Better late than never

There are occasions when snowdrops (Galanthus spp., below) push through snow to flower in winter’s most inhospitable conditions. Though much of the snow has melted, the deeply shaded front garden remains covered, and today a few snowdrops have managed to poke through along the treacherously icy front walk. I’ve been waiting.Snowdrops

I’m certain that area gardeners shake their heads, muttering that their snowdrops began flowering weeks ago, and of course the garden and I share a common trait in being slow to get started. In bottom land between foothills that soon rise to the Blue Ridge Mountains, frost settles into this garden to delay spring so that while I’m discussing glorious snowdrops, neighbors have moved onto hellebores (Helleborus spp.) and witch hazels (Hamamelis spp.). By April, sometimes May, the garden and I catch up, so in the meanwhile please forgive my tardiness in addressing the arrival of blooms of crocus and narcissus. These might take a while.Diane witch hazel

While I bemoan spring’s delayed arrival, I understand this does no good at all. In fact, once flowering commences there will be more blooms in a compressed period, so this waiting is likely to be generously rewarded. Today, besides the start for the snowdrops, the ruddy red, ribbon-like blooms of ‘Diane’ witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’, above) have finally unfurled, and despite the lack of sunlight that was thoughtlessly provided, there are an increased number of flowers over previous years.

I continue to be concerned by Diane’s yellow flowered cousin, ‘Arnold Promise’, that defoliated early in autumn after a prolonged case of wet feet. Now, its flower buds show only the slightest signs of swelling to what should be imminent blooms. Fewer buds and more dead twigs portend problems for this long established shrub, and I fear that the warmth of spring will spell its further decline.Winter jasmine

Finally, handfuls of flowers have popped from the vigorous Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum, above) that arches over sun warmed boulders at pond’s edge. Though winter jasmine typically flowers a month earlier, there is no concern for its health since it is virtually indestructible. Nearing the close of this interminably long winter, there are far greater worries than a few tardy blooms.


For the birds

Nandina berries peaking out from the snowIn late February, abundant berries remain on nandinas (Nandina domestica, above) and many of the hollies (Ilex spp.) in the garden. The uneaten berries are typical, I suppose evidence that these are unappetizing to all but the hungriest birds. Even in years when I’ve been discouraged from stocking the bird feeder due to the growing population of squirrels, most berries ripened and fell to the ground. Berries of the native Winterberry (Ilex verticillata, below) and American holly (Ilex opaca) are plucked early and rarely persist into the new year, but red berries that cloak the branches of other evergreen hollies remain until late winter, when birds nibble a few of the over ripened fruits.Sparkleberry holly in early December

The clusters of red berries of the native dogwood (Cornus florida, below) are quickly consumed as they ripen in late autumn, and the ripened fruit of the Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa) is often eaten within days of ripening. While hollies bear consistent crops, the number of berries on dogwoods varies year to year.Dogwood berries

The small, grape-like fruits of mahonias are favorites of the local birds, though the early winter flowering ‘Winter Sun’ mahonia (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’) rarely sets fruit until early spring. After the flowers of the spring blooming leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, below) fade, the berries are often abundant, but rarely persist for the gardener to enjoy.Fruit on leatherleaf mahonia in late April

Fortunately, one berry cherished by birds has  been eradicated from the garden. For years, an Oriental bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus, below) thrived in the tangled thicket that borders the garden, but then the invasive vine leaped from a weedy mulberry to the top of a yellow flowered magnolia (Magnolia acuminata ‘Elizabeth’). With some difficulty the vine was cut out, and though proximity to other shrubs prevented removal of its roots, suckering growth has been fairly easily controlled. I’ve been more conscientious in stocking the feeder, so the birds don’t seem to mind.Oriental bittersweet

Just around the corner

Though the garden remains covered by snow, several days of warmer temperatures are forecast for this week. Time for winter is running short on the calendar, and finally there is evidence that this long season of cold might be coming to a close. While it’s likely that the snow will melt in a few days, it’s doubtful we’ve seen that last of cold temperatures, and March is quite often a chaotic blend of winter and spring.Snow covered spruce in mid February

I put little stock in the planning of January, when everything seems possible, and from which few plans ever seem to be implemented. But, from these winter daydreams I’ve purchased a few oddities by mail order from a firm that specializes in plants that have little commercial appeal, and which are impossible to find in the garden center. With delivery scheduled for early April, planting conditions should be nearly ideal, and I’ll rejoice if all are successful. This year I’m determined to insure the small plants’ survival by first potting them into containers to grow on until their roots are more established, and of course this should give me adequate time to figure where they will be planted.

As I’ve walked through the frigid garden I’ve noted a misshapen dwarf spruce contorted by the heavy snows and ice storms of recent years, and now seems an appropriate time for its inevitable removal (that has been considered for several years). The spruce has grown tall enough that it obscures a view of the origin of a stream that was constructed to be seen from the kitchen window, so whatever goes back into this spot must grow no taller than knee high. Perhaps I’ll be happy with something even lower, but in fact, there’s little need to even consider what will replace the spruce until it’s been chopped out. In April I’ll look again, once I can see the clumps of daylilies and hostas that were growing at the base of the old spruce the last time I checked. If the spruce has not overwhelmed and shaded them, there will be the start, and then I’ll hope to be inspired how to replace the massive evergreen.Forest Pansy redbud new growth

The December ice storm felled a huge swamp red maple, which narrowly avoided the house, but unfortunately crushed an aged ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud. Most of the branches of the maple have been cut, but thirty feet of the trunk remains, arching over the garden where Oakleaf hydrangeas, camellias, and hellebores are threatened if I make too much of a disturbance when the removal is completed. Though the redbud had grown thin with age, it remained a centerpiece, so selection of a replacement seems critical. Of course, the replacement is not critical at all by comparison to the most trivial of human tragedies, but I will agonize more than seems necessary until a new plant is chosen as a focal point.Huge leaves and blooms on Oakleaf hydrangea in mid June

And, this is why I pay little attention to the dreams of January. Certainly, perusing catalogs of perennials and the winter editions of garden magazines is not wasted effort, and occasionally pages that are torn from a magazine featuring next season’s treasures are referred back to, and a purchase is actually made. But, for me, winter planning is more a device to get me through until spring, and more results are derived from a stroll through the garden on a March afternoon with the sun on my back and daffodils and paperbushes in full bloom.Mini daffodils in mid March

Cutting back the hellebores

Predictably, I failed to remove the foliage from hellebores before the flower buds swelled in late December, and now they are covered by many inches of wet snow. By mid January the buds were prominent, and there have been times when the hellebores flowered from late December until March. But, temperatures have been far too cold this winter, and even before fourteen inches of snow fell a few days ago I was not expecting any flowers until late in February, at the earliest.Hellebore in mid February

Once the flower buds are prominent, the foliage is removed with more difficulty. In recent mild winters there was little reason to remove the hellebores’ foliage, other than that the blooms become much easier to see without the large leaves in the way. But this year, after weeks of prolonged cold, much of the leathery foliage is brown, and the leaves must be removed before new growth emerges.Hellebore in mid February

With a thick cover of snow, the hellebores will not see sunlight again for another week, and even with much warmer temperatures this shaded side of the garden might take a few days longer than that to melt. If past experience counts for anything, I expect that the hellebores will flower soon after the snow is gone. The lack of sun while covered by snow does not seem to delay the flowering much, or at all, and of course the plants are insulated from cold temperatures while the snow remains.Double flowered hellebore

None of this is unusual for me. Cutting the leaves as the flowers emerge in mid to late February has become my routine, and the exception is when I perform this relatively simple task two months earlier, when temperatures are more suitable for outdoor chores. The end result is the same, but in February the task requires a bit more attention to avoid unintentionally cutting flower buds while grabbing a handful of leaves.Hellebore

To add to the labor, there are now a few dozen additional hellebores that were planted in the past year. Certainly, this is not a complaint, and I very much look forward to their blooms in a few weeks. I have plans to add to the collection this year. Some will be transplants, dividing thick clumps that are partially original plantings combined with seedlings, and others will be new varieties that catch my eye.A late flowering hellebore in mid March

Unfortunately, I’ve been horrible at maintaining records of what I’ve planted, which is commonplace for me, and only a problem when I have difficulty recommending one superb plant over another. But, I haven’t run into a hellebore that is less than exceptional, so you should be encouraged to purchase as many of any variety that your budget can afford.Hellebore

The overnight snow

Scarlet O’Hara pieris covered in snow

I’m getting too old for this. Perhaps I am too old, and I’m fooling myself. Anyway, this morning an able bodied young fellow trudged down the walk to inquire if my wife and I needed some help shoveling last night’s fourteen inch snowfall from the driveway. No, I told him, I’m planning to dig it out myself.

Snow covered Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Torulosa'

Snow covered Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Torulosa’

We have the shortest driveway in the neighborhood, which was part of the reason I selected this property with a short front and long backyard. There is more room and privacy in the rear garden, and a smaller area to shovel (not that I have plans to go anywhere for a few days). Perhaps I’m not so dumb as some might think, and today will pay a dividend on that decision twenty five years ago.

Brackens Brown Beauty magnolia undamaged by snow

Brackens Brown Beauty magnolia undamaged by snow

I suppose the short drive provided the possibility of the highest dollars per hour return, so the fellow was visibly disappointed as he left. My wife was skeptical, warning that I’m not as young as I used to be, which seems obvious, but hopefully will not foretell some tragedy this afternoon when I work up the motivation to venture out to begin the task.

Golden Showers cypress in snow

Golden Showers cypress in snow

I did slip on the boots to take a short, but laborious walk around the garden through the nearly knee deep snow to see if there was any damage. It’s been several years since we’ve had this much snow, and then, in consecutive years, evergreen cypresses, magnolias, and cryptomerias suffered considerable injury. But, thankfully, no damage was evident, just a few bent branches that will spring back when the snow melts in a few days.

Japanese Umbrella pine

Japanese Umbrella pine

Even with much warmer temperatures forecast for next week, I expect that this deep snow will not melt for another week. Whether this stunts the development of hellebore blooms or not is unclear, but they were heading to be late anyway, and I don’t believe this will be much of a disruption. When the late January snow several years ago did not melt until the first week of March, the hellebores flowered a few days afterwards, and I suspect this year the result could be the same.

Snow covered Koehneana holly

Snow covered Koehneana holly

For now, I’m content to lounge indoors for a few days, and certainly this provides an excellent excuse not to get started on any of the many chores that must begin before spring growth. Except, I can’t avoid shoveling the driveway, so if I don’t return you’ll know my wife was right.

Another day in paradise

Another day, another ice storm. Or snow. And if we’re fortunate the day will bring only a cold, miserable rain. This winter has gone on far too long already with ice and snow, and too much shivering cold. The snow has been mostly benign, but the December ice storm kick started one garden trauma after another, and this is unlikely to end well. As I wander about the garden on any afternoon with the slightest warmth, too many broadleaf evergreens are brown along the edges, and a few have turned too brown for me to hold onto much hope they will survive.Brown leaves on a gardenia in February

I try to remain optimistic, but I’ve seen this before. Not recently. Two gardens ago. The garden where I planted a magnificent copper leafed beech (Fagus sylvatica, below) that was chopped out within a month of selling the home when our family moved a few miles up the road. I almost cried. Tragically, the gargantuan sycamore on the far side of the property was kept, while the lovely beyond words beech was cut up and hauled away. A shame, but that is the homeowners’ prerogative, and never mind that I would have loved to dig the tree up and take it with me to our new home.

Purple leaf beech

In any case, it was in this garden that the worst winter in my memory (with temperatures far below zero) decimated any plant that was not perfectly sturdy and cold hardy several zones to the north. I was spared the great expense of replacing too much of a garden because I had not yet been completely infected by the bug, and the garden was much more sparse than its successors.

But, back to today’s garden. This winter’s cold is not so severe, and though it has been oh so miserable, I remain mostly convinced (with moments of doubt) that little will come of this. The temperatures have been colder and more prolonged than in a long while, but it is only a few degrees off of the norm, and there should be no reason to expect a catastrophe. But, this is not a simple equation, and the winter’s cold alone does not determine a plant’s failure to survive.

The southern border of the rear garden remained too damp for too long a period from mid-summer on, so that there was a noticeable decline in hollies and witch hazels planted at the margins of the dampness. Hydrangeas and butterfly bushes that managed well for years wilted in the moist soil, and now I fear that all will be further troubled by winter’s continued dampness, and of course the cold.

I am typically more concerned when the garden is dry going into winter, but extremes of dampness or dryness result in stressed plants that are more vulnerable to winter’s cold. There is, of course, nothing to do but wait until the warmth of spring spurs plants to green up and grow. Or not.Shooting Star gardenia in early July

The supposedly cold hardy gardenias (Gardenia augusta, above) are my main concern. I was excited in recent years that there was a reasonable expectation that these fragrantly flowered evergreens could successfully be planted in my northwestern Virginia garden, but now the foliage has turned from brown to black. Though the stems show some sign of green, I am expecting the worst. I fear that marketing trumped science in determining the cold hardiness of the gardenias, and certainly it will be a disappointment if these fail to survive the winter.

And, finally the snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) have broken ground, though my son who lives only a half hour away says his are several inches tall and ready to bloom. Mine are planted along the shaded front walk where snow melts days later than the rest of the neighborhood, so in any year when I remark that the snowdrops are flowering, others nearby are likely to be past bloom. Yes, they’ll be late, but they’re alive, and in this winter that’s a blessing.


Tracks in the snow

The morning after a recent snowfall the back garden was crisscrossed by deer tracks. This was hardly a revelation. I can’t claim that the local deer community is comparable to areas nearby that are vastly overpopulated. By comparison, there are few in this neighborhood, but the small group of deer beds down in the thicket neighboring my garden, and hoof prints in the snow lead in every direction from this nearly impenetrable tangle of briars and brambles.Nandina covered by ice

It’s no secret that I’m too often guilty of failing to keep up with simplest and most basic  chores for upkeep of the garden, but, by some minor miracle I sprayed the deer repellent on evergreens in November when I was supposed to. Despite prolonged cold, ice storms, and several measurable snowfalls, I’ve seen little damage to foliage in the garden, and it’s likely that what I imagine to be a few nibbles, are in fact, not. A year ago I neglected to spray, and deer predictably ate every leaf of Japanese aucubas, azaleas, and camellias that they could reach, so that these shrubs spent most of the year recovering.Gold Dust aucuba in early December

Despite some minor setbacks, I remain convinced that spraying deer repellent is the easiest way to prevent damage from deer, while also enabling the gardener to plant anything he desires without regard to its resistance. In case you care to research the somewhat limited list of plants that are not prone to deer damage, Rutgers University provides a great service by grading a variety of ornamental plants (visit Unfortunately, the list is assembled alphabetically by common plant names, so occasionally I struggle when only the scientific name comes to mind.

While there are abundant deer in the garden, curiously, there are no geese, though dozens and often hundreds occupy nearby parts of the neighborhood. Along the southern border of the garden is a swath of forest bisected by a small, spring fed creek. The neighborhood was a farm not too many years in the past, and where the rolling hills descend into a damp sort of bottom land, a forest of swamp red maples and tulip poplars sprouted.Canadian geese in the pond

Up the hill, and on the far side of the strip of forest, is a farm pond that was constructed recently enough that it has an overflow pipe, but far enough into the past that the pond was not  in its infant stage when my wife and I moved in twenty five years ago. On any day, this pond might have a dozen geese, or a few hundred, and these very often wander onto the street and to make a mess of the neighbors’ lawns.

A drive to the grocery store on a Saturday morning frequently involves shooing many slightly panicked geese off the road, but in testament to the patience and good manners of the neighbors, I’ve not yet seen one that has been hit by a vehicle (though perhaps if one was done in, the evidence was quickly disposed of). The point of this circuitous tale is that while there will be dozens of geese directly across the street digging grubs from the lawn, they avoid my property as if our old coon dogs were still prowling about.Canadian geese in the farm pond

I’m certain that there are plenty of grubs in my sad excuse for a lawn, but why geese avoid the property is relatively simple, I think. The forest and thicket, and the dense planting of the garden provide excellent cover for not only deer, but also predators. My wife and I regularly see evidence of raccoons and skunks, and on occasion we see a fox or coyote  in the daylight. I suppose that geese prefer the safety of open spaces, though certainly there is temptation in a garden chock full of tasty treats.

I don’t get to decide on the trade off, but I think that I prefer having the somewhat manageable deer in the garden, rather than geese that hardly pay attention, even to the neighborhood’s dogs. They gouge holes in the lawns, and I can only presume the digging that would be done in the garden’s beds. Fortunately, my property has been declared off limits.