Progress with new plantings

A considerable number of plants were transplanted in late winter. Expanded planting beds in the rear garden, and cutting into the already small section of lawn irked my wife, though I believe that now she approves of the new plantings (of course, she refuses to admit it). All plants that were moved are doing well, or well enough, though leaves of the Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica, below) have been red for weeks.

This is a bit concerning, certainly a sign of stress, though it is encouraging that no leaves are dropping. Perhaps the stress is related to the deluge of rainfall through May and June, and less to do with the transplant that was accomplished in early February with a five inch deep freeze in the ground. The giant ice cube (the tree) was moved from a spot that was far too shady, where it was once planted for lack of a better place, into an area of nearly full sun that should be more ideal, with the additional purpose that it would soon shade an Autumn Full Moon Japanese maple that has struggled and would never thrive in the summer sun.

A tree peony, catmints, and native carex were planted on the side of the ironwood that will turn eventually from full sun to part shade, and a small, red flowered paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha ‘Akebono’) was planted on the side that will remain sunny. I’ve been tempted to fill open spaces beside the paperbush (with another peony?), but I know well from several yellow flowered paperbushes (above) in the garden how quickly the shrub will grow. So, for now a few dark leafed heucheras are planted in the bare ground that can easily be moved some day. Pieces of vigorously growing sedums have been transplanted in recent weeks to cover the edges of the planting beds, and a week of severe heat has not done them in as I feared was inevitable.

With most of the garden mature, it takes a little getting used to having to wait a few years for things to fill in. This will test my patience, but I figure if I can hold off planting through next spring there should be enough progress to keep me satisfied.


For better and worse

In a diverse garden where no insecticides are used, the interconnections of every level of wildlife become more apparent. Or at least, I presume that interactions occur, and why wouldn’t they? There is no doubt that the number of birds has increased over the years as the density of trees and shrubs has increased, and Japanese beetles (below) and various chewing caterpillars seem fewer. I suppose the two must be related.

Every summer, Japanese beetles chew Ostrich ferns in part sun while other ferns, and ones that are more shaded are not bothered at all.

I notice that the caterpillars have not defoliated the Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) this year. Each of the past few years the tree has nearly been stripped of foliage, but no caterpillars were seen this year, which is probably a good thing since the leaves of the tree are noticeably smaller. I presume that a vigorous tree like the Catalpa can be stripped of leaves annually and not suffer, but this can’t be so. It’s likely that caterpillars will be back some time in the future, so this year is the one when the Catalpa can regain its vigor.

It’s been a few years since the redbuds (Cercis canadensis ‘Silver Cloud’, below) have been partially defoliated, which typically begins in mid summer (now), but today I see no sign of the tiny tent caterpillars. The first few times the caterpillars appeared I was concerned, but the defoliation didn’t get too far along until mid September, a few weeks before leaves would be dropping anyway. So, I concluded this was not a big deal. 

I am not observant, or patient enough to witness birds eating caterpillars or beetles, but of course they do to some extent. A necessary part of this equation is that the gardener must be willing to suffer through some damage from insects, and in this large garden there’s always another tree or another flower to distract from the few that are less than perfect. Here, the trade off is an easy one.

The swamp milkweeds (Asclepias incarnata, above) are in full bloom, so an infestation of aphids (below) is not far off. I have little doubt that aphids will not have an off year. As long as there are milkweeds, aphids will be here to cover stems. A few years ago, a beetle appeared that made a small dent in the population, but there were far too many and a few weeks later the damage was done. Certainly, there are non lethal methods of getting rid of aphids, but I’m not going to pick them off or drag hoses a couple hundred feet to knock them off the milkweeds, that are past bloom, and why bother? Probably, I should chop the stems and toss them in the compost pile before they turn brown, but it doesn’t hinder the milkweeds’ growth for next year, so I’ll observe, and maybe the beetles will be back again.

Attention deficit

I am, at least, partially aware of my weaknesses, and others are frequently pointed out by my wife. One that I am particularly conscious of is poor attentiveness. If I’m not constantly reminded, I’m likely to forget what’s planted where, so bulbs are in constant peril of damage as I enthusiastically fill a gap that’s already been filled, though not with foliage at the moment.

A month ago, I noticed a strange speckled growth in the mound beside the summerhouse, nearly in the spot where a poorly performing dwarf spruce was cut out over the winter. It seemed unlikely it could be something that remained long dormant in the spruce’s shade, but I couldn’t recall planting anything, and why would I plant here anyway? The area is already overgrown, thus the reason for the spruce doing poorly.

Whatever this was, it was clearly planted, and it took a few weeks before it became clear that this was a pineapple lily (Eucomis bicolor, above), and another week later, a second. I checked back on my January order, and three were planted, though I have no clue where the third is. Maybe the three were planted together and one didn’t make it. In any case, this pineapple lily is growing just tall enough to rise above the jumble of low foliage, and it appears that this location might be a good one.

Sparkling Burgundy pineapple lily and Oakleaf hydrangea

If so, this will be the only pineapple lily that’s growing without overhanging foliage that encourages spindly growth and spotty flowering. Several ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ (above) were rescued, I hope not too late, from beneath low arching branches of an Oakleaf hydrangea for about the tenth straight year. Perhaps I’ll learn someday to keep the lower branches pruned back early in the year, but probably I won’t.

A plume poppy (Macleaya cordata, below) once filled the space of a hundred square feet or more between yellow tipped cryptomerias (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Sekkan-sugi’) along the property line in the rear garden. As many plants with yellow foliage do in this area, the color on new growth is evident only for a short period before it fades in our summer heat, but over a few decades the cryptomerias have grown considerably to crowd out all but a small area of the plume poppy, which is practically a weed. Weed or not, it can’t take the competition from a large evergreen, so here are the remnants, poking from under one cryptomeria, but behind a shrub (Deutzia) so that it is seen only if you’re looking for it.

Perhaps I’ll transplant part of this clump later in the year. There are a few spots that might work if they’re not too wet. Otherwise, it won’t be more than another year or two before it’s gone, so moving it is worth the risk. If I remember.

Early summer and heat’s on the way

Few daylilies remain from days when dozens were scattered through sunny parts of the garden. I fondly recall a large, white flowered variety, but not its name, or why I let a dozen cultivars fade and disappear. I now regret the lack of attention.

Certainly, other plants have come and gone as the garden has matured over three decades from mostly sunny, to only a few spots where the sun peaks in. With most, there was an opportunity over several years to rescue them to move to sunnier environs, but there were either few spaces available, or the plants lacked the favor to motivate transplanting.

The old standard ‘Pardon Me’ is the most exciting daylily remaining in the garden.

The wonderful thing about the garden is that few tasks must absolutely be done today, and some must not be accomplished this year, or even next. But, for every task that has been set aside without an issue, there’s another that hasn’t worked out so well. I don’t know that I’ve gained any urgency as I’ve become more experienced (older), but there are more regrets over lost opportunities that were hardly given a thought years ago. Today, I see a splendid, tall stemmed daylily in the garden center, or in a catalog, and I’m discouraged thinking back over ones that I neglected and lost. So, now there are a few handfuls remaining of the most basic daylilies, and the more exceptional individuals are gone with no plans for additions.

Mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla, above) are at their best today, aided considerably by our late spring deluges. Mopheads have been disappointing in recent years due to fluctuations in late winter temperatures that encouraged new growth, then damaged it with blasts of cold. Slightly less showy lacecap (below) and Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) clearly have a sturdier constitution, so these have not suffered noticeably as temperatures change from seventy to twenty degrees in early spring. 

Overly lush Mophead hydrangeas are likely to wilt over the next week as summer temperatures rise into the mid-nineties. Adequate soil moisture remains, but soft wooded hydrangeas are prone to afternoon wilting, which is worrying, but rarely amounts to anything.

Snakes, again and forever?

My wife warns that it is incorrect to kill snakes that have taken residence along the margins of our koi pond, but still she wants to be rid of them, by violence or persuasion, she doesn’t care. I remain conflicted. The Northern Brown water snakes are a bit of a nuisance, causing me to be overly cautious weeding stilt grass that invades clumps of irises where the snakes reside. Certainly, there’s no issue with the occasional fish they snatch since there are another hundred or more, but there is an uneasiness around the pond that is less than ideal.

The Northern Brown water snake is sunning on the step down into the pond where we feed the koi.

Generally, I prefer to let nature take its course with minimal interference. This constructed garden attracts diverse wildlife, which is appreciated, so if Japanese beetles or caterpillars munch a few leaves, there are plenty more. While no pesticides are sprayed, I spray a repellent to discourage deer, though this harms no creature except deer burn a few additional calories moving on to the next property.

Japanese stilt grass can be seen growing at the water’s edge. If there is a better habitat for snakes, I don’t know where.

Eventually, I’ll get around to pulling the stilt grass, but probably long after it’s dropped seeds for the next crop. I’ll do some stomping around before I do much reaching into the iris clumps, so perhaps this will be enough of a warning that the snakes will go off to the other side of the pond. If I was as brave as I claim, I’d snatch them up and relocate them down the road, but that’s a bit much for me. Mostly, I fear being startled and falling head first into the pond. Not that there’s much danger involved, but I’d prefer to stay upright and dry.


While considered, no decision has been made whether the purple (pink-purple, my wife tells me) flowered coneflower seedling will be permitted to remain, intertwined as it is with ‘Pow Wow White’ (Echinacea purpurea ‘Pow Wow White’), though I lean towards doing nothing (as usual). The white coneflower seems vigorous enough to stand the competition, and into its second year the combination shows no signs of decline.

I should not suppose that it is common knowledge that seedlings often do not replicate parent plants, and here is clear evidence. The white coneflower is a variation of the typically purple flowered Echinacea, and while a seedling of ‘Pow Wow White’ might occasionally be white, most will be purple. I’ve seen purple flowered seedlings from the red flowered coneflower ‘Tomato Soup’, which unfortunately faded and disappeared along with seedlings as the garden became shadier. A second white coneflower, ‘Coconut Lime’, pokes out from beneath a gold needled cypress so that seeds fall onto a stone patio, where they fail to germinate. Other purple flowered seedlings have popped up in spots where they are welcomed.

The combined white and purple flowers look slightly unnatural, somewhat similar to the horticultural havoc created when dissimilar stems are grafted onto a single tree. I’m not above such things. In fact, I’ve espaliered a three-in-one apple to the wall of the garden shed, regardless that such certain-to-pollinate combinations seem a crime against the randomness of nature. The coneflower combination though, is a perfectly natural combination that could, and probably does occur somewhere in the wild.

Strawberry begonia (Saxifraga stolonifera has spread to grow in a narrow area of gravel and soil on the other side of the shady creek. I would have figured that nothing would survive this location, so this is a particular bonus.

I’m very much in favor of plants that spread from seed, or in the case of ferns, from spores. So long, that is, that seedlings are not inclined to take over, and I suppose there have been a few of these through the years. But, most seedlings are easily controlled, and several have spread into spots where I couldn’t have chosen a better plant. And, they’re free.

Sporelings of Japanese Painted and Sensitive ferns appear throughout the garden. Here Sensitive fern is growing between stones in gravel at the edge of this constructed stream.

I do dread the annual invasion of seedlings from red maples from the forest that borders the garden, but the only other real nuisance seedlings in the garden are from the Golden Rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata, below). I can’t figure how the seeds are spread so far through the garden. I’m certain that thousands are plucked every year, with most in close proximity to the tree, but others on the far side of the house. I can live with any number of coneflower seedlings, but the Rain tree is just a weed.

A splendid place to garden

The sheltering effect of shade is readily apparent in the garden following a dry week after a particularly rainy period. Fortunately, temperatures in this rain-free week remained mild, and again we are headed into a rainy spell (hopefully, a short one). The lack of extreme heat should preclude damage to plants that are pumped up due to excessive moisture, but already ones in sunny spots have faded slightly.

The Japanese garden at Bloedel Reserve

I have just returned from a week in the northwest, two days touring gardens on the Kitsap Peninsula and Bainbridge Island west of Seattle, then business in the Portland area. The weather was delightful, and the gardens splendid despite an unusually dry period that stressed some full sun plantings despite irrigation that is necessary through typically dry summers in this region.

Gardeners are constantly aggravated by weather, and certain that another region must be superior. While I am quite content with my Virginia garden, I admit envy that several treasures that struggle in our heat thrive in the relative coolness of the northwest.

But also, I realize a difference in the shade of towering firs and the shallow rooted maples and tulip poplars that crowd the margins of this garden. In many spots along this forested border, a planting hole can be difficult to carve out between roots.

Paris polyphyllum

While mayapples (Podophyllum) and Jack-in-the-Pulpits (Arisaema) grow natively at the edge of this garden, none grow as plump as ones in the garden of Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island. Waxy bells (Kirengeshoma palmata, below, and K. koreana) thrive, but I have struggled growing Paris polyphylla and Rodgersia (above), which are robust in these gardens. I find small solace that Bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) grows with more vigor in this Virginia garden, and while Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa) thrive on both coasts, our native dogwood (Cornus florida) is dependent on the heat of the east. No doubt, there are others that prefer our climate and year around rainfall, and probably some share of northwest gardeners would like to escape damp, gray winters.

A visit to exceptional gardens is inspiring, though I am uncertain whether to redouble or abandon efforts to plant southeast Asian natives that fill these gardens. Perhaps a few more mayapples and trilliums will find their way into the garden, and I must expand the selection of Solomon’s Seals (Polygonatum, below). While I am fortunate to have discovered (after considerable trial and error) plants that tolerate this shallow rooted, dry shade, I must probe for shaded areas with deeper soils to plant more treasures.