After the storm

In the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains hurricane Irene left barely a mark in the garden, with only a few inches of rain and a handful of fallen branches that were quickly cleared. Several lightly rooted plants were knocked askew, but I have straightened and tamped them or left them to work it out on their own, and expect that in a few days all will be forgotten.

The lights went out shortly before midnight, and over the next hours I heard the tall poplars and maples at the forest’s edge groaning as they swayed in the strong breeze. By good fortune, the winds were not severe enough to cause damage worth mentioning, but a bit further to the east others were not so lucky.

This day following the storm has been a pleasant sort, sunny and mild with a gentle breeze and lower humidity. A perfect day to stroll the garden to survey the slight damage, and then to double back to enjoy the day’s blooms. The lounge chair was set up again by the swimming pond, and the koi and I enjoyed the better part of the afternoon together.

The bees and butterflies have returned in the sunshine after staying sheltered through the stormy Saturday. The caryopteris (Caryopteris incana ‘Sunshine Blue’, above) and Seven Son Tree (Heptacodium miconioides) are buzzing, and I was surprised to find that after a month or longer the Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum, below) is still too dangerous to approach with many dozens of bees and hornets. No other flower in the garden comes close to attracting the quantity of buzzing creatures, and they seem in a foul mood when I come near (especially the hornets, which I don’t often see on other blooms).

While I was poking about I noticed that Ligularia dentata ‘Othello’ (below) was blooming under the weeping Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Pendula’) at the edge of the upper pond that borders our deck. I suppose I planted it when the cedar was considerably smaller, and now it can barely be seen, but it seems quite content. Ligularias prefer relatively damp soils (though not wet), and I have had poor experiences planting others at the edges of ponds where the soil stays a bit too dry, so I’m happy to leave this ‘Othello’ where it has thrived without any care on my part.

While fighting the lower branches of the Atlas cedar to get a better view of the ligularia’s daisy-like bloom there were a number of small dead twigs that dangled into the pond, and as I cleared out a handful or two there was a white waterlily (below) that could barely be seen from above. This portion of the pond is quite shady, and I cannot imagine how the flower got enough sunlight, but there it is, and I am not likely to crawl through the cedars branches to see it again.

For one reason or another (and I have given up hope of explaining these things) only a few of the variegated liriopes (Liriope muscari ‘Variegata’, below) are blooming, though the spreading spicata types are all flowering (though they are not as showy). I expect that they will flower sooner than later, and if not, this will join a long list of garden mysteries that are probably easily explained by someone who keeps a watchful eye, which of course I don’t. 

Between the garden shed and the swimming pond a dry stacked stone wall retains the pond, and there is a stone path beneath the Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha) that allows the mower to pass to the lower lawn area. Along this wall the soil stays a bit damp, not wet, but too damp for Japanese windflowers (Anemone ‘September Charm’) to survive longer than a few years. I have fiddled with one plant and another in this spot, and usually moved them before they died, but now it appears that Blanket flower (Gaillardia ‘Goblin’, below) has settled in and will make a go of it. 

The garden in late August

From the first peek of color to the the last fading bloom one crapemyrtle or another will be in flower in the garden from June into September. The white flowering ‘Natchez’ and pink ‘Sioux’ (below) have behaved oddly this summer, blooming sporadically early, but more heavily in early August when they should be fading. I attribute this to encroaching shade from two thriving ‘Heritage’ river birches (Betula nigra) planted in the damp soil at the corners of the rear property line that are aligned to block the mid morning and evening sunlight.

The Seven Son Tree (Heptacodium miconioides, below) is referred to as a northern crapemyrtle, and indeed its multi trunk form and peeling bark are similar. Seven Son’s clusters of late August white flowers are not as showy, but the blooms are followed by red-purple calyxes that are quite attractive, and so there is color for nearly two months. Seven Son is a vigorous grower, though it would prefer to be a large shrub and some attention is required to prune away lower branches to keep its multi trunked tree form.

On sunny afternoons the Seven Son is buzzing with activity, with hundreds of bees and handfuls of butterflies darting between blooms. Yesterday, I was lounging by the swimming pond, watching the sun set behind the tall katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) when a hummingbird caught my attention. First, it swooped down to the blue flowering caryopteris, then quickly up to the Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha, below), then to the Seven Son before disappearing in the twilight.

Through the years I have had projects fail horribly, and when I told my wife that I was going to string cables along the roofline of the summer shade house to guide the passion vine (Passiflora, below) she was quite skeptical, imagining the unmannerly vine drooping from the cable and obstructing the path below. I am pleased to report that the cable has worked splendidly, and that (at least for the moment) the vine is mostly well behaved. I initially underestimated the vigor with which the passion vine grows, so the cable has been extended (twice), and for next year I plan to route a second cable along the other side of the shade house.

Over the past week there have been several rain showers, and though the soil remains quite dry there has been a noticeable improvement in the garden. Sad looking foliage has perked up, and of course weeds have jumped, so there’s a bit of labor to be done to keep things from getting out of hand. Heavy rains are forecast for the weekend, so I’ll try to knock out a few areas in the morning before the rains start, and perhaps I’ll catch up on whatever else is blooming by the start of the week.

You’ve got troubles

I often wonder why anyone should take a few precious moments from their day to read about my troubles, and it wouldn’t be surprising for a reader to request that I stop whining and enjoy the garden. I hope to keep the complaining to a minimum, and though I might occasionally prattle on that I can’t grow this or that, the phlox is failing, and the cryptomerias are nearly ruined, I include these minor tragedies so that other gardeners will know that they aren’t alone.

I believe that many gardeners are convinced that they’re the only ones bothered by aphids and lacebugs, hydrangeas that wilt in the afternoon sun, and coneflowers that refuse to bloom. Magazine gardens never suffer a brown leaf, much less camellias that turn brown and die after a few dry weeks, but not a week passes that some disaster or another doesn’t strike in most gardens.

The Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha, above) transplants poorly, so it is rarely found in gardens. Though native to river banks of the Alatamaha River in Georgia, the tree has disappeared from its native habitat, and is said to resent moist soils. In my garden the Franklin tree is planted near the origin of a small spring (that starts immediately beneath the garden shed, which has undermined the shed’s footings and provided a wonderful, though damp apartment for a groundhog for several years). The clay soil drains slowly, and stays damp enough that I would figure the site to be poorly chosen for the tree.

Who woulda’ thunk it? But the tree has grown marvelously well, and in doing so has further exposed some flaws that I feel certain are present in every Franklinia. The branches emanate from the trunk at nearly a right angle, and then turn upwards so that an abnormal amount of stress is placed on the curve. With adequate moisture the branches have grown long and tall without the necessary girth to withstand their own weight, so that several major limbs have suffered structural fractures that have required attention.

I considered bolting and bracing the branches with a scaffolding until they regained their strength, but in the end decided that two large branches must be pruned off. The tree’s shape changed instantly from broad to slightly upright in form. There are no other branches of serious immediate concern, but every tree and I suppose every plant has its pro’s and con’s, and I can live with having to do a bit of tree surgery from time to time to keep this magnificent tree.

A few weeks ago I mentioned that the crapemyrtles in the garden have flowered more sparsely than in previous years, and I’m very certain that every gardener has a list of something’s that have not flowered as well as they did last year, or for the past twenty. Much of this is probably the gardener’s imagining the worst, but each year is hotter or drier (or not), or shade is beginning to encroach (as is the case with several of the crapemyrtles) so that growing conditions change constantly. The wonder would be (and what a bore) if everything stayed the same.

The one crapemyrtle that is growing in unchallenged sunlight is blooming exceptionally well, undeterred by either one hundred degree temperatures or weeks long drought. Still, there is a problem, but this one of the gardener’s making. The dwarf Cherry Dazzle (above) grows to only three to four feet tall, and usually I would suspect a shrub to grow roughly the same in width. Today, the crapemyrtle is in full bloom, and splendid, but at least seven feet across, overwhelming a stone seating bench, and reaching nearly into the fire pit. Of course it was planted far too close to both, and with proper planning I would have less to complain about, but there is less adventure in getting things right from the start (I tell myself).

I frequently experiment with plants that are newly introduced (or ones that are supposedly not cold hardy for the region) to determine their garden worthiness under extreme neglect. I’m afraid that I’ve never properly cared for a plant, and if one survives in my garden I’m quite certain that it will thrive anywhere. 

A year ago I planted a new mondo grass, “Crystal Falls’ (Ophiopogon jaburon ‘Crystal Falls’, above) with long arching, dark foliage and extended panicles of white blooms in mid summer. It appears to be a jumbo sized green leafed liriope, but with more prominent blooms, and like all the liriopes in my garden it needed a trim early in the spring since the leaf tips were in tatters. All was fine until the other liriopes began to grow, then the dwarf mondos that need only a bit of tipping to prune where they’ve become shaggy. Crystal Falls was a still life, alive but frozen in its butchered glory.

Until July. Then, leaf tips emerged, followed almost immediately by the flowering stalks, and by mid August Crystal Falls has recovered almost completely. But, that won’t work. I want plants to begin looking good in the spring, not halfway through the summer. Next spring, I’ll try not to cut the mondo grass back, but perhaps this one is better suited for deeper into the south.

I have no doubt that I’m not the only gardener with troubles. Perhaps more of mine can be traced to my failings in lack of care or in planning, but my issues are quickly forgotten or gardening would be a miserable experience. I am at my happiest in the garden, surrounded by foliage and blooms, and disasters at every turn.

Mr. Peabody’s revenge

When I was a kid, or more precisely when I was in my early teens, my buddy Tom was the local giver of nicknames. Old and young were given descriptive names, some benign and others not. The monikers were seldom given with malice, well, I guess some were, because Tom had a bit of a cruel streak. Why a quiet, studious fellow like myself and Tom became friends for several decades is a longer story, and one I’ll probably not fully figure out.

Tom’s nicknames often carried a perverse appeal, and the masses in the local schoolyard were quick to pick them up. For several years I was called “Mr. Peabody”, a name that was likely intended to mock my thick glasses and penchant for good school grades. Unbeknownst to Tom, the cartoon dog Mr. Peabody commanded respect for his wisdom, not Tom’s intended ridicule, so I was as comfortable with this nickname as any teenager with a nickname from a cartoon dog can be. Like it or not, the name stuck until I started wearing contact lenses and Tom moved on to another, more profane nickname .

I haven’t seen Tom for a few years, and I’ve lost my nicknames, but I’ve been considering adding one of my own, perhaps Turtlehead, the common name for the Chelone lyonii ‘Hot Lips’ (above). The pink flowering Turtlehead is blooming in the half sunny, semi-damp low area in my garden where a trickle of a spring runs (except in the peak of summer, when it is completely dry). My body shape could aptly be described as turtle-like, with a small head attached to an oversized body, but I don’t know if the ‘Hot Lips’ thing works for me. Mine are definitely not hot (as my wife can attest), and probably not pink (though hidden beneath all that facial hair it’s hard to tell, but I can assure you that they’re not pink).

My wife will probably suggest Toadlily (though my appearance suggests the toad far more than the lily), and again the first of the Tricyrtis (above) are beginning to bloom in the sunnier spots in the garden. There are now more cultivars than I can recall, and in shadier parts of the garden it will be another week or three before they are in flower. I especially treasure the toadlilies for the unique form of their flowers, and certainly over the following weeks there will be many photos of one or another.

I’ve been described more than once as a hunk (though, a hunk of what? I shudder to consider the possibilities.), but Beautyberry (Callicarpa, above) is not likely to be appropriate. The unremarkable, small white flowers have faded, and now are replaced by highly ornamental purple or white berries. This native shrub is quite ordinary through most of the year, late to leaf in the spring, and with plain green foliage on slightly arching stems. But, in August clusters of berries form along the length of the stems, and these persist to late summer, catching the eye and lending credence to its moniker.

I’m certain that there are many other common plant names that you might think appropriate, but please be kind. Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia, above) isn’t even close, and I bear no resemblance to Ben Franklin (Franklinia alatamaha, below) at all. 

The Georgia Botanical Garden – part 2

As my wife and I strolled through the Botanical Garden I pointed out one thing and another to her, a plant’s name or some horticultural curiosity, and to my astonishment, she usually replied with skepticism. I often claim to have planted one of everything in my garden, and of course this isn’t nearly true, but I’ve planted far more than my share, and though my memory is spotty or worse, I hope to have a better eye for plants than most.

I will admit to occasionally “fleshing out” a story (for the sake of entertaining my wife only), and I suppose this is the root of her disturbing lack of faith. The plants at the botanical garden are well marked, though some tags were buried deep into shrubby growth that was visited by too many ornery looking bees to risk with my recent penchant for being stung. It is not remarkable that I did not know every plant (above), and often we could not find a tag without stepping too deeply into the planting beds, so some beauties remain a mystery.

A few plants were not marked at all, such as a China fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata, below) planted off a side trail of the International garden that was not identified, and located where only a few curious types would venture to see it close up.

Cunninghamia is in the family of the southeastern native bald cypress, and though a fine evergreen it is not commonly found in commerce or in gardens. Earlier in this spring I planted a dwarf sort in my garden since I do not have space for the larger tree. The dwarf is likely to be too large eventually, but it’s such a wee little fellow that I’ll probably be dead and gone. Or perhaps if it grows more quickly than I suspect I’ll transplant it and give something else the heave ho.

My wife seemed quite disinterested in my discovery of this splendid evergreen, and so most plants that I pointed out were flowering, or were plants from our garden. She was interested in the small leafed ficus that clung tightly to a brick wall, and a hops vine (Humulus lupulus, above) that climbed an iron arch, but otherwise we stuck to bloomers, and these were plentiful on this hot, humid August afternoon.

A few days earlier we had run across a giant leafed castor bean on the University of Georgia campus, and the one in the Physic garden (Ricinus communis, above) would hardly be worth mentioning if not for the red seed pods. Castor beans are crushed for the manufacture of castor oil, and also used in concentration for the toxin ricin, but the seeds are unlikely candidates for sampling by children because of the sharp spines.

Part of the botanical garden’s mission is research, and my wife and I took a few moments  to do some small and unimportant research by comparing the number of butterflies on a pink flowered butterfly bush (probably Buddleia davidii ‘Pink Delight’, above) with a nearby lantana (Lantana camara ‘Miss Huff, below). 

The lantana clearly had many more butterflies, as well as bees, hornets, and various other flying critters. A curator shopped by to see what the devil these two idiots (Well, really just one idiot. My wife has better judgment than to stray too near this number of bees.) were doing with their noses inches from swarming insects, and he agreed, but excused that the butterfly bush was slightly past its peak. I’ll allow some margin for error that he might be correct, but there is never a time in the heat of summer when the lantana is not at peak bloom, so it is the better plant for attracting butterflies. ‘Miss Huff’ is more shrub than the typical prostrate lantanas sold as annual summer bedding, and it is claimed to be winter hardy enough for my Virginia garden. Now, I’m encouraged to find a space for this colorful shrub.

My wife was enthralled by a Blackeyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Henry Eilers’, above) planted only a few feet from the lantana, yet unbothered by insects of any type. The tubular petals are distinctive, unlike other coneflowers, and the flowers are abundant. I think this one is likely to find its way into my garden also.

There is so much more to cover, but it’s time to get back to my own garden. Despite the heat and lack of rain there are a few bloomers that deserve mention, though the list is much shorter than at this superb botanical garden.

The State Botanical Garden of Georgia

I first visited the Georgia Botanical Garden when my son began grad school at the University of Georgia five or six years ago, and each time my wife and I have traveled to Athens we have stopped by. The tours of the garden were always for a shorter period than I preferred, but I can hardly expect my wife and son to be as enthusiastic as I am.

My last trip was two years ago, and since then a new section (above) of the garden has been completed. I planned more time for this visit since it’s likely to be my last. My son and his wife have completed their studies and are returning to the Washington, D.C. area in a few weeks (to save the world, or blow it up, I’m not certain which), and I doubt that I’ll make the nine hour journey to Athens again.

We arrived at the garden in the morning at nine something so that we’d have plenty of time to tour and still meet up with the family later in the afternoon. But, moments after our arrival the storm clouds burst open, and the downpour sent us scurrying back to the car. We considered waiting it out, but after the rain continued for a few too many minutes my wife suggested that we go shopping until it quit. A wise husband knows when to fight and when to throw in the towel, so reluctantly I agreed, but was relieved to find that most downtown stores open late on Sundays, and many don’t open at all.

After a quick window shopping tour of deserted downtown Athens we checked the radar and saw that the storm was moving slowly to the south of town, so back we went to the garden. Our tour was begun slightly before noon with thick cloud cover and heavy humidity, and ended nearly five hours later with dripping sweat and a fogged camera lens. Today I’ll give an overview of our day at the garden, and then I’ll return for a second chapter in a few days  with as many plants as I can jam onto a page.

Most of our tour was through the more formal parts of the garden. There are trails through the property showcasing native woodlands and collections of shade plants, but these do not present well for photos in mid-summer, so most of our time was spent in the gardens chock full of blooms, bees, and butterflies (above). Botanical gardens are useful to the gardener to see plants in a landscaped setting rather than lined up on a garden center table. In the heat of a Georgia August there are plants that have faded badly, but many others thrive and look their best in mid-summer.

The differences in cold hardiness between northwestern Virginia and Athens, Georgia are more slight than you might expect, so when you fall in love with a plant in the garden it’s likely that it will work in your home garden. From my years visiting nurseries in the southeast (and experimenting in my garden) I know that loropetalum and cleyera will  barely hang onto life for a few years until they gain a foothold or give up, older (supposedly winter hardy) gardenias fail in the early freezes of November, and only select camellias will survive. But most of the plants in Georgia gardens are well suited to planting in the mid-Atlantic region.

On display in the Botanical Garden since March are marvelous gates (above and below) sculpted by Andrew T. Crawford Ironworks. They’re a bit large for most gardens, and though my wife was enthralled and had to have one, her enthusiasm cooled slightly when she heard the selling price for these beauties.

After a brief tour of the bronze sculptures (below) near the entrance to the visitors’ center, a walk through of the indoor, tropical collection to cool off,  and a quick peek into the gift shop our day was done, but of course I came away with a few ideas, and more than a few plants that I’ll not be able to survive without.

Tallulah Falls

Don’t tell anyone, but I think that I might be getting a tad too old for this. I’m a wreck, tired, battered, and bruised.

At the end of last week my wife and I traveled south to the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia to see our daughter-in-law graduate with her Ph.D. in chemistry, and to spend a few days seeing the sights since she and our son (who finished grad school a year earlier) will be moving back to the Washington, D.C. area in a few weeks.

The graduation was Saturday morning, then the remainder of the day was spent visiting with the kids and her parents, who live not too far from our Virginia home. Sunday morning my wife and I set out for the Georgia Botanical Garden. I’ll get to back with a thorough description of our tour of the garden in a few days, but today (Monday) my wife and I have just returned from hiking Tallulah Gorge (above) with our son, and I’m whupped.

The hike down the gorge  is 640 steps to a suspension bridge (above), then another 422 steps to the river. The hike out is far more strenuous, an 1,100 foot vertical climb over huge boulders scattered on the walls of the gorge. This is not an adventure for old-timers who spend much time puttering about the garden, and too little in aerobic activities, but we’ve lived through the experience, so it was a good one.

Along the trails were a variety of recognizable flora, and more than a few skinks and assorted small lizards clinging to the rocks. Nearest the top of the gorge were towering mountain laurels, but halfway down these were replaced by even taller rhododendrons (above). There were large leafed rhododendron that I am familiar with from travels through the North Carolina mountains, but also smaller leafed types (similar in appearance to PJM cultivars, though they are long past bloom) that I have not seen in the wild. Many were rooted in small crevices between huge boulders that were filled with wood debris and leaf litter, and though their leaves were curled in reaction to ninety-five degree temperatures, they were otherwise in fine health.

Small Carolina hemlocks (above) clung to the rocky walls of the gorge, though none were substantial in size. Near the bottom a hemlock was indentified as the Georgia state champion, and the trunk was only a foot in diameter, so this is sufficient evidence to pronounce that even native hemlocks grow reluctantly in the heat of the south.

At lower elevations (just above the raging river) there were abundant native American hollies (Ilex opaca, above), and beautyberries (Callicarpa, below) that were covered with berries that are a week or two short of turning to polished purple.

I saw few ferns (below) in the small pockets of soil, but one clump grew at the water’s edge as we hopped from one boulder to another along the river. I could not imagine that there was any soil at all, but the fern was well established and healthy, rooted into a calm spot as the river raged past.

Along the trails were overlooks of the river falls below, but once the bottom of the gorge was reached the action began. The first river crossing required leaping from one wet boulder to another, and though my best leaping days are long behind me, I was able to cross without tumbling into the river. We climbed up and down over boulders the size of buses and small houses until we reached a large slab where water rushed over in a thin, slippery sheet so that adventurous hikers could slide into the deeper pool below.

Pratfalls ensued, with bruises and scraps, but fortunately no concussions, though there were occasions when any number of catastrophes were possible. Young teens and the more elderly were swept at high speed down the slick rock, wildly screaming and gesturing  before they plunged into the deep pool (above).

Finally, play time was called to a close, and we began our ascent (above). The climb seemed nearly vertical, and of course old gardeners are not built for such things. But, after repeated breaks to catch our breath (and to settle the pounding heart) , the top of the gorge was reached safely, and then back to the visitors’ center for a few moments of air conditioning and cold water.

I imagine that the scraps and tired muscles will remind me of our visit to Tallulah Gorge for several days, and I hope to have enough energy in the morning for the drive home.