Lilactree Farm Garden Notes, Postscript, 2016

– Posted in: Lilactree Farm

‘The fool remembers only misfortunes and past errors…nothing can take away gratitude for past blessings.’ Rudolph Borchardt, The Passionate Gardener.

Every fall, as I sit down to write these final Notes of the year, I am convinced that this gardening year was unique, that it resembled no other and that it was, simultaneously, much like the years that have gone before. Perhaps, I wonder, life in general is much like that, that at the time the change of job, the new child, the new house, the new spouse are felt as lifequakes but that, seen from a distance, they fall into a pattern, that we shape the way we confront the challenge of the new job, child, house, spouse in accordance with some inner necessity. It is not just plus ça change…but the more we change, the more we rest the same.

Perhaps the psychoanalysts can rescue us from the tyranny of this inner necessity, can seamlessly merge it with the myriad contingencies of actually living, so that the necessary and the contingent, the permanent and the temporary, the structural and the ephemeral, essence and gritty existence, determinism and free will, even Nature – not nature in its glorious and mysterious multiplicity, but its unvarying pulse, engaged only with its own therapy – and nurture are complementary rather than competitive. Ah, the garden as metaphor…

One reason for keeping a garden diary is that it confirms the successes that a swift run through the memory-bank brings to the surface like a dumb waiter fetching books from the library vaults. It is cheering to know that the 1m high red-oak saplings that came to the garden in the back of a Volkswagen Beetle have become mighty oaks that tower over the barn, that the ancient Gentiana lutea plants were moved without loss, that the tulip-tree flowered in 2016.

But the diary, like the famous rabbit-duck image, can be read as an alternative story, of failures long-suppressed. It acts like the dead-plant labels that Vita Sackville-West was said to have kept in a drawer in her desk; they served, she said – there have been many who doubted this story – to keep her humble. It tells that six red-oaks were planted, that only five survive, that the bur oak, Quercus macrocarpa, was lost (though found again), that the early-leafing (“before winter has passed”) Bird Cherry, Prunus padus var. commutata, with its handsome white flowers, was neglected unto death, that two of the greatest gems of the rock garden, Kelseya uniflora and x jankaemonda vandedemii were lost because of my folly. Maureen sometimes asks, in all innocence, “What happened to…?” (fill in one hundred names); she is the plant label drawer in my gardening life.
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The Ice Storm Cometh

March ended badly. Most of the snow had been rained away, and snowdrops, leucojums and crocus were in flower. There were weather alerts, which were not

The barnyard entrance: on the left, as it looked on March 20, 2016. On the right, as it looked on March 25. Photo ©Brian Bixley

The barnyard entrance: on the left, as it looked on March 20, 2016. On the right, as it looked on March 25.

unusual. Some snow fell on the 23rd. The garden was calm, greyly sober. I covered many of the larger clumps of bulbs with pots to protect them against possible freezing rain and was grateful for the light snow cover. Around 4pm on the 24th, freezing rain began. When I emerged from the house the next morning and saw the extent of the damage, I felt a bleak despair, even something approaching panic; was this the end of Lilactree Farm Garden?

An Astonishing Lesson

Lilactree Farm barnyard entrance in June 2016

The same barnyard entrance, June 2016.

But there was to be an astonishing lesson of the regenerative power of the natural world, that all that was necessary, permanent, structural, essential could override the contingent, the temporary, the decorative, the existential. The cedar on the left at the Barnyard entrance is vertical once more, the towering zelkova on the right – badly damaged but too large to be allowed to fail – has begun to resemble its old self, even the non-natural fence, tumbled by falling zelkova branches has been, with Viki’s help and some metal stakes, pushed back into its fence-essential nature. Visitors ask, Where was the damage?


As though to dispel all worries, the plants of spring returned with their accustomed vigour and prodigality; snowdrops, crocus (having cats around for the past few years has been a great crocus-preserver) and aconites, hellebores and jeffersonias

through to daffodils and tulips. Before April was out, the Daphne Bank filled the

Profusion Allée with its heavy fragrance. The Allée itself had lost two of its corps and quite a few branches but the survivors put on a brave, wan show like a recovering amputee. The February daphne (it isn’t quite that early here), Daphne mezereum, in both its deep rose and white forms, thrives on our alkaline soil.

Nothing in gardens is predictable. The numerous forms of Mountain Ash, undamaged by the storm, dependable for flowers and fruit, produced, with a few exceptions, neither. The crab apples, many of them like ‘Profusion’ with broken and twisted limbs, flowered in a jubilant outburst of thanksgiving. One of the views we underline is that which leads from the house through the Jungle where Magnolia ‘Jane’ and Malus ‘Radiant’ can be counted on to brighten grey May days. But beyond them, as the path rises towards the Obelisk, four Japanese crabs, Malus sieboldii, pink in bud, the flowers white, remind us of how important it is to turn and look back as we move through the garden.

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Hot and Dry

You cataracts and hurricanes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!

From our Garden Diary

June 20: Hot and horribly windy…It is terribly dry. June 24: The garden is now desperately dry with no rain in the forecast. June 26: There are many seedlings waiting to be planted, but until the weather cools, they – planted – would be a major bother. June 30: Despair is not far away. Grass is vanishing, plants are sagging with
July 8: A mini-storm during the Elora concert, and there has been some rain here but I shan’t know how much until tomorrow morning…July 9: the answer is, not much. July 10: It’s actually quite a sport, deciding what shall be watered, what
July 14: At last! A substantial rain overnight; people and their gardens rejoice. July 15: The ground is still extremely dry in spite of the rain, but I went ahead and planted 30 Verbascum chaixii var. album in the space left by the destroyed yellowwood. Regal lilies at the gate.

regal lilies at Lilactree Farm

Regal lilies by the gate

July 20: The heat, dryness continue. I carry a thousand cans of water, and still it is not enough. Lazed in afternoon as plants collapsed and some undoubtedly died. I have become increasingly passive. There is a possibility of rain tonight but (midnight) none came. July 29: On it goes…I watered, of course, never enough. August 2: The newly planted verbascums all collapsed and had to be rescued late in the day. August 7: More clouds, no rain…Tom and Wally’s viburnum, the abeliophyllum and Cornus kousa all in bad shape, though Cornus alternifolia ‘Variegata’ thrives because it is watered continuously and is in the shade of the Strathmore crab apples…If rain doesn’t come, we need to think of abandoning Cooperstown. August 9: All of the Driveway daphnes near to collapse. August 13: My mother’s birthday brings relief; 56mm of rain, and we decide to go to Cooperstown! August 15: With more rain seriously forecast, I planted 23 Digitalis purpurea var. alba on the West Side and – a gamble – 16 Gentiana lutea seedlings on the Eastern Slope.

Autumn’s reprieve

The last week of August and the golden days of September saw very little rain but as temperatures cooled, particularly at night, the garden slowly took back its early summer sumptuousness. The South Jungle geraniums were mown to the ground, the

Lilactree Farm, Cornus alternifolia Variegata and Hosta Sum and Substance

Cornus alternifolia ‘Variegata’ and Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’

colchicums duly reappeared, lespedeza and gentian seedlings flourished in the New Field, and the many garden trees with brilliant fall foliage waited until the surrounding countryside had finished its memorable blaze to catch the eye. Among those that did so, in addition to the usual Paperbark maple, Acer griseum, and the Japanese Sorbus commixta, were the Chinese/Japanese Acer maximowiczianum, one of the trifoliate maples, and Parrotia persica, the Persian ironwood, not dependably hardy here but still in leaf in the middle of November.

The maple, once known as Acer nikoense, the Nikko maple, is now described as ‘a rare tree in its native lands.’ The ironwood’s glossy green foliage gradually becomes golden, with a rich edging of crimson and purple. It is often shrubby. Our form, ‘Vanessa’, has ‘a more tree-like habit.’ We wrap it with burlap before really cold weather sets in.

Lilactree Farm barnyard entrance November 2016

Hard to believe this same area was devastated by a March ice storm.

Oh, and that Barnyard entrance… Where, the visitors asked, was the damage?

Our thanks to those of you who write to us about the Garden Notes and to those who come to our Open Garden days. We remind you that we welcome visits at other times with notice. Please feel free to pass these Notes along to friends.

All photos in this post ©Brian Bixley and are used with permission. Past issues of Lilactree Farm Notes can be found here.

About the Author

Brian Bixley and his wife live in a Victorian farmhouse 70 miles north-west of Toronto, where he has slowly been making a garden in the middle of open farm fields. While he has particular interests in clematis (the species), alpine plants and, more recently, unusual trees, his main concern is making a garden that is satisfying in a number of ways, and which relates to and “borrows” the beautiful countryside that surrounds it. Brian’s book, Essays on Gardening in a Cold Climate, is available for $20 (US or Canadian), plus shipping. His new book, Ten New Snowdrops, is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the passion for new snowdrop forms. CAN$15.00 Click here to order them.

When dealing with frost it is always best to be paranoid. In the spring never think it is too late for one more frost to come. And in the fall never think it too early.

~Rundy in Frost

Comments on this entry are closed.

Brian Bixley December 12, 2016, 5:10 pm

Are you the jchapman of johnchapman landscapes? If you are, congratulations on some handsome work. Acer maximowiczianum is a fine tree here, still only about 5m and apparently very hardy, surviving temperatures in the -28C to -30C range without any special protection. Have you tried A. mandshuricum, another of the trifoliate maples, more spindly in growth than A. maximo but with brilliant fall colour. Brian Bixley

J Chapman December 12, 2016, 11:35 am

Wow some really great looking photos here. I’m growing an Acer maximowiczianum in a small pot at the moment – Can’t believe the foliage even for such a small tree.

Brian Bixley December 7, 2016, 9:49 am

You’re right, Pat. There is this powerful ongoing force in nature that the gardener is always trying to subvert, a notion I was trying to get at in my first paragraph.
We had a difficult time trying to establish a parrotia; the one illustrated represents the fourth attempt! And as I noted, it is wrapped late in the fall. I hear you had a remarkably successful Open Garden day this summer. Brian

Pat Webster December 7, 2016, 8:35 am

The photos of the barnyard entrance show as clearly as anything I’ve ever seen how capable nature is of healing herself.

I am envious of your Parrotia persica, Brian. I tried to grow one but my climate is simply too harsh. Every year it more closely resembled an ever-shortening toothpick; I finally gave it up.

Proving, I suppose, that nature wins again. (As if it were a contest, or as if there was ever a doubt of the winner.)