No hurry, be happy that spring is near

I hesitate to offer gardening advice since I follow how-to and when-to instructions so poorly. There are numerous tasks that must be accomplished to keep a garden humming along, but much of what you read and hear is not based in fact, and often is wrong. Not that it matters much.

The week past I was confined dawn to dusk to a cavernous warehouse constructing a display for a local garden show, and so this morning I wandered about, surveying the damage from winter storms that must still be repaired, but also delighting in the crocuses (above) and snowdrops (below) that have tardily emerged. Along the wooded border of the garden are numerous branches that crashed to the ground under the weight of wet snow several weeks back, but remarkably managed to avoid squashing oakleaf hydrangeas, aucubas, and mahonias that are scattered about at the forest’s edge.

The pile of limbs will be enormous once I summon the energy to begin gathering them, and some must be sawn to be moved. I suppose that I will cut them to lengths to fit the firepit that is used too infrequently. There is no hurry, there will be warm days in March when the cleanup will be more pleasant. Beyond tree limbs, there is the usual debris that must be picked up and pruned at the start of every spring season, and despite the nagging reminders of organized gardeners there is no benefit to rushing about.

I set a goal to finish the garden’s cleanup by the start of April, though I often find that I will stray a few weeks into the month, and if I am particularly lazy there might be a chore or two that remains into early May, though rarely are they delayed for more than another week or two.

The overwintered foliage on the hellebores is rattier (if there is such a word) than usual, and I cannot recall if I cut it back a year ago, so this will be one of the first chores undertaken. The new leaves come up with the blooms (above), and the plant has a much neater appearance if the old foliage is cut back. I can hear you thinking that I should not be too concerned with the neatness of the hellebores in the midst of the rubble, but one has to begin somewhere, so why not with the hellebores?

Through the late autumn and into the winter I have gone on far too long (I am sure) about ‘Winter Sun’ mahonia (above), with cheerful yellow blooms that have persisted by some odd circumstance through January and February. Two plants along the shady southern border narrowly escaped catastrophe as maple limbs as thick as my leg dropped within inches. As I stumbled over the debris I noticed new blooms, and since the start of March is tomorrow I will brazenly predict that the mahonias will flower into their fifth month.

Though the rain was slight overnight the lawn through the rear garden was quite muddy, and as I squished about I noted the breeze picking up and dark clouds approaching rapidly from the northwest. As I neared the back of the property a brown cloud swept past, not from the oncoming storm, but a wave of pollen from the tall Japanese cedars. The three ‘Yoshino’ cryptomerias (above) suffered a few broken branches in the recent snow, but the two yellow tipped ‘Sekkan Sugi’ were damaged significantly, with tops broken and hanging awkwardly.

I walked briskly to avoid being covered in pollen, and to escape the rapidly approaching storm, which by this time announced itself with rumbles of thunder. I noted the scent of ‘Arnold’s Promise’ witch hazel (above) as I scurried past, and I made my way back to the house with a few moments to spare before the rains began. No work has been accomplished today, but I have noted a few tasks that will take precedence to be done in the next week, or perhaps in the few weeks following.

Garden ponds are a delight

I have been gardening this plot for more than twenty years, and no tree or flower has brought me a measure of enjoyment to compare with the garden ponds. There are five ponds in the garden, and another rainy season, dirt bottomed pond that captures runoff from neighboring properties and stays damp enough throughout to be bordered by lovely Japanese irises and perennials that thrive in the muck. The ponds are gathering points of the garden, and visiting kids and adults will linger for hours feeding fish, jumping from boulder to boulder, enjoying the sound of crashing waterfalls, and exploring the colorful blooms that surround the ponds.

The five ponds are lined with heavy duty, fish-safe EPDM rubber, natural boulders and river gravel, and all recirculate water with high efficiency pumps. There is surprisingly little annual labor involved in maintaining the ponds besides a thorough spring cleaning, and only a few minutes are spent each month cleaning debris or adding water to compensate for evaporation.

The smallest of the ponds (the oldest of the bunch) is less than a hundred square feet, and the most recently constructed is almost fifteen hundred. Sweet flag, Japanese iris, and dwarf cattails grow in the shallows, and delightful hardy waterlilies in the deeper parts. Each pond has been home to colorful goldfish and koi, though now all reside in the large and deep “swimming pond” to protect them from a heron that stalks nearby farm ponds.

What is the ideal size for a pond?

Bigger than you expect. A finished pond will often seem smaller than what you envisioned on paper, and after a while you are likely to wish that the pond was larger. Despite warnings to the contrary, my first pond was too small, under seventy five square feet. The second was double this size, and the swimming pond is thirty five by forty feet. For very small properties a pond under one hundred square feet can be appropriate, but for most a pond of one hundred fifty square feet or larger is ideal. Rather than living with disappointment, or starting over, it is best to plan to build a pond a bit larger than you think is right.

Where should the pond go?

First, and foremost, your pond must be situated to enjoy it fully, preferably in full sun, but if you regularly lounge on a shady patio, that’s where it should be. Not nearby, right next to it. If you have a deck, build the pond as close as possible, so that you look over the edge and see water.

People often imagine the lovely view of their pond in a distant corner of the garden, but once they have it, they realize it should be closer. So, a chair is placed at pond’s edge, then a small table to set your book down while you’re admiring your fish, then a patio is built so the family can be together in the area they enjoy so much. Considerable effort and expense are avoided by building the pond nearest the area where the family spends their time outdoors.

Is a pond constructed with concrete better than rubber-lined?

No. I’ve seen concrete ponds crack far too often so that they must be repaired, or even removed. Rubber liners offer design flexibility, don’t crack, and are very resistant to puncture.

What kind of maintenance is required?

An improperly designed pond can be a nightmare, but if constructed properly, the pond is less maintenance than the lawn or garden it replaces. With five ponds my yearly maintenance is only an hour or two per month, and many months require none at all. There are differing ways to reach this low maintenance goal, but the easiest are to build with a pump to recirculate and aerate the pond’s water and a filtration system to prevent algae and green, murky water. Filtration can be as simple as a pond skimmer and rock and gravel to line the inside of the pond, or more complex UV lights and sand or bubble bead filters. A clear water pond can be achieved completely without chemicals and little labor.

Are fish too much trouble?

A pond without fish is delightful to look at, but there’s something missing. I prefer having fish, and goldfish will do, even the cheapest ones sold as feed for larger fish will quickly grow, and many are better than a few. Koi are more expensive, but can grow larger, are more colorful, and can live many years. I purchased the smallest, cheapest koi I could find, and they have grown quickly and spawned plenty of babies that cost nothing. After a few years you’ll have sufficient numbers to give some to the neighbors.

Other critters, frogs, toads, turtles, and dragonflies will arrive without invitation, and cost you nothing.

Do the pond plants take over?

Plants are a must to naturalize the edges of the pond, and in the water. Aquatic plants help to keep the pond’s water clear, provide cover for fish from predators, and many are quite beautiful and require a minimum of care. A word of caution, a few aquatics grow very aggressively, demanding frequent pruning, and others are considered invasive to natural waterways. With proper plant selection pond plants are less maintenance than those in the dry garden since they will never require watering.

At the pond’s edge we want plants to blur the edges that show that your pond is a manmade creation, to flop over the boulders and river gravel. These low growing shrubs and perennials should be planted as a part of the pond’s budget and not as an afterthought.

Are ponds safe for kids?

My two kids grew up with ponds, dangling their feet in the water’s edge and leaping from boulder to boulder without incident. The youngest son now builds ponds for a living. When my boys were growing up they regularly fell out of trees and crashed into each other on playground equipment,  and ponds also require a bit of training and supervision. Most ponds are eighteen to twenty four inches deep, so particular oversight should be exercised when toddlers are present.

What do I do with the pond in the winter months?

I leave my ponds running through the winter. Moving water doesn’t freeze, and pumps are not harmed. In more northern states ponds must be shut down so that freezing water circulated into warmer, deeper water doesn’t harm fish, but in the mid-Atlantic region this isn’t a problem. If you have fish in your pond, and decide to turn it off for the winter, you’ll need to run a small pump to keep an area open so that harmful gases can escape, or use one of the small pond heaters that keeps a small area from freezing. 

Can I build a pond myself, or do I need professional help?

Ponds need not be complicated to be enjoyable, and many people can construct them on their own. However, the labor can be back breaking, and the liner and stone are bulky and heavy. A professional pond builder will design and build a pond that you can enjoy for many years without spending all your free time maintaining it.

Spring garden show

I have been occupied this week constructing Meadows Farms’ display garden for the Capital Home and Garden Show in Chantilly, Virginia. Apparently there is an art to building show gardens, and after many years I almost know what I’m doing. We finished building a day early, and while the other gardens are still works in progress we’re back at the nursery doing whatever it is that we do when we’re not fiddling around with garden shows.

I’m trying to catch up in the office before I spend every waking hour Friday through Sunday at the show greeting visitors and answering questions, but I managed to put together a slideshow from bare concrete to ninety-nine percent finished. Follow this link to our YouTube page. The photos on this page were taken earlier today, and I suppose we’re completely done at this point after sweeping up and setting up our brochures and handouts. 

If you’re in the area, drop by and say hello.

Too many Japanese maples!

Cruising down a country road just to the south of Aurora, Oregon there are fields of blueberries to one side, and wheat to the other. A bit further down the lane are endless rows of raspberries, and fescue and rye grasses grown for lawn seed. Then, the eye is captured by a sea of red, which upon closer inspection is a field of Japanese maples.

This is not a few hundred trees, but thousands, mostly red, but also green leafed and yellow, and variegated leaves with creamy margins and splotches of pink. Many people are familiar with “dwarf” Japanese maples, and there are dozens of popular weeping varieties here. Some might recognize the upright growing, red leafed ‘Bloodgood’, but on this farm are all the standards and others that are not commonly found in garden centers. And there are hundreds and thousands of each.

Further down this rural highway is another field of red, then another. Surely, there must be a Japanese maple here for every man, woman, and child in the country, and where will they all go?

This is the dilemma, a classic instance where supply has overwhelmed demand. There are simply more Japanese maples than there are people willing to purchase and plant them. What can be done? The trees continue to grow, more quickly than you would suspect, and so it is not possible to hold them until better economic times arrive. They must be dug from the fields and sold, now, and if a discount of a few bucks will sell more trees, well, there will be fewer trees bulldozed and tossed onto the burn pile at year’s end.

For the past decade nursery growers (particularly in Oregon) have increased numbers of Japanese maples as demand was strong and prices climbed. When the recession kicked in supply quickly surpassed demand, but many more trees were in the pipeline and numbers continued to increase.

As economic cycles go, oversupply will turn to shortages, and this one will quickly change as Japanese maple growers have slashed the number of trees they’re growing for future years. Today the maples are big and cheap, but not for long. Within another year or two demand will have increased (if only slightly) and the number that are being grown will have dropped significantly. What will happen? Prices will go up.

Our lesson for today is that now is the time to buy. Trees are oversized, and prices are low! If the growers are fortunate, this will never happen again, but you can take advantage to save hundreds of dollars.

Better late than never

A few warm days in February set the heart aflutter with anticipation of spring, and a week ago I heard from a gardener in town who is celebrating the arrival of the first snowdrops and hellebores. In years past I have seen snowdrops poke their heads above an inch or two of fresh snow, but the snow along my shady front walk was hard crusted and icy until a few days ago and has slowed their progression. With the snow melted, the snowdrops are sprouting quickly (below), and I expect blooms within the next week.

The buds of the hellebores continue to fatten (below), and I suspect that the flowers will open just after the snowdrops. A reader who watches these pages to be alerted to what is popping into bloom is likely to be disappointed that they have passed a week earlier in their neighborhood, unless they happen to be reading from their home in Pittsburgh. Everything blooms late in this cold natured garden, but late in the winter is the only time that I am anxious about it, and often flowers will stay around a bit longer in the cool shade. 

This morning I have wandered around the garden a bit, pruned a few small broken branches, but the ground was sloppy and as I slipped and slid about I determined that despite my enthusiasm I was doing more harm than good. I have decided to remove a Snow cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Snow) that has grown too large, with long branches that have bent in the heavy snow from this winter and last.

The Snow cypress is purported to grow to two feet in height, or five to six feet, though some references will tell you that it will mature to twenty feet tall. There is considerable confusion regarding cypresses, and I often see reference materials and hear landscape people say that the common gold threadbranch cypress (also a pisifera type) will grow only to four or five feet. I can attest from experience that both Snow and gold threadbranch will grow to fifteen feet and beyond, and today my chainsaw will remedy this error. 

I have kept a watchful eye on the witch hazels for several weeks as the buds began to show a peak of the yellow within, but in the past week I have left and returned from work in the dark, so I did not see that the ribbony blooms had unfurled, though not fully. The yellow ‘Arnold’s Promise’ (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold’s Promise’, above) is more mature and slightly earlier to flower, but ‘Diane’ (below) is only a few days behind. I did not notice the fragrance this morning, and though I have poor sniffer, I’m guessing that the aroma will be enhanced once the blooms open completely.

Through the next week and the weekend I will be occupied with setting up and greeting visitors to a garden show, so I am excited to see the changes as the weather begins to warm and spring arrives in earnest.

Dog show

The Westminster Kennel Club show has ended, and again I missed it. I’m not big on show dogs, and my wife and I don’t have dogs now, but until they passed on a few years back we had a pair of pound pups, sisters of some mixed heritage.

Just as our two boys have disparate personalities, so it was with the sister mutts. Daisy was tough and aggressive, loyal, and stubborn, while Minnie was laid back, a follower, and sweet natured. Both were wonderful garden dogs. Of course there was an occasional broken branch as they bounded off on the trail of a squirrel, rabbit, deer, or anything else that their hunting dog genes dictated that they follow, but that was a trivial concern.

One summer we noticed that moles had invaded one of the small areas of lawn in the back garden, and before my wife and I could even think whether this was a problem or not the sisters decided on their own. The dogs followed the raised section of lawn with their nose to the ground, stopped suddenly and dug frantically for a few seconds until their prize was captured. Further details are a bit gory, but our mole problem was quickly resolved.

If the dogs were still around I would probably not have to spray deer repellent to protect the garden, though as the neighborhood developed around us we were forced to confine the sisters indoors more often so that they wouldn’t chase every critter that passed through. Given any opportunity Daisy would tear off after anything that moved, and Minnie would trail behind. A few hours later they’d return, and Minnie would plop down into the stream in the shade of the serviceberry to cool off.

My wife and I talk occasionally about getting another dog or two, usually after our son and his wife visit with their greyhound, but I am apprehensive that we would find a dog as garden friendly as the two sisters.

Twelve months of bloom

This morning I discovered some remaining yellow blooms on a Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’ (below) that receives little sun in the winter months. Only the side of the evergreen that is most shielded from sunlight was flowering, and they are a bit meager, but now I can enthusiastically proclaim that there are blooms in the garden in all of the twelve months.

The mahonia begins to flower in November, and the peak bloom is usually late in the month extending into the middle of December. Those planted in sunny spots will flower earlier, and the blooms were gone by the start of the new year. In shaded areas the yellow panicles persisted into early January, but with snow and generally dreary weather I had not noticed the lingering blooms. With winter carrying on far too long, they are a welcome sight.

As is usual, several inches of snow blankets much of the garden weeks after neighboring properties have melted (except in heavily shaded areas), so that the early sprouting of snowdrops and crocus is hidden. Along the garden’s southern border (the shadiest area spring through autumn) the snow has melted as sun shines though tall poplars so that the hellebores are fully exposed, and so the plump buds are readily seen once the scattering of leaf debris is swept aside.

The buds of ‘Arnold’s Promise’ witch hazel (above) are showing evermore color, though the red flowering ‘Diane’ shows no sign that the buds have begun to swell. With warmer temperatures forecast for the next week both will progress more quickly, and provide further evidence that spring is truly just around the corner.

The furry catkins at the tips of branches of the black stemmed variegated pussy willow (below) have opened, and as February moves along they will continue to be more evident. The pussy willow is a wretched plant, awkwardly spreading to at least fifteen feet, and the variegated foliage is not obvious, but it is planted practically in standing water at the back property line, so for this difficult spot it is a splendid choice.

With only a few weeks remaining until spring arrives in earnest these are small consolations, but the snow will soon melt and I’ll rejoice in the snowdrops and hellebores, early iris and crocus.