Garden Notes: Spring flower fever

Take advantage of the inspiration all over the Island.


This is the bloom-struck stage of late spring, the joyous and exciting time to have a garden, or to be in a garden.

Each morning seems to deliver another delight into existence, and it is no coincidence that we use the term “popped” to describe the opening of poppies, irises, and peonies: Suddenly, there they are, sepals scattered on the ground!

Roses, dogwoods, and clematis join flowering azaleas, rhododendrons, enkianthus, viburnums, weigelas, and kolkwitizias. The air is fragrant with the perfume of black locust, autumn olive, wild cherry, and multiflora roses (and yes, filled with their pollen, too).

Inspiration and housekeeping

If looking for inspiration, it is all around — curb-and-roadside spying, reconnaissance at garden centers, visiting Polly Hill Arboretum or Mytoi. Examples — of layouts, plants and their combinations, shrubs, and trees that might enhance one’s own garden — are everywhere. There is nothing copyrighted or new under the garden sun. Take photos and use an app to try to get correct identifications.

Here are several recommendations, just because they are less often encountered, or are perhaps more subtle, with white, not colorful flowers. Smaller-scale trees, also those that are lower and wider, are useful; I have often mentioned them. Broad acres do not abound in all gardens, but trees do belong in all of them.

Styrax is a genus of about 130 species of large shrubs or small trees in the family Styracaceae. Two grown locally are coming into their bloom season now: the fragrant snowbell, Styrax obassia, and Japanese styrax, Styrax japonicus, also intensely fragrant. The small trees are Asiatic members of the Styrax family, which also includes five native North American species. I bought the two at an Arnold Arboretum plant sale in 1996.

A narrow-profile, understory tree, Styrax obassia is shade-tolerant, and can be tucked into a spot in a mature garden. Alternatively, it can occupy a specimen location in lawns or shrub borders, growing with multiple stems to a shorter height. Trained to a single trunk, S.obassia may achieve a height of 20 feet or more, which, with a narrow, upright profile, its proponents argue, makes it a good choice for street-tree plantings. The leaves are large and roundish, making for good screening. The racemes of fragrant white flowers are drooping and showy, despite flowering after leaves emerge.

Styrax japonicus, on the other hand, is a spreading tree, wider than tall. Its foliage texture is fine, but dense. The heavily fragrant flowers droop along the undersides of the branches, their perfume spreading throughout the garden. Selected cultivars of both obassia and japonicus are available in the trade. Their foliage fall color is negligible.

Also now displaying its airy, foglike flowering effects is the native fringetree, Chionanthus virginicus, another smaller-scale but native tree with a wide-spreading habit. Not exactly perfumey, fringetree has a delightful scent, and yellow-to-gold fall color. Most usually growing as a multistemmed “umbrella” plant, fringetree can also be pruned to a single-stemmed trunk.

While so much blossoming transfixes, let’s not forget seasonal housekeeping chores and details. Now is time to ‘Chelsea chop’ the perennials that benefit from this seemingly cold-hearted pinching-out, or cutting, of lush growth, including phlox, asters, Montauk daisies, platycodon, and garden ’mums. (You will be satisfied later when you observe plants are bushier, need less staking, and have delayed flowering.)

Take note of skimpy-flowering perennials to divide later, when flowering has passed. Tie in wayward strands of roses and clematis. Stake against infrequent but violent downpours, and deadhead, always deadhead.

My sister-in-law recently extolled her spectacular ‘Mount Saint Helens’ Girard hybrid azalea to me. This and other azaleas (all actually rhododendrons, by the way) supply an incomparable range of garden color, whether you desire loud, subtle, or gradations in between. They may also, along with blueberries, exhibit a disfiguring fungal gall, Exobasidium vaccinii. Cut the galls out while green, and destroy: Once galls become covered with whitish bloom, the spores are dispersing for next year.

And speaking of color, we need not confine the garden palette to the sweet lavender-pink-white of so many spring-flowering plants, if something else is desired. Bearded irises are capable of turning those soothing color combos on their heads, with dark or brassy colors. Brooms and euphorbias supply sharp color that is anything but muted.

There is a creative conflict and practical tension in garden making and design, reconciling wanting to grow what looks a certain way, and having to accept limits of what will or can grow, naturally.

For some there is a problem with accepting limits; and admittedly, some amazing gardens are those that take natural reality and seemingly upend it, or force it into corsets of extreme constraint. Think topiary and tight hedging.

In the age of mass extinctions and climate upheaval, is this Versailles style the way we want to garden? Not a sprig out of line, not a fallen leaf to be seen, a battalion of power-using, noise- and pollution-emitting machinery ensuring that all nature is obedient to them?

Native Plant Trust, formerly New England Wild Flower Society, published an essay on gardening for climate change in its spring and summer Native Plant News. It, and other articles like it (there are entire pages of Google links on “gardening for climate change”), attempts to get garden owners, and especially their employee landscapers, to amend their attitudes about maintenance of gardens:

  • Focus on the soil: Disturb the soil structure as little as possible. Avoid chemicals — pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers. Leave the leaves.
  • Reduce or replace your lawn: Substitute any combination of native herbaceous perennials, shrubs, and trees that make xeriscaping sense for your growing conditions.
  • Encourage insects and wildlife: Plant native species that flower and fruit at different seasons. Be messy. Avoid pesticides.