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 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.

Memory lapses

Seemingly, I am incapable of recalling the dates of most events in my life without an unforgettable reference point. I’m quite certain I would not remember when I was married if it was not the year after I began to work full time after college (Egads! In the same place since 1976. It seems like yesterday).

I could go on, but I will not give my wife the satisfaction, and of course, most of the forgotten dates do not relate to the garden. I do recall that our family moved into our current residence in 1989, and the first pond was constructed in the garden within a few years. Additional ponds followed at random intervals, but always when my wife traveled with our boys to visit grandma, or some such journey that I was able to weasel my way out of. Without distractions, ponds were completed quickly.

The garden's first pond is obscured from view by a green leafed Japanese maple with wide spreading, pendulous branches.

The garden’s first pond is obscured from view by a green leafed Japanese maple with wide spreading, pendulous branches.

Ponds two and three were constructed to appear as if they were continuations of the first pond, though other ponds can only be heard and not seen through dense plantings. Stone bridges cross narrow parts of two ponds, and paths connect to a patio which is the only point where the three ponds can be seen at once.

The steam, bordered by ferns, hostas, Japanese Forest grass and sweetbox, winds to a small pond

The stream, bordered by ferns, hostas, Japanese Forest grass and sweetbox, winds to a small pond

A fourth pond was dug just off the front walk in the shade of a dogwood and ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maple, and for a period after there was no itch to build another. But then the timing becomes fuzzy, until by some chance inspiration I began to research swimming ponds, larger, naturalized ponds that one could swim in, or as I envisioned, float in. I can swim passably, but my goal was relaxation, not exercise. I could imagine reclining on some sort of floating lounger on a hot summer afternoon, and so the project was begun, though I’ve lost the reference to when.

After a few years irises and hydrangeas flowered at the pond's edge. In recent years the jungle has become more dense, though the pond is bordered by flowers through much of spring and summer.

After a few years irises and hydrangeas flowered at the pond’s edge. In recent years the jungle has become more dense, though the pond is bordered by flowers through much of spring and summer.

The pond moved from inspiration to planning within hours, and in a few days materials were ordered. As usual, I considered and ignored much of the advice from references, and decided that the pond must include fish. If it seems obvious that this is not particularly sanitary if you’re planning to swim (or float) about in a pond, you’re on the right track. But, I reasoned that people swim in farm ponds, so this couldn’t possibly be any worse.

The koi pond's b

The koi pond’s bog filter is planted with variegated sweetflag, yellow flag iris, pickerel weed, and water lilies.

And, this is how a swimming pond became a koi pond, as a handful of koi became a few dozen, and then a hundred or more. The koi are, of course, impossible to count or even to get a close estimate of the number as they swim excitedly as I approach, waiting to be fed. As you would expect, this far from sterile environment attracted frogs, then turtles, and finally, snakes, as well as a variety of predators, birds and dragonflies.

Today, hydrangeas, irises, and rushes fill voids between boulders that line the koi pond. Until a few years ago I could walk the entire edge of the pond, but now this is impossible.

Today, hydrangeas, irises, and rushes fill voids between boulders that line the koi pond. Until a few years ago I could walk the entire edge of the pond, but now this is impossible.

For several summers I drifted about on my inflatable lounger, with koi startling me from an afternoon nap as they brushed past. On occasion, one of the pond’s snakes would circle around, but this was a peaceful coexistence until the koi became so numerous that I could not rest undisturbed. So, the lounger was retired, replaced by a green recliner that sits high and dry at the pond’s edge.Oakleaf hydrangeas and Japanese irises border the koi pond.

As yellow flag and Japanese irises, sweetflag, waterlilies, and pickerel weed have grown to fill the pond’s filtration area and spaces between stones at the pond’s edge, more critters have found homes in this nearly wild habitat. This includes an unknown number of Northern Brown water snakes that are harmless enough, except that they lurk beneath boulders, and my wife has declared that they must go, or at least that they must be endlessly harassed. A groundhog has moved into the cavity beneath the shed beside the pond, and hawks circle overhead, waiting to dive for any unfortunate fish or frog that carelessly ventures into the open.

Though I cannot recall if the pond was constructed seven or eight, or twelve years ago, it was once a peaceful paradise. Today, it’s survival of the fittest.

The spring tour

Occasionally, a reader suggests that I should include a few scenes from the garden rather than photos only of individual plants. A time or two through the year I will do this if I can figure angles that edit out the piles of brush, and my old sailboat that is hopelessly landlocked by the garden. I suspect I’m a week early for hostas and ferns to fill in properly, but the weekend weather is so wonderful that I’ve found any excuse to be out in the garden.

Today, I’ve taken too many photos to fit on this page, so further into the week there will be updates with Japanese maples and a few of the flowers in the garden that have not been covered in recent weeks.

This is the first of five ponds to be constructed in the garden.

This is the first of five ponds to be constructed in the garden. It has been rebuilt several times, but now it will stay as is. The green leafed Japanese maple that overhangs the pond must be trimmed every year or two or the pond will be completely obscured. My son helped earlier in the spring to level a granite bench that sits with this view. It was badly tilted so that it was nearly impossible to sit on, but it was far too heavy for me to manage alone. Pond construction manuals instruct not to locate ponds near trees since leaves will foul the water, but the ponds in this garden have been dug under trees, or trees have been planted to surround them.

The creek was the third pond constructed on a weekend when my wife was away visiting family

The creek was the third pond constructed, on a weekend when my wife was away visiting family. There is no waterfall. The creek begins bubbling up through small boulders, then it winds along a stone path beside the edge of the forest. Carolina silverbell and serviceberry overhang the creek and small pond as well as hostas and ferns. Several volunteer hostas grow in the shallows, and of course the scene is lush due to moss that has spread to cover the stones that line the pond’s edge.

The stream orients just below the large stone slab that begins the path. Sweetbox has spread to fill this area, and as slow as it is to get started, now I must prune it to keep it from between stones and so it does not overwhelm Japanese Forest grass and Carol Mackie daphne.

The stream orients just below the large stone slab that begins the path. Sweetbox has spread to fill this area, and as slow as it is to get started, now I must prune it to keep it from between stones and so it does not overwhelm Japanese Forest grass and Carol Mackie daphne.

My wife i

My wife insists she would sit on these lichen covered chairs if the Japanese maple and ferns did not overhang them. While the wood of the chairs has not rotted, I suspect the soft wood dowels that hold it together are not so sturdy. Occasionally, I will set my camera or pruners on the chair, but nothing heavier. The green leafed Japanese maple is the one that overhangs the pond on its other side. It has grown at least ten or twelve feet wide, which remarkably has created few conflicts.

The Ostrich ferns were borrowed from damp shade

The Ostrich ferns were borrowed from damp shade at the forest’s edge.They have spread vigorously, and my wife is continually cutting them out to keep the path open. The red leafed Japanese maple was planted a year ago, and this winter the top few feet were killed, so it is barely taller than the ferns. The hostas are only getting started. The one with white variegation is the old Medio-variegata hosta that is too old fashioned and not grown any longer to my knowledge.

The gold fernspray cypress, hostas, and winter jasmine tumble over

The gold fernspray cypress, hostas, and winter jasmine tumble over stones at the koi pond’s edge. Soon, yellowflag, then Japanese iris growing in the shallows will flower.

Cypress sprurge creeps between boulders and beneath yucca beside the koi pond.

Cypress sprurge creeps between boulders and beneath yucca beside the koi pond. Butterfly Japanese maple grows through the colony of yucca. This somewhat accidental combination summarizes my garden style, just plant and everything will work out in the end.

Something was planted

Something was planted in this spot of gravel beside a stone patio, but it was not the cypress spurge or the geranium. Cypress spurge is reputed to be invasive, but seedlings of ‘Espresso’ geranium have nearly overwhelmed it. I don’t know if this color combination works for others, but this accidental composition suites my eye perfectly.

My seventeen feet of heaven

One seventeen foot stretch of the garden is of incomparable lushness and beauty. I walk these six paces frequently, though I take my sweet time about it, and six full paces are more typically a dozen shuffling steps. Often, a few moments are spent kneeling to enjoy the scene longer and from a lower perspective. It is difficult for me to believe that I’ve created such a paradise, though quite a small one, and perhaps not worthy of even piddling mention alongside masterpieces of the gardening world.Stream planted with ferns and hostas

While overjoyed by this seventeen feet, the eighteenth and nineteenth are not so bad, and smaller spaces throughout the garden bring similar satisfaction. In all, there is no place I would rather spend time than in this garden, though there are times when weeds have grown tall and thick that I could be persuaded otherwise.Hosta and nandina along a path

No doubt, the garden has its flaws, which my wife is happy to point out. Unsurprisingly, her criteria and mine are poles apart. I relish the garden’s wildness, and if paths are partially (or mostly) obscured by oversized leaves so that small frogs must leap from their cover as I approach, this is my joy. Yes, paths are too narrow, and stones unstable. Some stone walls were constructed two decades earlier, and now they have fallen into disrepair. Snakes lurk between and beneath the stone slabs, and though I’m not deathly fearful, I would prefer to skip this confrontation, so the walls will remain as is.Hostas and Forest grass

Plants are too often planted too closely, but for a few errors, this is how I prefer the garden. One plant flows into another, and in this seventeen feet there is not a spot of bare earth until winter. There is water, a narrow stream that winds between moss covered stones into dark, deeper pools alongside a path of well worn fieldstone. Water, stone, and plants, I cannot imagine an ingredient that is missing.Linearolobum Japanese maple

A mix of large and small leafed hostas border the path and stream and several hostas emerge from gravel at the pond’s edge. Overhead, branches from a red leafed Japanese maple with deeply cut lobes, and from a serviceberry arch so that visitors must duck slightly to avoid wet foliage after a rain. The deep, damp shade ensures that hostas and Japanese Forest grass thrive, and that a slow growing colony of sweetbox could be encouraged to grow through cracks in the path to be almost invasive.Japanese forest grass along a stream

The stream and plantings would not be nearly so pleasing if not for the thick covering of moss. Surprisingly, at least to me, there are people who object to moss, and there are potent products intended to eliminate it from the garden. Certainly, I understand keeping a paved surface free of moss, though I don’t care to, but for me any moss covered surface is improved immeasurably. If I could cover all the ground beneath plants with it, certainly I’d be quicker to remove leaves in late autumn.Mossy rocks in the shady stream

The hostas that grow here are a combination of ones that I’ve planted, some that have grown from seed, and others that reverted from one form to another. This creates a mishmash of sorts, but hostas are quite forgiving so that variations of size and color usually blend successfully, no matter the skill of the gardener.

Japanese Forest grass is another that blends harmoniously in just about any shaded area. It is slow to establish, but patience is rewarded by a mound of golden foliage that brightens any shaded area. In dry shade Forest grass is not so content, but along this seventeen foot length between the coolness of a stream and fieldstone path, it flourishes.

Don’t sit!

My wife says the chairs are fine, but I wouldn’t dare sit on them (I suspect she’s after the life insurance. I wore out my welcome years ago). They’ve been in the garden for twenty years or more. They’re not teak, but some other type of exotic, rot-resistant wood that was going around at the time. I’m fairly confident that the exotic wood has not rotted, but the dowels that hold it together are pine or poplar, or some other soft wood that is bound to be fully rotted by now. I’m afraid that the only thing holding the chairs together is gravity, and if my wife trusts sitting on them, be my guest.

For as long as I can recall the chairs have just been ornaments. At one time there was a small bench alongside on the patio, but the dwarf blue spruce grew to be not-so-dwarf, so the bench was moved elsewhere. I don’t recall where because it soon fell apart and was discarded. When it first fell to pieces I remember nailing it back together because I couldn’t replace the rotted dowels, but that didn’t last, and the bench is long gone.

This patio is rarely used except to walk through, and even when the bench and chairs were new my wife and I rarely sat on them. Why? The small, circular bluestone patio is on the top side of the first of the ponds I built. I planted a Japanese maple and other stuff above the pond, so that from the patio the water can’t be seen and the waterfall can’t be heard. It should be a cardinal rule of pond construction and design that a seating area must be below the pond so that the water and waterfall are easily seen when sitting. The patio was constructed so long ago that I don’t recall whether it came first or the pond, so I don’t know if I ignored this matter of common sense, or if there was some other reason for the patio being placed where it is. The point is, there was never any reason to sit on the chairs on this patio.

Now, the green leafed dissectum Japanese maple (Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Viridis’) has grown into the patio to partially cover one of the chairs, and Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) strain at the patio edges. If there was any need to sit in the chairs I would have to move them further into the center of the patio, but then the path to the lower patio would be blocked. Oh yeah, the lower patio. Since I couldn’t see or hear the water from this upper patio I built a second one a bit further down the slope. At the same time I decided that a second pond would be nice, so two large stone slabs in the path cross a section of this newer pond.

The second pond is visible from the second patio, but also from the deck above. They’re only ten feet apart, but one pond cannot be seen from the other (though the water can be heard), and one patio is not visible from the other through the maple and tall nandinas. Trust me, it all fits together somehow.

If you’ve gotten hopelessly confused by the chain of events in constructing two patios and two ponds, then this is likely to be a good time to end this story, before I can explain how and why the third, fourth, and fifth ponds were built, and the other three or four patios. I suppose that garden design should be a more organized process, but when you’re constructing a garden for yourself the rules seem not to apply so much, so here I am with five ponds and patios, and more plants than I can count. It’s wonderful!

Tallulah Falls

Don’t tell anyone, but I think that I might be getting a tad too old for this. I’m a wreck, tired, battered, and bruised.

At the end of last week my wife and I traveled south to the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia to see our daughter-in-law graduate with her Ph.D. in chemistry, and to spend a few days seeing the sights since she and our son (who finished grad school a year earlier) will be moving back to the Washington, D.C. area in a few weeks.

The graduation was Saturday morning, then the remainder of the day was spent visiting with the kids and her parents, who live not too far from our Virginia home. Sunday morning my wife and I set out for the Georgia Botanical Garden. I’ll get to back with a thorough description of our tour of the garden in a few days, but today (Monday) my wife and I have just returned from hiking Tallulah Gorge (above) with our son, and I’m whupped.

The hike down the gorge  is 640 steps to a suspension bridge (above), then another 422 steps to the river. The hike out is far more strenuous, an 1,100 foot vertical climb over huge boulders scattered on the walls of the gorge. This is not an adventure for old-timers who spend much time puttering about the garden, and too little in aerobic activities, but we’ve lived through the experience, so it was a good one.

Along the trails were a variety of recognizable flora, and more than a few skinks and assorted small lizards clinging to the rocks. Nearest the top of the gorge were towering mountain laurels, but halfway down these were replaced by even taller rhododendrons (above). There were large leafed rhododendron that I am familiar with from travels through the North Carolina mountains, but also smaller leafed types (similar in appearance to PJM cultivars, though they are long past bloom) that I have not seen in the wild. Many were rooted in small crevices between huge boulders that were filled with wood debris and leaf litter, and though their leaves were curled in reaction to ninety-five degree temperatures, they were otherwise in fine health.

Small Carolina hemlocks (above) clung to the rocky walls of the gorge, though none were substantial in size. Near the bottom a hemlock was indentified as the Georgia state champion, and the trunk was only a foot in diameter, so this is sufficient evidence to pronounce that even native hemlocks grow reluctantly in the heat of the south.

At lower elevations (just above the raging river) there were abundant native American hollies (Ilex opaca, above), and beautyberries (Callicarpa, below) that were covered with berries that are a week or two short of turning to polished purple.

I saw few ferns (below) in the small pockets of soil, but one clump grew at the water’s edge as we hopped from one boulder to another along the river. I could not imagine that there was any soil at all, but the fern was well established and healthy, rooted into a calm spot as the river raged past.

Along the trails were overlooks of the river falls below, but once the bottom of the gorge was reached the action began. The first river crossing required leaping from one wet boulder to another, and though my best leaping days are long behind me, I was able to cross without tumbling into the river. We climbed up and down over boulders the size of buses and small houses until we reached a large slab where water rushed over in a thin, slippery sheet so that adventurous hikers could slide into the deeper pool below.

Pratfalls ensued, with bruises and scraps, but fortunately no concussions, though there were occasions when any number of catastrophes were possible. Young teens and the more elderly were swept at high speed down the slick rock, wildly screaming and gesturing  before they plunged into the deep pool (above).

Finally, play time was called to a close, and we began our ascent (above). The climb seemed nearly vertical, and of course old gardeners are not built for such things. But, after repeated breaks to catch our breath (and to settle the pounding heart) , the top of the gorge was reached safely, and then back to the visitors’ center for a few moments of air conditioning and cold water.

I imagine that the scraps and tired muscles will remind me of our visit to Tallulah Gorge for several days, and I hope to have enough energy in the morning for the drive home.