Accidents will happen

Late in the spring I noticed that the creeping plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, below) was being overtaken by cypress sprurge (Euphorbia cyparissias), a threadleafed euphorbia that is generally identified as weedy, but serves quite nicely as a spreading ground cover in my garden. The plumbago is tolerant of sun or part shade, and of dry conditions, but it does not fare well in competition with more aggressive neighbors, so I expected that it would quickly give up the fight and disappear.

Instead, the plumbago has managed to weave itself into small openings so that it now appears more vigorous than before the spurge invaded. The first blue flowers appeared early in July, and these will persist into early autumn when the foliage turns to a deep red in full sun. In this half shaded location the leaf color will be more mottled, but still delightful.

When the foliage of the spurge turns to muted yellow in late September the contrasting hues and textures will be so splendid that I’m certain that I’ll congratulate myself on the superb planning (which, of course, was purely accidental).

At the entrance to the front walk a ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maple planted only a few feet off the corner of the house has spread to cover the bluestone path so that visitors walk under branches to reach the front door. A year ago a dwarf Scott’s pine gave up the fight after a long battle with the encroaching shade of the maple. I stripped the dead branches of needles to use for mulch, and cut the pine off at the base, leaving a gaping hole in front of a curving dry stacked fieldstone wall that had not been evident from the walkway in more than a decade.

My wife was adamant that the view of the wall not be blocked again, and of course her thoughts were well considered, except that I had planted a columnar plum yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Fastigiata’) and two gold leafed aralias (Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’, above) a week earlier. I briefly contemplated transplanting the aralias to avoid the inevitable “I told you so” that would follow when the wall could no longer be seen behind the shrub-like perennials, but I could think of nowhere else to plant them, so there they stayed.

The gold leafed aralias have worked beautifully in this deeply shaded location, appearing from a distance to be a shrub in spectacular yellow bloom. A small portion of one of the plants is exposed to the late afternoon sun so that a few leaves have scorched, but this scheme has developed far better than I had imagined, and my wife has yet to mention the partially obscured wall.

When the large swimming pond was constructed in the rear garden an adjacent stone patio and fire pit were added, and a low wall of cut stones and granite boulders was built to retain the gradual slope. A curved, cut limestone seating wall mirrored the curve of the circular fire pit, and above this were planted dwarf crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia ‘Cherry Dazzle’), hydrangeas (H. macrophylla and H. quercifolia), and a variegated caryopteris (C. divaricata ‘Snow Fairy’, above). Only a few years later the shrubs have grown so that there is no space for sitting, but a small opening between shrubs afforded the opportunity to plant a burgundy leafed pineapple lily (Eucomis comosa ‘Sparkling Burgundy’, below).

Though my garden planning is seldom more sophisticated than “there’s a hole, what can I fill it with?”, in this instance I considered how marvelous the burgundy, strap-like foliage would contrast with the green and white variegated leaves of the caryopteris. Indeed, the combination has been splendid, but the caryopertis requires constant pruning to keep it from overwhelming the lily, and the exceptional pineapple-like blooms do not stand out in front of the variegated foliage.

When offsets grew on the pineapple lily I moved half of the clump to a spot where it is more readily appreciated, and next year I am likely to move the remaining clump. There is an excellent chance that the resulting “accident” will work beautifully.


Can’t wait, gotta have it ….

Oops, no more room!

Well, maybe there’s a little. I’ve been adding plants to this garden for twenty-two years, and seven or eight years ago my wife informed me that we had reached maximum capacity. Of course, I knew she was mistaken, and each year a bit of the lawn disappears and more plants appear. A properly motivated gardener can jam plants into a garden for years after it’s full to the brim, and (you can ask my wife) I’m plenty motivated.

In recent years garden centers have  seen an increasing demand for flowering plants, and plant breeders have picked up the pace of new introductions. It is difficult to keep up with the new roses, hydrangeas, and crapemyrtles, and then there are new redbuds, gardenias, nandinas, abelias, and lilacs that make the gardener anxious to try them all.

I do this for a living, but each year as I visit nurseries to purchase plants for our garden centers I get excited by this or that, and frequently by a lot of this’s and that’s. After touring nurseries in the southeast for two weeks I’m having difficulty deciding which plants I can’t possibly live without, since not all will fit into my garden. I joke that I’ve planted one of everything, but it’s not true, just one of nearly everything. And now I must find space for more!

Several weeks ago I planted a few hydrangeas (that I’m struggling to keep alive in the heat), and there are dozens of newly introduced mophead and panicled hydrangeas vying for a spot in the garden. Some are barely distinguishable from others, and after a few years I suspect that those will be quickly forgotten. A few captured my attention.

Small properties (and those that are already over planted) often do not have space to plant ‘Tardiva’ or ‘Limelight’ (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’, above), delightful summer blooming hydrangeas with huge white blooms that grow to at least eight feet tall and wide. ‘Quickfire’ and ‘Little Lime’ have similar, though slightly smaller blooms on shrubs that grow to only three feet. Since they’re not blooming in the spring when there are more garden center customers the panicled hydrangeas are often overlooked, but they are extremely cold hardy and care free, tough natured shrubs. I have ‘Tardiva’ and two ‘Limelight’ hydrangeas in the garden, and both are treasured, but ‘Quickfire’ (below) was planted recently, and ‘Little Lime’ will join it as soon as I can figure out where to plant it.

I recently mentioned that I’ve planted several supposedly cold tolerant gardenias over the years without success, and I believe that I wrote that I’ve given up on them. Not so fast, forget what I said. I’ve just planted ‘Pinwheel’ (Gardenia augusta ‘Pinwheel’, below) that claims cold hardiness to zone 6 (to ten degrees below zero) and blooms late spring to late summer.

Sitting on the driveway on a hundred degree day, the flowers melted and quickly turned brown. I planted the small shrub (with a healthy dose of water), and the next day there were a handful of crisp new blooms. Beautiful! Now, if this gardenia survives the winter (and why shouldn’t it since it’s been tested) I’ll be overjoyed.

I’m quite certain that two new caryopteris that I’ve planted will survive the winter since I have several others in the garden, but will they be significantly different and better than the yellow leafed ‘Sunshine Blue’ and variegated ‘Snow Fairy’? The yellow leafed ‘Hint of Gold’ has been available for a few years, but it’s new in the garden. It’s foliage is larger and a brighter yellow, and I’m anxious to see the contrast with the abundant clusters of blue flowers in the next few weeks. 

The foliage of ‘White Surprise’ caryopteris is not significantly different than ‘Snow Fairy’ (above), but the flowers are likely to have more substance and it will probably be slightly more cold hardy. There is always room in this garden for a compact growing shrub with beautiful blooms and foliage, and I suppose that I’m more likely to run out of time before I run out of space to plant.

I’ll continue to report as the newcomers bloom, and keep up to date as new plants are added to the garden. I believe that my wife has resigned herself to my plant addiction, though I suspect her patience might be tested in the month ahead.


For years I’ve made a habit of poking my nose and camera within inches of flowers as butterflies and bees buzzed about, and until a few weeks ago I had not been stung in a great while. Then, wasps that were nesting between boulders bordering one of the garden’s ponds got me several times before I could leap to safety. Later in the day bees of some sort took offense when I ventured too near a Russian sage to transplant a foxglove. As I scurried away I was too rushed to identify my assailants, except that they were small, flying, and had stingers.

Most often I have the good sense to steer clear of wasps (above), but obviously not always. There is a sizable nest in the upper limbs of a Chinese Snowball viburnum outside the library window, and after the recent attack I’ve exercised extreme caution in wandering on the path beneath it so that they’re not provoked.

In recent years there has been a noticeable lack of honey bees, and of course there is considerable concern about their recent decline. Their numbers seem greatly increased in the garden this summer, perhaps because I planted several mountain mints (Pycnanthemum virginianum) and a hummingbird mint (Agastache, above) in late summer of last year. In bloom the shrub-like perennials nearly vibrate with many dozens of bees buzzing about (below), and I’m cautious not to disturb them more than is necessary.

Bumblebees (below), butterflies, and an assortment of moths are abundant in the garden, and they seem only mildly annoyed by my presence. If I become too bothersome bumblebees will drift off to another bloom, and butterflies and moths are skittish and flee quickly.

The butterflies (below) and bees have become as much an ornament of the garden as the blooms that they visit. I cannot imagine the garden without them, and for this reason I tolerate the modest numbers of Japanese beetles and aphids. 

To water, or not?

I’ve just returned from my annual trek through the southeast, visiting nurseries to see what’s growing for the autumn and spring. Over two weeks our group of weary travelers rested in a new hotel every night, and after nearly four thousand road miles (and too many others bouncing through nurseries) it’s wonderful to return home.

The weather in the south was hot, but each day was a few degrees cooler than in Virginia, so it was not quite so miserable. Nurseries we visited have been suffering through the recession for several years, and many of our friends are struggling for survival, cutting inventory levels, and wondering what they need to grow in this new economy. Many thousands of Japanese hollies and junipers have been discarded, unsold and overgrown. Today, flowering plants and colorful foliage are selling, and dozens of new hydrangeas, crapemyrtles (below), and roses are being introduced.

I’ve tested many of these in my garden, and several weeks ago I planted a handful of newly introduced summer blooming panicled and smooth hydrangeas (below). When I returned yesterday I walked the garden in the heat of late afternoon, and several of the new shrubs were severely wilted and distressed. Though rainfall has been adequate for normal July temperatures, one hundred and five is far from normal, and immediate irrigation was desperately needed. I don’t think that I can wait for thunderstorms that are promised for tomorrow.

The garden’s established plants are dry, but they have been grown without coddling and will tolerate much longer periods without water than the newcomers. Even drought tolerant plants need some moisture, so I’ll set up a sprinkler to give some small measure of relief until it rains. A soaker hose is much more efficient, but I have too much ground to cover, and with storms forecast the next few days I’ll hope that the rain is substantial enough to soak more deeply.

Despite the heat there’s plenty of blooms in the garden, and over the next few days I’ll work to catch up. Now, I have work to do, setting up the sprinkler and pulling weeds that have popped up over the past two weeks. Oh well, at least I’ll sweat off a few of the pounds I gained on the trip.

Strolling a garden on a rainy afternoon

In coastal Alabama summer rain can fall in torrents, but most commonly it gushes for fifteen minutes or an hour, and not throughout the day. On this Sunday the rain began early and ended late, though periods of gentle rain in the afternoon allowed me to stroll through the lush plantings at the Mobile Botanic Garden.

The garden has no elaborate floral displays, but paved paths meander through common landscape plants of the southeast. In a few weeks I’ll revisit one of my favorite botanic gardens at the University of Georgia, but on this rainy afternoon a smaller garden was just what I needed to get out of the hotel room for a few hours. I was thoroughly soaked after a few minutes, but I managed a few photos before the deluge resumed.

The Garden’s azalea collection includes Southern Indica varieties, but also Robin Hill, Kurume, and Encore azaleas that are found in many mid-Atlantic gardens. In July there is no reason to expect to see blooming azaleas, but the Encores displayed a few scattered flowers (above), and ferns and camellias glistened in the dampness.

Little was blooming in the Herb and Fragrance garden, but strongly scented Ginger lilies (Hedychium, above) reminded me of my disappointment that I have failed to establish these in my garden. A few cultivars are marginally cold hardy, but none has survived in my cold natured garden. Of course, now the delightful fragrance has motivated me to try again, though spring planting is more appropriate for marginally hardy plants so that their roots are established before going into winter.

I am quite certain that the agapanthus (below) that greeted me at the entrance to the Rhododendron garden is not the cold hardy sort, and though the hardiest are quite marginal for northwest Virginia’s cold, the blooms are so lovely that I’m encouraged to give them a try.

I have not been successful with gardenias in my garden, though some recent introductions claim to be sufficiently cold hardy. The variegated gardenia (below) at the Botanic Garden was not blooming, and it is most definitely not cold hardy, but its foliage is wonderful, and ornamental even when the fragrant blooms are not present.

About this time the skies opened up with showers familiar to Mobile natives, and I ran for cover, only to be stopped momentarily by a lone magnolia bloom. One last photo (below), and then I dashed to the shelter of my rental vehicle.

A soggy seedling

The rear garden slopes gently so that the soil along the rear property line remains soggy through much of the summer, and in a rainy spring the area will be saturated for days. Two river birches and a variegated pussy willow thrive, and immediately beyond the border are cattails, brambles, and native vegetation that tolerates the constant dampness. 

Several years ago a buckeye popped up on a spot of slightly higher ground in the shade of one of the tall birches, and I assumed that it was a seedling from the red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) that is planted along the forest’s edge near the front of the garden. In early summer the low branching shrub began to grow upright flower spikes distinctly different from the spring blooming red buckeye’s, and early in July the tall white bottlebrush flowers confirmed that it was a seedling of the native bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora, above).

Seedlings are welcome in the garden so long as I can differentiate keepers from weeds before they are pulled out. In the wet soil towering Joe Pye weeds (Eupatorium purpureum, above) flourish, and in summer butterflies and bees swarm their dusky purple blooms. More compact varieties have been planted in the garden, and seedlings from these are nearly identical to the parent plants so that Joe Pye weeds have been encouraged to pop up between the yellow leafed bluebeard (Caropteris incana ‘Sunshine Blue’) in the sunny, dry garden surrounding the swimming pond.

‘Sunshine Blue’ is a distinct improvement to the older ‘Worcester Gold’ (above) that is planted along the front driveway, and fades to a washed out yellow in summer’s heat. In this garden ‘Worcester Gold’ flowers a week earlier, but both bloom for many weeks, and are favored by bumblebees and hummingbird moths.

Passion vine

A year ago the passion vine (Passiflora, below) didn’t emerge from the ground until early in August, so of course it didn’t grow nearly as tall as is usual, and there were fewer blooms. This year the vine popped up by the end of May, a late arrival for most plants but normal for passion vine. Now, the support for the vigorous vine is nearly covered, and along side each set of leaves there is a bloom or bud ready to open in the coming weeks. I’ve attached lightweight wire cable up the column and across the edge of the ceiling of the summer shade house so that it can trail along to bloom as you pass under. My wife is concerned that the vine will flop down and require constant pruning (or ducking), and she is likely to be correct, but I think that it will work splendidly.

The passion vine grasps for support to climb with long tendrils, but the support must not be more than an inch in diameter or the tendrils continue their search for a more narrow support. The sturdy section of cable set a half inch from the post should work well, and the vine dies to the ground annually so weight should not be much of a factor. Passion vine grows quite rapidly, and the flower is unsurpassed. Even the more tropical types are no more beautiful than this one that is perfectly cold hardy into the mid-Atlantic.

Only a few fuchsia are marginally cold hardy in the mid-Atlantic region, and I’ve not been successful in having any survive for longer than a few years. Cape fuchsia (Phygelius, above and below) is unrelated, and barely similar in appearance, but it is unquestionably winter hardy in my garden. Unremarkable green, shrubby foliage emerges in late spring, and late in June the dangling blooms begin to show, with an effective display for a month or longer.

Cape fuchsia’s form is spreading and irregular, with upright stems and hanging clusters of tubular flowers. The blooms are not nearly so marvelous as the passion vine’s, but they are quite pleasing and a bit unusual.