Pimmit Hills Gardener

Local horticulturalist Deanne Eversmeyer-Ellis of Leonard Road gives great advice for making our Pimmit Hills gardens look beautiful! These past columns from the Pimmit Hills Dispatch are fun to read and full of useful tips.

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 JANUARY Pimmit Hills Gardener

(2005) It was not quite mid-December and the seed catalogs were cluttering my desk already. The Holidays were drawing near and the weatherman promised a chilly week to come. Wait! Wait! I’m not ready for winter yet! There are still Narcissus bulbs to plant and the terra cotta pots are sitting on the deck, waiting to be put away for the winter. This weekend, I promise! I’ll get everything in the ground or in the shed. I promise!

Fortunately there’s plenty of time to prune. I like to prune evergreens around the Holidays, taking off big pieces and using them for decoration. Most trees and non-flowering shrubs benefit from winter or early spring pruning, before they’ve spent energy on new growth.

Spring-blooming shrubs, such as Forsythia and Azaleas, are best pruned right after they flower to avoid reducing the show; or prune a bit while in bloom and enjoy their blossoms in a vase.

To reduce the chance of winter damage wait until early spring to trim your Crape Myrtles. Always avoid pruning in the late summer and fall; the resulting new growth will not have enough time to mature before winter sets in.

Different plants require different methods of pruning. Multi-cane shrubs, such as Forsythia, Lilacs, Nandina and Spirea, should occasionally have old unproductive canes removed at ground level to make room for new shoots. Their natural shapes should not be altered. (An unpruned Forsythia is so much more beautiful than one that’s been pruned into a yellow box.)

Roses should be pruned in late winter, thinning out weak growth, removing dead wood and shortening the robust canes.

Dense shrubs, such as Azalea, Burning Bush and Holly, need to trimmed with hand pruners, removing entire branchlets, instead of shearing off the outer growth. A sheared shrub becomes a dense shell of foliage with a bare interior and too many weak branches as new shoots compete for sun. Use your hand pruners or loppers to thin-out crowded, weak growth, creating windows for sunlight to penetrate into the interior of the bush. These pockets will also collect snow, helping to support the snow-covered branches above.

Please, please give up the green meatball look -- your bushes will be healthier and require a lot less maintenance.

If you want to thin or shape growth or remove dead wood on a tree, always remove the branch back to another branch or the trunk. Do not leave stubs as these will die and then rot. Maples are particularly susceptible, with the rot usually traveling from the stub into the main branch or trunk.

And please don’t “top” a tree. Topping (shearing the outer branches) creates a lot of stumps which either rot or result in a lot of weak, crowded sprouts. Neither condition is desirable. There are way too many trees in our neighborhood that have had their limbs butchered back to stumps. If a tree or bush is too big (or too messy or too ugly), top it all the way to the ground and plant a new one this spring.

Keep an eye on your grafted trees such as fancy Japanese Maples and Weeping Cherry trees. Any new growth that looks different and originates from below the graft should be removed completely before it has a chance to take over. (The rootstock taking over is the reason why Rose bushes change color.)

When removing a limb, look for the swelling where the limb begins at the trunk. This is the collar, the area where the wound will most likely heal properly. If the limb is sizable it’s always a good idea to first make a partial undercut just beyond your pruning cut. If the limb should break before the pruning cut is complete, the undercut should keep the it from ripping down the trunk.

Removing the limb in stages, and thereby lessening the weight burden, also makes the last cut easier and cleaner. Pruning wounds should be left open to heal over naturally; that black goop that Dad always applied is not necessary.

If the job is too daunting, hire a professional arborist who does not advertise “topping”. Ask for estimates and compare prices. And make sure that you get a copy of their insurance – the last thing you want is to be responsible for your tree on your neighbor’s car or roof.

(2004) This is it, the event you’ve been waiting for. It’s time to prune! Now that your trees and shrubs are dormant and, for the deciduous members of the plant world, you can see what’s what in there, get out the pruning saw, loppers and pruning shears and get to work.

You do have a good pair of pruners, don’t you? If not toddle off to the store and get yourself a good set of by-pass pruners. The blades on the by-pass pruners pass each other like a pair of scissors, leaving a clean cut surface. (The anvil style of blade tends to crush stems and leave a messier wound.) The long-handled loppers can be helpful for medium sized branches and reaching those a bit over your head. A good pruning saw makes quick work of larger branches.

Always make a clean cut when pruning. This is where a sharpening stone comes in handy.

(And never sharpen the inside of the blades on your by-pass pruners and loppers – you want them to stay tight against each other.) Make your cut in the “collar”, the swelling that is typically found at the base of major limbs. This is an area of the tree that has the greatest potential for producing callous tissue which protects the tree from rot.

Stubs left behind will usually rot, with the infection spreading into healthy wood. Stubs may also sprout a bouquet of new shoots which invite problems as they compete for space. When removing a large branch, make a cut on the underside a couple of inches out from the collar. This will keep the bark from tearing right down the trunk as the limb falls away. And shortening the limb to lessen the weight before making your final cut is not a bad idea. A properly pruning cut does not need an application of black goop; it will heal just fine on its own.

Pruning trees early in their development can avoid a lot of problems later. A small branch removed properly will heal quickly and completely. Wait until it’s a big limb and the healing process is slower and rot may set in. If you’ve recently planted a tree, give it a few years to get settled in, and then take a good look at the branching structure.

Are any limbs crossed and rubbing? Are there too many branches coming out of the trunk in one spot? Are there any limbs heading off in a bad direction, like across the sidewalk at noggin height? And are there any damaged limbs? Pruning out these problems is a lot easier and a lot less costly now.

Older trees need special care in pruning. “Topping” a tree is never a good thing unless you are British, in which case you would be “pollarding” a tree. Our giant Tulip Poplars, Oaks and Maples need to have weak and dead wood removed back to the main trunk, never crew-cut. If that Red Maple is too big for the yard, go ahead and top it – just make sure you top it all the way back to the ground! Cutting off all of its branches so that is looks like a Saguaro Cactus from the desert southwest is really mean and will probably kill the tree. There are so many varieties of trees at the nurseries and garden centers today that you ought to be able to find the right tree to fit the spot without resorting to the chainsaw after a decade or so.

When pruning established shrubs, use your hand pruners and remove larger pieces. Shearing off just the tips creates a rat’s nest of new sprouts, all competing for light. Over the years this shades the growth below causing leaf drop and resulting in a thin shell of foliage over a weak and crowded frame of branches. Thinning the canopy by pruning out larger pieces lets light into the interior of the shrub, allowing dormant buds on older wood to sprout. The new foliage layer has more depth and can handle snow loads better than a sheared shrub. Overgrown shrubs can be reduced in size by a drastic thinning of a third of the canopy each year for three years. Remember, use hand pruners and remove big pieces -- the big ones are a lot easier to clean up!

One last note. There are some plants that shouldn’t be pruned now. Plants that are marginally hardy and may suffer some winter damage, such as Crape Myrtles and Japanese Maples, are best left until early spring. And shrubs that bloom in the spring can wait until the bloom is off so the display is not reduced.

(2003) It was a late fall -- so late that piles of fallen leaves were covered with the first snow before they were picked up. (Well, it was an early winter too.) And it was a spectacular fall with the usually-early Tulip Poplars still hanging onto some of their yellow-gold foliage as the perpetually-late oaks rapidly took on earthy shades of russet-red, orange-tan and umber.

But, as beautiful as our autumn is, it always passes much too quickly and then we’re left without much evidence of life in the landscape. Thank goodness for conifers! And now starts the season to appreciate these needled evergreens, especially those that have managed to survive for decades and grow into elegant additions to the landscape.

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a very large, very elegant old Deodar Cedar (Cedrus deodara) growing in the yard of a grand, mid-19th century house in Falls Church. I’m not sure how old the Cedar was, but it was in the company of a number of rather large boxwood shrubs, a very large Tulip Poplar, and the remains of the biggest Sweet Gum tree that I’d ever seen.

About 35 years ago my parents planted a Deodar Cedar in our front yard, and it grew into a gorgeous specimen, with its gray-green needled branches traveling out with an upward curve then drooping earthward nearing the tips. Every Christmas Dad strung the multi-colored lights on it’s branches. In the spring a Mockingbird would build a nest near the trunk, then use the supporting branch as a runway in and out of its spiny hide-away. And each Easter we posed in front of the Cedar while Dad took our picture with a Polaroid camera.

As the tree grew, so did the family. Unfortunately, this Deodar Cedar didn’t live long enough to see all of us leave home. And it seems that most Deodar Cedars in this area are not in the habit of living very long: 10 to 20 years is a good run according to Michael Dirr in his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (the plant nut’s bible). So, you see why coming upon this graceful old Deodar Cedar in the middle of Falls Church really got my chlorophyll racing.

The commonplace White Pine (Pinus strobus) is anything but commonplace when it reaches adulthood. This long needled pine is known for it’s almost perfect cone shape in youth, but, as it reaches it’s ultimate height, it develops a strong asymmetry to its branching pattern.

When I was a student at Virginia Tech (Go Hokies!) there were a number of very tall White Pines on campus, each branching with an artistic air that reminded me of a Japanese watercolor. Some of our older White Pines in the neighborhood are just beginning to grow out of their youthful symmetry and take on this lovely, uneven form.

Unfortunately, too often these pines are planted as screens, a poor choice since these guys lose their lower branches at a fairly early age, thereby losing their landscape value. But when planted as a specimen with plenty of space and time, these common conifers become uncommonly beauty.

While great age is easily recognized when it is accompanied by great size, sometimes the oldest trees are hiding inside less than awesome trunks. The Bristlecone Pine (Pinus aristata) of the arid Southwest is considered to be one of the oldest living plants on the planet with trees as old as 4 to 5 thousand years of age being documented. Yet the largest Bristlecone Pines are less than 80 feet tall. (By comparison, the tallest Redwood tree on record was 378 feet tall.)

An Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) that used to stand in front of the country club where I work, not far from the street, is a good example of age without spectacular size. This scraggily old tree managed to survive numerous road renovations, and, no doubt, was a good-size tree when the first automobile rumbled by. When it fell a few years ago, the base of the tree was a good foot below ground level. Rot resistant as cedar wood is, it’s amazing that it stood for so long with years of road construction piling so much earth around its trunk.

A few years back I acquired a rare conifer that had been on my “gotta have” list for quite some time: the Japanese Umbrella Pine (Sciadopitys verticillata). The prime reason for the rarity of this handsome evergreen tree is its positively snail-like growth rate. Mine has been in the ground for just shy of five years and stands no more than two feet tall. But its large, stiff, flat needles arranged in spoke-like fashion around its twigs and its neat, conical shape, make it a wonderful addition to the landscape at any size.
So now, during these not-so-green months, while the deciduous trees take time off, notice the evergreens, especially the old ones that have managed to survive all these years. This is their time of the year to shine and to remind us that life is not gone from the landscape. Have you hugged your conifer today?


 FEBRUARY Pimmit Hills Gardener

(2004) It looks like it’s going to be a severe cabin-fever season this year. Winter arrived too early, as did the first snow. And we’ve already seen single digit temps. Although the days are slowly lengthening, the Crocuses will set no record for early bloom this year. And the house is, again, too small.

It’s not like the house actually shrinks in winter, but with the onset of cold weather we lose our outdoor rooms: the deck and patio. And we make good use of the deck and patio from the first whiff of warm weather until the fire in the chiminea is not enough to keep out toes toasty. In the olden days big porches furnished with swings and wicker chairs created outdoor living spaces where the family gathered to escape the heat of the house.

Today, especially in the newer houses, the occupants leave the climate-controlled house by way of the garage and drive to work or the store in air conditioned comfort. If the house comes with outside living space it’s usually a small deck that’s so high off the ground that it’s completely disconnected from the yard. We are fortunate that our houses are close to the ground. And many of us are lucky to have large, shade trees in our yards. A weekend project or two can create very enjoyable outdoor spaces that blend house and garden.

When the weather warms, my husband and I move outside. When I bought the house six and a half years ago it came with a nice, big deck off the back of the house. But the deck felt separated from the yard – the only access to the yard was a short, steep set of steps off the side of the deck. I had plans to create a garden out of the entire back yard, but I needed space for people, too.

Popping off a third of the deck railing and building a seven-foot wide set of steps down onto the corner of a newly constructed flagstone patio really opened up the deck to the rest of the yard. No longer fenced off from the yard, the deck became transition space onto the patio, in addition to outdoor dining room.

I canted the rectangular patio out into the yard, creating two triangular pockets between flagstone and deck for plants; this arrangement pulls the patio out into the yard, creating a room surrounded by garden, while still connected to the deck. Off the back corner, a pile of large, weathered stones release a gush of water into a small pond. The stones along the pond’s edge just nose onto the patio as the water flows under the flagstones to emerge as a stream on the other side. The cut flagstone was selected to match the fieldstone used in the water course, tying the manmade patio into the natural-looking pond and stream.

Our outdoor dining room is furnished with a wooden table big enough to seat eight guests. An umbrella provides lunchtime shade and a candelabrum lights the table after dark. Cushions and a fan keep guests comfortable and mosquito-free. (A box fan set at one end of the deck keeps the air moving enough to discourage the blood-thirsty pests from joining the party.)

A corner of the deck houses the charcoal grill – husband mans the grill while dueling with a native wisteria vine, both staking claim to the space. (The vine has been there longer.) Tiki torches and staked candleholders surround the deck and patio in soft light for evening entertaining, even if it’s just the two of us enjoying a bottle of wine on the patio. Large terra cotta pots overflowing with foliage and flowers blur the line between garden and hardscape. The waterfall drowns out neighborhood noises with nature’s version of water music.

We have created a lovely sanctuary out back. It’s sad each fall to have to put away the furnishings for the winter. If a warm spell arrives we will pull a couple of chairs out, fire up the chiminea and open a bottle of red wine – if a warm spell arrives …. Sigh. I can’t wait for spring!


(2003) I have one question: will this winter ever end? I know, I know, by the calendar it’s only a few weeks old (as I write this), but I’m sick and tired of winter. We’ve had enough snow and plenty of cold already. I want spring and I want it now!

There, I feel better already. I should go look for Crocuses in the front yard. Crocuses always help beat back the winter blahs. And the Magnolias help, too, especially the Star and Saucer Magnolias with their fat fuzzy buds promising the biggest and earliest spectacles of spring.

The Magnolias are a fantastic group of trees. They have inhabited the earth for millions of years. Evolving before traditional pollinators such as bees, wasps, butterflies and moths, Magnolias still rely on their ancient partner, the beetle, to pollinate their magnificent flowers. And most produce a powerful scent and plenty of pollen to draw the beetles in. Native to southeast Asia and the southeastern U. S., the various species and hybrid Magnolias are right at home in our mid-Atlantic landscapes. Most prefer a moist, organic soil and some will be right at home in wet, even swampy situations.

The deciduous, spring-blooming Magnolias are the showiest of the lot. Most of these are the result of the hybridizing of Asian species that began almost two centuries ago when a Frenchman named Soulange-Bodin crossed the white-flowered Yulan Magnolia (M. denudata) with the purple Lily Magnolia (M. liliiflora). This resulted in the Saucer Magnolias (M. x soulangiana), a group of trees in the 20 to 30-foot tall range with flowers appearing on bare branches in early spring and ranging from white through the pinks into wine purple.

I have the ivory-white ‘Lennei Alba’ and the deep wine-purple ‘Burgundy’, they bloom their heads off each spring despite their young age. In recent years hybridizers have brought other species into the mix to reduce the size to a shrubby tree and, more importantly, to delay the bloom and often avoid brown-outs (when freezing temps of early spring turn flowers to mush).

An even earlier blooming species, the Star Magnolia (M. stellata) can often be saved from devastating freezes by siting this smaller shrub-like tree in a cold, shaded spot such as the north side of a building to delay full bloom. The most common selection is ‘Royal Star’, a lovely sight when covered with pure white, spidery flowers. Pink forms, such as ‘Rosea’, are also available though these tend to fade out to just a blush of pink in full bloom. I grow both of these at my parents’ house.

The latest craze among plant nuts partial to Magnolias (though I must admit that I don’t have one of these yet) are the yellow-flowered hybrids, such as ‘Butterflies’, ‘Elizabeth’, and ‘Yellow Bird’. These April to May bloomers get their lovely soft yellow color from our native Cucumbertree (M. acuminata), a 50 to 80-foot giant that blooms in late spring. These dwarfed hybrids bloom before the leaves emerge but after the late freezes, making them much more of a sure thing for spring display.

Also leafless in winter and grown more for the shock value of its over-sized foliage, is the Bigleaf Magnolia (M. macrophylla). With hound-dog-ear leaves in the 12 to 32-inch range, this Southeast native lends a tropical atmosphere to the landscape. For the smaller garden search for the closely related Ashe Magnolia (M. ashei), another native topping out at only 20 feet (I have one just off the patio). Both of these big-leaf trees produce big (up to a foot across) white blossoms in June reminiscent of the Southern Magnolia (M. grandiflora). You may have to search the specialty catalogs or native plant sales to find these beauties.

And speaking of the Southern Magnolia, no other plant reminds me of the South like this one. This stately evergreen tree does not venture much farther north than our area, at least not willingly. Selections have been made to extend the range of the Southern Magnolia, but to grow a really grand tree, one must live here in the South. And, as the Latin name suggests, this grand tree has grand flowers -- big, white, fleshy blossoms held against the dark green glossy leaves, perfuming the air with the sweetest scent.

And if you’re short on space, try planting the down-sized variety, ‘Little Gem’, which eventually tops out at 20 feet. Or you might try the Southern Magnolia’s little brother, the Sweetbay Magnolia (M. virginiana). This small, multi-trunked tree offers a much smaller, more open habit than its relative and smaller, but just as fragrant, white flowers. The Sweetbay will do well in average soil but really loves wet feet. Less than five years ago I planted one of each of these Magnolias (they were three feet tall, at most) in a low spot in the yard; today both of them tower over me and bloom in early summer.

I do have one more Magnolia: an Oyama Magnolia (M. sieboldii). This rare, small tree reminds me of a miniature Saucer Magnolia in leaf and form, and the flowers are more like smaller versions of the Southern Magnolia’s but with an eye of red stamens and a nodding habit. This one is planted in the shade of a giant Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) and next to an Adirondack chair -- for ease of viewing when it hangs out its beautiful blossoms overhead in early summer.

Hobbies are good for you, right? Some people collect stamps, others collect baseball cards. I collect Magnolias. I also collect Dogwoods and Maples and . . .


 MARCH Pimmit Hills Gardener

(2005) We started off the year with lovely, warm weather and little purple crocuses blooming in the front yard. Then Old Man Winter woke up and delivered cold and frost and snow. Well, that’s what winter ‘round here is all about, right? And I’ll gladly sacrifice the earliest crocuses for a brief preview of spring in January.

So the earliest crocuses are finished for the year, but the later ones will fill the front yard with color before too long. Every year the early spring bulbs start poking up out of the ground way before spring is scheduled to arrive. As long as their petals are tight in the bud, no harm is done by the remnant cold of winter.

But once the flowers split their bud sheaths and begin to show color, I pay attention to the weather forecast. If the weatherman predicts temps below 28 degrees, I’m out with the pruners, cutting any Daffodils that are revealing petals. These will continue to open indoors, filling the house with spring. Those buds that are still sheathed will weather the cold, no problem.

If your yard is naked of spring-blooming bulbs, make it a point to search out mail-order companies that specialize in “Holland bulbs”. Either shake the mail-in postcards out of a gardening magazine or search the internet. And do it now while inspiration abounds. The bulb companies will ship your order in the fall when it’s time to plant. (I’ve found that buying bulbs out of those help-yourself boxes at the garden centers often disappoint come spring when they don’t bloom true to name and picture.)

If you’re into veggie gardening, don’t wait too late to plant the cool-season crops, such as peas, lettuce, spinach, root crops and cole crops. These will put up with the cooler soil temps of early spring and most should be finished by the time summer gets in full gear.

If you plant your peas and lettuce in May they will mature in hot weather, making for a bitter harvest. Spinach is hardy enough to be sown in August and wintered-over for a huge harvest through the spring. By the time the summer solstice arrives, this day-sensitive plant is more interested in blooming than producing thick, succulent leaves for salads. So as soon as the weather begins to warm and the soil is dry enough to work, let’s get the garden ready.

Tomatoes, eggplant and peppers all need as much time in the garden as possible, but should not be planted out (as little transplants) until the weather and soil have warmed up for good. I like to wait until the middle of May to set out my tomatoes. If the soil is not yet warm, the little plants will just sit and sulk and it may take them a while to get over the nasty shock of cold feet. (Tip: remove the lowest leaves on your tomato transplants and mulch them as soon as they are in the ground. Bare soil can harbor disease spores that can splash onto the lower leaves.)

To make the most of your garden space, in early spring sow some radishes, lettuce and green onion sets where the tomatoes are to go; they’ll be done before the tomatoes need the space. To have quick warm-season vegetables such as bush beans, cucumbers and summer squash all summer, plant a first crop as soon as the soil warms and then sow a second crop after the peas, spinach and lettuce are done -- these cool-season crops should be yanked out as soon as their productivity of drops.

All this talk of garden fresh vegetables is making me hungry! If only I had a couple of acres…


(2004) Timing is everything and it’s time to start your seeds. Well, not all of them just yet. Certain plants must be started early so they will have plenty of time to grow before being planted outside. Others are best saved for direct sowing into the ground once it has warmed up.

But how to know when to begin?

At work, we start sowing Pansy seeds before Christmas. By March these plants are ready to go into pots of tulip bulbs that have spent their long winter’s nap in a cold room. (Our fall planted pansies, the same varieties we sow for spring, went into the beds right after the tulip bulbs were planted last fall.) The Geranium seeds follow just before the New Year. This early start gives us nice big blooming plants in 6-inch pots by May. (Our greenhouse allows us to grow plants through the dark days of winter; similar results can be had under broad-spectrum artificial lights.)

Since the rest of our plants are grown in 4-inch pots and will not be needed until the tulips are finished blooming (early to mid-May), we wait until February to get really serious about sowing seeds. Retail seed packets will give you a good idea of when to start, but generally speaking, the smaller the seed, the earlier it must be started. Dust-like Begonia seeds need a good 12 weeks or more to grow into good-sized plants ready for the garden.

Miniscule Petunia, Flowering Tobacco (Nicotiana), and Snapdragon seeds are sown a couple of weeks later. At the other end of the spectrum, giants, like Marigolds, Zinnias, Moon Vine and Sunflowers, are best left for a mid to late April start indoors, or sown directly into the soil once the weather warms for good. And around here that’s usually early May. (I’ve always found that although Moon Vines grow quickly, nicking the seed coat and starting them two or three weeks ahead indoors gets them blooming much earlier in the summer.)

Some seedlings never perform well in pots and do much better when sown directly into the garden. Two that come to mind are Cosmos and Spiderflower (Cleome). And most vegetable seeds also fall into this category, especially large-seeded, fast-growing cucumbers, squash and melons. Although these are offered as young plants at the garden center, they quickly get pot-bound and can take too long to recover.

Cole crops (such as Broccoli, Cabbage, Kale, and Brussels Sprouts), Tomatoes, Peppers and Eggplants, however, should all be sown indoors six to eight or more weeks ahead of planting out. The cole crops want to be planted out early; they prefer the cooler weather and will bolt (bloom and go to seed) in summer’s heat. Transplanting the rest should wait until the weather and soil are good and warm. Tomatoes will sit and sulk in cool soil and chilled Eggplants will give you the evil eye for the rest of the summer.

Those vegetable seeds that are sown directly should be sown in two phases: as soon as the soil is workable in early spring or when the soil is warm enough to set out tomatoes and peppers. Peas, Lettuce, Radishes, Beets and Carrots are cool season crops and need an early start to reach harvest before the summer nasties arrive. Beans, Melons, Squash and Cucumbers will rot in the ground if sown too soon. This difference in sowing times allows for greater yields when early Peas are pulled out in July and followed by Beans, or Tomato plants are set in between rows of waning Lettuce. So get your seeds out and get ready to sow!


(2003) As soon as the weather is decent, I’ve got to get out there and build a trellis for the climbing Rose, the Clematis and the white-flowered native Wisteria outside the dining room window. It’s important to get this done as soon as possible because the Wisteria has started climbing the cable to the satellite dish. Domestic harmony is threatened.

I’m a big fan of climbing plants. Before moving to Pimmit Hills in ‘97, I sowed seeds of annual vine and grew them in pots on the patio. Now with a yard of my own, I still grow a few annuals, but it’s the perennial vines that have taken over.

A few years back I started bringing home the trunks ofcedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) and standing them in the ground just to support vines. The first cedar trunk is now engulfed in Trumpet Creeper Vine (Campsis radicans), a clinging, woody vine that produces clusters of large, rich scarlet-orange trumpets and, occasionally, Rubythroated Hummingbirds in summer. The vine travels up the trunk, then spays out like an umbrella when it reaches the top, creating a small tree. The second trunk is being colonized by another Trumpet Creeper Vine, C. grandiflora ‘Morning Calm’, with larger, soft peachy-orange trumpets. The third trunk sits, waiting to be erected this spring.

When I opened up the deck to the patio with a set of wide steps, the railing post at the corner was replaced by an eight-foot tall 4x4 which was then strung with a couple a rolls of thin copper tubing from top to bottom, creating a helix trellis. A wonderful double-flowered form of the native, evergreen vine called Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens ‘Pride of Augusta’) wraps its coppery brown stems around the tubing and carries clouds of lovely canary-yellow funnel form flowers up the post in early spring and sporadically in fall. Growing up another spiral of copper at the front door is the usual, single-flowered form -- anything but usual in full bloom in early April.

The weathered old picket fence keeps another vine, our native Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), off the ground. Out by the driveway, not far from a mature Red Maple the orange-red ‘Blanche Sandeman’ Honeysuckle drapes across the fence while the compact, yellow-flowered form, ‘John Clayton’, smothers a fence in the side yard. By midsummer the end of the deck, and anyone standing too close, is swallowed by the Golden Hops Vine (Humulus lupulus ‘Aurea’).

This herbaceous twiner with chartreuse leaves and interesting green pinecone-like flowerheads, rapidly covers any structure and, as I understand, provides flavoring to beer. A native Wisteria, Wisteria frutescens ‘Amethyst Falls’, shares the deck railing with the Hops Vine. This smaller version of the common Oriental species of Wisteria blooms earlier in life and later in the season (and sporadically through the summer and fall) and is much better behaved.

Then there’s the boring board fence that will soon be beautified by the Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris) and the Japanese Hydrangea-vine (Schizophragma hydrangeoides). Both of these clinging vines are right at home in a semi-shady, moist spot and will grow up brick walls, wooden fences and tree trunks, anything it can get its little stem roots into.

Both produce lovely white lacecap flowerheads in summer and drop their leaves in winter to reveal handsome, cinnamon-colored bark. Another member of the Hydrangea family, the native Wood Vamp (Decumaria barbara) is beginning to climb the giant Tulip Poplar out back. Handsome, leathery, dark green leaves trace its journey up the light gray bark.

When partnering a trellis and a vine it’s important to know a few things about the vine. Is it a twiner, wrapping its stems or tendrils around the trellis? These need supports that are small enough to get around.

Clematis, for example, wrap their leaf stems around objects, so the trellis must be no thicker than a pencil or the vine will sit and sulk on the ground. Or is it a clinger, putting out little aerial roots that attach the stem directly to a surface?

These guys need a solid, textured structure and will have difficulty climbing a chainlink fence. And how big will it get? That little wooden trellis that comes with a potted vine is just for ease of handling in the nursery; it will soon be quite inadequate. I know of a full grown Silver Maple that is just big enough to house an old Oriental Wisteria vine -- a spectacular sight in early spring. The Carolina Jessamine and a small, lavender flowered Clematis crispa are content with their copper tubing and 4x4 post.

So, what kind of trellis for that trio of vines that have eyes for the satellite dish? It’s got to be big enough and perhaps somewhat cage-like to confine the rambling Rose. And delicate enough for the Clematis to wrap its leaf stems around. And big enough to handle the Wisteria. I’m thinking about three or four copper pipes an inch in diameter and eight or ten feet tall, stuck into the ground and jutting upwards, parallel to each other. Then thin copper tubing is spiraled around these from top to bottom and secured with copper wire. Hmmmm... that might just work!


 APRIL Pimmit Hills Gardener

(2004) Winter. Yuck. Well, okay, not “yuck” when it snows. I like snow, but it really doesn’t snow very often here. “Yuck” is the usual from December through February. And if you’re a winter-hating, plant-nut like me, flipping the calendar over to March is always a thrill! Really! And some years, like this year, flipping over to March coincides with the first maple blooms – a sure sign that spring is on its way.

Yes, maples have flowers. They are not particularly showy. Their petals are greatly reduced or completely absent, depending on the species. Each year as the winter season wanes, I watch for signs of life from a couple of very large Silver Maples growing along Lisle Avenue. These specimens always bloom before any others along my commute and often a late winter rain litters the pavement with their spent flowers.

Our neighborhood is full of old Maples. Back fifty years ago Silver and Red Maples were planted because they were cheap, fast growing and hardy. In Dunn Loring Woods, where I grew up, every house had a Maple tree, if not in the front yard, then in the back. Many of these old trees have been ruined by “topping”, a very, very bad thing to do to a tree.

There are many species of Maples. The most common in our neighborhood are the Silver (A. saccharinum), the Norway (A. platanoides), the Sugar Maple (A. saccharum), the Red (Acer rubrum) and the Japanese Maples (A. palmatum). The tallest of these trees are the Silver Maples. The undersides of the leaves give this fast-growing tree its name. Unfortunately, this tends to be a weak-wooded species and the fall color is nothing to write home about.

The Norway Maple has the largest leaf of these five trees. Its form is that of a large lollipop on a stick. The broad, dense canopy, combined with its shallow roots make for poor to nonexistent turf underneath. The most obvious cultivar (cultivated variety) is ‘Crimson King’, with its deep purple leaves. The fall color is yellow.

The Sugar Maple is similar looking, but its fall foliage is a glorious mélange of gold, orange and red. It is not as tolerant of poor conditions, needing a fairly moist, fertile soil. One way to distinguish between the Norway and Sugar Maples is to look at the seeds: the Norway’s twin seeds point east and west, reminding me of a perky mustache, while the Sugar’s seeds droop like two drops of maple syrup.

The Maple with the greatest range is the Red Maple. The range I refer to is not only the physical habitat (Newfoundland to Florida, west to Minnesota and Texas), but also in fall foliage. Red Maples are not only some of the earliest trees to color up, but also some of the last. And the color can range from lemon yellow to dark red.

Although the flowers are almost always red, these trees can vary in their seed production, ranging from seedless (like the 50-year-old over our driveway) to heavy seeding (like our neighbor’s which litters our patio). The best bet is to buy a named cultivar from a nursery. Look for ‘Brandywine’, a National Arboretum introduction, for brilliant purple-red fall color and no seed production. (Both of the most popular Red Maple varieties, ‘October Glory’ and ‘Red Sunset’, are seed makers.)

The Japanese Maple is a smaller tree and can take on many forms, from the 15 to 20 foot tall “wild” form to the weeping, feather-leafed ‘Red Filigree Lace’ that’s barely there. The named varieties are grafted onto seed-grown under stock and anything that pops out below the graft must be removed before it takes over. This grafting process makes the special forms of Japanese Maple a bit pricey. But a full grown, cut-leaf (a.k.a. “dissectum”) variety with soft green or hardy burgundy foliage is a treasure, and a young tree in a moist, semi-shady location will fill out quickly.

Almost cut-leaf varieties grow laterally, creating a lovely mound of lacey foliage over a fine netting of branches. ‘Seiryu’, which graces our front yard, is the exception with finely cut green leaves on a small upright tree. The non-dissectum Japanese Maples are usually selected for deep red to rich purple summer foliage, although there are many cultivars that have good green leaves, some even splashed with white and pink.

The fall color of all Japanese Maples can’t be beat, ranging from fiery crimson to electric orange to lemon-yellow. A wonderful ribbon-leaf form by the patio, ‘Koto No Ito’, looks like a blazing haystack every fall and ‘Sango Kaku’ (the Coral Bark Maple) displays yellow-gold leaves on bright red branches.

A word of warning is necessary here: these trees can be habit forming. I have 14 different varieties of Japanese Maples. And I have 8 other species in the yard, not counting the giant Red that came with the house. So proceed with care. And keep your eyes peeled. You never know what you might find at the plant sales this spring – maybe a Maple that you don’t have yet. (There’s always room for one more!)


(2003) February first, 2002. That was a record breaking day, at least in the ten years that I’ve been keeping records of the first Daffodil bloom of the season where I work in Arlington. The record-breaking Daffodil is an aptly named variety, ‘February Gold’. It is planted in a bed that has a southern exposure and is protected by a brick wall and, consequently, heats up quickly in the spring. Last winter’s unwinter-like demeanor knocked 2 1/2 weeks off the previous early-bird record. Perhaps it’ll break another record this year -- latest first bloom.

I do love Daffodils. I moved into my house in September of 1997 and that fall planted a beautiful and fragrant white flowered variety, ‘Thalia”, across the front border of dark green Cherry Laurels (Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’). These have developed into large clumps, sporting clusters of papery-white, small cupped flowers in April. Five and a half years later, the yard is full of daffodils every spring -- 33 varieties at last count.

Every Daffodils is, technically speaking, a Narcissus. This member of the Amaryllis family is characterized by a trumpet or cupped shaped corona and a subtending ring of petals called the perianth. There are over two dozen species of Daffodils, most native to Spain, Portugal and southern France. And, as a result of years of hybridization, there are an estimated 13,000 varieties out there. The American Daffodil Society and the Royal Horticultural Society separate all these into 13 divisions according to flower size and shape.

The term “Jonquil” comes from one of these divisions, the Narcissus jonquilla group, characterized by more than one flower to a stem, a long tube behind the perianth and a sweet scent. The other divisions include five that are distinguished by their resemblance to an ancestral species, three that are sorted by the size and shape of their trumpets, a double division, a split corona (trumpet) division, a true species or wild form group and, lastly, a miscellaneous, catch-all division.

All Daffodils are spring bloomers, brightening gardens in our area as early as February and as late as May, depending on the variety. By the end of June their strappy green foliage has yellowed and withered away. Their onion shaped bulbs sit dormant throughout the heat of summer, until fall’s cooler weather signals new root growth and winter’s freezes start flower buds forming again.

Don’t go looking for Daffodil bulbs in the garden centers now; these need to be planted in the fall. Do start looking for the bulb catalogs. The mail order companies like to get their beautiful catalogs out there while the garden is still in bloom -- inspiration for next year. The internet has made it quicker and easier to shop for all kinds of bulbs.

Or, if you’re an old-fashioned gardener, shake some gardening magazine at the newsstand for the mail-in cards that drop out. The garden centers carry a pretty good selection, but I’ve found that you may not get what’s pictured on the box.

No matter where you get them from, Daffodils are easy to grow. They are much more tolerant of shade than Tulips and, when happy (which is most of the time), they will quickly become thick clumps of flowers that beg to be thinned out and brought inside to fill a vase. They do fine in our Virginia clay as long as it is not waterlogged.

Plant Daffodil bulbs in individual holes three to four times their height (of the bulb, that is).

After flowering, remove any seed pods that develop but leave the leaves ALONE. Do not cut them off. Do not braid them. Do not rubber band them. Just let them photosynthesize as much as they can during their brief life. This ensures a big flower display for next spring. Once they begin to yellow they can be removed.

To avoid ugly foliage syndrome, plant Daffodils, especially the bigger varieties, towards the rear of the perennial bed. Here, the flowers will be plenty visible early in the spring, and then emerging plants will hide the foliage as it matures. A lot of the miniatures and fine-boned species seem to melt away without much notice and can be used towards the front.

These days there are so many more colors and shapes and sizes available to the home gardener. My side yard is a soft mix of white, peachy-pink and blue in early spring, thanks to some of the newer pink Daffodil varieties, including ‘Reggae’, ‘Bell Song’ and ‘Palmares’, and Grape Hyacinths (Muscari) and soft blue Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa).

The rock garden out back houses the miniatures: ‘Fairy Chimes’ at 6”; ‘Baby Moon’ with tall grass-like foliage and nickel-sized flowers; ‘Kenellis’, a white and yellow bicolor at 5”; and the tiniest of all, Narcissus wilkommii, at just 3 to 4” tall with dime-size flowers. The front yard meadow is populated with the species Daffodils Narcissus pseudonarcissus (a wind swept, long trumpeted Daff) and N. x odorus ‘Plenus’ (a very sweet-scented, multi-petalled naturally occurring hybrid). And then there is the Daffodil collection in the other side yard, a growing hodgepodge of whatever catches my eye as I peruse the numerous bulb catalogs each summer.

Oh, I can’t wait for spring! But wait, I must. March, so far, is looking more like January than the beginning of spring. Maybe I should get out last year’s bulb catalogs, make a fresh, hot cup of tea and dream the gardener’s dream of an early spring.


 MAY Pimmit Hills Gardener

(2004) Ack! They’re back!

After 17 years underground they’re back! At night they’re digging out and climbing up trees, fences, houses, utility poles -- anything that doesn’t move. Here the transformation takes place. Quickly the skin erupts down the back and out pops a red-eyed, clear-winged noise maker, intent on populating the earth with its kind.

For the next few weeks the trees, bushes and air are alive with the mating call of these alien creatures. Then the landscape grows quiet as they die off en masse. But their progeny have been safely tucked into the undersides of tree branches, to hatch and drop to the ground. This next generation will burrow into the ground to feed on the roots of trees and shrubs until it’s time to emerge again in 17 years.

Pretty amazing, these Periodical Cicadas are. Their Latin name, Magicicada septendecim, says it all. These 17-year-cicadas are the longest lived insect in North America. There are actually six species of cicadas inhabiting the eastern U.S., some appearing every 17 years, others every 13 years. (We are also visited by the Dog-Day Cicadas every year in late summer, but in much smaller numbers.)

Scientists have divided them into 18 “broods” according to their timing and location. We’re lucky enough (?) to have the “Big Brood” here this year.

These noisy insects will appear in 15 states from New York to Georgia to Illinois. And they will be emerging mid- to late May for a 6 week (or so) engagement.

During this brief, above ground life cycle the adult cicadas do not eat. Their only goal is reproduction. They fly around clumsily and fill the air with their extremely loud call. (The males are the ones making that racket, trying to attract females.)

Once they mate, the female searches for a young branch in which to deposit her eggs. She slits the bark with her blade-like ovipositors numerous times, each time inserting eggs. When finished the branch has a zipper-like appearance.

Often the branch is weakened and breaks. Although the cicada lays its eggs in dozens of species of trees, dogwoods, maples, hickories and fruit trees seem to be hardest hit; conifers are not bothered. Six to seven weeks later the tiny nymphs hatch and drop to the ground. They burrow in to begin feeding underground for another 17 years.

The only harm the adult cicada does is tip damage to trees. And most established trees take this pruning in stride. However, young trees will benefit from a net cover while the cicadas are laying eggs. I have a number of young Japanese Maples that I plan to protect with plastic netting draped over them and secured at the trunk. I also plan to cover my hair with a hat or bandanna for the duration – cicadas are notoriously bad aviators.

Back in ’87, I heard a story of a swarm of cicadas flying in the open window of a van and causing the driver to run his vehicle into a telephone pole. Since these insects are such lousy fliers, it’s impossible to see how they could manage to actually “swarm”. But a single cicada can sound like a swarm!

In older neighborhoods like ours their numbers will be so great, spraying insecticides is of no use. And besides they’re not eating at this stage. We just have to grin and bear it. They’ll be gone before too long. I plan to get my gardening done early, before they emerge. And maybe make a tent of netting that I can wear at work. Boy, a screened porch would be nice this summer…. Oh, well, they’ll be back in 2021 and we’ll have the porch finished by then!


(2003) When I moved into my house in the fall of 1997, the next door neighbor told me that my back yard was full of small flowers in spring. Then March rolled around and I was pleasantly surprised to find Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) popping up in the grass under a huge, old Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera).

The lawn is gone now (I let the autumn leaves smother the thin turf) and the yard has been given over to the plants. Humans are limited to a mulched path, which starts at the flagstone patio, circles out around the Tulip Poplar and the pond before returning to the patio.

The Spring Beauties are thriving in the company of other spring natives, including Virginia Bluebells, Wild Phlox, and Trillium. The gap between the end of winter and forest leaf-out is brief, so most of our woodland natives rush to push up through the leaf litter, unfurl leaves and present their flowers for pollination. It’s a heady time of year for anyone with the least tinge of green to their thumb.

A slow trip through the yard is a daily must, with two or more required on a sunny weekend day. And instead of following a noisy, stinky lawn mower around on Saturday, I get to spend my spare time marveling at the pure white flowers of the Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), hunting for the odd little jug-like flowers of the Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), or watching a Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) frond unfurl.

The giant Tulip Poplar is the best thing in my yard. Its roots are fleshy, deep and non-competitive , and its canopy is elevated, leaving the ground beneath in high, open shade. It’s the perfect combination for many our lovely woodland plants.

One of my favorite natives is the Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia). This four- to six-inch tall, running perennial erupts into a display of soft white foamy flowers in April and May. The maple-leaf foliage is a bright green, sometimes marked with a wine stain in the center, andpersists through the winter after taking on a coppery cast in the fall. In rich, humusy soil the Foamflower can cover ground quickly, sending out runners in all directions, but it tolerates and even performs well in drier shady sites. This is a great companion to spring ephemerals such as Bluebells (Mertensia virginica), filling in the vacated spaces left as they go dormant for the summer.

Competing with the Foamflower for favorite native groundcover is the Wild Sweet William (Phlox divaricata), another herbaceous evergreen spreader. From a low, dark green carpet of foliage arise foot-tall wiry stems topped with clusters of sweet-scented, soft lavender-blue flowers in May.

When planted in large masses the effect is of a fragrant cloud floating just above the ground. A few varieties are available, including one with white flowers and another with purple. This Phlox is fairly self-cleaning, with the spent flower stems melting back to earth as the plant puts out new ground-hugging growth for the summer. Stem cuttings can be rooted easily after this new growth has hardened or just bury part of the stem and come back after a couple of months.

Given a fairly humusy soil and high, partial shade, this native makes an attractive, low-maintenance groundcover. If you are dealing with a drier shady site try planting the Crested Iris (Iris cristata) and the Eastern Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis).

The Crested Iris is a true miniature with its three petals standing up and three hanging down, and only six inches or so from the ground. The typical form is a lovely lavender blue, but a white form is also available. After the spring bloom period, new growth spreads outward, forming a neat grassy carpet as the thin rhizomes travel across the ground.

Shunning the verdant competition, the Crested Iris in my yard always grow into the path, despite the compacted earth. The Eastern Columbine is another native that prefers a less than lush location. The pendant, red and yellow, spurred flowers dance over delicately cut foliage in mid-spring. After pollination the flower head turns upright and by late summer becomes a tiny papery vase holding a clutch of shiny black seeds. Volunteer seedlings are always popping up and, though difficult to transplant when older, young plants are easily relocated.

Everyone is familiar with the ubiquitous groundcover, Japanese Spurge (Pachysandra terminalis), but the Southeast is home to our own species, *Pachysandra procumbens*, the Allegheny Spurge.

By the start of winter the old foliage is a mottled bronze-green with a dappling of silver, and mostly prostrate, radiating out from the center. In midwinter tight chains of flower buds can be found at the crown, waiting for the earliest signs of spring. As soon as the weather begins to warm, short, bottlebrush spikes of fragrant pinkish-white flowers emerge.

The floral display is followed by the emergence of new, bright green foliage. The new foliage stands upright and unfolds into a matte green canopy 6 to 10 inches tall, bigger than its Japanese cousin in all parts. Allegheny Spurge performs best in a rich, moist, woodland soil in part to full shade.

Instead of spreading by runners, our Pachysandra forms a neat clump, spreading out from the center. Although it is easy to grow and not troubled by the problems which plague Japanese Spurge, Allegheny Spurge is not always easy to find. Ask at your local native plant nursery -- with demand comes supply.


 JUNE Pimmit Hills Gardener

(2004) The cicadas are here! The cicadas are here!

Mother’s Day evening we watched the earliest arrivals crawl out from between the patio pavers out back. A few nights later we watched as dozens of nymphs, clinging to the Cherry Laurels by the front door, split their skins. Slowly the white adults emerged, wings undeveloped, eyes beady and red.

By morning the cicadas were black, winged and crunchy. The greatest densities are found under Maple trees; Tulip Poplars seem to be the least popular. The only damage we’ll see is some tip breakage on the trees that the females lay their eggs in -- I would expect to see the least damage to the Tulip Poplars. They seem to be doggie digestible -- our rottie has taken a liking to them! Yuck!

The cicadas will be gone by the end of this month and then we can get on with our lives for another 17 years without a thought of cicadas. And now it’s summer. How about a few guidelines for summer maintenance?

First off, watering. A rain gauge is a good idea, even if it’s just a straight sided glass. If we don’t get a good rain (about an inch) during the week set up your sprinkler on new plants and water deeply. This is where a gauge will let you know when to turn off the spigot. Daily, brief waterings promote shallow roots that are less likely to survive the tough times.

Next, lawns. If you’re going to fertilize your lawn, do it in the fall with a fertilizer that is higher in potassium (the third number on the label). Potassium helps to grow a stronger root system.

Fertilizing in the spring just gives you more grass to mow and can lead to a flabby lawn that suffers in the summer heat. And if you don’t bag the clipping (and you really shouldn’t), you’ll be fertilizing your lawn organically every time you mow.

If you’ve got too many weeds in your lawn, a broadleaf herbicide can help. But be aware that your flowers and shrub are broadleaf plants and can be affected by sloppy applications. Also keep in mind that herbicides are pesticides and kids and pets should be kept off the grass after an application.

Insecticide applications should be done only when absolutely necessary and, as with all pesticides, after all directions are read and heeded. Most plants can take quite a bit of pest damage. And often the culprit is gone by the time the damage is noticed, making spraying useless.

In my garden a herd of tiny green caterpillars were skeletonizing my climbing rose, but I did nothing as most of them were already gone (morphing into moths or eaten by birds) by the time I noticed. Besides, with all the nesting birds dining in our yard and a dog that has to get her nose into everything, I don’t take any chances with insecticides. The rose is healthy and vigorous (kudos to the new English Roses) and growing with Clematis and native Wisteria companions that will hide any uglies.

Mulch, mulch, mulch. But don’t over mulch. A couple of inches is plenty. Repeated heavy applications of mulch can kill off established Azaleas and Boxwoods, both shallow rooted shrubs. Heavy mulch against the base of a tree can cause rot.

Maples and Birches will grow roots into the mulch layer if it is too deep. I allow the fallen leaves from the Red Maples and Tulip Poplars to become mulch. These decompose fairly quickly, adding organic matter to our Virginia clay and fertilizing the soil naturally, at no cost and without effort!

So that’s it for now. Stay cool this summer and keep your mouth closed while your car windows are down, at least ‘til the cicadas are gone!


(2003) They say our drought is over. There’s no denying that after our snow-packed winter. But what will the summer bring? More specifically, how much rain will the summer bring? We could end up dragging the hose and sprinkler around the yard like last year. Or we could end up slogging around in moldy socks. Who knows!

Either way, I’m prepared. I just ordered something called a “noodlehead sprinkler” from a gardening catalog. The hose screws into a round base which sits on the ground. From this sprout a dozen short, bendable tubes that spray water in whatever direction they are pointed. Seems like a neat idea for getting water right to where you need it with a lot less waste.

From the same catalog I also ordered a recoiling garden hose. It curls up like a 15 inch “slinky” when not in use, but stretches to 25 feet. This one will be great for watering the pots on the deck -- no more dragging a regular garden hose across the patio and up the steps and around the deck furniture and then back out again. Can’t wait for my order to arrive!

Oh, yeah, I’ve ordered from garden catalogs before -- plenty of plants, bins of bulbs, scads of seeds. What’s unusual about this catalog order is that I am not a gadget person. I’m a give-me-a-50-foot-hose-and-a-galvanized-metal-watering-can kind of gal. And I’ve just ordered two new gadgets.

I guess last summer got me thinking about watering and how to make it easier. And there are some tricks to getting great growth in the garden even in a droughty year. One of my favorites is the water holding product called “Soil Moist.” It “absorbs and releases water in soil,” according to the package. It’s a granular soil additive that’s mostly (99.7%) a crosslinked polyacryamide, whatever that is.

But whatever it is, it does a great job of retaining moisture in potting soil, making watering a less frequent chore. The trick to using this product is to completely hydrate the granules before mixing with the soil, otherwise your newly watered pot may erupt like a volcano, spilling plants and soil all over the place.

Once it’s the consistency of tapioca pudding, it’s ready to be mixed into the bottom half of the pot. As the plants grow, their roots grow into this reserve of water and wilted Petunias are no more. The granules usually breakdown after a year or two. For immense Impatiens, magnificent Marigolds, and zowie! Zinnias try mixing the hydrated granules right into the soil of the flower bed.

One of the best investments that a gardener can make is the purchase of a good watering wand with a on-off valve at one end and a water diffusing head at the other. Those high-pressure nozzles are great for washing the car, but much too destructive when used in the garden.

A wand and diffuser combination make it easy to deliver water right where it’s needed without tidal-waving young plants. It’s also very handy for watering-in newly planted trees and shrubs, providing a good shower of water over the entire root ball, and can even be left laying on the ground with the diffuser pointed up for a long, gentle soak.

For vegetable gardens, narrow flower borders and lines of shrubs a soaker hose is just the ticket for delivering water right to the root zone. These perforated hoses are designed to lay on the ground and can be used under a layer of mulch.

The water pressure should be kept low so that the water trickles out of the hose and does not spray out the tiny holes like hundreds of tiny firehoses. Along these same lines are the hoses with emitters located along their length. These come in kits and you decide how far apart to place the emitters. These are good for more widely spaced plants like tomatoes and peony bushes.

One of the easiest methods of watering plants is to pipe your downspouts out to them. This works particularly well if you have a depression or swale that will retain the rain water for a bit after a good storm. (These gardens actually can filter harmful pesticides and fertilizers out of runoff before it gets into streams, rivers and then the bay.)

There are plenty of plants at the nursery that love a damp site. For a sunny swale garden try Hardy Hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos and hybrids) with huge plate-sized flowers, the elegant Japanese Iris (Iris ensata) and our native Blue Flags (Iris versicolor and virginica), or the impressive seven-foot tall Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) topped with bright yellow daisies. For the shadier site try the lush Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), a big, bold Hosta, the bright Japanese Primrose (Primula japonica), the red, red Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) or the cotton-candy flowered Meadowsweet (Filipendula rubra), among others.

Oh, hey! Thumbing through another catalog I found something else I could use: a meter to measure how many gallons of water are flowing through the hose! Neat! Where’s my credit care? Hand me the phone! I’ll take six!


 SEPTEMBER Pimmit Hills Gardener

(2003) Ah, the summer doldrums are well under way as I write this. But in just a month, fall will start to show through the tattered finish of summer. It really wasn’t a bad summer. Plenty of rain and we never (at least not yet) started counting 90-degree days. Not a bad summer.

However, I am really, really looking forward to this fall. Spring just kinda got away from me this year and I’m hoping to get a lot done in the yard before winter sets in. Fall is a great time to plant. As the days grow shorter leafy growth slows and root growth picks up. So a tree or shrub planted in September, October or even November has plenty of time to get rooted before it’s time to leaf out again.

And fall is the time to plant spring-blooming bulbs. Everyone’s got Tulips and Daffodils. But what about the so-called “minor bulbs”? What about Squills, Reticulated Irises and Fritillarias? Do you have these lovelies in your yard? These bulbs are often passed over in the garden center in favor of the larger and better known Tulips and Daffodils. These bulbs are minor only in size, not in display. Many are excellent for planting right into the lawn and their foliage usually melts away without notice as the bulbs go dormant for the summer.

Sure, you know the colorful little Crocus. This harbinger of spring comes in two types: the early, small flowered “Snow Crocus”, and the later, “Giant Dutch Crocus”. But did you know that there are a number of species of Crocus that bloom in the fall, including the source of the spice, saffron?

Crocus sativus, the Saffron Crocus is easily grown in the sunny, well-drained garden, displaying reddish purple blooms in October. The bright red stigmas that are the threads of saffron are easily harvested without detriment to the flower. Look for bulbs of the Fall Crocuses at the garden center in September and get them planted right away, keeping in mind their diminutive stature.

The tall bearded Iris has been brightening up the late spring garden with its exotic flowers for generations. But there are a number of bulbous species that bloom much earlier, the most popular being the blue to purple Reticulated Iris, Iris reticulata, and the yellow Danford Iris, I. danfordiae. Standing only about 6 inches tall, these perfect miniatures contrast their jewel-like blossoms with late winter’s bleakness, sometimes braving the last snows of the season.

The Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is another very early bloomer that often ushers out winter’s last blast. Although there are a number of species and varieties of Snowdrops, most retailers will only carry the one, and for most, this one is enough. However, for those who carry the label of Galanthophile, there are at least a half dozen varieties to choose from, most a barely perceptible variation on the common Snowdrop. You might also try the Summer Snowflake, Leucojum aestivum, for a similar but later and larger look in the garden.

One of my favorite ways to use minor bulbs is to mix three little lovelies, Glory of the Snow, Siberian Squill and Striped Squill, massing them at the front of the flower bed. The Glory of the Snow, Chionodoxa sardensis and C. gigantea, bloom first in early spring, sprinkling the ground with loose clusters of lavender blue flowers.

The Squill, Scilla siberica, follows right along with beautiful inky-blue blossoms on short stems. And the pale, pale blue flowers of the Striped Squill, Puschkinia libanotica, contrast nicely with its darker cousin. Add a few ‘White Splendor’ Grecian Windflowers (Anemone blanda) and you have a wonderful skirting for your Daffodil collection.

You might also consider adding a few of the Fritillarias to your perennial garden. The “Frits” are a varied group, ranging from the yard-tall Fritillaria imperialis, with its showy clusters of yellow or orange bells topped with a pineapple-like clump of leaves, to the six inch tall, yellow belled F. pudica.

In between are F. persica, its upright stems loaded with dark plum colored bells, F. meleagris, the Guinea Hen Flower, deriving its name from the checkered pattern on its solitary, wine colored bells, and a selection of other species. Most of these minor bulbs are not too particular about their growing conditions undefined a good bit of sun and well-drained soil undefined but Frits need a fairly rich. humusy soil and many do quite well in the woodland garden.

So head out to the garden center this fall or check out a mail-order catalog. And take a look at the minor bulbs. Don’t be shy undefined grab a handful or two or three. You might make some new friends in next year’s garden.


 OCTOBER Pimmit Hills Gardener

(2004) The Crape Myrtles have been spectacular this summer. You can’t miss ‘em – the clusters of bright blooms blaze through the glare of the sun. And the early summer-like temps of May brought our Crape Myrtles into bloom much earlier this year.

The ‘Natchez’ Crapes in my side yard were popping their white blossoms in early June, a good month or so ahead of schedule. I planted these lovely trees in the fall of ’97 and they quickly attained their mature height of 20 feet. From the start I pruned them to form an arch over the pea gravel path to the back garden. The smooth, rich cinnamon brown bark on this variety is particularly handsome, showing off beautifully against an evergreen background.

Crape Myrtles have been known and grown for their bright flowers for centuries. The large clusters of small crinkled florets arrive in midsummer when the landscape needs a colorful pick-me-up. We are fortunate to be able to grow these Southern Belles this far north.

A hard winter can knock Crape Myrtles back to their roots. (But don’t fret--Crapes bloom on new wood so flowering will still occur.)

For decades the National Arboretum has been breeding, evaluating and releasing new Crape Myrtle varieties that combine increased winter hardiness with resistance to foliar diseases. As part of this breeding program hybridizers have been crossing the colorful Common Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) with the more cold hardy and disease resistant Japanese Crape Myrtle (L. fauriei). The resulting hybrids, all given Native American names, range in size from small trees to shrubs, and come in all colors from white to purples to pinks and brilliant red.

These Arboretum introductions also boast great fall foliage and beautiful exfoliating bark. The tree-like, white-flowered ‘Natchez’ is one of these hybrids.

Another, named ‘Comanche’, is an intermediate variety sporting coral-pink flowers, sandalwood bark and orange-red to dark red autumn foliage.

In the same size category, ‘Lipan’ decorates its beige bark trunks with medium lavender blossoms and orange-russet fall color. For something shorter, in the ten-foot-and-under category, look for ‘Hopi’ with its light pink florets and gray-brown bark.

The dwarf ‘Chicka-saw’ was released in 1997 after 30 years of hybridizing. This lavender-pink flowered variety grows to only about three feet and develops bronze-red fall foliage. Even smaller, ‘Pocomoke’ comes in at 20 inches tall and is covered with deep rose-pink flowers. Check the Arboretum’s website for a listing of all two dozen hybrid introductions.

Crape Myrtles are easily grown in full sun and well-drained soil. Keep in mind that they are one of the last plants to sprout leaves in the springundefinedwe’re not dead, just slow to wake up! And Crapes are fast growing. This trait often leads to them being butcher pruned each spring. This cutting back to large stumps leads to a proliferation of new shoots that end up weak and leggy.

Pruning should be done only in late winter or spring, never earlier, and should be selective rather than wholesale. Remove entire branches back to the main trunk. They can even be kept to a single trunk, though this is against their multi-trunk nature.

If your Crape is too big, the best bet is to replace it with one of the new varieties that attains the desired size (check your nursery or garden center’s Dirr manual under Lagerstroemia). Starting with the appropriate variety and then properly pruning from an early age will result in a Crape Myrtle that fits the available space.

I grow a couple of the dark cherry-red ‘Victor’ Crape Myrtles in a perennial bed undefinedat four to five feet in height, they fit right in. Try the dwarf ‘Pocomoke’ Crape in front of the mounding and evergreen ‘Soft Touch’ Japanese Holly for a tough, colorful and low shrub border. One of the taller varieties such as ‘Choctaw’ will become a colorful, high canopy, shading the patio nicely through the summer.

On another subject, the brown branch tips on your trees are the result of the cicadas. What a show they gave us! My husband, a Michigan native, was fascinated by his first encounter with the newly emerged critters: all pale gold except for their beady red eyes!

This was my third time and I took the time (finally) to appreciate these marvels of nature … at least until the dog started eating them like they were kibble!

Anyway, the egg-laying process caused the branches to die and we’re left with the clean up job. The trees will recover, but if yours weren’t in the best shape to start with, consider creating a good sized mulched area under the tree this fall using the fallen leaves. (Run them through the lawn mower to chop them up if you like or top them with a thin layer of wood chips.) The leaves will break down and leach nutrients and organic matter into the soil very quickly and are much better than chemical fertilizers. Organic matter rules!


It’s time to get back out there. Get out the weed-eater, the loppers and the machete--it’s time to reclaim the yard!

Our front yard is undergoing a major renovation this fall. We’ve already whacked back most of the meadow out front to make room for refugees from the back yard and the homeless that have occupied a portion of the driveway for way too long. We’ve decided that we’d like a more manicured look for the front. No lawn still, but just a more orderly, gardened look to the landscape.

And this is a great time to transplant, especially those plants that get an early start in spring like Hostas and Peonies. By moving them now rather than in spring, we don’t have to worry about cutting roots when the plants need them the most.

Trees, shrubs and perennials dug and moved in the fall have plenty of time to get their roots reestablished before the worst of summer hits. The exceptions (there are always exceptions) are the fall bloomers (Asters, Chrysanthemums, most Ornamental Grasses) and marginally hardy plants (Camellias, Crape Myrtles); these are best left for a spring transplant.

When digging up an established plant, always make sure that it is well watered beforehand. Dig a wide rootball. Roots need oxygen and most will be in the upper few inches of soil where air can permeate the soil.

Dig the new hole the same size and dimensions as the excavated rootball. For example when moving Azaleas, dig a wide, shallower rootball and replant in a wide, shallow hole, laying the roots back out like a carpet.

Set the plant at the same level to the surrounding ground as it previously grew. That wonderful evergreen groundcover and edger, Liriope, is tough as can be, but if planted too deeply it’s a goner.

Tamp the soil back in around the roots, being careful to not leave air pockets. Then an inch or so of mulch and a good drink of water ought to do. But keep an eye on the rain gauge: if the weather dries out before winter sets in, supplemental watering will be necessary for good root growth.

And think about using the fallen leaves as mulch. Leaves breakdown quicker, adding organic matter to the soil much faster than wood chips. If you have a bagger attachment for your mower, try shredding the leaves before applying them to your beds. Or just run the mower over the leaves and allow them to decompose in the lawn, feeding it naturally (and cheaply!).

For six years now I have let the leaves fall where they may, and the soil is so much darker for allowing the organic matter to build up as it does in the natural landscape. Every year that we drag bags of leaves to the curb, we are depleting our soils. Organic matter is volatile and needs to be replenished each fall.

Trees are good at bringing buried nutrients up to the surface by way of their fallen foliage. Plants that are growing in soil that is naturally fertile and high in organic matter are better able to handle the hard times. Adopt this organic attitude and you will never have to feel guilty about watching football instead of raking the leaves!


 NOVEMBER Pimmit Hills Gardener

(2004) Joe Gibbs is back. You can’t drive two blocks without passing a dumpster parked in a driveway. The flower beds are fresh with recently planted fall pansies. Renovation does seem to be in the air, doesn’t it? So how about your landscape? Does it need to be renovated? Fall is getting a bit long in the tooth, but, as long as you can get a shovel in the ground, you can plant. And planting now means fewer watering worries next summer.

Let’s first consider what to remove. More than likely, those overgrown Azaleas and Ligustrums have to go. Maybe that old Maple that keeps its corner of the yard turfless should go, too.

And those Burford Hollies that goose everyone who comes to the door really ought to be added to the compost pile. It might be worth it to transplant those old Kurume Azaleas out to the backyard and sometimes there are elements worth keeping like that big Japanese Maple or the Boxwoods that your father started decades ago, but usually it’s best to do a clean sweep.

Since the old shrubs were probably planted too close to the foundation, they can be cut off near the ground, their stumps spritzed with a little herbicide to keep them from resprouting and the new shrubs planted in front of the old. (It’s so easy to plant the new little shrubs too close to the house; leaving the stumps in place to rot away will force you to leave plenty of room between the foundation and the landscape.)

Now that the old is out, it’s time to go shopping! The nurseries and garden centers restock for the fall planting season and often you can get some good deals now. There are so many varieties of plants available these days that it’s hard to know what’s best for your particular site.

If the nursery signs don’t give you enough information – size, habit, culture – ask to see Dirr’s Manual of Woody Plants. This thick volume gives the low-down on all the trees and shrubs you’ll find in the landscape – very handy! But, if you’re in a rush, here’s my list of top ten landscape plants.

#1) Japanese Hollies (Ilex crenata): with so many cultivars there’s a Japanese Holly for every occasion. Look for ‘Soft Touch’, an improvement over the old ‘Helleri’, for a low (2’ x 3’) evergreen mound. Or try ‘Sky Pencil’ for a dark green column, 8 feet tall and less than 1 foot wide. Many, many others.

#2) Lilyturf (Liriope muscari): an evergreen groundcover that doesn’t travel in leaps and bounds like ivy, that doesn’t die out like periwinkle, that takes sun and drought unlike pachysandra, loves shade and produces spikes of purple flowers in late summer. What more could you ask for?

#3) Foster’s Holly (Ilex x attenuata ‘Fosteri’): the slender, conical, half-breed child of our native American Holly, but much smaller in size and leaf; this red-berried evergreen is ideal for our limited suburban lots.

#4) Redbud (Cercis canadensis): ya gotta love this small native tree that clothes its naked branches in early spring with flamboyant pinky-purple blossomsundefineda great addition to the wooded landscape.

#5) Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia): dig out your October Dispatch.

#6) Robin Hill Azaleas (Rhododendron hybrids): hybrids of the glorious Japanese Satsuki Azaleas, except these are hardier and low and compact in habit. Look for ‘Nancy of Robin Hill’ for large semi-double flowers that repeat bloom (sporadically) in the fall. ‘White Moon’ is one that lights up a dark corner of my back yard.

#7) Glossy Abelia ‘Little Richard’ (Abelia x grandiflora ‘Little Richard’): I met this little guy fairly recently and have since fallen in love! This low, mounding shrub (2 ½ to 3’ tall) covers its bronzy foliage with loads of soft white trumpets throughout the summer and fall.

#8) Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia): small, unrakable leaves, attractive bark, deep roots, disease resistance and high canopies make the Lacebark Elm a great replacement for the American Elm.

#9) Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica): so you’re sick of Leylands and you want something different? Try this fast-growing, conical evergreen instead. Also look for one of the many and various dwarf varieties for something that I guarantee the Joneses won’t already have.

#10) Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum): with at least a billion cultivars, you’ll want more than one! Whether you choose a cut-leaf variety (var. dissectum), an upright, full-leaf type, a variegated form, or a red-leaf variety, you can’t go wrong. Just keep the soil on the moist side and a little afternoon shade is appreciated.

#11) ‘Happy Returns’ Daylily (Hemerocallis ‘Happy Returns’): okay, so I can’t count. This is the Daylily of the future: clear yellow trumpets over mounds of clean foliage all summer and fall. Leaves Stella in the mud.

So get out there, go shopping and then get planting!


Now that the trees have shed their leaves, is your garden looking rather bland and boring? Is there nothing to catch the eye now that fall has fallen? We can fix that! Aside from the obvious pansies and ornamental cabbage, there are gobs of plants that are more interesting during the bleak days of winter.

Many plants produce showy berries which usually ripen as the leaves begin to turn and often are showier than the flowers they came from. Take the little-known Beautyberry bush (Callicarpa dicotoma and D. americana). This forsythia look-alike goes unnoticed when it opens its tiny lavender flowers in late summer.

But as the leaves yellow and drop, the clusters of bright lavender-purple berries appear like knots of beads on the arching branches, drawing “oohs” and “ahhs” from the audience. There are many red fruited hollies out there but for the biggest bang for the buck, the Winterberry, Ilex verticillata, can’t be beat. This is a deciduous holly with soft, non-spiny leaves that color up a lovely yellow as the large berries turn red.

The female Winterberry (there are male bushes too, and one must be planted nearby for fruit to form on the female bush) becomes a haze of red for the winter. The Chinese or Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa) hangs onto its fruits a while longer than our native dogwood, always a favorite of the neighborhood birds. The Chinese Dogwood does double duty, blooming white in early summer and dangling large raspberry-like fruits in fall.

A tree with interesting bark can enliven the winter. The huge Sycamore, with its white and olive skin seems to light up the grayest days. The Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides -- one of the fun names in botany) is a deciduous conifer that sheds its lacy foliage in late fall to show off its cinnamon bark.

Both of these majestic trees need some space. For the smaller yard try the ‘Heritage’ River Birch, the Lacebark Pine, or the fabulous Paperbark Maple. The ‘Heritage’ River Birch is a local birch (Betula nigra) selected for its lovely cream, flesh and gray papery bark. Since it’s native to our area it’s much more tolerant of our far-from-northern summers.

The Lacebark Pine (Pinus bungeana) is a lovely pine that is best pruned to expose its jigsaw puzzle bark. For a shadier location invest in a Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum). With its curls of papery, rich cinnamon-red bark and fiery red fall foliage, this small tree is worth the pricey tag. And let’s not forget the Coral Bark Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sangu Kaku’). The stems and branches of this small upright tree turn bright tomato red in winter.

And there are even some flowers to brighten those dreary short days. The native witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) starts opening its spidery gold blossoms as the leaves change to yellow and continues on bare branches.

The hardy Ackerman Camellias begin to bloom in late fall and may even decorate the Holidays if winter's worst holds off. And the Hellebores, or Christmas Roses (Helleborus), don’t seem to know what winter means!

These shade-loving evergreen perennials open delicate looking blossoms as soon as they get a couple of good days, ranking them a spot close to the front door.

Now, before winter gets too serious, go plant something to brighten the garden during the dark days of December -- the “off-season” doesn't have to be boring.


 DECEMBER Pimmit Hills Gardener

(2004) It looks like it’s going to be a severe cabin-fever season this year. Winter arrived too early, as did the first snow. And we’ve already seen single digit temps. Although the days are slowly lengthening, the Crocuses will set no record for early bloom this year. And the house is, again, too small.

It’s not like the house actually shrinks in winter, but with the onset of cold weather we lose our outdoor rooms: the deck and patio. And we make good use of the deck and patio from the first whiff of warm weather until the fire in the chiminea is not enough to keep out toes toasty. In the olden days big porches furnished with swings and wicker chairs created outdoor living spaces where the family gathered to escape the heat of the house.

Today, especially in the newer houses, the occupants leave the climate-controlled house by way of the garage and drive to work or the store in air conditioned comfort. If the house comes with outside living space it’s usually a small deck that’s so high off the ground that it’s completely disconnected from the yard.

We are fortunate that our houses are close to the ground. And many of us are lucky to have large, shade trees in our yards. A weekend project or two can create very enjoyable outdoor spaces that blend house and garden.

When the weather warms, my husband and I move outside. When I bought the house six and a half years ago it came with a nice, big deck off the back of the house. But the deck felt separated from the yard – the only access to the yard was a short, steep set of steps off the side of the deck. I had plans to create a garden out of the entire back yard, but I needed space for people, too.

Popping off a third of the deck railing and building a seven-foot wide set of steps down onto the corner of a newly constructed flagstone patio really opened up the deck to the rest of the yard. No longer fenced off from the yard, the deck became transition space onto the patio, in addition to outdoor dining room.

I canted the rectangular patio out into the yard, creating two triangular pockets between flagstone and deck for plants; this arrangement pulls the patio out into the yard, creating a room surrounded by garden, while still connected to the deck.

Off the back corner, a pile of large, weathered stones release a gush of water into a small pond. The stones along the pond’s edge just nose onto the patio as the water flows under the flagstones to emerge as a stream on the other side. The cut flagstone was selected to match the fieldstone used in the water course, tying the manmade patio into the natural-looking pond and stream.

Our outdoor dining room is furnished with a wooden table big enough to seat eight guests. An umbrella provides lunchtime shade and a candelabrum lights the table after dark. Cushions and a fan keep guests comfortable and mosquito-free. (A box fan set at one end of the deck keeps the air moving enough to discourage the blood-thirsty pests from joining the party.)

A corner of the deck houses the charcoal grill – husband mans the grill while dueling with a native wisteria vine, both staking claim to the space. (The vine has been there longer.) Tiki torches and staked candleholders surround the deck and patio in soft light for evening entertaining, even if it’s just the two of us enjoying a bottle of wine on the patio. Large terra cotta pots overflowing with foliage and flowers blur the line between garden and hardscape. The waterfall drowns out neighborhood noises with nature’s version of water music.

We have created a lovely sanctuary out back. It’s sad each fall to have to put away the furnishings for the winter. If a warm spell arrives we will pull a couple of chairs out, fire up the chiminea and open a bottle of red wine – if a warm spell arrives …. Sigh. I can’t wait for spring!


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