Archive for July 2010

The Lovely Snowbell

July 31, 2010

About a week ago a near-tornado roared through my area, wreaking havoc on trees right and left. It made me think about how important trees are to a garden’s structure and design. Sometimes they are there when you buy the house, providing shade, a focal point, beauty and shelter. Other times, you add them yourself, choosing what you hope will be a successful addition to the garden.

The storm took down two huge branches from my dying American beech tree, but I’ll write about that another time, hopefully later rather than sooner. Today I want to introduce at least some of you to one of my favorite trees for shade, Styrax japonicus, or the Japanese snowbell tree.

styrax japonicus

A Styrax japonicus, or Japanese snowbell tree, in bloom in my back yard in May. It would stand out more nicely in front of a dark evergreen hedge, but hey, I'm not that disciplined in my own garden.

This portion of my garden, although south-facing, gets only filtered sunlight for most of the day because of the high canopy of the many oak trees in my neighbor’s adjacent yard. Nevertheless, the tree blooms prolifically each May (even when we had our 17-year cicada plague several years ago). The blooms look like small white bells, hanging down from the branch, with the leaves perched above the branch. This habit makes the tree wonderful for planting on a slope or above a small retaining wall so the flowers are at eye level.

styrax japonicus flowers

The tree's flowers hang down in tiers, giving a wedding cake layer effect.

Styrax japonicus

A closer look at the flowers of the Styrax.

styrax japonicus fruit

After the flowers fade, these curious little bobbly 'fruits' remain.

In my book, you grow this tree for its flowers and shade-tolerance. The bark is an attractive gray, but its fall color, while sometimes a pleasant yellow, is not particularly showy. It’s also relatively pest-free, grows quickly, and requires no special treatment. Hardy to Zone 6 (and warmer parts of Zone 5), it also comes in a pink-flowered version called ‘Pink Chimes,’ shown below at Brookside Gardens. For something a bit more different, look for a weeping version called ‘Carillon.’

Styrax japonicus 'Pink Chimes', Brookside Gardens

Styrax japonicus 'Pink Chimes' in bloom at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland

I’ve noticed that as they age, these trees can look a little weedy and be prone to suckering – but that’s nothing that can’t be cured by regular pruning, if necessary. So if you have a shady garden and want an ornamental flowering tree that’s a bit unusual, check out the Japanese snowbell. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

The Ripley Garden at the Smithsonian

July 24, 2010

Several weeks ago, having not picked up my camera seriously in a while, I decided to make a dawn run down to the Mall in search of architecture to photograph for an upcoming themed competition at my camera club. After spending some time outside the National Museum of the American Indian, I headed for the Enid Haupt Garden, the most well-known of the Smithsonian’s garden spaces. On the way, however, a funny thing happened – I discovered the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden.

Tucked into a relatively modest space between the Arts and Industries Building and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Ripley Garden is packed full of unusual trees and shrubs as well as annuals and perennials. It was dedicated in 1988 to honor Mary Ripley, who founded the Smithsonian Women’s Committee (she was the wife of the Institution’s eighth secretary).  It was designed by Hugh Newell Jacobsen, FAIA, and the Smithsonian’s Horticulture Services Division.

Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, Smithsonian gardens

The entrance area to the Ripley Garden on the Mall side.

The raised garden beds are laid out in a curvilinear pattern that invites the visitor to explore and keeps you from seeing all the garden has to offer at once. They also offer the advantage –  to the plant material – of making it less likely visitors will step into the beds (which of course means the Horticultural Services Division has to climb up carefully to tend to the plants!). I was surprised by the large amount of tropical plants I saw, but presumably the banana plant shown below is one of those that is hardy in our Zone 7 climate here.

Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, Smithsonian Gardens

Tropical plants, including Muso and Phormium, in the Ripley beds.

An ornate 19th-century cast-iron fountain is complemented by similar benches, lampposts, and stands for hanging baskets throughout the garden.

Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, Smithsonian gardens

A 19th-century cast-iron fountain is at the center of the Ripley Garden.

Mary Livingston Ripley Garden

One of the many ornately designed wrought-iron benches, with varying designs, that offer visitors a place to sit.

My visit was in early July, not a peak time for gardens struggling with the heat of a Washington summer. But in addition to the tropicals and annuals I saw, there were other spots of color along the way in the form of lilies and Echinops, complete with bees.

Echinops, Smithsonian gardens

Echinops with bees in attendance at the Ripley Garden.

If you’re visiting Washington, don’t miss this small gem of a garden just off the Mall. The Enid Haupt garden – to be the subject of another post – is justly famous. The Ripley Garden, however, offers much more in a small space, so put it on your list of sites to visit!

Acres of Sunflowers

July 17, 2010

What’s more emblematic of high summer than a sunflower in bloom? Acres of them.

McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management area, sunflowers

Montgomery County's McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management area attracts photographers like me in mid-summer when acres of sunflowers are in bloom.

A couple of summers ago, a camera club colleague of mine shared a photograph with the club that stunned us. A panorama, it showed lines of sunflowers, stretching for miles, and it hadn’t been taken in Tuscany. Instead, the location was within driving distance in our own county – the McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area in Poolesville, Maryland. Seems that every year, the county plants acres of sunflowers to lure doves for hunting season (kind of sad, actually, at least in my book), which appear after the flowers are mowed down in September.

I’ve been out to the fields three summers running, including last weekend. Photographing the flowers takes sensitivity to light conditions and exposure,  and has given me an appreciation for what a difference the sky and light can make in the success or failure (so to speak) of my images. The photo at top, for example, was taken on this year’s trip. I was there at first light but because the sky was hazy, I had to work very hard in processing the image to bring out any color in the sky at all, and brighten the yellows of the sunflowers. So for the most part, I stuck to images that didn’t show the sky, like this one.


This year's flowers were pretty much at eye level, which helped me photograph them without catching "dead" skies.

Last year’s photos are probably the best of the lot. Amazingly blue sky with puffy clouds set off the color of the flowers perfectly, and they were taller than this year, so I had to shoot upwards (not having thought to bring a ladder).


A tall sunflower with a perfect sky behind it, from last summer's trip to McKee-Beshers.

I also got a few images without the sky, like this one that reminds me of a mother and child duo:


An open sunflower with another one ready to bloom just behind it.

The sunflowers are planted in rows that run north-south but their heads turn towards the sun.


The rows look pretty cool from the back as well as the front.

Here are my two favorite images from the 2009 trip, one cropped from the other.

sunflowers, McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area

A group of sunflowers rising high above ground level.


Cropped from the image above. I like the graphic feel of the single sunflower against the blue sky and clouds.

One of the things I do with my photography is to make blank note cards, which I sell or give to friends. Here’s an image I’ve used in a “pano” card, from 2008:


As a card, this is cropped a little differently, more like my "slice" headers.

The sunflower is the state flower of Kansas. It’s also practical, tough – and beautiful in bloom. I don’t grow them in my garden, but I’m glad the county makes up for that lack of foresight on my part. Some day, I hope to make it to Tuscany to photograph them there, but until then, I can always find them just up a county road.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

And now, it’s time to announce the winner of the custom header design I offered several weeks ago. My son Adam chose the following piece of paper, from the four entrants, and here’s the winning slip:

And Jean is the winner!

Congratulations to Jean of Jean’s Garden. I’ll be in touch with her to start work on the design soon.  Thanks to everyone who entered!

Heavenly Hydrangeas (Part 2)

July 10, 2010

An unknown variety of lacecap hydrangea peeks through a fence in Washington DC

Last week I wrote about “mophead” hydrangeas that I grow in my garden. This week is let’s look at some “lacecap” varieties.  From a design standpoint, I love using this kind of hydrangea in woodland-style gardens for a more natural look; somehow the mopheads look out of place. Many clients I meet haven’t made the acquaintance of these  kinds of hydrangeas, and sometimes I gain a convert or two from people who didn’t think they liked hydrangeas at all.

Technically speaking, there are at least two kinds of lacecaps. Hydrangea macrophylla has two “sub-species,” the lacecaps (with “composite” styles of flowers) and the “mopheads” with globose-headed flowers. (A valuable guide to hydrangeas is the reference book Hydrangeas, A Gardener’s Guide, by Toni Lawson-Hall and Brian Rothera, to which I am indebted in trying to explain this distinction).

Hydrangea 'Lanarth White'

The blooms of Hydrangea 'Lanarth White' in my garden

I’ll begin with my favorite. Hydrangea ‘Lanarth White’ is a stunning lacecap in my garden. I grow two of them in front of three dark, tall cherry laurels next to my deck. Except for this year, when the snows hit them hard, they have a fairly upright habit, since their flowers are lighter and airier than the big mopheads’ blooms. This hydrangea is more sun-tolerant than most, and easy to find in the trade. Its’ tiny fertile ‘true’ flowers, grouped in the center of the corymb, are blue in my soil and provide a nice landing platform for insects looking for nectar.

The other non-serrata lacecap that I grow is ‘Lilacina.’ This one tends to get tall and leggy so periodically I take out some of the largest canes in an attempt to keep it in scale.

Hydrangea 'Lilacina'Interestingly enough, its blooms begin as pink, then change over to the blue you see above. Here’s one of the initial flowers.

Hydrangea 'Lilacina'

The initial color of 'Lilacina's' blooms in my garden is pinkish.

Apart from the Hydrangea macrophylla lacecaps, there are the Hydrangea serrata varieties, native to the woodlands of Japan and Korea.( These are also sometimes listed as H. macrophylla subsp. serrata.) They stay smaller and are reputed to be more cold-hardy, although this is a matter of some debate among experts. My personal favorite in this group is ‘Blue Billows,’ shown below.

Hydrangea serrata 'Blue Billows'

'Blue Billows' in my back yard, with ferns and a variegated boxwood in the background.

Hydrangea 'Blue Billows', Hosta 'Pineapple Upside Down Cake'

The blue color of its flowers is quite intense at the beginning. Shown with Hosta 'Pineapple Upside Down Cake' and autumn fern.

Finally, I have a few of the newer Japanese imports – one called ‘Purple Tiers’ and another called ‘Diadem.’ Their flowers are smaller and the infertile ones closer together. If you plant these in your garden, place them where their subtle, delicate beauty can be appreciated, for the flowers are fleeting.

Hydrangea 'Diadem'

The small, delicate flowers of Hydrangea serrata 'Diadem.'

Heavenly Hydrangeas (Part 1)

July 3, 2010

Hydrangeas from my garden, given as a present to two friends celebrating their wedding last week.

Most people would not use hydrangeas as foundation plants, but I am not most people. This is a tribute to one of my favorite shrubs, which grace my north-facing front yard in foundation beds (interspersed with cherry laurels for some evergreen staying power in the winter) as well as beds on the east and south sides of the lot. I have half a dozen or more kinds of hydrangeas on my property, and this year some of them seem to be eating the house, thanks probably to the good start they got during Snowmaggedon and a wet spring.

In a post several months ago, I picked this photo as one of my favorite shots of my garden (and it still is).

My front yard in early summer morning light

Behind the bench you can see two Annabelle hydrangeas, but I will confess that they are there primarily because a friend recommended them as remarkably drought-tolerant. She was right; despite the competing roots of my old crabapple tree, the Annabelles soldier on without supplemental water.

But I prefer the Hydrangea ‘All Summer Beauty’ shrubs next to the house, because of the differing shades of blue and pink they provide as grace notes to the otherwise muted shady palette of my north-facing front yard. Yes, they look like sticks in the winter, but I don’t care. Right now a huge one is in a holding bed in back of the house while my steps and stoop are being rebuilt and we will see if it survives. Here are some of the flowers as it started to show color in the spring.

Hydrangea 'All Summer Beauty'

'All Summer Beauty' as it starts to color.

And here it is in early summer, bowing under the weight of its enormous flowers.

Hydrangea 'All Summer Beauty'

One of the reasons I decided to write this post, however, is to talk a little bit about some of the hydrangeas I grow that you may not see every day. Let’s start with the mopheads. First is ‘Nigra’, whose black stems and pink blossoms make up for the fact that it isn’t particularly vigorous. I grow it primarily for the stems, next to an aging daphne in front of my bench under the crabapple tree.

Hydrangea 'Nigra'

Hydrangea 'Nigra' has black stems that set it apart from the other hydrangeas I grow.

I grow another hydrangea called ‘Forever Pink,’ primarily as an experiment because our soil is so acidic (I wanted to see if it would stay pink). Maybe it should be renamed ‘95% Pink’ for this area.

Hydrangea 'Forever Pink'

In our soil, 'Forever Pink' has a purplish cast to it but is still a knockout.

Then there is ‘Blue Danube,’ which I think is really my favorite. I bought it years ago, via mail-order, from Wilkerson Mill Gardens. Unfortunately, the last time I checked, they didn’t appear to be carrying it any more, so if I want more I will have to resort to cuttings. I have two specimens, growing in part-sun, part-shade in the back yard, and I can’t believe the colors and the shape of the individuals florets.

Hydrangea 'Blue Danube'

'Blue Danube' is my favorite mophead hydrangea.

In my next post, I’ll share my favorite lacecap hydrangeas with you. But before I close, I would like to invite those of you who love photos of hydrangeas to visit Britt Conley’s blog (The Photo Garden Bee), where she has a recent post with some absolutely gorgeous photos.

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