A spell of cold

After a delightful series of warm days, this upcoming period of cold is maddening. However, it is not unusual, and it is fairly common for a spell of cold to arrive in April just as the leaves of Japanese maples unfurl. This is when the leaves are most fragile, and tender foliage might be undamaged at twenty eight degrees, or blackened at twenty six. Often, injury from the cold is not immediately evident, but after a day or two the gardener is distraught that the beautiful crimson leaves of the lovely ‘Tamukeyama’ have shriveled and turned to black. More than a few times I’ve rejoiced that a freeze has passed with no injury, only to discover a day or two later that the leaves of the dwarf ‘Shaina’ are hanging limp.Bloodgood Japanese maple in early spring

The gardener is aware that the maple will revive to some degree, but that it often requires another year for the tree to fully recover. Here, it is evident that there is some advantage in planting more than one variety of Japanese maple, since different maples will leaf over a period of weeks, and in a freeze it is fortunate that some foliage has not even begun to emerge. Of twenty three maple cultivars (or is it twenty four, or five?) in the garden, perhaps half are in various states that are susceptible to cold damage. Understandably, not every garden has the space or budget for so many trees, and in any case the best the gardener can do is to hope and pray that temperatures remain a degree or two warmer.Fernleaf Japanese maple - new leaves and flowers

Certainly, a few energetic gardeners take matters into their own hands to wrap trees in cloth to protect them through these few stray cold nights. But, this is a considerable task, and with tender foliage and brittle stems there is often more damage from the wrapping than the temperatures that turned out to be not as cold as expected. This is my plan. Leave well enough alone, and hope. Usually, this works.Emerging leaves and flower of Golden Full Moon maple

Few other plants suffer to any great extent from a sudden spell of cold. The flowers of magnolias are notoriously susceptible to cold damage, and perhaps cherries might suffer, but besides fruiting trees there is no long term harm that comes from injury to blooms. One day the flowers are lovely, the next they are blackened, and two days later they have fallen and vivid green leaves are emerging. Most trees and shrubs, and many perennials that begin emerging in April are well adapted to varying temperatures. Only extreme cold is a threat, but after recent eighty degree days much foliage is at its most vulnerable.Elizabeth magnolia in late March

Still, I will not be out this evening wrapping trees and draping blankets over the hostas. This garden has survived this and worse, and if I wake tomorrow to regret my inaction, be certain that I’ll whine that the weather has conspired to make my life so miserable, but tomorrow will be a better day.

All at once

Royal Star magnoliaTrees that flower in late winter are genetically wired to tolerate chilly temperatures, though still some blooms are damaged by extreme lows that are commonplace in late February and early March. But, when flowering is delayed by weeks, magnolias (Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’, above) and cherries move briskly from bud to bloom, and then quickly fade in warmer temperatures that they are ill equipped to handle.Dr. Merrill magnolia

With the delayed onset of spring temperatures it’s not surprising that the garden is suddenly filled with blooms from bulbs and trees that typically flower a few weeks earlier. Late winter flowering magnolias (Magnolia × loebneri ‘Merrill’, above) are in bloom alongside spring bloomers (Magnolia ‘Jane’, below), and cherries that are generally separated in flower by several weeks have begun to bloom only days apart. Though the flowers were missed in past weeks, today they’re magnificent, and the wait now seems worthwhile.Jane magnolia

The light pink flowers of ‘Okame’ cherry (Prunus x incamp ‘Okame’, below) are often threatened by extreme temperatures in early March, though damage is rarely severe (as it is with the early flowering magnolias). Now, it would be surprising if nights in April were cold enough to result in injury. ‘Okame’ grows with a more compact and rounded shape than other cherries (that are considerably wider than tall), and thus it is appropriate  for most smaller properties, though it is not as common. While the dense foliage and shallow roots of popular ‘Yoshino’ and ‘Kwanzan’ cherries make growing a lawn beneath the trees difficult, the upright form of ‘Okame’ hardly impedes lawn grasses.Okame cherry

The weeping Higan cherry (Prunus subhirtella ‘Pendula’, below) is a graceful tree in bloom, or even the silhouette of the bare branches through the winter. This tree is often grafted onto a straight six foot trunk, which slows its growth somewhat, but still it will grow to nearly thirty feet tall and wide. Too often I’ve seen the Higan cherry planted close by a walk or driveway until it must be butchered when it encroaches too far. All cherries should be given a wide berth, though ‘Okame’ and the white flowered weeping cherry ‘Snow Fountain’ (Prunus ‘Snofozam’) require only about half the space.Weeping Higan cherry

The Higan cherry in my garden is not grafted, and it grew quickly to fill an open area at the sunny border of the garden. Unfortunately, tall hornbeams (Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata’) and a ‘Fat Albert’ spruce (Picea pungens ‘Fat Albert’) obstructed the view of the cherry for years, but then the hornbeams suffered an unknown malady that required their removal. The spruce was also removed after a collision with a Canadian chokecherry (Prunus virginiana ‘Schubert’) that was toppled in a storm, crushing branches on one side of the spruce (and also shearing a few large branches from the Higan cherry). Now, the cherry is in full, splendid view, and the hornbeams and spruce are not missed so badly.


Proper paths

On occasion, I regret that I have given little consideration to constructing proper paths through the garden. Not often, but when a wheelbarrow filled with small plants or compost must bump along over the narrow paths of irregular stones, I think that it would be so nice to have a smoothly paved surface of cut flagging, or even the concrete pavers that  are perfectly serviceable, though not my material of choice.The path to enter the back garden

There are two obvious problems with the stone paths as I see it, though I am certain that my wife would be happy to point out many more. The paths are only one stone wide in many places, and rarely are they wider than two and perhaps two and half feet. As pointed out earlier, this width is too narrow for a wheelbarrow or cart, and certainly it is not wide enough for two people walking side by side, which seems to be the standard that landscape architects use in recommending walkways to be a minimum of five feet in width.

Somewhat as evidence that I am not completely oblivious to proper garden construction, the walk to the front door is four feet at its narrowest point, and parts are six feet in width. This walk was constructed of the most distressed and pock marked Pennsylvania flagging that I could find at the time, so that its appearance was the furthest possible from the unblemished perfection of concrete. Later, small insets of brick and rectangles of  interlocking concrete pavers in the shapes of koi and salamanders (I believe) were added, though unfortunately the identities of the beasts have been obscured by moss so that all are unrecognizable except the fish.Hostas and Japanese Forest grass arch over a stone path

This front walk would be ideal for wheelbarrows if I found the need to cart materials to the front door. Perhaps, some day it will be used for access to deliver a refrigerator or some such appliance, but the expanse of paving goes mostly unused as nearly everyone who enters the house shortcuts into the always open garage. The hellebores and hostas planted alongside the walk are ignored, and the moss covered beasts are undisturbed except by the occasional salesman who resists the open garage.

Some parts of the stone paths have been constructed so that one stone leads to another that is closely fit into an uninterrupted surface, but other sections are one or two stones wide, with gaps between stones in the most informal of paths. These require some attention when walking to avoid tripping and falling into one of the many stickery or thorny evergreens that so conveniently line the paths. Even without losing ones balance, mahonias lurk to reach out across the path the snare the passersby, and here also the grade drops so that stones are roughly configured into steps that are all the more hazardous as the visitor must keep a watchful eye on both the step and the mahonia.

In fact, I’m happy to blame the insufficient paths on my wife, who insisted that paths of some sort be constructed rather than spreading wood chips, or heaven forbid, only bare soil. At a point I suggested gravel for the paths, but this was quickly overruled for some reason. The concern, whenever any alternative was suggested, was of course that these materials would be tracked into the house, though in retrospect I feel certain that my wife would agree that the stone paths have not stopped me from repeatedly dragging dirt into the house. It seems obvious that the act of gardening leads the gardener off the path more than occasionally, and only the most conscientious gardener will pay attention to properly clean boots and pants legs of soil.

By a long shot, I’m not that tidy gardener. I’m the one who is covered in mud. Even when I go out for a stroll I end up on hands and knees, and maybe rolling around in the dirt to get a closer look at a butterfly or bumblebee. Many times acquaintances have presumed that my mother wouldn’t let me play in the dirt when I was a kid, and this is how I compensate for a lost childhood. In fact, the opposite is the case, but the mess that’s dragged into the house is the same. Despite the stone paths.


Hellebores in early AprilFinally, finally, finally. So often I’ve said finally in recent weeks, the word is practically worn out. Finally, the hellebores (Helleborus spp., above) are flowering, only four weeks later than typical. And finally, flowering of both Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’) and ‘Okame’ cherry (Prunus x incamp ‘Okame’, below) seems imminent after a considerable delay. Finally, this gets us to where we should have been a month ago.Okame cherry beginning to bloom March 21

‘Royal Star’(below) and ‘Dr. Merrill’ magnolias (Magnolia × loebneri ‘Merrill’) typically flower in early March, and occasionally in late February when the distinctive flowers are regularly threatened by cold temperatures. Many gardeners avoid these early bloomers altogether because of the potential for damage, and instead opt for later flowering magnolias that bloom after the threat of regular freezes and frost. Now, the magnolias will flower when there’s still the chance for freeze and frost, but much milder versions that should pose no problem for the blooms.Royal Star magnolia

I value the later spring flowering hybrid magnolias ‘Elizabeth’ (Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’) and ‘Jane’ (Magnolia ‘Jane’), but treasure the earlier flowering types. Rarely do the flowers escape unscathed by cold March nights, but while this is disappointing it seems that most often the blooms are around for a few days to enjoy prior to being turned to mush by the cold. Now, the flowers are unlikely to be damaged, but when so much else is flowering the blooms are not nearly so thrilling.Dorothy Wycoff pieris

The varieties of Pieris are flowering, and again the clear choice in the garden is ‘Dorothy Wycoff’ (Pieris japonica ‘Dorothy Wycoff” above). It’s dark foliage and red flower buds stand out through the winter, but the abundance of blooms, tolerance of clay soil, and resistance to lacebugs extends its value. ‘Scarlet O’Hara’ and the dwarf ‘Cavatine’ also have a history in this garden, so both earn high marks. I’m intrigued by two  relatively new varieties that I’ve planted in the past year. The variegated leaf ‘Little Heath’ (Pieris japonica ‘Little Heath’ below) is not exactly a dwarf, but it is smaller growing than others. It appears to be a slightly scaled down version of ‘Flaming Silver’, and if it proves to have greater lacebug resistance it will be a treasure.Little Heath pieris in late March

While the new growth on many pieris varieties is flushed with red or pink, none are as distinctive as the wine-red foliage on ‘Katsura’ (Pieris japonica ‘Katsura’, below). It is too early to pass judgment, but there seems no reason to ever consider planting the troubled ‘Mountain Fire’ pieris that has been most popular for years, but is plagued by moist soils and lacebugs so that it rarely performs acceptably.Pieris.japonica.Katsura.1

A long time coming

Hellebore in late MarchFinally, peak bloom has arrived for most of the hellebore varieties (Helleborus spp.), though there are still a few stragglers holding out. With continued spring-like temperatures I suspect that all will be flowering within days, but with this late start it will be unsurprising when they fade more quickly than is typical. Hellebores are not noted for their April flowers, though it is often noted that blooms can last into the month when they have begun flowering six or eight weeks earlier.Hellebore in early April

Today, there are purples, some nearly black, and others dusky with pronounced veining. Others are nearly green, yellow, and not quite white, and then there are blushes of pink. This is a mottled lot, this group of hellebores.hellebore

I understand that it would help considerably to have a full listing to identify plants as I show photographs of hellebores that are in full flower in the garden today, rather than only stating that all hellebores are splendid, and you cannot possibly go wrong no matter which varieties you select. In recent years, I’ve added a few dozen (or more) hybrids, and what once once a muddled situation has become further and hopelessly complicated, and I’m afraid I can claim knowledge to the names of only a few. Also, there are dozens of mature, flowering seedlings that are just similar enough to be indistinguishable from parent plants, and at this point I have barely a clue which I planted from ones that grew from seed.Hellebore in early April

In fact, most hellbores are vigorous growers, and it’s fair enough that your personal choice should be dictated primarily by flower color. While massing of colors might be ideal when it comes to more flagrant blooms such as rhododendrons and azaleas, there seems every reason to try at least one of every hellebore that your budget allows. Doing so permits not only a range of colors, but also a wider period of flower. It should be mentioned that many of the flowers on older varieties nod downward so that their beauty is often not so readily apparent, though to me these less expensive seedlings are every bit as pleasing as more costly hybrids with upright facing blooms.Cotton Candy double flowered hellebore

In the course of more typical winters I’ve become accustomed to enjoying scattered hellebore blooms through February, and occasionally into January. But, in this chilly, extended winter the peak bloom has been delayed into early April. While scattering the flowers over the previous two months would have made the winter considerably more bearable, the gardener has little say in these matters, so the hellebores must be enjoyed whenever it is that they get around to flowering. And so, as it is for the usually early flowering ‘Okame’ cherry (Prunus x incam ‘Okame’) and the ‘Star’ magnolias (Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’), their earlier scheduled appointment has been missed and we must make do with fitting them into the next best available space.Hellebore


Not bad for a quarter

I’ve little doubt that ‘February Gold’ daffodils (Narcissus ‘February Gold’, below) flower in February, somewhere, but rarely does this occur in my northwestern Virginia garden. Typically, this event is delayed until the first week of March, occasionally the second, and this year the first hint of the yellow flowers was the first day of spring. Peak bloom will be at least a week later since another spell of cold temperatures further slowed the flowers’ progress.February Gold daffodils

In a low point of foothills that soon turn to the Blue Ridge Mountains, frost settles to make this garden cooler than surrounding properties. And, the ever expanding clump of ‘February Gold’ is stationed beneath a wide spreading ‘Jane’ magnolia that provides just enough shade to further cool and delay flowering. The tardiness of spring temperatures is mostly to blame for the late blooms, but despite the continued foul weather, finally it seems that winter is beginning to ease into spring.

I’ve planted an assortment of dwarf and full size daffodils, and while all are budded, ‘February Gold’ is the only one showing any color. The blooms of all are delightful, and each year while they’re blooming I note that I must plant more daffodils in early autumn, particularly more of the early flowering types. But, as many things go, when the time rolls around I’m distracted, or whatever, and then the time to plant is past. Bulbs are available just about anywhere, so there’s little excuse for failing to purchase more. Planting can be done just about anytime from late September into December, and even in January if the ground isn’t frozen. And, cost is hardly an issue, since several handfuls of bulbs can be purchased for the cost of a single shrub or hellebore, and I add these each year by the dozens.Snowdrops

Of course, daffodils are not the only spring flowering bulb that the gardener should add to the list that must be purchased in September. Snowdrops (Galanthus spp., above) are smaller bulbs and less expensive, at least the standard types are. There’s much to enjoy about bulbs that flower in February, and sometimes even in January if there are a few warm weeks. The flowers are not damaged by any amount of cold in this area, though they are small enough to be buried by any significant snowfall. With little effort the gardener can find dozens of varieties of snowdrops, with some at premium prices, but for most of us the differences are hardly distinguishable to substantiate the additional expense to purchase any but the most common sorts.Crocus in mid March

Crocuses (above) are lovely, but the tiny bulbs are subject to pilfering by hungry squirrels, and my clump of dozens grows smaller by the year. Some gardeners make extraordinary efforts to thwart theft of their bulbs, but I’m content only to plant those that the squirrels don’t bother with. One year, long ago, I planted a thousand or so tulips in every color and flower form I could find, somehow figuring that in the relatively well drained soil of the upper parts of the garden the persnickety bulbs would persist from year to year.

The first spring the bulbs were magnificent, but by the following winter the squirrels had dug out too many to count. It’s hard to imagine how they could consume so many, but then many of the bulbs that weren’t pilfered perished due to drainage that still was not sufficient. By the third year, only a few remained, and as you would guess I’ve not wasted any further expense with tulips. If you decide that their beauty overrides all common sense, you must be prepared to dig the bulbs and store them, or to treat them as annuals.Hyacinth

While daffodils and snowdrops multiply and often gain vigor with age, hyacinths (above) slowly diminish, though the bulbs will often persist for a decade or two. This is not a trouble with squirrels, but a bulb that very gradually grows weaker. I am not the type gardener who conscientiously applies a tablespoon or two of fertilizer to each bulb annually, so I cannot address whether the bulbs maintain vigor with greater care, but in any case it’s not such a bad deal for a bulb to supply twenty years of color for a quarter apiece (probably a dollar each today).

Too much trouble?

In the recent online gardening newsletter of the University of Maryland Extension service a homeowner writes in, wanting to begin an edible garden, and inquiring if blueberries are a good starting point. The answer, intended as encouragement, is a detailed listing of the cultural requirements of blueberries, including sunlight exposure, pH and moisture requirements, and preferred soil type. A soil test is recommended to determine if the desired range of acidity is present, and advice is provided on amending the soil with a mix of compost, leaf mold, and peat moss. And I wonder.

Blueberry flowering at the start of April

All the information is unquestionably correct, but will the homeowner will be overwhelmed by the requirements, and are they likely to give up and figure this is just too complicated and too darn hard? I suspect so.

It’s not. Yes, with any plant there are potential complications, but as long as blueberries are given a sunny spot and somewhat regular watering, and they’re not planted in an absolute swamp, they’ll live and probably flourish. There will be fruit, though if there’s a difficulty, the question is will there be fruit to harvest?

Until a few years ago, I grew blueberries so that I could grab a handful while strolling through the garden in early summer, and usually I’d meander back around for a few more handfuls before I finished. The large shrubs had been transplanted from an Oregon berry farm, and for years the fruits were plentiful. At the end of the bearing season for this short season blueberry variety there were inevitably a few leftovers for the birds, so the shrubs were quickly picked clean.Blueberries on the bush

But, as the garden expanded and the large koi pond was constructed, the blueberries had to go. The shrubs were too large to bother with transplanting, and I couldn’t really figure a good spot with enough sun anyhow, so they were dug out and discarded. But, after a few years I got a hankering for fresher blueberries than I could purchase from the local grocer, though the large shrubs were no longer available. And, the only spot I could figure for the two smaller blueberries was too shaded to be ideal, and I knew this could never result in the robust crops I once grew.

So, I planted the blueberries a few years ago, and I haven’t harvested a single blueberry since. But, the birds certainly enjoy them. As for care, they get none, along with the rest of the garden. The only time anything gets watered in this garden is in the week or two after planting. Maybe, but most often no watering is needed. Ever.

Yes, I try to plant the right plant in the right place, but the blueberries have fared reasonably well in less than an ideal circumstance. The location is too shaded, and probably a bit too damp, so the shrubs grow a little more open and bear a fraction fewer fruits. Since there are hardly enough fruits on the still small shrubs to worry about, I don’t even think about protecting them from the birds. That’s as much the reason that I planted the two new ones, and perhaps some day the blueberries will grow large enough to provide enough for the birds and me.Winter daphne in early March

And, blueberries are hardly different than anything else you’ll plant. Yes, there are some difficult plants that people who consider that they have brown thumbs should avoid. Don’t plant daphnes, and watch that plants that prefer shade or part shade aren’t planted where they’ll get the afternoon sun in July and August. Don’t plant too deep. Again, don’t plant too deep. Leave a few inches of the container or burlapped rootball above the existing ground level. Too many plants are killed by digging a hole that is too large and too deep.

Soil amendments (including compost) are nice enough, but they’re not necessary with most soils (such as clay, though sand often requires additional organic matter). The soil in my garden ranges from rocky to silty clay, and I don’t recall ever adding a bag or shovel full of anything to a planting hole. Certainly, do not add an amendment of any sort without mixing it with at least two-thirds native soil (no matter how poor you think it is). If you have compost, give the plants a thin topdressing along with a mulch of some sort to conserve moisture as plants are getting started. This, they’ll appreciate.

I advise not to bother digging a gigantic hole (not too deep or too wide). The width doesn’t hurt a thing, so if you’re so inclined, go ahead and dig a hole several times the width of the roots. But, there’s little or no evidence that this helps a thing. Yes, I know there are old time gardeners who swear by twice (or three times) the width and half again as deep, but I’m an old timer myself, and I’ve never dug a hole one inch wider than what was needed to fit the rootball into. I dig only wide enough to be able to fit my foot sideways into the hole to gently firm the soil. And, remarkably, plants live (even daphnes).

So, if you’re at all like me you might have read the first paragraph and skipped to the last, and if so, you’ve hardly missed a thing. Don’t worry. Do less and plants will survive and flourish. But don’t plant too deep. Just about every other detail makes a relatively simple procedure seem discouragingly difficult.