The best ….. and the worst of it

Leaves have fallen, flowers faded, and now the gardener will reflect on the year past, and consider the year to come. Each year brings shares of joy and disaster to the garden in unequal measure, and again I am pleased that the balance decidedly favors the positive. Perhaps there has been a year or two in nearly three decades when the outlook has not been so sunny, but the garden grows, and setbacks due to snow or ice, winter freezes, or summer squalls are usually made over more quickly than the gardener expects.

Through the past year, disaster lurked around every corner, from a thirty inch blizzard in January, to April freezes, then a late summer drought. While the gardener trembles at the storm’s approach, these were weathered with surprisingly minor damage. And by the end, only a few scars remain. All will be healed over by spring.Ferns and hostas along a path

The assistant gardener (my wife) has been remarkably inconspicuous this year. Still, she talks a good game, but now is resigned that she cannot put a stop to perceived excesses of the garden (I think). After occasional contentious moments in the past, she is mostly helpful in keeping hostas and ivies from taking over the stone paths (above). Certainly, stray stems of nandinas sometimes fall unnecessarily due to her efforts, but this is a minor concession to maintaining harmony.

On a second personal note, recovery from mid summer back surgery has progressed at least as well as expected, which is to say that I quickly was back to doing things that are best not mentioned to the surgeon. Though I made do, I now can roam the garden, bend, and lift with only minor caution. I’m able to do anything I could before (and more), and best of all, this is an indisputable excuse to shirk chores as I please.

Edgeworthia blooms in a late March snow

After a two year wait, paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha, above) have completely recovered from consecutive frigid winters that caused severe injury, requiring pruning ten feet wide shrubs to a third of their size. By late spring following the freezes, growth mostly obscured the worst of chopped branches, but the dome shape of shrubs was contorted, and open space was slow to be filled by neighboring shrubs. Now, the paperbushes are back to where they were, and perhaps a bit more, crowding neighbors so that I must judiciously prune to keep everybody happy.

Red horsechestnut in late April

In recent years, beloved Franklinia and Seven Son trees have been lost, the Franklin tree’s slow demise due to increasingly poor drainage in the lower rear garden, and the Seven Son to a summer storm that snapped the trunk in a moment. There is no getting over the loss of such treasures, but efforts to rejigger the swampy area, and to replace the Seven Son with a Red Horse chestnut (above) have been mostly satisfactory. In another year, the Horse chestnut will completely fill the space, and I favor its flowers to the relatively unremarkable white blooms of the Seven Son, though there is little doubt that bees prefer the Seven Son and there is no topping purple-pink bracts (below) that follow its flowers into autumn.Drupes of Seven Son tree

I curse foolish acquaintances who believe that everything happens for a reason, and what possible purpose could there be for the year long sad performance of mophead hydrangeas? These were first injured by late freezes that ruined early foliage and the first go round of blooms. Reblooming types recovered to flower, but late, and the cycle was thrown off so that no more than scattered flowers were seen again.Fern leaf maple

The worst was expected when newly emerging leaves of Japanese maples (above) were injured in the April freezes. After a few days when survival was in doubt, most recovered in weeks. Others suffered more, and remain a bit thin, but all will be good by spring. The gardener does not expect perfection, and so he is little disappointed when all is not peaches and cream.

So, why not be overjoyed? Tragedies were avoided in every season, with daily joy between short bouts of worry. Certainly, a few tweaks are in order, but plans have been made, with little doubt that the new year will be a good one.

A very average early winter

Some discussion over the holiday recollected that a year ago Christmas was seventy degrees. Though I don’t recall the specifics, much of that early winter was warm so that hellebores were flowering before the new year. While this season has not been so mild, temperatures have not been particularly cold except a few nights that dropped to eleven and thirteen degrees. Undoubtedly, there will be colder nights to come.Hellebore

While many hellebores remain buried by piles of fallen leaves, several flower buds are exposed that are beginning to show color (above). If temperatures don’t take a colder turn, hybrids with Christmas rose genetics are likely to flower in the next few weeks. A year ago, hellebores in a range from just beginning, to full flower, were buried by three feet of snow the third week of January. When they emerged from melting snow a few weeks later, blooms were slightly the worse for being buried, but partially opened buds took up where they left off and flowered within days.Camellia

With no severe cold in the immediate forecast, it is possible that partially opened buds of camellias (above) could develop into fully opened flowers. Usually, in late December and early January, camellia buds suffer some cold damage during the ten days from bud to flower, so that blooms are marked by brown edges, or worse.  Violet

While not unusual, a single flower of a dark leafed violet catches the eye along the path to the rear deck (above). And, while visiting, I noticed small spots of purple on early flowering rhododendrons at my brother’s house, the early winter color a consequence of somewhat mild temperatures following cold. Still, it is not so warm that foliage of spring bulbs will pop up in January, or that early cherries or forsythia should open a few stray blooms.Vernal witch hazel in January

With very average temperatures, the vernal witch hazel, which typically flowers in this garden in mid January, but sometimes as early as late December, shows no signs of swelling flower buds. The small, ribbon-like, fragrant flowers are not dependent on a warm spell to flower, and often the blooms will persist to overlap with the more conspicuous flowers of hybrid witch hazels in late February. Flower buds swell and open in days, so there is no reason to suspect blooms will be delayed in this, thus far, very average winter.

The garden’s paths

Over the better part of three decades, a hodgepodge of stone paths has been constructed to wind through the garden. In some instances, paths preceded the planting of the garden, which was then planted after ready access was available.Bluestone path

None of the paths is artfully constructed, and even the more formal path to the front door is a combination of pockmarked Pennsylvania bluestones, bricks salvaged from some long forgotten project, and concrete ornaments that are now mostly obscured by moss. The flawed pieces of bluestone were once selected for their greater thickness and weathered appearance, instead of more perfect stones that might outshine the new garden.

While a small patio in the rear garden of thinner, but colorful flagging from India or China (their origin is unclear, but not American) suffers from several cracked stones, the bluestone path shows no more than a few chipped corners, and except for mossy joints, it appears as weathered today as twenty-seven years earlier.The path beside the stream

Besides the front walk, no paths adhere to landscape architectural standards that suggest width should accommodate two adults side by side, at least four feet and preferably five feet wide. At most, paths are three feet in width, and this is only a single path of two by three bluestones that leads from the driveway to the rear deck.

Bluestones for this path have fewer imperfections than ones on the front walk (though they are similarly thick), and while functional through most of the year, the heavily shaded path can be treacherous when damp. Stones follow the slightly sloping grade, and fortunately the path is short, with a side exit to a circular patio just before the slope becomes most hazardous.Stream

This is a route taken frequently with an armload of something (usually plants) headed into the rear garden, and is the path most often taken by visitors. Just below the round patio is a narrow crossing of a section of the two level pond that sits beneath the rear deck, and then stone steps descend to a lower patio (the colorful one with broken flagging). The steps are remnants of stone brought in from a Canadian source, and I figure that the nearly black, glossy stones are basalt. The five steps are the last of the stock, and with broken edges the stones were purchased for an excellent price, I recall. While the basalt stones do not match any others in color, the broken, but functional steps perfectly suit the look of the garden, where nothing is perfection.Stone steps

The narrow crossing of the pond is another story, a gap of no more than twelve inches that has caught the foot of many visitors who have not yet learned a critical lesson of this garden. Watch where you step. At one time, a light illuminated this cross over, but with few visitors (and fewer after dark) the light has not been repaired for years after the bulb went out, or the transformer has blown, or whatever the problem is.Hosta and nandina along a path

Other, more narrow paths, are laid with a single width of irregular (rather than cut) stones, and often are partially covered by arching hostas or yellow leafed Forest grasses. Liriopes and Mondo grasses, and in one spot rhizomatous stems of sweetbox grow between stones. All of this is disturbing to my wife, who prefers clean lines, and in some areas is fearful that a large leafed hosta might hide a large black snake. Certainly, this has happened a time or two, though I exaggerate for her benefit.

A path that winds from the front door, along the far side of the house, to the rear garden, tells the tale of the progression of the garden over decades. Here, are three separate paths, one added to the next with different stones as sections of the garden were added. The exact timing is foggy, but the newest path is now at least a decade old. All display slumping stones with ever expanding joints, and stones that settled and now are covered in silt, and by debris washed over in the latest rain storm.

Ivy, hosta, and ferns border this bluestone path.The ivy is regularly pruned by my wife to keep it from growing over the stones.

These are paths, not presumed to be walks, with only the requisite that they lead from one area to the next above the slop or mud or decaying leaves. Footing can be (and often is) uneven, and while visitors are forewarned, the stones permit the gardener access while dragging a minimum of debris into the kitchen. This is more trouble than snakes.

Winter, and my dull prose

I regret that too often my dull prose does not adequately depict the beauty I see in the garden. I suspect that I am too literal, and certainly not inclined to romantic descriptions. Even as the eye witnesses extraordinary beauty, I am incapable of finding the proper words to express this. (Photos, I hope, minimize this failing.)

In the stillness of the winter garden, there is wonder in the leaf bud of the hornbeam, or in the swelling flower bud of Dorothy Wycoff pieris (below). While this hardly compares to any corner of the garden in mid spring, there is cause for joy in the garden through any day of winter.Pieris Dorothy Wycoff starting to flower in mid March

Form and structure become primary in the garden devoid of blooms except for remnants of late autumn flowering mahonias, or in a spell of winter warmth, the occasional bloom of a camellia. By mid January, there will be fragrant, ribbon-like flowers of the earliest of the witch hazels (below), and if the winter is not severe, snowdrops, hellebores, and paperbushes will flower not long into February. Now, the gardener must appreciate detail of buds and bark that are overlooked through much of the year.Arnold's Promise witch hazel in mid February

I have just begun to regularly fill the bird feeder, so squirrels no longer must fend for themselves. The feeder does not deter their frequent visits, so birds get their opportunity only after squirrels have had their fill. My wife objects to feeding squirrels, and how can I disagree, with damage that was done while they sheltered in our attic over several years. She bangs and yells from the kitchen window to shoo them away, which they do for minutes, until they scramble back along branches of a Japanese maple, to the pendulous dogwood, and back to the feeder that hangs on a lower branch of the tree lilac.Squirrel on the birdfeeder

I don’t mind the squirrels so much, as long as they stay out of the attic. I don’t believe that attracting them to the feeder will necessarily encourage them back into the attic. I hope not to go through that again, and since they are not easily discouraged from feasting on sunflower seeds, I might as well enjoy their antics.

Tree surgery

Several weeks ago, a long limb from the nearest maple in the forest to the house crashed to the ground on a windy afternoon. This was a large branch that had formerly brushed the house in a breeze, but the arc of its fall took it further from the house. To my great relief, there was no damage.

The limb did not completely detach from twenty feet up into the tree, and by good fortune, it remained suspended just above branches of a Japanese maple, and no more than a foot off to the side of a pergola that would have been easily crushed. This is not the first time that a tree (or large branches) has crashed from the forest into the garden, and as luck would have it, none have resulted in significant damage.

This Trompenburg Japanese maple was miraculously spared damage when a major branch from a Swamp red maple in the forest crashed to the ground.

This Trompenburg Japanese maple was miraculously spared damage when a major branch from a Swamp red maple in the forest crashed to the ground.

The last time, when a tree came down in a December ice storm, my foolish effort to saw the trunk into pieces led to a visit to the emergency room to close a significant gash to my forehead. I insisted that the flowing blood looked worse than it really was, and the resulting scar would add character. My wife disagreed.

This maple crashed through the garden in a December ice storm. An aged redbud was crushed in its path, but this was not a great loss.

This maple crashed through the garden in a December ice storm. An aged redbud was crushed in its path, but this was not a great loss.

My concern this time was more over the Japanese maple than my own health (again), and I could not figure how to cut the branch while lifting at the same time so that the maple would not be injured. At least, I couldn’t figure how to do this by myself, so it was decided this problem would best be handled by professionals. And, along with the branch, there was another, larger branch, that arced far over the garden, also brushing the house, that would be removed at the same time.

Oh joy! Not only to remove a branch that one day could fall to crush the maple, or the pergola, but this will remove two branches that have cast a deepening shade in this part of the garden. While I’m happy for some portion of shade, branches from the forest increasingly arc to the open space of the garden, and a bit more sunlight will be appreciated.

Here today, gone tomorrow

Recent freezing temperatures have not been cold enough to disturb the exceptional late autumn floral display of camellias (below). That is about to change.Camellia

Temperatures dropping into the low teens by the week’s end will certainly damage flowers of camellias and the scattered blooms remaining on ‘Eternal Fragrance’ daphnes (Daphne x transatlantica ‘Blafra’, below). With unopened buds, there will typically be some flowers in any spell of mild weather through the winter, though these rarely last for more than a few days until the next freeze. Flowers of late autumn flowering mahonias are unlikely to suffer more than minor damage in the cold.Eternal Fragrance daphne in mid November

Already, I see gardens with blue tarps covering evergreens (I presume), and while this protects against damaging winter breezes, it also traps heat that increases temperature variations from a sunny afternoon to nighttime lows. Most always, the garden is best served by leaving well enough alone, though some marginally cold hardy plants will benefit from a thick cover of shredded leaves.

I have inspected hellebores (Helleborus) for signs of swelling flower buds, and ones that have flowered in late December in mild early winters show insignificant bud growth. This is the time when evergreen leaves of hellebores are best cut as low to the crown as possible, when flower buds do not get in the way. Rarely have I gotten around to this simple task, and too often leaves are left that obscure late winter flowers.Hellebore

After flowering, leaves grow quickly in early spring. Of course, these do not show the hardships of evergreen foliage that has gone through weeks of freezing temperatures, and been covered by ice and snow. Perhaps I will get around to cutting the leaves before December is out, but certainly it will not be done in this week’s cold.

Perhaps enough

To hear my wife tell it, I am barely in control of my impulses when it comes to the garden. There was a time, not too many years ago, when she supposed that she had some influence, but I think this thought has been abandoned, and now she only hopes I will not make too big a mess of things. She threatens to prune any branch that strays over any of the garden’s paths (below), and hopes this threat is enough to deter me from going too far over the deep end.The path to enter the back garden

I insist that I am in full control, despite much evidence to the contrary. I am not compelled to plant one of everything, and in fact many purchases are greatly considered. It is true that collections in the garden are too numerous, but I swear that a time or two I’ve been known to stop short of collecting one of every possible available plant. There are only thirty, maybe thirty-five Japanese maples in the garden, out of hundreds that are possible. So what if the collection continues to grow with maples growing in pots on the patios.

Then there are grape hollies (Mahonia). Recently, I got the itch to add ‘Beijing Beauty’ after seeing a photo in a catalog. But, when I found a source for more money than seemed reasonable, I opted to hold off. How long I can manage without, we’ll see.Soft Caress mahonia flowering in early October

There are times when, instead of adding to a collection, the number actually goes down. Finally, I’ve given up on narrow leafed mahonias ‘Soft Caress’ (above) and ‘Narihira’ (Mahonia eurybracteata), that have regularly failed to survive both cold and mild winters. When ‘Soft Caress’ survived for a few years, much of the year was spent in recovery, and finally I was convinced that life is too short to tangle with plants that perform poorly.

Winter Sun mahonia grows with an upright form, quite different from the late sinter flowering leatherleaf mahonia.

Winter Sun mahonia grows with an upright form, quite different from the late winter flowering leatherleaf mahonia. Winter Sun flowers from late November through December, with blooms often persisting into early January.

Though late autumn flowering hybrid mahonias are not rated for greater cold hardiness than ‘Soft Caress’, I’ve had little problem with ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’ (Mahonia x media) in temperatures much colder. After success with these, and splendid late autumn flowers, I added the very similar ‘Underway’, which finally convinced me that there is so little difference that there is no reason to add ‘Lionel Fortescue’ or ‘Marvel’ (which I believe is incorrectly identified as M. eurybracteata, but appears to be another Mahonia x media hybrid). However, if someone puts in a good word, my mind could easily be changed.

Charity mahonia has been a bit slower to flower in full sun. Racemes are longer than ones on Winter Sun, but this could be due to site conditions.

Charity mahonia has been a bit slower to flower in full sun. Racemes are longer than ones on Winter Sun, but this could be due to site conditions.

I am somewhat disappointed that ‘Underway’ will fail to flower this year. It is in excellent health, but shows no sign of blooming while others are at their peak. As for distinguishing one hybrid mahonia from the others, I haven’t a clue. Differing lengths of flowering racemes seem most dependent on sunlight exposure, with racemes shorter with more shade. Perhaps one will grow taller (or wider) than others. Certainly, there are differences, but not big ones from what I’ve seen.

The late winter, early spring flowering leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) is a keeper, sturdy and a dependable bloomer in mid March and sometimes earlier in a mild late winter. I cannot argue with those insisting it is potentially invasive. Yellow flowers are followed by small, grape-like fruits which are promptly plucked by birds as soon as they ripen. Certainly, seedlings don’t come up everywhere, so perhaps invasive is too strong a term, but several have been allowed to grow while others are regularly weeded out.

Mahonia bealei

Leatherleaf mahonia will often begin to show a glimpse in late January if temperatures are mild. With consistently cold weather, early March flowering is expected.

Though foliage of Leatherleaf and the Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) have dissimilar foliage, their spreading habits are well suited to informal gardens. While autumn flowering hybrids grow more upright, these sprawl, requiring considerably more space. Other, low growing mahonias that are commonly available are not sufficiently cold hardy for the coldest Virginia winters, so for now, further collecting of mahonias is on hold until a reasonably priced ‘Beijing Beauty’ can be found.