Bulbs for spring and autumn

When I first started the garden twenty some years ago I planted a few thousand bulbs in early autumn, mostly tulips, but also lots of daffodils and some spring flowering crocus. Occasionally I’d walk the area where the tulips were planted to find scattered divots where squirrels had pilfered the bulbs, but the first spring most everything bloomed, and what a magnificent sight it was.

In previous gardens I didn’t have nearly the space as this new garden, so I had planted only handfuls of bulbs, and never any tulips that I recall. So, I was young and dumb and wasn’t aware that it’s not advisable to leave tulips in the ground from year to year. The bulbs are continuously harvested by hungry squirrels, and ones that aren’t dug up will often rot in the poorly drained clay soil. The second spring there were many fewer blooms, with mostly tulips and some of the crocus disappearing, though daffodils gained in number. By the third year there were only a few tulips remaining, and all of the crocus were gone. Daffodils were again more abundant, and more than twenty years later most are still going strong.

With disappointing results I’ve given up on tulips, but from time to time I’ve planted a few more crocus, but also snowdrops, fritillarias, and other assorted bulbs. Most have grown splendidly, though squirrels usually track down and make off with a portion of the crocus bulbs.

Several years ago I planted several varieties of what is commonly called autumn crocus, which of course is not a crocus but Colchicum autumnale. ‘Waterlily’ (above) bloomed for two years and was never seen again, but others have returned each year in ever expanding clumps. The blooms are not long lived, but for a few weeks in September none are more splendid. I’ll probably replant ‘Waterlily’ one of these days since it is quite an extraordinary bloom. Though I don’t exactly recall where I planted it, ‘Waterlily’ is not there any longer, so I must presume that the spot was too wet, and I’ll be more aware to give it a drier location the next time.

There are true crocuses that flower in late summer and early autumn, and these should not be confused with Colchicum, so it is better to refer to these September blooming bulbs as autumn saffron. Colchicum flowers are larger than spring or autumn flowering crocuses and the blooms stand more upright so that they’re more readily seen. While crocus bulbs are a favorite of rabbits and squirrels, autumn saffron bulbs are poisonous and pest resistant.

No matter the amount of space available in the garden there is always room enough to plug in a dozen of this bulb, or even fifty or a hundred of another. I’ve paid particular attention in recent years to planting winter flowering bulbs, but mid and late summer flowers are appreciated nearly as much when there are fewer blooms in the garden.

Now, of course, is the time to plant spring flowering bulbs, and is too late for the autumn varieties. But, notes should be made for ordering these in the spring. I usually order too few of any variety, with plans that it will spread, but the results are often disappointing for several years. The better plan is to order a few more than you would figure are needed, and if the budget for bulbs is tight, purchase other types the following year and so on until you have gotten it right.

No mulch, lots of plants

A friend of my wife recently remarked that our large garden must require truckloads of mulch each year. I don’t know how my wife responded, but she should have told her that no mulch is added annually, and most parts of the garden haven’t been remulched since they were first planted (twenty some years ago). I have nothing against mulch, and some of the garden is top dressed with shredded leaves each autumn, but I’m cheap. I’d rather buy plants instead of mulch. I figure that plants look a whole lot better than open areas of mulch, and a covering of plants is just as effective as a heavy blanket of mulch in discouraging weeds.

There is a real benefit to mulch. It conserves soil moisture, keeps soil temperatures more even, and to some extent it keeps weeds down, but I’m willing to sacrifice these advantages to purchase a few more plants. In many parts of the garden there is bare soil, but it’s hidden beneath a cover of shrubs and wide spreading perennials.

I don’t know if my garden fits into the ideal of low maintenance, or if it’s a maintenance nightmare. I don’t give it much thought, but I know there’s always something that needs tending to, and there are a bunch of things that are never accomplished. There are times when there’s way too much to do, and times when I sit back and enjoy, even if a few weeds don’t get pulled. It’s certain that the garden’s not no maintenance, and I suspect that there are few gardens that could truly be considered low maintenance.

I’m certain there are times in the spring when most people would turn and run rather than face the tasks that are absolutely necessary to make the garden barely presentable. I don’t claim to have a greater work ethic than the next guy (or gal), but the choices are to do the work myself or pay someone to do it. No question, I’ll get it done, not that I’m having fun. I hear gardeners say that they enjoy it all. I’m sorry, but weeding and raking leaves are not my idea of fun. These tasks are time consuming and monotonous. I’d rather be doing something else, even nothing.

There are times in the spring when it’s great to be outdoors after a long, dismal winter inside. The sun’s shining, the sky’s blue and it’s pleasant enough to enjoy being outdoors doing anything, even weeding. But, after a week or two of long days it gets old, and I’m pretty sure I could never learn to love weeding and spring cleanup.

Usually, by early April (or a week or two later) the worst of the chores is over, and from then on the spring’s a joy. Through the late spring and summer, every time I’m out in the garden there’s a little something that’s done, but it’s at a leisurely pace. A few weeds are plucked out, a few fallen twigs are picked up, or a stray branch or two is pruned. This is not work. When the leaves fall the work begins again, though there’s little hurry as winter approaches.

There are five ponds in the garden, and one day a year in March I enlist some assistance in cleaning out the leaves and debris that have blown in over the winter. But after an initial spring cleanup I do nothing, or almost nothing the remainder of the year. Yes, there are a few times when I have to get after the string algae, but that’s usually minor. Occasionally there will be a blockage in one of the pumps, but most months I spend  more time feeding the koi than I do maintaining the ponds, and many months I do nothing.

I rarely bother with pests, though I devote fifteen minutes every month to spraying a deer repellent to protect the garden’s hostas and other treasures that deer would eat to the ground if given the opportunity. There are bugs in the garden, and occasionally they’ll chew enough to make plants unsightly for a while, but I don’t spray anything to prevent bugs of any sort. At least almost never. Five or six years ago I sprayed a dwarf crapemyrtle with an insecticidal soap to hold down the aphid population. I’ve been tempted to use a systemic insecticide to be rid of the lacebugs that plague the pieris, but I haven’t gotten around to it and probably won’t.

In the end, I’ve found that damage from bugs is usually fairly minor. One of the weeping golden chain trees was recently defoliated by caterpillars. I caught it before the last leaf was chewed (though most branches were naked) and flicked the caterpillars to the ground. They didn’t make their way back up into the tree, and several weeks later the tree has leafed about halfway, so there’s no long term damage. It doesn’t look great, but it’s not too bad, and it will be going dormant in another five or six weeks, so who cares?

Every once in a while there will be some tent caterpillars or fall webworms, and one of the blue spruces once had a bagworm problem. These can usually be managed by hand or by using a stick to break up the caterpillar tent. I don’t bother at all with Japanese beetles. They chew a little, and most definitely they’re a bit of a nuisance, but they do little damage.

Why not spray to prevent bugs? I’m content with a garden that is less than perfect, so a few scattered plants with damaged leaves don’t bother me. I spend nearly as much time in the garden enjoying the bees, butterflies, and birds, and I’m concerned that even an occasional spray of insecticides could be harmful. I understand that there are people who want their gardens pristine and unblemished by weeds or insects, and pesticides are appropriate for them. But, I’ll suffer a few weeds (or a bunch) and bugs, and for a few weeks I’ll work like a demon to keep up so that I can enjoy the garden for the rest of the year. I don’t know if this is low maintenance, but I really don’t care. The reward is worth the effort.


Long ago I planted several tall verbenas (Verbena bonariensis, below) in the garden, and as it is prone to do, it seeded itself about so that tall seedlings sprouted just about anywhere with a bit of sun. The plant is barely obvious until it blooms, with tall stems and few leaves, and it’s easily mistaken for a weed. Some gardeners might even define it as a weed, and of course I took for granted that it would always be around the garden, somewhere. And then the sun went away, and shade encroached as the dozens of trees I planted grew larger. I suppose I pulled a few unwanted, misplaced seedlings, and then there were none. The verbenas disappeared completely.

Last week I was only slightly surprised to see a verbena seedling interspersed with tall stems of a recently planted hummingbird mint (Agastache). The flower color and height of the stems of the agastache and verbena were similar, but the flower was distinctly different, and I recognized it immediately. I assume that seed from the verbena jumped into the hummingbird mint’s pot in the nursery where I purchased it, and I’m overjoyed to have tall verbena back.  I hope that it will reseed again with abandon. Unwanted strays are easily removed, and there are spots here and there where I’d love to see the tall, almost leafless stems arching over neighboring shrubs. I’ve been tempted more than a few times to plant it again, and of course now the verbena is back without costing me a cent. I will have to figure how the seeds will get from the front to the back garden, and perhaps I’ll end up planting one after all, but one plant goes a long way in creating bunches more. 

Tall verbena is not to be confused with the low growing but marginally cold hardy Homestead Purple (above) or other annual verbenas that flower profusely. Tall verbena is a wilder, less disciplined sort that depends on neighboring plants for support. In this garden where every plant must fend for itself, where misplaced seedlings are most often welcomed, I’m delighted to have tall verbena back.

Aggressive or invasive?

I’ve been warned. You’ve heard, I’ve heard, I’m certain there’s not a single gardener who hasn’t heard horror stories about planting mints (Mentha). They run amok, overwhelming everything in their path, particularly in damp soils. I know, I know. So, what have I done? Well, I’ve planted a few varieties of mint, and not only that, I planted them in seasonally wet areas. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and in fact, in the few years since they were planted they’ve posed no problem at all.

I planted Chocolate mint (Mentha piperita, above) in a depression that channels stormwater runoff to a wet weather pond I’ve constructed at the rear of the garden. The low area runs between a large Southern magnolia and several smaller trees and evergreens so that there’s just a hint of sunlight at midday. Sometimes it’s very dry, and at other times rainwater from neighboring properties gushes over. The runoff eroded the bare soil before the mint was planted, and a few small plants were swept away before they had a chance to root. Thus far the mint has spread moderately, and actually more slowly than I’d like, but it’s on the way to doing the job that was intended. I suppose that someday I’ll curse the day it was planted, but it can’t be any harder to control than Houttuynia cordata ‘Chameleon’ and it smells a heck of a lot better.

‘Chameleon’ has foul smelling, but interesting mottled foliage with varying degrees of red, cream, yellow, and green. Once established it spreads with vigor. Too much, the gardener soon finds as houttuynia engulfs smaller plants (and some considerably larger). The gardener must be persistent in removing growth that strays beyond its bounds or it will root and become much more difficult to control. I planted a few plants along one of the garden’s ponds that eventually covered a much larger area than intended, and then it mysteriously began to sprout in other areas. I’ve pulled and sprayed to rid these areas, but occasionally I catch a small patch of houttuynia getting started again.

I’ve left one area of ‘Chameleon’ (above) to grow at the back of the wet weather pond, not far from the mint. This is at the rear of the garden, and it’s bordered by wetlands, cattails, and brambles so that every imaginable weed seed blows in. I’m hoping that houtuynia will be aggressive enough to smother other weeds that pop up, and if it and the mint get a little too rambunctious then I’ll have to figure a way to keep them tamed, or work to be rid of them.

The bright yellow Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, below) grows energetically with a bit of shade and moist soil. With too much sun or in dry soil it bleaches and fades, but in part shade with some moisture it spreads readily though it rarely will overstep its boundaries or become a nuisance. A few times I’ve found the color to be too bright and irritating, but most often it complements the taller plants that it creeps beneath.

The yellow flowers of Creeping Jenny are barely distinguishable from the foliage, so it is grown only for it’s yellow foliage and creeping habit. The only concern that I’ve had with Creeping Jenny is that it must be pulled back occasionally in one area to keep it away from a low growing sedum. This is easily accomplished by tugging the stems every once in a while (and not frequently enough to call this a chore).

I was concerned before planting a dark purple leafed shamrock (Oxalis regnellii, above) by reports of its rampant growth, but in a few years it has barely spread, and I’ve been a bit disappointed that it hasn’t been more of a challenge to control. I’ve planted the shamrocks beneath large gold variegated agaves that are sunk into the ground in late spring and then brought indoors for the winter. I supposed that the contrast of yellow (gold) and purple would be a delight, but thus far the shamrocks have let me down by not filling to form a full carpet beneath the agaves. I’ve no doubt that there are gardeners who have their fill and more trying to keep shamrock in bounds, but whatever I’m doing is making this a much lower maintenance plant than its reputation. I crave more aggravation apparently, but perhaps in time shamrock will prove to be more troublesome.

Not so bad after all

I was considerably distressed early in the summer when my wife hacked back arching branches of the tall nandina that partially obstructed steps down from the lower deck. I was not so much concerned with the nandina as the wonderful white clematis (Clematis ‘Henryi’, below) that climbed through it. ‘Henryi’ had grown to be intertwined and inseparable from the nandina so that I was reluctant to prune it. The stems of clematis are fragile enough that there would be significant damage inflicted in attempting to untangle the vine from the nandina. Instead, I simply chose to descend from the deck on the far side and walk around, an accommodation that I deemed reasonable to spare the clematis at only a slight inconvenience.

My wife had no such hesitancy to pruning, and when she found herself with a bit too much time on her hands she chopped the nandina so that it is no longer a problem. Along with it went much of the clematis. I learned long ago that I have a much greater tolerance for hazards and obstructions in the garden, and that not everyone is so willing to stoop under or step over such impediments. Once the deed was done there was not much to be done about it except to wait for the clematis to grow out and then guide it back up into the new and improved version of the nandina.

Fortunately, ‘Henryi’ has managed the feat without my assistance, though I expect that it will take a year or two for it to climb to the top of the nandina and flower as extravagantly as before. A few stray stems of the clematis have flopped, and one now winds across  the stone steps and through the ‘Lightning Strike’ toad lily (Tricyrtis hirta ‘Lightning Strike’ below) that has grown a bit floppy itself. To the far side of ‘Lightning Strike’ is another nandina, and I’ve considered letting the vine scramble up into it also, but the unprotected stem laying across the step is problematic. Perhaps the stem can be convinced without too much of a struggle to move behind the steps, and then this might be a more permanent arrangement.

In any case, since ‘Henryi’ was effectively deadheaded, it is flowering again, and the toad lily is blooming also. This accidental combination is delightful, though this is likely to be the first and last time to see it.

What I’m planting

What did you do on your summer vacation? I didn’t take one. Haven’t since the kids have grown up and moved out. Not that I’m all work and no play, but nowadays I’d rather putter around the garden. This is about as much excitement as I can stand.

For various reasons I happened into a couple big demolition projects in the garden this summer, and the days when the work was done coincided precisely with summer’s hottest days. This part was no fun, heat or no heat. There were trees to cut down and bamboo to dig out, and I would have been much happier not to be involved with any of it. But, most of the labor is over and done, and now comes the good part. I’m planting again.

Though there were some gaping holes in the garden I delayed planting until temperatures cooled and more regular rains returned in September. I don’t have a problem with planting in mid summer, but with a bit larger project I won’t have to worry about watering to get the new plants started.

The biggest challenge has been deciding what to plant. I’m certain that gardeners everywhere go through the same dilemma. I want plants that aren’t too ordinary, but they can’t be too expensive. I want them big enough to make a show from the beginning, but there’s a bunch of space to fill so I have to watch the budget.

The first consideration was to decide on the anchor plants, and then I figured that everything else would flow from there. To replace a wide spreading Seven Son tree that was felled in a summer storm I first considered a beautiful purple ‘Catawba’ crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia indica ‘Catawba’, a little too common, I decided), then a yellowwood (Cladrastis kentuckea, a beautiful native, but too large at maturity), and finally a Korean Sweetheart tree (Euscaphis japonica) that I saw at a garden center trade show. The Sweetheart tree seemed a perfect fit for the spot, but I couldn’t figure a way to get a tree that was large enough, soon enough. I couldn’t wait until spring, even for the perfect tree, so I finally decided on a red horsechestnut (Aesculus x carnea). I bought the Sweetheart tree also, but only a tiny seedling that is years away from being large enough to consider calling it a tree. For now, it’s a little bush.

The red horsechestnut is a delightful medium sized tree with excellent foliage and beautiful flowers similar to the red buckeye (Aesculus pavia flowers, above) planted in the front garden. The eventual size of the horsechestnut isn’t much different than the yellowwood that was determined to be too large, but it’s even slower growing, so I’m not likely to live to see the day when it’s too big for the spot. The nearly ten foot tall tree I planted doesn’t quite fill the space as much as I wanted, but it will, and now that it’s planted I’m mostly happy with my choice.

For the open, slightly sunny spot in the area where the bamboo and a large Colorado spruce were removed, I chose an uncommon hybrid of Franklinia and Gordonia. I have a Franklin tree in the rear garden (it’s one of my long time favories), but the not very cold hardy Gordonia is a southern evergreen that I’m not familiar with. The foliage and flowers of the hybrid Gordlinia (x Gordlinia grandiflora) look similar to Franklinia, but from Gordonia it becomes semi-evergreen, which means that it will hold at least some leaves in most winters. This part is not so important to me, but the flowers are supposed to be larger than the Franklin tree’s (above), so I’m anxious to see them. The trees I planted are only about four feet tall, and I’m impatient, so I planted three in a clump. There are a few flower buds remaining, though the peak flowering season is July into August, so perhaps there will be a bloom or two this year.

The new plantings are in an area directly between my house and the neighbor’s, and though I don’t care to be completely screened I would like to have some evergreens so that it’s not a blank space in the winter months. So, I planted a few ‘Golden Girl’ hollies that will eventually grow tall and wide enough to make a presence, and then planted evergreen Encore azaleas (above) and also deciduous azaleas. The Encores are cold hardy varieties that I haven’t planted before, and of course they’re now in bloom. The deciduous azaleas (spring blooms, below) will grow tall and wide in the half shaded area with fragrant orange, yellow, and red blooms in mid spring.

I’ve planted a few Oakleaf hydrangeas for further height and a few summer flowering Penny Mac hydrangeas, and I’ll be filling the spaces in between with ‘Ice Dance’ carex, Northern Sea oats, yellow leafed ‘Sun King’ aralias, and native Cinammon ferns. There will be some open area that I’ll wait until later to fill, and of course I’ll plug in smaller bits and pieces for years to come. It’s shaping up, never as quickly as I’d like, but this is the only planting I’ve done in ten years that’s not just filling in small areas. I think everything will work out just fine.

Late summer – and all’s well

Despite storm related disasters that have broken and uprooted trees, the general health of the garden is good and the mental state of the gardener is as good as ever. Through much of August and into September rainfall has been more regular and heat has not been so extreme as earlier in the summer.

At the time when trees and limbs were strewn about (and days of work with the chainsaw were required) I was quite distressed. It was hot, there was much labor ahead, and until I took a few moments to relax it seemed that there were few blooms. But, there they were, and each day revealed more flowers as the limbs were cut into manageable pieces and the garden was tidied up (at least to its usual standard of disarray).

September is often a delightful month, with the relief of cooler temperatures and lower humidity, and with autumn flowering azaleas, butterfly bushes, and blue mist shrubs flowering prolifically. The sweet autumn clematis (above) is nearly at its peak bloom, and again I have not pulled the vine out of the tall threadbranch cypress as planned. The idea from the start was for the fast growing clematis to grow along the cast iron fence that borders the garden along the driveway, but that is perhaps a bit too shaded a spot so the clematis jumped up into the cypress.

With some dedication I’m certain that I could discipline the fragrant clematis to wind through the fence, but I’m less convinced that I have the energy or the will to keep after it. I am at heart a low maintenance gardener (lazy), stuck in a high maintenance garden, so compromises must be made. Not every battle can be waged, so I must pick the ones that are easiest to win and then a few that can be fought to a draw. So, the clematis is likely to stay where it is, and in fact it seems not to be much of a bother to the cypress.

The beautyberries (Callicarpa) are approaching their peak, when arching branches are lined with abundant purple or white berries. The small white flowers that precede the berries are unremarkable (as is the foliage), and the general manner of the shrub is coarse and best suited for the back and sides of the garden where it can be ignored for most of the year. Two wide spreading shrubs and a few seedlings are tucked between the forest and several large western cedars so that the beautyberries are enjoyed only when the effort is made to walk the path to see them.

The large maple-like foliage of yellow waxy bells (Kirengeshoma palmata, below) lends a tropical feel to the garden, and must be displayed where it can be frequently appreciated. It is best planted where the soil is a bit damp, but not too wet. I’ve planted one small clump in a shaded spot where summer rains saturate the soil, and another where the ground is quite dry.

In mostly dry soil beside large leafed hostas and a sprawling Japanese hydrangea vine (Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’) that meanders along the ground with only one post to climb, waxy bells alternately grows lushly and wilts when ground moisture is low. A year ago I was afraid I had lost it in a prolonged period of drought, but this year it is as good as ever, and just finishing flowering.

The dark leafed ‘Othello’ ligularia (Ligularia dentata ‘Othello’, above) is planted beside the uppermost pond in the rear garden where little attention is paid to it until it begins to flower in late summer. Despite its proximity to water the surrounding soil is also quite dry as a consequence of neighboring Japanese maples and a pendulous branched Atlas cedar that is perilously close to death due to encroaching shade. Though the spot is shady there are afternoons when the entire ligularia collapses in a heap, only to perk up when temperatures cool slightly in the evening. With a bit more ground moisture it doesn’t suffer these bouts, and from mid August into September the black centered yellow daisy-like blooms are quite welcome.

I’ve planted other ligularias in more obvious spots so that I could better enjoy the foliage, but they can be a bit persnickety getting established in either wet or dry soils. It’s better to be consistently damp rather than alternately wet and dry, and certainly ligularias will have trouble without adequate moisture.

There’s much else of interest in the late summer garden, but today is short on time and space, so the rest will have to wait for another day.