Notables in a Riverside Garden

A special rhododendron and azalea, a tatting fern, crested iris and little epaulette tree are perfect additions to a riverside garden.

by Martha Tate, special to HGTV.com

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David and Mary Lloyd Lay's 22-year-old woodland garden lies on the banks of a Virginia river that flows into the Chesapeake Bay. The Lays' home — in a sparsely inhabited, historic region called Northern Neck — is reached by a dirt road that winds through woods and fields. There was no design plan for the five-acre garden that surrounds their one-story, contemporary-style house, but the property is blessed with beautiful mature hardwoods and native understory plants like mountain laurel.

For years, the Lays have joked about husband and wife "turf wars." David, an inveterate plant collector, is responsible for the plantings (mostly azaleas, rhododendrons and Japanese maples) in front of the house and along the driveway. In the back of the house, Mary Lloyd has commandeered space for perennials such as epimediums, hostas, columbine, lamb's ear, corydalis, peonies and iris. She has also mixed in small flowering shrubs like spireas and deutzias.

After fighting deer damage for years, Mary Lloyd and David finally installed an eight-foot fence around four acres of their garden. While the deer still look longingly at the goodies inside, Mary Lloyd says, they can no longer get to the "best restaurant in town."

The Lays are blessed with well-drained, acid soil, perfect for rhododendrons, but they grow a variety of shrubs, small trees and perennials, including:

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Rhododendron (Rhododendron x 'Trude Webster'). A winner of the rarely bestowed Superior Plant Award from the American Rhododendron Society, this evergreen shrub produces large, light pink flower trusses that contain as many as 14 blooms. 'Trude Webster' has a vigorous upright growth habit and large, elliptical leaves. Sources estimate hardiness at -5 to -15 degrees F.
How to use it: Beautiful at the edge of a woodland or in a grouping with other rhododendrons and azaleas.
Cultivation: Good drainage, a constant supply of moisture and good aeration are musts for rhododendrons. Some protection from afternoon sun is appreciated in the Southeastern U. S.
Source: Maple Leaf Nursery

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'Frizelliae' tatting fern (Athyrium filix-femina 'Frizelliae'). This odd lady fern was very popular in Victorian times and subsequently became a collector's item in the U.S. The arching fronds grow from 12 to 18 inches in height and are less than one inch wide. Despite its delicate appearance, this deciduous fern is hardy in Zones 3 to 8.
How to use it: Along a path in a woodland garden where you can appreciate its odd shape. Cut fronds last well in water.
Cultivation: Grow in moist, shady conditions. Remove any aberrant foliage that looks like it has reverted to a larger size.
Source: Rice Creek Gardens

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Crested iris (Iris cristata). Native to much of the eastern U.S., this small iris is a perennial which grows to about eight inches high and flowers in mid-spring. Its natural habitat is the rich woodlands extending from Georgia to Arkansas, and Pennsylvania to Illinois. Color variations of the flowers range from medium purple to lavender to white. Hardy from Zones 3 to 8.
How to use it: As a groundcover for woodland areas or for shady rock gardens. This rapidly spreading plant forms tight colonies.
Cultivation: Site in shade to dappled sunlight. Plant in well-drained, moist soil.
Source: Munchkin Nursery & Gardens

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Deciduous azalea (Rhododendron x 'Gibraltar'). 'Gibraltar' is a deciduous azalea hybrid (Knap Hill but often listed as Exbury hybrid). Large trusses of fragrant, crimson-orange flowers with crinkly petals appear in mid-spring. The shrub is hardy to -20 degrees F. and is also fairly heat tolerant. The habit is loose and upright, and growth rate is slow. Expected height is from 8 to 12 feet. Hardy to Zone 5 and heat tolerant to 7b.
How to use it: In an open woodland situation in an informal planting. The orange flowers will show up well against an evergreen backdrop. 'Gibraltar' is fragrant, so you may want to pick a spot near the house or the carport.
Cultivation: Azaleas need well-drained acid soil that is rich in organic matter. 'Gibraltar' handles either full sun or part shade.
Source: Glasshouse Works

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Little epaulette tree (Pterostyrax corymbosa). Native to Japan, this small deciduous tree produces three- to six-inch-long panicles of white, fragrant flowers in late spring to early summer. The leaves are bright green above, silvery green below. Shrublike, the tree is a moderate grower, reaching 20 to 30 feet high and wide at maturity and forming a rounded shape. Hardy in Zones 5 to 7. The better known species, Pterostyrax hispida (epaulette tree) is roughly the same size but has longer flowers (5 to 10 inches) and larger leaves. P. hispida is hardy in Zones (4) 5 to 8.
How to use it: This rarely seen tree is an excellent choice for a collector's garden or for a small space. Plant where the fragrance of the flowers can be appreciated.
Cultivation: Site in a hot, sunny location for good flowering.
Source: The small epaulette tree is difficult to locate in commerce. However, Pterostyrax hispida, the epaulette tree, is available at Woodlanders, Inc.

—Martha Tate is co-executive producer of Gardener's Diary.

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