Three decades in the garden

For one reason or the other, few gardeners will be around a single garden for three decades. Staying put for so long is no accomplishment, but there is a benefit in witnessing Japanese maples grow into middle age, to budget a modest expenditure each year that grows to fill a property so that no part feels incomplete. A purple leafed European beech, that grew agonizingly slow for years, finally takes hold, and one day the gardener looks up and admires that it now towers over the house.

The long sought after Golden Full Moon is one of an ever growing collection of thirty five or more cultivars of Japanese maple.

Many plants reach a mature size quickly, and the gardener sees some that come and go. Deer have whittled a hundred hosta varieties to half that number, but the gardener’s failings are responsible for many more losses. A lack of care, of preparation, or planning has imperiled too many treasures, and over a period the gardener learns what will grow (or not) given his soil, sun exposure, and quality of care. The result, I suspect, is a happier balance than in a younger garden, and certainly the gardener’s disposition is improved as maturing trees and shrubs cover more ground and ease his maintenance.

Large and small leafed hostas line this stream and stone paths that wind through the garden.

The garden is ever changing, as a Katsura and other trees shade areas that were once mostly sunny, and roots spread to sap moisture. Some changes cannot be explained, so a corner of the property becomes soggier by the year, finally killing long established witch hazel and holly. The now swampy area must be recreated as a bog garden, and while starting over is painful, there are new plants to discover, and cherish.

Colorful bracts follow the abundant white flowers of Seven Son tree in late summer. This tree was snapped off by a summer storm, and replaced by a Red horsechestnut. A small, recently purchased Seven Son will someday find a spot in the garden. For now, it will grow in a container on the patio beside the koi pond.

The garden (and the gardener) weathers natural catastrophes, wind and hail, ice, and snow that break branches, or fell a favored Seven Son tree. Damage can be done in severe cold or mild winters, and also through summer droughts, though injuries are most often far less serious than the gardener first presumes. Several long time favorites have been lost, but the gardener plants a Red horsechesnut after much consideration, and after a few years the sting is nearly forgotten.

While the loss of the Seven Son was disappointing, the Red horsechestnut planted in its place has quickly become a favorite.

The gardener learns that native does not mean low maintenance, or resistance to pests and diseases. Many are treasured, but a few require regular attention to ward off hungry deer. For years, dogwoods have been plagued by leaf spotting and cankers, but optimism returns each year in April with a fresh set of blooms. A dogwood labeled as pink, but flowering white, was bothersome for a decade, but the flurry of spring blooms slowly erased the disappointment.

Jane magnolia flowers a few weeks later than Royal Star and Dr. Merrill, with blooms less susceptible to late freezes.

Flowers of magnolias are occasionally damaged by late freezes, and the gardener who will be around for a short period is severely discouraged, but this injury is only occasional, and often after the trees have flowered for ten days. If the blooms are short lived this year, they might not suffer again for five, and in twenty of thirty years this has not been a worry.

The front of the house is hidden behind Japanese maples and dogwoods. A purple leafed beech off the left corner of the house has become huge.

The gardener’s interest never wanes. While appearing to be overflowing by mid spring, there are small gaps in the garden to be filled. For the gardener who must collect one of everything that captures his fancy, somehow a space is found for each new acquisition, though no room is to be found to expand the Japanese maple collection, so these must now be kept in containers on the patios. The challenge, as the completion of the third decade nears, is to eliminate maintenance, an absurdly impossible goal, but one that seems within reach as low growing shrubs and perennials are shoehorned to cover every open space.

The gardener learns the rhythm of the property, when labor must be accomplished, and when there is time to enjoy. As weeds are crowded out by maturing trees and shrubs, the period required to maintain this garden grows shorter, and time to enjoy becomes longer. Certainly, this is a benefit of three decades in one place.


Ahead of schedule

Fortunately, much of the clean up that is necessary to prepare the garden for spring was accomplished in February. Mild temperatures encouraged the gardener to be outdoors, and while abundant flowers of hellebores (below) and witch hazels distracted from the task at hand, a bit of labor was managed so that the garden was not its typical disaster at the start of March.

This hellebore has flowered since early February, and is not likely to fade for another few weeks.

Certainly, there is still work to be done, and after recent chilly weeks when little was accomplished, winter weeds have covered open ground in the side garden where leaves have blown off to expose bare ground. Someday, this will be shaded by shrubs, and covered by Ostrich ferns and perennials that have not quite grown in after a grove of bamboo was removed several years ago. Hopefully, that will be this year, but I thought perhaps it would be last year, and here I am, pulling weeds in flower before they go to seed.

Winter’s Star camellia is flowering again, beside freeze damaged blooms from the pat two weeks. Most of the golden brown flowers have been removed, but some flowers are part pink, part brown.

Admittedly, a poor job was done removing piles of leaves in large areas beneath trees along the wooded southern border. Leaves covering hellbores were removed weeks ago, but somehow piles that accumulated around shrubs were ignored. This is quick work, but it must be fit in between filling one pond that was cleaned of muck two weeks ago, but was not refilled, and fixing an electrical issue that runs the pump on the koi pond. Be warned, if this should not occur to you, that it is unwise to burn garden debris directly over top of electric wires that are buried only a few inches deep.

On this warm afternoon, bees swarmed to flowers of mahonias and pieris.

As always, my attention while working in the garden is distracted by one thing after another, so a simple walk to the compost pile with an armload of branches involves several stops, to pull a weed, to pick up plastic that has blown in from the neighbors, or more likely, to watch bees gathering nectar from the fading flowers of leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, above). I’m not getting paid for this, so who cares if two hours of labor is stretched to four?

By one name or the other

From a pup, I was weaned on a mishmash of common and scientific plant names, and while I can hardly claim proficiency in either, probably I’m less comfortable with the common forms. While others say andromeda, I think Pieris (japonica or floribunda), and when writing, my leash must be yanked a time or two so I don’t stray too far from more familiar plant names. I think Edgeworthia chrysantha, but must write paperbush.

For the gardener, plants, and not nomenclature, should be of greatest importance, and who really cares what its called, though it is readily acknowledged that confusion between sweetshrub (Calycanthus), summersweet (Clethra), and sweetspire (Itea) can be troublesome. Apparently, I am easily confused, more than most I suspect, and while ideally I would have been a better study, I am happy to have enough of a clue to let Google fill in the gaps for me.

And so we circle back to Pieris, which has managed splendidly through recent freezes while so many other flowers (magnolias and camellias) have ruined. Little will come of this cold damage except there are a bunch of unsightly brown flowers, and a few newly emerged leaves have been lost. But, flowers of ‘Dorothy Wycoff’ (above) show no ill effect after nights of sixteen and eighteen degrees, and the compact, variegated leaf ‘Little Heath’ (below) began to bloom on the chilliest afternoon in a month.

Since I spend as little effort in maintenance as possible, I favor one plant over another as much for its sturdiness as for its beauty, and not all pieris are well suited to poorly drained clay soils. I suspect that references note its fondness for moist, but well drained soil, and probably an ambitious gardener could create such an environment, but not this gardener. And so, with no effort expended improving the soil except allowing leaves to decay where they fall, a pieris must earn its keep.

The common ‘Mountain Fire’ and ‘Snowdrift’ have failed, and failed again in clay soil, but also as victims to lacebugs that are attracted to all pieris, but to some more than others. ‘Dorothy Wycoff’ and ‘Scarlet O’Hara’ (above) are beautiful cultivars, but better suited to less than ideal drainage, and while variegated leafed ‘Little Heath’ and ‘Flaming Silver’ (below) suffer a bit more from lacebugs, this is hardly a bother.

I’ve not fully concluded the fate, and thus my favor for a newer introduction, ‘Katsura’, with the most splendid dark red new growth (above). It tolerates clay soil, at least in the first several years, but a lacebug infestation in last year’s hot, dry summer has diminished this spring’s flowers. 

To round out the collection, compact growing ‘Temple Bells’, ‘Cavatine’, ‘Prelude’ (Pieris japonica var. yakushimanum), ‘Bisbee Dwarf’ and the larger ‘Brouwer’s Beauty’ (Pieris floribunda, above) are long term survivors and not particularly troubled by clay or lacebugs. While none compare to ‘Dorothy Wycoff’, there’s not one I would be without.

Have a plan?

There should be no argument. The gardener is advised to have a plan before visiting the garden center, to go in with a list, if not of specifics, at least one that broadly defines his needs. Perhaps it is enough to think “I need a flowering tree” or “a Japanese maple”, or “a screening evergreen”, and then see what best fills this need when you visit. But, if a list is not made, the gardener is likely to be seduced by lovely andromedas and daphnes, and once he hauls these treasures home, he’ll wonder, “where the heck do I plant these?” I do this all the time.

‘Mikawa Yatsubusa’ Japanese maple is one of three maples purchased this winter by mail order. While I prefer to purchase more substantial trees by shopping the garden center, my obsession with Japanese maples has outstripped the varieties commonly available.

Usually, this ends well, for plants are most often forgiving of being shoehorned into tight spaces, or where the sun is not quite right. Occasionally, I’ll flub this and have to make it right a year later, but mostly plants cover for the idiots who plant them by growing into each other gracefully, and overcoming nuisances of not enough, too much sun, or whatever.

The short list that I’ve jotted down for planting this spring is not likely to be all I plant, but I don’t want to forget something, only to think of it in August and there are no more to be had. Despite a lack of space for anything larger than a small shrub, I’ve already ordered by mail and received several unusual Japanese maples and three small trees. The plan is for these to be planted in containers, to rest on patios until they someday grow large enough to be moved into the garden. That is, if a spot has opened up, and if not, the trees might grow old in a pot on the patio.

‘Carol Mackie’ daphne has wonderfully fragrant spring blooms, but also attractive foliage. Long flowering ‘Eternal Fragrance’ and ‘Summer Ice’ are splendid shrubs that have convinced me to expand my daphne collection.

So, there’s no need to discuss trees further, but there are a few shrubs that I have a hankering for. In recent years, I’ve planted handfuls of hybrid daphnes, which have flowered from spring into autumn, and so far they haven’t been finicky, or at least not much. I suspect a ‘Carol Mackie’ (Daphne × burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’, above), that’s been around for ten years or more might be getting a bit too shaded, or perhaps competition from a slowly spreading sweetbox (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis, below) might be causing it to decline a bit. Just in case, another ‘Carol Mackie’ is on the spring list, to be planted in a slightly sunnier spot without an encroaching neighbor. I’m not sure where, but certainly a spot can be found somewhere in this acre garden.

A grouping of sweetbox has spread slowly in the nook between a small creek and stone path. This spring, I’ll be planting several ‘Fragrant Valley’ sweetbox that are likely to be indistinguishable, but this has become one of the sturdy mainstays to cover shady ground.

If another, or any of a few other daphnes can be found, these will surely be added. I’ve failed a few times with the dwarfish, and apparently very particular Rock daphne, so that one’s out, but any other is a sure thing. And, there’s a new nandina with variegated leaves (Nandina domestica ‘Twilight’) that’s suggested as best in partial shade, which I have bunches of. I don’t expect there will be many of these around, but I only need a few, maybe several, or five. There’s also a curly leafed leucothoe (Leucothoe axillaris ‘Curly Red’) I have my eye on, and a variegated leaf andromeda (Pieris japonica ‘Flaming Silver’, below) to replace one that’s been too shaded for too long. It’s a lacebug magnet, as many andromedas are, but I can’t resist.

‘Flaming Silver’ pieris is wonderful in bloom and in leaf. It’s red new growth is a lovely contrast to the variegated foliage. Color is enhanced with more sun, and ones already in the garden have become too heavily shaded.

And, oh yes, before I wrap this up, I’ve moaned and groaned in recent years that the Winterberry hollies have no berries, and somewhere over the past decade the male pollinator disappeared. There’s no purpose in growing the deciduous hollies without berries, but since they berry in autumn and I’m buying in spring, I’ve forgotten for far too long. Now, it’s in writing, and there’s a chance I’ll remember when I’m in the garden center. If I’m not distracted.


A chilly week in March

Following a chilly week in March when temperatures regularly dropped into the teens, damage to flowers and emerging leaves was expected. The gardener’s question was, how much damage, and would injury to new leaves do harm as a late freeze stunted mophead hydrangea growth a year ago?

Flowers of Winter’s Star camellia were at their peak a week ago. Now (below), all are a golden brown, but with more pink buds opening.

The answer remains unclear as temperatures begin to turn warmer, with pink flowers on camellias beginning to open alongside ones that turned golden brown (above) earlier in the week. The loss of blooms of magnolias and camellias was anticipated, but damage to flowers of spireas (Spirea thunbergii ‘Ogon’, below) was somewhat surprising, though there was little history of such warm temperatures followed by freezes to go by. Injury to flowers of local weeping cherry varieties has been seen, and to the numerous flowering pears in the neighborhood and along fence rows of old farms where birds have deposited seeds for years.

Flowers of Ogon spirea a week ago, and after several nights when temperatures dropped into the teens (below). Emerging leaves of this yellow leafed spirea were not damaged.

Flowers of hellebores, mahonias, paperbushes, and the last of ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel survived intact, while blooms of Winter daphne were lost. The few stray flowers of ‘Summer Ice’ and ‘Eternal Fragrance’ daphnes were unharmed, with plump buds that should begin to bloom after a few mild days.

Of most concern going into the freeze were leaves of lilacs and hydrangeas that emerged too early after very mild temperatures through late February and the first week of March. New growth of the tree lilac (Syringa reticulata ‘Ivory Silk’, above) suffered slight damage, but less than anticipated, while small leaves of hydrangeas have been lost. While an April freeze damaged stems and early growth of mophead hydrangeas a year ago, it is too early to determine the extent of injury.

While no damage has been seen on new growth of daylilies (except by deer), some cold injury to early growth of hostas and toad lilies has been seen, though this is not expected to be significant.

March weather is variable, for better and worse

Though the gardener barks at the chilly breezes, he is aware that weather is variable, particularly in March when there might be temperatures in the seventies and teens, sometimes within the same week. Still, he has been spoiled by the mild temperatures of late winter, and now he pouts over a period of cold. Flowers of magnolias and camellias have spoiled in the freeze, which is hardly unusual. and the gardener is anxious to again feel the warming sun on his back. Perhaps next week.

Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) began to flower in late February. it has weathered the cold without a problem, but now is just past its peak. If temperatures warm up, bees will pollinate flowers so that blooms are followed by grape like fruits. Be warned that birds will spread seeds, with seedlings that are not prolific, but often must be weeded out.

Despite temperature swings that encouraged, then damaged early growth, the garden is ready for spring. Many flowers have weathered the cold, and while the fate of emerging leaves is still in question, the results have not been disastrous. All that is required for a satisfactory result is a change from this miserable cold.

Often, I lose track of which hellebores are planted hybrids, and which are seedlings from the hundreds that germinate each year. This one, a seedling that is oddly appealing, has been transplanted after growing for two years near its parent plant.

While double flowered hellebores attract attention, this simple single flowered hybrid is as splendid as any. Hellebores have not been effected by the recent cold.

Paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) is a favorite in this garden. This late winter flowering shrub is not common for unknown reasons since it is a wonderful bloomer, and a pleasant shrub after flowering.

Buds of spring blooming daphnes are ready to flower with a short period of warmth.

Flowers of the Cornelian dogwood don’t make the show of larger dogwood blooms, but this late winter bloomer is appreciated.


Snow in March – and the aftermath

Tuesday update at first light – Snow accumulation is not significant, and while this will provide insulation for low growing plants and tender growth of perennials as nights become colder over the next few days, little or no action is required to protect garden plants from the weight of the wet snow. Minimal accumulation of snow is found on tightly branched evergreens, and even long stemmed nandinas and Sky Pencil hollies require no action this morning.Cold on recent nights has already damaged flowers of magnolias and camellias (below). With temperatures possibly dropping into the mid teens in the next few days, the concern is that other flowers and emerging new growth will be injured. Recent nighttime lows have dropped to sixteen degrees in this garden, so I don’t anticipate more damage than has already been done. Daffodils and hyacinths should not have a problem, but it is likely that flowers of cherries and fruit trees will be damaged. While blankets or tarps might provide slight protection to smaller plants (possibly hydrangeas, if emerging leaves have not been damaged already), there is no practical protection for large shrubs and trees. (

Note – The following post is copied with minor revisions from March 2013 and January 2016. Both occasions followed significant snow storms of a foot or more, but many of the same principles apply to Monday night and Tuesday’s storm that is expected to drop up to a foot of wet snow.

Let’s start with, yes, many of us agreed that it was inevitable we’d get some nasty weather in March as retribution for our mild winter. Probably, Mother Nature doesn’t work that way, but in any case, here it is, and at this point it matters not that this is not too far out of the ordinary.

A critical difference with this year’s forecast is that recent weeks of warmth have spurred growth on many plants, and temperatures this week are projected to drop below twenty degrees. Snow is an excellent insulator, so it will provide welcome protection to emerging foliage of ground cover plants, as well as daylilies, hostas, and other perennials that might be damaged by this week’s freeze.

For most evergreens, from tall nandinas to lower growing boxwoods, the best practice is to gently shake loose snow so that branches are not bent. It is likely that a significant snow will not melt for several days in the cold that is forecast for this week, and branches that remain bent for more than a day or two might not return to their original position.

Multi stem evergreens such as Emerald Green arborvitae and Sky Pencil holly are most vulnerable to snow damage, so it is important to remove snow as quickly as possible. Or, prevent damage by tying twine or string around all stems to prevent them from being pulled apart.

The emphasis of this article is to exercise caution when removing snow rather than bashing and breaking branches. Even wet snow can be shaken loose with a gentle nudge from a broom or leaf rake. The less violent the action, the less damage will be done.

As always, we will be available for specific questions through this blog throughout the storm.

From March 2013 – Long before daylight this morning several inches of snow had fallen, and the worst of the storm is still to come. When I first went outside in the dark I was alerted to the problems ahead. Limbs of the wide spreading ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maple planted just off the corner of the garage were weighed down by snow accumulating in the dense branches to block half of the opening of the garage. As I looked across the garden the reflected light off the blanket of snow showed trouble in every direction.

Boxwoods and nandinas have been flattened by the heavy, wet snow, and crapemyrtle trunks fifteen feet tall are arched to nearly touch the ground. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this before. Now, with only four or five inches of snow there are problems. What will happen with another six, or eight, or ten inches still to come?

With colder temperatures and light, fluffy snow there is usually nothing to worry about. The wind blows, and the snow slowly drifts to the ground. But, wet snows accumulate quickly in evergreens and densely branched plants. Once the branches are bent the real danger is that they will break, and in winter storms several years ago my garden suffered substantially due to too little action, too late. Also, branches of trees and shrubs that remain bent will often lose their rigidity if allowed to remain too long, so that when the snow is gone the branches do not spring back. Many times these will require severe pruning or other actions to repair the damage.

Here’s how I plan to spend my day (after finishing this brief update).

Before the heavier snow causes more damage I’ll go outside, armed with a leaf rake. The process is not complicated from here. A gentle nudge with the rake is all that’s needed to dislodge most of the accumulated snow. Greater force can cause more damage, and most often it isn’t necessary. If winds pick up later in the day that might help to clear additional snow, but if the heavy snow that weighs the branches is allowed to remain the breezes could cause greater injury.

I’ll work on deciduous trees like the Japanese maples and crapemyrtles first, since these are most easily damaged. Japanese maples, in particular, are soft wooded with branching that is readily damaged by snow. Weeping varieties of Japanese maples are most vulnerable with a thick canopy of branches that collect the heavy snow. Extra care should be used in clearing the snow from these maples to avoid injury.

Once the branches are nudged with the rake the snow falls to the ground, and the branch usually springs back, though not all the way. This is rarely a concern when the branches have been bent for only a few hours, and I’ll worry about that another day since there’s little that can be done today. It’s not necessary to remove every bit of snow from branches, though the snow that remains will catch more of the wet snow that is predicted for later in the morning. My first snow clearing trip around the garden will probably be one of several today.

After the deciduous trees I’ll work on evergreens next, and follow that with smaller evergreen shrubs like the boxwoods and nandinas that have more flexible branches and often spring back quickly. Several years ago evergreen Southern magnolias and Leyland cypresses were severely damaged in consecutive winters. A tall cypress in my garden was bent to a severe angle, which eventually required removal. The Southern magnolias have grown back remarkably, but now their form is much more wide spreading since the broken trunks resulted in more horizontal growth. I’m afraid that this will only encourage more snow to accumulate in the branches, so these will be the first evergreens to be checked.

I have a large garden, with dozens of Japanese maples and small trees scattered over an acre and a quarter, so this task will require constant vigilance today. What happens if I ignore the snow, and see what happens? I’ve done that before, and in prior years when substantial snow falls overnight the damage is already done before I wake up.

Most often I have a casual attitude about garden chores. If I don’t pull weeds, they’ll still be there tomorrow (though they might have dropped a few thousand seeds in the meanwhile). Many garden chores can be put off, but a delay in removing snow from branches can cause irreparable damage to plants. So, I’m wrapping up my writing, grabbing my leaf rake, and heading outside. Also, while I’ve been writing it’s become light enough to see that the pace of snowfall has increased. The breeze has picked up and large clumps of snow are falling out of the tall tulip poplars and maples that border the garden.

The process of removing snow from trees and shrubs should not be vigorous exercise, and certainly is nothing compared to the labor of shoveling the driveway and walk. But, take care not to over exert, and if you are working in an area with tall trees be aware that branches could come down at any time. Avoiding damage to the plants in the garden is a much lesser concern than your personal safety, so be careful.