The storm begins

The storm rages this afternoon as towering tulip poplars and maples sway wildly in the gale. As a precaution my wife and I are planning to sleep on couches on the ground floor tonight since trees loom a bit too close to our bedroom window. A number of trees in our garden and the neighboring forest were toppled in the summer derecho. I’ve eyeballed the distance from the closest trees to the house and concluded that it’s a bit too close for comfort, so we’ll err on the side of caution so that you’re not reading about us in tomorrow’s paper.

Most likely the night will conclude without any severe damage, though I expect the forest’s edge to be littered with branches by morning. There are a few trees that are cracked and wedged against another from the earlier storm, and splintered limbs that are tangled and hanging, so this will not be a good night to pitch a tent in the backyard.

The shrubs and perennials at ground level are unlikely to be bothered much by the winds unless they are in the unfortunate path of a falling branch. At the end of October there are still many blooms in the garden, even as colorful autumn foliage falls into deep piles.

One toadlily (Tricyrtis, above) was nibbled back by deer in mid summer after I neglected it while spraying repellent, so it was slow to set flower buds and only began to bloom a few weeks ago. Though it was late to start, other neighboring toadlilies remain in full bloom so that I expect flowers for several weeks into November.

I haven’t compared dates, but it seems that the Japanese windflowers (Anemone x hydrida, above and below) are a little later to bloom than usual. The tall stems of ‘Whirwind’ move with the most gentle of breezes, so I’ll assume without checking this afternoon that they have been blown flat. With the first sun in a few days they’ll probably stand upright again, and with buds yet to open there will be another week or two of blooms.

The pink windflower ‘September Charm’ (below) has disappeared again this year. I didn’t know it was missing until the anemones began to flower, and there was no pink. I’ve planted it a few times with only short lived success. I assume that it has not been given adequate moisture, which is not unusual in this garden. If I try it again it will be in the rear garden where the other anemones are planted in soil that is marginally too damp.

I noticed over the weekend that the yellow leafed tansy (Tanacetum vulgare ‘Isla Gold’, below) is flowering, much later than usual. The small, yellow button flowers are barely noticed so this could be a rebloom, and I didn’t notice the first bloom at all. Tansy is treasured for its finely divided foliage, but I’ve done it no justice by squeezing it between deep shade and aggressive daisies, and it’s a wonder that it survives at all.

I’m not overly worried by the possible consequences of tonight’s storm. The garden has weathered severe injury before, and sooner than later the damage is repaired without much long term effect. I hope that when I survey the damage in the morning I see only a weekend’s work for the chainsaw, and nothing more severe, but I’ll report back in a few days.

Surprising camellias

In most years ‘Winter’s Star’ camellia (Camellia x ‘Winter’s Star’, below) flowers beginning in early to mid November, and continues for several weeks, and sometimes a month. Occasionally, if temperatures remain moderate there will be a few blooms into the start of the new year. I don’t get too worried if flowering is delayed by a week or two, or if it’s a bit early, but I was surprised ten days ago to see ‘Winter’s Star’ blooming in the second week of October.

I’ve found it foolish to attempt to make sense of much of what occurs in the garden, and certainly the gardener should not be bothered by camellias that are flowering a month earlier than is usual. There are too many factors to consider, and perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that the camellias bloom at all. I’ve had considerable troubles with ‘Winter’s Interlude’ (Camellia x ‘Winter’s Interlude’, below), another cold hardy hybrid developed by the National Arboretum that is planted only a few feet away from ‘Winter’s Star’.

A year ago was the first time I’ve seen ‘Winter’s Interlude’ flower in five years, maybe longer, and oddly, it flowered in January. It is supposed to bloom in October, but every year it develops fat buds that appear ready to go, and then the buds sit, and wait, until January and cold temperatures freeze dry the buds and not a single flower is seen.

The weather in December and January a year ago was quite out of the ordinary, so buds were not damaged by cold, and by some confluence of circumstances the reluctant buds were forced into bloom. I cannot imagine why an October flowering camellia that rarely blooms at all will suddenly flower in January, then go back to its proper schedule the following October. No doubt there are reasons for all of this, but this is much too much for a simple gardener to fathom.

For its dependable flowering I prefer ‘Winter’s Star’ to ‘Winter’s Interlude’. The flowers are similar in color unless the light is just so, and then ‘Interlude’ is a deeper pink, I think. ‘Winter’s Interlude’ is a double flower, though barely so, while ‘Star’ is a single, but both are delightful mid to late autumn bloomers when there are few other flowers. Though the lack of flowers on ‘Interlude’ has been confounding in most years, both camellias have proven to be cold hardy, even through years when temperatures were consistently colder than recent years.


I’ve written in the past about Encore reblooming azaleas, though I blame no one for failing to pay full attention. I’ve been known to occasionally pay only part of a mind to reading or conversations, and to remember nothing a few minutes later. Ask my wife.

For those who have read and remembered I won’t bore you with the full story, but after initially planting old Kurume type azaleas in my new garden twenty some years ago, I let them fade and fail, due in equal parts to lacebug infestations and poorly drained clay soil. For years I had no azaleas in the garden except for the dependable and perhaps indestructible Delaware Valley White, and a few deciduous types, until I was introduced to Encore azaleas. The grower claimed these would flower in three seasons, and though I had witnessed this along the Gulf coast, I was determined to test and find out for myself.

The first Encore azaleas were planted in what I figured to be ideal azalea growing conditions, part to mostly shade and as well drained an area as I could manage. From the start most flowered poorly, in spring, summer, or autumn until the grower informed me that the best blooming was achieved by planting in nearly full sun. The second batch was planted with varying amounts of sunlight, but more than the first group, and they’ve bloomed dependably in the spring and from early to mid September (very late summer) into October (early autumn). Thus, two periods of flowering cover parts of three seasons, but (not to be too nitpicky) this is a considerably longer period of bloom than typical spring flowering azaleas.

By the time the second batch of Encores began to flower, many of the ones first planted caught on and began to bloom dependably. My son and I removed a few overhanging branches from tall maples and tulip poplars that border the garden, and though the area remains quite shaded it’s apparent that there is now just enough sunlight to promote blooming. Flowering in this shaded area starts a bit later in the spring and a little sooner in late summer than in the sunny spots, and the flowers persist longer without direct sunlight.

There were perhaps ten varieties of Encores planted in the first batch, and many of the same with a few additions in the second group. After a few years a couple varieties grew and flowered poorly, and unfortunately I’m not much of a record keeper so I can’t recall which ones didn’t perform well enough. In recent years several new Encores have been introduced, and with more testing there is more information on which varieties have greater cold hardiness. My own planting has confirmed the ones that flower most dependably in late summer and early autumn (pictured on this page), with a couple that flower late enough that occasionally cold weather creeps in before they have bloomed.

I’ve had Encore azaleas flower into December when abnormally warm temperatures persist, but with several varieties planted it’s reasonable to expect flowering from mid-September through October, and a few varieties that will bloom for the first few weeks of November. With cooler temperatures flowering in late summer and early autumn is much longer than the typical two weeks of bloom in the spring, and some varieties will flower for nearly two months.

What to do with the bananas?

I have a problem. There are too many tropical plants that have grown much too large to fit back into the house to overwinter. I could possibly fit them all indoors if my wife and I decided to give up the den for the winter. But, it’s not only the winter, it’s half the autumn and a good part of the spring before temperatures are warm enough for bananas, elephant ears, gingers, agaves, and others to be sent back outdoors.

A part of the problem is that my wife refuses to allow elephant ears and bananas back onto the hardwood floors of the main living area. As soon as they are brought inside the leaves begin to gather moisture and drip, drip, drip onto the floors. This creates small black spots on the floor, which add character as far as I’m concerned, but evidently I’m wrong, and anyway I’ve lost my right to vote on this issue. The bananas and elephant ears will not be allowed anywhere near the hardwood floors any longer.

The basement where the tropicals are stashed for the winter is dark and dank at any time of the year with only a single sliding glass door, but in the winter the shortened sunlight is further diminished by setting further to the south and behind immense maples and tulip poplars. I have set up LED lights to provide some added light to the dozens of plants that are jammed in the back section of the room. The pots sit on the comfortably ragged indoor/ outdoor carpet that was first installed to stand up against the rough and tumble antics of our two sons many years ago. No damage too severe can be done to this carpet, and if water occasionally overflows onto it or leaves or soil are ground into it there is no bother at all.

A few of the large elephant ears that are planted in the ground (rather than pots) are allowed to die back in the early freezes, then the massive roots are dug out, dried, and stored in a cooler in the garage filled with ground leaves. Most of these survive the winter without a problem, but occasionally one that has not been dried sufficiently will rot and must be discarded. The problem, here again is space, for a large elephant ear root will consumer half of a large cooler, and there are handfuls of these and only a few coolers. And if a few inexpensive styrofoam coolers were purchased, where would they go? There are cars and tools and whatever else occupying space in the garage, and it is hopeless to think that more space could be allocated to overwintering of tropical roots.

Inevitably, one elephant ear and usually a few that have been planted in the ground are inadvertently left behind, and a few have proven to be surprisingly sturdy over the past couple winters. The most recent winter was so warm that it was hardly a challenge, but the prior winter was much colder and the elephant ears survived only because of an insulating cover of snow. In any case, I would not recommend leaving the roots of elephant ears outdoors through the winter in northwestern Virginia, and even if there is not enough room indoors you should expect they will perish if left outside.

Besides problems of space and water spotting the critical issue that I must address each year is bugs. This is a moving target from year to year with the problem being ants one year, and spiders the next. In large pots it is impossible to tell what creatures might lurk in the soil, and many times I’ve seen it recommended that the entire container be dunked under water and left to sit until critters and eggs would be drowned. How that is supposed to happen with a container twenty four inches across and slightly taller, I don’t know, but also, I try to move the heavy pots when they’re as dry and therefore light as possible. To dunk these pots to saturate the soil would make them twice the weight, and if you’re arguing that this should be done a week ahead then you have far too much respect for my organizational skills.

I moved a few of the agaves indoors a few days ago, and immediately I spotted a long legged spider down in the foliage. Of course, the foliage of this agave is equipped with hypodermic needle like spines, and I suffered several stab wounds before giving up on catching this fellow. So, five minutes indoors and already there’s a spider on the loose. I can only imagine the fun that awaits as eggs begin to hatch from these beasts in the warmth of the house. This year there will probably be ants and spiders, and maybe even centipedes and snakes.  It’s going to be a long winter.

Now, I’m back to what to do with the bananas? Two large ones are sitting in pots on the front porch, and a third (even larger) is planted out back. A few nights ago the temperature dropped just below freezing, and it’s fortunate they made it through, but that good luck will turn bad soon enough if I don’t figure a spot for them. I’ve considered giving up on them and leaving them on the porch until they freeze, but that seems heartless, and I’ve been growing these for six or eight years so that it seems such a waste.

I’ll consider chopping the tall trunks off at the base, then moving the pots to the basement. There’s barely enough room for the containers, and once the trunks and foliage are cut off they will not occupy nearly as much space. They’ll grow a bit through the winter, but certainly not back to where they are now. Once they’re back outside next year they’ll quickly grow back to where they were. So, this could be the answer. I still need to figure a way to get the huge pots down the stairs, or perhaps I could drag the pots around the house to the back door, but in either case this is a difficult task and I’ll have to work up the motivation sooner than later because the time for cold weather is coming quickly.

Waiting, waiting …..

Surprisingly, the purple flowered hybrid passionflower (Passiflora x ‘Jeanette’, below) that was planted in early spring has just begun to bloom at the start of October. It is sterile, so it doesn’t develop seeds, and thus more energy is devoted to flowering so that it is supposed to flower over a more extended period than other passionflowers.

But, it is not ordinary for a passionflower to begin flowering so late in the year, and the native yellow passionflower (Passiflora lutea, below) that was planted at the same time bloomed on schedule in mid-summer. The trouble, which is really no bother at all, is that newly installed plants are quite unpredictable, and with varying soil and light conditions I wouldn’t be concerned it it didn’t flower at all in the first year. In fact, though ‘Jeanette’ grew vigorously in slightly damp soil and a bit less than full sun, the vine had showed no signs of flowering, so I had written it off for the year, and figured that I’d see the first blooms next July.

I’ve planted three passionflower vines in the garden, and only the native purple passionflower (Passiflora incarnata, below) is provided with any type of man made support. The yellow and hybrid vines are allowed to scramble through neighboring shrubs with only a small amount of guidance on my part. When the hybrid passionflower had grown to eighteen inches tall in late spring I directed it up into the nearby paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha), and the yellow flowered vine was nudged up into a neighboring oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia).

The yellow passionflower is planted in more shade, so it has not grown as vigorously as the purple hybrid, though I suspect this could be more the nature of both and not anything at all to do with sunlight or soil. The yellow passionflower bloomed for a month or longer, but the flowers are considerably smaller than the other passionflowers  and it’s unfortunate that I’ve planted it in a more out of the way spot where the blooms are difficult to see (or even to get to so that they can be seen close up).

‘Jeanette’ is planted at the edge of a path so that I pass by every time I walk through the garden, and for a  month or two I checked nearly every day for signs of flowers or buds. By late September I’d given up looking, or hoping for blooms this year, and now, nearly a month later, here they are. There are a few flowers and a few other buds that will open in the next week if temperatures don’t drop too low, just about the number of blooms I expected on the young vine, but a few months late. ‘Jeanette’ is often considered quite tender, though the grower where I purchased this vine said that cuttings were taken from a plant in much colder parts of Pennsylvania, so I’m confident it will not be harmed by the cold of northwestern Virginia.

In any case, it’s nice to finally see a few flowers. The blooms are similar to the purple flowered native, certainly no more delightful, and I’ll be anxious to see next summer if the flowering season is more extended than the native’s. Now, I’m encouraged even more to try some other cold hardy passionflower vines.

Caught speeding – 0-60 in 23 years

It seems like yesterday. Well, actually it doesn’t. I’ve been gardening this plot now for twenty three years, and it’s grown up. There are beeches and hornbeams that have rocketed past forty feet, and wide spreading Japanese maples and flowering trees. Small shrubs have sprouted far above my head, and some areas are planted so thickly that it’s nearly impossible to push through the vegetation.

There was a time when I was impatient for the garden to grow. Though there was a swath of woodland bordering the southern property line, the remainder of the property was bare except for field grass from the farm that once occupied this land, and a patch of brambles in a small spring-fed wetland. I fertilized the first young plants with MiracleGro every week to give them a jump start, and whether this accomplished anything or not, I don’t know, but within a few years the garden began to look like a little something.

It’s been long enough that most of the details are long forgotten, but somehow the small wetland (that was damp enough to suck a boot off your foot) was leveled, and drainage from the spring was directed to a larger wetland at the back of the property. Sometime in those early years a garden shed was constructed just above the origin of the spring, but the back three quarters of the property was left open for football and baseball while the kids were young.

After ten years the front and upper portion of the rear garden nearest the house had begun to grow up, and by now the kids were weary of tossing the ball with dad. So, work was started on the back garden, and suddenly, here we are. There’s practically no space remaining to plant in, though that hasn’t seemed to stop me. Every year plants are purchased and shoehorned in, though I’m now convinced that my wife is at least partially correct. There is no more space for planting trees, but I can’t foresee that I’ll stop planting smaller somethings for at least another decade or two.

Along the way there have been plenty of mistakes made, but there have been more triumphs. I’d be mistaken to say I wouldn’t change a thing, but I have barely any regrets. I’ll say that it would have been wiser to pay attention to my instincts and not plant bamboo and wisteria that were painful and labor intensive to remove, and I’ve probably wasted a small fortune on plants that weren’t cold hardy enough, but I just had to try to see if there was even the slightest chance for their survival.

Some plants have come and gone, and some are back again. I planted evergreen azaleas from the beginning, then was discouraged by lacebugs and poorly drained clay so that most declined in health and were removed. I was content without them, but then began to plant more azaleas when the spring and autumn repeat blooming Encore azaleas were introduced. I was determined to test the Encores to see if they could survive, and if they would dependably rebloom. I found that they were as good as advertised, with increased cold hardiness and a surprise resistance to the lacebugs that had plagued the old favorites that I’d planted and discarded.

A few common, and supposedly tough as nails plants have never survived under my care. I suppose the fault is mine, but I’ve not been successful with Moonbeam tickseed, coneflowers, or Blackeyed Susans, though for a few years the rudbeckias seeded with abandon. Most of these troubles I will blame on shade that has rapidly encroached as the numerous trees I planted grew and spread. And then, the back third of the rear garden is almost constantly damp, and it takes a while to figure out plants that will tolerate almost constant wetness if you’re not willing to settle only for wetland plants.

Some, or maybe most of the blame for failures is probably on me. I readily admit that I buy first, plan later. I’m paid to do this for a living, and of course I should know better, but most everything works out for the best, so it’s difficult to change your ways when there are many more successes than failures. I’m willing to suffer the occasional lost plant, or plants that slowly fade as full sun turns to mostly shade.

I have constructed five ponds in the garden, and another wet weather pond that holds storm water runoff from neighboring properties before it reaches the wetland. The original pond that I built has been redone four or five times, but once I settled on a low maintenance formula the other ponds went in without a hitch. The largest of the ponds is nearly fifteen hundred square feet, and it was was dug deep enough that occasionally I’ll float around in it on a hot summer afternoon.

For a few years I battled a persistent heron that cleaned out koi and goldfish from the smaller ponds, so now all the fish are in the deep swimming pond. I began with ten of the the least expensive koi that I could find, and now that there are fifty or a hundred (who can count?) I’m certain there are no prize winners, but there’s an amazing diversity of color and patterns, and I can’t imagine rambling through the garden without a visit to feed the ever hungry fish.

I’m a landscaper and a gardener, not a scientist (like our son), and haven’t a clue if the ever warmer summers and winters are a long term trend or a short term anomaly. Part of me would prefer to live in a warmer zone, but I know there are severe ramifications if temperatures don’t trend back to the norm. I could move south, but I’ve moved before, and though it was quite a while ago, I determined at the time that this would be my last home, and my last garden. Now that it’s up to speed, I’m content to sit back and enjoy.

Soft or spiney

‘Soft Caress’ mahonia (Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’, below) is marginally cold hardy for the mid Atlantic region, but this, of course, is according to standards from before our winter temperatures began to warm so drastically so quickly. I first saw ‘Soft Caress’ in a North Carolina nursery where it was being tested for vigor and hardiness, and the fern-like foliage captured my attention.

I was not so enthusiastic about its name. Men don’t do ‘Soft Caress’, or at least if they do they’re generally not enthusiastic about it. Though plant marketing people often orient their work towards female buyers, I prefer names that are more descriptive of the plant and the only thing that is “soft” about this mahonia is that the foliage is not as spiny as other mahonias. In any case, despite the name, as soon as I could I brought home a few to plant in my garden to give them a try.

For several years ‘Soft Caress’ has survived, but barely grown and not flowered at all, which is not too surprising for a marginally hardy plant that suffers some cold stress annually. Whether the extremely warm winter encouraged it, or possibly it has fully rooted enough to be able to endure winter’s cold, this year ‘Soft Caress’ has grown more vigorously and now it has begun to flower for the first time.

The lemon yellow flower spikes are similar to the other autumn flowering mahonia, ‘Winter Sun’ (above), but much smaller. ‘Soft Caress’ is a low growing evergreen shrub suitable for nearly full sun or part shade, and despite the delightful blooms the primary reason for planting it is the fern-like foliage. In prior years I’ve recommend it with a warning that it might not survive for long, but now that it has begun to perform I caution only that it will take a few years for it to become fully established before earning it’s place in the garden.

Today is the first that I’ve noticed the emerging flowers of the ‘Winter Sun’ mahonias (Mahonia  x media ‘Winter Sun’ above) planted in areas that are sunny for most of the day. Plants in the shade are slower to set flowers, flower later and more sparsely, and grow considerably slower. But, ‘Winter Sun’ is still an excellent plant for shaded or sunny spots, and with sharply spined evergreen foliage it is highly resistant to deer. Readers have informed me that deer might nibble the flowers when they bloom in late November into December, but I haven’t seen this and I don’t spray deer repellent on mahonias that have built-in defenses.

This past year ‘Winter Sun’ began flowering in November, and held steady through December into late January when the late winter flowering Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, above) began to bloom (a month earlier than usual). For a week or two the blooms of the autumn and spring flowering mahonias coincided, and with witch hazels and winter jasmine there were flowers in the garden every day through January and February.

In order of preference ‘Winter sun’ is my clear favorite, but ‘Soft Caress’ is catching up quickly as it now does what it’s supposed to do. Leatherleaf and ‘Winter Sun’  have small grape-like fruits (above) that follow flowering, and most years they are barely ripe before birds pick them clean. I don’t know if ‘Soft Caress’ will have fruit, but if not the fern-like foliage and delightful blooms are quite enough to make this one a keeper.