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.


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.

No more reading

Not proudly, I admit that I am not much of a reader, at least not of books. Too short an attention span, I suppose. Nevertheless, to fill the winter hours I’ve reread five books long dormant in our small home library, and purchased and read two others. So there.

All were garden related, one on design and the others plants. So, properly inspired, I am primed for spring, with several mail orders in the works for oddities that cannot be obtained through the garden center. Another list has been prepared for garden center purchases, and in a marvel of advanced planning (for me anyway), there are set locations for two modestly sized Japanese maples. I’ve little clue where anything else is to go.

The dense foliage and branching of Twombly’s Red Sentinel is similar to Skeeter’s Broom Japanese maple (above), though I expect the color of Twombly’s will be more purple.

One maple, ‘Twombly’s Red Sentinel’ has, as its name suggests, a narrow, columnar habit, which will fit perfectly into a spot beside a path where a wider grower would not work. Not that the garden needs another Japanese maple (there are 30+), but this is the appropriate plant for this spot where another has failed. Why I haven’t planted ‘Twombly’s’ before, I don’t know, but it is a fine small tree for an area with limited space. After twenty nine years jamming in every plant that will fit, that perfectly describes this garden.

The Korean species of waxy bells (Kirengeshoma koreana) is on order for early spring planting. It grows more upright than the more common Japanese species (K. palmata, above) that has been in the garden for years.

On days with mild (or almost mild) temperatures in recent weeks I’ve tried to get a bit of a jump on spring planting and clean up, and perhaps several hours here and there have combined to save a day of labor that would otherwise be on a pleasant weekend day in March. It’s hardly enough to count towards the weeks that will be required to clean this place up, but it gets me off the couch and outdoors. Enough with the books.


This period of rest is nearly at its end, for better and worse.

While I fret over the multitude of chores that must be accomplished by the start of spring, I greatly appreciate the more relaxed pace of winter. Not that there is nothing to be done, but there is less urgency that tasks must be completed before many more are added to the list.

Strangely (and fortunately), the quantity of winter weeds seems diminished from previous years, and it is enjoyable to stroll the garden without an overwhelming sense that chores will never be caught up on. But, the time for relaxation, reflection, and planning is passing.

Close inspection of plants vulnerable to winter injury reveals little of concern, so the earliest tasks need not be pruning and disposing of dead wood. The variegated Winter daphne (above) has taken the worst of it, but it appears the damage is no more than browned foliage, and I am hopeful that flowers have not been lost. Color shows through on buds of a more protected shrub, with the other losing more leaves, but nothing more severe, I think. At worst, minor pruning will be necessary.

There was immediate concern for paperbushes (above) following nights that dropped to zero, but there is no apparent injury. Buds show only the slightest swelling in late February, so flowering will be later than average, though warm days in the forecast could hurry this along. Hollies and other evergreens in the garden show only minor evidence of damage from the cold, though I notice more recently planted broadleaf evergreens in the area have not fared so well, and many will not survive. 

Hellebores (above) are also behind schedule, but milder temperatures have accelerated swelling of buds. Instead of flowers scattered through late January and February, which were few in the extended period of cold, the next several weeks will be quite splendid.

Seventy in February

In the last weeks of a very average winter that seems so much worse by comparison to recent mild winters, a seventy degree day in February encourages that the worst has passed. Besides an improvement in the gardener’s disposition, there are also tangible signs of the change of season.

For weeks, a scattered few snowdrops (Galanthus, above) have heartened the winter weary gardener, but today early flowering types are at peak bloom, with later varieties swelling to flower when these begin to fade.

Happily, the quantity of early flowering snowdrops has clearly increased. Too few were planted at the start, but patience (cheapness) has finally been rewarded. When purchasing in autumn I am tempted by too many splendid choices, so often a few of many are selected rather than a quantity of one that will make a more immediate show. Today, I’m delighted by this choice.

Again, I regret passing over Winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis, above) when purchasing bulbs. There are a very scattered few beginning their brief period in flower, and it’s likely this lacking inspires regret that there are not dozens more. But, time and again it’s apparent my memory is short, and aconites are long forgotten by bulb ordering time.

In the vicinity of snowdrops and aconites, it appears I have disturbed cyclamen (above), and likely have ruined flowers for this late winter, possibly for every late winter. Since foliage of cyclamen fades in spring, I forgot about them and planted divisions of Carex ‘Evergold’ to fill the void. The evergreen, grassy carex captures finely textured leaves that drop from the ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maple that shades the area. For the cyclamen to be visible the leaves must be carefully removed, but it seems I was not careful enough. I’ve considered removing the carex, but I suspect cyclamen and carex are inextricably entwined.

There will be much more coming soon when hellebores (above) reach peak bloom, but with a single warm afternoon ones with buds that were swelling too slowly to soothe my anxiousness have made the move that was expected two weeks earlier. A single hellebore began flowering in mid January, but cold temperatures delayed others until this week. The next several weeks will bring one flower after the other.