Where is the passion (vine)?

I fear that two passion flower vines (Passiflora incarnata, below) have not survived, though I have shared similar thoughts in prior years and been surprised to see growth beginning late in June. 

A year ago, root suckers began poking up through gaps in the stone patio early in May, late for most plants but typical for this vine. If it is dead, and I hold out the slightest hope it is not, the culprit is this year’s most unusual winter. Dryness through late autumn and early winter was followed by three weeks of breezy cold that was not cold enough to kill on its own, but has killed more than far colder winters.

Despite the suspected fate of the passion flower vines, this garden suffered very little, with a few dead branch tips on paperbushes (Edgeworthis chrysantha) that were easily snipped off, but hardly a thing compared to dead crapemyrtles, and surprisingly, Japanese maples that I see locally. Several hydrangeas were killed to the ground in the garden, again, but unlike recent years when mopheads (Hydrangea macrophylla, above and below) flowered weakly as they recovered, prospects are bright for flowering in the next few weeks.

Many hydrangeas in the garden were pruned to the ground in early April. All have grown back nearly to full size, and all are loaded with flower buds.

Here, it must be noted that traditional favorite hydrangeas (such as ‘Nikko Blue’) that flower on old wood will not flower, and rarely do in this area as flower buds are regularly injured by cold. Introductions such as Endless Summer (and many others) flower on old wood, and new growth. So, when dead wood is cut to the ground in April, there will be flowers in early June. Remontant hydrangeas (flowering on new and old wood) also eliminate the question about when hydrangeas should be pruned. If flower buds are pruned off, the next round of buds will soon be along.

Lacecap and Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, above) were not injured by the cold, and again this spring it appears that foliage and flowering will be robust. The size of leaves of Oakleaf hydrangeas varies somewhat with the amount of rain, of which there has been a surplus in recent weeks.


Late May

Two Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa) with variegated foliage are flowering sparsely. ‘Samaritan’ is shaded on all sides, and in recent years it has flowered only on uppermost branches that peek into sunlight above a holly, two Japanese maples, and a much taller ‘Ivory Silk’ lilac. The wide spreading ‘Wolf Eyes’ (below) often flowers heavily, but there are fewer this spring. 

Weather is almost certainly not the cause of the diminished flowering since other Chinese dogwoods are more floriferous in late May. ‘National’ (below) is a vigorous dogwood with an upright form, and large flowers almost cover its green foliage.

The yellow leafed ‘Little Honey’ Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Little Honey’, below), planted several years ago, has been a mild disappointment with few flowers and foliage color that by early summer appears more sickly yellow than vibrant. This spring, there will be more blooms, but fewer than other Oakleaf hydrangeas in the garden.  

‘Nikko’ and ‘Chardonnay Pearls’ deutzias are exceptional, compact flowering shrubs. ‘Magician’ is taller growing, with exceptional flowers that begin as other deutzias are fading.

The Japanese hydrangea vine (Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’, below) has not flowered in this shady spot, but its foliage is exceptional.

New growth of ‘Katsura’ pieris (Pieris japonica ‘Katsura’, below) is much darker than other pieris in the garden. ‘Katsura’ is moderately susceptible to lacebugs that feed on the undersides of leaves. 

Disappointment and joy

A recurring theme in the garden (and in life, I suppose), is that things do not always turn out as you want, or expect. My best guess is that more works out for the better than the worse, and often the bad is not so horrible, just disappointing.

Unhappily, the weedy yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacrous, above) has invaded further into spaces between boulders in the koi pond to crowd out less vigorous, but highly regarded Japanese irises (Iris ensata, below). The aggressive, yellow flowered irises were planted in a bluestone gravel filtration area of the pond, which seemed like a good idea at the time, but long ago was acknowledged as folly. Fortunately, the invasive iris is safely enclosed in the koi pond’s closed system, so it does not escape into surrounding wetlands, but it has become a lovely nuisance.

The flowers are a delight, but I figured it would spread from rhizomes, which it does, and these could be successfully managed. While it didn’t happen overnight, I failed to anticipate that yellow flag would also spread its seed to every spot of soil or gravel in shallow water, and particularly that it would inflict harm upon the more colorful and treasured Japanese irises. If the project was feasible, yellow flag would be long gone, but I’ve given up hope that it’s possible to extricate the good from the bad irises without more effort than I’m capable of.

Interestingly, on dry ground in the garden, more than once I’ve seen innocent, ordinary plants crowd out ones reputed to be overly aggressive. Seedlings of ‘Espresso’ geranium (Geranium maculatum ‘Espresso’, above) have overwhelmed what had been a spreading patch of Cypress spurge (Euphorbia cyparissias), and in the koi pond variegated Sweetflag (Acorus calamus ‘Variegatus’, below) has pushed yellow flag into a corner, half the space it occupied a few years ago. This is of no help to Japanese irises on the far side of the pond, but at the least there will not be only yellow flags surrounding the pond.

There’s thinking too little, which I am often guilty of (if you ask my wife), but also too much, and while I did not think through the planting of yellow flag to filter the koi pond, I delayed planting Chinese ground orchids (Bletilla striata, below) for too many years, overthinking, presuming it would be too delicate for my often negligent care. In fact, a few failed to thrive in damp or shaded spots, but where they’ve taken, they’re far from delicate. In one area, a gold leafed carex flops onto the thriving clump of orchids that has spread from a few tiny plants to several dozen in only a few years. I like the carex, but not that much, and there’s no doubt that orchids are favored if it comes down to one or the other. And, unlike the yellow flags, I can get at the grass to dig it out. 

More in mid May

A week ago, there seemed to be a few open areas in the garden, or at least spots that weren’t jammed full. This is good, I thought. I can add a few goodies.

A few days later, what in the heck was I thinking? After a week with several inches of rain, growth has kicked into high gear. Last evening, I looked for small open spaces to plant a few dozen Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens, which are spaced about four inches apart) and trilliums before the night’s oncoming storm. Where did they go?

Of course, I found places to plant, there’s always somewhere that small plants can be crammed in. And, rarely does it become a problem that things are too close, though many are, and occasionally there are conflicts. I hope to live long enough that there’s not a single spot of open ground for weeds to grow, and in May this appears to be a possibility.

In earlier observations of the garden in May, I mistakenly excluded the hybrid ‘Celestial Shadow’ dogwood (above), which is now at it’s peak, and magnificent with flowers contrasting with brightly variegated foliage. The leaf colors fade in the heat of summer, long after the flowers are gone, but for weeks it’s splendid, so I can’t complain.

A few days ago, I showed yellow and orange Exbury, deciduous azaleas, and now several reds and the one above that I cannot adequately describe (maybe pink) are flowering. Neither is as fragrant as the yellow flowered azalea, but all of these and a few southeastern native azaleas are in close proximity, though the orange and yellow are the only ones with much size. Some day, this spot will be something, and already it’s quite a favorite for several weeks at this time of the spring. Again, I will question why deciduous azaleas are not more commonly used.

This is the prime week for deutzias, though to my thinking the best in this garden, ‘Magician’ (or ‘Magicien’) is still a week off. ‘Chardonnay Pearls’ (Deutzia gracilis ‘Duncan’, above) is a yellow leafed shrub with compact growth. It’s foliage color fades somewhat in summer, but it’s still evident that the deutzia is yellowed leafed and not sickly yellow as some shrubs look in our Virginia heat.

I planted ‘Nikko’ (Deutzia gracilis ‘Nikko’) long ago, and apparently the full sized Deutzia gracilis was mixed into the batch, so beside one another there’s one that’s a foot tall and the other three times it’s size. I could have moved them apart, but didn’t as there are always other things to do. Anyway, gracilis and ‘Nikko’ are exceptional in bloom, and pleasant enough for the rest of the year, though these are kind of hidden from my view at the front corner of the property.

The first of the peonies to flower in this garden is ‘Karl Rosenfeld’ and predictably, the week’s constant rainfall has flowers dragging into the mud. Peonies never seem to recover after this, and it would be wise if I added supports intended to prevent this. Of course, this is unlikely to happen. Other peonies are slightly shaded, so flowers will be a week later, which should get them out of the rain.

The variegated ‘Silver Edge’ rhododendron is starting to flower. The foliage of ‘Silver Edge’ is barely good enough to substantiate its inclusion in the garden, but I am such a fool for variegated leaves that I’ve planted four.

One of the dwarf lilacs, probably ‘Miss Kim’, is the lone remaining lilac in the garden. Others have been too shaded, or otherwise have faded and been chopped out over the years. This lilac flowers in the shade of a sourwood, and the neighbor’s Willow oak, and it shows no sign of failing in this less than ideal environment.

The Chinese Snowball viburnum has grown into a monster. Finally, the assistant gardener has forgotten my pledge to cut it to half its size several years ago. Her chopping away at lower branches enables us to easily walk beneath it.

At the moment, I can’t remember if this is the red or black chokeberry, and in case readers begin to think that there are no natives in the garden, here’s one. I will argue for and against natives, sometimes in consecutive sentences, and the argument becomes more confused since many natives are not, in fact, native to anywhere closeby. I have seen native chokeberries on local hikes, though at higher elevations than this garden. Both red and black chokeberries are excellent shrubs, though they are particular favorites of deer, so they must be sprayed regularly with a repellent.

Sweetshrubs (Calycanthus floridus, above) are flowering, with one in shade past its peak. The one in more sun is a week behind, which makes no sense to me, but what do I know. Probably, many people do not find the flowers of sweetshrub very exciting, but I’ve planted handfuls, including the pale yellow flowered ‘Athens’ (below) which is flowering poorly this spring.

Observations in mid May

May, and particularly the last half of the month, is the peak in this garden. This is when foliage fills to hide neighboring homes, and a period when there are many more flowers and foliage of interest than I have time to comment on.

After struggles with poorly drained soil and spider mites in the garden’s early days, most azaleas were give up on. Delaware Valley White remains under a shaded canopy where I expect an azalea to flower sparsely. It does not, and in this shady setting it does not suffer from mites.

I wonder why deciduous Exbury azaleas are not more common. Very fragrant orange and yellow azaleas are intertwined with an aged redbud, a scene that could not be envisioned when planted twenty years ago.

While orange and yellow Exbury azaleas grow into a tangle of branches and flowers, the yellow flowers several days later, and it seems clear that it is the more fragrant.

I’ve written in recent weeks that the ‘Cherokee Sunset’ dogwood has not flowered in years for whatever reasons, until this spring. And, with cool temperatures until this week, flowers have stayed longer than expected. Here, the slightly fading red flowers contrast with the variegated leaves.

Flowers of the hybrid ‘Stellar Pink’ dogwood are barely pink in this Virginia garden. I’ve seen flowers of this dogwood in the northwest that are fully pink, but that is rare in our warmer, more humid climate. Regardless of flower color, ‘Stellar Pink’ is a vigorous, disease resistant dogwood.

The Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa) will be in full bloom in ten days. Leaves appear before flowers, but foliage will nearly be covered when flowers are at their peak. The selection of one dogwood rather than another can be decided by time of flowering, with the native the earliest, followed by hybrids, then Chinese dogwoods. If disease resistance is a factor, hybrids and Chinese dogwoods are almost completely resistant to the variety of diseases and fungus that afflict our native dogwood.

I will put in a plug, however, for the native dogwoods. Several in my garden have yearly troubles with leaf spotting and powdery mildew, among other minor issues, but they are going on their third decade, and I expect each will be around as long as I am.

The variegated Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas ‘Variegata’) faded from bloom long ago, but the crisply variegated leaves stand out. This dogwood was transplanted from a dry, shady spot in late winter into partial sun. It appears that the transplant will be a success.

Flowers of the hybrid ‘Venus’ dogwood are exceptionally large. With genetics of the tall growing Pacific dogwood, ‘Venus’ grows quickly, and more upright than other dogwoods in the garden.

I wonder, a lot it seems, why the Red Horse Chestnut is not more common. In foliage and in flower there are few trees to compare.

The Autumn Full Moon maple is distinct from the Golden Full Moon maple, though I doubt many care about the relatively minor differences. I lusted after one or the other for years. Both are marvelous Japanese maples, though Autumn Full Moon suffered in too much sun until this year when a Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica) was transplanted to provide some shade. The move should benefit the maple and ironwood.

The dwarf ‘Shaina’ Japanese maple is a curiosity, growing only knee high. Over the winter, a nearby, struggling spruce was removed, so ‘Shaina’ has more space to spread.

Flowers of the native Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) are short lived, but exceptional. More scenes of the garden will follow ….. And, in case you missed the video of the rear garden (Warning, it’s ten minutes long. There’s a lot of garden to see).

The rear garden in May

Several readers have asked, so here it is. At the bottom of this page is a lengthy video of the rear garden, taken with the assistance of a marvelous gadget called a gimbal stablilizer, that allowed me to walk without the video jumping up and down. I can’t hold the camera still standing still, much less walking and going up and down steps. Going from one pond to another I step several feet down on boulders. I can hardly tell.

The video was edited a bit to cut out some of the dead spots, but I couldn’t figure a way to make this shorter and show everything. So, if you’re properly motivated to watch for ten minutes, you’ll see most of what I see when I’m rambling through the garden.

I decided against background music. but you’ll hear plenty of noise from water and birds. The video was taken just before a downpour, so there are no sounds from neighborhood lawnmowers in the background, and only a short session of a dog barking. You will notice the variety of birds. When dogs aren’t barking and lawnmowers roaring, this is what we hear.

I’m not able to see the video on my phone without going to YouTube, for some reason, so I hope you can. I can see it on my desktop just fine. This is the link to the YouTube page just in case https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INNdt8Oo838

Definitely spring

Even the most cautious gardener must now be confident that the threat of frost has passed, and now he is free to plant goodies, no matter how tender. Several weeks ago, I could not wait any longer to plant several variegated fatsias (Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’, below), so they were planted with more cold in the forecast. Of course, this was calculated that the fatsias could tolerate frost, if not freezing temperatures, and all has worked for the best. While fatsias are rated cold hardy to zero, I have my doubts, and variegated versions on most plants are typically less cold hardy, so later this year I’ll dig a few to bring in, and leave a few outdoors, probably to die.

Tropicals have been hauled from the basement to the shaded rear patio with mixed results from the long indoor stay. Elephant ears were left outside one night too long in early November as I returned from business travel on a twenty-eight degree night, too weary to bother until morning. Still, they are not bad, considering, and once acclimated to the outdoors I must move them into the sun where they will revive quickly.

Sadly, agaves will not recover so quickly from the winter’s mistreatment, though this is an overdue opportunity to divide the dense clumps. Sharp spines are reason enough not to do this as frequently as needed, but with half the agaves brown from freeze and lack of care, the bloody chore will be more easily managed. I’ve been advised more than once that dividing the agaves is much easier if spines are clipped off, and of course it is, but that is tedious work and also reason not to undertake the dividing.

A recently acquired limestone bench (above) was moved into the garden yesterday with some difficulty, but no crushed body parts, though with several close calls. The heavy base and four foot slab bounced over roots and path stones in the wheelbarrow, endangering toes enroute to the garden’s wooded border. The level of the seating slab is slightly off with a large root beneath one side, but it’s hardly enough to notice, and good enough for the garden.

I don’t know that I’ll do much sitting on the bench, though already my wife has taken a liking to this shaded spot. I don’t do much sitting, except by the koi pond, but it’s an appropriately rustic bench for this garden, even with a polished top which will soon be soiled by droppings from overhanging tulip poplars and varied detritus that wafts through the garden.

Typically for early May, there are many blooms along with a few surprises, and a disappointment or two. Unsurprisingly, there are flowers that I don’t recall planting, and unplanned successes. The native groundcover Gold Star (Chrysogonum virginianum, above) is unremarkable (but green) for much of the year, but it has spread nicely over ground riddled with surface roots and a bare amount of soil. Somehow, in inhospitable conditions, it has hopped the stone path to begin covering ground beneath Oakleaf hydrangeas. Not quickly, but I’m quite pleased that anything grows in this spot.

Iris reticulata has spread nicely in an area I thought might be too damp. Earlier this year I made an effort to cure the slow drainage, and so far, so good. At least the irises seem happy.

While the heavy clean up of early spring was completed weeks ago, there is never a lacking of chores to be accomplished. Leaves from maples and tulip poplars that border the garden are shredded and scattered, so everything, including weeds, grows vigorously. No fertilizer has been applied since the garden’s early days, though visitors repeatedly ask what’s the secret, so it seems clear that none is needed. I would be happy if weeds did not also grow with such vigor, but perhaps there is some good in having something to complain about, even when surrounded by such beauty.