The hazard of winter planning

There is a need for caution in planning for spring additions to the garden in the winter months. Certainly, this is an ideal time for contemplation, but the analysis of existing plantings can be made more difficult by the absence of foliage. I understand the argument that this is the proper time to see the “bones” of the garden, so as not to be distracted by foliage and flowers, but too often the branching of plants gives a false impression that there is more space than there really is.Edgeworthia in February

I’m repeatedly fooled by this, but also by perennials that melt in the cold to leave open spaces that the gardener feels compelled to fill. At least, I am, and you would think that after fiddling with this garden for more than twenty years I’d have learned a lesson or two. Which, I probably have, but still I find myself considering the addition of dozens of shrubs and perennials that there is probably too little space for.

Many of the plants in my garden have grown past the ten year growth that references often refer to, and to the twenty year size that is not so often admitted. Of course, most frequently gardeners discount mature size projections by excusing that they will have moved on to another garden by the ten, and certainly by the twenty year mark, or even that they are likely to be dead and gone before plants are overgrown. Whether this is an acceptable reason for disregarding the mature size of plants is not my purpose, but at the least this should be a consideration in the planning stage.Forest Pansy redbud in mid May

Earlier in the winter an ice storm caused one of the huge swamp maples (Acer rubrum) that border the garden to crash down onto an aged ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’, above), so that both are in the process of being removed. The maple is one of many in the forest that borders the garden, but I find that I am considering small trees to replace the redbud. The reasoning is that the location was becoming too shaded for the redbud, but in the absence of the maple there will be adequate sunlight for a somewhat shade tolerant tree to flourish.Burgundy Lace Japanese maple

In fact, I suspect that my yearning to plant another tree in this area (that begs to be defined by a tree or shrub with some substance) is clouding my judgment, and the location will remain too shady. In this instance, there is adequate space for a small tree to grow, though if a shade tolerant tree is selected that will successfully grow to maturity, it will inevitably grow to touch a ‘Burgundy Lace’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Burgundy Lace’, above) on one side and ‘Venus’ dogwood (Cornus x ‘KN30-8’, below) on the other. But, this is likely to be long after I’m dead and gone.Venus dogwood in early May

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The scent of winter

Vernal witch hazel flowers in JanuaryDespite the horrid cold of recent days, the vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, above) blooms on, though the ribbon-like petals curl tightly in the worst of the freeze for protection (below). My wife tells me that scents are muted by the cold, but I’ve never paid much attention to this because I’m generally resistant to even the strongest fragrances. I rarely can smell the most fragrant of the witch hazels without poking my nose within inches of the small blooms (See a chart of fragrant witch hazels complied by the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College), and even then the scent is far from overpowering. (I am also color blind, which could account for some of the garden’s clashing floral combinations that are not a bother to me at all.)Vernal witch hazel flowers curled in the cold

In recent, inordinately warm winters, there were afternoons when the spicy scent of witch hazels flooded the tree enclosed lower garden (I’m told), but not in today’s cold. Of course, the primary issue why the fragrance cannot be enjoyed is that the gardener is not inclined to venture outdoors when temperatures are in the teens and lower. But, for a variety of reasons I’ve found myself wandering about the garden on chilly evenings and in late morning as tiny snowflakes floated to cover the garden.

On this recent morning, as the snow arrived a few hours later than expected, I was suddenly motivated to plant a few leftover hyacinth bulbs that were found on the shelf in the garage. With nighttime temperatures hovering near zero for several days, grassy areas and nearly bare ground were obviously frozen, and why I even considered to try digging in the leaf litter at the forest’s edge, I can’t imagine. But, the partially decomposed cover of leaves insulated the ground so that I was easily able to dig, and the handful of fat bulbs were quickly planted.Diane witch hazel buds opening

With this long spell of cold many winter blooms will be delayed. By late January I expect to see a glimpse of yellow from paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) and ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’), but only ‘Diane’ (above) shows even the faintest hint of color in late January. I’m hoping for more hospitable temperatures and more fragrant flowers in February. 

The problem with cold

As is typical of the winter months in northwestern Virginia, temperatures vary considerably, and the daily high might be fifty-five one afternoon, and then seventeen the next. While plants are dormant these fluctuations are of little consequence, and little or no damage is done, though the cold is often of great concern to gardeners. Long ago I accepted that it does no good to fret about such things, and whether there are more or fewer fluctuations with the general warming of our climate, it seems foolish for the gardener to curse the freeze or chilly breezes.Gold Lawson cypress in March snow

In my early gardening years (long ago), there was a winter when temperatures did not rise above freezing for weeks, and the nighttime lows dropped to make the gardener fearful that anything could survive (and of course, some plants did not). But, that was out of the ordinary, and in most winters, for every few days of extreme cold there are days that are unusually warm. Whether these things even out or not, the variations are seldom harmful to our garden plants.

The recent cold days with overnight temperatures nearing zero provoked considerable alarm, but only four years ago several days reached zero, and one was a few degrees colder. That spell of cold was barely mentioned by media or coworkers, though at the time it was advised not to forget your stocking cap and mittens. The garden escaped four or five consecutive days of extreme cold without any major issues, and I see no reason to expect problems from the not-so-cold period we’ve just been through.

Christmas Jewel holly in early December

While roots are protected from short periods of cold by soil that freezes slowly, evergreen foliage, flower buds, and even stems are susceptible to damage from extreme temperatures and drying winds. I’ve planted many hollies (Ilex x ‘HL10-90’, Christmas Jewel holly, above) and assorted evergreens, and only occasionally do I see even a browned leaf resulting from the cold. Newly planted evergreens are a different story, and I’ve lost hollies and camellias in their first winter, before their roots were well established. There seems some slight advantage to providing a wind block for newly planted evergreens, but I’ve considered it too much work for too little benefit.Gordlinia in bloom in mid July

Today, the foliage of the semi-evergreen Gordlinia (x Gordlinia grandiflora, in flower, above) is brown along the edges, and some leaves are completely brown. This tall growing shrub (or small tree) is a hybrid of  Franklinia and Gordonia, both southern plants, and so Gordlinia is questionably cold hardy for my garden. This is the first winter for one smaller shrub, and the second for another, but I expect both will survive and revive without a problem.Edgeworthia blooms in the late March snow

In the freeze of 2010 I was particularly concerned about the paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha, above). Limited references indicated that this uncommon shrub was cold hardy only to five degrees, and none seemed very certain that it could tolerate much below ten. The four shrubs had been in the ground for a few years, so I figured they would stand a chance, but the exposed flower buds looked quite sad immediately following the cold, so there was reason for concern.

In fact, the cold did injure some flowers, and if I recall, the paperbushes leafed out a bit later than normal, but they grew like weeds in the spring. Now, the four bushes are twice as wide and half again as tall as most references list as their mature size, and a few sources have revised their cold hardiness estimates a full zone colder. I see no apparent damage to the flower buds from the recent cold, though the buds are swelling much slower than in recent years.Arnold's Promise witch hazel in mid February

Besides the Gordlinias, nothing else shows any signs of trouble in mid January, except for the tall ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, above) and a ‘Patriot’ holly (Ilex x ‘Conot’). Both have issues with constantly damp soil that has plagued this low area of the garden through the past year, and has already caused the demise of a few butterfly bushes (Buddleia) that are not quite as weedy and indestructible as I expected.

A time for inspiration

I admit without apology, but also with no pride, that I am not a book reader. For better or worse, I haven’t the attention span to relax for a few hours with a good book, though I read the newspaper religiously, and I will wade through the densest academic writings, so long as they are short (paragraphs, not pages).

In any case, over the past few weeks I’ve slowly worked my way through books on botany and plant taxonomy, and even this didactic reading has been enough to stir the creative juices. If you’ve visited these pages previously you might recall that this twenty-some year old garden covers the majority of an acre and a quarter property, and dozens of Japanese maples, redbuds, dogwoods, and a variety of other trees and shrubs are tightly planted so that the maximum number are crammed into this area.Paris polyphylla from UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research

Regardless of the lack of open space, I’ve been inspired to begin a list of plants (Paris polyphylla, above) that I’ll look out for in the spring. A few of these might not be available in the garden center, so I’ll search through a few dependable mail order sources, though my success with starting small plants is not so great. I’ve made plans more than a few times to prepare a common area for these new arrivals so that they can be monitored and not suffer from neglect when they are scattered through the garden. But, as you can guess, no such area has been constructed, so I order small plants hesitantly.

As the garden has neared full capacity, my choices for new plant additions are made more carefully, though I remain too willing to shoehorn a highly desired plant into an area that is too small, and figure out later what to do when this becomes a problem. For this failing, again I do not apologize, for most everything seems to work out satisfactorily in the end, and only a few plants are lost in the process.Helwingia

When I discuss the garden with other folks I’ve too often been guilty of remarking (in jest) that I’ve planted at least one of everything (Helwingia chinensis, above), and though this can seem so, it is far from the truth. In fact, I cannot claim to have planted even one of everything that I’ve lusted after, for this garden would need to be many times larger than the one I have. I’m envious of large public gardens, though I haven’t a clue how I could manage to care for anything larger than this property.

With limited area for planting, my choices are mostly dictated by soil and sunlight conditions in the scattered open spaces. In the lower garden the soil is damp, and seemingly getting wetter by the year. In the past year several sturdy shrubs have showed signs of decline due to the months long dampness, so any additions here must be suited to saturated soil and part to moderate shade. In the wettest areas I’ve given in to allow vigorous mints to roam as they please along the ground, but with an eye to keep them from clambering into and damaging shrubs.daphniphyllum_macropodum

A native forest of swamp maples and tulip poplars with scattered dogwoods and oaks runs along the lengthy southern border of the garden, and here moderate to heavy shade and root-infested, dry soil is the concern (though a few shaded areas have deeper, and even moist conditions). With this less than ideal situation, camellias, hydrangeas, azaleas, and mahonias grow more slowly, and so the gaps between plants are more sizable. A collection of various hellbores, epimediums, euphorbias, hostas, and other drought tolerant perennials covers much of the open ground between shrubs. Here, there are spaces to add native shrubs that have disappeared from other areas of the garden over the years such as Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica, below), and oddities that have grabbed my attention (Daphniphyllum macropodum above, Helwingia, and Ruscus).Itea virginica 2011

I’m determined that more hydrangeas can be jammed into the sunnier parts of the rear garden, though I’ve learned that there is a point where enough moisture is too much, and I must caution against planting in areas where the ground remains saturated for weeks. It’s possible that already there are a satisfactory number of spring flowering shrubs (Ruscus aculeatus, below) in the garden, but the limit for summer and autumn (also winter) flowers is far off. So, with ample leisure time and a bit of reading, I’ll cogitate on preparing, then revising a list of plants that will end up being planted in the spring.Ruscus.aculeatus

Shrubs in the flowering winter garden

I am likely to do as little work as I can get away with through the winter (and certainly most gardening chores can be delayed unless some catastrophe strikes), but these months drag on far too long. At some point there will be a few bright, sunny days when I’m anxious to get out, until I feel a chilly breeze, and then plans to clean up some clutter or cut back the tops of perennials vanish quickly. Even if temperatures turn unusually warm, it’s difficult for me to break loose the rust and get the old joints moving. I’ve planned for weeks to cut back the old foliage of hellebores (below) so that the February flowers can be seen more readily, but I haven’t gotten around to it, and probably won’t until the blooms are out.Hellebore

Still, even on a gray, blustery afternoon there are reasons to get out into the garden. With little effort, the gardener can select a handful of sturdy shrubs, perennials, and bulbs so that there are blooms throughout the winter months, and these are particularly welcome when the garden is almost completely dormant. I particularly enjoy woody shrubs that provide blooms for extended periods.Winter's Joy camellia in early December

As late autumn begins to feel the oncoming winter chill, cold hardy hybrid camellias (Camellia x ‘Winter’s Joy’, above) begin to flower. Some will bloom through November, but often there are buds that will open during a brief spell of warm temperatures in December or January. In my northwestern Virginia garden the delicate flowers rarely last longer than a few days before the edges are damaged and turn brown due to frost or freeze, but how delightful these are, even for such a short period.Snow on Winter's Joy camellia

Several camellias in my garden that are more shaded barely flowered at all in November, so they’re loaded with fat buds that show a tiny peek of pink (above). With a day or two of not so cold temperatures the buds swell slightly, but they are unlikely to open fully without several warm days in succession. I expect that many of the buds will eventually be damaged by cold and will not result in flowers, but I’m hoping for a few blooms before the winter is through.Winter Sun mahonia in late November

By mid November the ‘Winter Sun’ mahonias (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, above) begin to flower, and the bright yellow blooms are bothered only slightly by cold, so they will often persist into January. On a warm winter afternoon a few honeybees (below) might find their way to take their fill of nectar from the sweetly scented flowers. By early January the spring flowering leatherleaf mahonias (Mahonia bealei) begin to show a hint of yellow, so with full bloom not expected until mid March there will be flowers on one mahonia or the other from November through March.Honeybee on Winter Sun mahonia in December

I prefer the densely branched, upright form of ‘Winter Sun’ rather than the sprawling habit of leatherleaf mahonia, but I’ve planted a handful of each for their winter blooms. A few of the leatherleaf mahonias have grown from seed deposited about the garden by birds that have consumed the small, grape-like berries that follow the flowers in early spring. Unwanted seedlings are easily removed, but a few at the forest’s edge have been encouraged.Soft Caress mahonia flowering in early October

The mahonias are sturdy and low care evergreens that are not bothered by pests, including deer, though I’ve heard reports that they will nibble the flowers. I’ve not seen that in my garden, where deer steer clear of the sharply spined foliage. I’ve planted mahonias in both sun and part shade, and flowering and growth are more vigorous with more sun. A recent mahonia introduction, ‘Soft Caress’ (Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’, above) flowers in mid autumn, but is only marginally cold hardy in my garden, so it falters enough in the winter months that it should be planted only in a protected spot in mid Atlantic gardens.Vernal witch hazel in January

By late December the small ribbon-like flowers of Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, above) become evident, and through January the highly fragrant blooms will fill the lower garden with their scent. The flowers are not nearly as ornamental as the brightly colored blooms of the hybrid witch hazels, but on a stroll through the garden on the coldest days of winter, the flowers are greatly appreciated.Arnold Promise witch hazel in mid February

The flowers of the hybrid witch hazels are larger, much more colorful than the Vernal witch hazel, and just as fragrant. The bright yellow flowers of ‘Arnold Promise’ (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise, above) are at least the equal to the blooms of forsythia, but they flower a month earlier and are more fragrant. The red ‘Diane’ and copper ‘Jelena’ flower more sparsely for me in part shade, but these are wonderful large shrubs in well drained soils.Winter jasmine at the start of January

Along one side of the large koi pond, the branches of Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum, above) cascade over boulders to the water’s edge. Beginning in late December (and certainly by mid January, though they are late this year) the arching stems are covered by yellow forsythia-like flowers, and like forsythia, Winter jasmine is nearly indestructible. The stems root wherever they contact soil, so winter jasmine is effective for retaining soil on slopes, but in this garden it serves only to improve the gardener’s disposition through the winter months.

Mistaken identity

witch hazel virginianaThe nursery owner was a bit of a kook. Or, perhaps he was overly anxious to make a sale, any sale. The recession had been raging for several years at this point, and many neighboring tree growers in mid Tennessee had fallen on hard times. It appeared that few trees had left this fellow’s fields in recent years, and though trees and evergreens had been properly cared for, the grasses and thistle in the meadow between groups of trees were taller than the hood of our weary and beaten pickup. He seemed undeterred by the state of his nursery, and he happily yammered on about any and everything.

We bumped along through the field up to a long, double row of shrubs that towered over the truck. “Virginiana witch hazel”, the nursery owner informed us without enthusiasm, for this group of shrubs had undoubtedly been here for a few years longer than he expected. Overgrown and beginning to grow into each other, he had little reason to expect the witch hazels would ever be sold. But, after touring too many tree farms with row after row of the same old maples and oaks, suddenly my interest was peaked. 

This was the same native witch hazel of the eastern U.S. that I had identified on hikes at elevations halfway up the relatively low mountains of the nearby Blue Ridge. I had seen Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in garden centers many times before in smaller sizes, but demand for the native pales by comparison to the hybrid witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia) with much more prominent and brightly colored flowers. Witch hazels of any sort are relatively slow growing, so here was an opportunity at the least to add one of these large shrubs to my garden, and possibly to offer them in the garden centers.  Diane witch hazel in mid February

In my garden, I’m happy to plant smaller versions of shrubs with more rapid growth. A hydrangea will increase in size sufficiently in one season so that it doesn’t stand out as newly planted, but ‘Diane’ witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’, above) is taking forever to catch up to ‘Arnold Promise’ (below, that had a ten year head start). The copper flowered ‘Jelena’ is making slightly better progress, but this is likely to be the result of being planted with a bit more sun. Arnold's Promise witch hazel in mid February

At the time of my nursery visit there was no reason to question the witch hazel’s nomenclature. The foliage of various species and hybrids within the genus is quite similar, and even related trees and shrubs such as Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica) and Fothergilla (Fothergilla major, below) are readily identified as part of the family by their distinctive leaves.Fothergilla autumn foliage

To the relief of our Tennessee friend, a small group of the witch hazels was purchased and delivered in late October, and of course one was quickly routed to plant in my garden. There was not enough prepared ground, so a section of lawn in front of the large Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) in the lower garden was sliced out to accommodate the new shrub.

All was well until late in November when the leaves began to drop. Nothing unusual about that, but where are the flowers? Common witch hazel is faulted for holding its foliage late enough that the small flowers are often obscured, and when the leaves fell there was no evidence of blooms, only tight buds.

At this point I considered that something was lost in the transplant, and though flower buds were evident, I suspected that these had been damaged and flowering would have to wait until next year. Then, in late December the buds began to unravel the ribbon-like blooms, and this horticultural mystery began to be solved.Vernal witch hazel in early November

This large shrub was not Common witch hazel at all, but the Ozark or Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, foliage above, flowers below). The dull yellow blooms provided the final piece of the puzzle to distinguish this native of the southern states just west of the Blue Ridge from the eastern native. Now, the uniform, rounded form of the shrub rather than the open, irregular shape of Common witch hazel fit perfectly with the late December, early January flowers.Vernal witch hazel in January

By this point I was happy to have flowers of any sort, and the trade off to winter blooms relieved any consternation that this shrub was not the native I had anticipated. In fact, I’m happy to have the Vernal witch hazel, though I’ll remain on the lookout for a wide spreading Common witch hazel.

A good year

I’m not much on looking back, perhaps because my memory is so poor I often can barely recall if something happened a year ago, or three. In any case, it seems to do little good to look backwards. Of course, there are lessons learned through successes and failures, but I gain little from this annual evaluation. My concerns are the impending cold that might endanger marginally cold hardy plants, and winter weeds that have become an increasing problem in recent years.

My biggest worry is that the lower garden has become increasingly damp in recent years. Long established witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia) and paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha, below) showed signs of decline through the rainy late summer, and my hope is that this situation works itself out. There seems little that I can do to remedy the problem, but these things often turn out for the best without any intervention, so at this point I’m not overly concerned.

Edgeworthia flower buds covered in snow

I’m quite certain that few gardeners are ever completely satisfied with the state of their gardens, but as long as I’m able to content myself by planting a few cherished items each year I’m able to overlook minor catastrophes, and ones that are imminent. When a tree is damaged by snow or ice, or is blown over in a gale, I look forward to its replacement. Over the past few years a few long delayed, but unavoidable projects to correct minor disasters were undertaken that have proved to be mostly successful. Following the demolition there was an opportunity to plant more extensively than in the previous decade.

On one side of the property a small grove of variegated bamboo spread past the point that could be tolerated, and my wife got the project off to a splendid start by chopping to the ground a large section of the canes along the driveway while I was traveling on business. The unsightly mess left only one alternative, and over the next few weeks the remainder of the bamboo was cut down and disposed of. The roots were left in place so that other trees and shrubs in the vicinity would not be damaged, so there was concern that the bamboo’s regrowth would delay new planting in the area for a year or two.Exbury azalea

Fortunately, the regrowth has been easily managed, so I’ve replanted the area with a variety of evergreens, shrubs, ferns, and perennials. This spring, I look forward to enjoying the hellebores, hydrangeas, and azaleas, and even before it has begun to fill in I prefer this new planting rather than the bamboo. On the opposite side of the property, a tangled thicket of brambles and invading vines required hours of labor to chop out mulberries, multiflora roses, and the noxious Oriental bittersweet vine.Sweetbay magnolia

I took the liberty to carve out a bit of additional space, which has been planted with catalpa (Catalpa speciosa), Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana, above), and an assortment of native shrubs. And, in one small spot that is as sunny as it gets on this side of the garden, a small Floating Cloud Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Ukigumo’, below) was planted.Ukigumo Japanese maple

Several years ago a maple labelled ‘Ukigumo’ was planted while dormant in the rear garden, but when it leafed out it was only green without the white and pink variegation. The one I planted in late summer was in leaf, so I’m certain that it is correct, but it’s awful small and this slow growing Japanese maple is not likely to make much of an impact until I’m dead and gone. But, I waited too long to include this maple in the garden, and after the disappointment of the incorrectly labelled tree, I’m overjoyed to have the real thing.