Final conclusions

This very unscientific research, based entirely upon casual observation, is concluding nicely, and perhaps the last phase to measure the reaction of squirrels to being shot in the hindquarters by BB’s will not be necessary. Time spent by neighborhood squirrels at our birdfeeder has steadily declined with a switch to sunflower seed treated with hot pepper sauce, and now to safflower seed, as suggested by a reader in Haymarket, a few miles up the road from here.

Redtailed hawk

The hawk is back, after a short absence. A few days earlier, one of our regular squirrels made repeated attempts to bypass the hawk to get to the feeder, without success.

While banging on windows and loudly shouted threats of violence did little, the pepper treated seed was moderately effective, discouraging several regulars, and shortening the time at the feeder for the few stubborn holdouts. While a redtailed hawk (above) proved most effective, warding away squirrels, but also birds, a more complete deterrent was desired, and after several days it appears the answer could be safflower seed.

Cardinal in weeping dogwood

A male cardinal waits for its turn at the feeder.

Yes, squirrels sampled the new seed, but seemingly found it undesirable, cutting short their stays at the feeder, and then not returning except one that partially dismantled the feeder in hopes that choicer seeds must be hidden within. The smaller safflower seeds tumbled from the open window of the feeder into a mound on the ground below. Now, cardinals inhabit the feeder while chickadees forage on the ground, and no squirrels have been seen on this pleasantly chilly afternoon. Somewhat curiously, no bluejays have been observed at the feeder since the change in seed, though they seem to come and go and very probably will return.


One of several hellebores flowering in late January.

In the surrounding garden, the effects of recent mild temperatures are readily apparent, with many early snowdrops and hellebores (above) coming into bloom, and buds of hybrid witch hazels beginning to open to join the earlier flowering Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, below). While cooler weather is forecast, the lack of extreme cold will encourage flowering to progress.Vernal witch hazel

Prospects for February are excellent. Without squirrels at the feeder, my wife will be happier, and possibly the  kitchen will be more peaceful without the banging and shouting. And, the gardener will be enthused further by the increasing numbers of blooms.


No snow, thankfully

Today, no snow, thankfully. A year ago, I was still digging out from thirty-two inches, with four feet drifted against the garage door, thinking I’m too old for this, but thankful that I finally broke down and bought a small snow blower. It didn’t seem possible that the small electric gadget could move this much snow, but it did, thanks in part to a much shorter driveway than others in the neighborhood. This was a prime consideration when the house was purchased twenty-eight years ago, short front (and driveway) and long backyard (for the garden).Winter Sun mahonia blooming in the snow in January

If the labor of digging out is not considered, a cover of snow is welcomed, for a few days, and in this area (northwestern Virginia) the typical snow is here for a few days, then gone. A few feet of snow is slower to melt, particularly on this property shaded by tall maples and tulip poplars so that snow lingers days and weeks longer than on neighbors’ sunnier lots.

One of several hellebores beginning to flower the third week of January.

One of several hellebores beginning to flower the third week of January.

When the snow fell a year ago, it buried hellebores (above) and snowdrops in full bloom. Only the tips of some of the smaller witch hazels stood above the drifts. I know, I struggled through waist deep snow to see for myself, though mostly to be certain that no damage was done, and to shake loose snow that might be a problem, which it wasn’t since the snow was light and powdery. So, no damage was done, but a deep cover of snow gets old in a hurry, and knowing that flowers are buried beneath the snow does no good for the gardener’s moral.Vernal witch hazel

Happily, there’s been hardly enough snow to talk about this winter, maybe an inch, and if that’s it for the winter, I won’t mind a bit. With a bit cooler temperatures (though no severe cold) through the first half of this winter, flowers have been a bit slower, but in the past week snowdrops and hellebores have come along, and the Vernal witch hazel (above) has been flowering for a few weeks now. Though my sense of smell is severely lacking, a few days ago the scent from the witch hazel was unmistakable in the rear garden. The flowers are tiny, barely noticeable from a distance, but any blooms are appreciated in January, encouraging the gardener that spring is around the corner. Not just around the corner, but at least within sight.

Modest plans for spring

In this second week of January, several seed catalogs and a few from mail order plant suppliers have arrived in the mailbox. Once, the box was stuffed with catalogs after the start of the new year, but today it is the email bin that overflows.

It’s been a while since I’ve grown anything from seed (so seed catalogs are discarded), mostly a matter of laziness than for any other reason, since this can be quite cost effective for many perennials (and vegetables) that are easily raised. This should not discourage more energetic folks, and yes, not much effort is required, but for better or worse I’m better off planting well rooted containers that will tolerate a bit of neglect.

Occasionally, I will grab a few ripe blueberries as I walk the garden, but if my timing is slightly off birds will harvest every ripe berry.

Occasionally, I will grab a few ripe blueberries as I walk the garden, but if my timing is slightly off, birds will harvest every ripe berry.

Long ago, I gave up on tomatoes or other veggies, and grow no edibles besides blueberries as shade from the garden’s many Japanese maples and dogwoods make finding a sunny spot difficult. Certainly, there are more trees and shrubs here that are marginally considered as edibles, but if there are any berries on the serviceberries (Amelanchier canadensis), there are few enough not to be worth the effort to pick. Any berries, from any tree or shrub in this garden, go to the birds, even the blueberries for the most part which are quickly harvested as they ripen, with the few spoils going to Japanese beetles.

Flowers are plentiful, but berries scarce on the serviceberry.

Flowers are plentiful, but berries scarce on the serviceberry.

I’m considering the budget for a few additions to the garden, certainly a few small Japanese maples to add to the collection in pots that are arranged on the patios. With more than thirty maples planted in the garden, and room for no more, the collection in containers was begun last year. All are small now, so space is not yet a problem, and what I’ll do when the maples quickly grow to five and six, then some to eight feet tall, well, those details will be addressed when the time comes.

Orange Dream Japanese maple grew nicely last year in a container beside the koi pond. With maples grown in containers, the gardener can easily relocate the pots to best suit the needs of various maples.

Orange Dream Japanese maple grew nicely last year in a container in full sun on the patio beside the koi pond. With maples grown in containers, the gardener can easily relocate the pots to best suit the needs of various maples.

Recently, several large evergreens were removed that had become too shaded, and in the newly opened spaces there is an opportunity for planting several new hellebores and hostas, with varieties still to be determined as the mood strikes. Perhaps there will be enough sun to plant a few ground orchids (Bletilla striata), but if not in this space, there is some other spot that these can be shoehorned into.

Ground orchid in late May

Terrestrial orchids spread slowly, but dependably in sunny spots.

These are not ambitious plans, but with a garden in the works for three decades, there should be little to do besides adding a few goodies. No doubt, I’ll be further inspired by the first spring visits to the garden center.

Squirrel deterrent

Hot pepper added to sunflower seed has barely slowed squirrels from feasting at our birdfeeder. This redtailed hawk will do the trick, but unfortunately, birds are the hawk’s intended prey, so none will come close.Hawk and squirrelPhotos are poor quality taken through kitchen windows. With the feeder only thirty feet from the house, the hawk would flee with even a sudden movement from inside the house. The squirrel understood the danger in approaching the feeder, but was compelled to test the limits. Each time the squirrel moved closer, the hawk jerked its neck and the squirrel fled. Hawk and squirrel

After several minutes, the hawk realized the futility of hunting from this perch, so it flew off to find higher ground.

January flowers

In the mild early winter a year ago, hellebores and snowdrops began flowering in December, with witch hazels and winter jasmine following in early January until all were buried under thirty two inches of snow the third week of the month. This winter has not been so warm, probably closer to average, but still with few bouts of severe cold. In this more typical winter, flowers are on a more predictable schedule, a rarity in recent years.

Winter Sun mahonia flowering in mid January.

Winter Sun mahonia flowering in mid January.

A single surprise is the autumn flowering mahonias (Mahonia x media, above and below), that began flowering in November and usually fade in late December, sometimes early January. Mild temperatures accelerate the passing of flowers, but without extreme cold or warmth through mid January, there is only slight fading of blooms.

Charity mahonia in mid January.

Charity mahonia in mid January.

The Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, below) rarely varies from beginning to flower the second week of January, and true to form, its small, ribbon like flowers unfurled a week ago. In a brief spell of cold a week ago the flowers curled tightly, but they have opened again in milder temperatures. The blooms of this witch hazel are small, and not as visible as larger flowers of hybrid witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia) that will flower in the next few weeks.

Vernal witch hazel in mid January

Vernal witch hazel in mid January

The first, scattered few snowdrops (Galanthus) have begun to flower, and many more are expected in the next few weeks from early flowering varieties that were recently uncovered from under deep piles of leaves. Hellebores were also uncovered from mounded leaves, and hybrids with Christmas rose genetics (Helleborus niger) should begin flowering shortly.

Nothing to do, but enjoy

This chilly afternoon was spent clearing piles of leaves that cover hellebores, and from areas where I suppose snowdrops are planted, though I could be off by a few feet in recollecting their exact placement. I don’t know if this forgetfulness is a trait of gardeners, and hopefully not only of older ones, though in my defense it seems inevitable that the precise location of one thing or the other can easily be forgotten in a one acre garden.Snowdrop

The first of snowdrops is up and flowering, a benefit of planting small numbers in a range of varieties which will begin flowering as early as late December, or several weeks later in a more typical winter. Today, later flowering types barely poke above ground, and these are hidden beneath piles of leaves that must be removed, though as leaves become more matted by rain and snow most late blooms rise above the detritus.

A year ago, following an abnormally warm December, and with mild temperatures the early weeks of January, foliage of snowdrops was clearly evident by now, with scattered flowers seen for weeks by this date. A week later, thirty-two inches of snow covered the snowdrops and hellebores, which emerged intact through the melting snow only slightly weathered following a few weeks without sunlight.

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

A year ago, mild temperatures in early winter forced hellebores into bloom in late December. In a warm spell, bees stir from their winter shelter to gather nectar.

Leaves are best cleared when dry, and a month ago, but the gardener is especially satisfied when chores can be put off without too much harm being done, which is the case with removing damp leaves in mid January rather than dry ones in early December. In areas without winter flowers, most leaves can be left in place to decay without any effort if the gardener is not overly concerned with neatness.

Clearing piles of leaves that collect around the evergreen hellebores is next to impossible with a leaf rake, even if the gardener is intent on physical labor, and is particularly careful, which I am not. So, the task is accomplished with a gas powered blower that converts into a vacuum. Until a few years ago, this was done with an electric model, which was quieter, but I was constantly cussing the cord that got hung up on every little thing in its path, and pulled out of the ground more than a few recently planted perennials. Leaves that are sucked up by the vacuum can be bagged, or not, and much time is saved by blowing leaves that are shredded to a fraction of their bulk back into the garden.


In more typical winter temperatures, hellebores will flower in mid to late January.

I would prefer that temperatures be a few degrees warmer than today to be out in the garden, but it’s back to work tomorrow, and with a warm forecast it is possible that the earliest hellebores could break into bloom by the weekend. As a separate, but less significant issue, leaves of hellebores were not cut back before flower buds became prominent late in December, so, not only do these snag more leaves from maples and tulip poplars that tower overhead, but flowers that are tucked beneath leathery leaves of the hellebores are more difficult to see.

Again, the gardener, I suspect most but certainly this one, calculates the risk/benefit of accomplishing a task later rather than sooner (or not at all). The flowers of many older hellebores nod to the ground, so removing leaves more clearly exposes the blooms. Many newer hybrids have flower stalks that stand more erect, and often above leaves that flatten out though the winter. With these, there is no need to remove foliage, though it can turn brown and ratty looking after a harsh winter, so in nearly every instance it is best to remove leaves if you can get around to it. This year, I haven’t, which is not unusual, and hardly a tragedy and barely noticed once flowers fade and new spring growth hides the weathered foliage.Hellebore

In any case, the nagging chore to remove the worst of piles of leaves has finally been accomplished. If flowers of hellebores open later this week, there will be nothing to do, but enjoy.

Signs of far off spring

Not yet a third of the way through winter, and already the gardener looks for hopeful signs of spring. Two, too long months remain, and while winter flowering mahonias and witch hazels brighten this gray period, any glimpse of color from late winter and spring bloomers is most encouraging.

Stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, is unusually early this winter, typically flowering in early spring.

Stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, is unusually early this winter, typically flowering in early spring.

In the unusual January with only a few spells of cold, the gardener expects foliage of spring bulbs to break ground, and occasionally to see a stray bloom. Hellebores with Christmas rose genetics might begin to flower by late December, or much later into late February if delayed by cold and covered by snow. While there has been little severe cold until this week, temperatures have not been so mild as to encourage early flowering, so the anxious gardener must examine the usual suspects close up.

Leatherleaf mahonia shows a bit of color in early January. In a mild winter the mahonia might reach peak bloom by late in the month, though this usually is delayed until late February or March.

Leatherleaf mahonia shows a bit of color in early January. In a mild winter the mahonia might reach peak bloom by late in the month, though this usually is delayed until late February or March.

‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’ mahonias remain in bloom in early January, with late winter flowering leatherleaf mahonias (Mahonia bealei, above) beginning to show the slightest bit of color. In the mildest winters, flowers of the autumn and late winter flowering types will overlap, but typically there will be several weeks between. With cold temperatures forecast, leatherleaf’s buds are not likely to budge for a while.

In early January, Summer Ice daphne is ready to flower in a period of mild temperatures. Usually, buds remain until early spring, but occasionally there will be a stray winter bloom.

In early January, Summer Ice daphne is ready to flower in a period of mild temperatures. Usually, buds remain until early spring, but occasionally there will be a stray winter bloom.

Two long flowering daphnes, ‘Eternal Fragrance’ and ‘Summer Ice’ (Daphne x transatlantica ‘Summer Ice’, above) bloomed into late November, and buds are at the ready to open with a week of mild weather. The splendid, variegated Winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’, below) is unlikely to flower until late winter, after more extended periods of mild temperatures. The gardener is ever vigilant until spring is here to stay.

Variegated Winter daphne in January

Variegated Winter daphne in January. One winter in twenty it will flower in late January or early February, but there seems no chance of that this winter.