I recall as a young child climbing a crabapple that grew adjacent to the walk that led to our family’s small apartment in Langley Park, Maryland. At the time the crab seemed huge, and I sensed the danger in swinging from branch to branch, dangling “high” above the concrete. Of course, I know now that the crab could not have been an inch taller than fifteen feet and this adventure was not quite so perilous.

I have identified the tree as a crab from snippets of my often faulty memory. I remember grabbing bunches of fruits from my tall perch to hurl at my brothers and neighborhood buddies below. Later in the year the fruits would drop to the ground, and fortunately the fruits of this particular crabapple were small so no one was injured too badly.Crabapple fruits

My paternal grandparents lived in a small home in the city of Falls Church, Virginia, a one story brick rambler with a basement that was filled with the most amazing wood shop (at least to a young boy). I don’t recall if this was my father’s childhood home, but I suppose that it was, so he would have played tag and hide and seek beneath the same group of evergreens clustered at the back corner of the property as my brothers and cousins did when we went for a visit. I suspect that the evergreens were the native Eastern Red Cedars, which are of course not cedars at all but junipers (Juniperus virginiana).Eastern red cedar

These were branched low to the ground, but paths were worn to dirt between the closely clustered trees where youngsters had scurried to avoid a tag. The branches are dense and the needled foliage irritating, so there was no climbing, but these evergreens are a part of my past that I recall with joy.

My family and grandparents were not gardeners, but when we moved to a house with a yard far out into the suburbs of northern Virginia there was space for planting, and every homeowner felt obligated to plant a shade tree or two. I recall (but won’t vouch for the truthfulness of the story) that the Silver maples planted in the front and back yards were purchased from a door-to-door vendor (I think Stark Brothers) who delivered the dormant bareroot trees to each homeowner.

I don’t believe there were local garden centers at the time, but through the years a few Helleri hollies were planted along the low front porch, Colorado spruces were planted in front and back, and a forsythia was planted to block the view from the front into one side of the backyard. The neighbor to that side erected a chain link fence, and it was rare that anyone attempted to squeeze through the wildly branched forsythia. Every few years it was cut back to a nub, but it quickly grew back in the spring.Pin oak leaf

Just beyond the back of the property was a small creek, and on our side of the creek was a large oak. One large branch extended almost horizontally over the creek, and here my brothers and I (and kids from the neighborhood) constructed tree houses (really only flat tree decks) from lumber pilfered from nearby homes being  built. The builders were not neat, and lumber scattered across a property seemed to have been discarded to a young kid so that there was no fear of getting caught, or any thought that we were involved in a theft of any sort.

This was an oak, I know, because there were acorns, and every kid innately knows that acorns come from oaks, I suppose. The acorns were, of course, hurled at anyone who came close from our perch on the crudely constructed tree house. These were times when dads didn’t assist in grand projects to build multi-roomed tree houses, and though the lumber would occasionally tumble, kids and all, into the creek below, there were never any broken bones or anything more severe than than a scrape that I can recall.

These are my youthful memories. To be certain, these are not my only recollections, though I have such a poor memory that I can hardly recall a single teacher from my school years. I don’t believe that the crabapple, cedars, or oak encouraged me in any way towards my career in horticulture, and in fact, it was completely by accident that I landed in this business. But, perhaps it is not coincidental that these precious memories foretold my love of plants.

I don’t know if my career choice or my love for gardening has influenced my children. One son has followed me into landscaping, the other is a chemist, but both spent much of their childhood climbing trees, collecting blackberries from brambles in the thicket close beside the garden, and teetering on logs to cross the creek that borders our family home. I wonder if their children will one day cherish such memories.


Not only native

Mossy rocks in the shady streamCardinals and jays frolic in the rear garden. Here, there is a substantial cover of deciduous trees and tall evergreens, some from the native forest and others planted by the gardener over twenty-three years. Mossy boulders nestled beside the rills of garden ponds (above) provide still water easily accessed for a drink or bathing. And, there are abundant berries and fruits (Leatherleaf mahonia, below) to be harvested from nearby shrubs, some native to these foothills of northwestern Virginia, some not. The ravenous birds care little. Fruit on Mahonia bealei in late May

The Alaskan cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) outside the kitchen window provides a tall perch for birds, and particularly squirrels, who scramble through its branches and then leap to the wide spreading limbs of the neighboring ‘Burgundy Lace’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Burgundy Lace’, below). From the maple it is only a short bound onto the library roof, and from there (through some hidden entrance) into the attic. This is a constant source of consternation to the gardener, and particularly an aggravation to his wife (who declares that the squirrels must go, even if murder is required).Burgundy Lace Japanese maple

I am only mildly annoyed by authors who suggest this environment is possible when native plants alone are utilized. No science is required to know that the grape-like fruits of mahonia are stripped bare soon after ripening. Native American dogwood or Oriental mahonia, it matters not, berries are consumed quickly. There are, of course, plentiful native plants in the garden, so that butterflies swarm to the native butterfly weeds (Asclepias tuberosa), but also exotic butterfly bush (Buddleia, below), and if they know or care about the difference they’re not telling.Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on butterfly bush in mid July

Non-natives require more water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, some say, but in this wildlife garden plants make do without. The lush habitat testifies that chemicals and supplemental irrigation are not demanded by natives or exotics located properly, though both might be nibbled by caterpillars or invading beetles. Deer have preferences that are not dictated by the geographic origins of a plant, and a a mildly malodorous organic repellent is required to persuade them to feed elsewhere.

Invasive plants are avoided in this garden, but rambunctiousness is encouraged, and barely restrained plants scramble over and through neighbors. It seems obvious to the long time gardener that most non-native plants do not seed or spread themselves about uncontrollably, and are no more or less thuggish than indigenous plants. Native plants are no more well suited to the managed environment of the garden than exotics, and this garden would seem incomplete without Japanese maples and camellias, magnolias, and azaleas. This matter of natives, non-natives, and invasives has been politicized and so much chatter is hyperbole (nearly in the manner of presidential elections) that it seems to discourage planting rather than encouraging its benefits, native or not.

A December project

I am not typically anxious to undertake projects in the cold of December, but recently I discovered an invasive bittersweet vine invading the tree tops of a grove of wild mulberries that lurks in the thicket beside the garden. If the vine was not eliminated it would have easily hopped over to the nearby ‘Elizabeth’ magnolia in the spring, and there would have been a larger problem in removing it.Oriental bittersweet

The colony of mulberries leaned from the tangle of brush and brambles over into the garden so that the magnolia also arched slightly to reach more sunlight, and so it was inevitable that eventually the mulberries must go. With the immediate issue of the bittersweet vine I was convinced that my usual procrastination would be impractical. With many garden chores I’ve found that if ignored long enough the need goes away, but it was apparent this would not be the case with the invasive vine.

The thicket was such a mass of seedling trunks, brambles, and vines that it was impossible to tell which one or ones were the bittersweet, so my only choice was to chop the mulberries down and then to cut out the vine.  I’ve had to remove several trees over the past year due to storm damage, and all were easily cut into sections and stacked to be burned in the fire pit. The tangle of mulberry and bittersweet was not so easily removed.

There were a handful of trunks that could be identified as mulberries, and several other unidentifiable smaller trees with vines as thick as your wrist weaving throughout. The tangle made it necessary to cut each trunk into multiple pieces and then to cut away large branches so that any part would fall to the ground. Once the web of branches and vines had fallen the saw and pruners were used to cut sections into manageable pieces. These have been hauled and stacked nearby, so that the mess can be burned out from under the canopy of the ‘Elizabeth’ and Bigleaf magnolias (below). Even cut into sections the tangle of vines and branches is too difficult to move any further.

There was remarkably little injury resulting from this project. I expected cuts and scratches (and considerable blood), but the bittersweet vine has blunt thorns that are barely a bother, and fortunately there were few thorny brambles in this part of the thicket .Bigleaf magnolia

Now that the mulberries and vines have been chopped off there is a void in the thicket, and in this garden a void is quickly filled. I will exercise some patience because I know that the mulberries and vines will pop up again from the roots in the spring, but this growth will be more easily controlled than vines climbing through the tops of trees. As I do, I’ve begun to consider alternatives for this space. It will be partially shaded, and trees must be vigorous to crowd the inevitable competition from the thicket. Also, deer nestle in this space through the spring and summer, so resistance is a requirement.Sweetbay magnolia

The shrub like Sweetbay magnolia (above) will work well in this spot, and since there are two neighboring magnolias I suppose it is somehow appropriate to add a third. These are vastly different trees, so there is no danger in confusing one with another. I’ve considered planting a sweetbay for years, but there wasn’t an appropriate spot until now. So, this will be a start, then there will be the need for a few shrubs that will tolerate the thicket, shade, and the deer. With a garden that is maturing and nearly overflowing, I welcome the opportunity to plant.

Blooming in December

I’ve just returned from visiting nurseries in the southeast, and after a month of freezing nighttime temperatures in Virginia it’s difficult to imagine that it’s winter along the Gulf Coast. There are flowers everywhere. Not only late blooming camellias, but also roses and autumn flowering Encore azaleas. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise, and certainly it’s not unusual for this part of the south. People who live down there think it’s cold, but my definition of cold weather doesn’t include azaleas in full bloom. People who live in the frozen tundras to the north of here will say that a real winter doesn’t have any flowers at all, but they’re just jealous.Autumn Amethyst Encore azalea in October

A year ago my northwestern Virginia garden had multiple plants flowering in December after abnormally warm temperatures in late autumn. Weather has been more typical this year, so there are only a few flowers in the garden. But, no azaleas, not even ‘Autumn Amethyst’ (above), that is prone to flowering late in the autumn and in early spring. Low overnight temperatures in the mid twenties in November assured that hydrangeas and azaleas wouldn’t flower again until spring, and even roses that will tolerate a deep freeze or two have failed to flower again. In warmer areas closer to town I suspect that there might still be some scattered blooms, but here, a few hard freezes closed the flowering season in a hurry.Winter's Star camellia in late November

But, there are some flowers in every month in this garden, and as late December approaches there are scattered blooms. The hybrid camellias began flowering a month ago, and ‘Winter’s Star’ (above) continues to bloom with every period of a few warm days. When cold returns the flowers fade quickly and the flower buds remain tight until the next warm spell.Winter's Snowman camellia in December

‘Winter’s Snowman’ camellia (above) is more shaded than ‘Winter’s Star’, so it did not flower at all through November. One gorgeous flower opened a few weeks ago, but other buds show little sign of color. I suspect that it will take a longer warm period for the buds to open, and if this goes on for too long the buds will often be damaged by extended cold and will not flower at all.Winter Sun mahonia in late November

There are a handful of ‘Winter Sun’ mahonias (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, above) in sun and shade in the garden, and it seems that no amount of cold or warm will deter it from flowering beginning in November through late December. In some years the bright yellow panicles will persist into January, and with only a few weeks remaining in December it shows little sign of fading.

The flowers in full sun appear earliest, followed by part sun, and one plant in nearly full shade is the last to bloom. But, the flowers fade more quickly with sun exposure, and the shaded plants will often remain in bloom a few weeks longer. After flowering small purple grape-like fruits slowly develop, but the fruits are rarely ripe before late winter. A year ago the spring flowering leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) flowered beginning in late January, and its fruit ripened at about the same time as ‘Winter Sun’. Birds often strip the fruits within a few days, and a few years ago when snow covered the ground for several weeks the fruits of ‘Winter Sun’ ripened perfectly so that birds had a plentiful supply.

As winter eases (hopefully) into January there should be more flowers to come on the various witch hazels and winter jasmine, then winter bulbs and whatever else I’ve forgotten, but planted for winter flowers. I don’t expect that there will be blooms every day of the winter like last year, but there will be buds that open partially to tease the gardener. There will be flowers for a period, then none, more blooms, and then, long before I’ve been driven stir crazy (I wish), spring will be here.

More hollies

The variegated English hollies (Ilex aquifolium ‘Argenteo marginata’, below) have no berries. I suppose that all four are males, or perhaps there is not a male pollinator for the females. I’m not observant enough to detect the sex of the hollies from the flowers, so I’ll enjoy the variegated foliage and if they should ever get berries that will be a bonus. Berries or not, these are wonderful hollies.

Variegated English holly

English hollies are only marginally cold hardy in my northwestern Virginia garden, but with our winters ever warmer they have never had trouble surviving the winter months. They grow slowly in comparison to other hollies in the garden, possibly because there is some unseen injury from cold, but it’s more likely they suffer in the summer’s heat and humidity. Koehne holly in December

The foliage of the Koehne holly (Ilex x koehneana, above) is similar to the green leafed English holly, but it is more cold hardy and it grows vigorously in my garden. Vigorously enough, unfortunately, that my wife reminds me regularly that it should not have been planted so close to the driveway. I promise, it’s not a problem, but she’s not easily convinced.

The Koehne holly is not commonly found in garden centers, but it merits greater attention, to my thinking. Its broad, dark foliage provides an ideal background to the abundant red berries. It grows wider in relation to its height than other hollies in the garden, and here is the problem with the driveway, which I’ve assured you is not a problem at all.Centennial Girl holly in December

Dragon Lady (Ilex x aquipernyi ‘Meschick’ or ‘Dragon Lady’) and Centennial Girl hollies (Ilex centrochinensis x aquifolium ‘Centennial Girl’, above) have similarly dark foliage, and both are hybrids of the English holly. Both berry heavily in late autumn, though two ‘Dragon Lady’ hollies in my garden are shaded enough that they have no berries at all in recent years.

The leaves of ‘Dragon Lady’ are sharply spined enough to cause injury in handling, but the spines on ‘Centennial Girl’ are more pliable and relatively harmless. Both are more narrow  in form than other large, pyramidal hollies, and this allows planting closer to houses, decks, walkways, and such, though a twenty feet tall holly will still require a space of six or eight feet. These are excellent hollies, and more cold hardy than other hollies in the garden.Golden Girl holly

Golden Girl holly (Ilex x meserveae Golden Girl’, above) has similar foliage to ‘Dragon Lady’ and ‘Centennial Girl’, with spines that will snag, but not injure. As the name implies, berries are not red, but yellow. ‘Golden Girl’ is one of the group of hollies designated as Blue hollies, all with dark blue-green foliage. I’ve found that blue hollies are not especially tolerant of poorly drained clay soil, but I’ve planted two ‘Golden Girl’ hollies in a partially shaded spot with better than average soil and a thick cover of leaf litter, so I expect they will do well. I suppose that red berries are preferable, but in a garden with many thousands of red berries the yellows are welcomed.  Christmas Jewel holly in December

In mid December, the branches of Christmas Jewel holly (Ilex x ‘Christmas Jewel’, above) are lined with red berries. It has perhaps the most abundant berries of hollies in the garden, though one is planted in the shade of a tall cryptomeria and the other in nearly full sun. ‘Christmas Jewel’ is the shortest growing of the large hollies, only to ten feet or so, and nearly as wide, but with a wide pyramidal form. It is relatively uncommon in garden centers, but is easily recognizable when branches are cloaked in red.

Hollies, berry nice!

Before finishing up here today we’ll have a good idea of the number of hollies in the garden. I haven’t counted (and won’t), but I’m guessing the number will be a dozen, and possibly a few more. I suppose that I can recall all the varieties, and then how many of each are planted, so I’ll compare at the end to see if I’m at least close. To cover all the hollies adequately I suspect I’ll have to go into a second day, but we’ll figure that out when we near the end today.

The purpose for this inventory is to highlight some wonderful broadleaf evergreens. Today, in mid December most of the hollies are covered with red berries. On some hollies the berries are bunched in clusters at the branch tips, while others have berries along the length of the branches. I don’t grow the hollies only for the berries, but also because I favor their dark foliage and pyramidal form, whether used as an evergreen screen from neighboring properties, or as an anchor to neighboring plants.American holly in early December

A good starting point in this listing is the American holly (Ilex opaca, above). This is the only native of the garden’s hollies, and all of the Opaca hollies in the garden are seedlings that randomly popped up, mostly in partially shaded areas where I suppose birds deposited the seed. Some have been transplanted around, but most have been allowed to grow where they sprouted. There’s no doubt that I’ve chopped out many dozens over the years since there are only so many thirty feet tall hollies that will fit in any garden. American holly seedling 2

I’ll count one American holly towards the total inventory since only one has grown above head high, and this is the only one that has yet displayed any berries. The berries are sparse compared to the other hollies, and they are dull red and not at all glossy. The American hollies are quite slow growing, and they are sparsely branched until their middle age when they begin to thicken up a bit. The foliage is a dull green, nothing remarkable by comparison to other dark and glossy leafed hollies, but still, the native holly grows to be a magnificent evergreen once it has gained some size.

American holly seedling 3

I find it interesting that every American holly seedling has a different leaf shape (two photos above). There are varying number of spines, and some leaves are wider or more narrow. None of this is unusual in plants growing from seed, and this is perhaps a subject for another day, but it interests me and this is part of the reason I allow so many of the seedlings to remain.Nellie Stevens holly in early December

The natural starting point in discussing the non-native and hybrid hollies is to begin with the ubiquitous ‘Nellie Stevens’ (Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’, above). This holly is seemingly found in half the landscapes east of the Mississippi, but I’ve been around enough to know that this is with some good cause. ‘Nellie Stevens’ has good, medium dark green foliage, and it grows quickly enough and full enough to earn high marks. I regularly recommend this holly, but there is only one in the garden.Mary Nell holly in December

Several hollies in the garden are similar in appearance to ‘Nellie Stevens’, and their growth habit is not so much different. ‘Mary Nell’ and ‘Robin’ are indistinguishable from a distance, though the spined foliage of ‘Mary Nell’ (above) gives it a distinct texture at closer range that I favor.Patriot holly in late November

‘Robin’ has few berries this year, and the abundant berries of ‘Mary Nell’ have not fully ripened to red. ‘Robin’ was part of a group of hollies marketed for awhile as Red Hollies, for all had conspicuous red new growth. I planted a sampling of these when they were first introduced, and several (‘Little Red’, ‘Cardinal’, ‘Festive’, and ‘Patriot’, above) have faded from popular commerce.

This is quite enough for one day, and I hesitate to admit that as I’ve compiled a list there are far more hollies in the garden than I estimated. I suppose this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In the second chapter there will be many more berries, so please check back in at the start of the week.

It’s bittersweet

Yes, I know it’s bittersweet. But, is it the native American (Celastrus scandens) that is increasingly rare, or the invasive Oriental (Celastrus orbiculatus)? Before any research is done, it seems most likely that the vine will be the more prevalent Oriental bittersweet, but further investigation is required. Both are lovely vines with prominent winter fruit. Both will overwhelm trees and form tangled colonies, but the invasive Oriental bittersweet spreads more readily to become a problem.

I’ve seen the vine in prior years, but then it was sparse, winding through the dense thicket that borders my garden. It was only evident in late autumn, once leaves had dropped from the brush and brambles and the bright berries were obvious. The vine wasn’t growing vigorously, so I paid little attention and didn’t care if it was the invasive type since it clearly posed no imminent danger. Oriental bittersweet

Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed the bittersweet again, but at the other end of the thicket closest to my garden. This time the vine has engulfed a weedy clump of mulberries that leans so close to the garden’s yellow flowered ‘Elizabeth’ magnolia that I took immediate notice. Whether the invasive or native, I don’t want the vine climbing into the magnolia, and with little space between the top of the mulberries and magnolia this seems inevitable.

A quick bit of research reveals the worst, the vine is the Oriental and not the native American bittersweet. The surest indicator is that the berries of the American are clustered at the vine’s tips in groups of six to eight, while on the Oriental the berries are grouped along the length of the vine by two’s and three’s. The Oriental bittersweet also has blunt thorns along the stems. So, I look at the photos of the Oriental, take a quick trip out to the vine, and back again, and it’s confirmed. It’s Oriental bittersweet, and something must be done to keep it out of the magnolia, and to keep it from spreading further in the thicket and into the neighboring forest.

Oriental bittersweet

The issue is further complicated by the mulberries’ proximity to the magnolia, and that the vine cannot easily be extricated from the mulberries. There is only one solution I see. The mulberries must be cut down, and the vine will fall along with the weedy trees. The bittersweet vine is thick, and it is not likely that I’ll be able to pull it out by the roots, but for now I’ll cut it to the ground and try to chop it out. If it returns in the spring, which is probable, I’ll chop some more, or spray with an herbicide to be rid of it.

The shame is that the Oriental bittersweet is beautiful, at least as attractive as the native. I could argue that what grows on the neighboring property is none of my business, but in fact it is a disconnected piece of land from a farm that has partially been developed into a small subdivision. There is no neighbor to be consulted, and I claim parts of the land on my side of the creek for my garden since there’s no one close by to object. The magnolia is threatened, so here is a project that must be undertaken immediately. If I wait until spring, or delay for a year or two (as I often do), the magnolia will suffer and the vine will be even more difficult to remove.