More Japanese maples than necessary?

Yes, there are more Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) in this garden than necessary, but there is no need to count. There are thirty, or forty-some, but this is not a contest, and certainly there are gardens with finer and more numerous maples. With plants, I can get a little stupid, but my obsession with Japanese maples is most evident in this acre and a quarter garden.

Seriyu is a vigorous green, cut leafed maple. Branches of two Seriyu planted at the front of the house arch over the front walk.

The front of the house is mostly obscured by two green leafed ‘Seriyu’ maples and a red leafed ‘Bloodgood’, and it’s not possible to see more than twenty feet in any direction in the rear garden without the view being blocked by one maple or several. The driveway is partially obstructed by a wide spreading maple (‘Crimson Queen’) with pendulous branches, with another (‘Oridono nishiki’) overhanging the end of the drive. A green leafed, weeping Japanese maple (‘Viridis’, below) forms a wide spreading canopy over one of the garden’s ponds, and so it goes, one after another. Many maples have been here for twenty years or more, with a few newcomers each year.

The arching branches of Viridis maple form a canopy over this small pond and waterfall.

I hear that Japanese maples grow slowly, but most are vigorous in growth. Viridis maple has spread to more than ten feet wide, though only six feet tall.

None of the maples in the garden are rare, though many are ones that are not commonly found in garden centers, and a few recent additions can be found only from nurseries that specialize in growing small numbers of the hundreds of less common Japanese maples. Certainly, several are cultivars that would not catch the eye of most gardeners, with foliage that is unremarkable, and I suppose it could be argued that leaves of a few maples are out of the ordinary to the point that some might consider them ugly. I don’t.

The Golden Full Moon maple was found in the field of a grower in Oregon who left it behind because its trunk was damaged by rabbits. I was happy to plant the scarred tree. A year ago I planted ‘Autumn Moon’ which is similar and supposedly more sun tolerant.

There are Japanese maples that I’ve paid a small fortune to obtain, though I am notoriously thrifty, and a few that were rescued from trash heaps. For years, I lusted after Golden Full Moon (Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’, above) and Floating Cloud (Acer palmatum ‘Ukigumo’, below) maples, and once one of each of reasonable size was obtained, two others soon became available and were added to the garden. No doubt, this is not a matter of proper garden design, nor of good sense. I suspect that I’m not the only gardener who’s gone off the deep end for something, maybe on multiple somethings as I have.

Foliage color of the Floating Cloud maple changes through the year, from cream, green, and pink on new growth, to more green by mid summer. Trees with more sun exposure fade more to green.

The variegated foliage of Higasayama Japanese maple is striking, but it is also fast growing, which is unusual for variegated maples.

In early spring, I’m enthused as hellebores, witch hazels, and mahonias flower, followed by redbuds, serviceberries, dogwoods, and silverbells, but by mid April I must catch up on every Japanese maple in the garden, every day. With understated, but lovely blooms, and leaves that unfold over hours, or days, there is something to keep me entertained for weeks. Colors of emerging leaves are most intense, and while some maples open without much of a show, others stage a production as they slowly unfurl.

The dwarf Shaina suufered considerably in sub zero temperatures several years ago, but with recent growth the damage areas have been covered. Shaina grows to a low mound, and is not particularly distinctive, but it is unusual.

The Coral Bark maple (‘Sangu kaku’) is unremarkable except for red stems on new growth that are most noticeable when leaves have dropped. A year ago I planted the yellow stemmed ‘Bihou’.

In recent years open space for planting has run short, so now the patios are cluttered with pots of newly acquired maples. Today, most are only a few feet tall, and with an exception or two all are trees that will grow only to eight or ten feet tall. There’s a possibility these could remain in containers for years, but if a hole opens up, they’re ready to fill in. Below are a sampling of Japanese maples in the garden, though not all.

The Fern Leaf maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’) is a wide spreading upright Japanese maple with large leaves. It’s autumn foliage color is the best of all maples.

The finely cut leaves of Linearilobum maples are unusual.

Scolopendrifolium maple has deeply cut green leaves and graceful branching.

Bloodgood is the the standard for red leafed upright maples. It can be found anywhere that maples are sold. In front of the house, Bloodgood has grown twenty five feet tall and wide.

The Butterfly maple is variegated with cream and green, and in early spring some pink. Butterfly grows slowly, and after damage in a late freeze a year ago it has mostly recovered.

Shirazz , or Gwen’s Rose Delight, has cream edges. Variegation is spectacular in spring, but the tree fades in sun and summer color is not so wonderful.

This Trompenburg Japanese maple retains its red foliage even though it is shaded. A nearby Burgundy Lace maple fades more in similar conditions.

Orange Dream, one of the Japanese maples added a year ago. The still small tree will remain in a pot on the patio until a spot is found for it.

Crimson Queen Japanese maple is among the standards of weeping maples. It forms a dense, rounded canopy of finely dissected red leaves. One beside the driveway has topped out at ten feet tall and a little wider.



Strolling the garden with my wife

Yesterday, I accompanied my wife as she strolled through the garden, pruners in hand. Anyone who has followed these pages will be aware of her destructive tendencies, and thus I walked along to distract her and possibly to limit the damage. Along the stone paths, no branch or stray leaf is safe, and she takes particular pride in scalping trailing stems that creep an inch onto the stones. This is not my style of gardening, though admittedly, if she didn’t do the pruning some paths might have disappeared long ago.

Trees and shrubs that overhang the driveway have become a particular annoyance to her, and scars from her pruning are evident along this small section of the garden. I, on the other hand, am quite pleased that arching branches of a ‘Jane’ magnolia and ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maple will finally touch after spring growth across the widest part of the driveway. I am not bothered that local delivery trucks no longer venture down the drive, or that visitors must often make multiple tries to keep a perfectly straight line backing out to avoid a wide spreading, weeping Japanese maple that strays several feet over the asphalt.

My wife does her best (and most destructive) work when I’m not watching, so instead of pruning while on our little stroll, I was fortunate to hear her commentary about every little thing that concerns her about the garden. This is too tall, too wide, I can’t see the sky. Good sport and supportive spouse that I am, I was sympathetic to her suggestions, nodding in agreement (though often with crossed fingers) until we reached the driveway, when she pointed out the butchered growth of a Fernspray cypress and suggested that I remove it to clear a bit of the edge of the driveway, and if not, she’d find someone who would.

The cypress is butchered, of course, because of her attempts to keep the driveway more open, and with the Japanese maple directly across, she figured it safest to chop the heck out of the cypress rather than one of my treasured maples. Happily, my displeasure still counts for something, but of course, I told her there was no way I was doing anything with the cypress. And, with this final suggestion, she went back inside.

Now, let no one say that I don’t pay proper attention while my wife is speaking, or that I don’t consider her suggestions, no matter how impractical or wrongheaded I might tell her they are. Truth is, the misshapen cypress had been nagging at me for a while, and suddenly removing it seemed reasonable. Imagine her surprise when she came back out a few minutes later to see what all the ruckus was about. She caught me in mid cut with the chainsaw, with one of three trunks of the cypress tumbling onto the driveway. To her credit, my wife’s first concern was for my safety as I dodged large falling limbs. The last tree I removed left a large gash in my forehead, which dripped all over the kitchen floor, so I’m uncertain if she was concerned for my well being or her floor. There was, in fact, no danger, and in a short while the cypress was gone, with branches cut up and dragged off the driveway to be hauled off another day.

So, the cypress is gone, along with a dwarf fruiting peach just behind it that once was prized for its garish pink blooms (above), but for too long has been shaded by taller growing trees that surround it, until it finally faded. With the cypress and peach gone, I discovered a tall camellia in full flower that I had completely forgotten about, and the idea began to form on what to do with this new open space. My wife, who didn’t expect that the cypress would ever be removed, had not considered that something else would be planted, but it didn’t take long for her to get the idea. Already, she’s warning me not to plant anything that will touch the driveway. Like I’d ever do such a thing.

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.

Have a plan?

There should be no argument. The gardener is advised to have a plan before visiting the garden center, to go in with a list, if not of specifics, at least one that broadly defines his needs. Perhaps it is enough to think “I need a flowering tree” or “a Japanese maple”, or “a screening evergreen”, and then see what best fills this need when you visit. But, if a list is not made, the gardener is likely to be seduced by lovely andromedas and daphnes, and once he hauls these treasures home, he’ll wonder, “where the heck do I plant these?” I do this all the time.

‘Mikawa Yatsubusa’ Japanese maple is one of three maples purchased this winter by mail order. While I prefer to purchase more substantial trees by shopping the garden center, my obsession with Japanese maples has outstripped the varieties commonly available.

Usually, this ends well, for plants are most often forgiving of being shoehorned into tight spaces, or where the sun is not quite right. Occasionally, I’ll flub this and have to make it right a year later, but mostly plants cover for the idiots who plant them by growing into each other gracefully, and overcoming nuisances of not enough, too much sun, or whatever.

The short list that I’ve jotted down for planting this spring is not likely to be all I plant, but I don’t want to forget something, only to think of it in August and there are no more to be had. Despite a lack of space for anything larger than a small shrub, I’ve already ordered by mail and received several unusual Japanese maples and three small trees. The plan is for these to be planted in containers, to rest on patios until they someday grow large enough to be moved into the garden. That is, if a spot has opened up, and if not, the trees might grow old in a pot on the patio.

‘Carol Mackie’ daphne has wonderfully fragrant spring blooms, but also attractive foliage. Long flowering ‘Eternal Fragrance’ and ‘Summer Ice’ are splendid shrubs that have convinced me to expand my daphne collection.

So, there’s no need to discuss trees further, but there are a few shrubs that I have a hankering for. In recent years, I’ve planted handfuls of hybrid daphnes, which have flowered from spring into autumn, and so far they haven’t been finicky, or at least not much. I suspect a ‘Carol Mackie’ (Daphne × burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’, above), that’s been around for ten years or more might be getting a bit too shaded, or perhaps competition from a slowly spreading sweetbox (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis, below) might be causing it to decline a bit. Just in case, another ‘Carol Mackie’ is on the spring list, to be planted in a slightly sunnier spot without an encroaching neighbor. I’m not sure where, but certainly a spot can be found somewhere in this acre garden.

A grouping of sweetbox has spread slowly in the nook between a small creek and stone path. This spring, I’ll be planting several ‘Fragrant Valley’ sweetbox that are likely to be indistinguishable, but this has become one of the sturdy mainstays to cover shady ground.

If another, or any of a few other daphnes can be found, these will surely be added. I’ve failed a few times with the dwarfish, and apparently very particular Rock daphne, so that one’s out, but any other is a sure thing. And, there’s a new nandina with variegated leaves (Nandina domestica ‘Twilight’) that’s suggested as best in partial shade, which I have bunches of. I don’t expect there will be many of these around, but I only need a few, maybe several, or five. There’s also a curly leafed leucothoe (Leucothoe axillaris ‘Curly Red’) I have my eye on, and a variegated leaf andromeda (Pieris japonica ‘Flaming Silver’, below) to replace one that’s been too shaded for too long. It’s a lacebug magnet, as many andromedas are, but I can’t resist.

‘Flaming Silver’ pieris is wonderful in bloom and in leaf. It’s red new growth is a lovely contrast to the variegated foliage. Color is enhanced with more sun, and ones already in the garden have become too heavily shaded.

And, oh yes, before I wrap this up, I’ve moaned and groaned in recent years that the Winterberry hollies have no berries, and somewhere over the past decade the male pollinator disappeared. There’s no purpose in growing the deciduous hollies without berries, but since they berry in autumn and I’m buying in spring, I’ve forgotten for far too long. Now, it’s in writing, and there’s a chance I’ll remember when I’m in the garden center. If I’m not distracted.


The end of cold winters, forever

In this unusually mild winter, and a particularly warm February, it is unsurprising for gardeners to pronounce the end of cold winters forever, all due, of course, to the warming of the planet. Certainly, I cannot recite numbers to document temperatures changes, but from a gardener’s prospective I can confirm exceptionally mild winters in four of six years. Also through this period were consecutive winters with long periods of below freezing temperatures and multiple days below zero for the first time in a few decades, so while warm winters are not a given, extremes in one direction or the other seem guaranteed.

I am only an observer, sometimes a victim of the cold, and this winter the beneficiary of the unusual warmth, so it is not for me to understand the significance of these extreme variations. Gardeners are prone to expecting the worst, so I would not be at all surprised if next winter swings back the other way, though I acknowledge that the odds favor warmer rather than colder.

The variegated Dove tree is the only of three newly delivered trees that was dormant, though leaf buds are swollen.

The variegated Dove tree is the only of three newly delivered trees that was dormant, though leaf buds are swollen.

A few days ago, I received by mail order three small trees from Oregon that could never be found in the garden center. A month ago, I decided on late February delivery to minimize the chances that these oddities would be frozen in transit, or while waiting for me to put them into pots. I figured that trees arriving from Oregon would be dormant, and was surprised that they were beginning to leaf. Probably, these were growing in a protected structure, a greenhouse or covered house, and now, the challenge will be to protect the fragile foliage from damage until the threat of freeze is past. While recent temperatures have been in the seventies, somewhat colder weather is on the way, and any drop into the twenties will be a problem for the tender leaves.

Orange Dream, one of the Japanese maples added a year ago. The still small tree will remain in a pot on the patio until a spot is found for it.

Orange Dream, one of the Japanese maples added a year ago. The still small tree will remain in a pot on the patio until a spot is found for it.

Three small Japanese maples delivered a few weeks ago are partially submerged in soil in one large container, and besides slightly swelling buds these show no sign of leafing any time soon. For these, I have no concern, and they’ll be moved into smaller pots sometime in the next few weeks. There’s no rush, but the the three newly delivered, partially leafed trees will have to remain protected, probably by moving them back and forth from the slightly warmer garage, and then back outdoors for sunlight.Hellebore

For the over enthusiastic gardener, thinking that spring has arrived, there’s a danger in getting started too early, and probably garden centers will be cautious and not stock petunias or other tender annuals until the time is right. At this point in late winter, there’s no problem in planting woodies and dormant perennials, and recently I’ve planted a few more hellebores. It was, of course, essential to add a few new varieties to the many dozens I’ve already planted, and even if temperatures should drop into the teens, these should not have a problem.Hellebore

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.