Sunday, February 18, 2018

Baptisias and the big bed

In 2016 the baptisias put on the best show they ever had. Gene remarked that at last they looked as good as the ones as the NC Botanical Garden and the UNC Arboretum. They were big and full and really beautiful. Unfortunately, I also had the most losses, by far. I grow them in bottomless pots mulched on top with sharp gravel, and for years that setup was sufficient to keep the voles at bay, but not anymore. I added more gravel, but to no avail. These supervoles didn't care and just powered right through it. The only thing that stopped them was metal mesh nailed down with landscape anchors in the fall, which has to be taken back up again in the spring. That's far too time consuming and there are too many other tasks in the garden that need to be done. I blame this image I have in my head for my bullheaded persistence in trying to grow these plants:

Baptisia alba and iris Jesse's Song with rose Cl. Old Blush, late April 2009

Ironically the real stars of the show in the picture above are the rose and the iris.

I have tried to grow baptisia and iris in this bed ever since, but iris don't like the competition they get from other plants in the bed and voles ate the ones that were flourishing. As I said in an earlier post, I am experimenting with laying the rhizomes down on wire mesh. The voles can still eat the roots, but the only way they can eat the rhizomes is if they do so above ground.

late April, 2008

Another issue at play is that even though Baptisia can sometimes form a beautiful round full shape (this varies a lot between individual plants that aren't clones) , they don't provide the sort of bones that woody plants do. There's the added problem that every few years the Genista caterpillar strips every leaf off of my Baptisias, leaving a tangled mess of stems. The leaves do not grow back and the stems die back much earlier than they normally would.

late April, 2009

If I end up losing a bunch of them, which seems likely, it'll be a shame. I grew most from seed. They're a range of habits and colors and the closest thing to lupines that I can grow. But they're not practical to grow anymore now that the voles are so determined to get to them.

I have written before about adding more bones to the bed and am slowly working on the issue. I have added some woody plants toward the back of the bed the last 2-3 years: about half a dozen Southern black blueberries from cuttings from plants on the farm, a summer-flowering native azalea with pink flowers (swamp/Piedmont azalea cross), a St. John's wort (Sunburst'), and Rhododendron 'Snowbird' (a coast/Piedmont cross). I'd like to add more native woody plants, although in my experience it's difficult to find native shrubs for full sun that don't get very large. I'd love to add some small trees but I won't, because even more I love to have a clear sight down to the pasture. I had thought about trying to grow cuttings of the non-native roses 'Hippolyte' or 'Veilchenblau', but they are so sprawling. This summer 'Hippolyte' looked terrible. The leaves turned an ugly rusty color before falling off. It's not an issue where it is now because there's so much willowleaf aster 'Miss Bessie' that it's covered up by high summer. But I don't need another one in the center of the bed.

'Miss Bessie' willowleaf aster, June 2016. 'Hippolyte' hidden in the back.

Natives that top off at around 6 feet, have four season interest, be happy in full or part sun, and tolerate short term flooding: this seems to be a difficult brief to fulfill. When I look around here I see sweet pepperbush, chokecherry, Virginia sweetspire, swamp azalea, American beautyberry, hearts-a-burstin, sweetbells leucothoe, Southern black blueberry, highbush blueberry, possamhaw viburnum, and blackhaw. The only ones that don't get large are swamp azalea, sweetbells leucothoe, and Virginia sweetspire. For part sun I'm considering swamp and coast azaleas, leucothoe, and sweet pepperbush 'Hummingbird' and 'Ruby Spice'. Virginia sweetspire does well in either sun or shade but doesn't seem to color well in fall unless it gets a lot of sun. For part sun to full sun, I plan on adding our native spirea and more golden St. John's Wort.

There are 2 native roses in this bed, Virginia and Carolina roses. I love them but IMO they don't have the sort of form that provides good "bones". They both have beautiful pink flowers; Carolina rose has a delightful rose and lemon fragrance while Virginia rose has dramatic red and purple fall color.

Virginia rose left and center

Carolina rose on the left

If you have any other suggestions I'd be happy to hear them!


  1. Is Clethra another shrub possibility? They are a blazing yellow in fall, a nice dark green background for lighter plants most of the season, with summer bloom.

  2. It sounds like you have a great plan. I added a Baptisia plant last fall, so I'll be curious to see if it survived the winter. I have it caged, but I don't know if the roots are deep enough yet to have survived a cold January with very little snow. Baptisias are incredible plants. Regarding shrubs, Aronias are awesome and the foliage is pretty in the fall. Other possibilities: Fothergilla, Witch Hazel, or Cranberrybush Viburnum. All have nice fall color and are beautiful.

  3. With my climate being so different from yours, I can't suggest any viable options. It's too bad about the voles' appetite for your Baptisias. I tried to grow those here twice and failed even though my Sunset Garden Book swears they should grow in my zone with moderate water. But then I haven't succeeded in establishing lupine here either and it grows wild in the area. Maybe my soil is too sandy.

  4. Beautiful photos of your Baptisias and Irises. I have already for years some Baptisias in the garden, they stay alife but are difficult to expand, I think I have to sow or plant more of them. Climbing Old Blush is a jewel. I have Old Blush already in my garden for more than 20 years and the last few years I did not prune them, so it's climbing through a Camellia now.

  5. Your gardens are beautiful ... if only the danged critters wouldn't spoil our visions of beauty! Thanks for stopping by my corner of Katy!

  6. Hi Sweetbay,
    I am sorry to hear that some of your plants don´t do as well as you would like them to do. Nevertheless, your garden looks stunning! I love how your garden is surrounded by woods. It has such a natural feel to it, very idilic- something rarely found in gardens. I wish you all the best for your plants! I am sure you will find a solution!
    Best wishes,

  7. Your garden is looking so pretty. I find it too hard to struggle long against critters or putting up with plants that are fuss pots. I don't have any suggestions either, but gardening seems to be trial and error. Good luck, SB.

  8. Having trouble leaving comments, so perhaps you'll eventually find several from me. Love the photos of your garden. Irises are one of my favorites and yours are very beautiful. The voles are terribly destructive. Hope your baptisias make it.

  9. What about Mapleleaf Viburnum? Or Spicebush? Your Irises are beauties.

    1. Great suggestions. I love mapleleaf viburnum! It grows wild in my FIL's yard and turns fantastic shades of pink and purple in the fall. I tried 4 plants in this bed several years ago and they didn't make it, I don't know why. I ordered more this fall and planted them on the east side of the house, but I should try them in the big bed again too.

      I ordered spicebush this fall too! It's potted up so it can size up before I put in out in the fall. I think I will follow your suggestion and put it in this bed.

  10. So that is what happened to my baptsias! I planted 3 tiny ones and waited several years for them to mature and bloom. Finally they did, and they were gorgeous. The next year they had vanished. Voles are a real problem in my garden, but I failed to think they could be the culprit. Your garden is always so beautiful, but I know that gardening is a process. Gardens change as we try new solutions to the challenges, and most of the time it is all for the better. I always look forward to seeing what you are doing in your garden!

  11. C'est une pure beauté. Ce jardin est superbe. beau partage .Merci


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