Accentuate the positive

The pineapple lilies (Eucomis comosa ‘Sparkling Burgundy’, below) are alive and going strong despite a winter that killed too many plants that are considered more cold hardy. There is no explaining this, at least I can’t,  and in the face of conflicting results the gardener is overjoyed by the few improbable successes.Sparkling Burgundy pineapple lily

Certainly, there are complex circumstances that allow more tender plants to survive while a very cold hardy ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’, below) perishes. From the start, I understood that Pineapple lilies were questionable to make it through a typical northwestern Virginia winter, so I would not have been surprised if they had failed. But, ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ appeared this spring as if nothing had happened, and other Pineapple lily cultivars survived, though they came up late and there is no sign that they will flower. Brackens magnolia in mid June

After an unusually severe winter, there is some justification for the gardener to feel that natural forces are conspiring against him. Throw in damage from summer storms, and it’s been a difficult few years for the garden. Several trees and shrubs in the garden have been severely damaged by snow, ice, or wind, and others suffer from a drainage problem that has turned the lower garden to a swamp for long stretches through winter and spring. But, lessons have been learned, and some mistakes will not be repeated. I’ve been wrong too many times to count, but I think the garden will emerge from this for the better, though it will take a few years.Passionflower vine

The Passion flower vine (Passiflora incarnata, above) is quirky regardless of the weather, and particularly so after a cold winter. One year the first growth is seen in May, the next it’s long into June. I didn’t mark the date, but this was a late year for it. But, once it pops out of the ground it takes no time for it to reach the top of its support, and to begin trailing along the wires that have been secured to the aluminum pavilion. The earliest blooms often fall victim to Japanese beetles, and that’s what’s happened again this summer. I thought the beetles were finished since they disappeared from the Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), but they reappeared and none of the July flowers amount to much. Fortunately, when the vine makes its appearance late, more flowers are delayed into August, so there will be plenty of blooms still to come.Yellow passionflower in August

I mistakenly planted the yellow flowered Passion flower (Passiflora lutea, above) on the backside of the large koi pond, where it flourishes. There, it rambles up through Oakleaf and panicled hydrangeas that have grown so wide that it’s difficult to get close enough to enjoy the small yellow flowers. The easiest route to view the vine is to balance along boulders that border the pond. This would be great if I was fourteen and fearless, but with damp rocks and overhanging branches, the footing is just short of treacherous, so I don’t often venture over to see the blooms. Also, this is the favored hangout for the water snake that has taken up residence in the pond, so I must keep a watchful eye for him, and take care of my footing. This is too many things to think about at once, so I’m usually satisfied to visit the purple flowered passion vine instead.


Two weeks away

I have just returned from two weeks away. The garden is pretty much as I left it, though more weeds have invaded and the bamboo that was chopped out a few years ago is sprouting with vigor. Several hours labor will be required to get things back in order.Tansy and daisies in July

I am least concerned while traveling about irrigating the garden since most all plants are well established, and tough enough to tolerate any but a summer long drought. Several storms over the two weeks kept the garden’s ponds full and plants happy.

Along the forest’s edge that borders the garden many small branches have fallen on hostas and plum yews, but there is not enough damage to bother with. One large branch tumbled from a tall tulip poplar in one of the storms, with one end embedding straight down into a small section of bare ground, and the other end resting twenty or thirty feet up into the tree. I must remove it before it falls in a direction that might crush neighboring sweetshrubs (Calycanthus floridus). Certainly, it is a hazard that must be removed sooner than later.Sweetshrub in late April

My wife reminded me that my last attempt at tree work to remove a maple that was toppled in a December ice storm resulted in a trip to the emergency room. She warned that this is not a one man project, but this large branch is considerably smaller than the tree that gashed my forehead, and even if matters go terribly wrong it could not do similar damage. I hope.

I suspect that many gardeners are overly ambitious in undertaking projects that are above their capabilities, though this could possibly be more a characteristic of men than gardeners as a whole. The winter tree removal required the purchase of a larger chainsaw and several hundred dollars payment to the hospital, but I figure that this was just about what a tree company would cost. The tree was removed with little damage to Oakleaf hydrangeas directly below, and the gash healed with barely a trace of a scar. And, I have a chainsaw to show for my efforts.Northern catalpa

When I toured the garden this morning I saw that the catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) has been stripped bare, evidently the work of the Catalpa Sphinx moth, though with no remaining foliage the caterpillars have moved on. With some ground moisture and plenty of growing season remaining, I expect some leaves will grow, and that there will be no long term damage.

If I had been home while the caterpillars were doing their damage, I suppose I would have tried to dislodge them from the foliage, though the tree is a good ways from the nearest water spigot. Occasionally, I catch caterpillars in the Golden Chain trees (Laburnum x watereri ‘Pendula’), but these have pendulous branches that are well within my reach, so the caterpillars are easily removed.Caterpillar on Golden Chain tree

Though there is not a whole leaf remaining, the damage done is not so great that I would have resorted to spraying a pesticide. But, I’ll be on the lookout for the caterpillars next summer if my travel schedule allows.

Summer doldrums

Not every summer is as easy as this. Rainfall has been ample, and temperatures have been moderate. Certainly, more difficult conditions are ahead, since it seems unlikely that summer will treat the garden so gently.Alstromeria in July

Though several plants are continuing to recover from winter injury, foliage and flowers are lush in mid July. Most likely, this will not last. The best that can be anticipated is that evening thunderstorms will continue, perhaps to minimize the stress of summer’s heat, but half of summer has passed without much trauma.

This garden is irrigated only by rain, though on rare occasions I will drag a hose around to water new plantings that might struggle in the heat. Some parts of the country require irrigation to maintain adequate soil moisture, but in northwestern Virginia most plants can manage without.Tiger swallowtails on Joe Pye weed

Many of the garden’s plants demand little attention through the worst of summer, and possibly these are ill served by regular irrigation. In this garden there is no place for weaklings, and though one plant or another occasionally declines in the heat, failures are few.

The small sections of lawn are another matter. Grass is given little attention, and if it fades a bit through the summer I’m not bothered at all since it usually perks up again in September. My preference would be to eliminate more lawn to plant a few more trees, but my wife demands that no more grass be removed. At a point, it’s best to know when to yield, and I’m certain I crossed that line years ago. So, the lawn will stay, but I’ll do as little as possible to care for it.Golden Full Moon maple

Many trees and shrubs in this garden are long established, and with deep roots they show little ill effect, even in the driest, hottest summers. The deep red of a few Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) will fade a bit in the heat, but ones that are partially shaded hardly show a hint of this.Skeeter's Broom Japanese maple in July

The native River birch (Betula nigra) is notorious for pumping up with lush growth through spring, but then dropping an alarming number of leaves in the heat of August, particularly when planted in dry soils. No harm is done. In this garden birch and shrubs that prefer moist soil are planted in ground alongside a swampy meadow that rarely goes dry, so these show little effect through the summer.Mountain mint in July

Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) is native to the area, and as it reaches peak bloom in July there is no evidence that summer heat is a concern. Today, bees and wasps are occupied gathering nector so that they pay scant attention as I poke my nose too close. Blooms of the native mint will attract pollinators long after summer’s heat has passed.

Trial and error

Occasionally, one plant or another is purchased with enthusiastic expectations, but then it fails so quickly that after a few months it is long forgotten. This happens often enough that the gardener becomes cautious about wasting valuable dollars from his planting budget, but not so frequently that he is discouraged from planting. Often, the same plant goes in and then fails again, and sometimes again, until the gardener has finally learned this lesson. Maybe.

Perennial daisies are simple, even for me

Perennial daisies are simple, even for me

It seems that this gardener, or any gardener, should get some feel for the type plants that will be successful in his particular garden, but over three decades I have not been consistently successful in doing so. There are varied conditions through the garden, from dry shade to swampy ground in full sun. And, conditions do not remain constant one season after the other, and certainly not from one year to the next.

Too many impossible to kill perennials have perished in this garden for me to have confidence that I have a sure hand in determining the success of plants, though the whole of the garden is far more splendid than I expected when it was begun twenty five years ago.

Moonbeam coreopsis has failed more than once in this garden

Moonbeam coreopsis has failed more than once in this garden

The common threadleaf tickseeds (Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’ above) are foolproof, I’ve heard too many times, but they’ve failed in this garden more than once. Three time, perhaps four, and each time I believed that I had finally figured out the error of my ways. This time, I was certain to succeed, but in sun or part shade, dry or damp ground, the tickseeds disappeared after a few months, or maybe a year or two if I paid particular attention to their care.

Joe Pye weed survives in wet or dry soil

Joe Pye weed survives in wet or dry soil

I imagine, or at least I’m hopeful that every gardener has at least a plant or two that thwarts his best efforts. Am I alone? While complications that result in the death of plants can be complex, I am most certain of plants that have succumbed to overly damp soil. The lower third of the rear garden has become increasingly damp, and I can attest with some certainty that evergreen hollies and witch hazels will not tolerate these conditions, and that while hydrangeas prefer regular irrigation, they suffer in constant dampness.

Fortunately, I have discovered trees and shrubs that perform well in the wetness, but also in dry shade where it has become difficult to carve out a spot between roots of swamp maples and tulip poplars. Many gardeners consider dry shade their scourge, but I’ve had greater success here than in constant dampness.

Coconut Lime tolerates neglect - one of few coneflowers to survive in the garden

Coconut Lime tolerates neglect – one of few coneflowers to survive in the garden

The areas between these extremes should not be much of a challenge, it seems, but here I continue to kill perennial sunflowers and coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea ‘Coconut Lime’, above) until I give up and decide to plant no more. What could be the problem? Too many trees and shrubs, and many perennials that should be more difficult, grow with vigor, so how is it that I cannot grow these?

Daylilies can be difficult to kill - but I've done it

Daylilies can be difficult to kill – but I’ve done it

I believe (I hope) that I am at least of average intelligence, but the success of some plants goes beyond what makes good sense to me. Without adequate answers I must be satisfied to grow what grows well for me, and those few that refuse to cooperate are best forgotten.

Too many to count

Bumblebee on caryopterisI don’t claim knowledge to distinguish between one bee or wasp and another, any butterfly or moth besides the ubiquitous Tiger swallowtail, or even frogs and toads. Toads, I can identify by sound I suppose, and I’m quite certain that the high pitched, agitated squeals I hear today as I walk along the paths that border the garden’s ponds are frogs of some sort. I know that there are a variety of frogs in the garden because the tunes they sing change regularly. For weeks, the many thousands of spring peepers make such a racket that sleeping can be a challenge, then this turns to more isolated chirps in varying tones. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on butterfly bush in mid JulyIt’s difficult to begin to calculate the number of frogs that reside along and in each of the garden’s five ponds. Dozens leap to safety as I walk near, but surely others must be hunkered beneath overhanging shrubs, hostas, and Forest grass. Garden maintenance is occasionally delayed when every other step must be watched to avoid a tiny frog, and mowing the small sections of lawn is impossible on some days.


There are, I suppose, innumerable creatures living in and surrounding the ponds. The primary attraction of course, is the water, but many are drawn by the presence of the others. The food chain begins with tiniest bits of algae, then progresses to the variety of insects that float and hover over the ponds. While mosquitoes are unlikely to breed in any numbers in the moving water, there are plenty of potential breeding grounds in the vicinity, and my wife must slather on a variety of potions before going out. But, beside the large koi pond, dragonflies assure that mosquitoes are kept under control. They zip across and back, often chasing each other in territorial squabbles, but diving and snaring mosquitoes and other tiny insects, I figure. I have no doubt they are well fed.Dragonfly

In recent days I’ve noticed tiny fish in the koi pond, though the water has been murkier than usual due to heavy thunderstorms. In their early days, young fish keep to the edges of the pond where they feed on the short filaments of algae that cling to rocks. I suppose there might be some protection from predators here also, though this seems to make the small fish easier targets for the five foot water snake that now seems to be a permanent resident. The snake is becoming more bold in my presence, and now I’m cautious to check between boulders before reaching down into the pond. I’m certain that the snake is not poisonous, but I don’t wish to provoke a confrontation that might injure one of us or the other.

It is impossible to determine the number of koi in the pond. An inventory is difficult since they are constantly in motion, and after the number passed fifty several years ago I gave up any hope of counting them. The koi pond is over a thousand square feet, so the only time they are not scattered across the pond is when they gather to be fed. Then, their frantic movements make counting doubly difficult, so I’ll just suppose there are seventy-five to a hundred.KoiWithout a head count I cannot know whether the heron that visits regularly, or the hawks that circle overhead are successful in fishing the pond. When I had fish in the shallower, smaller ponds the heron nearly cleaned them out, but the large koi pond varies up to five feet deep, so this makes the heron’s task more difficult. In any case, there are enough koi now that if the heron is able to capture a few I’m not too concerned about it. When the bird has been around the koi stay low in the water, so they’re certainly bothered by its presence even if I’m not.

Until a few weeks ago there was every reason to suspect that the Indian pinks (Spigelia marilandica, below) had disappeared along with so many others as a result of the winter’s cold. Some casualties can be blamed on excess moisture that has plagued the lower part of the rear garden for the past few years, but I figured that it was cold that got the pinks. But, then they appeared, and a few weeks later they’re flowering, a month late,  but thankfully they’re still here (and without suffering significant damage).  Spigelia in early June Someday, the pinks are supposed to spread to form a small colony, but they’ve been slow to spread at all, and the winter nipped them back a bit so that they’re back to where they were a few years ago. The flowers of Indian pinks are small, so they must fill in to a thick clump to compensate or they are hardly seen. So far, this isn’t happening, but they’re alive, so there’s hope. Uvularia flowering in mid AprilAnother native, Sessile bellwort (Uvularia sessifolia, above) survived the winter without objection, but it failed to flower in mid spring. Many, and probably most trees, shrubs, and perennials that typically flower in April were delayed by several weeks or a month after cold temperatures persisted early into the month, but few failed to flower at all. Again thankfully, the bellwort survived in good health, and if a one year hiatus from flowering is the only consequence of the winter, that’s not too great a cost.

The mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) continue to grow vigorously, but still there are no signs of flower buds forming. While old varieties flower only on old wood (with flower buds formed late last year), many new varieties bloom on old and new wood, so while older stems were damaged by cold, flowers should form on the new growth. But, I have learned over many years of disappointment that plants are more complex than this, and there is some equation of damage from the winter, plus overly vigorous foliar growth that has caused the hydrangeas to be slow to set buds. I expect they will, but I’m not betting on the timing.Twist n 'Shout hydrangea in early July

Lacecap types (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Twist n’ Shout’, above) were not bothered by the winter at all, with the exception of the variegated lacecap (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Mariesii Variegata’, below) that was killed to the roots and is rebounding nicely. The other lacecaps are in full bloom today, and without checking my somewhat sketchy records I figure this is later than usual, which would not be much of a surprise, but they’re flowering as good as ever. Please don’t ask what the difference is between the various lacecaps and mopheads and why some will be damaged more by winter temperatures. This information is well beyond my capabilities.  Variegated Maresi hydrangea in early July Several of the recently introduced ‘Bloomstruck’ (below) were planted in early spring, and after a difficult start these have set buds and are beginning to flower. The breeder has demanded that growers ship only plants with buds, so when my first ‘Bloomstruck’ were delivered in early April the foliage and flower buds were immediately fried by one of the many late freezes. After this setback, I was prepared that the hydrangeas would struggle through and probably would not flower (if they survived), but they have grown back strongly. It is curious, however, that all flowers so far are deep pink rather than the blue of other hydrangeas in the garden’s acidic soil. Again, the formula that determines flower color is too much for me to figure, so I’ll be happy with whatever color they decide on.    Bloomstruck hydrangea in early July

Unanticipated treasures

I readily admit that many of the garden’s successes are more a result of complete accident rather than efforts on my part. Certainly, some benefit is derived from good planning. Occasionally, combinations of colors and textures work out just as envisioned, but more satisfying are unanticipated pleasures that have nothing at all to do with the garden’s design.

For whatever reason, a year ago I planted ‘Homestead Purple’ verbena in a spot of new ground that begged for a temporary filler, though it is bit bright for my taste. ‘Homestead’ is rarely fully perennial, but even after a colder than average winter a few areas where stems of the verbena rooted have returned to grow and flower vigorously. Its aggressive nature must be monitored or it will overwhelm neighbors, but in this sunny spot it is most useful in attracting the hummingbird moth, a particular favorite of mine. Seemingly a hybrid of hummingbird and bumblebee, the moth blissfully ignores my presence to extract nectar from every bloom on the verbena as I crouch nearby, mesmerized.

A hummingbird moth visits Homestead Purple verbena

A hummingbird moth visits Homestead Purple verbena

The heat of this early summer has only occasionally been brutal, and while it is certain that the worst is still to come, the gardener is satisfied that the disasters created by the severe winter have mostly been made tolerable. Dead shrubs have been chopped out, and branches have been cut away so that injuries from cold have been masked by vigorous growth. Hydrangeas and paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha) that were cut to a fraction have recovered, though not quite to their former selves.Tiger swallowtail on Franklinia flower in August

Concern remains that the Franklinia (Franklinia alatamaha, above) planted at the high side of a wet weather spring has progressively declined, in a similar fashion to the neighboring ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise) that was recently removed due to persistent dampness. In recent years, several branches have been pruned from the twenty year old Franklin tree, but I fear this has not slowed its decline. Now, leaves are small and too widely scattered, and I suspect by spring it will be gone.Gordlinia flowering in late July

In talking with gardeners, it seems a rarity for Franklinia to live for two decades. This fortunate tree was initially from a group of twenty-five that was dug from a nursery in late winter, and became the lone survivor of trees that are notoriously difficult to transplant. Until the last few years it grew with few problems, but now it seems I must prepare for what seems its inevitable loss (and with no suitable Franklinias available).  Instead, I’ve planted two Gordlinias (xGordlinia grandiflora, above), shrubby hybrids of the Franklinia and southern Gordonia. These have been planted on higher and drier ground, and though the two have suffered minor injuries through their first two winters, both appear to have turned the corner with vigorous growth.

The gordlinias have flowers and foliage similar to Franklinia, and if references are correct these shrubby trees might be more sturdy than the short lived Franklinia. Their relation to significant botanists and historical figures is not so interesting (see Wikipedia), but the blooms and autumn foliage color will recall the treasured Franklin tree long after its loss.Buttonbush in early July

In the damp swale where the witch hazel and Franklinia have suffered, buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis, above) and bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora, below) thrive in the soggy ground. I first noted buttonbush in swampy ground along a hiking trail my wife and I frequent. The ping pong ball sized white orbs were visited by dozens of varied pollinators, and though the foliage was unexceptional, this seemed perfectly suited to the increasingly damp area in my garden. Three lanky shrubs have flourished in the muck and standing water, and bees and other pollinators have found their way to visit. Bottlebrush buckeye in early July

The bottlebrush buckeye involved less planning and no effort since it was a volunteer seedling. I take credit for its presence only in that I avoided weeding this area for long enough that the large, compound leaves of the shrub became evident. Beneath a wide spreading river birch (Betula nigra) it grows slowly, and has fewer blooms than in a sunnier space, but it is as treasured as any shrub or tree in the garden.