The summer garden

I suppose that some small sections of lawn are necessary, or at least that’s what my wife says, and who am I to argue? Probably, I wouldn’t stretch the garden to cover the entire acre and a quarter even if she didn’t put a stop to it, but I’d be happy to narrow the lawn and squeeze in a bit more.

A section of lawn connects sections of the rear garden. While toad lilies (Tricyrtis) and bluebeards (Caryopteris) will soon be their peak, the lawn fades and become more weedy until cooler temperatures in September encourage new growth.

In any case, in late July the lawn is typically sad, dry, with bare patches where less tolerant grasses faded in the summer heat. This would, of course, not be so bad if the lawn was irrigated, and it will rebound with cooler autumn temperatures, but long ago the decision was made that lawn areas are to function as expanded paths from one part of the garden to another. As long as the grass is not a horrible embarrassment,  I’m not concerned in the least when it goes dormant and turns off color in summer.

The shaded stream area is at its best in late spring and summer. With little direct sun, hostas and Japanese Forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) thrive through the heat. A serviceberry (Amelanchier) that arches over the stream drops leaves as it adjusts to the seasonal change, so leaves must occasionally be scooped out.

Sweetbox (Sarcococca), Japanese Forest grass, and hostas thrive in the moist, shaded garden beside this constructed stream.

Of course, the garden is a different story, and with only the occasional thunderstorm to keep it green, the trees and shrubs remains lush for the most part, though undoubtedly faded from the spring peak. This is an acceptable standard, to my thinking, with plants in the garden ones that have survived the stress of summer heat without coddling. The trial for any new plant in this garden is its first summer, and if it survives it’s likely to be around for a while.

To conserve soil moisture and to reduce maintenance, many parts of the garden are planted so that one spills onto the other. Here, Robb’s spurge (Euphorbia robbiae) spreads to cover the ground, growing into the edge of the spreading Plum yew (Cephalotaxus prostrata), beneath Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia). None show signs of summer stress, even in this dry shade, and rarely will a weed pop up through this dense planting.

With warm temperatures and increased rainfall, I am pleasantly surprised that native dogwoods are not covered in powdery mildew, as is often the case by mid summer. Mildew does not diminish the health or flowering of the white flowered ‘Cherokee Princess’, but the variegated ‘Cherokee Sunset’ (Cornus florida ‘Cherokee Sunset’, below) has not flowered in recent years. At the end of July, I’m encouraged that even ‘Sunset’ is clean, but this cannot last for long.  

A variety of beasts continue to afflict the garden, though none are much to be concerned about. Tiny white caterpillars are annual visitors to the red twigged ‘Arctic Fire’ dogwood (Cornus stolonifera ‘Farrow’, below), but this unremarkable shrub is hardly a treasure. I am pleased that again this year webworms have bypassed the redbuds. and while other andromedas (Pieris) are infested with lacebugs, the more prominent ‘Dorothy Wycoff’ is only slightly effected.As always, mid summer brings flowering of the toad lilies (Tricyrtis formosana ‘Samurai’, below). A year ago, several clumps were damaged when early spring growth was damaged by a late freeze. Fortunately, these recovered, and in in late July the clumps seem particularly robust. With a small collection of cultivars, flowering will continue until frost.


Few weeds, lots of flowers

I am encouraged that the garden was not the disaster I feared when I returned after traveling on business for a few weeks. I was certain that weeds would be knee high, but instead, the worst of it was cleaned up in a few hours. Several large limbs fell in storms while I was gone, which is not unusual with the proximity of the garden to tall maples and tulip poplars, but conveniently these dropped between valued plants and no damage was done. I haven’t gotten around to chopping the branches into manageable pieces, but this should not be a big project.

Several blooms that promised to peak while I was traveling have persisted long enough that I can enjoy their last days. The wide spreading Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora, above) was showing the first bit of color before I left, and I figured that flowers would move quickly to their peak and past. Happily, these held on until I returned. An acquaintance recently described bottlebrush as a giant weed, and how could I argue, but with attractive foliage and blooms it is perfectly suited to this shady spot at the edge of the garden. Since I’ve planted it slightly outside the boundary of our property, there’s plenty of space for this large shrub to spread.

Though I am greatly handicapped in describing colors, the apricot flowers of ‘Boone’ gladiolus (Gladiolus x gandavensis ‘Boone’, above) are delightful, and the plant is tough as they come. The tall flowering stalks must be staked or they flop into the mud. Some years this is done early on, and other times (this year) the stalks must be supported by neighbors.

There are a handful of Pineapple lilies in the garden as well as offsets from a vigorous clump of ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ that is perilously close to a wide spreading Oakleaf hydrangea. I feared these would be past bloom when I returned, but I’m happy they’re at their peak.

The foliage of Canyon Creek abelia can fade in the summer sun, and it’s form is upright and leggy, so there are many superior cultivars of abelia. But, there are no better blooms.

Gold Dust was an early variegated abelia introduction that has long been surpassed by others with more striking variegation.

Clethra is best suited to damp soils, but this ‘Ruby Spires’ has done well enough in very dry shade.

There are few bees on butterflies visiting Joe Pye weed on this cloudy afternoon. On a sunny day there will be many.

Several panicled hydrangeas in the garden grow to ten feet and taller, but Little Lime is more appropriate for most garden spaces.

Tardiva hydrangea is rarely offered today. It’s blooms are not nearly as substantial as other panicled hydrangeas such as LImelight.

Stripped bare

Though the crop of blueberries is not as abundant as years ago when ten large shrubs bordered the shed in full sun, several spindly blueberries grow in the shade between tall blackgum and katsura. A few weeks ago, bunches of blueberries ripened so that I was able to grab  a few handfuls while strolling the lower garden. With the remainder ripening as I traveled, birds have stripped the shrubs bare.

Returning to the garden following two weeks of business travel, I find the catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) has been stripped of leaves, probably by the catalpa worm, though none were in evidence when I examined damaged leaves before I left (below). The defoliation occurs annually, and probably could be avoided by spraying, but I avoid pesticides. Not to worry. Soon, the catalpa will grow another set of leaves, though these will be smaller than the first.

Before leaving the garden for two weeks, damage to catalpa leaves was minimal. Upon my return, leaves were stripped bare.

Today, there are only a few scattered Japanese beetles, that for whatever reason are never abundant in the garden, so little damage is done. Perhaps resident birds keep this pest under control. This year, only an indestructible pussy willow (Salix caprea ‘Pendula’) seems effected, and there is no more well suited magnet to attract beetles away from other treasures.

Japanese beetles were present and feasting on leaves of this pussy willow when I left. Two weeks later, few remain.

I cannot speak with authority to advocate that every gardener abstain from spraying poisons. The formula to minimize damage is imprecise, and I only suppose that birds attracted to the garden by food, water, and shelter are part of the solution, though this seems reasonable. Certainly, I will argue that spraying poisons will decrease insect populations, both desirable and not, with the consequence that birds, bees, and butterflies will be diminished.

Undoubtedly, part of this equation is the number of plants in the garden, so if the pussy willow is partially defoliated and the catalpa completely, there are many other trees and shrubs to console the gardener. With the number and diversity of plants in this garden, one pest or another is ever present, but rarely is the injury anything to fret over. The coming and going of varied beasts is fascinating to witness, though I can imagine the possibility of a different outlook if the garden was limited to a beetle ravaged purple plum and several lacebug infested azaleas.

No bees or butterflies are seen today on the second bloom cycle of this butterfly weed.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa, above) and swamp milkweeds (Asclepias incarnata) invite Monarch butterfly larvae into the garden, and while the flowers occasionally attract Tiger swallowtails (below), hordes of aphids are most frequent visitors. Somehow, small beetles find the milkweeds to feast until the aphids are gone, but damage is done and I am pleased when they grow vigorously in the spring. 

Today, and for another month or longer, it will be a wonder to see a bee on any flower besides ones on the wide spreading clump of Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum, below). The mint occupies a hundred square feet (at least), and at any time while the sun is shining there will be many dozens of bees, wasps, and hoverflies. Oddly, today I see many bumblebees on the Mountain mint, which are not unusual in the garden, but now are seen in much greater numbers than usual. The bumblebees also seem larger on average. I wonder, are they particularly well fed this summer?

Japanese maples in summer

I’m not complaining, but without question, the peak period for Japanese maples is spring when foliage colors are most vivid. July brings a stark contrast, and while a collector can excuse maples that fade from this peak in summer’s heat, gardeners with more limited space and budgets must choose more wisely. There are no ugly maples to my thinking, but the gardener is advised not to be seduced only by brilliant spring colors.  

Gwen’s Rose Delight Japanese maple (better known as Shirazz) has faded typically in the late spring heat. Green leafed maples show little difference in full sun, but ones with colored leaves (other than green) are best located with protection from the afternoon sun.

The cream bordered leaves of ‘Gwen’s Rose Delight’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Gwen’s Rose Delight’, aka ‘Shirazz’, above in early May and late June) are extraordinary for sixty days if there is not an extended spell of May heat. This spring, the period was shortened by ill timed rainfall that spotted leaves, and in early summer leaves have faded typically to remind the gardener that he must enjoy this maple while its going is good. Now, and through the remainder of summer, ‘Gwen’ is a tree that is likely to disappoint.

Floating Cloud Japanese maple (Ukigumo) in April.

The Floating Cloud maple in shade still shows much of its variegation, while two in more sun have faded to green.

For years I sought a reasonably sized Floating Cloud maple (Acer palmatum ‘Ukigumo’, above), and now there are three in the garden in various sunlight exposures. The first was planted into mostly full sun, and after a brief period of delightfully colorful leaves in spring, it faded to green. Two others were planted with varying degrees of shade, and only one with no direct sunlight shows any variegation by early summer. Probably, I should be disappointed, but I’m happy to have found an ideal situation for the one tree.

Pink new growth fades on Butterfly by late spring, but the variegation does not fade, even in full sun.

In the heat of a Virginia summer, variegated and red leafed Japanese maples fade to varying degrees, with ones exposed to late afternoon sun fading most. Newly planted maples fade more, long established trees less. In addition to considering the mature size that a Japanese maple will grow to, the gardener should also locate a maple with sun exposure that will bring out its best color.

The Autumn Full Moon maple struggles a bit in more sun than is ideal. Hopefully, this will not be so bad as the young tree matures.

Bloodgood, and other red leafed Japanese maples fade from their spring color.

Green leafed maples such as Viridis change little through summer.

Leaves of the Fernleaf Japanese maple do not change until they begin to show autumn color in late summer.

Two weeks away from the garden

Drought or deluge, there is no doubt that the garden will change significantly while I travel on business for two weeks. Changes are likely not to be apparent to a visitor, but hours of weeding will be required to catch up, and more hours will be spent catching up on flowers that are opening (and ones that will be fading).

Flowers of Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) are fading. In two weeks the remaining flowers will be gone.

While bees are frequent visitors to Butterfly weed, butterflies are more rare, even with abundant numbers of Tiger swallowtails in the garden.

Before I leave, weeds have been plucked , and while I cannot claim that there are none, the garden is as weed-free as it will ever be in early summer. That will change, of course, with newly germinated seedlings lurking just below the surface, and after two weeks the result will be distressing.

I suspect that any gardener is disappointed to miss a single of the garden’s flowers, and as I prepare to leave there are emerging flowers that will have faded upon my return. Others, such as ‘Gilt Edge’ toad lilies (Tricyrtis formosana ‘Gilt Edge’, above), will be the first of many flowers to come.

I will miss the flowering of Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora, above) by a day or two, and while there is a bit of color showing, the short lived blooms are likely to be fading upon my return. A chance seedling growing at the far end of the garden in swampy ground beneath a river birch (Betula nigra) is more deeply shaded, so it is not likely to flower for weeks. This buckeye, planted in shade of the Bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla), but with a bit more sun, has grown vigorously, and its flowering will put on a show that I am disappointed to miss.

The flowering stalks of Pineapple lilies have nearly reached their full height, so flowers will open in the next week.

Crocosmias are beginning to flower, and with luck will be in full bloom when I return.

Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) has just begun to bloom, so beetles and bees will continue to visit for many weeks.

Joe Pye weed is beginning to flower. Seedlings grow in gravel at the edge of the koi pond, attracting dozens of swallowtails.

Pistachio hydrangea started late after damage in a late freeze, so the first flowers will arrive in late JUly.

The advantage of shade

A frequent complaint of gardeners (among a multitude of others) is that shade prohibits growing one thing or another that would prefer more sun. Certainly, I would be happy to tack on another half acre of open and sunnier space, and while I have more than my share of issues to whine about, rarely will I complain about too much shade. No, I cannot grow tomatoes, which I did twenty some years ago until Japanese maples, dogwoods, and redbuds (and others) I planted took hold. There are times I regret not being about to walk out back to pluck a warm tomato, and blueberries are spotty, but mostly I’m delighted that much of the garden is shady, particularly as we head into the summer months and seemingly endless days of high humidity and ninety five degrees.

Sweetbox, hostas, and Japanese Forest grass thrive along this stream tucked beneath towering maples and tulip poplars.

The few sunny spots in the garden shows some signs of stress after only a few weeks of warm temperatures, but shaded areas appear much the same as a month ago when temperatures were cooler and rainfall plentiful. Mosses along the shaded stream just behind the house remain green through the heat, while mosses covering boulders surrounding the sun drenched koi pond fade quickly between periods of rain. While most hostas in the garden are located in shade or part shade, the few in more sun show their displeasure in July and August, and this is reason enough to be happy for the shade, even if a few flowers must be done without.

When moss finds a happy home you’ll know it. It remains green through cold and drought, and spreads to cover porous objects in its path.

Carex and Great Expectations hosta thrive in this shady spot.

With abundant rainfall through late spring, Oakleaf hydrangeas have grown and flowered vigorously. Most hydrangeas prefer a few hours of sun, and flowering is more abundant with more sun.

Cinnamon fern grows between Oakleaf hydrangeas




The garden’s paths

I don’t mind a path through the garden that is lawn, any variation of leaf or wood mulch, gravel, and hardly mind areas of bare soil, though more than once a ruckus has been raised when clumps of mud are dropped onto the kitchen floor. Of course, it was my wife who dictated long ago that stone paths be laid through the garden.

The stone path is bordered by hostas, Japanese Forest grass and sweetbox.

Good design requires that paths be at least three, and preferably four feet or wider to accommodate two people side by side, but stone paths in this garden are generally one stone in width, and as narrow as a foot and a half, though most are likely to be a bit wider. The bluestone paths to the front and back doors (below) are wider, five feet in the front and three in back, but in the garden the intended purpose of paths is only to keep me out of the mud. Nothing more, and since visitors are infrequent there is no reason to construct paths wider than necessary.

The bluestone path leads past Ostrich fern, hostas, and pieris to the rear deck.

I whine loudly, and often, that my wife insists that foliage not obstruct the narrow paths. She has butchered too many of the garden’s inhabitants, most recently a spiny leafed mahonia that leaned over the stone path that parallels the left side of the house. Admittedly, passing by the mahonia could be hazardous, but I advised that it would be better if she did not come this way around the house. It is not an unreasonable request, I think, but now the mahonia is unsightly.

The wide path below the stone retaining wall for the koi pond drains overflow from the pond as well as from the upper garden.

Unfortunately, my wife’s career leaves her at home through most of the summer, and without proper supervision I cringe when I return home each evening to see ferns and hosta leaves in the garbage. My constant critiques have, I think, improved her pruning so that occasionally I cannot tell where her day’s work has been performed, but the thought of her prowling the garden with pruners in hand is unnerving.

A stone slab crosses this narrow creek, bordered by sweetbox, hostas, and Arborvitae fern (club moss).

I see no value in pruning stems or leaves that arch over the garden’s paths. I dislike straight lines or clean edges to any paving, and if I must walk around or push through rain soaked leaves, I don’t much care. Only a time or two have black snakes been encountered beneath large overhanging leaves of hostas, and though my wife discovered two mating just outside our basement door recently, once they were spooked both disappeared and have not been seen since. A couple harmless snakes are no good reason to carve up good plants.

Hostas, toad lily and periwinkle border stone steps that climb from one patio to another, crossing one of the garden’s ponds.

This spring I have noticed several areas where roots of a blackgum and various maples and tulip poplars have surfaced to cause path stones to wobble. I don’t worry about this for myself. The paths have always been uneven, and strolling the garden a person should be looking down at plants instead of gazing at clouds or looking to identify woodpeckers that are inevitably in nearby trees. Again, if there were more visitors, and happily there are few so that maintenance can slip on occasion, there might be a higher standard for the paths. But, mostly it’s just me, and if a few wobbly stones discourage my wife from being in the garden, well, I’ll somehow make do.

Peacock spike moss and hellebores border the shaded path.