A winter wildlife update

Squirrels are less frequently seen at the birdfeeder after applying a pepper sauce to sunflower seeds. A year ago, a recommended switch to safflower seed achieved a similar result, but purchasing fifty pound bags of sunflower seeds and the pepper sauce is considerably cheaper. Birds, from my observation, prefer the sunflower seeds.

As is typical when conflicts arise between man and beast, my wife is quite ruthless, and would happily rid the planet of any snake or squirrel that becomes a nuisance. In fairness, squirrels became a considerable problem in our attic for several years, and my wife has had several unpleasant confrontations with a variety of snakes in the garden and by the koi pond. Repeatedly, I advise her that it is probably best that she remain indoors.

I will state for the record that I am the more kind hearted of the two of us, but perhaps it could be argued that I am more likely than my wife to ignore a problem. It is a fact that I will end up being the one who must resolve a squirrel or snake problem, so most vanish into the wild before action is taken.

After failing to spray the late autumn deer repellent a year ago until after significant damage was done, the double winter dose was applied right on schedule in November. Though evidence of deer tracking through the garden is common, I see no damage, and expect none until the initial spring application in April.

I hear gardeners claim that repellents are ineffective, but I’ve found that alternating two types of repellent, or mixing the hot pepper sauce into the repellent every other month, works dependably. The proof, from my experience, is that it’s not unusual for me to miss a plant or two when I spray each month from April to November. When the last application wears off (usually at 5-6 weeks, depending on rainfall), deer find the ones I missed, and don’t bother the rest.

There is a bit of problem down the road, and occasionally in the forest behind the garden, with a flock of buzzards. I know what brings them around, but it seems that they just watch and wait. They’re far enough outside the garden that they’re no more than a curiosity, and even more intriguing are red tailed hawks that perch on the tree lilac branch that holds the birdfeeder. That keeps the squirrels away.

I wonder also, why geese that congregate by the hundreds on neighboring lawns, don’t encroach on our property? There’s not much to the front lawn, and the dogs are long gone, so maybe there’s not enough to bother with. Certainly, I’m not complaining. Perhaps the geese have been alerted to my wife’s reputation.


Scenes from the winter garden

No doubt, the garden in winter is more sparse than times when it is chock full of blooms, but it is not devoid of interest. A brief stroll on a chilly afternoon reveals sights that are overlooked with the distraction of flowers.

In winter, seeds of witch hazels are propulsed far from the parent plant.

This Vernal witch hazel in part shade flowers later than another in a sunnier spot. As seedlings vary, the flowers of this witch hazel are more brightly colored. Flowers curl for protection during periods of extreme cold.

Hybrid witch hazels often begin flowering in February, but the red flowered Diane is flowering at the end of January after recent mild temperatures. The newly opened flowers appear a bit waterlogged since it’s been raining off and on today.

Swelling of tubular flowers of edgeworthia is barely perceptible in late January, only noticed because they are monitored daily. Flowers will continue to swell and first color is likely to be seen by mid February. There was concern that several nights that dropped to zero degrees would injure flower buds and stems, but it appears there has been no damage.

While hybrid mahonias passed from bloom during the early January cold, leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) begins to show the first glimpse of color in late January.

The yellow thread leafed Ogon spirea had a few scattered flowers in December, and in late January swelling buds are noticeable with a few small, white blooms.

Flower buds of the variegated Coast leucothoe are evident in late January.

Flower buds of Rainbow leucothoe


Don’t expect too much

Yes, it’s fifty five degrees. No, it is not spring, so expecting more than the few scattered flowers of witch hazels, hellebores, and snowdrops is unrealistic. Still, I regularly examine early flowering magnolias (below) and ‘Okame’ cherry for swelling buds, which are not swelling despite this spell of late January warmth, and probably won’t for another four weeks.

After weeks of cold temperatures, this mild spell is a joy, and I’m certain that looking for signs of early flowering is not overly crazy. If temperatures don’t turn cold again it’s likely that winter jasmines will begin flowering soon, and various hellebores that flower throughout the winter are likely to bloom earlier.

As I look closely for color on the jasmine, I’m wary of the large Northern Brown water snake that often lurks under these arching branches. No, it’s not that warm. Certainly, he’s nestled in to a protected spot for another month or two, but still I’m cautious. On second thought, perhaps this mild weather is making me a bit crazy.

While there were exceptional blooms on many camellias through the autumn, two long established shrubs are always late. Both are loaded with fat, swelling buds, and if there are no extended periods of cold, there are likely to be flowers in February. A year ago, there were flowers January into early March, and while there has not been a single flower in January, there’s hope for the weeks to come.

I’m happy to see that bees are getting out to enjoy the scattered winter flowers. I’m not certain of the temperature that brings them out, but there were no bees in the garden through the early, cold weeks of January. Now, they gather nectar while the weather suits them, and I think I see that they also visit flower buds that are weeks from opening.

Scheduled for removal

Along with modest new plantings envisioned for spring, a few removals also are scheduled for some mild winter weekend. Two small trees have failed to survive, a small Japanese maple planted in the middle of a vigorous patch of Ostrich ferns, and a Golden Chain tree with pendulous branches (Laburnum x watereri ‘Pendulum’, below). Planting the Golden Chain was chancy from the start. The tree is ideally suited to a cooler environment, I think, and even with a part day’s shade the heat of a Virginia summer was too much for it. A second tree survives in deeper shade, but there it barely flowers, so what’s the point?

The Golden Chain tree on the right has declined in health in recent year. I suppose that it will not tolerate the summer heat.

Both dead trees are in areas with established plantings, so it will be a simple matter to cut the trees at ground level without digging out roots. Possibly, something else could go back in these spots, but not immediately. A seedling leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) is growing beneath the Golden Chain, so the space will not be bare, and I question if anything can be planted into the mass of Ostrich fern (below).

A small Japanese maple did not survive in the middle of this mass of Ostrich fern.

This is an appropriate time to distinguish between the Golden Chain and Golden Rain trees (Koelreuteria paniculata, below), with caution that the Golden Chain might not survive in Virginia, and a warning that Golden Rain is too vigorous. In fact, Golden Rain is probably fine planted with lawn surrounding it, but one in this garden is planted in a fully planted bed, and the number of seedlings that sprout each year is astounding. In sun or shade, seedlings grow. In open areas, or from under shrubs and perennials, hundreds, probably thousands of seedlings must be pulled each year. Certainly, the tree is splendid in flower, with pleasant foliage, though it has no autumn color of note, but you’ve been warned, there are choices that require far less work.

Two weeks past the last deep freeze, no damage is evident on paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha) that have had troubles in the past, and there appears to be only minor injury to leaves of winter daphnes (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’) in full sun. Another, in part shade, does not appear to have suffered any damage. Of course, this is wonderful news, though celebrations will be delayed with half of winter still in front of us.

If the choice is between ice or snow, or cold, I’ll take precipitation any time. Rarely is there significant damage from accumulations of ice or snow, but there’s little that can be done to protect against severe cold. So, expecting the worst is past, I’m overjoyed that there seems to be little to be concerned about. Rather than worrying about cold damage, I am anxious to get on with additions (and deletions) to the garden.

A splendid winter day

Today is one of those days, rare days when winter temperatures are just right and I’m itching to get outside. To do something, anything. There are two parts to this equation, weather and will, and only on occasion do they coincide.

A prior engagement dictates that the day’s labor will be brief, and no matter how much is accomplished this will be a small fraction of what must be done prior to spring growth. In a few years, deep snow in late winter has delayed the start of spring clean up into the middle of March, and then the urgency is multiplied. Slow and steady is best, and if there are repeated days similar to this afternoon the early spring will be considerably less frantic.

As always, before chores can be started, a stroll through the garden is necessary. Inevitably, this requires more time than an undistracted walk. There are twigs and branches to pick up, and it is time to begin cleaning up stems of perennials. Most have been stripped of seeds by birds, or seeds have fallen to the ground. For this, there’s no rush, but stray stems that cover hellebores or snowdrops must be cleared to see flowers that are imminent.

More than just flowers grabbed my attention on this mild winter afternoon. There was a buzz from bees gathering nectar from flowers of the vernal witch hazel.

Of course, the stroll is slowed as each witch hazel must be observed closely. One vernal witch hazel, by far the largest, and one with the fullest winter sun exposure, is a third into bloom, with full flowering a week away. Two others, in more shade, are beginning to break bud, so flowering lags a week behind.

Hybrid witch hazels typically begin flowering in February, but their progress must be monitored regularly so that not a single flower is missed. One ‘Arnold Promise’ has a single bud (above) that has opened slightly to reveal its bright yellow flower. There is no color yet on ‘Diane’ or ‘Jelena’, but with a mild week ahead these require daily observation.

While strolling, additions that have been imagined for spring planting will be reviewed, again. Perhaps the parrotia that will be transplanted should be spaced a bit farther from two Japanese maples that require more shade, but too far will place it into an area that remains damp through a rainy spring. There is no reason to move the tree, which is now stunted in too much shade, into ground that is ill suited for its survival. No matter how much this is considered, the final placement will be determined the day the tree is moved. Still, the debate is worthwhile, I think, and it is a luxury to dawdle outdoors on a January afternoon.

Work to be done

There is work to be done if flowers of hellebores and snowdrops are to be seen as milder temperatures return. The largest piles of leaves were removed from hellebores before the recent, extended period of cold, when swelling buds were first noticed. While flower buds were not injured by temperatures that dropped to zero, foliage of hellebores took a turn for the worse, which is not unusual, and even in mild winters leaves can be brown by winter’s end.

Dried brown leaves of hellebores will be removed so that flowers can be seen. In a very mild winter this might not be required, but after two weeks of sub freezing temperatures the unsightly foliage is best removed sooner than later.

Ideally, foliage of hellebores should be removed in December, before stems of flowers elongate. Then, pruning leaves is a simpler matter, grab a bunch and cut. Now, care must be taken not to chop flowers, so the process is more complicated for the dozens of hellebores. The first flower opened several days ago, so there’s at least a bit of urgency.

A single flower has opened, but other hellebores will be flowering in the next few weeks.

After leaves are removed, another go round to clean up leaves will be necessary, and of course, sometime before spring more work will be required to shred piles of leaves in areas that border the forest. The only difficulty in this, besides getting out in the cold, is picking up huge leaves from the Bigleaf magnolia and from neighbors’ sycamores. This is also best accomplished in December, before leaves become wet and matted. Rarely is this done, but the chore will be a nice break from my winter inactivity if I can hold out for a nice fifty or sixty degree afternoon.

Impatient for spring

Is mid January too early to be impatient for spring? In fact, I don’t wish to scoot the calendar forward, but anxiously await milder temperatures after several weeks of cold that has dragged on far too long.

Winter flowers are a partial remedy for seemingly interminable winters, but many blooms curl for protection as temperatures approach zero, so too little color is evident until milder weather returns. I hope that’s on the way, at least that’s what forecasters promise. Another blast of cold, or two, will not be surprising, but with temperatures in the forties and even fifties expected, there should be enough scattered flowers to keep me relatively sane.

Some years there are big plans for spring, and others nothing, and probably this year is somewhere in between. I’m planning to add a few daphnes, though it’s unclear where sunny spots for them will be found. Hybrid daphnes (Daphne x transatlantica ‘Summer Ice’, above) have performed wonderfully in recent years, with the only unsatisfactory results being in a bit too much shade. Otherwise, they’re quite cold hardy, not, or at least less finicky than other daphnes, and there are waves of fragrant blooms from late March into November. I’ll find a spot.

The damp area behind the shed continues to be a bit of an issue. Red chokeberries (Aronia arbutifolia, above) have continually been stunted by deer (too often I miss these with the repellent), but after several years I’m hoping that well established roots will give the shrubs a chance to get ahead. Without big, bushy chokeberries, the area is a bit sparse, so I’m considering adding a few Virginia sweetspires (Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’, below). Probably, this is a shrub or two too many, but that’s someday, and I’ll be happier with more than less right up to the day when I have to chop one or the other out.

Particularly in this wet spot, I won’t mind if it becomes a bit overgrown. Certainly, it won’t be the only area in the garden where one shrub grows into another. Occasionally, one or the other suffers, and a time or two something must be moved or chopped out, but most often one thing blends into the other without much of an issue. At least, it’s not an issue to me.

Autumn foliage of Parrotia persica

In the same general area I’ve decided that an under performing parrotia (Parrotia persica, autumn foliage above) is too shaded. I think I’ve figured a spot where I can move it that gets most of a day’s sun, which will also will help shade variegated and yellow leafed Japanese maples nearby that will do a whole lot better with a break from the summer sun. If the cold weather breaks, it’s possible I could get this done sometime in February, and perhaps I can also skim off the grass to enlarge the planting bed to accommodate the few tree peonies and perennials I’ve ordered. And, there must be space for another fothergilla (Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’, below). Two others are kind of hidden away at the edges of the garden, so I need one that is more conspicuous.

There’s a spot in the side yard, close to the driveway, where a pendulous spruce is not making it, and this seems a perfect spot to plant one of the smaller growing, upright Japanese maples (Acer palmatum ‘Higasayama’, below) that I potted last year. A few grew vigorously in containers on the patios, and this location is close to a path, so I must be certain the one I plant won’t overgrow.

Higasayama Japanese maple, an unusually variegated maple that faded in part sun in a container on the patio. Perhaps it will fade less planted in the ground in half day shade.

No doubt, there will be other additions when new deliveries begin to arrive at the garden centers. While space in this long established garden is limited, room for new treasures can always be found.