Through the kitchen window

When the potted tropicals were brought indoors this autumn I decided that fewer would be overwintered in the dining and kitchen areas, with more being stashed by the double doors in the basement. This was done for practical reasons, mostly. The bananas and variegated gingers grew considerably through the summer, and the yellow striped agaves are now nearly four feet across, with needle sharp tips that threaten any who walk past. There’s just not enough space!

Six or eight (maybe ten) elephant ear plants of varying sizes have been sentenced to the basement because their large, slightly cupped leaves capture water, which I presume is from the trifling amount of humidity found indoors in the winter months. Eventually, enough water is accumulated so that a large droplet glides off the edge of the leaf onto the hardwood floors. If the droplets are not cleaned up promptly (and of course they rarely are), an area of wood the size of a quarter is discolored. This is, of course, troubling to my wife, and I suppose that after a number of years I have finally learned my lesson. So, some of the tropicals have been banished downstairs, for more personal and less practical purposes, so that I might enjoy my winter in peace.

Last year there were so many pots jammed against the kitchen’s three windows that it was nearly impossible to reach to raise and lower the shades. A lanky tapioca (Manihot esculenta, above) arched over my chair at the kitchen table, blocking my view of the garden, and generally making a nuisance of itself.

As I become older many more of my weekend morning hours are consumed reading the newspaper at the kitchen table, and occasionally gazing out at the garden, rather than beginning my chores early in the day. Now, I am more likely to mutter noisily about the latest political squabbles than the troubles of the local football squad, so there is considerable enjoyment in taking a moment or two to watch the bluejays hopping from branch to branch or the squirrels chasing one another merrily through the Alaskan cedar.

A bird feeder configured to look like a cedar gazebo sits immediately outside the kitchen window, but it has been years since my wife and I have filled it with seed that squirrels managed to hoard for themselves. At one time seed that fell to the ground sprouted in the fertile ground, but after a few years the gold edged hostas shaded the soil, and then we stopped filling the feeder. Today, shingles of the gazebo roof have splintered and disappeared, and the support post leans slightly after it was bent in one of the recent year’s heavy snows. There is no reason that the feeder has been left there, empty, except that I am reading more and working the garden less, and priorities must be established.

In the wet heavy snow in February last year the globose Serbian spruce (Picea omorika ‘Nana’) just outside the kitchen window was bent askew, with branches sent in every direction. A few weeks later I pulled the branches into a tight bunch so that the spruce closely approximated its original shape, but I fear that when the strapping that secures it is eventually removed the branches will fall apart and the spruce will be ruined. My wife favors removing it sooner, rather than later, because it has grown in girth to stretch over the stone path, but I cannot imagine having to start over from a plant that has been there for twenty years or so.

Several years after moving into the house I expanded the deck slightly so that one railing runs parallel and then perpendicular to the angled kitchen window. At one time or another the railing was covered by akebia and a series of other aggressive vines that eventually had to be removed, but finally I have settled on a fast growing clematis (Clematis montana ‘Rubens’, above) that my wife considers still too aggressive, but I am satisfied is only enthusiastic.

One summer a garter snake made the bushy vine its home, and on warm afternoons the small snake would curl up on a sunny spot at the edge of the rail. After a few surprises I learned to beware, and though the snake is long gone I’m still wary when I cut the vine back a half dozen times through the summer.

The view from the kitchen window is not the best of the garden, and perhaps when the day comes to remove the injured spruce I’ll give thought to making some improvement. The scene from the windows in the bedroom above is much better with the higher vantage point, where two of the ponds and the long stream that winds beside a stone path can be seen. But, we will not be moving the kitchen to the upper floor, and so the best must be made of what we have.

The winter months are ideal to ponder such considerations, the what-ifs of removing the spruce, and would this open a view of the stream that is only a few feet past it? If the spruce is chopped out a shrub of some substance must be replanted in the spot, but not one that will grow so large as to block the view of the stream again in a few years. And if the shrub would have berries that attract more birds for us to enjoy from the window, all the better. But today is not the time to make these decisions. In the peacefulness of the winter garden these changes are often more clear, and so I’ll enjoy my view from the kitchen window as it is for awhile longer.

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Wait! It’s not over

Wait, Wait! Perhaps the garden isn’t finished for the season. Until a few days ago November temperatures were milder than normal, but just barely so. The past week has been much warmer, and the Autumn Amethyst Encore azaleas (below) that bloomed only sporadically through September and October are beginning to flower again.

Encore azaleas routinely flower into December in the warmer Gulf Coast states, but typical November temperatures in northern Virginia send the azaleas into a dormant state that breaks only with the first sustained warmth of March. In my garden some Encore varieties begin blooming in late August and continue into the middle of October, while others don’t begin to flower until October.  When cold temperatures settle in there are plump flower buds that haven’t opened, and if there’s an oddball stretch of warm days there’s a possibility that there will be a few stray blooms.

The fat buds that remain are likely to be damaged by winter’s cold, but new flower buds will be set early in the spring so that the azaleas will bloom on schedule late in April.

Another sign of the unusually warm November temperatures was seen while wandering through the garden on Saturday. A lone bee was merrily buzzing about on the bright yellow blooms of ‘Winter Sun’ mahonia (above). Most of the small flowers have not opened yet, but this bee didn’t mind a bit.

The season’s end

At the end of November there are camellias blooming, and ‘Winter Sun’ mahonia (below) is still a few weeks from its peak flowering, but otherwise the garden is pretty much kaput. Despite somewhat warmer than average temperatures in November (but not by much), the flowers on the Knockout roses have shriveled in the cold nights. With even warmer days forecast for the next few days there might be a few scattered blooms that pop out, but they won’t be around for long.

Almost all leaves have dropped from the deciduous trees, and even the Japanese maples and Chinese dogwoods that hold their leaves weeks later than other trees have gone bare. For eight months of the year neighboring homes disappear behind the dense foliage, but now they are clearly visible, though fortunately still partially screened by tall evergreens in the garden and the thick trunks of trees in the forest that borders the garden.

I have made a halfhearted attempt at clearing the fallen leaves, but there remains much to do. The small lawn areas are mostly clean, with leaves shredded by the mower and left to filter into the soil. The driveway and walkways have been swept clean, so now I don’t track too many damp leaves indoors, which prevents a considerable amount of fuss from my wife.

The pots of tropicals were brought indoors several weeks ago, except for a fern and philodendron (above) that were in concrete planters on the front walk that were forgotten because they had to be dug out and potted into another container. The philodendron is fine, with no damage at all, and the fern seems okay except for a bit of frost injury.

I resist bringing the tropical elephant ears and bananas indoors for the winter for as long as I can get away with it, though this year the weather cooperated and the chore was accomplished without much drama. The pots are heavy, dirty, and awkward to move, and usually the move is done in a panic with the sun going down and freezing temperatures forecast for the night. Once indoors, it’s sad to watch the lush plants deteriorate without adequate sunlight when they are sentenced to a semi dark winter in the basement. I dream of building a bright and warm greenhouse, but I know that I’m too cheap to actually have one constructed, much less pay to heat it.

This year I think that I’ve brought in a few less bugs with the pots than is the norm, though my wife disputes this. With the onset of cold weather we’ve been invaded by spiders, which of course are blamed on the the tropicals, and me. And we’ve had an abundance of little centipede type critters, which might indeed be centipedes, but I always suspect must be something else since certainly not every worm shaped beast with a bunch of legs is a centipede.

The garden’s ponds were covered with netting a day or two before the leaves of the towering maples were shed in a brisk breeze. The small ponds are easily cleaned in the spring if I’m tardy in keeping the leaves out, but the fifteen hundred square foot swimming pond has twenty thousand gallons of water, which would involve far too much effort and expense to clean. So, I’m especially attentive to watching the trees that surround the garden, though the day that the ponds are covered seems to declare that the gardening season is at its end.

There are still a few perennials waiting on the driveway to be planted, and probably those will be put into the ground this weekend. I’ve planted a few small trees recently, but aside from the continuing project to manage the fallen leaves I’m pretty much finished for the season. In another month I’ll begin to imagine new projects and new plants that must be added to the garden, and in early February the watch for the late winter’s first blooms will begin.

November foliage

With gusty breezes a few days ago the Japanese maples suddenly shed their leaves, and now only flowering pears (Pyrus calleryana, below) in the neighborhood, and Chinese and Rutgers’ hybrid dogwoods in the garden have not dropped their colorful foliage. The autumn foliage of the pears is extraordinary, with leaves that color by mid October and hold onto the trees long after others are bare.

Unfortunately, the pears are somewhat problematic, too often suffering severe breakage in summer storms and seeding themselves about in open fields and along fence rows. A mile from my home, hundreds of seedlings have sprouted along a fence where black Angus graze. In mid November the fiery red and yellow foliage is quite magnificent, but reminds how easily this tree escapes from the garden. The tasty fruit is favored by birds, who then deposit the seed far and wide. Other trees are not as vigorous in establishing themselves in poor, dry soils, but the pears are obviously very successful.

The native dogwoods (Cornus florida) shed their foliage weeks ago, but the Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa, above) do not begin to show any color until late in October, and their peak is in early November. With a handful of cultivars in the garden, no two display identical autumn foliage. Two Chinese dogwoods with green and white variegated foliage (‘Samaritan’ and ‘Wolf Eyes’) fade to a drab tan in late October, and look rather sad until the leaves fall, but others are quite eye catching.

The leaves of the pink flowered ‘Satomi’ Chinese dogwood (above) are more rounded, and glossier through the spring and summer than other dogwoods. In November the foliage is wonderfully mottled with red and yellow. ‘Satomi’ grows nearly as wide as it is tall, and in most years its blooms display only a hint of pink in my Virginia garden in late May. In the cooler temperatures of Oregon I’ve seen ‘Satomi’ bloom pink more dependably in mid June . 

The fast growing, white flowered ‘Galilean’ (above) has an upright form, and it colors later than other Chinese dogwoods. A few weeks ago I figured that it was too late, there would be no color this year, but here it is, and the glowing, soft yellow is very much worth the wait.

For years after planting hybrid dogwoods introduced by Rutgers University I didn’t recognize their autumn foliage as being anything special, but in recent years ‘Stellar Pink’ (above) has been splendid. I planted ‘Venus’ a year ago, and its foliage began to turn late in September. ‘Stellar Pink’ started much later, but no tree has been more beautiful this season.

Camellias blooming in November

I’m afraid that the preponderance of evidence is sufficient to conclude that I’m a slow learner (as if you hadn’t figured this before now). Through the years I’ve planted a handful of camellias in the autumn, and each time my effort is rewarded with failure by mid winter, though a few have survived with a live branch or two only to expire in the heat of July. Not yet convinced that I’m slow (or at least stubborn)? Here I go again.

Most camellias are sufficiently cold hardy to be planted in my northwestern Virginia garden without any bother, but my experience tells me that they are better to be planted in the spring, or at least a month before clearance time at the garden centers in late November. Still, today (in mid November) I’m finding it difficult to resist a handsome ‘Chansonette’ sasanqua camellia (above) that is chock full of double pink blooms.

The habit of ‘Chansonette’ is unlike most of the upright growing camellias that I’ve seen on frequent journeys through the southeast. Its branching is pendulous, but perhaps the form is best described as floppy, with branches sprawling in every direction on a low, spreading shrub, considerably wider than it is tall. It’s small leaves are a pleasant dark green, and glossy, and it bears flowers in dense clusters that go on for a month or longer in early autumn.

I have planted a number of other camellias in the garden (most in the spring so that they have transplanted quite easily), including spring blooming Camellia japonica, an autumn blooming sasanqua or two (though they are less cold hardy), and late autumn flowering Ackerman hybrids introduced by the National Arboretum that are blooming now. The japonicas flower in late March to early April in my cold natured garden, slightly ahead of the redbuds, but in competition with other early spring flowers.

‘Winter’s Star’ (above) begins to flower early in November, and I’ll admit that there could be a few flowers late in October, but the two shrubs have been overtaken by low hanging branches of the Golden Rain tree, which I have neglected to prune, though the camellias are treasured far more highly than the Rain tree.  The Encore azaleas have recently faded with freezing temperatures, and Knockout roses are winding down in the cold, so the camellias are alone in the spotlight, and I would be advised to cut them out of their cover so they could be enjoyed more fully.

Beside ‘Winter’s Star’ are three vigorous ‘Winter’s Interlude’ camellias (above) that are fully budded, and I hope to see some blooms this year. There have been none for several years, though it grows beautifully and buds heavily each autumn. In some years  it has scattered flowers after a few warm days in January, and the buds promise to open any day through the winter, until they dry out and drop off disappointingly in March.

I can’t recall, but it seems as if I had planted one or two of the white autumn blooming hybrids, ‘Snow Flurry’ or ‘Winter’s Snowman’, but there’s no evidence of either, and probably I was hoping to get around to planting them, and didn’t. I don’t see any in the garden center now, so this will have to wait until next year.

Lots and lots of leaves

I guestimate that every autumn two hundred tons of leaves fall on my property. Well, perhaps a bit less, but it seems like it. With three hundred feet of property line bordering a forest of towering maples and tulip poplars, and fifty or more smaller trees that I’ve planted, there are plenty of leaves.

So as not to smother the lawn and garden the leaves are removed, certainly not in afternoon or over a weekend, but over a period of weeks. And sometimes months.

I don’t rake, and I don’t bag to haul them away. This seems to be such a waste of a valuable resource, and besides, it’s more work. The leaves that fall on the small lawn areas are run over with the mower until the pieces are fine enough to filter down into the grass. The leaves decay quickly and add small amounts of nitrogen to the soil to feed the lawn.

In the large garden beds the leaves often accumulate in thick piles, and paths and patios are covered completely. A hand held blower/vacuum shreds the leaves while a walk behind leaf vacuum takes up space in the garden shed, having proven to be too cumbersome to maneuver the stone paths and uneven terrain. Though time consuming because of its small size, the hand held vacuum does its work efficiently without sucking up every stick and rock in its path, and the leaves are pulverized to a wonderfully fine texture.

On the patios and beside the garden ponds the shredded leaves are captured in a bag and then spread over beds at the rear of the garden, and a bag or two are tossed on the compost pile. In other areas the bag is left off so that the small bits of leaves are blown randomly over the garden as mulch.

Even the most dreadful soil is quickly transformed after a three or four inch layer of shredded leaves covers it. Soil that is nearly impossible to dig in becomes crumbly as worms work their magic.

If possible, I try to get to the leaves while they’re dry, but much like the garden, I’m winding down, so often there are vast piles still to be removed in late winter. Then, they are damp and matted, so that their removal is so much more difficult.

So, I’ll spend a few hours this weekend vacuuming and grinding leaves, then some next week, and once the paths are cleared and the ground covers uncovered I’ll rest. Whenever the weather cooperates through the winter, when I’m itching to get out of the house to work up a bit of a sweat, I’ll finish the work, but the deadline is a long way off. Without any danger in smothering low growing plants I have only to be rid of the piles before growth begins in April.

Buds of blooms to come

I first planted edgeworthia despite concerns that this deciduous shrub was not sufficiently winter hardy for my northwestern Virginia garden. I had seen its marvelous blooms somewhere or the other (and now I don’t recall where), and decided that planting it was worth the risk. Over the years I’ve planted many marginally cold hardy plants, and often they fail quickly, though a few manage to barely survive and tease that someday they might pull through before one day expiring in the heat of July.

The end for struggling plants often comes in the heat of summer, but edgeworthia has been stressed by winter cold only once, a couple years ago when my home thermometer read zero degrees, but when the true temperature was likely to be a few degrees colder. The stems are naked in January except for flower buds that dangle from branch tips, but they looked cold (if that’s possible), and the stems showed signs of desiccation. In fact, a few of the buds failed to bloom in early March, but otherwise edgeworthia has sailed through winters with no bother at all.

Though marginally cold hardy plants often grow reluctantly, edgeworthia has grown vigorously, and now is nearly four feet tall and ten feet across. This is wider and taller than I expected so quickly, and I presume that it will continue to grow, so I will have to begin cutting it back sometime in the next year or two so it doesn’t engulf its neighbors. This should be quite simple to do, and the logical time to prune it will be immediately after the flowers fade in early spring.

The flowers are unique, in the least, and if I should have to select one bloom as my favorite this would be my likely choice. The flowers are best described as a bunching of long white tubes with slightly flared tips. The tubes are popcorn white, and the tips appear to have been dipped in golden butter.

Edgeworthia’s flowers expand slowly through the winter from tight buds that are evident even in late summer, and often the first sign of color is early in January. Full bloom is usually for three weeks beginning at the the first or second week of March, and as flowers fade the stems are bare for a few weeks until leaves begin to develop late in April.

References often proclaim that the leaves are drab, but I’ve found the fuzzy, blue-green rhododendron-like foliage to be more than acceptable. This isn’t a jump up and down, exciting shrub when it’s not flowering, but few shrubs earn this distinction, and edgeworthia is as nice as any. The foliage has no color in autumn at all, though the leaves stay until the middle of November. After a freeze or two the leaves shrivel, turn to brown, and then they are gone. But, this makes the flower buds all the more obvious so that I can follow their progress through the winter months.

In the proper order of things, edgeworthia flowers after the witch hazels, but before the early magnolias, and if I grew forsythia in the garden it would bloom ten days earlier. I have read that it is fragrant, and I think that I’ve heard that it is highly fragrant, but my sense of smell is reserved only for food, so I can’t vouch for that. I can heartily recommend this delightful, hardier than expected shrub for any garden with a space ten feet in width.