Birds and bees in winter

Sparkleberry holly in early DecemberThe winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata ‘Sparkleberry’, above) have been stripped bare. The shrubs are situated along the driveway so that they cannot be seen in the usual course of a day, so it’s not possible to know if the birds made off with the last of the berries a day, or a month ago.Koehneana holly

Of course, I assume that birds absconded with the berries rather than that they merely fell off onto the ground. There have been no dramatic droughts or heat waves to cause the berries to drop, and it should be obvious that birds have fewer food choices in late December. As always, the abundant berries of evergreen hollies (Ilex koehneana, above) and nandinas (Nandina domestica) remain undisturbed, so it seems safe to assume they are unpalatable, but still they are lovely to look at.Dogwood berries

Many garden references attribute the red berries of the native American dogwood (Cornus florida, above) to winter interest, though in my garden not a single fruit has ever lasted until winter (or even to Thanksgiving). Again, I have not seen a bird snatch a single berry from the dogwoods, but one day the berries are in full display, and the next time the gardener looks, they’re gone. I suspect that birds are able to figure when the berries have properly ripened, and then they make short work to strip every last one.Honeybee on Winter Sun mahonia in December

At midday on one of the recent days when temperatures soared into the sixties, a scattering of honeybees were seen on the blooms of the ‘Winter Sun’ mahonias (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, above). I know far too little about the birds, butterflies, and bees that frequent the garden, but I understand that the natural cycle is that few bees survive the winter. I suppose that when temperatures rise the few are encouraged to get out to gather nectar from the odd flower.

How it is that a bee would consider that anything would be flowering in winter confounds me, and how would they find the widely scattered blooms? I’m certain that there are readily found explanations for this, and perhaps I should spend a few of my leisure hours this winter investigating further. I should also research to help to identify the local bird population so that I can distinguish more than only cardinals and hawks.

In recent years there have been many fewer honeybees in the garden, though bumblebees, wasps, and hoverflies are plentiful. Through spring and summer when there are abundant blooms, my curiosity too often leads me to poke my nose much too close to too many stinging creatures, so I’m overjoyed to see the honeybees hard at work on a winter afternoon.


Koi on a warm winter afternoon.

Last week the edges of the large koi pond were frozen, the result of prolonged cold. There is no harm that comes from this, even if the pump is turned off and the pond’s surface freezes over. On smaller ponds water must be kept moving, or a hole kept open for harmful gasses resulting from decaying leaves to escape. This pond is nearly 25,000 gallons, and there is little chance of harm to the fish unless the pond is frozen for a considerable period. Still, I keep the waterfall running through the winter.

After a few days of abnormally warm temperatures the koi (and a few goldfish) have perked up to greet me as I walk close. I’ve no doubt they are looking for food, but that will wait until water temperatures warm up in March. With cold weather forecast there is danger that the food would not digest quickly, which could be harmful.

I haven’t a clue how many fish are in the pond. Nine small koi were initially placed in the pond, but soon only three remained. But, within weeks newcomers were seen, and each year there are more little guys than my wife and I can count. At some point the number could become a problem, but for now the pond is sufficiently large to support the crowd.

Through late summer and autumn a heron frequently perched at the pond’s edge, but the deep pond made fishing difficult. If the heron caught anything, I’m not aware, though the koi were very cautious about coming to the surface for a few months. Several years ago a heron decimated the fish population of one of the garden’s smaller ponds, but the few remaining goldfish were transported to the large pond, and for now this is the only pond with fish.

The ponds and koi are one of the great joys of this garden. There are five ponds of varying sizes with the smallest less than a hundred square feet and the largest somewhere around twelve hundred. Other than a thorough cleaning in early spring, maintenance on the ponds is negligible, and in any case, certainly less than the time required to weed and mow.


The promise of spring

Snow on mahoniaDespite bouts with ice, snow, and several nights when temperatures dipped far into the teens, ‘Winter Sun’ mahonia (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, above) continues to flower into late December. In recent years the blooms have persisted into January, and there’s no reason to expect anything different this year.Leatherleaf mahonia

On close inspection a hint of yellow can be detected on the late winter flowering leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, above), and this is what keeps the gardener going through the dark days of winter. It will be at least another month before leatherleaf mahonia should be expected to flower, but that won’t stop me from eyeballing it expectantly whenever I roam through the garden in January.

In the odd winter without any significant cold a few years ago, both ‘Winter Sun’ and leatherleaf bloomed in January, joined by an occasional camellia, and then snowdrops and witch hazels. I expect that there will be something flowering every day through the winter, but in a more typical year there will be fewer blooms and they will be more scattered.Vernal witch hazel in January

I’ve begun to watch the witch hazels, and certainly the first in line to flower will be the Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, above), with fragrant, but dull yellow to rust colored blooms in mid-January. The flowers of vernalis are small, but not insignificant to the gardener anxious for winter to be over. The hybrid witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, below, ‘Diane’, and ‘Jelena’) flower a few weeks later, and once they are in full bloom I’m certain that spring is only a few weeks off.  witch_hazel_january28

Meanwhile, I’ll keep a close eye on the slowly expanding flower buds of Winter daphne (Daphne odora, below), hellebores, and paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) to occupy the chilly days until spring.Variegated winter daphne in late January

The winter’s worklist

Sleep, sleep, and cut back foliage on the hellebores. That’s it, that’s all I plan to accomplish  between now and spring.

Perhaps I’ll manage to work in a bit of time to continue to cut up the trunk of the tall maple  that toppled over into the garden in last week’s ice storm. The top third of the tree and smaller branches have been cut into sections and piled at the garden’s edge, and sooner than later these will need to be moved (or burned) or wildlife will be encouraged to nest in the debris pile a little too close to the house.

Over the weekend my wife and I watched a coyote leisurely trot along the garden’s border, and footprints in the snow that has lingered for the past two weeks show evidence of raccoons (or possibly skunks), and deer right up to the house. We have no objection to sharing the garden, but prefer that wildlife set up living quarters a little further from the house.Maple damaged in ice storm

When the huge maple fell it crushed a redbud I planted twenty-some years ago, and several spring flowering camellias were damaged. Two Oakleaf hydrangeas were mostly broken to the ground, but unlike the redbud these should be fine in the spring (but much smaller). Some pruning will be required to cut back the few tall stems that weren’t damaged to bring back some symmetry (though there wasn’t much to start with), but this will wait until spring when the hydrangeas show the first signs of growth.

Fortunately, the deep piles of leaves that fell through the autumn at the edge of the forest were cleaned up, shredded, and spread over much of the garden several weeks ago. If the project had been delayed (as is often the case), the leaves would now be wet and matted, the chore would be more difficult, and I would be unlikely to get back to it until early in March. This time, I’m rather pleased with myself.Snow on Winter's Joy camellia

While cutting up the maple I was as careful as I could be not to trample on the hellebores that are scattered between the camellias and hydrangeas. I’ve little doubt that dozens of tiny seedlings were stomped into the mud, but I don’t believe there is damage to the larger plants. A few hellebores were flattened, and here is where I saw that the fat flower buds that will bloom sometime in mid to late winter have already developed.Hellebore flower buds in early January

Some newer varieties of hellebore set buds just above the foliage, but most flowers stand just at the level of the leaves. If the old foliage is cut off the blooms are more prominent, and this seems like a good project for the warmer weather that is expected next weekend. And after that exhausting task is complete, I’ll take a nap.

A blessing or a curse?

For the better or the worse, the garden changes. Plants grow (if the gardener is so fortunate not to kill everything), but in time this can present problems as trees shade smaller shrubs and perennials. While Japanese maples and dogwoods grow vigorously, a tickseed or sedum will invariably require transplanting to a sunnier location, and if the gardener is preoccupied with other things (or too lazy) the perennials eventually fade and disappear.Edgeworthia blooms in the late March snow

Shrubs can also grow beyond the gardener’s expectations. Despite careful research, a paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha, above) has grown to double the size listed in references. Where no reference was consulted, an assumption was made that a yellow tipped Dovaston yew (Taxus baccata ‘Dovastoniana Pendula’, below) would grow barely past head high. The yew, planted immediately beside the house, quickly skyrocketed past the basement and first story ceilings, and it spread so wide that only a few ferns can be planted within fifteen feet of its massive trunk.Dovastonia aurea yew

Too many complications arise when the gardener foolishly jams this or that into a space that is hardly adequate, or when miscalculations are made and a site proves too sunny or shady. Failure to provide adequate water for new introductions to the garden is a particular problem, but in this garden more plants are lost as exuberant shrubs overwhelm less sturdy neighbors.Forest Pansy redbud new growth

In recent years one storm or another has doomed or disfigured a handful of trees that had grown to significant stature, and again this week an ice storm caused a maple from the neighboring forest to crash onto a venerable ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud (Redbud canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’, above). The redbud had slowly faded as shade in this portion of the garden grew more dense, and so the blow from the loss of this twenty year old presence was lessened. Now, there is a hole to fill, with the winter months ahead to consider what is to fill the gap.Drupes of Seven Son tree

When a Seven Son tree (Heptacodium miconioides, above) was lost to the wind of a summer storm, months passed before an adequate replacement was determined, and still I question if the Red Horsechestnut (Aesculus x carnea, below) is completely satisfactory. In fact, the horsechestnut’s blooms are superior, but the Seven Son flowers in late summer when there are fewer blooms, and the clusters of small white flowers are followed by purple-pink drupes. Marvelous, but I suppose the horsechestnut is also. Visitors seem pleased by the choice, and I suppose I should be more impressed.Red horsechestnut in late April

Occasionally, I yearn for a fresh start, a blank canvas to work with, and perhaps a chance to practice the lessons of several decades in the garden. Only the best would be selected to plant in this new garden, and all would be planted with space to display their considerable charms. But, I haven’t the patience and no longer have the energy to undertake such a project. But, despite a shrub or two that overwhelms a neighbor, or a tree that is toppled in a gust, there is much to be thankful for in a mature garden.

A maple and the ice storm

There are undeniable benefits to living at the forest’s edge, but today I’m not so enthused about living in close proximity to towering swamp red maples and tulip poplars. A portion of the garden is tucked beneath the shade of these tall trees, and after last night’s ice storm the ground is littered with branches. This is not at all unusual, and after any summer storm there will be a similar number of branches that fall.

As I sipped coffee early this morning I could hear snapping and popping from just outside the kitchen window, but the dawn was dark and gloomy so that I couldn’t see the source of the commotion. At first light I ventured out, and was pleasantly surprised that damage from the storm was limited to a few willows in the thicket that borders the garden. These suffered substantially, and I removed a few branches that had fallen onto the street before digging a path through the ice so that I could climb the sloped driveway to head off to work.Nandina covered by ice

Long stems of shrubs and Japanese maples were bent to the ground, but this has happened many times before, and I’ve found that once the ice (or snow) melts the branches usually spring back after a few days (sometimes a bit longer). Several years ago a twenty inch snowfall buried plants for a few weeks so that some never regained their shape, but I expected the ice to melt in a few hours, and that with an hour or two of clean up the damage would be quickly forgotten.Icicles on nandina

Roads were fine, so I settled in to catch up from a week out of the office. And then my wife called, which is unusual, and most often is related to some minor catastrophe. But, her voice was calm as she relayed the story how she watched out the window as a large, ice covered tree from the forest’s edge bent, twisted, then slowly toppled over into the garden.Red maple damaged by ice storm

The fallen tree missed the house, barely, she said, but an old ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud in its path was crushed, and branches on one side of a ‘Burgundy Lace’ Japanese maple were broken. She did not report on the fate of the various camellias and aucubas in the vicinity, but I assumed these would also suffer. Oh well, these things happen. In recent years other treasured trees and shrubs have suffered misfortune in extreme weather, and there’s no more to do than clean up and repair the damage and move on.

Knowing that the house had escaped damage, I finished my day at the office, but ended a bit early so that I could survey the destruction before dark. The side garden is now a jumble of branches. It’s difficult to tell the branches of the fallen maple from the redbud, or the Japanese maple, though I can see that several camellias beneath the debris can possibly be salvaged.Maple damaged in ice storm

With the garden still being covered by a layer of ice, and a light snow on the way, the clean up will have to wait, probably until the weekend. The chain saws will be put to good use, and certainly there will  be a mountain of firewood and kindling. The redbud is a lost cause, but it was weakened by encroaching shade in recent years, so its loss is not so tragic. I expect that the vigorous Japanese maple will be lopsided for awhile, but it should quickly grow to fill the injured area.

There will be one less maple to shade the garden, but the loss will hardly be noticed, I suspect. This is only one of many dozens of trees that border the garden, and fortunately this one was just far enough away to miss the house. After the damaged tree is removed I’ll take a look at what’s needed to repair the Japanese maple, and then later there will be a decision how to fill the void left when the squashed redbud is removed. It could have been worse.

A foul forecast

With cool temperatures through much of the autumn, alarmists warn of an impending cold winter, and I’ll admit that I’m at least a bit concerned that this forecast could occur. There is no doubt that winter temperatures have warmed over the past several decades, and now my garden is chock full of treasures that would have been highly questionable when I first began to garden.A dusting of snow on holly

The abrupt change from temperatures in the upper sixties last week to twenties and thirties (and snow, ice, and whatever) is inconsequential as far as the garden is concerned, though this gardener much prefers to be prowling about in shorts and shirt sleeves. Foul weather is forecast for several days, though none is expected to be extreme, and of course by this time of the season plants are well adapted to the cold.

In this garden no plants will be protected through the winter, except for the double dose of repellent that was sprayed on many evergreens in early November to ward off deer. A year ago this was neglected, with predictable results. Azaleas, aucubas, and camellias were nearly stripped bare, so the lesson was learned, and this autumn was spent more productively.Snow on Winter's Joy camellia

I’ve seen no substantial benefit from wrapping evergreens to protect them from winter winds, and mostly I can imagine the difficulty in wrapping and unwrapping that is enough to dissuade me. I figure that the branches broken in this process are more damage than is done by winter’s cold, and rarely have I seen any cold damage in the past few decades, even to plants that have been stretched a zone north of their dependable cold hardiness.

The long Thanksgiving weekend was spent cleaning up the piles of leaves that are dumped onto the garden from the dozens of trees that I’ve planted, and the maples and tulip poplars from the forest that borders the garden. In years past I’ve been satisfied to do this chore a bit at a time, and the deepest piles have often been left until February or March, or whenever I can get around to it when the weather is suitable. Despite my anxiousness for getting out in the garden in late winter, I find little motivation to accomplish much of anything until it absolutely must be done, or else.Snow on Winter Sun mahonia

This year I resorted to more mechanical means to pick up and shred the leaves, and though I was bone tired at the end of two long days, most of the task has been completed. Much of the garden is now covered by a thick layer of finely shredded leaves which could be helpful to diminish the crop of winter weeds that have been so pervasive in recent years. By late spring the leaves will decay, but this layer of compost helps so that no additional fertilizer is required.

I suppose that the shredded leaves provide some added benefit in maintaining soil temperature and moisture through the winter, but warmer winters have made this less of a concern, and I see little reason that temperatures will suddenly plunge far below what we’ve experienced in recent decades.