Bulbs in late February

There have been years when the clump of ‘February Gold’ daffodil (Narcissus ‘February Gold’) has flowered in February, but I don’t recall when. In most years the blooms arrive after other varieties that should flower weeks later. The blame, I suspect, is that ‘February Gold’ is somewhat shaded by a multi-trunked ‘Jane’ magnolia so that it is slightly cooler, thus delaying its development. Each year I wait anxiously.Daffodil

In any case, ‘February Gold’ has spread nicely through the years and a dozen or two small bulbs have spread to cover thirty or forty square feet. If the spot was sunnier the clump is likely to have spread further. Taller growing daffodils spread more slowly, but are equally welcomed in early March, and again this year most all will flower ahead of the very early flowering ‘February Gold’.Snowdrops in late February

Snowdrops (Galanthus, above) are the earliest of the winter flowering bulbs in my garden with flowers often arriving by mid January, though the petals often do not open fully until a month later. Today, nearly at the end of February the petals have not spread, so I expect them to persist for at least another few weeks. There seems to be quite a ruckus in some parts over new and rare varieties of snowdrop, but the common types are quite wonderful, and there is no reason at all to go off the deep end in spending for flowers with insignificant differences to anyone but collectors.Eranthis

The small snowdrop bulbs are inexpensive, as are most late winter and early spring flowering bulbs, and there is little excuse for purchasing these in increments any fewer than fifty or a hundred (and five hundred is not too many). I (of course) have planted only a handful or two here and there, not just of snowdrops, but winter aconites (Eranthis, above) and crocus (below). The plan in planting so few was for them to spread vigorously, and as you suspect they have not multiplied as rapidly as planned. Crocus in mi-March

When I first began this garden I stumbled onto a few thousand tulips, with several hundred each of perhaps eight or ten varieties. The first spring was marvelous, even if the neighborhood squirrels had their fill in digging up the fat bulbs.

The second spring only a fraction of the bulbs returned as squirrels fattened themselves and others perished in the poorly drained clay soil. By the fourth years only a few remained, and these faded to only a memory after another year or two. Crocus blooming in late February

Squirrels also harvest the small crocus bulbs, but some parts of the garden seem more vulnerable to this than others. At the area at the corner of the front walk and the driveway crocus have spread modestly, so if the squirrels are getting any of the bulbs there are at least enough newcomers to keep the number growing slightly each year.

Planning for spring

Just because I don’t plan ahead for spring planting doesn’t mean that you should follow my lead. I’m sure your mother warned you not to jump off a bridge just because one of your bonehead friends said it seemed like a good idea. Here, the same principle applies.

My garden is mostly fully developed, with space only to shoehorn in a few delights each spring, so not much planning is required. I suppose that much of my garden has developed in reverse order. I see a plant, bring it home, then figure out where it should go. This inevitably creates a few problems, usually fifteen years down the road when things begin to grow a bit out of control. Nothing too serious that a chainsaw can’t handle, though I often live with the results for another ten or fifteen years before concluding that something must be done, certainly in the next five years.  I don’t suggest this method to anyone, but I understand the consequences of my actions, and in the end most everything works out for the best.Catalpa

In fact, I should back up a bit. This spring there are a few open spaces where trees and brush and brambles were removed last year, so I have a rare opportunity to add a few more plants than usual (and perhaps even the catalpa I’ve yearned for, above). Still, I haven’t put anything on paper, haven’t mapped out the area, and haven’t prepared lists of plants that might be planted.

I’ve said more than a few times that I prefer to hibernate most of the winter rather than work on garden chores. I’m happier not doing it. I read through garden catalogs and magazines, and occasionally I’ll list a few plants that catch my eye, but mostly I bide my time until spring. There’s no need to become unnecessarily excited too early, or the winter seems to go on forever.Redbud blooming in mid April

The proper method for planning a garden (for those inclined to do things in an organized manner) is to gather ideas first, by collecting photos from garden magazines or books, or from sources such as Pinterest. Put your existing garden on paper (graph paper is easiest), detailing all existing structures, walks, patios, and plants. Then, plug in the ideas you have to see if everything fits. The best practice for do-it-yourselfers is to add to the garden slowly to minimize problems created by rushing about without a clue, but if you prefer doing things more quickly and on a grander scale a landscape designer can be enlisted to assist in putting the project onto paper.

There are times when I’m worn out by the chores of spring that I consider having someone dig the holes and plant for me, but then I consider that I can plant twice as much, and the labor doesn’t seem quite so bad. In a few weeks the temperatures will rise, the soil will warm, and I’ll get the urge. Plants are arriving daily in the garden centers, and with each swelling bud I’ll become more anxious to get started planting. Today, I haven’t a clue what will be planted, but that will come to me soon enough.

The garden in February

I see no reason to attempt to convince anyone that growing flowers in their garden through the winter months is worthwhile. For someone who ventures outdoors only to get to the warmth of their automobile there is no earthly reason to make any effort to plant flowers that are never seen. I’m not crazy enough to wander about the garden on cold, gray days when the wind is howling (today!), but there are enough days suitable for outdoor exploration that I find planting for winter flowers richly rewarding.Hellebore in mid February

Until recent years hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus, above and below) would occasionally show a bit of color in my garden early in February, but never sooner, and seldom were any blooms fully opened before late in the month. Several years ago they were buried (along with the rest of garden) under a few feet of snow that persisted into early March when the first flowers peeked through as the  snow melted. This became most disappointing when the hellebores faded after several weeks in the warm, early spring sun.Hellebore in mid February

For the past few years the hellebores have begun flowering in January, and last year there were scattered blooms late in December. Still, the flowers continued into the middle of March with only few of the earliest bloomers fading sooner. Hellebores are perfectly suited to gardeners who are undisturbed by a bit of cold, or by the need to get down in the mud to appreciate the nodding flowers. Even on the largest clumps the flowers can not be seen from more than a few paces away, so hellebores are not the plant to impress the neighbors as they drive past.Hellebore in mid February

A few weeks ago I cut back the foliage so that the flowers would be more prominent. At the time the leaves were unblemished and green, but often they will brown along the edges in late winter, so the plant is greatly improved when the foliage is removed. It grows back quickly once flowering has ended, and by mid spring hellebores are again full and lush.Hellebore in mid February

This afternoon, I noticed many new seedlings growing beside the parent plants, and a few more that strayed a bit further. Several of the large hellebore clumps are in fact several plants growing together as seedlings have sprouted and intermingled with the parents, and this is only evident when slight differences in flowers are observed. Most often I’ll transplant the seedlings once they’ve reached a size to have adequate roots. Several times I’ve lost undersized transplants to a dry spring, so now I err on the side of caution and wait for a larger plant to move. There are so many that I can’t attest to the age at which they begin to bloom, but it seems that I don’t see flowers until at least the second year after they have mature sized foliage. After a few years the gardener doesn’t care, and probably doesn’t know which ones were store bought from the ones that are seedlings, since neither is superior.Winter jasmine at the start of January

I suppose that I could be perfectly content if hellebores were the only winter blooms in the garden, but I don’t object that there are more. Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum, above) is a slightly more refined, earlier flowering, and certainly smaller growing shrub than the ubiquitous forsythia that flowers on every street corner in the neighborhood in mid March (though the flowers and arching habit are similar). There is a utilitarian appeal to winter jasmine in preventing erosion on slopes as its stems root wherever they touch soil, but it is a sufficiently likable shrub if only for the clear yellow blooms that are dependably scattered from early January into March.Snow covered Mahonia bealei blooms

The flower buds of the paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) have been on hold since late January, but Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, above) has also reset its schedule in recent winters to flower earlier into February. It’s peak is still a few weeks off, but there is enough color in the middle of February to satisfy the flower starved gardener.Arnold Promise witch hazel in mid February

The hybrid witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia) make the most prominent display of flowers in February, if only because they are the largest of the winter flowering shrubs. The yellow ‘Arnold Promise’ (above) and red ‘Diane’ (below) begin to show some color late in January, but despite blizzards or unseasonably warm temperatures they are certain to reach their peak in mid February. On still days the fragrance wafts across the back garden, undeniably signaling that spring is near.Diane witch hazel in mid February


The ground along the back border of the garden is soggy, and often swampy. Just a few feet further behind the property line cattails and various other undesirables grow, and between brush and brambles and the likelihood of man eating beasts, only deer dare to enter this unruly, damp jungle. Here, the pussy willow thrives.Pussy willow in mid February

This should be enough said, but there’s more. A few decades ago, or nearly so, I was enthused by a photograph of a variegated leaf pussywillow in a magazine or catalog so that I purchased one found in  the garden center. This was, I figured, unlike the weedy, common pussywillow. With finer foliage than the drab green of the typical pussywillow, I supposed that it must also be more refined in its habit. Certainly, plants with variegated foliage grow slower than their green leafed counterparts due to less chlorophyll, and undoubtedly pussywillow would be vastly improved with somewhat slower growth.Pussy willow catkins in mid-March

Alas, it was not to be! Today, the variegated pussywillow sprawls to cover a space twenty feet wide. It’s irregular habit is unsuited to any of the more civilized parts of the garden, but here, at the edge of the swamp the pussywillow is most appropriate. Here, it can scramble without a care. In competition with the most aggressive neighbors the pussywillow seems an indestructible force.Variegated pussy willow

The leaves are variegated, but the branching is not dense enough that the foliage is shown off to great effect, and in swampy ground I seldom travel back far enough to appreciate the variegation at all. The prominent feature of all pussywillows, of course, is the furry catkins that develop in late winter to reach their peak in late February in my garden. On the variegated pussywillow the catkins are longer and narrower than on the more common shrub, but still these are reason enough to grow this unruly plant so long as it is placed in an appropriate location.

Can I recommend the pussywillow? Yes, so long as the planting spot is similarly well suited as the damp, otherwise useless area where this one is planted. It must be given plenty of space, but with adequate moisture it requires nothing more. Then, you are free to muck about in your rubber boots to cut a few branches to bring indoors for the winter months.

A great memory …. it’s just short

I have a dreadful memory. This is not so much a matter of age as an attention deficit. There’s no syndrome, or any diagnosis so serious, I just don’t pay adequate attention to some things. I rarely recall a person’s name until at least the seventh time we’ve met, and my wife routinely tells stories of our kids growing up. I wonder, where was I when that happened? Yet, I remember the day I planted the huge, purple leafed European beech that occupies much of the front of the property. And the dogwood, and the ‘Bloodgood’ and ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maples.Sinonome toad lily in mid September

I don’t keep good records, so I rarely recall the cultivar names of anything I’ve planted. Tricyrtis ‘Sinonome’ becomes just another toad lily, though occasionally I can match identifying characteristics to a reference and figure it out. I swear that there was a time when I could name almost all of the hundred plus hostas in the garden, but that was before deer nibbled the number down by a third, and before my poor little brain became so cluttered that only gibberish comes out. Sometimes this is convenient, sometimes not.

Anyway, to get back to the story, the front yard is slightly sloped from the road to the house, and the purple leafed European beech is planted halfway between. The lower, back portion of the property is a silty clay, but the upper third is more hard pan with a bit of shale. There was not much difficulty in digging the hole for the beech, but after planting I decided that the lower side of the hill must be supported by a low stone wall. Projects are often more complicated than anticipated, and though nothing about this was too strenuous, it turned out not to be as simple as just digging a hole.Purple leaf beech

If you have ever planted a beech it’s no surprise that for the first eight years it grew imperceptibly, if at all. Most trees spend a year or two growing roots and adjusting to transplanting, but the beech takes its time until just before you have given up hope that it will come around. Then, two years later it grows fine, and twenty some years after planting (and thirteen or fourteen years after it started to grow) the beech now shades much of the front, and the thirsty roots deny water to allow most of anything to grow beneath it.

At one time the front garden was full sun until late afternoon when it was partially shielded by the house. The two upright, dissected leaf ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maples were not always planted inside the front walk. In the garden’s early years two dogwoods were planted beside the house, but the spot quickly proved too damp. One dogwood failed, the other was moved to higher ground just outside the walk, where it flourishes twenty years later. The maples have grown so that branches arch over the walk, and along with the dogwood the area has become shaded so that boxwoods planted beneath them are slowly declining.Bigleaf magnolia

I should also point out that my grasp of time has failed me, and almost certainly was never very good. As the garden has crept past twenty years it sometimes seems that the day I planted the Bigleaf magnolia in the side yard could not have been any longer than eight or perhaps ten years ago. But, then I recall seeing the magnolia in a tree grower’s field in middle Tennessee, overgrown with weeds and neglected, with the uncommon tree abandoned as unmarketable.

Our pickup truck traveled through the waist high grass, thumping along through potholes left from trees that had been dug in past years. I spotted the magnolia’s huge leaves, and after a few moments negotiation, the tree was mine (to be dug in late winter  for spring planting). The Bigleaf magnolia adjusted to the transplant marvelously, and quickly substantiated references’ recommendation that the tree is inappropriate for most residential properties. It’s big and coarse, and the huge leaves and blooms barely substantiate its place in the garden. But, to me it’s a found treasure and one of the few lasting memories I have.

(Un)remarkable in winter

The magnificent native dogwood (Cornus florida) is not much to look at in the dead of winter, though references and overly enthusiastic garden writers might imply that it has four season interest. The clusters of red berries that are evident when the foliage drops in mid autumn (and are the basis of the four season claim) are quickly devoured by birds so that the gray stems are bare in winter except for small button-like buds at the branch tips that will become flowers in mid April.

There is no shame in the dogwood being unremarkable through more than a third of the year, with no foliage, flowers, or berries, and bark that is nothing to shout about. The same is true of many exceptional plants, and there are few plants that attract more than a few weeks of well deserved attention. This is, of course, not reason to give up and plant nothing at all, but an incentive to plant to fill the seasons, and indeed, there are splendid attractions in the winter garden.Nandina domestica in late November

With cold temperatures and short daylight many gardeners care only that the winter months pass as quickly and harmlessly as possible. I’ll admit that I feel the same through any period of sunless, chilly days when the wind howls. But, on days when it is pleasant enough to stroll through the garden I cherish the evergreen hollies and nandinas (Nandina domestica, above), loaded with bright red berries. The dark needled cryptomerias and dwarf hemlock are afterthoughts in a garden full of spring blooms, rarely given much attention until the dark foliage stands out against the winter’s gray.Montgomery spruce

The sky blue needles of spruce are more muted in winter, but with a dusting of snow they recall colder winters (though the coldest Virginia winter is nothing to compare with the spruce’s native habitat). The tall spruces have disappeared from the garden in recent years, victims to encroaching shade as the garden matures, but squat, rounded growing forms (Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’, above) are treasured in the few remaining sunny spots.Gold Dust aucuba

In shade or sun there are evergreens with yellow and yellow variegated foliage that stand out against the drab background. Yellow flecked aucubas (Aucuba japonica ‘Variegata’ or ‘Gold Dust’, above) are valued evergreens in all but the deepest shade, and an assortment of yellow cypresses (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Lutea’, below) retain splendid color despite the shortened hours of sunlight.Gold Lawson cypress

In a few weeks the evergreens will fade into the background as brightly flowering witch hazels and hellebores catch the eye. The hollies and cryptomerias will return to utilitarian purposes (such as screening) until the flowers and foliage fade and drop in late autumn. Then, again they become remarkable.

The downhill side of winter

At the start of February we’re on the downhill side of winter, but I’m anxious for the season to move along faster to be rid of this cold. A few unusually warm days tease that spring is drawing nearer, but the mood is spoiled a day later with a chill and gusty winds. Even on warmer days I’ve not yet gotten the motivation to begin with early season garden chores, but I suppose that will come.

Many gardeners, it seems, prefer to undertake these tasks in bits and pieces through the winter, and each has their personal threshold for working in the cold. I’m willing to work regardless of the temperature, as long as the need is urgent. I would prefer a few more sixty degree days and fewer highs in the thirties, but I’ve experienced enough spring clean ups to know that I can accomplish what’s necessary while sitting out most of the winter.Hellebore in February

There are grasses and perennials to be cut, and winter weeds to be pulled before they go to seed. This is where I’ve habitually been most negligent so that many thousands of seeds are dispersed before I get around to this labor. If the weeds are removed while small and before seeding the task is quite simple, but a delay into March inevitably results in many more weeds next winter. Cutting the dead tops of grasses and perennials can wait, but if I’m able to gather the strength to get around to anything, pulling the winter weeds will be at the top of the list.Winter jasmine in late winter

Most often, a warm day in early February is spent enjoying the Vernal witch hazel, winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum, above), and hellebores, and checking on the progress of the snowdrops (Galanthus, below) that have broken ground with flowers that are evident but seem reluctant to open further in the cold. This seems more important today rather than crawling about in the mud to root out chickweed.Snowdrops blooming in late January

The buds of hybrid witch hazels, winter daphne, and paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha, below) grow fatter each day, with a bit of color peeking out that promises blooms by mid month. I will get to the chickweeds and henbit soon enough, and to chopping off the withered foliage of daylilies and hostas that must be removed before growth starts in mid March. There are piles of leathery leaves of hellebores that were cut off to better show the flowers that must be gathered and dumped into the compost, and still piles of maple and poplar leaves that must be shredded and spread about the garden. I will get around to each task, but with several weeks of winter remaining, there is no rush.Edgeworthia in February