Winter jasmine

Better judgment, too rarely exercised in this garden, recommends that I not photograph yellow blooms of Winter jasmine that arch over the edge of the koi pond.

A wide growing paperbush along side of the pond makes viewing of the Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) ever more treacherous, with the route over slick boulders at the pond’s edge narrowing each year. In fact, there is little reason to view the jasmine’s blooms close up since they are unremarkable and scentless, but every flower in winter is treasured, so I’m compelled to get as near as possible.

Inarguably, the unruly Winter jasmine is an excellent choice to stabilize hillsides, and it can be charming as it tumbles over stone walls. But, at pond’s edge I question its value, never mind that it harbors a Northern Brown water snake that has become a considerable nuisance. The jasmine is here to stay, I suspect, since it can be removed only with great difficulty, and with a constant threat of tumbling into the pond.


A winter wildlife update

Squirrels are less frequently seen at the birdfeeder after applying a pepper sauce to sunflower seeds. A year ago, a recommended switch to safflower seed achieved a similar result, but purchasing fifty pound bags of sunflower seeds and the pepper sauce is considerably cheaper. Birds, from my observation, prefer the sunflower seeds.

As is typical when conflicts arise between man and beast, my wife is quite ruthless, and would happily rid the planet of any snake or squirrel that becomes a nuisance. In fairness, squirrels became a considerable problem in our attic for several years, and my wife has had several unpleasant confrontations with a variety of snakes in the garden and by the koi pond. Repeatedly, I advise her that it is probably best that she remain indoors.

I will state for the record that I am the more kind hearted of the two of us, but perhaps it could be argued that I am more likely than my wife to ignore a problem. It is a fact that I will end up being the one who must resolve a squirrel or snake problem, so most vanish into the wild before action is taken.

After failing to spray the late autumn deer repellent a year ago until after significant damage was done, the double winter dose was applied right on schedule in November. Though evidence of deer tracking through the garden is common, I see no damage, and expect none until the initial spring application in April.

I hear gardeners claim that repellents are ineffective, but I’ve found that alternating two types of repellent, or mixing the hot pepper sauce into the repellent every other month, works dependably. The proof, from my experience, is that it’s not unusual for me to miss a plant or two when I spray each month from April to November. When the last application wears off (usually at 5-6 weeks, depending on rainfall), deer find the ones I missed, and don’t bother the rest.

There is a bit of problem down the road, and occasionally in the forest behind the garden, with a flock of buzzards. I know what brings them around, but it seems that they just watch and wait. They’re far enough outside the garden that they’re no more than a curiosity, and even more intriguing are red tailed hawks that perch on the tree lilac branch that holds the birdfeeder. That keeps the squirrels away.

I wonder also, why geese that congregate by the hundreds on neighboring lawns, don’t encroach on our property? There’s not much to the front lawn, and the dogs are long gone, so maybe there’s not enough to bother with. Certainly, I’m not complaining. Perhaps the geese have been alerted to my wife’s reputation.

Cold and colder

In this frigid, snow dusted garden, large leafed evergreens (aucubas, daphniphyllum, and rhododendron, below) curl for protection as temperatures approach zero. Leaves will return to form once temperatures rise nearer the freezing point, and it is likely that there is no long term harm, though Daphniphylum is only marginally cold hardy for this zone, so time will tell. Several mahonias with undetermined heritage and suspect cold hardiness will be watched, though survival of similarly marginal plants can often not be verified until very late winter.

Emerging flowers of Vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis, above), evident with mid thirty degree temperatures a week ago, have folded for protection so that color will not be seen until milder weather returns. Blossoms of winter flowering mahonias (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, below) have curled, though color shows through.

Swelling flower buds of ‘Winter’s Star’ and ‘Winter’s Interlude’, that did not bloom alongside other camellias in recent months, will hold until milder temperatures return. A year ago, the two tardy camellias flowered from January into early March, and though similar weather is not forecast, there are likely to be a scattered few blooms through the winter months.

Damage to flower buds of late winter blooming edgeworthias and winter daphnes is often not immediately apparent, but this recent (and forecast) cold is reason for concern. I expect (and hope) that significant injury does not occur with temperatures a few degrees above zero.

Following a succession of days when temperatures have not risen above freezing, the koi pond is now nearly frozen over except for a small area where water flows in from the recirculating waterfall. There is little danger to the pond’s fish, but I will occasionally monitor the pond’s plumbing, though burst pipes are rare with moving water.

As is typical, bluejays bully for the largest share of sunflower seeds at the feeder, though cardinals manage to snatch a seed or two, and smaller birds scavenge seed that falls to the ground. With seed treated with pepper sauce, squirrels are more infrequent visitors to the feeder than in prior years, though surely chickadees appreciate seed that is sloppily dropped to the ground.


The garden’s ponds

Given the number of, and space in the garden allotted to ponds, there are disproportionate mentions of plants on these pages and few comments relating to water features. Except for discussion of snakes, that is, and after a summer of harassment from my wife, the one remaining Northern Brown is keeping a low profile.

In recent years, Oakleaf hydrangeas and paperbush have grown to overwhelm colorful perennials planted just outside the pond, though Japanese irises remain in shallow water. The changed landscape surrounding the pond is not for better or worse, just different. The current concern is that clear water is now cloudy. Additional filtration is required to take of this.

Probably, many readers would suppose that keeping up with five ponds in the garden, ranging from a hundred to fourteen hundred square feet, would be a full time proposition, even without another acre of garden to care for. Wrong again. Little time is spent maintaining the ponds, most months none, and only in the spring is a quick clean out necessary, though the large koi pond is never cleaned.

Sweetflag, yellowflag, water lilies, and pickerelweed along the pond’s edge

Occasionally, there’s a little something. A pump gets gummed up, or a leaf basket must be emptied. Plants along the edges of the ponds must be managed, cut back in early spring, and occasionally pruned if they become too rambunctious. Sweetflag (Acorus) and yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus, above) can go a bit wild growing in shallow water, and it won’t be long before the vigorous clump of Pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata, below) requires some attention. But this is minutes a year, not hours. By far, more time is spent feeding the koi than maintaining the ponds, much less time than it takes to weed any single area of planting.

However, the koi pond has reached the point that something must be done. The biological filtration that kept the pond clear for years is being overwhelmed by the increased koi population. I’ve resisted as long as possible, but it’s time to invest in more advanced filtration. It’s killing me, but I’ve been forced to add an external filter. Installation is pretty simple, but not inexpensive for this large volume of water.

I’ve little doubt that with the filter hooked up the water will quickly clear up, so I’ll be able to see the koi again, not only when they surface to feed. For the smaller ponds, this should never be a problem, but the koi pond started with ten fish and now there are many, many more, with exponentially more every year. I tried netting and moving some to the other ponds, but it became clear that I can’t keep up. So, I’m not complaining about there being too many koi, but this requires better filtration, and now’s the time.

I’ll report back as I see results.


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.



The best day

My best recollection is that late May into the first week of June is the peak period for this garden, not for blooms alone, for there is no better period than when redbuds and dogwoods (below) flower in mid April, but there is a day when the gardener looks at his creation and considers that it cannot possibly be lovelier than on this afternoon. Probably, this is nonsense, a result of one particular day of cheerfulness and blue skies, and instead of a single day there are days, or weeks when the garden is at its best.

Rarely are flowers of the native dogwood unblemished when observed close up, but from a distance they appear pure white.

The cream bordered leaves of Shirazz (or Gwen’s Rose Delight) Japanese maple stand out above this yellow leafed caryopteris.

Is it possible the garden could be more lush, any green more brilliant, the red of a Japanese maple (above) more splendid than on this early May afternoon? Certainly, several weeks of growth are necessary before redbuds, dogwoods, Oakleaf and panicled hydrangeas are fully leafed to enclose the garden, so neighboring homes can still be seen, though barely.

The splendid variegation of Celestial Shadow dogwood fades by mid summer, but there is no better tree to brighten a dark corner.

Today, as the treasured blooms of native dogwoods (Cornus florida) fade after three splendid weeks, the flowering of hybrids ‘Stellar Pink’ , ‘Venus’, and ‘Celestial Shadow’ (above) overlap, and already flowers of the blush pink ‘Satomi’ and other Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’, below) are evident, though these will take a few weeks to turn from green to white and pink. There will be one dogwood or another flowering from early April until June, and who can complain that only the earliest are natives?

Flowers of the wide spreading Wolf Eyes dogwood are evident in early May, but will not become white for a until mid month or later.

The Red horsechestnut (Aesculus x carnea, below) was planted several years ago, at the time disappointingly smaller than the Seven Son tree (Heptacodium miconioides) that was snapped in a summer storm, but with marvelous blooms. This spring, substantial growth is encouraging, and now I need not make excuses for too much open space surrounding the tree. Yes, it will grow a bit too large, to cast wider shade than the Seven Son, but it should not conflict with two nearby Japanese maples.

Flowers of this Red horsechestnut are carried on low slung branches.

The gardener expects that many of the finest trees flower for short periods, and newcomers are often disappointed to learn that the color of redbuds and dogwoods lasts for no more than three weeks from bud to flowers fading. The flowering period for our native fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus, below) is even shorter, often only a week when the fringe-like blooms are a clear, creamy white. But, an exceptional week it is.  

The blooms of the Fringetree stand above orange and yellow Exbury azaleas.

Yellow, orange, and red Exbury azaleas grow tall in part sun, and are very fragrant.


It has been years since Cherokee Sunset dogwood has flowered, and leaves are often heavily effected by mildew, but the leaves are splendid in spring.

The flowers of Twist Encore azalea range from almost white, to white with purple stripes, to solid purple. This is the most dependable reblooming azalea in the garden.

The new growth of Katsura pieris hides leaves marked by lacebug damage.

Chardonnay Pearls deutzia has become a favorite with masses of white blooms and yellow foliage.