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!

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Backwards or forwards?

The beds around the house came together much faster than my older beds. I find this a little ironic because when the site was graded, everything was demolished and then pounded to the finish of cement in preparation for the house foundation. The ground remained so hard that a few years later Baptisia roots couldn't penetrate it; they'd go down around a foot through the compost I put down and the super acidic sandy topsoil the contractor put down, hit the hardpan and then just run parallel to it. Sounds terrible, right? Yet I got great results. I put down a thick layer of compost, put plants in, and they took off, unhindered by competition from other things like the blackberry canes, native bamboo, Chinese privet and various vines that compete with plantings in my other beds.

Some areas of the garden have gotten better and better, such as the daylilies, but the May garden I liked better a few years ago. It'd be nice if gardening was always a steady progression forward but it isn't always so. In fact in my garden that's hardly ever the case.

The area east of the house ranges from almost xeric to downright soggy. The bed next to the house is dry, while the larger beds get runoff from both the roof and areas further uphill.

Geranium from Powell Nursery, May 2015

Geranium and foxglove, smooth beardtongue, and evening primrose.

The peonies and foxglove appreciate the sharp drainage next to the house. I should add more peonies in spite of their short bloom time. The flowers are so spectacular. Unfortunately voles have eaten the roots of almost all of the columbine the past 2 winters. I was so fond of them too, especially the purple ones.

The old Southern standby 'Festiva Maxima'.

Further east there is a large bed dominated by daylilies on one half

with the rugosa cross 'Sir Thomas Lipton', a mockorange, and bee
balm 'Raspberry Wine' on the other. The two halves are separated
by a narrow path covered with the flowering groundcover Mazus reptans.
I first saw Mazus at Niche Gardens in their display garden, in a half shaded area next to a pond. It completely covered an area of at least 20' square. I bought some from Niche to try it out. Honestly I expected it to shrivel up and die in the full sun, as wet areas in my yard tend to spend as much time crispy as they do soggy, but not only has it lived, it's spread over 20 feet to cover the length of the path.

I never meant to end up with as many daylilies as I have, but daylilies are one of those plants that entice one to collect them, like roses, iris, and dahlias. Like iris they can be tricky to incorporate into a mixed planting.

I have tried to add some spring interest among the daylilies, with varying degrees of success.

Smooth beardtongue

In the past I've had a good stand of smooth beardtongue but they have not persisted as they have in some other places in my garden. In my my azalea bed are some smooth beardtongue that's been there about 10 years now. In addition to perhaps not enjoying wet winters, they also likely suffer from competition from the daylilies. A few of them, such as 'Bleu Celeste' and citron daylily (Hemerocallis citrina ) form quite large clumps of foliage, and even though newer cultivars have less of the strappy foliage, I have so many crammed together that the effect is the same. Still another issue is that mistflower has snuck in there and that spreads quite aggressively. I like it but it's a bit weedy, to the point of crowding the daylilies. Inevitably part of it dies from wilt too.

I've tried a few other plants as well, such as marsh phlox,

wild geranium,

purple geranium,


and Gulf Coast penstemon.

Gulf Coast penstemon appears to just be a biennial, so I have to keep those going from seed.

Some years I get the effect I want, sometimes I don't.

The plant that has flourished the best is the purple geranium. Some years it blooms before the daylilies and some years with, which is very nice. All of that purple is a good complement to the daylilies.

The effect of the May garden is currently overwhelmingly white, due to the size of both the mockorange and 'Sir Thomas Lipton'. I knew that mockorange can get big, as our neighbor in Pennsylvania had several large mockorange, but I didn't know they got this huge in the South. I also didn't know that 'Sir Thomas Lipton' could get as it has big here. It's an offspring of 'Clotilde Soupert' and Rosa rugosa alba, and neither one of those gets above 4' in my garden.

In fact, 'Clotilde Soupert' has never topped 2' in my garden.
I'm still looking for just the right spots for the 2 I have.

A few years ago two 'Hansa's and the China/Gallica hybrid
nicknamed 'Delia's Purple' featured prominently in the scene.

'Clotilde Soupert' in front, 'Hansa' on the left and 'Sir Thomas Lipton' on the right, 2010.

'Blush Noisette' with 'Hansa', 2010

'Hansa' and 'Sir Thomas Lipton', 2011.

Delia's Purple, 2013


Delia's Purple with Cl Caldwell Pink

The 'Hansa's melted away after three or four years, as all of mine have, but I keep replacing them as I love the color. 'Delia's Purple' has been overwhelmed by the mockorange. I moved it into a pot for planting next year, and I hope I don't lose it this winter. I wasn't expecting a low of 5 degrees.

I still have one decently sized purple rose just across the driveway from the mockorange, but it blooms later. 'Violette' is a climber that may produce more lateral blooming canes if it had support, but for now it grows among the asters and the bee balm.

And the honeysuckle. 2 or 3 times a year I have to whack back several feet of
honeysuckle that throws long tendrils out among the plantings next to the drive.

Best fragrance in the world though. It's absolutely divine.

So until the two newest 'Hansa's size up, I'm relying on other plants to counteract all of the white.

Mockorange with rugosa 'Foxi Pavement'

Marsh phlox in the background

This really vibrant variant of rugosa rubra has very vibrant fall color too.

Iris virginica

I'd really love to reintroduce more jewel tones with columbine and iris. Columbine would need to go into bottomless pots, as voles have eaten almost every columbine I had, and the way the woody plants and bee balm has grown has made finding good spots for iris a bit harder. Iris would need to be protected from voles, too. I'm experimenting with placing them atop metal mesh in other garden beds. If that works I will try iris here again.

Examples of what I'd love to grow successfully around the house (again):

'Crimson King'

Last year I set out several Siberian iris in bottomless pots. For several years I
enjoyed big clumps of flowers like these, then the voles discovered and ate most of them.


Noid iris

'Dusky Challenger'

Seedling of Geranium 'Brookside'

Another noid from Gene's grandmother and 'Jesse's Song'

Not a jewel tone, but I miss the short white accents from this iris from Gene's grandmother's garden.

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