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.

Covering ground

I am surprised, and pleased, that a small patch of spring planted Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens) survived several weeks of heat when this seemed in question, and now appears to be growing after weeks of flooding rains. The native spurge is unexciting, but in recent years I’ve been inspired to cover every small area of open ground, with ordinary plants, or not, so I’m happy that Allegheny spurge has taken hold after a slow start.

It is not necessary that every plant in the garden makes one jump for joy. Some must do the dirty work, though the foliage of the spurge is pleasant enough and there will be a brief period when it flowers. In this densely shaded, dry ground, the more vigorous Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis) would be less challenging, but I’m happy to give this native a chance.

The intent in covering ground is to cut down on as much weeding as possible. If ground is not covered, there are weeds, and if I live long enough I hope to cut my labor by half. Already, weeding and other chores are half of, say ten years ago, when there was more enthusiasm for such things. Certainly, there will always be some weeds, but cutting a substantial share of what I do now is good reason for planting, and of course, some will be treasures and not only practical.

The humble, native False Solomon’s Seal is more ornamental in richer ground than positioned several inches from the trunk of a very tall red maple. I am also likely to plant other non-native Solomon’s Seals since these grow splendidly in dry shade.

Encouraged by this success, I’ll plant more of the spurge in September, along with trilliums and False Solomon’s Seals (Maianthemum racemosum, above, that now grows wild in less obvious spots in the garden) in the shade beneath the Bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla, below). I proudly proclaim the magnolia (to anyone who will listen) to be superior to ones seen in splendid, long established and well funded gardens visited this summer along the Washington state coast. This is the single plant that can be claimed as superior to ones growing in northwest gardens, and I suppose that much like evergreen magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) that thrive in the heat of the southeast (where they are native), this deciduous magnolia also prefers Virginia’s heat and humidity. While I cannot match the lushness of the coastal gardens, at least I can brag on this one tree.

In fact, many plants are better suited to this area than the coolness of the northwest. Our native dogwood (Cornus florida) is not at its best out west, and many hollies and azaleas thrive with more heat and humidity.

Also, here there is water. Recently, too much of it, but gardens in the northwest must be irrigated, and here, not so much. I’ve never had a thought about irrigating this garden, and rarely water anything, though occasionally at planting if conditions are dry. No doubt, the recent rainfall saved the Allegheny spurge from my neglect.

Too wet for too long

Suckering stems of one paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) extend into ground saturated by weeks of rain. Following a recent inch and a quarter, and a couple inches more last night, leaves on the lower end of the shrub wilted. Though these have perked up, there are yellowing and a few dropping leaves. Most of the paperbush sits above the flood, and shows no sign of trouble, and I suspect that yellowing leaves will be the worst of it even for sections that are rooted into the wet soil.

Several other paperbushes are on higher, well drained ground, so the constant rainfall is a benefit after several weeks when many shrubs were showing the strain of high temperatures. When I planted paperbushes I was well aware that the shrubs required good drainage, but they keep spreading, both stems from the main body, but also stems that touch ground, root and spread. It’s not too big a deal to chop it back if the spreading goes too far, but so far it’s not a problem except for the parts that are suffering in the damp soil.

A tree peony planted early in spring has wilted, despite improvements that were made to better drain this regularly damp area. Unfortunately, I was traveling at the time the trouble started, returning after the point that the peony could be rescued. There remains a shred of hope that it could revive, but not with a good enough chance that it is worth digging and moving the peony.

This Itoh peony is in a questionable location, but apparently high enough above the dampest soil.

To where is the question, and one that will complicate planting another. While this loss is only due to the constant dampness, in any typical year this spot would be ideal, I think. But, I”m unwilling to toss money around so carelessly.

Nutgrass is flourishing in the low section of the garden, as always, but somewhat worse with constant dampness. So, I must be vigilant to prevent it from tangling with vigorous clumps of coneflower and milkweed. The small rear lawn area is predominantly nutgrass, which is at least greener than other higher and drier, neglected parts of lawn.

An off year

The relative absence of Tiger swallowtails this year has been noted, and with peak blooming of Joe Pye weeds, the scattered few are clear evidence of this downward pattern in comparison to recent years. From caterpillars to honeybees, and butterflies (probably Japanese beetles also), there are cycles beyond my comprehension, so even with only a few swallowtails (below) there is little reason for concern. If there are few this summer, it is possible there will be more next year.


Until this week, there were few honeybees, which are now attracted to the full bloom of Mountain mint. Butterflies are drawn to Joe Pye, bees and wasps to Mountain mint, with limited crossover though they are in close proximity. In the absence of swallowtails, carpenter bees take full advantage to fill the void.

In bloom, the patch of Mountain mint encourages caution, with hundreds of stinging pollinators. But, my experience is that bees and wasps are too distracted in their frenzied feeding unless the gardener is foolishly intrusive. I’ve been stung a time or two.

Only occasional small butterflies and moths are attracted to several clumps of milkweed and coneflowers (above) in the garden, and surrounding an old farm pond on the neighboring property. Rarely are Monarchs (below) seen, but bees regularly harvest nectar, and the annual invasion of bright orange aphids has begun. I will watch to see if aphid eating beetles arrive soon, and if not, stems will be cut to the ground.