Three decades in the garden

For one reason or the other, few gardeners will be around a single garden for three decades. Staying put for so long is no accomplishment, but there is a benefit in witnessing Japanese maples grow into middle age, to budget a modest expenditure each year that grows to fill a property so that no part feels incomplete. A purple leafed European beech, that grew agonizingly slow for years, finally takes hold, and one day the gardener looks up and admires that it now towers over the house.

The long sought after Golden Full Moon is one of an ever growing collection of thirty five or more cultivars of Japanese maple.

Many plants reach a mature size quickly, and the gardener sees some that come and go. Deer have whittled a hundred hosta varieties to half that number, but the gardener’s failings are responsible for many more losses. A lack of care, of preparation, or planning has imperiled too many treasures, and over a period the gardener learns what will grow (or not) given his soil, sun exposure, and quality of care. The result, I suspect, is a happier balance than in a younger garden, and certainly the gardener’s disposition is improved as maturing trees and shrubs cover more ground and ease his maintenance.

Large and small leafed hostas line this stream and stone paths that wind through the garden.

The garden is ever changing, as a Katsura and other trees shade areas that were once mostly sunny, and roots spread to sap moisture. Some changes cannot be explained, so a corner of the property becomes soggier by the year, finally killing long established witch hazel and holly. The now swampy area must be recreated as a bog garden, and while starting over is painful, there are new plants to discover, and cherish.

Colorful bracts follow the abundant white flowers of Seven Son tree in late summer. This tree was snapped off by a summer storm, and replaced by a Red horsechestnut. A small, recently purchased Seven Son will someday find a spot in the garden. For now, it will grow in a container on the patio beside the koi pond.

The garden (and the gardener) weathers natural catastrophes, wind and hail, ice, and snow that break branches, or fell a favored Seven Son tree. Damage can be done in severe cold or mild winters, and also through summer droughts, though injuries are most often far less serious than the gardener first presumes. Several long time favorites have been lost, but the gardener plants a Red horsechesnut after much consideration, and after a few years the sting is nearly forgotten.

While the loss of the Seven Son was disappointing, the Red horsechestnut planted in its place has quickly become a favorite.

The gardener learns that native does not mean low maintenance, or resistance to pests and diseases. Many are treasured, but a few require regular attention to ward off hungry deer. For years, dogwoods have been plagued by leaf spotting and cankers, but optimism returns each year in April with a fresh set of blooms. A dogwood labeled as pink, but flowering white, was bothersome for a decade, but the flurry of spring blooms slowly erased the disappointment.

Jane magnolia flowers a few weeks later than Royal Star and Dr. Merrill, with blooms less susceptible to late freezes.

Flowers of magnolias are occasionally damaged by late freezes, and the gardener who will be around for a short period is severely discouraged, but this injury is only occasional, and often after the trees have flowered for ten days. If the blooms are short lived this year, they might not suffer again for five, and in twenty of thirty years this has not been a worry.

The front of the house is hidden behind Japanese maples and dogwoods. A purple leafed beech off the left corner of the house has become huge.

The gardener’s interest never wanes. While appearing to be overflowing by mid spring, there are small gaps in the garden to be filled. For the gardener who must collect one of everything that captures his fancy, somehow a space is found for each new acquisition, though no room is to be found to expand the Japanese maple collection, so these must now be kept in containers on the patios. The challenge, as the completion of the third decade nears, is to eliminate maintenance, an absurdly impossible goal, but one that seems within reach as low growing shrubs and perennials are shoehorned to cover every open space.

The gardener learns the rhythm of the property, when labor must be accomplished, and when there is time to enjoy. As weeds are crowded out by maturing trees and shrubs, the period required to maintain this garden grows shorter, and time to enjoy becomes longer. Certainly, this is a benefit of three decades in one place.

A chilly week in March

Following a chilly week in March when temperatures regularly dropped into the teens, damage to flowers and emerging leaves was expected. The gardener’s question was, how much damage, and would injury to new leaves do harm as a late freeze stunted mophead hydrangea growth a year ago?

Flowers of Winter’s Star camellia were at their peak a week ago. Now (below), all are a golden brown, but with more pink buds opening.

The answer remains unclear as temperatures begin to turn warmer, with pink flowers on camellias beginning to open alongside ones that turned golden brown (above) earlier in the week. The loss of blooms of magnolias and camellias was anticipated, but damage to flowers of spireas (Spirea thunbergii ‘Ogon’, below) was somewhat surprising, though there was little history of such warm temperatures followed by freezes to go by. Injury to flowers of local weeping cherry varieties has been seen, and to the numerous flowering pears in the neighborhood and along fence rows of old farms where birds have deposited seeds for years.

Flowers of Ogon spirea a week ago, and after several nights when temperatures dropped into the teens (below). Emerging leaves of this yellow leafed spirea were not damaged.

Flowers of hellebores, mahonias, paperbushes, and the last of ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel survived intact, while blooms of Winter daphne were lost. The few stray flowers of ‘Summer Ice’ and ‘Eternal Fragrance’ daphnes were unharmed, with plump buds that should begin to bloom after a few mild days.

Of most concern going into the freeze were leaves of lilacs and hydrangeas that emerged too early after very mild temperatures through late February and the first week of March. New growth of the tree lilac (Syringa reticulata ‘Ivory Silk’, above) suffered slight damage, but less than anticipated, while small leaves of hydrangeas have been lost. While an April freeze damaged stems and early growth of mophead hydrangeas a year ago, it is too early to determine the extent of injury.

While no damage has been seen on new growth of daylilies (except by deer), some cold injury to early growth of hostas and toad lilies has been seen, though this is not expected to be significant.

March weather is variable, for better and worse

Though the gardener barks at the chilly breezes, he is aware that weather is variable, particularly in March when there might be temperatures in the seventies and teens, sometimes within the same week. Still, he has been spoiled by the mild temperatures of late winter, and now he pouts over a period of cold. Flowers of magnolias and camellias have spoiled in the freeze, which is hardly unusual. and the gardener is anxious to again feel the warming sun on his back. Perhaps next week.

Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) began to flower in late February. it has weathered the cold without a problem, but now is just past its peak. If temperatures warm up, bees will pollinate flowers so that blooms are followed by grape like fruits. Be warned that birds will spread seeds, with seedlings that are not prolific, but often must be weeded out.

Despite temperature swings that encouraged, then damaged early growth, the garden is ready for spring. Many flowers have weathered the cold, and while the fate of emerging leaves is still in question, the results have not been disastrous. All that is required for a satisfactory result is a change from this miserable cold.

Often, I lose track of which hellebores are planted hybrids, and which are seedlings from the hundreds that germinate each year. This one, a seedling that is oddly appealing, has been transplanted after growing for two years near its parent plant.

While double flowered hellebores attract attention, this simple single flowered hybrid is as splendid as any. Hellebores have not been effected by the recent cold.

Paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) is a favorite in this garden. This late winter flowering shrub is not common for unknown reasons since it is a wonderful bloomer, and a pleasant shrub after flowering.

Buds of spring blooming daphnes are ready to flower with a short period of warmth.

Flowers of the Cornelian dogwood don’t make the show of larger dogwood blooms, but this late winter bloomer is appreciated.

 

Modest plans for spring

In this second week of January, several seed catalogs and a few from mail order plant suppliers have arrived in the mailbox. Once, the box was stuffed with catalogs after the start of the new year, but today it is the email bin that overflows.

It’s been a while since I’ve grown anything from seed (so seed catalogs are discarded), mostly a matter of laziness than for any other reason, since this can be quite cost effective for many perennials (and vegetables) that are easily raised. This should not discourage more energetic folks, and yes, not much effort is required, but for better or worse I’m better off planting well rooted containers that will tolerate a bit of neglect.

Occasionally, I will grab a few ripe blueberries as I walk the garden, but if my timing is slightly off birds will harvest every ripe berry.

Occasionally, I will grab a few ripe blueberries as I walk the garden, but if my timing is slightly off, birds will harvest every ripe berry.

Long ago, I gave up on tomatoes or other veggies, and grow no edibles besides blueberries as shade from the garden’s many Japanese maples and dogwoods make finding a sunny spot difficult. Certainly, there are more trees and shrubs here that are marginally considered as edibles, but if there are any berries on the serviceberries (Amelanchier canadensis), there are few enough not to be worth the effort to pick. Any berries, from any tree or shrub in this garden, go to the birds, even the blueberries for the most part which are quickly harvested as they ripen, with the few spoils going to Japanese beetles.

Flowers are plentiful, but berries scarce on the serviceberry.

Flowers are plentiful, but berries scarce on the serviceberry.

I’m considering the budget for a few additions to the garden, certainly a few small Japanese maples to add to the collection in pots that are arranged on the patios. With more than thirty maples planted in the garden, and room for no more, the collection in containers was begun last year. All are small now, so space is not yet a problem, and what I’ll do when the maples quickly grow to five and six, then some to eight feet tall, well, those details will be addressed when the time comes.

Orange Dream Japanese maple grew nicely last year in a container beside the koi pond. With maples grown in containers, the gardener can easily relocate the pots to best suit the needs of various maples.

Orange Dream Japanese maple grew nicely last year in a container in full sun on the patio beside the koi pond. With maples grown in containers, the gardener can easily relocate the pots to best suit the needs of various maples.

Recently, several large evergreens were removed that had become too shaded, and in the newly opened spaces there is an opportunity for planting several new hellebores and hostas, with varieties still to be determined as the mood strikes. Perhaps there will be enough sun to plant a few ground orchids (Bletilla striata), but if not in this space, there is some other spot that these can be shoehorned into.

Ground orchid in late May

Terrestrial orchids spread slowly, but dependably in sunny spots.

These are not ambitious plans, but with a garden in the works for three decades, there should be little to do besides adding a few goodies. No doubt, I’ll be further inspired by the first spring visits to the garden center.

The best ….. and the worst of it

Leaves have fallen, flowers faded, and now the gardener will reflect on the year past, and consider the year to come. Each year brings shares of joy and disaster to the garden in unequal measure, and again I am pleased that the balance decidedly favors the positive. Perhaps there has been a year or two in nearly three decades when the outlook has not been so sunny, but the garden grows, and setbacks due to snow or ice, winter freezes, or summer squalls are usually made over more quickly than the gardener expects.

Through the past year, disaster lurked around every corner, from a thirty inch blizzard in January, to April freezes, then a late summer drought. While the gardener trembles at the storm’s approach, these were weathered with surprisingly minor damage. And by the end, only a few scars remain. All will be healed over by spring.Ferns and hostas along a path

The assistant gardener (my wife) has been remarkably inconspicuous this year. Still, she talks a good game, but now is resigned that she cannot put a stop to perceived excesses of the garden (I think). After occasional contentious moments in the past, she is mostly helpful in keeping hostas and ivies from taking over the stone paths (above). Certainly, stray stems of nandinas sometimes fall unnecessarily due to her efforts, but this is a minor concession to maintaining harmony.

On a second personal note, recovery from mid summer back surgery has progressed at least as well as expected, which is to say that I quickly was back to doing things that are best not mentioned to the surgeon. Though I made do, I now can roam the garden, bend, and lift with only minor caution. I’m able to do anything I could before (and more), and best of all, this is an indisputable excuse to shirk chores as I please.

Edgeworthia blooms in a late March snow

After a two year wait, paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha, above) have completely recovered from consecutive frigid winters that caused severe injury, requiring pruning ten feet wide shrubs to a third of their size. By late spring following the freezes, growth mostly obscured the worst of chopped branches, but the dome shape of shrubs was contorted, and open space was slow to be filled by neighboring shrubs. Now, the paperbushes are back to where they were, and perhaps a bit more, crowding neighbors so that I must judiciously prune to keep everybody happy.

Red horsechestnut in late April

In recent years, beloved Franklinia and Seven Son trees have been lost, the Franklin tree’s slow demise due to increasingly poor drainage in the lower rear garden, and the Seven Son to a summer storm that snapped the trunk in a moment. There is no getting over the loss of such treasures, but efforts to rejigger the swampy area, and to replace the Seven Son with a Red Horse chestnut (above) have been mostly satisfactory. In another year, the Horse chestnut will completely fill the space, and I favor its flowers to the relatively unremarkable white blooms of the Seven Son, though there is little doubt that bees prefer the Seven Son and there is no topping purple-pink bracts (below) that follow its flowers into autumn.Drupes of Seven Son tree

I curse foolish acquaintances who believe that everything happens for a reason, and what possible purpose could there be for the year long sad performance of mophead hydrangeas? These were first injured by late freezes that ruined early foliage and the first go round of blooms. Reblooming types recovered to flower, but late, and the cycle was thrown off so that no more than scattered flowers were seen again.Fern leaf maple

The worst was expected when newly emerging leaves of Japanese maples (above) were injured in the April freezes. After a few days when survival was in doubt, most recovered in weeks. Others suffered more, and remain a bit thin, but all will be good by spring. The gardener does not expect perfection, and so he is little disappointed when all is not peaches and cream.

So, why not be overjoyed? Tragedies were avoided in every season, with daily joy between short bouts of worry. Certainly, a few tweaks are in order, but plans have been made, with little doubt that the new year will be a good one.

The garden’s paths

Over the better part of three decades, a hodgepodge of stone paths has been constructed to wind through the garden. In some instances, paths preceded the planting of the garden, which was then planted after ready access was available.Bluestone path

None of the paths is artfully constructed, and even the more formal path to the front door is a combination of pockmarked Pennsylvania bluestones, bricks salvaged from some long forgotten project, and concrete ornaments that are now mostly obscured by moss. The flawed pieces of bluestone were once selected for their greater thickness and weathered appearance, instead of more perfect stones that might outshine the new garden.

While a small patio in the rear garden of thinner, but colorful flagging from India or China (their origin is unclear, but not American) suffers from several cracked stones, the bluestone path shows no more than a few chipped corners, and except for mossy joints, it appears as weathered today as twenty-seven years earlier.The path beside the stream

Besides the front walk, no paths adhere to landscape architectural standards that suggest width should accommodate two adults side by side, at least four feet and preferably five feet wide. At most, paths are three feet in width, and this is only a single path of two by three bluestones that leads from the driveway to the rear deck.

Bluestones for this path have fewer imperfections than ones on the front walk (though they are similarly thick), and while functional through most of the year, the heavily shaded path can be treacherous when damp. Stones follow the slightly sloping grade, and fortunately the path is short, with a side exit to a circular patio just before the slope becomes most hazardous.Stream

This is a route taken frequently with an armload of something (usually plants) headed into the rear garden, and is the path most often taken by visitors. Just below the round patio is a narrow crossing of a section of the two level pond that sits beneath the rear deck, and then stone steps descend to a lower patio (the colorful one with broken flagging). The steps are remnants of stone brought in from a Canadian source, and I figure that the nearly black, glossy stones are basalt. The five steps are the last of the stock, and with broken edges the stones were purchased for an excellent price, I recall. While the basalt stones do not match any others in color, the broken, but functional steps perfectly suit the look of the garden, where nothing is perfection.Stone steps

The narrow crossing of the pond is another story, a gap of no more than twelve inches that has caught the foot of many visitors who have not yet learned a critical lesson of this garden. Watch where you step. At one time, a light illuminated this cross over, but with few visitors (and fewer after dark) the light has not been repaired for years after the bulb went out, or the transformer has blown, or whatever the problem is.Hosta and nandina along a path

Other, more narrow paths, are laid with a single width of irregular (rather than cut) stones, and often are partially covered by arching hostas or yellow leafed Forest grasses. Liriopes and Mondo grasses, and in one spot rhizomatous stems of sweetbox grow between stones. All of this is disturbing to my wife, who prefers clean lines, and in some areas is fearful that a large leafed hosta might hide a large black snake. Certainly, this has happened a time or two, though I exaggerate for her benefit.

A path that winds from the front door, along the far side of the house, to the rear garden, tells the tale of the progression of the garden over decades. Here, are three separate paths, one added to the next with different stones as sections of the garden were added. The exact timing is foggy, but the newest path is now at least a decade old. All display slumping stones with ever expanding joints, and stones that settled and now are covered in silt, and by debris washed over in the latest rain storm.

Ivy, hosta, and ferns border this bluestone path.The ivy is regularly pruned by my wife to keep it from growing over the stones.

These are paths, not presumed to be walks, with only the requisite that they lead from one area to the next above the slop or mud or decaying leaves. Footing can be (and often is) uneven, and while visitors are forewarned, the stones permit the gardener access while dragging a minimum of debris into the kitchen. This is more trouble than snakes.

Deer in the autumn garden

With a one acre garden chock full of flowers, berries, and leafy treasures, I am pleased to do my small part to feed the neighborhood wildlife. Like it or not, and I don’t, the koi pond should be mentioned for attracting a variety of herons and snakes looking to feast on frogs and small fish. While the gardener can plant to attract bees and butterflies, some wildlife is enticed to visit despite his best efforts, and in recent weeks there have been more than the usual visits from our local deer population.

Why? In the hot and dry late summer many of the garden’s hostas took a premature turn for the worse. So, in August I quit spraying the deer repellent that very successfully encourages them to go elsewhere to snack. The result has been predictable.

Halcyon hosta eaten by deer while Frances Williams has barely been touched. The last deer repellent was sprayed in early August, and with drought damage in late summer it did not seem worthwhile to spray again. Deer will eat their favored hostas, and all will be fine in the spring.

Halcyon hosta eaten by deer while Frances Williams was barely touched until a few weeks later. The last deer repellent was sprayed in late July, and with drought damage in late summer it did not seem worthwhile to spray again.

With the last repellent application in late July, it was about six or seven weeks before the first signs of grazing. First were small leafed hostas, while larger leafed Frances Williams and others were ignored. But, over several weeks deer became bolder, and perhaps less discriminating, munching on hostas along the front walk before moving on to larger leafed varieties. With winter dormancy imminent, this was not a bother, and the progression from one variety to another has been interesting. Until.

To my thinking, the roughly corrugated leaves of Oakleaf hydrangea should not be appetizing to deer, especially as they turn in autumn. Wrong again.

To my thinking, the roughly corrugated leaves of Oakleaf hydrangea should not be appetizing to deer, especially as they turn in autumn. Wrong again.

While there was no concern for the hostas this late in the season, one thing led to another, and a few nibbles of hydrangeas turned to defoliation of lower branches Oakleaf hydrangeas and azaleas. This will not matter much, but along with leaves a few too many branch tips have been chewed off, and spring flower buds of azaleas have been lost. The next thing, I’m certain, will be the aucubas and camellias,which are only bothered in mid winter if I’ve missed one in spraying. So finally, I was spurred to action.

The usual double dose of repellent was sprayed, and I suspect this will be the last of the problem until spring, when the decision must be made when to spray to catch new growth as it opens.