of Gold’, and the weeping ‘Lavender Twist’. All have similar blooms, though there are often subtle variations of color resulting from sun exposure or the natural variations of seedling grown plants. I  do not have a green leafed redbud since I am endlessly intrigued by variegated and plants with bold leaf coloration, but our native redbud (Cercis canadensis) is an extraordinary tree with beautiful small pink flowers that persist for most of April and are followed by large, sturdy, drought resistant heart shaped leaves. Their mature size is small enough for most gardens, though they will grow as wide as they are tall with age.

If there is a finer flowering tree than redbud I would judge our native dogwood (Cornus florida, below) to be its only close competitor. If redbud has any fault it is that the fall color is an unspectacular yellow, while dogwood’s crimson foliage is unsurpassed by any tree, and accompanied by bright red berries that would be more prominent if birds didn’t promptly consume them. Of course, the large blooms are recognized and beloved, whether the more common white or various shades of pink. The red flowered Cherokee Brave is only slightly darker than what most people would call pink, but whatever you would call the color it is a wonderful tree.

The native dogwood has a troubled reputation for being disease prone, and this is true to some extent, but vigorous selections are commonly available that are much less susceptible. In the past decade there were fears that dogwoods would succumb to an anthracnose  leaf fungus and to powdery mildew, and it is true that trees in forests in the eastern United States have suffered devastating losses. However, damage to garden grown trees has been very limited, and so long as the Cherokee selections (Cherokee Princess and Brave), and Appalachian Spring, are grown, there is little chance of substantial damage other than some black spots in abnormally wet springs.

I would not be without the native dogwood in my garden, and I have several of the white flowering Cherokee Princess, a peculiar weeping white dogwood that hardly substantiates a moment of your attention, and a lovely green and gold variegated leaf dogwood ‘Cherokee Sunset’ (above)with nearly red flowers. ‘Sunset’ is bothered by excessive rainfall with leaves gnarled and stunted, but in years with normal precipitation the colors of the leaves are magnificent, and the tree is a treasure even though it grows slowly and is more disease prone.

If you are inclined to take a safer route, but would like a dogwood in your garden, then the late May blooming Kousas are an excellent choice, as are the early May flowering hybrids such as Stellar Pink (which is only barely pink in the warmer climes of the east coast), and white blooming Aurora, Celestial, and Venus. I have several Kousas in my garden, both green and a couple of green and white variegated leaf types (Wolf Eyes, above), as well as the pink flowered kousa ‘Satomi’ (below) which is notable for its glossier-than-is-normal leaves. Stellar Pink grows more quickly and upright than the native dogwoods, or the more bush-like Kousas, and I was afraid at an early age that it would not bloom so heavily as others, but I have been more than satisfied as the tree has aged.

It should be clear that I am obsessed with the redbuds and dogwoods, and indeed I have little doubt that I will find space to add several more through the years. Perhaps within another twenty years I will have reached my fill, though I can imagine it might be more if I should live so long. I would recommend that you find whatever space you can in your garden to plant as many dogwoods and redbuds as you can afford and have space for, and I have found that it is well worth your while to delay the purchase of furniture and cars to enable adding more of these delightful flowering trees.

Still, there is room in the garden for other fine April blooming trees. The Carolina Silverbell (Halesia caroliniana, above) is often in and out of bloom too quicky, but the tiny hanging white bells are quite wonderful, and if there is room remaining after you have had your fill of redbuds and dogwoods there are few finer trees for April blooms.

Though the blooms of the mid season blooming magnolias are on their way out with the warm temperatures, they are  well worth mention as extraordinary trees with large saucer-like flowers. In my garden ‘Jane’ (above) has grown to monstrous shrub like proportions, fifteen feet tall and wide, but I have never begrudged the space it has consumed with its large purple blooms in late March into April and sporadic flowers through the summer into fall. The pale yellow flowering ‘Elizabeth’ (below) is more upright in habit, and is another valued tree in my garden.

As I have been singing the praises of the flowering trees I have neglected to mention the Japanese maples that are another of my favored trees, and then there are the flowering shrubs, lilacs, spireas, camellias, azaleas, and on and on we could go, but we’ll have to do this another day for I’m certain that your patience has worn thin, and there is much ground to cover to detail the wonders of the April garden.

Earn your gardening merit badge

Everything you plant dies? You think you have a brown thumb? I’m sorry, there’s no such thing. Anyone can grow plants, even you!

In nearly four decades in the landscape business, and longer as a gardener, I’ve been amazed and confounded by the complexity that people attribute to the simple act of selecting and planting their garden plants successfully. Today, I hope to break the process down into easy to digest pieces.

Select the right plant for the area

Read the plant tag, the sign in the garden center, or the description in the catalog. If the sign recommends shade to part shade, don’t plant in full sun, and vice versa. Many plants are tolerant of a range of conditions, others are not, and you’ll only find out through experience, so it’s better if you keep it simple and follow directions. Rather than attempting to coordinate sun or shade exposure requirements with mature plant sizes, ask the garden center manager, or better yet, contact a landscape designer.

Azaleas are tolerant, but prefer shelter from the late day sun

Beyond taking measure of whether you will be planting in sun or shade, there are some conditions that are very limiting. If you plant in these without getting the right information, your plants will fail.

Drainage problems

If the area you’re planting in stays wet, most plants will not survive. This has nothing to do with a brown thumb, but a lack of available oxygen and ultimately root rot. There are plenty of plants that will thrive in wet conditions, but if you try to force one that doesn’t into a wet spot, it will die, usually quickly. Weeping willows, bald cypress, and red maples are among trees that will tolerate wet feet, even standing water, and there are evergreens and perennials that are similarly well suited to damp areas. Your choices are limited, so research or get advice before you plant just anything in a swamp.

Japanese iris flourish in standing water and wet areas

Dry shade

Shallow roots of shade trees, usually maples, are frequent contributors to the death of young plants. Lack of water is truly the cause, but the culprit is the root system of an established tree that efficiently grabs every ounce of moisture, whether supplied by your hose or irrigation system, or by rainfall. If the area is too shady for grass to survive, then part of the problem is usually shallow tree roots, and you’re limited in the plants that will survive this competition. Digging a bigger hole won’t help. The tree’s roots will soon invade the fresh soil, and building up soil over roots can work temporarily until the roots grow up into the new soil, but can harm some trees that won’t tolerate decreased root zone oxygen levels.

Hostas prefer more moisture, but will tolerate dry shade

How to dig a hole

The most common cause of death that I’ve witnessed over the years is killing plants with kindness, digging too large a planting hole, in particular too deep a hole. Until recently, common practice was to dig twice the width and depth of the root mass of the plant. Inevitably, the base of the plant will settle in the loose soil and roots will be starved for oxygen, and either be too dry because they are below the damp surface soil, or too wet in poorly drained clay soils. There’s no reason to make this any more complicated, follow one simple rule and your chances for a successful planting will multiply. Do not dig a hole deeper than the depth of the roots. In fact, it’s better to err by planting slightly high, especially in poorly drained soils (clay).

Plants need water

Not too much, as discussed earlier, but plants need water to survive, and the first several weeks after planting are critical. Let a three day old perennial dry out in June and you’ve lost a plant. Two months later there’s a longer margin for error, and two years later, even greater.

Even drought tolerant Rudbeckia needs water to become established

“But I watered twice a week”, or “three times”, or “just like I was told”. All are famous last words, lamenting a dead plant. There are two obvious possibilities here, one that the person did not water as frequently as they claim, or that they did not water properly. No matter the frequency of irrigation, if the water flows off into the lawn, or into the storm drains, then it has done little good for the plant.

In all cases the key to efficient watering is to do it slowly. Standing over a plant with a hose running full blast wets the soil surface, at best. The best irrigation practices involve drip irrigation, soaker hoses, and low flow watering aids such as GatorBags. How long? How much water? These cannot be answered without knowing the type and size of the plant, the soil type, and moisture content of the soil, but we want to water deeply and less frequently.

Don’t give up on a plant too soon!

Plants are tougher than you expect. We can starve, flood, neglect, and abuse them, and still they live. Sometimes not without some outward signs of stress. Too often a living plant is given up for dead when there are a few brown leaves. Even when the entire plant turns brown there is often enough vigor remaining that the plant will send out new growth.

Scratch the bark, and if there’s live, green tissue don’t give up on the plant. Continue to water, do not fertilize, and wait. Often the leaves that emerge will be smaller than normal, but the plant is alive, and with a little extra attention to watering it is likely to survive.

Don’t worry about the soil

Plants will survive in clay, sand, gravel, and just about any conditions found in a garden. Some soil types will need some work so that they retain or drain water more efficiently, but in all cases the entire planting bed should be amended, not just the planting hole. Too often I hear that someone has dug a hole, removed all the existing clay soil, and replaced it with rich topsoil. Then they wonder why the plant has died. An impervious soil (clay) with a hole dug and filled with rich organic soil without allowance for drainage sounds much like a bog, and not a suitable environment for most plants.

The ideal soil for most plants contains only 5-10% organic content, far less than the soils of many gardeners who dump endless supplies of compost into planting beds. This small amount of organic content provides an excellent soil structure with ideal spaces between soil particles to hold moisture without becoming waterlogged. Plants will survive, and often thrive, with soils that have been over improved, and others that have had no amendment at all.

Expect lush growth in raised planting beds

My advice to gardeners with clay soils is to take a lesson from vegetable growers and plant in raised beds. I have found that the most critical issue in planting in clay is drainage, and there’s no practical way to alleviate the drainage issues of clay without considerable expense, so build up the planting bed to plant several inches above the compacted clay. The best soil to use in raised planting beds? Again, not rich, highly organic soil, but a mix heavy on clay with some organic content added to improve drainage.

Keys to successful planting

  1. Pick the right plant for the conditions
  2. Dig the hole for the plant so that the base is slightly above ground level. It’s okay to dig wider, but don’t dig any deeper than the depth of the container or rootball.
  3. Water after planting, slow and deep. A couple times each week during the growing season for the first four to six weeks. Mulch will help retain ground moisture, but don’t allow mulch or soil to build up against the plants trunk or lower branches.
  4. Watch it grow! Don’t fiddle with it, or fertilize, just enjoy. There’s more potential harm in doing too much than too little, with the possible exception of watering.

That’s more like spring

I think that I’m a happy person. Of course, I also think of myself as laid back, and people who hear that chuckle in disbelief, so perhaps I’m not qualified to judge.

I consider myself a lazy gardener. I’m quite content to put important tasks off as long as possible, sometimes until the time to do them has passed and the chore no longer needs doing. Many clean up projects can be accomplished through decay. Wait long enough and leaves, piles of sticks, and an assortment of odd this’s and that’s will magically disappear.

Procrastination won’t work in April. Flowers are popping out everywhere, but so are weeds, and the old foliage of grasses and perennials must be cut before new growth begins, and broken and dead branches must be pruned. In my one acre garden there’s no shortage of chores to catch up on from late March into April, and by mid month it’s time to plant. Often I don’t know what’s to be planted or where until I see it in the garden center, and then I must have one of these, and a handful of those, and the plan falls into place.

This year there are a couple areas begging for planting, and though you might not see space for more, I have imagined the additions for months. The larger area is shady and dry, and in my twenty years in this garden it has never been satisfactory. An aging Forest Pansy redbud (a splendid tree with deep purple foliage well into the summer before it fades)  arches over the space, but the neighboring forest has encroached over the years so that the area is too shady, and it does not bloom well, and loses branches regularly as it declines. I will soon have to decide if it is to be put out of its misery, and then it will be replaced by one of the Rutgers hybrid dogwoods that bloom in May, perhaps Venus with extraordinarily large flowers.

The dogwood (or the redbud if it remains) will be joined by aucubas with bright gold splotched foliage, several varieties of spring blooming camellias, and large leafed hostas to fill the spaces between. I have been hesitant in years past to add more aucubas, camellias , or hostas since they had proven to be favorites of the neighborhood deer, but since I have had excellent success with spraying  a repellent I am overjoyed with the prospect of completing my vision for this too long neglected area.

A second smaller area, below a serpentine stone wall that retains the lower edge of the large swimming pond, has been prepared and is waiting for plants. Excavation for the pond left the area poorly drained and with compacted soil, and though large slabs of stone allow the mower a path to the lower section of garden, the ground had to be lightened and raised to be adequate for planting. Now I must decide on the plants, ones that are low enough not to hide the wall, but something that will tumble over the stones and will withstand being run over by the mower occasionally. Today I don’t have a clue, but I’m certain that I’ll be inspired with a visit to the garden center.

Thank goodness the heat has passed and cooler temperatures have returned. I am in no rush for spring to end, nearly before it has begun, but the early magnolias, then the cherries have been hurried past bloom and into leaf. Redbuds have flowered only a few days earlier than is normal, but then the native dogwoods bloomed a few days afterwards, as early as I can ever recall. I’ve seen azaleas blooming. Azaleas! What will be left for May?

The light yellow, almost cream colored magnolia Elizabeth began blooming several days ago, during the ninety degree days, and already the leaves are emerging and the flowers are dropping. In past years I had never noticed its sweet, citrusy scent until the still, warm evening the flowers first opened. There are plants with fragrance that is not so obvious that they are only noticed on still evenings when the temperature and humidity are right. Some years I never notice the scent of the late February blooming witch hazel ‘Arnold’s Promise’, though it is one of only a few flowers in the garden at that time.

The fragrant viburnums can hardly go unnoticed, so long as you venture within fifty feet of them. Even if the weather was not so lovely it would be worth a visit to experience their delightful blooms and sweet scent. The spring flowering viburnums are excellent plants for the forest’s edge where there is sufficient sun for part of the day, but plants that are not sturdy will often fail because of the competition from shallow tree roots. There are a range of sizes, from compact three foot plants to the tall, open growing Burkwoodi.

The fragrant viburnums will be closely followed by the semi evergreen Pragense, with similar blooms, but no scent, and the large, scentless snowball flowers of Maresi. Maresi, and the nearly identical Shasta, which grows with more horizontal branching, and so is wider and not as tall as Maresi, are exceptional shrubs. The flowers will cover the plant soon, followed by pleasant foliage that turns nicely to crimson in the fall. Some care should be exercised to give Pragense, Maresi, and Shasta adequate room (allow for a width of ten feet), so that you need not butcher them as I so often see when they are improperly placed too close to a walk, or blocking a gate as they have grown large.

Today we have explored only a small part of the garden. Most of the disasters caused by the winter’s snow have been cleared, and enough of the regular clean up has been accomplished that you are able to walk the stone paths without stumbling over debris. An excellent crop of spring onions must be pulled eventually, but they are a bit easier once they have attained more girth, so that task will be saved for another day. I am quite satisfied with the progress I have made after a slow start. I think that this week I will be ready to visit the garden center, and for that I am happy.