Paris is lost! and other mishaps

On occasion a small plant will be ripped from the ground, usually (I suspect) by hungry deer. A few years ago I found a newly planted rhubarb several paces from where it had been planted with leaves and stems chewed down to the roots. The following year another newly planted rhubarb was uprooted, never to be found, so it’s clear the only way to replant it is with a protective fence or guard dog. I don’t think I’ll be planting rhubarb again.

In most years I’ll plant a few oddities that are available only through specialty mail order growers, and often there will be substantial evidence afterwards to show why the plant is not commonly available. Mostly the plants prove to be weak growers or ill suited to extremes in climate, but an occasional success makes the effort worthwhile.

I planted the Chinese woodland perennial Paris (Paris polyphylla, above) a few years ago in a well protected spot with just enough shade (I thought). I questioned if there would be adequate space for it when it grew to its full size, but I’ve been known on occasion to let these things work out on their own. In any case, during last year’s long, hot summer (aren’t they all) Paris disappeared in mid drought, which was not too surprising since it was not thriving even through the damp spring.

I gave up on it, but was only slightly surprised when Paris reappeared this spring. I suppose the roots had become established enough that it had sufficient vigor when the top of the plant went dormant in the heat, but as a backup I purchased and planted a handful of bulbs from another vendor. These were planted in a much sunnier location (though not full, full sun), but one that was questionably too damp should Paris prove to be intolerant of moist soil.

The original Paris continued to lack vigor through this spring, but it was alive, and the newly planted bulbs showed no sign of life. Then, a few weeks ago the tiny Paris was gone, neatly excavated by an unknown creature. This work was not done by deer (since the spot is not easily accessible), but possibly by mischievous chipmunks (that are often seen in the area), or rascally rabbits (that are increasingly abundant in the area). Why they chose the tiny Paris is a mystery, particularly since the five tardy bulbs have now sprouted.

To bring this adventure nearly to a close, I had no idea what the five late sprouting plants were, though it was clear they were something that I planted. Some years I plant so much stuff, and stuff that I’m not familiar with, that I have no clue what’s planted where. The tiny Paris had never grown enough to see much of it, so it didn’t register, though the plants looked somewhat similar to other plants in the garden that have since proven to be completely unrelated.

Through some unfathomable process, pertinent facts were added and subtracted (Googled) until it was revealed that the plants in question were almost undoubtedly Paris, though there remains some doubt since the foliage of two is distinctly different from the others. There are, of course different types of Paris, and I am supposing that the bulbs were mixed by the supplier (which, if true, makes for another overly long story). While the identification is not fully established, I figure that the next step for the nearly twenty inch tall umbrellas of foliage is for them to flower. Though the blooms of Paris are wispy and hardly showstoppers, the odd flowers are the reason for my purchase, so if my identification is confirmed the chipmunks will be forgiven.


Home sweet home

I’m overjoyed to be home again. I’ve just returned from two weeks on the road visiting nurseries, a three thousand mile trek looking at plants that sounds like bunches of fun, but after thirty some years on the road the thrill is gone, long gone. Seeing old friends and discovering new plants is never tiresome, but the miles between are wearisome.

The morning after returning home I wandered around the garden, and was amazed that weeds had jumped up everywhere. I’d cleaned up the day before I left, so the garden was about as weed free as it ever gets, but with plenty of sun and a few heavy thunderstorms the weeds have grown tall and thick. I spent several hours of the weekend getting things back into some semblance of order, but as usual I was sidetracked to appreciate the many flowers.

There are several clumps of Pineapple lilies (Eucomis comosa ‘Sparkling Burgundy’, above, and the similar ‘Oakhurst’) in the garden. The original clump has been divided several times, and it remains the fattest and fullest. Unfortunately, it flowered while I was traveling, but the more recently planted ones are a bit later and now in nearly peak bloom. Pineapple lilies were labelled as marginally cold hardy for northwestern Virginia until recent years, and some wonderful varieties are still too soft, but the dark leafed ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ has done just fine in my garden with temperatures down to zero a few years ago.

Pineapple lilies are not aggressive growers, so I must resist over planting near them or they’ll quickly disappear. The original clump is planted beside a variegated blue mist shrub (Caryopteris divaricata ‘Snow Fairy’, above) that must be cut back each spring and once in early summer so that it doesn’t overwhelm the pineapple lily. The splendid contrast of the burgundy leaves of ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ and the green and white caryopteris is reason enough not to move one or the other to give a bit more space.

Over the past few years the Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha, below) has suffered considerable damage from winter snow and summer storms. The branching habit of the tree encourages top heavy growth that weighs on the soft wood, and several large branches have been fractured so that they required removal. So, now the tree is a bit skimpy, but at least I can walk down the stone path beneath the Franklinia without having to stoop low like I did for several years.

There are more blooms on the Franklin tree this year (though I’ve recently pledged not to make such absolute pronouncements). I don’t know if this is due to the warm winter, or that there is more stored energy in the tree with fewer branches, but in any case, I’m enjoying the abundant blooms. The path under the tree is covered with white flowers, and there’s a constant buzz of bees and butterflies (and Japanese beetles which seem to prefer the flowers to almost anything else in the garden). In most years there will be flowers into late September or early October, and occasionally a few flowers will hang on long enough to accompany the leaves turning to red in early autumn. This year the flowers have arrived early, and I suspect that there will be no blooms by September.

Franklinia is rarely found in nurseries, and on the occasion it’s found it’s likely to be only a few feet tall in a container. I planted a fine, eight foot tree ten or more years ago, and I’ve witnessed that this is not a tree for everyone. It does not grow with the full, symmetrical canopy that is the preference of most tree buyers, and I can attest that it is difficult to transplant. Of twenty trees originally purchased by the garden center, only a few were transplanted successfully. Besides these difficulties, damage from snow, wind, and the minor nuisance of Japanese beetles, the Franklinia has been completely trouble free.

I’ve been so pleased with the Franklin tree that I’m considering planting a Gordlinia (x Gordlinia grandiflora) that I spotted on my travels. It’s a shrubby hybrid of Franklinia and the equally uncommon Gordonia, and quite similar except that the blooms are larger and supposedly more abundant. There is a small matter of where it will fit, but I’ve not let that bother me much in the past.

I contemplated planting a Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus, above) for a number of years, but could never figure a space large enough until a few years ago when I cleared something else (I forget what). Of course, it is a large shrub and not a tree, though I’ve seen it grown as a wide spreading multi trunk tree with lower foliage removed. The light green, palmate foliage is somewhat interesting, but the erect panicles of lavender blooms are most attractive. Chaste tree is undemanding and quite trouble free, though the gardener should provide a substantial space for it to grow fifteen feet wide and tall. I’m not sure I’ve given it quite this much room, but it will work for a while, and until it begins to cause problems I’ll enjoy its summer blooms.

Yes, there are butterflies

I’ve recently commented on the lack of butterflies in the garden this summer. But, like many of my most astute observations, as soon as I pronounce my conclusions I’m quickly proven incorrect. This bothers me only slightly. Gardeners are accustomed to being wrong, though it’s helpful that natural forces beyond my control are most often to blame.

In any case, I’m elated that butterflies have returned, though it could be that they were here all along and I didn’t notice, or I was roaming the garden at the wrong time. Even today there were times when there were no butterflies at all on the butterfly bushes (Buddleia ‘Blue Chip’, above) as they floated over to the nearby Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium or Eupatorium purpureum ‘Little Joe’, below), and then to the lantanas. Back and forth they went, often to avoid me, but always to another nectar laden bloom.

I have no clue in identifying one butterfly from another (though I did some research to identify the ones in these photos), but I’ve discovered that what looks like a bee often isn’t. I’m pretty certain about bumblebees, but I’ve read just enough to know that some of the bees I see in the garden are really wasps, and also some flies (hoverflies) are practically indistinguishable from bees. To make matters more difficult there is a moth that flies like a hummingbird and looks like a bumblebee (Hummingbird moth on ‘Miss Ruby’ butterfly bush, below), though I’ve seen these enough to recognize their elongated bodies and distinct flight.

So, this is all very confusing, except that I’m just bright enough to steer clear of the Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) that is buzzing with all of the above, with dozens and probably hundreds of fierce looking, potentially stinging insects within a six by eight foot area of mint. No, I must retract that. I was determined to get a photo of the nasty looking black wasp (below), and it kept wandering to the wrong side of the blooms so I couldn’t get a clear photo of it. So, I lingered too long and too close, and that I wasn’t stung multiple times can only be attributed to dumb luck and clean living.

So, today there were numerous butterflies flitting about the garden, and abundant bees and assorted bee-like creatures buzzing about. There seemed to be more dragonflies than usual, but for a while I’ll be more cautious pronouncing the mores and lesses.

Groundhogs and snakes, oh my!

There’s a new groundhog in the neighborhood. Well, not just in the neighborhood, but under my garden shed. Another groundhog lived under the shed until last year, then he mysteriously disappeared after the snowy winter. Perhaps he had grown too fat and lazy, living in the relative luxury of this garden with ample water, food, and cover, but I suppose when my neighbor gave up on his garden the groundhog might have departed for another patch of vegetables.

This fellow constructed a well hidden second tunnel under the plume poppies (below) only a few feet from the vegetable garden, and for a few years there wasn’t much to harvest due to this furry little guy. I didn’t notice the groundhog’s holes until I cut the poppies to the ground the following spring, and at the time I didn’t see any reason to disturb them.

In the spring following the groundhog’s departure (but before we knew he was gone) my neighbor constructed a relative fortress to protect the garden, so I suspect the new groundhog has moved in not figuring on feasting on the neighbor’s tomatoes and peppers. I filled the hole dug beneath the shed by the earlier groundhog with rocks and debris, and it appears that the new one has dug a home on the other side of the shed.

I saw the new (and considerably slimmer) guy when I was dumping some branches into the compost pile behind the shed, and saw that the window needed repair. While fiddling with the window I looked down, and there he was.  After a moment he realized I was standing there and he fled back into his hole in terror. It seems that groundhogs have no sense of smell or human movement to protect them, as I’ve unknowingly wandered upon them several times so close that I could have accidently stepped on them. My sense of smell isn’t so great either, and I was more than a little startled.

I’m certain that this digging of holes under the shed can be of no good, but I don’t plan to do anything to be rid of the fellow, at least for now. I didn’t see any damage to the garden from the old groundhog, though I’m certain that my neighbor would disagree. Now that the vegetable garden is impenetrable the new guy will have to eat something, whatever it is that groundhogs eat, but if there’s no damage we’ll coexist peacefully.

I’ve planted very few plants intending to attract wildlife, but in a garden chock full of trees and shrubs there will be critters. Where there are flowers, there will be butterflies and bees, and then birds, so that in an acre and a quarter that is densely planted with plenty of water there will be an abundance of beasts, large and small.

The ponds, in particular, seem to attract a large share of wildlife, most attracted by the plentiful drinking water, but some more interested in the rapidly increasing population of koi and goldfish. A few weeks ago I went down to the swimming pond (above) to feed the fish and noticed a small koi on its side at the pond’s edge. The other fish were not flocking as usual to the edge to greet me in anticipation of of being fed, and it wasn’t until I started to scoop the dead fish out that I noticed his mouth was covered by something. Oh, a snake! Duly startled, the snake swam off with the small fish clutched in its jaws. I jumped, but I’m quite certain I didn’t scream.

Of course, this isn’t the first snake that I’ve seen in the swimming pond. Several times I’ve seen them as I’ve been floating in the pond, and usually they go the other way when I come close. I’m quite certain that there are no poisonous water snakes in northwestern Virginia, and the small snakes I’ve seen in the water  are not aggressive at all, so I’m not too worried to be in the pond with them.

For the most part the wildlife does its thing with little interference on my part. After a few years of letting deer munch away on the hostas, my wife decided enough was quite enough, and since I’ve kept the vulnerable plants sprayed with a repellent so that the deer visit regularly, but don’t stop to eat.

My wife and I have seen foxes (which seem to have vanished as more civilization has encroached), and of course there are bunches of squirrels. There are tiny burrows under boulders at the ponds’ edges, and occasionally I see chipmunks scurrying around, though they seem very aware of the hawks that are perpetually circling overhead. A pest control guy attempting to keep the squirrels out of the attic (unsuccessfully) trapped a possum and skunk on successive nights, and a year or two ago a neighbor reported a bear sighting, though no one else seemed to believe it. It wouldn’t surprise me if the bear was living in our garden. Every other type of creature seems to call it home.

Almost back

Over two winters the three Southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora, below in bloom) in the garden were beaten and battered by snow. The main trunk of ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ was broken once in the heavy snow of 2010, and more damage was inflicted in the wet snow a year later. While the trunk of ‘Greenback’ was spared, many of its upright growing branches were shattered. ‘Alta’ was damaged only slightly in the heaviest snow, but it lost a few small branches to the wet snow, and this year a lower branch was snapped, I presume due to deer rubbing against it.

These have been difficult years for the magnolias, but each spring the trees have bounced back to cover their injuries with new growth. The ‘Brackens’ magnolia is hardly half as tall as it was a few years ago, but now it’s twice as wide. Rather than having a broad pyramidal form, it’s now short and squat, a huge evergreen shrub. The other magnolias barely show signs of the damage.

I briefly considered chopping out the two worst of the magnolias when I was cleaning up other storm damage, but they are in relatively inconspicuous spots (to me) along the neighbor’s property line, so I left them. I know that many gardeners consider the evergreen magnolias to be messy and a nuisance, but my garden is perpetually messy enough that the leathery fallen leaves aren’t a bother, so I’m happy that I reconsidered cutting them out.

There’s been mixed success with other snow damaged evergreens. Nandinas that were laid flat quickly perked up, though a few stray branches arched a bit more. A few of these partially obstructed stone paths in the garden, so my wife has pruned them to the ground. Boxwoods and hollies sprang back into shape soon after the snow melted, and the holes left by broken branches quickly filled back in.

Bent branches of upright growing arborvitae and junipers were bound with nylon straps, and after a few years some have regained their form and a few haven’t. One ‘Gold Cone’ juniper (Juniperus communis ‘Gold Cone’, above) regained its shape, but a second was more severely damaged, was chopped in half  in a desperate attempt at salvage, and now will be cut out since it failed to shape up. ‘Gold Cone’ barely shows any gold color at all in the heat and humidity of Virginia, so it will hardly be missed.

To look around the garden only the most critical eye would be aware of the damage, and I’ve discovered that I can look over, around, or through a less than desirable specimen for however long it takes for it to be presentable again. If this was a more public garden with more frequent visitors I might be more concerned, but probably not.  Plants will repair themselves to a surprising extent if some patience (or laziness) is exercised.

The more recent wind storm wreaked havoc on two deciduous magnolias that suffered multiple broken branches and a Seven Son Tree that was snapped off at the base. The Seven Son tree is gone, cut up into pieces, but the magnolias will require some repair. The Dr. Merrill magnolia has lost the top fifteen feet of one of two trunks, and the Bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla, above) has a number of smaller branches that have broken. Some remain suspended far up into the tree, where they will stay until the wind blows them down some day. Watch out below!

Dr. Merrill will require some surgical repair, but the damage to the Bigleaf magnolia is too far up in the tree to reach, so it will have to heal on its own. Oh well, both trees are surrounded by other trees, and I suspect that in another year I’ll barely notice.

Enthusiastic, not invasive

The past few weeks have been hot, real hot! In only a few weeks lawn grasses turned from lush green to straw colored, and the deep greens of the garden faded a few shades. Some plants pay no attention, and even thrive in the heat.

Plume poppy (Macleaya cordata, above) grows exuberantly to fill whatever space it’s allowed to spread into, but it’s controlled fairly easily once it has grown past its boundaries. This is not gentle or well mannered, but an enthusiastic perennial with arching stems of large, coarse, blue-green foliage and short lived clusters of dainty white blooms in early summer.

In the garden it is hemmed in by tall gold cryptomerias and a large spreading Limelight hydrangea, and unlike barely controllable running bamboos it doesn’t cross these barriers. For the front of the garden plume poppy is too coarse, but it is marvelous in the back, or when used to fill spaces.

I planted the native Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginium, above) without knowing much about it, and for a few years I was pleased with its slowly spreading habit and summer blooms that attract scores of bees, butterflies, and moths. This spring it has spread a bit faster, and a bit further than I want, so I’ve had to pluck some stems before it becomes troublesome. Until recent severe storms the stems stood erect, but now they are splayed in every direction. They will perk up some, but the bees don’t seem to mind.

As the clump of mountain mint has spread so has its fragrance, so that the back portion of the garden is pleasingly minty on a still, warm day. As my wife has become more active in roaming about the garden (looking for trouble) she is concerned that the mint will overwhelm its neighbors, but I’m comfortable it will easily be kept in bounds. Mountain mint is likely not to be a good choice for the mixed perennial border, where it could be a little too aggressive, but as a filler, and in poor soils this is a wonderful choice.  

The tall, native Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium, or Eupatorium purpureum) grows in the damp meadow just behind the garden, successfully competing with brambles and cattails. In the garden I’ve planted the shorter and more compact ‘Little Joe’ (above) that is tall enough to make a presence at the rear of the garden, but stout enough to withstand summer storms without leaning. Joe Pye’s foliage is dark green, thick, and leathery, and the dusky lavender blooms persist for months.    

Gladiolus ‘Boone’ (Gladiolus x gandavensis ‘Boone’, above) is dependably tough, and in damp and dry soils in my garden it seeds itself about, though it’s never troublesome. If it’s not popping up beside a taller neighbor ‘Boone’ will probably need some support, though I usually leave it to fend for itself. The peach colored blooms are splendid, and ‘Boone’ is enthusiastic without ever making a nuisance of itself.


There are few woody plants that prefer constantly damp soils, and fewer that thrive in standing water. A year ago I was marginally aware of the native buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), but took more notice with a swarm of bees and butterflies buzzing about a small patch of glossy leafed shrubs with odd, pin cushion-like blooms in a swampy spot along a trail that my wife and I regularly hike.

A boardwalk kept us above the muck and shallow, murky water, and it occurred to me as I watched the excited butterflies that this unusual shrub would be perfectly suited to the similarly wet conditions at the back corner of my rear garden.

I purchased three tall shrubs in late summer and immediately planted them in soil that is damp except for the few driest weeks of the year. The spot was partially shaded, but I was slightly uncomfortable that it might be too hot and dry to get them off to a successful start. But, wthin a week heavy rains arrived, followed by the remnants of a hurricane, and then a tropical storm. There was water everywhere, standing water and muck. I could barely walk through the back half of the garden for a month, so I had little fear that the buttonbushes would be happy.

In the spring they leafed, beautiful glossy green leaves, and then in June there were small round buds. By late in the month the buds grew to the distinctive pollen tipped pin cushion blooms. There’s been a notable lacking of butterflies in the garden this year, but there have been plenty of bumblebees and moths.

The buttonbush is a wonderful addition to the garden. The blooms are a bit unusual, but the shrub is not rare, or remarkable except that it is an attractive native that especially well suited to this damp situation.