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.

Cold enough

Certainly, family in Idaho will be unimpressed by northwestern Virginia’s chilly high of twenty one degrees this afternoon. Today, an inch of snow has fallen, not enough for the neighbor’s kids to ride their sleds on the grassy slope between our houses, but enough so that at least it looks like winter. On a cloudy afternoon with occasional snow squalls, the breeze is sufficient to discourage any more than a brief tour of the garden.

In this spell of cold, there will be several days before temperatures rise above freezing, and leaves of broadleaf rhododendrons and daphniphyllum (Daphniphyllum macropodum, below) curl for protection. At first glance, the gardener suspects these evergreens have succumbed to the cold, but from experience he knows this condition is temporary.

Leaves of Daphniphyllum macropodum curl for cold protection.

Leaves of Daphniphyllum macropodum curl for cold protection.

The current state of the daphniphyllum reminds that there was no good reason for planting the unremarkable shrub, except that it was uncommon. Not unusual, for there is not anything distinctive about it, but uncommon, and probably for good reason. Still, to suit my eye, a shrub was needed to add evergreen mass beside Oakleaf hydrangeas and a variety of low growing perennials that fade from view in winter, and with many other flowers in proximity, nothing was required other than large, evergreen leaves.Cardinal and chickadee

Finally, I was chided into treating sunflower seeds with hot sauce to discourage squirrels from commandeering the feeder. Results have been mixed following an encouraging start. After a few days when squirrels avoided the feeder, now they visit less frequently, and stay for shorter periods, leaving more seed for bluejays, cardinals, wrens, and chickadees. Of five or six squirrels that were regular visitors that could be distinguished by size, or for one, by its relatively skinny tail, only two appear resistant to the hot spiced seed. I debate whether the additional expense and effort is worthwhile.

Winter Sun mahonia flowering under a cover of light snow in early January.

Winter Sun mahonia flowering under a cover of light snow in early January.

One week into January, only ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’ mahonias (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, above) remain in bloom. Flowers decline more quickly with milder temperatures, and though temperatures are forecast to rise next week, I expect the yellow blooms will persist late into January.

Flower buds of the Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) are swelling, and the first blooms should be seen in the next week. Similar to leaves of rhododendrons and daphniphyllum, ribbon like flowers of witch hazels curl inward with temperatures in the upper twenties and below, which is just about the cold that discourages the gardener from venturing outdoors.

Addition by subtraction

I excuse that any old time garden must have its blights, and here there are several, mostly evergreens that have become excessively shaded so that lower foliage has browned. (Probably, there are more, which I will blissfully ignore.) Upper needles of a gold tipped Lawson cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Golden Showers’) remain, but in the shade of Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa) and purple leafed smoketree (Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’) a substantial portion on the lower half have turned to brown.

While deciduous neighbors are in full leaf, this browning is hardly evident, but in early January the image is somewhat distressing, testimony to less than stellar planning two decades earlier. Imagine, golden needles flanked by rounded, deep purple leaves of the smoketree, and larger, dark green foliage of the dogwood. For some period (I will presume to be most of two decades), the effect was splendid, but as often happens, complications arise to spoil the gardener’s best plans.Gold Lawson cypress and purple smoke tree

There should be no shame in creating beauty that lasts for only a decade, and of course too many gardeners dismiss long term planning with the thought they will have moved on when the worst comes. But, I’m still here, and while this shading and browning of needles is far from the worst that could occur, there comes a time to recognize that removal of a few browning evergreens might improve the garden despite memories of what once was.

The stumbling block in this is the labor required to remove disfigured evergreens, and the threat of injury to neighbors. A long blighted Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’), a dwarf that had grown to twelve feet, but without live needles on its lower half, was recently removed. Though neighboring pieris and boxwood were in close proximity, a narrow path allowed the spruce to fall without damage.

Though I am not fond of limbed up evergreens, lower branches of a neighboring Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gracilis’) were removed, with the resulting open space still shady and perfectly suited for the addition of hostas, hellebores, and a few ferns in the spring. This planting, I’m certain, will manage far better than the poor spruce, and here is one less blight.