The bees are buzzing

I can’t recall the last time that I suffered a bee sting, until a few days ago. Over the past few years I’ve made a habit of sticking my nose (and camera) too close to blooms with bees buzzing about, and though I’m certain that I’ve been a terrible nuisance, I haven’t been stung.

I don’t know that I can tell a wasp from a hornet, or one bee from the other, but I blundered into a group of wasps that were evidently building a nest in a crevice between boulders bordering one of the garden’s ponds. I was doing something or other, recklessly too close I suppose, and the wasps took offense. In moments I was stung four or five times, maybe more. Fortunately, there was no one close by to watch, but be assured that I was hopping and swatting, and I’m certain that I haven’t moved so quickly in years as I scurried away. Later in the day I was admiring the new blooms of a Russian sage when I was stung again, and again multiple times, though in my panic to escape I failed to identify my assailants.

On any day spring through autumn there are plenty of flowers (Bee balm, Monarda didyma, above, and Hummingbird mint, Agastache, below) in the garden, and with flowers there are likely to be bees. I welcome the little fellows, especially bumblebees that seem particularly harmless. I’m not a big fan of wasps, but rarely do our paths collide, so I won’t complain about being stung occasionally.

My wife mentioned a few days ago that we don’t seem to have as many gnats and mosquitoes as a few of her friends’ nearby properties, and I can only suppose that the number of birds that call the garden home are responsible for keeping these pesky bugs in check. In a few weeks the Japanese beetles will be back, but I think that the birds lend a hand in keeping their numbers down so that they do little damage and I’ve never considered spraying pesticides to be rid of them.

Most of the butterfly bushes (Buddleia, above) are now blooming, but I’ve seen only small, drab white butterflies that are probably moths but they won’t stay still for even a moment to be identified. Every other summer there are many dozens of larger, more colorful butterflies, so I assume they’ll be around soon. I’ve seen a few hummingbird moths over the last week, and I’m fascinated by these skittish moths that appear to be a cross between hummingbird and bumblebee as they dart between blooms. 

In the past several years new butterfly bushes have been introduced that are much more compact than the old favorites that grew out of control unless they were chopped nearly to the ground each spring. Also, many of these do not set viable seed so that there is less concern about invasiveness. I’ve not often seen butterfly bushes that have sprouted from seed, but apparently this is a problem in some areas.

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Hydrangeas to beat the heat

What a marvelous weekend!  A bit cloudy, but a pleasant break from the recent heat. I summoned enough energy Saturday to plant a few hydrangeas that had been waiting patiently on the driveway, and a few odds and ends were transplanted Sunday to make room so that the large agaves that are overwintered indoors could be sunk into the ground. I’m not particularly keen about planting in the summer, when I travel a bit and can’t give proper attention to watering newcomers, but I was encouraged by the cool temperatures, and of course the plants couldn’t sit on the hot asphalt much longer.

If the new hydrangeas are kept moist for two weeks I suspect that they’ll do fine without any further interference on my part. They were planted on the partially shaded, southern side of the house where a ‘Snow’ cypress had grown too large, and then was damaged by snow so that branches were splayed in every direction. In comparison to the fifteen foot tall and wide cypress, the two hydrangeas are quite small, but they will fill the space nicely in another year or two. When hydrangeas begin as small plants it can be tempting to plant two in the space where one is all that is needed, but they grow quickly, and there is no sense in wasting money.

The garden has probably reached the point where it would be reasonable to say that no more hydrangeas are needed, but I might not ever reach my fill, and even my wife (who sees our retirement savings diminish with every new plant) did not complain. In the heat of summer one hydrangea or another, and often a dozen or more will be blooming at once, often when only a few other tough perennials are flowering.

The mopheads (Hydrangea macrophylla, above) are most prominent in the garden today. There are several each of remontant hydrangeas ‘Penny Mac’ and ‘Endless Summer’ that flower on new growth so that they bloom off and on from late May into October. The more compact growing ‘Mini Penny’ is out there somewhere, though after a few years I can’t tell one from the other since they have similar foliage and flowers that are dependably blue  in the mildly acidic soil. Early in the spring the mopheads were cut back more severely than usual, with more dieback in the stems than usual despite milder than normal winter temperatures. Regardless, they have bloomed on schedule and there is no noticeable difference in the number of flowers.

Two other mopheads, ‘Lemon Zest’ (above) and ‘Blushing Bride’ (below), are tucked away so that they are only seen by pushing through dense growth. ‘Lemon Zest’ is planted in the shade of an overhanging crapemyrtle so that its yellow foliage does not scorch in the summer sun, and its blooms are dependably pink, perhaps because it is planted within inches of a limestone wall. ‘Blushing Bride’ is also a rebloomer, but it flowers more sparsely for me than the blue flowered types, and there are only a few repeat blooms later in the summer.

Years ago I was not so enthused with the lacecap hydrangeas, but they have grown in favor recently. ‘Lady in Red’ (above) bloomed weakly the first few years after planting, but now the slightly arched blue flowers nearly cover its foliage. The recently introduced ‘Twist N’ Shout’ (below) blooms lightly, but with the progress that ‘Lady in Red’ made, I’m willing to give it a more extended opportunity before passing judgment. One ‘Twist N’ Shout’ planted in very moist conditions blooms pink, and the other in drier ground a dozen paces away flowers blue. There must be an explanation, the spring’s water is less acidic, or something like that, but I don’t really care so long as they grow well and bloom.

The blooms of the variegated hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Maresii Variegata’, above) are more sparse than the other lacecaps, even on older plants, but the green and white marbled foliage is its attraction and I’ve not been bothered with only a handful of blooms. The unusual white blooms of ‘Fuji Waterfall’ (below) persist over a longer period in my garden than the other lacecaps, and with a backdrop of thick glossy foliage this has quickly become a favorite.

Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, above) are planted along the wooded border and in other shaded spots through the garden. The large, oak shaped leaves are splendid and the large, broad white flowered cones persist for longer than a month. In late September the leaves turn to a deep burgundy, and hold onto the branches long after most leaves have dropped. In more sun Oakleaf grows more compactly, and perhaps blooms slightly better, but it performs admirably in light to medium shade, and even in dry shade with severe root competition.

The earliest of the panicled hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Quickfire’, above) are beginning to flower, and though they do not rebloom the flowers are effective for a month or longer. The panicled hydrangeas are the largest in the garden, with Tardiva and Limelight (below) reaching to nearly ten feet tall.

The foliage of Smooth hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Incrediball’, below) is dull and unremarkable, but the huge white blooms are quite impressive, and even larger than the mopheads’.

With just a bit of protection from the summer sun all of the hydrangeas will bloom without a care. There are days when the large leafed mopheads and lacecaps will wilt in the midday sun, but they perk up in the evening so there’s no need for concern. In a prolonged drought they might require some additional irrigation, but most years the hydrangeas in this garden require no attention at all.

Click here to see Dave’s hydrangea video

The mad pruner is missing

Through the spring my wife has been occupied with her studies so that she seldom ventures out into the garden. This is both good and bad. She is the one obstacle I have to an unfettered planting budget. Now, I’ve been able to plant without interference, though I suspect that her opinion (that there are too many plants already) is well reasoned.

In prior years she has prowled about the garden with a pair of flimsy pruners (that she paid far too much for) chopping back foliage and branches that have strayed over the stone paths. I cringe when I see her coming around the corner, pruners in hand, knowing that a gracefully arching hosta stem or nandina branch has been hacked and mutilated with only a stub left behind. But, her obsession with clearing the paths has some benefit. The ivies that border several paths are kept neatly trimmed, and well, I suppose that’s the only benefit that I can see.

Without her “assistance” the paths are getting a bit tight. I was forced to prune the ivy recently to prevent one path from disappearing completely, and one branch of a sharply spined mahonia that threatened to draw blood when you squeezed past had to be removed . Otherwise, I’m quite happy with my unmanicured garden.

As I wander about the garden the hydrangeas are most notable for their blooms late in June, but there are too many to include in today’s brief update, so I’ll follow at the start of the week featuring only these summer bloomers. Today, many of the buddleias (above) are blooming, except for the compact growing Blue Chip that is later to begin, but then flowers for a few months. I have not seen butterflies visiting yet, but when there are blooming buddleias, butterflies are certain to arrive quickly.

The recently planted chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus ‘Shoal Creek’, above) is in flower, and I expect that butterflies and hummingbirds will be along to visit shortly. I have run short of spots that are fully in the sun, but I’m fairly confident that I have given this large sturdy shrub enough room to spread without requiring a call to my pruning assistant.

The coreopsis are missing

I hadn’t thought about it until a few days ago, but ‘Moonbeam’ coreopsis is gone without a trace. Vanished, as if it was never planted, which is just as well. I believe that I’ve seen Moonbeam coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata “Moonbeam’, below) listed as a “can’t fail” perennials, and now I’ve killed it twice through the years, perhaps even three times. I suppose I should be embarrassed, so it’s best that there’s no sign that it was ever here.

Some perennials decline through the years if they are not divided to prevent overcrowding, but the coreopsis was planted two years ago, though it could have been three. There were two, or possibly three plants initially (I don’t recall), planted in good soil in a spot that I thought had adequate sunlight, but has proved to be too shady, or too damp, or whatever. They bloomed last year in June, though not as vigorously as I expected, and then disappeared. After a second (or third) failure  I will probably admit defeat and not plant coreopsis again.

I have far more successes than failures in the garden, so I’m not terribly upset that the coreopsis failed. In fact, even when well grown I’ve never been overly excited by it, but I refused to accept that I wasn’t competent enough to grow a perennial that’s flourishes everywhere except in my garden. Now, I’ve confirmed that coreopsis and my gardening skills are not a good fit, so I’ll move on.

The weather continues to swing oddly from hot and dry to wet, but in late June I don’t know of a gardener who will complain about regular rainfall. After the extreme heat a few weeks ago lush foliage was beginning to fade and turn crispy along the edges, but with almost daily thunderstorms plants have perked up and are looking quite happy. The Asiatic lilies (above and below) don’t appear to have suffered in the heat, though it would not be surprising if the flowers lasted a few days shorter than in cooler temperatures. Unless the gardener tracks these things obsessively the differences in the length of bloom are hardly noticeable.

Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus mollis, below) is blooming, and it’s difficult for me to tell exactly when it’s at its peak, but the tall spike is ornamental for a few weeks prior to peak bloom, and for a month following. Warnings are often posted on garden sites that acanthus will seed itself about the garden, but I have planted it in a bed of spreading Liriope spicata, and have not seen a single seedling. There was no planning involved, and I would be happy to have a few seedlings to plant around.

Earlier in the spring I planted a variegated acanthus (Acanthus mollis ‘Whitewater’) with leathery glossy green foliage marbled with white. The effect is quite splendid if you enjoy variegated plants, which I do, and I expect that it will be as sturdy as the plain green version.

In the past few years dozens of heucheras and coneflowers have been introduced, and several have proven to be fragile and short lived. The coneflowers in my garden don’t stand up well to competition, and so several have faded as neighbors bullied them into submission. The tall growing ‘Magnus’ (Echinacea purpurea ‘magnus, above) has proven more resilient than most of the newcomers, though the more compact, white flowering ‘Coconut Lime’ and later flowering (for me) ‘Tomato Soup’ have stood up well.

Over the years I’ve lost a few established clumps of bee balm (Monarda didyma, above) as dense  shade from neighboring shrubs encroached. In a garden predominated by trees and shrubs, this will happen occasionally if I don’t pay enough attention to transplant things before they are lost. Perhaps the coreopsis could have been saved by moving them to a more hospitable location, but I’m content to rationalize that it just wasn’t meant to be.

Don’t miss a bloom

Occasionally I hear complaints that such and such did not bloom this year, and could I please explain why? Of course there are times when a plant is sited improperly so that it doesn’t get sufficient sunlight, or a tree is over fertilized so that it grows an abundance of foliage at the expense of flowers. Often, I suspect that the person simply didn’t go out of doors on the four days when the peonies were blooming, though no one has ever confessed that this is a possibility, and I suspect they never will.

I have a variegated leaf Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Samaritan’) that grows vigorously without a lick of fertilizer, yet it has never bloomed. Others planted nearby have more sun, or less, and all bloom heavily late in May. The conditions for this dogwood are neither too wet or dry, so I haven’t a clue why it doesn’t flower. Fortunately, there is plenty else blooming in the garden at this time so that this puzzle doesn’t concern me at all. If you are one who loses sleep wondering why, then I suggest you plant daylilies (above) or coneflowers (Echinacea ‘Coconut Lime’, below) that go on for months.

Most of the shrub roses (OsoEasy Cherry Pie rose, below) flower intermittently in my garden from mid May through October, and if the weather cooperates (no blizzards or Arctic freezes) there might be a few blooms remaining on Thanksgiving Day. I recently read a garden writer whining that her shrub roses were disappointing, blooming only once in the spring, and not again. Her objective was to praise some heirloom rose, which could be a fine rose, but I’m afraid some liberties were taken to illustrate the point. So long as the rose is given nearly full sun there will be flowers beginning in May or June, followed by a period of rest, and then blooms off and on for months. Only a lack of sunlight will prevent it.

The argument could be made that the day after day sameness is a bore, and that splendid blooms for a few weeks, or even a few days are superior to flowers that persist for months. I will admit that I have a fondness for the native dogwood and Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia, below), both of which flower for only a couple weeks, and if I am forced to choose, either will be favored rather than crapemyrtles that bloom for months. There is no shame in favoring either, and I have hedged my bets by planting more than one of each in my garden. 

I want to be certain that with a few rainy days I won’t miss a thing!

Too hot to bother?

Once the dogwoods and cherries, azaleas, and camellias are past bloom, what else is there? Summer is too hot, so why bother with the garden. Nothing will bloom in this infernal heat. Right?

Well, the white Natchez crapemyrtle is just beginning to bloom, and in several weeks it will be joined by five or six other cultivars, then Franklin and Seven Son trees, and hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Penny Mac’, above) and a bunch of shrubs and perennials will flower into September . I am known to become obsessed by one plant or another (or even many at  once), and often the ones that catch my eye flower in the summer or autumn, or have notable foliage color through the “down” seasons. So, there’s plenty in bloom in the garden today, and lots more coming on in the weeks ahead.

The native redbud (Cercis canadensis) has leathery green leaves that hold up well in extreme heat, but the red leafed ‘Forest Pansy’ and variegated ‘Silver Cloud’ (above) stand out in the summer garden. ‘Forest Pansy’ will begin to fade and wimp out late in July, but ‘Silver Cloud’ comes into its glory in June. Its emerging spring foliage is mostly green, with perhaps an edge of pink or cream, and through the spring you would not think there is anything exceptional about this tree. Today, from across the garden you are convinced of its merit. The pink and cream coloration fades only slightly late into the summer, and there is no other tree in the summer garden that is so splendid for so long a period.

A slow growing evergreen magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora, above), ‘Little Gem’ blooms sporadically from late May into late summer. The three southern magnolias in this garden flower over a much shorter period, but on a twenty foot tree there will be a dozen or two blooms at any time over a month so that the show is far from spectacular. The lemony scent is similar to many household cleaning products (not that I have much experience with them), and magnolias are commonplace, but they are a sturdy evergreen with dark, glossy foliage and little else is needed to warrant their inclusion in the garden. Of course, even the smallest magnolias grow quite large, and if the ones in my garden suffer any further snow damage I will be forced to chop them out.

The Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia, above) blooms only for a few short weeks, but on a shrubby eight foot tree there will be hundreds, or perhaps thousands of white, camellia-like flowers. The tree is slow to become established, and expensive to purchase, but after six or eight years it picks up the pace to grow modestly in width and a wee bit taller each year. I am wedded to this garden for life, and don’t know that I would have the patience to start over with another Stewartia. Since my wait is over, I can say with certainty that this is a splendid tree for any garden, and over growing a site is rarely an issue.

I have planted small clumps of tall nandinas (Nandina domestica, above) throughout the garden. Many gardeners prefer the compact varieties that don’t grow as leggy, but without lower branches the nandinas give the feel of a six foot tall bamboo, and of course one that spreads very slowly. In sun or shade nandinas grow lush foliage, and the clusters of small white blooms are often overlooked. The berries that follow in late summer are often so heavy that sturdy branches lean under their weight, and here is a bothersome issue. Nandinas are considered invasive in many parts of the country, but birds eat the berries reluctantly (I see little sign that they are ever eaten), so the only seeds that germinate are those that drop and roll a few feet from the parent plant. I have yet to see evidence in my garden or elsewhere that this plant is a threat to native species.

To wrap up our day we’ll conclude with the latest of the hydrangeas to burst into bloom. The broad, cone-like flowers of Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, above) open slowly beginning in late May and persist  through June, sometimes into July. The flowers are effective even as they fade to a light tan, and the large, oak-shaped leaves are highly regarded, even if their brilliant red autumn color is not considered. There are low growing and medium sized cultivars available, but I have planted a handful of the tall growing native, and there is not another shrub in the garden treasured more. Alongside the oakleaf and mophead hydrangeas I have planted several lacecap varieties, and though I was slow to warm to ‘Lady in Red’ (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Lady in Red’, below) it now blooms heavily and dependably, and I am happy not to have tossed it out when I was tempted by its meager flowering the first few years after it was planted. I am not highly regarded for my patience, but occasionally laziness is shown to be a virtue when a disappointing plant is given a second and third opportunity.

Visiting nurseries in Oregon


Touring nurseries and buying plants becomes a bit ho-hum after you have seen the same hollies and azaleas for thirty years. Not actually the same plants, of course, but squared off blocks of hundreds and often thousands of the same plant, one row after another for hundreds of acres. A field of a hundred thousand one gallon photinias can be awe inspiring, but sleep inducing. After a few days of touring there is a chance you will recall the plants at one nursery from the other, but after two weeks the plants become a blur. So, you take notes, listing each plant and evaluating it with an arbitrary rating so that you are able to make competent decisions months later.

I can’t say that Oregon is completely different. There are mind numbing fields of boxwoods (a field of thousands of twenty four to thirty inch Buxus sempervirens suffruticosa, above) and laurels where every plant is identical, but there are also Japanese maples and dwarf spruces, cypresses and cedars (Cedrus deodora ‘Karl Fuchs’ below). The blues and reds are more vivid than on the hot and humid east coast, which brings up my current favorite topic. While the east was sweltering in one hundred degree heat last week, Oregon was cool, almost cold. I wear shorts and a light shirt three hundred days of the year, from thirty to a hundred degrees, but after becoming acclimated to the recent hot temperatures, the shorts stayed in the suitcase last week.

Oregonians are suffering. The weather has been cooler and rainier than anyone can remember, and plant growth is a month behind normal. Each year my touring partner and I look forward to the strawberries and berries that grow in every other field that isn’t planted in nursery stock, grass seed, or wheat, but last week there were no berries, only blooms. We thoroughly enjoyed our daily calls back to the office to remind everyone how cold we were, while night time lows in the east were twenty degrees warmer than Oregon’s high for the day.

Weather is not the only trouble for nurserymen in Oregon. The persistent recession has hit nursery related businesses throughout the country, but Oregon growers have been troubled by over supplies as well as slow sales. The nursery in the above photo has row after row of Japanese maples and Globosa blue spruces, but as we look closer the spruce have grown into each other so that the edges are brown, ruining every plant. The columnar spruce are okay, but the maples have shaded each other and many lower branches have died. All should have been dug a year earlier, but there was no market for them.

The long rows of Japanese maples in the above photo are the uncommon Lion’s Head (Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’). The trees are nearly eight feet tall, and magnificent. There are four or five rows of thirty or forty trees each, as well as rows of six and four foot tall trees. In a peak year the demand for Lion’s Head maples at a large Japanese maple grower is twenty plants or less, so there is no hope that the hundreds in this nursery will be sold.

On a more cheerful note, I’ve found the next Japanese maple for my garden. There are twenty-one maples already, and my wife says she’s going to learn to operate a chainsaw if I plant any more trees. But, the Floating Cloud maple (Acer palmatum ‘Ukigmo’, closeup of foliage above, and in the nursery, below) is too good to pass up.

Below are more photos that I hope you’ll enjoy. Mouse over the photos to read the caption, and click to expand.