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.

 

Where are the snakes?

Our snake is back. Two Northern Brown Water snakes terrorized the pond a year ago, or at least the two unsettled my wife, and made me watch every step along boulders that border the pond. The koi (and a few goldfish) seemed indifferent to the snakes. In this large pond, perhaps they are not a threat to fish, and feed only on frogs and other small creatures.

In late summer, the larger of the two met an accidental demise when struck by a stone I threw to shoo him away from the small boulder my wife stands on to feed the koi. Through my college days I was a pitcher with a pretty fair fastball, but never hit a thing I was aiming for, so I claim this as an accident. In any case, with one snake gone, the other disappeared for long stretches, and it was hoped he had moved on. Unfortunately not, but I have a plan to seal the voids beneath the boulders, and without this shelter our snake will either have to move on, or move beneath another boulder on the far side of the pond. There is hope for a peaceful resolution.

Irises, pickerel weed, and sweetflag are planted in the shallow filtration area of the koi pond. Japanese irises and rushes are planted in pockets between stones that line the pond’s edge. The pond attracts all sorts of wildlife,and the gardener has little choice in the matter.

A small turtle has been seen perched on stones at the far edge of the pond. Perhaps this is one from eggs that were laid just outside the pond in summer last year, though my wife and I checked regularly and did not see evidence of the newborns. Turtles are occasionally seen in the pond, and usually stay for a few days and move on. This one is welcome to take up permanent residence.

There are approximately 157,238 tadpoles in the pond, though my count could be off by a few. The koi seem to pay no attention, and what happens to so many, I don’t know, though if all survived the planet would quickly be overrun by amphibians. Certainly, Northern Brown snakes could have something to do with diminishing the numbers.

The edges of the koi pond are planted with a variety of Japanese irises.

Beginning late summer last year, the koi would rarely come up to feed, which I attribute to any of a number of potential predators that are regularly seen. Blue herons and smaller green herons are regular visitors, and hawks circle overhead constantly, on the lookout for the variety of prey that the garden attracts, I’m sure. Raccoons visit at night, often disturbing a sealed container of koi food, and I suppose that one or all of these pose a threat that would discourage koi from spending much time in shallow water.

The pond is four and five feet deep over most of it, and there are dozens, possibly over a hundred fish, so with the exception of a few koi with distinctive coloring, I would not miss one or many. I am pleased, however, that in recent weeks they have resumed greeting me as I approach the pond, knowing that a few handfuls of tasty pellets will be tossed out.

Every plant has its place

Certainly, every plant has its place. It is unfortunate that too often the gardener discovers one thing or the other that is planted where it doesn’t belong. A plant is too close to the house or walk, in too much or too little sun, or where its unruly habit detracts. With this experience, the gardener must then decide to move the offending plant, chop it out if it has grown too large, or live with it.Winter jasmine

The second half of winter is the period when Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) is appreciated, when a profusion of yellow blooms brightens the gray landscape. If the mounding and wide spreading shrub is planted on a bank to prevent erosion there is reason to be thankful beyond this six week period, but the jasmine’s wildness should be considered prior to dropping it into a well mannered garden.

I make no claim that any part of this garden is well managed, so a bit of wildness is hardly noticed by visitors, but Winter jasmine pushes the boundaries. Not to make too big an issue of it since I don’t intend to do anything about it, but planting it in another spot would have been a better idea. The arching branches tumble down over a slope of boulders beside a waterfall in the koi pond, which sounds wonderful, but extensive pruning is required a few times each year to keep the falls visible.Winter jasmine

Perhaps there are a few things that I do well, but regular maintenance is not one of them, so the stems regularly cover the falls, and root into the stones so that it is a terrible mess once I get around to cleaning it up. Of course, this is entirely the result of a lack of foresight, and no fault of Winter jasmine, which is lovely in winter and utilitarian when used properly. Here, is not its best use.

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.

The garden’s paths

Over the better part of three decades, a hodgepodge of stone paths has been constructed to wind through the garden. In some instances, paths preceded the planting of the garden, which was then planted after ready access was available.Bluestone path

None of the paths is artfully constructed, and even the more formal path to the front door is a combination of pockmarked Pennsylvania bluestones, bricks salvaged from some long forgotten project, and concrete ornaments that are now mostly obscured by moss. The flawed pieces of bluestone were once selected for their greater thickness and weathered appearance, instead of more perfect stones that might outshine the new garden.

While a small patio in the rear garden of thinner, but colorful flagging from India or China (their origin is unclear, but not American) suffers from several cracked stones, the bluestone path shows no more than a few chipped corners, and except for mossy joints, it appears as weathered today as twenty-seven years earlier.The path beside the stream

Besides the front walk, no paths adhere to landscape architectural standards that suggest width should accommodate two adults side by side, at least four feet and preferably five feet wide. At most, paths are three feet in width, and this is only a single path of two by three bluestones that leads from the driveway to the rear deck.

Bluestones for this path have fewer imperfections than ones on the front walk (though they are similarly thick), and while functional through most of the year, the heavily shaded path can be treacherous when damp. Stones follow the slightly sloping grade, and fortunately the path is short, with a side exit to a circular patio just before the slope becomes most hazardous.Stream

This is a route taken frequently with an armload of something (usually plants) headed into the rear garden, and is the path most often taken by visitors. Just below the round patio is a narrow crossing of a section of the two level pond that sits beneath the rear deck, and then stone steps descend to a lower patio (the colorful one with broken flagging). The steps are remnants of stone brought in from a Canadian source, and I figure that the nearly black, glossy stones are basalt. The five steps are the last of the stock, and with broken edges the stones were purchased for an excellent price, I recall. While the basalt stones do not match any others in color, the broken, but functional steps perfectly suit the look of the garden, where nothing is perfection.Stone steps

The narrow crossing of the pond is another story, a gap of no more than twelve inches that has caught the foot of many visitors who have not yet learned a critical lesson of this garden. Watch where you step. At one time, a light illuminated this cross over, but with few visitors (and fewer after dark) the light has not been repaired for years after the bulb went out, or the transformer has blown, or whatever the problem is.Hosta and nandina along a path

Other, more narrow paths, are laid with a single width of irregular (rather than cut) stones, and often are partially covered by arching hostas or yellow leafed Forest grasses. Liriopes and Mondo grasses, and in one spot rhizomatous stems of sweetbox grow between stones. All of this is disturbing to my wife, who prefers clean lines, and in some areas is fearful that a large leafed hosta might hide a large black snake. Certainly, this has happened a time or two, though I exaggerate for her benefit.

A path that winds from the front door, along the far side of the house, to the rear garden, tells the tale of the progression of the garden over decades. Here, are three separate paths, one added to the next with different stones as sections of the garden were added. The exact timing is foggy, but the newest path is now at least a decade old. All display slumping stones with ever expanding joints, and stones that settled and now are covered in silt, and by debris washed over in the latest rain storm.

Ivy, hosta, and ferns border this bluestone path.The ivy is regularly pruned by my wife to keep it from growing over the stones.

These are paths, not presumed to be walks, with only the requisite that they lead from one area to the next above the slop or mud or decaying leaves. Footing can be (and often is) uneven, and while visitors are forewarned, the stones permit the gardener access while dragging a minimum of debris into the kitchen. This is more trouble than snakes.