Bluebeards and Beautyberries

I recall the first time seeing a mass planting of bluebeards (Caryopteris), and later viewing a grouping of purple beautyberries (Callicarpa) bordering a pond covered by bright red leaves fallen from a nearby swamp maple (Acer rubrum). My memory is often hazy, and my attention span so short that too many events pass without registering at all. But, marvels such as these from long ago are not easily forgotten.Caryopteris Sunshine Blue

I suspect that many gardeners are compelled to plant bluebeards and beautyberries after seeing one or a mass in a neighborhood garden in late summer and early autumn. In recent weeks I’ve written of my fondness for several types of bluebeards (above and below), and regret that I hadn’t space in the garden for more than single plants distributed wherever space was found, for these are truly wondrous when planted in quantity.Bumblebee on caryopteris

While bluebeards favor a sunny spot, beautyberries adapt readily to part shade, which there is quite a bit of in this garden. With more area to choose from, I’ve been able to plant several groupings of purple and white flowered beautyberries, along with single plants tucked into damp spaces that few other shrubs will tolerate.Purple beautyberry

My eye was caught at first by purple beautyberries (Callicarpa dichotoma, above), which are not remarkable in the slightest until berries color up in late summer. The small flowers are insignificant, and the arching stems and plain green leaves are quite ordinary. But, the red berries of hollies (Ilex) and nandinas are no match for the beautyberry’s glossy purple berries. Our native bunchberry (Callicarpa americana) is only slightly less ornamental with dense clusters of smaller purple berries. With the recent emphasis on native plants it is becoming more commonly available, though it is less cold hardy for the northern half of the country.  White beautyberry in late October

The white berried beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma ‘Albifructus’, above) is less stunning than the purple, but still a lovely plant at the time when much of the garden begins to decline in late summer. The berries are almost lost in the variegated foliage of ‘Duet’ beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma f. albifructa ‘Duet’, below), but this shrub earns its place in the garden with attractive foliage and berries.Duet beautyberry

Beautyberries leaf out late in spring, and half woody branches often require substantial pruning to cut out dead after the branches have leafed. So, the shrubs are most appropriate for the side and rear gardens, though care in placement should be taken so that berries can be enjoyed close up.


A good Samaritan

In May, I was quite pleased to finally have flowers on the ‘Samaritan’ Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Samaritan’ below). The dogwood, with excellent green and white variegation, is planted along stone steps that descend from one patio to another between two small ponds in the upper garden. The tree is prominently viewed from the kitchen window, and though it has grown vigorously to at least fifteen feet, the absence of flowers has been a bit disappointing.Samaritan dogwood

‘Samaritan’ has been partially shaded by a tall threadbranch cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera) and a wide spreading Fernleaf Japanese maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’), and while this has not slowed its growth, it has evidently inhibited flowering. To my eye there appears to be sufficient light, but as is often the case, my vote doesn’t count.

Now, I am supposing that the dogwood has grown tall enough that its upper branches reach more sunlight,and so there were a few scattered flowers in late spring. This does not explain why there were also flowers on some lower branches, but I’m reaching for an explanation, and this is as good as I can figure.Dogwood berries in early November

While flowers of  the native American dogwood (Cornus florida) turn to clusters of red berries in early autumn (above), the single fruits of the Chinese dogwood are the size of a small strawberry, and similarly colored (below). The fruits are said to be edible, but either I have not sampled one with the proper degree of ripeness, or they are so bland that one should question why they are considered edible.Samaritan Chinese dogwood fruit

I notice that the fruits of Chinese dogwoods disappear once they are ripe, so birds must consider them edible, though also I notice that some just fall to the ground, so it seems safe to venture that they are not highly prized.

Before ending it should be noted that Chinese dogwoods (and hybrids that cross the Chinese and American dogwoods) are resistant to the diseases that commonly trouble our native, and for the gardener who desires dogwood flowers for more than a few weeks in April, planting natives, hybrids, and Chinese dogwoods will extend flowering from mid April (in my Virginia garden) into early June.Wolf Eyes dogwood

Regular readers will not be surprised that I have planted several colors of  the native dogwood, several hybrids, and a handful of varied cultivars of Chinese dogwoods. Of variegated Chinese dogwoods, I judge the upright habit of ‘Samaritan’ superior to the shrub-like ‘Wolf Eyes’, though ‘Wolf Eyes’ flowers prolifically (above).

My wiggly little friends

An acquaintance mentions that every time he kicks a leaf in this garden, an earthworm wriggles into view. Never, it seems, are these skinny, undernourished worms, but ones that have obviously lived the good life. We have a bit of a thing going in the garden this year with snakes, and I’ve warned my wife not to scream too quickly, the snake that causes her fright could be one of these chubby worms instead.Earthworm-clitellum

I don’t think much about worms until I dig a hole, and then there is one fat fellow after another.  I do my best not to injure the little guys since I know they’re doing good work, but there’s much to do and only so much care can be taken. Still, I expect I do more good than harm.

Certainly, there are plenty of gardens with lots of earthworms. The improved soil of the garden is an ideal habitat, and for gardeners who annually dump loads of compost or manure, worms validate their efforts. In this garden I’ve done little or nothing to improve the soil, so the presence of earthworms is a stamp of approval for doing whatever it is that I’m doing. Which is, not much.

And, I think this is a good thing. I suspect that a tidy gardener removes much of what ends up building good soil in the garden. This property borders a stretch of forest, so there’s no shortage of fallen leaves and small twigs. Except for a very few that might blow into the neighbor’s, no leaves are bagged or burned. Some are shredded, but many others remain piled where they fall until they decay.

Twigs and branches are seldom cleaned up, but sometimes are broken into smaller pieces so that the garden doesn’t look like a cyclone passed through. On a rare occasion when something must be pruned, the compost pile seems so far away, so branches are chopped into smaller pieces and dropped to decay. Almost all perennials that must be pruned in early spring are cut and discarded into the garden’s beds. Which is good for worms, and for the soil, and of course what’s good for one is good for the other.

Also, good for the garden’s plants, it seems, as well as for the gardener who is getting a bit too old to fool with digging in hard ground. A large measure of credit must go to my fat, wiggly little friends.



Flowers in September

With minimal effort, the gardener in the mid Atlantic is able to have one thing or the other flowering in the garden every day, even through winter, which is not so difficult with a few well chosen shrubs and a small assortment of early flowering bulbs. Along with a few orchids and forced stems of pussy willow, this does wonders for a dour disposition through January and February.

Lightning Strike toad lily

Lightning Strike toad lily

I suppose that November is the leanest month for flowers in this garden, but certainly there is no shortage in September. In recent years I have added to the collection of toad lilies (Tricyrtis) so that several flower early in August, but most common cultivars bloom beginning in mid September. While early ones are still flowering, ones starting in September will often flower until frost, which should be no earlier than a month from now, and is likely to be closer to the end of October.

Miyazaki toad lily

Miyazaki toad lily

The late summer drought has taken a toll on foliage of many plants, and several toad lilies are a bit crispy around the edges. Of course, this causes no harm except that a photo of the marvelous blooms is somewhat spoiled by brown tips to leaves. I cannot imagine trimming the tips (even for a photo) since the entire plant will be brown in six weeks.

Tricyrtis ohsumiensis

Tricyrtis ohsumiensis

I am most pleased that a few yellow flowered toad lilies have survived into their second year. For whatever reason, since toad lilies are among the most foolproof of plants to grow, I have failed a few times with yellow varieties, but now that is over. The plants are still a bit weak, but I expect them to grow with vigor next spring.Sun King aralia

I see little excuse for a gardener with any amount of shade in his garden not to grow ‘Sun King’ aralia (Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’), though it can take more space than expected, and perhaps it is not appropriate for the smallest gardens. Today, flowers peak over six feet tall, with a roughly equal spread. In deep shade beneath a wide spreading ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Seriyu’), the foliage of ‘Sun King’ is bright yellow, and the few leaves that poke into the late afternoon sun are only slightly faded.

Encore azalea

After failed experiences in the early years of this garden, I planted Encore azaleas reluctantly, but curiously wondering if azaleas bred in Louisiana could successfully flower in both spring and late summer in northwestern Virginia. Yes, I’ve found, though certainly not the full range that are intended primarily for gardens in the southeast. And, I’ve experienced variation where one flowers splendidly one year, and not so much the next, which is not really so unusual for many plants, I suppose.Encore azalea

On occasion, there will be flowers on a few Encore azaleas in early August, but this year there were none until a few scattered blooms late in the month. In mid September, five or six varieties are flowering, and several others will bloom in October if frost and freeze hold off long enough. As a side note, my prior poor experience with azaleas was mostly due to infestations of lacebugs, but Encores are not troubled by these pests, so they are a dependable bloomer in late summer and early autumn. Twist Encore azalea in early autumn


I hate nature

A territorial dispute threatens harmony in the garden. No, the conflict is not with the neighbors, who have been eternally understanding while our garden harbors wildlife that regularly raids their veggie patch. I wonder if they quietly curse us (me), but a few years ago the kind fellow next door reacted to a persistent groundhog that lived in a hole beneath the wide spreading plum poppy (Macleaya cordata, below) by constructing an impenetrable fortress around his little garden of tomatoes and peppers (and weeds).Plume poppy

Our current dispute regards a boulder perched at the edge of the koi pond that my wife claims as her sitting rock. It is smooth so as not to scratch her bare legs, and it’s angled to provide a perfect spot for her to sit while visiting the koi. The problem is, a Northern Brown snake has the same idea, though he is regularly curled just beneath the boulder. More than a few times he’s poked his head out to cause a fright, and I expect that no agreement will be reached to share this space.Japanese iris blooming by the swimming pond in early June

I’ve had a few run ins with this snake and his kin (or buddy), who had a confrontation with my wife earlier in the spring. She screamed for help on the path just below the pond, and I had no choice but to dash to the rescue. The problem was resolved with extreme violence, which I prefer to avoid, but occasionally it can’t be helped. I’m more tolerant than my wife, and snakes in the pond, in the garden, and even in the garage don’t bother me much. A large black snake discovered in the kitchen a year ago was more than I could tolerate, but otherwise I’m not worried by them until my wife cries for help.Snake by the front pond

I suspect that this is obvious, but it is the cycle of life created by the ponds and garden that attracts such beasts. A bigger creature eats a smaller one, on up to the black bear that visited a year ago. Snakes are somewhere on the lower end, by size, but there are small fish, frogs, and toads for it to eat, and I don’t know if Northern Browns eat field mice and chipmunks, but we have those also.Northern Brown snake

Over the weekend my wife had a run in with a black snake on the driveway, and an hour later with a groundhog digging out from under our garden shed. She then proclaimed “I hate nature-y things”, and who can blame her in such a dangerous place. She claims the groundhog charged her, which is a little hard to believe, but I assured her that if I ran across the furry little beast I would do my best to be certain he never dared to confront her again. Of course, this is much more drama than a garden should be, and I suggest that it is probably safer for my wife to remain indoors.

A late summer project

Though a few blooms might momentarily persuade the gardener otherwise, the ravages of the summer sun have robbed the glow from the garden’s high season. There is no mistaking the garden in September from its peak in May, despite flowers as lovely as spring’s finest (‘Cherry Dazzle’ crapemyrtle, below). Cherry Dazzle crapemyrtle

In this dry season the huge beech (Fagus sylvatica) in the front garden has shed leaves to obscure the stone path, and in more exposed areas the parched ground has cracked. The lawn beneath the beech has faded in recent years, and now I am convinced that the sparse grass must be removed and the area turned to a dry shade garden. The shallow roots of the beech challenge any plant’s survival, but barrenworts (Epimedium) and hostas (below) survive similarly difficult circumstances along the forest’s edge that borders the garden.

Hosta beneath red leafed nandina

A week ago,  the stone path that winds beneath the beech through the front garden was extended to meet the longer path that stretches to the rear garden (below). The path had ended into lawn, but then the shaded grass became dust (or mud), and my wife pleaded the case for additional stones so that debris is not tracked indoors every afternoon when I tour the garden. In recent years I’ve finally been trained to remove my shoes at the door, but inevitably I must retrieve something or other, and a trail is left through the kitchen. I insist that this could not possibly be from me, but then, who else?Hostas and Forest grass

Left over stones from the path construction several years ago were stacked (tossed) to the side, and there were just enough to complete the extension. The flat stones for the path are a silvery quartz, and I learned a difficult lesson when the first path was constructed that the edges are quite sharp. Fortunately, no blood was lost shaping the stones and setting the path’s extension, and I’m quite pleased with the result, which matches the older path except that it has no weeds growing through it. Yet.

The newly constructed stone path is bordered by hostas and Japanese Forest grass. the planting is a little sparse today, but it will fill quickly in the spring.

The newly constructed stone path is bordered by hostas, blue carex, and Japanese Forest grass. The planting is a little sparse today, but it will fill quickly in the spring.

The fellow doing some long delayed renovation to the house commends my energy for undertaking this project in the heat of summer, which was not exactly the plan, but that’s how things are accomplished around here. One moment I’m figuring on a lazy day with no plans, and the next I’m excavating for the path and hauling stones out from under a tangle of spicebush.

At least I was bright enough to hold off planting until this weekend’s cooler temperatures. After a few brief rain showers the ground beneath the beech is no longer dust, though this was not the soaking rain that is sorely needed. The thirsty roots of the beech are challenge enough, and whenever possible I hold off on planting until rain is imminent. If all goes well I will never need to drag the hose out to water as this addition to the garden is begun.


A mass planting of bluebeard (Caryopteris) in late summer can be a wondrous sight. Certainly, more than a few gardeners have been inspired by a grouping of the blue flowered shrubs to attempt to duplicate the effect. For better or worse, all I’ve managed is a few scattered shrubs along the garden’s stone paths, which is far better than not having any. In these last sweltering days of summer the coolness of bluebeards’ blooms is almost enough to revive the gardener’s wilting spirit.

Worcester Gold is an older yellow leafed cultivar. New introductions promise that the yellow will not fade in summer, but I see little difference in most.

Worcester Gold is an older yellow leafed cultivar. New introductions promise that the yellow foliage will not fade in summer, but I see little difference in most.

I am rarely satisfied to plant only one of anything, and while I see too little difference to plant more than a few of the green leafed cultivars, there are several yellow and a few variegated varieties in the garden. I don’t know that any stand out as so much better than the others, but also there are none that under perform, and all are splendid in late summer.

The green and white variegated foliage of Snow Fairy is excellent, but flowering is less exceptional.

The green and white variegated foliage of Snow Fairy is excellent, but flowering is less exceptional.

In fact, ‘Snow Fairy’ (Caryopteris divaricata ‘Snow Fairy’, above) finally gave in to increasing competition from a wide spreading Oakleaf hydrangea despite my best efforts, which too often fall woefully short (too frequently I discover a crowded plant and prune or transplant too late to save it). As the hydrangea spread, the soft wooded bluebeard receded, and perhaps with a little help from two severe winters, it finally succumbed.

White Surprise flowers more typically than Snow Fairy, and it is a woodier, more substantial shrub.

White Surprise flowers more typically than Snow Fairy, and it is a woodier, more substantial shrub.

Though all bluebeards are only half woody, ‘Snow Fairy’ is the only one that died to the ground each winter. Others require pruning by about half to remove dead wood each spring, but once they begin to grow the small shrubs quickly replace the growth that is removed. With annual pruning there is little threat that bluebeards will overgrow a spot, though a few have grown to encroach a bit far onto my driveway. With a Japanese maple growing to one side of the drive, and bluebeards on the other, the space gets narrower each year. This seems ample reason to purchase a small car to avoid pruning more than is necessary.

Hint of Gold is the best yellow leafed bluebeard in the garden. Its foliage fades very little, and it flowers as well as any bluebeard, though a few weeks later.

Hint of Gold is the best yellow leafed bluebeard in the garden. Its foliage fades very little, and it flowers as well as any bluebeard, though a few weeks later.