A splendid place to garden

The sheltering effect of shade is readily apparent in the garden following a dry week after a particularly rainy period. Fortunately, temperatures in this rain-free week remained mild, and again we are headed into a rainy spell (hopefully, a short one). The lack of extreme heat should preclude damage to plants that are pumped up due to excessive moisture, but already ones in sunny spots have faded slightly.

The Japanese garden at Bloedel Reserve

I have just returned from a week in the northwest, two days touring gardens on the Kitsap Peninsula and Bainbridge Island west of Seattle, then business in the Portland area. The weather was delightful, and the gardens splendid despite an unusually dry period that stressed some full sun plantings despite irrigation that is necessary through typically dry summers in this region.

Gardeners are constantly aggravated by weather, and certain that another region must be superior. While I am quite content with my Virginia garden, I admit envy that several treasures that struggle in our heat thrive in the relative coolness of the northwest.

But also, I realize a difference in the shade of towering firs and the shallow rooted maples and tulip poplars that crowd the margins of this garden. In many spots along this forested border, a planting hole can be difficult to carve out between roots.

Paris polyphyllum

While mayapples (Podophyllum) and Jack-in-the-Pulpits (Arisaema) grow natively at the edge of this garden, none grow as plump as ones in the garden of Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island. Waxy bells (Kirengeshoma palmata, below, and K. koreana) thrive, but I have struggled growing Paris polyphylla and Rodgersia (above), which are robust in these gardens. I find small solace that Bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) grows with more vigor in this Virginia garden, and while Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa) thrive on both coasts, our native dogwood (Cornus florida) is dependent on the heat of the east. No doubt, there are others that prefer our climate and year around rainfall, and probably some share of northwest gardeners would like to escape damp, gray winters.

A visit to exceptional gardens is inspiring, though I am uncertain whether to redouble or abandon efforts to plant southeast Asian natives that fill these gardens. Perhaps a few more mayapples and trilliums will find their way into the garden, and I must expand the selection of Solomon’s Seals (Polygonatum, below). While I am fortunate to have discovered (after considerable trial and error) plants that tolerate this shallow rooted, dry shade, I must probe for shaded areas with deeper soils to plant more treasures.


Kneel, don’t bend

A code word given by nurses following back surgery nearly two years ago was supposedly an easy to remember warning to lift appropriately, to bend at the knees, not at the waist. I’m afraid I’m not a good student, and besides, who else is there on the premises to bend to pluck the many hundreds, thousands of tiny weeds that pop up each week?

Indian pinks (Spigelia marilandica) have settled in to grow vigorously.

And, while I’m overjoyed by the regular rainfall this late spring, there is likely to be a formula for some quantity of weeds per inch of rain. However many thousands it is, it’s now times ten in the past few weeks, with another few inches expected. I’m astounded that the garden is not a soggier mess than it is, but surprisingly I can get around to most of it without sinking up to my ankles.

An unknown rose cultivar has revived after being hidden under a wide spreading cypress that was removed a year ago.

The tiny Tiger mosquitoes are out in full force, and dragonflies are working overtime to patrol their territories by the koi pond. There have been frequent snake sightings in recent days. One or more Northern Brown water snakes are seen whenever the sun is shining. A week ago, two youngsters, not the big one that has not been seen for a while, were seen in the shallows of the pond doing that thing that results in the next generation of Northern Browns in this pond. I don’t know if I should apologize for snooping, but I was quickly discovered hiding behind the ‘Butterfly’ Japanese maple. The session ended in a hurry.

As the weather warms, the koi are becoming more trusting, I suppose more due to hunger than overcoming wariness over lurking predators. Several years ago, dozens of koi would flop onto the rocks at the pond’s edge as I approached, but blue and green herons and the snakes have made them more cautious. Long ago, it became impossible to count the number of koi (and a handful of goldfish), but there must be a hundred or more, and I haven’t seen this year’s newcomers, though certainly they’re on the way.

Japanese iris have been crowded by Yellow Flag irises, but several remain at the edge of the koi pond.

At some point there will be too many koi for this fourteen hundred square foot pond, and late in autumn I was forced to upgrade the filtration. It pained me to spend the money, but today I’m pleased that the water is clearing.

The key to maintaining this acre and a quarter garden is, a little at a time. At times, the task seems overwhelming, and the garden a near disaster, though I’m comforted knowing that there are others that are worse. There is no help, unless you agree that my wife’s meddling with her pruners is helpful. Come on, bend at the knees, pull those weeds.

Where is the passion (vine)?

I fear that two passion flower vines (Passiflora incarnata, below) have not survived, though I have shared similar thoughts in prior years and been surprised to see growth beginning late in June. 

A year ago, root suckers began poking up through gaps in the stone patio early in May, late for most plants but typical for this vine. If it is dead, and I hold out the slightest hope it is not, the culprit is this year’s most unusual winter. Dryness through late autumn and early winter was followed by three weeks of breezy cold that was not cold enough to kill on its own, but has killed more than far colder winters.

Despite the suspected fate of the passion flower vines, this garden suffered very little, with a few dead branch tips on paperbushes (Edgeworthis chrysantha) that were easily snipped off, but hardly a thing compared to dead crapemyrtles, and surprisingly, Japanese maples that I see locally. Several hydrangeas were killed to the ground in the garden, again, but unlike recent years when mopheads (Hydrangea macrophylla, above and below) flowered weakly as they recovered, prospects are bright for flowering in the next few weeks.

Many hydrangeas in the garden were pruned to the ground in early April. All have grown back nearly to full size, and all are loaded with flower buds.

Here, it must be noted that traditional favorite hydrangeas (such as ‘Nikko Blue’) that flower on old wood will not flower, and rarely do in this area as flower buds are regularly injured by cold. Introductions such as Endless Summer (and many others) flower on old wood, and new growth. So, when dead wood is cut to the ground in April, there will be flowers in early June. Remontant hydrangeas (flowering on new and old wood) also eliminate the question about when hydrangeas should be pruned. If flower buds are pruned off, the next round of buds will soon be along.

Lacecap and Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, above) were not injured by the cold, and again this spring it appears that foliage and flowering will be robust. The size of leaves of Oakleaf hydrangeas varies somewhat with the amount of rain, of which there has been a surplus in recent weeks.

Definitely spring

Even the most cautious gardener must now be confident that the threat of frost has passed, and now he is free to plant goodies, no matter how tender. Several weeks ago, I could not wait any longer to plant several variegated fatsias (Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’, below), so they were planted with more cold in the forecast. Of course, this was calculated that the fatsias could tolerate frost, if not freezing temperatures, and all has worked for the best. While fatsias are rated cold hardy to zero, I have my doubts, and variegated versions on most plants are typically less cold hardy, so later this year I’ll dig a few to bring in, and leave a few outdoors, probably to die.

Tropicals have been hauled from the basement to the shaded rear patio with mixed results from the long indoor stay. Elephant ears were left outside one night too long in early November as I returned from business travel on a twenty-eight degree night, too weary to bother until morning. Still, they are not bad, considering, and once acclimated to the outdoors I must move them into the sun where they will revive quickly.

Sadly, agaves will not recover so quickly from the winter’s mistreatment, though this is an overdue opportunity to divide the dense clumps. Sharp spines are reason enough not to do this as frequently as needed, but with half the agaves brown from freeze and lack of care, the bloody chore will be more easily managed. I’ve been advised more than once that dividing the agaves is much easier if spines are clipped off, and of course it is, but that is tedious work and also reason not to undertake the dividing.

A recently acquired limestone bench (above) was moved into the garden yesterday with some difficulty, but no crushed body parts, though with several close calls. The heavy base and four foot slab bounced over roots and path stones in the wheelbarrow, endangering toes enroute to the garden’s wooded border. The level of the seating slab is slightly off with a large root beneath one side, but it’s hardly enough to notice, and good enough for the garden.

I don’t know that I’ll do much sitting on the bench, though already my wife has taken a liking to this shaded spot. I don’t do much sitting, except by the koi pond, but it’s an appropriately rustic bench for this garden, even with a polished top which will soon be soiled by droppings from overhanging tulip poplars and varied detritus that wafts through the garden.

Typically for early May, there are many blooms along with a few surprises, and a disappointment or two. Unsurprisingly, there are flowers that I don’t recall planting, and unplanned successes. The native groundcover Gold Star (Chrysogonum virginianum, above) is unremarkable (but green) for much of the year, but it has spread nicely over ground riddled with surface roots and a bare amount of soil. Somehow, in inhospitable conditions, it has hopped the stone path to begin covering ground beneath Oakleaf hydrangeas. Not quickly, but I’m quite pleased that anything grows in this spot.

Iris reticulata has spread nicely in an area I thought might be too damp. Earlier this year I made an effort to cure the slow drainage, and so far, so good. At least the irises seem happy.

While the heavy clean up of early spring was completed weeks ago, there is never a lacking of chores to be accomplished. Leaves from maples and tulip poplars that border the garden are shredded and scattered, so everything, including weeds, grows vigorously. No fertilizer has been applied since the garden’s early days, though visitors repeatedly ask what’s the secret, so it seems clear that none is needed. I would be happy if weeds did not also grow with such vigor, but perhaps there is some good in having something to complain about, even when surrounded by such beauty.

A vigorous vine

While many clematis are slow to get started, Clematis montana ‘Rubens’ (below) has been vigorous from the start. To my recollection, this is the third (and best) try for a vine to cover the railing of the deck outside the kitchen window. I’m a bit foggy what the the first was, but the second will not be forgotten.

The Chocolate vine (Akebia quinata, below) is lovely, but a thug disguised in handsome foliage. For several years, varied excuses were made until the vigorous vine had covered one side of deck, and sent numerous stems twenty feet under the deck to cover the far side railing. And, of course, it didn’t stop there. Finally, enough was determined to be too much, and the vine was dug out. But, like a wisteria that returned each spring long after it was dug out, scattered Chocolate vines reappear somewhere each April. Fortunately, these are easily removed, and they remind that a wisteria or Chocolate vine can be beautiful, but a painful experience.

But back to the clematis, which is small flowered in comparison to several others in the garden, but serves the purpose of covering the deck railing superbly. A few years ago the dense foliage hid a small snake that appeared occasionally to sun itself, but cold winters damaged the vine so today it’s not quite as full. The pale pink flowers are unremarkable compared to other boldly colored clematis, but Clematis montana ‘Rubens’ serves a purpose, and serves it well.


A favorable comment

Favorable comments about the garden are always appreciated, and especially helpful when acquaintances of my wife counter her criticisms. Yes, I understand that there are parts of the garden that don’t function ideally, and guess what, mostly I don’t care. If something flops over a path, walk around it. Or, on it. I didn’t exactly plan it that way, but once it happens, that’s the way I like it.

A recent visitor remarked on the pendulous branched European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus ‘Pendula’, below), with branching that is more horizontal than pendulous, and rather unremarkable in leaf when the unusual branching structure is hidden. Prior to these favorable comments, there was only disparagement from my wife regarding the hornbeam’s low hanging branches that impede the path to the lower garden, which is much more distressing to her than it is to me. I’m a foot taller than her, but a bit of annual pruning elevates branching to allow passage, with only a slight lean.

Catkins of the weeping hornbeam are ornamental, and I particularly appreciate trees that branch with a low hanging canopy to walk under. Unfortunately, not all members of this household share this appreciation.

I, of course, was highly encouraged by the visitor’s remarks, which gave me a favorable impression of my wife’s childhood friend, who I hardly know. There is, I know now, one other person impressed by this tree, a particular favorite of mine. Not that I require encouragement, but it is nice to know that someone else appreciates uniqueness, and the heck with the consequences. While it’s not certain that the friend took the time to consider the issue of the low hanging branches, I’ll take encouragement when I can get it.

The flowers of Carolina silverbell are accurately described by the common name. Branching of this silverbell is open due to a bit too much shade, but it is an extraordinary tree.

Cones of Acrocona spruce grow from branch tips, and these are particularly colorful in early spring.

Unexpected and unexplained

The young gardener understands that things will go wrong, but expects that there will be fewer issues as he gains experience. And then he tends his garden for a decade or two, with fewer, but continuing unexpected and unexplained occurrences, and he wonders if he will ever figure this out. No, he will not, at least not completely. There are too many pieces to this puzzle to make sense of all things that go wrong, and of course he doesn’t question the many things that go right, which can be equally confounding, but less concerning.

Today, I am quite pleased with the scattering of red blooms on the ‘Cherokee Sunset’ dogwood (Cornus florida ‘Cherokee Sunset’, above). In recent years I’ve bemoaned the lack of flowers, and in fact I cannot recall the tree ever flowering since it was planted a dozen years ago. Probably, it flowered a time or two soon after planting, but not in recent years. I suspect, and of course this is an outright guess, that the culprit is powdery mildew, which is commonplace on dogwoods in areas with high humidity and regular summer rainfall. Clearly, the tree has been stunted in growth, and ‘Cherokee Sunset’ is more susceptible to mildew than many recent dogwood introductions that have been bred specifically for resistance to mildew and black spotting.

The variegated foliage (above) is delightful each spring, even without flowers, but by mid summer the fog of mildew covers and deforms leaves. I suppose that diligent spraying of a fungicide might prevent this, but I don’t spray for anything. Last year, for whatever unexplained reason, mildew was minimal, so this spring there are flowers, and I’m not overly concerned with why.

At the start of May, flowers of dogwoods and redbuds have not faded yet, though with a very warm week ahead the blooms are not likely to last more than another few days. The one serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis, above) in the garden quickly reached peak bloom a week ago, then faded immediately, with petals littering the creek and small pond beneath the overhanging tree (below). Again, for whatever reason, I rarely see bees pollinating flowers of the serviceberry, so I’ve never seen a single fruit on the tree. Whether this is due to the brevity of flowering, or the tree’s shaded location, I long ago gave up worrying about.

The Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina, above) has only a single lower branch low enough to see flowers close up, though if I get the right angle from the kitchen window I can view even uppermost branches (and flowers), so I’m not complaining. In this shaded spot beneath towering maples and tulip poplars, the tall growth and sparse branching is not surprising. Many times I’ve been tempted to plant another in a sunnier spot, but with a lack of space something else would have to go, so that’s not likely to happen. To my thinking, Silverbell is exceptional, and under appreciated, but what do I know?