Disappointment and joy

A recurring theme in the garden (and in life, I suppose), is that things do not always turn out as you want, or expect. My best guess is that more works out for the better than the worse, and often the bad is not so horrible, just disappointing.

Unhappily, the weedy yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacrous, above) has invaded further into spaces between boulders in the koi pond to crowd out less vigorous, but highly regarded Japanese irises (Iris ensata, below). The aggressive, yellow flowered irises were planted in a bluestone gravel filtration area of the pond, which seemed like a good idea at the time, but long ago was acknowledged as folly. Fortunately, the invasive iris is safely enclosed in the koi pond’s closed system, so it does not escape into surrounding wetlands, but it has become a lovely nuisance.

The flowers are a delight, but I figured it would spread from rhizomes, which it does, and these could be successfully managed. While it didn’t happen overnight, I failed to anticipate that yellow flag would also spread its seed to every spot of soil or gravel in shallow water, and particularly that it would inflict harm upon the more colorful and treasured Japanese irises. If the project was feasible, yellow flag would be long gone, but I’ve given up hope that it’s possible to extricate the good from the bad irises without more effort than I’m capable of.

Interestingly, on dry ground in the garden, more than once I’ve seen innocent, ordinary plants crowd out ones reputed to be overly aggressive. Seedlings of ‘Espresso’ geranium (Geranium maculatum ‘Espresso’, above) have overwhelmed what had been a spreading patch of Cypress spurge (Euphorbia cyparissias), and in the koi pond variegated Sweetflag (Acorus calamus ‘Variegatus’, below) has pushed yellow flag into a corner, half the space it occupied a few years ago. This is of no help to Japanese irises on the far side of the pond, but at the least there will not be only yellow flags surrounding the pond.

There’s thinking too little, which I am often guilty of (if you ask my wife), but also too much, and while I did not think through the planting of yellow flag to filter the koi pond, I delayed planting Chinese ground orchids (Bletilla striata, below) for too many years, overthinking, presuming it would be too delicate for my often negligent care. In fact, a few failed to thrive in damp or shaded spots, but where they’ve taken, they’re far from delicate. In one area, a gold leafed carex flops onto the thriving clump of orchids that has spread from a few tiny plants to several dozen in only a few years. I like the carex, but not that much, and there’s no doubt that orchids are favored if it comes down to one or the other. And, unlike the yellow flags, I can get at the grass to dig it out. 


The rear garden in May

Several readers have asked, so here it is. At the bottom of this page is a lengthy video of the rear garden, taken with the assistance of a marvelous gadget called a gimbal stablilizer, that allowed me to walk without the video jumping up and down. I can’t hold the camera still standing still, much less walking and going up and down steps. Going from one pond to another I step several feet down on boulders. I can hardly tell.

The video was edited a bit to cut out some of the dead spots, but I couldn’t figure a way to make this shorter and show everything. So, if you’re properly motivated to watch for ten minutes, you’ll see most of what I see when I’m rambling through the garden.

I decided against background music. but you’ll hear plenty of noise from water and birds. The video was taken just before a downpour, so there are no sounds from neighborhood lawnmowers in the background, and only a short session of a dog barking. You will notice the variety of birds. When dogs aren’t barking and lawnmowers roaring, this is what we hear.

I’m not able to see the video on my phone without going to YouTube, for some reason, so I hope you can. I can see it on my desktop just fine. This is the link to the YouTube page just in case https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INNdt8Oo838


The garden’s inventory gets longer as my memory gets shorter, I fear. Perhaps it’s just today, but I can hardly recall what’s planted where if it’s not up and growing. As I add new plantings this is likely to result in conflicts, and with planting a few Japanese maples last week it occurs to me that this collection is getting larger, and already there are more than a few cultivar names that I’ve forgotten.

An unidentified pink camellia has minor freeze damage. Other buds opening later are unblemished.

Don’t feel sorry for me. Despite being color blind, half deaf (the half that can’t hear my wife), scent challenged, and with a variety of parts that are fused, busted, or worn out, I’m getting along just fine. In a spark of motivation (or boredom), the spring clean up of the worst of the mess that I plan to get around to was finished up by mid-March. Other parts just won’t get done, as usual, but once leaves are out most of this won’t be seen as long as you don’t look too hard. As the prerogative of the gardener, I apologize for nothing.

The worst of the debris has been cleaned from the garden’s ponds. Raindrops ripple along one pond’s edge.

Hopefully, the eye (at least mine) is distracted by lovely blooms and fine foliage, and that’s what the garden is about. Most definitely, I don’t care much for chores that others claim are a part of the garden’s joy. Not mine. There are lots of necessary evils in the garden. Who can possibly enjoy weeding? But, it must be done. Occasionally, and as little as possible.

With mild temperatures forecast for this week, flower buds of Dr. Merrill magnolia are ready, with a minimum of freeze damage.

After twenty-nine years in this garden the goal continues to be to cram in as many beauties as possible, and someday, cover every inch with something so that not a weed can grow. I’m working hard on the beauties, but the weed free part will probably never happen. But, every year it gets a bit closer. And, if I cannot possibly reach this point, at the least I can add more distractions.

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 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.


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.

Not quite a weedy mess

Clumps of Japanese iris (Iris ensata) at the pond’s edge have been infiltrated by stilt grass, seedlings of Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum, which, for now are tolerated because they mature long after the irises have faded), and a jumble of other weeds that cannot be identified. Difficulties in access to remove weeds along the pond’s edge are complicated by the presence of Northern Brown water snakes that are known to frequent these spots. Though the snakes are not poisonous, there is hesitation by the gardener in invading the lair of any beast that might react defensively.Iris clumps at pond's edge

Long ago, as the garden grew in dimension, the idea of a weed free, or even a low maintenance garden was abandoned, and despite efforts to cover every square inch of ground with one plant or another, regular labor is required or the garden will be quickly overrun. By plucking a weed here and there on strolls through the garden, there is rarely a need for long hours spent doing nothing but weeding, but there is never a time the gardener is pleased that this task is under control.Daphne and hosta

Some gardeners write that weeding is a part of the process, and claim they enjoy every moment. I do not, and cannot imagine they are truthful. I only hope to reach a point, someday, where maintenance is manageable without always feeling that I am three weeks behind. After three decades in this garden, much work remains to be done before it is completely satisfactory, and probably, this will never be accomplished.Japanese forest grass and sweetbox

The best chance to minimize labor, as I’ve experienced, is to increase the percentage of the garden that is in shade. While there are downsides to this, I am certain I could be content with a garden completely shaded by Japanese maples, dogwoods, and redbuds. Compared to ten and twenty years ago, there has been significant progress in this direction.Hydrangea and ferns

There are varying degrees of shade in the garden, and a range from moderately damp to a large area of dry shade. There is no formula I’ve discovered except experience to determine which plants will thrive in, or tolerate the varied conditions. A plant that grows contentedly in one spot of shade might struggle a few feet further into the deeper shade or part sun, or with more or less competition from roots of maples and tulip poplars.Ferns and hosta

While I hesitate to recommend plants that might not suit a particular spot, the gardener looking to decrease maintenance should first consider ones that fill spaces rather than leaving open areas that will be filled by opportunists (weeds). This can be plants that grow along the ground, or shrubs that shade the ground. The gardener will note that in either circumstance there will be fewer weeds, and with low growing plants the yearly task of adding a layer of new mulch can possibly be eliminated. Every minute of labor saved in this garden is cherished.