Looking back to 2014

Every fall, after months of work in the growing season, I tell myself with some pride, “Next spring we’ll have the best garden ever.” And it is. It’s never perfect, never will be, but it’s better than the previous year. Our spring 2014 garden was the most beautiful I can remember.

My satisfaction didn’t last long. On April 29, as I stood at the top of the laundry porch steps to let the dogs out after dinner, a dark, vertical line on a southern red oak at the back of our property caught my eye. There was a crack in the trunk, at least 6 feet long and deep enough to slide my fingers in to the knuckles (if I’d dared). A hammock connected that tree to a huge old tuliptree in a shady, overgrown part of our garden that didn’t get much of my attention beyond cutting back some encroaching bamboo and trimming the thorny eleagnus shrubs along the chain link fence. I had swung a giggling toddler in that hammock 10 days earlier.

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Over the next several days, reps from 5 tree services came out to look at the project. The first said he wouldn’t put his men near the tree without a crane which, his crane man said, was impossible to situate near the tree. The others gave me quotes but said they wouldn’t be able to get to it for a week or more. Eight hours (!) after the last man inspected the tree, it fell, landing on top of a large maple, the fence, and a stand of bamboo in the neighbor’s yard, damaging some of their trees as well. And that section of our garden suddenly demanded a lot of attention.

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After the tree service cleaned up the worst of the mess, we were left with crushed bamboo and shrubs and a tangle of ivy that had smothered that section of the yard. I’ve trimmed or removed the damaged shrubs and pulled up most of the ivy. The adjoining neighbors and I are tackling the bamboo. It may take years, but we are determined to destroy the stands in our yards completely.

On the bright side, we now have some sun in our yard, enough to put in a couple of raised beds to experiment with growing vegetables. (It wasn’t a huge success, but I’m learning.) My Limelight, Quickfire, and Tardiva hydrangeas and my rhododendrons had more blooms than ever before. The viburnums planted by the previous owner many decades ago exploded with new growth, taller than I am, and now – in early January – are covered with dozens of tight buds. In previous years I was lucky to get 6 flowers.

I planted a row of Delaware Valley White azaleas along the new chain link fence, and they’re hanging on but struggling in the sawdust-laden soil. (Note to myself – don’t plant in or near new sawdust.) I planted a couple dozen Carolina jasmines, which are already climbing the chain link, and 3 Zhou Zhou loropetalums to provide some privacy (eventually) in another newly bare section beside the fence.

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Most of my shady garden is filled with ferns, hostas, camellias and azaleas. There isn’t a lot of color except in the spring. Suddenly I had to have bold, brilliant color. No wimpy lavenders or pinks. I wanted red, orange, blue, and gold. Neighbors gave me a fuchsia clematis and a pineapple sage. My cousin’s husband gave me dozens of iris plants. Another cousin helped me pick out some giant, breathtaking daylilies at the farmer’s market.

I transplanted with abandon, moving stunted canna lilies, daylilies, a viburnum and a butterfly bush from their partly-shaded spots to the sunny area. I added a new Royal Red butterfly bush, and it captivated me all season long with its fat magenta blossoms (and its guests). Purple Homestead verbena, which I’ve planted several times in different locations over the years without success, took off. Small vinca plants became large mounds that yielded hundreds of cheery red flowers. Having gardened in shade for so many years, I was astounded at what blazing sun and heat could do in a garden.

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2014 Black and Blue salvia

By fall, there was a cr2014 clematisowded mass of flowers and shrubs in one area of the garden. I’ll have to divide/transplant again this year … and I’m not unhappy about that. The crazy collage of colors was just what I’d been craving, and I can’t wait to see what 2015 will bring.

My husband asked me last month what I wanted for Christmas. “Rocks,” I said, “to border my new gardens.” Last week I visited a landscaping company and bought a ton (yes, 2,000 lbs) of Cane Creek rocks. They’ll be delivered this week. My old wheelbarrow and this old body will get quite a workout this winter. And the spring of 2015’s garden will be the best ever.


Impatient for Spring 2014

Last year’s wet summer may yield a spectacular spring, if that’s how it works. How else to explain a Chinese snowball’s refusal to bloom in the spring that followed the droughty summer of 2012, while it is loaded with dozens of plump green buds this spring? In a month or so, each of these buds – the size of an olive now – will be as large as a baby’s head, quickly changing color from chartreuse to brilliant white. It’s one of my favorite shrubs in the garden. I bought it from a farmer’s market in 2010. Although it’s growing nicely, more than doubling in size from 3’ to 7’ tall, it didn’t bloom in 2011 either. Is it a biannual bloomer, or is the presence of buds weather-related? Whatever, the show is worth a two-year wait. The blooms will glow like headlights when the late afternoon sun strikes them.

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Chinese snowball bud

Last month I hired a landscaping firm to spread pine needles vs. doing it myself. It was worth it. The crew not only spread the needles but cleared out some of the remaining leaf debris from the gardens and ripped up English ivy that had strayed into pathways. They also delivered 40 bags of mulch which I spread later on pathways around the garden.

Today is March 16. Any “normal” late winter, especially after such a rainy summer, the garden would be exploding with new buds and delicate greenery. But thanks to an unusually cold season, all that’s visible now is the brown of the pine needles and the beige of the mulch, with a few splashes of yellow from bright, early-blooming daffodils.The forsythia hasn’t even bloomed yet.

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Beneath the mat of pine needles and mulch, perennials are emerging. As I walk through the garden, I look for humps that indicate a young plant is trying to push up toward the sun.

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The winter honeysuckle, one of the least attractive shrubs in the garden now with its straggly limbs and last year’s browned leaves, is blooming 2 months late because of the harsh winter. The lemony fragrance of its tiny blooms is delicate yet powerful enough to be carried on a breeze.

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Winter honeysuckle flower

Colors of Fall

My enthusiasm for the gardens wilted with last summer’s record-setting heat. And now, from the den’s picture window 2 storeys above ground, all I see are thousands of dull reddish-brown oak leaves (will seem like millions when I start raking), gray tree trunks, and some evergreen camellias and azaleas. But a walk through the gardens reveals some spectacular colors of the season and gives me hope for spring.


Japanese maple ‘Bloodgood’


Camellia or sasanqua?


Nandina berries


Oakleaf hydrangea


Leaves of the Japanese maple ‘Orange Dream’ turned from green to red virtually overnight


Japanese maple ‘Sango Kaku,’ or coral bark – a favorite – I have four of them now


Canna lily ‘Bengal Tiger’


The leaves on our neighbors’ beautiful maple turn red, orange, yellow and green simultaneously


Salvia ‘Mystic Spires Blue’



Dogs and Drought

David and I went to Nova Scotia with his family for 5 days in the midst of one of the Piedmont’s worst heat waves.  Our kids watered the container plants while we were gone.  It didn’t occur to me that the long-established perennials, shrubs and trees would suffer as well.  Their burnt, shrunken foliage – along with the damage the dogs are doing as they dash through the yard – has made this my most discouraging summer in the garden.

Halcyon – April 15

July 22

Gift hosta from Roger and Lynn – April 15

July 22

Gift hosta from Mona and Scott – April 15

July 22

Mini Penny hydrangea – May 11

July 22

How a mophead hydrangea blossom is supposed to look in July

How it actually looks

This oakleaf hydrangea blossom should be pink

Yet I made the rounds of the garden centers last weekend to BUY MORE PLANTS.  I may be insane.

The hostas that I planted several years ago on the north side of the house – isn’t the north side supposed to be shady? – get fried every year.  My neighbor across the fence has sun-loving plants at that fence, and they look happy.  (I’m a little slow making these connections.)  With sweat running into my eyes and dripping off my nose, I moved the hostas to a shadier spot and replaced them with blackeyed susans, Russian sage, forsythia, and salvia.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed for their survival as I water them every other day, awaiting a ground-soaking rain.


A sea of green

It’s May 27, and the gardens are already in their summer lull.  There isn’t much color except for the greens of the hostas, ferns, and shrubs, with a smattering of orange and fuchsia impatiens.  The coral bells, belying their name, are dull green with only hints of burgundy.  The flowers of the astilbes, so hotly pink just a few days ago, have dimmed.  Even the Double Knockout rose is taking a breather.


Ferns, ‘Sun Power’ hostas (foreground), ‘Endless Summer’ hydrangea and ‘Aphrodite’ hosta (background), Dwarf Albert Spruce (urn)

The oakleaf and ‘Mini-Penny’ hydrangea in the lower 40 are covered with dozens of young blossoms, but they’ve turned their backs on me, preferring to face the morning sunlight they get from the neighbors’ side of the fence.  Can’t say I blame them.


Oakleaf hydrangea


Oakleaf hydrangea blossom


Mini-Penny hydrangea


Mini-Penny hydrangea blossom

In the past 9 months, in anticipation of this dearth of summer color, I’ve planted 10 new hydrangeas – 2 Limelight, a Quick Fire, an Endless Summer, 3 Tardiva, a Cityline Rio, and a Little Honey and Pee Wee (both oakleaf).  Although all the plants are thriving, only Endless Summer has a few young blooms.  Is it too soon in the season for the others to show buds?  Do they need more than a year to recover from the shock of transplanting?  I don’t know.  Thank goodness the old mopheads on the patio are loaded this year … I’m guessing it’s because I finally figured out that they shouldn’t be trimmed past early August.


Endless Summer hydrangea blossom


Old-fashioned mophead hydrangea


Hardy begonia


Hardy begonia seedlings

Bianca had hundreds of hardy begonias in her gardens, and every one mysteriously disappeared over the years that we’ve lived here.  I’m adding them back.  In a month or two, their long-lasting, small (but showy) pink flowers will emerge.  In the meantime, I can get a bit of a color fix if I stoop to look at the gorgeous underside of their foliage. If these plants are happy in their location – dappled shade is best, in my experience – they’ll re-seed abundantly.


Living in a Lily Pulitzer Ad

It’s March 29, and nearly every azalea in the garden is in full bloom.  One variety is especially spectacular.  I wish I knew its name.  I promised myself that this year I’ll root cuttings – I want more of this flamboyantly neon fuchsia in the garden.


In 1991 I planted a pink dogwood in memory of our third child who was stillborn.  This was my first attempt at planting a tree, and It Did Not Go Well.  Within a year or two, the tree was dead.  My stepfather told me to cut it to the ground.  He might as well have said, “Cut off your arm,” but I did it.  Miraculously, the tree exploded into life the following year, and now it’s nearly 20 feet tall.  It’s not exactly a perfect specimen – a large white dogwood nearby overwhelmed it and pushed it out of plumb a bit – but each year it has more flowers.  This spring they are stunning.

We still call it the Chelsea Tree.

The Chinese snowball – a farmers market purchase 2 years ago – failed to bloom last year. This year it is gorgeous. Each day the snowballs are a bit brighter and a bit larger. Here’s a January snowball:


And from last weekend:


A week later:

Finally, one of my favorite hostas in springtime, ‘Dawn’s Early Light.’ Although it emerges a glowing, vivid chartreuse, by summer it will be a rather ordinary green:



Why aren’t desirable plants as hardy and prolific as the dreadful tree-of-heaven? (ailanthus altissima, also called Chinese sumac or stinking sumac)

A large, unattractive tree grew in the back of our garden. Until 5 years ago, I didn’t know its name and didn’t care. Our next door neighbor called it “railroad trash” and volunteered to cut it down in February of 2007. Seedlings from the tree were sprouting constantly in their back lawn, he said. I didn’t notice seedlings in our gardens, but I wasn’t paying much attention at the time.  We did find small saplings occasionally.  Bianca had told us they were black walnuts.  That might have been the only time she was wrong about a plant.  (Black walnut and tree-of-heaven are frequently mistaken for each other.)

Tree-of-heaven sucker (image from UMass).

Within weeks of Bob’s felling the tree, sticky little suckers began appearing everywhere, some as far as 50 feet from the stump. Who knew the tree would go into a defensive posture upon being harmed?

In just a few months, a thicket had grown around the stump of that tree, with saplings ranging in height from 6 inches to 8 feet. I pulled at the smaller ones, breaking off many of them just below the surface … they have long, stubborn tap roots. More suckers grew in their place. I sprayed them all with a powerful herbicide. Their leaves drooped, but they survived. Nearby mock orange shrubs weren’t so lucky.

Tree-of-heaven sapling (image from NCSU)

Thank goodness for Google. Typing the phrase “kill tree-of-heaven” revealed the best method for destroying it: hack-and-squirt. With an ax I made downward angled slashes about 2 feet off the ground into the cambium layer of the mother tree (well past the bark), leaving an inch between the marks, until the trunk was encircled. Wearing rubber gloves, I sprayed concentrated herbicide into the slashes.

It worked. Suckers began to die. New ones stopped appearing. Bob used his chainsaw to slice a disk off the stump, and I painted the fresh-cut surface immediately with the herbicide. I also hacked-and-squirted two smaller trees-of-heaven nearby, and they died quickly.

The stump of the Mother tree has since rotted.  One of the smaller trees fell a year or two ago, and the other just needs a good push away from the pine it’s leaning against. Then the trees-of-hell will be out of our garden forever. I hope.

Seeing them alongside a highway still makes me recoil.