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.

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.

Glimpses from the garden

While traveling to visit nurseries in Oregon, I offer random glimpses of the garden. With any good luck, I’ll find a treasure or two to add to the garden.

Hostas, Japanese Forest grass, ferns, and sweetbox border this shaded, constructed stream that meanders to a small pond.

Hostas, Japanese Forest grass, ferns, and sweetbox border this shaded, constructed stream that meanders to a small pond. Fading yellow flowers of the weeping Golden Chain tree can be seen on the upper right.

Gardeners who doubt the sturdiness of daphnes should give Eternal Fragrance a try. It is tough as nails and it flowers on and off from April into early autumn.

Gardeners who doubt the sturdiness of daphnes should give Eternal Fragrance a try. It is tough as nails and it flowers on and off from April into early autumn.

Indian pinks (Spigelia marilandica) are flowering after a weather related off year last spring.

Indian pinks (Spigelia marilandica) are flowering after a weather related off year last spring.

Itea 'Henry's Garnet' flowering in early June in damp soil in the lower garden.

Itea ‘Henry’s Garnet’ flowering in early June in damp soil in the lower garden.

 

The earliest of the Japanese irises are blooming at the edges of the koi pond. In another week other cultivars will flower, and others will bloom for another several weeks.

The earliest of the Japanese irises are blooming at the edges of the koi pond. In another week other cultivars will flower, and others will bloom for another several weeks.

Sprawling Oakleaf hydrangeas at the edge of the koi pond must be pruned so that neighboring shrubs and perennials are not overwhelmed.

Sprawling Oakleaf hydrangeas at the edge of the koi pond must be pruned so that neighboring shrubs and perennials are not overwhelmed.

Where the wild things are

Perhaps the wildness of this garden has gone a step too far. Yes, Japanese beetle populations are mostly held in check by birds, and mosquitoes are minimized in the rear garden by dragonflies that perch on tall irises and sweetflags bordering the koi pond. The gardener will argue against the spraying of poisons, figuring that nature will find a balance, but he mistakenly assumes that the good guys will win in the end. Some days this works out, others, not so much. Today is one of the other days.Mountain laurel

As I walked from the house to the rear garden I admired the Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia, above) and a red flowered peony, which, unfortunately, opened its flowers on the first ninety degree day and already the edges are browning. I stopped to pluck a few weeds, intent on the task, then was startled and stumbled to avoid a long black snake that was slowly moving across the asphalt driveway. Surprisingly, the snake barely noticed my presence, and as I went back for a second look it was clearly in distress. When I retraced my steps back to the house an hour later, the snake was gone, to my relief.

The pond's edge

The pond’s edge is an ideal habitat for frogs, turtles, and mostly, snakes.

This afternoon, Northern Brown water snakes that inhabit the koi pond are not seen, but I prefer to know where they are, rather than suspecting that they might lurk from under any boulder at the pond’s edge. A turtle fled into the water as I approached, and again this afternoon the koi are reluctant to surface, a sign, I’m certain, that a predator has been sighted. But, which one? Hawks, herons, snakes, or four legged beasts? All are sighted frequently.

The resident turtle laying eggs in mud beside the koi pond.

The resident Eastern Painted turtle laying eggs in mud beside the koi pond. This slope is typically bone dry, so the turtle carried water from the pond to ease excavation to bury its eggs.

Blue flag iris in late May

I meander to the far side of the pond, through mud to the lower garden where, even after several hot and dry days, there is standing water in places. Grasses have become tangled in Japanese (Iris ensata) and Blue flag (Iris versicolor, above) irises in the wettest spots, but today is too damp to work on this without making a mess of things. Maybe next week.Deutzia Magician

The earliest of the irises are flowering, and to the drier side of this low garden, the marvelous ‘Magician’ deutzia (Deutzia x hybrida ‘Magicien’, above) is in bloom. This shrub is unremarkable for much of the year, but for several weeks beginning in late May there is not a finer flower. Nearby, the white flowered ‘Chardonnay Pearls’ (Deutzia gracilis ‘Duncan’, below) is splendid, and with yellow foliage that scorches only in the hottest, driest summers, it rates a close second to ‘Magician’.Chardonnay Pearls deutzia

With repeated rainfall in recent weeks, the dry shade side garden is not so dry. I stop to sit for a moment on the log stools fashioned from a swamp red maple that toppled in a December ice storm. Instantly, my legs are spotted with tiny Tiger mosquitoes. Here, there are no dragonflies to limit the population, so I move on, completing the loop to the driveway to verify that the black snake has found the strength to move to safety.

As I remove my mud covered shoes before going indoors I pluck two small ticks, the first that I’ve noticed this spring. Later, my wife complains that I’ve opened the door to let mosquitoes in. Indoors is no place for such wildness. She promptly swats the small insects.

The spring garden tour

Collector’s gardens are frowned upon by designers, most likely because the parts are of greater importance than the sum, and that is true to some degree in this garden. Sacrifices, most very minor (I think), have been made to cram in another Japanese maple, or any of a dozen (or more) other small collections. Hopefully, I have not thrown in the towel completely on design, but I cannot dispute that there is a bit of a hodgepodginess to the garden. In any case, I could not imagine changing a thing to suit somebody else’s idea of proper design.

To satisfy curiosity that there is at least some aesthetic appeal, I will occasionally take photos of random corners of the garden for a more overall view, rather than only of individual plants. And, what better time for photos than late May when the growth and blooms are most lush and abundant.

the garden

The view down the slope to the rear garden will be more obstructed in a few weeks as the Silver Cloud redbud fills in. Alliums are most evident in the foreground of this photo, but there are also toad lilies, black mondo, Blue mist shrub, roses, Graham Blandy columnar box, Francis Williams hosta, and Chardonnay Pearls deutzia. There are a number of toad lilies and hostas in other parts of the garden, and at least a handful of various redbuds with colored and variegated foliage.

The front of the house is hidden behind Japanese maples and dogwoods. A purple leafed beech off the left corner of the house has become huge.

In this older photo, the front of the house is obscured by Japanese maples and dogwoods. Today, less of the house is visible from the street. The stone path to the front door is overhung by branches of two Seriyu Japanese maples. A purple leafed beech off the left corner of the house (just out of view) dominates the front lawn. With deep shade and the beech’s shallow roots, the lawn thinned each year until the sparse grass was removed and replaced by hostas, epimediums, and native carex.

Koi pond

Looking across the koi pond to the stone patio and fire pit. Shallows of the pond are planted with yellow flag and Japanese irises, rushes, and sweetflag. The yellowish upright on the left is Golden fernspray cypress. The juniper to the right is Gold Cone, which is striking in the low humidity of the west coast, and in Virginia in May, but then it fades to green by mid June.

This blue hosta is tucked between stones that border the patio and beneath a golden Fernspray cypress. By mid summer this spot is a bit too sunny and the hosta fades.

This blue leafed hosta is tucked between small granite boulders that border the patio, and beneath a golden Fernspray cypress. By mid summer this spot is a bit too sunny and the hosta fades slightly. Then, a white flowered coneflower snakes from beneath the hosta’s wide spreading leaves. In the foreground are Creeping Jenny and a small leafed, variegated sedum.

Snow damaged branches of the Gold Cone juniper must be pruned sometime soon. The geraniums in the foreground are seedlings from Espresso, a dark leafed selection of the native wild geranium.

Snow damaged branches of the Gold Cone juniper must be pruned sometime soon. The geraniums in the foreground are seedlings of Espresso, a dark leafed selection of the native wild geranium. The tree behind the gold juniper is red Horse chestnut, and to the left side, behind the wagon wheel bench is the Golden Full Moon maple.

The green leafed Viridis Japanese maple has grown ten or twelve feet across, at least. It is difficult to measure its spread since a third of the tree protrudes over this small pond. The pond is the first of five that were constructed, this one more than twenty years ago.

The green leafed Viridis Japanese maple has grown ten or twelve feet across, at least. It is difficult to measure its spread since a third of the tree protrudes over this small pond. The pond is the first of five that were constructed, this one more than twenty years ago.

Stone steps lead from a lower patio, with a step across a part of a pond to the upper patio beside the house.

Stone steps lead from a lower patio, with a step across a part of a pond to the upper patio beside the house. Toad lilies and hostas will continue to grow through spring to fill this area, and soon Ostrich ferns will arch over this path. Several of the stones are local fieldstone, with the lower stones from a Canadian quarry. The lack of continuity in the stone steps does not bother me at all.

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This pond, just below the deck, has become partially obscured by a seedling hosta that sprouted in a small island between two waterfalls. The hosta’s roots grow in shallow water and are completely exposed through the winter, with no ill effect. Another small hosta has seeded to the rear in this photo, along with Leatherleaf mahonias that will be weeded out since they will grow too large.

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A narrow stream begins beneath this stone slab, then winds past Carol Mackie daphne and sweetbox to a small pond. Three of the garden’s five ponds, including this one, were constructed while my wife was away for long weekends visiting family.

Cinnamon ferns and prostrate plum yews

Cinnamon ferns, prostrate plum yews, and Robb’s euphorbia are deer resistant, and grow lush in this dry shade.