Not bad for a quarter

I’ve little doubt that ‘February Gold’ daffodils (Narcissus ‘February Gold’, below) flower in February, somewhere, but rarely does this occur in my northwestern Virginia garden. Typically, this event is delayed until the first week of March, occasionally the second, and this year the first hint of the yellow flowers was the first day of spring. Peak bloom will be at least a week later since another spell of cold temperatures further slowed the flowers’ progress.February Gold daffodils

In a low point of foothills that soon turn to the Blue Ridge Mountains, frost settles to make this garden cooler than surrounding properties. And, the ever expanding clump of ‘February Gold’ is stationed beneath a wide spreading ‘Jane’ magnolia that provides just enough shade to further cool and delay flowering. The tardiness of spring temperatures is mostly to blame for the late blooms, but despite the continued foul weather, finally it seems that winter is beginning to ease into spring.

I’ve planted an assortment of dwarf and full size daffodils, and while all are budded, ‘February Gold’ is the only one showing any color. The blooms of all are delightful, and each year while they’re blooming I note that I must plant more daffodils in early autumn, particularly more of the early flowering types. But, as many things go, when the time rolls around I’m distracted, or whatever, and then the time to plant is past. Bulbs are available just about anywhere, so there’s little excuse for failing to purchase more. Planting can be done just about anytime from late September into December, and even in January if the ground isn’t frozen. And, cost is hardly an issue, since several handfuls of bulbs can be purchased for the cost of a single shrub or hellebore, and I add these each year by the dozens.Snowdrops

Of course, daffodils are not the only spring flowering bulb that the gardener should add to the list that must be purchased in September. Snowdrops (Galanthus spp., above) are smaller bulbs and less expensive, at least the standard types are. There’s much to enjoy about bulbs that flower in February, and sometimes even in January if there are a few warm weeks. The flowers are not damaged by any amount of cold in this area, though they are small enough to be buried by any significant snowfall. With little effort the gardener can find dozens of varieties of snowdrops, with some at premium prices, but for most of us the differences are hardly distinguishable to substantiate the additional expense to purchase any but the most common sorts.Crocus in mid March

Crocuses (above) are lovely, but the tiny bulbs are subject to pilfering by hungry squirrels, and my clump of dozens grows smaller by the year. Some gardeners make extraordinary efforts to thwart theft of their bulbs, but I’m content only to plant those that the squirrels don’t bother with. One year, long ago, I planted a thousand or so tulips in every color and flower form I could find, somehow figuring that in the relatively well drained soil of the upper parts of the garden the persnickety bulbs would persist from year to year.

The first spring the bulbs were magnificent, but by the following winter the squirrels had dug out too many to count. It’s hard to imagine how they could consume so many, but then many of the bulbs that weren’t pilfered perished due to drainage that still was not sufficient. By the third year, only a few remained, and as you would guess I’ve not wasted any further expense with tulips. If you decide that their beauty overrides all common sense, you must be prepared to dig the bulbs and store them, or to treat them as annuals.Hyacinth

While daffodils and snowdrops multiply and often gain vigor with age, hyacinths (above) slowly diminish, though the bulbs will often persist for a decade or two. This is not a trouble with squirrels, but a bulb that very gradually grows weaker. I am not the type gardener who conscientiously applies a tablespoon or two of fertilizer to each bulb annually, so I cannot address whether the bulbs maintain vigor with greater care, but in any case it’s not such a bad deal for a bulb to supply twenty years of color for a quarter apiece (probably a dollar each today).

Too much trouble?

In the recent online gardening newsletter of the University of Maryland Extension service a homeowner writes in, wanting to begin an edible garden, and inquiring if blueberries are a good starting point. The answer, intended as encouragement, is a detailed listing of the cultural requirements of blueberries, including sunlight exposure, pH and moisture requirements, and preferred soil type. A soil test is recommended to determine if the desired range of acidity is present, and advice is provided on amending the soil with a mix of compost, leaf mold, and peat moss. And I wonder.

Blueberry flowering at the start of April

All the information is unquestionably correct, but will the homeowner will be overwhelmed by the requirements, and are they likely to give up and figure this is just too complicated and too darn hard? I suspect so.

It’s not. Yes, with any plant there are potential complications, but as long as blueberries are given a sunny spot and somewhat regular watering, and they’re not planted in an absolute swamp, they’ll live and probably flourish. There will be fruit, though if there’s a difficulty, the question is will there be fruit to harvest?

Until a few years ago, I grew blueberries so that I could grab a handful while strolling through the garden in early summer, and usually I’d meander back around for a few more handfuls before I finished. The large shrubs had been transplanted from an Oregon berry farm, and for years the fruits were plentiful. At the end of the bearing season for this short season blueberry variety there were inevitably a few leftovers for the birds, so the shrubs were quickly picked clean.Blueberries on the bush

But, as the garden expanded and the large koi pond was constructed, the blueberries had to go. The shrubs were too large to bother with transplanting, and I couldn’t really figure a good spot with enough sun anyhow, so they were dug out and discarded. But, after a few years I got a hankering for fresher blueberries than I could purchase from the local grocer, though the large shrubs were no longer available. And, the only spot I could figure for the two smaller blueberries was too shaded to be ideal, and I knew this could never result in the robust crops I once grew.

So, I planted the blueberries a few years ago, and I haven’t harvested a single blueberry since. But, the birds certainly enjoy them. As for care, they get none, along with the rest of the garden. The only time anything gets watered in this garden is in the week or two after planting. Maybe, but most often no watering is needed. Ever.

Yes, I try to plant the right plant in the right place, but the blueberries have fared reasonably well in less than an ideal circumstance. The location is too shaded, and probably a bit too damp, so the shrubs grow a little more open and bear a fraction fewer fruits. Since there are hardly enough fruits on the still small shrubs to worry about, I don’t even think about protecting them from the birds. That’s as much the reason that I planted the two new ones, and perhaps some day the blueberries will grow large enough to provide enough for the birds and me.Winter daphne in early March

And, blueberries are hardly different than anything else you’ll plant. Yes, there are some difficult plants that people who consider that they have brown thumbs should avoid. Don’t plant daphnes, and watch that plants that prefer shade or part shade aren’t planted where they’ll get the afternoon sun in July and August. Don’t plant too deep. Again, don’t plant too deep. Leave a few inches of the container or burlapped rootball above the existing ground level. Too many plants are killed by digging a hole that is too large and too deep.

Soil amendments (including compost) are nice enough, but they’re not necessary with most soils (such as clay, though sand often requires additional organic matter). The soil in my garden ranges from rocky to silty clay, and I don’t recall ever adding a bag or shovel full of anything to a planting hole. Certainly, do not add an amendment of any sort without mixing it with at least two-thirds native soil (no matter how poor you think it is). If you have compost, give the plants a thin topdressing along with a mulch of some sort to conserve moisture as plants are getting started. This, they’ll appreciate.

I advise not to bother digging a gigantic hole (not too deep or too wide). The width doesn’t hurt a thing, so if you’re so inclined, go ahead and dig a hole several times the width of the roots. But, there’s little or no evidence that this helps a thing. Yes, I know there are old time gardeners who swear by twice (or three times) the width and half again as deep, but I’m an old timer myself, and I’ve never dug a hole one inch wider than what was needed to fit the rootball into. I dig only wide enough to be able to fit my foot sideways into the hole to gently firm the soil. And, remarkably, plants live (even daphnes).

So, if you’re at all like me you might have read the first paragraph and skipped to the last, and if so, you’ve hardly missed a thing. Don’t worry. Do less and plants will survive and flourish. But don’t plant too deep. Just about every other detail makes a relatively simple procedure seem discouragingly difficult.

Much to do before I sleep

With the delayed arrival of spring temperatures, routine chores required to tidy up the garden are off to a slow start. I’ve made little progress with only one warm weekend day earlier in the month, but no further delays are acceptable, no matter how cold. At the least, the dead tops of perennials and grasses must be removed prior to new growth, which could come quickly if a few warm days begin to string together. Given the recent weather, this seems unlikely, though it’s improbable that the pattern of cold, snow, and ice will continue for too long.

Fortunately, the crop of winter weeds that has plagued the garden in recent years is tolerable, though I can’t imagine that this has anything to do with improved maintenance on my part. If the weeds are pulled before going to seed there will be fewer the following winter, but I did nothing a year ago until well after seeds were set, so the fewer numbers must be the result of the prolonged cold, or perhaps only good luck. I often say that the most notable successes in this garden occur by complete accident, and this appears as evidence this is true.Carol Mackie daphne in late April

I continue to be concerned that a few evergreens have not survived the winter, though the losses are not likely to amount to much. Several gardenias will need to be replaced, and since they didn’t flourish nearly as much as I expected, this is not so tragic. I’ve slated a few daphnes (above) to go in their places, and though I hear that many gardeners have spotty results, I’ve been fortunate that daphnes have performed well in my garden without any particular attention except to provide a spot with a bit of sun and well drained soil.Diane witch hazel

It would be nice if I was able to smell the fragrant daphne blooms in any less than ideal conditions, rather than only enjoying the colors of the early spring flowers. But, this lacking does not deter me from planting witch hazels (Hamemelis x intermedia ‘Diane’, above) and winter hazels (Corylopsis pauciflora, below), no matter that I can barely smell their fragrance, even on the stillest afternoons. I read that flowers of paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha) and mahonias also are fragrant, but I can detect no scent at all. Still, these are delightful despite my sensory handicap.Winter hazel in late March

The fern leafed mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ (Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’, below) appears to be dead, or at least the top is. Perhaps I’ll cut the top and see if it sprouts from the roots. Other mahonias have done well in the garden for years, but ‘Soft Caress’ has been a bit of a disappointment, never displaying much vigor. The lacy foliage has never filled in, and it has flowered sparsely in my garden. Further south, I’ve seen outstanding specimens, but here I suppose that it’s a little too cold to be dependable.Soft Caress mahonia flowering in early October

The long established clumps of Sweetbox (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis, below) have suffered some through the winter with a few spots of withered foliage. I hope that nothing comes of it, since the slow growing sweetbox takes a while to get going. In recent years, the low growing, evergreen shrub has become more vigorous with stolons spreading to pop up between path stones, but when first planted it seems that sweetbox stands still for a year or two. The tiny, late winter flowers rarely stand out, and again it’s unfortunate that I can’t smell the fragrant blooms at all.Sweetbox in mid March

Sneaking into spring

Hellebore in mid MarchAfter several warm days, a few blooms of hellebores (Helleborus spp., above and below) have opened, just in time to be buried again by eight inches of snow. Of course, in March it is assured that snow will not last long, so I expect that many of the hellebores will reach peak bloom by the weekend.  There is no purpose in continuing to whine that spring weather has been delayed, and now it seems inevitable that this storm could possibly be the last gasp of winter, though the lesson learned in recent weeks is that this cannot be stated with any certainty.Hellebore in mid March

The paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha, below) continue to stray far behind their typical bloom time, though finally the remaining flower buds are beginning to swell. This usually occurs in early February, and often in late January, when the progress of the yellow tipped flowers is followed closely as a sign that spring is approaching. Now, there are no yellow tips, but I expect the buds will progress quickly with warmer temperatures. Many flower buds were lost in the sub-zero temperatures of the winter, but I don’t expect any survival issues for the shrubs, only fewer and later blooms this spring.Edgeworthia beginning to bloom in mid-March

Before being buried in snow, the Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudilflorum, below) had finally burst into nearly full bloom several weeks tardy. In recent warm winters there have been scattered cheery yellow flowers in late December, and many more through January, but this winter there were none until a few peeked out in early March. While winter jasmine often flowers for months in the cold, I expect the period of color will be shortened considerably in warmer temperatures that should be expected in late March. At this point I take nothing for granted, but it seems impossible that the weather in late March will be colder than is typical in February.Winter jasmine in early March

The Japanese andromedas (Pieris japonica ‘Scarlet O’Hara’ below) are only slightly behind their scheduled mid-March blooming time in my chilly northwestern Virginia garden that is wedged between foothills at the start of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here, late winter blooms are often delayed, even in the warmest winters. The andromedas are closely monitored in early March to catch the first glimpse of color as the buds begin to swell, and within days the flowers will open fully.Pieris Scarlet O'Hara starting to flower in mid March

Andromedas are a risky proposition for many area gardens with poorly drained clay soil. Most varieties abhor any degree of dampness, and I’ve had my share of problems with a few cultivars. ‘Scarlet O’Hara’ and the dwarf ‘Cavatine’ seem to be the least demanding, and are also somewhat more resistant to lacebugs that plague the evergreen shrubs. I occasionally hear from gardeners regretting that andromeda planted near an entry door has attracted hoards of bees, but when there are few flowers around in early spring it seems that bees are quite intent on gathering nectar rather than bothering with people. Still, be forewarned if you’re panicked by the thought.Snowdrops in mid March

Finally, the snowdrops (Galanthus spp., above) and Crocus (below) have reached peak bloom, though it seems that the squirrels have made off with a few more of the crocus corms over the winter. The snowdrops are never bothered, but what once was a spreading colony of crocus has been reduced to an afterthought. It seems imprudent to plant more until the neighborhood squirrel population is under control, and that seems unlikely. Enough of the garden budget is expended on bird food for the squirrels without contributing more expensive (though not really expensive) crocuses.Crocus in mid March

Lost blooms

Mahonia bealei in early AprilMost often, Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, above) flowers dependably late winter into early spring along with witch hazels and hellebores. The late winter bloomers provide a welcome measure of relief to impatient gardeners yearning for spring. In recent warm winters, leatherleaf mahonia occasionally bloomed into January, and despite consistently cold temperatures this winter the flower buds cracked open late in the month to reveal a flash of yellow. But, in this severe cold the flowers did not progress, and apparently this damaged the flowers so there will be none this spring (below).Leatherleaf mahonia in mid March

This is no reason to be discouraged , and certainly one year out of thirty when the mahonia doesn’t flower can be forgiven. I have grown fonder of the early winter flowering ‘Winter Sun’ (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, below) with a more compact habit, but both are treasured for flowering when there are few blooms in the garden. With age, Leatherleaf mahonia becomes more sprawling, and with sharply spined foliage the gardener is warned to keep its distance from walks and patios.Winter Sun mahonia in mid December

Of course, I’ve planted several of both mahonias immediately beside stone paths, the better to enjoy the flowers, though passing by can occasionally be painful. My wife, as the self appointed keeper of the paths, pays particular attention to keep stray branches pruned to minimize this threat. My duties include dissuading her from injuring the superb natural form of various mahonias and nandinas, and pleading (begging) that she leave these matters to me. One offending branch that strayed far over the path was saved for several years as I repeatedly promised then delayed pruning, but most often I know when things have been pushed too far, so the branch was eventually removed.Winter daphne in early March

At this time, when spring is imminent, its seems a shame to lament lost blooms, but it’s doubtful that the variegated winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata, above) will flower this spring. I am pleased that it has survived, or at least I’m confident that it will. This daphne is cold hardy to zero according to references, but at four or five (maybe six) below it has only lost its foliage, and I am convinced that lateral growth buds are alive, even as flower buds appear to have withered in the cold.Carol Mackie daphne in late April

Other, more cold tolerant daphnes seem fine, though the foliage of ‘Carol Mackie’ (Daphne × burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’, above) has also been lost. This regularly occurs when temperatures fall much below ten degrees, and as far as I recall the daphne still flowers. A remarkable and identifying feature of daphnes is that the branches are very flexible, almost rubbery, so a shrub might be nearly flattened in a heavy snow and rebound a few weeks later as if nothing happened. This also proved useful several years ago when my son and I dropped a large branch of a maple that encroached too far into the garden onto poor ‘Carol Mackie’. Remarkably, branches bounced back as soon as the enormous branch was cut up and removed , and only a few small stems were lost. Now, a vigorous colony of sweetbox (Sarcococca humilis) grows through the naked center so that it appears that the daphne is two plants.

There is a slight amount of good news regarding the gardenias. There appears to be some life to a few of the zone 6 and 6b cold hardy ‘Pinwheel’ and ‘Heaven Scent’ gardenias. Zone 7 varieties show no signs of life, but on each of the cold tolerant types there are a branch or two near the base that are alive. Once the dead is cut away it’s questionable if they’ll be worth saving, and there’s little doubt that the breeder’s promise of cold hardiness in overstated. Perhaps I’ll remove what’s left of the gardenias and plant a few more daphnes.

A pussy willow for every swamp

Pussy willow catkins in early March

The variegated pussy willow (Salix gracilistyla ‘Variegata’, above) sprawls about the rear property line with an open habit and a tangled mass of branches. One look will dissuade a gardener from believing this wide spreading shrub is appropriate for any place other than the far reaches of the garden, and more preferably onto someone else’s property. A spot of damp and swampy ground is ideal, though the gardener should take into consideration that he is likely to want to wade in to cut catkins in late winter. The key is that the site should be wet so that dry land is not wasted on such a contrary shrub, but that the gardener should not suffer greatly in retrieving a few handfuls of the delightful catkins to bring into the kitchen.

Variegated pussy willowPussy willow seems such an old timey, romantic shrub, and in fact the late winter catkins are lovely. But, if the gardener expects some other redeeming feature he will be deeply disappointed. The foliage of any pussy willow is only bland, and  the variegated form (above) is only slightly more ornamental. With this, there is no shrub or tree better suited to this spot in my garden, for there are few plants that will tolerate the perpetually swampy ground.

Pussy willow catkins in mid-March

Superior native shrubs such as chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa and A. arbutifolia) and buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) thrive in dampness, but are not so vigorous as pussy willow, and the foliage and fruit of the delightful chokeberries are favorites of neighborhood deer. Nothing, I think, bothers the pussy willow, and so it continues to grow wider to consume more of the rear property line. Now, it is nearly thirty feet across, though I’m unable to verify this with accuracy since the surrounding ground is ankle deep muck that makes measurement impractical. Shade from a more recently planted river birch (Betula nigra) has made little impact to slow the pussy willow’s growth, and its sprawling form has not changed with diminished sunlight.Pussy willow in mid February

Certainly, the gardener who must have a pussy willow, or who has an ideal situation, must be advised against planting more than one. This is a shrub with surprising vigor, and one should not believe for a moment references that state that it will grow to only twelve feet in width. Yes, it will do that, by the third year. If you have a hankering to plant one, take a walk to the intended spot and walk five paces in one direction from the center point, then return and go another five paces in the opposite direction. There you have it, a shrub that will consumer the space of a two car garage. If this area is entirely wet you have found an ideal situation, but if the shoes are not sucked right off your feet, perhaps it would be best to consider alternatives.

Bloodied, but not beaten

With warmer temperatures after a winter that has been too long and too cold, I’ve finally begun to remove remnants of the large maple that toppled over in December’s ice storm. The top branches that crushed an old ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud were removed within a few days of the storm, but the shattered trunk arched to rest against another smaller maple so that the removal was more complicated.Maple damaged in ice storm

As I began the project on yesterday’s warm afternoon, I pondered more than once how to cut the awkwardly balanced trunk so that it did not crush the camellias and Oakleaf hydrangeas that barely escaped damage two months’ earlier. As an afterthought, there was some small consideration that I should avoid being crushed once the mammoth trunk was cut loose, but I judge myself as fairly capable at judging these matters, so I was mostly unconcerned.

As planned, the trunk was cut near its base, and as the angled cut was made the tree slowly leaned in the anticipated direction. But, not enough. The smaller maple held firmly, and I determined that a bit of muscle would be necessary to tip the balance to free the large maple to fall. Now, I became slightly more concerned that to apply the proper force I must be on the downhill side, where the full weight of the tree could cause considerable harm if I miscalculated.

Still, it seemed likely that once the larger maple was dislodged from the branch on the small tree, the massive trunk would slide harmlessly to the ground. The projected angle of descent was close, but I figured it would barely miss the Oakleaf hydrangea and nearby camellia, and then the trunk could be cut into smaller pieces. And, for the most part this is what happened. I rocked the suspended trunk once, then again, it bounced slightly and then free from the obstruction on the smaller maple.Red maple damaged by ice storm

Except. As the trunk slammed into the moist ground it buried deeper than I anticipated, and the branch that I figured would be too tall to worry about landed a blow to my forehead. Suddenly, there was blood. Everywhere.

In fact, the gash was not too horrible, but my wife (the nurse) determined that it required stitches. At the hairline I figured that a scar would only add character as my hairline recedes, but I was overruled and a quick trip to the emergency room removed embedded splinters and closed the wound.

Today, I’m back to working on the tree, unwilling to accept that this project is too difficult to handle on my own. Temperatures are not so warm, but the sun’s shining, and once this tree is out of the way I’ll be free to move on to the serious clean up of the garden that is an annual rite of spring. No doubt some readers might agree with my wife that I should have hired out this task, but it should be no surprise that I would do it all again. Except, next time I’d duck.