Ahead of schedule

Fortunately, much of the clean up that is necessary to prepare the garden for spring was accomplished in February. Mild temperatures encouraged the gardener to be outdoors, and while abundant flowers of hellebores (below) and witch hazels distracted from the task at hand, a bit of labor was managed so that the garden was not its typical disaster at the start of March.

This hellebore has flowered since early February, and is not likely to fade for another few weeks.

Certainly, there is still work to be done, and after recent chilly weeks when little was accomplished, winter weeds have covered open ground in the side garden where leaves have blown off to expose bare ground. Someday, this will be shaded by shrubs, and covered by Ostrich ferns and perennials that have not quite grown in after a grove of bamboo was removed several years ago. Hopefully, that will be this year, but I thought perhaps it would be last year, and here I am, pulling weeds in flower before they go to seed.

Winter’s Star camellia is flowering again, beside freeze damaged blooms from the pat two weeks. Most of the golden brown flowers have been removed, but some flowers are part pink, part brown.

Admittedly, a poor job was done removing piles of leaves in large areas beneath trees along the wooded southern border. Leaves covering hellbores were removed weeks ago, but somehow piles that accumulated around shrubs were ignored. This is quick work, but it must be fit in between filling one pond that was cleaned of muck two weeks ago, but was not refilled, and fixing an electrical issue that runs the pump on the koi pond. Be warned, if this should not occur to you, that it is unwise to burn garden debris directly over top of electric wires that are buried only a few inches deep.

On this warm afternoon, bees swarmed to flowers of mahonias and pieris.

As always, my attention while working in the garden is distracted by one thing after another, so a simple walk to the compost pile with an armload of branches involves several stops, to pull a weed, to pick up plastic that has blown in from the neighbors, or more likely, to watch bees gathering nectar from the fading flowers of leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, above). I’m not getting paid for this, so who cares if two hours of labor is stretched to four?

By one name or the other

From a pup, I was weaned on a mishmash of common and scientific plant names, and while I can hardly claim proficiency in either, probably I’m less comfortable with the common forms. While others say andromeda, I think Pieris (japonica or floribunda), and when writing, my leash must be yanked a time or two so I don’t stray too far from more familiar plant names. I think Edgeworthia chrysantha, but must write paperbush.

For the gardener, plants, and not nomenclature, should be of greatest importance, and who really cares what its called, though it is readily acknowledged that confusion between sweetshrub (Calycanthus), summersweet (Clethra), and sweetspire (Itea) can be troublesome. Apparently, I am easily confused, more than most I suspect, and while ideally I would have been a better study, I am happy to have enough of a clue to let Google fill in the gaps for me.

And so we circle back to Pieris, which has managed splendidly through recent freezes while so many other flowers (magnolias and camellias) have ruined. Little will come of this cold damage except there are a bunch of unsightly brown flowers, and a few newly emerged leaves have been lost. But, flowers of ‘Dorothy Wycoff’ (above) show no ill effect after nights of sixteen and eighteen degrees, and the compact, variegated leaf ‘Little Heath’ (below) began to bloom on the chilliest afternoon in a month.

Since I spend as little effort in maintenance as possible, I favor one plant over another as much for its sturdiness as for its beauty, and not all pieris are well suited to poorly drained clay soils. I suspect that references note its fondness for moist, but well drained soil, and probably an ambitious gardener could create such an environment, but not this gardener. And so, with no effort expended improving the soil except allowing leaves to decay where they fall, a pieris must earn its keep.

The common ‘Mountain Fire’ and ‘Snowdrift’ have failed, and failed again in clay soil, but also as victims to lacebugs that are attracted to all pieris, but to some more than others. ‘Dorothy Wycoff’ and ‘Scarlet O’Hara’ (above) are beautiful cultivars, but better suited to less than ideal drainage, and while variegated leafed ‘Little Heath’ and ‘Flaming Silver’ (below) suffer a bit more from lacebugs, this is hardly a bother.

I’ve not fully concluded the fate, and thus my favor for a newer introduction, ‘Katsura’, with the most splendid dark red new growth (above). It tolerates clay soil, at least in the first several years, but a lacebug infestation in last year’s hot, dry summer has diminished this spring’s flowers. 

To round out the collection, compact growing ‘Temple Bells’, ‘Cavatine’, ‘Prelude’ (Pieris japonica var. yakushimanum), ‘Bisbee Dwarf’ and the larger ‘Brouwer’s Beauty’ (Pieris floribunda, above) are long term survivors and not particularly troubled by clay or lacebugs. While none compare to ‘Dorothy Wycoff’, there’s not one I would be without.

Have a plan?

There should be no argument. The gardener is advised to have a plan before visiting the garden center, to go in with a list, if not of specifics, at least one that broadly defines his needs. Perhaps it is enough to think “I need a flowering tree” or “a Japanese maple”, or “a screening evergreen”, and then see what best fills this need when you visit. But, if a list is not made, the gardener is likely to be seduced by lovely andromedas and daphnes, and once he hauls these treasures home, he’ll wonder, “where the heck do I plant these?” I do this all the time.

‘Mikawa Yatsubusa’ Japanese maple is one of three maples purchased this winter by mail order. While I prefer to purchase more substantial trees by shopping the garden center, my obsession with Japanese maples has outstripped the varieties commonly available.

Usually, this ends well, for plants are most often forgiving of being shoehorned into tight spaces, or where the sun is not quite right. Occasionally, I’ll flub this and have to make it right a year later, but mostly plants cover for the idiots who plant them by growing into each other gracefully, and overcoming nuisances of not enough, too much sun, or whatever.

The short list that I’ve jotted down for planting this spring is not likely to be all I plant, but I don’t want to forget something, only to think of it in August and there are no more to be had. Despite a lack of space for anything larger than a small shrub, I’ve already ordered by mail and received several unusual Japanese maples and three small trees. The plan is for these to be planted in containers, to rest on patios until they someday grow large enough to be moved into the garden. That is, if a spot has opened up, and if not, the trees might grow old in a pot on the patio.

‘Carol Mackie’ daphne has wonderfully fragrant spring blooms, but also attractive foliage. Long flowering ‘Eternal Fragrance’ and ‘Summer Ice’ are splendid shrubs that have convinced me to expand my daphne collection.

So, there’s no need to discuss trees further, but there are a few shrubs that I have a hankering for. In recent years, I’ve planted handfuls of hybrid daphnes, which have flowered from spring into autumn, and so far they haven’t been finicky, or at least not much. I suspect a ‘Carol Mackie’ (Daphne × burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’, above), that’s been around for ten years or more might be getting a bit too shaded, or perhaps competition from a slowly spreading sweetbox (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis, below) might be causing it to decline a bit. Just in case, another ‘Carol Mackie’ is on the spring list, to be planted in a slightly sunnier spot without an encroaching neighbor. I’m not sure where, but certainly a spot can be found somewhere in this acre garden.

A grouping of sweetbox has spread slowly in the nook between a small creek and stone path. This spring, I’ll be planting several ‘Fragrant Valley’ sweetbox that are likely to be indistinguishable, but this has become one of the sturdy mainstays to cover shady ground.

If another, or any of a few other daphnes can be found, these will surely be added. I’ve failed a few times with the dwarfish, and apparently very particular Rock daphne, so that one’s out, but any other is a sure thing. And, there’s a new nandina with variegated leaves (Nandina domestica ‘Twilight’) that’s suggested as best in partial shade, which I have bunches of. I don’t expect there will be many of these around, but I only need a few, maybe several, or five. There’s also a curly leafed leucothoe (Leucothoe axillaris ‘Curly Red’) I have my eye on, and a variegated leaf andromeda (Pieris japonica ‘Flaming Silver’, below) to replace one that’s been too shaded for too long. It’s a lacebug magnet, as many andromedas are, but I can’t resist.

‘Flaming Silver’ pieris is wonderful in bloom and in leaf. It’s red new growth is a lovely contrast to the variegated foliage. Color is enhanced with more sun, and ones already in the garden have become too heavily shaded.

And, oh yes, before I wrap this up, I’ve moaned and groaned in recent years that the Winterberry hollies have no berries, and somewhere over the past decade the male pollinator disappeared. There’s no purpose in growing the deciduous hollies without berries, but since they berry in autumn and I’m buying in spring, I’ve forgotten for far too long. Now, it’s in writing, and there’s a chance I’ll remember when I’m in the garden center. If I’m not distracted.


A chilly week in March

Following a chilly week in March when temperatures regularly dropped into the teens, damage to flowers and emerging leaves was expected. The gardener’s question was, how much damage, and would injury to new leaves do harm as a late freeze stunted mophead hydrangea growth a year ago?

Flowers of Winter’s Star camellia were at their peak a week ago. Now (below), all are a golden brown, but with more pink buds opening.

The answer remains unclear as temperatures begin to turn warmer, with pink flowers on camellias beginning to open alongside ones that turned golden brown (above) earlier in the week. The loss of blooms of magnolias and camellias was anticipated, but damage to flowers of spireas (Spirea thunbergii ‘Ogon’, below) was somewhat surprising, though there was little history of such warm temperatures followed by freezes to go by. Injury to flowers of local weeping cherry varieties has been seen, and to the numerous flowering pears in the neighborhood and along fence rows of old farms where birds have deposited seeds for years.

Flowers of Ogon spirea a week ago, and after several nights when temperatures dropped into the teens (below). Emerging leaves of this yellow leafed spirea were not damaged.

Flowers of hellebores, mahonias, paperbushes, and the last of ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel survived intact, while blooms of Winter daphne were lost. The few stray flowers of ‘Summer Ice’ and ‘Eternal Fragrance’ daphnes were unharmed, with plump buds that should begin to bloom after a few mild days.

Of most concern going into the freeze were leaves of lilacs and hydrangeas that emerged too early after very mild temperatures through late February and the first week of March. New growth of the tree lilac (Syringa reticulata ‘Ivory Silk’, above) suffered slight damage, but less than anticipated, while small leaves of hydrangeas have been lost. While an April freeze damaged stems and early growth of mophead hydrangeas a year ago, it is too early to determine the extent of injury.

While no damage has been seen on new growth of daylilies (except by deer), some cold injury to early growth of hostas and toad lilies has been seen, though this is not expected to be significant.

March weather is variable, for better and worse

Though the gardener barks at the chilly breezes, he is aware that weather is variable, particularly in March when there might be temperatures in the seventies and teens, sometimes within the same week. Still, he has been spoiled by the mild temperatures of late winter, and now he pouts over a period of cold. Flowers of magnolias and camellias have spoiled in the freeze, which is hardly unusual. and the gardener is anxious to again feel the warming sun on his back. Perhaps next week.

Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) began to flower in late February. it has weathered the cold without a problem, but now is just past its peak. If temperatures warm up, bees will pollinate flowers so that blooms are followed by grape like fruits. Be warned that birds will spread seeds, with seedlings that are not prolific, but often must be weeded out.

Despite temperature swings that encouraged, then damaged early growth, the garden is ready for spring. Many flowers have weathered the cold, and while the fate of emerging leaves is still in question, the results have not been disastrous. All that is required for a satisfactory result is a change from this miserable cold.

Often, I lose track of which hellebores are planted hybrids, and which are seedlings from the hundreds that germinate each year. This one, a seedling that is oddly appealing, has been transplanted after growing for two years near its parent plant.

While double flowered hellebores attract attention, this simple single flowered hybrid is as splendid as any. Hellebores have not been effected by the recent cold.

Paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) is a favorite in this garden. This late winter flowering shrub is not common for unknown reasons since it is a wonderful bloomer, and a pleasant shrub after flowering.

Buds of spring blooming daphnes are ready to flower with a short period of warmth.

Flowers of the Cornelian dogwood don’t make the show of larger dogwood blooms, but this late winter bloomer is appreciated.


A small collection of early flowering magnolias

A swath of forest borders the southern property line so that tall maples and tulip poplars shade much of the garden through the winter, until the sun takes a more northerly route to bring much of the rear garden into afternoon sunlight by mid spring. The winter shade is not dense, filtered through deciduous trees, but it is enough to delay flowering of magnolias by a week or longer than ones just up the street. I expect that by the time I photograph and report on the flowering of a tree or shrub, it is often old news for gardens in the neighborhood, and most certainly for folks thirty five miles east and closer to the city that is warmer by a full zone. Still, I’m early for North Dakota.

In this garden the earliest magnolia to flower is ‘Dr. Merrill’ (Magnolia × loebneri ‘Merrill’, above), which towers over the shrubby ‘Royal Star’ (M. stellata ‘Royal Star’, below) that is down the gentle slope by thirty feet, and perhaps a bit more shaded tucked beside the garden shed. ‘Dr. Merrill’ is not rare, but uncommon enough that I cannot verify that all flower earlier than ‘Royal Star’, or that in this garden it is a matter of a more shaded exposure.

Flowering can begin as early as late February, or a few weeks later after a colder winter, and annually flowers are threatened by freezes, with blooms of ‘Royal Star’ most vulnerable to damage. Once the magnolias are flowering, the gardener anxiously follows the weather forecast, not that there is thing to be done if freezes are on the way.

Flowers of Elizabeth quickly went limp and turned brown after flowering early, then being exposed to twenty degree temperatures.

Flowers of Elizabeth quickly went limp and turned brown after flowering early, then being exposed to twenty degree temperatures.

The pale yellow ‘Elizabeth’ (M. ‘Elizabeth’, above) and purple flowered ‘Jane’ (M. ‘Jane’, below) bloom a few weeks later, even with sunnier positions, and at this later date the chances for damaging freezes are lessened. A year ago, ‘Elizabeth’ flowered weeks early in the unusually warm March, and a poorly timed freeze followed that blackened blooms just as they opened and were most vulnerable. After exceptionally warm late February temperatures, buds are swelling that indicate premature flowering might be on the way again. ‘Jane’ suffered minimal injury to flowers, but with a collection of early flowering magnolias, the gardener must figure that there’s a good chance that one or the other will suffer from an ill timed freeze. There’s always next year.Jane magnolia - early April

Freeze damage to flowers of cherries, and dogwoods?

Last evening, a local television weather person lamented the demise of cherry and dogwood flowers in the recent freeze, while cautioning that more of the same cold was on tap for later in the week. Clearly, she was not a gardener, for the damaged blooms were cherries and magnolias, not dogwoods. Even if dogwoods flower weeks early, they will not appear until nearer the end of March.

While there are few surprises, with flowers arriving weeks early following this very mild winter, one autumn flowering camellia (Camellia ‘Winter’s Star’, below) has finally gotten around to blooming. This is late, not seven months early, as the plump flower buds showed no signs of opening  in November while neighboring camellias bloomed in profusion.

And, this is not so unusual, since this particular camellia often flowers as others are fading, with some buds delayed in opening until a warm spell in January, when the flowers typically last for a day until the next freeze turns them to brown. That is likely to be the fate of this camellia’s flowers this week, though they’ll last for a few more days until the next freeze.

Don’t ask why this camellia is flowering months late, it’s beyond my comprehension. But, one thing I do know. Most years, the unopened flower buds are freeze dried by February, and though I wonder why the camellia didn’t flower earlier in the extraordinarily warm second half of winter, it’s no wonder that the buds didn’t freeze dry when there was hardly a freeze.

After twenty-eight years, the garden remains one inexplicable curiosity after another.