Spruce instead of roses

I’m hoping that the worst of summer temperatures holds off for a few more weeks. Already, there have been days here and there when heat and humidity have discouraged any but leisure activities in the garden, but there are a few projects that I’m almost motivated to get started on. If the heat kicks in they’ll certainly be delayed until September.

With the late start to spring, and the cold damage that required too many plants to be removed or severely pruned, it’s a wonder that I’ve accomplished anything but just keeping up. But, I’ve gotten around to more than I expected (which is much less maintenance than was needed). Finally, I think that I’ve finished planting, though there are enticements any time I walk through the garden center, and the mood to cram in another shrub or perennial can overrule whatever good sense I might have.Home Run shrub rose in mid August

In the garden surrounding the koi pond, three ‘Home Run’ roses (above) languished for years, and then two of three nearly perished over the winter. This was enough encouragement for me to chop them out and figure what could fill this hole that is a center point between shrubs and perennials seen from the lawn and from a stone patio on the other side. The roses were lackluster with few blooms, so I was hardly disappointed, but even if they had performed well they were the wrong plant for the spot. But, most gardeners have probably planted something, and though it’s not right, they can’t justify pulling out a living plant. Until it’s not living, or at least barely living, and when the roses died to the roots the decision was simple.Spruce and clematisFrom the moment it was apparent that the roses must leave, I knew that an evergreen was appropriate for the spot. And, the neighboring shrubs and perennials have a head start, so this evergreen must be one with a bit of heft, but not one that will grow to monstrous proportions. Quickly, I found a dwarf globe Colorado spruce (Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’, above) that was big enough so that it wouldn’t be lost from the start, and I’ve planted a few others in the garden so I’m aware of their eventual size. In fact, there’s another planted twenty feet away, but I fear that it’s planted where it will eventually be shaded too much, so if and when it declines there will still be a large mound of blue nearby.

The dwarf spruce  is one that I often see planted with spacing that is inappropriate for its mature size. Instead of a cute little ball of blue, it becomes a wide spreading behemoth that obstructs walks and patios. The first one I planted has grown to occupy several feet of a small patio, but the patio was small enough from the start that I insist that it is a landing, just a stopping point in a walkway.  So, while it grew ten feet wide to partially obstruct the path, there’s still plenty of space to get past, and I can claim that I planned it this way all the time.This will not be a problem where the new one is planted.


No lions and tigers, but …..

When wildlife is invited into the garden the gardener must be prepared for anything. Of course, not lions or tigers, but possibly bears (below). The cycle of life that we promote is likely to attract beasts of all sorts, large or small, welcomed or not. Some will arrive for the water, shelter, or berries, and others to prey on the ones that are eating the fruits. Thankfully, many that we prefer not to confront face to face visit at night, and are quickly spooked by other visitors so that the gardener is forever unaware of their presence.

Another photo of the bear in the neighborhood.

Another photo of the bear in the neighborhood – submitted to Fauquier Now

Thus (and this should be considered a blessing), I am aware that skunks regularly visit the garden, but I have never seen one besides the unfortunate fellow who wandered into a trap set by a clueless exterminator who was hired (unsuccessfully) to clear squirrels out of our attic. Deer practically stampede though the garden, and preventative measures are required to prevent them from devouring many of the plants. Of course, squirrels and a variety of birds are ever present, and a few days ago I spotted a bear. Occasionally, I see chipmunks that scamper about cautiously to avoid the attention of  hawks that circle endlessly overhead, but most commonly I see snakes.Black snake in fringetree

Yesterday, there were two snake sightings, of two different snakes. My wife heard the commotion of squawking birds in the front garden, and when she investigated she found a black snake climbing into the fringetree (above), attempting to rob a bird’s nest of its young. The birds were frantically pecking at the snake, and my wife tried to help by swatting at it with a broom while keeping a safe distance. When this proved futile, she grabbed an old basketball to hurl at the snake, who was hardly bothered by all this. My wife fled the scene before witnessing the end result, so we don’t know if the birds were successful in fending off this invader, but a few hours later when I went to fetch the broom that was stuck in the tree, all seemed well.Yellow flag iris and variegated cattail

The second sighting was in the koi pond in the rear garden (above), and this snake has obviously taken permanent residence in the boulders that surround the pond. Until a few years ago I called this pond a swimming pond, but then the number of koi swelled to a hundred or more, and with frequent snake sightings I decided to enjoy the pond from the outside. I’m not petrified by snakes, but it’s probably best for both of us if we avoid surprise encounters.Snake in koi pond

The snakes, I assume, feed on any smaller things they can catch, and from frogs to field mice (and chipmunks) there’s something moving through the garden around every corner. I wonder about the snake in the pond. When koi and goldfish were kept in the smaller ponds I’d occasionally spot a garter snake clutching a small fish, attempting to drag it onto dry land. By the time I happened upon this scene it was usually too late for the fish, and the snake fled in terror.

Now, there are no fish in the smaller ponds, but not because of the snakes. A heron nearly cleaned fish out of a few of the ponds before survivors were transferred into the newly constructed koi pond. In this deeper pond herons have a much more difficult task since they are not able to stand on the bottom to fish (not that they’ve stopped trying, but I’m guessing with little success). I’ve not been able to tell if the resident snake has had success in capturing fish in this larger pond, but if the koi are too difficult to snare there are dozens and maybe hundreds of frogs. This is the second year the snake has been in the pond, so I suppose he’s satisfied with the food supply.Bumblebee and caryopteris

In any case, the gardener is aware of the goings on of birds, butterflies, and bees (above and below), and these are the delightful side of the wildlife that visits our gardens. The presence of bears and snakes alerts us to another side that is less pleasant.Panicle hydrangea and butterfly

Bears and hydrangeas

Weeds seem more robust at the start of this summer than I can recall in some time. I’ve been know to ignore weeds a bit too long so that they’re allowed to go to seed (to multiply one into hundreds), and I suspect this is catching up to me. Now, the incessant weed pulling is infringing on my traditional early summer lazy period, and the time I spend browsing about the garden enjoying blooms of hydrangeas, stewartia, and whatever.

Of perhaps more interest, I spotted a black bear in the garden in early morning a few days ago, though I’m quite certain he has nothing to do with the proliferation of weeds. I’ve reported this to neighbors, and it seems that no trash cans were tipped over or jars of honey stolen, so there is no evidence that this large fellow was doing anything more than passing through. I checked the blueberries just in case, and they’re not quite ripe, so they weren’t disturbed. Besides this, there is nothing happening of great consequence.

A black bear photographed in a nearby neighborhood. He looks familiar.

A black bear photographed in a nearby neighborhood. He looks familiar.

I was out of town for a week, and suddenly weeds are popping up into any open space. And, with abundant rain the bamboo that was cut to the ground a few years ago is sprouting more vigorously than ever. This is more what I expected when the bamboo was first chopped down, and while it is still manageable, it is a chore that I would rather be over and done with. The weeds are a constant in this garden, but they are pulled a few at a time, and rarely do they get too far ahead of me. But, now they seem overwhelming. Anyway, once the heat gets up and the ground dries out a bit they will not be so bad. I hope.

Still, I have not cut down the dead magnolias and witch hazel. Through May I delayed the task, hoping against hope that they would miraculously recover, but of course I knew better. The ground remains too damp to work in the areas of the dead trees, and certainly it will dry out in July. There are no plans for immediate replacements, and the carcasses can barely be seen by neighbors, so there’s no hurry.Stewartia in mid June

With several days of hot temperatures the Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia, above) passed beyond peak bloom quickly, and now the path beneath the tree is littered with browning white flowers. To be able to walk under the tree seems a miracle since it hardly grew at all for several years. But, as you would guess, as soon as I publicly complained it began to grow like a weed. Stewartia is a wonderful tree for patient gardeners, which I am not, and fortunately there were many other marvels to capture my attention while it was creeping along. I didn’t complain too loudly, I hope.

Healthy mophead hydrangea but no flower buds in June

Healthy mophead hydrangea but no flower buds in June

The mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla, above) were severely damaged by winter’s cold, and most were cut back as close to the roots as possible. Now, growth from the roots has covered dead stems, and a few long established shrubs have rebounded to nearly their full size. But, there are no flower buds, and I suspect it will be several weeks longer before any develop. Older mophead varieties such as ‘Nikko Blue’ flower only on last year’s wood, so these will not bloom until next spring, but reblooming varieties such as ‘Endless Summer’ and ‘Penny Mac’ will flower this summer, sooner or later.

Twist n Shout lacecap hydrangea flowering in June

Twist n Shout lacecap hydrangea flowering in June

Lacecap hydrangea cultivars (above)  were not damaged, and they are flowering a little late, but as fully as ever. I’ve heard reports that some Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, below) suffered some injury, but mostly these escaped any serious damage and several are now flowering heavily in the garden. One was crushed and another damaged by an ice covered tree that fell in December, but even these have recovered to flower nicely. Who could blame a bear for wanting to stop by for a peek?

Abundant blooms on oakleaf hydrangea in late June

Abundant blooms on oakleaf hydrangea in late June


A month of irises

Japanese iris seedlingA year ago a clump of Japanese iris (Iris ensata, above) appeared from behind a low growing cypress in the garden that borders the large koi pond. Submerged in shallow water along the pond’s edge are a variety of Japanese and yellow flag irises (Iris pseudacorus, below), so it is not too surprising that a few seeds have  escaped to nearby dry ground. Also, it is unsurprising that this seedling clump does not closely resemble any other Japanese iris in the garden. While yellow flags come true from seed (and these have spread through the pond), cultivars of Japanese iris do not.Yellow flag iris in mid May

The flowers of this seedling clump are quite ordinary as irises go, though to my thinking none can be considered any less than extraordinary. The flowers are similar to the variegated Japanese iris, but the foliage is completely green rather than striped with white. Also, it is considerably taller than the lower growing variegated version, and in dry ground the iris is more vigorous than I would expect. Through hot and dry periods of last summer the foliage did not fade at all, and while I’ve had a few irises fail in either damp or dry conditions, this seedling clump appears quite content where it is. In all, despite its lack of pedigree, the iris is marvelous, though I have little doubt that it has no commercial appeal. Blue flag iris in late May

In one of the garden’s smaller ponds blue flag iris (Iris versicolor, above) has spread moderately between partially submerged stones, but this spot is more heavily shaded than the koi pond, and I suppose that conditions are not ideal for it to spread further. In shade the flowers persist a bit longer than in full sun, but the blooms of any of the irises rarely last longer than a week or ten days.Japanese iris in bloom

By planting yellow and blue flags, and a handful of cultivars of Japanese iris, one iris or another will be flowering with hardly a break for nearly two months. For me, a pond filled with colorful koi, surrounded by lovely irises is as good as it gets.Japanese iris blooming by the swimming pond in early June

(Note : Care must be taken to contain seeds from yellow flag iris, which can invade native wetlands if rainwater is allowed to flow through the area where they are planted. Japanese iris has not presented this problem, though I’ve heard that it can be aggressive under some circumstances.)Japanese iris in early June


The last of winter’s damage

Two evergreen magnolias that perished in winter still stand at the margin of the rear garden. I haven’t been able to summon the energy to undertake the task to cut these into pieces small enough to dispose of, so they will remain until I’m properly motivated. Only one can be seen by a neighbor, and if the sight disturbs him too much he is welcome to chop it out on his own. Brackens magnolia in late June

This is the magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’) that was injured by snow in consecutive winters, and each time it rebounded remarkably to fill large sections that were bent and broken, though it became substantially shorter and wider as a result. ‘Brackens’ is the most cold hardy of the magnolias, and temperatures did not come close to the point where damage or death would be expected. So, I suspect that its demise was a result of the tree breaking dormancy in early March, followed by temperatures that quickly dropped to near zero. This was extremely annoying to me, but potentially fatal to a range of plants.

Neither the ‘Bracken’s’ or ‘Alta’ magnolias will be replaced, at least not immediately. Both are in areas close to the rear property line where river birch (Betula nigra), blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica), and katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) are planted, and these could stand a bit of breathing room. Probably, a shrub of some sort will eventually be planted in the spaces vacated by the magnolias, but nothing is needed at this point.Katsura

The ground surrounding the ‘Alta’ magnolia has become perpetually wet, it seems, and only once this spring has the mower been able to wade through the slop. While rainfall is up, this half of the rear garden seems to be sinking, though I can’t explain why. In any case, magnolias will tolerate wet feet to an extent, so it seems obvious that the culprit is the late winter cold rather than dampness.

Another carcass remains in the rear garden, and it seems clear that ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel (Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’) failed due to the spreading dampness. The witch hazel had flourished for nearly twenty years, spreading wide and standing far over my head, but these shrubs are intolerant of wet soils.  In recent years its foliage had become more sparse, and I feared this result was imminent. Arnold's Promise witch hazel in mid February

Beneath the bark of the witch hazel there is some life remaining, but each week this fades more. At one point in winter I was cheered that flower buds seemed poised to open, but then they did not. Weeks later, I was nearly certain that leaf buds were fattening, but also leaves failed to appear. There seems some hope that if the shrub is cut back severely the remaining energy could spark some meager growth, but the witch hazel’s removal will probably come on the same day as the magnolias.

And, now my whining is complete. Once these last reminders of the severe winter are gone, and now that they are written off, I will only mention them again in some distant year, reminiscing about days when the garden suffered considerable misfortune. Already, the garden has rebounded, and when these trees and shrub are cut to the ground there will be no evidence of the harsh season.

Bigleaf and big tree

The Bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) is tall and gawky, and its enormous size makes it undeniably inappropriate for most properties. But, I cannot think of a single tree in this garden that pleases me more. In flower, it’s wondrous, though the huge blooms are sparse in number compared to other flowering trees. I suspect that many male gardeners are also enthralled by large leaves (and perhaps a few females), and I know of no other cold hardy tree with ones that compare. Certainly, the monstrous leaves have something to do with gaining my favor, but also, the magnolia is one of a few that came to the garden with a story, and these will remain treasured no matter the joy they bring, or the havoc they might wreak.Bigleaf magnolia flower

The Bigleaf magnolia was spotted at a tree nursery in middle Tennessee twenty some years ago while bumping through a dusty field of tall grass on a hot July afternoon. I accompanied the nursery owner as we crossed this weedy patch, traveling from one field of dogwoods to another of oaks and maples. Our pickup bounced along through depressions left when trees were dug several years earlier, and occasionally a small dogwood hidden in the grass swatted against the front bumper as we proceeded.Bigleaf magnolia in early June

Here and there were taller trees that stood above the grass, and most had been left behind because they were ill formed or scarred. One curious tree captured my attention. It grew tall and straight with few branches, but its large dull green leaves were unlike the other common shade and flowering trees. I wondered what this tree was, and why it was left behind, and when I learned it was a Bigleaf magnolia the idea was quickly struck that this unusual tree should be planted in my new garden.

Arrangements were made for digging once the tree was dormant, and in November this awkward magnolia with huge leaves was planted in the side garden. There were, of course, no leaves until the following spring, and with few bare branches the tree looked as if it could never hope to fill this space.Bigleaf magnolia

But, spring arrived and a few moderately sized leaves appeared, and then a flower or two that were nearly enough to comfort me that this was indeed the tree I had wandered upon. By the third spring the tree began to grow with vigor, and within a few more years it showed indications of the monster it would become.Satomi dogwood

In the side garden the magnolia was planted with adequate space (I thought), but after two decades it has overspread  a pink flowered Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Satomi’, above) and several smaller shrubs. The dogwood, sweetshrubs (Calycanthus floridus ‘Athens’, below) and hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) have managed quite well as lower limbs of the magnolia have faded, and now only a few of the magnolia’s branches are low enough that I can reach to enjoy the impressive blooms.

Athens sweetshrub flowers in full sun or part shade

Athens sweetshrub flowers in full sun or part shade

As the bigleaf magnolia grows it nudges against native blackgum, swamp maples, and tulip poplars at the forest’s edge, and with the dogwood shielding the front the magnolia is barely seen, except by looking up. But, there it is a magnificent sight.


Colorful trees for late spring

I cannot explain why ‘Stellar Pink’ (Cornus x ‘Rutgan’) and ‘Satomi’ dogwoods (Cornus kousa ‘Satomi’ below) are barely pink most years in my northwest Virginia garden, but that once in ten years the pink is a deeper, lovelier shade. In fact, these trees have been planted for ten, maybe fifteen years, and only once was the color what you could truly call a pink flower. Perhaps the concurrence of weather events that caused this will be duplicated in my lifetime, but in every other year the gardener must be contented with white blooms that display only a blush of pink. Which is not so bad at all.Satomi dogwood in early June

I’ve seen ‘Stellar Pink’ and ‘Satomi’ in flower in the lower humidity of Oregon in late spring, and the flowers of both are distinctly deeper in color than in my garden. Through the years, one year or another has been wetter, cooler, or less humid, as close as is possible to an average Oregon spring, but still there is little pink to the blooms.  Obviously, the formula is much more complex than I can figure, so I’ll be happy for whatever small blush of pink these marvelous dogwoods can provide, and I won’t worry about things that are impossible to control or to predict.Silver Cloud redbud

This year the variegation on ‘Silver Cloud’ redbud (Redbud canadensis ‘Silver Cloud’, above) is much more pronounced than in recent years when I began to wonder if the tree was getting tired, or if some malady effected the foliage. The tree appeared healthy, but the leaves were nearly green, with little of the distinctive cream colored mottling. But, this year the cream has returned, and if I said I had any clue why, I’d be fibbing. In any case, the return of of the strikingly variegated foliage is a good thing, and this makes a notable difference in the upper portion of the rear garden.Samaritan dogwood

I’ve mentioned in recent years that the vigorous variegated Chinese dogwood ‘Samaritan’ (Cornus kousa ‘Samaritan’, above) has not flowered, and I suspected the reason was that it is partially shaded. The tree has grown tall and full, and from this I wouldn’t suspect that the shade was too deep, but I’ve had no other excuse for its lack of flowers. I’ve seen ‘Samaritan’ flowering in other gardens, so I didn’t figure this was a genetic shortcoming due to its breeding, and lack of sun seemed the only logical explanation.Wolf Eyes dogwood

Lower in the year garden the shrubby, variegated Chinese dogwood ‘Wolf Eyes’ (Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’ above) flowers with abandon, but in nearly full sun. The foliage of ‘Wolf Eyes’ is curled, and its spreading habit is more shrub than tree-like, so when I planted ‘Samaritan’ I expected it to be a significant improvement. But, at the time there was no good place to plant the dogwood, so it was shoehorned into a spot that was less than ideal. While this hasn’t effected its growth, the dogwood hasn’t flowered. Until this spring. Today, there are flowers, at the top of the tree that now pokes up above hollies and Japanese maples that obstructed its sunlight. The flowers can be seen, barely from the second story windows of the house through the branches of the tree lilac.Tree lilac in late May

The fate of the tree lilac (Syringa reticulata ‘Ivory Silk’, above) remains unresolved at this point, though it appears in fine health at the moment. In recent years it has lost one branch after another in the summer. As soon as the wilt appears I’ve pruned the large branches back to healthy wood in the hope that the spread could be arrested, and at the moment I’m hopeful that this has done the trick. Already, the branches removed have left the tree lopsided, and to lose any more might require the lilac’s removal. If it were not bordered closely by ‘Samaritan’ and a wide spreading Japanese maple the tree would look odd, but if no more damage is done it gains the benefit of the doubt for its marvelous blooms.