It could be worse

In review of the past year in the garden there is adequate cause for complaint, with deep and persistent snow that was followed closely by prolonged and miserable heat. Injury from the winter’s snowfall remains in evidence, though a large cypress was removed in its entirety, and other evergreens with sagging branches have been discretely tied into a bundle until the day they regain their rigidity.

The cypress was not treasured, its removal was not mourned, and otherwise the damage was not nearly so severe as initially feared. The thick cover of snow insulated tender perennials, so that even a root of a not-quite-hardy elephant ear sprouted in the warmth of May. The first blooms of ‘Arnold’s Promise’ witch hazel (above) were particularly fragrant, and welcomed as I trudged through knee deep drifts in February.

Inordinate heat arrived early in May, and though rainfall was not lacking, the number of days with extreme temperatures wore on, and much foliage was bedraggled by mid-summer. Through the year flowering was often early, late, or missing altogether, but there were few bouts (and none of serious consequence) with hail or high winds that have wreaked havoc in past years. In all, there has been much reason to be joyous.

Today, there is reason to believe that a turn has been taken for the better, as the first significant snow of the season has bypassed the area, dumping many inches to the north and south, but only an inch in this garden. In my cold-natured, low lying garden remnants of earlier light snowfalls remain, and ice covers the ponds, quite the norm for the season.

Late in December the hours of daylight are short, and birds have stripped the berries of dogwoods. But, the minutes of sun are gaining  as the winter marches onward, and in only a few weeks we will welcome the snowdrops and early irises, hellebores, and narcissus.

On occasion I will survey the winter garden, examining buds and berries that are hardly noticed once foliage and flowers return. The buds of early spring blooming magnolias and edgeworthia expand ever so slightly as the days grow longer, hinting at the glorious spring soon to arrive.

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Plants that seed themselves about

My annual budget for plants is not extravagant, though certainly my wife will disagree. Our property is somewhat over an acre, and much is covered in garden, but I am determined that there is ample space to continue planting for as long as I’m able. With a somewhat limited budget, and marginal enthusiasm on my wife’s part to add to the garden, I must muddle along, taking advantage to divide and transplant, and to encourage seedlings.

By late in April the garden is quite overrun with plants, but most perennials have just begun to grow so seedlings pop up in every nook and crack between shrubs and stones in the paths. Most sprouts do not stray far from the parent plants, though a few will be carried some distance across the garden.

The trouble is to distinguish between seedlings of plants that should be kept and encouraged, and bothersome weeds. I have become quite accomplished in recognizing the juvenile foliage of some that regularly pop up in the middle of a patio, or in crevices between granite boulders at pond’s edge, but still columbines and tiny hostas are routinely rooted out and discarded when quickness is exercised rather than precision.

Columbines (Aquilegia, above) seed rather prolifically, and often cross when more than a single cultivar is present.  After a few years I haven’t a clue if these are the relatively short-lived originals or seedlings, but there are dozens of seedlings that have popped up on both sides of the stone path, and as I recall, the color of the blooms has not changed.  

Hellebores (above and below) are quite promiscuous, prone to hybridizing, and seed themselves about, though also in close proximity to the parent plants. I am not observant enough to notice subtle differences in flower or foliage in the seedlings, though with dissimilar parent plants the seedlings are likely to be different. 

Somewhere in the past year I read a garden writer say that hellebores would be recognized as invasive in the future, and certainly seedlings are numerous, but it is improbable that they will displace other flora. Once the new plants have developed a sturdy set of leaves I have found that they are easily transplanted, and now small colonies have begun throughout the garden.

The blooms are treasured late in the winter, usually arriving shortly after the witch hazels have begun to bloom, though as the deep snow persisted in the shady areas of the garden this past February the blooms were delayed into early March. The foliage is evergreen, but will often turn quite haggard by early spring, so I will cut the older leaves back every second or third year.

There are easily thousands of hosta varieties available for purchase by mail order from specialty growers, and often many dozens in the garden centers, but those in my garden readily seed themselves about with new babies sprouting each year. Thus far none have been notable, most with undistinguished green or bluish-green foliage, and one that is low growing with narrow, pointed, dirty, yellow leaves that are quite horrid, but it occupies an open space between two small granite boulders where few other plants will fit without engulfing the stones, so there it will stay. 

In their native habitat hostas are often found in damp shade beside streams, and a seedling has grown in a mossy crevice between stones at the edge of a small waterfall on one of the garden’s ponds. I presumed at the start that the spot would be too damp, but the dull blue-green hosta has flourished and is now quite large so that the falling water can be heard, but not seen.

Quite often I cull out seedlings of nandina (Nandina domestica, below) as there will often be many hundreds growing beneath an established shrub. Some groups consider nandinas to be invasive, but the seeds do not travel far since birds often ignore the plentiful berries through the winter. Though nandina will flourish in sun or shade I have not found seedlings more than a few paces from the parent plants, and young plants are easily moved, or removed.

The spring blooming Mahonia beali (below) is not so easily moved without the sharply-spined leaves inflicting at least a few painful pricks, and I have found seedlings in the shade of shrubs and small trees. Since they will grow to a sizable shrub some sprouts must be removed, but a handful have been allowed to grow around the garden and now nearly match the parent plants in height, though they are only a single trunk and have not yet spread.  

Purple, grape-like fruits (below) follow the bright yellow, early spring blooms, which are then quickly consumed by birds and deposited around the garden and at the forest’s edge that borders the garden. The number of seedlings has not proven so numerous, and the distance from the parent plants not so widespread to be of concern that the mahonia could be considered invasive.

I have planted Northern Sea Oats (Chasmantium latifolium, below) through a ground cover of yellow Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’), and the number of seedlings that germinate in this partially shaded location is astounding. To remedy the overpopulation I cut the grass to the ground late in the autumn.  

I am surprised that the Goldenrain Tree (Koelreuteria paniculata, below) is not recognized as invasive, for each year my garden is overrun with thousands, perhaps millions of seedlings which cover the ground beneath the tree like a ground cover, and often appear in numbers a hundred feet across the garden. The quantities are too great to pull by hand, so I have learned that a pre-emergent herbicide is required in early spring in the area in close proximity to the tree. Though the blooms and seed pods are delightful, one goldenrain is more than enough for this garden, and this is one plant in the garden that seeds itself about that I would advise against. 

The year end deer end report

This autumn deer have worn a path beneath one of the large ‘Sekkan Sugi’ cryptomerias, a passage through thick grasses and plume poppies (Macleaya cordata, below) that begins near the swimming pond, where deer often stop to quench their thirst, and ends at the neighbor’s garden. Along the short path there is a wider area where the poppies have been laid down, probably where deer rest and hide in the dense foliage during daylight hours, with an escape route in either direction.

Earlier in the year, before the vegetables were planted, the neighbor constructed a tall fence, buried a foot below ground to foil the local groundhogs, and built high enough to deter even the hungriest deer. Thus, the path towards the garden serves only as cover between the tall cryptomerias and the fence as deer pass through the neighborhood.

Again this year the garden has escaped significant injury from deer beyond a few broken branches and trampled poppies. From the start of May through October I have sprayed at the first of each month with a repellent, a task accomplished more quickly this year since I began using a one gallon sprayer, though the heavier jug strained a shoulder muscle that pained me for weeks.

There is no need to spray every plant in the one acre garden. There are a number of small trees with foliage above the deer’s reach, and shrubs and evergreens that they have shown no interest in, some with needles or spines (a spiny mahonia, below), and others that discourage deer with toxic or distasteful foliage, or by foul scent. I alternate two repellents through the year, and have found no difference in the results, so I suspect that any of the available products should be similarly successful.

This fifteen minute task once each month through the growing season has allowed the hostas to return to full vigor after a number of years in decline as deer regularly feasted on them.  Despite my efforts a few of the coneflowers and Japanese windflowers (Anemone, below) were nibbled on in June as they quickly grew from a few inches in height, and the newer growth was unprotected. Both perennials revived by summer’s end, and bloomed as expected though a bit tardy.

I have not resolved which creature is to blame for repeatedly chewing the leaves of both red and yellow leafed sweet potato vines that tumbled over boulders at the edge of the swimming pond. At the first occurrence I figured that deer must be responsible, and in fact they were clear culprits in decimating sweet potato vines in containers on one of the stone patios a few years ago. The positioning of the vines that border the pond makes footing for a large animal quite treacherous, so I am inclined to believe that some smaller critter is guilty, probably rabbits or chipmunks, both of which are numerous. The vines were sprayed with the repellent, but eaten anyway, so while I can attest to the repellents efficacy in protecting against deer, tasty foliage is not reliably safe from other determined creatures.

Early in December a heavier concentration of repellent was sprayed on the hollies and arborvitaes that are only susceptible in the late autumn and winter months when more favored foliage is not available. This spray will persist until mid-spring, and then the routine will begin anew with the emerging perennials in May.

With my success I have taken a new tone in making recommendations to other gardeners who hesitate to plant one thing or the other due to problems they have experienced with deer. I do not consider deer preferences at all when selecting additions to the garden, confident that the repellent will be completely effective. When I hear from a gardener that repellents worked for them for only a short time, I presume that they did not maintain a monthly routine. Through periods with repeated rainfall I have found that the repellents are dependable for at least a month, and allow a more broad range of plants in the garden.

Recently I have read garden forums praising the effectiveness of urban deer hunting, usually in parkland or on large, wooded lots, and by expert marksmen or bow hunters. Consensus on the forums seems to embrace the hunts enthusiastically, but I have seen no reason to believe that this is a realistic solution to deer overpopulation. Regardless of safety concerns, or whether you favor hunting, the numbers of deer “harvested” in these targeted hunts are quite minuscule when compared to best guess estimates of the deer population in an area.

While I have been successful in persuading deer not to eat the plants in my garden, the problem is growing, a threat to undergrowth in our forests, and the safety of our highways. Our gardens are of lesser concern, but one day in the future the availability of food for overpopulated deer might become so scarce that the repellents will not be effective.

What a mess we’re in

Today I’ll step in from the frigid breeze howling through the garden to comment on the sad state of the nursery industry. I have worked in the landscape business for nearly thirty-five years, and have gained friendships with many fine people, both local competitors and vendors from across the country that our garden centers purchase plants and gardening related items from. The times are desperate for many.

Our company saw the beginnings of the current economic downturn in the early summer of 2006, and we have been confronted with diminished sales for three years. Like many companies we are now smaller in number, with some wonderful people falling victim to the downsizing through no fault of their own. We are seeing some small signs of an upswing, but others have not been so fortunate.

Why should you care about the plight of our industry? Like many Americans, you’re likely to have troubles of your own, but if you’re a gardener there are short and long term implications to consider.

As America’s economy flourished through the early to mid 2000’s garden centers, landscapers, and plant growing nurseries expanded to fill the demand. From my perspective I see that garden centers and landscapers have adjusted more readily to the downturn, but plant growers who must plan and plant a crop several year ahead of its harvest have had a more difficult journey.

Once a crop of trees or shrubs is ready for market there is a short shelf life before a container grown plant is overgrown, rootbound, and must be tossed out. There is an optimum size to sell for each type of tree, whether a Frasier fir for Christmas, an October Glory red maple for shade, or a flowering dogwood, and once a tree has gone unsold and grown larger the quantities that can be sold diminish substantially, as does their value.

In the past few weeks and months several well established mailorder and wholesale growing nurseries have gone out of business, and most others are struggling mightily. The hardest hit have been tree growers, who increased the numbers of young trees planted to meet increased demand as residential and commercial building skyrocketed.

While business slowed trees continued to grow, and I have seen growers cut down every other tree in a row to avoid damaging the unsold trees as they grow into each other. Still, there are many more trees than can be sold, and prices have steadily dropped. Shade and flowering trees, and Japanese maples are priced at the lowest point in almost two decades, so for those consumers able to take advantage there are excellent values available.

Labor and material costs have steadily increased through the years, and have not declined significantly enough for nurseries to stay in business as sales have slowed. Many have hung on, hoping that the next year will bring a turnaround, but as the problems continue some have closed their doors. Most growing nurseries have cut labor to a minimum, and have cut expenses to the point that future crops will be cut severely.

Because production decisions must be made years ahead, nursery growers are particularly vunerable to oversupply when demand wanes, and then shortages a few year later as they react by cutting production. In the next few years we will see shortages of plants as nurseries go out of business, and others have cut the numbers of plants that they grow. The oversupply and shortage cycle is not unusual, but this one is the most severe that I’ve seen.

The result will be fewer nurseries that supply plants, and fewer plants being grown by the nurseries that survive. As demand increases, even slightly, and supplies are low, prices will increase. Through the first half of 2011 I expect that there will continue to be some great plant values, but then the oversupplies will run out, and we’ll see garden center prices return to where they were a few years ago.

What I’ll be doing this winter

I’ll be at home, taking note of each bulb that breaks through the soil, and every leaf and flower bud that begins to swell in anticipation of spring. I don’t take vacations so that I can afford a reasonable budget for new plant purchases.

The leaves are piled high in parts of the garden, and on the occasional warm winter afternoon I’ll venture out to work a bit on their clean up. While I take a break from weeding and planting, I’ll keep the journal going with features on favored trees, evergreens, and shrubs, and I’m certain that there will be a few catastrophes to keep things entertaining.

In a few days I’ll report on the year’s successes and failures in dealing with the ever growing deer population, and in a week or two I’ll report on dealing with the other dear in my life, a non-gardening wife. If that sounds like a plan, stop in on occasion, and while I’m resting up for planting season let me know if there’s an urgent matter that you’d like for me to address. Thanks for dropping by, and I hope to see you soon.

Let it snow!

Here we go again in the snow capital of the upper south. The season’s first snowfall is only a few inches, and barely worthy of mention in comparison to last winter’s blizzards. I expect that there will be more as the winter progresses, but there is no reason to expect a repeat of the snowfall that broke and bent evergreens this past February.

As is usual I have done nothing to protect the evergreens, though several arborvitaes and junipers that splayed apart in the heavy snow remain loosely tied with a soft nylon strap that was used to draw the branches back together. I understand that gardeners in areas where heavy snow is expected routinely tie their evergreens, but I have had few problems through the years.

With winter temperatures that often hover around freezing our snows can be wet and heavy, and the weight of four or five inches of snow can damage plants, mostly evergreens with leaves that hold more snow than bare branches. Densely branched deciduous plants, particularly weeping forms of Japanese maples can also be injured, and I often see that it is recommended to gently brush snow from evergreens with a broom.

I am certain that more damage is done in swatting evergreens with a broom than if the snow was not bothered at all, but there is some benefit in removing heavy snow from evergreens that are prone to bending or breaking. I have found that gently shaking a part of the plant is usually effective, and if the evergreen is tall a broom might be a suitable tool in nudging branches sufficiently. Any force greater than a nudge, or a gentle shake, could cause damage to branches brittle from the cold.

In the case of heavier snows of a foot or more, when boxwoods and azaleas are squashed under the weight, I have found that the damage done is usually slight, and not worth the effort involved in removing the snow. Most damage that I have seen is when huge drifts of snow fall from the roof, and last year there were a few tragic stories of homeowners who climbed to their roofs to avoid this problem.

The gutters on my roof are quite high, and when snow crashes to the ground any plant in the way is likely to be crushed, and though I don’t recall, that is probably why there are few plants that close to my house. In any case, beyond Leyland cypresses and a few assorted evergreens, the damage from the heavy snows last year was much more slight than I initially feared, and I am happy to suggest that you should enjoy the snow and not be so worried about the garden that you injure yourself or your plants in trying to protect them.

A chilly December

With overnight temperatures dipping into the teens the scattered buds of Encore azaleas and Knockout roses that showed a hint of color a week ago have turned to brown, and their foliage has faded so that there is no doubt that they are now dormant. The blooms of ‘Winter’s Joy’ camellia have changed to a deep reddish-brown, and hang limply, but there are more flowering buds that will open if the weather should moderate in the next few weeks.

The extreme temperatures are a bit early, but not  far from the norm, and the cheery yellow blooms of ‘Winter Sun’ mahonia are beginning to fade in the cold. The faded flowers show signs of the small grape-like fruits that will be evident later in the winter. My rambles through the garden are more infrequent in the winter months, and birds will snatch the mahonia’s fruits quickly once they ripen, often before I see them.

The berries of hollies will usually persist into early February before birds strip them bare. The large clusters of berries on the tall nandinas, so heavy that branches arch to block the stone paths, are only consumed in the worst of winters. Nandinas are semi-evergreen, and will drop their foliage in an average winter, and certainly when colder, but today the leaves have turned a mottled mix of deep greens and reds.

The garden is just where it should be for the middle of December, and there is no reason to be concerned by below average temperatures. No caution is required, and certainly there is no need to run about covering plants with burlap, or other measures intended to protect them from the cold.

I expect no blooms in January, though on occasion an odd spell of warm temperatures might bring out a few early daffodils or a stray bloom or two on forsythia and witch hazel. The earliest signs of spring are not expected before the middle of February, and possibly not until late in the month, so the next months are a time for dreaming, planning, and for appreciating evergreens, peeling bark, and early flowering buds as they develop.

At the least I will check weekly the progress of buds on the various witch hazels and edgeworthia. ‘Arnold’s Promise’, the earliest of the witch hazels to bloom in my garden, will often show a hint of yellow early in February, and edgeworthia’s yellow-tipped, tubular flowers begin to swell with a few warm days, teasing that spring is only a few weeks off.

December color

Today I’m on the road, traveling through nurseries in the southeast searching for plants to fill the garden centers in March. In setting travel plans for the second week of December I presume that the weather will be warm, even if not sunny, but temperatures have been cold and breezy, and southerners are bundled in their warmest wools and fleece.

Before flying out at the past week’s end the Knockout roses and Encore azaleas were struggling to open their few remaining flowering buds, but with little success in the frigid temperatures. The partially opened buds show just a hint of color, but brown freeze injury at the margins assures that blooms will not develop.

‘Winter’s Joy’ (above) and ‘Winter’s Star’ camellias remain in bloom with little evidence of damage from the cold, though the flowers fade more quickly than a few weeks earlier. ‘Winter’s Interlude’ shows no signs that the buds are swelling, and I expect that I will see no blooms from it unless temperatures in January are quite mild.

I have recently highlighted the marvelous red-berried evergreen hollies, but the deciduous hollies (Ilex verticillata ‘Sparkleberry’, below) deserve mention for their clusters of berries, which are more evident on the leafless stems. In the garden Sparkleberry has contorted itself over and around evergreen camellias and hollies, and though the unremarkable shrub is obscured from view for most of the year the berries shine like a beacon. 

Also shining, but a brilliant and brazen yellow, are the arching blooms of ‘Winter Sun’ mahonia (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, below), which began to flower early in November, and will continue for a few weeks longer, and often into early January. 

As winter approaches, and who would argue that the season has not arrived already, the bright berries, gold and blue foliage of evergreens, and scattered blooms in the garden are greatly appreciated, a splash of color to tease the gardener until the first blooms arrive late in February.