Spring pond update

There are five ponds in the garden, and for the first time in years I had to replace one of the pumps this spring. Several pumps have been working without a care for ten years, or at least as long as I can recall. I haven’t a clue what happened. One day it worked, the next it didn’t. Quite often when a pump has stopped I’ll find that something large (and often gruesome) has become lodged in the pump opening, but that wasn’t the case this time.

So, I turned a couple screws to loosen a fitting, popped the new pump into the water, plugged it in, and the pond’s off and running. Beyond this minor aggravation the ponds have been no problem at all this spring.

On occasion there will be a problem with string algae in a few of the ponds, but that has been only a minor nuisance this spring. A few years ago I purchased a metal pole with a brush at the end that does a marvelous job of capturing algae, but I haven’t needed it so far this year. The water, as always, remains clear enough to see the small stones on the bottom of the pond, even on the swimming pond that is nearly five feet deep.

I have talked with people who think that ponds must be a tremendous bother, requiring endless hours of maintenance. Admittedly, my first pond twenty years ago was a bit troublesome, but I’ve figured out a thing or two since, and most months I spend less than fifteen minutes fooling with one thing or another. I would say no time at all, but that would unnecessarily arouse suspicion that I’ve been less than honest.

In my experience, the biggest labor saver is the pond skimmer, a plastic or fiberglass box that sits outside the pond, with a flapped door into the pond similar in appearance to the openings in a swimming pool. The pond pump sits in the skimmer so that water is drawn through the rectangular opening. A leaf net captures leaves and debris, and a filter pad stops smaller particles from fouling the pump.

Although the skimmer will not capture every leaf that falls into the pond, it serves to prevent debris from clogging the pump.  In my earliest pond the pump sat on a rock on the bottom of the pond, so that every sort of debris was drawn to its small filter pad. Even after I added a large pre-filter the pump would lag after a week, so that I had to remove the slimy filter and hose it off regularly.

With the skimmer this maintenance isn’t necessary. Three ponds have no filter at all, just a leaf net. They require cleaning no more than every other month, and often only once each summer and once in March when the debris from the autumn and winter is cleaned out. And there’s lots of debris.

Most pond references tell you not to build a pond near trees, but between the forest that runs along the southern border of the garden, and the dozens of trees that I’ve planted, there is no way that I could avoid falling leaves and twigs. One pond and a long stream are only a few feet from the trunks of large maples, and the other ponds all have overhanging trees that necessitate covering them with large nets prior to leaves dropping in the autumn.

No chemicals are needed to keep the ponds’ water clear. Pond supply centers sell dry and liquid bacteria formulations that convert decaying organic materials to forms that don’t feed algae growth, but this seems to happen naturally in my ponds, so I’ve no need to purchase anything. In my limited understanding, beneficial bacteria multiply in highly aerated water, and require the surface area of filter pads, beads, bioballs, or other porous materials to grow in sufficient quantities. In my ponds the bottoms are covered in small river gravel, and the sides are covered with larger stones. Apparently this is adequate surface area, since the ponds are always clear.

Some pond keepers prefer mechanical filtration such as sand filters, and devices such as UV lights to kill algae, but these are more costly from the start and require more upkeep than I’ve experienced. For most of the year I’m able to sit back and enjoy the ponds, without a care that hours of maintenance are just around the corner.

Today we have not addressed the aesthetics of the pond, or how the pond fits into the larger garden. I take for granted that you want a pond, but perhaps fear that it will be too costly or require too much time to maintain. Besides my five ponds, the garden is nearly an acre in size, yet most of my free time from mid April through year’s end is spent enjoying, not working. There are no helpers, no paid staff, just me, and all is accomplished with plenty of time for leisure.

In the next week I will get back around to covering what’s blooming in the garden, but at week’s end the Japanese iris that surround the pond will be in full bloom, so I’ll return then with more photos.


How many plants can be jammed into a garden?

Readers occasionally write asking for wider views of the garden rather than only close ups of flowers, and recently I’ve featured several of these. I often find that when I take photographs of more broad areas that the camera flattens the view so that there is too little contrast, with one plant hardly distinguishable from another. This is not the view as I travel through the garden.

The photo below was taken from a distance close enough so that each plant is clearly seen, partly, I think, because the foliage sizes, textures, and colors are distinctly different. Taken from ten feet further (which would not be possible since I would be standing in another pond, and behind tall nandinas) there would not be enough definition, and the photo would appear to be a jumble of green with a few splashes of yellow somethings (click on the photos to expand for a larger view).

The photos covers an area of perhaps eight feet square, and it occurred to me that this picture is somewhat of a summation of the garden. How many plants can be jammed into an area?

The most easily identifiable plants are the hosta (probably the common and durable Francee), two ferns (‘Ghost’ Japanese Painted and Autumn ferns), and Japanese Forest grass on either side of the small stream. The green foliage on the near side is a grouping of sweetbox (Sarcococca humilis), which has spread from a few spindly plants, and Nandina domestica on the far side. Above the nandina a branch or two of the pendulous Golden Chain tree dangles into the photo, and a bit of the yellow speckled Gold Dust aucuba has elbowed its way into the composition.  From under the aucuba a few leaves of Darmera can be seen, and a silver leafed Brunnera struggles for space from under the sweetbox.

By my count there are ten different plants, eleven if the moss covered stones at pond’s edge are included. This number is either too many, or just right, depending on your gardening style, but for me, this is just about right. Of course, not every sixty square feet of the garden is so congested, but nearly every inch of ground in the nearly once acre of garden is covered with a plant of some sort.

With the start of June only a few days from today, the garden is at the point where vigorous and lush growth obstructs the stone paths, so that a visitor is thoroughly soaked from wet branches that must be brushed aside. The long blooming Chinese dogwoods remain in flower, though the blooms are now blemished and will fade shortly.

The late spring blooming magnolias are now flowering. The evergreen magnolias have suffered considerable damage from snow the past two winters, but they continue to bloom on the remaining branches. The deciduous Big Leaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla, above) blooms at the same time, but the huge leaves and flowers will never be mistaken as one of the glossy leafed evergreens.

The Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata ‘Ivory Silk’, above) has large panicles of small white flowers, and though it is not so fragrant as the old fashioned common lilacs, I notice the scent as I walk nearby on a humid evening. Through ten years the tree lilac grew vigorously, but in a period of dry weather a year ago it suffered considerably with wilting foliage and some branches dying. This spring there is no sign of a continuing problem, but I am concerned that the heat of summer might inflict further injury.

There is so much more ground to cover today, but I must cut my writing short to keep up with some chores. With rain and heat any small spot that is not covered by foliage has sprouted a weed, or many dozens, and if I don’t keep after them regularly there will be trouble. I’ll return in a few days with an update on the garden’s ponds, and then later in the week we’ll catch back up with what’s blooming.

Low care roses

I’m not a rose lover. I don’t cut flowers to bring indoors, and don’t aspire to grow perfectly formed or scented flowers. When I plant a rose it’s because it’s a sturdy and attractive shrub that blooms for a long period with a minimum of bother. Rose enthusiasts might turn their noses up at low care roses, and I don’t doubt that they fall well short of standards that determine a fine rose. I only want a long blooming shrub that doesn’t require spraying or other care.

There will be one rose or another blooming in my garden from mid May into November, and none will require a bit of care. Through the years I’ve tried a variety of low care roses. A few survived for a year or two without much bother, but then became troubled by leaf spotting and mildew and would usually defoliate by the start of August. 

I planted several Flower Carpet roses, which were touted as disease resistant ground cover roses, but proved to be neither low growing or resistant to common black spot and powdery mildew fungi. They performed adequately the first year, but each succeeding they were more troubled, and all but the red (above) were eventually dug out and discarded. Even the red must be cut back annually so that it grows with enough vigor to remain healthy without spraying.

When Knockout roses were introduced (a few years after Flower Carpets) I was skeptical, but the claims of disease resistance were more modest, so I bought the ‘Red Knockout’ (above) with low expectations. After a year I was impressed enough to purchase the ‘Pink’ and ‘Blush Pink’ (below). There were no leaf spots, and no mildew, and as I talked to gardeners from the hot, humid southeast to the cool northeast the reports were consistent. Knockout rose was a true low care rose, one that bloomed from May into November in my garden and longer in warmer regions.  

But the folks who introduced Knockout went astray when they introduced ‘Rainbow’, which performed well the first year, but quickly was overcome by spotting the second spring. By the third spring Rainbow joined the Flower Carpets in the compost heap. The latest introduction, the yellow ‘Sunny Knockout’ (below), is a vigorous, disease free rose, but its color quickly fades to cream in warm temperatures, so that it is mildly disappointing.

There are a number of Knockout copies, and some that claim to have similar genetics, but I’ve not been anxious to give them a trial, though I did plant a white blooming ‘White Out’ (below) that seems every bit as good as any of the Knockouts. 

A marketing competitor of Knockout, the ‘Home Run’ rose (below) is a true red, rather than the pink, cherry-red of ‘Knockout Red’. But, it has grown sparsely for me, and its time to prove it belongs is running short.

Though I’ve heard of an occasional problem with Knockouts, the only bother that I’ve had is that they grow taller and wider than I’d prefer, and if there was a smaller shrub or ground cover version then wouldn’t that be fine. Three years ago I planted several Drift ground cover roses, though I thought that the flowers were a bit too small to make much of a show.

In the first year I was disappointed with the lack of growth of the Drifts, but after seeing lush growth the following year I realized that its poor performance was probably more a result of my lack of attention to watering when they were first planted. In their third year the Drifts have remained compact and disease free, and they bloom continuously, without the bloom, rest, bloom cycle of other roses.  

Last year I planted several Oso Easy roses, and so far I’ve been quite pleased with their disease resistance and blooming. The orange with a golden center ‘Paprika’ (above) has become a favorite, and I’m hoping that they continue to perform well.

Though low care roses will not win any prizes for best or most fragrant blooms, I am happy to have planted them. The day that they require more care, or spraying, well, there’s more room on the compost pile.


Hosta seedlings pop up in the garden frequently, but rarely in the places where you’d like them. They often grow in the gaps between stones in the paths, or an inch from the edge so that they must be dug and transplanted, or discarded. I don’t mind if hostas grow over the paths, but it drives my wife batty, so when she squawks too loudly, I move them.

One large leafed blue-green seedling (above) has established itself between stones on a small island in one of the garden’s ponds so that it now covers a waterfall that is heard, but not seen except when the hosta is dormant. I don’t think this bothers my wife, so there it will stay.

The seedlings often look nothing like the nearby hostas that are likely to be the parent plants, and of course this is why hostas are propagated by root divisions or by tissue culture. Most of the seedlings in my garden are blue-green, or less blue and more green, but one (above) that sprouted in the rear garden has narrow, elongated leaves that emerge a ghastly shade of yellow, and fade in the early summer heat. Each spring I figure that the time has come to dig it out, but there it is, and I suppose it’s likely to remain.

At one time there were more than a hundred hosta varieties in the garden, though I don’t recall ever actually taking an inventory, so this number could be the work of my over active imagination. In any case, deer have assured that there are many fewer today. They snuck up on me, nibbling a few here and there, and in most instances never devouring an entire plant, so that a few faded away one year, and a handful the next. 

Today, there are fewer hostas, but how many I don’t know, except that there are nearly enough. Now, I spray a deer repellent at the start of each month beginning in May, and the only time that there’s any damage is when I miss spraying one, or the deer will occasionally find a seedling that pops up in the woods. The repellent has become so dependable that I’ll be planting a few more hostas this spring.

There are great mounding hostas in the garden with leaves that are eighteen inches across, and diminutive types only a few inches tall. Through the years I’ve found plenty of room for both, but now that the garden is more mature the smaller varieties are more interesting.

Most of the hostas have been accumulated by purchase through garden centers, where I can touch and feel them, and pick heavier plants. Long ago, a few hard-to-find ones were mail ordered, and a few were pilfered as root divisions from friends’ gardens. I’ve paid more than ten dollars only a few times, knowing that today’s twenty five dollar hosta will be fifteen next year, and possibly eight the following. Today, I can’t tell you which ones were costly or cheap, and I’ve forgotten the names of more than I can remember.

Most of the garden’s hostas are planted in varying degrees of shade, though there are a few that do just fine with most of a day’s sun. They are not picky at all about soil, with many planted in a dry, shady part of the garden where the heavy clay is filled with greedy roots of maples and poplars. There is no doubt that hostas prefer a deeper and damper soil, but they grow only slightly less robust in these difficult conditions.

A few hostas are damaged by slugs, though they inflict only cosmetic damage, and I’m not bothered enough to try to protect them. Summer hail storms can occasionally be a problem, and this damage is often too late in the season to allow new growth to cover the tattered leaves. If you’re willing to spray your hostas with a repellent then deer won’t be a problem, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a handful (or fifty) in your garden.

The middle third

The rear garden is roughly divided into thirds, with three small ponds in the top third and thick, jungle-like planting so that one pond cannot be seen from another that is less than ten feet away. Stone paths meander through and two small patios provide vantage points to rest and enjoy the water features.

The middle third is separated from the upper by a small sloping area of lawn which leads down to a metal roofed shade house and the large swimming pond, a fifteen hundred square foot pond populated by nearly a hundred koi and goldfish. The pond is surrounded by boulders and trees and shrubs, with roses and perennials tucked between. The back third of the garden is planted slightly more open, but probably not for long.   

Today, we will simply pick up from where we left off on our tour a few days ago, which was slopping through this lower third of the soggy rear garden. Yesterday I discovered the first bloom of the season on the dark leafed elderberry ‘Black Lace’ (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’, above). It has finely dissected foliage much like a Japanese maple, and I’ve heard that it might serve as a substitute in areas that are too cold for the maples, though that is not a consideration here.

The form of the elderberry is not nearly as graceful as even the clumsiest of  Japanese maples, but it is a fine shrub nevertheless. I have had to snip a branch here and there to keep strays from shooting too far in one direction or the other, but either in leaf or bloom ‘Black Lace’ is delightful.

Just below the elderberry on the slope constructed from excavation of the swimming pond are two groupings of baptisias (Baptisia australis, above), planted here because they are virtually indestructible and will tolerate the poor soil. The clumps slowly increase in diameter with each spring, and the blue-green foliage shows no signs of stress even in the heat of summer. A few weeks ago they were so small that I was concerned that the baptisias would not be large enough to bloom on their typical schedule, but with a few warms days they have spurted to two feet and are flowering right on time, as if my schedule counts for anything.

The baptisias are not named selections, and each has a slightly different in form as is typical of many seedling grown perennials. One is particularly robust, growing a foot taller and wider than the others, and with dozens more blooms. The root mass of baptisia is almost woody, and I’ve heard that established clumps are difficult to transplant or to divide, though I’ve never had a reason to try. Earlier in the spring there were thousands of seedlings covering the ground beneath them, but I snuffed them out before they were large enough to tell if they were baby baptisias.   

Bellflowers (Campanula, above) have flowers of a blue similar to baptisia, but there are no similarities otherwise. They are classic floppers, rambling about without a distinct form, so I have planted several in pockets of soil between boulders along the pond’s edge. Just prior to the Japanese iris blooming in early June the boulders are covered in cheerful small blue flowers.

The upright, spiky blooms of ‘May Night’ salvia (Salvia nemorosa ‘May Night’, above) are more purple than blue, and several planted together make a marvelous display in mid May. Every year I promise myself that I will deadhead them after blooming, but I never seem to get around to it, so they rebloom only sporadically.  

With the recent rains the heavy blooms of the peonies (above) have sprawled out in every direction, but on the rare occasions when the sun shines the blooms pop back upright for awhile to be admired. The huge flowers have suffered some damage, but there are other buds still to open, so there is hope that some perfect flowers will emerge.

At this point we have climbed to the halfway point of the garden, and have covered most of the plants blooming in mid May. In the next week we’ll complete the tour of the the upper third of the rear garden, and then we’ll back up a bit and take a look at the garden’s hostas and roses.

Squish, squish

Whenever I’m home or working in the garden, I wear a beat up, worn out pair of sandals that probably should have been tossed out long ago. They’re so often covered in mud that I see no reason for a new pair, so I’ll wear them until they disintegrate. My wife cringes whenever I wear them inside, rather than slipping them off outside the door, and I suspect that some day I’ll find that they’ve been put out with the morning’s garbage.

With the persistent rainfall this spring the lawn in the rear garden is so saturated that I can hardly walk around without a sandal being sucked down into the muck. The drier, upper portion of the garden is barely better. But, the plants love it.

Over the past week the waterlogged branches of the ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maples that hover over the front walk have hung so low that the neighbor’s cat couldn’t walk under them, with the branches nearly touching the camassias (Camassia leichtlinii ‘Sacajawea’, above) . The big leafed blue hostas and tall stems of nandinas that border the stone paths are arched and flop about so that you must decide to turn back, or risk getting soaked brushing past them.

There’s been just enough sun and warmth, along with the rain, that the garden is exploding in growth. Yesterday, following one downpour, and with another on the horizon, the garden glowed in the fading light of the evening so that I had to stand and consider that it can’t be any better than this. Other than my soaked feet, that is.

Today, we’ll begin our tour in the low, swampy end of the rear garden and work our way to higher ground over the next few days.

I’ve lost track of the number of flowering onion bulbs that I’ve planted through the years, and I’ve long forgotten or never paid much attention to their names. There are a dozen or more varieties ranging from tiny blooms on eight inch stalks to tall stems with huge globular blooms, and an assortment in between. For the most part they come and go, and they’re pleasant enough for a few weeks while requiring no care, then disappearing until the following year. All are welcomed, but a few stand out as worthy of mention.

Allium bulgaricum (above) and Allium schubertii (below) are notable in a “gee whiz, that’s different” kind of way, and I anxiously await their blooms in mid May. Schubertii is planted in bone dry soil, and bulgaricum is waterlogged in early spring, so you can probably discern that onions are not too picky. I’ve had one of the big globe onions fade away as a tree grew and shade deepened, but in sun or part shade they haven’t a care as to the soil type.

A local garden writer recently stated that the Washington area is too warm for lilacs to bloom dependably, except in isolated, cool micro climates. Perhaps this is true in the city and some of the warmer suburbs, but it will come as a surprise to many area gardeners who relish their lilac’s perfume each May. Indeed, a bit further south there are not enough winter chilling days, and lilacs don’t flower, but I don’t recall hearing of one that hasn’t bloomed around here.

The tall common lilac in my garden was flattened by heavy snow this winter, so I cut it off nearly at ground level. There’s so much else growing around its base that I haven’t noticed if it’s leafing or not, but in case it has decided to call it quits there are three “dwarf” lilacs in the garden that bloom dependably, though they are not very fragrant. Distinguishing a shrub as dwarf is relative to the dimensions of the full sized version, and ‘Miss Kim’ (Syringa patula ‘Miss Kim’, above) is a vigorous and bushy four feet tall and wide. Its habit is quite shrub-like, without the thick woody canes that are typical of the tall, common lilacs. In all, it is a much better behaved shrub, with a long period of bloom and foliage that doesn’t mildew in the summer.

Also along the garden’s northern border is a dark leafed ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’, above) that grows with tall, arching branches so that it appears in need of pruning throughout the year. I haven’t the inclination to keep after it regularly, so I enjoy the May blooms and the almost black foliage, but otherwise ignore its ungainly manner.

A more compact ninebark has recently been introduced, and though I don’t have space enough to plant one unless ‘Diablo’ is removed, it should be a superior shrub and well worth planting.

Now, I’m certain that I’ve tested your patience enough for one day, so we’ll conclude the tour only a third of the way up the slope. Several perennials are blooming around the swimming pond that marks the halfway point of the rear garden, and the roses are popping into bloom, so there I’ll be back in a day or two to continue our journey up the hill to drier ground.

A clematis for every need

The deck that is attached to the back of the house is four and a half feet above the ground on the downhill side, and for years I searched for the right plant to hide the area beneath it. I envisioned a vine that would grow quickly to cover the lattice and railing, and hoped to find one that wouldn’t engulf the house or take twenty years to do the job.

From the start wisteria was ruled out since another had been planted on a small arbor  by the driveway, and the muscular trunk quickly crushed the sturdy timbers into splinters. Ten years after the vine was cut down, and after repeated treatments with herbicides it continues to send sprouts from the roots that were left behind.

Other vines were discounted as too vigorous, or not vigorous enough, until I settled on Chocolate vine, or Five-leaf Akebia (Akebia quinata), with lush foliage and clusters of dark purple blooms. A year later it was obvious I should have done more research since it was growing more quickly than I could possibly keep up with. The stems crossed fifteen feet under the deck to climb the lattice on the far side, and into a tall hinoki cypress another ten feet further.

The akebia was more easily eradicated than the wisteria, though for several years I would catch a stray sprout or two. So, I was back where I started, and still determined not to settle for a skimpy clematis. I considered honeysuckles. Too fast, I thought, though there are some marvelous choices. Perhaps a splendid variegated leaf kiwi vine like the one that once clambered over a fence along the garden’s border. Slow to start, but ultimately too fast, I decided. Finally, I settled on a clematis, but far from a wimp.

Clematis montana ‘Rubens’ grows aggressively without being overwhelming, and its soft pink blooms are abundant in May, though unremarkable by comparison to others that are more brightly colored. Its growth is just what I was looking for, though my wife is likely to disagree, since following flowering it grows at a quickened pace for several weeks when it tries to cover the table and chairs, and the elephant ears and other potted tropicals hanging out on the deck. But, then it slows to a more manageable pace, and the stems are easily cut back with pruners.

At the far corner of the deck a tall nandina rises above the railing, and two clematis have been planted at its base to wind through the branches. The vigorous ‘Rubens’ would quickly smother the nandina, but white ‘Henryi’ and purple ‘Jackmanii’ behave themselves so that they are barely seen when not in bloom. But, in bloom, they’re wonderful.

Both ‘Henryi’ and ‘Jackmanii’ are common varieties, available anywhere at a fraction of the cost of fancier types. But their large blooms and vibrant colors work well twining through the nandina, though their growth would have been too slow for covering the lattice beneath the deck. In May the effect of the three clematis is precisely how I imagined it could be, though there were more than a few troubles getting there.