Plants in the water gardens

The topic today is plants in the pond, not around the pond, but growing in the water. But first, I must address briefly the plants that surround the pond.

Through the years I have seen many ponds that are intended to mimic a natural water feature, but are left naked, ringed by stones, stark in the absence of plants tumbling over the edges. Today we’ll not discuss specific plants that should be planted near a pond (that is for another day, but hosta and Japanese forest grass are excellent choices for a start, below), but only to emphasize that there must be some, and more are better than less, for in a natural setting the forest’s vegetation often grows right up to the water.

If funds are limited after the pond is constructed I would recommend planting in the soil surrounding the pond, and affording the water plants as a few pennies are found here and there. Fortunately, there is no need to purchase large, or expensive aquatic plants, most grow rapidly (some too quickly), so that the smallest and least expensive sizes available are the most reasonable to purchase.

There are excellent books that  discuss the virtues and categories of aquatic plants, and I have no intention of writing another, so this discussion will be as brief as I can manage. But, I’ve learned a thing or two from my ponds, good and bad, and perhaps this could be the starting point for your research if you decide to explore further.

Floating plants, submerged, marginals, and other aquatics

I do not have any floating plants in my ponds, simply because I have skimmers that draw surface debris that is captured in a leaf net, and floating plants’ roots are not anchored in soil, so they are difficult to keep in place. Duckweed, water hyacinth, and others grow quite rapidly, and will need to be thinned several times through the summer or they will cover the pond’s surface completely. It should be pointed out that water hyacinth is banned in most southern states where it does not die in the winter, and becomes invasive.

Aquatics that grow in shallow water with their roots in the soil are often called marginals, and there are numerous varieties to choose from. There are tall growing marginals with spiky foliage, ones with lower, shrub-like growth, and low growing types. The best results, I believe, are a combination of tall and medium height growers, with low growing types meandering between.

I am particularly fond of Japanese iris (Iris ensata, above), which are wonderful in bloom for several weeks, but also their spiky leaves give the  appearance of cattails without the rapid growth, and are not nearly so tall.

In my large pond (forty by forty five feet) I have planted in a gravel bog filtration area yellow flag iris (below), yellow and white striped acorus varieties, and a variegated-leaf cattail that is not nearly so rapid in growth as the green native type, and each has spread agreeably.

Spreading between the taller cattails and iris are floating hearts (below), with small yellow blooms in mid-summer and a rapid growth rate that must be controlled on occasion with a simple tug to pull the stems that root as they travel. There are a number of similar plants that are useful, though I have had water clover in the past and found that it grew more rapidly and was more difficult to tame. Many submerged aquatics require close attention so that they don’t take over the pond, and though I have none in the ponds today they are essential in ponds without adequate filtration to maintain water clarity.

Most sunny ponds will have a waterlily (below) or two planted in water eighteen inches or deeper, and there is no more splendid bloom in the garden. There are many dozens of varieties, and a bit of research is important to choose the type that does not spread too far for the size of the pond.

Annual or perennial?

Most of the plants in my ponds are perennials, but I enjoy the unique shapes and huge leaves of tropicals in my garden, and so I have planted elephant ears, papyrus, cannas, and calla lilies in the ponds. These can grow quite large, and so are not appropriate for small ponds, but the large leaves contrast nicely with the spiky foliage of iris and cattails, and the dark leaves of some cannas and elephant ears add interesting color contrast.

I don’t grow any tropical waterlilies, but they bloom more regularly and the flowers stand above the water and are more conspicuous. All of the tropicals can be pulled from the water prior to freezing temperatures, and kept through the winter, so that new plants need not be purchased each year.

Plant in a container or in the gravel/mud?

Many of the plants in my ponds are planted in small gravel that covers the pond’s rubber liner, and not in plastic containers. Each year I have the opportunity when I clean the ponds to trim back any excessive growth, and so I don’t have problems with waterlilies or cattails overrunning the pond. There are exceptions, and I would not recommend planting lotus in shallow water without a sturdy container since it can rapidly grow out of control.

In small ponds, and if you prefer not to muck around pulling stray roots each spring, it’s more reasonable to plant your aquatics in containers, and given that you are trying to discourage roots from escaping, the best pots to use have no holes (except for the big one at the top). Also, be aware that the small containers in which aquatics are sold are not adequate except for a short period. Most water plants must be transferred into the wide, shallow pots sold for this purpose so that their roots have room enough to grow, or the roots will quickly slip over the top of the small container.

If this seems too complicated, be assured that it need not be, and in fact I have only a few handfuls of plant varieties in my five ponds. In the largest pond there are only five varieties of perennial aquatics, though there are eight or ten varieties of iris, and in a small pond there might be space enough only for a water lily and a marginal type or two.

No design degree is needed to get the pond planting right, just plant in the correct water depth and the plants will do the rest.

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A bullfrog’s domain

In the heat of summer there is no place so pleasant as sitting on a bench as the sun sets, watching goldfish and koi swim lazily in the garden pond. In my garden there are five ponds, and along side each there is a bench, or a seat, or just a boulder, so that one can sit to catch up on the day’s events with the wise bullfrog who surveys his domain from the perch of a mossy stone.

I am not a patient person, but beside the pond I can be persuaded to be still for a long while, and perhaps to close my eyes to drift off for a few moments.

In this garden the moss grows thick along the shady pond’s edge where an occasional small garter snake might lurk, and frogs bellow their mating calls in the spring. Dragonflies buzz to and fro, resting for only an instant on a tall cattail, and birds splash nervously in the shallow pools above the waterfalls, aware that predators are near.

Overhanging serviceberry and stewartia drop their litter, blooms and leaves, and hostas and Japanese forest grass arch into the stream. A dead limb from the enormous poplars and maples that border the ponds might fall across the pond, and if there is no harm done it might remain there for weeks, or months.

This is my sanctuary, but also a refuge for the wildlife that live in and around the ponds, and any that choose to visit to bathe or quench their thirst. I have conceded to the neighborhood heron, and goldfish and koi will be placed only in the largest and deepest of the ponds so that this long legged bird can not stand in the shallow waters waiting to snatch his evening meal.

On a scorching afternoon I will occasionally cool off, floating in the waters of this large pond, though with the warm temperatures this summer the water is not so refreshing as is usual. The koi are undisturbed by my presence, and swim close hoping for a treat, occasionally startling me with a nudge if I’ve drifted too far into “relaxation”.

I have attempted to naturalize the ponds as much as is possible. with boulders and moss, and plants that flop over the edges. There are gardeners who prefer their ponds pristine and immaculate, and no doubt their labor is well spent in keeping them off the streets, but neat and tidy don’t fit my eye, and I prefer the disorder of variegated cattail and iris spreading in the shallow waters, with floating hearts weaving between without restraint.

I can’t imagine the pond without plants bounding from each nook, and every cranny between boulders, and with today’s introduction, and a second chapter in a few days, we’ll explore some of the aquatic plants from my ponds.

Home, sweet home

Finally, I’m back home from two weeks on the road visiting nurseries in the southeast. That’s three thousand miles of interstates, dusty back roads, and bumping around through tree nurseries. More hollies and junipers than I can count, and roses, hydrangeas, and azaleas that will appear in our garden centers in the spring.

There are some exciting new plants on the horizon, but today I’m pleased to be home, and delighted that the garden is in fine shape, even with a week of upper nineties and one hundred degree temperatures today.

The earliest of the toad lilies (Tricyrtis, above) has begun to flower, the beginning of two months of bloom for the five or six varieties in the garden. In past years this variegated-leaf toad lily grew more open and leggy than others, so I pruned it in mid-summer so that flower buds formed later, and it did not bloom until early September. The plants were lush and full, but more compact growing this summer, and without pruning have been the first to bloom, not the last.

I see toad lilies in gardens only occasionally, and wonder why this easy-to-grow, carefree perennial is not planted more often. It is not a show stopper from a distance, and perhaps for this reason it is not more common, but there are no flowers more splendid in the late summer garden upon close up inspection.

The pineapple lily (Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’, above) is in its last stages of splendor, and though the pineapple-like foliage and bloom are marvelous from a moderate distance, the waxy flowers are worthy of a look on hands and knees. This pineapple lily tripled in size this year, with three flowering stalks today, and I’ve grown more fond of this perennial and have planted a few other varieties. It requires little space, and no care, the foliage is pleasant, and the flowers beautiful. In this garden there is precious little space available, but I will find room for additional pineapple lilies.

Most of the crapemyrtles in the garden were blooming when I left a few weeks earlier, but the latest to bloom have begun just a day or two ago. The red flowered, fast growing Arapaho (above) has been planted for only a few years, and is now more than eight feet tall, though its habit is more upright and less spreading than others in the garden.

The dwarf, spreading, red Cherry Dazzle crapemyrtle (above) is the latest to bloom each year in my garden, but with the extended heat that we’ve experienced this summer I believe that it is flowering a few weeks earlier than in most years. Cherry Dazzle is part of a group of dwarfs marketed as Razzle Dazzle, and while it grows and blooms abundantly I’ve found the others to be quite disappointing, and I’ve removed them from the garden rather than deal with plants that were reluctant to grow or bloom. There have been a few recent additions to the series, and a white that appears in the nursery to be a significant improvement. I’ll plant a few, and give them a try, but it’s often two or three years before I’m convinced that a plant is worthy.

There is no doubt that panicle hydrangeas (above) are exceptional garden plants. Mophead and lacecap hydrangeas (a variegated-leaf lacecap, below) are delightful and more common because they are blooming mid-spring when customers are flocking to the garden centers, but Limelight, Tardiva, and other panicle hydrangeas begin blooming in the heat of July and are less likely to catch of the eye of impulse shoppers. These large shrubs are completely carefree, and will be covered in white blooms into September.

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’, above) is a native shrub that will tolerate shade and moist soils, but in my garden it must survive in dry soil and deeper shade than it would prefer. The foliage of summersweet is rather ordinary (though the common ‘Hummingbird’ has more glossy foliage), and its suckering, slowly spreading habit banishes it to the side and rear of the garden, but it is valuable in difficult locations and the fragrant blooms are quite nice.

On a walk through the garden in the heat of the afternoon there are butterflies and bumblebees buzzing from bloom to bloom. The butterflies are quite shy, and must be approached slowly to appreciate close up as they dart from salvia (above) to the blooms of the Franklin Tree (below), and back again. Franklinia will bloom for nearly two months, and butterflies and bees will visit it often as new flowers open.

The small blue flowers of blue mist shrub (Caryopteris, below) have slowly begun to open, and bumblebees will visit frequently over the month that they are blooming. Bumblebees barely take notice, considering me more a nuisance than a threat as I jut my nose and camera in their direction. I can only imagine the delight they find in these lovely blooms.

Bellingrath Gardens

There were too many photos to fit into yesterday’s entry about my visit to Bellingrath Gardens, so I’ll finish up today. I was asked to identify a few plants yesterday, and unfortunately the garden does not provide labels, so I’ll identify those that I can, and the others will remain anonymous.

First, a photo of the main path (above) that borders the Great Lawn, planted with coleus, alamanda, lantana, liriope, and other annuals. Shy butterflies (below) darted to and fro, feasting on nectar of the lantanas and pentas tucked in the flowering border. One remained still enough for a moment to capture its photo.

The formal water feature (below) near the Bellingrath house is bordered by a hedge of Japanese holly, oleander, liriope, alamanda, coleus, and a variety of other annual flowers.

Seemingly wild plantings of bamboo, bananas, gingers, and rice paper plant (Tetrapanax, below) border the dark ponds of the Japanese garden, yet the fast spreading plants have been tamed to maintain clear vistas of the ponds and structures, and the arched bridge.

Live oaks and evergreen magnolias line the paths through the gardens, and hedges of spring blooming azaleas and camellias are surely a magnificent sight in the early spring, but through the summer annual and perennial flowers provide a riot of color.

Small groupings of Golden Shrimp Plant (above) and Spiral Ginger (below) are woven through the borders. Both have unusual and beautiful blooms.

Passionflower vine (Passiflora, above) grows rampant over an arbor in one of the small gardens to the side of the main path, and in another a large begonia (below) with delightful pink blooms.

Tropical hibiscus (above) and alamanda (below) appear occasionally through the garden, and there are a number of other bloomers that follow below that I cannot identify, but are lovely nonetheless.

Shelter from the storm

I’ve been on the road for a week, visiting nurseries in the southeast. Today our journey led us to Mobile, Alabama, home of the Encore azalea and other fine plants. Thus far in our journey temperatures have not been nearly as miserable as back home in Virginia, and today has been no exception, though eighty-nine degrees and humidity about the same will quickly raise a sweat.

Sunday is our day off, but with severe thunderstorms blowing in from the Gulf I was nearly convinced to cancel a long planned visit to Bellingrath Gardens, a sixty-five acre public garden opened in 1932. The local radar showed a few breaks in the storms, so I set out through the deluge. The highway was barely visible through the downpours, but the rains stopped a mile from the gardens and didn’t resume until I finished my tour a few hours later.

The gardens are splendid, certainly a must for gardeners visiting Mobile, and I wonder now how I could have neglected to visit for the thirty years that I have been traveling to this town.

Tall evergreen magnolias, azaleas, and camellias line the paths, and no doubt are delightful in bloom on an early spring day. On an exceedingly muggy day in mid July, with the not-too-distant rumble of thunder and not an azalea or camellia flower in sight, there was no place better in this town to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Occasionally, readers and friends comment about the photographs in this journal, presuming that special equipment and expensive cameras are required to take a decent picture. I refuse to lug around bulky cameras, so the photos today were taken with an inexpensive digital camera that fits in my pocket.

Extreme close ups might be out of the question, but when the subject of the photo is so beautiful, the photography is quite simple.

The heavy cloud cover today left no shadows, excellent conditions to photograph such a grand garden on a rainy day in Mobile.

On the road, again

I returned a few weeks ago from a short trip to the delightfully cool weather of Oregon, and at the start of the week I’m off again, this time for a couple weeks touring nurseries in the southeastern states. I’ve no doubt that the temperatures will be a few degrees warmer than Portland.

I’ll leave the garden for my wife to tend, and with some good fortune there will be regular thunderstorms in the evenings so she won’t have to move the hoses around to water our large garden. It is rare that the garden needs any more water than is supplied naturally, but it has been several weeks since the last rain and with the recent extreme heat there are a few newer plantings that demand more regular attention.

Despite the heat there are many plants in bloom, and others that will begin while I’m away. The reblooming bigleaf hydrangeas (Endless Summer, Penny Mac, Blushing Bride, and Twist-n-Shout) have reset buds and new blooms should be gaining color about the time I return, and the panicle hydrangeas (Limelight and Tardiva) will be at nearly peak bloom in two weeks.

Several of the crapemyrtles are blooming, and the others will begin in a few days or a few weeks, but flowers last for a  month or longer, so I will not have missed them upon my return. The large white Natchez began blooming several weeks ago, and the much smaller, dark leaved, white flowering Burgundy Cotton started showing color a week ago, with numerous buds still to open over its long blooming period. The pink Sioux, Pink Velour, and red Centennial Spirit  have just begun to bloom and Arapaho looks to be a week or two from beginning to flower.

The yellow leafed caryopteris ‘Worcester Gold’ is beginning to show a few blue flowers, and the more recently introduced ‘Jason Sunshine’ (with brighter yellow foliage) will bloom a week or more later, but the most colorful display for both will be in late July though mid-August. The variegated leaf carypoteris begins to flower as the yellow leafed cultivars fad, so this will be later in August.

The buds on the flowering spikes of the pineapple lily ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ (Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’) are beginning to open at the base of the spike, and the buds will open progressively to the top over a few weeks. The dark, strap-like foliage contrasts splendidly with the variegated caryopteris as a backdrop, though I must remain vigilant to prevent the shrub from overtaking the pineapple lily.

The origins of the common names of many plants can be mysterious, but pineapple lilies are described perfectly. The foliage and blooms of the carefree, perennial bulb looks nearly identical to the tropical, fruiting  pineapple, though when the flowers fade there is no large fruit to be eaten.

The tall growing, coarse foliaged plume poppy (Macleaya cordata, above) is blooming, though the large leaves are the notable feature and not the wispy flowers. This perennial has spread to cover an areas between large evergreen hollies and spruce, and a lilac and hydrangea, and though it is not aggressive I presume that it could cover more ground than intended if it is not bordered by trees and shrubs with substance.

Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ is blooming on arching spikes just above the strap-like green leaves that flop about when they are not given a clear area to grow. With more open space the plant forms a nice, clump with leaves arching in every directions, but in this garden, and I presume others, there is seldom space to grow without a neighbor to one side or the other, so crocosmia grows from under the nandina and flops over the dwarf ‘Globosa’ spruce.

A hardy perennial fuschia grows through a carpet of Liriope spicata, and the fuschia has spread nicely despite the competition of the weedy liriope. When it was first planted I was suspicious that it could be hardy since I was aware only of the tropical types, so I planted it in an inconspicuous location, expecting that it would not survive, but it has proven to be reliable, though difficult to see on the far side of hydrangeas and a dwarf crapemyrtle.  

Joe Pye Weed will tower over most shrubs, and though its foliage is coarse and “weedy”, the flowers are quite nice. There are a number of selections of Joe Pye that are not quite so tall as the native, and the one in my garden grows only to four feet. Later in the summer the dark leaved Joe Pye will bloom, and though the flowers are similar the foliage is more compact and attractive.

In recent weeks I have gone on about coneflowers (Echinacea, above, and Rudbeckia, below), and some other selections have begun to bloom. There are dozens of excellent choices that will bloom through the summer, in particular if they are deadheaded, which I am unlikely to keep up with as I travel over the next month.

Bloom and gloom

Since the beginning of June there have been an inordinate number of days above ninety degrees, and perhaps a day or two over one hundred, horrid conditions for the garden and gardener alike. Today there is an occasional puff of a breeze, so it is arguably more comfortable (less uncomfortable?) than yesterday, but not nearly a day to enjoy wandering about the garden.

With the prolonged heat I have noticed a bit of powdery mildew on the native dogwoods and a few of the dahlias (inevitable with high heat and humidity), and I have seen more Japanese beetles in the garden than in the past few years. I’ve found that the damage they inflict is usually minor, and temporary, and though there are plenty of products intended to prevent or cure these maladies, I’m reluctant to bother spraying to prevent such a minor and short lived nuisance.

Oddly, the most extensive beetle damage in my garden is suffered by Ostrich ferns that have spread by rhizomes into full sun, and those that are shaded suffer very little. There is some minor injury to the shrub roses, but only to a few out of many, and why the beetles bother one rose and not another, and one cherry and not the other is a mystery that I haven’t an answer as to why.

If powdery mildew should become more severe I am likely to prune the dahlias in half, sacrificing a few blooms, and the odds are that the new foliage will not be troubled because the weather has changed to some degree, cooler or drier, but certainly not the same as when the mildew developed. Earlier in the season I failed to prune the dahlias when I should have, so they are quite tall, and beginning to flop about, so cutting them back will do some good beyond relieving the mildew problem. There is no remedy for the dogwoods, and fortunately the mildew is less severe, and it will only result in disfiguring the leaves with no real harm done.

The bigleaf hydrangeas look rather sad during the heat of the afternoon, and salvias and a few perennials that were planted earlier in the spring will perk up considerably with a thunderstorm or two. Of course we are at the point in the summer when the gardener wishes for a steady rain a day or two long, but as he knows it is unlikely to happen.

As gloomy as this might sound, much of the garden is in fine condition, in bloom and with vigorous foliage, bothered little by the heat and dryness. Shallow rooted perennials are stressed more easily than deep rooted trees and shrubs, and small trees and large evergreens provide some temporary shade through the day, so there are few parts of the garden that are exposed to the full brutality of the sun throughout the day.

The panicle hydrangeas, Tardiva and Limelight, are beginning to bloom and show no signs of heat related problems. They will be in peak bloom by late in July, with flowers lasting into September. Hydrangeas, both panicled and bigleaf (and Oakleaf, now past bloom), are wonderful shrubs for the summer garden, consistently lush and colorful, pest resistant and requiring an absolute minimum of care.

Tardiva and Limelight consume more space than you would expect, an area eight to ten feet across, and many of the bigleaf cultivars will grow only slightly smaller, but a garden with a blue flowering hydrangea (or three), an Oakleaf, and a panicle hydrangea or two will be splendid May through September, and never mind if the perennials have turned for the worse in the heat.