Monday, May 31, 2021

Boxwood Butchery

Greetings! Readers of my blog have probably noticed that I have many, many boxwood shrubs -- several hundred -- in my various garden areas. The most prominent boxwood planting is my Herb Garden, shown above in a photo taken three years ago. (This is one of my favorite pictures of my garden, because it shows my white picket fence, the formal Herb Garden, and the Iowa farm scenery beyond -- I feel the photo really captures the feeling of my gardens and their setting.)

The Herb Garden was the first garden area I made when we moved out here in 2008. I had wanted to make a formal garden area for years and had been planning the type of general layout I wanted even before we moved here. We had some grading work done in other parts of our property, to make the retaining wall for our garage and to smooth some lawn areas, so I had the guy with the bulldozer level up this area a bit too when he was out here.

Here's a photo of our house and property taken in fall 2007, before we bought the place. Our garage now stands where the trees at left stood, our driveway area is much larger, and we tore down the small leaning shed. And to the right of the house, the ground sloped down away from the house -- I had that area leveled up so I could make my formal Herb Garden there.

Here's the freshly laid-out Herb Garden, the following summer in 2008. The area is quite a bit more level than it was in the last photo, and I outlined gravel paths with about 200 'Green Velvet' boxwood seedlings that I bought from a nursery in Alabama.

The Problem

But there was a big problem with my boxwood hedges in my Herb Garden: I planted the boxwood seedlings too close together. Each of the beds is 4.75 feet wide and 11 feet long, and I planted the boxwoods less than a foot-and-a-half apart, not realizing that the tiny seedlings had a mature size of three feet wide.

This didn't get to be a problem for some time, because boxwood takes years to grow to mature size. 

Here's a picture from 2014: Six years after planting, the boxwoods were finally growing together nicely, and I was able to trim them into continuous hedges.

By 2018, the boxwood hedges had gotten quite a bit larger (you can see how much taller the hedges were compared to the solar lights at the entrance, from the previous photo). I needed to remove a lot of the growth each year, in order for there to be room in the beds for herbs to receive any light.

The boxwoods continued to grow. I trimmed them every year, but found myself needing to trim more off of them each time, so that there was room to grow herbs in the beds. The design still looked good, though.

But spring of 2019 was exceptionally wet. The previous autumn (Fall 2018) was unusually wet, plus a lot of snow melted off in winter, and then it just wouldn't stop raining in spring 2019. Our basement actually flooded with an inch or two of water that spring (our house is on the top of a hill and our basement is tiled for drainage, so this was very unusual).

I waited until July of that year when things were finally dry to trim the boxwoods -- it's a bad idea to cut them when they're wet, because it makes them more susceptible to diseases. But apparently that precaution wasn't enough to prevent a problem.

This photo, taken in May 2020, shows that there is a problem.

I didn't notice the problem until nearly a year later, last May -- although I had vaguely noted that the boxwoods hadn't grown as much during 2019 as they usually do. Looking back at photos from Fall 2019, it's obvious now that they weren't growing well.

But by May 2020, the problem was all too visible: there were dead branches and whole dead areas on many of the boxwood shrubs.

Boxwood Blight?

For years now, I have been terrified that the dreaded Boxwood Blight will infest my gardens like it has in England and, to a lesser degree, in the eastern and southern US. There is no effective treatment for it, and it would necessitate the removal of my hundreds of boxwoods -- including this entire Herb Garden area. (When we returned from our trip to England in 2019, I scrubbed the bottoms of our shoes with disinfectant before getting on the return plane. Don't laugh: we visited a garden the day before our flight home in which the boxwoods looked horribly diseased.)

When I saw this damage, my heart nearly stopped. I immediately contacted our state Extension's Plant & Insect Diagnostic Clinic last May, but they were closed for lab work due to the coronavirus -- although people were answering emails.

So I did some more research online myself, and I realized from the symptoms that it's likely not Boxwood Blight (a fungal disease caused by Calonectria pseudonaviculata), which causes the boxwood leaves to fall off the plant.

Instead, it's likely Volutella blight (caused by the fungus Volutella buxi / Pseudonectria buxi), in which the leaves die but remain on the plant. The Extension person who emailed me agreed from the photos I sent that this was likely the case (although she wasn't able to do a lab confirmation).

Here's what the inside of that hedge with the dead streak looks like: interior dieback, but with the dead leaves retained on the plant.

Plus, I closely looked at some leaf samples, and they matched the descriptions of the symptoms described in the linked article from the Tennessee State Extension:

There are some "black streaks on petioles" (where the leaves attach to the stems), but not streaking
all the way up the stems, like in Boxwood Blight.

And here are the "salmon pink colored fruiting bodies (sporodochia)" mentioned in the article.

So the (very) good news is that my Herb Garden boxwoods are not the first documented case of Boxwood Blight in the state of Iowa. (Although it's still probably only a matter of time until it arrives, as it's been found in Illinois and Missouri, our neighboring states -- but not today.)

The outlook seems pretty grim, as many of the states around Iowa already have spotted boxwood blight there. Only a matter of time....

But the bad news is that I still have a blight problem, albeit one that that I might, with time, be able to mitigate and, with luck, be able to save my boxwood shrubs.

Boxwood Butchery

Two weeks ago I (and my 15-year-old son) began my radical project: to remove every other boxwood shrub in my Herb Garden and trim out the dead branches, opening up the remaining parts of the shrubs to more air circulation. With time, the remaining boxwoods might fill in and make a (looser) hedge again. I'll also treat the boxwoods with a copper-based fungicide over the next few years.

Here are a few photos, to revel in the carnage:

Like a crenellated castle wall.


After sawing off every other shrub, Step 2 is to cut out the interior dead branches and knock out all of the dead, diseased leaves trapped inside each shrub. This is pretty time-consuming, and I had to stop when it started raining two weeks ago -- but as soon as things dry out I'll resume this work.

And the lower limbs of each shrub that were lying along the ground need to be trimmed off, so air will be able to circulate under the shrubs. And note all those dead, diseased leaves from years of trimmings littering the ground. Those were hidden by the lowest limbs before.

There are literally heaps of boxwood leaves on the gravel paths. The leaves are so tiny it's difficult to rake them up effectively. But years of leaf detritus -- especially the diseased leaves covered in spores -- must be removed and burned, or disposed of in the garbage.

This arrived today. I should have bought one of these years ago to suck up the leaves after trimming the boxwoods -- I trim them every May or June. This kind of leaf hygiene might have helped prevent the blight in the first place, and I'm planning to use it from now on each year to keep the paths and the interior of the shrubs tidy.

Here's a view from an upstairs window, showing the butchery in all its gruesomeness. My Herb Garden hedges are going to look like a mouth with every other tooth missing for probably the next three to five years. Oh well. 

I had planned to open my gardens this year, but it might be a few more years until I do that now. But I really do hope that eventually the boxwoods will look good again -- and be healthier too. I'm a patient gardener and the years will pass before I know it. With some luck, this, my first garden area, will eventually be rejuvenated.

I hope your own gardens are beautifully blight-free, and that you are enjoying warm spring days outdoors. And thanks for reading this long and somewhat cheerless (but still hope-filled) post. Best Regards, -Beth

Saturday, May 22, 2021

My Visit to a Beautiful Garden of Saunders Peonies


Greetings! Last weekend my husband, children and I visited my mother in Ames, Iowa, seeing her for the first time in nearly a year and a half. Now that she and most of my family have been fully vaccinated, she was eager to see us again after such a lonely Covid year spent completely by herself. It was so wonderful to finally see her in person again.

While in Ames, I wanted to visit a peony collector there whom I've been corresponding with via email for the past few months, and I thought that my mother, a retired botanist, might also enjoy a visit to a beautiful garden owned by a fellow retired scientist.

Lois Girton is writing a book about the peonies hybridized by A. P. Saunders (1869-1953), a professor of chemistry at Hamilton College in upstate New York. Today he is regarded as the most prolific peony hybridizer of the 20th century and "the father of the modern hybrid peony."

A.P. Saunders
Here's an article about him and his hybridizing efforts:

And this is Lois' own website in which she has photos and information about each of the hybrids she has either been able to grow in her own garden or has photographed in other gardens:

Lois has collected probably at least 170 Saunders peonies, out of the approximately 270-300 that may exist. (I can't imagine how expensive it must have been to buy some of the rarer cultivars.) And Lois also has many other herbaceous, Itoh and tree peonies -- a collection of 400 peonies in all!

My mother and I (and my husband) were able to enjoy some of the extraordinary beauty of her collection when we visited her gardens last Saturday, as many of the tree peonies were in full bloom. This is certainly a good time to visit a peony garden!

Here's a few photos of her gardens (unfortunately it rained before I was able to take these photos, so most of the peonies are closed -- but still beautiful covered in raindrops):

Here's the front of Lois' beautiful 1940s farmhouse. You can see her lovely peonies and conifers.

Here's a closeup of the peony in the distance in the last photo. Lois told me that this beautiful cultivar is 'Pink Tea Cup' (not a Saunders cultivar, but very pretty nevertheless).

Coming around the house in her large front yard -- her property is more than an acre in size, which is unusual in the middle of a college town. Here's an island bed filled with Saunders peonies.

This is a Saunders peony: 'Montezuma' (1943). It's actually a more red color than this in real life, but reds are often difficult to capture in photos.

I knew that plant was 'Montezuma' because of the professional-grade plant labels Lois has put next to all her Saunders peonies. Very impressive. Lois' garden was one of the gardens toured during the American Peony Society's last convention in 2019, held at the Reiman Gardens in Ames (she gave a talk about Saunders peonies at the convention). 

Turning around to the back yard, this beautiful magnolia frames the view of a formal garden area behind Lois' house.

A white fence encloses the formal area...

...which contains long rectangular peony display beds, with other plants like alliums to set off the beautiful peonies.

Directly behind Lois' house, a path leads to a patio and more garden areas. I honestly don't know how she manages to maintain all these beautiful areas so neatly.

And on the back of her house, you can see the wonderful sunroom that she built to enjoy the views of her gardens in wintertime.

Lois very generously made us a lovely tea, which the four of us enjoyed in her beautiful sunroom while a few rain showers fell outside. We were able to discuss her plans for her book about Saunders peonies, and her hope that she will eventually be able to donate her Saunders peony collection to the Iowa Arboretum (about 15 miles southwest of Ames), for which Lois served as a board member for several decades. 

It was great to meet Lois in person after corresponding by email, and I wish her good luck in finishing and publishing her book, which is certainly an impressive project.

And a big thank you to Lois for such an enjoyable visit to her beautiful gardens! I think my mother really appreciated getting out of her house and seeing so many expertly grown plants in a garden she has driven past many times but never been able to enjoy up close. And I loved being able to spend time with my mom in such a beautiful setting, seeing her again after so long.

Thanks for reading! -Beth

My mother.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

A Beautiful May, and Another Improvement Done


Greetings! It's been a beautiful May here in Iowa. Last week was quite warm, but this week the nights have been unusually cool for this time of year, dipping down into the low 40s, and even frost last night -- definitely not time yet to plant out the tomatoes, pepper, zinnias and dahlia starts that are becoming so large in my sunroom that I'm starting to run out of room.

But I think that might have been our last frost, and I hope that the nighttime temps will soon warm up a bit, so I can start moving things out of the sunroom for the summer and planting the Tropical Garden around my patio again.

The sunny, 60° days this week have been ideal for working outside and getting a few projects done. One is a big improvement that I've been thinking about doing for several years now: putting an edging around my Yellow Garden.

The Yellow Garden

Some background: my Yellow Garden began when we had a large ash tree removed from behind our house in 2014. Thinking it would be nice to brighten up that north side of our yard, I planted a large area behind the house with golden-leaved plants and yellow flowers. (When making new garden areas, I often tend to bite off more than I should....)

Here was the Yellow Garden in 2015. It was a very large space, with yellow-leaved shade plants like hostas and dogwood near the house, and yellow-flowered perennials and annual in the sunny area away from the house. It looked pretty nice as it filled in over the next year or two....

But by 2018, the Yellow Garden was a mess of weeds that I just couldn't get under control. The area was obviously far too large for me to maintain, especially in the middle section near the stepping stone path and bench, so I reduced the garden area in 2019. I made a narrow shady border against the house, and an oval sunny garden bed, seeding grass in the middle area.

By May 2020, the two new areas were much better under control, although I still had a weed and runner grass problem in the oval bed, on the left side nearer to the house. And grass and weeds kept creeping into the oval area from all sides because there were no defined edges to that area.

By late June last year, I had removed all the plants from the left side of the garden to try to get the weeds and runner grass under control. I planned to plant yellow annual flowers in that cleared area at left, but was still trying to keep the Creeping Charlie out of the part near the birdbath (which kept toppling over because it wasn't set on a solid base -- grrr). I obviously needed to do something.

Ta-da! Earlier this week I installed not just the steel edging I had bought for this project, but I also realized I had a bunch of leftover edging bricks lying around from another area I reduced a few years ago. So I installed the steel edging inside of the edging bricks, making a mowing strip that made the edge even better defined. My husband and I also worked on making a better gravel base on which to set the birdbath.

Here's a view showing both garden areas. I plan to plant yellow annual flowers in the left part of the oval bed and in front of the birdbath. I hope this area will much easier to maintain from now on.

So it's good to finally have that planned improvement out of the way. Here's a few pictures of other things happening in my gardens:

The crabapples were blooming beautifully last week.

And they smelled wonderful too.

My fern-leaf peony was so beautiful in my Paradise Garden.

The tree peonies are now blooming too

Another lovely tree peony.

Our eastern redbud looked nice this week too.

I forgot to tie up the top of this Weeping Norway Spruce a few years ago, and it has flopped so badly (and the bottom was eaten off by rabbits two winters ago). I don't know if there's anything I can do about its strange shape at this point, but I noticed it looks like some fantastical creature now -- the "heffalumpagus," I think I'll call it....

It's been wonderful to enjoy the beautiful sunny days and all the flowering trees and shrubs that have been blooming recently. I hope the days (and especially the nights) warm up before too long -- although before we know it, it'll be 95° in the shade, so I guess I shouldn't be in too much of a hurry. The heat will certainly arrive.

Hope you've been enjoying pleasant days and nights in your own gardens. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Wisteria in bud, like little pine cones.