Late December in the garden

I am pleased to report that recent weeks have been mild, not warm, but not cold after a period in November that alarmed many gardeners with temperatures far below normal. Rainfall has been plentiful, at least the number of days if not the total accumulation, so that the garden is damp enough to help to prevent damage if there should be a continued stretch of freezing days in the weeks ahead.

The first snowdrop in late December - barely standing above deeply piled leaves.

The first snowdrop in late December – barely standing above deeply piled leaves.

Today, I saw the first snowdrop (Galanthus, above) of the winter. This was one that was planted earlier in autumn, of the group that I knew had been planted, somewhere, but for the life of me I couldn’t recall where. So here it is, and now I remember planting this group along the driveway on the path to the rear garden.

Snowdrops in late February

Snowdrops in late February

This one is early, but I can see others nearby poking through the leaf clutter. Most often, the first signs of snowdrops in the garden are no earlier than the start of February. I don’t recall the varieties I planted, and possibly this could be one that is much earlier to flower than others. Or, it could be an anomaly resulting from a circumstance of the mild early winter temperatures, or that the small bulbs were planted late. If this variety flowers early again next year, perhaps I’ll have some insight then, but for now I’m happy to see another flower so early.

In autumn, I planted several new varieties of snowdrops, and a few other late winter blooming bulbs at the same time, though of course I cannot recall what I planted, or where. If the mild winter continues and we’re not covered by snow, then I’ll discover what was planted, and certainly I will not forget where after another year or two. Possibly.

Seed carpels on Katsura tree in late December

Seed carpels on Katsura tree in late December

A few days ago, as I brushed past the Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) I noticed seed carpels at leaf nodes along interior branches (above). I am certain that this is not remarkable to most, and certainly I would not pay these a moment’s notice if it was not winter, but this was a welcome discovery for me.

Just beyond the katsura, the branch tips of Japanese cedars (Cryptomeria japonica) are heavily laden with reproductive organs and brown cones (below) from last winter. At some point in late winter the slightest breeze will result in a fog of brown pollen. To my knowledge, this has not resulted in any viable seedlings from the six cedars, but in the absence of more gewgaws and baubles that ornament the spring garden, there remains much in early winter to capture the gardener’s attention.

Seed cones on Japanese cedar in December

Seed cones on Japanese cedar in December

 

Low maintenance

Though it’s no secret that I find garden maintenance loathsome, I take for granted that some labor is necessary to maintain a minimum of order so that the garden is not given over completely to briars and brambles. In recent years, parts of the garden without an adequate cover of shredded leaves grow prodigious crops of hairy bittercress and chickweed, and I have proven incapable of controlling these pesky cool season weeds.

Most any gardener will realize that a weed must be removed before going to seed, or many more weeds will result. I cannot tell you how many cycles of seeds there are in one winter from bittercress, but I know that seeds number in the thousands. Fortunately, not every one germinates at once in this garden, but between today and the first warmth of spring the numbers are countless. Leaving their control to the warmth and relative dryness of spring has demonstrated not to be effective, though a few too many times that’s how it’s worked in this garden.

The most pain free maintenance is undertaken a bit at a time, I’ve found, so I convince myself to pull a few of this and that on any winter day that I stomp through the mud. For better or worse, the most abundant weeds are in the damp lower garden, and here are areas that in winter are too sloppy unless I have gone out wearing the muckers, which is likely only if the afternoon is warm and I am especially motivated from a long stretch of being cooped up indoors.

Arnold Promise witch hazel in better days.

Arnold Promise witch hazel in better days.

Today, there is standing water where a wet weather spring surfaces, which then trails along a depression to the back of the garden. Until a few years ago this area was much drier, though the spring still flowed intermittently. But, it seems the entire lower third of the property has steadily sunk (though I suspect this is not possible and there is some other explanation), and it has become wet enough that a twenty year old ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel (above) finally gave in and died after declining over several years. An old holly is ready to follow to the grave, and instead I have planted shrubs more tolerant of the dampness along with native Joe Pye weeds (below), Sensitive ferns, and Japanese irises.

Joe Pye weed in July

Joe Pye weed in July

In any case, there is no bittercress or chickweed in the standing water, but just beside the weeds grow thick. I fear that this will be too damp, with visions that the muckers will be sucked off my feet and I’ll be left to wade from the bog in sopping, muddy socks. So, I stay to the drier side, and perhaps after another year or two the irises and ferns will have grown dense enough to squeeze out the weeds. Probably not.

In other parts of the garden the obstacles are fewer, and so are weeds. The deep rear garden was once nearly all in full sun, but over twenty five years planting dozens of Japanese maples, dogwoods, redbuds, and such, and then too many shrubs to list, much of the ground is covered, and so here there are few weeds except along the edges. Even this has become more than I wish to manage, so I have undertaken to plant one ground cover or another over every square inch of exposed ground wherever a weed could possibly grow.

Purple leafed violets spread quickly

Purple leafed violets spread quickly

I’ve been pleased by the rapidness of violets and ajugas in covering the ground, and though many gardeners consider these weedy, they are welcome to cover as much ground as they care to take. When and if they begin to encroach on space occupied by hostas or hellebores, well, I’ll worry about that then, but I’ve found that managing overly exuberant growth is usually not so difficult as pulling a weed here and there over a large area as I have.

For the birds?

Gardeners, I suppose, are an optimistic lot, sometimes ignoring the obvious for years, or even a lifetime. There is ample evidence that I am a slow learner, with lessons too often requiring a decade or two, if they are ever to be learned.  And, so it is with winter berries, or at least many berries that the gardener presumes must be vital to the survival of neighborhood birds, but often are consumed only in desperation nearing winter’s end. Or, not at all.Dogwood berries in early November

There seems no question that berries of the native dogwood (Cornus florida, above) are appreciated, since by mid December the clusters of red berries are long gone. Berries of the native, and large strawberry-like fruits of the Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa, below) rarely last more than a few weeks past ripening, though it is not unusual to find a few ripened fruits on the ground beneath the trees. While dogwood berries are often touted for their winter appeal, none linger in this garden much past the date when the foliage drops.

Fruit on Chinese dogwood in August

Fruit on Chinese dogwood in August

 

Berries of Nandina domestica in early December

Berries of Nandina domestica in early December

More abundant berries of nandinas (Nandina domestica, above) and hollies (Ilex koehneana, below) persist through the winter and often into early spring before dropping, mostly ignored by birds until there is little other nourishment available. Even then, most berries remain uneaten. Certainly, the gardener expects he has done a good deed planting to supply wildlife with winter sustenance, but disappointingly, birds tastes are more discriminating so that many berries are more for ornament than as a food source for wildlife.

Berries of Koehneana holly in mid December

Berries of Koehneana holly in mid December

Nandina’s berries are mildly toxic so that they are not recommended for a wildlife garden, but I’ve seen that few birds are tempted by the large clusters, even late in the winter. For this reason nandina seedlings are unlikely to stray much further than a seed can fall and roll, so I’ve seen little opportunity for this shrub to spread.Fruit on leatherleaf mahonia in late April

Seedlings of the spring flowering leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, above) are occasionally found a distance from the evergreen shrubs. The grape-like fruits that follow its flowers look tasty, and birds strip them quickly once they are ripe. The winter flowering ‘Winter Sun’ (Mahonia x intermedia ‘Winter Sun’) bears fruit only when warmer temperatures in late November and December encourage pollinators to get out and about, so the small fruits are rarely displayed.

Gordlinia

Two gordlinias (x Gordlinia grandiflora) have recovered nicely after defoliating completely in colder than average temperatures last winter. The evergreen, shrubby trees are of questionable cold hardiness, and certainly I would not have been surprised if both had died. Now, I’m pleased with their rejuvenation, though only one has grown vigorously.

The gordlinias are planted at nearly opposite ends of the garden, and while the one in dry ground and a bit of afternoon shade is growing contentedly, the other is planted in damper ground, and its full recovery is more questionable. This one was planted a year after the first as a hedge against the nearby Franklinia (Franklinia alatamaha) failing to survive in similarly damp soil. It was planted in the driest spot I could find in the damp lower garden, so mostly I attribute its lack of vigor to being a younger tree that was stressed by the damp soil and more severely impacted by the cold.

Gordlinia flowers in early September

Gordlinia flowers in early September

The Franklinia and gordlinias have flowers (above) and foliage that are nearly identical, which is not terribly surprising since gordlinia was hybridized with Franklinia and the southeastern native Loblolly bay (Gordonia lasianthus). The two trees flower at the same time, and autumn color of the evergreen gordlinia foliage (below) is close in appearance to the leaf color of the deciduous Franklinia.

Autumn foliage of Gordlinia in early December

Autumn foliage of Gordlinia in early December

The branching and bark of the two trees are similar in appearance, and I can only hope that gordlinia proves less problematic than Franklinia, which suffered varied maladies long before soil in this section of the garden became damp. Elongated branches have split under their weight, and several have required removal so that the tree is somewhat awkward in appearance.

The gordlinias were planted from small containers into a clump of three trunks, and with low branches the appearance is more of a shrub than tree. With more growth in the next few years I will prune out lower limbs to expose the trunks, but gordlinia will never have the strong upright growth of a tree.

While I do not have high hopes for the gordlinia in the damp lower garden, I’m thrilled that one is healthy. While Franklinia is also a superb tree, it seems that it will be too short lived, and perhaps gordlinia will provide the summer flowers and autumn foliage without the problems.

Not ready for winter

Somehow, this year has passed too quickly. When cold persisted too long into spring, the internal clocks of many plants became muddled, and mine also so that it seems only a short while ago I was nursing too many shrubs through their winter injuries.

I was jolted, along with the garden’s hydrangeas, by fifteen degree temperatures a few weeks ago. Though this cold was not so unusual for November, I was far from prepared for the start of winter. Fortunately, recent weeks have been more mild, and with regular rainfall the saturated ground is most ideal as evergreens brace for winter.

Lacecap hydrangea in early November

Lacecap hydrangea in early November

Today, the foliage of hydrangeas that turned brown overnight in the freeze, has finally dropped. So, these appear less bedraggled, and there is no reason to expect any harm was done except that the autumn foliage colors of the mopheads (Hydrangea macrophylla) were disappointing. The Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) did not disappoint, though there are likely more brown leaves and fewer burgundy ones than typically in mid December.

Oakleaf hydrangea in early November

Oakleaf hydrangea in early November

I am undecided to date about the yellow leafed ‘Little Honey’, which is described as having “glowing golden foliage”. I suppose that I have trouble distinguishing golden from yellow, but there is no doubt that it is different than the scattering of other Oakleafs in the garden. This small shrub, planted a year ago, got off to a slow start after the winter, then when it began finally to grow in early summer a beast of some sort (probably a deer) damaged the few emerging flower panicles so that there were no blooms this year.

Little Honey hydrangea in mid December

Little Honey hydrangea in mid December

By late summer ‘Little Honey’ rejuvenated a bit, and its foliage remained clear of the black spotting that is prevalent on many Oakleaf hydrangeas. In mid December the leaves remain mostly yellow, with an attractive mottling of burgundy, so there’s hope that this will turn out alright.

I also have high hopes for another newly introduced Oakleaf with the unfortunate moniker ‘Jetstream’. This trade name seems ill suited to a shrub, but I’ve been pleased with two shrubs planted in late summer (though one was striped bare by deer). Its foliage is larger than typical, even on small plants, and the leaves are unblemished so that the hydrangea appears more a tropical than a sturdy native shrub.

A year ago an ice storm had already wreaked havoc on the garden, and of course now I am hearing from too many the predictions of the almanac that this winter will be much harsher than average. Fifteen degrees for a few nights in November (and much colder in parts of the country) will bring out the predictors who claim that “we ain’t seen nothing yet”, but it seems unlikely this winter can be more harsh than last year’s. I hope.

With too many rainy days I am hopelessly behind in my late autumn chores. Piles of leaves on the half of the garden that borders the forest are becoming damper and more matted, and will be more difficult to clean up whenever it is that I get around to this. In fact, too often I delay this task, so today is not so different than any other year, except I’m feeling more October-ish than December-ish.

December flowering daphne

After a three week hiatus when nighttime temperatures dropped into the twenties, and then the teens, ‘Eternal Fragrance’ daphne (Daphne x transatlantica ‘Blafra’, below) shows signs that it will flower again in December. Until this year I had experience only with the spring blooming ‘Carol Mackie’ (Daphne × burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’) and the variegated cultivar of Winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Marginata’), so I’ve been more than pleased that ‘Eternal Fragrance’ has flowered continuously since mid spring until the second week of November.

Eternal Fragrance daphne beginning to flower in mid December

Eternal Fragrance daphne beginning to flower in mid December

Certainly, only the initial flowering covered the shrub, but in the months since there have been at least a handful of small blooms at all times. Unless temperatures take a turn for the colder, there will probably be another handful later in the week. References promise that ‘Eternal Fragrance’ is the most fragrant of daphnes, but unfortunately my olfactory organs do not function properly so I cannot confirm this.

If there is any fault with ‘Eternal Fragrance’, the green foliage is rather dull, but this is no reason to complain. The long season of flowering has sparked my interest in planting the similarly long blooming, variegated ‘Summer Ice’ (Daphne × transatlantica ‘Summer Ice’) if a shrub of good size can be found.

Variegated winter daphne in early December

Variegated winter daphne in early December

The variegated Winter daphne (above) has fully recovered, it seems, from damage done last winter. All foliage and flower buds were lost, though stems showed live buds so that its survival was never too questionable. A few dead branch tips required minor pruning, but by late spring there was no sign of the winter injury, and in mid December flower buds have been set as is typical.

Carol Mackie daphne in late March

Carol Mackie daphne in late March

‘Carol Mackie’ (above) suffered little and perhaps no damage after the winter, though I must report that I was so discouraged after the severe winter that I was overjoyed that any shrubs leafed and flowered in the spring. I can barely recall that ‘Carol Mackie’ was a bit tardy, but so was everything else.

I cannot confirm that daphnes are difficult and short lived since I have sensibly refrained from transplanting any against the common advice that they are not easily moved. ‘Carol Mackie’ has survived severe trauma from large limbs falling from overhanging swamp maples, though today, instead of its typical rounded form, stems fork is opposite directions with a lush sweetshrub filling the space between. No one would know if I didn’t tell, but perhaps this daphne is not as finicky as others.

Rose daphne in mid April

Rose daphne in mid April

On two occasions the small leafed Rose daphne (Daphne cneorum, above) has failed to survive upon planting, though I suspect the latest failure resulted from damage to roots when I attempted to remove the heavy soil from the pot when planting. The ball of earth fell apart, which I supposed would be a problem. After the first dry period in late spring, both small shrubs were dead. Since daphnes are often potted from the field rather than grown in a container with a light soil mix, I advise cutting the container to remove the roots for planting rather than attempting to slide the heavy soil rootball out of the container.

Otherwise, I’ve had excellent luck with daphnes, and I’m encouraged to plant others since they require little except careful planting and proper siting in well drained soil. I’ve seem slight variations in the abundance of blooms from one section of the garden to another, but I haven’t been able to tell for certain which area has more or less shade. I suspect that some shade to protect from the afternoon sun is the best formula to encourage flowering, but all daphnes with varying degrees of light shade have performed satisfactorily.

 

Lost treasures

Changes in the garden are unending, witnessed through the shorter span of the seasons and over decades if the gardener is so fortunate to remain in place long enough. Most alterations are for the better, while others are not so appreciated.

Perennials come and go in this garden that is dominated by trees, though there are lovely hostas and hellebores that have flourished for years in the increasing shadiness. Various cultivars of tickseeds (Coreopsis verticillata) and coneflowers (Echinacea) have been planted too often without success, though any novice will grow these with no trouble at all. This is not distressing at all.

Bloodgood Japanese maple

Bloodgood Japanese maple

A variety of flowering trees and Japanese maples (Acer palmatum, above) grow in the garden with minimal care, which best suits the gardener’s predilection for planting and dislike for maintenance chores. In twenty five years tiny saplings have grown nearly to mature size, with many becoming cherished treasures. And then, a storm strikes, with wind, or ice or snow, and a prized tree is lost.

When a Seven Son Tree (Heptacodium miconioides, below) is toppled in a summer downburst, this is not the equivalent of losing a toad lily that the gardener neglected to water in late summer. First, the gap left behind is significant, and not easily filled. This was not so small a tree when planted, and after eight or ten years it had grown wide enough that it required a bit of annual pruning so that it did not rattle against the aluminum summer house in every breeze.

Seven Son tree flowering in late summer

Seven Son tree flowering in late summer

The peeling bark and deeply veined leaves of the Seven Son were excellent, but the abundant clusters of white blooms in late summer that attracted hordes of bumblebees and butterflies were its primary attribute. And then, as autumn approached, the flowers were replaced by even more marvelous pink bracts.

Bracts of Seven Son tree in September

Bracts of Seven Son tree in September

The summer storm came and left quickly, but it snapped the tree cleanly at the ground. Initially, I had little doubt that suckers from the roots would quickly sprout, and after another year or two the tree would be as good as ever. But it didn’t.

A replacement tree of suitable size became impossible to locate, and a space so large that had been a focal point of this section of garden demanded a much better than ordinary tree. Probably too much consideration was given to the replacement, but finally a Red Horse Chestnut (Aesculus x carnea, below) was decided upon, a matter of convenience and availability more than it being the ideal choice.

Red Horse Chestnut in early May

Red Horse Chestnut in early May

And then, the horse chestnut flowered the following spring, and while I would prefer to have a Seven Son tree in the garden, another spot would be just fine. In another year or two, the horse chestnut will be even more extraordinary, though I suspect that in another fifteen years it could become more difficult to manage as it grows a bit too large.

Franklinia flowering in late August

Franklinia flowering in late August

Sadly, other gems have been lost in recent years to ice and snow, and a portion of the lower garden has become increasingly damp so the health of a large Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha, above) is threatened. Its leaves grow smaller each year as the surrounding ground becomes wetter, and with no impending remedy for the dampness I suspect that this year or the next will be its last. Unfortunately, this death is lingering rather than the immediate demise resulting when a tree is toppled in wind or snow.

But, here again will be opportunity, and perhaps this will also work out for the best.