In Praise of the Boxwood

The boxwood gods have always smiled upon me.  Despite what I’ve read about gardeners having difficulties with Buxus, every single boxwood I’ve planted in my garden has performed admirably while asking almost nothing in return.  (I only wish I could find such favor with whatever wrathful deities oversee Camellia and Viburnum.)

I have eight varieties of boxwood growing in my garden.  I know because I just went outside and counted them.  I have Buxus microphylla ‘Franklin’s Gem’, B. microphylla ‘Winter Gem’, B. x ‘Green Velvet’ as well as the five featured below.

One of my favorites is B. microphylla ‘John Baldwin’…what a jolly chubby fellow!  I have this guy planted in a teeny patch of soil between a brick patio and a screened-in porch and right now he is the only thing keeping that space from being a little wasteland of dead leaves and empty pots:

buxusjohnbaldwin

I have another ‘John Baldwin’ planted in rather heavy shade, under a black walnut tree, where he gets regularly peed on by a large Labrador retriever, and he just carries on without complaint.  What a star!

I notice that on a major growers’ website it says you can substitute ‘Dee Runk’ for ‘John Baldwin’ but I am going to have to raise a SERIOUS objection to that recommendation.  I also have a B. sempervirens ‘Dee Runk’ growing in my sideyard:

buxusdeerunk

and I would say, yeah, go ahead and substitute her for ‘John Baldwin’ if you are also okay with substituting, say, Grace Kelly for Richard Dreyfus.  (Tip: not all pyramids are alike! Some are slim and lithe, some are dense and compact!)

I love all my boxwoods.  They are not flashy but they are stalwart.  They are like your friend who doesn’t throw a glamorous dinner party but who can always be counted on to give you a ride to your colonoscopy.  Stalwart & true.  They have color at the time you need it most.  In winter, when everything goes brown and gray, they retain rich shades of green, sometimes tinged with bronze and amber and orange, like this B. microphylla ‘Golden Dream’:

buxusfront

My ‘Golden Dream’ is planted under a cherry tree right by the sidewalk out front; it NEVER gets supplemental water, and it gets peed on by any number of neighborhood dogs.  Last winter a branch broke off under the 30 inches of snow we got in January; I simply tied it back on with twine and it soldiered on as though it hadn’t been brutalized by the one of the heaviest snowfalls in decades.

I tend to buy my boxwoods in small sizes.  They are said to grow very slowly but I have found that they usually grow a couple to as much as several inches a year. That’s good enough for me.  I’m only 45 and won’t be retiring to my villa in Provence until I’m at least 60, so I have time to watch them grow.

When you go to the garden center you can go to the boxwood aisle and, if you are the Queen of Sheba, pick up a fully grown boxwood for $249.99.

Or you can go to the one-gallon section and get the same thing in a diminutive version for $16.99.  I bought this teeny little B. sempervirens ‘Variegata’ last spring and planted it in a place where it will cheer me up on dreary, gray winter days.  It is only bringing me about 8″ worth of cheer right now, but in five years I am hoping it increases to 24-36″ of cheer in lovely shades of cream and green.

buxussempervariegata

Here is another boxwood in my yard:

buxushomedepot

Notice anything different?  I bought this one at Home Depot.  It was relatively cheap for its size, and its label mentioned no specific cultivar — just generic B. sempervirens.  And although I still appreciate it for the splash (blob?) of green it provides in the winter garden, it is certainly inferior to the plants I bought at quality nurseries.  I think the difference is that it lacks any definite shape; in fact, Buxus ‘Amorphous Blob’ is probably an apt name for it.

Supposedly, boxwoods need evenly moist, well-drained loam” but they DEFINITELY aren’t getting that in my yard.  Besides maybe Prince Charles and Martha Stewart, who actually has well-drained loam?  No, even though boxwoods are favored by royals and aristocrats, they will perform just as loyally for all of us peasants.

 

 

Winter Red, Green Panda, Blue Trout

Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’

winterberry

Garden Trout

gardentrout

Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’

bloodgrass

Fargesia rufa ‘Green Panda’; Aspidistra elatior ‘Alahi’; Danae racemosa

greenpandapoetslaurel

Confused forsythia bloom

forsythiabloom

 

High Maintenance Plants & People

Behold my Camellia ‘Niccio’s Bella Rossa’:

nucciosbellarossa

My li’l camellia cowers in the cold and snow.

Sad, right? Let me tell you the story of this plant. I spotted her a few years ago at the garden center – in bloom – and was immediately smitten. Anxiously, I checked the tag. Zone 8, it said. Prefers acid soil. I can make it work, I thought, disregarding my alkaline soil and Zone 7 location. I have that little protected area in the side yard by the fence. It doesn’t get below 10 degrees here that often. Just because that other camellia I planted a few years ago died almost immediately doesn’t mean this one will, too.

And on and on with the rationalizing. Sixty dollars later and the sweet little thing was in my passenger seat and on her way to the inevitable slow demise (but hopefully not!) in my garden.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we buy these precious, high-maintenance plants that we know will require constant coddling and tending?

I mean, I consider myself a very practical person. I drive an old Honda. I’ve pretty much abandoned make-up and jewelry. I’d rather eat meatloaf than prime rib, rather walk my dog than play golf. I like things to be easy, sensible, and reliable.

I generally try to surround myself with easy people, too. “Low-maintenance” people who pay their bills and show up to work every day. People who don’t have giant mood swings, constant hurt feelings, or mysterious ailments and traumas. Much better to have folks in your life who don’t need deadheading, dividing, or staking, who will perform faithfully for you year after year, without your having to ask.

So why do I lust after camellias? It really doesn’t make sense. I know deep down my gardening life would be easier and more sanguine if I would just stick to the hostas, carex, sedums, and phlox that are properly suited to my Black Walnutty Northern Virginia garden. Why would I go through all the effort and heartache of inviting an acid-loving denizen of the Deep South into my life, yet again?

I mean, I should have learned my lesson with Camellia ‘Yuletide’ back in ’09, right? Talk about heartache. I first spied ‘Yuletide’ when I worked at the garden center during the fall of that year. I was transporting some plants in a little electric truck to one of the back lots when I suddenly slammed on the brakes. Placed serendipitously together in one of the overflow beds was a small Camellia ‘Yuletide’, in full bloom, flanked by a couple of large nandinas heavy with crimson fruit. This simple combination was a stunning vision in red! My heart raced.

That same week, I attempted to recreate the vignette in my backyard. I spent about two hours digging a wide, shallow hole with a pedestal of carefully amended soil on which to perch the camellia, as my internet research had advised. I backfilled a third of the way, lightly pressed, and watered. Repeated three times. Carefully mulched. Meanwhile, I am sure the viburnum sitting a few feet away was like, “this is some bullshit. She just opened a wedge in the ground and shoved me in. Pfffft.”

Alas, by spring it was clear that ‘Yuletide’ was not merry. I would check it each day, and each day it seemed yet another branch had succumbed to the dreaded “dieback.” Heartbreak! I tore the plant out and promised myself I would never do it again — with the same sense of hurt betrayal that I swore to myself years ago that I’d never date another Texan.

And yet here I am with another camellia. And here I am again with the fussing and anxiety. I planted ‘Bella Rossa’ far away from my black walnuts, so (fingers crossed) no dieback yet. Still, all week the forecast calls for temps below 10 degrees, so I rummage through the basement for an old fleece blanket and some rope. I wrap Bella up carefully to protect the beautiful plump buds that might (with luck) open into exquisite fully double blooms the color of a child’s flushed cheek.

I know deep down that’s a pretty big “might.” And part of me feels ridiculous for doting on a plant this way. Most of the time I choose sensible plants that are native to the area or otherwise suited to my environs. Toughness and adaptability – in plants as well as people – are the qualities I find most beautiful of all.

Still, each day I visit ‘Bella Rossa’ and tend to her health, hoping for a few enchanting blooms come March. See, sometimes high maintenance is worth it. I guess we’re all high maintenance sometimes, and where would we be if we never took a chance on those who required a little extra care?

Camellia 'Nuccio's Bella Rossa' from oregonstate.edu

Camellia ‘Nuccio’s Bella Rossa’ from oregonstate.edu

The Optimism of Tiny Trees

oaktree2)

I have a vivid memory of eating a Red Delicious apple when I was seven years old and, afterward, regarding the dark seeds embedded in the core. [Read more…]

“Malignant Magenta”

Some interesting revelations in a book I’m currently reading called One Writer’s Garden, which is about the Jackson, Mississippi garden of Eudora Welty and her mother Chestina

Last night I read this explanation for the shunning of magenta flowers back in Welty’s day (early 20th century, but the magenta aversion continues today for many gardeners):

“Historian Susan Lanman..points out that arsenic was was commonly used in pesticides, giving crops a magenta color that indicated that the lethal poison had been applied.  [Gertrude] Jekyll and others distressed by the effects of industrialization eschewed [magenta]for such associations with pollution, and its manufacture from aniline dyes, which themselves were derived from the coal whose smoke blackened England’s skies.”

Byzantine-gladiolus-row

Byzantine gladiolus. http://www.bulbhunter.com

Ew.  So magenta=toxic was part of the reason they didn’t like it. 

But also many gardeners and designers just found the color plain nasty.  Apparently, Gertrude Jekyll is the one who tagged it “malignant magenta” and another British garden writer called the color “that awful form of original sin.”

Geez.

Poor magenta.  It doesn’t seem fair.  Everyone has their tastes, but who wouldn’t want to stumble upon that lovely sweep of Byzantine Gladioli (pictured above) on a drive through the country?

(Source: One Writer’s Garden, by Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown.)

David Culp’s Layered Garden Includes Black Walnuts!

layeredMore good news for those of us living with Juglans nigra! In his new book The Layered Garden, David Culp describes several genera that he has grown with success beneath these anti-social trees, including:

Smilacina — (Smilacena racemosa — False Solomon’s Sealan interesting perennial with white flowers in spring followed by green/red berries).

Asarum(cute little gingers!)

Aucuba — (Evergreen, Gold Speckles. Reminds me of the upholstery on the couch from my childhood family room, circa 1976. What’s not to love?)

Pulmonaria(I am always reading about how great these are — why don’t I grow them?)

Convallaria(I actually have Lily-of-the-Valley growing under a Silver Maple, which means they will officially grow anywhere.)

[Read more…]

Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Memory and Plants

I’ll I’ll be honest.  I had a hard time figuring out how to approach this topic.  As I have mentioned before, I am New Dirt and not Old Dirt, meaning I do not come from a long line of gardeners, but rather picked up this obsession at age 36 with no influence from parents or grandparents.  Like Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, my conversion to a life of gardening was sudden and complete.  (Whether or not Constantine was pruning Euonymus at the time of his revelation, as I was, is not clear.)

[Read more…]

Garden Designer’s Roundtable: How to Terrify Young Children With Your Landscape

Folks, it’s not too late to completely re-do your landscape for Halloween!

Whether your goal is just to have a little spooky fun, or to actually terrorize the children so they will not set foot in your yard, here are some “go-to” plants!

1. Poncirus trifoliata

[Read more…]

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