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.


Which witch hazel?

I’ve told the story before (and will again), always with profound disappointment, that a mature ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, below) faded and finally succumbed in an area of the rear garden that gradually became too damp. The loss of dear and long established plants is always tragic, but this witch hazel particularly so as it brightened many dreary winter days.

Arnold Promise witch hazel flowering in mid February. Arnold is the heaviest bloomer of the three hybrid witch hazels in the garden, though some of that results from a sunnier location.

A much smaller replacement has been planted (only four feet tall, the other was triple that), still a few years from making much of a show, but with flowers that make the long winter slightly more bearable. A drier location promises a longer life for this witch hazel, and for ‘Diane’ (below) and ‘Jelena’ witch hazels that were planted following Arnold’s demise.

Diane witch hazel flowering in early February. Diane is the earliest of the trio along with Jelena and Arnold Promise as much as two weeks later.

In recent years, a Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, below) has grown to maturity (twelve feet, maybe taller), along with two others (much smaller) planted in shade that delays, but seemingly does not detract from flowering in January. The three witch hazels, purchased separately over several years, were all mistakenly labeled as the eastern native Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). The appearance of common and vernal witch hazels is not significantly different, though common flowers in November and vernal in January, so there is little trouble telling one from the other.

Vernal witch hazel flowering mid January into February. With a relatively cold January vernal witch hazel is likely to flower into late February as long as temperatures don’t warm up too much.

In fact, I do not regret the error. Vernal witch hazel is an exceptional shrubby tree for the winter garden, and one of the few fragrances that my handicapped sense of smell can detect on a still and sunny winter afternoon. I would happily give it another try to plant a common witch hazel, and several more of the hybrids, if only there was space. I wonder how any gardener can survive the winter without one or the other.

Digging through the freeze

Frozen ground prevents much progress in tidying up the garden before spring. Brief spells of mild temperatures teased that the worst of winter had passed, and while recent cold has not been extreme, there have been few days to encourage the urge to get outdoors.

Today, a small fothergilla (Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’, below) was moved from the too shaded front corner to a new area for planting in the rear garden. Several inches of frozen soil discouraged the initial thrusts of the digging spade, but a more determined effort broke through and the roots were lifted for transplant.

Fothergilla flowering in early April in a more open area along the northern border of the garden, where it is visible only to the neighbors. The densely shaded fothergilla that was transplanted flowered sparsely and barely grew over several years.

In fact, in this ill suited location, root growth had been minimal over several years, so digging and carrying the fothergilla from one end of the garden to the other was not difficult.

As plans were considered for spring planting, I debated leaving the fothergilla, and planting another, but it was decided that the shrub had made no progress in this location, and probably never would. So, dig and move this one, and save the thirty bucks for something else. There is no sense in being wasteful, and far better to have plants in ideal situations rather than sulking.

Usually, I would hold off planting until early March or later, but recent transplants of winter hazel (Corylopsis spicata ‘Ogon’, above), parrotia (Parrotia persica), and now the fothergilla are dormant deciduous shrubs, which are ideally moved in winter. An evergreen Star anise (Illicium anisatum ‘Murasaki-no-sato’) was in such poor condition that it was transplanted despite my typical caution to take advantage of a surge in motivation.

Yesterday, the last of the weathered foliage of hellebores (below) was removed. By mid January flowering of hellebores seemed imminent, with several blooms on one plant, but colder temperatures put a hold on further flowering. With no reason to hurry, removing browned leaves was put off for a few weeks, but with a forecast of milder temperatures ahead, the urgency increased.

With the wide spreading leaves removed, it is evident that leaves of maples and tulip poplars that accumulated around hellebores must be cleaned up once more if flowers are to be seen. This shouldn’t take long, but it must be done before rain that is expected in the next few days.

I am pleased with what has been accomplished in recent weeks. New areas in the rear garden show promise, even with bare shrubs, and I’m anxious to complete planting. But, this will wait until the ground has thawed and digging is a bit easier.


Club and spikemosses

An interesting, low growing evergreen caught my eye on a winter afternoon as I walked along the creek in the forest that borders the garden. There are few evergreens in the forest besides the few native hollies and scattered ferns, and I was intrigued that this could be from the family of club and spikemosses.

References confirmed this to be Ground Pine moss (Lycopodium obscurum, above), not a true moss, but a club moss. I’ve planted Arborvitae fern (Selaginella braunii) and Peacock spikemosses (Selaginella uncinata, below) in partially shaded locations with excellent success, so I was inspired to transplant a few pieces of Ground Pine moss into the garden.

Peacock moss has spread in this shady area along a stone path. In a slightly less shaded location it survives, but grows much more slowly.

With minimal roots and long stems, harvesting was simple, but care was required to maintain contact with moist ground and to cover with leaf litter to increase chances for a successful transplant.

Rooted stems of Peacock moss are easily transplanted.

From this same section of forest, Ostrich ferns were transplanted into the garden, where they have thrived and then been transplanted to other parts of the garden. I expect the club mosses to be much slower to become established, and to spread more slowly than the vigorous native fern.

Arborvitae fern adapts to locations in part sun to shade. While Peacock moss grows prostrate, rooting stems as it creeps, Arborvitae ferns grows with stems more typical of ferns.

The club and spikemosses have been planted at the edges of shaded planting beds, along stone paths where their textural qualities can be appreciated. I quickly discovered that Peacock spikemoss is most particular to deeper, moisture retentive soils, while Arborvitae fern is more tolerant of drier conditions (but not dry). From its native habitat, I’m guessing that Ground Pine will require moist soil, so it has been located in close proximity to Peacock mosses.


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.


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.