The easy iris

I believe that irises have a reputation for being finicky, and I think that this is mostly with bearded irises that must be divided and watched for iris borers. I’ve concluded after years of trial and error (mostly error) that Japanese irises are the easiest and most beautiful of the the irises. I haven’t tried very hard, but I’ve fooled with Siberian, German, and Dutch irises off and on, with limited success. Well, less than limited since there are none left alive.

The rear garden is prone to sustained periods of overly damp soil through the spring, and any other season when there’s an inch or two of rainfall in a week. The splendid Siberian iris ‘Caesar’s Brother’ (Iris sibirica ‘Caesar’s Brother’, above in better days) is considered nearly bullet proof in wet or dry soils, but in my garden it died off after a few years. It was planted in good earth that alternated between flooded springs and bone dry summers, but I think that lack of sunlight eventually killed it.

My lust for planting flowering trees and Japanese maples has shaded much of the garden, so that I sometimes delude myself to consider any plant with sun at high noon to be in full sun. Some plants will tolerate the few hours of sunlight, but not irises. I’m guessing.

I’ve planted Louisiana (above) and yellow flag iris (Iris pseudoacorus, below) in shallow water in a few of the garden’s ponds with success. Louisiana iris is planted in containers in two ponds that are shaded through most of the day. Before trees grew to overhang the ponds this iris spread exuberantly so that excess growth required trimming a time or two each summer. But now, in more shade it stays put and still manages to bloom for most of a week.

Yellow flag iris is sturdy and aggressive enough to fill any area of shallow water. In my large swimming pond it’s planted in a large area of gravel that filters the pond’s water, and in gravel yellow flag spreads more slowly than it would in soil. It’s invasive if allowed into waterways, but I monitor the overflow of the pond to prevent its escape, and I’ve seen no sweet flag growing in the neighboring wetland.

I’ve planted a variety of Japanese irises (Iris ensata) between boulders in shallow water in the swimming pond, and a few in a damp, spring fed swale where other wetland plants are established. In soil, Japanese iris spreads moderately, but planted in full sun in small gravel and shallow water it preforms best, forming thick clumps.

Japanese iris blooms dependably, though each flower lasts for only a few days. On an established clump there will be dozens of flowers, and there will be ten days from first to last bloom. With several cultivars and slight variations in sunlight exposure, there will be flowering irises for a month.

No care is required, particularly when Japanese irises are planted in water. There are no bug or disease problems, and though I’ve heard that thick clumps benefit from dividing occasionally, I’ve left mine alone for nearly ten years with no apparent decline.

There is  no magic to selecting the best varieties. I started with the variegated leaf type with dark purple flowers with a small streak of yellow (above). The foliage is attractive from mid spring through early autumn, but the flowers of many non-variegated types are larger and offer welcome variation in form and color.

Can’t get around much anymore

Occasionally, I’ll return home in the evening to see the trash can filled to the brim with pruned clippings from nandinas, mahonias, or ferns, and I know that my wife has been out and about with her pruners. The stone paths that meander through the garden are partially obstructed by overhanging branches again, and she’s doing her duty to keep them open. The trimmings should more properly be tossed onto the compost pile, but that’s halfway to the rear of the property, and the paths are much nearer the house.

My wife has just completed studies for a midlife career change, so the past few years have been dedicated to studying. She has spent far less time in the garden wandering down the paths with her pruners at the ready. And the garden grows, the nandinas lean further, and rhizomes of Ostrich ferns creep ever closer to the paths and patios. Steps down from the lower deck have nearly been abandoned as branches of a tall nandina arch under the weight of the semi vigorous ‘Henryii’ clematis (above) so that I must bend over (way over) to get through. This is not a bother to me, but she wonders why there should be a path at all if it’s impassable. Clearly, there’s no arguing with this manner of thinking.

With abundant rainfall recently the garden is quite lush, and most notably in the upper portion of the rear garden the nandinas have grown full and fat. When the branches are wet they flop halfway over the narrow paths (or more), but several hours later I can brush past with ease. There are a number of nandina cultivars that are commonly available in garden centers, and I’ve planted several of many of them in one place or another in the garden. The ones along the paths are the full sized Nandina domestica (above), six feet tall and a few have grown even taller. With exuberant foliage, one part of the garden cannot be seen from another only a few paces apart.

The nandinas are just beginning to flower, but by late summer the branches begin to bend further under the weight of large clusters of shiny red berries (above). Then, my wife can fill a trash can or two.

I was hardly impressed by Deutzia ‘Magician’ (Deutzia x ‘Magician’, above) when it first flowered several years ago. It’s foliage was a light green that appeared in need of fertilizer, and the first year blooms were sparse and not much to get excited about. Somewhere over the past few years this once unremarkable shrub caught my eye, and I can’t imagine how I ever thought the blooms were not extraordinary.

The foliage of the deutzia is hardly exciting, but there are few shrubs that are noteworthy when they’re not flowering. The blooms of ‘Magician’ persist for several weeks, perhaps even a month from first flower to last, and there are few finer blooms in the garden.

The tall tree lilac (Syringa reticulata ‘Ivory Silk’, above) is in full flower in late May. Some blooms are still opening while others are just past their peak. Through most of the day the small white petals fall to cover the ground below like snow.

‘Ivory Silk’ is a tree, not at all a shrub, and certainly not the multi-caned shrub that most people know. Both shrub and tree have fragrant blooms, though the flower clusters of ‘Ivory Silk’ are huge by comparison. The tree will grow with a single thick trunk to thirty feet or more. The ‘Ivory Silk’ in my garden has been trouble free for years, though it has a number of dead branches from a few summers of drought. This year it has recovered with more vigor, so foliage is more dense and flowers more numerous.

I have questioned in past years whether the Golden Chain tree is worthwhile to grow. I have little doubt that the tree prefers cooler, damper conditions, and when young there were times when it looked quite pitiful in the heat of a Virginia summer. Two weeping golden chain trees (Laburnum x watereri ‘Pendulum, above) are planted in partial shade along side one of the garden’s ponds, and last year both took a definite turn for the better. They have grown a bit, though not vigorously, and they have flowered reasonably well despite the shade. I won’t go so far as to claim that they’re among my favorites, but no longer am I ready to chop them out.

The flowers persist for only a week, then fade quickly. The foliage is a pleasant enough green, but I can only recommend the weeping golden chain as a novelty for area gardens. For what it’s worth I have two, and I’ve not seen one in another garden.

Don’t mistake the golden chain for the golden rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata, above), though the common names are too similar, and invite confusion. There is also a golden rain tree in the garden, and it is vigorous and ready to flower in a few weeks. Its flowers are longer lasting, though not as brightly colored, but the flowers are followed by large seedpods like Chinese lanterns. Every one of the large, round, black seeds inside the papery sacks germinates so that I spend many hours each year pulling and hoeing seedlings. If I could convince my wife to pull golden rain seedlings rather than prune nandinas, I’d be a happy man.

It’s not New Orleans

My wife was in New Orleans over the weekend to visit an old friend. I was invited, but of course she and her buddy were just being polite, and didn’t really want me intruding on their time to visit.

New Orleans isn’t my kind of town, but it has some great gardens in public spaces and I sent along my pocket camera in case my wife was motivated to take a few photos for me. She tried, but couldn’t figure how to change from video to still photos, so we’re stuck for today looking at photos from my less than exotic Virginia garden. Louisiana is nearly at  the end of its spring, almost into summer, but in Virginia it’s only slightly past spring’s peak. After an early start with warm winter and early spring temperatures, the garden has slipped back into a somewhat normal timeline, and plants are flowering just about when they’re expected to.

Earlier this spring I planted a few handfuls of marsh (Dactylorhiza fuchsii, above) and ground orchids (Bletilla striata, below), and both are flowering. A visitor to the garden in late May would figure that there’s not one bit of space open to jam another plant into, but the orchids are low growing and quite small (though it is hoped they will spread), so they fit almost anywhere with a bit of sun.

I was very pleased at the start of the weekend when I saw the emerging bloom of the spotted marsh orchid, but when I returned the following morning the flower’s stem had been severed cleanly and the blooms were laying on the ground. Rascally rabbits! The ground orchids began to flower a few days later, and these will bloom for weeks, and perhaps months if all goes well. The flowers of the cold hardy orchids are quite small, so the gardener will be disappointed if he is expecting flowers as large as the ones that brighten the kitchen counter through the winter. I am not displeased, though I’d be happier if the rabbits would stay away.

The sturdy and trouble free blue stars (Amsonia hubrichtii, above, and Amsonia x ‘Blue Ice’, below) are passing slightly past peak bloom now. Though the hybrid ‘Blue Ice’ flowers considerably longer, the foliage  of the midwest native turns to a softly glowing yellow in the autumn. I grow both, but prefer the native variety, which makes an excellent foliage filler, and works especially well in dry, neglected soils.

Equally tough as blue star is False Indigo (Baptisia australis, below). Baptisia flowers fade quickly once peak bloom has arrived, but the flowers are colorful for several weeks up till the peak. The foliage of false indigo is a pleasant blue-green, and even in miserably poor, dry soil it remains lush and vigorous through the heat of summer. I’ve read that the roots of baptisia do not like to be disturbed, so they should planted where they will stay.

The native spiderwort and the yellow leafed selection ‘Sweet Kate’ (below) are quite vigorous in both damp and dry soils, and though spiderworts prefer sun I have a long established plant that grows in deep shade tucked under an old nandina bush that is shaded by a tree lilac. I am cautious to spray the spiderworts regularly with deer repellent in early spring or the new foliage will quickly be eaten to the ground. It seems deer favor the spiderworts even more than hostas and daylilies, so they should be planted only where deer are not a problem, or by a gardener who will keep up with spraying a repellent. After flowering the foliage of spiderworts quickly becomes spotted and ragged, and they look much better if they’re cut to the ground and allowed to grow back. In this manner they will rebloom again later in the summer.

I am usually too lazy or occupied with other duties to take much care to deadhead or cut plants back to encourage additional blooming, but the spiderworts are greatly improved by following up on this. A few times I’ve let the deer do the pruning for me, but it’s not really a great idea to encourage them.

Yellow flag

In May frogs bellow at each other beneath the yellow blooms and eighteen inch tall foliage of Yellow Flag iris (Iris pseudoacorus, below). Hungry koi and goldfish lazily swim through the shallow water searching for a meal, and many thousands of tadpoles feed on bits of algae that cling to stones at the pond’s edge. 

I planted yellow flag long before there was much talk about invasive plants, and though it is frequently listed as invasive, in a garden pond there is little danger that it will escape into the wild so long as the gardener does not dispose of excess plants in an irresponsible manner. Yellow flag spreads by rhizomes and by water borne seed, and it’s very unlikely that seed will hop out of the pond and through the garden into the nearest waterway.

I’ve planted yellow flag, Louisiana (below), and Japanese irises at the margins of several of the garden’s five ponds, but not in the dirt bottom, wet weather pond at the rear of the property. This pond stays full through the spring, but is intermittently full and dry through the summer as it fills from rainwater draining from two neighboring properties. Since this pond is prone to overflow it would be very likely that yellow flag would escape. I’ve planted mint and variegated cattails to filter the water before it enters the pond, which then slowly percolates into the neighboring wetland. The wetland area is full of brambles and cattails, but no yellow flag, and I’m determined to keep it that way.

The largest colony of yellow flag I’ve planted is in the filtration area of the fifteen hundred square foot swimming pond that I constructed (below). Eight or ten plants have slowly spread through the gravel to cover two-thirds of the two hundred square foot filter, and I’ve not had to remove any overaggressive growth. Shallow areas in other parts of the pond have been invaded by plants that have grown from seed that is circulated by the pond’s pump, and earlier in the spring I had to remove a thick clump that was blocking half of the pond’s waterfall. In a few other spots yellow flag grows along side Japanese iris, sweetflag (Acorus calamus), variegated cattail, and rushes, but this is easily controlled and there seems no danger that it will take over.

Yellow flag was an appropriate choice for the filtration area because it was intended to spread to assist in filtering water that flows up through the deep gravel filter. The roots of the iris take in excess nutrients in the pond’s water that would feed algae growth, and most other pond plants would not accomplish the job so efficiently.

Yellow flag is now passing out of bloom, and in another week the first of the multi colored Japanese irises (Iris ensata, above) will begin to flower. The Japanese iris are beautiful, and they spread into nice clumps, but they are not as useful in filtering the pond’s water as yellow flag.

Japanese maples on a budget

Several of the garden’s Japanese maples started as runts or rejects. When the gardener is continually unable to resist adding more plants it’s important to get a bargain here and there, particularly when the wife screeches whenever a new plant is brought home. It helps to soothe her (though only slightly) when the plant has been salvaged from a dumpster, or pulled from the discount section for next to nothing.

The Butterfly Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Butterfly’, above) was beaten and battered when I found it. It appeared that it had fallen off a truck, and then run over a time or two. There were few leaves, and branches had been mutilated so that it was a pitiful sight. I don’t recall if I paid a penny for this reclamation project, but it wasn’t worth much. ‘Butterfly’ is a slowpoke in the best circumstances, but it took several years for it to grow to look just okay, and five years before it regained its full vigor. Now, it’s happy, and so am I, though there are branches only on the perimeter and none in the center. But, no one will notice, and I won’t tell if you don’t.

‘Butterfly’ has green and creamy white variegated foliage, and I don’t think it will ever grow taller than ten feet, so it’s a good Japanese maple for smaller gardens. With a damaged central trunk it has spread wider than its usual form, but the only problem is that I’ve planted it a bit too close to a stone path so I have to duck under the branches when they’re wet from rain. ‘Butterfly’ occasionally sends out branches of solid green foliage that are  distinctly different in color and shape, and these should be pruned out a few times a year so these branches do not overwhelm the slower growing variegated parts of the tree.

The variegation of ‘Butterfly’ is quite different from the Floating Cloud maple (Acer palmatum ‘Ukigumo’, above) that I planted earlier in the spring, though both are green and white. ‘Butterfly’ is a creamier white with prominent portions of green, while the Floating Cloud maple is whiter, with much less green, and sometimes a bit of pink that fades as the leaves mature into summer.

‘Oridono Nishiki’ (Acer palmatum ‘Oridono Nishiki’, or sometimes ‘Orido Nishiki’, above) has foliage with irregular combinations of green and white, and also pink on newly emerging leaves, but older leaves often fade to green. In my garden this vigorous Japanese maple has battled a grove of bamboo that at one time engulfed the entire tree when it was smaller. Somehow it has persevered, and now it towers over and shades the bamboo.

A ‘Crimson Queen’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Crimson Queen’, below) was planted by the front walk when the garden was first constructed twenty some years ago, and in my haste to get the garden started the maple was planted so that it would eventually grow to partially block the walk. So, I decided to move it, but it was too big for one person to handle. I was three quarters of the way into the transplant when I realized my dilemma, but instead of recruiting one of my sons to help I hooked a strap to the rootball that was halfway dug out, tied the strap to the bumper of my little car, and jerked it out of the hole.

Clumps of dirt and root were left dragging behind as it was pulled to the new hole, and needless to say this is not the proper way to transplant a tree of any sort, much less a treasured Japanese maple. But, after replanting it I paid a bit of extra attention to watering for the next month, and it survived with barely a hiccup. I’ve found that most people consider Japanese maples to be fragile and slow growing, when I believe that the opposite is true.

Now, the ‘Crimson Queen’ has grown nearly eight feet tall and ten feet across, and it grows slightly into the driveway so that I warn delivery drivers not to enter. The Japanese maple isn’t the only plant that grows into the driveway, but it’s the most valued. I laugh when friends and family pull into the drive, and then have to back out through this obstacle course. The driveway is short and straight, but the overhanging plants demand veering one way then the other. Nothing has been damaged so far, but it’s inevitable, and I hope when it happens that it’s the fernspray cypress, or nandinas, or roses,  and not the maple.

There are now twenty-three Japanese maple cultivars in the garden (I think), and if I can figure something of interest to say about them I’ll be back with more photos. I’ve planted many dozens of trees in the garden, and more shrubs and perennials than I can count, but my favorite plants are the Japanese maples. There are many varieties to choose from, and I hope that I might spark some interest for someone out there to consider something a little different.

Mystery hosta

An abundance of hosta seedlings annually pop up in the garden, and while many must be removed because they grow immediately at the edge of a path, others are left in place and encouraged. In two years the clumps grow fat and full, and the leaves large so that my faulty memory presumes they’ve been there all along and I must have paid a dear price for them.

The leaves for most of these are similar; large, slightly blue-green, and heavily corrugated, much like the old favorite Siebold elegans. I’ve bought several similar hostas, though I can’t recall now which ones I bought and which ones are volunteers. And it hardly matters.

Occasionally, one of the variegated hostas reverts to the same blue-green or plain green, though the vigorous invader that crowds out the old clump could be just another seedling. I’m certain that a more attentive gardener would chop the encroaching hosta out before it overwhelms the more prized variegated clump, but for one reason or another I let them go for a year (or two), and one day the damage is done and the all that remains is the large leafed blue-green hosta.

One seedling hosta grows on a small island between two small waterfalls in the middle of one of the garden ponds. At one time only a few stones and river gravel covered the rubber pond liner, then moss began to grow, and then the hosta appeared. At first, I couldn’t imagine that the hosta would survive with so little soil, but its roots have snaked under and around the small rocks and into the shallows of the pond, and the clump is multiplying and obviously enjoying this spot. Now, one waterfall is completely obscured, but I’ve grown fond of this seedling, and it will stay as long as it pleases.

Not all seedlings are blue or green, or even attractive. One odd looking seedling with narrow, ribbed, almost yellow foliage popped up five or six years ago between a clump of daisies and Japanese Forest grass. There is nothing noteworthy about this almost ugly hosta, except that it is almost ugly in a way that no other hosta in the garden is. So, I’ve carefully kept a space carved out for it. Certainly not one of my proudest moments, but I noticed a few days ago that it looks better this spring, much better, to the point it could almost be possible to believe it came from the garden center. But not quite.

At one time there were more than a hundred varieties of hosta in the garden, but I ignored the damage that deer were inflicting for a few too many years, and a dozen or more disappeared. Now, I spray a deer repellent at the start of each month May through October. Several hostas that had declined considerably have returned to good health, and the deer don’t bother  them at all (unless I skip over a plant when I’m spraying). Occasionally, there is some damage to hostas from slugs, and hail in summer thunderstorms can inflict damage on hostas without tree cover, but these injuries are usually minor.

This spring I’ve planted a handful of new hostas, divided a few of the oldest clumps, and transplanted a few of the more robust seedlings to more permanent homes. I’ve always felt that it’s not possible to have too many hostas. Differing foliage sizes and colors blend readily, and so long as one doesn’t shade the other they will live in harmony for many years. Generally, I favor large leafed types, which I’m supposing is very typical of a man’s garden,  but there are a sprinkling of cute, small leafed hostas, some that have have spread to cover a good bit of ground.

Most of the hostas are planted in medium to heavy shade, though a few have most of a full day’s sun. A few hostas struggle along in root infested dry shade, but even here they perform better than other shade tolerant plants. In slightly damp  or deeper soils the hostas thrive, and the clumps become fat and the leaves large. Though they require almost no care at all, if the gardener makes any effort to keep out deer and invading seedlings the hosta is likely to survive at least as long as the gardener.


Two clematis wind their way through the nandina (Nandina dometica) so that in May the tall heavenly bamboo is shrouded in white from ‘Henryi’ and later by the purple ‘Jackmanii’. When the flowers fade the only evidence of the two vines is the clematis’ sparse foliage, and the nandina suffers no injury at all.

I’ve tried to plant clematis for similar effect through the branches of viburnums and the multi trunked Seven Son Tree, and each time the vine languishes without enough moisture, or sun, or cool roots, or whatever it is that makes clematis grow with vigor. At the base of the eight foot tall nandina the roots are shaded, yet the foliage is fully in the afternoon sun. I favor the large, pure white ‘Henryi’ to the purple (‘Jackmanii’, below), but also instead of all other fashions of clematis, though all are splendid.

On the far side of the deck Clematis montana rubens (below) is planted so that it climbs the lattice and railing. It is much too vigorous to plant through a shrub, and a second plant nearby has jumped from its support to climb into a Japanese maple, where it is a constant bother.

In this spot by the deck I planted Chocolate vine (Akebia quinata) years ago, and within a few years I was desperate to chop it out so the deck and neighboring plants weren’t overwhelmed. Rubens clematis is only slightly less aggressive, but for most of the year I’m able to manage. It flowers for several weeks at the end of April into May, and if the gardener has been discouraged by Chocolate vines or wisteria, Rubens is likely to be a happier choice to cover a trellis or lattice.

Most clematis lack the vigor to quickly cover a trellis, but to wind through a shrub they are ideal. The sweet autumn clematis (Clematis paniculata, above)  is even more vigorous than montana rubens, and care should be taken in planting so that it can be regularly pruned. I’ve allowed one planted by my driveway to escape the wrought iron fence that it was supposed to cover, and now it has wandered far up into a thread branch cypress.

The matter could be settled with relative ease by lopping the clematis off at the point it strays from the fence, and I’ve pledged to take care of this minor task for three or four years. By early autumn my failing is rewarded with a thick blanket of fragrant white blooms covering the top branches of the cypress, and the cypress doesn’t seem to mind, so the clematis will remain a while longer.