The small section of lawn at the back of the rear garden has been lost to nutgrass, though the loss is not exactly heartbreaking since I hardly care at all about the lawn. Certainly, the nutgrass is green, and perhaps it’s better than crabgrass. The only downside I see is that both weedy grasses seed into the planting beds, so this has become a nuisance.

Crabgrass can be a bit of a pain to pull if it’s neglected for a few weeks as the stems root at every node. Nutgrass is more difficult to yank out, and if any root is left behind you have accomplished almost nothing. No doubt, there is some chemical marvel that will wipe out the nutgrass without killing the few blades of fescue that remain, but this area stays damp for long periods, so the weedy grass is likely to return no matter what I do. And, nutgrass grows dense, and very green, so in this back area it works out just fine as far as I’m concerned.Sweetshrub

The fact is well established that I’m not a stickler for routine garden maintenance, but in recent weeks I’ve exerted a bit more effort to clean up weeds that were becoming more of a bother. The damp area in the rear garden has been a particular problem. Here, a long established witch hazel died, and until the chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) and sweetshrubs (Calycanthus floridus) grow to fill the now sunny space the weeds will be a pain.  I expect these native shrubs to not only tolerate, but to thrive in this dampness, and perhaps it will take only a year or two until I’m questioning whether they were planted too closely.Geranium seedling sprouting through Creeping Jenny

To cover the damp ground beneath the shrubs I’ve planted Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’), which I’ve found is an inexact science. In the proper combination of just enough sun and adequate moisture it grows vigorously, but in too much sun, and a bit too dry, Creeping Jenny fades miserably by mid summer. But, so far, so good. There are no other low growing neighbors, so if Jenny really takes off, no harm will be done. The yellow can be a little too bright for my taste, but I’ll live with it if it grows well enough to dress the area up. On the downside, where it’s growing, it isn’t doing a thing to keep the weeds down, and whenever I pull a tuft of nutgrass a chunk of Creeping Jenny comes along with it.

If I live long enough, some day I’ll figure this thing out.


One hydrangea overlaps another, then another. Poking out from this melange is a small clump of Pineapple lily (Eucomis comosa ‘Sparkling Burgundy’) and a soft wooded, variegated Blue mist shrub (Caropteris divaricata ‘Snow Fairy’) that struggled through the cold winter, and now is barely hanging on as an overly vigorous Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) nearly overwhelms it. For several years this combination was superb, I think, but now the balance has been lost. This is not so unusual, and often some small part of the garden will be exceptional for a period, and then the magic is lost.

Sparkling Burgundy pineapple lily and Oakleaf hydrangea

Sparkling Burgundy pineapple lily and Oakleaf hydrangea

I suppose there are gardeners who can envision these things (or so they claim), but mostly I think that our best hope is to create something wondrous, until it’s not, and then hope that we can hold on a while longer by snipping here and there, and later by pruning  more severely in an attempt to enforce order. Usually, this is not the same as when branches weave upon their own devices to cast a fleeting spell. And so it is, and the gardener must be joyful that the magic was there at all rather than feeling disappointment when things are not just so.

Stream with ferns and hosta

Stream with ferns and hosta

I’ve often said that the most delightful creations in this garden are completely accidental, and while this is overstating the case a bit, seldom am I able to imagine that a fern will arch delightfully above the broad leaves of ‘Francee’ hosta nestled beside a small stream that has been constructed. Across the stream ‘Carol Mackie’ daphne (Daphne x burkwoodi ‘Carol Mackie’) grows through and above a thick clump of sweetbox (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis). Moss covers the small stones that line the stream, and for several years this scene has been extraordinary.

No doubt, the sweetbox is due for some horrific blight, and the daphne will inevitably fail for no reason at all (as daphnes do). But again, nothing of the sort could happen, and here are plants that are unlikely to suddenly take off and overgrow their area.

Carol Mackie daphne

Carol Mackie daphne

The sweetbox took forever (it seems) to get to this point, and never could I have forecast that it would grow right through the daphne, and that both would remain perfectly content. ‘Carol Mackie’ has suffered its own challenges, with large branches falling  from the forest’s swamp maples flattening the shrub more than once. But, this shaded scene with a backdrop of variegated Japanese aucuba (Aucuba japonica ‘Gold Dust’), nandina (Nandina domestica) and tall, deciduous azaleas is the highlight of the garden. Perhaps it will remain so for a while longer.Hostas, creeping Jenny, and golden fernspray cypress

Other parts of the garden capture my attention for a week, or even a year until some manner of ruin steals the scene. Usually, the ruin could have been anticipated if I was able to think these things through, I suppose, but the error is not so grievous that plants must be moved or radically pruned. It is only that the proportions are a bit off, that one has grown or another diminished, and this is what enthralls the gardener on rare occasions when all pieces mesh to perfection.

Beetles and bees, and a happy gardener

I realize that I am unhappy to see a flower in midsummer not occupied by a bee, butterfly, or pollinator of some sort. This fascination does not include Japanese beetles (below), which seem to be enjoying an extended stay in the garden, spoiling too many blooms. It seems a crime to lead a story with a photo of these pests, but there it is. Since I do not spray to rid the garden of pests of any sort, I gain some satisfaction by flicking the beetles from low hanging flowers. Certainly, they are not dissuaded, and must return quickly, but it seems I should be allowed a few small pleasures, no matter how nonsensical.

Japanese beetles on Gordlinia flower

Japanese beetles on Gordlinia flower

I’ve lost track of a reference to judge the abundance of beetles in the garden, but I suppose their numbers are small, and the damage they inflict is limited. Certainly, there are sufficient numbers of birds, so perhaps this keeps the beetle population in check. But, enough about pests.

Tiger swallowtail on verbena

Tiger swallowtail on verbena

Fortunately, I am seldom disappointed, and particularly now that Tiger swallowtails (above) have reappeared in recent weeks there is a wonderful diversity of pollinators in the garden. There are disproportionate numbers of gentle mannered bumblebees and angry and aggressive wasps, but also honeybees, hoverflies, and moths (Hummingbird moth, below), as well as other smaller bees I cannot identify.

A hummingbird moth visits Homestead Purple verbena

A hummingbird moth visits Homestead Purple verbena

Increasingly, gardening to please these pollinators (as well as other beasts that inhabit the garden) is a priority as much as my personal satisfaction. It seems I must be getting soft as I age, or perhaps there is some knowledge that eventually sinks into the hardest of gardeners’ heads. In any case, a few blemished blooms from beetles and caterpillars is inconsequential compared to the benefits of a garden with croaking frogs, chirping birds, and buzzing bees.

Fruit on Chinese dogwood in August

Fruit on Chinese dogwood in August

While tempted to plant more natives, this garden is long established, and will continue to be a mix, with Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) planted alongside Eastern dogwoods (Cornus florida) and rebuds (Cercis canadensis). It surprises and disappoints that many of the red fruits of the Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa, above) have ripened and fallen to the ground this summer. The fruits are more abundant than in recent years, and certainly these are too large for most of the garden’s small birds. I understand, the cycles of nature are unpredictable, so whatever bird that has stripped these in prior years must be occupied elsewhere, but still I am disheartened by this waste.

Bee on Mountain mint

Bee on Mountain mint

Bees and butterflies are most dependable. On any sunny day, if there is a bloom with nectar, there will be bees. If bees and wasps were not determinedly occupied gathering nectar from the Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), walking past might be too dangerous to stop to enjoy this buzz of activity. Butterflies seem wary to join the frenzy, though they will step in on a cloudy afternoon when the attraction is not so strong.

Weed control

I cannot exactly determine the cause, but the garden has been plagued by weeds through this year. The easy answer is to consider that I might be less motivated to keep after weeds when they’re small, which then go to seed to exacerbate the problem. And, who could blame me, even if this is true (and I don’t believe it)? I hear of gardeners who claim to enjoy weeding and other mundane tasks, but I don’t, never will, and can’t understand how this is possible.

One thing is certain, there is rarely such a thing as a low maintenance garden, and when one gardener expects to manage nearly an acre without assistance, there are likely to be times when things get a bit out of control. This year, there has been one problem after another in the garden, from plants killed and injured by winter that have required hours of labor in removal and pruning, to complications from drainage issues in the rear garden that continually worsen, and now weeds that consume too much time that should be devoted to leisure. I know, this sounds a lot  like every other year, but I feel certain that this has  been worse.

At this point, I’m determined to lessen the amount of labor required to manage the garden, and no, this doesn’t mean I’ll consider turning portions of the garden back to lawn as my wife suggests. As always, I’m inclined to add to the garden rather than subtract, and I’m thinking that the best way to solve this weed dilemma is to cover as much bare ground as possible, as quickly as possible (also, as inexpensively as possible, by the way).

I notice that areas in the garden that are covered by aggressive spreaders have many fewer weeds, which is not a revelation of any sort, but which I’ve avoided planting in part through principle that aggressive plants in general should be avoided. But, large portions of this garden are planted with trees and shrubs, so I suppose that if a vigorous ground cover is planted there are likely to be few conflicts.   Chocolate mint in early October

At the far back corner of the garden I’ve planted a variety of mint which has spread to cover an area that was subject to erosion caused by runoff from neighboring properties. The mint is hemmed in by a large magnolia (which is now dead, but not yet removed) and blueberry shrubs so that the area is too shaded for the mint to expand very far. I expect that mint is the worst of the aggressors, and that by comparison violets and bugleweed will be easily managed if planted on a larger scale.Purple leafed violets

Periwinkle (Vinca minor), violets (Viola), and bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) are planted in small patches in the garden without creating a problem worth mentioning. In fact, violets have seeded themselves into areas that confound me as to how the seeds got there, and I suppose the problem is that violets could eventually move into areas where they’re not wanted. Like weeds. But, as I consider the pro’s and con’s, the decision is weighing heavily in favor of turning these low growing beasts loose to cover as much as ground as they please, and to worry about their over exuberance later.

Already, I’ve begun to transplant pieces of violets and sedums that have sprouted where they serve no productive purpose. A small patch of violets growing in a crack in the driveway is easily dug out. and with a minimum of attention it is easily transplanted to a shaded spot of moderately moist soil beneath a wide spreading Japanese maple. Under this tree I’ve planted the marvelous yellow leafed ‘Sun King’ aralia (Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’), hostas, hellebores, and a winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureo-marginata) that has recovered nicely from the winter. The violet is a small, purple leafed variety that was planted long ago so that I don’t recall the cultivar, but in any place it’s seeded it remains low and spreads to fill any open space. This is what I’m looking for, though I’ll need to keep a watch that it doesn’t bother the lower growing hostas and hellebores.Sedum

In sunny, dry spots I’ve moved a few pieces of a variegated sedum (also of unknown nomenclature) that were found growing in ash at the bottom of the fire pit where garden scraps are tossed to be burned some day in the future. The low growing sedum was planted in small areas of gravel beside the stone patio, where it has filled to form a mat that is rarely penetrated by weeds. The tiny bits have been transplanted to areas that I consider dry and sunny enough, and where the light green and cream foliage will be well suited as a backdrop for the darker foliage growing above.Chocolate Chip bugleweed in mid April

In past years I’ve had a bit of problem growing bugleweed, which I’m certain seems impossible to believe for gardeners who have had issues with its aggressive nature. It’s been along ago enough that I don’t recall if the location where it failed was too wet or dry (or too sunny), but then a few years ago I planted the small leafed ‘Chocolate Chip’, and it has behaved quite well and spread only a little further than I anticipated. It has occasionally wandered into the lawn that is thin from a smidgen too much shade, but this has been easily managed and I don’t mind at all if the lines between lawn and garden are blurred. I much prefer the bugleweed to lawn, and it’s not as if it’s taking over any more than a small section.

So, this is my late summer project, though the mild and relatively damp mid summer has allowed me to get a jump start on it. In early September I’ll splurge to purchase a few pots each of a few other interesting cultivars of bugleweed, and there’s a silver leafed viola that I have my eye on. Each of these containers can immediately be split into a handful, and I’m hopeful that it won’t be long until these work their magic to cut my time spent weeding to nothing at all. Or, at least enough to make up for my growing lack of motivation.

Almost recovered

Only recently have I moved beyond disappointment over damage done in the garden by the winter past, and already I’m distressed that autumn is close around the bend (with winter inevitably to follow). Though the garden has recovered substantially, constant reminders loom so long as I delay removing two evergreen magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) that have died along the garden’s rear margin.

For months the magnolias remained as I excused that the surrounding soil was too saturated, and why make a sloppy mess of this small section of lawn while removing the trees? Then, the ground dried a bit, but why undertake such a project in the heat? And so  on, though the summer has been mild and dry enough that I will not have to sink to the ankles to cut out the dead trees. The project is not a big one, certainly simpler than the ordeal in cutting numerous branches of the ten feet wide spreading paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha) back to live wood. I was disconsolate when the splendid winter flowering shrubs were chopped to a fraction of their previous size, but now they have revived with encouraging vigor.Oakleaf hydrangea in August

Mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) that were killed to the ground have grown back nearly to their full size, though with so much energy committed to recovery they have only recently set flower buds. As temperatures cool in September I expect more flowers. Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, above) suffered little or none, and in fact the oakleafs have grown with unusual exuberance, with several requiring drastic pruning so that neighbors are not overwhelmed. A large swamp maple (Acer rubrum) that was downed in a December ice storm allowed more sun into the side garden, and several hydrangeas that had bloomed sparsely have enjoyed their new found scattered rays of sunlight.

Panicled hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata) also escaped damage from the cold, making it easier than ever to recommend these sturdy shrubs. So what, they don’t flower in the spring along with every other shrub. This should not be considered a fault, though they are less than spectacular when the masses flock to garden centers in the spring. No doubt, once they get around to it, the flowers of these hydrangeas hold their beauty far longer than any other in the garden. The massive panicles retain their attraction long into autumn, with the flowers of some cultivars becoming more enthralling as they age (which is also true of some gardeners, I suppose, though this could be due in part to failing eyesight).Tardiva hydrangea in August

The only nay that can be said about exceptional cultivars such as the old and most recently neglected ‘Tardiva’ (above), and the new standard ‘Limelight’, is that these grow much too large for many small gardens unless the gardener is fully committed to an annual hard pruning pruning that is not so easily accomplished. But, even this has been addressed with modestly sized versions, ‘Little Lime’ and others that flower as abundantly, though the blooms are more appropriately sized for the smaller shrub.

I’m saddened that the treasured Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha) continues to decline, I suspect as a result of increasingly poor drainage in the rear garden as much as from the winter that has likely sealed its fate. Foliage on the tree is sparse, with many branches bare, and there are few flowers and buds. Tiger swallowtails (and Japanese beetles) will be disappointed by this scarcity, but already they have found the hybrid Gordlinia (x Gordlinia grandiflora, below) with flowers that are the equal of Franklinia’s, but slightly larger in size.Gordlinia in mid August

Two gordlinias also suffered the effects of winter, but these have rebounded to grow vigorously with lush foliage and abundant blooms. When these were planted it was supposed that they would be more sturdy than the troublesome Franklinia, which is weakly rooted and prone to difficulties if soil and care are not optimal. Despite soil that has become too damp in recent years, the Franklin tree has survived my inattention for fifteen or more years, so it’s had a good run. But, now I fear that it cannot be revived from this fragile state, and it’s doubtful that it can survive another year. While disappointing, there is no constant in the garden. It changes daily and weekly, and the gardener accepts that there will be struggles along the way.

A bumblebee’s paradise

Bumblebee on toad lily in August‘Sinonome’ toad lily (Tricyrtis ‘Sinonome’) begins flowering in early August in this garden, several weeks earlier than other cultivars. When first opened, the tepals do not spread fully, so that bumblebees that are so numerous in the garden must pierce the base of the flower to obtain its nectar (above). Somehow, this seems like cheating, but it has no obvious effect on the flower except that the mechanism by which pollen is distributed is bypassed. The implicit agreement between pollinators and flora is that pollen is dispersed in exchange for nectar, and in another week or two the bumblebee’s obligation is fulfilled as the flowers open fully to allow access beneath the pollen laden anthers (below).Miyazaki toad lily and bumblebees ‘Sinonome’ is a somewhat vigorous grower that spreads amicably around its neighbors, stopping immediately at the point where even a lanky stemmed geranium begins. Some care must be taken to manage other perennials not to encroach on the toad lilies’ domain, so that the gardener is rewarded with flowers on one cultivar or the other from August until frost. The flowers of ‘Sinonome’ are smaller and less substantial than other toad lilies, but the earlier flowering is reason enough to include it in the garden.Worcester Gold Blue mist shrub in August The half-woody stems of yellow leafed blue mist shrubs (Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Worcester Gold’, above) died back to the ground after a cold winter, and then with a cold spring, growth emerged later than is typical. In recent years only the outermost parts of stems have required pruning, but with a handful of days below zero it is not surprising that stems died to the ground.Hint of Gold blue mist shrub The foliage of ‘Worcester Gold’ and ‘Sunshine Blue’ fades long before flowers begin to appear in late July, but while in bloom the foliage is of little concern. A more recent introduction, ‘Hint of Gold’ (Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Lisaura’, above) has woodier stems that demand only minor spring pruning, and foliage is larger and the yellow color more bold. It seems not to flower as heavily, but the contrast of foliage and flower is more vivid. ‘Hint of Gold’ and variegated ‘Snow Fairy’ and ‘White Surprise’ flower a few weeks later, so there will be delightful blue mist blooms long into September.

Where are the butterflies?

Several butterfly bushes (Buddleia) perished over the winter, and just now at the start of August have I given their loss much thought. One, and perhaps a second died as a consequence of persistent dampness in the lower garden, and since the shrubs died over the winter the first thought is to blame cold for their death. In fact, I am quite certain that they were weakened by overly moist soil, and then cold did them in.Butterfly on Miss Rub butterfly bush

There’s little debate that butterfly bushes are nearly a weed, and of course in many areas seedlings must be carefully managed if a sterile cultivar is not planted. But, many were killed in area gardens this past winter, and in damp soils such as in my rear garden they are subject to failure regardless of winter temperatures. Longtime gardeners understand that there is no plant that cannot be killed under the right circumstances, so, despite these failures I’ll consider replanting one or two when I get around to considering these things next spring. In a drier area, of course.Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on butterfly bush in mid July

One butterfly bush sprouted a few weak leaves from the roots late in May, but with the first heat these withered. With no further show of life, the shrubs were chopped out, and I’ve had little reason to think about them since few butterflies have been seen in the garden through the early parts of this summer. I am quite certain that the lack of butterflies is not due to the absence of the buddleias since they favor vitex and Joe Pye weed equally, and various other flowers to a lesser degree.

A hummingbird moth visits Homestead Purple verbena

A hummingbird moth visits Homestead Purple verbena

I have tried various verbenas through the years, often  with confounding results. A white flowered verbena flourished for several years until it finally faded and disappeared, and I’ve planted the bright purple flowered ‘Homestead Purple’ (Verbena canadensis ‘Homestead Purple’) several times. ‘Homestead’ is somewhat perennial, though the main body of the plant rarely returns after even the mildest winter. Instead, a rooted branch tip or three sprouts in spring, and the dead branches of last year’s plant are cut away. Thus, ‘Homestead Purple’ migrates through the garden by a few feet each year. If the gardener finds this to be a problem the rooted stems are easily transplanted, I suppose.

Butterfly on verbena

Verbenas of all sorts are flowering machines. While many perennials flower, then rest a short while before resetting blooms, verbenas flowers nearly nonstop from mid spring until frost, and certainly this must be the explanation for their poor performance through the winter. In any case, ‘Homestead Purple’ must be watched and managed so that it does not overwhelm other low growing neighbors, and if this is done regularly the gardener is certain to be impressed with its performance. That is, if the gardener can tolerate the color, which is a bit too much for me, though my wife adores it.Tiger swallowtails on Joe Pye weed

The few Tiger Swallowtails that I’ve seen this spring also seem impressed, and nearly every sunny afternoon the Hummingbird moth can be seen sampling its nectar. This moth is seemingly equal parts hummingbird and bumblebee, and fortunately it is less shy than the hummingbird and more gentle than the bee. Bumblebees, of course, are rarely aggressive, except early in the spring I’ve noted that they will shoo me away if I poke my nose too close.Black and Blue salvia in late June

Unsurprisingly, ‘Black and Blue’ salvia (Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’) has not returned this year, and yes, I’ve claimed this in past years only to find that it manages its way out from beneath the wide spreading branches of the paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) by early August. Then, the hooded flowers are visited constantly by pollinators until frost. No surprise is expected this summer. The ten foot wide paperbush was chopped back to three feet after suffering winter damage, and now there is no sign of the salvia, which is likely to have perished from cold and not due to anything about the paperbush.

Despite its somewhat tender nature, I am likely to replant ‘Black and Blue’ salvia when I get around to considering these things again. This will probably happen in spring, though I could be convinced to plant in another few weeks if I see a few choice plants in the garden center.