Two in the place of one

Inevitably, when planting in early spring I dig into the roots of something that’s not showing yet, usually a hosta that I kinda knew was close by, but I’d forgotten exactly where. And occasionally, a new something will go into the ground without an apparent conflict, only to discover it’s planted a fraction of an inch from another something that appears several weeks later. Of course, one or the other is usually easily moved as soon as I get around to it, which might be August.Nandina and hostas

For whatever claims I make, I realize that I am not really lazy, I’m only reluctant to do any more than is absolutely necessary. I’ve planned the garden to minimize chores, but in a plot this size, and with no help except my wife’s occasional meddling, there’s no escaping regular labor to keep a semblance of order (at least what can be seen from the street). While I do as little weeding as I can get away with, and no pruning other than removing branches broken by snow or in summer storms, there is something to do all the time, even if it’s only cleaning up twigs that rain down from the maples and tulip poplars that adjoin the garden.

Epimediums will easily tolerate the dry shade of the shallow rooted beech.

Epimediums will easily tolerate the dry shade of the shallow rooted beech.

I see that the small sections of lawn have taken a turn for the worse, again. I pay little attention to the grass, since encouraging it to grow only results in more labor. I hope, at minimum, that the lawn stays mostly green, which sometimes works, while at other times it’s not so good. I don’t mind clover or violets, or just about anything that grows at roughly the same pace as the grass. Patches of bare dirt are hardly acceptable, though they do give an excuse to turn these into planting areas if I can start and finish before my wife has a chance to object. In late autumn the area of sparse grass beneath the purple leafed beech in the front yard was grubbed out, then planted with perennials and grasses that will tolerate the dry shade. This should help to keep the dust down.

Spring planting

In case a reader has not been outdoors in recent weeks, or has just emerged from hibernation (or lives far to the north), it’s spring. The scattered few cold nights expected over the next few weeks should not discourage the gardener from getting on with his spring business, whether that’s cleaning up before anything new is started, or getting right to planting. I’ve been saying for a few years, and my wife for far longer, that there is precious little space remaining in the garden to plant, but that has barely slowed me down. No space means that it is more difficult to plant another dogwood, or Japanese maple, but smaller plants can easily be shoehorned into the smallest spaces. And, that’s what I’m getting ready to do.Japanese maple

First, I must must fess up to purchasing a few more plants by mail order over the winter than I’ve admitted to. I wrote several weeks ago that I was determined to hold the line, and that I wouldn’t go overboard ordering in the boredom of winter (as I’ve done many times before). I wrote that four tiny Japanese maples that were purchased will spend a year or two (or longer) in containers until they’re large enough that I must find a spot for them in the garden. Now, they’re really small, but exactly what I expected for the price, and if I had purchased a two year old instead of a younger tree I would have ordered two instead of four to fit the budget. But, I would have only been half as happy with the order, and though I’m not a patient person, four tiny trees are always better than two slightly larger ones. It is arguable if the small maples can yet be called trees, but someday ….., and then I’ll find a spot for them. For now, they’ll go into small pots to sit on one of the sunny patios, and next year they’ll go into slightly larger pots, and so on until they’re planted some day.Sparkling Burgundy pineapple lily, hydrangea, and Blue Mist shrub

In addition to the Japanese maples, on a really slow day (probably with three feet of snow on the ground), I got a hankering to order a few small bulbs of pineapple lily (Eucomis, above) and Paris polyphylla (below), which was treasured in the garden until it was lost in one of the recent horrible winters. I suspect it was given a bit too much sun, and perhaps the ground was a bit too dry, and it’s disappearance in winter was only coincidental. With this past failure in mind, instead of a single plant, I bought a handful, with the reasoning that this gives more wiggle room to figure the perfect spot. And, though the pineapple lilies are marginally winter hardy, I’ve had no problem with others, and these are easy to fit into any small space. So yes, I purchased a few more plants over the winter, but all were worthy selections and this is many fewer plants than I’ve purchased in recent years.Paris podophylla in late May

I don’t think the plans I’ve made for spring planting are particularly grand, but perhaps there’s more than I’ve planted in recent years. Finally, the dead hornbeam has been cut down. I procrastinated too long, concerned that damage would be done to neighboring plants, but the tree was going to come down eventually, in a storm or by a chainsaw. The fellows who did the work were obviously as careful as they could be, and only a few branches on a nearby Gordlinia were broken. Now, there’s a void where the tree came down, but not for long.Daphne Summer Ice

Along the front of the house, I’ve chopped out a few fading boxwoods that have been shaded for too long, and I’ll be planting a few compact growing ‘Chestnut Hill’ laurels in this space. Beside the laurels, there could be enough room to plant a few daphnes (Daphne x transatlantica ‘Summer Ice’, above). A few somethings are still to be determined, and of course there will always be a few impulse buys once I get to roaming about the garden center in a few weeks that space must be found to plant. Nothing major, just a typical spring that has warmed up and started a few weeks early.

Seedlings of dubious quality

A number of hellebore (Helleborus) seedlings are flowering in the garden for the first time, and I must say, none are exceptional. In fact, I’m not sure that they’re any good at all. Though the foliage is fine, the flower colors are unremarkable compared to the dozens of named varieties in the garden. A few older seedlings have blended in with long established plants so that they’re indistinguishable, but the new crop is more scattered and easily identified as ones that came from seed. I think most gardeners would have a difficult time chopping out a living, blooming plant, just because the flower isn’t great, and that’s certainly my thinking. So, home grown and good enough is a high enough standard for these to be keepers.

An interesting hellebore seedling, with an unsual combination of colors. But beautiful?

An interesting hellebore seedling, with an unusual combination of colors. But beautiful? No matter, it will stay

Hybridizers go through this process routinely, and I suspect that out of a group of dozens, or maybe hundreds of seedlings, they might eliminate all but a few as nothing special. Of course, this is when they’ve controlled the breeding to pollinate a specific plant with another, trying to blend the best traits. The breeding process in this garden is chaotic, and the uncontrolled results are only worthwhile for keeping because hellebores are one of few plants that will readily hybridize in a garden. These are my hybrids, for better or worse.

One of the oldest hellebore seedlings in the garden, and one that is close in color to named selections. Not unusual, but a keeper.

One of the oldest hellebore seedlings in the garden, and one that is close in color to named selections. Not unusual, not exceptional, but a keeper.

And, if I’m accepting of these mediocre seedlings, there are hundreds more younger plants that will flower in the next year or two. At some point I must put a stop to this, I realize, if only for the reason that there is not adequate space, even if, by chance, an excellent hellebore is found.

A hellebore flower with nice form, but mediocre coloring.

A hellebore flower with nice form, but mediocre coloring.

The garden’s large koi pond faces a similar dilemma. From nine tiny koi the pond’s population has grown to seventy five or a hundred and fifty. I don’t know because they refuse to line up to be counted, and when I try the mischievous little beasts swim in circles to confuse me even more. A year ago, dozens were moved to the four smaller ponds in the garden, but ten or twelve in each pond is all these can handle, and there’s little hope that there won’t be many dozens more koi later this spring. At some point, what to do? I’ll figure something, and it’s not so easy to dispose of a batch of koi hatchlings as it is to dump inferior hellebore seedlings into the compost pile.

Yes, there are flowers

When hellebores, mahonias, and spireas flowered early in winter there was ample reason to wonder, will this be it? Will there be any blooms at all come the beginning of spring? Now that spring has arrived, we see that yes, there are, with the number of flowers barely diminished.Ogon spirea

‘Ogon’ spirea (Spirea thunbergii ‘Ogon’, above) flowered in late December, and as flowers faded, leaves began to grow as they typically do in late March.  This raised concerns, not that there would be flowers in spring, but that the shrubs would survive at all since the spirea should be dormant and not growing in early January. The sturdy nature of the spirea eased doubts, and now, in mid March, a sprinkling of flowers erase any concerns. ‘Ogon’ is not in full bloom, but there are scattered flowers and it’s evident that it did not suffer from the premature flowering. hellebore

Many hellebores flowered in the warmth of December and early January. Finally, the progression of fattening buds was slowed by cold, and halted by three feet of snow. As expected, the snow did no harm, and hellebores emerged ready to flower. Early varieties continued into bloom, and others began flowering in the warm temperatures of early March.Hellebore

Again this year, my atrociously poor memory has caught up with me. There seem to be dozens of hellebores flowering that I’ve never seen before. Only a few are seedlings that were transplanted around the garden, and as three year old seedlings several are flowering for the first time. Most of the new flowers are ones I purchased and planted, I suppose, probably sometime in the past few years. Or possibly, an intruder planted these under the cover of darkness. My memory could not be that bad, could it? In any case, I’m not complaining.Hellebore

Warm then cold, a typical March

The gardener should be aware when he complains that the early spring weather is miserable, no one is listening, though perhaps screaming at the chilly breezes soothes his soul. Yes, it’s raining, or snowing, sometimes simultaneously, but it’s March, and this is to be expected.

New leaves and flower buds have emerged weeks early in this warm early spring.

New leaves and flower buds on the Red Horsechestnut have emerged weeks early in this warm early spring.

As recent weeks attest, one March afternoon will be seventy degrees, flushing growth on Japanese maples (as well as other trees and shrubs) several weeks early. And then, freezing temperatures are forecast that threaten the vulnerable, new leaves. One day the gardener revels in the warmth, the next he curses cold temperatures that are typical for the season.

Pollen on pussywillow catkins

Pollen on pussywillow catkins

The gardener prays that fragile foliage survives this frost, and never mind that flowers of the ‘Royal Star’ magnolia (Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’, below) are likely to be damaged by the cold. Flowers, and particularly the magnolia’s, are fleeting, and if not frost damaged they would fade in another week. Damage to leaves is serious, but the gardener (and the maples and magnolias) have been through this before, and all have survived. Still, the gardener is nagged that doom lurks in early spring’s next  inevitable blast of cold.

Star magnolia flowers are likely to be damaged in freezing temperatures.

Star magnolia flowers are likely to be damaged in freezing temperatures.

Photos from a year ago remind of the miserable late winter and early spring when snow covered the ground in early March, and only small sections of the garden’s five ponds were thawed until late in the month. In two recent winters, multiple nights with temperatures below zero damaged trees and shrubs that had flourished through decades of mild winters.

Paperbushes have survived the winter without damage, and now are in full flower.

Paperbushes have survived the winter without damage, and now are in full flower.

Over two winters, paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha, above) that grew to ten feet were severely pruned, and only a few pitiful, contorted flowers survived on lower branches that were most protected. Following this mostly mild winter, every bud survived, and now the shrubs are covered in glorious blooms. While too many are threatened by the occasional cold night, the paperbushes have managed through much worse, and flowers will not be damaged.

Early and late, flowering together

Heaven forbid I should ever figure this out.

The gardener expects some confusion, and particularly in early spring. My observation in this garden, for whatever little good that might be, is that ‘Dr. Merrill’ magnolia (Magnolia × loebneri ‘Merrill’, below) flowers a day or two before ‘Royal Star’ (Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’) which is also when the purple flowered saucer magnolias (Magnolia soulangeana) bloom in sunnier gardens in the neighborhood. Almost certainly, the earlier flowering is because ‘Dr. Merrill’ stands further up the slope and is a bit less shaded by the towering maples and tulip poplars that border the garden.Dr. Merrill magnolia

In winters when February is mild, flowering of both might be a week before the start of March, but most years the magnolias (‘Royal Star’,below) flower in early March. If late winter temperatures are consistently cold, flowering might be delayed for several weeks, as was the case the past two years when flowers overlapped with redbuds into early April .Royal Star magnolia

Flowers of the early magnolias are regularly damaged by frost over their ten days in bloom, which is occasionally a disappointment, but most years there are four or five days when flowers are perfect so that the gardener holds no grudge against the cold. For the more cautious gardener who requires flowers that are less prone to frost damage, the wise option is to plant the splendid purple flowered ‘Jane’ (Magnolia ‘Jane’, below), which flowers two weeks later.Jane magnolia

Except this year, and this is where confusion sets in as all magnolias are flowering at once, though ‘Jane’ is just beginning as the others are at their peak. To the less experienced gardener there would seem no advantage in planting a magnolia that flowers only three days later, and of course all will be threatened as temperatures plunge over the weekend. I will, of course, hope that the frost is not so cold, and that flowers escape serious damage, but there is always next year, and perhaps then the early will flower earlier, and the late flowers will follow frost.

Suddenly, it’s spring

The first half of this winter was extraordinarily warm, while the second six weeks were more typical. Certainly, the late winter was not exceptionally cold, but after a pleasant beginning the season dragged on with several weeks under the cover of deep snow. Thankfully, this is behind us, though the gardener should expect scattered frosts and freezes that will surely wreck one treasure or another just as it reaches its full glory. Rarely is this a concern beyond losing flowers that are frost damaged as long as tender plants are not set outdoors too early.

Leaves of the red Horsechestnut begin to open in mid March.

Leaves of the red Horsechestnut begin to open in mid March.

Despite current forecasts that predict mild temperatures through the month, the gardener expects the worst. Experience tells him that when the early magnolias (Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’) and cherry (Prunus x incamp ‘Okame’, below) are blooming, frost is on the way, not because these are cursed, but that over the ten days when these are flowering in early March, a freeze is likely. Perhaps not this year, but most.

Okame cherry flowers several weeks earlier than other, more common, cherries. The flowers tolerate freezing temperatures better than early heat.

Okame cherry flowers several weeks earlier than other, more common, cherries. The flowers tolerate freezing temperatures better than early heat.

While the experienced gardener is confident that the native dogwoods in his garden will flower on April 15, and rarely vary by more than a few days, March flowers are more unpredictable. The exceptional white Delaware azalea will flower on the 25th of April, but the sweetly fragrant winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’, below) might begin showing color the second week of February, or of March.

Variegated winter daphne has suffered dame in recent winters, but still managed to flower. This year, foliage has come through the winter intact, and the daphne is in full bloom in mid March.

Variegated winter daphne has suffered in recent winters, but still managed to flower. This year, foliage has come through the winter intact, and the daphne is in full bloom in mid March.

The low growing evergreen Sweetbox (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis, below) has suffered from the cold of recent winters, but three feet of snow did no damage. Sweetbox creeps to spread slowly, but dependably, and after ten years stems must be pruned as they pop up each spring through the stone path. This is a minor chore, and otherwise sweetbox requires no attention at all, except to admire the small, fragrant flowers that are mostly hidden beneath its foliage.

Sweetbox is a slow growing evergreen with small, fragrant early spring flowers.

Sweetbox is a slow growing evergreen with small, fragrant early spring flowers.

The variegated Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas ‘Variegata’, below) might flower in early February, or with six weeks of cold, mid March. The tiny yellow flowers are not typical of our more common dogwoods, and despite its rugged constitution, its flowers and variegated foliage are exceptional.

Cornelian cherry is a dogwood, not a cherry. It is a tough shrub or small tree with early spring flowers.

Cornelian cherry is a dogwood, not a cherry. It is a sturdy shrub or small tree with early spring flowers.

With recent warm temperatures, the garden shows clear evidence of the transition from winter to spring. There are many more flowers that could not fit into this short update, and the challenge for the gardener is not to be distracted for too long from his spring clean up.

As usual, February Gold daffodil flowers in March in this garden.

As usual, February Gold daffodil flowers in March in this garden.