The magnolia watch – when will they flower?

In past years ‘Royal Star’ (Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’) and ‘Dr. Merrill’ (Magnolia x loebneri ‘Dr. Merrill’) magnolias have flowered in early March in my garden, or sometimes nearer the end of the month. And, occasionally the blooms will arrive in late February or slip to early April, so there’s no early or late flowering time that could be considered surprising. Flowering of the magnolias is most dependent on temperatures, and with cooler weather over the past six weeks they are behind a bit.  There’s no reason to be disturbed by this, but I’ve become impatient with the persistent cold of this early spring. In years when the magnolias flower early the blooms are threatened by frost and freeze, with heavy frost turning the edges to brown, and a freeze transforming the flowers to brown mush.Star magnolia breaking bud

But not this year, at least not yet, and certainly not in my garden. The garden is at the bottom of foothills that nestle closely to the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge mountains, and cold air settles into the bottom land so that the garden is a bit colder than surrounding properties. There is an advantage in that the howling winter breezes blow right over the garden, but anything that flowers in the spring blooms much later than areas closer to the city and often several days or a week later than in gardens right up the street. When you see it here, it’s not news. It’s more like a replay unless you’re a state or two to the north.Dr. Merrill magnolia

In any case, it’s the last week of March and the magnolias aren’t flowering yet. With cooler than average temperatures over the past month I expect that flowering of many trees and shrubs will be delayed. Several years ago, a similar weather pattern delayed many flowers into April, so that magnolias bloomed with redbuds and dogwoods. I don’t recall that I was any more patient in waiting for spring’s arrival, but the delay resulted in a most delightful April with double the typical blooms.Royal Star magnolia

‘Dr. Merrill’ was severely damaged in the straight line windstorm last summer. Magnolias often grow as low branched or multi-trunked trees, and ‘Dr. Merrill’ had forked into two main trunks. The weak spot for such branching is the joint of the two trunks, but instead the tree was shattered fifteen feet higher. So, now one trunk rises twenty some feet through a clump of viburnums at the wood’s edge, and the other trunk ends abruptly ten feet below.

The point where the trunk snapped grew some feeble branches in late summer, but since the tree backs up to the forest I have a bit of leeway not to have to worry too much about pruning the broken trunk. I expect that enough foliage will grow after flowering to disguise the break, and everything will blend in with the low branched maples of the forest so that it will barely be noticed in another month. Still, I’m anxious for some flowers.

I’m moving to South Carolina

A year ago I noted that the mild winter temperatures were more akin to South Carolina than to northwestern Virginia. I’m not at all certain that this was a result of the warming of the planet (that seems inevitable), or an anomaly, but I was all for it in the short term. If this matter were strictly up to me I would forego winter altogether, and of course this can be fairly easily accomplished by moving a few states to the south. But, family and a fulfilling career have kept me anchored to this area, where winters are still relatively short and not particularly severe at their worst.Hellebore in mid February

The reason for bringing this up today is that there’s snow on the ground again today, a chance for more in the forecast, and temperatures are not likely to rise much above fifty degrees for this last week of March. The night time low temperatures this winter have been warmer than average, but day time highs have been cool for the past six weeks, and I’m tired of it.Arnold's Promise witch hazel in mid February

There have been a sufficient number of blooms through the winter to keep this gardener satisfied. In recent years I’ve planted enough winter bloomers that there are flowers every day of the year, and usually several different plants flowering at any time. Hellebores and witch hazels have been flowering for nearly two months, but I’m impatient for warm spring days when each morning brings another bulb, shrub, or tree into bloom.Snowdrops in late February

During last week’s heavy, wet snow I rose early in the morning to shake the snow from branches that were bent, but this morning it appeared that only the tall nandinas were bent to an extent to cause any alarm. The ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maple that leaned over so far a week ago that it blocked the entrance to the garage was not bent nearly so badly, so I took this as a sign that I need not look any further. Again, I expect this snow to melt quickly and in a few days there should be no sign of it. I hope that I’m correct, and that I don’t survey the garden in a few days to find evergreen magnolias and Japanese maples tattered and broken.magnoliastar2

In a few days (maybe a week) I expect that spring temperatures will finally arrive. First, ‘Royal Star’ and ‘Dr. Merrill’ magnolias will flower, closely followed by redbuds and flowering cherries. Winter daphne and paperbush are a few warm afternoons away from full bloom. The native dogwoods will flower in another week or ten days later, and there will be viburnums, then azaleas before the close of April. There is not an exact timetable for these, but the order follows naturally without much variation. The only holdup is this horrible cold, and the sooner it is out of the way I’ll be happy to be right here, instead of wishing I were someplace warmer.

Unusual and uncommon March blooms

For the first time since I planted the Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica, sometimes referred to as Persian witch hazel, below) I’ve seen its unusual blooms. Parrotia is in the witch hazel family (Hamamelis), and the flowers are somewhat similar to other witch hazels. This tree was a late addition to the garden, planted long after prime positions for a tree so grand were taken, so that the Parrotia has been planted in too shady a spot. With limited sunlight and moisture robbed by nearby shallow rooted maples, the tree grows with a notable lack of vigor.Parrotia blooms

The blooms in mid March are sparse, and clustered to the one side that receives the most sunlight whenever it is that the flower buds are formed. This changes to varying degrees through the year depending on the sun’s path, but the Parrotia is shaded enough that the splendid autumn foliage color is also diminished.

A wiser gardener would have planned a spot to provide the Parrotia with more sun, but that would mean that something else would have to go, and rarely is any plant expendable in this garden as long as there is an open inch of ground. Long term planning is not my priority, and since the tree is surviving I’ll presume that all is well, and that the tree will gain a foothold and its health will improve in the next few years. I could help it along by cutting out some of the lower branches of the oaks and maples that border this part of the garden, though there’s not much to be done about the lack of moisture.Parrotia_persica_foliage

I have lost more than a few treasures through the years due to careless planting, but many more have survived to confirm to me that plants are often much tougher than you expect. A sturdy plant will often persevere through neglect and abuse with the slightest amount of attention, and this is the plan for the Parrotia. It’s been in the ground for a couple years now, so the worst is over unless I allow branches from neighboring trees to overhang and shade it further. Lopping off even a few of the branches from the nearby oak is likely to be all that’s needed.

So, it appears that we’ve settled this matter. All that’s needed is to drag the ladder to the back of the property to climb to remove the few lowest branches, and next year in late winter a bounty of marvelous red blooms will be expected.Paperbush flowering in mid March

Many gardeners favor plants that are a bit out of the ordinary, and another less than common shrub in the witch hazel family has become one of my favorites. In fact, most plants in the witch hazel family are exceptionally worthy garden plants, and that they are not overly common makes them all the more wonderful. Paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha, above) should be planted more widely, but I rarely see it available, and I find it difficult to understand why.

Some winter flowering shrubs are not so popular as they should be because they bloom just a bit too early for garden center customers to see the flowers, but paperbush flowers at the start of the prime spring season. In any case, I’m happy to have planted four small shrubs several years ago that have grown to nearly ten feet across, and in mid March each has many hundreds of white tubular blooms, tipped with butter-yellow.Edgeworthia in bloom in mid March

The flowers are fragrant, though I feign to notice any scent at all, and certainly the fragrance is not as strong as any of the garden’s witch hazels. But, there is no shrub in the garden with more abundant blooms, which stand out ever more since they are carried on bare stems. If paperbush flowered in late April, with azaleas and camellias and so much more, it would still be lovely, but blooming at the end of a dull, gray winter the flowers are considerably more delightful.

I’ve been known to over plant on occasion, and in my zeal I planted two clumps of three small paperbushes just prior to winter when I was sorting out what should go where after limbing up a declining spruce and removing brush and brambles at the front corner of the garden. The plants were available, and there must be some place to fit them in, so this spot will do just fine until they get a bit of size on them. I’m afraid that the spruce will continue to go downhill, and that sooner than later it will need to be removed completely. How I will go about this with two large clumps of paperbush to either side I don’t know, but there’s plenty of time to sort out such matters, and in the meanwhile I don’t believe it is possible to have too much of such an extraordinary shrub.

The blooms are one warm weekend away from their prime, and even if warm days are not imminent the flowers should be fully opened in another week. With cool temperatures I would not be surprised to see the paperbushes still in bloom with azaleas near the end of April. With many flowers delayed by the cold of recent weeks April will be quite spectacular. A year ago spring flowers began in February, and a few even in late January, but all are being pushed back several weeks late so the blooming season will be compressed. I’m looking forward to it!

So, this is the first day of spring?

Today is spring? I’m not impressed.

There should be no surprise that the weather on the first day of spring is not much different from the preceding three weeks, and much the same or worse is forecast for the next ten days. It’s not exactly cold, but this doesn’t feel like March, or spring. It’s more an extended February.Mini daffodils in mid March

I don’t expect any weather related problems from this cold, or light snow that’s a possibility again tomorrow. Daffodils (above) and any other plants that are flowering, or any new growth that’s popping up on perennials is well acclimated so that it won’t be injured, and most often the relatively mild cold temperatures will only extend the life of blooms. So, don’t worry about the cold. Don’t run out to drape a blanket over the pieris (Pieris japonica ‘Dorothy Wyckoff’, below), and don’t waste a moment worrying about the garden. It will be fine, though just like you, it’ll be shivering.Dorothy Wyckoff pieris in mid March

When it warmed up for a few hours on Saturday bees awakened from their winter slumber to seek out early blooms. The pieris was buzzing as bees darted frantically between blooms. As the sun set and temperatures dropped, the bees disappeared, and they haven’t been back. It could be another week before they’ve thawed out enough to get moving again, but this weekend it won’t be raining or snowing, so I’ll be out and about. There’s far too much to do to sit out another weekend, or even a few hours.Hellebores in bloom, ready to plant

I’ll be working on the spring clean up, and today I brought home a bunch of new hellebores (above) to plant, so I have plenty to do. I warn family and friends not to bother including me in their plans for several weeks once the garden clean up has begun, and not that I’m ever invited or anyone wants to visit, but my wife knows that I’m doing nothing over the next three weekends but garden chores.Vinca minor in mid March

I know that everyone’s thinking that the day this spell of cold is over the temperatures are likely to skyrocket straight to hot. So many times these things catch your attention, but we know that’s not reality. Certainly, we’re due for some average and above temperatures since the last month has been slightly colder than average, but any string of very warm days in April will probably be followed by a few cool ones and so on until the start of June. This is how it works in spring, though the weather last year makes you question if things work properly anymore.

Mid March

Despite cool temperatures, March is dragging the garden (kicking and screaming against its will, it seems) into spring. On Saturdays’s gray morning I was convinced on first glance that the day was too inhospitable to undertake the garden chores that surely must be accomplished within the next few weeks or disaster will strike. Rain seemed imminent, and recent days have been uncomfortably cool, so I was content to sit it out and concentrate my efforts on another day when the weather would be more pleasant.A late flowering hellebore in mid March

There is limited time once temperatures become suitable to work outdoors before perennials and grasses begin growing, and if the old foliage is not removed there is a mess that makes the labor doubly difficult. If piles of leaves are not raked and shredded, perennials growing beneath are likely to grow weak and spindly. In past years, I’ve neglected late winter weeds until after they’ve flowered and scattered thousands of seeds, so that many hours of additional labor are required. Having suffered the pains of neglect too many times, I’m motivated to get on with the chores so long as there’s not a reasonable excuse to delay for another week.

Giving up on this dreary day, I relaxed to read the newspaper from front to back. But, by late morning the sun broke through the heavy clouds for a few moments to catch my attention, and I noticed on the thermometer that the temperature had risen above fifty. Perhaps some work would be accomplished after all.Okame cherry in mid March

Lately, I’ve noted that early spring flowering plants are tardy by comparison to recent years, and in fact I read yesterday that the peak flowering of the renowned cherry blossoms in D.C. has been moved back another week, into early April. Typically, I’m not one to quibble with the weather, but I’ll admit to becoming impatient with the delay in warm weather arriving. So, I was pleasantly surprised to go out into the garden after spending a few too many hours in the office this week.

‘Okame’ cherry (Prunus x incam ‘Okame’, above) was in tight bud a week ago, but today this early flowering cherry is nearing full bloom. ‘Okame’ will often begin to flower late in February or at the start of March. Occasionally, the blooms are injured by late frosts, but the small flowers are much less at risk than larger magnolia blooms that arrive at nearly the same time. ‘Okame’ is not commonly planted, though its early blooms and moderate size compared to other wide spreading cherries should substantiate wider acceptance.February Gold daffodil in mid March

I’ve lamented the late arrival of ‘February Gold’ daffodils (above), and finally they are beginning to flower in mid March. This isn’t unheard of, but in recent years they’ve flowered much earlier (sometimes even in February, which the name implies, but is rarely the month when they flower in my garden). Other daffodils show only the slightest amount of color in this cold natured garden, where I herald flowers that have often been blooming for weeks in warmer area gardens.

Crocuses in mid March

The last of the crocuses are flowering in the front garden (above), when I figured that all had already bloomed, and I supposed that the purple ones must have been carried off by squirrels. In some gardens crocuses seed and spread with abandon, but not in this garden, and here again is a lesson that spring flowering bulbs should be planted  in numbers no less than fifty, or even a hundred. Otherwise, the results are disappointing for years. Some year, I’ll heed this excellent advice when making my purchases in early autumn, but I’ll enjoy this small bunch of purple flowers for now. I will also opt for earlier flowering types when purchasing in the future, since the small crocuses are more appreciated when there are fewer other flowers.Pieris flowering in mid March

The day’s labor is more worthwhile by taking a few occasional moments to enjoy these flowers, and the pieris and edgeworthias that are tardy, but now beginning to show some color. Temperatures are forecast to be cooler again for the coming week, and no warm days are forecast through the end of the month. So, spring will continue to creep along, but the work accomplished on this Saturday, and the flowers are encouraging.

Gun control

On several occasions my wife has been angry enough to declare that she is ready to purchase a gun and put it to good use. Not that I’ve done anything to deserve being shot, but it makes sense to me that a husband should not be in favor of arming his wife. There are too many things that can go awry. Fortunately, the target of her violent urges was not me in these instances, but squirrels in the attic, and then deer eating the garden.

In each case we’ve had a go of it in trying to resolve the issue without resorting to violence, with little success for one and better results for the other. The squirrel problem is ongoing, a continuing source of frustration as they frolic in the attic and in the ceiling above the library. They seem to be having a jolly time, but we’ve suffered from wiring problems and I half expect to return home from work one day to see the house burned to the ground. Eastern Grey Squirrel

Once, in desperation we hired an exterminator to trap them. On consecutive nights we caught a possum and a skunk (quite harmless, and quickly returned back to the wild), but no squirrels, and I’m afraid that more urgent methods could be required. If it were not for the potential danger in chewing electrical wires I wouldn’t be bothered at all by the squirrels. You have to admire their ingenuity in defeating the most foolproof of squirrel resistant bird feeders, and thus far in steering clear of the carefully laid traps that snared less devious minded beasts. They are more pleasant in temperament than the docile and skittish deer, but that’s small consolation when they threaten your home.

The squirrel problem is still open to negotiation with my wife, but there’s little chance that the solution will involve anything more lethal than a BB gun (and even that is a bit much for me). Our problem with deer is not so critical, though I neglected to spray the repellent late in autumn and they have munched the tips of many of the azaleas and aucubas (and now they’re nipping at the camellias).Deer in the yard

For ten years or longer we had no deer problems in this garden. Yes, there were deer, but civilization had not crowded into our area so much, so it seems that there were sufficient food sources. In those days my wife and I would walk through the nearby woods with our two incorrigible mutts. We’d let them off their leashes for a moment, and usually within seconds they were off, catching a scent or movement of deer in the brambles. They’d return home hours later, worn to the bone but content from their chase.

At this time I grew quite a nice collection of hostas. There were a hundred or more varieties, and in these younger days I could name them all. There were big leafed forms and miniatures, and everything in between. Of some there were handfuls, and these were regularly divided and spread about or given away when there were a few too many. Others were single plants, which spread slowly so that they never required dividing. Then, they began to disappear. At first, just a few leaves, then more, then entire plants were eaten to the ground.Nandina and hostas

Now, I’m an advocate for wildlife, and I gladly invite skunks, possums, rabbits, groundhogs, chipmunks, and countless other beasts into the garden. There are so many birds that domesticated cats from two counties away come to prove their hunting skills (which are usually quite poor since the cats tend to be a bit portly, probably incapable of leaping to catch a bird that was clueless enough to be caught unaware). I’m happy to have deer (and even squirrels) in the garden so long as they don’t cross the line, and where the line is, my wife will usually tell me.

When hostas began disappearing my wife made it clear that the line had been crossed, and it was time to do something or she would take care of it herself. Even if did not fear for my personal safety, shooting wildlife in residential areas is not a brilliant idea, and fortunately there are more effective means of deterring deer. Under the strict direction of my wife a schedule was set to spray a repellent on the first weekend of every month beginning in April. The last spray of the year would be in November when a higher concentration was sprayed on vulnerable evergreens.A handful of hosta and Japanese Forest grass

I’ve been spraying a deer repellent for five years or so, and it’s proven to be quite effective. Occasionally, I’ll skip over a plant, and deer quickly discover ones that are unprotected. Through cold and rain the repellents work dependably for at least a month. I don’t think that the brand of repellent matters much. I’ve used a couple, with no apparent differences in the results or the period of effectiveness. These days, my wife rarely has to remind me to spray, but when I delay for a week or two it doesn’t seem to matter. Beyond six weeks, the effectiveness wanes quickly.

When I talk with someone who says that they’ve tried repellents without success I assume that they sprayed once, then didn’t follow up. Spraying isn’t a one time thing, but in my large garden it takes only a half hour each month to spray all vulnerable plants. Some plants are resistant to deer, and I don’t bother spraying these. I could plant more deer resistant plants and not bother with the spray, but I love plants and I can’t imagine limiting my choices.

Now, without the threat of deer, my collection of hostas is growing, though I don’t think I’m capable of remembering the names of more than few handfuls. More importantly, I feel safer knowing my wife isn’t armed and dangerous.

Almost spring

Prompt action in the early morning prevented all but minor damage to Japanese maples and evergreens that were bent from the heavy, wet snow a few days ago. Of course, I happily crow my successes (few as they are), and remain largely silent when schemes go awry. The garden has suffered considerably from heavy snow  in recent years, so I’m pleased that only a bit of minor pruning will be required to shape up the magnolias and crapemyrtles injured in this recent storm.Hellebore in mid February

Snow often lingers in this shaded garden for days after it has melted from neighboring properties, and even with warm, sunny afternoons much of the garden bordering the tall tulip poplars and maples remained covered until today. The hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus, above) emerged from the snow unscathed, and now they are at their peak bloom, though they will begin to decline with warmer days over the next few weeks. Already, dozens of seedlings are seen sprouting close to the largest clumps. These will be left until they are well rooted, then many will be transplanted to other partially shaded spots.Leatherleaf mahonia in early March

Leatherleaf mahonias (Mahonia bealei, above) are flowering in their typical period, though this is many weeks later than last year when they bloomed early in our extraordinarily warm January. I have planted several of these mahonias that slowly spread from the roots, but several others have sprouted from seed deposited by birds who consumed the grape like fruits. Thus, leatherleaf mahonia is considered invasive in some regions, though I have not seen any areas where it has spread sufficiently to threaten native flora.

If this is a concern I recommend the hybrid, early winter flowering Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’, which has similar yellow flower panicles, and a more compact form than leatherleaf mahonia. I read recently that a native plant group recommends substituting the native deciduous holly (Ilex verticillata) and American holly (Ilex opaca) for leatherleaf mahonia, but these are plants with wildly dissimilar habits. These natives are superb plants when used properly, but only a gardener demanding exclusively native plants without a care for their growth characteristics would consider these as suitable alternatives for the evergreen and smaller growing mahonia. In my experience I haven’t seen evidence to consider leatherleaf mahonia an invasive threat in the mid-Atlantic region, though occasional seedlings must be weeded out.Sweetbox in early March

Sweetbox (Sarcococca humilis, above) is flowering, though the blooms are small enough that they are barely seen. The gardener is often alerted to their flowers by the potent fragrance, but with my poor sense of smell I can smell them only occasionally. In any case, the foliage is pleasantly glossy, and after taking a few years to get started sweetbox creeps steadily along, spreading from the roots.

This spring is a little slow getting started, and even with a few warm, sunny days the buds of the early flowering magnolias show no signs of opening. The edgeworthias are also late in blooming, showing little change since early in February. But, these will come soon enough, and after several weeks of cold, then nearly foot of snow, it appears that spring has nearly arrived.