Trouble for daffodils?

Sorry, I cannot assure that daffodils and alliums will not be harmed by cold that will  arrive sooner or later in this so far very mild winter. Any local gardener who has been around for a few years has seen daffodils popping up in January, and has probably seen an occasional flower with a prolonged spell of warm temperatures. I’ve never seen any damage to flowers or foliage, but I have never experienced foliage that is a foot tall in late December. I expect there will not be a problem, but I’ll know when you know, in a few months.

Flowers on hellebores in a warm December are not surprising. Seeing bees in alte December is surprising.

Flowers on hellebores in a warm December are not surprising. Seeing bees in late December is more rare.

Finally, the weather has turned cooler, so hellebores will slow down and not pass out of bloom so quickly. Several that began flowering a few weeks ago are fading much more quickly than if they began flowering at their more typical time in mid February. Thankfully, a dose of cold should remedy this. There is no advantage to having blooms so early if they fade so quickly.

One of dozens of hellebores flowering the garden in late December. The gold speckled foliage in the background is an aucuba, not an exotic form of hellebore.

One of dozens of hellebores flowering the garden in late December. The gold speckled foliage in the background is an aucuba, not an exotic form of hellebore.

Hellebores are sturdy and cold tolerant, so I expect no harm will come to the flowers that are just opening, or to buds that are set to open. I do wonder what will become of new leaves that are beginning to open on the early flowering ‘Ogon’ spirea. I suspect that fresh leaves cannot manage through the cold of winter, supposing that there will be cold at some point. Still, the spirea is nearly a weed, and if new growth is killed I expect the shrubs will survive without incident. Probably.


March in December

Autumn Amethyst azaleaI will not be alarmed unless dogwoods and redbuds begin to flower in January (Azalea ‘Autumn Amethyst’, above) . In recent weeks I’ve cautiously described this early winter weather as only mild, but who am I fooling, temperatures into the sixties in northwestern Virginia in late December are more aptly defined as warm.Ogon spirea

More than a few times, a warm spell has coaxed a daffodil or two into bloom in January, and prolonged warmth several years ago hurried along many flowers. But, nothing like this. Today, the garden looks closer to March than December (Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’, above). For the moment, I’m delighted by the prospect of more flowers through early winter than only the remnants of mahonias and a few stray camellias that linger into January, but I’m a bit uncertain this will be completely a good thing.Hellebore HGC Champion

In the odd year with mild December temperatures, there could be a flower or two from hellebore hybrids (Helleborus x ericsmithii ‘HGC Champion’, above, and ‘HGC Shooting Star’, below) that are crossed with the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger). A few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised by several flowers and other swelling buds, but in late December just about every hellebore is flowering, or ready to flower except for the few late blooming stinking hellebores (Helleborus foetidus).Hellebores

Certainly, this will be enough to spark the gardener’s interest, to see what becomes of blooms as cold inevitably returns at some point in the winter. I suspect that little or no harm will come, and that instead of fading in the first warmth of March, flowers of hellebores will last weeks longer in cooler temperatures.Vernal witch hazel

In recent years, flowering of hellebores has been delayed by cold and deep mounds of snow, with only the vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis, above) flowering through January into early February. Today, the witch hazels are early by only a few weeks, and no amount of cold will bother the small, ribbon-like flowers that curl for protection in severe temperatures.Underway mahoniaI will not be surprised if hybrid witch hazels (‘Arnold Promise’, ‘Diane’, and ‘Jelena’) begin flowering in the next few weeks, joining other late winter bloomers that are beginning to show color. Bees, rarely observed in the garden in December, have been busy harvesting nectar from the late autumn flowering mahonias (Mahonia x media ‘Underway’, above), and now they have moved on to the early flowers of leatherleaf mahonias (Mahonia bealei, below). I suspect I will also be out and about more to enjoy the early flowers. Leatherleaf mahonia


Berrily, berrily

The abundance of berries on hollies in the garden varies, being subject to weather conditions at the time of flowering that might discourage pollinators from being out and about. This year, there are no berries on the deciduous Winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’, below), which are otherwise healthy, but have exhibited fewer berries in recent years.Winterberry holly

I suspect that this is not a result of inclement weather, but a pollinating male that has faded and finally disappeared, since berries were once abundant but have diminished noticeably. The pollinating male was not in this garden, so if I am to have berries I suppose I must plant one of my own. ‘Winterberry’ is quite unremarkable without the clusters of red berries, and a single ‘Southern Gentleman’ should do the trick. I must remember to plant one prior to the hollies flowering in late spring.Golden Girl holly

The variability in other hollies (Golden Girl holly, Ilex x meserveae ‘Mesgolg’, above) is not so obvious, and is most noticeable on hollies that are shaded so that flowering is diminished. There is no cure for this except to provide more sun, which is not so easily accomplished in this mature garden. So, with fewer berries, some hollies will be favored only for their evergreen foliage.Nandina domestica

If the number of berries vary on the common Nandinas (Nandina domestica, above) the differences are not apparent. Each year heavily laden branches arch under the weight of the large clusters, which remain through the winter since birds rarely bother with them. Robins are scarce in the garden, but most often they are seen in late winter plucking berries from the nandinas that overhang the small pond just outside the kitchen window.

The bulk of the nandina’s berries turn brown by spring, and finally fall to the ground. There are areas where nandinas are considered invasive, I suspect because there are birds that favor the berries more than the few robins we have. Here, nandina’s spread is limited by the distance that the berries can roll, which seems to be only a few feet from the tall shrubs.   Oriental bittersweet

Several years ago, an Oriental Bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus, above) was spotted growing from the thicket of brambles at the garden’s edge into a tall mulberry, which then tangled into uppermost branches of the yellow flowered ‘Elizabeth’ magnolia. Just as with the native bittersweet, the invasive Oriental vine has lovely berries, which at first caught my eye.

Investigation quickly confirmed the identity, and whether the vine was the Oriental or the native, it must be cut out of the magnolia. The invasive vine was cut down, dug out, and dragged out of the magnolia as best I could. I expected that I would have to monitor and cut out sucker growth from roots that would be left behind, but this was minimal and I have not noted further growth in the thicket.Dogwood berries in early November

I rarely note the last of the dogwood berries, though I expect they are quickly consumed in early November by birds as soon as they ripen. In mid December the largest dogwood in the front garden, and smaller trees in the rear, display only a few blackened berries. With plentiful berries on hollies and nandinas, the gardener is happy that birds take advantage of the garden’s abundance.

More December flowers

The gardener understands that no year is typical, or average. Perhaps when final numbers are tabulated, the sum will nearly equal yearly averages, but that is only because extremes in both directions usually balance with only slight variations in the end. I suppose that there are parts of this planet where annual weather patterns are closely repeated, but no extreme should surprise a Mid Atlantic gardener.

And still, the gardener is too frequently horrified by severe cold, ice or snow, wind and floods, or delighted by mild temperatures that extend far into winter. Today, I happily report that December has been mild, though arguably not remarkably warm since temperatures three years ago were quite similar through December and January. But, remarkable enough for this gardener who suffered through too much cold in recent winters.Winter's Star camellia

I have blissfully crowed in recent weeks about camellias in the garden in full flower, and bees pollinating mahonias so that this will be the odd year when flowers are followed by fruits. In colder Decembers, bees are tucked into their warm nests, rarely venturing out. Not this week, and probably not next week after a brief interlude of cold over the coming weekend.A bee visiting flowers of Winter Sun mahonia in late November

A lone snowdrop appeared a few weeks ago, and I assured that this was not so odd, but only a little early since there are a range of varieties that flower from early January (sometimes late December) into March. Now, more snowdrops have broken ground with foliage inches tall, and several are flowering.Hellebore flowers in December

Buds of many hellebores have swelled, and now a few are blooming, with more flowers to come as temperatures remain mild. Unusual? Only a bit. Winter flowering plants require fewer chilling hours, and it appears that the few spells of cold and several nights with temperatures below freezing have been sufficient. Whether temperatures turn cold, or continue mild, there is every reason to expect flowers to persist for weeks, and perhaps months. While some flowers might be a concern, with spells of cold inevitable at some point in the winter, I have no doubts that snowdrops and hellebores will not be effected.

Stating the obvious, I am overjoyed with this mild start to winter.

Bees in December

Bees are not expected in this northwestern Virginia garden in mid December, but here they are. There have been scattered freezes and consistent frosts for a month, but daytime temperatures have been mild, and this week a few days have climbed into the sixties. After two cold winters, I have no complaint.
CamelliaIn addition to the unusual warmth, there must be something flowering to attract bees. They show slight interest in the variety of camellias (above) that are flowering, but dozens of bees drift between yellow blooms of the mahonias (Mahonia x media, below). ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’ are just past their peak bloom, though I expect flowers to persist into early January. In this odd year when pollinators are out and about, the fading flowers should be followed by small dark purple fruits, which are quickly plucked by birds once they ripen in late winter.

Winter Sun mahonia

At this northern edge of the their cold hardiness, mahonias are best grown in full sun with a break in midday, if that can be managed. Though the late winter flowering leather leaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) performs well in shade or sun, ‘Winter Sun’ declines slowly and flowers poorly in moderate shade. I presume that with prolonged heat further to the south more shade is welcomed, and bees and winter fruits are more likely.
Winter Sun mahonia

Camellias or snow?

Fans of snow covered holidays will be disappointed, it seems, by mild temperatures in recent weeks and more forecast for the week ahead. I prefer camellias to snow, and with each week in December warmer than the preceding one, the chance that camellias will flower through the month appears likely as buds swell in warm afternoon temperatures.Camellia

Typically, late blooming camellias in the garden begin to flower sporadically in November, then continue with a few scattered blooms into January if overnight temperatures do not drop too far below freezing for a few days. In recent years, warm winter days were few, so many buds did not open before being injured by the extended cold.Winter's Snowman camellia

This year, the white ‘Winter’s Snowman’ has flowered since early November, with only a short break for one chilly week. With temperatures occasionally dipping into the mid twenties, blooms are regularly injured by cold, but the next sunny afternoon a few new flowers open. If all goes well there will not be single unopened bud by late in the month.Camellia

‘Winter’s Star’ and ‘Winter’s Interlude’ are, as usual, later than others in flowering. Many buds are swelling with a peek of color, and I will be disappointed if there are not many flowers through the second half of December.Camellia


Gathering leaves

With mild temperatures this afternoon, I managed sufficient energy to gather and shred leaves that buried hellebores, heucheras (below), and a few other low growing perennials that do not go completely dormant in winter. Deep piles of leaves remain under trees and shrubs on the garden’s southern edge that borders forest, but these will be left to decay.Heuchera

It does not bother me at all that the huge leaves of Bigleaf magnolia, and sycamores that blow in from the neighborhood might look sloppy. It’s winter, and though leaves will remain through through half of spring before breaking down I consider the leaves a treasured resource rather than an eyesore.

Typically, the leaf clean up is accomplished over many weeks, and sometimes not completed until late March, when perennials are emerging. Now, I’m looking forward to a long winter of rest, though admittedly I’ve loosened the standard for areas where deep piles of leaves will be allowed to remain.

With mild temperatures, swelling flower buds are already showing some color in early December.

With mild temperatures, swelling flower buds are already showing some color in early December.

The leaf clean up served two purposes today; to clean debris around the hellebores so flowers can be seen, and to spread leaves on the far side of the garden where there are fewer trees and winter weeds have gotten hopelessly ahead of my meager efforts at weeding. My hope is that four inches of shredded leaves will deny sunlight and kill the weeds. We’ll see.

Leaves have been cleaned from the small areas of lawn and from around and beneath healthy, green foliage of hellebores and heucheras. The leaves of most hellebores will be cut back so that flowers can be more readily seen, but in early winter every green leaf is appreciated, so this will wait until just before flowering.Hellebore

On occasion, a few hellebores begin flowering in late December or early January, and several show swelling buds that indicate this possibility with a bit of color showing already. I suppose that without the insulating cover of leaves, mild temperatures will further encourage earlier flowering. Flowers are not damaged by freezing temperatures, and even if there is only a glimpse of color this will make the long wait until spring more tolerable.