Not so wonderful

Readers occasionally inquire about visiting my garden, and I suppose no harm could come of it, but I fear that many would be disappointed that the garden is not so grand as they imagined. As gardens go, mine is larger than most. The property totals just under an acre and a quarter, and besides the footprint of the house there are only three small panels of lawn (that get smaller every year). The remainder is ornamental garden, and there are plants squashed into every nook and cranny, and herein lies the problem.

The design of a beautiful garden should complement the plants. There must be form and structure, and adequate space given so large specimens can be appreciated. In this garden there is none of that, no order, little structure, and most definitely not enough space allocated to individual plants. An objective observer might surmise that the resident gardener had gone quite mad, cramming as many plants into a space as possible, and not having the good sense to know when to quit. I won’t agree with this, but my wife does.

Stone paths have been constructed to lead through much of the garden, primarily because my wife refuses to walk on mulch, or leaf debris, or any other surface that could be called dirt and tracked into the house. The paths are interrupted by several small slate and flagstone patios, a few with a bench or chairs that are useful for setting pruners and trowels onto, but are rarely used for their intended purpose. I have noticed recently that the stone work on the patios is in need of some repair, with some paving sunken or gaps between stones that have widened as they have crept apart through the years. Perhaps I’ll get around to this next year.

This year I will be planting, next year I might clean up. The grand plan for this year includes adding several Japanese maples, a Parrotia, and more fully developing the garden around the spring-fed wetland that creeps along the back half of the southern border. I use the word “plan” cautiously, not intending to infer that there is actually a design on paper for where all these treasures will be planted.

Despite warnings from my wife (only half-hearted, I believe) not to plant more trees or to remove any more of the rear lawn, I have carved out an area for two of the Japanese maples. I’ll determine a spot for the third maple, and the Parrotia, when they’re sitting on the lawn ready to plant.  A bit of groundwork is necessary for the wetland planting to sculpt some areas to hold more moisture and to mound others to be a bit drier. For this area a few plants have been mail ordered in the winter, the remainder will be picked up at the garden center in a few weeks.

I’m overjoyed to have time to plant so early in the season. With glorious weather two weekends earlier (not too cool or warm), I accomplished a few weeks worth of cleanup in only a day, and if I were not planting this week I don’t know what it is that I would do to keep myself busy.

I can hardly wait for May to see the new Japanese maples in leaf. There are already more than a dozen varieties in the garden, but I’ve been anxious to plant these since I saw them in the field at the nursery in Oregon last summer. Once they’re in the ground I’ll consider what needs to be planted to surround them, since leaving even a small spot open is an invitation for weeds to invade. I’ll try to restrain my impulses to plant too much, too close, but I’m resigned to a garden where one neighbor flops over the other, so who am I fooling?

I’m probably not capable of change, or restraint, so if you should visit the garden, do so without grand expectations.


Here today, gone by afternoon

Snow late in March is usually accompanied by considerable consternation by gardeners who fear that emerging flowers and tender new leaves will be irreparably damaged. Let us put those fears to rest, the fleeting snow will result in no injury. Abnormally low temperatures are the primary concern at this date, and though the current cold is below average it is no cause for alarm.

By Monday the snow will be only a memory, relived in office chat as if this were a rare occurrence. Through the middle of April light snow and an occasional nighttime temperature well below the freezing point are not unusual, and gardeners will recall many instances when cold damaged the this-or-thats late into April. Today’s snow will not be a problem at all.

Instead, this was an opportunity to take a few photos of snow on the blooms of whatever it is that’s flowering in your garden, and of course I have included a few here. You will note in the close ups that there is no browning at the edges of the flowers to indicate cold damage. By mid week, when the weather has turned warmer, we will marvel that only a few days ago there was snow on the ground, and we’ll be delighted that the garden looks none the worse for it.

Late winter treasures

In mid-February the dull monotony of the winter garden is broken by blooming witch hazels, then snowdrops, crocus, iris, narcissus, and hellebores. Witch hazels bloom on bare stems, and of course the bulbs do not have woody stems at all. Hellebores are low growing, shrub-like perennials with evergreen foliage, though by late winter it is often weathered and tattered. Flower buds slowly emerge from the cold earth early in February, and by late in the month a few blooms will open in my shaded garden.

By the middle of March the floral display reaches its peak, and though they will persist into April, hellebores’ blooms are not fifty-five mile per hour stunners. The flowers are not drop dead gorgeous from across the garden, even when planted in masses, and in fact many are even a bit difficult to enjoy close up without some effort. The flowers of many hellebores nod downward so that the gardener must kneel and prop them up to be fully admired, though the blooms of some newer introductions stand more erect.

In my garden the hellebores have been planted in an area with thin, dry soil, and despite this less than ideal circumstance they thrive and seed themselves about so that there are now many seedlings that are indistinguishable from the ones I planted. Hellebores will thrive in more full sun than the spot I’ve chosen, and prefer a deeper, well drained soil (and which plants don’t), but often plants must cope with what they’re given, and hellebores have handled this with ease.

The small herd of deer that rests during daylight hours in the thicket just a few paces from the hellebores does not bother the alkaloid, bitter tasting foliage at all, though their path through the neighborhood passes within a few feet of the colony.

The nomenclature of hellebores is confusing at best, but I have been encouraged that taxonomists consider just about every plant in commerce to be a hybrid (Helleborus x hybridus). Hellebores cross so readily that it is nearly impossible to trace their genetics, and many are sold as “strains”, meaning that the grower has selected seedlings that are genetically dissimilar, but similar in flower color and appearance. These are then crossed, and the resulting seedlings have a greater chance of also being similar in color and growth. Since the seedlings are not of identical genetics, they must be lumped together as a strain. No matter, the hellebore seedlings are nearly identical, and if the gardener purchases while the plants are blooming then there is little danger of making a poor selection.

Care for hellebores is minimal, with no pest or disease problems. I will cut back the ratty foliage every year or two, as the flower buds push a few inches through the ground, but that’s all. Some seedlings will be transplanted after flowering, or in the autumn, or whenever I get around to it. Seeds from the hellebores will often stray a good distance from the colony, swept up in the wash of rainwater draining off a nearby patio. The seedlings pop up through leaf litter and twigs that accumulate at forest’s edge, and they’re easily popped from the ground to move to the garden.

Now, I can’t recall which plants were purchased from the garden center, and which were seedlings, for both are vigorous and flower equally well. Whenever I see a unique bloom in the garden center (and there are delicious new plants introduced each year), I must add it to my little colony of hellebores, and soon seedlings from these will join the others in this delightful collection of late winter bloomers.Hellebores

Cherries are blossoming

The peak bloom period for the flowering cherries on the national mall is predicted to be March 29 through April 3. I expect that there’s already significant bloom along the Tidal Basin, but the peak is a week away. Cherries in the outer suburbs will be a week to ten days later, and in my garden only the early flowering ‘Okame’ will bloom within the next two weeks.

There has been an odd year or two when ‘Okame’ has flowered in early March in my garden, and then the blooms are in danger of being damaged by freezes. The start of the third week is the more likely time for their blossoms, and the temperatures rarely stray low enough to be harmful this late. ‘Okame’ is an excellent tree for the moderate sized property since it does not spread nearly so wide as the more common ‘Kwanzan’ and ‘Yoshino’, and the early blooms are welcome.  

The buds of ‘Dr. Merrill’ and ‘Royal Star’ magnolias are a little behind this spring, and just now are beginning to open a wee bit. The magnolias will sometimes bloom the first week of March, and the large flowers are more susceptible to damage than the cherries’. The shrub-like ‘Royal Star’ is more often injured by cold, with the blooms of ‘Dr. Merrill’ unharmed only a few paces distant, but I shouldn’t make so much of this since in most years neither suffers at all. ‘Jane’ and the yellow ‘Elizabeth’ bloom another couple of weeks later, and rarely have a problem with the cold.

The handful or two of deer resistant Pieris (Pieris japonica, above and below) cultivars in the garden are not bothered by cold at all, with some beginning bloom early in March and persisting into April. A few were planted twenty years ago, and as so often is the case, I have forgotten their names. A few I recall.

The brightly colored variegated leaves on the title banner of this page are ‘Flaming Silver’, a decided improvement over the old ‘Variegata’, but still a magnet for lacebug and the only pieris I have that suffers any significant insect problems. The low, compact growing ‘Cavatine’ is later to flower in April, and its foliage is an undistinguished, drab green, but it is delightful in bloom, carefree, and more adapted to a range of soils. Pieris can be very touchy with damp or poorly drained soils, and ‘Cavatine’ is certainly the most forgiving. ‘Scarlet O’Hara’ and ‘Dorothy Wycoff’ are also undemanding, but the common ‘Mountain Fire’ is probably most troubled by soil  moisture.

The Oriental Paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha, above) has become one of my favorites, not only for the yellow tipped tubular flowers that droop from its bare stems beginning in mid-March. The rhododendron-like blue-green foliage forms a lush canopy spring through autumn, and in November the flower buds first become apparent, teasing that winter is nearing its end as they swell through February.

Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, above) will often begin to show a glimpse of color late in February, but its cheerful yellow pannicles light up the garden through March, and are followed by small grape-like fruits that birds adore. Leatherleaf has a bit more open habit and is more coarsely textured than the late autumn blooming ‘Winter Sun’, but both are sturdy evergreens with vicious sharply spined leaves. They are best suited to light shade, but will tolerate a range from full sun to shade.

Last, but not least

I went downtown a week ago, and was not surprised that daffodils of every sort were blooming, while in my garden even the early flowering miniatures were showing no color. I am certain that ‘February Gold’ blooms in February somewhere, but not in my garden, which is shaded from the late winter sun by a heavily wooded border.

By mid-week the miniatures were beginning to open, and after two warm days they have opened fully (above). Another group across the garden is more heavily shaded beneath a large ‘Jane’ magnolia, and will not bloom for another week, at least. The shade is most pronounced with the more southernly path of the winter sun, and by May the sun’s track leads it directly over the garden’s center, and then the only shade is from the dozens of trees that I’ve planted.

Though late winter bloomers in my garden are often a week later than on neighboring properties, the flowers are shielded from early warm days, so they will last longer than those in full sun. At the wood’s edge, beneath large oakleaf hydrangeas, Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa, above) is just beginning to bloom, and no matter that the days ahead are cool or warm, the flowers last for only a few days. The clump increases annually from seed, and from only a few handfuls of small bulbs there are hundreds of tiny plants covering twenty or thirty square feet.

The snowdrops (above) are on their way out, as are the last of the crocuses (below). In the autumn I feared the crocuses had been uprooted or otherwise disturbed when a dwarf Scotch pine planted twenty one years ago died and was dug out. When the pine was planted it seemed that there was plenty of room between it and the ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maple, but of course this is not the only slight miscalculation I have made through the years. In any case, most or possibly all of the crocus survived the nearby digging. 

Only a few of the hellebores (below) have not bloomed yet, with the holdouts planted close enough to the house that they get only a glimpse of the late winter sun. When the last of the group blooms in the next week I’ll feature them one day, and so enough said except to encourage you to get out to your local garden center to purchase a few. The flowers last for several weeks, often from late February into early April if temperatures are not too warm, and hellebores are well suited to the cold, so there is no danger in planting them now.  

Conditions are now ideal for planting trees and shrubs, and I have planned to do some planting next weekend. I made a substantial dent in my clean up chores on this glorious day, so I’ll allow myself the luxury of planting that I often don’t get around to until well into April.

Somewhere in the next days I’ll squeeze in a bit about the pieris (above), edgeworthia, and mahonias (and anything else I have missed today) that are blooming today, but in parting I’ll leave you with a photo of the variegated pussy willow (below) that is so coarse and unmannerly that I would not recommend to plant one unless you have a swampy area at the rear of the property. This is precisely where mine is located, and with the recent rains I sunk nearly to my ankles to get close enough for the photographs of the pollen laden catkins.

Tilting at windmills

Recently I’ve been working a bit late, so my garden strolls have been too infrequent. Each time I pass the snow damaged cryptomerias and evergreen magnolias at the back of the property I’m disheartened, and apt to sling a choice word or two skyward.

Gardeners cuss the rain (if they are inclined to cuss at all, and what non-cussers do in their exasperation I don’t know), or drought, snow and ice, heat and cold, and every circumstance that doesn’t suit them at the moment. I suppose the tirade is satisfying for an instant, but the weather will do what it does regardless of my ranting and raving, and all the foul language I can muster won’t change a thing. Cussing is impolite, I know, but there is little danger that the neighbors will be offended since my exhortations are no more than emphatic mumblings, unintelligible as well as ineffective.

Pleasant spring weather has arrived, at least for a short while, but temperatures dipping into the twenties in another week, or snow showers or sleet would  be no surprise, and in fact are quite ordinary for March and the first half of April. I hope not to see a repeat of the seventeen degrees the third week of April from a few years back that nipped the new leaves of Japanese maples just as they were unfolding, and at their most vulnerable to the cold. Undoubtedly, there will some further tragedy before winter weather is completely put away.

Which does not mean that the gardener should not be going about his business. The time for planning is past, and now is the season for action, cleaning up messes left from the autumn, preparing the ground, and planting trees and shrubs.

Veggie gardeners will have started their seeds weeks ago (usually too early in their anxiousness to hurry spring along), and if not, it’s not too late. If you’re concerned that it is, the garden centers will be fully stocked with lush seedlings in another few weeks. I have discovered, and reaffirmed over a number of decades, that I am not a capable seed gardener. I am bound to neglect seedlings so that they perish soon after germination, and the entire seed tray is lost.

Though the time to plant woodies is here, it is too early for the veggie seedlings to go outdoors, and along with annual flowers that are usually grown in heated greenhouses, these should not be planted until the threat of frost is past. I know that the wait is killing you, but there is no sense rushing things that will be irretrievably damaged by one cold night.

Along with woody plants this is the prime season to plant many perennials, and if you will purchase a pot full of roots with only a bit of top growth then there is no danger that the stray frost or freeze will cause a problem. Tough perennials like hellebores will tolerate any amount of cold, and if they’re planted today you’ll be able to enjoy their blooms for several weeks longer. 

If you waited until too late in the autumn to plant spring bulbs, blooming daffodils are available in the garden centers, and though these have been forced in heated greenhouses to bloom a bit early, there is no danger in planting a few outdoors for a splash of color along the front walk. After the flowers fade in a few weeks you should allow the foliage to fade over the following weeks, and the blooms will come back for many years.

There is no better time in the garden than the season ahead, and with each passing week I will become less agitated as the temperatures warm and flowers burst into bloom.

Right tree, right place

Too often I see properties that have been overwhelmed by a single tree, so that branches block driveways or walkways and must be chopped annually to prevent structural damage. The fault is not with the tree, of course, but in lack of attention in making an appropriate selection years earlier. There is a wealth of information available in books and on the internet, and landscape designers and garden center professionals are willing to consult so that there should be little reason for planting a tree that will grow too large for a property.

The largest trees, and potentially most troublesome for smaller lots, are shade trees. Many of us grew up with maples and oaks (or poplars, elms, and willows), and when confronted with a treeless property and a blazing sun it is quite natural to consider these first. Before you rush to the garden center, stop for a moment and walk the area where you intend to plant. From the point where you will dig the hole take three to four paces in the direction of the house, or the driveway or walk. This is the width of many shade trees in only five years. Walk another three to four paces. This is ten years.

If you have bumped into the house, or walked halfway across the driveway, then a maple or oak is likely not to be an appropriate tree for this setting. I often use a two car garage to help imagine the width that a mature shade tree will grow to. If this is too large, then envision a one car garage. This is the size that many “small” trees grow to become. Some trees are stuck in the middle, such as many flowering cherries that grow only to thirty feet in height, but grow as broad as a maple.

If your pacing has caused you to reconsider your choice of trees then you are on your way to a well designed and functional landscape. Don’t be discouraged. There are plenty of superb choices for smaller properties, and many will grow surprisingly quickly and are quite beautiful. Below is guide (though not all-inclusive) for the size that you can expect trees to grow to in a landscape setting, which is generally a bit shorter than the mature height of a tree in a forest.

Most trees will grow nearly as wide as their height, though there are exceptions such as birch that are much more upright in habit. Some trees have a vase-like form, and so lower branches are more upright so they are less likely to cause a problem with driveways and walks. On the other hand, the branching of some trees becomes more horizontal or even pendulous with age, and these can cause problems that are not easily corrected. Beyond the approximate sizes listed below you should consult references that will detail the growth and form of trees that you are considering.

Large trees – 50 feet or taller

Maples (Acer) – fast growing, shallow rooted. tall growing except Japanese maples.

Oaks (Quercus) – long lived, hard wooded.

Ash (Fraxinus) – beware ash borers. Banned in some areas.

Poplars (Liriodendron) – soft wooded, very tall.

Beech (Fagus) – painfully slow growing, but ultimately a large stately tree.

Birch (Betula) – more upright form allows planting in smaller areas.

Locust (Gleditsia) – more spreading head, filtered, not heavy shade.

Sweet Gum (Liquidambar) – watch out for the seeds.

Evergreen magnolias – usually retain lower branches so that they occupy more space at ground level.

Sycamore/ London Planetree (Platanus) – pollution resistant, great for commercial parking lots.

Bald Cypress (Taxodium) – unique deciduous conifer. Often found in damp areas.

Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia) – a prehistoric deciduous conifer. Fast growing.

Linden (Tilia) – slower growing, but Japanese beetles love them.

Willow (Salix) – many are more broad than tall, short-lived, weak wooded.

Zelkova – some varieties have upright branching.

Medium/ tall trees – 30-50 feet tall

Cherries (Prunus) – the tallest types reach thirty feet, but wider than tall.

Yellowwood (Cladrastis) – unique blooms and foliage, but soft wooded.

Black Gum (Nyssa) – wonderful autumn foliage.

Pear (Pyrus) – research problems with splitting before buying.

Hornbeam (Carpinus) – beware the fastigiate types that spread as they age.

Goldenrain Tree (Koelreuteria) – coarse textured, seeds germinate everywhere, but beautiful.

Katsura (Cercidiphyllum) – Beautiful, heart-shaped foliage. An outstanding selection.

Silverbell (Halesia) – dangling white blooms mid-spring.

Medium trees 20-30 feet tall

Serviceberry (Amelanchier) – often multi trunked, spring blooms.

Hawthorn (Crataegus) upright, often clumping form

Dogwood (Cornus) – most grow nearly as wide as tall. Native dogwoods, Chinese, and hybrids are unsurpassed small flowering trees.

Redbud (Cercis) – more spreading, wider than tall. Many forms, superb trees.

Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) – Bloodgood and other upright growers to 25 feet tall. Incredible leaf form and color.

Crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia) – some over 20 feet, others under but most have upright form. Long lasting summer blooms, autumn foliage color, and peeling bark.

Magnolias – deciduous types – there are upright and wide spreading, almost shrub-like forms.

Stewartia – perhaps will grow taller in someone else’s lifetime. Slow, but a magnificent flowering tree.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum) – very slow growing, unique lily-of-the-valley blooms and great autumn foliage.

Small trees – under 20 feet

Plum (Prunus) – purple leafed, but Japanese beetles love them.

Crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia) – many varieties grow 10-16 feet tall, and some below 10 feet. Others are shrubs.

Snowbell (Styrax) – rounded form, covered in small white or pink blooms in early summer.

Crabapple (Malus) – be certain to select disease resistant types.

Fringetree (Chionanthus) – often multi-trunked. Covered in fringe-like white blooms in early summer.

Goldenchain Tree (Laburnum) – Beautiful blooms, but resents heat and humidity.

Japanese maples (Acer palmatum, japonicum, and a few others lumped into the broader category of Japanese maple) – pendulous forms often remain under ten feet tall, but grow as wide or wider than tall.

Please forgive my omissions. There are many other wonderful trees, but I have not included them because they are not as common. If you know of a tree that’s not included then you are likely to know enough about it that you don’t need this brief reference. In my garden I grow Franklinia, Seven Son Tree, a deciduous Big Leaf magnolia that grows to a hundred feet (at least), and a variety of weeping and dwarf trees that will grow no taller than ten feet. I encourage you to explore less common trees, in particular those with unique foliage or blooms that are appropriate for smaller properties. Just because a lot has space to contain a large growing shade tree doesn’t mean that several (or many) smaller trees are not a better choice.

I hope that this brief listing of deciduous trees is useful, but evergreens are misused just as often. I advise the same research in determining mature sizes so that you are not paying for expensive tree surgery a few years from now to make up for mistakes made today.