Late August garden update

Yellow wax bells (Kirengeshoma palmata, below) have several flowers this week, though not nearly the number from peak years when there were a dozen or more. Still, this is much better than a year ago, when fleshy stems went limp in a period of summer drought, and all flower buds were lost. In the single three week period of dry and relatively hot temperatures this summer in June, wax bells wilted for a few days, though this time they were more quickly revived and survival was never in doubt. Perhaps this is why flowering is limited, and without the unusual flowers this is an unremarkable perennial with large, maple like leaves.

Two Korean wax bells (Kirengeshoma koreana) planted in spring have no flower buds, but I see no reason for worry. These were of exceptional size and vigor from the date of delivery, and they have grown nicely. I have no doubt there will be blooms next year, unless of course, some weather event ruins buds again. Certainly, it will take several years of disappointment before I would regret planting this somewhat out of the ordinary perennial. If I planted for a one time event, this would be a problem, but I’ve been in this garden twenty-nine years, with plans to be around a lot longer.

‘Sunshine Blue’ (Caryopteris incana ‘Jason’, above) is a bluebeard with woody stems that require little spring pruning to remove dead wood, in contrast to the common yellow leafed ‘Worcester Gold’ that must often be severely pruned to cut out winter damaged stems. ‘Worcester Gold'(Caryopteris × clandonensis ‘Worcester Gold’, below) flowers a few weeks earlier, but yellow leaves fade more in the summer heat. I’m happy to include both in the garden, but ‘Sunshine Blue’ has had problems in recent years with stems that wilt just before flowering. I’m not too interested in following up to diagnose the problem. The few shrubs grew without a care for years, but if they’re going to require more attention I’m good with chopping them out. 

Two newly planted daphnes are struggling a bit in ground that is probably damper than they’d prefer. I go back and forth deciding whether to move them to higher ground, or to leave well enough alone and figure that it will never again be as rainy in summer as this one. A third new daphne (Daphne × transatlantica ‘Jim’s Pride’) in a drier spot is doing wonderfully, and of course others that have been around for a while are doing what they always do, flowering. I think that ‘Eternal Fragrance’ (above) and ‘Summer Ice’ (below) have been in constant flower since the start of April, and in recent years with mild March temperatures they’ll flower from mid March into November. Both are now on their third or fourth cycle of heavy flowering, which never covers the bush, but is much more significant than the scattered flowering between these periods.

I’m seeing a slow fade from a ‘Carol Mackie’ daphne (Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie, below) that is growing out of a vigorous clump of sweetbox (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis). Perhaps ‘Carol Mackie’ would do better without the competition, but it’s more finicky than other daphnes, and it won’t be much of a surprise when it finally dies off.

And finally, the stump (below) of a red leafed ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’), that perished after a long struggle with damp soil in the lower garden, was left in the ground to rot. It hasn’t gone away in a hurry, but today it’s growing this splendid mushroom. I’d rather the redbud still be here, and would rather not see mushrooms, though I’m happy with a variegated Cornelian dogwood (Cornus mas ‘Variegata’) planted close by in its place.  


Better late than never

The garden stinks, according to my wife, who is likely referring to the application of deer repellent yesterday, but who has also been known to make critical remarks about my pride and joy. Regarding my wife’s remarks as the more obvious, it is clear that spraying of the repellent was long overdue, though of interest in testing how long the repellent could remain effective, and in particular during a period of many inches of rain.

While first signs of deer nibbling were seen two weeks ago, and five weeks after the last application, this is now nearly two months. While a tip or two of mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) have been nipped, hostas are the true indicator in this garden. Spraying is done in a hurry, as are most chores in this garden, and I could not swear that the few out of the way hostas that are now completely defoliated were sprayed way back when. I’ve missed these before, which is partially why they were kind of puny, and of course this will not help for next year.

One new flower on a Mophead hydrangea in late August. Remontant (reblooming) hydrangeas will bud and flower again with cooler temperatures in September.

(Note – to address the obvious questions, what do I spray? Currently, I spray Bobbex, but I’ve used other repellents with success in the past. Until a year ago, I alternated two products under the theory, I believe confirmed by science, that deer become too familiar with one scent or taste. Now, instead of two products I add a small amount of hot pepper squirrel repellent in alternating months, which works marginally to dissuade squirrels from eating bird seed, but seems to do the job with deer.)

In any case, the repellent has been sprayed, with particular attention to toad lilies (Tricyrtis, below) that are beginning to flower, but have been chewed to stubs in prior years when I stretched too long. I’ve never intended to spray everything in the garden, nor is it necessary, and so a bit of trial and error is required. It is my hope that new plantings are not ruined before I determine whether they are resistant, or not, and then newcomers go on the list to be sprayed, or not.

While ninety degree days are in the forecast for the coming week, there are numerous signs of autumn in the garden. Why, is beyond my understanding, though I suspect that dwindling hours of daylight are the cause. I should document the changes to compare over the next several years since this seems early, and perhaps related to unusually damp soils from our rainy summer. But, what do I know?

Foliage of this witch hazel is at its October best, in August.

Certainly, some premature leaf drop with water sensitive cherries is due to too much moisture, and a Persian witch hazel (Parrotia persica) turned deep red in June (I think) with roots that extend down into saturated ground even though I’ve considerably improved surface drainage by excavating deeper edges to planting beds in this low area of the garden. A second Parrotia, one planted early in the spring, is doing fine (with no leaf color change) despite being planted precisely where a treasured Franklinia (Franklinia alatamaha) declined and perished several years ago, most likely due to damp soil following the reemergence of a mostly dormant spring.

I am happy to see that there are numerous berries on the Winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata, above) following a period when there were fewer every year. After talking about it for several years, finally I got around to planting another male holly, almost too late for berries a year ago, but today there could hardly be another berry crammed onto the mass of several shrubs. Occasionally things are done on time in this garden, but mostly I’m in the habit of claiming “better late than never”.

Ripe berries of Chinese dogwoods are quickly consumed by birds.

An August wildlife update

If Tiger swallowtails are a bit scarce in this year’s garden, hummingbirds are not, though typically only one is seen at a time, so taking a count is difficult. A tropical Firecracker plant (Cuphea) in a pot on the deck just outside the kitchen window is a hummingbird magnet, but I often see hummingbirds on the red flowered cannas beside the koi pond also.

Curiously, roughly equal numbers of Monarchs and swallowtails are now seen in the garden. Typically, swallowtails are numerous and Monarchs are not.

Again, there are white flannel moth caterpillars in the redbuds, though too few and too late in the season to be of concern. I do not spray to be rid of them, but last year there were none, for whatever reason. As I recall, this is a caterpillar with small spines that sting, so I will approach the redbuds carefully to avoid inflicting unnecessary pain.

In prior years the caterpillars stripped several branches of leaves, but the premature loss of foliage did no harm. Certainly, the small, white moth is not a beautiful addition to the garden, but the loss of a few leaves is not a tremendous sacrifice. I acknowledge the difference for the homeowner with a single redbud on his plot, and this is, of course, the luxury in having a large enough garden so that sharing with wildlife is welcomed.

A caterpillar of unknown provenance is slowly munching leaves of the swamp milkweed, but doing far less damage than hordes of marauding aphids. The aphids, not the caterpillar, are an annual invasion after flowering is completed, and little harm is done other than making the milkweed look horrible a few weeks early. Seemingly, the aphids go on to something else, somewhere else after the milkweeds are gone. Oddly, aphids do not infest other types of native milkweeds in the neighborhood.

After a lengthy, and notable absence, two Northern Brown water snakes were seen yesterday, one of the few sunny days in weeks, which I suspect is the reason for their appearance, sunning on boulders beside the pond. Koi remain shy this summer, perhaps cautious in the presence of the snakes, but also due to blue and smaller green herons that are commonly seen coming and going.

The sealed container of koi food stored beneath a bench by the pond has not been disturbed for weeks. Perhaps neighborhood racoons have realized the difficulty in opening the container after many tries, and several efforts to drag it into the bushes.

I have noticed the first nibbling of hostas by deer, a reminder that the last spray was seven weeks ago, and with over a foot of rain through this period it’s a small miracle that a molecule of the repellent remains. I must spray this weekend, but this has been delayed several times by imminent thunderstorms.

I see that deer have decimated several healthy clumps of the neighbor’s hostas. Signs directing deer across the street are working, I tell him, but several deer bed down in the thicket beside the garden, so every day I delay there is a risk.

The portly, yellow cat that regularly prowled the garden is not seen any longer. The neighbors are frequently heard outdoors (mostly their kids, who evidently do not own electronic devices, a rare and tremendous credit to mom and dad, I think), but not often seen through our dense plantings. We don’t talk as often as we should, so we’ve not heard bad news about this once frequent visitor. As is usually the case with overly domesticated cats, I suspect hunting instincts are greatly hindered by the easy life. In any case, all comers to the garden are welcome, though we reserve the right to squirt foul tasting substances to discourage munching by some four legged beasts.

Digging to drain the swamp

Several puddles remain in the lower garden, and that’s before the thunderstorm that’s passing through this evening. Another storm, probably more severe, is forecast for tomorrow, and chances for more are expected early in the week.

This afternoon was occupied digging in the lower garden, clearing trenches along planting bed edges that have clogged with silt and debris in recent weeks. The drainage was planned and first dug in late winter, and mostly it’s been successful in keeping the small lawn in this area dry enough so that I don’t sink to my ankles. That’s not exactly dry, I understand, but it’s a heck of a lot better than it was a year ago, when there was a fraction of the rainfall.

Draining swamps seems to be a popular notion nowadays, but most draining is talk and I suspect not much about digging in the muck on a ninety degree afternoon with eight-six percent humidity. I wouldn’t mind being able to talk the swamp away, but I’m guessing that talk wouldn’t drain a thing in this soggy lower garden.

Joe Pye weeds planted in the damp lower garden.

I can’t help myself, and doubt many gardeners wish for rain to stop. Yes, we’ve gone far over the deep end in this soggy summer, but I’m happy to see a thunderstorm on the horizon. Of course, I don’t wish for it to rain all day, every day, but a good soaking several times each week beats the occasional late summer drought that drains life from the garden. Yes, now the lower garden is a swamp, but after failures of plants several years ago that would not tolerate constant dampness, the current planting thrives in the wetness.

The largest part of the garden is comfortably sloped, so while there’s been a bit of erosion in the worst of the deluges, the ground drains well, and most all plants are looking far better than usual for August. I am not in the habit of documenting the failures or should-be-looking-betters in the garden, which are often numerous in mid August, but not so much in this rainy summer. So, I depend on my not so dependable memory to claim that growth in the garden has never been so lush in late summer.

A break in trenching was necessary to plant several dozen root sections of trilliums (above), Solomon’s Seals, merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora, below), and Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens) that were ordered a few weeks ago and just delivered. These were intended to be planted while dormant, which they are, and in the midst of several rainy days the timing should be ideal. I hesitate to plant leafy plants in August, not that I say never, but if the ground stays this damp there should be few worries.

Crying wolf

Happily, I admit to prematurely reporting the demise of two passionflower vines, which appeared shortly after publishing my sob story, though the long term fate of one remains in doubt. Passionflower vines are known for late arrivals after extended winters, and this year there was no sign of the purple flowered vine (Passiflora incarnata) into June. Clearly, its chance for recovery is tenuous, with growth only a few inches tall when typically it would have flowered and climbed ten feet or more by mid August.

The yellow flowered vine (Passiflora lutea) was not seen earlier because I wasn’t looking, after the vine was not seen at all a year ago. Questionable placement planted the yellow passionflower behind the waterfall of the koi pond, sandwiched between wide spreading Oakleaf and ‘Tardiva’ hydrangeas (and others, best described at this point as brush). The idea was for the vine to climb through the hydrangeas, and into an overhanging ‘Okame’ cherry, which it did splendidly for several years, though the flowers are too small to be seen from a distance. Then, there was nothing a year ago, and dense growth discouraged a closer search. So, the assumption was made and reported that the vine had perished.

I am wrong consistently enough that reporting this is rather dull and unsurprising, but still I was surprised to see the vine while attempting to clear out some of the clutter beneath the cherry several weeks ago. Seedlings of ‘Tardiva’ and beautyberries (Callicarpa) have further crowded this untidy mess, but the yellow flowered vine has climbed through the tangled branches. Evidently, it was somewhere in there a year ago, but whatever happened so that it stayed beneath the canopy of foliage. In any case, I’m happy to see it back, though I remain tempted to plant another where flowers can be more easily seen.

Years ago, long before the koi pond was given a thought, and when mid and late summer flowering hydrangeas were hardly considered, ‘Tardiva’ (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’) was planted along the sunny northwestern property line. After nearly three decades the border is no longer sunny, due to tall growing cherries, dogwoods, katsura, beech (a magnificent green leafed monster with pendulous branching), hollies, and cryptomerias. But with only a mid afternoon glimpse of sunlight, ‘Tardiva’ has grown and flowered splendidly. Also, it has scattered seedlings in close proximity that must be weeded out since they will always grow too large for the random spots where they sprout.

Is ‘Tardiva’ the equal of ‘Limelight’, ‘Phantom’, ‘White Wedding’, or a dozen other newer introductions? Almost certainly not, but there is not a bad choice in the bunch.

Wrong plant? Right place

Seedlings of ‘Espresso’ geranium would be considerably improved if foliage had been cut to the ground in late June. But, they weren’t. Ones in part shade have fared better, though flowering is improved with more sun. So, for part of the year the geranium’s placement is ideal, but less so at other times. Also in August, poorly planned placement of several hostas in too much sun is most evident, and even with constantly damp soil in this unusual summer, leaves are faded and brown along the edges.

Foliage of this seedling of Espresso geranium is faded in mid August. Cutting it back would rejuvenate foliage, but the garden’s decline is expected in summer.

But, that’s it. There’s nothing more to complain about. Well, nutgrass, but that’s every year in the usually damp lower garden. It will never be eliminated, so there is no sense in being overly worked up by it. Otherwise, better than expected for August, and while I’ve erred in placing several hostas, credit is earned for selecting many plants that flower and show wonderfully through late summer and autumn.

The decline and eventual loss of a favored Franklinia (Franklinia alatamaha, above) several years ago is still bothersome. How a mostly dormant spring that surfaces beside the garden shed became more active is beyond my understanding. The area in the lower garden turned from occasionally to perpetually damp, with the long established Franklinia, a large holly, and a witch hazel failing in the transition.

Gordlinia is a cross between Franklinia and Gordonia, with its shrubby form and foliage closer to Gordonia and the flowers more similar to Franklinia’s.

Certainly, no plant in the garden is expected to last forever, but the Franklinia’s premature demise is partially assuaged by nearly identical blooms of a shrubby Gordlinia (x Gordlinia grandiflora, above), which is perhaps as finicky as Franklinia, but better placed in dry ground. Any flower is welcomed in the heat of August, but large, white blooms are more obvious than most.

‘Sunshine Blue’ bluebeard (Caryopteris incana ‘Jason’) has suffered wilting stems in recent years, and again this summer significant portions must be pruned as it reaches flowering time. The foliage of an older yellow leafed bluebeard, ‘Worcester Gold’ (Caryopteris × clandonensis ‘Worcester Gold’, above) fades in summer, but it has been much sturdier than the newer introduction.

Two summersweets (Clethra alnifolia), ‘Sixteen Candles’ (above) and ‘Ruby Spice’ (below), tolerate dry shade, though ideally both would thrive in the damp area where the Franklinia failed to survive. Perhaps growth is slowed in dry ground, but both appear happy enough. 

Better judgment. Who, me?

Better judgment, no matter that it is in short supply, dictates that further planting should be delayed into September. Weeks of rain have revived much of the garden that had slipped into its usual summer slump, tempting an early August start.

Late plantings in June have fared well despite an ill timed, but typical turn from an unusually rainy late spring to summer heat. For a short while there was concern over wilting foliage, but the summer deluges arrived just as I was becoming desperate enough to drag the hoses out. Today, areas of standing water remain in the rear garden, but most of the garden is in splendid condition for this point of the summer.

This Painted fern has started on a mossy stone bordering the stream.

There is no better time to transplant sporelings of Ostrich and Japanese painted ferns than during a week long stretch of rain, but it’s August, and surely there’s more heat and a few dry weeks ahead. So, ferns and other planting will wait, though I’ve recently plucked and planted a few tiny toad lily seedlings that were growing between cobblestones. It seemed a certainty that sooner than later my wife would weed these out, despite warnings to the contrary. If they survive, great. If not, I’ll blame her, and in fact, there are so many of the few toad lilies that regularly sprout seedlings that these would not be missed. Many are weeded out and tossed.

Early toad lilies (Tricyrtis) are beginning to flower, though many will not begin until mid or late September. A few seem a bit stunted in growth, but there’s no likely cause that I can see, so probably they’ll catch up in the next few weeks.

Looking through plant lists for autumn purchases, I realize that I’ve finally reached the point where new names in toad lilies are not exciting me. How many are enough? It seems I’ve reached that point, a rarity for me. The photos and descriptions seem too much like more of the same, so none have made it onto early autumn orders.

The yellow toad lily I planted last year is still alive, after I’ve failed multiple times with yellows for whatever reason. At the moment, I don’t recall its name, and it’s in a spot that is damper than I’d like, but it’s struggling along, and possibly there will be a flower or two next month. Other first year toad lilies are doing better, but I don’t believe another yellow has made it this long. There should be nothing about yellow flowers that makes the toad lily less sturdy, so I write this off as only bad luck, repeatedly.

Somewhat oddly, several witch hazels and Oakleaf hydrangeas are already showing autumn foliage color. Late summer heat stress occasionally causes this, but it’s hardly been hot, so I suspect the stress could be from excess soil moisture, or vigorous soft growth followed by short periods of heat. It’s nothing to be concerned about, I’m quite certain. For early August, I’m happy as can be, though I’d be perfectly content never to see another patch of nutgrass that I’ve been battling through the mud and the muck.