A Gardening Journal

American Elderberry

Out at the streetfront of my property, large plants grow more-or-less on their own. Here, the native elderberry remains a monster year after year, a striking contrast to the weak and, eventually, failing performance of the many European ones I tried.

Sambucus canadensis Maxima overall 061816 320

The "Maxima' cultivar is even more vigorous than the straight species, but in this location, it can't get into trouble. More really is more.

Read more: American Elderberry

Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Empress Tree Rebounding

Empress tree is a large self-seeding weed tree in Zone 7 and warmer; in Zone 5, a nonflowering die-back shrub. Here in warm Zone 6, the quirks of each Winter move the tree's performance from spot to spot on that spectrum.


My penchant for pollarding adds still more suspense. At the minimum, it's three years from pollarding to flowering: pollarding the first Spring, forming buds the second Fall, flowering the third Spring and then pollarding again. Alas, the ultra-eager new wood that pollarding encourages seems to be less hardy than free-range growth and so, therefore, are the buds it forms.


See the bare branches poking up through new shoots from lower down? One deep cold snap killed those branches, resetting the cycle for flowers back to the start.

Paulownia tomentosa self pollard 062216 320 

In this location, in this climate, a pollarded empress tree teaches patience as well as humility—and a commitment to many years of healthy living. How often will the multi-year cycle of pollarding to flowering coincide with a stretch of mild-enough Winters? Once a decade?

Read more: Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Empress Tree Rebounding

Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Mountain Cabbage Tree

A ten-foot cabbage tree can be too tall even for a plant geek, especially when growing in such a large container: too tall and too heavy. And way too awkward to wheel on its side into the truck to the greenhouse in the Fall, then back into the truck to the garden in the Spring.


Sawing through the trunk turned a ten-foot tree into a five-footer that rode upright in the truck on the way back to the garden.

Cussonia paniculata overall 061816 320

So much easier. Would the tree resprout or die? After weeks of warmth and sun in the garden, today I had the answer.

Read more: Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Mountain Cabbage Tree

The Best Season Ever: Climbing Hydrangea in Bloom

No garden should be without climbing hydrangea, which will happily climb up a tree, native stone, masonry walls—or, in my garden—a galvanized pipe wrapped in narrow pine boards from Home Depot. 


Thanks to this vining shrub's sensational bark, the show in Winter is seriously exciting. In early Summer, this ten-foot pillar is fluffy with foliage as well as flowers.

Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris overall 061113 320 

The setting is a tight opening in a box hedge topped by an arch of variegated weeping dogwood, with a pollarded gold-leaved Scots elm at the rear to provide bright contrast. With fearless selection and diligent training over many years, horticulture can echo architecture with nearly Baroque theatricality. 

Read more: The Best Season Ever: Climbing Hydrangea in Bloom

Sicilian Honey Garlic

The dangling flowers of Sicilian honey garlic are one of Spring's eccentric charms. In my eagerness to site the bulbs close to a walkway, I didn't think about the nearby plants, such as the yellow-leaved coreopsis or the self-seeding orange poppies. Yipes. I could have intensifed the clash with the muted palette of honey garlic flowers—rose, slate green, and cream—only if I'd also planted something red.

Nectaroscordum siculum overall 060516 320

The coreopsis goes, and I'll yank new poppy seedlings. The honey garlic is worth a more thoughtful and exciting setting. 

Read more: Sicilian Honey Garlic

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