Hard to figure

I figure that I’m of average intelligence, though certainly my wife will have a thing or two to say about this, but often it seems there are fewer answered than unanswered questions here in the garden. Why is it, I wonder, that a year ago there were many dozens of Tiger swallowtails, and this year there are few in the garden? There are just as many flowers that are favored by butterflies, probably more with abundant seedlings of Joe Pye weeds that are in bloom, and several others that I’ve planted.

No pesticides are used in this garden, ever, or at least none in the past twenty years, so I must presume that the explanation is natural cycles, and next year they’ll be back. This is not the first time that swallowtails have been in short numbers, but sometimes it’s honeybees or bumblebees that come up missing. A year or two, dragonflies seemed fewer darting above the koi pond. This year, the number of bees is astonishing.

I’ve been corrected by a reader that ones I presumed to be bumblebees are actually carpenter bees, but this year and most years these are seen in abundance, and with Mountain mint flowering over the past several weeks and Winterberry hollies before that, the number of other bees in the garden seems substantially increased over recent years. By doing nothing new on my part.  

Probably, there’s someone out there who’s able to explain these things, but for now I’ll just accept that this is a completely natural cycle, and there’s little or nothing I can do to change it. Don’t tell me to plant more of anything, or something different. That’s not the problem.

I’ve noted the lack of caterpillars on redbuds this summer. I don’t recall exactly, but it was last year or maybe the year before that I was stung by caterpillars as I brushed against low hanging branches to pull a weed. I researched to find out the name of this particular stinging caterpillar (White Flannel moth, below) since I don’t think that tent caterpillars in general are stinging types, but after seeing them on the redbuds in consecutive years, this year there are none. Certainly, this is not due to anything I did since I let the caterpillars do their thing, which defoliated about half of the large redbuds before they moved on to the next cycle in their life. I’ve always figured that part of the cycle would be to lay eggs on branches or in the ground below the host tree that would be next year’s, but that’s been skipped over this year. I can’t explain. 

There are now tent caterpillars on one of the Winterberry hollies (below) that are in the same vicinity as the redbuds, but the caterpillars are too small to tell if they’re the same stinging ones. Again, I’ve no plans to pull the tents out of the hollies, which is the friendliest way to be rid of these rather than spraying something to kill them that might be a problem for something else. Today, there are lots of tiny caterpillars, and not much foliage as been damaged, but that will start soon. Why let the caterpillars eat the hollies’ leaves?

The deciduous hollies will start into dormancy in another month or so, and other than looking at the caterpillar-ravaged shrub, this is not really a problem as far as the hollies’ well being. I don’t think the caterpillars will bother the nice crop of berries, so why not let them live? Without identifying the caterpillars, I don’t know what kind of moth or butterfly these will turn into, but whatever they are, they’re welcome in this garden.

Remarkably, very little to complain about

Always, the gardener can find something, or many somethings to complain about. Certainly, there are a few perfect weeks, but then there’s every other day. If not the weather, which is only occasionally ideal, there are weeds, bugs, rabbits, deer, and snakes to disturb the paradise. Being of sturdy constitution, the gardener makes the best of less than ideal circumstances, and is thankful for each day.

Gordlinia approaches peak bloom with hardly a beetle in sight. If the shrubby tree flowers a few weeks earlier the white blooms are marred by Japanese beetles. Gordlinia is a hybrid between Franklinia and Gordonia. Until one was removed in failing health a few years ago, Franklinia bloomed earlier in the summer so that beetles were a constant presence.

After a brief period of typical Virginia heat in early summer,  mild temperatures and plentiful rainfall have prevailed in recent weeks. Severe storms have dumped buckets of rain, with a few washouts but otherwise quite welcomed, and a few days ago disaster was averted as a tornado veered a few miles to the north.

With abundant moisture and with few periods of extreme heat, the garden has not faded as expected in a typical summer. Yes, beebalms (Monarda didyma) are mildewed, and foliage of native dogwoods (below) is spotted (though no powdery mildew, a surprise in August), but that’s a pretty short list of grievances for August. Oh, there are tent caterpillars in one of the Winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata), but this shouldn’t amount to much and there are no plans to do anything about this minor infestation.

Leaves of native dogwoods are spotted, but this is typical for summer and in mid August there is no sign of powdery mildew that frequently afflicts dogwoods. By mid September leaves will begin to turn to their autumn color, and spots will not be noticeable except close up.

With plenty of moisture, weeds are a constant aggravation, and particularly nutgrass in the damp rear garden. I don’t worry at all about it invading the small areas of lawn, but as soon as small clumps are removed from the edges of planting beds, there’s more the next day, and the next. There’s always something, but any weed is easier to pull in damp soil than when it’s dry, and at least it’s not blazing hot.

Toad lilies are flowering on a typical schedule with Samurai flowering first, and others beginning to bloom. Peak flowering will be through September, with blooms often persisting into October.

Summer Ice daphne does not flower as heavily as its neighbor in the garden, Eternal Fragrance, but there will be scattered blooms from late March until frost.

Too far astray

I’ve been informed by higher-ups in this household that two yellow leafed bluebeards (Caryopteris × clandonensis ‘Worcester Gold’) have strayed too far onto the driveway. Something must be done, immediately. My wife says four feet, and even our small cars can’t get past without scraping the shrubs, or the Japanese maple on the far side. To be contrary I say it’s only eighteen inches, which is hardly anything to be bothered about. But it is.

Crowded for years by a cypress that was cut out earlier this year, Worcester Gold bluebeard inched towards the driveway. Now, it’s too many inches so that cars must drive over branch tips.

No matter, if some action is not promised, and soon, she will chop out the shrubs herself. I know from experience, the result will not be pretty. Instead, I’ll do the chopping, but more gently, and this will wait several weeks until the bluebeards are past bloom. Is this too much to ask?

No doubt, the bluebeards were not planted at the edge of the driveway as they seem, but as neighboring plants grew the branches inched further in that direction so that the center of the shrub appears to be a foot onto the asphalt. Neighbors have now been removed, or cut back so that there’s room to grow, so after flowering the bluebeards will be pruned to encourage growth into the bed and away from the driveway.

The yellow flowered passionflower (Passiflora lutea, above) has not yet made an appearance, and I worry that it has perished beneath the cover of a wide spreading Oakleaf hydrangea. Last year the vine was particularly vigorous, climbing past the hydrangea and far up into an Okame cherry. This part of the garden is so overgrown that I haven’t ventured into the bushes to find out for certain, but I would expect the passionflower to have climbed into daylight long before now. This vine should be hard to kill, but perhaps I’ve done it.

The purple passionflower (Passiflora incarnata, above) is late to flower this year. For whatever reason, the vine did not grow from its crown until very late, though sprouts regularly emerged from root suckers several feet from where they should be. These were removed from between stones in the patio and eight feet away growing up through a dense clump of toad lilies, and finally it’s growing as it should. But, flowering will be weeks later than usual. There is some small benefit to this late bloom. Japanese beetles that flock to the flowers are gone by several weeks.

Waterloo Blue passionflower is planted with a support for the first four feet, and then it will climb into a green leafed Japanese maple.

In recent weeks I planted a new passionflower, ‘Waterloo Blue’ (Passiflora caerulea ‘Waterloo Blue’), which already has a few blooms. I planted it where it’s likely to get sun, even as the garden grows, and as it reaches the top of its support it will grow into a green leafed Japanese maple. This seems like a wonderful idea, and with blue and white flowers it is a distinct contrast to the purple flowered passionflower.

Stems of the passionflowers are not woody, so they die back to the crown each winter. I’m surprised that many gardeners expect these are not cold hardy, and while there are tropical passionflowers, I’ve found that a cold winter only delays their appearance to later in the spring. While some woodier vines can be troublesome, passionflower never strays further than expected.

Fool’s gold

Yesterday, an hour was spent pruning the vigorous Winter jasmine that borders the koi pond. I cannot recall why this was planted in such proximity to the waterfall, which it frequently grows to obscure, but often this seems to have been a mistake. Branches of yellow blooms cascading into the water seems such a grand idea, but as I teetered precariously on damp stones at the pond’s edge, the error was confirmed, and more than once and again on this day I considered how to extricate the jasmine which has become hopelessly rooted between stones.

Winter jasmine and paperbush (Edgeworthia) cascade over the pond’s edge. Irises and sweetflag (Acorus) are planted between boulders that line the pond.

The conclusion, again, was that this is a near impossibility without resorting to herbicides that would almost certainly contaminate the pond. So, it appears that my just reward is to suffer this chore until the day the garden is turned over to some unfortunate soul who believes they are able to manage maintenance of this acre and a quarter plot. Good luck.

Trees and shrubs cover much of the garden, with gems such as this purple leafed sedum planted between hydrangea and spirea to cover the ground for ornament, and to minimize weed growth.

How is it possible that a gardener can claim to enjoy maintenance, and particularly weeding? Certainly, I do not, and this brings to mind the fool’s gold that is the low maintenance garden. Perhaps there is some such sterile environment that is not only gravel and concrete that can still be considered a garden, but the best that I can imagine is to attempt to minimize labor in this garden.

Sun King aralia, Winter daphne and a variegated hosta fill this shaded area.

Perhaps, progress has been made as the garden matures into its twenty-eighth year, but the balance also shifts as my enthusiasm for labor wanes. By this age I should, of course, be working smarter and not harder, but it appears such thinking is beyond my capabilities, though I’ve taken a stab or two at the target.

Camellia, Cinnamon fern, barrenwort, Peacock moss and a hellebore seedling fill this spot beside a stone path.

Photos of snippets of the garden deceive the viewer to believe that most parts of the garden are covered, and how could a weed possibly make its way through such dense planting? A neighbor claims he never sees a weed, and probably from across the street that is correct, but from this vantage there remain too many spaces that are open and prime for weed growth.

Toad lily (Tricyrtis) and Angelina sedum spill over between stones and gravel.

In recent years, I’ve planted to fill edges between the lawn and garden, and if a sufficient budget was allocated all at once this could resolve much of the weeding problem. But, the garden winds for a considerable distance, and I hold out to try a bit of this and that as plants catch my eye. I’ll keep at it.  Perhaps, someday the edges will be covered, and the worst of weeding and maintenance will be eliminated. Probably, just in time for somebody else to take over the garden.

Carex and hosta cover the ground beside the driveway with a purple leafed violet filling any uncovered space.

Liriope fills the space beneath Dorothy Wycoff pieris.

Hellebores spread to cover ground up to this gravel path.

Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) spreads slowly to fill spaces beside hosta and seedlings of Wood poppy in this area of dry shade.

This dense clump of ‘Samurai’ toad lily prevents all but the most determined weeds.

Japanese Forest grass slowly spreads to cover this partially shaded spot beside a stone path.

Sweetbox spreads slowly, but its evergreen foliage eases maintenance.

Coneflower, carex, toad lily and violets planted along the edge of the driveway.

A low growing sedum borders this stone patio.

First flowers

Abundant rainfall through July has kept the garden from fading as it does typically through the heat of midsummer. Possibly, favorable conditions have also encouraged earlier flowering of several late summer bloomers.

Gordlinia (x Gordlinia grandiflora, above) was planted to ease the pain of losing a Franklinia (Franklinia alatamaha, below), an uncommon treasure that declined over years as an area in the rear garden became progressively more damp. While certainly not rare, I could not find a replacement Franklinia of suitable size, so I jumped at the chance to purchase a shrubby gordlinia. This hybrid of Franklinia and gordonia has flowers that are nearly identical to those of Franklinia, but with evergreen foliage and a shrubbier form. Also, it’s breeding suggested a tougher constitution.

Franklinia flowering in late August

Maybe, maybe not. Through any winter, cold or mild, the evergreen leaves turn brown and are completely lost. Following winters with temperatures that regularly dropped just below zero, gordlinia’s survival was in doubt, but in the end it suffered some twig damage and nothing more. The upright shrub recovered quickly, with no sign of injury by midsummer, and with a full flush of blooms by late summer.

On this first day of August, the first two flowers are seen, and many marble sized buds will open over the next six weeks. Is gordlinia an acceptable substitute for Franklinia? Perhaps, but I’d prefer one of each.  

With a dozen or more cultivars of toad lily (Tricyrtis) in the garden, one or several will flower from early August into October if frost does not interrupt. ‘Samurai’ is the earliest to bloom in this garden, and while its flowers are not as large or showy as others, its growth is vigorous and its foliage excellent.

The native Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) grows wild in the wetland behind the garden, but ‘Little Joe’ is more appropriately sized for the garden. In damp and dry conditions it grows vigorously, and seedlings have been encouraged to grow in damp gravel at the edge of the koi pond. Joe Pye is a magnet for Tiger swallowtails, that often visit by the dozens.

Until recent years, the earliest of the Encore azaleas to flower in this garden in mid summer was Autumn Twist, which typically begins blooming by mid August. ‘Autumn Carnation’ (above) was planted a few years ago, I delayed because I am not fond of its bubblegum pink color, but it flowers dependably and earlier than others in this northwest Virginia garden. It must be noted that the flowers of azaleas persist for a considerably longer period in late summer and early autumn than for the few short weeks in early spring.

And, not the first hosta, but possibly the last of dozens of varieties to flower. I apologize for not labeling hostas, and the names of too many have been forgotten. I wish this could be blamed on old age, but twenty years ago it was just as bad. While hostas are typically not planted for their flowers, many are delightful.

The summer garden

I suppose that some small sections of lawn are necessary, or at least that’s what my wife says, and who am I to argue? Probably, I wouldn’t stretch the garden to cover the entire acre and a quarter even if she didn’t put a stop to it, but I’d be happy to narrow the lawn and squeeze in a bit more.

A section of lawn connects sections of the rear garden. While toad lilies (Tricyrtis) and bluebeards (Caryopteris) will soon be their peak, the lawn fades and become more weedy until cooler temperatures in September encourage new growth.

In any case, in late July the lawn is typically sad, dry, with bare patches where less tolerant grasses faded in the summer heat. This would, of course, not be so bad if the lawn was irrigated, and it will rebound with cooler autumn temperatures, but long ago the decision was made that lawn areas are to function as expanded paths from one part of the garden to another. As long as the grass is not a horrible embarrassment,  I’m not concerned in the least when it goes dormant and turns off color in summer.

The shaded stream area is at its best in late spring and summer. With little direct sun, hostas and Japanese Forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) thrive through the heat. A serviceberry (Amelanchier) that arches over the stream drops leaves as it adjusts to the seasonal change, so leaves must occasionally be scooped out.

Sweetbox (Sarcococca), Japanese Forest grass, and hostas thrive in the moist, shaded garden beside this constructed stream.

Of course, the garden is a different story, and with only the occasional thunderstorm to keep it green, the trees and shrubs remains lush for the most part, though undoubtedly faded from the spring peak. This is an acceptable standard, to my thinking, with plants in the garden ones that have survived the stress of summer heat without coddling. The trial for any new plant in this garden is its first summer, and if it survives it’s likely to be around for a while.

To conserve soil moisture and to reduce maintenance, many parts of the garden are planted so that one spills onto the other. Here, Robb’s spurge (Euphorbia robbiae) spreads to cover the ground, growing into the edge of the spreading Plum yew (Cephalotaxus prostrata), beneath Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia). None show signs of summer stress, even in this dry shade, and rarely will a weed pop up through this dense planting.

With warm temperatures and increased rainfall, I am pleasantly surprised that native dogwoods are not covered in powdery mildew, as is often the case by mid summer. Mildew does not diminish the health or flowering of the white flowered ‘Cherokee Princess’, but the variegated ‘Cherokee Sunset’ (Cornus florida ‘Cherokee Sunset’, below) has not flowered in recent years. At the end of July, I’m encouraged that even ‘Sunset’ is clean, but this cannot last for long.  

A variety of beasts continue to afflict the garden, though none are much to be concerned about. Tiny white caterpillars are annual visitors to the red twigged ‘Arctic Fire’ dogwood (Cornus stolonifera ‘Farrow’, below), but this unremarkable shrub is hardly a treasure. I am pleased that again this year webworms have bypassed the redbuds. and while other andromedas (Pieris) are infested with lacebugs, the more prominent ‘Dorothy Wycoff’ is only slightly effected.As always, mid summer brings flowering of the toad lilies (Tricyrtis formosana ‘Samurai’, below). A year ago, several clumps were damaged when early spring growth was damaged by a late freeze. Fortunately, these recovered, and in in late July the clumps seem particularly robust. With a small collection of cultivars, flowering will continue until frost.

Few weeds, lots of flowers

I am encouraged that the garden was not the disaster I feared when I returned after traveling on business for a few weeks. I was certain that weeds would be knee high, but instead, the worst of it was cleaned up in a few hours. Several large limbs fell in storms while I was gone, which is not unusual with the proximity of the garden to tall maples and tulip poplars, but conveniently these dropped between valued plants and no damage was done. I haven’t gotten around to chopping the branches into manageable pieces, but this should not be a big project.

Several blooms that promised to peak while I was traveling have persisted long enough that I can enjoy their last days. The wide spreading Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora, above) was showing the first bit of color before I left, and I figured that flowers would move quickly to their peak and past. Happily, these held on until I returned. An acquaintance recently described bottlebrush as a giant weed, and how could I argue, but with attractive foliage and blooms it is perfectly suited to this shady spot at the edge of the garden. Since I’ve planted it slightly outside the boundary of our property, there’s plenty of space for this large shrub to spread.

Though I am greatly handicapped in describing colors, the apricot flowers of ‘Boone’ gladiolus (Gladiolus x gandavensis ‘Boone’, above) are delightful, and the plant is tough as they come. The tall flowering stalks must be staked or they flop into the mud. Some years this is done early on, and other times (this year) the stalks must be supported by neighbors.

There are a handful of Pineapple lilies in the garden as well as offsets from a vigorous clump of ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ that is perilously close to a wide spreading Oakleaf hydrangea. I feared these would be past bloom when I returned, but I’m happy they’re at their peak.

The foliage of Canyon Creek abelia can fade in the summer sun, and it’s form is upright and leggy, so there are many superior cultivars of abelia. But, there are no better blooms.

Gold Dust was an early variegated abelia introduction that has long been surpassed by others with more striking variegation.

Clethra is best suited to damp soils, but this ‘Ruby Spires’ has done well enough in very dry shade.

There are few bees on butterflies visiting Joe Pye weed on this cloudy afternoon. On a sunny day there will be many.

Several panicled hydrangeas in the garden grow to ten feet and taller, but Little Lime is more appropriate for most garden spaces.

Tardiva hydrangea is rarely offered today. It’s blooms are not nearly as substantial as other panicled hydrangeas such as LImelight.