Archive for May 2011

A Party with the Peonies

May 28, 2011

I have been culling through my clematis photos to put together a couple more posts on them. But first, a little detour to report on a special garden tour I attended last Saturday in Fulton, Maryland at the home of Gail Gee. She has an extraordinary three-acre garden, devoted in large part to a stunning collection of peonies, and on May 21st she decided to open it to benefit Brookside Gardens.

I love peonies as much as anyone, and grow both tree peonies and herbaceous varieties. What intrigued me about this garden tour, however, was the opportunity to see some ‘intersectional’ peonies (also known as Itoh peonies), a cross between those two kinds. So off I went, camera in hand, on a hot and sunny day, with another garden designer friend.

Although she lives in deer country, Gee’s front yard garden (unfenced) holds a large assortment of peonies and companion plants that are resistant to our Bambi-type friends.

Peonies, alliums, siberian iris, deer-resistant plants

Hot red peonies, purple allium and blue Siberian iris in part of Gail Gee's front garden border

In the back yard, enormous carefully laid-out island beds carved up lawn space and drew the eye with focal points such as seating areas, pergolas and gazebos. The garden is only 10 years old. Landscape designer Gordon Hayward assisted Gee in designing the structure of the garden, but Gee has made the plant choices herself with help from Phil Normandy, Brookside’s chief horticulturist. Gee describes it as a “pleasure garden in the English style.”

Her collection of intersectional peonies is enormous – 43 varieties in all. They bloom later than herbaecous types, have stiffer stems, and aren’t prone to powdery mildew — all huge pluses in a gardener’s eyes. There are a large number of yellow and orange forms (fewer reds or whites), and over time each plant grows into a small shrub-like size, although like herbaceous peonies they die back to the ground in the winter, without leaving a woody stem.

I have three favorites from my visit. The first, shown below, is an herbaceous peony, ‘Coral Sunset.’

Peony Itoh 'Coral Sunset,' intersectional peony, Gee Garden

Peony 'Coral Sunset' from Gail Gee's garden.

The next two are intersectionals.

Peony Itoh 'Cora Louise', intersectional peony, Gail Gee garden

'Cora Louise', another intersectional peony, looked wonderful planted with variegated weigelia.

Peony Itoh 'New Millenium', intersectional peony, Gail Gee garden

'New Millenium' is a deep pink intersectional peony.

Gee told us that she orders most of her intersectional peonies from Swenson Gardens, which is an organic grower producing its plants the old-fashioned way rather than through tissue culture. I’ve recently purchased ‘Cora Louise’ and another Itoh called ‘Morning Lilac’ from a reputable wholesale grower in Pennsylvania, but they produce theirs through tissue culture (much less expensive). I will be curious to see how my plants fare. Gail advises planting intersectional peonies several inches deep (like a clematis) and says although they will look ridiculous the first year, it will pay off. Wish me luck – I’m excited about trying these out!

Clematis for the Shady Garden

May 21, 2011

One of the first sun-loving plants I learned to crave when I became a gardener was clematis. As many of my readers know by now, however, very little of my garden gets full sun (in fact, none of it does, although a portion of it gets western sun and that qualifies as far as I can tell). I have grown, loved and photographed many clematis – and will share more of them in a later post. I have a particularly soft spot in my heart, however, for three that have flowered well for me and my clients in shady sites: Clematis ‘Dawn,’ Clematis ‘Silver Moon,’ and Clematis ‘Blue Moon.’

Clematis Silver Moon, shade clematis

A duo of Clematis 'Silver Moon'

I started with ‘Silver Moon,’ a light-blue colored large-flowered clematis, planting it behind some shrubs next to a fence on the east side of my house. The color was breathtaking, although it probably would fade out in direct sun. It flowered regularly for me for some years, eventually succumbing (I think) to stem breakage once too often during my attempts at a one-person spring cleanup. I have used Silver Moon’s cousin, ‘Blue Moon’ (now apparently known as Clematis ‘Claire de Lune’) on a client’s arbor in serious shade. It took several years to establish but this year is blooming prolifically, benefiting from additional indirect light that now reaches the area because of the loss of a large hickory tree on the other side of the driveway. The early form of the bloom looks like this:

Clematis Blue Moon, Clematis Claire de Lune

Clematis 'Blue Moon'

Mine has never really taken off, but here’s ‘Blue Moon’ on the client’s arbor this year (some five years after planting): Clematis Blue Moon, Clematis Claire de LuneAfter night comes the dawn – Clematis ‘Dawn,’ to be precise. This is my favorite, probably because I love the way it looks as it opens, Clematis Dawn
and its almost perfect form as it presents itself fully.

Clematis Dawn

How can you not love this flower?

Singly or in groups, it never disappoints.

Clematis Dawn

A cluster of Clematis 'Dawn'

I must explain that this clematis – which will probably never bloom as prolifically as the Blue Moon clematis on my client’s arbor – represents to me a real triumph. It gets absolutely NO direct sun; I planted it behind a large old pieris in my front yard, against the brick wall of my north-facing house. Its colors are delicate and its shape gorgeous. I should plant it for clients more often. Speaking of planting, if this post has whetted your appetite for any of these clematis, I can recommend an East Coast mail-order nursery that has supplied me with my plants and does a phenomenal job of packing and shipping these delicate treasures, Completely Clematis ( in Massachusetts) . On the West Coast, Chalk Hill Clematis used to sell clematis online but apparently has become primarily a cut-flower supplier. If any of my readers can recommend other trusted online suppliers, I’d love to know about them.

Bidding Adieu to the Beech

May 14, 2011

According to the dictionary, “adieu” means a fond, but final farewell. About two weeks ago, I learned that I would have to say just that – adieu – to a huge, mature beech tree that defines my front yard, and around which much of it has been designed. I’m still in shock, but am trying to see this as an opportunity as well as a loss. A new chapter in my life, so to speak. (My younger son has assured me that whatever I do with the space, he’s sure it will be “masterful,” a touching but daunting tribute). As it turned out, things moved fast. So herewith, a tribute to my American beech (Fagus grandifolia).

Fagus grandiflora

The beech in all its glory, May 2008.

As best as I can tell, this tree was planted some time after our house was built in 1941. It had already been limbed up as shown in the photo above when we moved in during 1988. Until I became a landscape designer, I didn’t know what it was – or appreciate its glory. When I redesigned the front yard in 2001, I had it uplit.
Fagus grandifolia, night lighting for trees

The upper part of my beech, lit by three small spots at night.

Fagus grandifolia, fall color

Fall color on the beech

Fagus grandifolia, bark

Even in winter, the beech is magnificent.

Unfortunately, about two years ago I began to notice dieback here and there in the upper branches. Dead or weakened sections would break off during storms and drop down into the yard. An arborist I trust diagnosed the tree as having hypoxylon cankerand said the beech had 5 -15 years left to live depending on whether I wanted to invest heavily in treatments that would extend its life but still have its large trunk dying off section by section. I decided against the treatments and hoped to get five good years out of it.

A large beech branch that snapped off during a summer storm last July.

It wasn’t to be. The week before Mother’s Day, by which time the beech had fully leafed out for the spring, I noticed the dieback was worse. Then Pepco, our local energy provider (which has been getting lots of criticism for less than average performance restoring power when electricity goes out in our area), decided to catch up on its clearance pruning and proposed taking out a huge section of the tree that was hanging over power lines. They admitted I had taken good care of it and that it “wouldn’t be pretty” when they finished their work. I called in my arborist, who pointed out the tree’s decline would be hastened by the pruning. The result: Pepco would take the tree down, all the way down, at their cost. I tried to look at the bright side: saving HUGE bucks. More time to get a new tree going. The beech, my arborist gently said, was in rapid decline at this point and probably had at most another two years before it would be completely dead. I had the lighting removed, called Pepco, and was appalled when they arrived the very next day (Tuesday of this week).
Tree removal

Day 2 of the takedown, courtesy of Asplundh and Pepco. Firewood, anyone?

The crew was very professional and careful. Still, in the end, it was a sad sight.
Fagus grandifolia

Day 3 of the take-down.

Fagus grandifolia, beech tree

And the last day. Now we wait for the pieces to be picked up.

I’m trying not to fret about the huge amounts of sunlight now pouring onto all my shade-tolerant plantings as the summer approaches. I still have to have the stump ground out, find a new tree (I’m leaning towards a Fagus sylvatica ‘Riversii,’ less prone to Hypoxylon and with very nice coppery leaves in summer – providing I can find it), and determine the best time to plant it. But it feels as though there has been a death in the family, in the meantime. I’m sure those of you who love trees will understand.

Flowering Dogwoods

May 7, 2011

This year the flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida) have been nothing short of spectacular here in the metro DC area. These “four-season” trees are treasured for their flowers, berries, fall leaf color and arresting horizontal habit. Like this one.

Cornus florida, flowering dogwood, Washington DC area

A deep rosy-pink Cornus florida in peak bloom near my house.

A single specimen, like the one above, is breathtaking in its shape and its flowers.

Cornus florida, flowering dogwood blossoms

The cross-shaped appearance of dogwood bracts (the "flowers" are in the center of the grouped bracts and will eventually open, themselves). Here I think the Canon G11 has over-saturated the colors a bit.

The flowering dogwood is native to North America (I once heard a British garden owner bemoan the fact that she couldn’t grow them in the UK). Often seen on the edge of woodlands, it is a classic “understory” tree that usually reaches heights of about 20 to 25 feet, with a very wide spread.

Cornus florida, flowering dogwood

A trio of white and pink dogwoods at the edge of an area of much taller trees in suburban Potomac, Maryand

Cornus florida, white flowering dogwoods

Two white flowering dogwoods with branches blending into each other's space.

Despite what the books say, in some instances you run across flowering dogwoods that have grown 30′ or more, reaching for the sky, especially where light is scarce, and as they age losing lower limbs in the process. I found such a beauty in the garden of a client nearby recently.

Cornus florida, flowering dogwood

A high-canopy, older dogwood still radiantly beautiful.

I mentioned a “love-fear” relationship to these beautiful trees. As beautiful as they are, I have been reluctant to plant them for clients unless specifically requested to do so. That’s because of anthracnose, a deadly disease afflicting Cornus florida along the East Coast.  It claimed two of the five dogwoods that were in my own garden when I moved in. Two are left, holding their own, although one lost major branches this year thanks to a heavy snowstorm. That one now looks like a fork stuck in the ground. But the other one still entrances me with its white blossoms every year, and I hope to have it in my garden until I’m no longer the gardener.


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