garden pond

Familiar scene of rustic bench near the pond in autumn (fall) with hardy cyclamen and hostas

New and Different: Garden Changes

I think it’s time to get away from book reviewing and rule quibbling. Whatever else might be happening, there’s always the garden.

It’s fall in the garden. Rain and imminent plant dormancy eliminates the need to water (except for a few pots). The gardener is energized. Plans are made and a few are carried out.

Hosta "Stained Glass"
Hosta “Stained Glass”

Nurseries put plants on deep discount at this time of year, rather than carry them through the winter. So I bought a rather nice hosta (called “Stained Glass”) for half price. Its leaves are a translucent yellow with blue-green margins. It complements the other hostas (dark green with white margins and medium green with yellow margins; you can see them in the featured image above). I also got a late summer/early fall blooming gentian (Gentiana septemfida). If it settles in and blooms well, I’ll have glowing blue trumpet-shaped flowers at both ends of the season, since I already have spring-blooming Gentiana acaulis.

Gentians, Gentiana acaulis
Flowers like these, only in fall.

A few days ago, I weeded the pond. Yes, ponds need weeding at times. I’ve had an oxygenating water plant (Elodea canadensis) in the pond for years, but for some reason there was way too much of it at summer’s end. There’s also duckweed (Lemna minor), a small, lime green surface floater, which can be sort of pretty, but not if it’s wall-to-wall. So I hoicked out masses of both and added them to the compost pile.

I have two compost piles. By mid-October I have to make room for the leaves that are about to descend. Usually I stack the old pile of not quite finished stuff on top of the current one containing fresh material. By the following spring it’s all pretty much rotted down enough to be distributed among the planted areas. But this year’s old compost (mostly last fall’s leaves) looked so finished that I decided to spread it around immediately, at least in spots where that could be done without damaging plants still in good shape.

Compost area half empty with removed blue fescues
Compost area awaiting the annual deluge of leaves. Those blue fescues on the left are awaiting composting. I removed them from the main path, where there were too many of them.

The Boulevard Project progressed well this summer. The chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace looked great together and several clumps of California poppies bloomed and produced seeds, and therefore more plants. A couple of them are an unusual creamy pink colour; the rest are the usual bright orange. I happened to obtain seeds of two native plants — consumption plant (Lomatium nudicaule) and seaside rein orchid (Habenaria greenei) — and scattered them around before a week of rainy weather. If they take hold, I think I’ll dig out some of the chicory and QAL. My original idea was to emulate a country roadside, but I think it’s better to encourage plants that belong here, rather than hearty imports.

Chicory flower
Chicory flower

The other day, I pulled out the last of the soaker hoses, rolled it up, and stashed it in the shed. (Wrestling hoses can be an exceedingly trying process; don’t do it if you’re feeling crabby or are in a rush.) Were the soakers effective as watering devices? For perennials, I would say yes. But not so much for shrubs.

The Chinese Witch Hazel (to the right of the bench in the featured image at the top of the post) showed drought stress from early summer. Its leaf edges began to turn orange-brown as early as June and it once again has no plans to bloom. It really isn’t a suitable choice for this climate, unless planted in a naturally damp area or given deluxe irrigation. I haven’t been able to bring myself to remove (i.e. kill) and replace it, though.

A much better choice of shrub is Ocean Spray (Holodiscus discolor), which I recently planted in one of the mixed beds. It’s a native plant of the region, a graceful, early summer blooming shrub that’s definitely at home here. It should outperform the witch hazel without any extra help once established (but unlike the witch hazel, it doesn’t bloom in January with an enchanting perfume — but then, neither does my witch hazel).

Speaking of failures, I’m declaring 2020 the Last Chance Year for Meconopsis (blue poppies) in this garden. The two plants I purchased in March bloomed well in May, but dwindled and died in August. I thought crown rot in winter was the main hazard, but it turns out that powdery mildew is another. It strikes in hot, dry weather, despite diligent watering. Although these prima donnas didn’t even last the summer, they did produce seeds before they turned up their toes.

Meconopsis sheldonii "Lingholm" (grandis) Himalayan blue poppy
Gone but not forgotten. Not yet.

That gives me a chance for one last shot. In January, I will deposit those seeds on damp, sterile, seed-starting mix and keep them at indoor temperature for a week or so. Then I’ll cover the pot and set it in a safe spot outside for exposure to frost and cold temperatures. Seeds should begin sprouting by March. I’ve had fairly good luck with this process in the past, even to the point of a dozen or so plants in bloom (a glorious sight!). After that, the trick is getting them through the following winter. Or even, it seems now, the following summer. One last try.

Sunflower and chickadee
Chestnut-backed chickadee going for sunflower seeds.

This year I finally got around to growing sunflowers. I had seven or eight plants. They were okay, I guess, but not nearly as impressive as some I’ve seen. In rich soil and full sun, with adequate water, a sunflower grows branches that develop buds, resulting in something like a tree. In soil that’s poor, sandy, and often dry, they stick to one skinny (although tall) stem with a single flower. (Guess which kind I had.) They did produce enough seeds to attract chickadees, who diligently pecked them out and ate them.

Hardy cyclamen blooms with ferns and fallen leaves
Hardy cyclamen flowers, a spring-like sight in fall.

Some plants are totally reliable without any extra effort at all, like these hardy cyclamen. They’ve increased well over the years and now form nice carpets of pink flowers that mingle with other plants and the falling leaves. Their own beautifully patterned leaves are starting to emerge and will last into next spring.

The Pond

There is a pond in my garden. I’ve mentioned it in numbers of posts, never explaining that it’s not a natural pond, but a completely artificial one, constructed (or maybe “installed” is a better word) in 1993.

When we moved to this 50 x 120 foot piece of paradise, there was no pond. Instead, toward the back of the property there was an enormous cherry tree, with a trunk a foot and a half in diameter. That in addition to half a dozen other large trees. Any cherries produced by the tree were too high to be picked, except by birds. The tree did not even have attractive flowers; they were a washed-out white. I decided it Had To Go.

We did not opt for “stump grinding,” so ended up with a substantial stump. I had been reading Henry Mitchell on the delights of garden ponds, so proposed we dig out the stump and install a pond in the resulting pit.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, digging out the stump and main roots of the cherry tree was a horrendous job. I seem to recall serious chainsaw abuse (a rented chainsaw, at that), as well as blunted axes and other saws. We were a lot younger then, but strained muscles and fatigue ensued, not to mention mud and grit.

The stump, when we hauled it to the landfill, turned out to weigh 300 pounds.

After that, digging out a 12 by 7 foot hole, two feet deep in the middle and a foot around the edge, was relatively easy, although the network of smaller roots slowed things down. (Roots — they’re still a problem in this garden!) The soil removed from the hole was distributed around the potential pond to create a bit of topography in a space that’s as flat as the proverbial pancake.

Once complete, the hole was lined with heavy-duty EPDM pond liner, the edges concealed with soil and rocks. While we were at it, we dug out a smaller hole next to the pond, laid in some pond liner and filled it with soil to form a “bog” for plants that need constant moisture around their roots. Then came the all-important steps of filling the pond with water and surrounding it with suitable plants. Those plants included two water lilies (one dark pink, the other white), a water iris and a floating plant called Elodea said to help oxygenate the water. Following Mitchell’s advice (and because it was easier), I installed no pump or filter, and never have to this day. But I did introduce half a dozen goldfish.

The pond was a delight in its early days. Sadly, I have only old fashioned prints, no digital photos. The water lilies bloomed, the goldfish multiplied, the surrounding plants (calla lily, astilbe, sedges, Irish moss) made the area look lush and jungle-like (in a temperate way).

The "jungle" by the pond (in June)

The “jungle” by the pond (in June)

This perfection did not persist, of course. The goldfish were fished out by a visiting great blue heron (a delight in itself) and by raccoons. I even saw a kingfisher once. I didn’t replace the fish, not only because I wasn’t about to set up a heron feeding facility, but because of an incident one fall, when in scooping out loads of fallen maple leaves with a rake, I also scooped out several fish. Once I realized that, I scrambled around in a panic rescuing a number of stranded fish gasping on shore. Somehow the idea of fish lost its charm after that. The raccoons (or their descendants) are still regular visitors, knocking loose stones from the edge into the water. Recovering and resetting those rocks has become a Tradition.

The water lilies no longer bloom, due to encroaching shade. The calla lily and astilbe still do, and ferns help to maintain that lush feeling. Reflections, and scatters of yellow autumn leaves add to the tranquility. A friend called the pond area a “magical oasis,” and that’s still true, even after it has been shaped by the realities of its setting.

Leaves and reflections.

Leaves and reflections.

A few practical notes: garden ponds really should have full sun. Mine doesn’t. Apart from the inhibiting effect on the water lilies, falling tree stuff creates a lot of work. It starts in spring, with birch catkins and the spent flowers of a nearby laburnum. Then the maples get going, and deposit leaves and winged seeds in all stages of development. Windstorms drop twigs from maples, birch and ailanthus. I have developed techniques of removal. An improvised net made from an onion bag, wire coat hanger and old broomstick is good for scooping, as is a rake for really heavy accumulations of leaves (hence the fish disaster already mentioned). For individual floating leaves, twigs and ailanthus leaf stems, a plain bamboo stake about 6 feet long is surprisingly effective. There is a Zen quality to standing by the pond for 20 minutes every day, artfully flicking these items out of the water to be raked up later.

Needless to say, it’s impossible to keep all the leaves and other debris out. Over the years a certain amount accumulates, forming muck, especially in the two foot deep part in the centre of the pond. Henry Mitchell said he drained and cleaned his ponds once every year or two, but after doing that once, I gave up. It was a huge, messy job. (Yes, it could be argued that it wouldn’t be so awful if done every year, but it’s about as much fun as oven cleaning). Natural ponds don’t get such treatment, I declared, so why should an unnatural one?

Natural ponds, however, usually have a water supply, either a creek or a spring. Without a constant input of fresh water, the pond would dry up, in the manner of a vernal pool. I pipe in water through permanently positioned hoses from rain barrels by the house and the garage. This works beautifully (aside from the hoses, which add an annoying element of weirdness to many of my garden photos), but only during the fall-winter-spring rainy season. In summer, I have to top up the pond from the metered supply. It’s either that or watch it turn into an ugly black hole.

A pair of mallard ducks — most likely denizens of one of the local parks — dropped into the pond regularly from April through July for several years. They didn’t try to nest here, but would swim around, investigating the muck on the bottom, and have a little snooze before taking off. Sadly, I haven’t seen them for the past two springs, but the duckweed they may have brought with them flourishes. A good deal of it sticks to fallen leaves I scoop out, which helps to control it, but I believe it’s here to stay nevertheless.

Pond visitors, May 2011

Pond visitors, May 2011

The rustic bench near the pond was made from a giant cedar trunk. Besides being the perfect pond-side accessory, it’s a great place to rest and think suitable thoughts between sessions of gardening (digging roots, cutting suckers, raking leaves). On sunny mornings cats hang out there, rather more than the gardener. The pond is a water source for all kinds of creatures, from those annoying (hole-digging, rock-rolling) raccoons, to squirrels (and probably rats) and a variety of birds.

The "Pond Bench"

The “Pond Bench”

 

Pete and Zeke on the Pond Bench, March 2010

Pete and Zeke on the Pond Bench, March 2010

 

Despite all the heavy work involved in creating the pond, and the attention it needs, I think it is an asset to this garden. The main path leads to it, but the trellis that marks the transition from the main back garden to the pond area partly conceals it, so in the best tradition of “garden rooms,” the sight of the water is a pleasant surprise, in all weather and at any time of year.

The Pond Vanishing Under Snow and Ice

The Pond Vanishing Under Snow and Ice

 

Ice on pond after low temp of -10 C

Ice on pond after low temp of -10 C

 

Spring 2014

Spring 2014

 

Ailanthus leaves and rain drops in the pond.

Ailanthus leaves and rain drops in the pond.