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.


A beautiful day for getting outdoors

The sun is shining after several chilly, rainy days, and the weather has turned for the better. In the cool morning, deer and rabbits were seen at the edges of the garden. The koi pond is home to a variety of creatures, but until this afternoon I was unaware that there are now at least three turtles, and three or more Northern Brown water snakes. With a warming sun, all have come out to play.

In recent weeks I’ve plugged crevices between boulders that line the pond in hopes that the single snake would give up and possibly relocate to one of the neighboring wetlands. This was, of course, before others were seen this afternoon, and now I’m losing hope that I can discourage this growing family. The snakes are more a nuisance than a danger, though my wife disagrees.

In the short video, one of the smaller snakes moves across the pond, and then into the Pickerel weed, sweetflag, and yellow flag irises of the pond’s filtration area (below). The snake can be seen reacting to one of the large koi, but koi and the pond’s few large goldfish are not bothered at all by the snake’s presence. 

The filtration area has become a dense thicket, and yellow flag iris (Iris pseudoacorus, below) is invasive if allowed to escape, so I carefully monitor the overflow of the pond. In the koi pond the iris seeds into every damp nook and cranny, so it must be chopped out on occasion so that it does not overwhelm vigorous, but less aggressive Japanese irises (Iris ensata). In the gravel filled filtration area, Pickerel weed threatens the invasive yellow flowered iris, and I would not be terribly disappointed to see it disappear one day.

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.


Baby Jacks

Recently, I extolled the virtues of hellebores, and the profuse numbers of seedlings that require occasional thinning out, but also encourage sharing with other gardeners. Today, I’m pleased to report tiny seedlings that I am quite certain are from Jack-in-the-Pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum and others, below) planted in recent years. To protect the little treasures until they reach a stage where there are sufficient roots for transplant, I’ve dragged my wife over to show her the crevices between stones, to tell her not to pull seedlings that are not weeds as she relentlessly prunes and plucks to keep the garden’s paths clear.

While hellebores can occupy several square feet of space once mature, Jack-in-the-Pulpits grow more upright and take up very little space. In this jumbled garden, plants are expected to grow up through, and to flop over one another, so this is not only allowed, but encouraged. For the gardener intent on neatness, plants that spread aggressively or seed prolifically should be discouraged, but not in this garden.

A Jack-in-the-Pulpit has seeded into this clump of Tiarella. The tiarella slowly spreads, but there are numerous seedlings of Jack-in-the-Pulpit that will be transplanted as soon as they reach viable size.

I am delighted that the variegated Solomon’s Seals (Polygonatum odoratum var. pluriflorum ‘Variegatum’, below) have spread more than expected this spring. I’m not certain how these could possibly fit into a more formal garden, but there’s no formality here, and I’m intrigued to try other cultivars that look interesting in photos. Some can grow quite large, it appears, and these interest me in particular. Oddities such as these attract the gardener to specialty nurseries, many operated by plant explorers who have found these on some faraway mountain, and who could care less if there’s any commercial appeal to their finds.

Variegated Solomon’s Seal has filled in nicely this spring.

Native wood poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum, below) have continued to spread in the dry shade beneath towering maples and tulip poplars, with new plants appearing scattered by twenty paces. I’m uncertain how these manage to find their way uphill, but I’ve no complaint and if one should appear where it’s not wanted I suspect these are easily removed. While the flowers are short lived, the mounding foliage is interesting enough. These give the appearance of being well placed by the gardener in small areas of open ground, but their placement is purely a matter of natural opportunity. While wood poppies are ideally planted in damper soil, I suspect that maple and poplar leaves left to decay have greatly improved the top layer of soil in this area.

Certainly, Robb’s or Wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae) is likely to be considered a weed by some, but I am continually impressed that it surges ahead through dense, shallow  roots to cover open ground. No doubt, some would consider this too aggressive, but in moderately dense, and undoubtedly dry shade, it has spread to cover a few hundred square feet, though it carefully winds around clumps of ferns and plum yews. On occasion when a stem appears between stones in the path, or elsewhere where it’s not wanted, these are easily snatched out.

Cypress spurge (Euphorbia cyparissias, below) is reviled as invasive, but planted alongside a stone patio by the koi pond it has been pushed to the side by seedlings of Espresso geranium (Geranium maculatum ‘Espresso’). Probably, no gardener would curse a lovely native such as the geranium, but this shows the relative nature of invasiveness. Here, the spurge is the victim, geranium the bully, and happily I transplanted a few small clumps several years ago or it could have been run out of the garden.

This cypress spurge claims to be a rampant grower, but now it grows only in gravel filled crevices of a stone patio. A vigorous, dark leafed geranium (Espresso) has pushed it to the margins.

Seedlings of Espresso geranium have overrun the aggressive Cypress spurge.


Native trees for April flowers

Even with lengthening hours of daylight, my morning commute is driven in the dark, with few distractions besides the glare of headlights. At the work day’s end, snarled evening traffic often requires a more circuitous route home, and in early April the drive along winding roads is blessed with numerous redbuds, the occasional serviceberry, and dogwoods ready to burst into flower. Three weeks later, I will be mildly disappointed when the final dogwood blooms fade and the forest turns to lush green foliage.

Early spring flowers are often delayed for days in this cool, low lying garden, and while dogwoods approach peak bloom in the neighborhood, ones in this garden are a week behind. Redbuds are at their peak, and the top branches of the serviceberry that stretch into the sun are flowering, while lower branches are a few days off. Whatever the gardener’s opinion of native plants, and just as with non-natives there are good, poor, and unexceptional choices, there should be little argument that the three trees flowering along Virginia’s roadsides are splendid choices for the home garden.

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

The native redbud is a wonderful tree, growing wider than tall, with delightful blooms in early spring and large, heart shaped leaves. Ideally, redbud will be planted with protection from the late afternoon sun, but trees will thrive in medium shade or full sun. Redbuds and dogwoods do not tolerate damp soils.

In recent years two long established, red leafed ‘Forest Pansy’ redbuds (above) in the garden have been lost, one to poor drainage and the other was crushed when a maple in the forest was toppled in a December ice storm. This spot was becoming too shaded, and though redbuds are an understory tree, they are found at the forest’s edge and prefer a part day sun. ‘Forest Pansy’ is a superb tree, but locating it with just the right degree of sunlight so it turns red, but doesn’t fade in summer’s heat, is a challenge.

There are green and red leafed weeping forms of redbud, which have the advantage of not consuming as much space as the typical wide spreading trees. The green leafed ‘Lavender Twist’ was a recent casualty of over planting, lost beneath a more vigorous purple leafed smoketree.

While fewer gardeners prefer yellow leafed trees, and many suspect that these will fade in the summer sun, ‘Hearts of Gold’ (above) and the more recent introduction ‘Rising Sun’ hold up well in the heat. Unfortunately, ‘Hearts of Gold’ has been overwhelmed by a neighbor’s Bald cypress, and though it survives it is hardly seen. The two redbuds that remain are the variegated ‘Silver Cloud’ (below), which is uncommon in garden centers, but much appreciated in this garden. 

Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)

While redbud and dogwood have a typical, single trunk form, serviceberry (below) is often multi trunked, and even if maintained as a single trunk it will sucker, wanting to be a tall bush. To my eye, this moves it to the edges of the garden, and here it is planted to overhang a small pond at the forest’s edge where it receives a bit less sunlight than ideal. While serviceberry is included in lists for edible landscapes, I have never seen a fruit on this long established tree. Still, it is an excellent tree, perfectly suited to this informal garden.

Dogwood (Cornus florida)

While the native dogwood can fall victim to a variety of ailments, too much is made of this, I believe, for it is an exceptional, and usually long lived tree. Too often, a killing anthracnose (Discula destructiva) is credited for the demise of local dogwoods when the fungus is only a problem at mountain elevations. Certainly, leaf spotting, powdery mildew, and cankers are nagging problems, but dogwoods in this garden have annual bouts with each, and have survived for nearly three decades so far. New dogwood introductions promise spotting and mildew relief, though these varieties are new enough that they remain uncommon in the market.

For the gardener concerned by disease problems, hybrid dogwoods that flower two weeks later (‘Celestial Shadow’ dogwood, below, flowering late April to early May in this garden), and Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa, flowers in mid to late May) are resistant, and vigorous growers. The ideal planting, I think, is to plant one or more of each so that there are dogwoods, redbuds, and serviceberries flowering from early April into June. 




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.

Halfway to spring

While leisurely strolling through the garden on a warm early February afternoon, I noted the appearance of allium and narcissus foliage, which is unsurprising with the mild temperatures of the past few weeks, and not anything to be concerned about. While foliage now peeks several inches through leaf clutter, a year ago growth was considerably more advanced (with color showing) by the last week of January, when it was then buried under a few feet of snow. With that far from ideal circumstance, little damage was done, though a few narcissus flowered meekly several weeks after the snow melted. Growth from the same sturdy bulbs is now poking up beside a stone path in the side garden (below), so as expected, there was no long term ill effect.img_0827

This recent mild spell has spurred a few scattered blooms on periwinkles (below) and an early flowering spirea, which is hardly unusual and also no cause for concern as long as growth doesn’t proceed much further. A year ago, it did, and the deep snow was somewhat of a blessing, insulating from the short period of cold that followed.Periwinkle


Flowers of hellebores (above), witch hazels, mahonias, Winter jasmine (below), and snowdrops are just about where the gardener expects they should be at the start of February. Some are flowering, with others just beginning, and I sympathize with the gardener who must wait out the last half of winter without the encouragement of at least a few scattered blooms. A few paperwhites, orchids, and forced branches of pussywillow brought into the kitchen are helpful, but they’re not nearly as satisfying as flowers in the garden. I’m not keen on strolling on a breezy, twenty-five degree afternoon, but happily, there have been few of those, and in recent weeks I’ve spent more time outdoors than usual, though little in labor preparing the garden for spring. That time will be here soon enough.Winter jasmine

Gardeners are very aware that long term weather forecasts are less than dependable, perhaps more reliable than ones made by large rodents, but a few degrees can be the difference between rain, and ice or snow, so daily and long term forecasts are watched closely, if only to reassure that no severe weather is in the works. Forecasts of mild weather seem too good to be true until they’re here, and here’s another one. If temperatures don’t turn too cold, this could be one of the rare late winters when Winter daphnes (below) and paperbushes are flowering before the end of February, which is as good as it gets in the winter garden.Winter daphne