Toxic Relationships

Very few can survive, let alone thrive, living in the vicinity of a toxic individual.  Many will succumb instantly, unable to co-exist even for a short time in a toxic environment.  Others make a go of it, only to perish slowly or merely limp along, never reaching their full potential living in the shadow of a toxic presence.

Those of us with black walnut trees need to find those plants who are co-dependent, who will not only put up with juglone (the toxin present in all parts of Juglans nigra) but who will thrive under its canopy, bringing the tree its slippers and laughing at its offensive jokes.

I got an email from Simeon in Ithaca, NY, who gardens under black walnuts and inquired about planting a Kousa dogwood beneath his trees.  Would C. kousa pack its bags after encountering a black walnut’s toxic personality or would it accept its adverse circumstances and become self-actualized anyway?

I wasn’t sure, but I did ask Simeon to send me a picture of the perennial border that he has planted under his walnut trees, and he kindly obliged:

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As you can see, all sorts of hostas and ferns look completely at ease in the presence of juglone.

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Simeon also highly recommends ‘Sunburst’ St John’s Wort (Hypericum frondosum ‘Sunburst’) as a plant that flourishes alongside black walnuts.  Thank you Simeon!

I find it both comforting and inspirational to find other souls who are committed to finding plants who tolerate the presence of black walnuts — messy, pernicious, beautiful, bountiful black walnuts. What? You’re too good for to live with one?  Oh, you don’t want to live with someone who drops bombs on your head and poisons your environment?  Get outta here, snowflake!

July 7, 2018

A glorious, sunny, breezy day today and I spent it toiling around the perimeters of my property at war with ivy and Virginia creeper.

Each year I make a little more progress on the unkempt regions of my backyard, and this summer I am doubling down on the vines that grow along the fences.  When I am feeling defeated by these vines, I convince myself it’s okay to let them crawl all over the stockade and chain link and slither under my shrubs.  It’s a wild garden, I say to myself.  These vines are just “rambling” and “scampering” among the other plantings and they “soften” the look of my ugly fencing. It’s a William Robinson look.

Ha-ha. Except that’s mostly delusional because in truth the ivy twines between the fence boards, grows, and wedges the boards apart.  The little sticky pads on the Virginia creeper cling to the sides of my cute little shed, ready to tear off the yellow paint when I try to remove it.  The wild grape sends out its wiry tendrils, like antennas on some alien life form, searching for a delicate little garden plant — like my thalictrum! — to smother to death.

There is something very satisfying about grasping a vine that runs along the ground and pulling on it with just right amount of force so that the roots come up without the vine breaking.  I always try to see how many feet of vine I can get up just by pulling, before the vine breaks or gets caught on something and I have to come in with my clippers.  Sometimes I can get like eight or ten feet of vine in one tug.  Oh, yeahhhhh….

I have a serious problem with Virginia creeper and wild grape along my chain link fence. After years of ignoring them, they’ve developed massive, inch-thick roots that run right underneath the metal of the fence.  My little forked weeder is useless in this situation — like putting out a fire with a Waterpik — so I haul out my shovel and try to wedge the tip of it under the root.  Try to pry it up, though, and the damn metal fence gets in the way.  Blast!  Except every once in a while I get the shovel under there at a sweet angle and when I push down on the shovel handle pop! a giant section of vine comes up.  Pull hard on it and — if I’m lucky — pop, pop, pop! — I’ll get a couple of feet of that mother extricated from the soil.

I pulled on so many vines today that even now, sitting like a lump in this chair, I see and feel myself pulling vines. I feel my fingers closing over a piece of ivy and pulling.  Chunks of cool, dry dirt fly onto my bare arms as I rip it out.  I cram the piece into my yard waste can and crouch down to search for more. Did I get it all?  No, there’s some more encircling the trunk of that euonymus.  Crouch, grab, pull, repeat. Pretty sure I will dream about pulling vines tonight. In my dream, the vines will be endless, the world will smell of dirt, and William Robinson will be laughing at me, laughing so hard.

Black Walnut Inspiration

For when you get demoralized thinking about all the things you can’t grow under your black walnut, take heart.  This venerable black walnut tree, located at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, VA, holds court over a lovely planting of magnolias and shade perennials:

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I did not check to see if the magnolias were marked, but they are probably a cultivar of M. soulangeana, and they are pretty glorious right now.

Underneath was a comely mixture of bear’s foot hellebores, other hybrid hellebores, Japanese Shield fern, and Virginia bluebells:

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This bed would be the envy of any woodland gardener, so those of us with black walnuts should not be feeling sorry for ourselves.  I will say that the folks tending this garden add quite a bit of shredded leaves to their beds, which makes the soil nice and fluffy and the plants plenty healthy.  My gut tells me that healthy, rich, organic soil tends to counteract the effects of juglone for plants that might be semi-susceptible.

However, I personally have hellebores, ferns, and bluebells growing very robustly under my black walnuts in terrible, dry soil.  So I think these plants will grow well even if you don’t give them perfect duff.

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What I’m rrrrrrreally jealous of with this garden bed is that mid-layer — the magnolias — which connects the ground layer to the big black walnut and pulls it all together.  I have not had as much success getting small ornamental trees to survive with my BWs….maybe I need to put M. soulangeana on my shopping list….

Definitely a “come hither” tree when in bloom:

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Care for a Black Walnut?

I’ve got plenty.

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And plenty still to come:

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This is a nifty nut collector made by the folks at Garden Weasel.  What a treat to discover a yard device that requires no engine and makes no noise, that is so simply designed and yet works beautifully.

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Just roll it along the ground and the nuts become trapped in the wire cage.  To release them you push a doohickey on the handle (like when you squeeze out a mop) that spreads the wires so the nuts can fall out again.  The only trouble is that there SO MANY NUTS and collectively they are very heavy.  A plastic trash can should only be filled about a quarter full; otherwise, there is risk of it busting wide open as it’s dragged (ask me how I know).

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Still, I never tire of this canopy:

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And there are some other pleasant distractions from the tyranny of the black walnut trees.  Some toad lily and sedum:DSC_2195

The Winterberry holly never disappoints:

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Bottlebrush Buckeye fruit:

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Some white wood aster:

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Zigzag goldenrod, now fading:

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This cute little bottle gentian that I nearly ripped out over the summer thinking it was a weed:

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A Japanese combo — bloodgrass and anemone:

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Blackberry lily:

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This year’s crown jewel — a Red Abissynian Banana.  I adore it so much! The leaves are insane!

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This lantana and bloodgrass was a good combo:

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This lantana was so exuberant this year that it shaded out my herbs:

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Elephant ear and celosia refusing to back down in the face of autumn:

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Sedge Allegiance

This WaPo article by Adrian Higgins about sedges has been going around among my garden-oriented acquaintances, so I thought I’d share my own sedge experiences.

I’ve got two types of sedge in abundance: Carex pensylvanica and Carex flaccosperma. Here is a spot where I’ve got quite a bit of C. pensylvanica:

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This started as 3 quart-sized plants about 4-5 years ago and it has spread (and as you’ll see I’ve lifted many chunks of it to other areas of my yard.) It’s planted behind a retaining wall in extremely dry soil in part sun.  As you can see in the photo, it does go a bit tawny by the middle of summer, but I don’t mind that.  I really like its fine texture and the way it splays.  I’ve always had the urge to comb and braid it.

Here’s some more that I transplanted about 2 years ago in attempt to make my ceramic fish look like they’re swimming through a river.  It sort of works:

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The thrust of Higgins’ article is that sedges make a good alternative mulch, and my experience does bear this out.  Before I planted the sedge above, this was an area that I had to weed and mulch to keep looking decent.

Below is a shot taken a bit further up the slope where the sedge has not filled in yet.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  And you do have to keep weeding and/or mulching during the years that you are waiting for it to fill in.

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Here is another spot way in the back of my yard where I transplanted some C. pensylvanica a few years ago.  It has spread very nicely.  Again, this is dry clay soil, part sun:

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I’ve got tons of these garden phlox seedlings all over my yard (the taller pink flowered plant), so I experimented with mixing some of them into the sedge.  It’s not bad, but I think a shorter plant might make a better complement.

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A word of warning about the idea of sedge as a mulch.  It’s definitely not foolproof.  I’ve had places where weed seeds had no problem sprouting up through the sedge, and then it’s kind of a nightmare to get them out.  For example, this big patch of sedge (above) was pretty infested by some weedy grass last year (maybe stiltgrass?) and I went nuts trying to pull it out.  I finally resorted to buying a spray-on grass killer from the nursery; it killed the grass but not the sedge and now this area is pretty weed free.

Here’s another place where I moved some C. pensylvanica:

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Again, it’s a place where I use mulch to fill in the gaps around the plants, but you can see that the sedge is starting to fill in those spaces.  I was even thinking of planting it in between some of those irises on the right.  Irises are a headache for me because weeds appear right down among the plants all tangled up in the rhizomes.  I was thinking of trying either the sedge or perhaps Japanese painted fern interplanted with the irises.

Now for the Carex flaccosperma.  This is a much coarser sedge with an agreeable blue color that seeds all over the place.  Unlike the C. pensylvanica, which spreads via stolons, C. flaccosperma spreads via seeds that pop off in the spring.  I have a lot of it an area of my backyard where I am trying to use lots of natives and make a sort of mixed woodland floor type thing:

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In the pic above, the C. flaccosperma is the strappy looking plant in the foreground.  It’s planted among wood poppies, bluebells, lady ferns, eastern wood ferns, and heucheras.  This is my attempt at a “matrix planting” that we hear so much about lately.  It has been an interesting experiment.

Here’s another shot of this matrix with the C. flaccosperma visible throughout:

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I took this shot today (mid July) but this planting looks best in spring and fall.  In spring it has blue bells and wood poppies blooming, and in fall there are many flowers of Heuchera “Autumn Bride” that emerge. The sedge is definitely the background plant that stays more or less constant while the other plants ebb and flow.

But again, the weeds can invade here, too.  In the pic above, you can see some dastardly bishop’s weed has snuck in, which is really hard to get rid of.  Also, oxalis, crabgrass, and other weeds pop up in there fairly regularly and need to be dealt with.

So it’s not like you can just have this great sedge matrix and then sit in your lawn chair for the rest of your summer.  There will always be some maintenance.  But yes, it is less work and less money than a sea of mulch, and it is infinitely more interesting to watch it change over the seasons.

It hardly needs mentioning, but of course sedges aren’t the only plant that can act as a living mulch.  Behold my Sweetbay magnolia amid a sea of plain green, absolutely indestructible hostas:

sedge1 Unlike the sedges, once the hostas are filled in there is rarely an issue with weeds.  Those wide green leaves pretty much shade out any weed that has the audacity to emerge from the soil.  I can move these hostas, hack them in pieces, plop the pieces in a hastily dug holes in some barren part of the yard, and they are sure to survive and cover ground despite my subsequent neglect.  They are tough! (I should mention that, sadly, most of the fancy hosta cultivars aren’t this accommodating).

The hosta-scape is functional, but is definitely somewhat static and boring; the sedge matrices I’ve played with are definitely more dynamic and more fun.

I leave you with a non-sedge-related picture of a plant I grow more in love with each year — my bottlebrush buckeye bush, in bloom right now:

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Great Day to Be Alive

When it’s close to 70 degrees on February 18 it seems like there is very little in the world worth complaining about.  Even the traffic on New York Avenue seems worth it once you’re finally at the National Arboretum walking among these beauties:

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(Prunus mume and Edgeworthia in the Chinese/Japanese Pavilion Gardens)

Even the often dour blooms of hellebore knew enough to perk up and tilt their faces toward the sun:

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(I know, I know, many hellebores are bred that way, let me just do my personification thing, will you?)

I liked the stark contrast between the black mondo grass and the old stalks of ornamental grass (Northern Sea Oats, I think):

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Cherry blossoms!  (I think it’s another Prunus mume, so technically apricot but I’m in a t-shirt in February so who gives a toss!)

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Terrible photo of one of my favorite plants in the whole arboretum: Chimonanthus praecox:

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This specimen is perched on a steep slope above the Anacostia River, where the winter sun warms its buttery yellow blooms, which emit THE most delicious fragrance in the floral world (except maybe Vibunum carlesii???) a sort of warm vanilla spice that definitely makes you forget it’s winter.

And last but not least my beloved Camellias.  It always surprises me seeing such perfect, extravagant blooms on such awkward, lanky plants.  Kinda like seeing a beautiful young girl with knock-knees and pigeon toes…all the more charming for their imperfections.

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Melania Trump Vows to Preserve Obama Garden

Though many of her husband’s projects are likely to be uprooted, there is good news for Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden.

Looks like Melania Trump is fond of gardening, too.  Or at least fond of gardens.

This weekend, Mrs.Trump accompanied Akie Abe, the wife of the Japanese prime minister, to Morikami Museum and Japanese Garden in Delray, Florida.  Based on the brief video footage available, it looks like the two women strolled around the gardens somewhat awkwardly, posing for pictures, smiling at the guide, and feeding some koi.

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http://time.com/4668035/melania-trump-michelle-obama-vegetable-garden/

But it is this statement from Mrs. Trump that is most noteworthy if you’ve been fretting about the fate of the White House gardens: ‘As a mother and as the First Lady of this country, Mrs. Trump is committed to the preservation and continuation of the White House Gardens, specifically the First Lady’s Kitchen Garden and the Rose Garden.’

Trump also spoke of the positive effect of gardens and nature on young people: ‘I hope that together Mrs. Abe and I can continue to inspire our youth to enjoy the beauty around them and to restore their minds in the peacefulness of their surroundings.’ 

There are many minds that need to be restored in the aftermath of this election — I won’t say whose! — and one thing most of us can agree on is that gardens are a good place to do that.

It’s interesting that before she left the White House, Mrs. Obama reinforced her garden with more permanent fixtures of cement, stone, and wood; she did not want this thing torn out!  It will be ironic if something as mutable and unpredictable as a garden turns out to be the most enduring Obama initiative of them all.

obamagardenhttp://www.politico.com/story/2016/10/michelle-obama-garden-changes-white-house-229204