Flowering and delightfully fragrant

The winter daphnes (Daphne odora ‘Marginata’, below) have managed only a few weak blooms near the ground where flower buds were protected from the worst of winter’s freezes, by snow or perhaps just by ground warmth. Though the uppermost buds were damaged, and foliage dropped completely, there are numerous growth buds that are clearly green, so the daphnes will suffer no long term setback. Winter daphne is the least cold hardy of the daphnes in the garden, and with damage to so many evergreens from the horrid winter I was concerned that these would suffer more. Fortunately, they have not.Flowers a the base of winter daphne

Other daphnes show no sign of trouble, though the foliage of ‘Carol Mackie’ (Daphne × burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’, below) also dropped, which isn’t unusual in any winter when temperatures fall below five degrees. There were handfuls, or possibly even dozens of days hovering just above and below zero through January and February, and even into mid March. Winter daphne is a zone seven, cold hardy only to zero, while the others are tolerant of another twenty degrees colder.Carol Mackie daphne in mid April

With few flowers, the fragrance of the winter daphnes is not overwhelming, but ‘Eternal Fragrance’ (Daphne transatlantica ‘BLAFRA’ , below) is now flowering and ‘Carol Mackie’ is nearly at full bloom, and I’m certain that on the first still afternoon there will hardly be a spot in the garden where the scent will not be evident. While the fragrance is delightful, the waxy pink to white flowers are not exceptional on any of the daphnes. In fact, the flowers of ‘Carol Mackie’ are pleasant enough, and the excellent variegated foliage is less coarse than winter daphne’s, but all are treasured for their scent first, and foliage and flowers more as an afterthought.Eternal Fragrance daphne

New to the garden this year is Rose daphne (Daphne cneorum, below), with diminutive foliage and clusters of tiny flowers. I’ve had poor experiences with small leafed rhododendrons requiring exceptional drainage, and Rose daphne appears so similar to these that I took particular care to keep these away from any soil that could possibly remain damp for more than a few minutes. While all daphnes are reputed to be persnickety, the dwarf is supposedly more so, though I’ve not had any problems with daphnes at all.Rose daphne in mid April

Korean Spice viburnum in mid AprilOn this next still day, there will be a variety of scents wafting through the garden since the fragrant viburnums are also flowering. Typically, one follows the other, but now both Korean Spice (Viburnum carlesi, above) and Burkwood viburnums (Viburnum x burkwoodii, below) are in full bloom. With the strong fragrance of daphnes and viburnums, and redbuds and dogwoods in full bloom, this next week will be particularly delightful.Burkwood viburnum in mid April


In the mud and the muck

The lower garden is sinking, I’m afraid. Why, is partly a mystery, but in recent years the back third of the garden has become wetter, for longer periods of time. There have always been times in early spring when sections of the rear garden are wet enough to suck the shoes off your feet, and mostly I’ve been able to manage to steer clear of these areas during the worst of it. But, when the days stretch into weeks and then months the wet areas become more difficult to avoid. As hard as I work to delay and avoid maintenance chores, some must eventually be done.Blue Mist flower in late August

The back property line backs up to a swampy meadow of cattails, briars, and brambles (Conoclinium coelestinum, Blue mistflower, above), and below to a retention pond for our small community. This is the source of the problem, I believe, though there’s also a wet weather spring that trickles more consistently down the edge of the garden than in years past. At one time the lower garden was mostly lawn, and when our kids were kids they made ample use of the area for impromptu football games and just plain chasing about. As they grew a bit older the lawn was converted to a court for boisterous badminton games, but then the kids grew up and moved out. Now, the wife and I have no time for such foolishness, and besides, more space was needed for garden. Sometime in between, the area began to get wetter, a little, then a lot.

Arnold's Promise witch hazel in mid February

I’ve learned to adapt, and just as the garden has become increasingly shady as it matures, my most recent plantings have been ones that are tolerant of the moist environment. And, this works just fine, except treasured witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, above in better days) and hollies (Ilex x ‘Patriot’) that have been there all along have struggled as the garden has become more damp. A year ago the area neighboring the witch hazel remained saturated for most of the second half of the year, and finally the large shrub reacted by prematurely dropping its foliage in early October. The witch hazel failed to flower this year, though there are buds that I hold faint hope will bloom, even a little. The holly is looking sadder by the day, and I wonder how long these cherished shrubs can last.Sweetshrub in late April

In any case, it appears that the witch hazel will leaf, at least partially, and I’m hopeful that the holly nearby will rebound from its obvious state of distress. Already, a few nearby hydrangeas and smaller shrubs have given up the fight, and like it or not I’m having to plan on replacements. Before the witch hazel and holly fail completely I’ll plant a few red chokeberries (Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’) and sweetwshrubs (Calycanthus floridus, above) in the gaps between. These should thrive in the wetness if I’m able to keep the deer away. A nearby black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa, below) is a frequent target of deer, and both red and black will demand continual attention to spraying with a repellent.Chokeberry flowering in mid April

When I became distracted in the past and failed to spray, deer nibbled almost every leaf of the black chokeberry, so if these native shrubs are to be successful they’ll require a bit of my attention. But, they’re lovely shrubs and they’ll tolerate the damp soil, so there seems little question it’s worth the effort. A small Buttercup winter hazel (Corylopsis pauciflora, below) planted a few feet away, and just at the edge of the dampness is managing well so far, though it would likely prefer a more well drained situation. This shrub was transplanted from bare root a few years ago, and it’s not surprising that it’s taken a few years to get growing. I’m pretty certain that it’s just high enough above the worst of the dampness to survive, unless the area continues to sink.Winter hazel

Several primroses (Primula vulgaris ‘Drumcliff’, below) flourish in the dampness, though certainly they will not spread like the mint on the far side of the garden. By necessity, the mint is hemmed in by larger trees and shrubs to prevent its escape, but the primroses have some room to spread, and a bit more sunlight to encourage them to seed about. I don’t expect the primroses will thrive beyond control in this damp spot, but there’s plenty of damp ground to cover, and if they do spread, it will be quite marvelous.Primrose

A late start

There are hardly enough hours in the day to keep up with the chores necessary to maintain this garden in early spring. There are piles and piles of leaves to collect. Beneath every shrub and in every corner there are leaves accumulated from the maples and tulip poplars that border the garden, and through the winter big, leathery sycamore leaves blew in from the neighbor’s property down the street. These are particularly annoying because, unlike the maple leaves that decay quickly, these stick around for half of the spring if they’re not removed. I thought I did an adequate job of cleaning up in November, but the evidence today shows that I did not.Crocus in mid March

Thankfully, the winter weeds are not so bad this spring, but now that it’s warming up they’re multiplying quickly, and if I don’t get to them soon they’ll be everywhere. Perennials and grasses must be cut back, and ponds cleaned. When only two days of labor are permitted in March due to the ice, snow, and bitter cold ….. well, things are just not going to get done all by their lonesome. In fact, I know that everything will be accomplished sooner than later, or at least everything that must be done will be. A few chores will slip through the cracks, I’m certain, and if I plan well enough these will never show and the garden will not be the worse for it.Primrose

I talk about, but seldom get much accomplished prior to the first of March. In theory, there are at minimum a handful of days in January, and usually more in February when a motivated gardener can get out to lessen the work list that must be performed once spring hits. At best, I might get around to working a day or two for a few hours during the winter, so the garden annually arrives in spring as nearly a disaster, and a lot needs to be done in a hurry once temperatures warm up. Of course, this winter there was one good excuse after another why nothing could be done outdoors, and unfortunately, the excuses continued far into March.Little Heath pieris in late March

Now, it’s mid April, and the only thing that’s saved me is that spring growth has been delayed by the cold, which has given me a bit of leeway. The last few weekends have had nice weather, so much has been accomplished. But, the spring chores typically take at least three and sometimes four full weekends, so as I see it there is one more weekend of tasks to be completed. It seems like more time will be needed, and perhaps that’s because I’m a year older and that much slower than a year ago. I hope that’s not the case, and I imagine that I can accomplish just as much today as ten and twenty years ago. No kidding.Hyacinth

If it was not for the huge maple that fell in a December ice storm in the side garden, and cold damage to half hardy evergreens that I’ve had to fool with, I think that I’d be much further along than I am. The shattered tree required a new chainsaw and several days of labor, as well as an afternoon wasted with a trip to the emergency room. This was nothing major, just a blow from the tree’s trunk that split my forehead wide open. I thought a bandage would do the trick, but my wife insisted that I would not look so pretty with a jagged scar extending from my hairline nearly to the eyebrow. This was a waste of several hours and though the head is healed, still I haven’t made up for the lost time.Hellebore in early April

A truck load of chokeberries, sweetshrubs, and hydrangeas I brought home, and the box of Southeast Asian oddities ordered by mail have also taken some time, though several hydrangeas and a few others wait patiently on the driveway for me to figure out where they’ll be planted. Once a planting location is determined the digging goes quickly, but as I walk around the garden wondering if this spot is too shady, or sunny, or too wet, valuable time is wasted. Gardening should not seem like such a rush, but for four weekends in March (or April), every hour must be productive.

The yellow magnolia

On Sunday the blooms of the pale yellow flowered ‘Elizabeth’ magnolia (Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’, below) were perfection. By some confluence of circumstances nearly every flower arrived at once so that the tree went from nearly bare to full bloom, probably within hours though I was not watching at the time. From Saturday evening to Sunday morning the transformation occurred, and happily I was able to wander past several times on Sunday while working in the garden, and then again through the early week.Elizabeth magnolia in mid April

On some afternoons the yellow flowers seem barely so, and would be best considered a creamy white, but on this day the blooms were clearly pale yellow, and marvelous. ‘Elizabeth’ is often listed as our native Cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminata), but instead it is a cross between cucumber and Yulan magnolias (Magnolia denudata), if that matters. The fruit that follows flowering is similar but slightly smaller than on the cucumber tree, and so the confusion is inevitable. In any case, it is a hybrid and should not be considered as a native tree, though it is exceptional and any garden is the better for having included one.Flowers of Elizabeth magnolia after a freeze

Predictably, after two nights of freezes, the blooms have collapsed into a heap of brown mush (above). In a more typical spring the flowers might open over a period of a week, so some would be injured by frost while others would be unscathed, but the spell of extreme warm days last week pushed the buds to open all at once, and here we are. There will be no lasting effect from the damage to the blooms, and by next week the brown flowers will have dropped and been forgotten.

A brief walk this afternoon has revealed little other damage to the garden from the two night’s freezes, though I continue to be saddened to find evergreens that have suffered considerably from the long and harsh winter. An aged dwarf hemlock has turned completely brown, with all branches showing brown beneath the bark, and a Brackens magnolia has suddenly turned brown, though on some branches buds are alive. The magnolia is extremely cold hardy, but in any year there are tragedies that result from a combination of circumstances, and no doubt that is the case here.


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.