Nothing to do, but enjoy

This chilly afternoon was spent clearing piles of leaves that cover hellebores, and from areas where I suppose snowdrops are planted, though I could be off by a few feet in recollecting their exact placement. I don’t know if this forgetfulness is a trait of gardeners, and hopefully not only of older ones, though in my defense it seems inevitable that the precise location of one thing or the other can easily be forgotten in a one acre garden.Snowdrop

The first of snowdrops is up and flowering, a benefit of planting small numbers in a range of varieties which will begin flowering as early as late December, or several weeks later in a more typical winter. Today, later flowering types barely poke above ground, and these are hidden beneath piles of leaves that must be removed, though as leaves become more matted by rain and snow most late blooms rise above the detritus.

A year ago, following an abnormally warm December, and with mild temperatures the early weeks of January, foliage of snowdrops was clearly evident by now, with scattered flowers seen for weeks by this date. A week later, thirty-two inches of snow covered the snowdrops and hellebores, which emerged intact through the melting snow only slightly weathered following a few weeks without sunlight.

Flowers on hellebores in a warm December are not surprising. Seeing bees in alte December is surprising.

A year ago, mild temperatures in early winter forced hellebores into bloom in late December. In a warm spell, bees stir from their winter shelter to gather nectar.

Leaves are best cleared when dry, and a month ago, but the gardener is especially satisfied when chores can be put off without too much harm being done, which is the case with removing damp leaves in mid January rather than dry ones in early December. In areas without winter flowers, most leaves can be left in place to decay without any effort if the gardener is not overly concerned with neatness.

Clearing piles of leaves that collect around the evergreen hellebores is next to impossible with a leaf rake, even if the gardener is intent on physical labor, and is particularly careful, which I am not. So, the task is accomplished with a gas powered blower that converts into a vacuum. Until a few years ago, this was done with an electric model, which was quieter, but I was constantly cussing the cord that got hung up on every little thing in its path, and pulled out of the ground more than a few recently planted perennials. Leaves that are sucked up by the vacuum can be bagged, or not, and much time is saved by blowing leaves that are shredded to a fraction of their bulk back into the garden.


In more typical winter temperatures, hellebores will flower in mid to late January.

I would prefer that temperatures be a few degrees warmer than today to be out in the garden, but it’s back to work tomorrow, and with a warm forecast it is possible that the earliest hellebores could break into bloom by the weekend. As a separate, but less significant issue, leaves of hellebores were not cut back before flower buds became prominent late in December, so, not only do these snag more leaves from maples and tulip poplars that tower overhead, but flowers that are tucked beneath leathery leaves of the hellebores are more difficult to see.

Again, the gardener, I suspect most but certainly this one, calculates the risk/benefit of accomplishing a task later rather than sooner (or not at all). The flowers of many older hellebores nod to the ground, so removing leaves more clearly exposes the blooms. Many newer hybrids have flower stalks that stand more erect, and often above leaves that flatten out though the winter. With these, there is no need to remove foliage, though it can turn brown and ratty looking after a harsh winter, so in nearly every instance it is best to remove leaves if you can get around to it. This year, I haven’t, which is not unusual, and hardly a tragedy and barely noticed once flowers fade and new spring growth hides the weathered foliage.Hellebore

In any case, the nagging chore to remove the worst of piles of leaves has finally been accomplished. If flowers of hellebores open later this week, there will be nothing to do, but enjoy.

Signs of far off spring

Not yet a third of the way through winter, and already the gardener looks for hopeful signs of spring. Two, too long months remain, and while winter flowering mahonias and witch hazels brighten this gray period, any glimpse of color from late winter and spring bloomers is most encouraging.

Stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, is unusually early this winter, typically flowering in early spring.

Stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, is unusually early this winter, typically flowering in early spring.

In the unusual January with only a few spells of cold, the gardener expects foliage of spring bulbs to break ground, and occasionally to see a stray bloom. Hellebores with Christmas rose genetics might begin to flower by late December, or much later into late February if delayed by cold and covered by snow. While there has been little severe cold until this week, temperatures have not been so mild as to encourage early flowering, so the anxious gardener must examine the usual suspects close up.

Leatherleaf mahonia shows a bit of color in early January. In a mild winter the mahonia might reach peak bloom by late in the month, though this usually is delayed until late February or March.

Leatherleaf mahonia shows a bit of color in early January. In a mild winter the mahonia might reach peak bloom by late in the month, though this usually is delayed until late February or March.

‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’ mahonias remain in bloom in early January, with late winter flowering leatherleaf mahonias (Mahonia bealei, above) beginning to show the slightest bit of color. In the mildest winters, flowers of the autumn and late winter flowering types will overlap, but typically there will be several weeks between. With cold temperatures forecast, leatherleaf’s buds are not likely to budge for a while.

In early January, Summer Ice daphne is ready to flower in a period of mild temperatures. Usually, buds remain until early spring, but occasionally there will be a stray winter bloom.

In early January, Summer Ice daphne is ready to flower in a period of mild temperatures. Usually, buds remain until early spring, but occasionally there will be a stray winter bloom.

Two long flowering daphnes, ‘Eternal Fragrance’ and ‘Summer Ice’ (Daphne x transatlantica ‘Summer Ice’, above) bloomed into late November, and buds are at the ready to open with a week of mild weather. The splendid, variegated Winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’, below) is unlikely to flower until late winter, after more extended periods of mild temperatures. The gardener is ever vigilant until spring is here to stay.

Variegated Winter daphne in January

Variegated Winter daphne in January. One winter in twenty it will flower in late January or early February, but there seems no chance of that this winter.

Cold enough

Certainly, family in Idaho will be unimpressed by northwestern Virginia’s chilly high of twenty one degrees this afternoon. Today, an inch of snow has fallen, not enough for the neighbor’s kids to ride their sleds on the grassy slope between our houses, but enough so that at least it looks like winter. On a cloudy afternoon with occasional snow squalls, the breeze is sufficient to discourage any more than a brief tour of the garden.

In this spell of cold, there will be several days before temperatures rise above freezing, and leaves of broadleaf rhododendrons and daphniphyllum (Daphniphyllum macropodum, below) curl for protection. At first glance, the gardener suspects these evergreens have succumbed to the cold, but from experience he knows this condition is temporary.

Leaves of Daphniphyllum macropodum curl for cold protection.

Leaves of Daphniphyllum macropodum curl for cold protection.

The current state of the daphniphyllum reminds that there was no good reason for planting the unremarkable shrub, except that it was uncommon. Not unusual, for there is not anything distinctive about it, but uncommon, and probably for good reason. Still, to suit my eye, a shrub was needed to add evergreen mass beside Oakleaf hydrangeas and a variety of low growing perennials that fade from view in winter, and with many other flowers in proximity, nothing was required other than large, evergreen leaves.Cardinal and chickadee

Finally, I was chided into treating sunflower seeds with hot sauce to discourage squirrels from commandeering the feeder. Results have been mixed following an encouraging start. After a few days when squirrels avoided the feeder, now they visit less frequently, and stay for shorter periods, leaving more seed for bluejays, cardinals, wrens, and chickadees. Of five or six squirrels that were regular visitors that could be distinguished by size, or for one, by its relatively skinny tail, only two appear resistant to the hot spiced seed. I debate whether the additional expense and effort is worthwhile.

Winter Sun mahonia flowering under a cover of light snow in early January.

Winter Sun mahonia flowering under a cover of light snow in early January.

One week into January, only ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’ mahonias (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, above) remain in bloom. Flowers decline more quickly with milder temperatures, and though temperatures are forecast to rise next week, I expect the yellow blooms will persist late into January.

Flower buds of the Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) are swelling, and the first blooms should be seen in the next week. Similar to leaves of rhododendrons and daphniphyllum, ribbon like flowers of witch hazels curl inward with temperatures in the upper twenties and below, which is just about the cold that discourages the gardener from venturing outdoors.

Addition by subtraction

I excuse that any old time garden must have its blights, and here there are several, mostly evergreens that have become excessively shaded so that lower foliage has browned. (Probably, there are more, which I will blissfully ignore.) Upper needles of a gold tipped Lawson cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Golden Showers’) remain, but in the shade of Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa) and purple leafed smoketree (Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’) a substantial portion on the lower half have turned to brown.

While deciduous neighbors are in full leaf, this browning is hardly evident, but in early January the image is somewhat distressing, testimony to less than stellar planning two decades earlier. Imagine, golden needles flanked by rounded, deep purple leaves of the smoketree, and larger, dark green foliage of the dogwood. For some period (I will presume to be most of two decades), the effect was splendid, but as often happens, complications arise to spoil the gardener’s best plans.Gold Lawson cypress and purple smoke tree

There should be no shame in creating beauty that lasts for only a decade, and of course too many gardeners dismiss long term planning with the thought they will have moved on when the worst comes. But, I’m still here, and while this shading and browning of needles is far from the worst that could occur, there comes a time to recognize that removal of a few browning evergreens might improve the garden despite memories of what once was.

The stumbling block in this is the labor required to remove disfigured evergreens, and the threat of injury to neighbors. A long blighted Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’), a dwarf that had grown to twelve feet, but without live needles on its lower half, was recently removed. Though neighboring pieris and boxwood were in close proximity, a narrow path allowed the spruce to fall without damage.

Though I am not fond of limbed up evergreens, lower branches of a neighboring Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gracilis’) were removed, with the resulting open space still shady and perfectly suited for the addition of hostas, hellebores, and a few ferns in the spring. This planting, I’m certain, will manage far better than the poor spruce, and here is one less blight.

The best ….. and the worst of it

Leaves have fallen, flowers faded, and now the gardener will reflect on the year past, and consider the year to come. Each year brings shares of joy and disaster to the garden in unequal measure, and again I am pleased that the balance decidedly favors the positive. Perhaps there has been a year or two in nearly three decades when the outlook has not been so sunny, but the garden grows, and setbacks due to snow or ice, winter freezes, or summer squalls are usually made over more quickly than the gardener expects.

Through the past year, disaster lurked around every corner, from a thirty inch blizzard in January, to April freezes, then a late summer drought. While the gardener trembles at the storm’s approach, these were weathered with surprisingly minor damage. And by the end, only a few scars remain. All will be healed over by spring.Ferns and hostas along a path

The assistant gardener (my wife) has been remarkably inconspicuous this year. Still, she talks a good game, but now is resigned that she cannot put a stop to perceived excesses of the garden (I think). After occasional contentious moments in the past, she is mostly helpful in keeping hostas and ivies from taking over the stone paths (above). Certainly, stray stems of nandinas sometimes fall unnecessarily due to her efforts, but this is a minor concession to maintaining harmony.

On a second personal note, recovery from mid summer back surgery has progressed at least as well as expected, which is to say that I quickly was back to doing things that are best not mentioned to the surgeon. Though I made do, I now can roam the garden, bend, and lift with only minor caution. I’m able to do anything I could before (and more), and best of all, this is an indisputable excuse to shirk chores as I please.

Edgeworthia blooms in a late March snow

After a two year wait, paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha, above) have completely recovered from consecutive frigid winters that caused severe injury, requiring pruning ten feet wide shrubs to a third of their size. By late spring following the freezes, growth mostly obscured the worst of chopped branches, but the dome shape of shrubs was contorted, and open space was slow to be filled by neighboring shrubs. Now, the paperbushes are back to where they were, and perhaps a bit more, crowding neighbors so that I must judiciously prune to keep everybody happy.

Red horsechestnut in late April

In recent years, beloved Franklinia and Seven Son trees have been lost, the Franklin tree’s slow demise due to increasingly poor drainage in the lower rear garden, and the Seven Son to a summer storm that snapped the trunk in a moment. There is no getting over the loss of such treasures, but efforts to rejigger the swampy area, and to replace the Seven Son with a Red Horse chestnut (above) have been mostly satisfactory. In another year, the Horse chestnut will completely fill the space, and I favor its flowers to the relatively unremarkable white blooms of the Seven Son, though there is little doubt that bees prefer the Seven Son and there is no topping purple-pink bracts (below) that follow its flowers into autumn.Drupes of Seven Son tree

I curse foolish acquaintances who believe that everything happens for a reason, and what possible purpose could there be for the year long sad performance of mophead hydrangeas? These were first injured by late freezes that ruined early foliage and the first go round of blooms. Reblooming types recovered to flower, but late, and the cycle was thrown off so that no more than scattered flowers were seen again.Fern leaf maple

The worst was expected when newly emerging leaves of Japanese maples (above) were injured in the April freezes. After a few days when survival was in doubt, most recovered in weeks. Others suffered more, and remain a bit thin, but all will be good by spring. The gardener does not expect perfection, and so he is little disappointed when all is not peaches and cream.

So, why not be overjoyed? Tragedies were avoided in every season, with daily joy between short bouts of worry. Certainly, a few tweaks are in order, but plans have been made, with little doubt that the new year will be a good one.

A very average early winter

Some discussion over the holiday recollected that a year ago Christmas was seventy degrees. Though I don’t recall the specifics, much of that early winter was warm so that hellebores were flowering before the new year. While this season has not been so mild, temperatures have not been particularly cold except a few nights that dropped to eleven and thirteen degrees. Undoubtedly, there will be colder nights to come.Hellebore

While many hellebores remain buried by piles of fallen leaves, several flower buds are exposed that are beginning to show color (above). If temperatures don’t take a colder turn, hybrids with Christmas rose genetics are likely to flower in the next few weeks. A year ago, hellebores in a range from just beginning, to full flower, were buried by three feet of snow the third week of January. When they emerged from melting snow a few weeks later, blooms were slightly the worse for being buried, but partially opened buds took up where they left off and flowered within days.Camellia

With no severe cold in the immediate forecast, it is possible that partially opened buds of camellias (above) could develop into fully opened flowers. Usually, in late December and early January, camellia buds suffer some cold damage during the ten days from bud to flower, so that blooms are marked by brown edges, or worse.  Violet

While not unusual, a single flower of a dark leafed violet catches the eye along the path to the rear deck (above). And, while visiting, I noticed small spots of purple on early flowering rhododendrons at my brother’s house, the early winter color a consequence of somewhat mild temperatures following cold. Still, it is not so warm that foliage of spring bulbs will pop up in January, or that early cherries or forsythia should open a few stray blooms.Vernal witch hazel in January

With very average temperatures, the vernal witch hazel, which typically flowers in this garden in mid January, but sometimes as early as late December, shows no signs of swelling flower buds. The small, ribbon-like, fragrant flowers are not dependent on a warm spell to flower, and often the blooms will persist to overlap with the more conspicuous flowers of hybrid witch hazels in late February. Flower buds swell and open in days, so there is no reason to suspect blooms will be delayed in this, thus far, very average winter.

The garden’s paths

Over the better part of three decades, a hodgepodge of stone paths has been constructed to wind through the garden. In some instances, paths preceded the planting of the garden, which was then planted after ready access was available.Bluestone path

None of the paths is artfully constructed, and even the more formal path to the front door is a combination of pockmarked Pennsylvania bluestones, bricks salvaged from some long forgotten project, and concrete ornaments that are now mostly obscured by moss. The flawed pieces of bluestone were once selected for their greater thickness and weathered appearance, instead of more perfect stones that might outshine the new garden.

While a small patio in the rear garden of thinner, but colorful flagging from India or China (their origin is unclear, but not American) suffers from several cracked stones, the bluestone path shows no more than a few chipped corners, and except for mossy joints, it appears as weathered today as twenty-seven years earlier.The path beside the stream

Besides the front walk, no paths adhere to landscape architectural standards that suggest width should accommodate two adults side by side, at least four feet and preferably five feet wide. At most, paths are three feet in width, and this is only a single path of two by three bluestones that leads from the driveway to the rear deck.

Bluestones for this path have fewer imperfections than ones on the front walk (though they are similarly thick), and while functional through most of the year, the heavily shaded path can be treacherous when damp. Stones follow the slightly sloping grade, and fortunately the path is short, with a side exit to a circular patio just before the slope becomes most hazardous.Stream

This is a route taken frequently with an armload of something (usually plants) headed into the rear garden, and is the path most often taken by visitors. Just below the round patio is a narrow crossing of a section of the two level pond that sits beneath the rear deck, and then stone steps descend to a lower patio (the colorful one with broken flagging). The steps are remnants of stone brought in from a Canadian source, and I figure that the nearly black, glossy stones are basalt. The five steps are the last of the stock, and with broken edges the stones were purchased for an excellent price, I recall. While the basalt stones do not match any others in color, the broken, but functional steps perfectly suit the look of the garden, where nothing is perfection.Stone steps

The narrow crossing of the pond is another story, a gap of no more than twelve inches that has caught the foot of many visitors who have not yet learned a critical lesson of this garden. Watch where you step. At one time, a light illuminated this cross over, but with few visitors (and fewer after dark) the light has not been repaired for years after the bulb went out, or the transformer has blown, or whatever the problem is.Hosta and nandina along a path

Other, more narrow paths, are laid with a single width of irregular (rather than cut) stones, and often are partially covered by arching hostas or yellow leafed Forest grasses. Liriopes and Mondo grasses, and in one spot rhizomatous stems of sweetbox grow between stones. All of this is disturbing to my wife, who prefers clean lines, and in some areas is fearful that a large leafed hosta might hide a large black snake. Certainly, this has happened a time or two, though I exaggerate for her benefit.

A path that winds from the front door, along the far side of the house, to the rear garden, tells the tale of the progression of the garden over decades. Here, are three separate paths, one added to the next with different stones as sections of the garden were added. The exact timing is foggy, but the newest path is now at least a decade old. All display slumping stones with ever expanding joints, and stones that settled and now are covered in silt, and by debris washed over in the latest rain storm.

Ivy, hosta, and ferns border this bluestone path.The ivy is regularly pruned by my wife to keep it from growing over the stones.

These are paths, not presumed to be walks, with only the requisite that they lead from one area to the next above the slop or mud or decaying leaves. Footing can be (and often is) uneven, and while visitors are forewarned, the stones permit the gardener access while dragging a minimum of debris into the kitchen. This is more trouble than snakes.