Delightful berries

Long, arching stems ornamented with clusters of white berries emerge from a tangle of foliage behind the koi pond. Oakleaf and mophead hydrangeas nestle tightly beside an ‘Okame’ cherry, with little space to access for maintenance through crossed branches. Somewhat worse than the typical mess in this garden, but considerable effort would be required to weed out volunteer seedlings, and why, with such delightful berries?

Here, the yellow flowered Passion flower vine (Passiflora lutea) sprawls and climbs through the hydrangeas, then far up into the cherry’s branches. In late summer, white berries of the beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma f. albifructa) seedling stand out against the mostly green background, though the white flowered ‘Tardiva’ hydrangea is nearby with blooms that are a month past their prime.

White berries of the variegated beautyberry, ‘Duet’, are slower to form, and considerably smaller than other white and purple berried beautyberries. The planted white beautyberry (not the seedling) and ‘Duet’ are just off the edge of a swale that remains damp, with standing water since mid-spring in this rainy year. Three purple berried shrubs are planted in dry shade where they grow less exuberantly, though not that you’d notice if another was not close by for comparison.

To my thinking, beautyberries are appropriately placed, to the back and edges of the garden where berries can be seen, but where the otherwise unremarkable shrub can be ignored for most of the year. Small summer flowers are pleasant, but not significant.

Evergreen and deciduous hollies are more prominently placed, and in the second year since a small male holly was planted, Winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata) are covered in berries that are now ripening to red. A few years ago, the grove of several hollies displayed few berries, dispelling the notion that certainly there must be a nearby pollinator for just about anything. I suppose that years earlier a male was removed along with a patch of bamboo that encroached on the group of hollies, and happily, the berries of beautyberries and hollies in late September are clear evidence of the value of planting for berries in addition to blooms.


Surprising blooms

Unsurprisingly and typically, I’m clueless to explain why ‘Jelena’ witch hazel is flowering in September instead of mid-February. No unusual weather event explains this, and this is not a single flower or stem, but every bud on every branch. Four other winter flowering witch hazels nearby show no sign of imminent flowering, or even swelling buds.

Jelena witch hazel flowering in September. Typical flowering is in February, long after leaves have dropped.

Out of season flowering is not unusual for azaleas and forsythias, certainly some others, but never witnessed with witch hazels in two decades or so that one or another has inhabited this garden. Despite my pleadings to the contrary, I am at least as observant as the next gardener, but this, I can’t figure. Very likely, this will be the first, and last time that ‘Jelena’ will flower so early.

There is always something of interest in the garden, much more than only fascinating foliage and beautiful flowers. I am delighted to watch carpenter and bumblebees “rob” nectar from toad lilies (Tricyrtis) by penetrating the underside of flowers (above and below) rather than dipping in through the too narrow opening that smaller bees enter with ease.

Is this learned behavior? Or, an innate sense? In any case, it is interesting to see bees adapt, a necessity during periods when flowers are somewhat more scarce.

Ideal planting

Ideal spots for planting are easily identified in shaded areas of the garden. Here, sporelings of Japanese Painted and Sensitive ferns appear together, competing in scattered pockets of deep, moist soil. Too often, Japanese stilt grass encroaches, though it is less particular about the spaces it invades. Fortunately, while persistent and a considerable nuisance, the grass is shallow rooted and easily removed.

Sporelings of Sensitive fern intermingle with carex beneath azaleas and hydrangea.

While ideal conditions are rare in this dry shade beneath towering maples, blackgum, and tulip poplars, I search for the next best, soils where a hole can be carved between shallow roots to plant Solomon’s Seals, mayapples (below), and trilliums. I’m inspired by my early summer visit to woodland gardens on Washington’s Kitsap Peninsula to fill every inch of shaded spaces with lush foliage, though this effort is challenged by the thin layer of soil and irregular irrigation.

Long established native mayapples thrive in thin soils beneath maples and tulip poplars. I try to duplicate these conditions when planting Asian varieties.

In a bit more sun, and out of reach of the worst of tree roots, abundant seedlings of hellebores and toad lilies (Tricyrtis hirta) must be dug and potted for giveaways, or discarded. Several are transplanted, or left in place, though this takes space that is contrary to my lust to plant at least one of everything.

One of several anemones that survive for a year or two, but then disappear.

I hesitate to admit failures of common plants that anyone can grow. Japanese anemones are often aggressive in gardens, but here they have failed repeatedly in sun and shade, damp and dry. Certainly, there is some spot where soil and sunlight is ideal, but I’ve failed to find it, and probably never will since there’s no sense wasting another nickel on a plant I can’t find an ideal spot for.

What does best

Slowly, I gain knowledge about what does best, and where, and conditions in this garden where plants fail to thrive or survive. I can imagine your head shaking, “well, of course, after twenty-nine years in the garden, he should know a thing or two.” And, probably I do, but understanding the garden is a moving target.

This dirt bottomed pond was dug to dry out a section of the lower garden. In most summers it goes dry half the time, but this year it’s full to the top. Walk close by and dozens of frogs jump in. Blackgum, evergreen cypresses, indigofera, and spirea overhang the pond.

Rain is up about fifteen inches this year, with more on the way. The low end of the garden seems lower this year, swampier despite extensive work to improve drainage. Dogwoods on the high end of the dampness have already dropped most leaves, and thankfully plantings in this part of the garden have been almost totally replaced with ones tolerant of constant dampness in recent years. Almost, with a few guesses that are proving to be incorrect.

Chokeberries (Aronia) are planted in swampy ground where long established witch hazel and holly failed when a trickle of a spring came to life. After several years it is clear that chokeberry is tolerant of standing water, but also clear that deer will get hooves muddy to feast on foliage on its lower half.

I don’t recall a summer, or any other part of a year so wet, so this is a new experience. I think that I shouldn’t consider ankle deep muck in the long term, when half that is the norm. Judging from this summer, I never should have planted the dogwoods, but they’ve survived this long, and probably they’ll bounce back next spring. One year, or season, is never the same as the one before, so judgments must be carefully considered.

References are helpful, to a degree, in evaluating plants for a site, but it is experience that judges the degrees of moisture, or when part sun becomes shade. I pay close attention when I see any plant thriving, in this garden or others. Do I have the spot of sunlight, or deep and moist, but well drained soil to match these conditions?

I think that maybe, possibly, I’ve figured ideal settings for daphnes in this garden. Certainly not the damp lower garden, though sunlight exposure here would be even more ideal than where several are thriving. Success with daphnes was accomplished by trial and error, with a few failures, and I’m far from confident this experience would transfer two houses up the road. Every year I understand this piece of land a little better, so when another daphne or two are added, there’s a good chance I’ll get it right.

I planted a few Mountain hydrangeas last week. These are similar in appearance to mopheads, and in flower to lacecap hydrangeas (above), but sturdier through winters and more tolerant of sun. There’s not a lot of sun in this garden, but I was motivated to find a spot, so two were crammed into spaces that might be a bit too tight. Another has some breathing room, but not as much sun. Probably, all will work out since hydrangeas are more forgiving than the average, and it could come down to a few less flowers or slightly less vigorous growth in one location or the other. I’ll be watching.

More summer rain

Undoubtedly, rain this summer has been more than is necessary, and more than is desirable for dogwoods and paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha) in lower lying areas of the garden. Two paperbushes droop and shed leaves in saturated ground, then perk up in the too brief drier periods. A woody tree peony, that made it through the rainy spring, could not survive this unusually wet summer.

The variegated leaf ‘Wolf Eyes’ dogwood has dropped all leaves, much too early, but still is not likely to be any more than a temporary concern. Another variegated dogwood nearby, ‘Celestial Shadow’, is on slightly higher ground, but it also shows the stress of over abundant moisture.

The threat that remnants of a hurricane might bring additional inches of rain next week is less than encouraging, but not really an issue for the majority of the garden on higher ground. With cooler temperatures, and the expectation of rainy weather, several Mountain hydrangeas (Hydrangea serrata) were planted, and dense clumps of Pinellia (Pinellia tripartita, above) and hardy ginger (Zingiber mioga ‘Dancing Crane’, below) were thinned and transplanted.

In ideal conditions, Pinellia can spread aggressively, but dry shade and shallow roots limit its spread in this part of the garden. Through trial and error, I test one thing, then the other, with success determined by those that grow around and over surface roots of blackgum, maples, and tulip poplars.

I will be happy if Pinellia overruns the area, though this seems very unlikely. Solomon’s Seals have proved to spread moderately through this shallow, dry soil, and so several are scheduled for delivery and planting in another week. The common variegated Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum odoratum var. pluriflorum ‘Variegatum’, above) is quite sturdy through less than ideal circumstances, so I expect less common types to be similarly successful.

A natural succession

I fear that a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Oridono Nishiki’) at the corner of the driveway is dying. In late August, all leaves have dropped, which is concerning, though some falling leaves are not too unusual in late summer. Tips of branches, far too tall to reach, are curled, telling me that this is not just premature leaf drop.

I suspect that large sections of bark that have split on the side that was once sheltered by two large hornbeams are the cause of the maple’s demise. The wounds were not discovered until the Japanese maple began to suffer, and then I figured it was too late to do anything.

But, if any of the garden’s Japanese maples had to go, this is the one I’d give up. It’s a constant disappointment, though I would not volunteer to be rid of any trees if I had my druthers. ‘Oridono Nishiki’ is a varigated leaf maple that stays mostly green, with colored new growth for a very short period and no other distinctive features. The garden will get along fine without it, and already I am envisioning this corner with no tree at all, or considering planting one of the small maples that have been growing in pots on the patios for a few years.

Oridono Nishiki showing all green leaves shortly after it has leafed out in the spring.

With twenty-nine years in this garden, several trees have been ruined by storms, or ice or snow, so this will not be the first to go. Certainly, it will not be the last, and usually the lost tree or shrub is not missed after a year or two. I expect I’ll get over the maple’s loss quickly

Seedlings, for better and worse

Typically, I’m overjoyed by plants that seed about the garden, even Japanese maples, toad lilies, and hellebores that proliferate with such abundance that many must be discarded. While space for these has run short, room remains for sporelings of Japanese Painted and Sensitive ferns that thrive in deeper shade and regularly appear beneath shrubs and in cracks between path stones.

Tricyrtis hirta ‘Miyazaki’ is a rampant seeder. Some seedlings are relocated, but others must be tossed out or given away.

I am not so enthused by seedlings of Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), though this grass is of moderate size, adapted to sun or shade, and with lovely dangling seedheads. New sprouts are devilishly difficult to extract without digging, and I stubbornly resist carrying tools along while strolling and weeding. Some perish as a result of my tugging, but other seedlings return with twice the vigor. Several clumps beneath low growing roses continually frustrate me.

For whatever reason, and without much consideration of the possible complications, several years ago the variegated ‘River Mist’ (Chasmanthium latifolium ‘River Mist’, above) was planted. Happily, I report not a single seedling, though the clump of three is hemmed in by long established woodies that are likely the reason. As the evergreens grow ever wider, transplanting the Sea Oats to give more space might put this to test.

Finally, several clumps of Indian Pinks (Spigelia marilandica, above) have caught on, growing vigorously, though another has faded in this summer’s constant dampness. Occasionally, there will be a few late summer flowers which are not as vibrantly colored as earlier blooms, I think, though possibly it is my eyesight that has faded in the summer sun. Regardless, the splendid flowers are welcomed.

Several of the garden’s reblooming Encore azaleas are flowering. The vagaries of late summer weather determines an unpredictable schedule for repeat flowering, but most in this garden are dependable for flowering within a several week period. While some Encores begin flowering in August, others will see first blooms in October.

Long ago, I determined to rid the garden of troublesome azaleas, with the exception of Delaware Valley White, that required no care, tolerated clay soil and tree roots in dry shade with hardly a trace of lace bugs. Somehow (with sample plants, free gets me every time), I was convinced to try Encores, with results over a few decades proving as successful as Delaware Valley, but with blooms in mid spring and then late summer into early autumn. Not all Encores are well suited to this garden, or this climate, but azaleas are again valued members of this garden.