Japanese maples in summer

I’m not complaining, but without question, the peak period for Japanese maples is spring when foliage colors are most vivid. July brings a stark contrast, and while a collector can excuse maples that fade from this peak in summer’s heat, gardeners with more limited space and budgets must choose more wisely. There are no ugly maples to my thinking, but the gardener is advised not to be seduced only by brilliant spring colors.  

Gwen’s Rose Delight Japanese maple (better known as Shirazz) has faded typically in the late spring heat. Green leafed maples show little difference in full sun, but ones with colored leaves (other than green) are best located with protection from the afternoon sun.

The cream bordered leaves of ‘Gwen’s Rose Delight’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Gwen’s Rose Delight’, aka ‘Shirazz’, above in early May and late June) are extraordinary for sixty days if there is not an extended spell of May heat. This spring, the period was shortened by ill timed rainfall that spotted leaves, and in early summer leaves have faded typically to remind the gardener that he must enjoy this maple while its going is good. Now, and through the remainder of summer, ‘Gwen’ is a tree that is likely to disappoint.

Floating Cloud Japanese maple (Ukigumo) in April.

The Floating Cloud maple in shade still shows much of its variegation, while two in more sun have faded to green.

For years I sought a reasonably sized Floating Cloud maple (Acer palmatum ‘Ukigumo’, above), and now there are three in the garden in various sunlight exposures. The first was planted into mostly full sun, and after a brief period of delightfully colorful leaves in spring, it faded to green. Two others were planted with varying degrees of shade, and only one with no direct sunlight shows any variegation by early summer. Probably, I should be disappointed, but I’m happy to have found an ideal situation for the one tree.

Pink new growth fades on Butterfly by late spring, but the variegation does not fade, even in full sun.

In the heat of a Virginia summer, variegated and red leafed Japanese maples fade to varying degrees, with ones exposed to late afternoon sun fading most. Newly planted maples fade more, long established trees less. In addition to considering the mature size that a Japanese maple will grow to, the gardener should also locate a maple with sun exposure that will bring out its best color.

The Autumn Full Moon maple struggles a bit in more sun than is ideal. Hopefully, this will not be so bad as the young tree matures.

Bloodgood, and other red leafed Japanese maples fade from their spring color.

Green leafed maples such as Viridis change little through summer.

Leaves of the Fernleaf Japanese maple do not change until they begin to show autumn color in late summer.

Two weeks away from the garden

Drought or deluge, there is no doubt that the garden will change significantly while I travel on business for two weeks. Changes are likely not to be apparent to a visitor, but hours of weeding will be required to catch up, and more hours will be spent catching up on flowers that are opening (and ones that will be fading).

Flowers of Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) are fading. In two weeks the remaining flowers will be gone.

While bees are frequent visitors to Butterfly weed, butterflies are more rare, even with abundant numbers of Tiger swallowtails in the garden.

Before I leave, weeds have been plucked , and while I cannot claim that there are none, the garden is as weed-free as it will ever be in early summer. That will change, of course, with newly germinated seedlings lurking just below the surface, and after two weeks the result will be distressing.

I suspect that any gardener is disappointed to miss a single of the garden’s flowers, and as I prepare to leave there are emerging flowers that will have faded upon my return. Others, such as ‘Gilt Edge’ toad lilies (Tricyrtis formosana ‘Gilt Edge’, above), will be the first of many flowers to come.

I will miss the flowering of Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora, above) by a day or two, and while there is a bit of color showing, the short lived blooms are likely to be fading upon my return. A chance seedling growing at the far end of the garden in swampy ground beneath a river birch (Betula nigra) is more deeply shaded, so it is not likely to flower for weeks. This buckeye, planted in shade of the Bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla), but with a bit more sun, has grown vigorously, and its flowering will put on a show that I am disappointed to miss.

The flowering stalks of Pineapple lilies have nearly reached their full height, so flowers will open in the next week.

Crocosmias are beginning to flower, and with luck will be in full bloom when I return.

Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) has just begun to bloom, so beetles and bees will continue to visit for many weeks.

Joe Pye weed is beginning to flower. Seedlings grow in gravel at the edge of the koi pond, attracting dozens of swallowtails.

Pistachio hydrangea started late after damage in a late freeze, so the first flowers will arrive in late JUly.

The advantage of shade

A frequent complaint of gardeners (among a multitude of others) is that shade prohibits growing one thing or another that would prefer more sun. Certainly, I would be happy to tack on another half acre of open and sunnier space, and while I have more than my share of issues to whine about, rarely will I complain about too much shade. No, I cannot grow tomatoes, which I did twenty some years ago until Japanese maples, dogwoods, and redbuds (and others) I planted took hold. There are times I regret not being about to walk out back to pluck a warm tomato, and blueberries are spotty, but mostly I’m delighted that much of the garden is shady, particularly as we head into the summer months and seemingly endless days of high humidity and ninety five degrees.

Sweetbox, hostas, and Japanese Forest grass thrive along this stream tucked beneath towering maples and tulip poplars.

The few sunny spots in the garden shows some signs of stress after only a few weeks of warm temperatures, but shaded areas appear much the same as a month ago when temperatures were cooler and rainfall plentiful. Mosses along the shaded stream just behind the house remain green through the heat, while mosses covering boulders surrounding the sun drenched koi pond fade quickly between periods of rain. While most hostas in the garden are located in shade or part shade, the few in more sun show their displeasure in July and August, and this is reason enough to be happy for the shade, even if a few flowers must be done without.

When moss finds a happy home you’ll know it. It remains green through cold and drought, and spreads to cover porous objects in its path.

Carex and Great Expectations hosta thrive in this shady spot.

With abundant rainfall through late spring, Oakleaf hydrangeas have grown and flowered vigorously. Most hydrangeas prefer a few hours of sun, and flowering is more abundant with more sun.

Cinnamon fern grows between Oakleaf hydrangeas




The garden’s paths

I don’t mind a path through the garden that is lawn, any variation of leaf or wood mulch, gravel, and hardly mind areas of bare soil, though more than once a ruckus has been raised when clumps of mud are dropped onto the kitchen floor. Of course, it was my wife who dictated long ago that stone paths be laid through the garden.

The stone path is bordered by hostas, Japanese Forest grass and sweetbox.

Good design requires that paths be at least three, and preferably four feet or wider to accommodate two people side by side, but stone paths in this garden are generally one stone in width, and as narrow as a foot and a half, though most are likely to be a bit wider. The bluestone paths to the front and back doors (below) are wider, five feet in the front and three in back, but in the garden the intended purpose of paths is only to keep me out of the mud. Nothing more, and since visitors are infrequent there is no reason to construct paths wider than necessary.

The bluestone path leads past Ostrich fern, hostas, and pieris to the rear deck.

I whine loudly, and often, that my wife insists that foliage not obstruct the narrow paths. She has butchered too many of the garden’s inhabitants, most recently a spiny leafed mahonia that leaned over the stone path that parallels the left side of the house. Admittedly, passing by the mahonia could be hazardous, but I advised that it would be better if she did not come this way around the house. It is not an unreasonable request, I think, but now the mahonia is unsightly.

The wide path below the stone retaining wall for the koi pond drains overflow from the pond as well as from the upper garden.

Unfortunately, my wife’s career leaves her at home through most of the summer, and without proper supervision I cringe when I return home each evening to see ferns and hosta leaves in the garbage. My constant critiques have, I think, improved her pruning so that occasionally I cannot tell where her day’s work has been performed, but the thought of her prowling the garden with pruners in hand is unnerving.

A stone slab crosses this narrow creek, bordered by sweetbox, hostas, and Arborvitae fern (club moss).

I see no value in pruning stems or leaves that arch over the garden’s paths. I dislike straight lines or clean edges to any paving, and if I must walk around or push through rain soaked leaves, I don’t much care. Only a time or two have black snakes been encountered beneath large overhanging leaves of hostas, and though my wife discovered two mating just outside our basement door recently, once they were spooked both disappeared and have not been seen since. A couple harmless snakes are no good reason to carve up good plants.

Hostas, toad lily and periwinkle border stone steps that climb from one patio to another, crossing one of the garden’s ponds.

This spring I have noticed several areas where roots of a blackgum and various maples and tulip poplars have surfaced to cause path stones to wobble. I don’t worry about this for myself. The paths have always been uneven, and strolling the garden a person should be looking down at plants instead of gazing at clouds or looking to identify woodpeckers that are inevitably in nearby trees. Again, if there were more visitors, and happily there are few so that maintenance can slip on occasion, there might be a higher standard for the paths. But, mostly it’s just me, and if a few wobbly stones discourage my wife from being in the garden, well, I’ll somehow make do.

Peacock spike moss and hellebores border the shaded path.

Bluebeard and early summer blooms

The yellow leaves of ‘Worcester Gold’ bluebeard (Caryopteris clandonensis Worcester Gold’, below) fade in summer’s heat, though they remain brightly colored in late June. Despite the inevitable heat of July, the contrast between the foliage and early blue flowers will remain delightful.Improved versions of ‘Worcester Gold’ have been introduced, but I’ve not been overly impressed that ‘Sunshine Blue’ or others are significantly better. The color of the coarse leafed caryopteris ‘Hint of Gold’ holds up better through the summer, it flowers several weeks later, and probably any gardener will be satisfied to have one or more of each. I’ve planted single plants, but have been impressed with mass plantings of green or yellow leafed caryopteris. 

Peruvian lilies (Alstroemeria ‘Tangerine Tango’, above) are best know as fillers in cut flower arrangements, but cold hardy varieties flower for extended periods in full sun. I’ve experienced poor results in part sun and more shade, with no flowers and weak growth, though even in sun its stems are floppy. I was surprised a few years ago that deer pushed through furniture on a slate patio to nibble a few flowering stems that were not treated with a repellent, but otherwise the lilies are sturdy and dependable bloomers.

The variegated blooms of ‘Pistachio’ (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Pistachio’, above) are unquestionably out of the ordinary in a world of blue flowered mophead hydrangeas. Probably, I’ve located ‘Pistachio’ in a less than ideal exposure, so it grows more slowly and flowers more sparsely than other mopheads. 

As with too many plants in this garden, I do not recall the variety of this splendid pink deciduous azalea. It flowers several weeks after other azaleas have faded, and is more fragrant than yellow, orange, and red azaleas that bloom earlier. The tall clump of azaleas has grown together so that one shrub is indistinguishable from the other, but this does not adversely effect flowering.

A white flowered coneflower (Echinacea) has grown vigorously since it was moved from beneath a taller shrub into a sunnier spot. Before, it was a bit disappointing, but the problem was where I planted it, not the plant. Certainly, this happens frequently, with one plant or another taking the blame rather than the gardener who planted it. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten the cultivar, which is not unusual for me. Another white, ‘Coconut Lime’ (below) is planted beneath a low branched shrub beside the koi pond, and miraculously it survives and flowers dependably. But, this is a different and more typical coneflower bloom. Maybe ‘White Swan’, though that doesn’t ring a bell. I really should keep better records.

There are handfuls of daylilies (Hemerocallis ‘Pardon Me’, above) in the garden, all very standard varieties, and not ones that I take great pride in collecting. All are long blooming types, which was the intention for fillers at the edges of planting areas. I am occasionally tempted to plant ones with tall flowering stalks, but the mood passes quickly.

The tall growing Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata, above) attracts more bees than butterflies, though the abundant local population of swallowtails are frequent visitors. A year ago, aphids covered seedpods that followed flowering, and though I suspected the milkweeds would survive the invasion, I was uncertain. I won’t be surprised when aphids arrive this year, or when beetles follow to feed on them. Certainly, this is evidence that natives are no more or less susceptible to injury from pests than non-natives. Bugs must eat.

Trees in the early summer garden

In recent weeks, the stone path beneath the Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia, below) has been littered with white flowers. The tree is situated between evergreens and a wide spreading Japanese maple so that the top third is in full sun, while the lower portions are shaded. The effect is that the sunny parts begin to flower ten days earlier than parts in shade, with flowering extending through much of June.

Stewartia is slow to become established, though not nearly as slow as several European beech (Fagus sylvatica) that seemingly stood still for five years before growing. After a few decades, a purple leafed beech and a green leafed version with pendulous branches have grown huge. While stewartia is a smaller tree, it has also grown to maturity. Unfortunately, it is crowded by neighbors so that it cannot be fully appreciated for its blooms, or its autumn foliage color and attractive bark.

Less appreciated is the Goldenrain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata, above) with a more prominent position along the driveway. Goldenrain’s foliage is pleasant enough, though lacking in significant autumn color, and flowers are quite nice if the gardener is not aware that each is pollinated to develop a seed that is guaranteed to germinate. Perhaps if the goldenrain was planted with lawn beneath, it might not be such a pest, but with fertile soil the gardener must pull many thousands of seedlings. I’ve been tempted many times, usually while plucking a few hundred seedlings, to chop it out and be rid of it, but it is the rare gardener willing to part with a mature tree.

The foliage of ‘Celestial Shadow’ dogwood (Cornus x ‘Celestial Shadow’) is distinctly variegated through the spring, but this begins to fade in the first summer heat. The yellow-green variegation of ‘Cherokee Sunset’ (Cornus florida ‘Cherokee Sunset’, above) is similar, and this color holds better if the foliage remains clear of powdery mildew, which is rarely the case. With one of each in the garden, the easy choice is ‘Celestial Shadow’, which is a more dependable bloomer and not troubled by the various maladies that afflict our native dogwoods.

The Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa) faded from bloom earlier in June, but two with variegated leaves, ‘Samaritan’ and ‘Wolf Eyes’ (above) stand out in the garden. Probably, variegated trees (as well as shrubs and perennials) can be overdone, but to my eye that point has not been crossed, no matter what anyone else might think.

I am equally enchanted with two variegated ‘Silver Cloud’ redbuds (Cercis canadensis ‘Silver Cloud’, above) which have managed through multiple minor surgeries following snow and ice damage. Pendulous branching hides these defects, and along with the dogwoods the variegated foliage stands out even if there was not a single flower in the garden through the summer. Improved cultivars of the redbud feature more colorful foliage, and I would be tempted by a recent introduction, ‘Carolina Sweetheart’, if a spot opened in the garden.



Six weeks of irises

One iris or another has been flowering since early in May, first Yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus) and Blue flag (Iris versicolor), then a succession of Japanese irises with the last blooms of the splendid ‘Lion King’ (Iris ensata ‘Lion King’, below) fading in this third week of June. 

A sturdy Japanese iris seedling appeared earlier in spring in a dense clump of rushes at the edge of the koi pond. In recent days there have been two flowers (below), one opening as the other faded. The flowers are not fancy in coloration compared to ‘Lion King’, but I’m happy it’s here and hope that it survives the competition of the rushes.

Certainly, it is near impossibility to extricate the iris from the tangle of rushes. The mass is planted into small river gravel placed between small boulders in several inches of water at the pond’s edge, and beyond the precarious positioning at the edge of the pond there is the family of Northern Brown water snakes to consider. And, if the probability of capsizing into the pond and being attacked by snakes is overlooked, the tangle of roots is likely to be too thick to successfully tease apart to extract the iris. It must fend for itself.

The Yellow flags have become too vigorous in parts of the pond, partially displacing several clumps of more desirable Japanese irises. In another year the less robust Japanese iris might not survive, and the same complications apply in separating one iris from the other. I will try to cut foliage off the Yellow flags, but many of the thick clumps are cover for our expanding family of snakes, so I make no promises.  

In the gravel filled filtration area of the pond, another favored snake habitat, vigorous Yellow flag irises are losing in competition with even more vigorous Pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata, above). But, Pickerel weed does not wander to the far reaches of the pond, so I’m not concerned at all that some or all of the Yellow flags will be lost in the process.