Unauthorized clean up

The assistant gardener (my wife) has been home this week for spring break, and fortunately it’s been rainy until today when I came home to a trash can filled with a variety of clippings. I don’t dare dig deeper to see what’s beneath the ivies and periwinkle that she is always welcome to snip away at. In fact, I should not label her a gardener of any sort, assistant or otherwise, though I suppose she’s trying to be helpful.

Grecian windflowers (Anemone blanda) are scattered due to weeding that often mistakes them after flowers have faded.

No doubt, the vines strayed over paths since my wife last got around to this, and if pruning ivy off the stones is the worst she gets into, I’ll be relieved. Wandering through the garden I see little evidence of her butchery, which is rarely the case, so perhaps she wasn’t out for long, and did no serious damage on this seventy degree afternoon.

It should be no surprise that two people have differing visions of what the garden should be, and we do. I prefer a relaxed look with hostas and whatever else flopping over path stones, she does not. I prune nothing unless it’s dead, and don’t mind stepping over or around branches that stray. She prefers tidiness, I want flopping and straying.

Dorothy Wycoff pieris has grown over the edge of the walkway to the back deck. I must prune this carefully so my wife doesn’t. Select branches are pruned rather than sheared to maintain the natural form of the shrub.

My wife informs me that the new planting in the rear garden is horrible. I’ve removed too much lawn, and never mind that lawn isn’t much to look at, though it does make a nice contrast to planted areas. Truthfully, I’d remove all the lawn in this area below the koi pond except I’d have to lug stones down to make a path through the plantings. Grass is an inexpensive path, but besides the larger area over the septic field, I don’t see much use for it now that the kids are long gone. There are no ballgames, or hide and seek. And yes, my wife’s opinion does count, at least a little, so this is likely to be as far as I cut into this smaller area of lawn.



The garden’s inventory gets longer as my memory gets shorter, I fear. Perhaps it’s just today, but I can hardly recall what’s planted where if it’s not up and growing. As I add new plantings this is likely to result in conflicts, and with planting a few Japanese maples last week it occurs to me that this collection is getting larger, and already there are more than a few cultivar names that I’ve forgotten.

An unidentified pink camellia has minor freeze damage. Other buds opening later are unblemished.

Don’t feel sorry for me. Despite being color blind, half deaf (the half that can’t hear my wife), scent challenged, and with a variety of parts that are fused, busted, or worn out, I’m getting along just fine. In a spark of motivation (or boredom), the spring clean up of the worst of the mess that I plan to get around to was finished up by mid-March. Other parts just won’t get done, as usual, but once leaves are out most of this won’t be seen as long as you don’t look too hard. As the prerogative of the gardener, I apologize for nothing.

The worst of the debris has been cleaned from the garden’s ponds. Raindrops ripple along one pond’s edge.

Hopefully, the eye (at least mine) is distracted by lovely blooms and fine foliage, and that’s what the garden is about. Most definitely, I don’t care much for chores that others claim are a part of the garden’s joy. Not mine. There are lots of necessary evils in the garden. Who can possibly enjoy weeding? But, it must be done. Occasionally, and as little as possible.

With mild temperatures forecast for this week, flower buds of Dr. Merrill magnolia are ready, with a minimum of freeze damage.

After twenty-nine years in this garden the goal continues to be to cram in as many beauties as possible, and someday, cover every inch with something so that not a weed can grow. I’m working hard on the beauties, but the weed free part will probably never happen. But, every year it gets a bit closer. And, if I cannot possibly reach this point, at the least I can add more distractions.

Time for planting

All but a few small areas of snow have melted, and with milder temperatures (not quite warm by my wife’s definition) forecast for mid week, the time is right for planting. Ideas have percolated through the winter, and now at least some fraction will be put into the ground.

A patch of periwinkle exposed to the winter sun is the first to flower.

Good sense dictates that cleaning up the untidiness left over from autumn should come first, but there is little harm in early planting, and transplants are best done in the chill of late winter. Occasionally, I’ve planted in March, or February, to find in mid April a long established hosta or toad lily growing inches away, but this is easily corrected and little reason to delay.

In recent weeks, a small area of sod was stripped in the rear garden, with several shrubs and a small tree (a twelve foot tall Parrotia) transplanted to begin filling the space. The area was poorly drained, so the planting bed was raised a bit and a depression was dug to encourage drainage. Certainly, this will be an improvement, but whether this will remedy the constant dampness, I’ll know in another month.

Bulbs of Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa) slowly spread down a slope between roots of swamp maples.

Two five foot tall Japanese maples have been planted to replace dwarf spruces that were barely hanging on. Both maples are upright growing types that should top out at eight or ten feet, and while I’ve often seen plants rocket past referenced sizes, there is not room for another foot if these should decide to be exceptionally vigorous. My wife questions if any other tree is an appropriate choice in this already congested garden, but of course it is, and again she shakes her head in disbelief.

The finely cut leaves of Linearilobum maples are similar to the newly planted Hubb’s Red Willow Japanese maple

Two tree peonies are on order, and a handful other plants that I’ve forgotten, but no doubt will be pleasantly surprised by upon arrival. With warmer temperatures imminent, I’m anxious for their delivery, to be planted along with a few daphnes and whatever else catches my eye when I’m in the garden center. I’ve decided to give a few purple leafed loropetalums another try. One planted long ago has survived six or seven degrees below zero, but it’s considerably smaller than when it was planted. Several claim increased cold hardiness, so what the heck.

Purple Diamond loropetalum flowered once. Otherwise, it annually struggles for survival. Other loropetalums claim increased cold hardiness.

Where all will go is not completely decided yet, but details are quickly worked out once plants are in hand. There is some space in the new planting area, and a few of the new purchases don’t required much room, so they can be shoehorned in. Somehow, it will work out. With a mild week ahead, and most of the spring clean up accomplished, I look forward to shorts and flip flops, and planting.

A little slow getting here

Fortunately, flowers of ‘Dr. Merrill’ and ‘Royal Star’ magnolias, and ‘Okame’ cherry (below), are a bit late. In a mild winter, the magnolias can begin to flower in late February in this garden, and ‘Okame’ is usually in bloom early in the second week of March. I say that tardy flowering is fortunate because recent cold temperatures have turned the edges of the few half opened buds to brown. It is far better to delay flowering until the worst of winter’s cold is past, and seldom does this work as planned, but cold temperatures the past two weeks put a stop to swelling buds that seemed ready to flower soon after several seventy degree days in late February.

A few early blooms were damaged by a nineteen degree night, but flowers will continue to open as the days become warmer.

Other flowers in the garden have weathered this spell of cold without injury. Blooms of hellebores, paperbushes, pieris (Pieris japonica ‘Dorothy Wycoff’ below), mahonia, sweetbox, and narcissus (‘February Gold’, above) annually tolerate periods of cold and snow cover without a bother. A few crocus remain in bloom, but most have faded along with the last of the snowdrops and Winter aconites.

By good fortune, flowers of the variegated Winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ , below) were not damaged while foliage was injured in January temperatures that dropped to zero, and perhaps a degree or two below in this chilly, low lying garden situated between foothills that soon become the Blue Ridge Mountains. While other daphnes are dependably cold hardy, Winter daphnes are marginal for the area. Occasionally, pruning is required to cut out dead wood after a cold winter, and flowers have been lost a time or two, but each time the daphnes recover quickly. This, and other daphnes, are well worth the effort to find an appropriate spot with ideal soil and sunlight exposure.

Color peeks from swelling buds of the yellow, threadleaf ‘Ogon’ spirea (Spirea thunbergii ‘Ogon’, below). Flowering is only slightly tardy, and after a sixty degree day or two, the shrub will be covered in small white blossoms that are unlikely to be damaged by early spring freezes. While the flowers and foliage of this Bridal Wreath spirea are delightful, unruly growth consigns it to the margins, rather than more prominent positioning in the garden.

Flowers in the snow

Typical March weather. Short sleeves one day, snow the next, though mild temperatures have been rare in this colder than average month.

The front garden, with a dogwood and Japanese maple. When trees are in leaf the front of the house can barely be seen. I dislike gardens with hedges that obscure the front of the house, but who can complain about dogwoods and Japanese maples?

Today’s snow is likely to come up short of worst case predictions, which is a good thing, and with a sunny (but cool) day forecast for tomorrow I’ll be happy if it’s gone by day’s end. Though most of the spring garden clean up is done, or at least as done as it’s going to get, I’m ready for spring, and that doesn’t include snow.

Looking into the rear garden with a pavilion beside the koi pond.

For a day, it’s okay. Photos of flowers in the snow are nice, and here they are. Okay, now it’s time to move into spring.

The farm pond and barn just up the road.

Flowers of Okame cherry peek out from the snow.

Needles of the gold Fernspray cypress covered in snow.

Dorothy Wycoff pieris in peak bloom.

The low growing February Gold narcissus barely peeks above the snow.

Paperbush (Edgeworthia) began flowering in early March, and in cool recent weeks the blooms persist late into the month.

Dr. Merrill and Royal Star magnolias often flower the first week of March, but both are tardy this year which is fortunate so that flowers have not been damaged by recent freezes.

A cardinal waits for a bluejay to finish at the bird feeder.

A bluejay at the feeder.

The Cornelian cherry (a dogwood, Cornus mas) flowers in its newly transplanted location in the rear garden.

Leatherleaf mahonia began flowering in early March. There have been few days that bees have been out, so flowers might not be pollinated. If not, there will be few of the grape-like fruits (and few seedlings).

Low growing hellebores are buried beneath the snow so that flowers are barely seen. Scroll further down the page to see photos of hellebores take a few days earlier.

A look of disapproval

I get the look from my wife, a lot. This week, a few packages of plants ordered through the winter have been delivered. Often, I’m able to grab and plant these without witnesses, but this week was cold and windy, so I was caught in the act. When it’s revealed that packages contain plants (the first delivery arrived with dormant roots of dormant Petasites frigidus var. palmatus ‘Golden Palms’, below), the disapproving look ensues (sometimes only a disgusted shake of the head), as it will when I arrive home in a few weeks with the front seat of the car jammed full after a visit to the garden center. This winter, several larger orders have been divided into multiple, smaller deliveries, so I’m confronted by the evidence with disturbing frequency (though I’m delighted with the arrivals).

I’ve seen the look so often now that the effect has worn a bit thin, and while objections are noted, certainly these have little effect in dissuading additional compulsive purchases. This is why a Japanese maple or two becomes a collection of thirty-five trees (or more), and how several hellebores become many more dozens than I care to count. In fact, I have no interest in making a count of maples or hellebores (or anything else). Why would I provide proof of my excess?

While purchases provoke my wife’s wrath, she’s quite happy with the end result, I think. Today, there are no complaints with hellebores in full flower. Often, blooms are spaced from late January through mid-March, but the vagaries of this winter’s weather concentrated more flowers into a shorter window, which is now. I prefer the longer period of bloom, but my preference doesn’t count, and as I prowl about the garden I’m overjoyed with flowers of hellebores, pieris, and more.

An unidentified hellebore with very dark foliage – not quite in peak bloom

Hellebore Harlequin Gem

Ivory Prince hellebore

Flowers of this hellebore, and many more older varieties, face downward.

The garden’s hellebores are unevenly divided into old types, with flowers that nod downward, and newer introductions with taller flower stalks and blooms that face outward or up. These are the ones that are hard to resist, and they also are the root of my troubles. Undoubtedly, there are many more of the older types in the garden than newer, to a large extent because seedlings sprout readily, which are then encouraged to grow for a few years before they’re transplanted. But, there is confusion in numbers, and I’ve explained before that part of the reason I’ve lost track of the names of many of the garden’s hellebores is because there are far too many to keep straight. Many are purchases, hybrids and select strains, but more of the types with nodding (but still beautiful) flowers that are spread through the garden began here as seedlings. Ones pictured on this page are a fraction of unique hellebores in the garden, though many not pictured show only slight variation.

I suppose that if money was not a consideration I would prefer the fancier types, and particularly ones with double flowers or speckles, or whatever else makes one new introduction more distinctive. There are a bunch of these, which tend to be later to flower, with many just coming into bloom. But, the fancy types aren’t cheap, and many are sterile so there will never be (free) seedlings. This does, however, leave space for purchasing new introductions that catch my eye.

Penny’s Pink hellebore

Molly’s White hellebore

Anna’s Red hellebore

Questionably cold hardy

Unsurprisingly, leaves of three of four ‘Beijing Beauty’ mahonias (below) are brown and brittle following a winter when multiple nights dropped to zero, and possibly a degree or two colder. The fourth, nearest and evidently protected by the house, shows no sign of winter injury.

While the parentage of ‘Beijing Beauty’ is unclear, suspicions seem confirmed that the mahonias derive from similar shrubs (‘Soft Caress’ and narrow leaf mahonias) that perished in recent winters. Though confirmation of the the mahonias’ failure to survive is weeks away, the process to consider possible replacements has begun.

Another newly planted mahonia, ‘Marvel’, appears very similar to ‘Winter Sun’ (Mahonia x media, above) and other late autumn flowering hybrid mahonias, though with notably fewer spines. Despite planting late in the season, ‘Marvel’ survived the winter with only minor damage. Other hybrid mahonias show mixed results with some minor damage, or none at all.

Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, below) is long established in the garden, and through recent winters with multiple nights falling to five below zero no winter injury was seen. While flowering time varies, even to mid January in mild winters, leatherleaf began flowering this year at the more typical start of March. The gardener should be warned that grape-like fruits that follow flowering are quickly devoured by birds, and seedlings of leatherleaf mahonia are common. In some areas it is judged to be invasive, though I have seen no evidence that it spreads to this extent. 

In mid February, ‘Underway’ mahonia was dug through a crust of frozen ground to be transplanted to an expansion of a planting bed in the rear garden. It had been squeezed into a spot behind a wide spreading paperbush and an abelia, and while it grew vigorously, the location was too shaded for flowering. While it is too early to be certain, the move appears successful, though a number of scrapes and scratches resulted from the mahonia’s spiny leaves.Once, for novelty I planted a Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria araucana, above), which unfortunately survived only a few years in the heat and humidity of Virginia. I can attest that the only plant with more vicious spines than Monkey Puzzle is a dead Monkey Puzzle, which was removed with more than a little loss of blood. Mahonias, live or dead, run a close second, so I am hesitant to experiment much with ones that are of questionable hardiness.