Corona Garden Diary 5/2: Loss

Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature’s delight.

– Marcus Aurelius

I’ve lost another Japanese maple.  This is the third.

I’m sure you’re not too busy to listen to my tragic history with Japanese Maples, so pull up a chair.

My backyard is rather shady and populated by (surprise!) black walnuts.  Since Japanese maples are said to happily co-exist with black walnuts, enjoy a part shade location, and since they are gorgeous, elegant, and display unparalleled fall colors, I have coveted them for years.

Alas!  Each tiny tree that I have planted over the past decade has died a tragic death.

Tragic death #1 was an Acer palmatum ‘Waterfall’ that I planted about 8 years ago in order to spill gracefully over a retaining wall.  This one actually lived for two years!  Then we had some major work done to repair the retaining wall, and come spring, only a “waterfall” of dead twigs adorned our wall.  All that remains of this tree is its plant tag with Care Instructions, which is tucked lovingly away in a special scrapbook.  I blame the workmen for its demise, though I have no proof.

Tragic death #2: Acer palmatum ‘Butterfly’.  When I worked at a garden center in 2009, full-sized specimens of ‘Butterfly’ were placed strategically around the woody plant sales and occasionally a vulnerable patron would drop $1000+ for one of these beauties.  How clever I was to find a tiny specimen in a local nursery for just $19.99!!!  Eagerly I planted it, envisioning how in 5-7 years it would become an elegant focal point in my back yard, how my neighbors would peer out their windows, marveling at its ethereal beauty and envying my horticultural superiority.  Unfortunately, since I planted this poor wee thing smack dab in the middle of my lawn, completely exposed to prevailing winds during one of the more brutal winters of the past decade, my neighbors simply witnessed what appeared to be a couple of sticks poking forlornly out of my lawn.

Tragic death #3 involves this sweet specimen of Acer japonicum ‘Aconitofolium’, which I found at my local nursery last August.  After spying this enchanting little tree, I envisaged (yes, envisaged) the perfect spot for it in my backyard, purchased it, and carefully wedged it into my compact car.  It’s possible I even snapped a selfie.


I planted it immediately and boy how fetching it looked with the Japanese painted ferns adorning its base.


You have to admit it’s fetching!

All winter — out on trips to my compost pile or picking up yard debris — I stopped to examine the bare tree for signs of distress.  But the slender branches always appeared robust, not withered or dark.  The leaf buds looked plump.  And the winter had been remarkably mild. Surely I would be rewarded in spring with a fresh flush of foliage!

As March arrived, then April, I eagerly waited for the leaf buds to fatten further and push out tiny new leaves….


well, here’s the tree a couple days ago (grab a tissue):


I have passed through the Shock and Denial phases of the grieving process, where I tried to tell myself that this must be a species of tree that just takes its time leafing out.  And yes, there was Guilt as well. (What was I thinking, planting a tree in August??)  Currently I think I’m in the “Bargaining” phase.  Does examining your bank account to decide how much to spend on a replacement tree count as Bargaining?

Anyway, gardeners get lots of practice with loss.  Sure, losing a prized plant isn’t the same as losing a friend or a pet, but it sure stings.  And there’s something about losing trees that is especially painful…..perhaps because planting a small tree and watching it grow and evolve over the years into something grand and beautiful is somewhat akin to watching a child grow up.  When a young tree dies it feels as though something much bigger was taken away than when your pot of zinnias got powdery mildew.

But we keep planting.  We keep buying and sowing and dividing and watering and hoping, knowing full well that each year there will be some disappointment and pain sprinkled into the gratification and joy.

As for me, the pain of the lost ‘Aconitifolium’ is still rather fresh, but I am envisaging something new now.  Wouldn’t a redbud or a winterberry holly look absolutely darling in that spot?  Maybe a trio of winterberries….maybe one of those ones with the gold berries, even!  I am envisaging it now…

and it’s delightful.

Corona Garden Diary 3/22/20: Two Views on the Ornamental Cherry

Here in northern VA, the cherry blossoms are at their splendid best.  Down at the Tidal Basin, at least some tourists are showing up to view the iconic Yoshino cherries (check the Bloom Cam to monitor the social distancing).


There are a couple of different ways to view the cherry trees:

a) that they are to be revered as symbols of ephemeral beauty, that they should be contemplated in the spirit of hanami to remind us that life is short and we should make the most of it (this view courtesy of the Japanese)


b) that they are a nuisance and “messy as hell” (this view courtesy of my dad)

The topic of spring blooming cherries came up when I visited my dad this weekend.  Since we both have mature Yoshino cherry trees growing right next to our driveways, we bonded over the pros and cons of the tree.  While I tried to tout the merits of the pale pink blossoms as a wondrous harbinger of spring, Dad was more circumspect:

“The petals fall on the cars and stick like hell,” he said.  When I pointed out that the Japanese celebrate the beauty of the delicate blossoms scattered on the ground as the flowers fade, my dad had a different take: “It looks like an army of birds has shat on everything.”

I envision families in Japan gathered to contemplate the fleeting nature of life as they gaze upon the white-pink petals fluttering to the ground.  Meanwhile, my dad scrapes the petals up with his snow shovel and dumps them into a trash can.

Dad’s getting older though.  He’s nearly 84, moving slowly these days, and I realize that one day I will miss his cranky takes on cherry trees.

Hanami.  Life is fleeting.

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:


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


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!

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:


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:


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.


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:


Care for a Black Walnut?

I’ve got plenty.



And plenty still to come:


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.


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).


Still, I never tire of this canopy:


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:


Bottlebrush Buckeye fruit:


Some white wood aster:


Zigzag goldenrod, now fading:


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


A Japanese combo — bloodgrass and anemone:


Blackberry lily:


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


This lantana and bloodgrass was a good combo:


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


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


The Optimism of Tiny Trees


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. Continue reading

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.)

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It’s the Most Walnutty Time of the Year

Isn’t the weedy Hellebore bed with wire fencing just super classy? It’s my patented “Postmodern Retro Tacky” design aesthetic.

No, those aren’t dirty tennis balls.  Those are just a few dozen of the THOUSANDS of black walnuts that rain down on my backyard at this time of year. 

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