If movies, plays, and television shows can have their annual awards, why not our own gardens? In that vein, I’m inaugurating them here at the Money Pit, starting with this gardening year of 2021. And of course, just like in the awards shows, there is a ‘Gone But Not Forgotten’ plant-obituary column for the year as well.
Surprising Success Award (a/k/a The Smiley)
Several plants vied for this one but the winner is Rose ‘Earth Song’, even though I should have expected it, having grown this in my previous garden where it was one of the stars. However, I truly did not expect the 10” own-root bare twig received in late May (sorry, no photo of that phase) to put out several new branches in June, open its first of several buds in mid-July, and then continue to more than double its size and bloom nonstop for the next three months. It has six buds at the moment (mid October.) This is a Griffith Buck rugosa hybrid that is a lovely true pink, reasonably fragrant, impervious to anything Mother Nature can throw at it, and doesn’t even have many thorns. And did I mention that it flowers for almost five months and makes adorable fat orange hips afterward? It grew like gangbusters in the lovely loam of my previous garden but I didn’t know how it would handle the awful, dense, rarely-irrigated stony clay here at the Money Pit. Apparently, this rose doesn’t care what you plant it in. A winner anywhere.
Runner-Up: The three dwarf crape myrtles (one ‘Cherry Mocha’ and two ‘Like a Latte’) received from New Blooms Nursery in April. I was hugely disappointed in what were supposed to be #1 pot size plants for $22.99 each but were no more than 3” high twigs with a correspondingly tiny root system, and I let the nursery know it. Especially since $12.99 had bought the same plants in a true 1-gallon size elsewhere in 2020. Despite the nursery’s assurance that the plants would reach the expected size “as soon as hot weather arrives”, I remained highly skeptical. You can see the babes’ progress in this post. I admit that they did surpass my initial expectations, although IMHO they definitely are still not worth the nursery’s original price point; I received a related cultivar, ‘Brew Ha Ha’ from a friend this June which was twice the size that the New Blooms plants have attained even now, and still cost $12.99 for that 1-gallon size. My advice to anyone who wants to grow these in Zone 5, 6 or 7 is to start with as large a plant as you can, and then cross your fingers for a hotter-than-usual summer because they really do not start into active/meaningful growth until the days are warmer than 80F consistently.
Distinct Disappointment Award (a/k/a The Frownie)
No dithering about this one, it goes without hesitation to Ceratostigma willmottianum. This serves me right for reading too many British gardening books and nursery websites. Described there as an “upright twiggy shrub displaying electric blue flowers and rich red fall color”, I envisioned a sort of Ceratostigma plumbaginoides (one of my favorite perennials) on steroids. It got a choice full-sun position in the Silverbell Bed in mid-April and it did indeed grow – but only sideways. What was supposed to be an upright shrub was insisting 100% on being a groundcover, which was the one thing I did not want in that location. To make it worse, the leaves are very tiny (think Cotoneaster) and the flowers were even tinier. I literally could hardly see them; the perennial Ceratostigma’s flowers (and leaves) are easily three times the size. After glowering at the plant for the entire summer, and even trying some experimental pruning to see if new branches would grow vertically (they didn’t), I finally admitted that absolutely nothing about the plant lives up to what I wanted or expected, so out it went – with no apologies. But it does get The Frownie for the year, posthumously. It’s not in the Obituary Column because it didn’t die (on its own, anyway.) I was so disappointed in this plant that I didn’t even take any photos!
Runner-Up: Ajuga ‘Bikun’ (a/k/a ‘Frosted Jade’ in some listings) which is a variegated ajuga that supposedly has no aggressive tendencies. This sounded like a good idea for the same bed where I also installed some primulas, astilbes, and hostas. I was a bit disappointed in the pair of small and spindly plants I received in April, but was confident they would soon establish because, well, it’s an ajuga after all. My confidence was misplaced; neither plant bestirred itself to put even put out a third leaf (they each arrived with only two) and by early October they were each down to just one. I happened to see pots of this same plant at a local nursery in early September, and noticed that even they didn’t look healthy, let alone robust. ‘Non-aggressive’ is one thing, but ‘cowering’ is another. Frankly, if I lose these over the winter I will not shed a tear. This is another plant that never even merited a photo (especially now, when the single leaf on each has been slug-chewed.)
The Florence Nightingale Award for Most Dramatic Recovery (a/k/a The Florrie)
This definitely goes to Azalea ‘Koromo Shibiku’ which I bought in heavy bud in late April at Broken Arrow Nursery, planted in what I thought was the most part-shade area of the Bridge Bed West (this was taken in mid May) and then watched it go into a slow-motion decline every day for the next three weeks. Watering did not help. Shading with a peony parasol (yes, I have one) did not help.
Finally, with it looking as if it was about to take its last breath, I dug it up and moved it to the only available spot in the Four Seasons Bed. In less than a week after taking this post-planting photo it perked up. Keep in mind that the soil in this new location is still the same dense, stony clay; the only difference is the timing and duration of sun and shade.
This is how it looked yesterday, October 15th. Look at all that new growth! This is an evergreen azalea that is either hardy only to zone 7 or as far up as zone 5, depending on what article you read or who you talk to; I’m gambling on the Zone 5 people being correct. Oh, and I refuse to call this plant a “rhododendron”, no matter what the taxonomists recently decreed. I am equally rebellious when it comes to Dicentra spectabilis; you-know-what will freeze over before I call that a Lamprocampos, which sounds either like something long and slithery that swims, or is an object that you would pack when spending a night in the woods. No; just…no.
Runner-Up: Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ which has recovered enough to reach the same size that it was when purchased last summer, before Abigail the Ravenous Rabbit chewed it down by 50% over the winter. It was moved in May and has been rabbit-caged all this year, and will continue to be protected (with extra height added, to account for snowdrifts) all through this winter. I have learned my lesson.
PITA Problem Plant Award (a/k/a The Trumpie)
Well, we all know what the PITA acronym stands for. I will preface this award by saying that it applies to plants other than my PSOW (Permanent State of War) plants which are poison ivy, Japanese stiltgrass, crabgrass, Houttoniya cordata, dandelion, and bittercress. Nor does it apply to the OIVs (Ongoing-Incursion Vines) which are bittersweet, solanum, and multiflora rose which is not a vine but it might just as well be because it’s so aggressive. The Trumpie will go to plants that end up causing more trouble than ever imagined or expected.
This year’s winner is my own fault, and was actually a 2020 plant choice but the problem surfaced (literally) in 2021 so it squeaks in via a technicality. It is Anemone japonica ‘Honorine Jobert’. Let me say in my own defense that in my previous garden I grew this plant for nine years in a north-facing bed and she always behaved like a perfect lady. However, in the two east-facing Portico Beds here at the Money Pit, she became a rampaging harpy.
Planted here in late May 2020 at less than 6” high and looking innocent; this photo was taken the first week of June. I’ve circled the anemones in red.
By September they were elbowing the mountain laurel and hostas, and in another two months had completely engulfed them; this photo of the same section was taken in mid-October. I cut all the anemones back to almost ground level before Thanksgiving and realized that this was not the place for this plant if I didn’t want to end up with a monoculture. We got an early snow shortly afterward and so it wasn’t until this year (early Spring 2021) that I dug them all out and moved them to the Driveway Bed, where Honorine can increase and multiply amongst the shrubs to her heart’s content because there is a driveway between her and the rest of my garden.
What I didn’t realize, until I started seeing plantlets coming up all through the two Portico Beds a few weeks after the relocation, was that every single leftover scrap of Anemone japonica root will make a new plant. Thus, ever since then, spotting and digging out new ones has been like playing an endless game of Whack-A-Mole, and of course they do insist on coming up smack in the middle of things like the hardy geraniums and the hellebores. I fear that I will need to be on constant Anemone Patrol for years before I might be able to take a deep breath and say that Honorine has truly been eradicated from the Portico Beds. An annoying side effect is that I was planning on putting a drip irrigation layout in those beds this summer because the back portion, being under a roof, never gets rained on; but because I need to constantly spot and dig out newly emerged plantlets, it isn’t practical to install that yet. I also made the mistake of putting three Honorines into the middle of the Four Seasons Bed last year; oops! But I think (fingers crossed) that I got them all out…
Runner-up: The several huge Euonymus that a previous owner planted along more than 50% of the north side planting bed in the backyard. They are a good 10 ft tall and although I keep hacking them back with a saw every April and October, in order to have enough space to barely squeeze through between them and the solid fencing along my maintenance pathway, it is like trying to control the Amazon rainforest. This should probably be considered a PSOW or OIV situation, rightfully.
The Budget Buster Award (a/k/a The Bezie-Muskie, because nobody can seem to agree on who is the wealthier at any given moment)
This award goes to the single most expensive plant installed this year. I keep a garden database, so I know these things; reviewing it should theoretically engender future fiscal responsibility, but somehow it never does.
Of course, the winner is a conifer: Pinus thunbergii ‘Thunderhead’ in a 3-gallon size for $69.99 at Broken Arrow Nursery during my first trip of the year. I was really surprised to see them because their catalog indicated that they were not expecting these until July, but several in #3 pots showed up within their first West-Coast-grower delivery of the year, the day before I visited. This was on my 2021 want list for the centerpiece of my new Conifer Bed, and a very nice shape to boot, so I grabbed one. The photo above shows it in late April, shortly after planting.
2021 Obituary Column
Hamamelis ‘Brimstone’ was planted as a rather spindly #1 pot size in summer 2020, lost most of its leaves before that autumn, and was fatally chomped down to ground level by Abigail during the winter of 2020-21. I had no idea that rabbits like young witch hazels. Now I know.
Ten bulbs of the excellent white Narcissus ‘Stainless’ were planted in September 2019 from Scheepers, and came up fine in April 2020. But only one bulb survived to put up a single pair of leaves (no flower) in the spring of 2021; the others disappeared. Daffodils do not seem to like my soil, with the notable exception of one very charming mini named ‘Xit’ (knock wood!!!) that is not planted in my typical clay but near the top of a raised bed next to the patio.
One of six Nandina ‘Firepower’, ordered from Sooner Plant Farm in summer 2020, died over the 2020-21 winter. Luckily, I had the other two in what would be revamped into the Jewel Box Bed this spring, so the corpse got replaced with one of those; I gave the other ‘Firepower’ to my son, who had lost one of his (from a different source) over the winter also.
Ten winter aconite from Old House Gardens (because they claim theirs are treated specially to increase viability) were planted in Fall 2020 with high hopes; only three ever came up, and very late as well, despite being in a supposedly ‘ideal’ location, and were relocated to under the magnolia in April when ‘in the green’. We’ll see if any of them show up in 2022.
An order of ten Polygonatum ‘Spiral Staircase’ from Quackin’ Grass Nursery arrived in April with almost all of the plants knocked completely out of their pots, with naked roots hanging out and drying, courtesy of the tender handling and delayed delivery via UPS. After some intense coddling, eight seem to have finally established (knock wood) but one died outright in June and another is struggling to hang on to life; its ultimate fate probably depends on the kind of winter we have this year.
The sad tale of Chamaecyparis ‘Blue Surprise’ is told here.
Of the six Echinacea ‘Fatal Attraction’ planted in September 2020, two were either lost or eaten over the 2020-21 winter. The surviving four remained smaller than one would expect of any coneflower, and when they finally produced extremely short flower stems in early July, the cones remained green and either produced no petals at all, or only a few stubby, stunted ones. Some never even developed any color. I kept waiting for them to produce normal flowers or stems but they never did; research points to either the Aster Yellows virus or eriophyid mites as the probable cause. Two Echinacea ‘Fragrant Angel’ from White Flower Farm, planted this spring in a different but nearby back-yard bed, began to exhibit similar flower behavior in July. I removed and disposed of all six plants in early August, just in case the cause was the virus. In mid-September I installed some Echinacea ‘Magnus’ in one of the front-yard beds; hopefully these will remain healthy but if they don’t, that will be the finale for coneflowers in this garden.