Lilactree Farm Garden Notes, No. 4, 2012

– Posted in: Lilactree Farm

“One should always plant trees in the expectation, however unlikely, that one will live for ever or at least see them in their maturity.”

Allen Paterson, Best Trees for Your Garden

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”

Herman Hesse, Wandering

Assessing Winter’s Impact

The beginning of June is a good time to assess the nature and impact of the preceding winter. Until then, nothing is certain. The Fringe-tree, Chionanthus virginicus, looked so convincingly dead until the middle of May that I lopped off a small branch as a prelude to its complete destruction. Three weeks later it is in flower (below).

Chionanthus virginicus, Fringe Tree by Brian Bixley

Chionanthus virginicus, Fringe-Tree (Photo courtesy Brian Bixley)

Some perennials, including clematis, often send up a shoot long after most hope is gone. Occasionally I can convince myself that a rare ranunculus has made it through, only to recognise, as it grows at impressive speed, that I have been deceived by a self-sown violet seedling.

The saddest loss is that of Glaucidium palmatum, not always easy to acquire, not always easy to grow. This Japanese woodland plant appeared to be content with its position under red oaks, a large pot on its north side providing protection from some of the worst of the spring winds.

Glaucidium palmatum photo by Brian Bixley

Glaucidium palmatum (photo by Brian Bixley)

Its best protection, however, was snow cover, and its loss is likely to be a consequence of the absence, this past winter, of a continuous snow mulch, or the disappearance of what snow there was during the mid-March warmth. It usually flowered at the end of May, the foliage and then the lilac-lavender flowers arriving in a sudden, impatient fervour. The AGS Encyclopaedia of Alpines describes it as “long-lived.” It has been here for ten or more years; perhaps we should have tried to divide it “but established plants generally resent disturbance.”

None of the seedling roscoeas, tucked into small spaces in the Driveway rock garden, has returned, which is not surprising in that the many species are native to the warmer parts of the Himalayas, of China and Nepal and northern India. They are members of the Ginger family, came easily from seed, and mostly grew with enthusiasm during the late summer and fall months. In the right conditions they grow 25-40cm, and produce flowers in a variety of colours (purple, yellow, white pink) that look rather like a cross between a small iris and a dwarf monkshood. I knew their survival prospects were not good but I have not quite given up hope as they do not start into growth until late spring, early summer.

I have been trying for years to grow, without success, the yellow-flowered Delphinium zalil. Half-a-dozen frail plants went into the winter, two put in a swiftly-terminated appearance in April. We have a healthier looking batch of seedlings (which probably means they are not D. zalil at all!) this year, and hope they will make sturdier plants before they go into the ground. Allen Paterson described seeing them at Amy Stewart’s Highfields.

Like almost everyone else, I fretted and groaned at those ten days in March with temperatures well above normal, when plants shot up and buds were being set on flowering trees and shrubs. Some gardens suffered considerably – the commercial apple growers to the north of us estimated that more than 90% of their crop had been destroyed – but here the effects turned out to be minimal. Lilacs flowered  poorly, briefly, Magnolia stellata had a miserable time as each new wave of opening flowers was zapped, and M. ‘Butterflies’ paid the price of being in the most sheltered spot in the whole garden. Other yellow-flowered magnolias (‘Gold Star’, ‘Elizabeth’, ‘Yellow Bird’, ‘Sunsation’), all in sheltered places but not quite as lovingly cosseted as ‘Butterflies’, advanced more slowly and flowered well, but ‘Butterflies’, tucked in to the east side of the south-facing bay window at the front of the house, came on more quickly, and was clearly in a mood to produce its best flowering ever. When the frosts returned, every fat bud turned brown; not a single flower opened. Our last remaining old apple tree also failed to flower, but crabapples were happily unscathed.

The most significant consequence of the March heat was to shift forward the whole season. At the end of April the garden was three weeks in advance, but cooler weather in May has reduced that difference to about a week. There are no complaints from me at having a southern Ontario garden filled with colour in early April.

The Gardener’s Year

It seems odd that so few gardeners have read or even know of Karel Čapek’s The Gardener’s Year (1929). If ever a book was written to appeal to gardeners – not to garden or landscape ‘designers’, not to owners of gardens who delegate the care and maintenance for them to others, but to people who grow seedlings and plant them out, who improve the soil and feed and water their plants, who divide and deadhead and cut back, and who have sore cracks in the tips of their thumbs – this is it. No other book I know captures so profoundly, so accurately, so honestly, so humorously what it means to be a gardener. Even the inevitable absurdities are not forgotten:

Murmuring with secret satisfaction the gardener finds in October empty spaces in his garden. Tut, tut, he says to himself, something must have died here. Let’s see, I must plant something in that empty spot; how about golden rod or bugwort? I haven’t got it in my garden yet; astilbe would look well here; but for autumn Pyrethum uglinosum would do, though in spring leopard’s bane would not be bad here either; well, I shall put a monarda here – either Sunset or Cambridge Scarlet; no doubt a day lily would look very nice here too. After that he wanders in deep meditation, remembering that morina is a nice little plant, not to mention coreopsis, and even betonica is not so bad; then in haste he orders from some nursery golden rod, bugwort, astilbe, Pyrethum uglinosum, Leopard’s bane, horse mint, day lily, morina, coreopsis, betonica, and still he writes down anchusa and salvia, and then he rages for some days because they do not arrive; at last the postman brings a crate full of them, and then he throws himself with his spade on that bald spot. With the first spit he forces out a mass of roots, on the top of which a whole clump of fat buds is clustered. God Almighty! moans the gardener, I’ve got trollius here!

Every serious gardener will recognise this scene, and will recognise, too, that only a serious thinker could have written it. Karel Čapek (1890-1938), from what is now the Czech Republic, was a journalist and playwright, and The Gardener’s Year shapes that year into both a comic drama and a profound reflection upon the human condition.

The Garden of Eden was not really a garden at all, because a garden implies an interventionist gardener; Adam and Eve had–and this may have been the root of the problems that followed–nothing at all to do. Adam was not, whatever Shakespeare thought, a gardener. He and Eve were there to enjoy the fruits and beauties of paradise; gardeners–and the word can stand for all who are involved in creating a terrestrial paradise–seek to remedy, in small ways and large, the deficiencies of the natural world.  “A real gardener is not a man who cultivates flowers; he is a man who cultivates the soil…He lives buried in the ground. He builds his monument in a heap of compost.” He does not pursue these goals untrammelled, because he is constrained by the variable but fundamentally unalterable natural year, so that in March “he loses day after day, persecuted by all possible kinds of bad weather, by blows of destiny, affairs and vicissitudes which accumulate, as if by fate.”

This is a book about the mysteries of life, about the rituals and conventions, the old wives’ tales that are inescapable elements in our culture, about the joys and absurdities of obsession, and about coming to terms with the setbacks that are an ineradicable part of being alive. The garden, its beauty and its messiness–what Denise and Jean-Pierre Le Dantec, in Reading the French Garden: Story and History, call “the corruptible contingency of nature”–its fertility and its futility, its growth and its decay, is an extended metaphor for life. It carries a message of hope and encouragement because “all the year round is spring, and all through life is youth; there is always something which may flower.”

Notable Trees

One clear upside of the mild winter (the lowest temperature I noted was -17C [1F], though I am seldom observant in the early hours of the morning) is that many of the not-so-hardy trees came through with honours. This is important because, though I have no scientific evidence for the proposition, the more winters a tree survives, the more likely it is to survive any given winter. This doesn’t mean, of course, that it will survive a hard winter, only that it has a better chance of doing so. I wrote earlier about my hope of seeing Aesculus pavia in flower here for the first time. A mere three flowers appeared, but the tree is only 2m high. Dirr (Hardy Trees and Shrubs) gives its native habitat as ‘Virginia to Florida, west to Texas,’ but there is sometimes a moment when a sapling seems to say, “Yes, I think it’s alright here,” and begins to look like a tree, and that was true this spring of the Red Buckeye. Its exquisite foliage is pointed, furrowed, finely serrated, with a reddish tint in spring.

Aesculus pavia, Red Buckeye photo by Brian Bixley

Aesculus pavia, Red Buckeye (photo by Brian Bixley)

Whether it flowers or not, it has a place in the garden as long as it chooses to stay.

Four trees have been added this spring. Dirca palustris, leatherwood, was a gift from Isabel and John Wheelwright. It is perhaps premature to call it a tree, as it is only about 60cm high, and its future may be more shrubby than treelike, if it has a future at all. It thrives in shade, and there is no anxiety about its hardiness, but whereas Hillier (The Hillier Manual of Trees & Shrubs) says that “it thrives in moist soils, particularly those of a calcareous nature”, Dirr urges us to “provide organic-laden, moist, acid soils…Use in combination with ericaceous plants.” Perhaps I should Solomonize it.

Alnus subcordata is one of our own seedlings, the second alder in the garden joining the earlier seed-grown A. japonica (“a striking species in time…” How much time? I don’t have a lot). A. subcordata, the Caucasian Alder, has a superior version, the Italian alder, A. cordata, which originates in Sicily and southern Italy; subcordata’s virtue may–I stress ‘may’–be greater hardiness.

Two potentially beautiful trees came from the inspirational Yesterdays Garden just outside Hanover, Ont. The American hophornbeam or Ironwood, Ostrya virginiana, has been with us for quite a few years and has made a fine small (so far) tree once it survived a near-girdling in its early adolescence. It turns up in local woodlands as well as growing in the open. The books say it has “rich, warm yellow autumn tints”, but it goes an eye-catching red here (perhaps because it is in the open). Its new sibling, O. japonica, the Japanese hophornbeam, should be hardy–its native habitat includes northeastern China–and I look forward to seeing its “multitudes of green, hop-like fruits.”

The second tree from Yesterdays Garden is Parrotia persica. Was it Dr. Johnson who said that (second?) marriage was the triumph of hope over experience? This is our third parrotia. It is a tree of such glory when it succeeds, that hope must always win out. Normally a “large shrub or small tree of wide-spreading habit,” we were lucky to find it in a more upright form, ‘Vanessa.’ The summer foliage is a shiny, lustrous green, attractive enough, but it is the fall foliage which is the tree’s great moment: bronze, orange, red, gold, “one of the finest small trees for autumn colour.” Its assets do not end there, for it has small, maroon flowers in late winter (huh!) and, in older specimens, flaking bark reminiscent of the plane trees of my childhood. Our two earlier, smaller versions perished through attrition after a year or two, but we have followed this time the advice of the late Henry Landis, a great grower of woody plants, who said that in the case of a tree or shrub of doubtful hardiness, one should invest in the largest specimen one could afford. Our new plant is 2m high, about a meter more than we could sensibly afford. Dirr recommends that it be grown in “moist, well-drained soils.” Drainage is no problem here, moisture is, so we have enriched the soil and tried to improve its moisture-retentiveness. This young prince of trees is in full sun to encourage the tree to ‘harden-off’ as protection against the furious winter’s rages.

Open Garden This Sunday

Two trees that will be flowering on June 17 are Magnolia sieboldii and Stewartia pseudo-camellia. Both are still small, about 2m and 3m respectively, but they have the great garden advantage of flowering at an early age. Peony hedges are at their best as I write; martagon and other lilies ready to unfold. I think–but I dare not write this–that Gentiana lutea, the Yellow Gentian, intends to flower.

Gentiana lutea, Yellow gentian by Brian Bixley

Gentiana lutea, Yellow gentian (photo by Brian Bixley)

We hope you will be able to visit us on our Open Garden days on June 17 and September 16, 10am-4pm. We are in southern Ontario, 70 miles north-west of Toronto. For directions, email:   We welcome visits at other times with a little advance notice.

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.

If winter is slumber and spring is birth, and summer is life, then autumn rounds out to be reflection. It’s a time of year when the leaves are down and the harvest is in and the perennials are gone. Mother Earth just closed up the drapes on another year and it’s time to reflect on what’s come before.

~Mitchell Burgess in Northern Exposure

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