The backyard is the Green garden – ‘Green’ because the dominant color scheme is green and white, although other colors are also present in lesser amounts. Because the backyard is very shady, the plants have to be ones that can cope with shady conditions. White is the most common color of flowers on shade plants. Far from being monotonous, the color scheme contributes to the cool, serene oasis feel of the backyard. With the shade from the white ash, red oak and white pines, the temperature in the backyard in summer can be 50C or more cooler in the backyard than in the front – a welcome difference in the heat of the summer! By shading the living room window, the ash tree also reduces the energy needed to cool the house in summer. In winter, the bare tree branches allow winter sun to warm the living room. If/when the ash comes down, it would be well worth considering replacing it with another deciduous tall shade tree.
The backyard is a shade/woodland garden and conditions are managed in order to give as natural woodland conditions as possible. The key component of this approach is that all leaf litter, including pine needles, and plant material are retained and allowed to ‘compost in place’ in the garden beds. Snails are the main insect pest in the backyard. While they do benefit from overwintering in the leaf litter, the plants and soil benefit more. Leaf damage from snails will occur and is tolerated, although as many snails as can be found are hand removed and killed during the garden season.
The woodland garden, unfortunately, comes with an abundant collection of woodland insect life – namely mosquitoes! During the summer, they are a major deterrent to working out there unless in a full ‘bug-suit’. They can also make eating outdoors in the evening very uncomfortable, so we gave up on using the patio for outdoor dining. The patio furniture essentially became part of the garden with the construction of a planter-bench. Outdoor recreational/entertaining seating is largely patio chairs and loungers on the back porch, where the mosquitoes are less prolific. Major garden work in the backyard should be timed to be completed in April-early May before the mosquitoes come out of hibernation, and again after late October when they return to hibernation. Otherwise, wear bug protection.
Ticks that carry Lyme Disease are starting to move into southern Ontario. Here in suburbia, deer are not an issue but chipmunks and white footed mice are other carriers of the deer ticks. We have chipmunks in the garden. So I’m starting to think about what might need to change in the garden to reduce tick risk (aside from trying to get rid of the chipmunks!) The first thing that comes to mind is to reduce the number (or size) of bushy perennials and shrubs abutting paths to minimize the number of plants that you brush against when walking along a path. We removed a couple of big goatsbeards in fall 2015, replacing them with Actaeas set further back from the path.
When/if the ash succumbs to old age and/or Emerald Ash Borer, the light conditions in the backyard will change significantly which will change the range of plants that will grow there. Over our tenure in the garden, we have planted a number of ‘understory’ trees that may allow the north side of the garden to remain a shade garden in the absence of the ash. Many of the plantings will tolerate either sun or shade so should survive significantly higher light levels. As long as the oak tree in the south woodland area survives, that area will remain shady. Barring disease, there is no reason to expect the oak tree to fail, so it should stand for at least another 50 years, and probably longer! So, the eventual loss of the ash will have minimal impact on the light and growing conditions south side of the yard.
The components of the backyard garden are:
The path network, which encompasses both the back and front gardens, serves a number of purposes.
- It provides structure to the garden space, most notably highlighting the rectangular lawn.
- It makes it easy to navigate through the garden which makes it possible to be IN the garden when you are in the garden so you are immersed in the garden experience.
- Since it is possible to make a complete circuit of the garden, front and back, by starting at any point and following where the path leads you, the path network is one of the elements that link the ‘private’ back garden to the ‘public’ front one, making the whole space one coherent garden.
- Maintenance is facilitated by making it easy to move wheelbarrows, wagons, lawnmowers, and other garden equipment through the garden. Since it is possible to reach the center of most beds (with the notable exception of the large front bed in places) from the paths without needing to step into the bed, weeding and deadheading are easier, with less risk of damaging plants or compacting the soil.
The paths are 1/3 concrete sand and 2/3 pine bark mulch from Petrie’s. The pine bark will deteriorate with time. Every 3-5 years, top up the path material with new mulch and sand. We usually order 2 cubic yards of pine bark mulch and 1 cubic yard of concrete sand. Fill the wheelbarrow by adding one shovel full of sand for every two of pine bark. Dump in small loads along all the garden paths. Spread with a heavy rake. Compress flat with a water-filled roller.
In May 2014 we decided to put a firmer base under many of the backyard paths, especially in areas where water accumulates during spring run-off and on slopes were a bit of erosion occurs after heavy rains. So we used ‘crusher run’ gravel (which packs to a firm surface but is fast-draining) as a base, packed down with the roller, before topping it with the usual pine bark and sand mix to keep the paths’ color blended into the garden.
The patio bed is dominated by large, mostly blue,hostas. and is simple and easy to maintain while being quietly showy.
We added a fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) in 2010 to provide future shade for this bed in anticipation of the eventual loss of the ash. Most of the hostas can take some sun but will do better with shade; the fringetree should eventually provide that in the absence of the ash. While the ash is still present, the fringetree will not be getting a lot of light but, so far, the fringetree has grown and flowered well. It is not a fast-growing tree and will only get to be 15′ or so in any case. It’s a very pretty small tree that seems to suit the location and is happy there.
When the hostas get very large they should be divided. One division should be replanted in the same spot. Other divisions can be placed in the oak garden, the ‘wet corner’ or available space in other beds – or given away or composted. While it is conceptually simple to divide hostas, the sheer mass of the plants can be an issue. They should be divided in spring just as the tightly furled spears of the new leaves are 2-3” tall. Dig out the entire root ball (a crow bar may come in handy at this point!). Divide the ball into pieces – this is not a delicate task; a hatchet can be useful… Any chunk with leaf spears and roots attached can be easily transplanted. Refresh the rootball hole with compost and replant a chunk in the same location. Plant remaining pieces elsewhere in the garden if there is a need for them, or give them away to other gardeners, or compost them.
The Persicaria polymorpha (large, white-flowered perennial that looks like a shrub by June but dies to the ground each year…) blooms well in shady conditions – there are several in various locations in the backyard – but has a more open habit and blooms a bit later than the one in the front garden. They require minimal maintenance. Deadheading can extend the bloom time. The fading flowers are not attractive so you’ll want to deadhead them. In the fall, cut the stalks down to the ground and add to the compost pile or put them out for the fall garden waste pick-up by the Town. By late summer the plant is very large and has been known to blow over and uproot part of itself if there is a very windy day. If that happens, cut it back, replace the uprooted section into the ground and tamp down. It will survive!
There are a number of columbine under the clothes-dryer. They will self-sow is you wait until the seed heads ripen (turn brown) before cutting them down. The foliage of columbine generally gets ‘ratty’ after the flowers finish so, after sufficient seed has ripened to regenerate the plantings, cut the old foliage to the ground and new, fresh foliage will emerge from the base and remain attractive for the rest of the season.
There are miscellaneous other perennials in the patio area – largely varieties of heuchera, ferns, daylilies and corydalis. Cut back any unattractive dead foliage in spring. Deadhead daylilies as necessary but otherwise these will need minimal care. Eventually the daylilies, and perhaps the heuchera, may need dividing but they all should be able to remain in place for a long period of time.
There are a few spring bulbs in this bed, but conditions are not ideal. The emerging hostas will hide any dying bulb foliage so no effort is required to care for the bulbs. If you wish to add more spring bulbs, concentrate on the smaller bulbs (e.g. snowdrops, scilla, muscari, winter aconite, miniature daffodils etc.) that do not require full sun conditions.
There is no need to clean up the dead hosta foliage in either fall or spring. It will feed the soil if left to ‘compost in place’. Snails may overwinter in it but they can be removed/killed by hand picking whenever you see any. The hostas in this area are all ones with fairly heavy foliage which is less attractive to snails. You can also add chopped leaves from the lawn clean-up in the fall to add more organic matter. Adding a layer of the fallen pine needles is useful as organic matter and also seem to help to deter the snails.
The living room bed runs across the back of the house. It is largely under the overhang of the roof and therefore very dry. The plants are ones that can handle tough conditions with little extra care.
The bed is bracketed at either end with Bridalwreath spireas (Spiraea prunifolia ). These big, old-fashioned shrubs are smothered with tiny white flowers on the long, arching branches in June. The flowers bloom on ‘old wood’ – i.e. woody stems produced in the previous year(s). Therefore, if you prune these shrubs in late summer, you will cut off next summer’s flowers! These are NOT shrubs that can/should be pruned into stiff shapes because that will likely prevent the formation of enough ‘old wood’ to allow them to flower well. In addition, a good part of their attraction is the flowing, arching shape of the branches. They can get to be very large though so, to control size and maximize flowering potential, after the flowers fade, each year remove 1/3 of the woody stems at ground level, removing the biggest (oldest) stems each year. That will control the size and completely renew the shrub every three years, while ensuring maximum flower display each year. If the shrub still gets too big for your taste, you can cut it completely to the ground and let it regrow. If you cut it back just after the flowers fade, it should still be able to regrow enough new stems to put on a flower show the following summer.
The other large shrub in this bed is Beautybush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) – which is what is flowering in the picture to the left. Like the Bridalwreath spirea, this is an ‘old wood’ bloomer so can/should be pruned in much the same way, although it will not take as kindly to a complete cutting back. It is best to stick to the 1/3 a year. It will get taller than the spireas and was, in fact, planted in front of the ‘blank wall’ between the living room and office windows with the intention for it to eventually reach as tall as the roof overhang At that point, when it blooms in late spring/early summer, it should be a cascade of fragrant pink down that wall! By 2011, the beautybush had got large enough, with fairly woody/bare lower stems to make me see the potential to train it to arch over the path to make a tunnel effect. Beginning in spring 2012, I have been attempting to train it into a tunnel effect. Combined with the arching form of the nearby white redbud, it is beginning to make a nice effect. (The arch took a bit of a setback in 2013 as a miss-communication with DH resulted in a too-severe pruning of the beautybush. But it should recover…)
The bed has a number of small bulbs for spring interest, although some of them have petered-out and need to be replaced, although I keep forgetting to do it! The dying foliage is hidden by the perennials that emerge as the bulbs fade. The perennials can largely be left to their own devices, needing little care or dividing for many years. The most unusual perennial in the bed is probably ‘White Pearl’ bugbane (Cimicifuga simplex ‘White Pearl’ =Actaea matsumurae ‘White Pearl’), which does not start blooming until early November!
This bed should be covered each fall in a thick layer of chopped leaves (some of the the ash leaves that fall on the lawn) to add organic matter to increase its nutrients and water retention ability.
The rectangular lawn is one of the most striking features of the garden, partly because most people find it unexpected. The path around the lawn highlights it as a separate feature and not just residual space left over from making the garden beds. The expanse of simple green is the serene and calm heart of the woodland garden, contributing greatly to the feel of the space as a cool and peaceful place.
In spring 2015 we decided to put a path between the south end of the lawn and the bed under the oak. (Previously the path only went around three sides of the lawn.) The new path makes access to the bed easier and although it makes the lawn a bit smaller, it improves circulation around the garden. The proportions in this drawing are not totally accurate, but it shows the general layout of the lawn and backyard garden: (The red Xs indicate where trees were removed – a dead pine and a dying pussy willow on our property and a dead ash on the property to the south of us.)
The first dusting of snow in December also does a good job of outlining the garden’s layout as shown in these pictures:
Since the grass is shaded by the ash, it is fairly weak. The only maintenance required in this area is:
- Weekly grass mowing.
- Fertilize the grass spring and fall. Top dress and overseed the lawn in either spring or late summer if necessary (see comments below).
- Early spring, using an edging spade or half-moon edger, cut a line along the edge of the grass and path (stakes and string can be helpful in keeping the line straight) and remove and grass roots that have invaded the path.
- Renew the path material as needed per the instructions under Paths above.
In Spring 2015 it was obvious that the grass was in poorer-that-usual shape due to a combination of compacted soil, too much dog pee(!), and the shade. We had the soil aerated by one of those machines that remove plugs of soil. Then we top-dressed end reseeded it.
That helped a fair bit but we needed to water it more consistently to counteract the dog-applied high nitrogen fertilizer – especially around the tree trunk! So an additional top-dressing and over-seeding is needed in 2016 – and closer attention to watering to prevent nitrogen burns! I suspect overseeding will become a fairly regular event.
In the fall when the ash drops its leaves, there are a LOT of leaves! All of them should be used in the garden – there should be no leaves put out at the curb for pick-up by the Town. The woodland garden needs the leaf mulch to stay healthy and thrive. When the leaves drop, mow the lawn (preferably with a bagger on the mower to easily collect the leaves) and spread the chopped leaves on the backyard garden beds.
Stage 1 – leaf drop:
Stage 2 leaves cleared from lawn and added to garden:
The north woodland beds are those bounded by the patio bed on the east, the pines on the west, the chainlink fence on the north and the lawn path on the south. The beds were created using the ‘lasagna’ method where leaves and miscellaneous organic matter were piled on the grass and all left to rot down for a few months before planting into it. This approach results in slightly raised beds with rich soil high in organic matter.
There is little maintenance required in these beds. White corydalis (Corydalis ochroleuca) is a groundcover over much of these beds. It is almost evergreen as it is one of the first things to green up in spring and one of the last to die off in fall. It will bloom from early spring to late fall. It does seed around a lot but is easy to remove (by yanking handfuls of the unwanted plants – they uproot easily) if it appears where you don’t want it. Watch out for yellow ones that might appear (most are from seeds blown in from the neighbor to the north’s garden…) Remove any yellow ones you see or they will out-compete the white ones.
There are a number of Brunneras, particularly in the beds closest to the pines. They have pretty forget-me-not blue flowers in spring at the same time as the white redbud tree blooms. It’s a very pretty combination (see picture below – this is from 2008 so the tree is more substantial now. Redbuds are not very hardy so there may be winterkill – in spring 2015 there was extensive winterkill that needed to be pruned off. The tree survived though and, while it did not bloom in 2015, was looking good again by the end of the summer.) But the brunnera also seed around – and crossbreed freely! Watch out for seedlings, particularly in the paths closest to the pines. Remove the seedlings. The silver ones can be attractive but many are not ‘true’ to their ‘Jack Frost’ parent. You may want to keep some of the seedlings with attractive foliage. Some particularly large-leafed very silver seedlings appeared in late 2014 amongst the ‘Branford Beauty’ ferns to the north of the shed. The original brunneras there almost completely died out in the brutal winter of 2013/2014. The very silver, large seedlings thrived in 2015.
The main thing to watch out for in these beds is ash tree seedlings! Learn to recognize then at the seed-leaf stage and remove them as soon as you see them. Once they get their true leaves, they rapidly develop a deep tap root and are difficult to remove. Neglect of tree seedling weeding would soon turn the backyard garden into a forest of ash tree seedlings! Fortunately, the seedling are easy to recognize and a daily walk around the garden in spring and early summer, keeping an eye out for the seedlings and pulling any you see is all it takes to keep them under control. Since it’s a pleasure to walk around and see what is developing, the weeding is not an onerous chore.
This is a difficult area to garden in (and take pictures of – too dark…) because it is very dry and shady. It takes a very heavy rain in summer to penetrate the pine tree canopy. Soaker hoses were used to establish initial plantings but have not been used in a number of years and the last of them were removed in spring 2014. A few bits of them may appear when you dig in this area since hoses under the pines were gradually been buried by the annual fall ‘needlecast’ when the pines drop their 2-year-old needles each year in late October. In spring the pines replace those needles with a new growth of needles.
The bank against the fence is particularly dry so finding what will grow there has been a continuing process of trial-and-error. I first hoped to be able to grow rhododendrons there. They struggled for several years before I gave up and gave them to the neighbor to the north in exchange for some seedling Japanese maples. A couple of the baby Japanese maples have survived for quite a few years but have started to decline in the past two years.. Some blue hostas are hanging on at the top of the bank. Apparently the green hostas do better than the blue ones in low light so I may replace some of the blue ones with divisions of some of the green ones from elsewhere in the garden to see if they do better than the blue ones in the light conditions of the bank.
A Prosartes trachycarpum (a wild Fairybells) popped up on its own on the side of the bank and has been left to grow – and hopefully spread. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is also establishing in a couple of places on the top of the bank, as are some Trillium grandiflorums. Both of those are spring ephemerals that will disappear after flowering. Solomon’s Seal has been doing well with hostas in a nearby area so I had added more of those along the bank. It is related to the Fairybells so they both seem adapted to the tough conditions. Unfortunately, in the past two years Solomon’s Seal has been struck by a nasty leaf miner insect by mid summer, which shreds the leaves and turns them yellow. At the first signs of it, I now cut all affected stems down to the ground and discard in the garbage (do not compost them!) I fear that, eventually, all the Solomon’s Seal may need removing from the garden!
In past years I grew Golden Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) in pots on the patio and transplanted it into the bank in the fall. They survived surprisingly well for a few years, although they struggled to deal with the dry conditions – and nibbling by our small poodle! But, in 2015, they had largely given up the ghost 😦 In 2010 I added a ‘Sum and Substance’ large golden-green hosta near the beginning on the path under the pines on the shed end. Since a golden path to light up under the pines appeals to me. I added some gold-leafed evergreen euonymus along the fence on the bank in spring 2011 to see how they do. I also added a couple of small Japanese maples and a couple of perennials with golden-green foliage, particularly Golden Japanese Forestgrass and bright green heucheras. The heucheras did not managed to survive more than a year and the other plantings, aside from the golden Full Moon Japanese maple and the S&S hostas, have not done well.
In 2013 I added ‘Prairie Fire’ and ‘Golden Shadow’ dogwoods, Hinoki False Cypress ‘Verdoni’, ‘Golden Dreams’ boxwood for their bright green foliage. The brutally cold, relatively dry 2013/2014 winter killed the ‘Verdoni’, and the ‘Golden Dreams’. The dogwoods survived with some damage but have continued to decline since. Severe cold spells in mid-Feb. 2015 reduced the dogwoods to a few surviving twigs. So I’ve given up on my golden path!
The areas outside/approaching the golden path area have developed a silvery theme – silver-foliaged plants, green and white or blue and white variegated plants, and white or lilac/lavender-colored flowers carry the silver theme. Since there was a green and white variegated ‘Wolf Eyes’ dogwood and a blue and creamy white variegated hosta in the gold area, the two color themes seemed to bled well together. The vast majority of the ‘Jack Frost’ brunnera visible in the pictures above did not survive the winter of 2013/2014. Since the silvery ‘Branford beauty’ ferns (Athyrium ‘Branford Beauty’) added to the garden in 2013 did survive, more were added to the area where the brunnera died out to continue the silvery theme. By late summer 2014 a few silvery-leafed brunnera had reappeared in the area – obviously from seed. The most silver of the seedlings were retained and have, so far, proven to be large, showy plants. Unfortunately the ‘Wolf Eyes’ variegated dogwood was badly damaged in the winter 2013/2014. By spring 2016 it died completely which was a significant loss for the look of that area.
The main groundcover under the pines has been Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum). It is a vigorous spreader and may need to be pulled back off the paths every few years. You can usually just run a flat-bladed tool, such as a crack weeder, under the shallow roots in spring and then just roll up the mass of plants like a carpet until they are clear of the path. Unfortunately, much of it died out in the brutal winter of 2013/2014. Some has returned – either from seed or a few surviving remnants. I’m still waiting to see if it will recover further or whether I need to find a new groundcover for under there. There are also a number of trilliums and some small bulbs that will appear in spring. Just leave them alone to flower and spread as they like. They are all ephemerals that will die to the ground after flowering.
There is, however, some lily-of-the-valley that appears sometimes. If you see any, remove them as they would soon spread and choke out everything else. While the flowers are nicely scented, they are otherwise thug plants that are generally unattractive – especially when dying back in late summer.
There is climbing hydrangea on the north fence under the pines. It struggles but is surviving. Since it can’t use its rootlets on the fence, it needs to be tied in. It had it’s first flowers in 2015.
There are a number of perennials and shrubs towards the lawn edge of this area. All of them can be largely left to their own devices, although you may need to prune off branches that start overhanging the path edges.
In fall, after the needlecast in late October, rake the pine needles off the paths and onto the plants under the pines. The needles make a good mulch and the plants have no problems coming up through them in the spring. Some of the needles can be used to mulch the patio hosta bed to help discourage snails.
In Spring 2015 we noticed that one of the pines on the north side was dead. There are a couple of relatively spindly ones there. We suspect in may have died in the winter of 2013/2014 – and we just didn’t notice! We had it removed in late fall 2015. Since it was relatively spindly for a number of years, its removal hasn’t changed the garden conditions much in that location. Since we greatly enjoyed the ‘Wolf Eyes’ variegated dogwood that died on the south end of this area and wanted another one, in spring 2016 we planted one by the stump of the dead pine. Hopefully the stump will serve as a ‘nurse log’ for the young dogwood, soaking up moisture and releasing nutrients and moisture to aid the dogwood as the pine stump breaks down. In the same area a mystery lily appeared in 2015. As it developed in 2016 it revealed itself as a Martagon lily! We have no idea where it came from as we’ve never planted one! We like it though and hope it will seed around. I do wish, though, that it was a white one instead of pink as white would be a better companion to the variegated dogwood. I may decide to add a white Martagon to the area.
When/if the shed needs repainting and you want to use the same colors; all colors are Benjamin Moore, Aura exterior latex. The door has a semi gloss finish; the rest are low luster. BM 666 Bonsai – door, door plus door and window trim; BM 489 Oak Grove – walls; BM 488 Mountain Lane – top and corner trim. .
The Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Blushing Bride’ that flank the shed door bloom on both old and new wood so can be pruned in spring without fearing loss of flowers. They will need to be pruned down to 18-24” in spring or they will get too big for the space. When they flower in summer, they will continue to flower if deadheaded/flowers cut to bring into the house.
There had been Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) spilling over the log edge of the bed on the north side of the shed. Most of it did not survive the winter of 2013/2014. A few ‘Branford Beauty’ ferns were added to the area where the candytuft died. On the south side of the shed, Marsh Marigolds (Caltha palustris) bloom vivid yellow in spring under the pussy willow tree. They then go completely dormant for the summer, leaving that area bare. I have added a few running tiarellas in hopes that they may eventually cover the bare ground after the Marsh Marigolds go dormant.
In the summer 2015 I noticed that the old pusssy willow on the south side of the shed had areas where the wood was rotting. We decided to have it taken down at the same time as the dead pine was removed.
In 2016 we moved an ‘Empress Wu’ hosta to beside the willow stump. This large hosta should eventually cover most of the bare ground after the Marsh Marigolds go dormant. The willow stump produces spouts in places so they need to be removed every couple of weeks.
Watch out for garlic mustard weeds and buckthorn tree seedlings. Both of these are persistent and noxious weed problems and they must be removed as soon as you see them so they don’t have a chance to get established.
There are a number of trees and shrubs around the shed. As they mature, the shed should increasingly fade into the background of the garden. Please note that the purple-leafed tree on the north side of the shed, not too far from the fence, with white spring flower clusters followed by red berries is a chokecherry (Prunus virginiana). The flesh of the fruit is edible – but the seeds are poisonous, as are all other parts of the tree! In front of the shed on the right is a Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa). It was moved to that location from a shadier spot. It is weak and has not recovered well from the move, although it is beginning to get stronger.
As with elsewhere in the garden, minimal clean-up is required in spring and fall as fallen leaves and the previous year’s dead foliage can/should be left to compost in place and feed the woodland soil. There is a Persicaria polymorpha on the north side of the shed and it can be cut down in the fall as the dead stems can uproot part of the plant when they fall over. There had been a flowering raspberries (Rubus odoratus) on the north side. It suckeed and spread too much and has been largely removed. Any remaining suckers that appear should be removed . There are several hydrangeas in the shed area. All can/should be pruned to control size in the spring.
The compost heap behind the shed is divided into two piles. Add material to one pile one year while applying the finished compost from the other to the garden. In spring the following year, fork the top 6” or so (which will not have composted completely) of the other compost pile into the empty space where the compost that was used in the garden in the prior year was located. Add new material to this pile this year and apply the finished compost from the other side to the garden. If you alternate the use of the piles in this way, you will have a ready supply of finished compost with the least work, while always having a place to add new material to be composted.
- Woodland South side a.k.a. the oak garden
The young red oak that was a scrawny little thing when we bought this property in 1999 is now quite a substantial tree that will continue to increase in size for a number of years. It takes oaks in the range of 25 years to mature enough to produce acorns – this one started producing acorns around 2005. So far, the squirrels diligently harvest the complete crop and all we’ve seen are shell fragments! Since the shape of the acorns is distinctive between oak species, an intact acorn would be useful to determine exactly which species of red oak this tree is – Northern Red Oak is our best guess, but we’re not completely sure.
Oaks are ‘garden friendly’ large trees because, while they cast substantial shade, their roots do not form dense masses that out-compete anything planted under them for moisture and nutrients. The leaves, while large, do not form thick mats when they fall so don’t smother plants beneath them. About 1/3 of the leaves actually stay on the tree through the winter, only dropping off in late winter-early spring when the current year’s growth pushes off the old leaves. The last leaves to come down in spring tend to accumulate in the south alley. A spring chore is to suck them up with a mulching leaf-blower and spread the resulting chopped leaves on the south alley beds. Leaves that fall into the beds under the tree itself are left in place to act as mulch and compost in place.
The oak puts on a surprisingly vivid fall show, best seen through the living room window. The color starts off slow and then seems to complete the change overnight. You walk into the living room one morning and it looks like there’s a fire outside – especially if it’s also a brilliantly sunny October day.
Buckthorn seedlings are a problem in this area too, so watch out for those and remove them promptly as soon as they appear.
We’ve been encouraging trilliums to colonize this area. There are both red ones (in the section closest to the shed) and white ones (largest colony around the dead apple tree). The white ones are most common and are now spreading by both offsets to the underground bulbs and seedlings. It can take 5+ years for the seedlings to bloom. Be careful not to accidentally weed out the seedlings! Until they get their first true leaves, they only have one leaf instead of three. If you find small ‘weeds’ near a mature trillium, they are likely to be seedlings. Look closely to see if any have three leaves yet which would confirm they are trilliums. If in doubt, leave them be until the next year!. In order for the trilliums to thrive, as usual for all the woodland beds, let fallen leaves accumulate undisturbed and rot down naturally. Do not disturb the soil unnecessarily. Do not water when they are summer dormant. If you need to water a new planting in the garden in the summer, spot water that plant instead of putting a sprinkler on the whole bed. (Soaker hoses were originally used to get these beds established but the last of the hoses were removed in 2014). The dead apple tree fell over in 2013 and was left in the bed as a ‘nurse log’. Christmas and Holly ferns were planted near it to provide cover for the trilliums after they go dormant.The dead tree will act to trap moisture and, as it rots, it will feed the plants growing near it. The reward for allowing the natural accumulation of leaf litter and dead plant material is a thriving colony of trilliums, a beautiful native plant (the floral emblem of Ontario) with a reputation of being difficult to grow.
Across the path from the dead apple tree, there are a couple of hydrangeas. One is an Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), which blooms on ‘old wood’ (previous years’ growth) so should not be cut back. If, after the leaf buds start emerging, you can see tip die-back (i.e. the ends of the branches are dead/black), you can cut the dead parts off. Beside/entangled with the oakleaf hydrangea is a Hydrangea arborescens ‘White Dome’, which blooms on ‘new wood’ (current year’s growth). This one can/should be cut back quite hard as it can be quite leggy/floppy if left unpruned. It has lighter colored, less woody stems so it should be easy to distinguish from the oakleaf one. If you are unsure which is which, wait until some leaves emerge – the oakleaf one, as its name says, has leaves that look like oak leaves. Leave that one alone and cut the other one back to 18” or so. There are a couple of other hydrangeas in these beds. They are ‘new wood’ bloomers and can be cut back (but not too far) or left alone to get bigger. It may be best to leave them alone until you are sure where they are (easy to find them when they bloom!) and decide how big you want them to get. That pesky weed Garlic Mustard has managed to get itself established near the oakleaf hydrangea, so keep an eye out for it and remove any you see.
There are a number of spring ephemerals (plants that go dormant after they bloom in early spring) in these beds – spring bulbs, trilliums, Marsh Marigolds, and Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica). Do not be concerned when these plants appear to ‘die’. The Bluebells are the most obvious when they’re dying back. They will return next spring and emerging perennials will quickly hide the dying foliage. The Bluebells seed around a fair bit and you will probably want to remove some of them from time to time. When they start going dormant, dig out and compost any excess. There are also forget-me-nots in a few places in these beds. They are biennial – produce leaves in year 1 and flowers in May in year 2, set seed and die in July. When you notice the foliage starts to blacken and look messy, rip it out and discard it. Seedlings will pop up nearby to flower the next spring – so they can appear to be perennial.
There is a fair bit of Solomon’s Seal in these beds, especially in the area adjacent to the lawn. It’s a beautiful native plant with pretty dangling white spring flowers. The arching foliage is attractive all summer and then turns a lovely clear yellow in the fall. As noted previously, Solomon’s Seal is now being attacked by a leaf-mining insect that destroys the leaves starting in mid-summer. Cut any damaged stems to the ground and discard them in the garbage (do not compost them!) When the clumps get too big, sections can be dug out in spring just as the new spears are emerging. Replant elsewhere in the garden, give it away or compost it as needs dictate.
There is a Saskatioonberry shrub on the south side at the top end. It generally does not get enough sun to fruit well but it’s an attractive shrub with nice fall color. The neighbour’s dead ash across the fence was removed in Fall 2015. That may possibly increase the light level enough to improve fruiting. The shrub suckers a fair bit and I remove most of the suckers.
There are a number of columbines through the beds, particularly on the south side nearest the fence. Once they’ve finished blooming and are starting to look ratty, they can be cut to the ground. Fresh foliage will regrow from the base. It is best to let some set seed and scatter the seed since they can be short-lived plants. The dwarf Korean goatsbeard (Aruncus aethusifolius) at the top near the path along the back of the house has white flower spikes, turning brown in July. Deadhead them to prevent excessive seeding. There are a couple of large shrub-like perennials – Persicaria polymorpha – that have white plumes of flowers in summer. Cut the stalks down to the ground in the fall (the tall stems can uproot the plant if they are left in place and get blown over in late fall.) The rest of the perennials can be largely ignored during the growing season. In very early spring, remove any woody-looking stalks of prior year’s growth that did not deteriorate over the winter. There is no need to cut back anything other than the Persicarias in the fall as the woodland garden needs the dead organic matter to produce healthy woodland soil.
So, while the beds around the oak are large and full of plants, they do not require a lot of care or maintenance.
The ‘wet corner’ garden is the southwest corner of the property, bounded by the chainlink property-line fences on the south and west sides, the shed on the north side and the path along the bottom of the oak garden on the east side. There is a short ornamental iron fence on the path edge – this can be removed if you like. The fence was originally installed to keep our late-lamented Golden Retriever out of this area which is a muddy bog in spring. (While she could have easily stepped over the fence, she recognized it as a no-go sign and never crossed over…) The ‘wet corner’ is the low point of the properties that meet in that corner. Snow melt and spring rains mean that area is virtually a bog in spring – you cannot dig a hole without it immediately filling with water! It dries out later in the summer when summer drought arrives. So, plants in this area need to be able to tolerate both wet feet in winter and spring, and drought in summer.
Ostrich ferns are a perfect fit – too perfect! There is a spreading mass of them in the corner. You need to remove some each spring to keep them confined to the corner area or they will spread out to block the path. There is a large goatsbeard at the back fence, near the ostrich ferns. It makes a nice combination with the ferns. The fading flowers become unattractive when they start to turn brown so need to be deadheaded at that point. Hydrangeas are also doing well on the side closest to the shed. With the exception of the variegated one (which is marginally hardy and is struggling to survive….), they should be cut back in spring only to control size and remove any dried flowers that remained on the plant all winter. They will bloom on both ‘old’ and ‘new’ wood and will bloom all season if kept deadheaded. Only remove winter-killed parts of the stems on the variegated one.
An attractive and somewhat unusual plant in the wet corner is the colony of Kirengshomas. It is a spreading collection of somewhat maple-like foliage that produces tall spires of pale yellow dangling bells in late summer (common name – yellow waxy bells.)
As usual in the woodland garden, let all the leaf litter and previous year’s perennial growth die back and compost in place. Watch out for Buckthorn seedlings, Garlic Mustard weeds and Wood Sorrel and remove immediately.