Winter’s on its way out

I suspect that I am not the only gardener who has gotten a jump on his spring cleanup. In a more typical winter, with only a few spells of warmth I am likely to waste the days in less productive pursuits, and this was true until a few weeks ago. Now, the early weeks of spring must not be consumed by endless labor, though in this one acre garden there is never a lack of chores that must be accomplished.Hellebore

I must report on the casual research regarding squirrels and our birdfeeder. Possibly, the feeding habits of neighborhood squirrels are too ingrained, and they are too dependent on this accessible feeder. The addition of pepper seasoning to sunflower seed was a temporary discouragement, but a subsequent change to safflower seed was most successful. But, not completely, as several squirrels visit daily, though clearly for shorter feeding sessions.hellebore

I cannot recall a time when so many hellebores were flowering at this date. Certainly, there have been recent years when they bloomed earlier, with flowers fading with the occasional freeze in February, which of course have been rare this winter. I note a few hellebore seedlings that were transplanted are flowering, probably two years after they were large enough to move. Flowers of some are identical to those of parent plants, while others are a somewhat interesting pink, though this color is not so outstanding that I would choose it off the garden center shelf.Hellebore

I once read a gardener’s claim that hellebores should be considered as invasive, and yes, some seed vigorously, but it seems the only hazard is that seedlings might overwhelm the original clump. In a few plantings, yellow-green flowers mix with dark purple, but in recent years I’ve weeded excess seedlings out to let the few grow on, and then these are transplanted in their second year. If the day comes when the garden is overrun, I expect that family and neighbors will willingly accept the excess.Snowdrops

Happily, now that most all of the snowdrops are up and blooming, it is apparent that these are multiplying nicely along the driveway and the front walk. None are where they might be seen from the road, even as neighbors walk by on mild February afternoons. Few winter flowers are borne in such mass as to be as obvious as an azalea or a cherry, so the gardener should be forgiven for arranging flower only for his enjoyment, and not sharing. If neighbors care to tour the garden, with an early start cleaning up, it’s as good as it gets for late winter.

Winter winds down

As this mild winter winds into March (the Virginia gardeners’ spring), I do not question for a moment the small effort required to plant a winter garden. Without flowers of hellebores, Winter jasmine, and witch hazels, winter would seem interminable. I greatly sympathize with gardeners in more northern climes where winter drags on, where gardens are covered by snow for weeks and longer. Hellebores and snowdrops are buried, and while lush magazine gardens and seed catalogs might offer some relief, taller witch hazels or red stemmed shrubs can be of some consolation.

many hellebores began flowering in late January, which is only slightly early in this garden.

Many hellebores began flowering in late January, which is only slightly early in this garden.

Should the gardener feel ashamed for his joy in mild winters? Even while fretting over the planet’s future, he revels in the relative warmth of this winter, and while snow and ice can be lovely, the gardener is immensely more pleased by a single snowdrop in late January than the quiet stillness of a deep blanket of snow. Despite a general warming, one area or another might suffer through a colder or snowier winter, but the gardener feels no guilt that extremes have been avoided.

This double flowered snowdrop began flowering in mid February, while others started in January.

This double flowered snowdrop began flowering in mid February, while others started in January.

In this garden, winter flowers have been around for enough years so that the gardener recognizes varying schedules that define the winters. In the coldest, or when snow covers the garden through much of February, the gardener is delighted when hellebores and snowdrops first peak through the melting snow. Perhaps this is relief that winter might finally be approaching its end.Crocus began flowering the third week of February.

While this winter will prove to be considerably warmer than average by the numbers, the progression of flowers has been only slightly advanced. But, this earlier schedule is most appreciated by the gardener, who is satisfied by blooms of mahonias that persist through the early cold of January while he anxiously awaits the fragrant flowers of Vernal witch hazels. Then, in quick succession, he notes the first snowdrop and a peek of color from one hellebore.

A few scattered Winter aconites flower in late February.

A few scattered Winter aconites flower in late February.

Cyclamen flowering in late February.

Cyclamen flowering in late February.

In the spell of warmth that follows, there are more flowers of snowdrops and hellebores, and then hybrid witch hazels with larger flowers so that the lower garden is filled with their scents. The few stray Winter aconites come into bloom, along with the few scattered flowers from cyclamen that had been forgotten about since they are partially obscured by an evergreen carex.

Typically, Leatherleaf mahonia begins flowering early in March, but with recent warm temperatures it began to show color by mid February.

Typically, Leatherleaf mahonia begins flowering early in March, but with recent warm temperatures it began to show color by mid February.

While the autumn flowering mahonias, ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’, are finally fading from bloom, the late winter flowering Leatherleaf mahonia will be at peak bloom after a few more warm afternoons. The tubular blooms of paperbushes show the first yellow along the edges, and while these have shown color in prior winters as early as late January, there are also colder winters when flowers do  not show color until mid March. Most certainly, I prefer the earlier schedule.

The first color showing on paperbushes in late February. Peak flowering will be in two weeks, which is not far from the average.

The first color showing on paperbushes in late February. Peak flowering will be in two weeks, which is not far from the average.

Every plant has its place

Certainly, every plant has its place. It is unfortunate that too often the gardener discovers one thing or the other that is planted where it doesn’t belong. A plant is too close to the house or walk, in too much or too little sun, or where its unruly habit detracts. With this experience, the gardener must then decide to move the offending plant, chop it out if it has grown too large, or live with it.Winter jasmine

The second half of winter is the period when Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) is appreciated, when a profusion of yellow blooms brightens the gray landscape. If the mounding and wide spreading shrub is planted on a bank to prevent erosion there is reason to be thankful beyond this six week period, but the jasmine’s wildness should be considered prior to dropping it into a well mannered garden.

I make no claim that any part of this garden is well managed, so a bit of wildness is hardly noticed by visitors, but Winter jasmine pushes the boundaries. Not to make too big an issue of it since I don’t intend to do anything about it, but planting it in another spot would have been a better idea. The arching branches tumble down over a slope of boulders beside a waterfall in the koi pond, which sounds wonderful, but extensive pruning is required a few times each year to keep the falls visible.Winter jasmine

Perhaps there are a few things that I do well, but regular maintenance is not one of them, so the stems regularly cover the falls, and root into the stones so that it is a terrible mess once I get around to cleaning it up. Of course, this is entirely the result of a lack of foresight, and no fault of Winter jasmine, which is lovely in winter and utilitarian when used properly. Here, is not its best use.

Late winter cleanup

Though temperatures this afternoon did not warm as much as anticipated, I was delighted to get out to begin a bit of late winter clean up. Finally, the inactivity of winter caught up to me, so I was anxious to get out into the garden, even as light rain showers passed through. I figured to start with beds closest to the driveway, removing seedheads and old foliage of perennials, and slowly work around to the rear garden, cleaning up and disposing of debris as I went.

Of course, this is not how it worked out, as I was distracted by one thing after another that absolutely must be done or it might be forgotten until its too late. And so, much pulling of seedheads and foliage was accomplished, but piles of debris remain for next weekend if they are not scattered by the wind.Hellebore

Some parts of the garden remain covered by piles of leaves, though leaves have been removed from hellebores and areas of snowdrops so that flowers can be seen. Probably, I have shredded fewer leaves this year than ever, with the result that whole leaves are sloppier in appearance and will decay somewhat more slowly. Once growth begins in late March, this will hardly be noticed.

Happily, I notice fewer winter weeds than in some years, which is surprising since I recall being tardy a year ago, removing weeds only after many had already gone to seed. Most often the gardener pays for the error of his ways, but with the occasional exception he feels doubly rewarded for his slothful ways. Snowdrops

Some perennials resist the gentle tug, and rather than yanking out clumps of root, the rechargeable hedge trimmer is particularly handy. A wide spread of Mountain mint is easily cut to the ground, revealing a blanket of bright green leaves beneath the woody stems, with a pleasant scent from the mint that is trampled underfoot. The trimmer will not cut through thicker stems of butterfly weed, which will be quick work for another day when I remember to carry pruners.

There are several dead branches in the blackgum in the side garden, and in maples at the forest’s edge that I will note to be removed before they fall onto nearby shrubs. Several rather large branches have fallen since the last time I cleaned up, and again good fortune has guided them to fall between, rather than onto Oakleaf hydrangeas. The dead branches of the blackgum, however, hang over azaleas and a clump of sweetshrubs, and are within reasonable reach by ladder so that I am not risking life and limb.

A glimpse of spring flowers

Probably, most gardeners are anxious for spring soon after the first hard freeze of autumn, and each day of winter that follows is counted down until the first warm afternoon of March. The Virginia winter is rarely severe, and short by comparison to many other parts of this country. Still, too long and dark, but with a progression of blooms in the garden, the wait for spring is more tolerable, and a glimpse of color from swelling buds promises flowers in the weeks ahead.

Winter Sun mahonia

On a warm February afternoon, a bee finds flowers of Winter Sun mahonia.

With mild temperatures through the first half of winter, the autumn flowering mahonias, ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’ (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, above) remain in bloom. In prior years, ill timed spells of warmth or cold pushed flowers past their peak, and rarely do blooms persist past the second week of January. A time or two, the late winter flowering Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, below) has overlapped by a week or two with autumn flowering mahonias, but leatherleaf will not be so early this year.

Leatherleaf mahonia begins to show some color in early February

Leatherleaf mahonia begins to show some color in early February

Pieris Brouwer's Beauty

Andromeda cultivars (Pieris japonica ‘Brouwer’s Beauty’, above) flower dependably in early March, regardless of fluctuations in winter temperatures, it seems. In early February, flower buds show only the slightest signs of swelling. Winter daphne

The flowering time for variegated Winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’, above) varies with the weather, and with recent mild temperatures color has been showing for a few weeks. Without a return to cold, flowers should open fully in the next two weeks, though it will not be surprising if cooler weather delays flowering until early March.Pussy willow in mid February

Stems of a sprawling pussy willow (Salix gracilistyla, above) have been harvested to display in the kitchen. This huge pussy willow has spread in the swampy area at the rear of the garden to thirty feet across, and unfortunately, it is time for severe pruning to cut away substantial dead wood. It’s likely this project will be delayed until summer, when the ground will be dry enough not to sink up to my knees. The stems that have been brought indoors will root in several weeks, and rather than discarding them, I’ll plant a few in the swamp in case the large, old shrub doesn’t recover.img_0682

The weeping pussy willow (Salix caprea ‘Pendula’, above) is much less wild, and more appropriate for a prominent spot in the garden. Still, it’s planted in slightly damp ground that has proved to be too wet for other shrubs, which should be ideal.

Halfway to spring

While leisurely strolling through the garden on a warm early February afternoon, I noted the appearance of allium and narcissus foliage, which is unsurprising with the mild temperatures of the past few weeks, and not anything to be concerned about. While foliage now peeks several inches through leaf clutter, a year ago growth was considerably more advanced (with color showing) by the last week of January, when it was then buried under a few feet of snow. With that far from ideal circumstance, little damage was done, though a few narcissus flowered meekly several weeks after the snow melted. Growth from the same sturdy bulbs is now poking up beside a stone path in the side garden (below), so as expected, there was no long term ill effect.img_0827

This recent mild spell has spurred a few scattered blooms on periwinkles (below) and an early flowering spirea, which is hardly unusual and also no cause for concern as long as growth doesn’t proceed much further. A year ago, it did, and the deep snow was somewhat of a blessing, insulating from the short period of cold that followed.Periwinkle


Flowers of hellebores (above), witch hazels, mahonias, Winter jasmine (below), and snowdrops are just about where the gardener expects they should be at the start of February. Some are flowering, with others just beginning, and I sympathize with the gardener who must wait out the last half of winter without the encouragement of at least a few scattered blooms. A few paperwhites, orchids, and forced branches of pussywillow brought into the kitchen are helpful, but they’re not nearly as satisfying as flowers in the garden. I’m not keen on strolling on a breezy, twenty-five degree afternoon, but happily, there have been few of those, and in recent weeks I’ve spent more time outdoors than usual, though little in labor preparing the garden for spring. That time will be here soon enough.Winter jasmine

Gardeners are very aware that long term weather forecasts are less than dependable, perhaps more reliable than ones made by large rodents, but a few degrees can be the difference between rain, and ice or snow, so daily and long term forecasts are watched closely, if only to reassure that no severe weather is in the works. Forecasts of mild weather seem too good to be true until they’re here, and here’s another one. If temperatures don’t turn too cold, this could be one of the rare late winters when Winter daphnes (below) and paperbushes are flowering before the end of February, which is as good as it gets in the winter garden.Winter daphne

Diane and Jelena

In this first week of February, ‘Diane’ (below) and ‘Jelena’ witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia) are beginning to flower, and again I realize that I did not plant another ‘Arnold Promise’, as claimed, to replace an old timer lost a few years ago to ever increasing dampness along the southern border of the lower rear garden. Perhaps this newest witch hazel was unmarked, and certainly it was not flowering at the time, but whatever, I purchased the wrong plant, so now there is a second ‘Diane’ in the garden, which poses no problem except that space must absolutely be found for ‘Arnold Promise’.Diane witch hazel

While the Vernal witch hazel is a marvelous tall shrub with excellent fragrance, it is most distinguished by small flowers in January when little else is flowering besides the various mahonias (Mahonia x media) that are typically fading by mid month. Several attempts to purchase the late autumn flowering, native Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) have failed due to incorrect tagging, which is only occasionally a problem, but not unusual with confusion between Vernal and Common witch hazels that are similar in appearance.

Jelena witch hazel in late February

Jelena witch hazel in late February a year ago.

The hybrid witch hazels (‘Diane’ and ‘Jelena’ in this garden, with hopes that ‘Arnold Promise’ can soon be added) display much larger flowers than the Vernal witch hazel, and often blooms will carry from early February until the first warm spell in March. With a diminished sense of smell I am in no position to compare scents of one to the other, but on any still winter afternoon there is no mistaking the fragrance as I walk through the rear garden. While this might not be a big deal in April or May, in the winter months flowers and scents are greatly appreciated.

The first color showing on paperbush flower buds will arrive somewhere between late January and the first of March if buds are not damaged by cold.

The first color showing on paperbush flower buds will arrive somewhere between late January and the first of March if buds are not damaged by cold.

In this so far mild winter, I again look forward to early flowers on paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha), uncommon, but marvelous shrubs. After recent winters when temperatures dropped several times below zero, flower buds were lost and considerable dieback required severe pruning of branches. But today, I expect to see the first glimpse of color in the next week. Folks with keen senses note the pleasant fragrance of paperbush’s flowers, but this one escapes me. The flowers are more than enough to substantiate inclusion in the garden, though its wide spread will not work in many gardens. References note a tidy three by three (or four by four) feet spread and height, but several in this garden have grown to six feet tall with a spread of ten feet or more.

In this photo, paperbushes flower into early April, though in many years flowers first appear in February and are long gone by late March.

In this photo, paperbushes flower into early April, though in many years flowers first appear in February and are long gone by late March.