Japanese iris

In my garden there are five ponds, four that are one hundred fifty square feet and smaller, and a large pond that is nearly fifteen hundred square feet that I call the “swimming pond”, though I do not swim, only float in it. Only the swimming pond is in full sun, and here is the greatest diversity of plants; waterlilies, variegated cattail, sweetflag, pitcher plants, a variety of rushes and irises, and annual elephant ears, papyrus, and canna lilies grow in shallow water in small gravel that filters the recirculating pond water.

Water plants will grow as well in sun or shade, but most will not flower as prolifically without a half day of sun. There is no more splendid bloom in the garden than Japanese iris (Iris ensata) that are blooming today in several inches of water, and nearby in damp soil and standing water of a drainage swale along with the Siberian iris ‘Caesar’s Brother’ (below) that has faded in the past week.

I have heard that Japanese iris can be finicky, and I suppose that in dry conditions this could be so, but in constant dampness or in shallow standing water they are quite carefree, requiring only a moment of clean up of the past year’s foliage. I have planted the Japanese iris directly into small pockets of soil, or just in fine gravel, and the clumps spread at a moderate pace, unlike many aquatics that must be restrained by pots.

There are a few hundred varieties of Japanese iris, and dozens commonly available. I have yet to see one that is not spectacular in bloom, and so my collection continues to expand. The earliest bloomer in my collection is the variegated Japanese iris, but closely followed by Iris ‘Gracieuse’ (below). The upright sword-like leaves are taller than most, and in the pond this gives somewhat the appearance of cattails when not in bloom, but without the bother that they will spread out of control. 

‘Lion King’, (below) is also tall, and the blooms are the largest of the varieties in my garden.

‘Variegata’ (below) is the earliest in bloom, and the green and white striped leaves are quite ornamental after flowering. In dry soil iris foliage will wither in the heat of late summer, but in damp soil and shallow water the leaves remain erect and look fresh until frost.

There are a few other Japanese iris in the garden, but of course I am terrible at keeping track of such things, so their names are unknown, but you should be assured that there are no bad choices.

Forget the flowers – shrubs and a mention of perennials

I’m not suggesting that flowers be banned, or that fewer be planted, only that there should be more to gardens than impatiens and petunias. There are trees and shrubs that have delightful foliage that’s colorful even when not a flower’s in sight. And don’t forget perennials, for hostas are greatly prized for their colorful and variegated leaves, and seldom considered for their blooms.

I am fond of yellow, red, and blue foliage, the brighter the better, and leaves that are nearly black, with a bit of green in its glorious shades, and when you toss a handful of variegated leaves into the mix there is a challenge to creating a cohesive garden. Count mine amongst those that lack any cohesion whatsoever, and what do I care?

The design of this garden is dictated by feel. Sometimes I “feel” that a yellow-leafed, knee high must be planted between the red-leaf Japanese maple and the blue spruce with pendulous branches that hug the ground, and what pops up in a walk through the garden center, a red leafed euphorbia (Bonfire euphorbia, above) with chartreuse bracts that stand out like a neon sign. Perhaps the euphorbia doesn’t quite work with ‘Caramel’ heuchera only a few feet away, but to my eye the red, yellow, blue combination is so splendid that I will overlook the heuchera, and instead consider that it belongs in the grouping with red hot poker and fall blooming toad lilies with the large green leaves of oakleaf hydrangea close behind.

Perhaps you consider any red, blue, yellow combination hideous, and so you should not plant anything so garish in your garden, but this mix suits my eye, and more so if I can find the space to shoehorn a black leafed elephant ear beside the spruce without causing any permanent disfigurement to the evergreen. I would consider adding the bright yellow Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) to crawl around and through this composition, but this could possibly be a bit too hysterical.

As we move through the garden today I fear that I must keep my remarks brief, and some plants might be omitted entirely, but I’ll start with shrubs and meander around to perennials in a short while. There are, of course, many plants with colored (other than green, that is) and variegated leaves that I don’t have in my garden, but this will be a start, and if you care to explore further and find others on your own I would commend your adventurous spirit.

The distinct reddish-purple leaves in the garden belong to the thorny Japanese barberries (Berberis thunbergii) , and though I do not grow the common red hummock Crimson Pygmy, the similar Royal Burgundy is more compact growing. Rose Glow (above) is taller growing with mottled rose-pink and deep purple new leaves that age to a deep reddish-purple, and Helmond Pillar has strict upright branching. Japanese barberries are restricted in some parts of the country because they seed themselves about indiscriminately, and are considered invasive, and though I have seen a seedling or two I’ve seen little evidence that the barberries should be considered a problem in Virginia. I would advise against planting the tall growing red leafed barberry ‘Artopurpurea’ since it seeds prolifically, but Crimson Pygmy and the barberries in my garden set little seed, so their potential to become invasive is quite limited.

Glossy abelia (Abelia x grandiflora) is a handsome, but coarse textured shrub with upright arching branches and bronze-green semi-evergreen leaves and pink-white blooms beginning in late spring through fall. It is common, but popular mostly in mass plantings on highways and large commercial developments. Recent introductions are more refined, lower and more compact growing, and several selections have variegated leaves that have increased its acceptance in gardens. I grow four cultivars, two quite similar with yellow leaves with green centers (Abelia x grandiflora ‘Kaleidoscope’ and ‘Gold Dust’,above), ‘Confetti’ with creamy white leaves with green centers, and ‘Canyon Creek’ with solid soft yellow foliage that turns to bronze in the fall. The scattered blooms are pleasant and long lasting, but these abelias are valued more for their foliage.

I mention Japanese aucubas (Aucuba japonica) occasionally in this space, usually when discussing the damage that deer have done to the garden in the past, but when I was considering evergreen shrubs to brighten a dank, dark part of the garden under overhanging poplars and maples, one choice was easy. Not one type of variegated leaf aucuba but two, Gold Dust (above), with bright yellow spots sprinkled liberally on a medium green background, and Picturata, with solid yellow blotches that nearly cover the large leaves. Early on I was convinced by other gardeners that aucuba was only marginally hardy in Virginia, but I have seen only a little leaf damage in the most severe winters a decade or two ago. I am convinced that there is no better suited evergreen shrub to brighten a shady corner.

In sun or shade andromeda, or Japanese pieris (Pieris japonica) is a wonderful choice if allowed a position with medium moisture, not too dry or wet as pieris is sensitive to both. The red spring growth of common varieties such as Mountain Fire, and long pendulous panicles of early spring blooms make this a splendid deer resistant evergreen shrub. Variegated pieris, and a more vigorous selection, ‘Flaming Silver’ (above and background of title) add colorful variegated foliage, and red to pink new growth, though I have found this cultivar more susceptible to lacebug than others.

I pledged to keep this brief (relatively brief maybe?), so I’ll wrap up with mentions of variegated English holly, with bold white and green leaves, weigela, with red leafed ‘Wine and Roses, and green and white ‘My Monet’, a goofy name for a fine plant, and Rainbow leucothoe. I have a handful or more of variegated leaf yuccas (above), Color Guard, Brite Edge, and Gold Sword, with green and yellow variegation, and I had a white and green variegated yucca that became too shaded over the years and faded away beneath a Crimson Queen weeping Japanese maple and a grouping of Gulfstream nandinas.

There are yellow and variegated caryopteris, the nearly black leaves of Black Lace elderberry and Diabolo ninebark, hydrangea ‘Lemon Daddy’, with large yellow leaves and blue flowers, and a couple variegated hydrangeas (above) that rarely bloom with winter dieback to branch tips, but with the foliage that is worthy enough not to be bothered by the lack of blooms.

There are dozens, many dozens of colored leafed perennials in the garden, dark foliaged dahlias (above), nearly a hundred hostas, liriopes and sedums (below), periwinkle, golden hake grass, sweetflag, and euphorbias, a red leafed aster, black snakeroot, and so on. There are also a few with plain old green leaves.

Snow damage update

Broken, bent, and battered, the garden in early March was a depressing shambles. There seemed no end to the damage, shrubs crushed under the weight of the heavy snow, and large evergreens with branches broken or bent to severe angles, or completely uprooted. Many deciduous trees were spared the worst, but densely branched Japanese maples lost major branches.

In late May much of the injury has healed, but lingering evidence remains, and some of the most severely damaged plants have been removed. In my garden two of three southern magnolias suffered many broken branches, and those that weren’t broken were bent awkwardly. Today the trees remain a sad sight, it will be several years before they regain their fullness. The broken limbs have been removed, but it is fortunate that the magnolias are at the back edge of the garden so that they can be afforded time to recover. If they were positioned more prominently I would have no choice but to remove them.

A major branch of a large Leyland cypress was bent so that it hovered just above the stone patio next to the swimming pond. The limb was removed, but as I feared the tree’s shape was ruined, so it had to be cut down. Now the stump remains (which I’ll get around to removing eventually), and the gaping hole along the property line border has been replanted with a Venus dogwood and a variety of perennials that will fill the space until the new tree is up to size. I was not fond of the cypress from the start, and I’m certain that I will enjoy the dogwood far more. There was considerable labor in its removal, but the loss of this huge evergreen has opened the area to more sunlight and the neighboring plants look better than they have in years.

I have seen a number of Leylands and other large evergreens around the neighborhood that have suffered many bent branches, or are leaning, and I believe that the homeowners decided in March to give them some time to see what would happen. I’m afraid that this is it, they will not improve further without constructive pruning, and some are damaged too badly to be saved.

A large weeping green leafed Japanese maple cascades over the smallest and oldest of my garden’s ponds, and as the pond was cleaned in late March it was evident that a large branch had been broken. The break was remarkably clean, and by good fortune this is the branch that my wife has continually hacked at for years to keep it from overtaking the pond, so she was delighted that it was gone so easily.

I have seen weeping maples with similar injuries, but to branches that adversely affected the tree’s appearance, and they have begun to fill the gap with new growth. Where a single large branch was broken three or four have appeared, so that the void will be filled in another year. I should caution that these new branches should be thinned to one or two next year so that the branches that grow will be stronger and less prone to breaking again.

Several large arborvitae and junipers, and some smaller evergreens with multiple trunks that were splayed in every direction were tied with a nylon strap called ArborTie to pull the branches together. The plants suffered no ill effects otherwise, and all look fine today, but I will err on the side of caution and not remove the strap for another month or longer. By mid summer I’ll remove the strap from one, and if it retains its shape I’ll remove the others. By using this strap, rather than twine or rope, there is less danger in girdling branches, so there’s no need to hurry.

When the snow melted most branches of boxwoods and nandinas that were bent to the ground sprung back, but not fully into their original shape. Since then the branches might have moved a little, but it’s safe to assume they won’t move further. Boxwoods in my garden are a little more open than they were, but their shape is not much different and the more open form allows light and air to enter the interior of the plant, and is healthy for it. Another year of growth will fill any open areas, though the boxwoods will be somewhat wider than they were.

I have tall nandinas, short ones, and in betweens, and all were bent lower than knee high under the snow for weeks. The tall nandinas (Nandina domestica) rebounded seventy five percent as soon as the snow melted, and have lifted slightly since, but there are long branches that arch over paths that will need to be pruned. I don’t mind having to lean a bit, but my wife is “particular” about such things, so I have little doubt that I’ll come home from work one day and the branches will be in the compost pile. Otherwise, the nandinas have never been so lush.

And most of the garden is growing so vigorously that the winter damage could be easily forgotten except for the ragged looking magnolias and the big gap where the cypress was. Early warm temperatures spurred abundant growth, and excellent ground moisture from the snow and timely rains have kept the garden at its peak for weeks. With the exception of an unfortunate Forest Pansy redbud planted on a berm at the back border of the property, near the dirt bottom pond that drains excess water from the lower garden. For weeks after the snow melted this area was impassable on foot, though there was daily evidence that deer had no such trouble.

The ground was saturated far longer than I’ve seen in the past, and I fear that the roots of the redbud disliked the constant wetness. Still, I shouldn’t complain, for most of the tree looks fine, only the top has died and the dead wood will need to be pruned out. Next year I’ll have forgotten it ever happened, which is much the same that can said for most of the snow damage in the garden.

Forget the flowers

Flowers and more flowers, nothing but flowers every week. Of course, I treasure the blooms in my gardens, but flowers are here today and gone next week, or with some long blooming perennials and annuals, the flowers get tiresome, more of the same day after day. As a practical matter this journal is most often dedicated to blooming plants because my garden has an abundance February through December to keep fresh photos coming a few times each week, and this is what captures the attention of most readers.

Today, forget the flowers, because there’s more to the garden, and at heart I am primarily a foliage fanatic. Not just any foliage, I love reds and yellows, blues, but variegated leaves most of all. Why wait until autumn for colorful leaves, there are plenty to see spring and summer, and many are marvelous garden plants.

Mention a red leafed tree and most people immediately think of Japanese maple, and there a plenty in my garden, but not just red, there are maples with yellow (Golden Full Moon maple, above) and variegated foliage (Butterfly maple, below) also. There are more than twenty thousand cultivated forms of Japanese maple, and many dozens in popular commerce, so there is a foliage color and size that is appropriate for nearly every garden.

Besides Japanese maples there are few trees that offer such a variety of leaf colors as redbud, with deep red leaves (Forest Pansy, at top of page), yellow (Hearts of Gold, above), and variegated (Silver Cloud, below). The native, green leafed redbud is an excellent small tree, but when you can have a beautiful bloom and foliage color, who’s to argue? Plant one of each.

And if you like redbuds you’ll love the variegated leaf dogwoods. Cherokee Sunset is a yellow and green leafed and red blooming selection of the native dogwood (Cornus florida ‘Cherokee Sunset’, above) and Wolf Eyes is a green and white leafed Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’, below). Both grow slower and wider than their green leafed counterparts, and both are delightful small trees.

While most trees with colorful and variegated leaves are small trees, there are some towering trees that put on quite a show. Eskimo Sunset maple (Acer psuedoplatanus ‘Eskimo Sunset’, above) has leaves splashed with pink and white, and though it is closely related to maples used primarily as shade trees, the mottled foliage slows its growth considerably and it will mature at twenty feet or so. The purple leafed beeches are not stunted by colored foliage. I have two in the garden, one a solid purple leaf, and the other is a variegated leaf, Tricolor (Fagus sylvatica Roseo-Marginata). The beech are very slow to become established, but eventually grow to become splendid, long lived trees.

There are no broadleaf trees that I know of with blue foliage (green with a hint of blue possibly), but there are plenty of blue needled conifers, and Colorado spruce varieties are most well known. The bluest spruces are grafted since spruce seedlings are not dependably blue, and by grafting a small section of a blue needled spruce onto the roots of a green the number of trees can be grown more quickly. In my garden I have Bacheri (below), Foxtail, Fat Albert, a columnar blue, Globosa, and Montgomery. The color of each is different, as are their growth habits, from the columnar spruce that is tall and narrow to Globosa, short and squat.

There are nearly as many colored and variegated foliage shrubs in the garden, but those must wait for another day.

Blooming in mid May – trees and shrubs

The Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa, below) are glorious this mid May. The fast growing, but often sporadic blooming ‘Galilean’ and variegated leaf ‘Wolf Eyes’ are flowering more heavily than I can recall. The pink ‘Satomi’ is a dependable bloomer, but it’s flowers have only the faintest hint of pink this year, not uncommon for Satomi or the hybrid Stellar Pink dogwoods.

I fail to understand why Chinese dogwoods, and the hybrids introduced by Rutgers University, are not more popular, for they are outstanding in bloom and completely carefree. I am particularly fond of our native dogwood (Cornus florida), but they are a bit difficult to transplant and prone to a variety of diseases, so for most gardens the Chinese varieties are more desirable. Whenever in doubt, I believe the proper course of action is to plant both so that you’ll have blooms in April, May, and into June.

I have decided that the most under appreciated flowering tree is the Japanese Tree Lilac (Syringa reticulata ‘Ivory Silk’, below). Visitors to my garden when it’s blooming are often stunned by the quantity of twelve inch wide panicles of creamy white flowers on this nearly thirty foot tall tree. While many lilacs are plagued by mildews, Ivory Silk is not troubled at all. It grows larger than many flowering trees, but its rounded upright form consumes considerably less space than most flowering cherries. With its upright branching, I have seen tree lilacs planted in close proximity to decks and patios without ill effect from low hanging limbs.

The Southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’, blooming below) Alta, Bracken’s Brown Beauty, and Greenback suffered considerable injury from the weight of the heavy snow this winter, and it will be years before the damage is repaired. Fortunately, the three magnolias are planted where they are least conspicuous, so there was no question that they would be allowed the time to heal. Alta suffered the least, but the Bracken’s and Greenback took the brunt of the storm. Limbs that were bent, but not broken are beginning to bloom, beauty amid the destruction.

The deciduous Bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla, in bloom below) suffered no injury from snow, and is now nearly in full bloom, though many flowers are so high up that they cannot be seen. The flowers are similar to Southern magnolia’s, but larger, as is the growth of this monstrous tree that is inappropriate for any but the largest properties. My garden is not sufficiently spacious for the bigleaf, but there it is, casting dense shade over a wide area. If you are curious, and suspect that you have enough space, I should also divulge that the huge leaves are a dull green, and the tree’s texture is coarse with little ornamental value. Despite these arguments to the contrary, it is one of my favorites.

Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’, below) has been touted by some in the nursery trade as a heat tolerant substitute for Japanese maples, with dark, deeply dissected leaves, and large flat clusters of small white flowers. Black Lace is nice enough as a shrub, but I would not trade the most bedraggled maple for one.  

I have roses here and there through the garden, from the start to test the vigor and pest resistance that was purported by Flower Carpet and Knockout roses. I have found that in addition to pest and disease resistance the Knockouts are fine flowering shrubs, and in fact people who dismiss roses as high maintenance will inevitably settle for lesser plants.

I have photographed and featured the Red Knockout several times, and it is without doubt the best and most vigorous of the group, but the newest, Sunny Knockout (below) exhibits the characteristic resistance to black spot and reblooms through the summer. The only issue I have with Sunny is that the bright yellow color lasts for a day only, then fades to cream. Still, a delightful shrub.

After Knockout roses were introduced a number of other roses were marketed as “similar to Knockout”, or “from Knockout parentage”, which of course is not to say that those roses inherit any of the positive characteristics of Knockout. This is my experience with ‘Home Run’ (below), with a deeper red than the cherry red Knockout Red, but apparently little of the vigor. In it’s fourth year now, I keep waiting for it to explode in growth, but I don’t think Home Run has it in it. 

I planted the first Drift groundcover roses (Drift Red below) three years ago, and at first I was quite disappointed. First year growth was weak, and in a wet season leaves dropped by the dozens on the small plants. Last year they showed more resistance to spotting and leaf drop, grew full, and bloomed from mid spring into early fall. The plants stay relatively compact (for a rose) and I heartily recommend them over the Flower Carpet roses that proved not to be such a groundcover or to be as disease resistant as claimed.

Indigo (Indigofera kirilowii, below) is a subshrub that is carefree, except that it will often need to be cut nearly to the ground in late winter in a similar manner to buddleias and carypoteris. Branches sucker from the base to slowly increase the plant’s spread.

The clay soils in much of Virginia are not conducive to the long term health of rhododendrons, but ‘Roseum Elegans’ (below)  is as tough as they come. As long as their roots remain undisturbed by scratching to remove weeds, or even to add mulch, the Roseum rhododendrons will grow old along with the gardener.

A place to relax

I wore out my old garden lounge chair, and have had to purchase another, the kind that’s called a zero gravity chair but is really just a recliner. They’re cheap and ugly, but suit my purposes quite well. I’ve tried to “relax” (sleep) in one of the chairs we have scattered on the various stone patios in the garden, but I can’t get the angle right, and even if I prop my legs onto a boulder, or the walls of the firepit by the swimming pond, they don’t give proper support and my legs fall asleep before I do.

On warm evenings after  a day at the office, or weekends when I’m not working, I have a regular routine, roam through the garden to see what’s blooming or in bud, pull a few weeds, take a few photos for this journal, and snooze for a bit near one of the waterfalls to drown out the sounds of the distant highway. I am often awakened by chirping birds or croaking frogs, or by my growling, hungry stomach. By mid June I skip the lounge chair and float in the swimming pond (above), which is more cooling than air conditioning, but more challenging to sleep in with koi nibbling at your toes.

The garden has matured to provide almost total privacy from April through October with a mix of evergreen hollies and magnolias, Colorado spruces and cryptomerias, and dogwoods, redbuds (Forest Pansy redbud, above), fringetree, deciduous magnolias, and other flowering trees that fill the gaps. Evergreen and flowering shrubs along the borders of the rear garden create a visual and physical barrier should the neighbors’ kids decide to visit, so that there is almost no evidence of the surrounding homes.

There is something blooming in the garden from February through early December, but from April into early June, before the worst of summer’s heat arrives, the rear garden is a splendid place to get away. With the cool temperatures of the past several weeks I have yet to test the waters of the swimming pond, but there are infrequently years when there is so much in bloom. Over the next few days I will attempt to catalog what’s in flower, first perennials since I have neglected to mention several over the recent weeks, and later in the week shrubs and flowering trees.

False indigo (Baptisia australis, above) has been blooming since early in the month, and of perhaps ten plants there is one that is significantly more vigorous, larger and more upright growing, and has many more and longer lasting flowers. Of course, this is the manner by which many named perennials are selected, and this plant is deserving of attention above the others, but then it is just a common baptisia. In any case, I take particular notice of it each spring.

Bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii, above) is nearly past bloom, and I have neglected to mention it over recent weeks, but it is a fine plant, attractive in bloom but also through the summer with upright clumps of thread-like foliage. I have seen marvelous photographs of its golden fall color, but in my garden it has not been quite so spectacular for whatever reason. And here I should note that there are multiple plants that go by the bluestar moniker, and to avoid this confusion is why gardeners should pay more attention to the Latin botanical names.

By chance another of the blue stars, this one Blue star creeper (Isotoma fluviatilis, above) is blooming between stones in paths through the garden. I have had problems with thymes and cultivated mosses in dry parts of the garden, but blue star creeper spreads reliably and at a pleasantly moderate pace without threatening to cover the path.

Another creeping perennial, Veronica repens ‘Sunshine’ (above) is blooming now, with short purple spikes above its low growing golden yellow leaves. This veronica has spread very slowly in my garden, but returns reliably each year.

I am careful to remove the many seedlings of columbine (above) that pop up through the veronica so it is not overwhelmed, though I allow the seedlings to remain in other parts of the garden, and of course this is another reason to treasure columbines. Even if they did not sprout a nearly endless supply of free plants the flowers of columbines are among the most beautiful in this garden, and persist for weeks. I believe that columbines are relatively short lived perennials, and this is usually my cue to avoid a plant, but it multiplies so successfully from seed that I would not consider its short life to be a problem.

For years I have heard that spiderwort (Tradescantia, above) is weedy and a pest, vigorous and indestructible, and of course I have had no indication of this in my garden. I will admit that I have given it the least favored position in the garden, an afterthought, sliver of space wedged between the boulders at a pond’s edge and a tall nandina, with euphorbia and crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ overhanging for good measure. I am certain that I did not intend to test the limits of spiderwort’s vigor when it was first planted, but in my exuberance to  plant I sometimes forget this or that is here or there, until next spring when all are blooming, and then I will forget to transplant one or the other, and so spiderwort has carved out a small space only because it is indestructible.

I have grown only a few peonies (Paeonia ‘Karl Rosenfield’, above) through the years because they demand a fairly large and prominent space, and I will often plant three or four plants in the space that a peony will require. Whenever they are blooming I make plans to add another variety or two, but then I face the reality that there is too little space and I will have to do without.

And now I have exhausted myself for the day. I’m certain that there are blooms that I have forgotten again, and I will catch up at some point, but now is time to relax in that new chair.

How little I know – Chapter 27

Only a few days ago I whined that the golden chain tree (Laburnum) does not perform well in my Virginia garden despite a favored position to protect it from the late afternoon sun. The sparse foliage and meager blooms  in a photograph substantiated my claim that this European native is poorly adapted to the heat and humidity of the eastern United States. Though it barely manages to survive I keep this weeping form of golden chain around for its novelty.

Imagine my consternation when visitors to the garden on Saturday excitedly proclaimed its beauty, and, in truth, I was stunned by the transformation since I had last seen the tree a few days earlier. The leaves and pendulous blooms had doubled in size, and the spindly, unremarkable tree had become lush and beautiful. I warned that this state was certain to be short term, and with hotter, more humid weather in the near future the golden chain would return to its sad, bedraggled condition, so my guests would be ill advised to rush to the garden center to purchase one. But, now I am not so confident.

Still, experience tells me that the golden chain is not well suited to heat and humidity, and its robust health today is a result of cool temperatures through much of late April and thus far in May.

My wife has resumed her daily routine checking for culprits that overhang the stone paths and patios, dispatching with her pruners the offending leaves and branches without question. She is happy to point out the design flaws that make her work necessary, and though the garden is splendid today, I must acknowledge that I am too often guilty of planting first, thinking later.

Today I planted two ‘Venus’ dogwoods, a hybrid developed by Rutgers University with the Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa) and Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttalli). I have a large ‘Stellar Pink’  (above) and a white blooming ‘Aurora’, both Rutgers introductions, but crosses between our native dogwood (Cornus florida) and the Chinese dogwood. Venus has extraordinarily large white blooms to six inches across in early May, and I have been planning for it in the garden since I recognized that an old Forest Pansy redbud has declined with encroaching shade from mature maples and poplars at the edge of the garden.

One Venus was planted a short distance from the redbud, but with filtered sun, so that once the Forest Pansy meets its end the dogwood will be a more prominent focal point. The other dogwood was planted near the spot where a large cypress that was damaged by heavy snow this winter was removed, and is in full sun. Both trees were smaller than I had planned, young trees only six feet in height, but Venus is reputed to be quick growing, so it should not be many years before they grow to match their more mature neighbors.

‘Galilean’ dogwood is blooming heavily this year, and I recall that a year ago I had given up on seeing it bloom. It is a Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Galilean’, above) selected for its rapid growth, and I presumed after five years with no more than widely scattered flowers that its genetics had sacrificed blooms for growth. But here it is, nearly covered in large white blooms, and of course I haven’t a clue what would account for the change.

There are two variegated leaf Chinese dogwoods in the garden, ‘Samaritan’ and ‘Wolf Eyes’ (above), and though the coloration of their foliage is a similar green with white edges, the trees are quite different. Samaritan has an upright habit, fortunate since I have planted it planning to eventually walk under its branches, and has been reluctant to bloom in my garden. Each year there are a branch or two with leaves that are pure white with no green, but no flowers, and now that I have proclaimed that it will never bloom I suspect that next year it will be covered.

Wolf Eyes is an odd sort of tree, with variegated leaves that curl inward awkwardly, and a broad, spreading form. Mine blooms reliably, but there is little contrast between the green and white leaves and white blooms, so the flowers are not showy. Both Samaritan and Wolf Eyes are valued more for their foliage than flowers, but the flowers are a bonus, and I will appreciate them next year on Samaritan.

A tadpole’s paradise

For a few weeks in April, evenings in my garden are alive with the sounds of spring peepers, so today, inevitably as the course of nature would have it, the ponds are full of tadpoles. Not a few, but thousands, many thousands.

I have five ponds in the garden, and a sixth dirt bottom, wet weather pond at the back of the property, and all are visited by peepers in early spring. Jelly-like masses of eggs are deposited amongst the iris and acorus in the shallows, and many tadpoles arrive ten days later. For the two months they spend their life cycle in our ponds the tadpoles are welcomed guests, even pampered. I am forbidden by my wife from removing any string algae during this time since those feeding on it will perish in our compost pile, though I remind her that once they leave the safety of the pond it’s a hard, cruel world.

This spring I have had little string algae in any of the ponds (so the tadpoles have been relatively safe), but there are years when I could fill a truck with the stuff. I have never figured exactly why some of the ponds get string algae and others none, or why I have a struggle to keep up with it one year, and it’s no bother the next. References on the topic are far from definitive, but it seems that algae is encouraged by water with a high pH. Of course, if I tested to check water quality I would be more likely to be able to draw a corollary, but if the water was too alkaline what would I do then? I’m not dumping a bunch of chemicals in the ponds, no matter if it would help to avoid a bit of maintenance.

Before you get the idea that the ponds are filled with algae, and too much work to keep up with, let me set the record straight. Every day of the year I can see the gravel on the bottom of the ponds, even on the areas of the swimming pond that are five feet deep, with no chemicals and little labor. Besides a quick clean up in late March (a half day) I do practically no maintenance on the five ponds except for adding a bit of water when rainfall doesn’t keep pace with evaporation, and occasionally pulling some string algae. Two of the ponds have filter pads that must be cleaned (every two or three months I remove them and hose them off), but I’ve removed any filtration from the other ponds. On average from April through February, I spend no more than fifteen minutes a month on maintenance. On five ponds! I spend more time feeding the koi and goldfish.

I have five ponds because I wasn’t satisfied with four. The last to be constructed is the largest by far, and the most enjoyable. The thirty-five by forty-five foot pond (above) is nearly five feet at the deepest point, and is home to about fifty koi and a handful of goldfish. I expect that in a few weeks we’ll see the newest offspring, which could increase the population to more than a hundred. I’ve heard that koi will occasionally eat their young, so I suspected years ago that they would grow fat on the annual crop of tadpoles, but they seem to pay them no attention.

The yellow flag iris (above) in the ponds are just past their peak, and the Japanese iris are just beginning to bud and won’t bloom for several more weeks. Waterlilies are budding, though mine are partially shaded so they are behind those in sunny ponds that are blooming already. The variegated cattails and rushes, and the tropical canna lilies, callas, and elephant ears, will not reach their mature size for another month, so the ponds are more sparse than they will be through the summer, and the tropicals and perennials planted above the water line at the ponds’ edge will soon cover the mossy boulders and flop into the water.

By late in June the tadpoles will have grown legs and abandoned the ponds for a life on dry land, hopefully to return in future years to mate and lay eggs for the next generation. Through the summer the ponds will be a gathering place for many birds and deer, groundhogs, skunks, and possums visiting for a sip of water. The koi and goldfish will churn about in the water as my wife and I approach in the evenings, anticipating their daily feeding, and an occasional harmless snake will lurk between boulders that are half submerged in the shallows. Dragonflies and damselflies will dart to and fro, and water bugs will skim across the surface.

The spring peepers and tadpoles will be a pleasant memory, one of many delightful distractions with our garden ponds.

May is easy

Nothing could be simpler than to select plants for the garden that bloom in April and May, unless you are utterly confused by the wealth of choices. Walk through your local garden center this weekend and there are dozens of blooming plants, for sun or shade, wet areas or dry, that grow ankle high or tall as a house. Planning for blooms in late summer and through the fall is a bit more of a challenge, but May is easy.

If you are looking here for recommendations I should say first that if you see it in my garden then it’s a safe bet that a plant is sturdy and low care. I don’t spray pesticides, never fertilize, don’t use a bunch of compost or topsoil when I plant, and rarely water except when I first plant. I don’t do finicky, or at least finicky plants are usually a lot tougher than they’re given credit for. Most of the trees and shrubs featured over the past weeks are growing with little care on my part, and the same is true for the perennials that you’ll see here today.

I have perennials jammed into every corner and crevice of the garden, and many are particularly well suited for this duty, taking only the space they are offered. Others are more aggressive, and of course should not be planted where space is tight, or where they will have the opportunity to overrun their neighbors.

Clematis montana ‘Rubens’ (above) grows with the vigor of a weed, and surely will engulf any plant that stands in its way, but to cover a tall lattice or an arch over a garden gate there are few vines that are superior without growing to be pests. By comparison to wisteria and akebia, both supremely beautiful but troublesome in their aggressive behavior, Clematis ‘Rubens’ can be managed and is exquisite when covered in light pink blooms in early May. I would not imagine that I would allow this quick growing clematis to twine through shrubs, lest it cover them like kudzu, but most clematis are more mannerly, and are ideal for climbing through the branches of a large nandina (photo at top of page) or viburnum.

The yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus, above) is reviled as potentially invasive in natural waterways, but in the confines of the closed system of a garden pond, where water and roots are retained by a rubber membrane, I have found that it stays put without any effort and spreads at a moderate pace. Yellow flag grows in several of my ponds, confined by large plastic tubs in the small ones, but allowed to roam freely in the shallows of the gravel bog filter of the large swimming pond. Over several years I have not had to prune to keep it within bounds, though I would presume that it would grow more rapidly in soil rather than the small chips of bluestone gravel of the bog filter.

I have also planted varieties of Japanese (Iris ensata)  and Siberian iris (Iris sibirica) in the shallows of the ponds, and in ground that is perpetually damp due to a spring. Contrary to reports that these are finicky, I have found that in standing water and damp soils they are trouble free, and their clumps steadily increase in width. I don’t grow bearded irises due to the threat of iris borers, though their flowers are unsurpassed, but Japanese and Siberian iris are sufficiently splendid for me. The Siberian iris ‘Cesar’s Brother’ (above) is blooming in the damp swale today, but it will be a few weeks longer before the Japanese iris are in flower.

Only a few paces away, on the back side of the swimming pond the sloping subsoil excavated in digging the large hole dries out quickly in the summer sun, and is probably not well suited to grow many fine perennials. Fortunately, I have planted blue false indigo (Baptisia australis, above) in this forbidding ground, the Perennial of the Year, and it easily endures this difficult circumstance. This bullet-proof perennial has tall spikes of blue, pea-like blooms, blue green foliage that doesn’t wilt or stress in summer’s heat, and interesting large seed pods that are often used for flower arrangements.

Baptisia has begun to bloom only since the start of May, but Columbines (above) and the dark foliaged perennial geranium ‘Espresso’ (below)have been blooming since the middle of April. I appreciate both because they have a mannerly way of seeding in just the right open spots and poking their blooming heads out from under the roses where it is difficult to weed without losing blood. If there should be a time when you would determine that you have a sufficient number of these treasures, they are easily plucked from the ground, roots and all.

Over the years I have tended to plant salvias in spaces between larger plants where their neighbors will eventually grow wide, so that the purple spikes (Salvia ‘May Night’, below) are forced to grow nearly horizontally to reach the sun. I have lost a plant or two (probably more) before I have liberated the salvias to more open spaces, but these tough May blooming perennials are a favorite, and regularly are moved here and there to fill the area between shrubs or evergreens.

There are more blooms today (bleeding hearts, catmint, and others), and in a few days the peonies will begin to bloom (the bud is beginning to crack open) and then the tree lilac, which I expect to bloom within the week, and then ….  Well, we’ll not jump ahead. There will be plenty of blooms to keep us entertained for the remainder of the month.

Ocho de Mayo

I am usually late for the party, if I arrive at all.

I have been negligent updating what’s blooming in the garden, so today I’ll try to be as brief as possible and cover as much ground as possible. From one end of the garden to the other there are blooms, with some continuing from late April, and helleborus from March. For the sake of organization I’ll begin with trees, move down to shrubs, and follow with perennials in a day or two.

The flowers of the native dogwoods (Cornus florida) finally faded late in April, but the Rutgers hybrids are blooming, and Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa) that will often flower late in May are blooming in sunny gardens. Mine are shaded so the kousas are not in color yet, but the flower buds, like small green blooms that turn to white over a week’s time, are abundant. The Rutgers hybrids are crosses between the native and Chinese dogwoods, and have proven to be resistant to the various plagues that effect our natives. In my garden Stellar Pink (above) grows more upright, and more quickly than other dogwoods, and though it was reluctant to bloom for several years after planting, it is now quite floriferous.

If temperatures remain cool the blooms of dogwoods will persist for several weeks, but the lacy blooms of fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus, above) are fleeting, and often last for a few days only. It is easy to see why the delicate white ribbons would perish in warm days we are likely to experience in May, but this year they have looked fresh for nearly a week.

I have often admired the abundant bright yellow blooms of golden chain tree (Laburnum x watereri ‘Pendulum’, above) in photos of English gardens in magazines. I planted two of a weeping variety rather than the tree form because it seemed a bit unusual, and I was reasonably certain that it would remain small. I had no idea that they wouldn’t grow at all, but I believe that golden chain resents the heat and humidity of Virginia, though I have planted them in a cool, partially shady spot next to a small pond and stream. The trees survive, and bloom weakly, not at all like in the magazines, but then I suspect that dogwood and redbud are not so grand in those gardens.  

This spring is the first in several that I have had azaleas covered in blooms, and I am quite pleased to see them again. In past winters the deer have nibbled the branch tips of the evergreen azaleas so that there were few flowers, though the Encore azaleas grew and budded again to bloom in September. I have detailed my success in spraying with deer repellents previously, and now I am enjoying the blooms of the Encore azalea ‘Twist’ (above) that is the latest to flower in my garden.  

The deciduous azaleas (above) have never been bothered by deer, and though I have sung their praises recently, I will say again that there is no better shrub for the partial sun of the forest’s edge or any spot where there is some break from the blazing summer’s afternoon sunlight. In general, deciduous azaleas are more upright in growth than the evergreen types, and their bright yellow, orange, and red blooms are quite spectacular for a few weeks.    

‘Miss Kim’ (above) is the latest of the lilacs to bloom in the garden, and beyond its flowers I should note that this shrub is very mannered and manageable in its growth. While many lilacs grow quite large, and often are troubled by powdery mildew and annually must have dead wood removed, ‘Miss Kim’ is a compact grower, care free, but still splendid in bloom.

Deutzia Nikko (above) began to show color several weeks ago with white peaking from its numerous buds, and now the small white flowers cover the shrub with no sign of fading. This low growing deciduous shrub is under appreciated, and should be used more extensively.

The Snowball (above) and Maresi viburnums remain in bloom, though Maresi is beginning to fade. The huge white globes of Snowball persist for weeks, so that after a while they are taken for granted as so many other blooms emerge in early May. In a day or two I’ll be back to cover the perennials, and anything else that might be happening in the garden.