Too close to winter

I’ve just returned from a delightful week along the Gulf Coast with daytime temperatures around eighty and few signs of autumn anywhere, much less of winter. I have nothing against winter, except that I’d rather it not be winter, though the cold is clearly necessary to grow the plants I treasure.

I stepped off the plane as the sun set, with temperatures dropping into the low twenties, and already spoiled by my week of tropical temperatures.  A few minutes after I returned home, I was out  on the back patio in the dark and cold dragging pots of agaves and elephant ears into the basement. The sharp spines and heavy, waterlogged pots are the reason this was not done weeks sooner, at our first frost, but with this cold night it was fortunate that I returned home and not a day later.

A week ago, foliage of this lacecap hydrangea was beautifully colored. After two nights in the low and mid twenties, brown leaves hang limply (above).

There was a significant change to the garden after a single night that dropped into the low twenties, but after a second the garden has clearly moved into its winter phase. Leaves of several Japanese maples that typically turn late, instead changed from green to brown overnight. Hydrangeas were green, with some small flowers and a several buds a week ago, but now leaves and flowers have blackened.

While much of the garden is covered by a blanket of fallen leaves, foliage remains on scattered trees and shrubs. Leaves of Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, above) are late to turn, and more shaded shrubs remain green while ones in part sun have begun to change. The colorful leaves often remain into January.

A week ago, I mentioned the varying colors of leaves of witch hazels, and now, after freezing temperatures, the Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, above) has turned to a splendid, rich yellow, with scattered branches of red. While the nearby ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba, below) has recently dropped all leaves, as it does almost overnight, colorful foliage that does remain is particularly appreciated. 

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After the freeze

A single twenty degree night changes the garden. A day before, coneflowers (below), azaleas, camellias (2nd photo, below), and toad lilies were flowering despite repeated frosts and a light freeze a few weeks ago. After this freeze, flowers remain, but in an altered state that shows effects of the cold.

This coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seedling began flowering in early November. Predictably, the bloom is short lived after a typically cold November night.

The garden’s camellias were in full bloom until this freeze. It is likely that flowers will continue through the next month, or longer, with blooms damaging on very cold nights and buds opening after a few mild days.

While some extol the beauties of seedheads and browned grasses, I prefer leaves and flowers to the dormancy of winter. The silhouettes of Japanese maples (below), and particularly of Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’), can be quite marvelous, and colorful berries attract bluejays and cardinals, but these are small consolation.

With recent cold, leaves of the Fernleaf Japanese maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’) have turned mottled colors ranging from yellows to reds.

Paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) holds its deciduous leaves until the first hard freeze. After a twenty degree night, leaves hang limply, and these will soon drop.

Though damaged blooms will not recover, unopened buds of camellias (below) will continue to flower for at least another month, and there could be additional blooms on Encore azaleas. Flowers of ‘Eternal Fragrance’ daphne are slightly damaged in the cold, but there are likely to be more blooms if mild temperatures return.

Though flowers of camellias remain colorful, damaged blooms will fade quickly to brown.

Numerous unopened buds remain on camellias that will flower through periods of mild temperatures.

‘Winter Sun’ mahonia began flowering in late October. Other hybrid mahonias are following, and most will flower into the the new year.

Flowers of hybrid mahonias are not damaged by cold. ‘Winter Sun’ (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, above) began flowering several weeks ago, and ‘Charity’, ‘Underway’, and the newly planted ‘Marvel’ (below) will follow and are likely to flower through repeated spells of cold into the new year.

‘Marvel’ mahonia is a new and welcome addition to the garden. One in part sun begins to flower while another in shade is just starting to bud.

Foliage and flowers of early November

After a lengthy delay through an unusually mild October, leaves of swamp maples (Acer rubrum, below) in the forest that borders the garden have turned to their typical yellow. Selections of this same tree, then called red maple, are preferred by local homeowners for red autumn foliage, but leaf color of most native trees is not so desirable. On a breezy afternoon, leaves fall from the towering trees, and with glowing yellow leaves of thickets of spicebush (Lindera benzoin) also dropping, nearby houses are visible that have not been seen for months.

Following recent frosts and a single freeze, the Fernleaf Japanese maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifloium’, above) is beginning to show color that will intensify in the next few weeks. While other Japanese maples are often splendid in autumn, the Fernleaf is consistently extraordinary.

Seriyu Japanese maple is green leafed until early November.

Viridis Japanese holds its yellow autumn foliage for weeks.

While foliage colors of a variety of witch hazels are usually short lived, this first week of November is their peak. Hybrid witch hazels ‘Arnold Promise’ and ‘Jelena’ (Hamamelis x intermedia) display shades of red and orange, and portions of the vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) turn yellow one large stem after the other until the shrubby tree has turned completely.

There are a surprising number of flowers in the garden for November, many of which have been featured recently on this page. As often happens, there are few strays out of season. The threadleaf spirea ‘Ogon’ (Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’, below) flowers in early spring, but a few November flowers are not unusual. 

The autumn flowering hybrid camellias are at peak bloom, which is rare since flowers times are typically spread over weeks, and sometimes months. A year ago, flowering was particularly disappointing until the unusually warm January and February.

In mild temperatures, Encore azaleas continue to flower. A cold night will ruin flowers, but buds will continue to open with warmer days.

Leaves of Ruby Spice clethra turn to yellow in mid autumn.

Bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) makes an exceptional show in mid autumn,

 

Autumn foliage – better late than never

There is general acknowledgment that coloring of autumn leaves is tardy, and living just off the route taken by many thousands of leaf watchers, I hope that their experiences visiting the nearby Blue Ridge have not been disappointing. Foliage in the garden is also late in turning, and as in every year there are disappointments, though there are sufficient numbers of triumphs to satisfy the gardener.

In past years the Golden Full Moon maple has displayed superior autumn foliage color. This year, none, as leaves dropped early after a dry late summer.

The Golden Full Moon Japanese maple (Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’, above) is often splendid, but most leaves fell early in October with no discernible change in color on one, while a second has been covered by powdery mildew in recent months. Its foliage remains a notable white that catches the eye, but unnaturally so.

Also, several native dogwoods (Cornus florida) have turned much later than usual, and with less intense color, though from the distance of the road I see others in the neighborhood that were also tardy, but more splendidly colored. I’ve recently noted that the red flowering, variegated leafed ‘Cherokee Sunset’, has developed flower buds for the first time in years, and while this event is months into the future it is a worthwhile exchange for slightly disappointing autumn leaf color.

For whatever lacking with the native, the hybrid ‘Celestial Shadow’ (above) colors consistently, though a few weeks later. Chinese (Cornus kousa) and other hybrid dogwoods have not begun to turn, but with recent chilly temperatures that is likely soon to change.

While the Golden Full Moon maple was a disappointment, other Japanese maples are proceeding on schedule. The Fernleaf maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’, above), most remarkable of all in autumn to my thinking, is just beginning to display its mottled combination of colors from yellow to deep burgundy, and Lion’s Head (Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’) and several other Japanese maples are typically slow, with their prime season in mid November still to come.

Oridono Nishiki is a variegated leaf Japanese maple, though this particular tree shows little variegation on green leaves through spring and summer. It’s autumn color is excellent.

This laceleaf Japanese maple had faded through the summer, but it regains its color in autumn.

While reds and oranges are most celebrated, yellow autumn foliage colors range from drab and distressed, to vibrant. Swamp maples (Acer rubrum) of the forest that borders the garden are rarely better in color than a faded yellow, but ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba, below) and Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora, below) are exceptional, glowing yellows.

Fortunately, much of the understory of this forest is covered in spicebush (Lindera benzoin, below) rather than multiflora rose and other invasives, and though red berries have long ago been consumed by wildlife, yellow foliage is a pleasant backdrop to the garden. There will be much more color in this garden through November, much of it a few weeks tardier than usual, but today there is color enough not to be tempted to venture onto crowded highways into the mountains.

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.

Nearly three months of dogwood blooms

For better or worse, this is a garden oriented around trees, and of collections of too many plants that have captured my favor. There are nearly forty Japanese maples, with a few small ones in containers placed on patios, but most nearly mature trees that have been planted over three decades. There are a dozen or more dogwoods, and there would be more maples and dogwoods if space allowed. My wife complains that when she looks out the windows she can’t see the sky, and somewhere out there is a lovely view of the Blue Ridge mountains, but I’m happy to see dogwood blooms instead.

In late May, we are nearing the end of a progression of dogwoods flowering that began with the Cornelian cherry (really a dogwood, Cornus mas ‘Variegata’, above) in early March.  After a two week gap, the native dogwoods (Cornus florida, below) flowered in early April, followed by several hybrids, and now there are a few weeks before flowers of late blooming Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa) fade completely in mid June (or later). By planting as few as three well chosen dogwoods there can easily be flowers for two months, and there are few trees to compare in beauty.

The Cornelian dogwood is unremarkable, except that it flowers in late winter, which could be late February or mid March depending on late winter temperatures. While some late winter flowers are damaged by cold, the dogwood’s have not been injured by temperatures in the teens, and lower. With wide white margins, the variegated leaf version of Cornus mas appears almost white from a distance.

There are several versions of the native American dogwood in the garden that begin flowering in early to mid April, with several seedlings growing at the forest’s edge, and ‘Cherokee Princess’, a vigorous selection of the white flowered dogwood. Another white dogwood might be ‘Princess’ or not, since long ago it was incorrectly tagged as pink, but flowered white. A white dogwood with pendulous branching (Cornus florida ‘Pendula’) hardly makes a show, and if there is a single tree in the garden that could be done without, this is clearly the one. There are many better choices.

I hesitate to recommend against the red flowered, variegated dogwood ‘Cherokee Sunset’ (above), though it has not flowered in the past decade. I suspect it is in damper ground than it would prefer, and though it survives, it barely grows. This, I attribute to a failing on my part, though in the best circumstance it is less vigorous than other dogwoods. Still, its foliage is lovely, and when I’ve seen ‘Sunset’ flowering it is well worth planting.

While the native dogwood is prone to a variety of mildews, cankers, and foliage diseases, ones in this garden have survived with only minor issues for twenty years and longer. Powdery mildew and leaf spotting are regular occurrences in the heat of summer, but other dogwoods cannot match the autumn foliage color and clusters of red berries of the native.

Just as the native dogwood begins to fade, hybrid dogwoods come into flower. ‘Celestial Shadow’ (above, top) and ‘Stellar Pink’ (above) are hybrids that combine the best traits of our native and Chinese dogwoods. Flowers arrive at about the same time that leaves begin to emerge, so flowers have a green backdrop, or in the case of the variegated ‘Celestial Shadow’, a background of green and yellow. ‘Venus’ (below) is a hybrid of the Chinese and Pacific dogwood (Cornus nutallii) that has a similar upright habit to ‘Celestial Shadow’ and Stellar Pink’, but is distinguished by unusually large white flowers.

More than just filling the time period after the native dogwood stops blooming (late April), the hybrids are the most vigorous of dogwoods, and most disease resistant, though Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa) are also very tough. As always, I caution that ‘Stellar Pink’ is rarely pink in my Virginia garden. One in ten years, flowers will be more than a slight blush of pink, but it flowers heavily and this slight failing is no reason for it to be avoided. 

The end of the dogwood flowering season is filled by Chinese dogwoods that overlap with the blooms of the hybrids in mid to late May, with flowers often persisting for several weeks into June in the garden. There are several green leafed Kousas in the garden, with white flowers (‘Galilean’, above) and the blush pink ‘Satomi’ (below) that is slightly more dependable for color than ‘Stellar Pink’. Chinese dogwoods take a variety of forms from tall and upright to spreading habits.

The variegated ‘Wolf Eyes’ (below) is more shrub than tree, and after fifteen years it is barely taller than eight feet, though it is half again as wide. The leaves of ‘Wolf Eyes’ are curled, so variegation is not displayed as prominently as on ‘Samaritan’ (below, bottom), which is also much more upright and vigorous, though it is planted so that its lower branches are shaded so it flowers only on its upper third.

 

The best of the garden

Too many parts of the garden disappoint when photographed. The gardener’s eye compresses the view, while the camera minimizes plants, making only the most congested scenes appear worthy. Yes, there are sheds to crop out of the photograph, along with weeds, broken pots, piles of branches, and shovels left to be picked up another day. But fortunately, there are areas where plants tumble over one another, where lush ferns, hostas, and Forest grass fill gaps, so that a few wider angles of the garden can be shared.

This bluestone path is bordered by Dorothy Wycoff pieris, Ostrich ferns, and a variety of hostas. A tall boxwood stands at the intersection of two paths. Instead of being chopped out when it encroached on the path, it was pruned into a tall cone.

This is not an orderly garden. There is no formality besides a single boxwood that has long been too close to the intersection of two paths. Several years ago it was pruned into a tall, narrow cone (above), and what will happen (very soon) when it grows out of reach to maintain this shape, I don’t know. Otherwise, no pruning is done except for stems of ivies, periwinkle, hostas, and nandinas that stray onto the stone paths. I’m not certain if my wife prunes these to be helpful, or if she’s trying to keep me in my place.

Moss covered stones line the edges of the stream with sweetbox, hostas, ferns, and Japanese Forest grass.

Much of the garden has become shaded after three decades of planting, and I’m pleased that this environment encourages seedlings of hellebores, Jack-in-the-pulpit, ferns, and hostas, many of which are regularly transplanted. Logically, there should be little space available for new planting, but my wife is annually astounded as spots are found for new truckloads.

Sweetbox, Japanese Forest grass, and hostas border moss covered rocks that line the stream. In a few weeks, ferns will arch over the stream. Flowers of hostas and sweetbox are minor attractions to this area, but lush greens and contrasting textures make this my favorite spot in the garden.

A Viridis Japanese maple and Ostrich ferns border this bluestone patio. My wife insists that she occasionally sits on the lichen covered chairs, but I fear the joints have rotted and they’ll collapse under my weight. A few branches have been carved out of the maple’s wide spreading canopy so that the chair is not pushed to the center of this small aptio.

Stone steps curve through hostas, ferns, and periwinkle. The few upper steps are fieldstone, with the lower four black basalt that can be slick when wet.

Acrocona spruce tumbles over a stone wall that retains the lower edge of the koi pond. While the spruce will eventually grow to fifteen feet tall, after a decade it has barely reached three feet, though it has spread much wider.

Seedling geraniums have established at the edge of this stone patio. Gold Cone juniper rises behind it, though in the heat of Virginia its color never reaches the brightness that I see in the lower humidity of the west coast. The pot contains a young Japanese maple planted earlier in the spring.

The color of Gold Fernspray cypress is at its peak in winter and early spring, and it fades slightly in the heat of summer. This blue and yellow variegated hosta fades in a bit too much sun for its liking.

Branches of a wide spreading Viridis Japanese maple arch over the oldest of the garden’s five ponds. It must be pruned every few years so that the pond is not lost beneath its cascading branches.

Irises, pickerel weed, and sweetflag are planted in the shallow filtration area of the large koi pond (about 1400 square feet). Japanese irises and rushes are planted in pockets between stones that line the pond’s edge.

The stone path through the side garden is covered by fallen blooms of Chinese Snowball viburnum.

Hostas and Ostrich ferns have grown to nearly block this path that crosses a narrow section of one of the garden’s ponds. This is a prime target for my wife’s pruners, so I’ll enjoy it while I can.

An accidental triumph of plants that have spread or seeded from their origins. The seedling geranium grows in a gap between stones along with Creeping Jenny.

Silver Edge rhododendron and terrestrial orchids flower in front of Shaina Japanese maple.

A stone frog rests contentedly in this bed of sedum.