Plan for spring, more hostas

The mostly forgotten variety Medio-variegata hosta is still going strong after twenty years

The mostly forgotten variety Medio-variegata hosta is still going strong after twenty years

As I recall, and this is a tricky proposition since my memory has never been much to talk about, there were once a hundred or more varieties of hosta in the garden. This was, of course, before the invasion of deer a decade ago, and despite the sturdy constitution of hostas, constant nibbling took a toll that diminished this number to no more than half.

Hostas and nandina

Hostas and nandina

I ignored the increasing damage for too long, supposing that there was enough in the garden to share, until my wife threatened to take matters into her own hands. What this meant, I didn’t intend to find out, but it did provoke effort to protect hostas, and anything else that deer might feast upon. In fact, as it’s turned out, the effort has been minimal, requiring only a few minutes each month from April through October to spray a repellent.

A handful of hosta and Japanese Forest grass

Francis Williams, a handful of other hostas and Japanese Forest grass

Though deer are a constant presence in this garden beside a section of native forest, and neighboring a dense thicket where deer bed down in daylight hours, no more strenuous method than this harmless repellent has been required. And now, I’m able to plant anything that catches my eye, without regard for deer, so long as I add these to the list that must be sprayed every month.

Hosta beneath red leafed nandina

Hosta beneath red leafed nandina

Despite the diminished numbers of hostas, these remain one of the great successes of this garden.  As I consider what else I must plant this spring, the time seems overdue to add a few, or maybe more than a few hostas to the garden.

Siebold elegans hosta

Siebold elegans hosta

I am particularly enamored by big leaf varieties, though as I add more I’m at least a bit skeptical that one big leafed blue hosta is not substantially different from another. Though I’d be challenged to name a favorite, the old blue leafed ‘Siebold elegans’ is about as good as it gets. But, seedling hostas that I’ve nurtured hardly seem different, and mostly I suppose this tells you that I’m quite easily pleased. Give me a big leaf, and particularly if it’s blue I’ll be happy.

Seedling hosta growing in the middle of pond

Seedling hosta growing on rock and moss in the middle of pond

Though its leaves are not as large, it’s hard to do much better than ‘Francis Williams’, and another oldie, ‘Great Expectations’ had to be one of the early classics. ‘Great’ was almost lost a few years ago as a large holly grew to overwhelm it, and most often I’m not so good at rescuing imperiled treasures, but happily I dug it from beneath the holly when another season would have done it in.

Allen Mc'Connell dwarf hosta

Allen Mc’Connell dwarf hosta

There are a handful of dwarfs in the garden, and just like the full sized varieties, some are hits and others miss the mark. ‘Allen P. McConnell’ is a tidy, mounding small hosta, though perhaps it’s too large to be called a dwarf. It grows like a weed for me, and several clumps scattered through the garden originated from a single plant.

A yellow leafed seedling hosta that alternately strikes me as lovely and horrid

A yellow leafed seedling hosta that alternately strikes me as lovely and horrid

With such variation in size there is always a hosta to fit into even the smallest nook. With much of this garden shaded for a few hours or for most of the day, think the plan will be to walk into the garden center in late April and to fill a cart with whatever catches my eye. I can hardly imagine anything I’d enjoy more.

Bird watching

Not once in January was I tempted to begin working on chores that must  be accomplished sometime before spring growth commences. Several times each week I’ve scurried through the garden to catch up on the few blooms and swelling buds, but I’ve hardly stopped for a moment to pull a weed or to pick up one of the innumerable twigs that are strewn about.

A cardinal perches on a branch of a weeping dogwood

A cardinal perches on a branch of a weeping dogwood

While temperatures have not been bitterly cold, they have not been pleasant either, so I’ve been content to watch bluejays and cardinals bicker over sunflower seeds from the warmth of the kitchen. Fortunately, there is nothing critical to be done in mid winter, and even the crop of winter weeds that have been so abundant in recent years are more sparse and less worrisome. Certainly, the fewer weeds has nothing to do with preventative measures taken on my part since I delayed pulling these until long after seeds had been set and deposited early last spring. Once temperatures begin to warm a bit there’s little doubt the weeds will get going, but that’s a concern for another day.

Bluejays vie for position on the feeder

Bluejays vie for position on the feeder

I suspect that the numbers will show that January was colder than average, though there was no severe cold, and nothing to cause concern for the gardener. I would prefer more hospitable temperatures and fewer days of snow and sleet, but now that it is February those days should be around the corner. And then, there is work to be done.

Buds

After a flush of growth in autumn, the hellebores (Helleborus) are plump and now heavily budded. I have not yet removed the foliage so that the nodding flowers will be more evident when these begin to bloom in several weeks. Certainly, I’ll get around to this, at least by the time the first color begins to show.

Hellebrore ready to flower in late January

Hellebrore ready to flower in late January

Before this, I must remove the damp, matted leaves that have blown into the garden from neighbors’ sycamores that threaten to smother several large clumps. In fact, there is little room to complain since huge leaves from the Bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrocphylla) cover other clumps, though the magnolia is highly prized while the sycamores are only big. While the cutting back of the hellebores and raking of leaves have been put off for too long, there should be no ill effect.

In a few recent years hellebores flowered early into January, but that was with unusually warm early winter temperatures, and the current winter is only average, I think. Though my wife complains, there has been little severe cold, and I suspect there will be none of the cold damage experienced a year ago.

Jelena witch hazel in late February

Jelena witch hazel in late February

No doubt, hellebores will not flower early, nor will witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’ and ‘Jelena’) or paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha), also harbingers of an early spring. I suspect that the catkins of the variegated pussy willows (Salix gracilistyla ‘Variegata’) will not be showing yet, though I have not had the gumption to slog through the swamp at the far back corner of the garden to see them. I do not wait on the pussy willows with the same anticipation as witch hazels and hellebores. I’m quite pleased that a few snowdrops have flowered already, and I expect most winter flowers will arrive on their typical schedule, or only a bit late.

Pussy willow in mid February

Pussy willow in mid February

Several small hellebores planted last spring have shown remarkable growth, and perhaps these will display a flower or two, though there are no signs of buds at the moment. It’s possible that flower buds are obscured by leaf litter, so I hold out hope. With dozens of hellebores in the garden there is no need to whine when a few fail to flower, but some are new varieties, so I’m anxious to see them.

I notice that many hellebore seedlings have reached a suitable size to transplant in the spring. These will be too small to flower, but they appear sturdy enough to survive the inevitable neglect that follows moving them. So long as I’m careful to dig and replant when there is sufficient dampness, all should fare well. While open garden space is always limited, hellebores require little space and they can be planted just about anywhere. I don’t suppose a garden can ever have too many, though that’s what I’ve said about hostas and toad lilies and too many others.

Contemplating the garden

Without question, winter is time for contemplating the garden, though I readily admit I’m not much on planning. With cold temperatures and less labor there is opportunity to consider what went wrong, and no doubt countless minor tragedies befall the best of gardens. Also to consider, what worked, no matter how small the successes might seem after a year when magnolias were killed, and crapemyrtles and hydrangeas died to the ground.

Calyces of Seven Son Tree in mid October

Calyces of Seven Son Tree in mid October

I do not favor lists. I’ve never made them, and couldn’t find them by year’s end if I did. Perhaps I should. Too often, I can’t recall if the Seven Son tree (or whatever) perished this year, or the one before, though I believe it was two years ago (maybe three). A dependable record would keep matters straight, I suppose, if I paid any attention. But, rarely am I concerned that one or another has died, since plants die for a multitude of reasons, explicable or not. Often, there is no lesson to be learned, at least not by me, so why bother?

Who can explain why one crapemyrtle dies to the ground, while another twenty feet away suffers no injury? Two magnolias die in the cold, but another rated less cold hardy does not suffer a single brown leaf. The reasons are more complex than I have the expertise to consider, so I’m hardly troubled when one thing or another perishes. There are larger issues to contemplate.

Certainly, the progressive wetness of the lower quarter of the garden is troubling. A two decade old witch hazel perished in the dampness, and a similarly aged holly is on its way out. Perhaps the damp soil contributed to the magnolias’ demise. Regular rainfall made mowing of the small patch of lawn in the rear garden a headache, and there appears no solution short of bulldozing to regrade to make the area drier.

Athens sweetshrub flowers in full sun or part shade

Athens sweetshrub flowers in full sun or part shade

So, with these problems apparent even to me, as the witch hazel was removed I’ve planted shrubs and perennials that I believe will flourish in the dampness. Now, I’m encouraged and enthused by the additions. It’s likely that a newly planted weeping Bald cypress will prove too wide spreading at some point, but it should thrive in the saturated ground. Chokeberries, Sweetshrubs, and Buttonbush will tolerate the wetness, and these are lovely shrubs. Sensitive ferns and Joe Pye weed will fill gaps until these mature, and today I’m quite pleased as I envision this section of garden. Perhaps I’m imagining a garden that is another year or two away, but rather than seeing failure, it seems that the garden is headed in a better direction.

Buttonbush in early July

Buttonbush in early July

I think there is some advantage to compartmentalizing the garden, so while one area is acknowledged as nearly a disaster, another might be entirely pleasing. The garden surrounding the large koi pond changes annually, but except for the loss of the Seven Son, I have no complaints. Following the death of this treasure, a Red horsechestnut was planted in its place, and while it would be best to have both, I cannot now imagine why I didn’t plant a horsechestnut or two years earlier.

Red horsechestnut in late April

Red horsechestnut in late April

Some perennials and small shrubs that filled gaps between young shrubs have now been swallowed whole, and often I forget that this or that once occupied space at the pond’s edge until I see an old photo. Sometimes I’m saddened by the loss, but there’s little other reason for disappointment with the growing maturity of this garden.

While mophead  hydrangeas died to the ground, they have recovered nicely, and all flowered late but abundantly (though with fewer stems). Oakleaf hydrangess by the pond were not damaged, and for whatever reason these grew prolifically so that they began to spread too far, encroaching on neighboring shrubs. While mopheads were pruned severely to remove dead wood, boisterous live wood of Oakleafs was chopped to preserve irises and pineapple lilies.

Sparkling Burgundy pineapple lily and Oakleaf hydrangea

Sparkling Burgundy pineapple lily and Oakleaf hydrangea

I suppose that in January most gardeners have begun to consider additions to the garden, and as usual in this garden the decisions are dictated by what can be jammed in, and where. Always, it seems, there is space in the large area of dry shade, though I must be aware of small shrubs that were planted in recent years that will not be so small for long.

Empress toad lily in mid October

Empress toad lily in mid October

There is no shortage of space to continue to add to the collection of hellebores and toad lilies, and possibly another handful of hostas can be planted. These require little room, and who can question the benefit in planting these sturdy treasures. The worst of winter does not bother these beauties, but still there will be a few oddities that catch my eye that will inevitably be added wherever they can be fit. If these prove to be sturdy or not, there will time next January for evaluation.

Flowers and foliage in January

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

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

Following days of cold and a bit of snow and ice (though hardly enough to be disturbed about), the yellow, winter flowering mahonias (‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’) have finally faded from bloom. Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) and a few early snowdrops (Galanthus, above) continue to flower, and these will continue through until the now fat buds of hellebores and hybrid witch hazels open in a few weeks.

Berries on Koehneana holly

Berries on Koehneana holly

There will not be a day this season when something, and usually several somethings are not flowering, but still, evergreen foliage is most notable through the winter months. The hollies (Ilex), cryptomerias (Cryptomeria japonica), and Alaskan cedars (Xanthocyparis nootkatensis) command the most attention with their size (and berries on hollies, above), but several smaller evergreens capture the eye in January.

Japanese Umbrella pine

Japanese Umbrella pine

Though smaller than the cryptomerias and cedars, the Japanese Umbrella pines (Sciadopitys verticillata, above) attract the attention of occasional winter visitors to the garden. The texture provided by the thick, glossy, dark green needles is unlike nearby pines and spruces, and even non gardening types inquire about them. The Umbrella pine is certainly slow, but in this long established garden scrawny three footers have grown to almost twenty feet tall. In recent years a few branches were lost to heavy snow and ice, but mostly the flexible branches bounce back once the load is lightened. On these densely branched trees no damage is evident, a few months or a few years after a storm.

Carol Mackie daphne

Carol Mackie daphne

Against the gray and mostly barren landscape, variegated foliage stands out that is not so obvious once the garden is filled with flowers. Though ‘Carol Mackie’ (Daphne  x burkwoodi ‘Carol Mackie’, above) is almost fully deciduous in a winter when temperatures dip below ten degrees, the foliage of variegated Winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’, below) is most notable in winter. A year ago foliage and flowers were injured in sub zero cold, but these are in fine health this winter, though the flower buds have not yet begun to open as they often do late in January. A week above freezing should get them started. (As a side note, one Daphne ‘Eternal Fragrance’ has been stomped on and broken, presumably by deer. These are slow growing enough without their assistance. Two others are budded and I suppose these will flower with a week of average temperatures.)

Variegated Winter daphne in January

Variegated Winter daphne in January

Landscape designers seem enthralled by the variegated dog hobble ‘Rainbow’ (Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Rainbow’), but I’m more enthused with the less common variegated version of Coast leucothoe (Leucothoe axillaris ‘Variegata’, below) that is colored only along the leaf’s margins. ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Dodd’s Variegated’ are splashed with irregular variegation that is too muted to show distinctly, to my thinking. Most everyone prefers these, so ‘Variegata’ is rarely seen, though none of the three leaps out at you as far as I’m concerned. ‘Variegata’ is pleasant enough (as all dog hobbles are) when flowering, but in January the foliage and pink flower buds are appreciated a bit more than when other shrubs outshine them later in the spring.

Variegated Coast leucothoe in early January

Variegated Coast leucothoe in early January

Little Heath pieris in late December

Little Heath pieris in late December

I don’t know if ‘Little Heath’ pieris (Pieris japonica ‘Little Heath’, above) is named for its more compact size or small leaves, but this delicate looking andromeda is a marvelous deer resistant evergreen when it is provided with the proper growing conditions. Many andromedas are finicky about being planted in soil that is not exceptionally well drained, and from the start I presumed that ‘Little Heath’ would be pickier than most, just by its appearance. In a mounded bed two of three have performed well, and the other might make it, or not. Several other andromedas are more sturdy and tolerant of less than ideal conditions, and these should be at the top of any list. But, ‘Little Heath’ has its charms through late winter and early spring.

Winter flowering camellias

Two camellias reside in shade beneath the canopy formed by the combined planting of Golden Rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata) and ‘Jane’ magnolia (Magnolia x ‘Jane’). The shading is not so dense that the camellias do not set buds, but the effect is that flowering is delayed by a month or longer as identical varieties with more sunlight only a few feet away bloom in November.

Winter's Star camellia in late November

Winter’s Star camellia in late November

So, the sturdy, cold hardy hybrids ‘Winter’s Star’ and ‘Winter’s Interlude’ begin flowering as the worst of winter’s cold sets in, with the result that few flowers open fully without browning along the edges or turning completely brown from frosts and freezes. In early January many fat buds remain, and with several days above freezing these will begin to crack open. With another few days of sun and moderate warmth, the flowers will begin to display enough of the pink flower that the gardener is encouraged and nearly delighted at the prospect. And then, the next morning the flowers have turned to brown.

Snow on Winter's Joy camellia

Snow on Winter’s Joy camellia

This would be quite disappointing if it did not happen with such regularity, and in recent years I am pleased whenever any glimmer of the pink flower shows in January. Rarely do any buds make it to February without some internal damage from continued freezes so that the buds remain until spring, but there is no chance for them to become flowers.

Cold damaged camellia flower

Cold damaged camellia flower

Except, a few years ago there were unseasonably warm temperatures through December and January, and only in February was there any evidence of a typical winter. In this once in a lifetime winter, nearly every bud became a flower, with some lasting into the cold of February. But, since this one time phenomena has come and gone, there is no reason to expect that more than a scattered few of the buds on the camellias today will become flowers.

Winter's Interlude camellia

Winter’s Interlude camellia

January flowers

A single stem of the Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, below) has begun to flower at the start of January, and though the blooms are small and not brightly colored, there is a satisfaction that the gardener has done something right to be rewarded with winter flowers. In fact, there is no particular skill in selecting plants that flower at one point or another through the winter months, and this witch hazel was not even intended to be one that would flower in January, but a month or two earlier.

Vernal witch hazel in early January

Vernal witch hazel in early January

As happens on occasion, this shrubby tree was incorrectly labeled in the nursery as the late autumn flowering American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), the local native that is occasionally found at the forest’s edge and along partially sunny trails in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. With a young tree the more rounded form of the Vernal witch hazel is not so pronounced, so identification of one or the other is difficult until the small tree begins to bloom.

Jelena witch hazel

Jelena witch hazel in late February

Or, in the case of vernalis and virginiana, when there are no flowers in November the gardener begins to wonder what’s up. In early January the mystery is solved, and he considers that this mistake could be his good fortune since there are other November flowers, and fewer through the winter months.

Arnold Promise witch hazel in late February

Arnold Promise witch hazel in late February

Today’s single flowering stem will soon be many, and even then the tree will be more easily identified from a distance by its scent than by the slightly colored flowers that can range from dull yellow to rust red on seedling grown trees. Now, there are plans to add one or two American witch hazels in spring (and possibly more) to fill the gap so there will be fragrant witch hazels flowering from November through March. This should satisfy any qualms that something is missing due to the mistaken identity. Hybrids ‘Jelena’ and ‘Diane’ (Hamamelis x intermedia) complete the late winter, though the marvelous, bright yellow flowered ‘Arnold Promise’ finally perished a year ago due to increasingly wet soil in the rear garden. It will be greatly missed.

Diane witch hazel in mid February

Diane witch hazel in mid February

In early January the most obvious blooms in the garden are from the winter flowering mahonias (Mahonia x media), ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’. These began flowering late in November, and often will persist late into January. If mid winter is particularly mild, early blooms of leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) might overlap, though this occurs rarely enough that it is hardly worth a mention.

Charity mahonia in early January

Charity mahonia in early January

On warm and sunny afternoons in January a handful of bees might find their way to pollinate the mahonias, but since these days are few, the winter flowering mahonia rarely bear the small grape-like fruits that are more dependable on leatherleaf. The flowers are, of course, more notable than leatherleaf’s because there is little foliage in mid winter, and few other blooms.

Winter Sun mahonia in early January

Winter Sun mahonia in early January