a garden of surprises, with ken druse

THE GARDEN is full of surprises, and the ones that our gardens have offered up this spring was the subject of a recent conversation with Ken Druse, who returned to my podcast after a too-long absence. The surprises, for better or worse, range from extra-bountiful roses, to not-so-welcome spongy moth caterpillars, a.k.a. gypsy moths.

You all know Ken, author of 20 garden books, keen propagator, and plant collector. And for much of the last year, he’s also been my colleague in our online Virtual Garden Club, the latest semester of which just ended (a new one will begin this fall; more on that later this summer). So I’ve been getting to talk to him all the time, but you haven’t heard from him in a bit, which is something we’ll correct in this conversation.

One surprise, above: creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea) with leaves as big as a geranium’s.

Plus: Enter to win a copy of my book “A Way to Garden,” by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.

Read along as you listen to the June 20, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

plant surprises in the spring garden, with ken druse

Margaret Roach: Hi, Ken. How are you?

Ken Druse: Hi, Margaret. Gee, I haven’t spoken to you in almost a day.

Margaret: Yeah, 12 hours or so, right? So in our final class of the third semester of the Virtual Garden Club that just ended, you asked everyone a question, like all the members in the audience, while we were on the Zoom. You asked, “What plants surprised you this year so far in the garden, for better or for worse?

And I just thought that would be a fun topic to talk about because it brought up a lot of great stuff people had experienced. We ended up derailing into talking about so many good things. Baptisia for instance, which it is… They are surprising, aren’t they? They’re so beautiful.

Ken: And I’m almost speechless [laughter].

Margaret: About Baptisia?

Ken: No, there’s too many surprises.

Margaret: Oh. Uh-oh, you’re having surprises.

Ken: Yeah, and the Baptisia are beautiful. I remember when we could only get that blue one, but now there’s a yellow one that we have and a brown one with different colors.

Margaret: Yeah, like bicolors, sort of. Yeah, fabulous.

Ken: Oh my gosh, they’re so beautiful. If only they lasted longer, but I say that about almost everything.

Margaret: Yeah. But anyway, so people were showing us… In the club, they were showing us and telling us all their great surprises, and some were not so great, and that’s O.K., too, because that’s part of the deal. So I don’t know. You want to start off on the positive or the negative surprise [laughter]?

Ken: Well, I thought where we are, in the Northeast, I thought it was a very cold winter. But I think maybe since we had snow when it was cold… Something happened, because everything this year that is alive, that survived, is gigantic and voluptuous, and doing things they’ve never done before. Here in the shady garden, it’s as if half the trees are gone, because everything’s so big and things that never happened before are happening really.

I have a crape myrtle that to me has always been a herbaceous perennial, and it’s never flowered. This year, it’s 5 feet tall. It kept all the woody growth from last year so I might even get a flower, but…

Margaret: So that’s a tree in a more favorable, a warmer zone?

Ken: Well, there’s also shrubby ones, too.

Margaret: Oh, O.K., so this is a shrubby crape myrtle?

Ken: I think so.

Margaret: But for you, it’s been sort of a dieback thing, a cutback…

Ken: Yeah. And the season wasn’t long enough for it to flower, but I know we’ve talked about this before and I could make… I have such a long list of wonderful things that surprised me, but the things that maybe have occupied me, if not surprised me, are the weeds.

Margaret: Yeah. I think I’ve said to you the word that comes to mind is epic, and not just in the garden, but driving along the roadsides where I am.

Ken: Oh.

Margaret: I mean, during garlic mustard season, and then lately the Hesperis matronalis, the dame’s rocket that people think is a phlox which is not a phlox, it’s an alien invader, that’s so pretty with all the lavender flowers… I mean, they’re like three feet deep, like 50 of them lined up deep, and the same with the garlic mustard. It was just as I said, epic.

Ken: Well, my nemesis this year is the Glechoma [photo by Ken, top of page]. Now, do you call that—creeping Charlie?

Margaret: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, ground ivy or creeping Charlie.

Ken: Right, ground ivy.

Margaret: Glechoma hederacea, because then the hederacea, the adjective after the proper name means ivy, right?

Ken: Right.  Some of the ones that I’ve been pulling, and I’m pulling and pulling and pulling, and of course they creep under other things and you can’t get them because they’re too far into the bed, I pulled one that had leaves as big as a scented geranium leaf, or like a hothouse geranium. I mean, it was almost three inches across.

Margaret: Yeah, I don’t understand what’s going on and I’m definitely not feeding steroids to my plants, but I’m seeing what you’re seeing, too. I had some garlic mustard that… Well, I always have some because it’s such a prolific seeder.

Ken: Mm-hmm.

Margaret: But it was like I didn’t even recognize it, because it was above my knee. Do you know what I mean? It was so tall.

Ken: It was only above your knee? Only?

Margaret: Yeah. I mean, it was… It was so tall, because here it’s usually well above my knee, let’s say. Thigh high, let’s say, and it was just crazy looking and I just thought, “How did you get so big and why?”

Ken: I’ve gotten almost all of those out, but the few that I missed, I pulled one, I think it was yesterday, waist high.

Margaret: Oh. So yeah, I’m thinking sort of mid thigh, but yeah, waist high. Yeah. No, wow, it’s crazy. It’s really… They’re crazy.

Ken: And in fruiting and getting ready to have its seeds. Oh my gosh.

Margaret: Not good. Not good, not good. So I mean, I have more bad things I can say that were surprises, but maybe we should pepper in some positive in between the weeds.

Ken: I saw two snakes yesterday. Different species.

Margaret: Oh. So who were they?

Ken: Well, maybe one was a rat snake. I know I sent you the picture, maybe a video, and the other one I think was just a garter snake, which people miss-call garden snakes, but they’re garter snakes.

Margaret: Right?

Ken: But the successes actually outweigh the losses and a snake is neither here and nor there as far as… I mean it’s always a surprise. And you think, “What am I going to do? Get the dog inside.” But basically for the most part, snakes are good unless they’re like the ones you have sometimes.

Margaret: Oh, well yeah, the Eastern timber rattlers. They’re just hunting. They’re not doing anything, and you don’t see them that often. And they’re in my region, they’re around here, so you do come upon them from time to time. But around here, other people in slightly different environments have copperheads, and those are a little more where you don’t notice them. I mean, a rattlesnake’s a big thing.

But yeah, but the great thing about snakes is that, as I said, they’re hunting–that they’re like the best pest control partners. I mean you want to get rid of slugs, your garter snakes and so forth are doing a nice job of some of these things, of eating up some of these things, which is great. I’m not so crazy when they grab a frog [laughter]. That’s disgusting, but it’s nature, so it’s okay. So something positive, let’s say something… What’s something that was…

Ken: Oh, well the peonies were incredible. And there’s one that I hadn’t seen bloom before called ‘Canary Brilliants’ [above]. And when it opens up, it’s a remarkable color. It’s sort of the color of pantyhose [laughter].

Margaret: ‘Canary Brilliants.’ It’s a beige?

Ken: Yes, but it turns yellow. So that’s why I guess it’s called that. And years ago there was a peony I always wanted when I was a kid. Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt and she bloomed fantastically this year. So the peonies were great. And something I was going to say, you know what’s surprising? Like as if you know. Margaret, can you read my mind yet?

Margaret: Yes, I can.

Ken: I have a couple of honeysuckles and I’m a little… I’m always wary of honeysuckles because of Hall’s honeysuckle, which is such a thug, and-

Margaret: Right. Some of the aliens are…

Ken: …though it smells so great, and we used to eat the nectar. But there are plenty of honeysuckles that are not monsters. And a couple are blooming right now. One is Mandarin, which is kind of orange and gold, gorgeous flowers.

Margaret: And this is a vine, not shrubby?

Ken: It’s vine. Oh no, not shrubby. Vine on a trellis. And another one is called ‘Scentsation.’ Like scent-sation, as if I’d ever heard that word. And I’ve had it for three years. And the first year I thought, this doesn’t smell. And the second year I had a few more flowers and it’s still… I couldn’t hardly detect any fragrance at all.

And this year with easily a hundred, oh, more than a hundred flowers in this incredible year, I was probably 30 feet away. And I thought, “Well, what is it? Are the multiflora roses blooming in the neighborhood or something?” It was this really wonderful rose smell, and it was the honeysuckle ‘Scentsation’ after three years.

Margaret: And sometimes when the… I don’t know if it’s the humidity or what, like when the air has a heaviness, like the scent molecules or whatever, can-

Ken: Hover.

Margaret: Yeah. They can hover. Thank you. I wouldn’t have thought of that word [laughter].

Ken: It also depends on the time of day, too. And of course, we know it’s who they co-evolved with generally.

Margaret: Yeah. Who they want to attract and so forth. Yeah. I love the vining honeysuckles, and quite a number of them are either from… They’re from sempervirens, Lonicera sempervirens, a Southeastern native species, and there’s selections, I think like… I forget which one I have, but they’re really beautiful. The hummingbirds love them, all that kind of good stuff. And I don’t know, they just cheer me also. And you can prune them. If you don’t know how to prune them, you can be brutal and they’ll still come back and… Do you know what I mean? They’re pretty durable, too.

Ken: Sure.

Margaret: Really durable.

Ken: They have tubular flowers. They don’t flare at the end. They don’t have the usual what we think of the honeysuckle shape.

Margaret: Right. Much more narrow and long. Yeah.

Ken: But that’s perfect for the hummingbirds. Just perfect. And they’re semi-evergreen. I have a yellow selection. I think it’s ‘John Clayton.’

Margaret: I have that one, too. That’s a great one. Yeah.

Ken: That is great. And this year… A couple years ago, I ordered through the mail ‘Kintzley’s Ghost.’ Have you ever seen that?

Margaret: No.

Ken: Lonicera ‘Kintzley’s Ghost’ [above]. And it looks like eucalyptus. You know how sometimes on a honeysuckle it’ll have sort… Right when it flowers, it has sort of a flat leaf?

Margaret: Yes.

Ken: That’s almost circular and… This, it’s all flat leaves and the flowers pop out of it and it’s not fragrant, but it’s incredible. It’s blue-green leaves and it’s grown for the foliage. And then recently somebody put on Instagram a photo of theirs and I think it was like 7 feet tall by 7 feet wide.

It was on a fence, but it looked like a giant shrub. So I have to watch that. But this year it’s for the first time… And you know when you get something in the mail that’s 3 inches tall, you think, “Oh gosh, I’m not going to live to see this.” Well, three years later..  Especially this year with our nice temperature and water.

Margaret: Whatever is going on, right.

Ken: I think it was water, sun, water, sun, whatever. It’s a remarkable year. And when it’s good for the plants, weeds are plants.

Margaret: Yeah. On a more down note, since we’ll go up and down, up and down, up and down in the surprises so as not to terrorize anyone: For the first time in more than 35 years here, I have formerly gypsy moths, now spongy moth, caterpillars [above left, from Wikimedia].

And so last year in my area, quite nearby, the next town five minutes up the road, and also the northwest corner of Connecticut, which is like 15, 20 minutes from here, were inundated. And I had none still then. I shouldn’t say none, because I know how to identify the gypsy moth moth, the adult moth. And in the summertime when I used to do moth night events and so forth, and put up the blacklight bulbs, the CFL blacklight bulbs, against a white sheet out in the woods and have people come and we’d have an entomologist and identify moths at night, we’d always see a gypsy moth male [above right, from Wikimedia Commons] or two or three. But not big numbers. So in other words, they’re present, but their numbers don’t swell except when the conditions are right.

And so nearby me last year was really bad, but I didn’t have any. And I was like, “Why? I wonder why.”

So this year I do. Not sort of decimation level, where you can hear them crunching and eating from the trees, because that’s literally five minutes away, all my friends in the next town, it was the constant noise of chewing. It was crazy. And defoliated trees, especially oaks and maples and so forth.

So what fascinates me is… The surprise, in other words, in this, not just that it was the first time in all these decades that I’ve had any at all. And I kind of have a light infestation. But that down to the last plant, they have found and occupied every Hamamelis, every witch-hazel relative. So Corylopsis, the winter hazel, Fothergilla, and Hamamelis, witch-hazels, of which I have quite a number of different types in the gardens near the house. They have gone for those.

Now, how is it that a pest that starts as an egg and then a tiny… The tiniest caterpillar you can imagine. How do they find the plants they like the best? Do you know what I mean? Interspersed around the yard and they find them and that’s where they’re clustered. It’s just weird. It’s really weird.

Ken: Yeah. Do you think the moths lay eggs on the ones that…

Margaret: Maybe that’s what… I guess, but it’s just wacky. It’s really wacky.

Ken: I’ve seen that with milkweed. I’ve seen different butterflies go to the milkweed and if you ever see them lay their eggs, it’s pretty funny.

Margaret: Well, these guys, you usually see them sort of coming down from above. They sort of drop… Anyway. They’re quite repulsive. I’ve been squishing like mad, and people are like, “What can you do? What can you do?” And some people in late April, they… Before the emergence, they put sticky bands around the trunks of their trees, and that can…

Ken: It never goes away.

Margaret: Yeah. It’s nasty. I don’t know. It works, but it’s nasty. Because when the caterpillars crawl up the trees, they get stuck. One thing you can do is spray Bt kurstaki strain. But you have to do that when they’re just emerging and like a half an inch long, not when they’re big, and they get big pretty fast. So you have a very short window. And since I didn’t know I was going to have them, since I never have, I didn’t obviously. But a lot of people are doing that, but…

Ken: That’s an organic… Well, it’s a disease.

Margaret: It’s a biologic, right. It’s a biologic and a living organism. And it cripples their digestive system. So it sort of paralyzes their digestive system when they munch on a plant that has it on it, and it’s caterpillar-specific. So, yeah. So I didn’t do anything, except I’m squishing them.

But it’s an interesting… Again, my surprise was that they just find anything related to Hamamelis. They like fruit trees also, like apple trees and stuff like that. But yeah. Crazy. So what’s your next surprise?

Ken: It’s supposed to be a good…

Margaret: I’ll go ahead, go down… Let’s go down the tubes, whatever you want.

Ken: Something’s wrong with the bald cypress, and I have several, or many, like six Taxodium distichum, the bald cypress, sometimes called swamp bald cypress. And oddly enough, I have a Taxodium ascendens [above at Ken’s], which is the swamp cypress, and that’s fine. But all of the bald cypress were defoliated. Well, their little needles… They’re deciduous conifers, and their needles hardly came out, and they still haven’t come out. You can see through them. They’re like skeletons. I haven’t seen anything on it, but I…

First I thought, is that some kind of temperature thing or disease? But I’ll bet there’s tiny caterpillars that I can barely see. They probably look just like the needles.

Margaret: Wow.

Ken: So that… Usually, a tree can survive that once or twice or even three times, but something’s wrong with some of the dogwoods.

Margaret: Oh.

Ken: And I think… I lost a pink one that I grew from seed from a friend’s garden in Brooklyn. And it was probably about 10 years old. And last year it bloomed for the first time, and this year it didn’t leaf out or anything. It was dead. And I think that’s probably anthracnose.

But there’s another Cornus not too far from that that’s losing limbs, and I’m thinking these guys are getting diseases.

Margaret: Yeah. I don’t have in my garden. I have next door at my sort of office, whatever, I have one Cornus florida, the native flowering dogwood. But the ones that I tried here early on, they didn’t do. They, like you said, they kind of got anthracnose or whatever back in the day. I do have some Cornus kousa here, the Korean dogwoods, and my big one, which is always a strong performer in early June, it bloomed… Only half of it bloomed this year. So kind of wacky, but yeah. I don’t have a lot of dogwoods.

Ken: Well, and I had a ‘Wolf Eyes’ that probably was the show stopper in the whole garden and about three or four years ago. And you told me that there was a problem with that tree and I thought, “Oh no, it’s so beautiful. It’s big and healthy.” Well, it’s about a third the size now. The leaves are tiny and it’s just… It’s shrinking.

Margaret: And that’s the variegated kousa? Yeah.

Ken: Right. So I think that might be… This might be its last year.

Margaret: Yeah. It sounds like… Yeah. I mean some things I just… I can’t struggle with. Do you know what I mean? Some things I just… They just don’t work here and I just learned my lesson and haven’t kept trying.

Do you have… Speaking of surprises, do you have sometimes plants showing up far away from where the so-called parent plant is? Like you know you have that plant, but it’s like 75 feet away or across the whole yard. Do you know what I mean? Not…

Ken: Well, I know what you mean. It’s funny. I wouldn’t say 75 feet, but I have some Digitalis grandiflora [above at Ken’s], which is really perennial, unlike most foxgloves. And it was a little clump of about three or four stems for really over 10 years. This year, it’s in about four places. And they all look just fine. So that’s a surprise. And one place is easily 25 feet away. But I don’t…

Margaret: So the answer’s yes.

Ken: What you get? 75 feet? Yeah.

Margaret: So, I have Aruncus, goat’s beard, the big Aruncus dioicus.  And when I say big, it’s the size of a shrub. My original plant is probably 30 years old, still in place, 6 feet across, and in bloom 5 feet tall or something like that. White almost like giant Astilbe flowers. And then a few years ago, one ended up all the way across the yard.

Now it’s on the way to the compost heap, where it ended up, and I’m wondering if I brought a seed-laden flower truss or something. You know what I mean? Maybe I did that accidentally. It ended up over there, or I used compost and there were still some seeds in it. I don’t know, because I’ve researched and researched and researched. How does this plant move around and what wildlife is interested in it and so on and so forth?

Ken: Right. Can’t imagine.

Margaret: And I just… There’s no information to be had in all the research. And now I have it in yet another place about 40 feet from where the original plant is. It’s completely the opposite direction. So I just love stuff like that.

And I have that Syneilesis aconitifolia, the shredded umbrella plant, they call it [laughter]. That sort of, one of those recent hits of interesting foliage kind of shade plants. And that I had it in one spot. It didn’t come up there, but like 25 feet away, it came up.

Ken: Well, that I can understand because it has a kind of puffy seedhead.

Margaret: O.K.

Ken: Which could be airborne, could be carried by the wind. It’s not a very pretty flower and it’s an Asteraceae. It’s a little daisy relative. Is Aruncus rose family, do you think? [Update: It is in the rose family.]

Margaret: It’s not a saxifrage? I don’t know. I can’t remember. It looks like astilbe, and that kind of stuff. I don’t even remember.

Ken: We’ll look it up at some point.

Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. We’ll look it up. But I… Yeah.

Ken: Talk about roses, and I’ve never had enough sun for roses.

Margaret: And it’s a great rose year.

Ken: It’s amazing. I have a red rugosa [above] that for years it would have like four flowers, maybe five. This year, it has clusters as big as a cantaloupe with eight, 10 flowers in a cluster, and it’s all over the whole thing. And my favorite rose, one from the 1700s that I have called ‘Petite de Holland,’ which is small flowers and unbelievably fragrant, I should have cut it back, because now it’s flopping out of the bed and on these giant wands.

Margaret: Who knew?

Ken: So… Who knew?

Margaret: Yeah, it definitely is a great rose year. And I have some of the Canadian Explorer roses, those super-hardy ones that were popular for like ‘William Baffin,’ a climber, because back in the day it was thought that in my Zone 5 climate, I couldn’t grow a lot of climbers, but ‘William Baffin’ was bone hardy. And sure enough, I mean the thing is… I’ve had it for decades and it just gets better and better and better. But this year it’s exceptional. Just covered. And like you say, the rugosas also. I have just a plain white rugosa. I’ve never seen so many flowers on it. So I hope that means lots of hips.

Ken: Wow.

Margaret: Yeah. So, yeah, so we’re almost out of time and… But I’m glad to have a reunion on the podcast and we won’t let it go so long. We’ve just both been so busy. It’s been a crazy, crazy year.

Ken: [Making a funny voice:] Get a load of the hips on that rose.

Margaret: The hips on that rose, exactly. But yeah, so I hope we’ll get back to our usual frequency of doing podcasts.

Ken: Sounds good. Sounds great.

Margaret: And we’ll let everybody know when we get back to Virtual Garden Club. It’s going to resume in September and October, and also we’re going to have a couple popup events where Ken and I are going to do some not open-mic nights, but sort of-ish. Be on the lookout coming up soon. We’ll have some announcements of some events we’re going to be doing. So, thanks. And I’ll talk to you soon, Ken.

Ken: O.K. Martagons next time.

Margaret: O.K. Martagon lilies, O.K. All right. I’ll talk to you soon.

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prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the June 20, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Sandy Arenson says:

    I am a new novice gardner and read some of your previous books for guidance. Started 3 new beds last spring, and the only area available is mostly shaded. To my surprise, as pessimistic by nature everything but 2 perrienal plants re emerged this spring. I’m now a changed and happy person, so inspired that encouraged to take the master gardener program offered in my area. Thank you so much. If

  2. randy herrington says:

    I have Aruncus dioicus, easily 10 years old and the sixe of yours most every year. For 3 years now I have found seedlings, none more than 4-5′ away from parent, mostly in the lawn surrounding the bed. I have dug all of them each year, put them in pots, and let them grow on through the summer. I’ve relocated a nice clump to another spot last year, and this year it is flowering. I have given the rest away to gardening friends.
    Good show!

  3. Kathleen Williams says:

    My biggest and saddest surprise in my garden has been the decimation of so many of my lovelies. I think between the destructive groundhogs and the cute but ravenous rabbits and nibbling chipmunks and squirrels my backyard has become their smorgasbord. My Alma Potschke asters have been chewed right down to an inch or less, my phlox and rudbeckias have been topped and defoliated leaving just the stems and my hosta leaves have been munched and even bitten off at the stem. I have tried putting chicken wire around some of the smaller plants for some protection, but it really has spoiled the view of my little garden. I’m at my wit’s end. I just don’t know how to make my plants and flowers less appetizing to critters. It’s been heartbreaking.

  4. Colin Taillefer says:

    I just moved to a house, and there are two large trees in the back. I am surprised the number of seeds each tree shed this spring, and how many little seedlings I’ve had to pull out of every where!

  5. Cynthia Anderson says:

    I have a Cutleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) along the fence in my garden. I was surprised this summer when it self seeded across the yard in two different places more than 10 feet away. Birds dropping seeds? Wind? Interesting.

  6. Laurel Moranz says:

    The biggest surprise in the garden so far has been the height of the balloon flowers! It is a wonderful surprise!

  7. Maudie Green says:

    I grew garlic for the first time this year. As I was harvesting recently a swarm of wasps flew out from behind the raised bed fabric which lines the box. They took me by complete surprise and I got stung a few times on my hand. The bulbs look fantastic! Can’t wait to eat them as soon as they are cured.

  8. beverly buck says:

    Kintzele’s ghost in my Denver garden took two seasons to get going. It’s a fabulous plant at the Denver Botanic Gardens is several locations- wall size!

  9. Grace Schalkwyk says:

    My biggest surprise is the deer changing their diet, aggressively browsing plants they have left alone in the summer in the past. Constantly feeding on panicle hydrangeas, carolina allspice, daisy and echinacea flower buds, floribunda rose buds, wild quinine buds, and so on. My farmer friend says they are after her beets, uncovering them with their hooves.

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