Careful neglect

More than a few times, I’ve erred on the side of excess optimism in advising that one plant or another is rugged, or difficult to kill. Of course, any plant can be killed by chemical means, or by ill timed neglect. Of this, I’ve been guilty, and since some attention to detail is required with new plants, it’s likely I’ll kill something unnecessarily again. But, while I cannot claim to speak for anyone except myself, I consider that there is merit in careful neglect in maintenance of the garden.

Chocolate Joe Pye, liriope, and violets cover the ground to prevent weeds.

Chocolate Joe Pye, liriope, and violets cover the ground to prevent weeds.

While this garden has undeniably suffered through a late summer drought without irrigation, I was watchful, and ready to drag the hoses out if there was ever a matter of life and death. I was confident (mostly) that the garden would survive without any effort on my part, but my lack of action was confirmed by daily observation.

I suspect there are gardeners who kill with kindness, and have no doubt that too much of this (water) or that (fertilizer) are responsible for many plants that experience highs and lows as they are artificially stimulated. Nature is the primary stimulant in this garden, though I am at the ready to slowly respond if necessary. I will not claim that this garden is better than any for my lack of effort, but certainly it is as good as many, and most importantly, the garden does not require more of my time than I’m willing to give.

Sprawling shrubs such as this white berried Beautyberry shade damp ground that would be covered with weeds.

Sprawling shrubs such as this white berried Beautyberry shade damp ground that would be covered with weeds.

I hope not to give the impression that the garden is just thrown together, then left to fend for itself. Occasionally, something is planted without proper forethought, and there are times when a plant is forced into a situation that is less than ideal. I cannot imagine a garden without problems that the gardener must regularly address, but the goal, and for the most part, the result is that this garden thrives with a little thoughtfulness and as little effort as I can get away with. Though not indestructible, I find that most plants are far tougher than gardeners give them credit for.

Long before talk of sustainable landscapes, the right plant in the right place made perfect sense. When the gardener errs, he should be quick to move a plant that is struggling. If I have judged incorrectly, planting a hydrangea that shows signs of a bit too much exposure to the late afternoon summer sun, I should move it. Perhaps not into shade where the hydrangea might suffer from too little sunlight, but maybe move it a few feet to a less exposed spot. There, it might thrive without any attention, and through proper planning (or blind luck) most plants in this garden require nothing at all, no pruning, and certainly no fertilizing.

Toad lilies and other perennials are tucked between shrubs , minimizing maintenance and adding flowers in late summer and early autumn.

Toad lilies and other perennials are tucked between shrubs , minimizing maintenance and adding flowers in late summer and early autumn.

The key to planting in the right place is to know your plant, it’s ideal sunlight exposure and soil dampness (or dryness), and how these preferences relate to your garden. Keep in mind, preferences are not absolutes. There is some combination of too much sunlight that can be overridden by a bit more soil moisture. Toad lilies (Tricyrtis, above) are recommended for shaded sites, but with proper moisture (not too much) flowering will be heavier and plants will grow stockier than in a shaded spot. This is all well until we experience six weeks of ninety-five degree temperatures with hardly a drop of rain, but this late summer has not been typical, and most years the toad lilies will not suffer at all.

The end goal is to place plants where they don’t require constant (or any) attention, and even if you must have a few finicky plants, you’re not overwhelmed by having to do a little something with everything. By doing this I’m able to manage an acre of garden without spending every waking hours keeping up with chores. Yes, I neglect a few, but carefully.




Tragedy narrowly averted

If there can be such a thing as a tragedy in the garden (rather than a severe disappointment), one was narrowly averted in mid April when two nights with temperatures in the twenties damaged new leaves of Japanese maples (as well as hydrangeas and others). With fresh growth spurred by early spring warmth weeks ahead of schedule, tender leaves were precisely at the stage to be most vulnerable to a freeze. Another degree or two lower would have been trouble, but as leaves hung limply the morning after I was unsure that any maples would survive without substantial damage.

Leaves of the Fernleaf Japanese maple hang limp after the freeze.

Leaves of the Fernleaf Japanese maple hang limp after the freeze.

A few days later the results were mixed, though better than I had first feared. No Japanese maples died, or any hydrangeas or anything else that I recall. Of thirty or more maples in the garden, about half were at the vulnerable stage of leafing, and half of these continue to show signs of damage from the freeze five months later. Probably, you wouldn’t notice anything unless I pointed it out, but the foliage canopy is more sparse, and dead branches are more numerous than usual. I expect that none of this will be a problem come next spring, and any small gaps in branching should fill in quickly with spring’s new growth.

Foliage of the Fernleaf Japanese maple is more sparse than usual, but the tree is healthy and leaves are beginning to turn to autumn colors.

Foliage of the Fernleaf Japanese maple is more sparse than usual, but the tree is healthy and leaves are beginning to turn to autumn colors.

Most importantly, none of this is anything to be worried about for the future. Yes, an ill timed freeze will happen again, someday. Maybe next year, but more likely in another fifteen or twenty years, and whether it is more severe, or not, there’s not a thing to do about, or to consider doing about it. There will always be something, and if the gardener prepares for everything that could possibly go wrong, well, it’s not possible. Be prepared to accept one problem or another, and probably the damage will not turn out as severe as you think when you walk outside the morning after.

Leaves of the Bloodgood Japanese maple have faded in summer's heat, but the tree has recovered from the early spring freeze.

Leaves of the Bloodgood Japanese maple have faded in summer’s heat, but the tree has recovered from the early spring freeze.


The first coolness of September

Following late July surgery, an initial bout of boredom drove me outdoors in the worst of summer’s heat. Heat and sweat soothed the soreness as I bent and weeded, stretching the surgeons’s instructions more than a bit. Perhaps, an indication of the extent of my recovery is that I now spend fewer hours outdoors and more in the coolness of our basement. Though my aching back will be used as an excuse whenever convenient, recovery is substantially complete, and it is good sense that has brought me in from the heat.Echinacea beside Evergold carex

Every gardener, I’m certain, is overjoyed by the first coolness of September, though this also portends the coming of frost and the tailing off of the garden season. Not a year goes by that I don’t wonder how the season has passed so quickly, and so it is this year, though summer stubbornly hangs on.Toad lily

In recent weeks I’ve described the stresses of this hot and dry late summer. Tattered foliage will be evident until frost kills it to the ground, but in this garden that is filled more with trees and shrubs than shallow rooted perennials, damage besides the sad looking lawn is evident only if you look hard. Certainly, I’m more bothered by brown edged toad lilies (Tricyrtis, above) than a visitor to the garden, but since I cannot do a thing to change the heat and drought, I’m paying more attention to the flowers of late summer and less to damaged foliage.Clematis montana 'Rubens' in early May

With a cool and cloudy day over the weekend my wife was encouraged (not by me) to get outdoors, to do something. The first something to be done, she said, would be to prune the vigorous pink clematis (Clematis montana ‘Rubens’, above) that is invading ever larger portions of our deck and might soon grow to cover the grill. This is the odd clematis that must be pruned several times each year so that it does not overwhelm neighbors, or grow so rampant that it brings down a supporting trellis. Fortunately, my wife was distracted and didn’t get around to it, but now I must do the pruning or she might get back around to doing it. Too many times the garden has suffered from her well intentioned efforts.Autumn saffron

I think that the autumn saffrons (Colchicum, above) might have flowered and passed beyond bloom more quickly in the heat and dryness, though several remain in bloom and others are just breaking ground. The gardener looking to plant these should try an assortment to extend the duration of flowering, which is only a few weeks, even in ideal weather.Passionflower

The heat has not bothered the purple passionflower vine (Passiflora incarnata, above) at all, and in fact, perhaps the heat has encouraged the vigorous growth. I suspect that with the early exit of Japanese beetles there has been less stress, and the vine has grown more in the late season than early on. There are now many more flowers than are typical for September. In past years I’ve done a better job managing the growth of the passionflower vine, regularly tying stray stems to the wire that runs along the roof of the summerhouse. This summer, I tied off the first long stems, but nothing since, and now I must duck under the vine to get back to the koi pond. It’s hardly a bother worth mentioning, and I’ve no complaints about the more abundant growth or number of blooms.

Sporelings in odd places

While I would not for a moment describe it as invasive, or even aggressive, sporelings (baby ferns) of Japanese Painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. ‘Pictum’, below) are common in the garden. These often pop up in odd places, though always in shade. Along the narrow, constructed stream that flows between two of the garden’s ponds, sporelings grow on moss covered stones with no soil. How long these survive, through winter freezes, and with few roots to anchor against stiff breezes, will be of interest. Other Painted ferns sporelings are well placed in soil, and often in a protected spot beneath a shrub or taller perennial so that they are hardly visible until they grow on for a year or two.Painted fern sporeling

Sporelings of the native Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis, below) are most common in the garden, but this fern is very touchy about dry soil, and often it disappears as quickly as it starts. A few small stands of Sensitive fern have caught on, but these are in very damp soil, and everywhere else it doesn’t appear they’ll amount to anything.Sensitive fern

In a damp area where I’m planning for a fern to spread to cover ground so I can stop weeding, I’ve transplanted a few Hay Scented ferns that were divided, and it’s likely I’ll plant a few more. This spot has proved too sunny for Sensitive fern, but Hay Scented has survived worse circumstances. I plant with a degree of caution since this fern will spread quickly in the right conditions, and this area should be just right, but spreading too far, too quickly is of little concern for this spot.ostrich ferns

In a spring fed damp area twenty feet into the forest understory, Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris, above) have spread, but a few transplants to a drier area of the garden have spread to densely cover a hundred square foot area. Probably, they would have spread farther, but a patio and walk, and the dense shade of a large spruce limit growth in each direction. This does not stop Ostrich fern from growing through cracks between flagstones, which sounds worse than it is since the rhizomes are easily snapped off. In a sunnier and drier spot, Ostrich fern has spread, though more slowly, and in no way would I describe the growth of any of the ferns to be aggressive or difficult to manage.

The gardener must choose which fern suits his situation, a clumping fern such as Japanese Painted, or one of the spreading ferns. Though many ferns are adaptable over a range of conditions, the gardener is advised to research to pick the fern best suited to the sun or shade and soil dampness of the area. Sporelings in odd places are a bonus.

Most bothersome weed

I suspect that each gardener has a particular weed that is most bothersome, and in this garden the most prolific is nutgrass (nut sedge, below). There are three sections of lawn in the garden, all relatively small in comparison to the area devoted to planting beds and ponds. The section farthest from the house is the lowest in elevation, and following construction years ago of a storm water retention pond just beyond the rear border of the garden, the soil ranges from saturated in winter and spring to damp through the rest of the year. This is so perfect an environment for nutgrass that by mid summer this section of lawn seems nothing but, and so rather than battle a hopeless fight, I’ve given up. Thus, nutgrass is the least of my worries, even when it encroaches into the planting beds where clumps are easily pulled compared to other weeds.nutgrass

Most bothersome in this garden is prostrate spurge (below), which in hours goes from nothing to a carpet covering any open, sunny space. The plant itself is not overly objectionable. It’s flat, so it takes little space, and its color does not stand out so that if the gardener is not looking out for it, spurge could easily blend in with mulch or whatever else covers the ground. Since spurge grows prostrate, it does not overwhelm neighboring plants, though it often becomes intertwined with other low growers to become nearly impossible to extricate.spurge

Stiltgrass (below) is becoming more of a problem in the garden, and fortunately, it is easily pulled. I hope to get most of it before it goes to seed, and of course this is the problem with spurge. Weeds are weeds for a reason, and usually the reason is that they are tolerant of a wide range of conditions, or that they seed prolifically. If stiltgrass or spurge are not kept up with, there’s trouble ahead.Stiltgrass

For better or worse, I am a fast weeder, and thus not often careful to remove weeds roots and all. In pulling quickly I often snap the top off a clover or spurge, with roots left behind, which I know will quickly regrow. But, as I analyze speed versus quality, the end result of clearing an area of weeds quickly substantiates the few that quickly regrow. Many gardeners will argue that this is a waste of time, and I won’t argue that some weeds must be pulled more than once, but this takes care of the largest area in the shortest time.

Drought, or just dry?

Probably, the gardener is too quick to label a period in summer without substantial rainfall as drought, but there is no doubt that the past six weeks have been much drier than usual. Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) and ‘Okame cherry (Prunus x incamp ‘Okame’) have reacted by dropping leaves.

While moisture loving River birches (Betula nigra) in the neighborhood are nearly bare, soil in the swampy rear of the garden remains damp, if not wet, so birches will remain leaf covered until frost. There is no need for worry about trees that have prematurely dropped leaves. Summer droughts are not unusual, and experience tells us that all will leaf normally in spring.Jack in the pulpit

Some shallow rooted perennials in full sun show signs of stress from this extended period of heat and dryness, but on this early afternoon with a hint of autumn coolness, there are few areas of concern. In shaded parts of the garden, only tall Jack in the pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum, above) are wobbling as stems have lost rigidity.

I notice that, despite severe heat and lack of rainfall, paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha) have grown vigorously through the summer. Several shrubs were damaged in freezes of winters two and three ago, and until now they have rebounded steadily, but slowly. While references state mature size as a compact four by four, paperbushes have grown to at least six feet tall, and ten feet or wider, just as they were prior to the freeze damage.Paperbush foliage and flower buds

After this past mild winter, flowers were intact on paperbushes for the first time in three years, and I will hope for no more severe lows through future winters. Of course, the gardener knows that his requests count for nothing, but the consecutive winters were the coldest in twenty years, and it would not be so bad to wait twenty years for another.Japanese Forest grass

Though I suspect them to be shallow rooted, the Japanese Forest grasses (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, above) show no ill effect from the recent weather. The yellow stripped leaves remain vibrant, and in shaded areas this slowly clumping grass works splendidly alongside broad leaves such as hostas as well any background of green.img_0139

The arching stems flutter in the slightest breeze beside the long, narrow stream edged by moss covered stones growing beside a mass of dark green sweetbox (Sarcococca humilis). Japanese Painted ferns, hostas, and ‘Carol Mackie’ daphne complete the scene that is a favorite in this garden. And, no matter how hot, or dry, this area does wonders to cool the summer weary disposition of the gardener.

Sad hostas

The heat of summer is likely to bring out the worst in any garden, and certainly one without irrigation. After an unusually hot August with barely a trace of rain, the garden is a bit more haggard than most years, though I don’t believe any permanent harm will come of it.

Great Expectations is partially shaded, but filtered sun and a month with negligible rain have left it looking far from its best.

Great Expectations is partially shaded, but filtered sun and a month with negligible rain have left it looking far from its best. In a wetter summer the color will fad a bit, but there will be few or no brown leaves.

Summer is rarely kind to the garden’s hostas, but after too many hot days, and too little rain, a few more than I’d like are shriveled and crispy along the edges (above). Hostas growing in the shaded areas with deeper soils have weathered the heat with fewer problems, but in any spot with a part day sun the hostas are a sad lot. I have no doubt that all will be fine come spring, but they’ll be pretty sad looking until the first freeze kills the top growth.

A variety of hostas in shade have survived the hot, dry summer.

While the summer’s heat could not be avoided, hoses could have been dragged about the garden to remedy the lack of rainfall. But, that would be too much like work, and as long as plants are not dropping off I’m not looking to do anything more than is necessary.Hosrta Striptease

While I try not to go too heavy into characterizing plants with human characteristics (yes, I know, anthropomorphism), it seems okay to describe plants as “happy” when they thrive, or “sad” when they look sad. Today, unquestionably, too many of the garden’s hostas are sad. Several toad lilies (Tricyrtis) planted in nearly full sun are also a bit toasty, but the heat and dryness have not effected flowering, which is just beginning on most. Otherwise, it’s clear to see that the garden has just come through the summer, but I don’t think it’s so easy to tell this dry summer from any other.

In early September, this mophead hydrangea is setting buds and flowering.

In early September, this mophead hydrangea is setting buds and flowering.

This has been an unusual year for mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla). First, foliage began to develop early due to the extremely warm March. Then, new leaves were damaged by two freezes the second week of April. This resulted in dead stems on many hydrangeas, with the best being that leaves and overwintered flower buds were damaged. Starting over with new foliage caused a delay in flowering, and many mopheads did not recover in time to set flower buds before summer heat slowed them down.

New flower buds on another mophead hydrangea.

New flower buds on another mophead hydrangea.

There are rarely flowers on reblooming mophead hydrangeas through the heat of summer, but as soon as temperatures begin to cool in late August (not this year) or September (we hope) flower buds begin to form. If frost and freezes hold off, there are flowers in late September and through October. If the current heat subsides, perhaps there will be flowers in early autumn and gardeners can stop worrying that their hydrangeas will never flower again.