Lost Gardens, Lost Plants

Beautiful foliage makes a garden.

Out in the garden this morning, I’m administering last rites to first one winter weary tree, then another.

Rain and snow and sub-freezing temperatures assaulted us here in the southern Appalachian foothills for the entire month of January. February brought record rainfalls. Bad enough the days and days of unrelenting cold and rain, but then the roller coaster ride began. And for three months the garden couldn’t tell from one day to the next if it was July or January.

Out the kitchen door, I follow the gravel path to the old iron gate and step through. Up on the back porch our dogs, Dinah and Charlie, critique my progress. The katsura tree looks heavy with dew. Like an aspergillum a branch dips, sprinkling droplets, baptizing Dinah’s head. Planted fifteen years ago as a four-foot sapling, we now look up at it from our second story, this Cercidiphylum japonicum – the epitome of grace in ascending layers. Witness to our first katsura, maturing in the Gardens of Reynolda in Wake Forest, North Carolina, we bought one on our way home. In the years since, it has become a familiar and beloved part of this place. Only a little frazzled from the last late frost, it looks good.

Beyond the katsura’s reach the sun shines on this back garden for five hours of each day, in spots maybe six. I stop, surprised by an unlikely casualty, deserving of a moment’s silence. Bought as a pair three years ago in a “Fall Bloomers Crepe Myrtle” sale, the gallon-sized Lagerstroemia x ‘Natchez’ twins looked like the before in the old Charles Atlas ad from the 1950’s – pale and spindly and afraid of a fight. Planted three boot strides apart to frame a bird table, the two ‘Natchez’ settled into their new home of loamy clay, made more porous with streaks of leveling sand left over from a septic tank excavation years before our time here. I don’t recall much about the day I planted them, other than it was early fall still miserable with summer weather – bone dry but muggy with gnats. The crepes received the initial standard soaking followed by weekly ministrations until winter arrived to take over. I left them to it.

At the onset of this last winter, they stood over six feet tall – more than double their original size – but still too young, yet, for their trunks to turn sinewy with the glossy burgundy coloration of their Lagerstroemia fauriei parent.

Anyone familiar with crepe myrtles knows it’s a struggle to kill one save with an ax. But on my reconnaissance, I find one of the pair still bare, its limbs dull, the life force surrendered.

I move on.

Two springs back in the buying frenzy of the Arboretum plant sales, I lost control, yet again. Numbered among my acquisitions were a Magnolia virginiana var australis ‘Mardi Gras’, the lustrous green leaves rimed a chartreuse gold; a Cestrum parqui to perfume the hours before dawn; and a Magnolia figo, the banana shrub, zone 7’s all. In the border skimming the creek, only the figo shows signs of recovery, pushing out three lovely, trembling leaves. A blessing in the winter with their “ever greenness”, these magnolias suffer in its icy winds, losing precious moisture through those evergreen leaves. I thought I’d done well siting them all, studying our sloping, undulating terrain, gauging the fall of sunlight, the protection from late frosts. Looks like I got it wrong.

Looking out to Kim’s Garden beyond the blue bench, I see the camellias – so often prima donnas in this garden – have survived and are putting on new licorice-red growth.

I save until last my two, long-coveted, botanical gems. ‘Perfume Princess’ droops, forlorn, denuded but not yet withered. On trial in the garden, the Daphne odora, a new from Tesselaar Plants, was bred by New Zealand’s renowned plant breeder, Mark Jury. It has already survived two winters with little damage, blooming sporadically throughout, exhaling its magical fragrance. But none of us were prepared for the chaotic extremes of this last wintry season. I reach for a stem to check for flexibility, but stay my hand. I don’t want to know – not yet.

And now I approach my Melianthus major ‘Artonow’s Blue.’ Bought just last year, it spent the summer enchanting us all. Each morning, I’d walk out the back door and see the dew pooling in its magical, crenelated leaves – the dew being the extent of the moisture for much of last summer. I think it was the third late-winter temperature soar and plummet when it gave up, dropped all its leaves, the stone wall at its back failing in its promised protection. No longer able to face the skeletal remains of the honey bush, I cut it down. Now I’ll wait. See if it will sprout from the roots.

I stand and look toward the cypress grove. Clematis ‘Polish Spirit’, performing somersaults, sprints to the top of the arbor. I walk through and glance down to the stump belonging to Ficus palmata ‘Icebox’. ‘Artonow’s Blue’ all over again.

But for every tree or shrub or perennial lost – Clematis ‘Pilau’, Dierama ‘Blackbird’, Rosa ‘Desdemona’ – I see a dozen survivors.

The contorted hazel, whose buds looked like tiny fists refusing to open after their first aborted attempt two months ago, now stands half-dressed in glossy green leaves. And the Magnolia sieboldii ‘Michiko Renge’ – the Japanese Empress, the lotus flower – greets me fully leafed, its fourth resurrection proving successful. Michiko’s one remaining flower bud hangs mummified.

Most of those lost had been in the ground less than three years, proving the vulnerability of youth, the resilience of maturity. Having the experience of my own maturity, I’ll wait before I bury my dead, give them the summer, maybe longer. And if those left standing can’t quite muster another revival, I’ll resurrect them with a coat of purple paint – colorful sculpture for winter.

In the meantime, I’ll go inside and order another Melianthus, another ‘Arnow’s Blue’ as it is purported to be a little hardier than the straight species. Then I’ll come back outside on the hunt for the “perfect” location to plant it. I read that it needs to be planted three to four inches below the soil line. Before it arrives I’ll study on it, do a little research.


Melianthus –     Digging Dog Nursery    http://www.diggingdog.com

Cercidiphylum japonicum –     Mr. Maple   http://www.mrmaple.com