The reds are redder ….

…and the blues, bluer.

I’ve returned from Oregon, and, as expected, the weather was delightful. Last week, as Virginia experienced record heat and suffocating humidity, Oregon was experiencing it’s hottest and sunniest stretch this year, but twenty degrees cooler than here, and without a noticeable trace of humidity.

It should not be a surprise that plentiful spring rains, cool weather that extends through June, low humidity, and cool summer nights contribute to growing plants quickly, and this is the secret of the Oregon nurseries. In June and July the difference in foliage color in Oregon compared to plants growing in the heat and humidity of Virginia is striking. Red leafed Japanese maples will often fade in the heat of summer, particularly in the first year they are planted, but in Oregon the colors remain true until frost, with only a bit of fading.

Gold leafed and needled plants will often scorch, and some will not survive the harsh summer conditions of the mid-Atlantic region, but in the northwest low humidity and cooler summer nights allow plants to grow stress free. They grow quicker, and colors are more vibrant.

On the other hand, Oregon nurseries grow mediocre azaleas, Japanese hollies, and dogwoods that prefer heat and humidity to grow at their best. The late blooming pink Stellar Pink and other Rutgers hybrids  (crosses between our native dogwood, Cornus florida, and Chinese dogwood, Cornus kousa) and Satomi dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Satomi’) are exceptions that grow as well in either climate, but the flower color of Stellar Pink and Satomi is dependably pink to almost red in the northwest, while most years in Virginia the flowers are nearly white with only a hint of pink (Satomi, above in Oregon last week, below in Virginia).

Blue spruce are as colorful on the west coast as in the east, but with deep, volcanic topsoil and ideal weather the evergreens grow more quickly. Oregon ships a majority of the plants it grows to the east, and trucking is expensive, so most nurseries grow selected grafted spruce to insure that every tree is consistently blue. Spruce grown from seed (rather than those grown from a graft) will exhibit a range of needle colors from green to sky blue, and of course the blue are more desirable.

With a long growing season, moderate temperatures, and great soil Oregon is an amazing agricultural state, growing fruits and berries, vegetable crops and grass seed, as well as being the prime growing area for Japanese maples and spruce. The state has also become one of the major sources for a staple of the mid-Atlantic and northeast nursery trade, boxwoods, grown by the thousands in every variety imaginable.

My annual journey to visit Oregon nurseries is a highlight of the year, and when the weather is as sweltering as last week it is all the more enjoyable. I’d be happy to go back tomorrow, and return home in September.  


The heat’s on

I’ve just returned from a week touring nurseries in Oregon, and I’m ready to go back. Today’s forecast for Virginia is upper nineties and high humidity after a week with no humidity and temperatures in the seventies on the west coast. There was an weather alert on the Portland area TV news on Thursday to be aware of the muggy conditions as temperatures approached eighty, but of course the day felt dry as a desert.

I’m happy to return to my evening stroll through the garden, and a few weeds have popped up in my absence, though I’m dripping in sweat after a few minutes. With high temperatures, and without irrigation and only a few brief rain showers, the lawn grasses have gone dormant and are browning, but many perennials are well suited to these conditions and flourish.

Hostas in the garden are shaded from the worst of the summer sun, and though they are not grown for their flowers, many are quite beautiful in bloom (above). A few varieties are past, but others will flower through the next month.

Leadwort (Ceratostigma, above)  is most striking in the early fall, when the oval, green leaves turn to red, but flowering has begun in late June and will extend into September. It is low growing, easy to grow, and quite carefree, and though it’s rhizomes are reputed to be invasive it’s growth is easily controlled if it should stray too far.  

Agastache (above), or Hummingbird Mint, spreads itself moderately in the garden by seed, though the seedlings are not vigorous enough to force their way through neighbors. There are dozens of seedlings in early summer, but few that mature unless they are transplanted to a sunnier location. Agastache is another carefree perennial, though it will fade a bit in late summer if not provided with adequate rainfall or irrigation (don’t we all).  

The pineapple-like blooming stalks of Pineapple lilies (Eucomis) are beginning to emerge, and the dwarf ‘Octopus’ (above) is nearing full bloom. ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ (below) and others will take another few weeks before reaching their peak. Its deep burgundy strap-like foliage is splendid in contrast with the variegated caryopteris.

Summer moisture is essential to prevent the deeply dissected leaves of Ligularia ‘Dragon’s Breath’ (below) from wilting, though this slow to grow, summer blooming clumper requires no other care. I have planted Dragon’s Breath at the base of a stone wall where water overflows occasionally from one of the ponds, mostly in full sun, but shaded at midday. It appears quite happy in this spot.

And so I’m resigned to sweat it out, but there is adequate shade in the garden, and an occasional dip in the deep swimming pond to cool off on the most sweltering afternoons. The plants in this garden have not been raised with regular irrigation, only with the moisture that nature provides, and there are many more blooms to look forward to through the summer.

Leaving on a jet plane

…. I’ll be back next week

This weekend I’m flying into Portland, Oregon for a week touring nurseries in the northwest. Hot, humid weather is expected in Virginia for the week, and I’ve little doubt that Oregon will be delightful by comparison. I hope to return with photos of spruces and firs, rhododendrons, Japanese maples, and stories of unique treasures found. Prior to departing, here are the latest goings-on in the garden.

Finally, another coneflower (Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’, above) has recovered from damage done by deer earlier in May when perennials were growing so quickly that much of the plant were left unprotected by the deer repellent. The echinaceas will be shorter and fuller than is usual with this pruning, but more floriferous. Some of the other varieties are still a few weeks short of a full recovery and will bloom later in the season.

Tickseed (Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’, above) has been shy about flowering until this week, and though this is a sturdy, easy-to-grow perennial in most gardens, blooming and reblooming through the summer, I have not had good success with it over the years. More than once it has faded and disappeared in my garden, I suspect that it prefers a bit more elbow room.

Asiatic lilies need little space, shooting straight through the gaps between neighboring plants. Plant a bulb, and watch it grow. Next year there could be a second, and then a third the following. That’s it. There’s little foliage to bother with, and no pruning other than to cut the stem back when the flower and foliage have faded.

The winter past was the first for Angels’ Earrings fuchsia (below), and though the nursery catalog assured that it was more cold hardy than the zone 8 or 9 that was indicated, I was skeptical, of course. I have another fuchsia that has proven quite winter hardy, but this one appeared more similar to the colorful annuals I see in the garden centers. However, no problem, it popped out of the ground on schedule, is blooming, and is quite beautiful upon close examination, for fuchsias are close up plants, not ones to make a splash from the highway.

Shasta daisies make a show from a distance, and ‘Becky’ (below) is a workhorse, tough and dependable. If the faded flowers are deadheaded its bloom will extend through September, though I often fail to follow through on this seemingly simple task.

And finally, there’s Lysimachia ‘Firecracker'(below), with small yellow blooms and contrasting  red tipped foliage. This loosestrife selection spreads at a modest pace planted on a dry slope in poor soil.

I expect that when I return later in the week there will be many more blooms to visit.

Hydrangeas – blooming in June

In twenty years in this Virginia garden I don’t believe that I have seen the hydrangeas bloom so beautifully. Many years hydrangeas suffer damage to the blooming branch tips through the winter, and then will bloom sporadically or not at all, except for remontant types that flower on the current year’s growth. With heavy snow in the past winter many hydrangeas were buried and not subjected to freezing temperatures and harsh, drying winds, so damage was minimal.

In the past the mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) such as Nikko Blue were the most likely to suffer winter injury, but newer cultivars flower on new spring growth and rebloom through the summer. In the acidic clay soils in Virginia the blooms of mopheads Endless Summer, Penny Mac, and Mini Penny are blue, but pink in neutral or alkaline soil. Since the flowering buds that developed last fall were not damaged the bushes are larger and fuller, and the first flush of blooms in early June has been extraordinary.

The remontant (reblooming) hydrangeas flower through the summer in my garden, pausing a bit in the heat and drought of August, but resuming with vigor in September until frost kills the foliage in October. I have planted a few each of several cultivars in a range from shade to nearly full sun and the blooming varies little, though in sunnier spots they routinely wilt in the midday sun, then perk up at sundown.

There are two variegated leaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Maresii variegata’, above) in the garden, but with different character, which is not surprising since variegated leaves are often variable and prone to reversion back to green with many plants. In nearly full sun (with a break in late afternoon) one hydrangea grows above a stone wall overlooking the small pond in the front of the house with a compact form, with green leaves and narrow white borders. The other, in more shade than sun, is more open in habit with varying patterns and splotches of white, and an occasional splash of yellow. To the best of my recall (shaky at best) this will be the first year that I have seen flowers on either, but they are splendid if only for their foliage.

The large, coarsely textured, oak-like leaves of Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia, above), and delightful, long lasting, burgundy fall color, make this hydrangea especially appealing. Oakleaf will tolerate sun, but prefers more shade, and the large white blooms stand out like a beacon from shade at the forest’s edge. The growth habit is more irregular and taller than most hydrangeas, but for a border planting there are few shrubs that are superior.

The mophead hydrangeas have large, half  round balls of blooms, and Oakleaf has long panicles, but lacecap hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla normalis) have flat, broad flowers with petals only on the outside edges. The effect is lovely, but not as extravagant as the massive blooms of other hydrangeas. In addition to the variegated hydrangea, there are two lacecaps in the garden, ‘Lady in Red’ (above) and ‘Twist-n-Shout’ (below).

Neither bloomed well in their first year in the garden, but they have not disappointed since. Twist-n-Shout is a rebloomer, and though Lady in Red flowers only once, the blooms show color for a month or longer before fading nearly to red. The rich, dark leaves and stems make this an exceptional summer blooming shrub.

Blooming in mid June – perennials

Some perennials are particular about where they are planted, others are not.

Japanese iris (Iris ensata) must be planted into soil that remains damp, or in the shallow water of a garden pond, unless such a spot is not available. Then, any sunny position in the garden will do, but they will require some attention to watering in the odd year when there is not regular rainfall into late May. Given a lack of damp ground, iris will begin to look tired and ragged in July, and only in standing water does the foliage remain fresh through the late summer.

Nearing the end of May most of the Japanese iris in the garden were blooming, and a substantial clump might flower for two weeks, but there are a few late varieties, and a few that are partially shaded, so they will flower a week later than those in full sun. In the shallows of the pond those in water two inches deeper than others will bloom ten days later. Thus, the span of blooms might stretch as long as four weeks, into mid June.

As the iris’ blooms have progressed I’ve noticed that there are more varieties than I was aware of, which is not surprising since my record keeping often does not keep pace with my planting, and there is a slim chance that I would recall their names. The same is true for daylilies and coneflowers, hostas, and well, just about any perennial that there is more than one of in the garden. Nevertheless, I will do as best I can and muddle through to update what’s blooming today.

The prime season for daylilies (Hemerocallis ‘Happy Returns’, above) is a few weeks away, but many of the rebloomers begin earlier, in late May and extend through September. For mysterious reasons I have not given daylilies preferred positions in the garden, and have subjected them to dry and poor soils, and even roadside gravel which does not seem to discourage them greatly, but they grow with less vigor than if they were provided richer soil.

Coneflowers grow splendidly in similar poor soils, and tolerate dry conditions so long as there is sufficient sun through the day. A patch of Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia, above) in the garden faded over several years as the shade from the forest’s edge encroached, and the soil where they were planted was so poor that I was reluctant to transplant them, so of course now they are gone.

In the sunnier back garden I have planted a number of echinaceas over the years, and in recent years some newer introductions. Most of the plant tags have been stored in a box in the garage, so as they bloom through the summer I have some chance of naming them correctly. The first to bloom is ‘Coconut Lime’ (above), though several of the others were nibbled to the ground by deer when left unprotected by the deer repellent, so these will be later to bloom.

Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus spinosus, above) does not require protection from deer, the spiny leaves and blooming stalks are armed for the task. The thistle-like perennial will self sow in dry soils, but this garden has so much neighboring foliage that this has not been a bother.

Lambs ear is another self seeder that can become a nuisance, so sterile types are recommended to avoid spreading them about the garden. The green, non-fuzzy leafed variety, ‘Hummelo’ (Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo’, above) does not present this problem, and it grows well in poor, dry soil. Without the fuzzy foliage that deer dislike it is not resistant, and in past years when I have not sprayed the repellent the deer will eat the blooms and foliage to the ground. It grows back quickly and blooms dependably.

Perennials grow so quickly in May and into June that extra caution must be exercised to protect those plants that are favored by deer, and hosta are perhaps their most favored. With a regular routine to spray the repellent, many hostas (above) that were damaged in past years have rebounded, and are beginning to bloom. Some varieties will have blooming stalks that soar to six feet, but I prefer those with shorter stalks.

Hostas will grow in a range of conditions, in dry shade nestled between tree roots, and many will tolerate half a day of sun, but they will grow more robust without direct sunlight and in good garden soil with adequate moisture. I often find that hostas, and other perennials are forced into less than ideal circumstances, and flourish nonetheless.

What’s blooming in June?

I have been negligent in keeping up with what’s blooming in the garden since the start of June, so with little chatter we’ll move right into the garden, and what’s blooming. Today will cover trees and shrubs, and in a few days perennials, since the list is too long for one sitting.

Ask a gardener and you’ll be told that summer begins with the start of June, when heat and humidity become more regular and most of the spring bloomers have faded. Indeed, the change in seasons has been apparent this year, and though there has been adequate rainfall the stress of warmer temperatures on lawn and garden has been evident. Summer bloomers are a a tough lot, suffering the worst of heat, humidity, and drought, and often blooming for extended periods, better to spread their seed in quantity so that a sufficient number might germinate even in the hottest and driest of times.

Most spring flowering trees are past bloom, though ‘Wolf Eyes’ Chinese dogwood and the three winter damaged Southern magnolias have a few remaining, but the Goldenrain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata, above) and Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia, below) are in full bloom. I have expressed my disdain for the goldenrain, splendid in bloom, but a dreadful nuisance that seeds about the garden. Stewartia, on the other hand, is a delightful tree with white camellia-like blooms for several weeks in June and papery reddish-brown exfoliating bark. It is quite slow to become established, barely growing an inch for several years after planting, but now the one in my garden grows like a weed.

The most vigorous of the crapemyrtles, the tall growing, white Natchez (Lagerstroemia x fauriei ‘Natchez. below), is beginning to bloom. Natchez should be given adequate space so that it doesn’t require severe annual pruning that results in long flexible branches that bend to the ground under the weight of its huge blooming panicles. Crapemyrtles are often sited incorrectly so that they must be chopped back annually lest they block roads, driveways, or walks, and the shame is worse because there is such a range of mature sizes that there is an appropriate cultivar for nearly every situation.

The blue and white mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Penny Mac’, below), lacecaps, and Oakleaf are blooming, as is the variegated Maresii that suffers annual winter damage to its flowering branch tips and rarely blooms. Although the past winter had abnormally high snowfall, the snow insulated shrubs that were covered, and our lowest temperatures were relatively moderate, so there was little damage to plants that are a bit tender. Most of the mopheads are remontant cultivars, so they will continue to set new flower buds through the summer until frost.

There are several cultivars of yucca in the garden, and the filamentosa types are blooming on six foot spikes. Filamentosa yuccas (in bloom, below) are quite cold hardy and drought tolerant, and can be distinguished by the threadlike fibers at at the leaf’s edge.  The ones in the garden have variegated leaves, variations of green and yellow, and all are quite vigorous as long as they are not planted in damp ground and get sun for a part of the day. Yuccas are valued for their spiky form, the flowers an afterthought, but welcome nonetheless on these carefree plants.

‘Little Princess’ and ‘Gold Mound’ Japanese spireas (Spirea japonica ‘Little Princess, below) are blooming, and are nearly maintenance free, needing only a hard shearing once every couple years to keep tidy. They prefer full sun, but will grow and bloom just fine in a half day or less. Little Princess has green foliage and will work in any garden, and in any soil, but the bright yellow Gold Mound demands some care to avoid clashing colors. I have never paid much attention to color combinations, and somehow have never heard harsh comments that this clashes with that.

In my garden there is no spraying for bugs and fungus, mildew or black spot, so for years I avoided roses that required regular attention and chemical controls to maintain their good health. Occasionally a low maintenance rose would be touted, and I’d try it and quickly discard it when leaves became spotted in June, so I’ve gardened for forty years and grown no more than a handful of roses, until Knockout roses were introduced. I have little doubt that rose people scoff at Knockouts as overused and inferior, but I have no intention of cutting a rose from the garden, and don’t care about scent, so sturdy, carefree Knockouts work splendidly for me.

Besides Knockouts in red, pink, and yellow there are low growing Drift roses in the garden, which seem very resistant to the typical rose ailments, a yellow ‘Carefree Sunshine’ that compares to the Sunny Knockout (but with superior  yellow blooms), a few Flower Carpet roses that are cut nearly to the ground when the foliage is spoiled in mid-summer, and a few odds and ends that hold their own with only mild problems. Beginning in mid May there are roses blooming in the garden, and often continuing into November. Whether rose people consider them worthy, or not, these are wonderful, long blooming, and disease free shrubs.

The list of perennials blooming in the garden is much too long to continue further today, so in a few days we’ll continue our tour with the last of the Japanese iris to flower, then daylilies, coneflowers, hostas, and whatever else might pop into bloom in the coming days.

Summer’s on the way

…. ready or not.

‘Ivory Silk’, the tree lilac (Syringa reticulata ‘Ivory Silk, below), is past its peak with white blooms littering the ground beneath like snowflakes, though they quickly spoil and turn a muddy brown. The stone path that winds under the tree, then descends to the lower patio, is treacherous with a slippery covering of damp flowers. On the far side of the patio the Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa) is also past bloom, a bit early since they often remain in flower into the middle of June.

The weather in May was erratic, jumping from warm to cold and back again, but quite normal for spring in Virginia, and cooler than is usual I suspect. The first week of June has been warm and muggy with daily thunderstorms that are common of our summers. Last evening it did not rain on my garden, but after dark there was thunder and lightning all around and I was surprised when showers didn’t follow.

Though there is adequate soil moisture the small areas of lawn that bridge the large areas of garden have started towards their summer dormancy. With warm temperatures, lush cool season grasses slow their growth, become more stressed without regular irrigation, and summer weeds begin to creep in. There are a number of bare areas in what should be lawn, and each year I consider turning the whole mess into garden before I yield to howls of protest from my wife. She prefers a bit of lawn, I’d rather have more trees and bloomers.

Dahlias (above) bloom superbly through the summer into early fall, and though not winter hardy in Virginia, their tubers are easily lifted when the foliage has faded from frost and stored in a bag of dried leaves or sawdust in an unheated garage.

Several years ago I potted the tubers in March to get an early start, and what a pain! The emerging shoots are spindly, and grow so fast that you are anxious to move them outdoors, then you must hope and pray that a late frost doesn’t turn the plant to mush. It is so much easier to plant the tuber directly into the ground, or into a large pot that is outside from the start in mid May, and even if there is a late frost there’s no growth to worry about. With a few warm days in late May the tuber springs to life, and by early June the dahlia is twenty inches tall with numerous buds and a few blooms.

I prefer the purple leafed dahlias with single flowers, but there are doubles, miniatures, and flowers the size of dinner plates, and you are likely to enjoy whichever type you plant. In general I am fond of plants with oversized  leaves, and in this case colorful foliage, but not large flowers, so I am delighted with ‘Bishop of York’ (above) and a few others (the names of which I have long forgotten). A modest size tuber will grow into a three foot shrub within a few weeks in June, and there are too few spaces in the garden that aren’t overcrowded already, so I am unlikely to add to my small collection.

In my experience dahlias require no care at all, no bugs, no fertilizer, just plant and enjoy, then pop them from the ground in October after the foliage dies. For years I was hesitant to overwinter bulbs and tubers, fearing that they would surely rot, and each year I lose an elephant ear bulb or a banana root that has been cut back and stored in dried leaves, but usually because I didn’t dry the bulb or the leaves adequately. Dahlia tubers are smaller, and easier to store, and there should be no excuse for not giving them a try.

For a modest expense, and a trifling of labor you are rewarded with extraordinary blooms through the heat, one of many reasons to look forward to summer, and in a few days there will be many more blooms to treasure, daylilies, hydrangeas, roses, coneflowers, and so on.