Coneflower magic

After mediocre, or worse, results with coneflowers in prior years, it suddenly seems I’ve gained a magical touch. In recent years, only a lone white flowered ‘Coconut Lime’ has survived, which is remarkable since it must peek out for sunlight from beneath an ever spreading cypress.

A year ago, after repeated failures with purple coneflowers that any novice can succeed with, I planted a second white, ‘Powwow White’ (above), with the reasoning that if one white can succeed, perhaps a second will also. And, it has.

In fact, ‘Powwow’ has now spawned several vigorous seedlings, all in shades of purple. These are thriving, and in truth it is clear that I have done nothing except plant this coneflower in an ideal situation. Which is, of course, as many of the notable successes of this garden are, a complete accident since the coneflower was planted in one of very few spots open at the time.

Most remarkable, it is now the first of November and all coneflowers are again flowering. Certainly, some extraordinary care has been necessary to bring this about, you must say. But, I’ve barely been able to keep coneflowers alive in recent years. I cannot say if this late bloom is unusual or not, though I expect that unusually warm temperatures through October are the cause. Be assured, no special skill should be attributed to this event.

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Autumn foliage – better late than never

There is general acknowledgment that coloring of autumn leaves is tardy, and living just off the route taken by many thousands of leaf watchers, I hope that their experiences visiting the nearby Blue Ridge have not been disappointing. Foliage in the garden is also late in turning, and as in every year there are disappointments, though there are sufficient numbers of triumphs to satisfy the gardener.

In past years the Golden Full Moon maple has displayed superior autumn foliage color. This year, none, as leaves dropped early after a dry late summer.

The Golden Full Moon Japanese maple (Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’, above) is often splendid, but most leaves fell early in October with no discernible change in color on one, while a second has been covered by powdery mildew in recent months. Its foliage remains a notable white that catches the eye, but unnaturally so.

Also, several native dogwoods (Cornus florida) have turned much later than usual, and with less intense color, though from the distance of the road I see others in the neighborhood that were also tardy, but more splendidly colored. I’ve recently noted that the red flowering, variegated leafed ‘Cherokee Sunset’, has developed flower buds for the first time in years, and while this event is months into the future it is a worthwhile exchange for slightly disappointing autumn leaf color.

For whatever lacking with the native, the hybrid ‘Celestial Shadow’ (above) colors consistently, though a few weeks later. Chinese (Cornus kousa) and other hybrid dogwoods have not begun to turn, but with recent chilly temperatures that is likely soon to change.

While the Golden Full Moon maple was a disappointment, other Japanese maples are proceeding on schedule. The Fernleaf maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’, above), most remarkable of all in autumn to my thinking, is just beginning to display its mottled combination of colors from yellow to deep burgundy, and Lion’s Head (Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’) and several other Japanese maples are typically slow, with their prime season in mid November still to come.

Oridono Nishiki is a variegated leaf Japanese maple, though this particular tree shows little variegation on green leaves through spring and summer. It’s autumn color is excellent.

This laceleaf Japanese maple had faded through the summer, but it regains its color in autumn.

While reds and oranges are most celebrated, yellow autumn foliage colors range from drab and distressed, to vibrant. Swamp maples (Acer rubrum) of the forest that borders the garden are rarely better in color than a faded yellow, but ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba, below) and Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora, below) are exceptional, glowing yellows.

Fortunately, much of the understory of this forest is covered in spicebush (Lindera benzoin, below) rather than multiflora rose and other invasives, and though red berries have long ago been consumed by wildlife, yellow foliage is a pleasant backdrop to the garden. There will be much more color in this garden through November, much of it a few weeks tardier than usual, but today there is color enough not to be tempted to venture onto crowded highways into the mountains.

A pink Carnation

Ideally, the gardener will love plants in his garden, or at the least he should not despise them. So, what to do with ‘Autumn Carnation’ Encore azalea?

Unquestionably, ‘Carnation’ is a flowering machine, with first blooms in early August and now into the second week of October with no end in sight. I believed flowers were fading in mid September, but it was just the heat and lack of rain. After a few cool days, ‘Carnation’ was back to full bloom. Perhaps this lengthy bloom is a bit monotonous, but I can live with that.   

The problem is (and thankfully my life is unburdened by real problems), I dislike the color of the flowers. A lot, or at least badly enough that I would chop the azaleas out if they were in a more conspicuous spot. But they’re not, and in fact my wife and I are the only ones who can see them. I haven’t asked, but she probably adores the bubblegum pink, which seems to me to be a completely unnatural color. Other pinks I can live with, though I much prefer purple and red flowered azaleas, and of the reblooming Encores I particularly favor ‘Royalty’ and ‘Twist’.

Almost certainly I will do nothing about this, though if you check back a year from now it’s likely I’ll be whining again.

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 purple coneflower

There are no purple flowered coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) in the garden. Or not. Correctly, I’ve not planted any, but there it is, a tall seedling with a large purple bloom (below) standing tall above a compact clump of white flowered coneflowers (‘Powwow White’). Nearby, flowers of a second seedling appear more pink.

It is clear to me that the purple coneflower is a seedling of the white (below), but some explanation is required since it might not be so clear to all how a purple flowered seedling derives from a white flowered parent. My wife insists I planted the purple, refusing to believe my explanation that this is a seedling of a coneflower that does not grow identically to its parent. The native coneflower is purple, and the white is the variation, probably found as a chance seedling.

In recent years I’ve transplanted a number of seedlings of ‘Miyazaki’ toad lily (below), and all appear identical to the parent plant. I had hopes that one early flower this years was significantly larger, in hopes that some remarkable seedling would be discovered, but subsequent blooms have been similar in size.

In the next few weeks I will transplant the purple and pink flowered coneflowers since these could prove to be more vigorous and crowd out the white. ‘Powwow’ has been a excellent grower, now into its second flowering cycle, and no good can come from leaving the parent and seedlings to compete in the same space.

 

A difficult late summer

September was difficult, not unusually so, but relatively hot and dry after a mild and wet earlier summer. Leaves of neighborhood sycamores are withered and brown, and though stress is less evident on other trees, continued dry weather could result in poor coloring of foliage in weeks to come.

While hostas and other perennials show stress from the late summer drought, Chocolate Joe Pye weed is at its peak.

Perhaps cooler temperatures will ease effects of the current dryness, and of course, there could be a turn back to regular rainfall. Dry or not, this should be of little concern for well established plants that will soon be headed into dormancy. There is some small concern, however premature, that some broadleaf evergreens must be hydrated going into winter to prevent injury if there should be prolonged periods of freezing temperatures. There will be greater concern if dry weather continues through October.

One of two new toad lilies (Tricyrtis flava) planted in this spell of dry weather.

I have planted several azaleas and mahonias, a few toad lilies (above), and a fragile looking pot of Paris polyphylla (below) in recent weeks, and it is only the new plantings that I will watch until our next soaking rain. My penchant for neglect of new plantings has lost too many treasures, and I am determined to do better this time with Paris and a yellow flowered toad lily that have been disappointing failures in prior years.

Unusual flowers make Paris polyphylla worth trying after repeated failures. I suspect previous locations were too dry and sunny.

A sip of water a few times a week until the next rain should keep everything growing, and I’ve left a five gallon bucket on the patio by the koi pond as a reminder. A half bucket twice a week will be enough for the toad lilies and Paris, and I don’t expect the few shrubs will need anything at all. A few potted Japanese maples on the patios are looking pretty dry, so a half bucket for each will also be necessary. I’m not good at remembering to do such things, so I hope for rain.

There will be no colorful autumn leaves on the Golden Full Moon Japanese maples. Few leaves remain on the tree in early October.

While not too unusual, serviceberry, river birches, and the purple leafed European beech have dropped most leaves already, and several Japanese maples are nearly bare. The Golden Full Moon maple often displays exceptional autumn foliage color, but this year there will be no leaves, so no color. In similar conditions, the fernleaf Japanese maple has hardly dropped a leaf. In several weeks, its foliage will be delightfully colored, despite the difficult late summer weather.

Autumn colors of the Fernleaf Japanese maple are the best in the garden. The tree shows little sign of the recent dry weather except a few scorched leaves, so this should not effect the splendid autumn colors.

Beijing Beauty

I’ve been unable to determine the parentage of the narrow leafed mahonia, ‘Beijing Beauty’ (below), but suspect its heritage is similar to ‘Soft Caress’ and ‘Narihira’, which are partially or fully bred from Mahonia eurybracteata, that has proved not to be sufficiently cold hardy in this garden despite my best efforts. Possibly, these would survive in a protected spot, but it seems I am incapable of determining what is a protected microclimate. In any case, in multiple locations both mahonias have failed to survive. Leatherleaf (Mahonia bealei) and hybrid mahonias ‘Winter Sun’, ‘Charity’, and ‘Underway’ have survived five degrees or more below zero with minimal injury, but narrow leafed mahonias have failed at temperatures above zero.

Beijing Beauty mahonia is flowering in mid September. Flowers are considerably smaller than late autumn flowering ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’, or spring flowering Leatherleaf mahonia. It’s habit appears to be more compact and lower growing, but probably taller than the low, mounding ‘Soft Caress’.

Long ago, I discovered that zone 7 cold hardiness ratings are not a guarantee. Some zone 7 plants will tolerate temperatures colder than zero, while others perish at ten degrees. Clearly, cold hardiness determinations are an inexact science, and possibly there is no science to it at all, but a best guess or perhaps even wishful thinking.

Soft Caress is exceptional for its foliage and texture, though flowers are less significant. Unfortunately, after multiple tries I’ve abandoned hope that it will survive in this northwestern Virginia garden.

In any case, ‘Beijing Beauty’ is beginning to flower in early September, a month or two earlier than ‘Soft Caress’ (above), and giving hope that its lineage might be different enough to include greater cold tolerance. While last winter did not approach zero, this year or next, or at least eventually it will get this cold again, and I’ll learn its similarity to ‘Soft Caress’. I suspect it won’t survive, but I can hope that at least one of four, or possibly all will survive in varied spots through the garden.

Also, I’ve recently planted Mahonia ‘Marvel’, which has a similar lack of information regarding its heritage. But, ‘Marvel’ is clearly a late autumn flowering hybrid similar to ‘Winter Sun’ (above), ‘Charity’, and ‘Underway’, without spines except one at the leaf tips. There is less reason to question its hardiness, as I question the cold tolerance of ‘Bejiing Beauty’, and I suspect I’m not alone in giving a try to plants that have questionable chances for survival.