Late March flowering shrubs

With warm winter temperatures several varieties of Japanese andromeda (Pieris japonica, below) in the garden began to show a bit of color late in February. As the mid month heat wave of March has turned to cooler temperatures at the start of April, the blooms have persisted, though I expect they will begin to fade in the next week.

I’ve planted a handful or two of Pieris varieties (‘Flaming Silver’, below) with varying success. They differ in leaf, flower, and bud color, as well as in size and tolerance for adverse sun, soil, and moisture conditions. All have been ignored by deer that frequently browse the garden, but lacebugs are an annual source of annoyance for a gardener who refuses to spray to prevent pests. Pieris prefers a bit of shade, and definitely soils that are on the dry side, though they struggle (like most plants) in dry shade.

Until recent years, Kerria (Kerria japonica, below) thrived in the rocky, dry soil just above the small creek that runs beside the garden. But, it has declined in the increasingly dense shade, so I cut it back severely and hope that it rejuvenates.  Kerria’s flowers are a more attractive shade of yellow than the ubiquitous forsythia, and for a number of years it grew as a tidy and dependable shrub.

I have mixed feelings about ‘Ogon’ spirea (Spirea thunbergii ‘Ogon’, below). The leafless shrub is covered in marvelous small white blooms in mid March, which are closely followed by narrow, bright yellow leaves. ‘Ogon’ grows vigorously, and though I prefer not to prune shrubs annually, it must be hacked back to a tight little ball after flowering or it will become hopelessly wild.

I suppose that my resistance to Ogon’s charms is that I have misplaced it in too prominent a position. With its almost needle-like foliage and bright yellow color it belongs as a complement to more substantial shrubs, and with a backdrop of a mid or dark green it is probably quite pleasing. If I can find such a spot I’ll consider moving the spireas, but it’s more likely that some day I’ll grow weary of them and jerk them out.

A forest of swamp maples and tulip poplars borders the southeast edge of the property, and along this border I’ve planted a few evergreens, but mostly shrubs to transition from the towering trees to the lower plane of the garden. ‘Burkwood’ (Viburnum x ‘Burkwoodii’, above) and Korean Spice viburnums (Viburnum carlesii, below) have grown tall in this half shaded location, but there is enough afternoon sun that they flower abundantly in early spring.

I often find that I’m totally unaware of the scent of plants until I read that they are fragrant, and then I have to thrust my nose to within inches to smell anything at all. This is not a problem with the sweetly fragrant viburnums, or the spring flowering daphne (Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’, below) that is planted closeby. If I had properly planned the three fragrant plants would be scattered about that garden, but they are in such close proximity that it is difficult to distinguish one from the other.

‘Carol Mackie’ is said to be somewhat difficult, but it has been transplanted, abused, and neglected. It was initially quite content in a partially shaded, slightly moist spot, but it was in the path where a pond and stream were to be built, so it had to go. It is now just beside the stream so that its roots are kept cool, but it was the unfortunate victim when my son and I dropped a huge, low hanging branch of one the swamp maples directly onto it in early spring a few years ago.

We intended to guide the branch (as big as some trees) between two Japanese maples, and if all had gone well the daphne would have been missed by inches. Well, we missed it by that much! The Japanese maples were avoided, but the daphne was a direct hit, and I was certain that it would be crushed. As it turned out, it was only mostly crushed, which is better than totally crushed. Several branches were severed, and I figured that with its finicky nature it would be lost. Fortunately, the daphne leafed out a few weeks later, and flowered as if nothing had happened. It now leans a bit to one side, but you wouldn’t notice if I hadn’t told you.

A few year ago I planted Buttercup winter hazel (Corylopsis pauciflora, above) in the spring fed damp ground that runs along the back half of the forest’s edge. There is no standing water, but the ground is moist or wet year around, and happily the winter hazel has adapted well to this spot. The shrub is still small by comparison to nearly mature neighbors, but it won’t be long before it is up to size with enough fragrant blooms to attract my attention away from the viburnums and daphnes.

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Trees flowering in late March

The latest of the early spring flowering magnolias in my garden is the pale yellow ‘Elizabeth’ (Magnolia acuminata ‘Elizabeth’, below). A year ago it bloomed exactly in the middle of April, which is perhaps a few days later than average, and why its flowers are rarely bothered by late freezes and frosts as the earlier flowering magnolias are. I would appreciate ‘Elizabeth’ a bit more if the flowers were less pale yellow and more vibrant, but it grows vigorously and with a more upright form than other magnolias that consume significant portions of the garden.

Early March bloomers ‘Royal Star’ and ‘Dr. Merrill’ quickly passed out of bloom in the mid month heat wave without a single cold night to damage the flowers. In most years the blooms end with a huff after an overnight freeze, but this year the flowers faded prematurely in eighty five degree afternoons. For a day the small back lawn was covered in white petals, but by the following afternoon they had browned, shriveled, and disappeared. The purple ‘Jane’ was the earliest of the magnolias to show color this year, and still some flowers remain as it begins to leaf. Jane’s flowers have a thicker substance than ‘Royal Star’ and ‘Dr. Merrill’, and they resist the effects of freeze and frost, and apparently heat also.

On average (and I’ll be the first to say that average means little in the garden) redbuds (Cercis canadensis, above) begin to flower in my garden at the start of April, followed by dogwoods ten days later. There are times when dogwoods and redbuds flower concurrently, but it’s rare that they are both blooming the third week of March. I have planted yellow (‘Hearts of Gold’) and red leafed redbuds (‘Forest Pansy’), a few with variegated leaves (‘Silver Cloud’), and one with pendulous branches (‘Lavendar Twist’), and all have similar blooms that arrive within a day of each other. These are marvelous native trees that are well suited to large and small gardens.

The native habitat of redbud is as an understory tree, but it thrives at the forest’s edge where it receives some sun, but is partially shaded in the afternoon. One ‘Forest Pansy’ that I planted long ago has been in decline for several years as the dense shade from neighboring swamp maples and tulip poplars has spread to cover it. Every spring a few branches die and fall off, and the flowers become more sparse. The redbuds that grow in more sun perform splendidly, though two ‘Hearts of Gold’ were damaged a few years ago by heavy snow. Their branches are bent much lower than before the storm so that I can no longer mow the small area of lawn beneath them. One large branch was cracked and has been bolted together, but otherwise the trees are in perfect health.

The tall weeping pink cherry (Prunus x subhirtella ‘Pendula Rubra’, above) is flowering, and today there is hardly any evidence of damage from a tornado that hopped just over the neighborhood a few years ago. The cherry wasn’t directly injured by the wind, but a nearby purple leafed chokecherry was snapped in half, with the top half falling onto the cherry and a ‘Fat Albert’ blue spruce. The cherry lost a few large branches, but the back half of the spruce was flattened. Fortunately, the damage was to my neighbor’s side of the spruce.

The pink weeping cherry is the cause of considerable consternation to many homeowners since it grows much larger than they expect. People seem to equate weeping with dwarf, but my tree is nearly thirty feet tall and wide (not at all a small tree).  I’ve seen many trees planted far too close to houses, walks, and drives so that branches quickly arch over and obstruct, and often require severe pruning to keep under control. For once I had the good sense to give a tree enough space, though it has now become a bit crowded along with other trees after twenty years.

Now, I’m beginning to run on too long, s0 I’ll return in a few days with late March’s flowering shrubs, and the bulbs and perennials that are blooming. Recent temperatures have cooled considerably, so I’m hoping that flowers last a bit longer so that I can catch up with my writing before these pass out of bloom.

It’s gonna be cold!

No good is accomplished by whining that the dogwoods (Cornus florida, below) are flowering too early, or that the Japanese maples are leafing prematurely and are in danger should an overnight freeze arrive in the next few weeks (or tonight). The gardener has no control over these events, of course, and no amount of talking (or praying) will change the weather or protect vulnerable plants.

I am enjoying the bounty of blooms reaped by this extraordinarily warm March with surprises at every turn along the garden’s paths. It seems that everything is flowering two weeks early (or more), and the wonder is if there will be any blooms at all by the end of April.

I have no contingency plans for protecting plants if a freeze should arrive. This is not so simple as moving potted tropicals indoors for the night, and there is nothing to be done that would be reliably effective. I read this morning that a local garden center manager was recommending throwing sheets and tarps, and anything else available over shrubs with tender growth to protect them from the freeze. I have plans to get a good night’s sleep to wake in the morning to see if the Japanese maples have been nipped a bit. I certainly won’t be spending the evening covering trees with sheets like so many Halloween ghosts.

In years past I’ve seen tender new growth on Japanese maples killed at twenty-one degrees, but not at twenty-five several years later. This is not the first freeze we’ve experienced after plants have begun to leaf. It won’t be the last, and the Japanese maples and hostas and whatever else are likely to survive, just like every other time.

If the temperatures drop too low there will be trouble, but I’ve decided not to worry about those things that I have no control over. Through the years the suffering from seeming garden disasters usually works itself out with minimal long term consequences, and I’m confident that will be the case this spring.

Preparing the ponds for spring

The pump went out in one of the garden ponds in late autumn, and I haven’t a clue why. Perhaps it was old age. I know the feeling.

Replacing the pump was a rare expense for my ponds, that is if the cost of running electricity twenty four hours a day for five ponds through the year isn’t considered. I rarely mention this cost, and don’t even think about it when the monthly bill arrives. After more than twenty years living with ponds, I can hardly imagine living without.

Today the ponds aren’t at their best, just water and rocks, moss, and perennial plants that have newly been cut back. The hostas, caryopteris, and hydrageas that flop over to soften the pond’s edges have just broken dormancy, and it will be another month before they make any show at all. The koi and goldfish are barely awake, and only moving about because air and water temperatures are far above normal in the very early days of spring. But, spring peepers and other frogs that return to the ponds to mate are in full throat through the afternoon and evenings.

Three of the five ponds in the garden are under two hundred square feet, one is slightly larger, and the largest pond is bigger than all the others put together. The swimming pond is almost fifteen hundred square feet, and five and a half feet at it deepest point. I should say that it’s a bit of a misnomer to call it a swimming pond, since I don’t really swim in it. Swimming is too  much like exercise. I float. I have a reclining lounge chair (with a drink holder in case I’m so inclined) that drifts with the breeze while I slip in and out of consciousness on sunny weekends watching the dragonflies dart overhead with koi nipping at my toes.

Spring clean up of the ponds is a straightforward matter. The swimming pond requires only to drag the net off without dumping too many leaves that have accumulated over the winter. The stirring up of debris leaves the water murky for a few days afterward, but then it clears up and if the water temperature is sufficiently warm the fish suddenly recall that I’m the guy who occasionally feeds them. The whole mess of them flock to whichever side I’m working, and if I’m cutting the Japanese irises that grow in the shallows the large koi will nudge out of the water to remind me that it’s feeding time. Not yet, I’m afraid. In a few more weeks the water will warm up and feeding will begin.

This large pond contains about twenty thousand gallons of water, so I’m determined never to empty it for cleaning. The net keeps the worst of the leaves out, and the few leaves and bits of debris that sink to the bottom break down and disappear without any assistance on my part. On occasion there will be an outbreak of string algae, but barley straw keeps it under control.

I don’t take as much care to cover the smaller ponds, so it’s not unusual for them to require a bit more spring cleanup. Most years I scoop out the leaves, clean the filter pads on the ponds that have them, and the pond is ready to go. If leaves and gunk are too much then the water will be pumped out and discarded into the garden, the leaves and debris scooped out, and the rocks and gravel will be washed down with a hose. Then, the pond is refilled. A dechlorinator is added to condition the water for the fish, frogs, and tadpoles, and the ponds are ready for spring.

The Japanese irises, sweetflag, waterlilies, and other pond plants are treated like any other perennials. The spent growth from last year is pruned off and sent to the compost pile, and they’re ready to go. Most of my pond plants are planted directly in rock and gravel rather than in pots, so there’s no need to divide them or to repot into larger containers. I have never fertlized any of the pond plants and they grow vigorously without.

I drag the nets off the ponds early in March, but don’t usually mess with cleaning the ponds until later in the month. The clean up takes most of a day, though I’m frequently distracted so bits and pieces of other projects take up some of the day. Once the spring cleaning is accomplished there’s very little maintenance done to any of the ponds for the remainder of the year, until the nets go back on in early November. The ponds are the easiest and most enjoyable part of the garden, so replacing a pump every seven or eight years is only a minor nuisance.

Some are early, others late

Please, somebody explain this to me. I’m confused, the camellias are confused. The redbuds and dogwoods are totally out of whack. I’m hoping that things settle down and return to normal sooner than later, but I’m not taking any bets.

It’s hot out there! At least for March, it is. Temperatures were oddly warm through the winter, but March is past odd, way past. There’ve been warm spells in March before, lots of them, but for a few days at a stretch, not for three weeks. Next week’s forecast is for cold weather, only ten degrees above the normal high.

‘Winter’s Interlude’ camellia (above) is supposed to flower sometime in November, but it rarely does in my garden. In most years freezing temperatures in January kill the flower buds so I don’t get any blooms at all, but this year there were a few flowers consistently through the warm days in January, which was nice, but the blooms were quickly damaged by cold night time temperatures. The flowers stopped by mid February when there was a stretch of nearly average winter cold, and I figured that’s the end, the flower buds will be damaged.

Wrong again. Today ‘Winter’s Interlude’ is in full bloom, the best I’ve ever seen it, and only five months late. By comparison the April blooming hybrids are right on time, though they’re several weeks earlier than normal.

A few buds on ‘April Dawn’ (above) were ready to open at the start of March, but they were brown around the edges from frost and the blooms that opened were contorted and damaged. Thankfully, they faded quickly, but as warm temperatures arrived all of the April series hybrids (‘April Snow’, below) have flowered splendidly.

There’s so much blooming in the garden now that it’s a challenge to write about them before they fade. But, I’ll be back in a few days with more,  lots more!

Chinese paperbush

Conversations about the weather are just about to wear me out. I find that I repeat myself a dozen times each day, and with slight variations I’ve had the same conversation for the past three months. Yes, the warm temperatures through the winter were unusual, and two weeks of seventy degree temperatures in March are odd. No, most plants will not be harmed by flowering or leafing early.

I’ve enjoyed the mild winter, but it’s time to get back to normalcy. I want my redbuds to flower at the start of April and the dogwoods to follow two weeks later, but buds of both are beginning to open in mid March. The tree lilac rushed through the budding stage and is almost fully leafed, and the growth of perennials and grasses are weeks ahead.

I watched the Chinese paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) through this winter as I always do. The flower buds begin as white buttons that are obvious prior to the foliage dropping in November (above).  Slowly through the winter the buttons grow larger. By the start of February the outline of the individual flowers is evident (below), and with a warm winter I was certain that I’d see the blooms well before the typical first week of March. 

Flowers of witch hazels and hellebores, snowdrops and early daffodils kept me occupied so that I was not disappointed when the paperbush didn’t bloom early. Then, on the last week of February there were the first signs of color as the buds separated very slightly into distinct tubular flowers with a few tipped in buttery yellow (below). Finally, a plant that is flowering precisely on schedule.

I don’t recall how or when I first became aware of the paperbush. It’s not commonly found in garden centers, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in a garden, though it can hardly be called rare. Books that I’ve read about plant exploration in China mention the plant, and feature small photos that barely do the paperbush justice. Most references mention its questionable cold hardiness, unremarkable foliage, and suckering habit, so I planted a handful of small shrubs with low expectations.

In a garden chock full of wonderful plants I’m hesitant to make such declarations, but paperbush has become one of my favorites. Watching the buds and early blooms helps me to pass the winter months, and the blue-green foliage is more notable than the credit it is given. I have witnessed a bit of suckering at the base of the plant, but none to be concerned about and I consider paperbush to be a very well mannered shrub. In five years the small plants have grown to a dome shaped four feet tall and seven or eight feet in width, and they’ve handled temperatures just below zero with no problems.

The flowers are nothing short of magnificent, as fine as any plant in the garden. The umbels consist of numerous white tubular flowers with flared tips that have been dipped in buttery yellow. On small plants there will be a flower at the end of every branch tip, but on larger shrubs there are multiple flowers at the tips, and more along the length of the branches. Paperbush is related to daphne, and its fragrance is similar to the winter daphne blooming in the front garden.

I cherish the winter blooming plants in the garden, and even in this too often talked about, warmer than ever winter, when several plants flowered through January and February, the paperbush is something special.

Spring cleanup

The spring clean up of the garden has begun. I usually have a target date of the start of April to be mostly finished, and most years mostly is as finished as it gets. With the abnormally warm winter and way above average temperatures over the past week I’m afraid that I’ll have to prioritize and accelerate my plans.

I’ve noticed that the Japanese Forest grass is beginning to grow already, and if it’s growing then the other grasses probably are also. I don’t usually see any growth from the grasses until the end of March, but this hasn’t been a normal year, so I’ll have to get to cutting them back.

When miscanthus and pennisetem were first becoming popular in my early gardening years,  I disliked them (perhaps because they were the in thing), but I planted a few and grew to accept them. I read that they were easy to care for, and that the seedheads and brown stalks in winter were greatly admired, but I was never fully on board. By February the grasses were bent and pieces blew about the garden, and cutting them back in March was an unfortunate chore.

The brown stalks jam up the works on hedge shears and pruners, and even a heavy duty trimmer with a metal cutting blade became fouled every few seconds. Once, I became adventurous after reading that large scale plantings of grasses were burned, but the blaze quickly grew so that I feared for the neighboring plants (and houses). Finally, I settled on using a chainsaw to cut the grasses to a few inches above the ground, using the back of the blade so that the grass isn’t pulled into the saw. I’m not sure that I should recommend this to anyone, but that’s how I did it.

I’m quite pleased that my miscanthus problem has been resolved, so a present tense do has become a did of the past. Nearby hornbeams and Japanese maples in one area, and the Bigleaf magnolia have shaded the grasses so that they’ve faded and disappeared. No more chainsaw! Now, I have only the Japanese Forest grass, Northern sea oats, and a few varieties of carex that are no more difficult to clean up after than most of the perennials. Grab a handful of dead grass and pull.

A few shallow rooted perennials require a bit more attention so as not to pull out chunks of the plant, but most take only a moment or two. The Japanese irises are the most stubborn, resisting efforts to tug the brown leaves and requiring a sharp set of pruners. I’ve tried electric hedge shears, and these worked when the blade was sharp, but they dull quickly and who has the time to sharpen these things? Most of the irises are planted in shallow water at the edge of the ponds, so I have to be careful to avoid tipping into the water.

Cleaning up the spent foliage on perennials and grasses is the first priority since they are growing, and if the new growth becomes woven in with the old then the task is greatly complicated. All other chores are secondary, and these will be gotten around to when the cutting back is complete. This will take two days since the weather is superb, but if it was cold and drizzly it could take another weekend longer. With warm, sunny days the perennials will be chopped, then gathered and piled on the compost bin, and some woody stems in the firepit.

The second weekend will be for weeding, though I’ll dig out some of the many thousands of winter weeds while I’m trimming the perennials. I’ve done it again, and I don’t guess I’ll ever learn to fetch the hoe to grub out the weeds beneath the roses. In my quest for efficiency I attempt to snatch the weeds under the roses because I’m here, and why pass the weeds by, but inevitably I scratch and puncture and draw a bit of blood. The winter weeds would have been much easier to remove if I’d pulled them when they were small on one of the beautiful days in January, but I didn’t, so now I’m suffering my punishment.

Weeding is the hardest part for me. It’s not physically demanding, but there are many of them, and only one of me, so I feel overwhelmed that the task will never end. It would be easier to spray an herbicide, but I prefer not, and who knows where small bulbs and perennials are hiding. I’ve killed more than a few plants over the years by mistakenly pulling or spraying, so I usually crawl around the acre and a quarter garden pulling some weeds and digging others with a weeding knife.

If I pull enough weeds while I’m cutting the perennials I might finish the weeding in another day, but it will be a long and miserable one. Another day will be needed to clean up the piles of leaves that were left when I quit on the chore in November. I got most of them before I shut down for the winter, and the leaves that remain can be shredded in place without making too much of a mess.

There will be no pruning. Maybe a bit, but I don’t take the shears to the shrubs to shape things up. I don’t like shapely plants, I let things go to do whatever it is they do. There are no gumdrops in this garden, though there is one tall cone shaped boxwood that once was a spiral until I let it get out of hand, and a cone was all I could salvage of it. There’s no space in the wee small space between a path and patio to let the boxwood grow, so it will be a cone or it will have to be pulled out.

Every few years I must cut the roses back, but I don’t think that will be this year. It wasn’t last year either, so I suppose it will be next year. Once the roses leaf out there will be some minor pruning required to snip off some dead tips, which Japanese maples also require annually, but this is a task for April, even for late April, and if all goes according to plan you can see that I’ll be finished with the spring cleanup well before the end of March. It could happen, but not once in four decades of spring cleanups has it worked out as planned.