Thoughts on how to create a well-designed garden retreat.


Spring Ephemerals

As I wrote about yesterday.  Spring is a season full of surprises and change.  Each day seems to bring a new plant blooming and makes a walk through the garden a new pleasant surprise each day.  There are some native Spring blooming plants though that you only see for a very brief time in the Spring.  These plants are called Spring Ephemerals.

Spring Ephemerals are plants that most often grow in the woods and do all their growing in a very short period of time.  These plants sprout leaves before the trees leaf out, bloom and then die back to the ground soon after the tree leaves are fully out.  Their whole life cycle is based on using the light and moisture available before the trees start taking most of both.

Spring beauties are delicate looking little plants with white/ soft pink flowers.  There are a couple species of Hepatica that bloom either white, pink or blue.  Trout lily is a yellow flowered lily with speckled leaves.  All of these you can look up online for pictures and more information.

One of the favorites among most people are the Trillium.  Trilliums are so named because the whole plant seems to be based on threes.  The leaves are three leaves fanned out usually in a flat plane.  From the center comes a single flower with three petals.  White, pink, maroon, and yellow are the possible colors.  The leaves are often mottled.  Some trilliums have their flowers upright and some are ‘Nodding”.


My favorite is the Virginia Bluebell.  When I was in college, I visited a memorial garden that had whole hillsides planted with these.  It was breathtaking.  Blue is a favorite flower color for me as I find it very cooling in a garden.  On occasion you will find bluebells that start out looking more pink before they turn blue.

Virginia Bluebells

Other ephemerals are Mayapple, Jack in the Pulpit, and Bloodroot.

In my mind all of these are to be treasured because they are so fleeting and help to mark the seasons.  Please don’t go dig these up from the wild for your garden.  Find nurseries that propagate them in their nursery rather than wild collect.  This way you leave the wild ones for others to enjoy and every gardener knows that some times when you transplant a plant, you end up killing it.


Spring a surprise.

When you ask people their favorite season, you can get any one of the four seasons.  I’ve never done the research but I am sure they aren’t equally spread out over the four.  Growing up in the Indiana, it seemed that most people’s favorite season was Spring after a long winter.  Summer was usually a close second as it meant pleasant weather most of the time and no school.

When I moved south to Georgia, I found more people who liked fall because in the south, fall is long and drawn out and usually quite a pleasant respite from a long hot summer.  I used to say Savannah had two seasons, Hot and Not so Hot.  I found people there who thought winter was their favorite season which seemed ludicrous in Indiana. In Indiana, fall was nice but was a reminder that a long rough winter was just around the corner.

Here in Durham, NC, our springs some years seem to be over in a flash.  It’s the fall that seems to be long and pleasant and winters usually aren’t that much to be feared.  Fall can easily seem to be 4 months or more even if the calendar doesn’t say so.  Spring sometimes seems to last only 4 days.

Which brings me to my point, (finally).  One of the best things about Spring is that you can usually go out every day and find something new in flower, something new leafing out.  It’s surprise after surprise even though you knew it was coming.  The best gardens are designed with that in mind.  People like pleasant surprises.  The well-designed garden should gradually reveal itself.  It’s best if you can’t see the garden all at once or from one brief look.  A garden should invite you into itself to be enjoyed.  As you STROLL through it, you find pleasant little surprises and time should melt away.  It should have a variety of plants to give seasonal interest all through the year.  The spring flowers might evoke memories of years of Easter egg hunts in the garden.  Flowers from other times of the year might bring back memories of prom dresses, wedding anniversaries, births and birthdays.  A garden is never static even though some garden designers do attempt to design a garden that looks the same day in and day out.  They think of the “perfect” garden and hope for that look for all time.  There is a place for all seasons.  The garden should reflect that.  It is a way of marking time and years and most of all pleasant little surprises that turn into memories.

Rain Gardens

Many yards have some place that water seems to drain slowly or even have standing water for a few days after a rain.  You can curse these spots, regrade your yard to move the water out, or you can take advantage of your luck and plant a rain garden.

Low areas in the lawn are always a problem as it makes mowing difficult.  The lawn mower will leave wheel tracks through the mud and the situation seems to get worse and worse.  It is best to give up the grass completely in a low spot.  In this post, I will give you some idea of the native plants that work well in Durham NC.  You can find similar plants native to your area online.

If your low spot is large, you might want to plant water loving trees such as River Birch, Sweetbay Magnolia, Serviceberry, and Bald Cypress.

For shrubs that like damp areas, you can plant Inkberry Holly, Sweetshrub, Clethera, Illicium, Leucothoe, and Wax Myrtle.  Winterberry Holly is a great shrub for these locations and they have berries that help to attract birds.

Hibiscus is a plant with large flowers that loves wet areas.  There are the “dinner plate” hibiscus as well as the star hibiscus.  Some plants that usually like shade such as Cardinal Flower and Cinnamon Fern will grow in full sun if kept consistently wet.  Monarda is a great hummingbird attractor as is the Cardinal Flower.  Joe Pye Weed and Swamp Milkweed are great butterfly attractors.  Swamp Sunflower and the Native Ageratum are late fall bloomers for wet areas.  Turtle head is an unusual looking flower that also likes damp soil.  For grasses you can add the rushes, Carex, and Acorus.  Louisiana Iris and the Virginia Iris also add vertical elements to the rain garden.

So as you can see, there are a lot of possibilities for a poorly drained area of your yard that are way more attractive than a lawn.  In fact, you may even decide to run the downspouts from the gutter for your house and intentionally create a rain garden.  Any time you can keep water on your property rather than running into the storm sewer it’s a good thing.  I run the downspout water into my garden ponds and the overflow for them is a rain garden.  Sometimes dipping a bucket of water out of the pond for a thirsty plant in the summer is easier than dragging a hose out to the garden from the house.

This customer had a wet drainage area that we turned into a garden pond and rain garden.

Graham and Chedda

I don’t believe I have yet introduced you to Graham and Chedda, my two qwackers.  Graham and Chedda are Call ducks.  They live in Jaliya’s memorial garden and the ponds are where they spend most of their time.  However, in the past couple of days, Chedda has disappeared into the vacant lot next door to lay some eggs.  Usually she is the louder of the two ducks but she is staying perfectly quiet.  In fact, it took me a day and a half to figure out exactly where she was sitting.  Graham is still guarding the garden and pretending he has no clue where she is.  However, he does.  He thinks he must protect the garden from Onyx, my 60 lb black boxer/pit mix dog.  He “bites” her but of course it doesn’t hurt so Onyx thinks he is just playing.  She gets Graham’s whole head inside her mouth at times and when Graham starts to chase her then it is just a game for her.  I don’t know how long it takes for the eggs to hatch but here’s to hoping for Easter baby ducks.  (I know, I can look it up on the internet to find out how long which is probably what I will do next.)

Most of my time is in the garden is spent pulling winter weeds and the little tree seedlings that seem to have popped up everywhere.  I am looking forward to the day when the garden perennials have filled in enough to reduce the weeds.  Mother Nature fills every possible inch of growing space so when you plan your garden, it is important to try to cover the ground.  Otherwise she will with something you didn’t want.

Speaking of something I don’t want, the wisteria is in full bloom in this area.  It is beautiful and smells wonderful.  However, it takes over everything.  As I am in the garden, I keep my eye out for the seeds that show up and put them in the trash.  I don’t dare put them into my compost pile as I am sure it would be a tangled mess of wisteria vine in short order.  I enjoy wisteria in the neighboring lot but I spent way too much time removing it from my garden to dare let it get another foothold.  I always miss a few seeds and shoots still pop up from the underground roots that still seem to cross my garden.

Graham and Chedda

Dwarf Fruit trees in the garden

Many people today are concerned about where their food comes from and whether or not it has been sprayed with chemicals.  One of the best ways to do this is to grow your own food.  A long term investment in your food supply is to plant dwarf fruit trees.

With Spring having arrived here in Durham, NC, dwarf fruit trees are also blooming right now.  The added bonus of spring flowers is a hint of juicy goodness later in the year.  The following is the fruit trees I have in my garden.

I have two dwarf apple trees.  I planted two because I have heard that apples must cross-pollinate.  My trees are young therefore I have not had any fruit on them yet.  Apple trees would prefer a little cooler weather than we have in this area.  However, since I only planted them for my consumption and any friends I might share with, that does not concern me.  If I was trying to sell enough to make a living on them then that might be an issue.

I have a dwarf peach tree called Belle of Georgia.  Peach tree buds can often get nipped by late freezes in this area but last year I had a great little crop of peaches.  I had so many peaches that a large limb in the tree was broken by the weight.  I learned my lesson there and will go into pruning fruit trees a little later in this post.

In the native garden, I have a native plum.  these are naturally small trees and the plums are also small.  However, they are great to snack on while enjoying the garden.  I cooked some of them down into a plum sauce which was very good on baked pork chops and even some baked chicken.  New trees easily pop up around the parent plant allowing you to dig them up to share.  They also seem to have a tendency to send up new shoots from the roots.  These must be removed if you don’t want a thicket of plum.

I also have a native cherry.  It has bloomed great this year.  Last year I don’t remember how much it flowered but I do know I had very few cherries on it.  We will see how they do this yer.  I have been told that cherries also would do better in a little cooler climate as well.  My view is the same as it is with the apples.

One tree that I also have but will not be dwarf is a pear tree.  This tree has already produced quite a few pears.  However, I still haven’t eaten one because it seems the squirrels know exactly when to pick every last one off the tree before I can get them.  It’s tempting to sit out there with a BB gun and reduce the squirrel population so I can enjoy some pears.

Another native fruit tree that I have but you don’t see a lot of is the PawPaw tree.  This is also known as the Hoosier Banana because the fruit is said to taste somewhat like a banana.  These trees look a little tropical with their large leaves.  Pawpaws can grow into large colonies.  However for fruiting, you need to have trees from different colonies.

The way to prune fruit trees except for the last two on this list is to prune any limbs which are growing straight up and let the tree grow wide.  This helps to make it easier to pick the fruit.  You also want to prune branches back so they are stubby.  This allows the structure of the tree to be strong enough to support the weight of the fruit.  It also helps the fruit that does develop to be fewer yet larger.  Generally prune the tree to be open and sturdy.  It does no good to let the tree go big if it can’t support the fruit and you end up losing some due

Native Cherry in bloom.

to broken limbs.

Spring popping up everywhere.

So it’s been a few days since I have posted here.  With warm weather, seems everyone is now thinking spring and interested in working in the garden or calling me to work on designing their garden.  Not complaining at all.  I’ve taken advantage of the warm weather and breaks from work to tend to Jaliya’s garden and the garden near the house.  Winter weeds are always a problem this time of year as they grow like crazy ready to go to seed.  This means hand pulling them before they do so hopefully next years crop is smaller.  I used last fall’s leaves to cover a lot of the area not heavily planted so that has saved a lot of labor.  But areas that are not quite covered with plants still allow weeds to pop up.  Also while cutting back the native ornamental grasses, tree seedlings are exposed.  These must be removed since I am not trying to re-create a forest.  Everything goes into the compost bin except for the wisteria seeds I still find lying on the ground.  These go directly into the trashcan as I do not want even one to sprout.  I spent way too much time removing wisteria to create the garden to let it take back over.  Unfortunately their is still wisteria next door and the seeds somehow still end up in my yard from the wind.

Late winter in Durham can have a lot of bloom if the right plants are planted.  The Camellias are blooming strong as is the daphne and mahonia.  Bulbs are blooming everywhere with daffodils and narcissus being the most common.  Hyacinths are small but noticeable by their sweet fragrance.  Corylopsis, spirea, forsythia are also blooming ahead of their leaves.Crimson Candles CamelliaCorylopsis Golden Spring


The Yoshino Cherry is blooming a little early this year.  Macon Ga, where I used to live has a big cherry blossom festival every spring so I had to have one in my yard as a way to remember that city.  They say they have over 300,000 Yoshino Cherries planted along the streets there.  It is quite a sight to see.

Yoshino Cherry

Saturday I took time away from official work to go buy plants for my garden.  The North Carolina Botanical Garden sell native plants daily that they have propagated on location.  It is always tough to walk out of there without buying too many plants.  However, I was able to obtain some new species for the memorial garden.  One of the problems I am finding is trying to find the room for some plants.  This is where the concept of plant layering comes in.  Small plants under medium size plants under even larger plants.  However, since the garden is still only about 4 years old, the separation of plants by size is not easily done while some of the larger plants have a lot of growing to still do.  But as the saying goes, a “garden is never really finished.”

Current late winter bloomers in my garden

Walking through my garden on a warm day, I am finding blooming plants that already give hints of what is to come once spring is here.  These are what is currently blooming.

The crocus have already bloomed and are fading away.  The Camellia ‘Crimson Candles’ is in full bloom.  This is an interesting camellia in the way it grows in a open yet narrow habit.  The buds show a lot of color long before they actually open.  Both the Lenten Rose and the Bird’s foot hellebore are also blooming near them.  The Winter Daphne and Leatherleaf Mahonia bloom with their wonderful fragrance filling up the area.  Both of these plants are musts for late winter fragrance in the garden.  The fragrant tea olive is showing signs of blooming any day now.  It too is a very nicely scented plant.  One often smells it long before you see the flowers as the flowers are quite small.

In the native garden, the Carolina Jessamine is blooming and it too is fragrant.  It is climbing up the arbor leading into the garden which means you get it’s wonderful smell every time you enter the garden while it is in bloom.  The native Spring Beauties are also in bloom and the phlox “emerald blue’ is showing some flowers.  The phlox makes a great evergreen ground cover.  When it is in full flower, you don’t even see the leaves.  The witchhazel is wrapping up it’s bloom season while the columbine looks to be ready to pop any day now.  I have also seen the Virginia Bluebells poking up so I am looking for their blooms before long.  The native violets are also blooming.  It is still early in the native garden.

Back up around the house, the Daphne genkwa is just starting to flower.  I also have a dwarf forsythia and the Kumson forsythia, both of which are in bloom.  Kramer’s Rote heather has been in bloom for a couple of weeks now.  The focal of the front garden is the Weeping Cherry Plum which has started to bloom and should be in full flower within a couple of days.

All said, it is an exciting time for a gardener with the glory of spring just around the corner.

Crimson Candles Camellia

Bird's foot Hellebore

Crocus 'Blue Pearl'

One size does not fit all

One of the most common landscape planting mistakes made is to plant a plant that will get too big for it’s space.  After a few years, the homeowner is left with two alternatives.  Either remove the plant completely or resign themselves to the chore of pruning the plant a couple times a year to keep it in check.  Once this pruning process begins, the plant loses it’s natural shape and form.

One thing we do when we measure a new client’s property is to measure how high the windows are from the ground.  If the bottom of the window is 4′ from the ground, then we select a plant that is not supposed to get taller than 4 feet.  Too often we see a Japanese holly planted in these situations and a Japanese holly will get anywhere from 6-10 feet tall.  They also will get just as wide and yet are often planted in between the house and sidewalk space that may also only be 4′ wide.  The garden then becomes a ball and chain for the homeowner.  Instead of enjoying their landscape, they have to spend several hours on the weekends just maintaining the space.

Now I know a garden takes some work.  But it doesn’t have to take more work than necessary.  By choosing the right plant for the right space, the homeowner has a lot less work.

One very common thing done in this area is to prune Crape Myrtles back hard each winter.  The theory is that since they bloom on new wood, then create more new wood for them.  However, this hard pruning destroys the natural beauty of a Crape myrtle.  Think of it this way.  Let’s say the Crape myrtle is 15′ tall.  The root system for the plant is sufficient for a 15′ tall plant.  Now someone comes in and cuts it down to 8′.  The roots still function as if they are supporting a 15′ tall plant.  When new growth begins in the spring, the new shoots shoot up to the 15′ height.  With plants, fast growth is weak growth, much like it is in business.  Then comes the summer bloom season.  The flowers are heavy, especially after a rain and the blooms flop over.  Now the plant looks all out of shape.  It is then a never-ending battle to keep the plant looking right.  Then every winter, the plant is pruned back to the same 8′ height.  The plant never achieves the glory it could have.

It’s like a cute young child.  You can hope to keep them young and cute but eventually they become teenagers.  If you don’t allow them to grow as they should, you will have some deformed adults on your hands.

Anticipation of Spring

Today is March 1 and hints of spring abound.  We’ve had 80 degree days followed by 50 degree days here in Durham NC.  Very typical of late winter.  Everyday I walk through my garden and something else has started to bloom.  This morning I counted 17 different varieties of plants blooming.  With temperatures almost to 70 today there will be one or two more to add to the list.  The tree branches that I brought into the house a couple of weeks ago have started blooming in my first attempt at forcing blooms indoors.  Already the Pear and Redbud stems are blooming and the Yoshino Cherry looks to be next.  This is both an exciting and tough time of year for the gardener.  Excitement for the new plants poking their heads up through the ground and those shrubs and tree buds beginning to swell into bloom.  The tough part is waiting.  If your perennial plants still have old foliage above the rosettes, it is a good idea to leave it a little while longer.  This protects the tender young shoots below from the extreme temperature changes.  The obvious is the cold nighttime temperature but the less obvious one is protecting the ground from warming up too quick and initiating growth too soon.  Patience is rewarded here.

For many gardeners, Spring is their favorite time of year.  Mother nature seems to be bursting at the seams bringing forth new life.  It is an exciting time of year but usually a very short time of year.  Many of your spring blooming plants bloom for a week or two and then they are done.  Some of the woodland plants called “Spring Ephemerals” pop up briefly, bloom and then go dormant, not to be seen again until next spring.  One of my favorites is Virginia Bluebells.  Each day this time of year, I am looking for the signs of them popping up through the soil.  A mass of these plants is breathtaking in bloom.  It last so briefly that it is an experience to be treasured.

Many spring flowering bulbs are the same. Crocus, daffodils, narcissus, and hyacinths pop up late winter,  bloom for a couple of weeks and are gone.  Different varieties can be planted to extend the overall bloom season.  I guess Spring happens so quickly that half the fun is the anticipation.

Hold your water!

We are currently in a drought here in Durham, NC.  This is particularly worrisome as it is still winter and winter time is when the lakes get re-filled and the soil moisture gets recharged.  We did have some storms last night which helped but heavy quick rain runs off more than it soaks in.  The question is how to catch some of the water instead of it running into the storm sewers.

One very common thing is to use rain barrels.  Rain barrels are placed under a downspout to catch roof water.  The downside of rain barrels is they are relatively small and therefore don’t hold all that much water.  When they are full, the water still needs to go somewhere.  Often times they are not attractive.  They also need to be located at a high point on the property to allow gravity to send the water where you want it when you need it via a hose.  They are better than nothing.

Another increasingly more popular option is to install cisterns underground.  These can hold a lot of water to be used later in the season when it is dry.  Water from the downspouts off the roof is piped into the cisterns.  A pump is then used to pump the water out when you need it.  The downside to cisterns is their initial cost and finding a space to put them.  I have seen collapsible tanks that can be placed under your crawl space or deck.  These are a little more affordable solution.

If you can’t collect the water in holding tanks, then a garden pond can be used.  This is what I do in Jaliya’s Garden.  My downspouts are piped to the pond and the pond fills up with a rain.  When the pond is full, it overflows into an area planted with plants that don’t mind being very wet at times.  I call this area my “wet meadow”.  A similar effect can be done where water runs off your driveway to create a “rain garden”.  Water flowing into the rain garden is slowed down from going further, however, during heavy rains, the excess still has to go somewhere.

Some of the plants in our area that work for rain gardens are Joe-Pye Weed, Monarda, Cardinal flower, native Ageratum, rain lily, Virginia iris, Louisiana iris, Swamp sunflower.  Some shrubs also like wet areas such as Virginia Sweetspire, Inkberry Holly, Florida Anise, just to name a few.  The idea is to take advantage of low wet areas and plant the plants that appreciate such conditions.  In doing so, you can also keep some of the water that falls on your property from just going down the storm sewer doing you no good at all.

This water garden was built to take advantage of the water flow in the garden and turn a muddy spot into an attractive feature.