An autumn update

After a warm and dry late summer, a week of cooler temperatures was greeted enthusiastically. But, this lasted only a few days until unusual heat returned. As folks often say, it’s not the heat but the humidity, and certainly both have been abnormally high for October. At least the dry spell has ended, though rainfall has fallen short of forecasts and the gardener hopes for a bit more before cold moves in.

Monarch butterflies are regularly seen in early autumn, though rarely at other times when mostly Tiger swallowtails are present. Here, a Monarch visits a purple flowered seedling of a white flowered coneflower (Echinacea purpurea ‘Powwow White’) flowering in mid October.

None of this is particularly unusual, but the gardener is ever hopeful. For what? Rain that falls overnight several times each week, but waking to bright sunshine that cuts the chill of early autumn. We’re not there yet, and who can tell what rainfall is to come, though we are assured that cooler temperatures must soon be on the way.

Stems of Peruvian lily wind through low hanging branches of an Oakleaf hydrangea. Flopping stems and foliage of this Peruvian lily are unremarkable, but it has been in flower since mid spring.

There is some advantage that cold has been delayed. There are more blooms in the garden, with toad lilies and Peruvian lilies (Alstroemeria, above) continuing to flower, and camellias (Camellia ‘Winter’s Star’, below) and the coarse leafed Tatarian aster coming into bloom. Several toad lilies have flowered since early in August, and others will continue for several weeks, or until the first hard frost.

Winter’s Star camellia was off cycle a year ago, so there were few flowers until January. This autumn, flowers are weeks earlier than expected with first blooms usually delayed until November,

Summer Ice daphne has flowered continuously since late March. In its second year in the garden, Summer Ice shows impressive growth and flowering. Summer Ice and Eternal Fragrance are changing my opinion that daphnes are finicky. Both thrive in part sun, with reports that they manage well in full sun.

The hybrid daphnes, ‘Eternal Fragrance’ and ‘Summer Ice’ have been in flower to varying degrees since late March, and these will continue through early freezes. There are times in mid winter that the gardener will swear that buds will open if only a short period of mild temperatures stretches another day or two, and with the first mild spring weather the daphnes are not without flowers until November, and sometimes early December.  

This has been an exceptional season for the reblooming Encore azaleas (above), though the usually dependable ‘Twist’ flowered early and then faded in the heat of late August. Other Encores have flowered for weeks, with the pink ‘Carnation’ in solid bloom for two months and still going. In truth, I’m ready for its bubblegum pink flowers to fade, but there are no complaints otherwise.

Berries of red chokeberry are very glossy. Deer are a constant problem nibbling foliage, and occasionally I miss spraying them with repellent, so shrubs are tall and narrow.

I notice that berries are coming along nicely. Beautyberries (Callicarpa) have been in color for a month, and now dogwood and red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia, above) berries are fully ripe. Several hollies have red berries, but others will not turn for several weeks.


A great find

At long last, a yellow flowered toad lily (Tricyrtis flava, below) has been procured of sufficient sturdiness and vigor that there are high hopes for its survival. While there is no reason that yellow flowered toad lilies should be more fragile than others, prior plantings have been skimpy specimens purchased by mail order, and with my penchant for neglect all perished in the first spell of dry weather. Admittedly, I was also not careful with placement, with toad lilies planted in ground that was possibly too damp, maybe too dry, or shaded.

The yellow flowered toad lily is densely branched with a good pot full of roots, giving confidence that it will survive the occasional dry spell until it is established.

While references recommend shade, other toad lilies in the garden perform best with only the slightest shade from the afternoon sun. Ones planted in more shade struggle, and that’s what’s happened with the yellow flowered toad lilies I’ve planted. Struggle for a year, if they made it that long, then disappear.

As a bonus, this toad lily arrived in flower, with a few unopened buds still to go. The plant was stocky, and though the pot was small it was full of roots, so I should not have to be overly attentive through the current spell of dry weather. I’m hesitant to purchase plants in small pots through mail order, though I often have little choice to expand collections of less common varieties. I’ve never seen toad lilies besides the few basics in the garden center, and given their relative lack of popularity, I expect I never will. And, certainly not a yellow or any of the other uncommon cultivars I’ve planted, to my great delight.

One of several Sinonome toad lilies is planted in part sun in soil that is often damp, resulting in vigorous growth that flops in late summer. This could be avoided by pruning it by half earlier in the summer, but those are the kind of chores that don’t happen in this garden.

As is usually the case, I had no idea where the new toad lily would be planted, but figured that I’d work it out once it and another one arrived. (I don’t recall what the second toad lily is supposed to do, and why I added it. Perhaps it was a tall grower, or maybe very short.) I was discouraged after a few circles around the sunnier parts of the garden, but finally decided on what I think will be an ideal spot along the back side of the koi pond. Another toad lily a few paces into damper ground grows vigorously, perhaps too vigorously so that it flops. The sunlight exposure is similar, so I’m expecting the best. After multiple failures with yellow flowered toad lilies, I’ll be overjoyed to finally have one succeed, and I think I’ve done it this time.

Lightening Strike is positioned in an area with increasing shade, so it will have to be transplanted before it fades away.

Miyazaki is a vigorous grower with occasional seedlings that appear true to the variety. While most toad lilies fare well in nearly full sun, leaves of Miyazaki can burn a bit by late summer. It is also one of the last to flower, beginning in mid September in this garden while others begin to bloom in August to early September.


The garden’s ponds

Given the number of, and space in the garden allotted to ponds, there are disproportionate mentions of plants on these pages and few comments relating to water features. Except for discussion of snakes, that is, and after a summer of harassment from my wife, the one remaining Northern Brown is keeping a low profile.

In recent years, Oakleaf hydrangeas and paperbush have grown to overwhelm colorful perennials planted just outside the pond, though Japanese irises remain in shallow water. The changed landscape surrounding the pond is not for better or worse, just different. The current concern is that clear water is now cloudy. Additional filtration is required to take of this.

Probably, many readers would suppose that keeping up with five ponds in the garden, ranging from a hundred to fourteen hundred square feet, would be a full time proposition, even without another acre of garden to care for. Wrong again. Little time is spent maintaining the ponds, most months none, and only in the spring is a quick clean out necessary, though the large koi pond is never cleaned.

Sweetflag, yellowflag, water lilies, and pickerelweed along the pond’s edge

Occasionally, there’s a little something. A pump gets gummed up, or a leaf basket must be emptied. Plants along the edges of the ponds must be managed, cut back in early spring, and occasionally pruned if they become too rambunctious. Sweetflag (Acorus) and yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus, above) can go a bit wild growing in shallow water, and it won’t be long before the vigorous clump of Pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata, below) requires some attention. But this is minutes a year, not hours. By far, more time is spent feeding the koi than maintaining the ponds, much less time than it takes to weed any single area of planting.

However, the koi pond has reached the point that something must be done. The biological filtration that kept the pond clear for years is being overwhelmed by the increased koi population. I’ve resisted as long as possible, but it’s time to invest in more advanced filtration. It’s killing me, but I’ve been forced to add an external filter. Installation is pretty simple, but not inexpensive for this large volume of water.

I’ve little doubt that with the filter hooked up the water will quickly clear up, so I’ll be able to see the koi again, not only when they surface to feed. For the smaller ponds, this should never be a problem, but the koi pond started with ten fish and now there are many, many more, with exponentially more every year. I tried netting and moving some to the other ponds, but it became clear that I can’t keep up. So, I’m not complaining about there being too many koi, but this requires better filtration, and now’s the time.

I’ll report back as I see results.

A purple coneflower

There are no purple flowered coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) in the garden. Or not. Correctly, I’ve not planted any, but there it is, a tall seedling with a large purple bloom (below) standing tall above a compact clump of white flowered coneflowers (‘Powwow White’). Nearby, flowers of a second seedling appear more pink.

It is clear to me that the purple coneflower is a seedling of the white (below), but some explanation is required since it might not be so clear to all how a purple flowered seedling derives from a white flowered parent. My wife insists I planted the purple, refusing to believe my explanation that this is a seedling of a coneflower that does not grow identically to its parent. The native coneflower is purple, and the white is the variation, probably found as a chance seedling.

In recent years I’ve transplanted a number of seedlings of ‘Miyazaki’ toad lily (below), and all appear identical to the parent plant. I had hopes that one early flower this years was significantly larger, in hopes that some remarkable seedling would be discovered, but subsequent blooms have been similar in size.

In the next few weeks I will transplant the purple and pink flowered coneflowers since these could prove to be more vigorous and crowd out the white. ‘Powwow’ has been a excellent grower, now into its second flowering cycle, and no good can come from leaving the parent and seedlings to compete in the same space.


A difficult late summer

September was difficult, not unusually so, but relatively hot and dry after a mild and wet earlier summer. Leaves of neighborhood sycamores are withered and brown, and though stress is less evident on other trees, continued dry weather could result in poor coloring of foliage in weeks to come.

While hostas and other perennials show stress from the late summer drought, Chocolate Joe Pye weed is at its peak.

Perhaps cooler temperatures will ease effects of the current dryness, and of course, there could be a turn back to regular rainfall. Dry or not, this should be of little concern for well established plants that will soon be headed into dormancy. There is some small concern, however premature, that some broadleaf evergreens must be hydrated going into winter to prevent injury if there should be prolonged periods of freezing temperatures. There will be greater concern if dry weather continues through October.

One of two new toad lilies (Tricyrtis flava) planted in this spell of dry weather.

I have planted several azaleas and mahonias, a few toad lilies (above), and a fragile looking pot of Paris polyphylla (below) in recent weeks, and it is only the new plantings that I will watch until our next soaking rain. My penchant for neglect of new plantings has lost too many treasures, and I am determined to do better this time with Paris and a yellow flowered toad lily that have been disappointing failures in prior years.

Unusual flowers make Paris polyphylla worth trying after repeated failures. I suspect previous locations were too dry and sunny.

A sip of water a few times a week until the next rain should keep everything growing, and I’ve left a five gallon bucket on the patio by the koi pond as a reminder. A half bucket twice a week will be enough for the toad lilies and Paris, and I don’t expect the few shrubs will need anything at all. A few potted Japanese maples on the patios are looking pretty dry, so a half bucket for each will also be necessary. I’m not good at remembering to do such things, so I hope for rain.

There will be no colorful autumn leaves on the Golden Full Moon Japanese maples. Few leaves remain on the tree in early October.

While not too unusual, serviceberry, river birches, and the purple leafed European beech have dropped most leaves already, and several Japanese maples are nearly bare. The Golden Full Moon maple often displays exceptional autumn foliage color, but this year there will be no leaves, so no color. In similar conditions, the fernleaf Japanese maple has hardly dropped a leaf. In several weeks, its foliage will be delightfully colored, despite the difficult late summer weather.

Autumn colors of the Fernleaf Japanese maple are the best in the garden. The tree shows little sign of the recent dry weather except a few scorched leaves, so this should not effect the splendid autumn colors.

Beijing Beauty

I’ve been unable to determine the parentage of the narrow leafed mahonia, ‘Beijing Beauty’ (below), but suspect its heritage is similar to ‘Soft Caress’ and ‘Narihira’, which are partially or fully bred from Mahonia eurybracteata, that has proved not to be sufficiently cold hardy in this garden despite my best efforts. Possibly, these would survive in a protected spot, but it seems I am incapable of determining what is a protected microclimate. In any case, in multiple locations both mahonias have failed to survive. Leatherleaf (Mahonia bealei) and hybrid mahonias ‘Winter Sun’, ‘Charity’, and ‘Underway’ have survived five degrees or more below zero with minimal injury, but narrow leafed mahonias have failed at temperatures above zero.

Beijing Beauty mahonia is flowering in mid September. Flowers are considerably smaller than late autumn flowering ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’, or spring flowering Leatherleaf mahonia. It’s habit appears to be more compact and lower growing, but probably taller than the low, mounding ‘Soft Caress’.

Long ago, I discovered that zone 7 cold hardiness ratings are not a guarantee. Some zone 7 plants will tolerate temperatures colder than zero, while others perish at ten degrees. Clearly, cold hardiness determinations are an inexact science, and possibly there is no science to it at all, but a best guess or perhaps even wishful thinking.

Soft Caress is exceptional for its foliage and texture, though flowers are less significant. Unfortunately, after multiple tries I’ve abandoned hope that it will survive in this northwestern Virginia garden.

In any case, ‘Beijing Beauty’ is beginning to flower in early September, a month or two earlier than ‘Soft Caress’ (above), and giving hope that its lineage might be different enough to include greater cold tolerance. While last winter did not approach zero, this year or next, or at least eventually it will get this cold again, and I’ll learn its similarity to ‘Soft Caress’. I suspect it won’t survive, but I can hope that at least one of four, or possibly all will survive in varied spots through the garden.

Also, I’ve recently planted Mahonia ‘Marvel’, which has a similar lack of information regarding its heritage. But, ‘Marvel’ is clearly a late autumn flowering hybrid similar to ‘Winter Sun’ (above), ‘Charity’, and ‘Underway’, without spines except one at the leaf tips. There is less reason to question its hardiness, as I question the cold tolerance of ‘Bejiing Beauty’, and I suspect I’m not alone in giving a try to plants that have questionable chances for survival.

A thing or two

Occasionally, I am almost convinced that I know a thing or two about the garden. Not often, and though I might speculate about one aggravation or another, mostly I’m just guessing. Term these educated guesses if it pleases you. I’m not offended knowing that the mysteries of the garden are above my mental capabilities.

Happily, it appears that I’ve solved the “no berries on the Winterberry hollies” dilemma. For years there were loads of berries on the grouping of five or six hollies. But, these were planted beside a grove of bamboo, that spread as bamboos do, and eventually a few of the hollies were too close and shaded out. For other reasons, and here some part of the blame (or credit) goes to my wife, the bamboo was chopped out. Once gone, a Winterberry or two was also lost and dug out.

Then, with more sunlight and what should have been a more advantageous situation, the hollies ceased to have more than a few scattered berries. Please excuse my advice over the years that there is always a male pollinator nearby, because, in this case, apparently there was not. And also, it seems that the male was one of the hollies that was dug out. This revelation took only two or three years to confirm, and then I was distracted for another few years before planting a small male holly nearby earlier this year.

Evergreen hollies (‘Centennial Girl’ holly) consistently have berries, so it is evident that there is a male pollinator nearby.

Miraculously, this tiny holly provided the right stuff to pollinate the four remaining female hollies, that are now covered in berries. In early autumn, these are ripening to red. So, all is well, and with renewed faith that I’m not a complete dunce, I will continue to spout “wisdom”.

And really, this problem should not have been so complicated, and no doubt was perplexing only because I was quite certain that there is always an available pollinator. Perhaps, I will know better next time.