There’s always something

There is always something, and often many somethings that the gardener is not quite satisfied with. Rarely is there anything he despises, for he has made do and become convinced that this is not so bad after all. But, if he had his druthers, there are things that could be changed for the better. If, that is, these things did involve labor, or money. Since inevitably they do, most things will remain as is, but doubts and minor dissatisfactions will nag at the gardener.

Wolf Eyes dogwood flowers in mid spring

Wolf Eyes dogwood flowers in mid spring

Where to start? Of course, there is a temptation in autumn to consider everything that is wrong with the garden, while in spring, surrounded by blooms, the gardener is hopelessly distracted. First, in autumn there are no leaves. They’re on the ground, and besides the nuisance that they must be raked and shredded, they would look much better remaining in the trees. Perhaps, the gardener thinks, there should be more evergreens so the garden is not quite so naked through the winter months.

Henryi clematis growing from nandina into Globosa blue spruce

Henryi clematis growing from nandina into Globosa blue spruce

But, let us think this through, and this is the advantage of writing rather than running about with a chainsaw chopping anything within reach that is less than pleasing on a chilly November afternoon. There are cypresses and cedars scattered through the garden, and several substantial cryptomerias at the garden’s rear corner. There are a handful of globose blue spruces that are not quite the dwarfs that many landscape designers consider them, and come to think of it, there are probably one or two too many. The last one planted by the pond, I could have done without, and the one that is growing to block a sizable portion of the upper stone patio, well, my wife has certainly brought this to my attention a time or two.

Berries of Koehneana holly in mid December

Berries of Koehneana holly in early December

There are a dozen or so large, dark leafed hollies, most now studded with clusters of red berries. A few are native American hollies that grew as seedlings, and others are a collection of common hollies and ones that were considered for introduction by the breeder, then discarded as too similar to another, and why bother? The girth of a mature holly consumes much more space than the gardener expects when it is planted twenty years earlier, and if another is to be planted, which Japanese maples must go? Which katsura, or stewartia? Parrotia?

The Japanese Stewartia flowers for several weeks beginning in mid June.

The Japanese Stewartia flowers for several weeks beginning in mid June.

Of course, I could not be without these, and even if I should consider replacing the tree lilac that has been in decline in recent years, would I plant an evergreen in its place? To block the view to the rear garden? Certainly not. And so, this is the process of creation and second guessing that occupies the gardener through the winter months, breaking only for the few spells of warm days when he ventures out to pull any of the substantial crop of winter weeds.

The first snowdrop in late November - barely standing above deeply piled leaves.

The first snowdrop in late November – barely standing above deeply piled leaves.

The first snowdrop has appeared already, though this is an anomaly, I suspect, and others are another month away. The flowers of the hybrid camellias have browned  after recent freezes, but with milder temperatures there will be more blooms over the next month. The mahonias are flowering, undisturbed by freezes, and soon the native and Vernal witch hazels will flower. Their scent is marvelous.

Charity and Winter Sun mahonias will flower from November into January

Charity and Winter Sun mahonias will flower from November into January

And so, as much as I bemoan the coming of winter and the general disrepair of the garden, these flowers make life tolerable. Perhaps there is not much reason at all for dissatisfaction. This can wait until summer.

Winter flowers

If they could, they would. Have flowers through the winter, of course, and clearly most do not suspect the range of flowers that are possible through the dark and cold winter months. There is nothing magical about it, and certainly no skill or wisdom is required to have flowers every day through the winter in this northwestern Virginia garden. Winter Sun mahonia

No, the gardener does not want a garden chock full of yellow flowered mahonias (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, above), and only so many witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis, below) can be fit into a garden of moderate size. These are wonderful plants, mildly to highly fragrant, and in cool winter temperatures they will often flower for a month or longer. Vernal witch hazel in January

Snowdrops (Galanthus, below) are a possibility. Even thousands require little space, and by planting a handful of varieties there might be flowers from January (perhaps even December) into March. What does it matter that one is hardly different from another?Snowdrops in late February

They’re flowers, in winter, and for the gardener growing more anxious by the week as winter drags on, these are no small solace. Of course, there are more winter flowers, but the gardener will at first be overjoyed by only a few flowers in January, then will be encouraged to add more. Soon enough, there will be flowers every day through the winter.

Foliage in late November

While eating breakfast this morning, my wife and I observed a red-tailed hawk perched on the tree lilac (Syringa reticulata), only a few feet from our kitchen window. This low branch is not an ordinary perch for hawks that are ever present soaring high above the garden, though with most trees bare in late November the view was unimpeded into the back garden. After several patient minutes, the splendid bird floated off, most likely to a higher vantage point.

Okushimo Japanese maple has an upright habit, and green leaves that curl upwards. It is densely branched, but unexceptional compared to other maples until autumn.

Okushimo Japanese maple has an upright habit, and green leaves that curl upwards. It is densely branched, but unexceptional compared to other maples until autumn.

Just beyond the bare lilac is the lone Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Okushimo’, above) holding leaves at this late date. Several Japanese maples delay their autumn foliage colors, but despite the brilliant late coloring of many trees, ‘Scolopendrifolium’ and Lion’s Head maples (Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’) were unremarkable in recent weeks before leaves fell. Today, I was overjoyed, but somewhat surprised to see ‘Okushimo’ in full autumn color.

Oakleaf hydrangeas exhibit excellent autumn foliage color, with leaves that persist into December and occasionally into early January.

Oakleaf hydrangeas exhibit excellent autumn foliage color, with leaves that persist into December and occasionally into early January.

There is no surprise to see Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, above) in full leaf and color in late November, and often burgundy foliage persists long into December despite many nights below freezing. The yellow leafed ‘Little Honey’ (below) looks rather sad by comparison, and is worthy of inclusion in the garden only as a novelty since it flowers only sporadically.

Little Honey has large, soft yellow leaves, but it flowers sporadically. In late November the foliage persists, with the yellow in stark contrast to the burgundy foliage of other Oakleafs.

Little Honey has large, soft yellow leaves, but it flowers sporadically. In late November the foliage persists, with the yellow in stark contrast to the burgundy foliage of other Oakleafs.

I admit to being skeptical of the ornamental qualities of edible plants, though there is every reason to include them in a garden. Years ago, I grew blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum, below) to grab a handful of warm berries as I roamed the garden in July, but in recent years the berries are mostly left for the birds. I’ve rarely ventured while touring the garden to see the autumn foliage colors of the open branched shrubs, but with most trees and shrubs bare in late November, I cannot help but notice.

Branching of blueberries is open, but autumn foliage color is exceptional. Still, I grow it to feed the birds.

Branching of blueberries is open, but autumn foliage color is exceptional. I grow blueberries to feed the birds.

Opps, what about the aconites

Earlier, I mentioned that alliums and Dogtooth violets (Erythronium ‘Pagoda’) were planted over the weekend. More time was spent trying to figure where they should go than time spent planting, but that’s behind me with a lesson learned (unlikely). Now, the thought has occurred that in early spring I planned, but later failed to order fifty or a hundred Winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis, below) to add to the two lonely bulbs at the start of the front walk. Once there were more, but as one thing or another was planted in the area, most were dug up and lost, I suppose.Winter aconite

I believe that I also had plans to add fifty crocuses to the same area, and I recall admonishing that too often too few bulbs are planted to make a proper show. Without the added aconites and crocuses this spot will continue to be embarrassingly bare in early spring. I suppose there is still time to plant, but I was so pleased to be finished planting several hundred alliums that I’ve lost enthusiasm for planting more bulbs. And, it’s getting colder and I don’t cherish the thought of crawling around in the mud. Perhaps I will make proper reminders to order these next year.

As always, I do not look forward to shredding leaves in the largest part of the garden where they cannot be left to decay on their own. If the piles of leaves are not shredded and spread, hellebores and late winter bulbs will be hidden, but there are many weeks ahead for this chore to be accomplished. This weekend I must clear the driveway and front walk for guests next week, and while I’m at it a few of the garden paths will at least be blown clear in case anyone cares to tour the garden. After all, there are camellias and mahonias (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, below) in full bloom.Winter Sun mahonia

Remarkably, flowering pears (Pyrus calleryana, below) in the neighborhood have not yet turned to the deep burgundy that demands attention after other trees have dropped their leaves. With splendid spring blooms and exceptional autumn foliage color, pears would be marvelous trees if their seeds were not spread by birds to invade every open field and fence line in the county. Of slightly less concern, pears are also weak wooded with a tendency to split apart in summer storms. This lovely tree should be avoided.Pear

Sometime before spring the last of three European hornbeams that has died must be removed. Two others were cut down a few years ago, and now the third has died. I cut down the first two that were planted in a grove of bamboo, and I was not concerned that the bamboo would be damaged since it was also planned for removal. Now, with the hornbeams and bamboo gone, the area has been planted, and I will have to hire a tree company to take the remaining hornbeam down to minimize damage.

And then, something else must be planted in its place, but at this point in the year there’s no hurry.

Planting alliums

Several hours have been spent on this cool and  blustery Saturday planting an assortment of alliums, though only an hour in digging. I fear I have miscalculated, and too many bulbs have been ordered for the too few sunny spots available for planting. Not that my schedule is hopelessly backed up, but time has been wasted searching for appropriate planting spaces.Allium

There is great advantage in planning ahead, but too often I am stuck with a satchel of alliums or colchicums (or whatever), wondering where the heck they will fit. Still, this is better than wandering the garden with a Japanese maple or witch hazel in the cart, trying to figure a spot that will not conflict with other treasures for a decade or two. In fact, I suspect this is making too much of nothing. Given any sun and well drained ground, alliums can hardly go wrong, and I expect a splendid show beginning late spring.Dogtooth violet blooming in mid April

Also, fifty Dogtooth violets (Erythronium ‘Pagoda’, above) were planted in groups of ten or twelve without any difficulty. There are plenty of shaded spots in the garden, and several areas with deep, semi-moist soil where the violets should thrive. I am a bit concerned that the bulbs sat in the garage for a week while I was traveling, but almost certainly nothing will come of this since the bulbs seemed plump enough.

Though today is blustery, recent temperatures have been pleasant, and I read that the same is forecast for the weeks ahead. I rarely pay attention to long term forecasts, but the word is that the winter will be milder than the previous two, which is precisely the forecast I wanted to hear. So, at the moment I’m satisfied, but if the forecast falters I will be quick to condemn the futility in attempting to predict events so far off.Lion's Head Japanese maple autumn foliage

In the week spent traveling, piles of leaves in the half of the garden that borders forest have grown deeper so that mature hellebores barely peek into daylight. In another week or two, or perhaps sometime in December, I will begin the process to shred the leaves that often is not completed until mid March. Leaves remain on several Japanese maples (Lion’s Head Japanese maple, above) that are annually late in coloring, but otherwise the trees are bare.Camellia

The late flowering hybrid camellias are at their peak, though one ‘Winter’s Star’ that borders the driveway is only beginning to bloom. This camellia is more shaded while buds are developing, so every year it is late, and if temperatures remain mild it might flower into January. ‘Winter’s Snowman’ (below) is particularly floriferous this November after having only a scattered few flowers a year ago.

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An annual chore

As certain as winter’s cold and summer storms, leaves will fall in autumn to cover much of the garden. Now, I must plan to mow, rake, or shred to remove a large portion of the leaves that drop from the forest that borders the southern edge of the garden, and the dozens of trees that I’ve planted.

Foliage of Chinese dogwood in early November

Foliage of Chinese dogwood in early November

There is no emergency for this to be accomplished, though wet, matted leaves are more difficult to remove than dry leaves. The longer they remain, the harder the labor to clean them up.

Leaves of Oakleaf hydrangea wll often persist into the new year

Leaves of Oakleaf hydrangea wll often persist into the new year

Large areas of the garden will be mulched with shredded leaves by some point in late winter, though a few areas where only trees and shrubs are planted will be left to decay without any assistance. What is not certain is, when will the clean up begin, and when will it be completed?

Leaves of Bigleaf magnolia dwarf fallen leaves of maples and tulip poplars

Leaves of Bigleaf magnolia dwarf fallen leaves of maples and tulip poplars. Most of the magnolia leaves will be left undisturbed since they clog the leaf shredder.

This is not a project that I’m anxious to start, but it must be done or hellebores and other low growing shrubs and perennials might be smothered beneath the heavy mat of leaves. And, if flowers of hellebores and snowdrops are to be enjoyed, this thick cover layer of leaves must be removed.

A splendid start to November

Stewartia autumn foliageAt the start of November, the garden shows mixed results from recent frosts and a single night of twenty-eight degrees. While brightly colored leaves of ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) and blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica) have fallen, stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia, above) has only recently changed color, and it is as lovely as in any autumn. Earlier, I observed that autumn foliage colors have been delayed and perhaps are more muted this year, but with the marvelous colors in the garden today, I am less certain that the colors are inferior to any autumn in memory (Fernleaf Japanese maple, below).Fernleaf Japanese maple

While ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel has already gone bare, foliage colors of Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) and ‘Diane’ (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’, below) are now at their peak. I suspect that the native American witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) would also be at their peak if caterpillars had not stripped them bare two months ago. I suspect this will not be harmful, and could be beneficial since the foliage will not hide flowers when the witch hazels begin to flower in a few weeks.Diane witch hazel

Encore azaleas were in full bloom after a frost or two, but flowers wilted overnight in the freeze. With milder temperatures the azaleas are flowering again (below), with continuing blooms expected for another few weeks, or until the next freeze. In the odd year when temperatures don’t regularly drop below freezing, I’ve had azaleas flowering into early December, but flowering into the middle of November is a more reasonable expectation.Encore azalea

Most of the garden’s toad lilies (Tricyrtis) collapsed in the freeze, though some lower foliage remains green along with a few flowers. A few scattered toad lilies survived the freeze (below), with no discernible pattern that ones that are green and flowering were more protected.  Admittedly, I am a poor judge of these things. Too often I have planted a marginally cold hardy something or other in a spot that I supposed would be protected, only to see it fail while marginals planted without a thought survived. Whatever the formula is to determine a more protected spot, it’s a mystery to me. Toad lilies are dependably cold hardy, so there are no worries that they must be protected, but in the warmer spots of the garden I’m pleased to have flowers for a few weeks longer than expected.Toad lily

There is no surprise that scattered flowers remain on ‘Eternal Frangrance’ daphne (Daphne × transatlantica ‘Blafra’, below) into November. This is typical for this sturdy daphne, and even through the winter I suspect a few flowers would pop out in an extended spell of mild temperatures. The past two winters since these were planted have had no such mild periods, but with warm temperatures expected through much of November, there is hope that this winter might not be so severe.Eternal Fragrance daphne