April arrives

Unsurprisingly, there is much good news as April approaches, and it’s about time. Temperatures are rising, and it seems there’s a real chance that spring is not just visiting, but here to stay. The off and on cold mixed with mild weather in recent weeks is not unusual, but it’s hardly enough to satisfy the gardener. April promises to do better.

Winter daphne flowering in early April

Winter daphne flowering in early April

Though flowers remain a bit sparse in the garden, buds are swelling, and it’s likely that all tardy flowers will arrive in short order. Despite damage to flower buds on upper branches of the Winter daphnes (Daphne odora ‘Aureo-marginata’, above), there will be a substantial number of highly fragrant blooms over the remaining branches. After a cold winter a year ago, only a flower or two survived where buds were protected in leaf clutter, but after this cold February only branch tips are damaged. ‘Carol Mackie’ and ‘Eternal Fragrance’ are more cold hardy than Winter daphne, and flowers will not be effected, though ‘Carol’ dropped most of her leaves in the cold weeks of February.

Royal Star magnolia flowering in March

Royal Star magnolia flowering in March

The early flowering magnolias are not so early this year. I don’t recall a year when the garden’s magnolias strayed much past mid March before flowering (though my recall isn’t very dependable), and only in the past few days have the buds begun to swell noticeably. So, I expect that in rapid succession there will be flowers on ‘Dr. Merrill’,  then ‘Royal Star’ (above), ‘Elizabeth’, and ‘Jane’ magnolias, then ‘Okame’ cherry, the various redbuds, and dogwoods, all within two weeks. If temperatures don’t get too warm too quickly, these might persist long into April, which could be quite marvelous.

Certainly, there are magnolias nearby that are flowering already, and please do not rub my nose to the downside of living between tall hills where frost and cold settle long into the spring. Everything is a bit later in this garden every year, but it is also slightly protected from severe winter winds and summer squalls. Still, it seems I’ve suffered more than my share of toppled trees in summer storms, but perhaps this would be worse if the garden was situated nearer the top of the slopes.

One of the many hellebores flowering in late March

One of the many hellebores flowering in late March

In recent days I’ve documented the late arrival of hellebore blooms, and with each day more flowers open. The weathered foliage was cut off a week ago, so today there is nothing to distract from the lovely blooms. Yes, I would have been happier with flowers a month or six weeks ago, but now I look forward to basking in the splendor when half the garden blooms at once.

Planting in March

A hazard of planting hellebores in March is that much of the surrounding garden remains dormant. It seems obvious that new hellebores must be planted where they can best be enjoyed when they are flowering in late winter, and this means planting along the driveway and the front walk where the garden is already quite full.

An established hellebore ready to burst into flower

An established hellebore ready to burst into flower

Fortunately, most of the new hellebores are in small, four inch pots, so these can easily be fit in open spaces between snowdrops and crocuses. But, inevitably there is a hosta or something in the way that is found only when I begin digging, and no doubt when perennials pop up in another several weeks there will be further conflicts. These will be easily resolved, I expect, but the result might be less favorable positioning for the splendid new hellebores.

Helleborus x hybridus Harlequin Gem Strain planted by the front porch

Helleborus x hybridus Harlequin Gem Strain planted by the front porch

With such difficulty I’ve decided that a dozen hellebores in larger, one gallon containers will sit on the driveway until I’ve a better idea what will come up and where. I suspect that I am not the only gardener who has so little an idea where things are planted when they’re dormant, but everything will be worked out in just a few weeks.

Nandinas, azaleas, and daphnes that are set to be planted will be going in areas with fewer conflicts. A variety of vines and toad lilies that have been mail ordered will not arrive until the second week of April, just about the time when the first signs of hostas and other dormant perennials should be more evident.

Over the weekend, I finally worked up the motivation to cut the old foliage from the dozens of established hellebores. First, in the cold of February the leathery leaves had browned considerably, and the flowers are better displayed without the old foliage. New foliage grows quickly after flowering, so there is little reason not to prune the old leaves except that this is typically done anytime from late December until just before flowering. I have difficulty enough working up the energy to prune and clean up, but when it’s cold, that’s all the reason I need to stay inside. Until this weekend, when it wasn’t warm, but it was warm enough.

Flowers of established hellebores are more readily seen after foliage is removed

Flowers of established hellebores are more readily seen after foliage is removed

When old foliage is removed on hellebores that are just about to bloom rather than taking care of this a month earlier, more care must be taken to avoid chopping out many of the flower buds. Admittedly, I’m not usually very patient, and with pruners in hand I’ve been known to chop first, ask questions later. But, I was remarkably precise this year, and only a few buds were sacrificed in my haste to get as much accomplished as possible in a few short hours of labor.

Winter jasmine flowering in late March

Winter jasmine flowering in late March

Finally, the Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum, above) has come into full bloom. I’ve bemoaned the late arrival of its flowers several times since late January, which of course did nothing at all to speed the cheerful yellow blooms along. If this rambunctious shrub typically flowered in mid and late March I would not have given it such prominence, but I expect this will be the odd year and it will get back next year to flowering  in mid winter.

Dorothy Wycoff pieris flowering in late March

Dorothy Wycoff pieris just beginning to flower in late March

After a much colder than typical February anything that flowers in early spring is off to a late start, but the Pieris varieties (Pieris japonica ‘Dorothy Wycoff’, above) are not so far off schedule as others. Certainly, there are times when these begin flowering in early March, but mid month is more common. With flowers just beginning they’re only a week late, which is not really late at all.

Brilliant red new growth on Katsura pieris.

Brilliant red new growth on Katsura pieris.

An older, unidentified pieris (‘Snowdrift’, I think) began fading in late autumn, and while it did not decline further through the winter, it’s clear that for whatever reason it’s days are numbered. I can’t explain the impending loss, but most pieris varieties are finicky in clay soils, so I’m not going to put too much thought into it. My experience is that ‘Dorothy Wycoff’, and compact growing ‘Prelude’ and ‘Cavatine’ are most tolerant of poorly drained clay soils, and though it’s a relative newcomer, the lovely ‘Katsura’ (above) is proving quite dependable. When the dying ‘Snowdrift’ is removed, this could be an ideal spot for one of the new daphnes.

Adding hellebores

Fourteen hellebore cultivars await planting on the driveway, twenty five plants total at last count, though additions are likely. There seems no end to my collecting of marvelous varieties, which is madness, I suppose, as my wife has pointed out frequently  in recent days. Already, there are dozens in the garden, and more seedlings than can be counted.

Helleborus multifidus x Helleborus x hybridus

A patch where the first eight or ten hellebores were planted years ago has expanded by triple as seedlings have popped up and spread, and another colony of seedlings has cropped up in leaf clutter where rain water runs off from this initial batch. This new group was four or five lovely clumps, but now there are dozens of seedlings that have reached a sufficient size that they can be moved around this spring.

One of the many dozens of hellebore seedlings

Groups of five and seven have been planted through the garden, and it’s conceivable that more could be planted for years to come since hellebores grow contentedly in a variety of circumstances. Certainly, new introductions are made every year, and many are such fine plants that a garden should not be without them. It is practically criminal that there are only a few double flowered types in the garden, not enough reds or yellows, and this shortage has been barely addressed with the ones waiting to be planted.

Helleborus x hybridus Harlequin Gem Strain

Part of this problem is that I must gain the greatest benefit for the fewest dollars, and many of the splendid double flowered types require too great a share of the hellebore budget. Certainly, some pennies must be saved for the Red Hot poker budget, which justifiably has expanded for this spring. And, there is now a hankering to add several (or more) big leafed hostas for the dry shade that is not far from the initial patch of hellebores. Of course, other obsessions will further extend the total garden budget unless my wife intervenes.

So, it can plainly be seen that I cannot possibly retire for at least another twenty years.

A few Winter aconites remain

As is too often the case, a few years ago I planted too few Winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis, below) for them to make a proper show. The bulbs could not have been too costly, but for whatever reason I purchased only a dozen or two when I should have planted no less than a hundred of the small bulbs. Some bulbs multiply rapidly enough to make up for the gardener’s frugality, but aconites have gone in the wrong direction, though through no fault of their own.Winter aconite

I’m afraid that I’m a fiddler, and no part of this garden is ever left completely alone. In the case of the Winter aconites, they are planted near the entry of the walk that goes from the driveway to the front door, and here I am incessantly meddling to plant one thing and another, or to move this or that to someplace else. The end result is that aconites and crocuses are constantly being dug up after flowers and foliage fade. Some are replanted, and inevitably, some are lost.

Only a few Winter aconites remain from the original planting

Only a few Winter aconites remain from the original planting

This is, of course, the time to chide that you must not follow my lead, and it is my hope that I am the only gardener idiotic enough not to promptly replant displaced bulbs. In fact, often they do go back in the ground, but almost certainly without any care being taken to assure that the bulbs are planted to a proper depth. Most aconites, I fear, have been buried too deeply, probably beneath densely rooted hostas and hellebores where they have no hope of reaching the surface again.

There are now three flowers remaining, and as you would guess these look a bit lonesome. If I was a gardener able to make notes and find them months later, I would note that in September I should purchase a hundred and possibly a second hundred Winter aconites to plant alongside these lonely three. This would make them feel much less lonely next spring, but there’s little hope without prompting that I will recall to order these.

Several small groups of crocus remain that have not been dug up by the gardener or by squirrels.

Several small groups of crocus remain that have not been dug up by the gardener or by squirrels.

A usual, I have forgotten what bulbs were planted in October other than the snowdrops that began appearing late in January. After an interlude when they were buried in snow, the snowdrops resumed flowering a week ago. Near one of the groupings of snowdrops, sprigs of something are popping up that look somewhat like crocus, though it’s unlikely that I would plant them in this spot. So, they could be something else, though I haven’t a clue what. I suppose I’ll find out in another week or two. Spring is full of surprises, and many of them are good.

Snowdrops in mid March

Snowdrops in mid March

A productive clean up day

A remarkable amount of clean up can be accomplished in a short while if the gardener is unconcerned with tidiness. And I’m not, or at least I wasn’t on the recent Sunday when I made tremendous progress cutting back perennials and semi woody shrubs. The garden began the day as a disaster, and by day’s end it was something better, I think.

Since my spring clean up has been delayed for several weeks by snow, I was determined to make the best of this day. I set out in late morning in my rubber muck boots with pruners in my pocket and a fully charged battery in my hedge shears. On this day the hedge shears were put to good use, chopping though small branches and woody perennials until the battery finally wore down. Surprisingly, my poor old back held up with hardly a complaint as I madly dashed through the garden grabbing fistfuls of spent leaves, stems, and flower stalks.

Blue Mist shrubs are semi woody. They often must be pruned by a foot or more in early spring.

Blue Mist shrubs are semi woody. They often must be pruned by a foot or more in late winter.

Too many times I’m distracted by this and that while laboring in the garden, and where I start is too often not where I stay for long, so that bits and pieces are accomplished here and there. This day, I was disciplined, or at least as much as I could possibly be. I began a few feet outside the garage, then worked my way around the front of the house, to the side, and then to the back. I left behind piles of debris, which were (and I give myself considerable credit for this) mostly picked up and deposited in the large compost piles at the garden’s edge before I finally collapsed in late afternoon. There are plenty of remnants of the day’s debris left behind, but someday soon the mower will grind most to be unrecognizable.

Beautyberries are smei woody. I often cut shrubs back by two-thirds or more.

Beautyberries are semi woody. I often cut shrubs back by two-thirds or more in late winter.

My productivity was greatly improved by the garden’s relative absence of blooms. Yes, the witch hazels are flowering, even the Vernal witch hazel that has been flowering since early in January. It seems that it is just as fragrant today as when it was at its peak, and I stopped for a sniff or two. The hybrid witch hazels, ‘Diane’ and ‘Jelena’ are at their peak, and though neither comes close to the mass and brightness of the dearly departed ‘Arnold Promise’ that perished a year ago, both have been enjoyed greatly in recent weeks while snow covered snowdrops and hellebores.

Vernal witch hazel in January

Vernal witch hazel in January

The Winter jasmine has finally begun with a few flowers in mid March. No doubt, I’ve anxiously checked its buds thirty times through the winter, and while this vigorous shrub regularly flowers in January, I was continually disappointed that there was no sign of color until a few days ago. There will be more flowers in a few days, but on this clean up day none are so distracting that I’m tempted to take more than a few moments to poke my nose close to catch of whiff of the witch hazels, or for a closer glimpse of the clear yellow blooms of the jasmine. There will be plenty of time to enjoy the garden after this mess is cleaned up.

Snowdrops …. again

This garden is situated between foothills that soon rise to become the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Long ago I witnessed the effect of frost and freeze settling into this low point when snow lingered for days or weeks after it had disappeared from neighboring properties. Melting snow is further delayed by a swath of deciduous forest that borders the southern edge of the property so that there is no full exposure until the sun eases further northward in April.

Pussy willow catkins in mid March

Pussy willow catkins in mid March

No purpose is served by whining about the occasional snow that covers hellebores and snowdrops for weeks into early March, but after an unusually frigid February I am particularly annoyed that I’ve been deprived of seeing the late winter flowers that I have carefully planned as a remedy for my typical anxiousness for spring. After the eight or nine inches of snow the first week of March, I spent an abnormal amount of time over the weekend stomping through shin deep snow to check on pussywillows (Salix gracilistyla ‘Variegata’, above), witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’, below), and any swelling bud that stuck out above the snow. This was hardly satisfying, but after a few more nights when temperatures did not drop below freezing, some progress has finally been made.

Jelena witch hazel flowering in mid March

Jelena witch hazel flowering in mid March

Today, I see snowdrops (Galanthus, below) again. Several early blooming varieties offered a few scattered flowers through late January into February, and then these were buried beneath four, then eight, then eight inches of snow again. Perhaps there was another six inches in there somewhere, and though none of these was particularly significant, nothing was melting. I would have been overjoyed to snap a few photos of snowdrops emerging through an inch or two of snow, but snowdrops are only a few inches tall, and until a few days ago the snow was much too deep to see any of them.

Snowdrops flowering in mid March

Snowdrops flowering in mid March

While shoveling snow off the driveway and front walk in recent weeks I carefully piled snow so it was not mounded over areas where snowdrops and hellebores are planted. This added a few minutes labor to the task, but now the effort has been rewarded. The three foot pile covering the dwarf bamboo will not be disturbing if it lasts until May, though at the recent pace it is more likely to melt before the end of the week.Snowdrops in mid March

In autumn, several dozen of a handful of varieties of snowdrops were dug in, and now I am joyfully discovering where these were planted. For now, I’m satisfied by the coverage of bulbs that were planted. Too often I plant too few, too far apart so that the effect is not quite right for several years, but these were planted in sufficient quantity to make a bit of show in this first spring. They will be better in late winter next year, and perhaps then they will not be buried beneath snow so late into March.

A fit of enthusiasm

In a fit of enthusiasm (or desperation) through one of the darkest, coldest parts of winter, I ordered more than I should have from several online plant vendors. I am certain that these will be fine plants, and no doubt I will find a home for them all, but at the moment I haven’t a clue what I ordered for early April delivery.

I really should figure a better method to determine what has been ordered rather than just opening the box to see what pops out, but it seems that is how this will be settled. I expect that each vendor offered the option to create an account so that the purchaser can check back on his order, but of course I did no such thing. Now, I accept full responsibility for this failure, but despite my confusion I have no remorse for making the purchases, and the mystery is a bit intriguing.

Crocus  are slow to get started this spring - but it won't be long

Crocus are slow to get started this spring – but it won’t be long

With the cold and snow a distant memory (from last week), warmer temperatures have the juices starting to percolate again, and I feel an anxiousness to get started. A walk around the garden this evening sparked a wee bit of excitement at the prospect of pruning back the Blue mist shrubs this weekend, and several of the roses have grown too leggy, so these must be pruned back and older canes that have not been cut out for several years must be addressed.

That I am at all enthused by spring clean up chores signals the despair of this gardener as winter dragged out far too long and cold. I fully realize that there is a limited period to accomplish too many tasks before the warmth of April spurs redbuds and dogwoods into bloom, but also perennials that must be cut back before they launch their spring growth.

Buds of pieris are swelling by the day in mid March

Buds of pieris are swelling by the day in mid March

Today, there are several hellebores and a few small yellow leafed nandinas (Nandina domestica ‘Lemon Lime’) on the driveway, waiting to be planted. Two red flowered Encore azaleas (Azalea ‘Autumn Fire’) have been delivered, and these must be brought home to plant when I can figure a spot for them. These are azaleas to be introduced a year from now, offered for my evaluation. It’s evident that the ones that were sent were overwintered in a greenhouse for winter protection since they are approaching full bloom in mid March.

Rather than being disturbed that the azaleas’ early flowers and bright green new foliage might be damaged, after the recent horrid weather I’m overjoyed to see a few flowers beyond only the garden’s witch hazels and snowdrops. Without any severe cold in the forecast, I doubt there will be any detriment from the early blooms, so why be bothered because they should not flower here for another six weeks?

The fragrance of sweetbox should scent the upper garden in another week

The fragrance of sweetbox should scent the upper garden in another week

Winter jasmine is a week off from beginning to flower, and many years its first blooms are seen by mid January. I’ve checked for flowers too many times to count over the past month. My enthusiasm got the better of me recently when I predicted that hellebores would flower two days after the snow melted. Several have been exposed to warmer temperatures for three or four days now, and the blooms are still another few days off.

Besides the mysterious mail ordered plants, and the hellebores, nandinas, and azaleas that will soon be planted, I plan to invest in a few daphnes in the next few weeks. Though these are considered to be finicky, I’ve experienced few problems with any of four or five varieties, and shortly several new ones will be arriving in the garden center. Certainly, my enthusiasm will spur several additional purchases this spring, but today, a few days before the first shovel full of mud has been turned, this seems an excellent plan to get the spring started.