Beijing Beauty

I’ve been unable to determine the parentage of the narrow leafed mahonia, ‘Beijing Beauty’ (below), but suspect its heritage is similar to ‘Soft Caress’ and ‘Narihira’, which are partially or fully bred from Mahonia eurybracteata, that has proved not to be sufficiently cold hardy in this garden despite my best efforts. Possibly, these would survive in a protected spot, but it seems I am incapable of determining what is a protected microclimate. In any case, in multiple locations both mahonias have failed to survive. Leatherleaf (Mahonia bealei) and hybrid mahonias ‘Winter Sun’, ‘Charity’, and ‘Underway’ have survived five degrees or more below zero with minimal injury, but narrow leafed mahonias have failed at temperatures above zero.

Beijing Beauty mahonia is flowering in mid September. Flowers are considerably smaller than late autumn flowering ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’, or spring flowering Leatherleaf mahonia. It’s habit appears to be more compact and lower growing, but probably taller than the low, mounding ‘Soft Caress’.

Long ago, I discovered that zone 7 cold hardiness ratings are not a guarantee. Some zone 7 plants will tolerate temperatures colder than zero, while others perish at ten degrees. Clearly, cold hardiness determinations are an inexact science, and possibly there is no science to it at all, but a best guess or perhaps even wishful thinking.

Soft Caress is exceptional for its foliage and texture, though flowers are less significant. Unfortunately, after multiple tries I’ve abandoned hope that it will survive in this northwestern Virginia garden.

In any case, ‘Beijing Beauty’ is beginning to flower in early September, a month or two earlier than ‘Soft Caress’ (above), and giving hope that its lineage might be different enough to include greater cold tolerance. While last winter did not approach zero, this year or next, or at least eventually it will get this cold again, and I’ll learn its similarity to ‘Soft Caress’. I suspect it won’t survive, but I can hope that at least one of four, or possibly all will survive in varied spots through the garden.

Also, I’ve recently planted Mahonia ‘Marvel’, which has a similar lack of information regarding its heritage. But, ‘Marvel’ is clearly a late autumn flowering hybrid similar to ‘Winter Sun’ (above), ‘Charity’, and ‘Underway’, without spines except one at the leaf tips. There is less reason to question its hardiness, as I question the cold tolerance of ‘Bejiing Beauty’, and I suspect I’m not alone in giving a try to plants that have questionable chances for survival.


A thing or two

Occasionally, I am almost convinced that I know a thing or two about the garden. Not often, and though I might speculate about one aggravation or another, mostly I’m just guessing. Term these educated guesses if it pleases you. I’m not offended knowing that the mysteries of the garden are above my mental capabilities.

Happily, it appears that I’ve solved the “no berries on the Winterberry hollies” dilemma. For years there were loads of berries on the grouping of five or six hollies. But, these were planted beside a grove of bamboo, that spread as bamboos do, and eventually a few of the hollies were too close and shaded out. For other reasons, and here some part of the blame (or credit) goes to my wife, the bamboo was chopped out. Once gone, a Winterberry or two was also lost and dug out.

Then, with more sunlight and what should have been a more advantageous situation, the hollies ceased to have more than a few scattered berries. Please excuse my advice over the years that there is always a male pollinator nearby, because, in this case, apparently there was not. And also, it seems that the male was one of the hollies that was dug out. This revelation took only two or three years to confirm, and then I was distracted for another few years before planting a small male holly nearby earlier this year.

Evergreen hollies (‘Centennial Girl’ holly) consistently have berries, so it is evident that there is a male pollinator nearby.

Miraculously, this tiny holly provided the right stuff to pollinate the four remaining female hollies, that are now covered in berries. In early autumn, these are ripening to red. So, all is well, and with renewed faith that I’m not a complete dunce, I will continue to spout “wisdom”.

And really, this problem should not have been so complicated, and no doubt was perplexing only because I was quite certain that there is always an available pollinator. Perhaps, I will know better next time.

A few stray seedlings

I’m uncertain if Colchicum, sometimes called autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale), spreads readily from seed, but that would explain a small clump several feet downhill from ones that I most definitely planted. It’s possible that I planted the scattered few. I cannot be expected to remember everything I’ve planted, but if I did, the skimpy result is disappointing. I think these are hard to kill, so probably the scattered flowers have resulted from seed.

The autumn flowering Colchicum is a short lived bloom, as is the late winter flowering Crocus, and though the appearance and briefness of the flowers are similar, the bulbs are not related. I plant only a few of the winter bloomers since squirrels carry most of them off, but from my limited experience the flowers of autumn Colchicum are considerably larger. Also, in case you are tempted to nibble, Colchicum is poisonous, so squirrels and deer will not be to blame if they disappear.

The flowers are a delight, even if they don’t stay around long, and if the few lonely blooms have come from seed, better still.

Happily, there are many other seedlings in this garden. Dozens of hellebores have been transplanted, as have toad lilies. At any time, there are dozens, many dozens of Japanese maple seedlings of varying leaf colors and shapes to be found. Most are discarded or the garden would be overrun, but some have been dug out and potted, and in time I’ll see if a worthwhile tree develops.

Sporelings of Sensitive fern appear throughout the garden. Here it is growing between stones in gravel at the edge of this constructed stream.

Many ferns have sprouted, mostly from Japanese Painted and Ghost ferns, but also native Sensitive fern. These don’t get in the way except for the few that grow between stepping stones, so most are left to grow on, and only a few are transplanted. I can mostly recall ones that started as seedlings (or sporelings for ferns) from ones that I planted, though ones from seed (or spores) are most likely to have sprouted in advantageous spots.

Slow and steady

In a garden’s early years, the gardener is perpetually in a rush. Impatiently, he fertilizes and frets over every bug and black spotted leaf that he fears will set the garden back. More important than tomorrow is today, and fast takes priority over slow and steady.

And then, a decade has passed. The gardener is not so anxious, and it’s likely that a plant or two that was jammed too close in his haste to fill the garden, must now be removed. With a more mature garden he is more relaxed. A tree lost to disease, or in a storm, is not the catastrophe he would have imagined years earlier.

The center of the rear lawn was kept open until the kids went off to college. Fifteen years later Blue Atlas and Alaskan cedars, redbuds, and Japanese maples have grown considerably. Still, this younger part of the garden is less shaded than others.

I recall a morning, possibly twenty-eight years ago, when my wife and I looked out the front windows to see cows on the loose from a neighboring farm lumbering through the front lawn. There wasn’t much garden at the time, but I was panicked that newly planted beech and Japanese maples might be trampled. Fortunately, little damage was done, and now the beech and maple tower over the garden. The farm and the cows are long gone, replaced by homes, and the garden has expanded. Small trees have grown to cast deep shade, and large swaths of lawn are now small patches between gardens that obscure the view from one end of the property to the other.

Seedlings of ‘Chocolate’ Joe Pye weed contrast with ‘Banana Boat’ carex. Seedlings vary from dark foliage that matches the parent, that is long gone, to much lighter in color.

In this mid September, fallen leaves of the beech cover a stone path, though not as many as after a typical, drier late summer. The progression into autumn is evident, from falling leaves of beech and serviceberry, to ripening berries, and leaves of dogwoods beginning to turn to crimson. After a cool and damp late August, temperatures are warmer in September, but lacking summer’s heat and drought, the garden is unusually lush. Certainly, there has been another summer as damp, or as cool in twenty-eight years, but none that I recall.

The passsionflower vine dies to the ground each winter. With an early start to spring growth the vine will overgrow its support, but this year it barely reaches the top.

The few brown stems of the bluebeard shrub are not concerning. In twenty years this has been seen before, with no ill effect come next spring. This section of the garden was replanted in recent years after a bamboo grove was removed.

Sun King and other late summer beauties

The floral display of ‘Sun King’ aralia (Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’, below) is of minor consequence, though the small, satellite shaped flowers are interesting and certain to attract bees. ‘Sun King’ is most remarkable for its brightly colored yellow foliage, and its size, growing nearly to six feet tall. I notice little difference with the shrub-like perennial growing in part sun, or shaded beneath branches of a wide spreading Japanese maple, other than growth is slightly stunted in the deeper shade. 

Summer, and particularly late summer, has been kind to the garden. Consistent rainfall has been most beneficial, but there are no complaints about the lack of severe heat. In the worst of summers, ‘Sun King’ will scorch with part sun exposure, but not this year. Few plants in the garden show signs typical of late summer except flowers, berries ripening on beautyberries, hollies, and dogwoods, and foliage of dogwoods has just begun to change color.

The oddly named ‘W-Ho-ping Toad’ toad lily (Tricyrtis formosana var. grandiflora ‘W-Ho-ping Toad’) grows vigorously, with a more open form than other, more common toad lilies. While ‘Sinonome’, ‘Miyazaki’, and ‘Samurai’ are most commonly available, other cultivars are found only from specialty growers. The common cultivars are excellent to start your collection.

A mutation with a branch of mixed white and purple berries on this purple beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma) did not return this year. Beautyberries are unremarkable shrubs through most of the year, with clusters of small flowers that are minimally ornamental. However, in shade to part sun beautyberry is exceptional from late summer until frost.

The choice between white beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma ‘Albifructus’) and the purple berried shrub is a personal preference. Both are vigorous shrubs that are best placed to the side of the garden so they do not stand out through much of the year when they are plainly green. Most years, after typical winter cold beautyberries must be pruned to eliminate dead branch tips. With the warm winter this year, no pruning was necessary.

Canyon Creek abelia grows vigorously and flowers prolifically. Its habit is upright and loose. There are many abelias with more compact forms, but none with more abundant blooms.

‘Summer Ice’ daphne grows vigorously in full to part sun. Here, it is planted in part shade which slows it down a bit, and decreases flowering, but only a little. While daphnes have a well deserved reputation for being finicky, ‘Summer Ice’ and ‘Eternal Fragrance’ seem to be the easiest of the lot. Both flower from early spring until frost.

‘Eternal Fragrance’ daphne is beginning its fourth or fifth period of flowering, with scattered flowers at all times in between. This daphne started to flower in late winter and will continue until freezing temperatures.

‘Othello’ ligularia grows in shade beside one of the garden’s ponds. Its foliage is attractive, but unfortunately, it is placed so that it is hidden from view.

Weekend planting

Several hours of this past weekend were occupied by planting. Also removing, which is often more work and not so pleasurable, but large parts of a variegated hydrangea had reverted to green. This hydrangea often was damaged by freezes, and thus rarely flowered, so chopping it out was a year or two overdue. As with any project, the problem is getting started. Once shovel is in hand, I’m good to go, though the going is not as effortless as forty, or even ten years ago.

Three reblooming Encore azaleas will fill the space where the hydrangea was removed. One azalea would do, but it would look a little lonely for a few years among other mature plants.

The weekend’s planting was pretty simple, with removal of the hydrangea and replacing it with a few large azaleas, and another problem area. A narrow strip of lawn between a wide spreading Japanese maple and a cypress long ago faded mostly to mud, and though this was the convenient path to the small patch of lawn in front, it had become a bit of an eyesore. The few tufts of grass were easily skimmed off, and another azalea and a few tiarellas and sedges (Carex) were added to fill the space. Probably, these will be crowded out eventually as the maple continues to spread, but azaleas, tiarellas, and sedges are easily moved if it comes to that. Now, I’ll be a bit less likely to drag mud into the house after wandering through the garden.

I’ve found that tiarellas perform exceptionally as ground covers in shady spots. While coral bells (Heuchera) are prone to fading in dry conditions, tiarellas do not, and many have striking foliage.

As usual, my wife was not enthusiastic about any of it, except the mud part, if that occurred to her. A waste of money, to her thinking. There’s too much garden already, she says, so she suggests that I remove two for every one I plant. Of course, this won’t work, and as for the immediate projects, I waited too long to be rid of these problems. After a pleasant summer with too little activity I was happy to be digging again.

Early September flowers

The first flower of a seedling of ‘Miyazaki’ toad lily (Tricyrtis hirta ‘Miyazaki’, below) is larger and earlier than ones expected soon on the nearby parent. ‘Miyazaki’ seems particularly fertile, with numerous seedlings in recent years, though curiously, none this year. Seedlings appear identical to the parent plants, but I am interested to follow this one to see if flowers are larger, or if this is only wishful thinking.

A year ago, foliage of ‘Miyazaki’ suffered in a short bout of late summer heat and drought, but even in full sun there are few leaves with any damage in this early September. While toad lilies are recommended for shade, there is little doubt that flowering is increased with exposure to sun. The ideal exposure is likely to be full sun through most of the day, with shade from the late afternoon sun. In shadier spots, growth and flowering are disappointing, and in moderate shade there might be no flowers at all.

The shrubby Gordlinia (Gordlinia x grandiflora, above) continues in flower since early in August, and with more buds there are likely to be flowers through the month. This large shrub replaced a Franklinia that failed to survive in a damp spot, and while flowers are identical, the evergreen leaves of gordlinia do not change color in autumn. In a September with early cool weather, flowers of Franklinia occasionally persisted until leaves turned to burgundy. But, even without significant autumn leaf coloring, I am thrilled with the long flowering gordlinia, and the promise that it will prove sturdier than Franklinia.

‘Hint of Gold’ bluebeard (Caryopteris clandonensis Lisaura, above) is now at its peak bloom, and certainly bees have noticed. ‘Hint of Gold’ tolerates summer heat better than other yellow leafed bluebeards, with less fading, but flowers are delightful on all. I’ve seen mass plantings of bluebeards that are stunning, but with limited space I’ve planted only single shrubs. In any case, every garden is improved with one late summer flowering bluebeard or another.