My garden

I often admire gardens displayed in magazines and books, and wonder, what can I do to make my garden look like that? I must be wired in another direction, and probably lack the skill to duplicate these lovely gardens. Masses of perennials, each more lush than the next, spill from beds with color and textural contrasts that I am incapable of. I marvel at the artistry required to create and maintain such a masterpiece. I suspect, as seems reasonable, that photos are taken at the garden’s peak season, but on its best day mine falls a bit short (below), I think.Japanese forest grass along a stream

The problem is not budgetary. My wife complains (though she understands this is futile) that too much is spent on the garden, and that more attention is needed to prevent the house from falling apart (which was too true until she emptied the household bank account last summer repairing every problem, minor or major, that she could imagine. Our fix-it guy will retire a wealthy man).Japanese maples and dogwood in the front garden

Despite these perceived shortcomings, there are days when I stroll through the garden and wonder, how could it possibly be any better? Leaves of Japanese maples are fresh and vibrant, dogwoods and redbuds are bursting with blooms, and hostas and lush foliage lap over the stone paths. And then, I consider one marvelous magazine garden or another, and realize, I am not failing, those gardens are ill suited to me.Fernleaf Japanese maple in late April

I am contentedly simple minded, and intent on gardening with as little effort as is possible. I am satisfied with small pleasures, entertained for months with subtle changes of the fernleaf Japanese maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’, above and below), from unfurling leaves, to dangling seeds, and finally to colorfully mottled autumn foliage. With twenty-some cultivars of Japanese maple in the garden, this is enough to keep me happy through the year if there was not another tree or flower.Fern leaf Japanese maple autumn foliage

Instead of masses of perennials, this garden features paperbushes (Edgeworthia) and nandinas, hydrangeas, daphnes, hollies, azaleas, and so on. There are more trees than only Japanese maples. Tall (and dwarf) cryptomerias and cypresses are dotted through the garden, as well as silverbell (Halesia, below), stewartia, and a dozen other wonderful flowering trees. Two beeches (Fagus) dominate, a purple leafed monster in the front, and a splendid green leafed beech with pendulous branches graces the northern property line in the rear.Carolina silverbell

On a winter afternoon, for a moment I can imagine this garden with flowing drifts of anemones and irises, but this magazine garden could not be satisfactory. I want to plant and forget, to watch over decades as the red horse chestnut (Aesculus × carnea) spills over its intended boundaries. The ground beneath the tree will become more shaded in time, and declining roses will eventually be changed to hostas, or Forest grass. My gardening style requires woody plants to minimize labor, and my eye is pleased more by the finely divided leaf of the Linearilobum maple (Acer palmatum ‘Linearilobum’, below) than the undeniable beauty of the bearded iris.Japanese maple

Yes, there are irises and toad lilies, hellebores, and many more perennials scattered in spaces between trees and shrubs, but this is a different garden than those in the glossy magazines. This garden is uniquely mine, one that is three decades in the working, well suited to my eye and to my maintenance ethic. I could not, and should not wish for anything more.


Flowers, and a muddy mess

Finally, snow has melted along the shaded front walk. Slowly, snowdrops (Galanthus, below) and hellebores (Helleborus) have emerged to join others flowering in more open areas that melted a week ago. With this recent thaw the rear garden is a muddy mess, and with a single narrow entry point I will try to avoid muddying this any more than is necessary.Snowdrop

Snowdrops that flowered early in December and January have passed out of bloom, but early flowering hellebores (below) remain, though many are limp and faded. Hellebores and snowdrops that were budded before the snow are flowering today, with many not quite at their peak after being covered by three feet of snow for a few weeks. Hellebore

Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, below) remains in bloom after the snow, despite recent weeks of frigid temperatures that are colder than this late winter bloomer prefers. Like many winter flowers, the blooms close on the coldest days for protection.Leatherleaf mahonia

The start of March is a few days away, and of course for the gardener this is the start of spring. Occasionally, the weather cooperates with this change of seasons, and the forecast is for a mild week ahead.

Emerging from winter

No matter that winter began with a delightful session of warm temperatures, ice, snow, and cold in recent weeks have soured the gardener’s mood. Though hellebores and snowdrops appeared through mounds of melting snow in full bloom, it is a single warm afternoon that has improved his disposition.

Hellebores that were flowering before being buried in the blizzard have emerged with flowers intact. Hellebores that were not flowering before the snow are progressing as usual, and all will show color into early spring.

Hellebores that were flowering before being buried in the blizzard have emerged with flowers intact. Hellebores that were not flowering before the snow are progressing as usual, and all will show color into early spring.

An extended stroll through the garden, the first in weeks, reveals the emerging spring. Though several weeks of chilly temperatures are expected before spring arrives in earnest, the garden is stirring. Leaf and flower buds swell with the longer days, even through the coldest stretch of this winter.

Pussy willows flower dependably in late February in the garden.

Pussy willows flower dependably in late February in the garden.

While the afternoon is warming into the fifties, the ground remains partially frozen below a sloppy surface, enabling the stroll without sinking deep into the saturated soil. Several weeks without rain or snow are needed before the low lying rear garden is dry enough to visit without wearing rubber coated muck boots.

Catkins of contorted filbert (Corylus) develop in late winter.

Catkins of contorted filbert (Corylus) develop in late winter.

Work on the garden will not begin until the frozen ground has thawed and the last mounds of snow have melted in the shaded front garden. There are no grand plans for the early spring, though inspiration often arrives suddenly. The routine chores to clean winter weeds and cut back perennials and grasses will require labor through several weekends in March, if weather cooperates. This afternoon, I am anxious to begin.

Colorful flower buds on variegated Coast leucothoe bring the promise flowers in early spring.

Colorful flower buds on variegated Coast leucothoe bring the promise flowers in early spring.


Arnold is tardy

‘Arnold Promise’ (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, below) is running a bit late this year. Typically, ‘Arnold’ flowers a week or more earlier in this garden than the red flowered ‘Diane’, which is now beginning to bloom in mid February. But, thus far only swelling buds are evident on ‘Arnold Promise’, and there is no sign of its yellow flowers.Arnold Promise witch hazel in mid February

In fact, this is not the ‘Arnold Promise’ that my observations on flowering time are based upon. That one finally succumbed to constant dampness along the southern border of the rear garden a few years ago, and a new shrub was planted thirty feet away, but in considerably drier ground. The new ‘Arnold’ is a fine shrub, relatively full and three and a half feet tall, but of course it cannot yet match the one that was planted two decades earlier.Jelena witch hazel in mid March

There are a number of reasons why the new ‘Arnold Promise’ should flower later. Possibly, the new planting site does not have the same sun exposure, though I suspect that the positioning is quite similar, and reckon this is not the cause of its lateness. Closer to the house, the orange flowered ‘Jelena’ (above) is planted in a bit too much shade so that it forms fewer buds, and also it begins flowering at least a week later than ‘Diane’ (below) and a few weeks later than ‘Arnold’. I don’t believe that ‘Jelena’ will be as floriferous as ‘Arnold Promise’ given any exposure, but certainly the shaded spot diminishes its flowering and accounts for its later blooming.Diane witch hazel

The new ‘Arnold Promise’ gets plenty of sun, and more sun through the winter since it is thirty feet further from the maples and tulip poplars that line the southern border. By my best guess, I suppose that ‘Arnold’ is delayed because it is newly planted, and flowers and foliage are often a bit tardy in arriving on plants that are still getting adjusted after their transplant.

In another year or two, I figure, ‘Arnold Promise’ will get back to flowering the second week of February, a week earlier if the winter is mild, and a week later in a cold one, but always a week earlier than ‘Diane’. But, if it doesn’t, it will not  be a great surprise, and I will have to adjust my expectations. In any case, I am happy to have ‘Arnold Promise’ back in the garden after a short absence.

Shivering through late winter

A fresh coating of snow covers the few remaining piles in the neighborhood left behind from the recent blizzard, but much of this shaded garden has remained snow covered for weeks. Daphnes and many hellebores are buried, and with afternoon temperatures in the low twenties, spring seems more than a few weeks off. With a shiver inducing breeze, it’s unlikely that I’ll venture out for more than a few minutes.

Yellow flowers on Leatherleaf mahonia peek out from beneath a cover of snow.

Yellow flowers on Leatherleaf mahonia peek out from beneath a cover of snow.

Some years, a stretch of mild February temperatures allows me to get a start tidying up the garden, but not this year. Once the snow has melted I’m certain the crop of winter weeds, that was off to a prodigious start with a warm December, will require several weeks of catch up. Then, I’ll move on to cutting back perennials and pruning the scattered broken branches from the recent blizzard. There aren’t many, and except for the weeds, I don’t expect an out of the ordinary spring clean up.

I half hoped that the dead hornbeam by the driveway would be blown over in the high winds that accompanied the heavy snow, but it’s still standing, and probably fortunately so. There is only a single direction that the tree could fall without causing significant damage to other parts of the garden, and what are the chances? I was hoping to avoid the cost of having the tree removed, but that seems unavoidable.

Diane witch hazel displays a few blooms in mid February, which is its typical time for flowering. Arnold Promise and Jelena have swelling buds, but no flowers yet.

Diane witch hazel displays a few blooms in mid February, which is its typical time for flowering. Arnold Promise and Jelena have swelling buds, but no flowers yet.

So, removing the tree will be at the top of the spring project list, and with numerous obstacles in its path this is a job that will be handed over to professionals. The tree will be cut at the ground and the stump left to rot, and branches will be chipped and spread over this part of the garden.

I’m planning an upright evergreen to fill this space, but certainly not anything that will grow taller than fifteen or twenty feet. I have a few choices in mind, but it will depend on what catches my eye, and with the garden grown up around it, I cannot start with something that needs years to grow. I am anxious to get past this chilly weather and back out into the garden.

Four tiny maples

I can’t help myself. Despite declaring that I would stand fast, and not fall victim to a buying frenzy caused by my typical impatience waiting for spring, it has happened anyway. Still, this is only a single order, and a small one at that.

Orange Dream Japanese maple is grows slowly to ten feet and is best sited in part shade. I have the perfect spot.

Orange Dream Japanese maple is grows slowly to ten feet and is best sited in part shade. I have the perfect spot.

Four tiny Japanese maples arrived by parcel delivery this afternoon. There is not much to them, as I knew when they were ordered, and it will be years before they grow to a size substantial enough to be planted out into the garden. For now, they will be potted into small containers, then moved into larger pots after a few years. These will be grown on the sunnier patios until the time when they can be planted out, though these are smaller growing maples that could conceivably be kept in pots, which could work out nicely.

Higasayama Japanese maple is a small true with variegated foliage, but much different from other variegated maples in the garden.

Higasayama Japanese maple is a small tree with variegated foliage, but much different from other variegated maples in the garden.

As discussed in recent weeks, I was smitten by the yellow twigged Japanese maple ‘Bihou’, which is not commonly available in garden centers, but is grown by a number of mail order suppliers. Except for its yellow stems, I don’t believe that ‘Bihou’ is very exceptional, but it’s unique amongst the maples in the garden, and that is enough.

Johin Japanese is a small tree with exceptional autumn foliage.

Johin Japanese is a small tree with exceptional autumn foliage.

So, the order was begun around this maple, but a common problem in shipping by parcel is that the delivery cost for a single item is quite high, and often there is a considerable value in adding a second or third item. In this case, a fourth tree rounded out the order as I scanned the online catalog to find one treasure after another. To my thinking, I was quite restrained in only purchasing the four. There were a dozen or more maples that tempted me, but where would they go? And, what would my wife say?

With four small trees, my patience will be tested waiting for them to grow, but I have little doubt this will turn out to be a wise purchase.

A clash of variegation

Yes, there will be something flowering everyday through this winter, but no matter how wonderful, the gardener is not fully satisfied with only witch hazels (Hamamelis) and an occasional snowdrop (Galanthus) flowering for weeks through January and February. In this winter that was off to a mild beginning before snow buried the garden, there are flowering hellebores, winter jasmines, snowdrops, and winter daphnes (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’, below) that show a peek of color. But, through the long winter the gardener must have more.Winter daphne

With constant foliage that is little changed from May to January, evergreens are more treasured in winter when deciduous trees and shrubs are bare, and there are fewer flowers competing for the gardener’s attention. Certainly, there are folks who do not care for variegated foliage, and designers caution that too much can discomfort the eye. I suspect that I have overdone it in this garden, but there is no more beautiful foliage than the variegated English holly (Ilex aquifolium ‘Argenteo marginata’, below) on a gray winter afternoon. The holly would be more splendid if I had planted a male pollinator, but berries on other green leafed hollies in the garden must suffice.Variegated English holly

I have mixed feelings on two variegated forms of leucothoe in the garden. Though it grows without complaint, I have never mustered much enthusiasm for the common ‘Rainbow’ leucothoe (Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Rainbow’, below). There are plants that suit the gardener’s eye, others that don’t. I have planted ‘Rainbow’ in two gardens. In the first I knew little, expected more, and was disappointed. In this garden, I don’t recall, but I suspect I planted one that had been discarded, since there is no purpose in paying good money for a plant that doesn’t please you. I will plant just about anything that is free, and so, here it is, and no matter that I am not particularly fond of it. Certainly, there are greater sorrows for the gardener to bear.   Variegated leucothoe

Though less common, and perhaps lacking in excitement by comparison, I greatly prefer the variegated Coast leucothoe (Leucothoe axillaris ‘Variegata’, below). Its foliage has greater substance, and its branches arch somewhat more gracefully than ‘Rainbow’. No doubt, I am of the minority opinion, but the Coast leucothoe is a more elegant choice. Both work superbly in light shade, though of course the Coast leucothoe is preferable.  Variegated Coast leucothoe

‘Silver Edge’ rhododendron (below) was planted early last year, and, as is routine for rhododendron growers, buds were snapped off to encourage faster growth. So, no flowers last year, but a few are expected by late spring, though buds are not yet prominent. Perhaps it will not flower this year, but it has been given a prominent spot with the superb drainage that rhododendrons require in clay soil, so I expect it will be a fine addition to the garden.
Silver Edge rhododendron
Gold Dust aucuba

There are a handful or two of Japanese aucuba (Aucuba japonica) in the garden, one green leafed, and others splashed with gold speckles or blotches. The best of these are the gold dusted types, the excellent and very common ‘Gold Dust’ (above) and several selections noted for larger and brighter speckles. ‘Picturata’ (below) does not have stable variegation, and any plant is likely to have leaves with large gold areas as well as other leaves that are speckled. The aucubas are excellent, slow growing evergreens well suited for shaded areas, and as holds true for many broadleaf evergreens without spines, aucubas must be protected from deer through the winter months or a large shrub might be eaten down to bare stems. A single spray with a repellent in November does the trick.
Picturata aucuba

The andromedas (Pieris spp.) are excellent evergreens with panicles of late winter flowers, though they are very picky about drainage and must be provided with soil that is extremely well drained. This is a challenge in clay soils, but I’ve managed to keep several alive for a few decades (though several have been lost) by keeping to the high side and avoiding areas that are obviously moist. Two with variegated foliage, ‘Little Heath’ (below) and ‘Flaming Silver’ are as tolerant of the clay as any. ‘Flaming Silver’ is a magnet for lacebugs, even in the shade where the bugs are less prone to be a bother, and I can attest that as minor a nuisance as lacebugs are, an infestation over a period of years will cost a stem here and there until the result is rather sad.
Little Heath pieris

The variegated false holly (Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’, below) is a sturdy evergreen, slow growing but not bothered by deer or other pests. I am waiting patiently for it to fill a space vacated by a long forgotten something that was dug out several years ago. At some point, if I should be around long enough, ‘Goshiki’ will also become a treasured variegated evergreen through the winter months.
Goshiki osmanthus