The brilliant flowers of Adonis amurensis have opened despite the ongoing cold, and winter aconites (Eranthis hymelis) are a puddle of sunshine under an apple tree. These two stalwart beauties–one a perennial, the other a bulb–flower with the same determination as the snowdrops, and are in their prime right now. So many years ago, almost thirty-four, I dug up a tiny clump of winter aconites from my old yard and brought them to this new home, planting them under an ancient apple tree along what became my woodland path. Maybe four or five flowers bloomed that first spring. I knew aconites spread through seeding if they are happy. And so they did, year after year, spreading and multiplying slowly but steadily. For some years I counted to see how many new ones flowered–but when there were more than 50 I gave up. Now there is a great pool of these buttercup-yellow flowers opening wide above their Elizabethan ruff of leaves intermingling with snowdrops. A few have even cropped up on the other side of the path several yards away, and I hope they will carpet the ground there one day too. The adonis was a new plant to me a few years ago– a gift from a wonderful old-time gardener who has since died. Seeing their bold yellow buds thrust through the leafy brown debris of the woodland and open wide with a hint of warmth seems a tribute to our friend.
Clethra alnifolia, or summersweet as it is commonly known, grows wild in deep, wet woods around here. It is an exceptionally fine native shrub, one of my favorites–and, even now, in the dead of winter, it is beautiful with its arching seedheads, right now capped with snow.
Although its natural habitat is low damp forest, clethra fares just as well in rather dry woods such as ours, and flowers in shade or sun. What’s wonderful about its flowering is that it happens in August, when not many shrubs are in bloom besides hydrangeas, and, as a bonus, the white bottlebrush spires are sweetly fragrant and provide nectar for butterflies and bees.
It is a graceful shrub that suckers and colonizes into an attractive billowing clump, growing about 6′ in height. If you are so inclined to get out your shears, clethra takes well to pruning into tight cloud-like shapes.
In October, the leaves of summersweet turn a lovely butter yellow, as you see here in the background to the left of the herb garden arbor where a small colony flourishes.
A charming pink sort, introduced by Broken Arrow Nursery, is called ’Ruby Spice’ and is smaller in growth.
The branches of clethra flowers cut well for bouquets and I like to mix them with summer composites like Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ and at other times with hydrangeas like ’Limelight.’
The only small drawback of clethra–and I am quibbling–is that it leafs out very late in spring. There is a moment in late April when you wonder if the bush is dead. But by early May the leaves unfurl, and handsome and healthy they are, providing a quiet screen until August when we are rewarded for our patience.
At holiday time, I am sorry we don’t have more conifers at Duck Hill. Not because I want to see them in the garden particularly (most conifers seem to me out of place here), but because I wish I had them to pick for bouquets and wreaths and mantels. I make do with what we have, namely hemlock from our boundary hedge and yew from a conveniently overgrown specimen that was here when I came 32 years ago. Thankfully, we have broadleaf evergreens that offer branches and sprigs–boxwood, pieris, leucothoe, inkberry, rhododendron, and skimmia. They are the saving grace now, offering welcome patches of green in the gray and white winter landscape. And here and there, we have dashes of holiday red–berries, fruit, and branches, to cut for indoors or just savor their brilliance as we walk in the garden.
The winterberries, varieties of Ilex verticillata, have been especially floriferous this year, which is surprising when you remember how dry our early fall was, and knowing that their natural preference is for damp ground. I catch glimpses of their scarlet-studded branches in low-lying woods as I drive the country roads around here. But they seem to survive well enough in drier ground, as is the case here. Usually a flock of birds, often robins, has stripped our bushes by now, but this year they are still vivid with orange and red berries.
Our American cranberrybush, Viburnum trilobum, drips with lustrous fruit until sometime in dead winter when birds polish them off. Our bushes, planted as a screen by the road, are five to six feet in height, arching in habit, and decorated with these scarlet drupes starting in late summer. I love to cut sprigs to add to small bouquets of roses or dahlias.
The showiest of viburnums this time of year is V. dilatatum. This is a big shrub, to about seven or eight feet, rounded in habit, with masses of tiny deep red berries from early fall through much of winter. This is a stellar viburnum where you can use a big shrub, with handsome heart-shaped leaves, showy discs of white flowers, and then this painterly haze of red. I pick branches of the berries to mix with hydrangeas for bouquets in the fall and now to compliment those broadleaf evergreens.
Most of the hips on our roses have been gobbled up by now, or have shrivelled and turned brown. But a few still hold their brilliance–are they not as palatable for some reason?
I love the color of the shrub dogwoods in the winter garden–yellow-twigged, flaming orange, dark crimson. One small, shrubby tree stands out along our woodland path for the same reason. It is a maple in the moosewood family, called Acer x conspicuum ‘Phoenix,’ with rather spectacular white-striped, coral-red winter twigs. It isn’t big enough to dream of cutting. But I puposely take the path where it stands back to the house each afternoon to see it shimmer.
Happy New Year from Duck Hill.
We have been blessed this late September and early October with soft, warm, sun-lit days, time to savor the last blooms in the garden. The dahlias have been brilliant dabs of color in the vegetable garden, begging to be picked for bouquets.
Soon, one cold night they will be blackened with frost, and that will be that. Carefully the tubers will be dug up, dried off a bit and packed away in boxes within nests of vermiculite or peat moss, stored in the garage until next spring.
Meanwhile, asters have been the stars in other parts of the garden, livening the flower borders with rich purple and lavendar, turning the woodland into a fairyland of white, and, in the meadow, playing counterpoint in all its cool hues to the plumes of goldenrod. I can’t have enough of these native fall flowers–notes are jotted in the garden journal to add more to the meadow, more to the flower borders, pink and palest blue, and violet.
The last of the sunflowers is blooming now, tall and waving, humming with bees, a lovely graceful thing. It is called Helianthus ‘Sheila’s Sunshine,’ a pale butter yellow, small single flowers in great abundance on 8′ stems. Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ is now tinged with brown, but its seedheads still offer meals for the goldfinches who frequent its bright yellow flowers on willowy branches all summer.
One of the delights of June and July at Duck Hill is the flowering of clematis vines as they scramble through roses and weave up and over our wire-faced paddock fences that enclose the meadow and pool area and the vegetable garden. We grow mostly the small-flowered sorts, the viticellas and texensis varieties and a few of the curious species, for they fit well with our rather wild and unpretentious garden. One of the deservedly better-known viticella hybrids, ’Betty Corning,’ is seen in the picture above, covering a part of the vegetable garden fence with its masses of pale lilac bells. It is a “doer,” never failing to bloom in abundance.
Clematis ‘Alba Luxurians’ is a curious viticella cultivar that I am fond of. It has pinwheels of nodding white flowers tipped and notched green at the ends of the petals, their white often tinged with the palest violet blue. It has dark, purple-black stamens.
Clematis triternata ’Rubromarginata’ is the mouthful of a name for the lovely little violet and white species that has been flowering delicately for weeks now. It is one of my favorites.
Another odd little species at Duck Hill, Clematis viorna, drapes its reddish-purple bells along the meadow fence. Also called leather-flower, it is native to our southeastern states, found on stream banks under trees. The little flared bells are edged in yellow.
Soon the cultivars of Clematis tangutica will be blooming, and, as the viticellas and earlier species succomb to our summer heat, the golden clematis will carry us through the rest of summer. Even after they finish blooming, the swirled, silky seed heads are magical in the garden and wonderful to cut and mix in small bouquets.
As for pruning: we cut all of the clematis vines mentioned above down to about a foot from the ground in spring. Then we dress the base of the plants with compost and ashes from the fireplace (they like that touch of lime) and keep them well weeded and watered. Our reward is this charming yearly display.
Duck Hill will be open to the public this Sunday, June 2, from 10 am to 6 pm, to benefit the Garden Conservancy. Roses are opening daily, late peonies are flowering, foxgloves showing their spotted throats. Lilacs scenting the air. Come and visit.
Peony ‘White Innocence’
I think I can say that our small spit of woodland is at its peak now, although perhaps I should say its final peak. For snowdrops and aconites started the floor show early on in March, and were followed by all the beautiful hellebores and a few treasured hepaticas. Then, in April, daffodils opened with troutlilies, bloodroot, and the Jeffersonias, and, by early May, all sorts of anemones carpeted the borders. These have faded now, and even most of the epimediums are no longer blooming, although their foliage creates handsome groundcovers for the rest of the summer and fall. But I love this moment in the middle of May when the woodland phlox are in full flower, Phlox divaricata and P. stolonifera, painting great swathes of the woodland with lavender blue. Alot of unfurling is going on around them–yellow and white-flowering disporums, Solomon’s seal and Smilacina, the false Solomon’s seal, Jack-in-the-pulpits, and toadlilies (Tricyrtis). Trilliums are at their prime, elgegantly flowering in white, plum, and yellow above the pinwheels of blue, and foamflower, Tiarella cordata, compliments the phlox with patches of white bottle brush blooms.
Here and there, at the edge of the paths, and also where the woods meet our meadow, our native columbine is flowering, Aquilegia canadense. I have a weakness for this plant, for its diminutive flowers, its bright red and yellow, its jauntiness. It blooms where it wants, appearing often in unexpected places, but I think it likes rocks or gravel mixed with the leafy soil and filtered shade of high trees. I have picked a few stems today to mix in a posy with lilies-of-the-valley, just coming into flower, and the creamy-white violet, Viola striata, which blooms just as the other violets are fading, and makes lovely clumps along one of our wooded paths.
Soon most of the flowering on our woodland floor will be over, at least until fall, and this will become for the summer a quiet ferny green place.
It is the first day of spring and you wouldn’t know it outside. The snowdrops and winter aconites, which I was savoring in full flower just a few days ago, are once again covered with snow. But, thanks to the bounty from our coldframe, it is spring indoors. Every October we pot up bulbs–daffodils, grape hyacinths, scilla, crocuses, trout lilies, frittilaries–sinking them in our best clay pots in a mixture of loam and compost. We then water them well, label them with tall wooden labels, and bury them under 8″ of shavings in our coldframe. There they go through their required period of dormancy for about 10 to 12 weeks. By the beginning of February, we are pulling them out, a few pots at a time, transfering them to the greenhouse where, with water and sunlight, they push up leaves and buds. When they are just beginning to flower, we bring them down to the house.
Right now, the early cyclamineus daffodil ‘Jetfire,’ with bright yellow flared-back perianth and orange trumpets, is flowering in the kitchen. I especially like forcing the very early-blooming narcissus, and also the miniatures, sweet ones like white ’Toto,’ soft yellow ‘Gypsy Queen,’ and ‘Rip van Winkle,’ which looks rather like a dandelion.
We have a small pot of N. ‘Snipe’ flowering in the living room–I first saw this sweetheart at the San Francisco flower show with its tiny flared back petals and long narrow soft yellow trumpets. For some reason, it is not easy to find in the catalogs and is expensive to buy, but I always try to have at least one pot of it to force in the winter.
I know you can buy grape hyacinths in the supermarket, but it’s fun to force some of the more unusual sorts. This year we had a pot of Muscari neglectum with stalks of inky-blue bells dipped in white, and we forced an especially nice white sort called M. aucheri ‘White Magic.’
I am not sure why more gardeners don’t have coldframes. They are easy to build–ours are made from inexpensive wood and clear plastic, three boxes that are 3′ deep by 3′ wide, their backs slightly higher than their fronts, with hinged tops, sitting on gravel, facing south. You can start all sorts of perennials from seed in March or November in the protection of the frames, you can grow lettuces there before it is warm enough to do so outside, and you can have the prettiest pots of flowers to cheer up your rooms inside no matter how much snow is on the ground. When you pull the pots out of the coldframe, you don’t need a greenhouse to force the bulbs into flower; any sunny cool window will do the trick. This week, I am pulling a small pot of white erythroniums and larger pots of the lovely late daffodils ‘Segovia’ and ‘Hawera’ to have in bloom before the daffodils are flowering outside. Happy Spring.
One of the pleasures of winter is seeing trees in their starkness, when the shape and character of their branches, their buds, their seedheads, and the pattern of their bark are all beautifully revealed. Three ornamental trees at Duck Hill–the kousa dogwood, the Persian parrotia, and Stewartia pseudocamellia–heralded for their gorgeous flowers or handsome leaves and brilliant fall color, have trunks that are astonishing to see this time of year because of exfoliation. As the trees age, some of the bark peels away resulting in mottled patchworks of gray, cream, orange and tan.
The stewartia, though not native here, is one of my favorite small trees. It is pyramidal in shape, rather prim in its youth, but with age its branches relax and stretch out gracefully, so be sure to give it plenty of room. (I have not!) It has lustrous leaves and in early June is covered with white camellia-like flowers that open from fat round buds like tiny balloons. The flowering continues for several weeks. In autumn the tree begins to turn color until it is ablaze with orange and red. A beauty in every season.
The bitter cold is here, thankfully with a cover of snow, and our eyes drink in any strokes of green–in the case above, hemlock and box. Hemlock is our only conifer at Duck Hill. Mostly over the years, we’ve planted broadleaf evergreens for that color we crave in winter. Boxwood is a leitmotif of the garden, but we also enjoy mountain laurel, andromeda (Pieris japonica), which seems to thrive here, a few rhododendron, inkberry (Ilex glabra) and our native I. opaca, as well as leucothoe and skimmia. Yes, the leaves of some of these broadleaf evergreens curl in distaste when the temperature plunges to the single digits (rhodos are the most miserable), but neverthless they seem more at home in our predominantly deciduous landscape than non-native conifers. In December and January, I love to cut branches and sprigs of them for vases indoors.
Leucothoe is one of my favorites for big winter bouquets. It is a graceful, fountaining shrub, no more than 3′ or 4′ in height, growing happily in the dryish shade of our woodland. Its elegant arching branches last for weeks inside in water. We have the ordinary sort, L. fontanesiana, which has lustrous, burnished leaves in winter with pink stems and buds, and a variegated sort called ‘Girard’s Rainbow,’ streaked with cream and red. In time the bushes colonize to make handsome clumps. To spread the wealth around, you need only to dig up some rooted outer bits and transplant them in good humusy soil.
An even smaller, less common evergreen that I cherish in winter is Skimmia japonica. We grow the male form of this charming small shrub, which has rosettes of shiny green ovate leaves topped with clusters of dusty red buds, ideal to cut for small vases. I even add sprigs to our Christmas wreaths to nice effect. The female form of skimmia is decked in showy red berries, but I wonder if it is more tender or fussy than the male. We have planted it twice, and twice it has died over winter. We will try a third and last time.
Variegated boxwood, the sort called “Elegantissima,’ I find invaluable for winter arrangements. The cream-dipped leaves add light and sparkle to all the mixed dark greens, just as they do in a garden border. And cutting out branches of box from the innards of the bushes is a good practice in winter, allowing light and air to penetrate the shrubs, which is essential in our on-going battle against fungal disease.