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

Diane and Jelena

In this first week of February, ‘Diane’ (below) and ‘Jelena’ witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia) are beginning to flower, and again I realize that I did not plant another ‘Arnold Promise’, as claimed, to replace an old timer lost a few years ago to ever increasing dampness along the southern border of the lower rear garden. Perhaps this newest witch hazel was unmarked, and certainly it was not flowering at the time, but whatever, I purchased the wrong plant, so now there is a second ‘Diane’ in the garden, which poses no problem except that space must absolutely be found for ‘Arnold Promise’.Diane witch hazel

While the Vernal witch hazel is a marvelous tall shrub with excellent fragrance, it is most distinguished by small flowers in January when little else is flowering besides the various mahonias (Mahonia x media) that are typically fading by mid month. Several attempts to purchase the late autumn flowering, native Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) have failed due to incorrect tagging, which is only occasionally a problem, but not unusual with confusion between Vernal and Common witch hazels that are similar in appearance.

Jelena witch hazel in late February

Jelena witch hazel in late February a year ago.

The hybrid witch hazels (‘Diane’ and ‘Jelena’ in this garden, with hopes that ‘Arnold Promise’ can soon be added) display much larger flowers than the Vernal witch hazel, and often blooms will carry from early February until the first warm spell in March. With a diminished sense of smell I am in no position to compare scents of one to the other, but on any still winter afternoon there is no mistaking the fragrance as I walk through the rear garden. While this might not be a big deal in April or May, in the winter months flowers and scents are greatly appreciated.

The first color showing on paperbush flower buds will arrive somewhere between late January and the first of March if buds are not damaged by cold.

The first color showing on paperbush flower buds will arrive somewhere between late January and the first of March if buds are not damaged by cold.

In this so far mild winter, I again look forward to early flowers on paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha), uncommon, but marvelous shrubs. After recent winters when temperatures dropped several times below zero, flower buds were lost and considerable dieback required severe pruning of branches. But today, I expect to see the first glimpse of color in the next week. Folks with keen senses note the pleasant fragrance of paperbush’s flowers, but this one escapes me. The flowers are more than enough to substantiate inclusion in the garden, though its wide spread will not work in many gardens. References note a tidy three by three (or four by four) feet spread and height, but several in this garden have grown to six feet tall with a spread of ten feet or more.

In this photo, paperbushes flower into early April, though in many years flowers first appear in February and are long gone by late March.

In this photo, paperbushes flower into early April, though in many years flowers first appear in February and are long gone by late March.




Final conclusions

This very unscientific research, based entirely upon casual observation, is concluding nicely, and perhaps the last phase to measure the reaction of squirrels to being shot in the hindquarters by BB’s will not be necessary. Time spent by neighborhood squirrels at our birdfeeder has steadily declined with a switch to sunflower seed treated with hot pepper sauce, and now to safflower seed, as suggested by a reader in Haymarket, a few miles up the road from here.

Redtailed hawk

The hawk is back, after a short absence. A few days earlier, one of our regular squirrels made repeated attempts to bypass the hawk to get to the feeder, without success.

While banging on windows and loudly shouted threats of violence did little, the pepper treated seed was moderately effective, discouraging several regulars, and shortening the time at the feeder for the few stubborn holdouts. While a redtailed hawk (above) proved most effective, warding away squirrels, but also birds, a more complete deterrent was desired, and after several days it appears the answer could be safflower seed.

Cardinal in weeping dogwood

A male cardinal waits for its turn at the feeder.

Yes, squirrels sampled the new seed, but seemingly found it undesirable, cutting short their stays at the feeder, and then not returning except one that partially dismantled the feeder in hopes that choicer seeds must be hidden within. The smaller safflower seeds tumbled from the open window of the feeder into a mound on the ground below. Now, cardinals inhabit the feeder while chickadees forage on the ground, and no squirrels have been seen on this pleasantly chilly afternoon. Somewhat curiously, no bluejays have been observed at the feeder since the change in seed, though they seem to come and go and very probably will return.


One of several hellebores flowering in late January.

In the surrounding garden, the effects of recent mild temperatures are readily apparent, with many early snowdrops and hellebores (above) coming into bloom, and buds of hybrid witch hazels beginning to open to join the earlier flowering Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, below). While cooler weather is forecast, the lack of extreme cold will encourage flowering to progress.Vernal witch hazel

Prospects for February are excellent. Without squirrels at the feeder, my wife will be happier, and possibly the  kitchen will be more peaceful without the banging and shouting. And, the gardener will be enthused further by the increasing numbers of blooms.

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.

Winter, and my dull prose

I regret that too often my dull prose does not adequately depict the beauty I see in the garden. I suspect that I am too literal, and certainly not inclined to romantic descriptions. Even as the eye witnesses extraordinary beauty, I am incapable of finding the proper words to express this. (Photos, I hope, minimize this failing.)

In the stillness of the winter garden, there is wonder in the leaf bud of the hornbeam, or in the swelling flower bud of Dorothy Wycoff pieris (below). While this hardly compares to any corner of the garden in mid spring, there is cause for joy in the garden through any day of winter.Pieris Dorothy Wycoff starting to flower in mid March

Form and structure become primary in the garden devoid of blooms except for remnants of late autumn flowering mahonias, or in a spell of winter warmth, the occasional bloom of a camellia. By mid January, there will be fragrant, ribbon-like flowers of the earliest of the witch hazels (below), and if the winter is not severe, snowdrops, hellebores, and paperbushes will flower not long into February. Now, the gardener must appreciate detail of buds and bark that are overlooked through much of the year.Arnold's Promise witch hazel in mid February

I have just begun to regularly fill the bird feeder, so squirrels no longer must fend for themselves. The feeder does not deter their frequent visits, so birds get their opportunity only after squirrels have had their fill. My wife objects to feeding squirrels, and how can I disagree, with damage that was done while they sheltered in our attic over several years. She bangs and yells from the kitchen window to shoo them away, which they do for minutes, until they scramble back along branches of a Japanese maple, to the pendulous dogwood, and back to the feeder that hangs on a lower branch of the tree lilac.Squirrel on the birdfeeder

I don’t mind the squirrels so much, as long as they stay out of the attic. I don’t believe that attracting them to the feeder will necessarily encourage them back into the attic. I hope not to go through that again, and since they are not easily discouraged from feasting on sunflower seeds, I might as well enjoy their antics.