Unexpected and unexplained

The young gardener understands that things will go wrong, but expects that there will be fewer issues as he gains experience. And then he tends his garden for a decade or two, with fewer, but continuing unexpected and unexplained occurrences, and he wonders if he will ever figure this out. No, he will not, at least not completely. There are too many pieces to this puzzle to make sense of all things that go wrong, and of course he doesn’t question the many things that go right, which can be equally confounding, but less concerning.

Today, I am quite pleased with the scattering of red blooms on the ‘Cherokee Sunset’ dogwood (Cornus florida ‘Cherokee Sunset’, above). In recent years I’ve bemoaned the lack of flowers, and in fact I cannot recall the tree ever flowering since it was planted a dozen years ago. Probably, it flowered a time or two soon after planting, but not in recent years. I suspect, and of course this is an outright guess, that the culprit is powdery mildew, which is commonplace on dogwoods in areas with high humidity and regular summer rainfall. Clearly, the tree has been stunted in growth, and ‘Cherokee Sunset’ is more susceptible to mildew than many recent dogwood introductions that have been bred specifically for resistance to mildew and black spotting.

The variegated foliage (above) is delightful each spring, even without flowers, but by mid summer the fog of mildew covers and deforms leaves. I suppose that diligent spraying of a fungicide might prevent this, but I don’t spray for anything. Last year, for whatever unexplained reason, mildew was minimal, so this spring there are flowers, and I’m not overly concerned with why.

At the start of May, flowers of dogwoods and redbuds have not faded yet, though with a very warm week ahead the blooms are not likely to last more than another few days. The one serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis, above) in the garden quickly reached peak bloom a week ago, then faded immediately, with petals littering the creek and small pond beneath the overhanging tree (below). Again, for whatever reason, I rarely see bees pollinating flowers of the serviceberry, so I’ve never seen a single fruit on the tree. Whether this is due to the brevity of flowering, or the tree’s shaded location, I long ago gave up worrying about.

The Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina, above) has only a single lower branch low enough to see flowers close up, though if I get the right angle from the kitchen window I can view even uppermost branches (and flowers), so I’m not complaining. In this shaded spot beneath towering maples and tulip poplars, the tall growth and sparse branching is not surprising. Many times I’ve been tempted to plant another in a sunnier spot, but with a lack of space something else would have to go, so that’s not likely to happen. To my thinking, Silverbell is exceptional, and under appreciated, but what do I know?


No better place

What better place is possible than here, today? Could there be anything more beautiful than this winding, potholed Virginia back road decorated by flowers of redbuds, dogwoods, and a scattering of serviceberries? Abundant redbuds in full bloom lean far out from the tall canopy of maples and poplars, reaching for sunlight, while less numerous white flowered dogwoods and serviceberries are more restrained, standing more upright at the forest’s edge.

By strict succession, redbud flowers first, often at the start of April, though later this spring. The native dogwood blooms two weeks later, usually as redbud begins to fade, and serviceberry overlaps with dogwood, but rarely with redbud. But, not always, and today all are in their full glory.

In this last week of April, redbud, dogwood, and serviceberry are flowering in the garden, though each has its distinct space, which is not nearly as delightful as the masterful combinations along the highway. The gardener can do only so much to replicate nature’s beauty, and happy as I am in this garden, any scruffy back road surpasses its floral display. 

Still, I cannot be less than overjoyed by the garden in late April. Every day brings some new flower or leaf that is stunning.

A seedling Japanese maple growing beneath the Bloodgood maple, but more similar in leaf to Burgundy Lace (though darker in color).

Leaves of the Oridono Nishiki Japanese maple will become variegated in another month.

The first azalea flowers on Autumn Encore Amethyst, which is typically a poor spring bloomer. Amethyst often flowers in November and early December, and rarely displays more than scattered blooms in late April.

With cool early spring temperatures, flowers of hellebores persist weeks longer than usual.

Blueberries in flower. Long ago blueberries were harvested in early summer from a dozen shrubs, which were eventually removed to make way for the koi pond. The newly planted blueberries (five years ago) are more shaded, and allowed to grow wild, leaving most of the berries for the birds.

A first in this garden, flowers on the variegated Japanese aucuba, which are small and hardly noticeable.


A passion for parrotia

Not every garden needs a Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica, below), much less two, but then, a garden need not have Japanese maples or hydrangeas, or whatever marvelous plants if the gardener prefers otherwise. A garden of clipped hedges without a single bloom might delight one gardener, no matter that I am unlikely to give it a second look.

This garden is more about cramming as many treasures as possible into the space rather than proper design, or even function, though some small consideration is paid to both. If it is necessary to plant ‘Persian Spire’ ironwood (Parrotia persica ‘Persian Spire’, below) where it will someday conflict with a primary path to the rear garden, or to do without, so be it, somehow we’ll squeeze past, though this is done only after minutes of deliberation.

The first ironwood was planted several years ago in a spot that was clearly too shaded, but with a slim possibility that it might succeed. Indeed, the tree survived, flowered once (that I noticed), and in the shade displayed a mediocre rendition of what should be splendid autumn foliage coloring. With mounting dissatisfaction, the decision was made over the winter to expand a planting bed into one of the few remaining sunny areas, though this meant defying my wife’s edict that no more grass be removed. And, no more trees. Ever. And, I’m not joking.

The tree was dug through several inches of frozen ground, and now appears all the better for the move, which inspired planting the second, even more delightful ironwood with purple edging each leaf. Of course, there is a limit to the number of trees or shrubs, or anything that can be shoehorned into a space, and fortunately there are moments when reason successfully overrules passion. I’m in enough trouble already.

A delightful iris

Until recent years, Iris bucharica (below) was a favored spring filler between paperbush (Edgeworthia chysantha) and a Fernspray cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Filicoides aurea’). But, and there are arguably too many buts around this place, the paperbush grew much wider than expected to shade the irises.

For once, I plead innocence. I am the victim of faulty references that state that paperbush is a four by four shrub. Not in this garden, where it’s grown twice as tall and three times wider, and so the delightful irises slowly faded under the shade of low hanging, ever spreading branches. A year ago, a rescue was attempted to salvage survivors, but with less than satisfactory success (One out of many survived, probably due to transplanting stressed plants too late in the season. But, worth a try.).

So, I must start over. Smartly, the bulb company that recently delivered Terrestrial orchids (above) and Asiatic lilies included a catalog for autumn planted bulbs. I would never remember irises, Dog-toothed violets, or Winter aconites in September, but next week, probably yes. So, next April there will be a nice clump of irises flowering somewhere in the garden. I just need to figure where, in a place where shrubs won’t quickly spread to kill them off.

Regal Splendor hosta in a more advantageous location.

In the next week I must prune several lower branches of the paperbush to make enough room for a long established clump of ‘Regal Splendor’ hosta. I despise continuing maintenance issues, even ones that must be accomplished only once a year, but there’s no way to get at the hosta to move it, so I must prune the shrub or let the hosta fend for itself. Certainly, it would not give up as easily as Iris bucharica, but the combination of the tall hosta poking out from under the paperbush works nicely. Of course, it’s two minutes pruning to remove the branches, so I shouldn’t whine about it.

Wood poppy, and more

Small clumps of wood poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum, below) are spread through the shaded side garden that adjoins the forest of shallow rooted swamp maples and tulip poplars. In many places, a hole could not be dug through the roots, but a cover of leaves that are shredded and spread creates a thin soil layer that supports the vigorous seedlings. I cannot recall where wood poppy was initially planted, but now it covers many spaces where another plant has not established. While the flower is short lived, the dissected foliage is attractive, particularly when the alternative in this difficult situation is bare soil and surface roots.

Several wood poppies have become dozens of small clumps in shaded areas not covered by other plants.

Several epimedium cultivars spread through this area of dry shade. Rubrum and the yellow flowered Sulphureum (below) are most common cultivars, and all have established nice clumps in dry shade.

Epimedium sulphureum

Epimedium rubrum

Cypress spurge (Euphorbia cyparrisias) is reputed as invasive, but seedlings of Espresso geranium have nearly eradicated it from the garden beside the koi pond. I’ve no question that in other environments it is a problem, but here it’s fighting for its diminishing place in the garden. Too bad, it’s nice in flower with attractive foliage, in particular in narrow, gravel filled areas between boulders.

This brunnera began as one of the variegated cultivars, but it reverted and the variegated parts faded and disappeared. Regardless, it’s an attractive perennial.

A few small divisions of Ostrich fern were harvested from a damp section of forest that borders the garden. It quickly spread, and divisions from the cultivated clump have been transplanted to part sun and deep shade areas. The fern grows most vigorously in damp, part sun, though in sunnier spots it is damaged in mid summer by Japanese beetles.

Burkwood viburnum is the larger of the two fragrant viburnums in the garden. At the forest’s edge it grows with open branching.

Carlesi viburnum is a more compact growing viburnum, and after years it now grows in deep shade, which it is obviously unhappy with, though it flowers as always.

Purity pieris is the last to flower in this garden. It keeps a compact form under three feet tall while a few others grow over six feet tall.

Eternal Fragrance daphne began flowering the second week of April. A year ago, with a very warm February it began flowering in mid March. Eternal Fragrance, Jim’s Pride, and Summer Ice will flower into mid November, or later.

Japanese Forest grass is slow getting started, but an established clump becomes quite vigorous. Here, it is sneaking out from under a small boulder, with the main clump on the other side of the rock.

Oceanlake is a small leafed rhododendron that is completely covered in flowers weeks earlier than other rhododendrons. I’m not a particular fan of rhododendrons that can be persnickety in clay soils, but rarely is my wife excited by a plant along our paths, and she loves the purple flowers.

Ogon winter hazel grows slowly, perhaps too slowly for me in a spot that is likely to be too damp for its best growth. While flowers are interesting, winter hazel flowers in early spring, so it is not appreciated as much as earlier flowers. Ogon has yellow foliage, which is okay, but not excpetional.

Now, this is spring

In recent weeks, a scattered few blooms promised that spring was on the way, contrary to evidence that winter was taking its time leaving. Finally, three eighty degree days banished cold temperatures, prompting flowers and foliage to progress quickly.

Not that I’ve caught up with the garden’s chores, but every minute of every weekend cannot be spent working in the garden. Some time must be devoted to family, so this weekend my wife and I hiked the Maryland side of Harpers Ferry. In fact, on this splendid, eighty degree Saturday afternoon I managed to plant a little before we headed out. After hiking several miles uphill (and hobbling back down on a sore ankle), I was in no condition to do anything when we returned home, though I did do a little planting Sunday morning before the rain moved in.

Virginia bluebells flowering in Maryland. I’ve grown Spanish bluebells, but not our natives. Now, I’m tempted .

Certainly, there will be another spell or two of cold in the last half of April, but it is unusual to have freezing temperatures this late. More rare are damaging freezes, though tender annuals and tropicals should not be set out for a few weeks. Today’s photos are trees from the garden, though only a fraction of the Japanese maples, dogwoods, and others that are not as notable in mid April.  Later in the week there will be photos of shrubs and perennials that are flowering.

Redbuds are flowering two weeks later than usual. Two Silver Cloud redbuds are slightly behind the pace of native redbuds along area roadsides.

Native dogwoods typically flower in mid April in this garden, but this and others will be a few days late. The red flowered, variegated leaf Cherokee Sunset will flower this year after several recent years with no blooms.

The pale yellow flowered Elizabeth magnolia flowers later than other magnolias. Rarely are flowers ruined by freezes. Elizabeth is a tall growing hybrid of our the local native Cucumber magnolia with slightly smaller leaves.

Jane magnolia bridges the gap between early flowering Star and Dr. Merrill magnolias, and Elizabeth, but this spring it is a bit late. Jane is a wide spreading tree, with scattered flowers through the summer.

The Red buckeye began to leaf just before the last freeze so there was concern that it might be damaged. Temperatures didn’t drop as cold as forecast, so there was no injury.

The Red Horse chestnut has become a favorite tree. I marvel as leaves unfold, and anxiously await its flowers.

Following three eighty degree days, the Lion’s Head Japanese maple has leafed quickly.

Shaina Japanese maple is leafing. In recent years this dwarf maple has been too crowded, but a spruce was removed over the winter to give it more space to spread.

The Fernleaf Japanese maple is delightful while leafing in the spring, and its autumn leaf color is exceptional.

A hasty transplant

This afternoon, it occurred to me that with warm weather on the way, the time to transplant an Oakleaf hydrangea that has grown too large in the front of the house is today, or forget about it until October. The worst time to move the hydrangea is next week, with emerging leaves that would certainly wilt unless constant moisture is provided. Knowing that I am unlikely to water once, much less frequently, and I am strongly motivated (a rarity) to move the hydrangea, there was no alternative but to do the transplant immediately.

Spur of the moment projects are routine in this garden. Once a thought takes hold, watch out. Which is why I try to think as little as possible. It’s a lot of work.

With wide spreading branches, to get close enough to the hydrangea to dig a root mass large enough to ensure survival, but one that was not too massive to lift, I decided to prune branches on all sides by about two feet, which cut the size of the shrub by about a third. With a heavy steel spade I dug to cut roots, and the thirty inch wide mass was lifted into the wheelbarrow. A neighbor watched, incredulous (I’m certain) that the old man across the street was lifting a shrub this size.

And then, the question was, where was the hydrangea to be planted? The purpose of this transplant was to move the oversized shrub, to plant something lower growing (still to be determined, but thinking, again) in its stead. I did not consider what would be done with the hydrangea, but with shrub in wheelbarrow it was quickly decided that a partially shaded area beneath a ‘Jane’ magnolia along the property line would work splendidly.

Once Japanese maples and dogwoods are in leaf in a few weeks, the front of the house will be obscured. It’s a nice enough house, but I like maples and dogwoods better. The hydrangea blocked the view of the front door, which will now be seen. At least part of it.

Getting the hydrangea out of the wheelbarrow was considerably easier than getting it in, and in an hour, start to finish, the project was done in time for dinner. As an aside, this is the kind of project my wife approves of. Get rid of big plants. Replace them with smaller ones. Now, at least one small part of the front of the house will be visible from the road.

The pink weeping cherry is nearly at full bloom.

In the back garden, things are just getting started. After this weekend’s warmth, I expect that overdue redbuds and dogwoods will begin to flower, and that Japanese maples will leaf very quickly. As soon as I figure out what to plant to replace the hydrangea I’ll also be planting more in the new bed in the back that was added this winter. With spring overdue, I’m feeling a strange burst of energy. Certainly, it will fade quickly.

Flowers of Okame cherry litter the koi pond. Irises and sweetflag (Acorus) are just beginning growth.