March in bloom – trees

The Cherry Blossom Festival has begun on the Tidal Basin in Washington and the flowering Japanese cherries are nearing peak bloom, but fifty miles to the west Yoshino and Kwanzan cherries remain in tight bud, still a week or two from blooming. In my garden the early flowering Okame (below) is blooming, and Snow Fountain, the white flowered cherry with compact pendulous branching is just beginning.Okame cherry in mid March

The popularity of the cherry blossoms has created many a problem for homeowners enamored with the blooms, but unaware of the ultimate size of these fast growing trees. I believe that a good guide for visualizing the space required for these trees at maturity is to imagine constructing a two car garage centered on the spot you’ll be planting most of the cherries, as well as most shade trees.

“Oh my, it will block the driveway”you say. Well then, find a different tree that will suit the space, and find another location for your cherry. Better to discover this now, before you have to butcher the tree or give up the driveway. Okame and Snow Fountain (below) cherries will consume a much smaller portion of your property, and might be more appropriate choices if your space is limited. And while we’re on the topic, don’t be fooled by the pink weeping cherry. It will grow to thirty feet, tall and wide, and go out and measure your garage if you think that will fit a couple feet away from your front walkway.Snow Fountain cherry

Now, before we move into the marvelous choices of trees that bloom in March, I have a few more words of caution. Purpleleaf plums are quite beautiful trees, with dark leaves, pale pink flowers, and a modest size that will work well in all but the smallest gardens, but they are a magnet for Japanese beetles (even worse than the cherries). The flowering plum will work quite well in the space that you had planned for the cherry, but be prepared to do battle, or be content to live with the lacy skeleton of the leaves beginning in July.

Which leads us to the carefree flowering pears, beautiful, fast growing trees that are covered in white blooms for several weeks beginning mid March. Their attributes are as fine as any tree, great flowers, fantastic, long lasting fall color, and an absolute resistance to most pests. What could be the problem? After ten or more years, once you have grown to accept the pear as a permanent centerpiece of your garden, a summer storm will rip the tree apart, a third of the branches sheared off and tumbled to the ground. You’ll consider whether the remainder can be left standing, but it shouldn’t, and you’ll remove your lovely pear.

Bradford pear is the most common, and most likely to split, and though other pears are not plagued by this problem so much, all  are among the most invasive of popular trees, sprouting from bird carried berries along fence rows and in open fields. There are better choices.Serviceberry

Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis, above) is a native, usually multi trunked tree that is often found on lists of plants for edible landscapes. I don’t know who is able to harvest any of the serviceberry’s fruits, except birds, but it is a nice, irregularly shaped tree for the wood’s edge. I would suppose that it could look out of place in the center of the property, but in a natural, informal setting it is a carefree, superb choice.    Dr. Merrill magnolia

The early flowering magnolias are also excellent choices for the edge of a wooded area, though they have a more uniform habit than serviceberry. The star and saucer types (Dr. Merrill magnolia, above), and there are numerous variations, are more shrublike, and many people would prefer that they be planted at the margins of the garden, reserving the center for more interesting forms.Royal Star magnolia

In my garden I have been convinced that Dr. Merrill is the earliest to bloom, followed by Royal Star (Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’, above), with the purple ‘Jane’ (below) close behind. Dr. Merrill is the tallest, with a narrow silhouette to more than twenty feet. Jane is shorter, but wider at nearly fifteen feet wide and tall, and Royal Star is ten feet or less in height and width.Jane magnolia

The blooms of Dr. Merrill and Royal Star are similar though the habit is dissimilar. Jane is quite different in color, and is known to flower sporadically through the summer. There are many other spring blooming, deciduous magnolias to choose from and all are delightful trees, though the blooms of earlier types are injured by frost on occasion. This has happened a time or two in my twenty years in this garden, but such an infrequent problem does not diminish the value of these wonderful March blooming trees.


March in bloom – shrubs

The shrub stands tall above the snow with yellow blooms that herald spring’s arrival. No, not forsythia, but witch hazel ‘Arnold’s Promise’ (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold’s Promise’, below), with fragrant, ribbon-like flowers unfurling in late February’s frigid temperatures. I have a poor nose for such things, but walking through the garden on a late winter’s day, the scent is striking, and the blooms are unusual and treasured when few other plants have such a delightful display mid February into March.Arnold's Promise witch hazel

I have no quarrel with forsythia (below), though their masses of bright yellow flowers are seemingly found on every street corner and along every fence row in mid March. For my garden the shrub is too large and a bit unruly, requiring regular pruning to keep within reasonable boundaries.Forsythia

Far more mannered, and blooming a few days earlier, is Paper bush, though I’ve not heard anyone use any but it’s botanical name, edgeworthia (Edgeworthia chrysantha, below). The rounded clusters of yellow-tipped white tubular flowers are obvious as buds in December, and steadily increase in size until opening into colorful blooms in early March. I was reluctant to plant edgeworthia, fearing catalogs and references describing questionable cold hardiness, but my experience through several winters has allayed these concerns. While I was first awestruck by the marvelous blooms, the foliage is often described as dull, but I’ve found the large, flat blue-green leaves to be pleasant enough and better than many.Edgeworthia

I have described in the past that I consider pussy willows (below) appropriate only for the out-of-the-way back corner of the property, and I suppose if I’m averse to forsythia then the same should hold true for pussy willow, for they are coarse and ill-mannered. Even with variegated foliage, the one in my garden is worthy only for the smooth gray catkins in late winter. I would consider it unwise to allow pussy willow to consume any amount of prime garden space, but mine is planted at the edge of a poorly drained, nearly swampy area where little else would survive, so the attractive catkins have earned their place in the overly soggy garden, nowhere else.Pussy willow

I have met a fine fellow from Lancaster, Pennsylvania in years past who made quite a sum selling cuttings of pussy willow at late winter garden shows, selling a few sprigs for ten dollars a bunch, and if this is your plan I congratulate you on your business sense, for this farmer had to haul his cash with a wheelbarrow, but you will not have much of a garden to look  at for most of the year.Camellia japonica

Far more attractive, in shiny evergreen foliage and flower are the spring blooming camellias (Camellia japonica, above). I prefer the fall blooming hybrids and sasanquas, for they bloom in early winter when little else is flowering, but the spring varieties bloom early, and the flowers are marvelous. Deer stripped the leaves and flower buds of mine almost completely for several years, and I had nearly given up and pulled them out, before discovering that a winter formulation of deer repellent would protect the plants, even in an extreme winter with snow cover such as the one we’re recovering from. The minimal effort and expense to spray the repellents is trivial since it allows such splendid plants to grow carefree in your garden.Pieris

Andromeda, or pieris, is never so carefree, for it is favored by lacebugs, and must be sited in a well drained, but not too dry location. The pendulous lily-of-the-valley type blooms (above and below) and red or pink new foliage on many varieties determine that is worth a bit of trouble. The evergreen foliage is not bothered by deer, but you might have to experiment a bit to find a preferred location. If successful the dividends will reward your persistence.Pieris

Also requiring some patience is the slow growing ground cover sarcococca (Sarcococca humilis, below), a knee high, spreading evergreen shrub with lustrous dark green foliage and tiny ribbons of fragrant flowers hidden beneath the leaves in late winter. The flowers are not showy, and are difficult to see, but they are quite fragrant for those with their sense of smell intact (not for me), and the shrub is sturdy, attractive, and carefree. From a small plant you will wait several years for it to develop into a satisfactory small shrub, but then you will be happy for the wait.Sarcococca

Much faster growing is the grape holly (Mahonia beali, below), which also has an early winter blooming cousin, Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’. The leaves of both are holly-like, but with attention getting spines, and the drooping racemes of yellow flowers develop into small grape-like fruits. Mahonia Winter Sun berriesUntil the deep snows arrived I paid particular attention to Winter Sun to see the fruits in January, for I have only seen the small purple, edible fruits on plants in the nursery, but birds must have plucked them before I saw them. Still, Winter Sun mahonia is one of my favorites for its bright yellow blooms in November, lasting well into late December and even into January.Mahonia beali

The similar blooms of Mahonia beali begin to show color in early March, and persist for a month or more, then are followed by grape-like berries. With more abundant food sources in the spring these berries are not so quickly consumed, so this is one of the best of the flowering shrubs for the garden in March, and then well into April. It’s form is a little irregular, much more so than Winter Sun, but the evergreen leaves make an attractive shrub throughout the year. I have found that Beali seeds itself about, but the seedlings are easily controlled, they do not crowd out other plants so as to be considered invasive, and I like free plants, so there are few that I enjoy more.Mahonia beali

A second ground cover, though this one deciduous, Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum, below) has branches that cascade over boulders that edge one of the ponds in the garden. In mulch or soil the branches will root where they touch, but of course not on the stone. Winter jasmine grows quickly and must be pruned back a time or two through the year. It will bloom in an extended warm spell in mid winter, but I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen more than a flower or two earlier than late February in my garden. Winter jasmine

After the long winter, these shrubs are highlights of the early spring garden, and outstanding plants for the remainder of the year. Next, and I promise this will be a few days only, we will feature the flowering trees of March. I hope you will join me again.

Bulbs are blooming in March

To the gardener winter is long, dull, and gray, a time for planning, ordering seeds, and dreaming of gardens bursting with blooms. The past winter was an exception, it wasn’t gray, but white, dreary, and seemingly endless. Thankfully it’s over, by the calendar and weather!Narcissus

The spring blooming bulbs have survived their extended period hidden beneath the thick cover of snow, and are popping out no worse for the wait, except for my poor crocus that are struggling to put on much of a show. As is usual I lament that I have not planted a few hundred more of this, and perhaps several dozen of that to enliven the garden in the late days of winter.Crocus

I am surprised again, though I should know better after repeating the mistake for a third decade, that a bag of small bulbs does not immediately make a breathtaking impact. Still, even in drifts of seven or twelve, hardly enough to find if you weren’t the one who planted them, each new crocus (above), puschkinia (below), and snowdrop is delightful.Puschkinia

This year the snowdrops (below) had the good sense to remain hidden snug and warm below the surface until the snow retreated, so this year there will be no photographs of the tiny nodding blooms pushing up through the snow. Snowdrops are not extravagant unless planted in drifts of many hundreds, and I have no such an expanse, but the few dozen that grow near the front entry walk are delightful.Snowdrops in mid March

I have commented earlier in the week that ‘February Gold’ narcissus (below) was late, barely poking through the ground when the snow melted, and opened its blooms two weeks into March along with varieties that should be a few weeks later with more typical late winter conditions. I have a particular fondness for the dwarf forms of narcissus, as they seem to spread more quickly, are quite inexpensive, and make a wonderful show in late February and early March.Narcissus February Gold

Also late to arrive was Iris reticulata (below), which unfortunately faded after a few warm days, but is exceptionally beautiful and a favorite for late winter blooms. As is common with many of the so-called “minor” bulbs, after flowering the foliage disappears quickly so there is no need to have another plant cover the yellowing leaves. For a modest expense the early irises are a sound investment.Iris reticulata

Many of the bulbs in the garden have been here for nearly twenty years. Long ago the last of the tulips planted at the forest’s edge fell victim to squirrels, or rot from the clay, but hyacinths and narcissus have persisted. The narcissus spread and improve with age while hyacinths (below) lose some vigor, but are still treasured.Hyacinth

And this is the appropriate place to give warning that hyacinths should only be forced and brought into the house in mid winter if your sense of smell is impaired, or if you are resistant to the overpoweringly sweet scent that pervades the house for the duration. Outdoors there is sufficient breeze and fresh air to dilute the scent, and here it is welcome. I have no doubt that there are people who could not live through the winter without hyacinth on the kitchen counter, but consider that you have been warned.Narcissus

I’m quite certain that some will notice (before I say so) that I have neglected to supply the names of the bulbs shown here, with the exception of February Gold. The absolute truth is that for most I have no clue which narcissus or daffodil, crocus or hyacinth they are, and even with the alleged February Gold I am only nearly certain of their identity. I am aware that this is a travesty, and I believe that I pay more attention to perennials and woodies, but I am confident that you can select at random your collection of spring bulbs and be satisfied that you haven’t made a single poor choice.

There is no snobbery in being able to identify each bulb in the garden, and some gardeners are quite proficient at this, but this dullard is content to be surrounded by these late winter beauties and remain blissfully ignorant.

In the next few days I will follow up with shrubs that are blooming in this middle of March in the garden, and in another few days we’ll catch up on the flowering trees. After the long and snowy winter this will be a particularly exciting spring. I hope that you’ll join me in exploring the buds, bark, and blooms of the garden.

Always late

No more than a mile from my home two star magnolias against a brick wall in full sun are in full bloom. In my garden Royal Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’) remains in bud, though I can feel the tightness of the bud expanding, and if temperatures remain so warm as today’s seventy degrees it will be only a few days before it is showing color.

Again this year, color is showing in the buds of Dr. Merrill earlier than Star magnolia. The upright growing Dr. Merrill is in a slightly sunnier location, and grows above the surrounding trees rather than the shrub-like Star magnolia that is nestled beneath overhanging branches of large maples. Okame cherry

I have long recognized that my low lying garden is a bit colder than its surroundings. The sliver of mature forest that runs along the southwest boundary shades the winter sun for most of the day, though it provides no relief from the more northernly path of the summer sun. The early blooming magnolias and Okame cherry (above), daffodils and crocus, snowdrops, witch hazel, sarcococca, winter jasmine, edgeworthia (below)Edgeworthia, pieris (at top of page), and mahonia flowering in my garden are days later than my neighbors’, and perhaps weeks later than fifty miles east in Washington, D.C..

I suspect that photos taken in the garden this afternoon might be “yesterday’s news” to readers to the south, the east, and perhaps down the street. ‘February Gold’, the common early dwarf narcissus (below), began to bloom under the wide spreading Jane magnolia two days ago, but just across the street a mixed planting of narcissus has been blooming from three days earlier. However numerous the flowers might be, this garden will never be the first to arrive.February Gold narcissus

March madness

There’s so much to do, and so little time.

The winter’s heavy snow is a memory (even the parking lot mountains have melted), but left behind are broken and bent branches, uprooted evergreens, and snapped trunks as reminders. Now that temperatures have warmed the time is upon us to begin the clean up, in addition to March’s usual chores. Each year I fret that I have grown too old, my body too weary to undertake these tasks once more. Today is no different, but I’ll press on, knowing that I’ve no intention of paying someone else to do it for me, and I’d drive them crazy looking over their shoulder, so who could I convince to do it anyway?Snowdrop

The extra hour of daylight with the time change gives me a bit of time each day after work, but thus far I haven’t been very productive with it. Most evenings I wander through the garden with the purpose of making a mental to-do list, but end up flopping onto the wet ground to enjoy the snowdrops (above) and hellebores (below) close up instead.Hellebores

Several weeks earlier I wondered what would become of the hellebores (Helleborus, also commonly called Christmas and Lenten Rose) under a thick blanket of snow. In my garden they will often bloom midway through February. Would they bloom under the snow, would the flower buds be crushed, or the plants die of crown rot in the prolonged moisture? As the snow melted my question was quickly answered by fat buds, and blooms opening on the first sunny days.Dusky purple hellebores

The foliage was flattened and tattered, but that’s not so unusual, many years I prune the older leaves in late winter. The emerging leaves and flowers are as welcoming and delightful as ever. Even the tiny seedlings that steadily increase the collection year after year have survived and are blooming. I’ve long forgotten the number of hellebores first planted, but there are dozens now, some named varieties (though I haven’t a clue what), and others anonymous seedlings, but beautiful nonetheless.Double flowered hellebore

Hellebores are truly carefree, requiring only a well drained site in part sun to shade. They are not particular about soil type, mine are planted in unimproved clay that is alternately dry and saturated, but tends to be bone dry for extended periods with tree root competition. The area by the side of my home is heavily shaded by mature poplars and red maples, and is a thoroughfare for the neighborhood deer population, but the hellebores are not bothered at all.

Besides an annual trim of worn leaves, I can’t recall any labor that hellebores have required. References say they are heavy feeders, and encourage topdressing with compost or an organic fertilizer occasionally, and no doubt this should prove helpful for those who are properly motivated, but I find it impossible to keep up with such chores, and they thrive despite my neglect.Hellebore

Long before the ground was snow covered I realized that I had avoided this corner of the garden for too long. A cedar obelisk toppled over more than a year ago, and the time was never right to clean up the mess. Now, the snow has crushed it so that disposal will be much easier. I find there is often a benefit to sloth.Hellebore

A once vigorous clematis began its climb on the obelisk, but rambled up into a Burgundy Lace Japanese maple that retains nearly red leaves through the season despite being given too shady a location. In addition to sloth, I have been accused of thoughtless plant placement by no less authority than my wife, who is forever observing that the stone paths are disappearing beneath the hostas and mahonias, and often the nandinas also. I cannot offer a reasoned defense, so back to the clematis that has died, or perhaps I killed it to keep from engulfing the maple, I don’t recollect, but the tangle of vine that I carefully avoided in autumn has nearly decayed along with the wooden structure that supported it.

The only time I venture near is when the hellebores are in bloom, so I have resolved to pay greater attention this spring, and perhaps plant a few treasures that will provide a reason to visit this corner of the garden more frequently. With the troublesome obelisk and clematis disposed of (assuming I get around to that in the near future) the area should be more inviting, not a reminder of tasks avoided too long. March, as it is clear to see, is a season of contradictions, warm spring days and blustery cold, misery and beauty, labor intensive tasks, and time to smell the hellebores (though they have no scent that I can detect).

Split and splayed

Undeniably, spring has arrived! Helleborus and snowdrops (below) have emerged from their snowy blanket to burst into bloom, yet much damage from the winter storms remains (though considerably less than many gardeners feared).Snowdrops

In the past weeks we’ve addressed how to prune the broken and split branches, what to to do with the large evergreens that are leaning, or roots that have been ripped from the ground. These are the most distressing results of the heavy snows, with many trees beyond salvage, but we have yet to discuss the evergreens that were buried and bent. Some have sprung back nearly to their usual shape, others only partially, their upright branching interupted by branches splayed at odd angles. Do they need help, or will they shape up without our assistance? And, what can we do to repair our bent and broken plants?

This is somewhat uncharted territory since I’ve had this happen only once, on a columnar blue spruce a number of years ago. I was successful in saving the tree then, and I expect it will work this time. The branches of my spruce did not bounce back many weeks after the snow had melted, so it was clear to me that the form of the tree would suffer if I didn’t lend a hand. I expect the same with many of the arborvitae (a twelve foot tall gold arborvitae with branches splayed in my garden, below), junipers, boxwoods, and other evergreens that remain bent out of shape today.Splayed branches on arborvitae

Years ago I used a length of clothesline rope to tie around the branches, drawing them back into a semblance of their original position. Today I’ll be using a thin nylon strap called ArborTie (below). Why not string, twine, or rope? These materials will work, but are more likely to dig into the soft wood of our evergreens as we pull it tight, and though the injury is superficial ArborTie will do the job without inflicting further damage.ArborTie

Circle the strap around the tree and tie a loop so that you can pull it tight. Lift the strap so that it catches the major branches and pull tight enough to pull the branches into a bunch that is a bit tighter than the normal shape. Circle the strap a few more time to catch some of the smaller branches, then tie the strap to a larger branch to secure it. I will plan on leaving the strap in place through the spring before removing it (the photo below is the damaged arborvitae after I tied it with ArborTie).after tieing with ArborTie

When the ArborTie is removed while the plants are actively growing they are likely to droop a bit, but will be much better off than if we had done nothing. However, this won’t work for all.Gold Cone juniper with snow damage

In my garden the branches of a Gold Cone juniper (a more colorful introduction of the old Irish juniper that fell into disfavor because it browned in the middle and often fell victim to snow damage) have bent to a severe angle (above), but the branches are not substantial enough to pull them upright.

I have pruned a foot off the top (above), then tied the stray branches and wrapped a length of the strap to secure most of the smaller branches. A few branches that couldn’t be captured by the strap were pruned off. I will be certain to remove the ArborTie later in the spring or the tightly wrapped stems will cause many brown needles from a lack of air circulation.

Some brittle, woody plants, such as azaleas and andromeda (Pieris japonica) will be difficult to tie because they are likely to break rather than bend back into shape. In some cases I’ll have to prune these severely, but I’ll wait several weeks longer to give every opportunity for them to rebound.

At long last our lessons are over. We have addressed most of the damage inflicted by the winter’s storms. Milder temperatures have returned, and we’re ready to get outside and tackle the tasks ahead.

Now I can get to work on my own garden.

What’s wrong with “The Outdoor Room”

Finally, HGTV is bringing a bit of the G (garden) back into its prime time with “The Outdoor Room” starring the charismatic Jamie Durie. I’ve been involved with HGTV’s home makeover show “Curb Appeal” and have witnessed the made-for-TV dramatic embelishments involved, but I have reservations about this new show from a landscape design and business standpoint.

Where is the budget?
I suppose that someone is paying for this project, but I doubt it’s the homeowner. Landscape design in the real world involves creating outdoor rooms and gardens within a client’s budget. The design team never makes a mention of money, and not acknowledging this undermines the credibility of the show when creativity is not constrained by budget.

Where is the communication with the homeowner?
There are lots of surprises, for the landscape architect, the carpenter and construction crew, and worst, for the homeowner. The client’s role appears to be to help set a theme that allows the designer to roam the planet, but beyond that not to have a voice in the approval of plans. I can’t decide whether this is a dream, or a nightmare. I want the client to be involved as intimately as possible. The design is not an exercise in creativity for my benefit, but a process to evaluate the client’s lifestyle and needs and to address those in a creative manner.

Who wants this much drama?
In every episode the landscape architect and carpenter spend a considerable amount of time shaking their heads, muttering about lapses in communication and design. Why would you want this for a project at your home? Do you want the designer and builders “winging it”, or would you be more comfortable with a well planned, organized approach? Ideally, we don’t want to stifle the creativity of an artist, but there should be a balance demanding that the designer communicate their vision into detailed, practical building plans.

What happens when the wind blows, or it rains?
Colorful fabrics are hung from outdoor rooms and pergolas with flair, but are they practical? Perhaps the wind doesn’t blow in California, but it does in my garden, and I don’t care to run out to secure the fabric with every puff of breeze.

And rain? It rains regularly, sometimes in torrents, and I want to be certain to mention that the fabrics and seating cushions we use on the benches and lounges won’t suck up moisture like a sponge. Creativity is wonderful, but why no mention of weatherproof materials?

It’s a jungle.
My personal garden is a jungle, too many plants, too close together, with leaves and stems arching over paths and patios. I have an uncontollable addiction to plants, so I accept that my garden is a maintenance nightmare, and that occasionally a prized plant will get crowded out. The constant struggle keeps me off the streets, but is this appropriate design for you?

To the eye of the camera plants often fade into the background, looking smaller than they are, and for the purposes of the show the intent is to give a lush, often tropical appearance. What happens when these plants grow? Get out the chainsaw, don’t go into your outdoor room, or move out. As much as I would love to design gardens that are mature and filled in from the start, I’m obligated to allow for plants to grow without overwhelming the walkways, the house, and each other. I can create a high maintenance jungle on my property, but I shouldn’t on yours.

Is there anything good about “The Outdoor Room”?
Plenty. Mr. Durie is fun and creative, the show is never dull, and in the space of a half hour his team transforms some lousy landscapes into lush outdoor spaces for entertaining. If this inspires anyone to do the same, I’m on board, but I expect that our project will go a bit smoother than any you’ll see on “The Outdoor Room”.

Is it harmful? Not unless you’re dissuaded from starting a project because of the frenetic pace and drama generated in each episode. “The Outdoor Room” is better than most, good entertainment, and often inspiring. Just don’t take it too seriously.