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Garden Surprises

August 30, 2012

gburg sandra elizabethOne of the delights of gardening is that it brings constant surprises. The garden is never totally predictable. Plants that bloomed together one year are out of synch the next. A plant that you thought was dead puts up strong new growth the following spring. Although surprises are a normal part of gardening, the surprise factor can be even greater if you’ve been away from the garden for a while. This is true for me in my Gettysburg garden, which I leave in late spring each May and return to three months later in August. When I am driving back to Gettysburg, I always feel a mixture of anticipation and trepidation about what surprises I will find there.

When I returned to my Gettysburg garden a little over a week ago, the surprise factor was greater than usual. It was probably good that I had some warning about the first surprise (by way of a panicky email message from the student who was mowing and watering for me during the summer); otherwise, I might have had trouble finding my townhouse! When I left, the front of the house looked like this:

gburg front view

When I returned, it looked like this:

gburg front view new

gburg boxwoodI rent this townhouse, and my landlord sometimes uses the summer months when I am away to get some major projects done; this new landscaping was a part of a larger project that included a new roof. I consider this change a pleasant surprise. I have never been a fan of Arbor vitae, and this one was not in good shape (although it did do a good job of hiding my trashcan); I’m delighted with the boxwood replacement. While I do like yew, this shrub was much too large for the space it was in, and trying to keep it pruned down to size was a major task. I don’t actually know what the replacement plant is or how large it can be expected to grow. Can anyone help with an identification?

gburg mystery shrub gburg mystery shrub foliage

Whoever installed these plants did not give my landlord any information about how to take care of them, and he did not know that they needed weekly deep watering for the first season. I have taken on the task of nurturing these plants. I have pushed the woodchip mulch (which would not have been my choice) away from the base of the plants to form a saucer at the drip line and watered each plant deeply last weekend. (Since they had not had any watering since planting other than rainfall, they were very thirsty; the boxwood alone took 25 gallons of water.)

The surprises in the back garden were less pleasant. Here, as in my Maine garden, the morning glories failed to grow this year, so I won’t have any flowers gracing the fence through the fall. Meanwhile, in the herb bed in front of the fence, the parsley bolted and the oregano turned into a monster plant that is sprawling all over the patio. On the opposite side of the patio, large weeds established themselves in the small circle flower bed. Is that corn growing there??

gburg herb bed mess gburg corn volunteer

gburg back garden May2While I was away, the larger back flower bed, which looked like this when I left, got taken over by large plants moving in from behind and is looking a bit like a jungle. Whole plants have disappeared under all this shrubby foliage (including a formerly glorious Hemerocallis ‘Autumn Minaret’). Even the hostas are having trouble competing, and I can’t actually see the foliage of Hosta nigrescens. The Joe Pye Weed, trying desperately to reach the light, has grown long horizontal branches that would be about 8’ tall if they were standing upright.

gburg back jungle

I plan to get out with a pruning saw this weekend and reclaim this flower bed from the jungle. I’ll be sure to post the results.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2012 11:37 pm

    Well, my parsley bolted and my oregano turned into a monster, and I was right here. Good luck with the jungle!

    • September 4, 2012 1:12 pm

      LOL, Jason, I guess it is in the nature of parsley to bolt in its second year and oregano to take over the world, but these plants seemed to have pursued their natural inclinations in a particularly spectacular way this summer.

  2. August 31, 2012 1:13 am

    Wow that is quite a change…but I like it too…I am always amazed that you have 2 gardens and you can keep up with them….my garden is sad and looking like a fall garden with not much in bloom…barely an inch of rain in August and very hot 80s and 90s ….everything here is bolting or spent quickly and died back…have fun reclaiming.

    • September 4, 2012 1:17 pm

      Donna, I think these plants are going to be really lovely in 2-3 years. I won’t be here anymore then, so I hope the next tenant appreciates them. Regarding the two gardens, I have to emphasize that this is a really tiny garden, so it doesn’t take a great deal of work. (It’s just enough to keep me from feeling garden-deprived in fall and spring.) There’s no shortage of rain here. Pennsylvania is one of those rare states that didn’t experience drought conditions this summer; and this week, it is so humid that the sky just has to wring itself out in a torrential downpour several times a day.

  3. August 31, 2012 1:53 am

    About your new plant – the 3-part leaf structure is typical of many in the Rhus family, but I don’t know if that is a plant you might find in your part of the world… Looking in the RHS directory – something like Rhus trilobata perhaps?

    • August 31, 2012 2:02 am

      Googled that – leaf shapes wrong. But still an avenue worth pursuing, although the many african versions I know won’t cope with your zone.

    • September 4, 2012 1:18 pm

      Thanks for the suggestions, Jack; I think the Nandina identifications below are right.

  4. August 31, 2012 12:04 pm

    Jean, I wonder if the mystery plant isn’t a Nandina domestica (heavenly bamboo)? They’re charming little shrubs, I think, but maybe more likely to stay charming in a dryer climate… I suppose the good thing about all those surprises is that they’ll give you a reason to take a break from start-of-term activities and do something wonderfully physical for a while. (?)

    • August 31, 2012 4:50 pm

      I also see Nandina. Tiny white flowers? Red berries? And good autumn colour? Also invasive …

    • September 8, 2012 7:48 pm

      Stacy, Thanks for the identification. You’re exactly right about my need for physical activity breaks as the school year has begun with a bang. (I can already see that this is going to be a very busy semester.) Happily, the hot, steamy weather that always makes me miserable when I return to Gettysburg in late August finally broke today. They’re promising us overnight lows in the 50s and daytime highs in the 70s, perfect for outdoor chores.

      Diana, The jury is still out on whether Nandina is invasive this far north. (It clearly is in the southeastern US.) Some sources say it is a problem in this region; others say that cold winters here keep it under control.

  5. August 31, 2012 3:50 pm

    Hi Jean, I saw that shrub and thought, “oh, what pretty colour on the new leaves, that’s just like a Nandina Domestica”, the heavenly bamboo. You’ll be able to confirm that in the Autumn when the leaves are supposed to colour even more. I see Stacy’s beaten me to it but at least is it planted in the right place, right by the front door. It should keep the bad dreams away if you head out in the evening and talk to it before going to bed.

    • September 8, 2012 7:52 pm

      Sunil, It is a pretty plant, and I’m relieved to know that the leaves are supposed to be that color. (I was afraid they might be diseased or suffering from lack of water.) Since my bedroom is upstairs at the front of the house, maybe I can just call goodnight to it out the window as I turn in. 🙂

  6. August 31, 2012 5:06 pm

    I think I would be too nervous to have two gardens and be away from one for months at a time. I probably wouldn’t sleep the night before for worrying what I might find. Anyway, think how satisfied you’ll be after all that pruning this weekend. Nothing like giving everything a good going over with the secateurs.

    • September 8, 2012 11:22 pm

      Claire, My Maine garden is my main garden 🙂 — the one I’m at for most of the gardening season and the one I have a strong emotional attachment to. My Gettysburg garden is very small, and I mostly think of it as a “gardening fix” — something to keep me from having garden withdrawal symptoms during the months I’m away from Maine. I do enjoy the beauty it provides in my life, especially in spring when I run to the windows to look out first thing when I get up in the morning.

  7. August 31, 2012 9:31 pm

    Goodness, what a transformation! I agree, the scale of the Arborvitae was a little too large, the boxwood should be much better in that spot. As for the mystery shrub, my vote is Nandina too. It’s a popular ‘builder’s special’ plant out here, because it’s tolerant of drought, and very poor soils. I just used the backhoe on our tractor a few months ago to rip out the Nandina the previous owners had planted here. It grows too fast, quickly overwhelming a space, and the roots are pervasive. The roots run (I found some plants growing 10-15 feet from the parent plants). Any bits of root left behind after the plants are pulled out, sprout! I’ve been pulling sproutlings all summer. I know some love this plant for its multi-season interest, but in many areas its an invasive thug, and I personally wouldn’t it again. I’ll just admire yours from afar 😉

    • September 8, 2012 11:28 pm

      Clare, This Nandina may well have been some kind of builder’s special, too. My landlord doesn’t seem to have picked the plants out, since he didn’t even know what they were; and the woodchips and lack of instruction about care suggest to me that they weren’t installed by a horticulture professional.
      I don’t know whether the Nandina will turn out to be a problem here. The Penn State extension service says that Nandina is not invasive “in our climate;” but Pennsylvania is a big state with a fair amount of climate variation, and the Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States lists a Nandina infestation in Frederick County, Maryland — just across the Mason-Dixon line from Gettysburg. I think our climate conditions are probably more like Frederick, Maryland than like State College, PA (where Penn State is located). Since I’ll only be renting here for another 18 months, I want get to see these plants reach their mature size and I’ll probably never know whether the Nandina turns out to be a problem.

  8. September 1, 2012 10:00 am

    We had beautiful Nandina in Maryland that lived happily with a few of my roses (Teasing Georgia and Lyda Rose.) A friend had some with yellow berries! They sent me a box of the berries last spring and so far not one has germinated. I am very disappointed but have heard Nandina does not thrive in the mountains ):

    • September 8, 2012 11:29 pm

      Lynn, Although you may long for the beauties of Nandina, it’s probably just as well that it doesn’t thrive in the mountains, since it’s a listed invasive throughout the southeastern US.

  9. September 2, 2012 2:44 am

    Talk about making a grand (and at no cost to you) entrance. Is this a blog or a fairytale?
    He’s a poster boy for people who would rather rent to their to a poster. One for the ages, to be sure.

    • September 8, 2012 11:31 pm

      Patrick, I have been very lucky in my choice of landlords (although one could argue that he’s been lucky in his choice of tenants, too). Anyway, we have a mutually beneficial relationship in which he keeps the property in good repair, allows me to garden to my heart’s content, and watches my efforts improve the value of his property.

  10. September 3, 2012 8:12 pm

    You have a nandina. With pruning they can be pretty. I much prefer your new front landscaping, too. The scale is better suited to your townhouse. Your back garden might be overgrown but it sure is healthy!

  11. September 3, 2012 8:59 pm

    Tough to have a place where others have master control. Boxwood, Nandina, Daylilly and Astrantia (i think) make for an interesting front foundation. A suggestion in the back, prune in anticipation of this type of growth. Hard pruning in winter or early spring may look harsh but will result in better shape later in the year upon your arrival.

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