A look of disapproval

I get the look from my wife, a lot. This week, a few packages of plants ordered through the winter have been delivered. Often, I’m able to grab and plant these without witnesses, but this week was cold and windy, so I was caught in the act. When it’s revealed that packages contain plants (the first delivery arrived with dormant roots of dormant Petasites frigidus var. palmatus ‘Golden Palms’, below), the disapproving look ensues (sometimes only a disgusted shake of the head), as it will when I arrive home in a few weeks with the front seat of the car jammed full after a visit to the garden center. This winter, several larger orders have been divided into multiple, smaller deliveries, so I’m confronted by the evidence with disturbing frequency (though I’m delighted with the arrivals).

I’ve seen the look so often now that the effect has worn a bit thin, and while objections are noted, certainly these have little effect in dissuading additional compulsive purchases. This is why a Japanese maple or two becomes a collection of thirty-five trees (or more), and how several hellebores become many more dozens than I care to count. In fact, I have no interest in making a count of maples or hellebores (or anything else). Why would I provide proof of my excess?

While purchases provoke my wife’s wrath, she’s quite happy with the end result, I think. Today, there are no complaints with hellebores in full flower. Often, blooms are spaced from late January through mid-March, but the vagaries of this winter’s weather concentrated more flowers into a shorter window, which is now. I prefer the longer period of bloom, but my preference doesn’t count, and as I prowl about the garden I’m overjoyed with flowers of hellebores, pieris, and more.

An unidentified hellebore with very dark foliage – not quite in peak bloom

Hellebore Harlequin Gem

Ivory Prince hellebore

Flowers of this hellebore, and many more older varieties, face downward.

The garden’s hellebores are unevenly divided into old types, with flowers that nod downward, and newer introductions with taller flower stalks and blooms that face outward or up. These are the ones that are hard to resist, and they also are the root of my troubles. Undoubtedly, there are many more of the older types in the garden than newer, to a large extent because seedlings sprout readily, which are then encouraged to grow for a few years before they’re transplanted. But, there is confusion in numbers, and I’ve explained before that part of the reason I’ve lost track of the names of many of the garden’s hellebores is because there are far too many to keep straight. Many are purchases, hybrids and select strains, but more of the types with nodding (but still beautiful) flowers that are spread through the garden began here as seedlings. Ones pictured on this page are a fraction of unique hellebores in the garden, though many not pictured show only slight variation.

I suppose that if money was not a consideration I would prefer the fancier types, and particularly ones with double flowers or speckles, or whatever else makes one new introduction more distinctive. There are a bunch of these, which tend to be later to flower, with many just coming into bloom. But, the fancy types aren’t cheap, and many are sterile so there will never be (free) seedlings. This does, however, leave space for purchasing new introductions that catch my eye.

Penny’s Pink hellebore

Molly’s White hellebore

Anna’s Red hellebore


Questionably cold hardy

Unsurprisingly, leaves of three of four ‘Beijing Beauty’ mahonias (below) are brown and brittle following a winter when multiple nights dropped to zero, and possibly a degree or two colder. The fourth, nearest and evidently protected by the house, shows no sign of winter injury.

While the parentage of ‘Beijing Beauty’ is unclear, suspicions seem confirmed that the mahonias derive from similar shrubs (‘Soft Caress’ and narrow leaf mahonias) that perished in recent winters. Though confirmation of the the mahonias’ failure to survive is weeks away, the process to consider possible replacements has begun.

Another newly planted mahonia, ‘Marvel’, appears very similar to ‘Winter Sun’ (Mahonia x media, above) and other late autumn flowering hybrid mahonias, though with notably fewer spines. Despite planting late in the season, ‘Marvel’ survived the winter with only minor damage. Other hybrid mahonias show mixed results with some minor damage, or none at all.

Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, below) is long established in the garden, and through recent winters with multiple nights falling to five below zero no winter injury was seen. While flowering time varies, even to mid January in mild winters, leatherleaf began flowering this year at the more typical start of March. The gardener should be warned that grape-like fruits that follow flowering are quickly devoured by birds, and seedlings of leatherleaf mahonia are common. In some areas it is judged to be invasive, though I have seen no evidence that it spreads to this extent. 

In mid February, ‘Underway’ mahonia was dug through a crust of frozen ground to be transplanted to an expansion of a planting bed in the rear garden. It had been squeezed into a spot behind a wide spreading paperbush and an abelia, and while it grew vigorously, the location was too shaded for flowering. While it is too early to be certain, the move appears successful, though a number of scrapes and scratches resulted from the mahonia’s spiny leaves.Once, for novelty I planted a Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria araucana, above), which unfortunately survived only a few years in the heat and humidity of Virginia. I can attest that the only plant with more vicious spines than Monkey Puzzle is a dead Monkey Puzzle, which was removed with more than a little loss of blood. Mahonias, live or dead, run a close second, so I am hesitant to experiment much with ones that are of questionable hardiness.

Not quite, but almost spring

The gardener is overjoyed when flowers of ‘Royal Star’ (Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’, below) and ‘Dr. Merrill’ magnolias (Magnolia loebneri ‘Merrill’) are not injured by freezes that are typical of the early weeks of March. Too often, the best case is that flowers are enjoyed for several days before they are ruined, but flowering is late this year, and happily it appears it will coincide with a week of milder temperatures. In most years, the early flowering magnolias are an indicator that spring has arrived, but with flowering a bit late alternatives have stepped in to soothe anxiousness for the gardening season to begin.

Upper branches of ‘Dr. Merrill’ were shattered in a storm several years ago, and though the damage remains evident with branches bare, the tree has filled in substantially. Both magnolias are tucked into the forest’s edge, and whether due to a sunnier exposure, or other factors, the tall growing ‘Dr. Merrill’ flowers several days earlier than shrubby ‘Royal Star’.

While the native dogwoods (Cornus florida) are weeks away from bloom, the variegated leaf Cornellian cherry (really a dogwood, Cornus mas ‘Variegata’, above) flowers in late winter, usually in early March, but occasionally slipping a few weeks earlier. The yellow flowers are small, but showy when there are few other blooms, and this one has variegated leaves (below) so there’s more to it than just late winter flowers.

When this small tree was planted several years ago there were few ideal locations available. It was relegated to dry shade where it did not grown an inch, I’m quite certain, so this winter the dogwood was transplanted to a spot with more sunlight, which hopefully will not be too damp. I’ll know soon enough, and if I’ve guessed correctly there should be much more growth in the next few years.

Following three seventy degree days in late February, paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha, above) moved quickly from tight bud to flowering. In mild winters paperbushes flower as early as mid January, but late February is more typical. There has been some going back and forth in recent years regarding the cold hardiness of paperbush. At a few degrees below zero the shrubs suffered considerable damage in this garden, so with multiple days near zero degrees this winter I was concerned. But, thankfully there is nothing more than damage to a fraction of the flower buds.

I’ve closely monitored the variegated Winter daphnes (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’, above) in recent weeks, and there’s no doubt that this daphne does not appreciate temperatures nearing zero. Foliage has clearly taken a turn for the worst, but flowers appear to be doing fine on one shrub more than another. But, I think both will flower, and neither should require anything more than enjoying the blooms, then wait for new growth to replace the damaged leaves. ‘Eternal Fragrance’ and ‘Summer Ice’ daphnes (Daphne x transatlantica) are much more cold hardy, so there will be no damage, but both started flowering in mid-March a year ago, which will be delayed by weeks this spring.

All but a few of the hellebores are now flowering, and the ones that are tardy reaching their peak will get there in the next week. So, be ready for lots of photos.


Early March in bloom

Flowers of sweetbox (Sarcococca humilis, below) are small and unremarkable to the eye, but reportedly carry a strong scent, which unfortunately is unnoticed by my scent challenged nose. Still, all flowers in late winter are appreciated no matter their size, and the glossy, evergreen foliage of the low, spreading shrub is pleasant enough throughout the year. Very slow to get started, some steam is eventually gathered, and now I gleefully prune out underground stems that invade gaps between stones in the adjacent path. The clump of several small shrubs has spread into a rounded mass, and only when temperatures dropped to seven below zero several years ago did the sweetbox show even the slightest sign of unhappiness.

Perhaps my expectations were skewed to anticipate the worst, but the wait for small shrubs to fill this space did not seem extraordinarily long. Perhaps this cool, partially shaded spot bordering a narrow, constructed creek (below) is ideal for promoting growth of sweetbox. In another spot with deeper shade, the shrub grows slightly slower with more open branching, with darker foliage in more adverse circumstances beneath a spruce, but still not so slow to be discouraging. Peak flowering in this shadier location is a week later, though in a colder winter flowers have been earlier since the location is protected closer to the house.

Sweetbox thrives planted along this shaded stream.

A year ago, flowering of sweetbox (and many other early flowers) was disappointing after an unusually mild February that pushed too many trees and shrubs to flower weeks early. Flowers of cherries and magnolias (and sweetbox) were damaged in a two week period of cold in mid March. Again this year, March is proving colder than February, but happily, three seventy degree days late in the month were not enough to encourage significant growth to be injured by sub freezing overnight temperatures.

Scarlet O’Hara pieris thrives in well drained soil beside the koi pond in nearly full sun.

Through mild or cold winters, varieties of Pieris (Pieris japonica and others) flower consistently beginning early March. Flowering time appears to be related more to hours of sunlight than temperature. Pieris is commonly, but incorrectly identified as Andromeda, which is another, dissimilar shrub. A more correct, but wordy, common name is Lily of the Valley shrub. The flowers are similar in appearance to Lily of the Valley (Convallaria), though most Pieris shrubs grow many times larger than the perennial, and several cultivars are treasured as much for colorful foliage as their flowers.

Dorothy Wycoff pieris is the favored cultivar in this garden with distinctive red flower buds, and medium red new foliage that fades to green. It is minimally bothered by lacebugs.

In any case, several Pieris are flowering in early March, with others not far behind. As with many others in this garden, a modest collection of ten or twelve species and cultivars grows with varied successes. Pieris is sensitive to soil moisture, and several have failed over the years in poorly drained areas of clay soil. The shrubs that survive require little attention, though lacebugs are a problem of varying degrees among the varieties.

Dorothy Wycoff pieris grows to a full eight feet tall, though not quickly.


Spring bulbs

Somehow, a small patch of Winter aconites was further reduced, likely when a rhododendron and divisions of Carex ‘Evergold’ were planted in the vicinity. When bulbs are unearthed while planting, they are immediately replanted, but certainly some are not seen when a clump of soil is dug so that they are buried beneath the rhododendron.Too few of the aconites were planted from the start, which is consistently a problem that I purchase too few of a variety of bulbs rather than a quantity that will make a show the first year. Yes, they will multiply and eventually make a show, if tiny bulbs are not dug up by the foolish gardener. In any case, down to a single small clump of Winter aconite, I am pleased that these appear to be spreading despite my efforts.

In the vicinity of the aconites are also snowdrops, which are multiplying nicely, and a few crocus that remain after being dug by the gardener, or harvested by squirrels. This spot, by the intersection of the driveway and front walk, is often passed, and thus flowers are frequently enjoyed through late winter.

Worthy of mention, in the same small area, several cyclamen that were forgotten under leaf clutter from a ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maple that arches over head, then discovered in flower a year ago, have been disturbed and disappeared. Probably forever, and likely injured while the finely cut leaves of the maple were raked up. I am shamed by the destruction, and the waste of money.

After a slow start, flowers of hellebores have advanced rapidly following several seventy degree days in late February. While flowers of varieties are typically spaced from mid January into early March, chilly temperatures into mid February have compressed the period of blooms. After weeks of impatient waiting, flowering of many hellebores at once is delightful, though if my voice mattered I would prefer more blooms earlier in winter.

I hear reports that early narcissus are flowering closer to town, and on rare occasions ‘February Gold’ will bloom in this garden before mid March. This year it is on schedule to flower after another week, and perhaps a bit later with chilly temperatures in the forecast.

Seventy degree days also pushed tightly wrapped buds of pieris and paperbushes to swell quickly and surprisingly into flower. I expected to wait another week, or longer, but here they are. Some flower buds of paperbushes more exposed to winter breezes were injured by zero degree January temperatures, but damage is minimal and there is no injury to stems. These are particular late winter favorites, and after winters in the past when sub zero temperatures caused extensive damage, it is a relief when flowers confirm that little harm was done.


A windy early March

In the best case, clean up of this garden requires every available weekend day in March. The little that is accomplished in small spurts of effort through the winter months hardly matters, though it was nice to get outdoors for any reason. Every spring, gatherings with family and friends are discouraged until order is restored, though my idea of tidiness is likely to be a bit messier than the standard. There’s too much garden, too little me, and I hope that the density of foliage hides most of what I don’t get around to. Usually, I get around to everything just in time for spring’s growth.

Piles of leaves have been removed from hellebores, but in few other areas.

Today I’ve surveyed damage from a day of howling winds, and though the breeze continues, the worst has passed. With a forest of swamp maples and tulip poplars bordering the garden, it is always advised to scan the tree canopy to avoid the next branch that falls. Probably, most of these fell yesterday, though I see several that remain suspended far above. Regardless of my personal safety, the immediate issue is that this debris will add to the spring clean up.

Fortunately, no trees fell onto the house, which is a bit of a concern since several have fallen just short in recent years. Others are too close for comfort, though the shade is greatly appreciated. I am always surprised when falling limbs fall to just miss treasured shrubs, and again there were many near misses.

There are advantages, I think, to living in a bit of a valley between foothills of the Blue Ridge. I suppose that the strongest breezes blow over the top of the garden, but this only partially protected a treasured Japanese Umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata, above and below) that was broken nearly in half as winds bent its flexible trunk. Two of three trunks broke, and while I expect that I should have pruned this to a single trunk long ago, now I’m happy that some part of this slow growing evergreen remains.

Japanese Umbrella pine is a unique, slow growing evergreen.

This morning, fifteen feet of the Umbrella pine (twenty years of growth) was dragged to be tossed onto the growing pile of debris. Another pine of similar age (planted twenty five years ago, I think), and in a more open area, suffered no harm, and with the trunk that remains on the broken pine I feel somewhat fortunate that damage was not far worse.


Hellebores are good?

I question if a gardener, and by this I refer to myself, should feel obliged to keep proper records of what he plants. Is it sufficient to state that “hellebores are good”, or is there an obligation to specifically recommend ‘Anna’s Red’ (or any other) if he has found this to be an exceptional hellebore? The problem, of course, is that after several years, when I’ve confirmed that this hellebore is an excellent choice, I’ve forgotten its cultivar name.

Anna’s Red (above), and two related hellebores, Molly’s White and Penny’s Pink, have performed well into their second year. Another few years are required to verify that these should be recommended, though few hellebores fail to please.

I excuse that proper identification of plant cultivars is difficult, with frequent and numerous introductions, and few that are not quickly swept aside by the next “bigger and better”. I’ve attempted to mark varieties by digging in the plastic nursery tags as hellebores are planted, but of course these are lost, broken, or they fade. For a short while I marked notable cultivars with metal stake tags, but gave it up, thinking that this seemed pretentious. Also, I was planting and forgetting cultivar names quicker than I could get the tags set out.

I am fairly certain this is one of the earliest hellebores planted in the garden, though there are numerous seedlings in the vicinity so it’s impossible to tell.

So, now I do the best I can, which is not much, I agree. If I write about one plant or another I can generally remember where it is, if I can find the reference, which is not always so easy.

Seedling or named cultivar? I haven’t a clue, but it’s a nice off white hellebore.

Further complicating the situation is that many hellebores seed readily, and then seedlings are transplanted. Or was that the parent? So, I can’t identify more than a few handfuls of the many dozens of hellebores in the garden as hybrids I purchased, or as seedlings.

Almost certainly a seedling, but a keeper.

And, does it matter? Not so much to me, I must admit. I swing to and fro, from being a stickler for nomenclature to not caring a lick, and in the end I realize that I’m easily pleased. An ordinary seedling with a bunch of blooms is often as worthy as a fancy hybrid, so this seems a proper justification for enjoying and not fretting much if I forget a cultivar name.