It’s wet, with predictable results

Along the southern boundary of the back half of the rear garden is a shallow depression that runs a hundred feet or more to the back of the property. From beneath the concrete footer of the garden shed a damp weather spring emanates, and in much of the year water runs through this low area, alternately peaking above ground and then disappearing into small sink holes. In wet seasons there is often standing water for weeks at a time, but in summer the swale typically goes bone dry. But, not this year, and this has resulted in predictably dire circumstances.

I would not have planted the witch hazel, evergreen hollies, or Western red cedars if I had realized this area would remain constantly wet. I have little doubt that it was much drier when these were planted, and in fact it seems that the area as a whole has sunk in recent years. The back third of the rear garden is wetter than usual, and I fear that even when this damp summer passes there will be problems, and some long established plants will have suffered irreparable harm.

Arnold's Promise witch hazel in mid February

The witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ above) was planted around fifteen years ago at the upper, slightly drier edge of the depression, and it’s grown past ten feet tall and wide. In past years there’s been a time or two when it began to defoliate in late summer when the weather was hot and dry, but I’ve never seen problems from excess dampness. Now, leaves are dropping prematurely, and I wonder if damage to its roots will spell its doom.

Franklinia blooming in late August

In the same area the leaves of the Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha, above) are smaller, and more sparse than usual, and I suspect that continually damp soil is the reason. Neither Franklin tree or witch hazel is tolerant of wet soils, and of course if I knew at the time that the area would be this wet I would have planted them on higher ground.Turtlehead in late August

There are plants that flourish in wet ground, but many that are recommended for moist soils are not intended for constant wetness. There is a considerable difference between moist and wet, and this year Rodgersia and turtleheads (Chelone lyonii ‘Hot Lips’, above) have struggled in the wettest spots. But, Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) and buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis, below) seem quite content in the spot where water stands long after other areas have dried.Buttonbush in early July

The white beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma ‘Albifructus’, below) is planted on a slight rise in the wettest area, and it shows no negative effect from the wetness, but Blue Mist shrubs (Caryopteris x clandonensis) planted a few feet away are barely hanging on. I fear that the time for drier ground this summer is running short as August draws to a close, and if September should turn wet from tropical storms and remnants of hurricanes as in recent years I will expect more problems.White beautyberry in late September

There seems nothing can be done to remedy this situation, but to wait and hope. Plants are often more resilient than the gardener has any right to expect, so perhaps all will survive. Certainly, the long term damage will be difficult to assess until next spring, and then I hope that I’m not searching for replacement plants that will tolerate the wetness. The garden changes constantly, and last year’s problems are often forgotten and replaced by new worries. I’ve been doing this garden long enough that I accept these ups and downs, but problems are more often related to too little water, rather than too much, and anticipating the worst, I’ll be heartbroken to lose these long established treasures.Chokeberry flowering in mid April

The little salvia that could

I think I said it wouldn’t happen, not that it couldn’t. I believe that I hedged, thinking it wasn’t impossible, just unlikely that the ‘Black and Blue’ salvia (Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’, below) would find its way out from under the wide spreading paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysanthus).

When I planted the salvia several years ago there was plenty of space between the paperbush and a yellow fernspray cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Fernspray Gold’). I had no concern that either would grow too wide because the salvia is very marginally cold hardy in this area, and I didn’t consider for a moment that it would survive. But, winters are not what they once were, and the next spring, there it was. Then, it survived another winter, and another, and a plant with a well established roots system is further strengthened, so it began to seem that it was here for good.Black and Blue salvia

Until the paperbush continued to spread, far past the size listed by references and wider than the space allotted for it. A year ago the salvia barely managed, but by mid spring this year the shrub had grown another foot wider, and I peaked under its canopy, wondering if the salvia was still there. It was, but even by early summer it had so far to grow to reach the edge of the paperbush’s dense foliage, and without sunlight it seemed a nearly impossible task.Salvia

A seedling of ‘Tardiva’ hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’) sprouted from beneath the paperbush in July, and at first glance with somewhat similar foliage I thought the salvia had made it. But no, the salvia was still too far from the large shrub’s edge to believe it could reach the sunlight, and since it was in too difficult a spot to reach to transplant, the reasonable assumption was that this would be the salvia’s doom.

But today, here it is. After a few recent soaking rains it gathered enough energy to make a final push, set bud, and burst into flower. Now, I feel guilty for not having moved the salvia a few years earlier, and wonder if I can figure a way to move it in the spring before the paperbush leafs out. It seems the least that I can do for such a resilient plant.

Summer blooms come and gone

For years I grew a handful of varieties of dahlias. I was particularly fond of the dark leafed types with single flowers, and mostly I avoided those with oversized and double blooms that seem a little garish to me. Dahlias are not cold hardy in my garden, so the tubers required lifting and overwintering in the unheated garage if I wished to keep them from one year to the next. This is not a complex process, but it must be accomplished before the tubers are frozen. I’m at my gardening best when I can plant and forget, so, as is too often the case when something in the garden must be done by a deadline or there will be dire consequences, there are no more dahlias.Dahlia in early October

Now, in summer, I occasionally miss the brightly colored blooms and I think about planting more, but I wonder if I can possibly be more responsible in the future. I dig the massive elephant ear bulbs out each autumn after the foliage has been nipped by frost, and certainly the small dahlia tubers are more easily dug and stored. In fact, I should admit that in recent years I’ve not gotten around to digging the monstrous ‘Thailand Giant’ elephant ears, so I fear I’m becoming less conscientious rather than more. There will be plenty of time over the winter to sleep on this one, to make up my mind and still have time to order and plant for next summer. In August, I think it’s worth another try, but I might be more realistic when I consider it in February.Bishop of York dahlia

I have great success planting most everything, but there are a few plants that I’ve sworn off, after repeated failures. I will not plant another tickseed (Coreopsis), though these are simple to grow, and can only be killed with great effort, it seems. Some gardeners claim that ‘Moonbeam’ is weedy and nearly invasive, but I’ve killed it several times. I would grow it again if I knew there was a reasonable chance for success, but there’s not, I’m afraid. I’ve tried the fine leafed ‘Moonbeam’ and ‘Zagreb’, and a few of the more broadleafed varieties, all with the same result. So, why bother?Coreopsis Moonbeam in better days

For several years I was enamored with the perennial sunflowers on the dry bank below the koi pond in the rear garden, but rarely did they survive a third year, and seldom a second. These were not as hopeless for me as the tickseeds, but it is disappointing to continually lose a plant that you presume to be trouble free and so simple that even a child could grow it. The sunflowers were most delightful at the peak of summer’s heat when little else is flowering, but I refuse to replant a perennial every other year when there are so many that live almost forever without any attention at all.Sunflower

The first of the toad lilies is blooming, and though ‘Sinonome’ isn’t the most floriferous, it has excellent foliage and it has spread nicely to fill a spot bordering a stone patio. ‘Sinonome’ will flower for most of two months, beginning several weeks before other toad lilies and ending with the others in early autumn. I have no trouble growing toad lilies, except for white and yellow flowered cultivars that were purchased through mail order in small sizes that wouldn’t tolerate the usual neglect given to all other new plants. I’ve discovered that deer will eat toad lilies when everything else is sprayed with a repellent and they are not, and after they’ve been nibbled the result is that they set buds later and begin flowering several weeks later. No big problem, but it’s best to spray them to keep the deer away.Tricyrtis Sinonome in late September

I’m concerned that the late season Tatarian daisies (Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’, below) might be overwhelmed by the ‘Tardiva’ (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’) and Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) that have flourished in this cool summer. In prior years the vigorous and tall growing aster was more often the culprit in bullying its neighbors, but a woody tree or shrub will usually triumph over a perennial, and it is the gardener’s responsibility to keep the path clear so these can coexist.Aster tataricus Jindai in October

Now, I can hardly push my way through the tangled branches, and the path to the clumps of Tatarian daisies is further complicated by its proximity to the large koi pond. Various this’s and that’s arch over the pond’s edge, and from the pond over the boulders, so that the route around is quite treacherous. Not dangerous, of course, since the fall is only into several feet of water, but still I’d prefer not to tumble into the snake infested water. This is the side of the pond where the resident water snake (or possibly two) seems to have fled to for shelter as my wife and I badgered it enough so that it moved on from the other side of the pond where the koi are fed.

The snake (or snakes) are not poisonous, but I’m more comfortable confronting them on dry ground, not up to my neck in the koi pond. In any case, I’ve not ventured deep into the snarl of hydrangeas to see if the daisies will poke up through to flower in a few weeks. They’ve been there as long as I can recall, which isn’t actually too very long, but it would be a shame for them to disappear.

Quack, quack

When the large pond in the rear garden was first constructed it was dug deep enough so that I could take an occasional dip in it on a hot summer afternoon. Despite recommendations by pond references to the contrary, I stocked the pond with ten small, inexpensive koi and two goldfish that were transferred from one of the smaller ponds. I’ve little doubt that the concern about having fish in a swimming pond is justified, but I’ve never heard of any harm done from swimming in farm ponds that are inhabited by all manner of beasts, so I didn’t figure it would kill me.Japanese iris blooming by the swimming pond in early June

The pond was designed with a rudimentary filtration system that has managed to keep the water clear enough to see the pond’s rocky bottom, and I’ve not been too worried, even though the fish have multiplied far beyond the number that I’m able to count. No, the problem is not that I ran out of fingers and toes, but koi and goldfish are unwilling to stay still to be counted, and in a pond of fourteen hundred square feet it’s difficult to get even a rough count while they’re swimming in every direction.Koi in the swimming pond

Finally, this year the abundance of fish has overwhelmed the capacity of the filtration and the water has been a bit murky, and occasionally a little green from algae growth. The formula for this is fairly simple. Nutrients from fish waste and typical decay of organic materials, plus sunlight, will result in algae growing, and without more sophisticated filtration there’s no sense in me worrying about it. In fact, I’ve never done anything more than float on an inflatable lounger a handful of days through the summer anyway, so it’s not a big deal to just declare that it’s now a koi pond, and give up on the swimming part.Dragonfly

In addition to fifty or sixty (or eighty) fish, there are frogs and more tadpoles than you can count, an occasional turtle, and a snake or two that regularly inhabit the pond. A variety of insects skim over the pond’s surface, and dozens of dragonflies now patrol the skies immediately above the water. More than once in past years I’ve shooed away geese that appeared intent on taking up residence. Two large farm ponds are within a stone’s throw, so I’ve never felt guilt that I was denying them shelter.Tiger swallowtail on Pickerel weed

There are regularly dozens, and sometimes hundreds of geese on the farm pond just across the creek, and they often congregate in the road and on the neighbor’s front lawn. The mess isn’t too terribly bad, but I’d rather they stay there than come over into my garden. In recent weeks a Great Blue heron has spent more time in the shallow filtration area of the pond and peering down from branches in the swamp maples that overhang the garden than I’d prefer. The heron is there for one reason, and I’d prefer that my koi not be its evening meal, but it’s difficult to dissuade a hungry bird who’s spied a pond full of dinner sized fish.Frog

Despite the profusion of wildlife, I was still hedging on declaring that the pond was no longer for swimming, until recent weeks when ducks moved in. At first, my wife saw them on the back patio, but they were apparently just exploring. And then, we began seeing them regularly in the koi pond. So, now there are fish, frogs (and tadpoles), turtles, snakes, and ducks, and at this point it seems more clear that I’m the intruder. The ducks come and go, and when my wife and I go near they hop out to hide in the bushes, so there’s still a doubt that they’re here to stay.Ducks on the pond

I much prefer the ducks to geese, though I don’t know why. They’re certainly quieter, and I don’t think I’d mind if they decided to stick around. Especially since the pond is now off limits to swimming.

A delightful August

August is typically the month that drags this gardener’s spirits to their lowest point. Even in the starkness of winter there are blooms that spark some enthusiasm that spring is near, but in August the cumulative effect of summer’s heat stresses the most vigorous plants. Many perennials are bedraggled, and trees often drop foliage and prematurely begin to display their autumn colors.

In irrigated gardens this is minimized, but in my dry garden I often must ignore plants that show summer’s ill effect, and instead focus only on those that tolerate the heat and drought. Fortunately, this is more than a few, but the overall appearance of the garden is less than satisfying, and thus the sagging spirits. But, this summer, much cooler than typical temperatures and adequate rainfall have allowed the garden to look fresher, though certainly it does not compare to the spring’s peak.Pineapple lily in August

My improved disposition has encouraged me to begin planting already, with more plants on the way. Even with few apparent holes remaining, there seems always space to jam in this something or other that I just had to have, and the new plantings further help to improve the gardener’s attitude.Canyon Creek abelia in August

The serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) at the forest’s edge has been dropping leaves since the  week long stretch of hot temperatures a month ago, but few other plants show any significant signs of summer stress. A few of the hostas planted in nearly full sun have faded a bit, but hardly enough to be bothered about, and much less than typically in late summer. The small sections of lawn are still green (a miracle since I pay no attention to it’s care), and otherwise there’s little difference in the garden from a month ago, except different plants are blooming.Encore Twist azalea in August

The first blooms of the Encore azaleas (Azalea x ‘Conlep’ PP#12133 ‘Autumn Twist’, above) were seen this week, and these will continue with one cultivar or the other into late October (at least). The azaleas have made a dramatic comeback from the winter, when I foolishly refused to spray the late season deer repellent, and most foliage and spring flower buds were nibbled off. Now, the azaleas are lush with foliage and loaded with fat flower buds. I’m not certain what result I was hoping to verify by failing to spray the repellent, but the mistake will not be repeated.Crystal Falls mondo grass in August

With my failure to spray deer repellent in early winter the liriopes and mondo grasses were also eaten, and for most this was a labor saver since the weathered foliage is annually cut off in early spring. But, the tall growing ‘Crystal Falls’ mondo grass (Ophiopogon jaburan ‘HOCF’ PP17430 ‘Crystal Falls’, above) is an exception that I prefer not to cut. The long bladed foliage has proven to be a bit more evergreen than other mondo grasses in my garden, and when the foliage is cut it’s very slow to begin growing again in the spring. So, I don’t cut it back, and I live with some discolored leaves. But, when it’s not protected by a repellent deer do the work on their own, regardless of my preference.Big Blue liriope in mid-August

By early summer there is enough new growth so that I’m no longer tempted to dig ‘Crystal Falls’ out, and in August they are flowering on schedule along with the liriopes (Liriope muscari ‘Big Blue’, above). Both are serviceable ground covers for filling open spaces, and even in the heat of summer the lush foliage and profusion of blooms are delightful.Worcester Gold Blue Mist shrub in August

I’ve planted a handful of cultivars of Blue Mist shrub (Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Worcester Gold’, above), and all are wonderful plants, though a few have suffered mightily in damp areas in this wet summer. In drier ground these are vigorous shrubs that flower dependably despite the often severe demands of late summer. ‘Worcester Gold’ is probably the worst of the yellow leafed Blue Mist shrubs, but with a bit of afternoon shade it performs well in my garden, and I see little difference between it and improved cultivars (though ‘Worcester Gold’ is rarely grown any longer).White Surprise caryopteris in early September

Variegated and other gold leafed Blue Mists will flower a few weeks later, and will continue for most of September for me. In other gardens I’ve seen the blue flowered shrubs planted in masses with spectacular effect, but even as a single shrub where there is not space for more this is an exceptional shrub to perk up the garden in August.

Passion flowers in August

The hybrid purple passionflower vine (below) perished over the winter. Last year, it grew vigorously to the top of a wrought iron cage and into the neighboring paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysanthus) by summer’s end, and there were many small flowers, but perhaps this spot on the low side of the garden was too wet through the winter. Or, the vine was not cold hardy enough. There are many varieties of passionflower, from ones suited only to the tropics to natives that are dependable to temperatures below zero, and I depended on the supplier’s hardiness information to be correct. In any case, wherever you are purchasing a passionflower, it is prudent to take care to have it properly identified if you are intending it to survive the winter outdoors .   Hybrid passionflower vine flowering in October

Two native passionflowers in drier settings are doing fine. The native purple passionflower (Passiflora incarnata, below) returns dependably every year, though after a particularly cold winter it might decide to hibernate until late May before sprouting. After our extraordinarily warm winter and early spring a year ago, the vine broke ground much earlier than is usual, but still it flowered in early August.Passion vine blooming in late August

This year, with cold temperatures extending far into April the passionflower emerged six weeks later, but it began flowering earlier, in mid July when Japanese beetles were at their peak. It became obvious very quickly that passionflowers are a beetle favorite, so of the initial buds that were set, no flowers fully emerged before they were ravaged. Fortunately, in early August new flower buds are being set, so now that the beetles are mostly gone they should bloom normally.Passiflora lutea

The native yellow passionflower (Passiflora lutea, above) is not bothered at all by the beetles, though they began flowering just as the beetles numbers declined so I cannot be certain. The yellow blooms are quite small, and I’ve planted the vine on the back side of the large koi pond so that it’s quite difficult to get close to without squeezing dangerously past the butterfly covered Joe Pye weed and balancing on boulders at the pond’s edge. I teeter, wobble, and fall without much provocation anyway, so I’m reluctant to take my chances on too many close ups.Yellow passionflower in early August

The yellow passionflower vine seems to be nearly as vigorous as the purple, though its stems are smaller in diameter. It is climbing through several hydrangeas and into the ‘Okame’ cherry that looms over head, and I’m unconcerned that the slight weight of the vine will result in any damage to the shrubs or trees that it climbs into. Since the vine dies to the ground each winter it should never become bothersome like the akebia and wisteria vines that I still curse long after they’ve been chopped out.

Passion flower fruit in early September

On occasion, a bloom of the purple passionflower will be followed by a rounded, lemon-sized green fruit. The maypop (above) is edible, though I’ve never been able to tell when the seemingly hollow fruit is ripe to try it. With the second round of flower buds ready to open, perhaps I’ll have another opportunity to test the fruit in another month or so.

It seemed like a good idea at the time

From my occasional recollections, I suppose a reader could get the impression that this garden is an endless series of disasters and missteps, but I can assure you that the contrary is more the case. Yes, there are disappointments, but few, and mostly the garden is the source of boundless satisfaction.Blue Fortune agastache in July

A few days ago I read a landscape designer rambling on about proper plant placement, and how there is little excuse for planting too close, or in the wrong sun exposure when so much information is so easily accessed. First, I’ll say that too much of the information you read is poppycock (probably including many of the observations from my personal garden contained on these pages). The writer further opined that every plant should have a purpose, and that before a purchase is made there should be a clear idea where it will be planted, and a good reason for planting it. Gee, do I have it backwards!Tansy and Shasta daisy

Of course the designer was correct, and I wholeheartedly recommend that you follow this prescription. But for me, nah, it will never work.

My most serious troubles are wasting money spent on plants that I really, really want, but because of lack of space they’re shoehorned into a spot where they don’t have a great opportunity for success. And, occasionally a plant will be lost as an exuberant neighbor overwhelms it, and I either don’t pay attention until I realize three years later that it’s come up missing, or I plan to transplant it and don’t get around to doing it.Geranium seedling sprouting through Creeping Jenny

There have been plenty of plants that I’ve tried, knowing that they were not quite cold hardy enough, and of course most of these fail. Gardeners are certain to let you know when something isn’t supposed to work, but by the miracle of their gardening skill it is doing just fine. Most often the success can be attributed to a micro climate, but I’ll attest that I am completely incapable of figuring where these warm spaces might be except by complete accident.

I’ve tried spots against sunny walls, and out of the way of drying winter breezes, but nothing works. And then, an elephant ear, that was left behind because there are too many to dig and bring them all indoors for the winter, pops out in June. Like this, many of my notable successes are complete accidents, and thinking and planning then seem less relevant.Variegated liriope in early September

When tiny, dark leafed violets cover the ground beneath clumps of variegated liriope, far from their original location, the contrast is stunning. I would never have planned such a combination for fear that the violet would overwhelm the liriope, and this might happen in time, but for now the mix works superbly.Sparkling Burgundy pineapple lily, hydrangea, and Blue Mist shrub

I have planted so much, so close that one scrambles over the other, and the best of these combinations are only slightly aided by my efforts. When the purple pineapple lily pops up through a variegated bluebeard, I take full credit, but you can bet that I didn’t foresee this, and monthly pruning is required or the lily will disappear under the shrub’s overhanging foliage. The more likely explanation for the proximity of the two is that the pineapple lily was purchased with no idea where it would be planted, and knowing that the purple foliage requires at least some sunlight, there was a bit of open ground at the time.Snow Fairy caryopteris in early September

So, there it went, not considering that this bluebeard is one that annually dies to the ground, and only gets around to growing much with the heat of June. But, the late growth allows the foliage of the pineapple lily to reach maturity, and then I must assist by pruning the bluebeard or the whole thing falls apart. So, I could claim without argument from visitors that this creation was well planned, when it is only slightly more than a complete accident.Verbena and Ogon spirea

And, this happens all the time, sometimes with marvelous results, and other times less so, but with only a few complete and utter failures mixed in. It seems impossible for me to consider the why’s and where’s of every plant before it’s purchased, and so long as nearly everything works out for the best, I’ll blissfully muddle along with hardly a clue of the possible consequences. You will argue that I am owed a larger share to the garden’s success than I claim, and perhaps this is true to a small extent. But, the argument here is that not every detail must be so carefully planned, and if every plant and combination is given less scrutiny the gardener is more likely to be delighted with the result.