Nearly three months of dogwood blooms

For better or worse, this is a garden oriented around trees, and of collections of too many plants that have captured my favor. There are nearly forty Japanese maples, with a few small ones in containers placed on patios, but most nearly mature trees that have been planted over three decades. There are a dozen or more dogwoods, and there would be more maples and dogwoods if space allowed. My wife complains that when she looks out the windows she can’t see the sky, and somewhere out there is a lovely view of the Blue Ridge mountains, but I’m happy to see dogwood blooms instead.

In late May, we are nearing the end of a progression of dogwoods flowering that began with the Cornelian cherry (really a dogwood, Cornus mas ‘Variegata’, above) in early March.  After a two week gap, the native dogwoods (Cornus florida, below) flowered in early April, followed by several hybrids, and now there are a few weeks before flowers of late blooming Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa) fade completely in mid June (or later). By planting as few as three well chosen dogwoods there can easily be flowers for two months, and there are few trees to compare in beauty.

The Cornelian dogwood is unremarkable, except that it flowers in late winter, which could be late February or mid March depending on late winter temperatures. While some late winter flowers are damaged by cold, the dogwood’s have not been injured by temperatures in the teens, and lower. With wide white margins, the variegated leaf version of Cornus mas appears almost white from a distance.

There are several versions of the native American dogwood in the garden that begin flowering in early to mid April, with several seedlings growing at the forest’s edge, and ‘Cherokee Princess’, a vigorous selection of the white flowered dogwood. Another white dogwood might be ‘Princess’ or not, since long ago it was incorrectly tagged as pink, but flowered white. A white dogwood with pendulous branching (Cornus florida ‘Pendula’) hardly makes a show, and if there is a single tree in the garden that could be done without, this is clearly the one. There are many better choices.

I hesitate to recommend against the red flowered, variegated dogwood ‘Cherokee Sunset’ (above), though it has not flowered in the past decade. I suspect it is in damper ground than it would prefer, and though it survives, it barely grows. This, I attribute to a failing on my part, though in the best circumstance it is less vigorous than other dogwoods. Still, its foliage is lovely, and when I’ve seen ‘Sunset’ flowering it is well worth planting.

While the native dogwood is prone to a variety of mildews, cankers, and foliage diseases, ones in this garden have survived with only minor issues for twenty years and longer. Powdery mildew and leaf spotting are regular occurrences in the heat of summer, but other dogwoods cannot match the autumn foliage color and clusters of red berries of the native.

Just as the native dogwood begins to fade, hybrid dogwoods come into flower. ‘Celestial Shadow’ (above, top) and ‘Stellar Pink’ (above) are hybrids that combine the best traits of our native and Chinese dogwoods. Flowers arrive at about the same time that leaves begin to emerge, so flowers have a green backdrop, or in the case of the variegated ‘Celestial Shadow’, a background of green and yellow. ‘Venus’ (below) is a hybrid of the Chinese and Pacific dogwood (Cornus nutallii) that has a similar upright habit to ‘Celestial Shadow’ and Stellar Pink’, but is distinguished by unusually large white flowers.

More than just filling the time period after the native dogwood stops blooming (late April), the hybrids are the most vigorous of dogwoods, and most disease resistant, though Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa) are also very tough. As always, I caution that ‘Stellar Pink’ is rarely pink in my Virginia garden. One in ten years, flowers will be more than a slight blush of pink, but it flowers heavily and this slight failing is no reason for it to be avoided. 

The end of the dogwood flowering season is filled by Chinese dogwoods that overlap with the blooms of the hybrids in mid to late May, with flowers often persisting for several weeks into June in the garden. There are several green leafed Kousas in the garden, with white flowers (‘Galilean’, above) and the blush pink ‘Satomi’ (below) that is slightly more dependable for color than ‘Stellar Pink’. Chinese dogwoods take a variety of forms from tall and upright to spreading habits.

The variegated ‘Wolf Eyes’ (below) is more shrub than tree, and after fifteen years it is barely taller than eight feet, though it is half again as wide. The leaves of ‘Wolf Eyes’ are curled, so variegation is not displayed as prominently as on ‘Samaritan’ (below, bottom), which is also much more upright and vigorous, though it is planted so that its lower branches are shaded so it flowers only on its upper third.



The best day, again

If the garden was just right a few weeks ago, I cannot imagine that it is either better or worse today. But, it has changed, with one dogwood fading while another begins to flower, and so on so that the garden has changed considerably in the few weeks. I don’t suppose there are more or fewer flowers in the garden today, but without a doubt there are more leaves since earlier in spring, and with increased rainfall through this period foliage is large and lush. On a cloudy afternoon, the garden’s floral and foliage colors and textures stand out, and what better place to be?

Looking down onto the rear garden, in splendid color even if there were no flowers. The yellow leaf is the Golden Full Moon Japanese maple, with an Atlas cedar in the background. The red leaf is the dwarf ‘Shaina’ Japanese maple with terrestrial orchids growing in front.

I am slightly concerned that recent weeks of cool temperatures and rain have prompted growth that will be damaged with the first prolonged period of heat and drought. This happened a year ago, with yellow leafed ‘Citronelle’ coral bells (Heuchera ‘Citronelle’) melting almost overnight, and while the garden is expected to fade somewhat as temperatures rise, the change should not be so drastic. Probably, this is nothing to be concerned about, and I try not to be bothered by things that cannot be controlled.

Gold Cone juniper stands in front of Globosa spruce and Golden Full Moon Japanese maple.

I’ve mentioned the family of Northern Brown water snakes in the koi pond recently, and as sheltering spots between boulders have been plugged it is apparent that some or all are hanging out in the dense foliage of the pond’s filtration area. The largest of the clan has been spotted hanging out at the edge of a thick mass of sweetflag (Acorus calamus ‘Variegatus’). Yesterday, as I watched, the snake struck as one of the pond’s few goldfish ventured too near.

Sweetflag, pickerel weed, and yellow flag iris provide easy cover for our family of Northern Brown water snakes.

There was nothing I could do, and why do anything? I couldn’t help but feel guilty, but this is what snakes do, and if fish don’t fall prey to predators the pond will quickly overpopulate. After this disturbance, koi and the goldfish or two that remain kept to the deep parts of the pond.

Native blue flag irises grow at the edges of the koi pond, and in a small, spring fed wetland area in the rear garden.

If there is a month, or month and half when the garden is at its peak, the pond is at its best for two, maybe three weeks while one variety after another of Japanese iris (Iris ensata) is flowering. Today, yellow flag (Iris pseudoacorus) and blue flag irises (Iris versiclor, above) are beginning to fade, so it will be a few days before the progression of Japanese iris blooms begins. At the same time, Oaklaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia), with stems that arch over the pond’s edge will flower, and I’ll wonder again how I could have created a scene so splendid.

Japanese irises and Oakleaf hydrangea will flower next week, but today there are yellow flag irises, baptisias, and Wolf Eyes dogwood flowering in the background. Good today, better next week.

Favorable conditions for flowering

In recent years, several Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, below) flowered sporadically with an increasing canopy of shade beneath tall maples and tulip poplars along the forest’s edge. In late summer last year, a limb of one maple that arched far over this side yard garden fell on a breezy afternoon, fortunately inflicting only minor damage on a Japanese maple and barely missing a pergola. This large limb, and another that certainly would be the next to fall, were removed, and though the change is imperceptible to my eye, the hydrangeas will flower again in another week or two.

In nearly full sun beside the koi pond, Oakleaf hydrangeas have begun to flower, and in sun and shade leaves are extraordinarily large this spring with recent weeks alternating between summer heat and deluges. Some heat injury has been seen on the yellow leafed ‘Little Honey’ (below), but green leafed types have a sturdier constitution.

I notice that mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla, below) are budded, having recovered quickly following freezing temperatures in mid March that injured newly emerging leaves. Many stem tips were pruned once the extent of damage became evident, but the injury is not as severe as a year ago when an April freeze killed stems to the ground. Reblooming (remontant) hydrangeas will flower on a slightly delayed timetable, while older varieties will not flower for another year.

Curiously, lacecap hydrangeas escaped injury both years. This spring, lacecaps were slower to leaf in unusually warm late winter temperatures. A year ago, it seems that woodier stems and more leathery leaves were less vulnerable to damage.

While unremarkable after flowering, there are few shrubs that compare in beauty to deutzias, that are not rare, but are planted far too seldom to my thinking. White flowered ‘Nikko’ and ‘Chardonnay Pearls’ (above) are exceptional in bloom, but I favor the pink flowers edged with white of ‘Magicien’ (Deutzia × hybrida ‘Magicien’). A year ago, ‘Magicien’ suffered in the April freeze, but to my delight it rebounded vigorously.


A beautiful day for getting outdoors

The sun is shining after several chilly, rainy days, and the weather has turned for the better. In the cool morning, deer and rabbits were seen at the edges of the garden. The koi pond is home to a variety of creatures, but until this afternoon I was unaware that there are now at least three turtles, and three or more Northern Brown water snakes. With a warming sun, all have come out to play.

In recent weeks I’ve plugged crevices between boulders that line the pond in hopes that the single snake would give up and possibly relocate to one of the neighboring wetlands. This was, of course, before others were seen this afternoon, and now I’m losing hope that I can discourage this growing family. The snakes are more a nuisance than a danger, though my wife disagrees.

In the short video, one of the smaller snakes moves across the pond, and then into the Pickerel weed, sweetflag, and yellow flag irises of the pond’s filtration area (below). The snake can be seen reacting to one of the large koi, but koi and the pond’s few large goldfish are not bothered at all by the snake’s presence. 

The filtration area has become a dense thicket, and yellow flag iris (Iris pseudoacorus, below) is invasive if allowed to escape, so I carefully monitor the overflow of the pond. In the koi pond the iris seeds into every damp nook and cranny, so it must be chopped out on occasion so that it does not overwhelm vigorous, but less aggressive Japanese irises (Iris ensata). In the gravel filled filtration area, Pickerel weed threatens the invasive yellow flowered iris, and I would not be terribly disappointed to see it disappear one day.

Perfect for shade

For better or worse, this has become a shade garden, at least parts that border a strip of forest along the southern edge of the property, in front, and along the northern border where dozens of trees I’ve planted over three decades have grown in. This leaves only an area in the center of the rear garden where there’s a spot of sun, which is mostly occupied by the large koi pond. Otherwise, only a few small areas receive any more than a few hours of direct sun. And, it’s not so bad. In fact, I think I might prefer the shade rather than a sun baked garden.

Wood spurge requires a bit of pruning to keep the spreading perennial from invading the spreading evergreen Plum yews.

Certainly, there are limitations. Finding enough soil to plant in between maple roots can be a challenge, but an aggressive wood spurge (Euphorbia robbiae) has spread through the worst of the driest shade, and hostas and ferns have managed to make the rest of it look presentable without too much effort on my part.

Gold star (Chrysogonum virginianum) slowly grows to form a mat of foliage, even in root filled soil in the shade of maples and tulip poplars.

In shade, flowers are a bit more limited, but then the gardener must learn to appreciate varying textures and shades of green. Which, I do.

Large leafed hostas with corrugated leaves resist browsing by deer.

Sporelings of Sensitive fern appear throughout the garden. Here it is growing between stones in gravel at the edge of this constructed stream. The hosta was transplanted , but blueish-green hostas seedlings regularly sprout in shaded parts of the garden.

Japanese Forest grass is slow to become established, but after a few years it grows vigorously. It is a splendid addition to the shade garden, and a wonderful complement to hostas and other broad leafed plants.

There are two distinct flowers on Twist Encore azaleas, this light colored flower which occasionally has a purple stripe, and a solid purple flower. Like colors are usually clustered on separate branches.

Twist Encore azalea is a sport of Royalty, with flowers that range from almost white to the solid purple of Royalty. Twist is the most dependable reblooming azalea in my northwest Virginia garden.

In part sun or shade, flowers of Stellar Pink dogwood rarely show any more than a trace of pink. As a younger tree Stellar Pink had disappointingly sparse blooms, but after a few years it flowered heavily. Once every ten years some mysterious combination of weather results in flowers that display more pink.

Medio variegata hosta beneath Ostrich ferns

Arrowwood viburnum at the forest’s edge.


Another tree or two would be nice

Yes, there are a lot of trees in this acre and a quarter garden, too many if you listen to my wife, whose opinion is hardly considered in these matters. If not for the dozens of Japanese maples (almost forty), dogwoods (a dozen or more), and ones, twos, and threes of many others, the garden would be considerably sunnier. But it’s not, and I will happily grow hostas and ferns instead of coneflowers and tickseeds that require more sunlight.

Wolf Eyes dogwood flowering in mid May, one of many native, Chinese, and hybrid dogwoods in the garden. There are dogwoods flowering from the first natives in early to mid April, through the latest flowering Chinese dogwoods such as Wolf Eyes.

New, reddish leaves fade to yellow by late spring on the Autumn Full Moon Japanese maple. This tree was planted a year ago in more sun than it would prefer. I questioned if it would be distinct from the Full Moon maple, but there is no doubt its new growth is different.

I see no reason to apologize or make excuses for this, and hardly a week in spring goes by that I’m not considering some scheme to squeeze in another tree or two that’s caught my attention. There is still a patch of lawn at the low end of the rear garden, and not to wish ill of her, but if my wife keeled over dead tomorrow I’d be digging holes in it before the weekend. I’d have no problems figuring out the first handful of trees to plant.

New spring growth on Forest Pansy redbud.

Until a few years ago, there were two red leafed Forest Pansy redbuds (Cercis candadensis ‘Forest Pansy’, above) in the garden. One aged tree became too shaded, spindly, and what was left of it was crushed when a maple from the neighboring forest toppled onto it in a December ice storm. The other redbud flourished in a somewhat sunny spot that unfortunately grew wetter, until finally the tree failed. In both spots, the issues that caused the failures dictated that it was unwise to plant another. No doubt, I’ve done more idiotic things, but occasionally good reason prevails. Still, I think about where another Forest Pansy could be fit in.

A few days ago, I saw a Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonicus, above) in a neighborhood down the street in full bloom. The unfortunate tree had been sheared tightly into some awful shape, but this spurred an amazing number of blooms that got me thinking about the one that I planted years ago. With no warning, the tree went from full bloom to brown overnight, and I think from time to time that I’d like to plant another. If I could carve out just a little space, it doesn’t need much.

The flowers of Yellowwood are similar to the Black locust, but the tree is less problematic. I enjoy locusts flowering at the edge of the thicket that neighbors the garden, and once planted the yellow leafed Frisia, which grew a bit too large to conflict with a tree lilac so that one or the other had to go.

Somewhat larger (much larger) is the Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea, above), and if there was an opportunity to plant one tree, perhaps because one was lost to a storm, this would be my first choice. A few years ago I considered yellowwood to replace a Seven Son tree (Heptacodium miconioides) that snapped in a summer storm, before finally settling on a Red horsechestnut (Aesculus × carnea). I haven’t regretted the choice, but haven’t given up on the yellowwood.

The best of the garden

Too many parts of the garden disappoint when photographed. The gardener’s eye compresses the view, while the camera minimizes plants, making only the most congested scenes appear worthy. Yes, there are sheds to crop out of the photograph, along with weeds, broken pots, piles of branches, and shovels left to be picked up another day. But fortunately, there are areas where plants tumble over one another, where lush ferns, hostas, and Forest grass fill gaps, so that a few wider angles of the garden can be shared.

This bluestone path is bordered by Dorothy Wycoff pieris, Ostrich ferns, and a variety of hostas. A tall boxwood stands at the intersection of two paths. Instead of being chopped out when it encroached on the path, it was pruned into a tall cone.

This is not an orderly garden. There is no formality besides a single boxwood that has long been too close to the intersection of two paths. Several years ago it was pruned into a tall, narrow cone (above), and what will happen (very soon) when it grows out of reach to maintain this shape, I don’t know. Otherwise, no pruning is done except for stems of ivies, periwinkle, hostas, and nandinas that stray onto the stone paths. I’m not certain if my wife prunes these to be helpful, or if she’s trying to keep me in my place.

Moss covered stones line the edges of the stream with sweetbox, hostas, ferns, and Japanese Forest grass.

Much of the garden has become shaded after three decades of planting, and I’m pleased that this environment encourages seedlings of hellebores, Jack-in-the-pulpit, ferns, and hostas, many of which are regularly transplanted. Logically, there should be little space available for new planting, but my wife is annually astounded as spots are found for new truckloads.

Sweetbox, Japanese Forest grass, and hostas border moss covered rocks that line the stream. In a few weeks, ferns will arch over the stream. Flowers of hostas and sweetbox are minor attractions to this area, but lush greens and contrasting textures make this my favorite spot in the garden.

A Viridis Japanese maple and Ostrich ferns border this bluestone patio. My wife insists that she occasionally sits on the lichen covered chairs, but I fear the joints have rotted and they’ll collapse under my weight. A few branches have been carved out of the maple’s wide spreading canopy so that the chair is not pushed to the center of this small aptio.

Stone steps curve through hostas, ferns, and periwinkle. The few upper steps are fieldstone, with the lower four black basalt that can be slick when wet.

Acrocona spruce tumbles over a stone wall that retains the lower edge of the koi pond. While the spruce will eventually grow to fifteen feet tall, after a decade it has barely reached three feet, though it has spread much wider.

Seedling geraniums have established at the edge of this stone patio. Gold Cone juniper rises behind it, though in the heat of Virginia its color never reaches the brightness that I see in the lower humidity of the west coast. The pot contains a young Japanese maple planted earlier in the spring.

The color of Gold Fernspray cypress is at its peak in winter and early spring, and it fades slightly in the heat of summer. This blue and yellow variegated hosta fades in a bit too much sun for its liking.

Branches of a wide spreading Viridis Japanese maple arch over the oldest of the garden’s five ponds. It must be pruned every few years so that the pond is not lost beneath its cascading branches.

Irises, pickerel weed, and sweetflag are planted in the shallow filtration area of the large koi pond (about 1400 square feet). Japanese irises and rushes are planted in pockets between stones that line the pond’s edge.

The stone path through the side garden is covered by fallen blooms of Chinese Snowball viburnum.

Hostas and Ostrich ferns have grown to nearly block this path that crosses a narrow section of one of the garden’s ponds. This is a prime target for my wife’s pruners, so I’ll enjoy it while I can.

An accidental triumph of plants that have spread or seeded from their origins. The seedling geranium grows in a gap between stones along with Creeping Jenny.

Silver Edge rhododendron and terrestrial orchids flower in front of Shaina Japanese maple.

A stone frog rests contentedly in this bed of sedum.