Impatient for spring

Is mid January too early to be impatient for spring? In fact, I don’t wish to scoot the calendar forward, but anxiously await milder temperatures after several weeks of cold that has dragged on far too long.

Winter flowers are a partial remedy for seemingly interminable winters, but many blooms curl for protection as temperatures approach zero, so too little color is evident until milder weather returns. I hope that’s on the way, at least that’s what forecasters promise. Another blast of cold, or two, will not be surprising, but with temperatures in the forties and even fifties expected, there should be enough scattered flowers to keep me relatively sane.

Some years there are big plans for spring, and others nothing, and probably this year is somewhere in between. I’m planning to add a few daphnes, though it’s unclear where sunny spots for them will be found. Hybrid daphnes (Daphne x transatlantica ‘Summer Ice’, above) have performed wonderfully in recent years, with the only unsatisfactory results being in a bit too much shade. Otherwise, they’re quite cold hardy, not, or at least less finicky than other daphnes, and there are waves of fragrant blooms from late March into November. I’ll find a spot.

The damp area behind the shed continues to be a bit of an issue. Red chokeberries (Aronia arbutifolia, above) have continually been stunted by deer (too often I miss these with the repellent), but after several years I’m hoping that well established roots will give the shrubs a chance to get ahead. Without big, bushy chokeberries, the area is a bit sparse, so I’m considering adding a few Virginia sweetspires (Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’, below). Probably, this is a shrub or two too many, but that’s someday, and I’ll be happier with more than less right up to the day when I have to chop one or the other out.

Particularly in this wet spot, I won’t mind if it becomes a bit overgrown. Certainly, it won’t be the only area in the garden where one shrub grows into another. Occasionally, one or the other suffers, and a time or two something must be moved or chopped out, but most often one thing blends into the other without much of an issue. At least, it’s not an issue to me.

Autumn foliage of Parrotia persica

In the same general area I’ve decided that an under performing parrotia (Parrotia persica, autumn foliage above) is too shaded. I think I’ve figured a spot where I can move it that gets most of a day’s sun, which will also will help shade variegated and yellow leafed Japanese maples nearby that will do a whole lot better with a break from the summer sun. If the cold weather breaks, it’s possible I could get this done sometime in February, and perhaps I can also skim off the grass to enlarge the planting bed to accommodate the few tree peonies and perennials I’ve ordered. And, there must be space for another fothergilla (Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’, below). Two others are kind of hidden away at the edges of the garden, so I need one that is more conspicuous.

There’s a spot in the side yard, close to the driveway, where a pendulous spruce is not making it, and this seems a perfect spot to plant one of the smaller growing, upright Japanese maples (Acer palmatum ‘Higasayama’, below) that I potted last year. A few grew vigorously in containers on the patios, and this location is close to a path, so I must be certain the one I plant won’t overgrow.

Higasayama Japanese maple, an unusually variegated maple that faded in part sun in a container on the patio. Perhaps it will fade less planted in the ground in half day shade.

No doubt, there will be other additions when new deliveries begin to arrive at the garden centers. While space in this long established garden is limited, room for new treasures can always be found.

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A brown leafed gordlinia

Six spindly gordinias (x Gordlinia grandiflora) were planted into clumps of three when it became sadly apparent that a long established Franklinia (Franklinia alatamaha, flowers below) was nearing its demise. Over three years, a rejuvenated spring drenched the surrounding soil (also killing a large witch hazel and holly), and though Franklinia was found in the wild on the banks of the Altamaha River, the tree will not tolerate constant dampness.

While an exceptional shrub, unquestionably gordlinia is not the equal of Franklinia. But, when a replacement tree of adequate size could not be obtained, gordlinia was deemed an acceptable substitute. There are no regrets, though I would readily find a place (a drier spot) for a large Franklinia.

The peak flowering of Gordlinia was in early September, with a few strays into October.

Gordlinia is a cross of Franklinia and the southern evergreen shrub gordonia, with foliage and flowers similar to Franklinia. Instead of deciduous, the leaves are evergreen and the tree has a more shrub-like form. The cold hardiness of Franklinia is retained (marginal for this zone 7, nearly 6b garden), though gordlinia is reputed to have a tougher constitution.

Autumn foliage of Franklinia is more colorful than Gordlinia’s. Occasionally, flowers persist until foliage begins to turn.

Five years (I’m guessing) after planting, one clump has survived, while a third of the second grouping required transplanting to higher, drier ground. Obviously, gordlinia also does not tolerate dampness, but it flowers delightfully in late summer, and it displays some autumn color to its evergreen leaves.

The evergreen foliage, however, is prone to damage as temperatures near zero degrees, which is not unusual in this northwest Virginia garden. So, after two weeks of freezing temperatures in January, gordlinia is not much to look at. Leaves turn brown and brittle so that they must be stripped before new leaves emerge, but by mid spring there are no complaints.

Zone 7, or not?

Evaluating the cold hardiness of plants seems an inexact science, better than guessing, but a process prone to inaccuracies. Many gardeners accurately tell stories of a plant, or several that should have been sufficiently tolerant of cold, but failed in temperatures that should not have been a problem.

Purple Glaze star anise is rated hardy for zone 7, and it has survived temperatures below zero. However, the cold takes a toll. There have been only a few scattered flowers in several years, and scant new growth. Following last year’s mild winter, its health has declined significantly.

No doubt, there are a number of considerations to account for in determining cold hardiness (and survival), and I suspect that even wishful thinking occasionally creeps into the equation. As many gardeners do, I’ve been known to stretch a zone (or two) to plant something that is rated too tender for the area, and despite trying to figure a microclimate to give the best chance for survival, most all have failed.

Several gardenias rated for zone 6b and colder survived temperatures to zero, but failed in colder weather. I know of no other local gardenias that survived, so it appears the gardenias were too generously rated.

First, there is no doubt that I have poor judgment in evaluating areas for suitable microclimates. Most of this garden is protected from winter breezes, but does cold settle into this low lying garden, or not? And second, a few of the plants didn’t have a prayer for survival.

Winter Sun mahonia survived temperatures to six and seven degrees below zero with only minor damage. Other similar hybrid mahonias appear to also be cold hardy to below zero, though several mahonias with uncertain heritage are questionable and others have perished in recent cold winters.

This northwestern Virginia garden was rated as zone 6b at one time, but following a few decades without temperatures dropping below zero, this changed to a 7. Fair enough, but a recent winter dropped below zero a few times, and the following one several more with a low of six or seven below.

Edgeworthia suffered considerable damage in winters when temperatures dropped below zero. Shrubs that were 10 feet across required pruning of dead wood to 25% of their size. Half this loss was recovered the first year, and all growth the second year. Four years later, shrubs have grown to 12 feet or more in width. It appears that zone 7 is a proper rating.

The results of the frigid (for this area) weather were mixed, and illustrate the difficulties in hardiness ratings. Several gardenias optimistically rated for zones 6a and 6b never had a chance, though one marginally survived, sprouting a few leaves from the roots, which died a month or two later.

Distylium is gaining popularity in the southeast, but this zone 7 evergreen in the witch hazel family is uncommon in the mid Atlantic. After a slow start when several barely survived a winter with temperatures below zero, growth in full sun is excellent, and passable in medium shade. Early spring flowers have not been seen, possibly as a result of cold, though the small flowers seem to be a minor point of attraction.

Several shrubs rated for zone 7 sailed through temperatures below zero, while others suffered, but survived. With this experience, I watch these zone 7 survivors today as temperatures drop to zero. This afternoon, all seem okay, but tomorrow? And, often mild cold damage doesn’t show for weeks, so the verdict will not be assuredly known for a while.

Adding a fothergilla

Funny how things pop into your head out of nowhere. For no particular reason, it suddenly occurs to me that I must plant a fothergilla into a more prominent spot. Already, there are two in the garden, but in areas where they are least likely to be seen.

Fothergilla flowering in early April.

Why does there have to be a reason? That’s where I planted them. I had little clue at the time that fothergilla is a treasure that should be placed where its flowers, and then foliage can be enjoyed regularly.

Fothergilla autumn foliage.

What brought this to mind, I think, is the succession of blooms that begins in January with the Vernal witch hazels, and then to various hybrids February into March. I’ve been thinking that the related winter hazel (Corylopsis spicata ‘Aurea’) should be moved out of the damp ground where it clearly does not thrive, and I guess this got me thinking that I’ve wasted the also related fothergilla where it cannot be appreciated.

Arnold Promise witch hazel flowering in late February.

Situated on the northern border of the garden, the largest fothergilla is tucked behind tall camellias and a wide spreading holly. Certainly, the neighbors’ view is unobstructed, but there are years when there’s so much going on that I don’t catch the blooms until they’re fading. It’s a crime, or at least a shame.

Winter hazel

The question is whether to transplant the second, smaller fothergilla that struggles in dry shade, perhaps into the spot vacated by the winter hazel. Typically, this is how I get things done. One thing is not enough to get moving, but two things, that’s worthwhile motivation. Maybe, I’ll also move the Parrotia (another witch hazel relative) that is not far away, but is too shaded.

Autumn foliage of Parrotia persica

In fact, I think this might not be enough. It seems that it’s about time to remove a bit more of the small lawn and add to the lower garden. It’s more nutgrass than lawn grass, and who cares anyway? The area was once our playing field, for playing ball or badminton, which was fiercely played and tore the decent stand of grass up to the point that nutgrass had little resistance. But, the kids moved out years ago, and though my wife resists my efforts to expand the garden, I’ll bet it’s been a few years since she walked this far back. Rarely does she venture past the koi pond that bisects the rear garden, so if I don’t tell her, she might never know.

Now, this is garden design at its best. If it wasn’t ten degrees outside, with a howling breeze, I’d be ready to grab the shovel and get started.

Cold and colder

In this frigid, snow dusted garden, large leafed evergreens (aucubas, daphniphyllum, and rhododendron, below) curl for protection as temperatures approach zero. Leaves will return to form once temperatures rise nearer the freezing point, and it is likely that there is no long term harm, though Daphniphylum is only marginally cold hardy for this zone, so time will tell. Several mahonias with undetermined heritage and suspect cold hardiness will be watched, though survival of similarly marginal plants can often not be verified until very late winter.

Emerging flowers of Vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis, above), evident with mid thirty degree temperatures a week ago, have folded for protection so that color will not be seen until milder weather returns. Blossoms of winter flowering mahonias (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, below) have curled, though color shows through.

Swelling flower buds of ‘Winter’s Star’ and ‘Winter’s Interlude’, that did not bloom alongside other camellias in recent months, will hold until milder temperatures return. A year ago, the two tardy camellias flowered from January into early March, and though similar weather is not forecast, there are likely to be a scattered few blooms through the winter months.

Damage to flower buds of late winter blooming edgeworthias and winter daphnes is often not immediately apparent, but this recent (and forecast) cold is reason for concern. I expect (and hope) that significant injury does not occur with temperatures a few degrees above zero.

Following a succession of days when temperatures have not risen above freezing, the koi pond is now nearly frozen over except for a small area where water flows in from the recirculating waterfall. There is little danger to the pond’s fish, but I will occasionally monitor the pond’s plumbing, though burst pipes are rare with moving water.

As is typical, bluejays bully for the largest share of sunflower seeds at the feeder, though cardinals manage to snatch a seed or two, and smaller birds scavenge seed that falls to the ground. With seed treated with pepper sauce, squirrels are more infrequent visitors to the feeder than in prior years, though surely chickadees appreciate seed that is sloppily dropped to the ground.

A chilly week

No doubt, there will be few treks through the garden over the the next week. While unpleasant, overnight temperatures forecast to fall into single digits should not be much of a problem, though cold over an extended period following a dry autumn is reason for concern. With long established plants in this garden, desiccation and cold damage are lesser issues, but worries increase as temperatures approach zero. While it is necessary to check on ponds and scattered winter blooms, even on the coldest afternoons, strolls will be brief.

Following several days with temperatures remaining below freezing, a large section of the koi pond is covered in ice. The pipes that circulate water must be monitored occasionally, but this is a minor concern.

Variegated winter daphne is marginally cold hardy for the area, but it rebounded quickly after cold winters when flowers were lost and stems were pruned.

In recent decades, severe cold has been rare, but repeated nights below zero several years ago damaged marginally cold hardy daphnes, loropetalum, and edgeworthias. With lows to six or seven below, all survived, but with damage to stems that required extensive pruning. Gardenias purported to be cold hardy, were not, and all succumbed.

Emerald Snow loropetalum tolerated cold better than purple leafed cultivars, but this witch hazel relative could not survive increasing soil dampness. when a shallow spring became more active.

Flower buds of edgeworthia are watched closely for early color through January, with flowers opening late in the month in a mild winter.

As temperatures drop into the twenties and below, leaves of rhododendrons and Daphnipyllum curl for protection. A few gardeners wrap burlap around evergreens, or fill wire baskets with leaves for protection, but this should not be necessary for temperatures above zero.

Leathery leaves of Daphniphyllum curl for winter protection.

Ready to flower, or not

Several hellebores with Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) genetics appear ready to flower this third week of December, but experience tells that these could bloom next week, or remain in this state for another ten weeks. In recent years, this group has flowered as early as late December, or more typically sometime in February, only a bit earlier than Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) crosses.

If my druthers count, I prefer the earlier flowering since many other hellebores will not flower until late January at earliest, even in the mildest winter temperatures. Flowers of hellebores are likely to last for two months, longer in the cold, so the only disappointment is when early blooms are buried under snow for an extended period.

A more regular challenge is that deep piles of leaves must be removed for flowers to properly develop, and again so that flowers can be seen. I take full advantage to rest through the winter months, and rarely get around to clean up until leaves are wet and matted. I am, however, encouraged to get to work with the possibility of late December blooms.