The marvelous blooms of late August

When gardeners refer to August their descriptions are unlikely to be favorable. The “dog days”, and worse, characterize the most troublesome part of the growing season when the heat of summer has taken its toll. Spring is vibrant, full of yellows, reds, and blues, but August is dusty and brown at the edges, the gardener supposes.

I’ve had the good fortune to have adequate space, and a determination to have a garden that doesn’t fade late in the summer. I am only slightly discouraged that the lawn is struggling and infested with a variety of weeds, but there are flowers and other ornaments that are as delightful (if not so numerous) as any that spring will offer.

While the spring garden is a riot of blooming cherries, dogwoods, and redbuds, in August the crapemyrtles remain fully in bloom, the Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha) is at its peak, and the Seven Son Tree (Heptacodium miconioides, above) is nearly in full flower. Butterflies and bees swarm to the tree on a warm August afternoon, darting between blooms, and with their fill of nectar move on to the Franklin Tree, and then perhaps to the caryopteris (below).

In late August the fruits of the Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Galilean’, below) are nearly as plump and juicy as strawberries, though they are partially hidden by the lush foliage that withstands the summer heat far better than our native dogwood. Once ripened, birds abscond with the fruits in a hurry.

The red pitcher plant (Sarrecenia, below) was slow to grow early in the summer, a result of my fiddling with the edges of the large swimming pond, which added another inch to the water’s depth. I am quite certain that the pitcher plant would prefer the more shallow water level, but there it is, and it seems to have survived my “improvement”.

The pitcher plant is one of the little oddities that are not so obvious as you travel through the garden. It is tucked in a spot of mud between two mossy boulders at the ponds’s edge, and the surrounding growth has made the route to see it treacherous such that the last several feet are most safely approached on hands and knees to avoid tumbling into the pond.

I seem often to be scrambling about on hands and knees, weeding or snooping for a close up of a bug or bloom, and if not I would not have seen the odd flower, then another, and a third, that have appeared under the arching five foot leaves of the humongous elephant ear (Colocasia gigantea “Thailand Giant’, above). Of the dozen or more types of elephant ears in the garden I have seen flowers only on a few, but Thailand Giant is said to bloom more readily.

The green and white striped liriope (Liriope muscari variegata, above) is the latest to bloom in the garden, and along with the green leaved Big Blue these liriopes would be quite useful even if they did not flower. The grass-like clumps spread slowly, contrasting with more broad leafed plants at the front of the border and along paths. Liriope muscari should not be mistaken for the thuggish spicata types that romp through open spaces and into the lawn, a plant that my wife has sworn to eliminate from the garden, but one that I am content to allow to spread through some dry, shady out-of-the-way areas where its aggression is appreciated.

I have heard that Japanese spireas (Spirea japonica ‘Little Princess’, above) can seed themselves about, but I’ve not seen that in my garden or in the surroundings. Little Princess blooms off and on through the summer without deadheading, and stays compact without much effort except shearing it to eighteen inches every two or three years.

There are several abelias in the garden, though none of the common, coarse, glossy abelia (Abelia grandiflora). Kaleidoscope, Gold Dust (in bloom above), and Canyon Creek (below) are grown as much for their colorful foliage as for blooms, but also their arching habit is more graceful than the old upright variety.

There are a few plants, and a few patches in the garden that are a bit brown along the edges, but there are more plentiful blooms than will fit in todays entry, so I’ll return in a few days with the blooms of early September.

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Older, but no wiser

The garden is a series of mysteries, and though it occurs to me that after gardening for forty years I should have learned a thing or two, I’m reminded constantly that I know very little. Every year, and each season has its oddities, and I suppose that this year has had a more generous number than most.

The passion flower vine (Passiflora in bloom last year, above) did not come back this year. When the vine reached the top of its support last summer I made plans to tie a cable to the summerhouse so that the vine would cling to it and blooms would cascade as you walk beneath. Though it is dependably cold hardy the passion flower vine apparently did not like the prolonged snow cover, and it died. Or so I thought.

The third week of August a sprig appeared that could have easily been mistaken for a weed, except that my suspicions were aroused since it was directly in the spot where the vine should have been, had it survived. More from neglect than curiosity the weed wasn’t pulled, and within days I recognized the foliage to be the dead passion flower vine. It is now growing with the vigor that I would have expected months earlier, and why it would decide to grow suddenly in late August, I have no clue.

I suspect that there will be no blooms this year, but expect that I will be configuring the wire in early summer next year, so this small project will have been delayed for a year.

Across the patio, perched above a small mossy granite boulder that borders the large pond, the alstromeria (above) appeared weeks late in the spring, barely surviving the snow and ice, and though it will usually bloom in June I was happy enough that it showed life at all. Feeble as it is, to my surprise a bud, and then a lone bloom popped up in the past week.

A few of the Encore azaleas (Twist azalea in bloom in mid-August, above) have begun to bloom a month earlier than the mid-September date that I usually expect to see the second flush of blooms. I have an idea why, something to do with an earlier spring bloom date followed by prolonged high temperatures, but I find too much thinking to be cumbersome. The garden is not an academic study, so enjoy and don’t spend too much time pondering consequences and failures.

I could go on, but why embarrass myself needlessly when there are other signs of success in the garden. Though I attribute little of the beauty to my gardening skill, I will take some measure of credit in stubbornly continuing to plant when there is evidence that I understand so little.

A garden project for mid-August

What was I thinking?

In the heat of August I am accustomed mostly to doing nothing. Well, perhaps something, but very little other than pulling a few weeds as I wander about in the evenings, and this is followed by a long rest and several ice teas.

A week ago I was home for a rare extended weekend, and the morning after a thunderstorm I was strangely motivated to do something, but what? The lawn was a bit shaggy, flopping over into the planting beds, and many of the shrubs have grown too large for the space alloted them, but I’ve ignored this for years, so why should there be an inspiration to undertake this project in this hottest of summers?

Despite my better judgment I set out to redefine the beds, and to expand them in the area where the Wolf Eyes dogwood had grown too wide, and where one of the edgeworthias was planted too close to the bed’s edge from the start. The bushy Japanese maple ‘Shaina’ (below) was shoehorned into a sliver of space near a prostrate growing blue spruce several years back with the thought that the bed area would be expanded at a later date, and somehow, for some reason, this seemed the appropriate time.

There were three new ground cover roses, two loropetalums, and a few perennials on the driveway awaiting planting, but I had planned to keep them watered until a cooler weekend to plant. The area surrounding the large swimming pond in the rear garden is the only spot with sufficient sunlight, and so the project was begun to redefine and enlarge the beds in much of the rear garden.

The tool for the task is a d-handled spade with a flat blade, and mine is the sort that will survive long after I am dead and gone, constructed of heavy tubular steel except for a bit of hard rubber to cushion the grip. The steel shaft has a bit of a curve to it, a result, I am certain, of the spade being used inappropriately to pry some large something intended for transplant that should have dug more and pried less.

In any case, the angle of the shaft is only slightly distracting from making a clean stroke with the spade into sod, a motion that was once second nature when I performed this ritual daily. The spade is thrust straight down, and with enough force to sink the blade several inches into the clay. The spade is then tilted so that a chunk of sod is dislodged, but with a series of precise strokes a clean curve is left as the bed’s edge.

Today there are machines intended to perform this function, but I have only a spade, and I believe that the edge created by hand is superior, though not quicker. My intention was to edge the planting area that borders the pond, ending the edge as it disappears beneath two large variegated leaf redbuds, and on the lower side to end the edge by a stone path that separates the upper and lower gardens. This span of no more than two hundred feet seemed a reasonable task for an afternoon, and the following day I would clean up the chunks of sod.

As often happens, at least when I am working on a garden project, the original intent is lost, the plan forgotten, the hypnotic rhythm of the spade distracts me, and a trench of perhaps five hundred feet has been dug. All of which is necessary, but now the sod must be lifted and hauled, and in some areas where the bed area has been expanded the soil must be stripped from the sod’s roots lest the area be too low, so the follow up is a considerably greater task than planned.

Of course, the next day my enthusiasm has waned, and the day is hotter than the day before, so the going is slow, the ice tea breaks are longer, and I must accompany the wife on an errand. As you would guess, the project is not completed as planned, so here I am a week later, and thankfully the temperatures are not ghastly, and the chunks of sod have been cleaned up and dumped in a pile near the compost.

The roses and loropetalums have been planted, and hopefully the loropetalums have been planted soon enough, for they are only marginally winter hardy, and if I’ve been tardy they will not develop sufficient roots to survive until spring.

The new beds created are large enough that I will be able to add a few of the low care rose ‘White Out’ that is said to share the genetics of the exceptional Knockout roses, and from what I’ve seen in other gardens it has an extended period of bloom, and clean foliage through the worst of summer. And daylilies. The newly enlarged beds are wide enough that weeds could grow if the space is not occupied, and I’ve often thought that I’ve too few daylilies, so here is an excellent opportunity.

There is space, also, for a few of the rebooming, compact buddleias, and at the forest’s edge (where a bed was created that was not needed, and not considered until the moment that the spade met earth), one, or perhaps two of the yellow, cutleaf sumac ‘Tiger Eyes’ will be splendid. I’ve tried to figure a spot for them for years, unsuccessfully, until I had a sudden moment of inspiration.

What luck! And excellent planning.

The swimming pond -Summer 2010

I’ve had several recent inquiries about my swimming pond, so I figure that it’s about time for an update. This is my favored spot in the garden, where I spend my most relaxed time, and (on rare occasions when I’m sociable) where my wife and I entertain friends and family.

There are six ponds in the one acre garden, one a dirt bottomed wet weather pond, four small ponds with streams and waterfalls, and the swimming pond, though this is a bit of a misnomer since I’m too lazy to swim. Instead, slip into the back garden on any summer weekend day and you’re likely to find me floating on my inflatable lounger, hungry koi circling like sharks.

The swimming pond was constructed in 2006, is nearly forty-five feet from the waterfall to a shallow filtration area, and thirty-five feet wide. The depth varies, but is four and a half feet at the deepest point.  The pond is lined with EPDM rubber, and a boulder and river gravel covered shelf along the edges just below the water line hides the thick black rubber. The bottom of the pond is covered in small tumbled stones with no sharp edges that could pierce the liner.

Filtration

There are two sections to the pond, the main area of deeper water, and separated by a stone wall a few inches below the water is a two hundred square foot area filled with small bluestone gravel. A submersible eight thousand gallon per hour pump housed in a box with a skimmer door at the pond’s edge delivers two-thirds of its flow to the waterfall, and a third to flexible PVC pipe that is perforated at twelve inch intervals and buried beneath three feet of gravel so that water flows up, and is filtered by the gravel.

When I was preparing to build the pond I researched the limited resources available, and discovered that most swimming ponds have almost fifty percent of their water surface devoted to filtration. In my limited space a filtration area that large would leave too little area for deep water, so I modified the filtration design to less than fifteen percent of the pond’s surface area.

I don’t test the water, and I’m not certain that I’d like to know what’s there, but the water is clear enough any day of the year to see the gravel on the bottom, which is much cleaner than the ponds I swam in when I was a kid. In early spring there will often be a bit of string algae, but the addition of a barley concentrate stops it from growing, and after it’s removed once by hand I don’t have enough regrowth to worry about.

The skimmer box protects the pump from clogging with a foam filter pad and a leaf net. These are cleaned a couple times a year by dumping the little bit of debris that accumulates in the net, and by hosing off the filter pad.

Since the pond is surrounded by towering trees I cover it with a large nylon net by the middle of October each year. The net is supported by cables to keep it from sagging too far into the pond. By mid-March the net is removed and the soggy leaves dumped in the compost pile. I remove the cables and cut back the spent foliage of the iris and cattails, but that’s it for spring cleanup.

The spring cleanup takes about an hour and a half, and that’s about the only labor spent on maintenance for the year besides a few minutes here and there. There are no chemicals used in the pond besides the barley concentrate, and the water in the swimming pond has never been emptied and refilled, though a few times a year when rain doesn’t keep up with evaporation I add some water.

When purchasing the components to build the pond I bought a large UV light, which was intended to assure the quality of the water, but at the last moment I discovered that I’d have to do more electrical work to install it, so the entire apparatus sits on a shelf in the garage. Also, I had intended to use an external pump rather than a submersible, but changed my mind, and have used the same pump without a problem. I’ve had pumps in the small ponds that have lasted ten years and longer, and I don’t see any reason why this one won’t.

Fish

None of the resources I consulted recommended having fish in a pond that you swim in, and I suppose the reasons are obvious, but I wanted to swim with the fish, so that seemed to be reason enough to ignore the recommendations. I was happy with my decision from the start, and am overjoyed after four years to have fish, and have never had a reason to think otherwise. I began with a dozen small koi, but as nature takes its course, a dozen became thirty, and then fifty or seventy. Some day there will be too many, and then I’ll have to transfer some to the other ponds, but for now, whatever number there are, it’s perfect.

Sometimes I feed them, sometimes not, but they require no care at all, and they’re always excited to see me.

Wildlife

With ponds you have frogs (there is no choice in the matter), and with six ponds there are lots of them. The racket from spring peepers is loud enough some evenings that I must close the windows to sleep. Walk down any path in the garden and you’ll hear the splashing of frogs into the stream and ponds, though if you move gently you might approach within inches before they flee.

There’s an occasional garter snake, but they’re so shy that they’re no concern, even to my wife. In the more shallow ponds I’ve had problems in years past with garters poaching small fish, but that has not been a problem in the larger pond. Nor are herons a problem in the swimming pond, where they are not able to stand in the deeper water.

There are plenty of dragonflies that dart about and perch on the cattails, surveying their domain to snatch the stray mosquito. And there are a variety of water skimming bugs zig zagging across the surface, and I’m surprised that the koi pay them no attention, perhaps they have too little substance to be considered a meal.

I have seen groundhogs, chipmunks, and squirrels stop for a drink, and know that deer and fox, skunks and possum visit the garden. Birds stop to splash about in the shallow water above the waterfall, and will hop from rock to rock in the shallow filtration area (under the cover of the tall iris and cattails) for a drink.

There has been only one occasion where geese were found in the pond, and a few ducks once, but they must be more comfortable in the larger, nearby farm ponds, where they are numerous.

Plants

In the filtration area of the swimming pond I have planted variegated cattails, tall striped sweetflag, Japanese and yellow flag iris, and floating hearts directly into the small bluestone gravel. When the water and air temperatures warm in late spring I plant tropical cannas, elephant ears, and dwarf papyrus that grow huge in the shallow water.

The aquatic plants help to filter nutrients from the water, but my purpose is to naturalize the pond’s edge, so between boulders half submerged at the water’s edge I’ve planted colorful Japanese iris, rushes, and calla lilies. In the soil above the boulders that edge the pond large leafed hostas and hydrangeas, and winter jasmine tumble to blend the pond with the garden.

The deep part of the pond is not planted, and floating hearts that wander from the filtration area are tugged out and tossed onto the compost pile.

Considerations

First, you should be aware that most communities consider any pond deeper than two feet to be a swimming pool, and permits and fences are normally required for safety.

Most pond building guides recommend against constructing near trees, where leaves will blow into the pond. I have no choice, my property is surrounded by trees, so I cover the ponds with netting in October that is removed in March. If the pond was fouled with leaves I’d be forced to empty the water to clean the mess in the spring, and I don’t intend to ever have to pump out the pond’s twenty-five thousand gallons and refill it.

The swimming pond in my garden is halfway to the back property line, so that you must follow paths past three smaller ponds, and cross a small lawn area to reach it. The pond (and the plantings that surround it) brings the upper and lower portions of the rear garden together, so that it is perfectly located, but in most situations the pond will be appreciated more if it is closer to the house.

When I first built the swimming pond I included a stone patio and firepit, and the following year added a metal summerhouse and another small patio. The planting area around the pond has been added to continually, and I’m certain that part of the project will never end.

Color for the dog days

Who could argue that the dog days have arrived? The only contentious point could be that they began a month early this summer.

If not for the wretched, weedy lawn the garden would show few signs of the stressful heat of the past months. Crapemyrtles, hydrangeas, and shrub roses show plentiful blooms, and now are joined by the Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha, above) and more recently by the first blooms of the Seven Son Tree (Heptacodium miconiodes, below).

Coneflowers and daisies have begun to fade as sunflowers begin to bud, ready to welcome September in a blaze of yellow blooms. The early toadlilies are flowering and the liriopes are nearly in full bloom (Liriope muscari ‘Big Blue’, below).

New to the garden this year is a tall growing mondo grass (Ophiopogon ‘Crystal Falls’, below) that more closely resembles a liriope than the more familiar dwarf mondos, but I’ve found that it is less tolerant of direct sun. For shady gardens the long narrow leaves are an excellent contrast with the broad leafed hostas, and the blooms are quite nice.

Also new is Ruella ‘Purple Showers’ (below), with purple trumpets that last only a day, but that appear day after day without fail. This one is marginally winter hardy, and it’s often noted as seeding itself about a bit too enthusiastically, but I’ve a damp piece of ground behind a wet weather pond that is a suitable location for a beauty who wants to run amuck. I’ve had aggressive spreaders that have worked perfectly, and others that have been horrors, so it will be interesting to see which it becomes, if it lives at all.

I’ve always been happy with Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium, below) for shady areas in the garden, and in past years I’ve had only minor issues with it seeding itself, but this spring there were thousands growing through the Creeping Jenny that scurries over and between stepping stones by the front pond. Though the seedlings were easily pulled, there is no joy in pulling thousands of anything.

Several of the sedums (below) are blooming now, both creeping ground covers and ones with arching stems that ramble over boulders at the edge of the stone patios. Mostly they are planted in dry areas, but wet or dry they are useful for filling crannies between stones and for tumbling over walls.

I was surprised a few days ago to see the first blooms of autumn crocus (Colchicum, below) since I expect them later in September, but the other varieties show no signs of emerging so there will be plentiful blooms still to come. The late summer is a glorious time in the garden, but I’m not so anxious to see summer go.  

A garden to be lived in

I have seen them in glossy magazines, and they’re quite remarkable, immaculate gardens, perfect in architecture and horticultural marvels, clipped hedges and colorful carpets of annual flowers. No doubt the landscape architect who creates such wonders would scoff at my poor ramshackle patch with one of this and a few of that, with a different stone paving the paths at every turn, and a cheap tin summer house with a leaking roof.

I would not presume to judge one superior to the other, but I cannot imagine living with a garden that demands perfection at every turn, even without considering the substantial labor (and expense) in maintaining such a garden.

I will readily admit that portions of my garden are unkempt on occasion, perhaps more than occasionally. There are piles of debris that have lingered too long, a mishmash of this growing into that, and paths that have been abandoned to unruly hostas flopping about. No doubt there are dead limbs and leaves that should be removed, and weeds, well, the less said the better.

The summer heat has gotten the better of a few of the dogwoods with mildew. A ligularia and stray perennial or two that demand more regular irrigation have gone prematurely dormant, but the damage is only temporary, and all will return in the spring, I’m quite certain. Despite these troubles there is much to be joyful about, and never mind the crabgrass.

The hydrangeas and crapemyrtles continue to stand out, and the gardener looking for blooms through the summer is well advised to consider these delightful plants. There are cultivars of each that are appropriate for a garden of any size, and a property of modest proportions might select a few crapemyrtles and a handful of hydrangeas that will extend flowering from June into September.

The earliest of the crapemyrtles to flower in this garden is the large growing, white Natchez, and it continues in bloom in mid-August. The pink Sioux, Pink Velour, and Arapaho began several weeks later, and will bloom into September. The dwarf Cherry Dazzle (above), now nearly four feet wide, though only three feet tall after four years, began to flower later in July, but will have a few stray blooms remaining in early October in most years.

The reblooming hydrangeas (Penny Mac, Endless Summer, and others) have only a few new blooms today, but still display numerous spent flowers that have faded but are still colorful. There is abundant new growth, and as the temperatures cool in early September new flowering buds will reset to bloom later in the month. By the end of September the hydrangeas will be covered with blooms, as many as there  are in late spring.

I’ve been told that the panicle hydrangeas (above) will rebloom if the spent flowers are removed, but on a shrub eight feet tall and wide there will be hundreds of flowers (and they would be deadheaded with great difficulty), so the blooms of Limelight and Tardiva will be left to fade. Still, they remain in full color through September, and the faded blooms are attractive and are not pruned off until late winter.

The shrub roses (Knockout Red, above) went through a bit of a resting period during the horrid temperatures late June through July, but began to bloom again in early August, though the reblooming is not as heavy as the first spring bloom. Knockout roses (as well as the lower growing Drifts) and assorted other low care roses have proven to be an essential for summer color, blooming alongside the crapemyrtles and hydrangeas, and with an assortment of perennials blooming through the summer the garden remains quite colorful through the dog days.

The garden is not perfect, far from it, but it’s a joy to wander about each evening. In the next few days I’ll continue to explore the perennials, and a couple trees that bring color to the late summer garden.

Big is beautiful

No, not me, I’m big, but more bulldozer than beautiful, useful for digging holes and moving boulders. In my garden I’m a fool for any plant with large leaves, trees, shrubs, perennials, or tropicals, the bigger the better, I’ve got to have them. In garden design big leaves contrast nicely with just about any foliage in the garden, needled or broadleaf, but there’s probably some deeper psychological need that drives my fondness, and no doubt I have plenty of issues there.

Tropical elephant ears are the largest leaves in my garden, and I’ve steadily grown my collection of mostly colocasia and a few alocasia to a dozen or so varieties, and with offsets that I’ve harvested there are enough plants to fill half the basement when they’re brought in for the winter. The monster of the group is Colocasia gigantea (above), with leaves nearly five feet long, and if it was planted in more moist soil, and given a smidgen of fertilizer I’d have to find a new home for it with a lot more space. I saw a photo the other day where the gardener had pampered theirs, and the leaves looked to be closer to eight feet, so I’ve already planned for a nice damp spot for next year where it can grow without overwhelming everything in its path.

Most of the varieties of elephant ears are a bit smaller, some with green, black, or mottled colored leaves, but just about all have leaves a foot or more in length. I’ve planted them in large containers, in the ground, and in shallow water in the ponds, but all are brought in for the winter. The pots are hauled into the basement and clustered as close to the glass door as possible, and watered just enough to keep them alive. The light is barely adequate, and by mid-January they look pretty sad, but they’re alive and ready to go outdoors in late May.

The elephant ears planted in soil or water are dug up when the foliage dies down after early frosts, the dying leaves are cut off just above the roots, and the thick roots are left on the driveway for a few days to dry out. Once dry I throw them in a bag with dried, shredded leaves and stack the bags in a cooler, which is propped slightly open and put on a shelf against a heated wall in the unheated garage. Several varieties of tropical bananas and cannas (above) are overwintered the same way, and I’ll lose a few roots that rot because they weren’t dried completely, but I’ve found this to be quite easy and dependable, and it’s easier to convince the wife to give up the coolers for the winter than half the basement.

Bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla, above) is quite cold hardy, but coarse in form, and it grows to be quite a monster, so it’s inappropriate for most gardens. I’ve managed a spot for it near the edge of the garden so that it spills over into the forest, and though it is tucked into a corner I often detour to marvel at its huge, two foot long leaves and late spring, fragrant blooms.

The largest of hosta leaves (above) are well over a foot wide, and varieties such as Sum and Substance and Big Daddy make a considerable clump after a few years, and tend to be more resistant to deer than others. I have planted so many in the garden that I’ve forgotten the names of most, but I enjoy them all, even as they flop over and block the garden paths.

Along the garden ponds and a long stream I’ve planted hostas, Japanese forest grass, and all manner of perennials that spill over the water’s edge, but also large leafed Darmera peltata (above) and Ligularias. On the dry slope behind the largest of the garden’s ponds Plume poppy (Macleaya cordata, below) has spread to fill the space between large evergreens. The large leaves give a tropical feel that is suited perfectly to the ponds.