Mending Winter’s Mischief

Chicken Soup for the Garden(er?)

(All photos in the text are of Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide,’ a very large, 20-year-old shrub that has bloomed prolifically and dependably but is now in a precarious battle for survival.) 

Weather! Weather! Weather! We complain.  Plants thrive.

Will this rainy weather breathe life into moribund plants?

From what we’ve seen, azaleas, pittosporum, camellias, oleander, gardenias, some crepe myrtles and weak trees seem to be the biggest losers this winter, though our craggy, battered old oak is looking better than ever. Most of these plants in our zone 8A are living on the edge of their comfort zones. Usually happy, they were whammied this winter.

Do we have a plan of action? Not now. Eventually we will work one out for each sick plant. This gives us time to adjust to losses and figure out strategies. While there is a plant in the ground, there is hope.

So, for the moment, we are watching and waiting. This is what I tell gardeners when they ask, and they rather like this advice. It requires little immediate work, and it postpones making decisions.

How patient should we be? We’ll wait till fall, the season of renewal, when marginal plants might come to life. Depending on how a plant looks (a deadnik next to the front door may need to be chopped out to restore a gardener’s spirits) we may postpone action until early next spring. We are gardeners in the South, not stock brokers in the City, so we don’t rush.

Trees and shrubs carry a lot more baggage than seeds. If seeds from plants in my garden can sprout after lying dormant for years, surely I can give some slack to shrubs that have performed well. It’s an apples to oranges comparison, I know, but it suits my fancy now. And Mother Nature does have a quirky sort of patience.

Near perfect growing weather this spring, rain, sun and moderate temperature, is creating quite a jungle. But cool soil the past few weeks may slow revival of a weak plant.

Soil temperature must be in balance with air temperature for proper growth to occur. Roots in cold soil are still sleepy. They can’t keep up with the needs of top growth on a warm day. That is why you sometimes see plants wilting on a pleasant day in spring after a cool rain the previous night has put a sparkle in the garden. Sluggish roots in cool soil are slow to hear SOS put out by tops that are jazzed for growing. We see this most often in tender new growth.

But healthy shrubs have leafed out by now, and with what exuberance! So we can begin looking for life.

In particular, we’ve seen bright new azalea leaves topping old brown ones, making for showy plants, and some leafless azaleas actually put out bloom despite their nakedness. I am hoping they are not putting best foot forward now only to fall on face in hot summer.

Right now we are using the bend-and-snap test to determine life in masses of dead pittosporum branches. If a twig snaps when it’s bent, oh well, it was probably dead. If it doesn’t seem to mind being bent, we leave it for a later try.

Pittosporum will be a challenge to shape when it finally comes around. There’s new growth on tips of skeletonized branches and tiny leaves coming out of heavy old wood. What to prune out? What to leave? This new growth popping out from heavy wood is slow and easy to miss, but like the tortoise, it usually wins the race. Epicormic budding, this is called. Dormant buds beneath the bark become active in times of stress. It’s another strategy for survival.

Gardenias and oleander still look like a patchwork of green and brown: life at their bases, maybe some along branches, and some on tips of twigs. More decisions and more pruning challenges. Shocked crepe myrtles are growing at their bases, or, happily, they have come through like champs and sport the shiniest, healthiest leaves I’ve seen in a decade.

As for camellias, I am a faithful bud-checker. This is an exciting garden pastime, though not necessarily one that would perk up lagging conversation at a cocktail party. I check plants for growth buds from August on, even earlier, as I walk the garden to see how plants are preparing for next year. These buds will stay tightly wrapped until they flush out next spring. Leaf buds are slender, flower buds are round, though on other types of plants, buds can neatly package both.

New leaf buds should be smooth and shiny and firm. On stricken plants, buds formed last year are dried up or gone, leaving stubs at the ends of branches. I have found what appear to be new leaf buds, but they are small and sickly and they drop off when I touch them. If leaves emerge from these buds, they are stunted. Kinda dashes your hopes when you cheer a live one and it turns out to be a dud. But even when tops die off, camellias can come back from the base.

Scraping the bark to see if a plant is still alive is OCD behavior for me in February, though I haven’t killed a plant that way yet. This spring, it has not been a reliable test. Inner bark and fresh-cut ends of twigs may show a hopeful green, but a later check will show no color as the plant continues dying back. More dashed hopes.

Still, all this rain seems to be apologizing for the cold winter. It’s giving plants the best chance they could want. We soldier on with our TLC.

We give plants handsful of compost, but little if any fertilizer (too rich for a sick plant).

We scatter a mixture of dry leaves and pine needles that have fallen since last fall, a light mulch now that soil is finally warming. (Crumbling leaves will compost, and tough pine needles will give cover during hot days.)

We’ll stand hose-in-hand lavishing drinks of water on rickety plants during dry spells, until run-off tells us to stop, give time for the water to soak in, then give another drink.

Chicken soup for the garden. Chicken soup for the gardener’s spirits.

The Parade of Bloom in May, particularly Japanese, native swamp, Siberian and Louisiana iris, poppies,  deutzia, spirea, native wisteria ‘Amethyst Falls’ and Missouri sunflower are good for the spirits, too. Herewith some pink Knockout roses and a slide show of happy pictures.

A real delight this year

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The Winter of Three Degrees Part III

Guerillas in the Garden, or

Try not to Throw the Baby out with the Bath Water

Let me tell you what did staggeringly well over the winter. Lesser celandine! If you have read my post of March 2012, The Weed that can Snare a Gardener, written when I was a less-than-wise gardener (which is not to imply that the situation is much improved today), you are already familiar with my love-hate relationship with this plant.

Who could resist these sunny faces?

First I couldn’t get enough of it. Carefully I tended each bright shiny plant. And when I was blessed with bounty, I shared. How I shared. Other gardeners were equally dazzled, so I gave it away freely, even sold some at our plant sales. My ego soared. My star was rising among gardening friends.

Then I learned all the bitter truths about this kissin’ cousin of the buttercup.

It’s an impostor. A doppelganger for marsh marigold, Caltha palustris, a lovely native, not particularly coveted because of where it lives. (Sigh, if only my identification had been more objective before I fell in love with this dastardly counterfeit.)

You would need hip boots to get to this marsh marigold. Come to think of it, parts of our property might qualify as its habitat

Egg on my face, betrayal, but I managed to survive that bitter truth, until. . .

I discovered the next bitter truth. Only after I was totally hooked, did these bright rosettes with their knock-your-socks off blooms take full advantage. They bounced around our garden like slinky toys embedded in boomerangs. Surprise! Bet you didn’t expect us over here…and here…and here! Oh, and over there, too!

And then the third, the cruelest indignity of all, the one that feeds heady hope, then brings utter despair. The plants fade some time in May. They are gone, all of them.

You feel triumphant, light as air. Your garden is freed from the yoke of these invaders. You don’t give them another thought. Then, next spring, your psyche is dashed by a sea of psychedelic yellow.

And to think I actually cultivated lesser celandine along this path

My daughter and I learned these bitter truths years ago after we spent one spring day on our knees, three-pronged cultivators in hand, pulling up plants and feeling very proud of our “finished” work.

At the time, we didn’t quite understand the way these guerillas operate. Their blossoms are the vanguard, spilling seeds here there and yon if you do not run the extra mile (around the garden) cutting off new flowers daily.

What a bother! Better off spending time hunting up an army of schoolkids to collect bouquets and hope they don’t get tired, thirsty, bored, cranky, hungry before the job is done.

Formidable tools for survival

Major warfare, we soon learned, takes place unseen, in the trenches, where masses of roots with apparently innocuous bulblets, maybe only one, maybe a hundred (slight exaggeration) to a plant, stand at attention, ready to break away and go into hiding if attacked.

One bulblet, or even a part of one, accidentally removed from the original plant, will create a new plant. I repeat, one bulblet, or even part of one, will create a new plant.

So the Defender (that’s me, in case you hadn’t guessed) must dig with finesse. One would assume that your usually-adequate-for-small-plants handy-dandy trowel would qualify as the proper tool if finesse is required.

Not so. A full-fledged shovel must be plunged deeply (little finesse here) into the soil while carefully cutting around the plant and lifting the clump to remove the invaders, or maybe not, if you didn’t aim quite right.

In which case, the troops might be scattered, reburied, or cut in two, which will, of course, bring on the slinky effect. Complicating matters, bulblets sometimes grow among heavy roots that are impenetrable fortifications against mere shovels.

In that case, you should probably consider dynamiting the garden or incorporating celandine into your garden plans for the rest of your life.

Bulblets from two plantsfound in a one-gallon pot. Scattered bulblets fell away during handling

And another thing, don’t even think about salvaging that precious, composty soil you’ve been building for years. Shaking soil off a shovelful of roots guarantees another dozen plants next year. Into pickle-pail purgatory and on to landfil-oblivion they must go.

Interesting Trivia: Many years ago, the oystermen in Great South Bay, Long Island, were fed up with starfish prying open the oysters and helping themselves to the crop. To get rid of the starfish and, I suppose, vent their frustration at the same time, they engaged in a great effort to catch hundreds, maybe thousands, of starfish.

Methodically, with supreme satisfaction, they chopped the starfish up and threw them back into the Bay. Surprise! You can guess the rest of the story. Celandine has a lot in common with starfish.

If you doubt that this is guerilla warfare, take a look at the names of killer chemicals that one can use against this invader — if one is a gambler and willing to go bankrupt on such purchases, none of which have iron-clad guarantees.

Doff Knockdown Weedkiller
Scotts Tumbleweed
Scotts Fast Action Roundup Ready-to-Use
Bayer Glyphosate Ready-to-Use Kills Weeds & Roots
Roundup Gel Ready-to-Use
Resolva Lawn Weedkiller
Weedol Lawn Weedkiller
Bayer Lawn Weedkiller

We have read that a thick layer of mulch can discourage celandine, but I wonder, then, if pine voles would be tempted to tunnel in friable compost and become yet another guerilla force in the garden. I doubt that celandine bulblets would ever become a delicacy for voles when tulips and crocuses are on the menu.

Here’s a gang ready to march on an ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea just sprouting after winter

If celandine plants would stick to empty spots in a flower bed, we could tolerate them, but instead, they circle prized shrubs and home in until they establish a chokehold.

Rescuing such a plant, we soon learned, is tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bath water. We did just that this spring.

We decided to dig up a celandine-choked hydrangea that was failing, a favorite red that had grown and prospered from a cutting volunteered by a willing plant in New Castle, Delaware, where my sister, conveniently, was carrying a large purse in which to stash the prize. Quite cleverly, we named the acquisition New Castle Red.

It looked better before we dug it up. Note that most of the green is from celandine

Our plan was to separate hydrangea from celandine, rout the guerillas and restore the plant to its happy home in, say a couple of hours tops.

It didn’t work quite that way. To begin with, by the time we dug the plant out, we realized we were mucking in wet, heavy clay, the kind of clay that fails drainage tests, badly, but which, oddly, our hydrangeas seem to like.

By the way, anyone with a spare shovel and a yen for a sprained back can perform these high-tech drainage tests. You dig a hole (that’s the high-tech part), fill it with water, let the hole drain, then refill it and track the time until the hole is empty again.

We didn’t plan on running such a test, but we had a ready-made hole that was now filled with rain from a sudden storm, so we welcomed going off on this tangent. Watching water drain can be one of the more exciting  activities in a garden. Less strenuous, too.

In this case, watching a clock would have been far more exciting. The water level never dropped. We decided to go back to rescuing the hydrangea.

Bob takes hatchet in hand

We soon learned that it is difficult to work delicately when your hands are muddy and the dug-up plant is slippery and weighs a ton and you are fighting with a guerilla that has woven itself among roots.

To “save” the hydrangea we had to cut it apart. With a hatchet.

Casualties  in the wheelbarrow,  water for separating guerillas from keepers, and the final hydrangea tally in a two-gallon pot

We’ve divided hydrangeas before, but usually we are in command. By the time we finished “saving” this hydrangea, we wound up with 13 sticks, each with some semblance of leaves and roots. I heeled them into a cuttings bed (early spring, soil still cold for this work, I know) and last I looked, they were all showing some semblance of shuffling off.

The Casualties

We happened to have a “sister” to this hydrangea in the wings, so we stirred a goop of compost, mushroom dirt and clay clods into the still-rain-filled hole and popped her in with a little moat surrounding her (to promote drainage, I can hear you laughing already).

Holding her own in the muck. The former hydrangea was able to keep the hosta at bay but not the celandine

We had to “persuade” her not to float by adding more clods, especially after the next two-incher left standing water in the moat.

So ends the celandine cliff-hanger for this year. Will the new hydrangea evade the guerillas next year? Will any of the old hydrangea survive? Stay tuned for the next installment of this thrill-a-minute saga of death-defying warfare waged by Guerillas in the Garden. PG-13

For now, let’s move on to brighter news: luscious blooms and lush growth spurred by rainy days and cool weather this spring and workaholic compost that keeps feeding our soil like that certain bunny that never quits. Despite losses, it’s been the best spring ever.

This bawdy combo of ‘Fashion’ azalea and clematis ‘Dr. Ruppel’ never fails to entertain us each spring

Pictured in the slide show below are atamasco lily, clematis, spirea ‘Ogon’, and native honeysuckle, lady banks rose, sinocalycanthus ‘Hartlage Wine’ and kerria, red buckeye, fringe tree, deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls, sweet william,  limbed-up doublefile viburnum (v. plicatum tomentosum), a sea of forgetmenots, and columbines that give sparkle to a challenged oleander.

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The Winter of Three Degrees Part II of III

Raiders of the Winter Garden

Yup, that’s what they are. Come out in the cold to sample Green Plate Specials and hunker down for the winter as if they owned the place. Ah, those plants with tender leaves, hors d’oeuvres with a tang served up by Kurume and Gumpo azaleas, delicacies prized by these raiders of the garden.

The plants looked spikey even before the first flake of snow: Gawky, leafless sticks, especially if they were growing along the routes of the raiders. Negative focal points in the garden. (Can you have negative focal points in a garden? We did!)

A spikey azalea beginning to recover

The damage was considerable. In fact, it was so considerable that I took pictures, which now seem to be missing, probably because a plant that has been eaten tends to become invisible, which tends to hamper positive identification. So, take it on trust, there were a lot of photos that simply showed tangle.

On the bright side, these same plants were spared the misery of a long cold winter.

This Gumpo went brown in March. We held our breaths, as did everyone in our area as azaleas browned out

Spoiler alert: As of this writing, only one plant that we know of was totally lost to browsing.

Still, chewing damage was so pervasive I assumed initially that it came from deer. But the diagonal cuts on branches were clean, missing the ragged, torn edges indicative of deer browse. Maybe deer and rabbits had negotiated a temporary treaty and deer went elsewhere for tender kibbles.

Now I can understand why Farmer MacGregor had a certain hostility to these cute, furry creatures

Tall rabbits were the how and why of these Phyllis Diller plants. Not that they (the rabbits) are genetically tall. They simply stretch themselves skinny as a dime so they can reach to unsurpassed heights, even to the tops of, say, deutzia gracilis.

Yes, rabbits like deutzia, especially tender new transplants still naïve about the ways of rabbit raiders. But I wonder why these rabbits were still stretching for deutzia and azaleas, when concessions of just-out hosta were offering grab-and-go meals almost everywhere in the garden. (Maybe a need for more fiber in the diet? Is there a fiber RDA for rabbits?)

This young deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls’ once eaten down by rabbits, was spared this year. They preferred the older shrub that only  laughed the rabbits off

In their defense, rabbits can be very polite diners. They take small, dainty bites, even when they are ripping a plant apart.

Like a dutiful, efficient, organized, first-things-first gardener (as I know you all are, too), I began to cut away the sticks to shape the bushes and make room for healthy new growth that had begun to sprout from below.

At least they ignored the camellias. Here the rain has pounded a bloom into the ground

Then I had an epiphany.  Had I been in some alcoholic haze? My diligent tidying was not deterring the raiders. Instead, it was inviting more rabbit raids. Come and get it, varmints, new bush opened up, easy pickins’, guaranteed no sticks, lots of tender new leaves on the plate, all in shiny bright neon.

Let me tell you, I sobered up fast. Now on high alert, driven by pure naked impulse, I designed high-tech azalea barricades using cut-down joepyeweed sticks, which just happened to be at hand.

I gambled on confusing the raiders by tucking broken stalks like spears into the stick bushes, which, by the way, were beginning to look pretty good, except that now they were even more sticky and would require more tending later in the season to remove the stick barricade that was now junking up the growing sticks. Do you think these barricades could ever be positive focal points?

And then suddenly the Gumpos turned green

Then again, maybe I had been too hasty. After I sprinkled “aromatic” Holly Tone on the azaleas to coax them along, the rabbits seemed to disappear. Spraying Liquid Fence would have been more sensible, but who was being sensible at this point. Next winter, I vowed, I’ll toss wads of pine straw among azalea branches and top them off with a garnish of Hollytone. Let’s see how you like pine straw in with your azalea leaves, you, you, you. . .rabbits!

Despite browsing, on the whole, azaleas weathered the winter with grace. Rabbits ignored the large-leaved southern indica and Rutherford hybrids even though they remained green all winter. May-blooming gumpos that the raiders missed were badly browned, but they have now pumped out new green leaves with energy that astonishes. Do I spot flower buds, too?

Kurume azalea ‘Coral Bells’, a reliably early bloomer, seen here in a protected corner, for the most part eluded rabbits and the deep freeze

Who has not lately complained about copious rain! (Which complaints will no doubt be replaced next summer with groans about terrible heat and extended “drought.”)

Have you noticed that the plants are not complaining? Ever opportunistic, they are sucking up a power drink of nutrients that would otherwise be locked in dry soil. And so we are being treated to a lovely, green world in April.

Here a southern indica ‘George Tabor’ shows a purple sport. Note the considerable new green growth

Possibly too green? This energetic growth is outstripping some of our azalea blooms, hiding them so the full “wow” effect of bright blossoms is subdued. Reminds me of why we gave up on Rhododendron catawbiense with its stunning lavender balls that cover walls of healthy shrubs in the cool-climate forests of western North Carolina.  Warm spring temperatures here confused their internal schedules and prompted plants to put out new leaves before the blooms arrived. That meant the “wow” effect was a dud.

Such a nitpicking curmudgeon you are! Can’t you just sit on a bench and enjoy the great wide World of Azaleas in April? Okay. Okay. I’ll set a spell.

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The Winter of Three Degrees Part I of III

Or, Exposure Exposure Exposure. . .And More

I can already hear our northern friends laughing. You can’t be wringing your hands over Three Degrees! Three posts devoted to a cold winter! You Southern Softies! Don’t expect us to feel sorry for you. Here in New England we are soldiers on the front lines of frigid.

All right, all right, give us some slack. We Zone 8A-ers expect, no deserve, mild winters, to make up for summer scorchers. It’s our God Given Southern Right to complain. Three degrees and wind, snow and rain are enough grist for days of garden gossip in our sheltered southern towns.

Days of sepia and lead, unless it was snowing. The beech will hold its leaves till spring

Full disclosure: At the risk of precipitating more gleeful chortles, the three degrees in discussion was recorded in our garden some time around what is traditionally the coldest part of the day, the wee hours before sunrise. The record was quickly wiped clean by sunshine on that day in February.

For a while we thought we’d dodged the bullet. Through it all, plants seemed — well — alive. Only we who were looking out the window were shivering with cabin fever.

They’re still looking pretty good in February, but another reality took over in March

In the past, our evergreens have remained perky during freezes. Smug and happy as a novice gardener, I used to think we’d won the frozen-in-time race. Imagine my disappointment when, as soon as the ice melted and the towel thrown off, my favorites would turn brown or go naked.

This year, no such thing happened. Ah hah, we (emphasis on “we”) are finally raising exceptionally strong, self-reliant plants.

We lived in la la land until early March. That was when plants stopped pretending and started dropping leaves.

Osmanthus fragrans dropped so many leaves we raked for days

We’ve often chafed at our native trees for being water hogs, nutrient hogs, and sun hogs. (Remember, trees always win in any tiff with shrubs.) Early spring, while we were mourning losses of some signature plants but relieved that the garden had survived, scattered reports of pervasive, withering, casualties dismayed us. Why the difference?

Would we ever want to lose our woods? For better or worse, no

Did those woods we maligned instead act as benign counterpane to protect our plants? Maybe it was time we thanked our perimeter of native trees for blocking winter sun and wind and moderating water in the soil and casting a crusty blanket of leaves over the landscape.

The Norfolk Botanical Garden is about 40 miles north as the crow flies, subject to the same weather, or worse, though the influence of city concrete probably gives them an edge. Much of their landscaping is under scattered pines and hardwoods.

Camellias, azaleas, evergreens, flowering shrubs and hydrangeas seemed to survive the winter with little incident. Yet camellias in area gardens were so affected the Virginia Camellia Society had to cancel their show and sale. Had the woodlands in the botanical garden cast a benign canopy over most of their plantings?

Exception: A bank of old, exposed azaleas at the Gardens were sparse of leaves and flowers. How come theirs looked better than ours?

Even so, plants that face east can suffer. Bright winter sun that breaks the cold of night gives no quarter to stunned plants. Buds can be blasted and leaves burned.

One winter, our native, buxom magnolia Virginiana facing full into an eastern sunrise turned into a skeleton. We spent a lot of time discussing the take-down of this once handsome tree-now-turned eyesore. Fortunately, as can be the wont with gardeners, our frenzied debate lapsed into idle chatter. It took a year, but the tree eventually recovered.

Our gumpo azaleas exposed to bright morning sun

But exposure isn’t all. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, a plant endures a series of insults. Shuffles and shifts that we barely notice may in fact weaken a plant’s reserves. Signs of distress can be subtle. How many times have I missed or misinterpreted clues, picking up on them only after the consequences became dire! Humbles ya, doesn’t it!

Causes? Unless they’re obvious, we can only back-figure. Here’s a possible list of insults I’ve come across (or inflicted) in thirty years of gardening.

Over zealous pruning at the wrong time
Fertilizing at the wrong time
Changes in drainage
Changes in sun or shade

Dry seasons.
Wet seasons.
Damaged roots — from wayward shovels, imperfect drainage
Plants still potbound despite appropriate teasing

Competition from other plants
Fall clean-up that leaves soil surface raw.
Vented air from a heating/ac unit.
Loss of a buddy.

I’ll never forget how a thriving native male American holly fretted for years after it lost its loblolly-pine neighbor. Finally it learned to cope with the double whammy of too much water at its roots and too much sun on its leaves.

Despite having its block knocked off by a tornado years ago, this tulip tree is a lusty grower, snatching resources from smaller plants

Old age can be a cause, but that is relative. Digs that are too rich can grow a plant to death. The opposite can kill a plant, too. Goldilocks conditions probably extend life, but who knows what they are in our individual gardens.

And then there is the X factor — X because we don’t know enough about what goes on under the ground or, for that matter, above the ground — that can influence survival or failure. However thoughtful we may be in figuring a plant’s needs — cracking the books, studying the site — it’s the doggonedest perplexingest puzzle, but a cosseted plant can languish, while another plant that gets short shrift survives.

How in the world did this seedling crabapple ever make it with no care and all that competition?

Sometimes it is just an old plant’s time. The plant is weary of hauling sap up and down its pipes, weary of sending out negative vibes to bugs, weary of accommodating the weather (though it may still put on a show of bloom). If you look, you can see the signs, especially in old, tall trees, but mostly we are not looking.

When you put it all together, plants are environmentally challenged pretty much all year, from winter freezes to summer’s dry heat, with brief respites in spring and fall. Though, on the whole, plants are probably more weather-resilient than we are.

Given half a chance plants come back year after year with treats for us and the birds — native blueberries and red cedar

Curiously, small new plants, the ones you hover over, expecting the worst, can survive insults happily. Last fall I set out stripling shrubs. What the rabbits did to them behind my back was downright criminal. Apparently there is no Hercule Poirot to ferret out garden malefactors, or, for that matter, foxes.

Unlabeled, down to nubbins, they became unrecognizable until healthy new growth in spring provided leaf-labels that refreshed my memory. Could it be that rabbits’ untutored pruning helps plants survive?

Gardener’s truism: Favorite Plants Fall First. Here are some examples from our garden. Caveat: Dead plants are not photogenic.

Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’

Slow to establish, but a giant now with hundreds of blooms each year. After Hurricane Irene felled its buddy, a stunning crabapple in its prime, ‘Yuletide’ has been in full sun. Our attempts at air layering have been unsuccessful. Last year we shaped it, limbed it up to expose its handsome trunks and planted shade-lovers beneath. Any connections here? How does one reckon with an instant twelve-foot-wide void in the garden? Like all good gardeners, we’re procrastinating — in denial, and hoping.

Dancing with blooms

Just as lovely close-up

Lovely bones

Little green here except for Southern Indica azalea leaves, hellebore, and epimedium

Camellia sasanqua ‘Sho a no sakae’

Our very first camellia, the only camellia survivor of Hurricane Isabel, has been standing in a pool of water off and on for most of the past year and a half. It is fully exposed to the western summer sun but protected on the east. Last fall its bloom was spectacular. Today, half of it is dead and the only green growth we see is from a vagrant crossvine that could survive Noah’s flood.

It’s survived hurricanes and flooding where others failed, a real favorite of ours

Covered in blooms in November and December

Looking pretty good here. We celebrated our good luck in February. Too soon

A skeleton today

Dwarf Pittosporum

Tidy and dependable, an undulating three-foot-high river of green during hot summers, they were a shapely segue to our side garden, a floating grace note that we took for granted. Not today. Brittle limbs, crumbled and broken from snow load, have left dark dead patches punctuating (precious few) flowing mounds of foliage. When the plants bloomed, which was rare for us, we’d smell a heavenly scent before we’d find the small, creamy, tucked-in flowers. At its northern limit here, it’s been down before but has usually recovered in a year or so. Not so sure this year.

Mounded on either side, in the distance, leading us into the side garden

Mounds crushed under snow that lasted and lasted caused breakage of brittle limbs

Where do we go from here? Maybe the plants will tell us

Oleander

Another southern beauty at its northern limit that we grow as signature plants in our decked and protected courtyard. The catch: the deck covers a quagmire. After a heavy rain you can see water between the planks. Since the drowning of a wax myrtle to the east and the axing of an aggressive, uninvited water oak to the west, they are targets for winter and summer sun. Untidy, worn-out feather dusters now.

A view of the courtyard in May

And today

Viburnum tinus

Good, that one’s gone. Its lumpiness was a drag on garden real estate, and its pretty blooms turn to mush during spring freezes. (PS: It likes Mediterranean climates without the freezes.) I’ll replace it with a reliable azalea. Oh dear, now that the trunks are cut down and the blob is removed, I can see new growth at the base. Too much work to dig up; we’ll have to keep it whacked back if I’m to fit that azalea in. Sigh. . .more work down the road.

Viburnum tinus in bloom. Not my photo, mine never looked that good.Photo by Hope Grove Nurseries, UK. Bet they don’t get down to 3 degrees over there

The Lump yesterday, cut away today

Gardenias

Shabby spikes, whether growing in sun or shade they are today. All of them, including ‘Kleim’s hardy.’ which apparently isn’t all that hardy. They look as though they will probably come back, but they are not in any hurry to put out new growth. ‘Frost Proof,’ is the one exception, looking good and covered with budding flower buds, the best I’ve seen. Maybe ‘Frost Proof’ likes cold winters.

In better days

The worst looking gardenia happens to be at the front of the house, the healthy hedge is dwarf yaupon holly, the stringy hydrangea has filled out and has flower buds

‘Frost Proof’ came through the winter unphased, Florida anise, variegated Solomon’s seal, and fuschia azalea

Our ‘Pink Ruffles’ Azalea Hedge

Rutherford hybrids that we’ve nicknamed Bubble Gum Pink, they’ve been brightening our driveway for a long time. The nickname usually comes to mind first. They were originally planted among pines for high shade, while a neglected, tangled, but healthy mass of periwinkle and wild creepers took care of excess water below.

Like teeth, both the uppers and lowers were extracted, the former by hurricane, the latter by us after ground hornets took up residence. Then we blitzed-pruned them two summers ago. O boy! They’ve had a rough road.

A portion of the hedge about five years ago

Normally fully evergreen, blighted by eastern winter sun

Coming along far beyond expectations after this winter. Next year they may be a hedge!

See what I mean about Exposure Exposure Exposure . . . and More?

No time for fretting. Onward, to the pruners, to the loppers, to the axes, to the saws!

On the other hand, maybe we will wait and see. . .

Meanwhile, let’s enjoy spring. And what a spring it is! Brown twigs are no longer focal points. The green covers them, sorta. And spring colors distract us from remnants of winter dirge. Copious rainfall has egged on lush growth – maybe too exuberantly — and blooms. Even garden idlers that I annually threaten with extinction (with no follow-through) are coming round this year. Maybe three degrees wasn’t so bad after all.

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Posted in spring bloom, Spring shrubs, Uncategorized, Winter damage | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Nature’s Caretakers

Foxy Friends lead the way.

That is what we gardeners are. Nature’s Caretakers.

We’re on the front lines, holding back a people-scape that creeps into wild places where animals roam free.

Late September monarch on pineapple sage

We don’t usually think of ourselves as holding a line.

But when the wild menagerie out there is looking for security, gardens take on a critical role.

Kind of like those old-time homey boarding houses where, for a token, the temporarily displaced could find a comfortable room and a hot meal.

And so we gardeners can be a friend to the weary traveler, the wary homebuilder, the hungry fledgling, the young hunter.

Skipper on turtlehead, or Chelone glabra late summer

In return, we are repaid handsomely.

Insects pollinate flowers. Worms turn the soil. Birds eat insects and weed seeds.

Garden skinks eat grubs and worms (and a whole lot more). Turtles mate in the shade of greenery and eat strawberries. (We can’t win them all!)

Rabbits like violets. Snakes, hawks, foxes dine on rabbits, voles, moles. And the circle of life remains unbroken.

A patch of our wild garden with salvia and sunflower

Thirty years ago a group of us founded the Albemarle Environmental Association (AEA) to be vocal advocates for our land and water.

Five years later, we received funding from the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine Study (sponsored by the Clean Water Act) to ramp up our community outreach.

Nature’s Caretakers: You Can Be One was born. It’s a lively How-To guide for taking care of your patch of Mother Earth.

The leading players in the guide are a family of foxes who endure the trials of pollution but still remain hopeful.

They’re named after the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds of eastern North Carolina: Albe and Marle are mom and dad, Pam and Lico their youngsters.

The full text of Nature’s Caretakers is on our web site, AEA on the Web.

Here we present the Fox Family cartoons, humorous and on-point. We hope they remind you of our importance as gardeners – and give you a great big smile.

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This post is dedicated to Elaine, who did all the artwork for AEA publications, which included logos, elegant depictions of river basins, wetlands and woodlands ecosystems, and the Fox Family cartoons.

Graciously, and with enthusiasm, she donated her time and considerable talent to all these projects. Her artwork, always based on meticulous research, here shines with humor and wit.

Posted in Environmental Humor, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

With Sincerest Apologies to the Daffodils in my Garden

Oh daffodils, sweet daffodils, my sweet sweet daffodils,
Wherefore art thou?
Fain wouldst I look upon your sunny countenance
Daily I seek your bright orbs reflected in mine own imperfect orbs
But if thine eye forever be cast down from me,
I fain accept my plight on bended knee,
Sworn by my love for thee,
Still begging thy kind forgiveness
For my unruly waywardness,
Henceforth I promise utmost fealty to my sunny lords.

Pretty corny faux-Shakespeare, eh. But they heard me! The daffodils are on the march! They weren’t a couple of days ago.

For years these ‘Ice Follies’ have peformed like champs, photo from 2010

There’s an ulterior motive for the bad verse. I’m trying to make up for my flagrantly careless treatment of the daffodils in my garden. You might say that I am easing guilt pangs with easy flattery.

No plant in my garden has been so reliable and so carefree and rewarded me with so much happiness than daffodils. And no plant have I treated with such disrespect.

Even shrouded by an old azalea browned out by our bitter winter, they’ll rise and bloom

In spring my guilt catches up with me and I begin to have doubts. Will they actually bloom this year? I ask myself. By the first of February I’m out feeling for telltale nubbins, or buds, deep down inside the just-emerged leaves. If I can’t find them, I am consumed with doubt and loss and guilt. (Well, maybe I’m being a little too melodramatic.)

Nothing says “country” more than a clump of daffodils against a fence

Lucky daffodils in other gardens get planted to proper depth in good soil with good drainage and a soupcon of fertilizer. They might even get watered during a dry fall. Not in my garden. The weather, not me, provides them with their needs: cold wet winters, dry summers for resting, and good sunshine during spring.

How I love my daffodil path!

What do I give my daffodils?

To begin with, I stuff them into holes small and shallow, only as deep as the trowel will go easily. Or I carve (chop) out a stingy hole in rooty soil with my trusty garden knife and coax (shove) them in.

They may be snug in their holes, but I’m sure there are air pockets around them. I count on a rainy day to complete the planting. For good measure I toss an extra helping of mulch on top of them and count that as part of the “planting depth.”

When faced with a big bag of daffodils, my idea is not necessarily to plant well but to plant fast. This gets me back on the couch quicker. I’m hoping to make the Guinness Book of World Records some day (for speedy bulb-planting, not speedy trips to the couch).

The view after Isabel, which arrived on September 18, 2003. Note the house across the canal, almost hidden

I really put my daffodils to the test after Hurricane Isabel. I planted them in dredge spoils. Unknown to us, part of our plot consisted of muck and mud, peat, and mounds of vegetation, some of it rotted, some not, that had been dug out of wetlands to create canals. We discovered the tangle after the hurricane flattened trees that had dared to start life in the murky stew.

It was an ankle-twisting dumping ground covered by a veneer of soil. But I was determined to pretty up the place after the fallen trees were cleared.

What could be better than daffodils! Why, they would even have full sun in spring and we would see sunlight in a moonscape. A bushel would make a statement, I thought. By mistake I ordered two. I had a mountain of bulbs to plant.

The “dredge-spoil” platform was cleared in late fall and the bulbs were planted in December and January. You can see the house across the canal more clearly now

The bulbs would be treated to precious little else besides bright sunshine. Gamely I worked my trowel in and around the debris, but some of the bulbs never had a chance.

Once in a while, my trowel slid down with no resistance, and I prided myself on planting a bulb properly.Then I saw the big fat bulb scoot right down into the pools of water that still lay underneath the dredge-spoil platform.

Next spring the ones that didn’t drown bloomed like champs. And they are still blooming, though not as prolifically, 15 years later, in a grown-up and shaded woodland.

I probably manage to plant ‘Tete a Tete’ properly, they are so tiny. They are another fine performer, and they wander, so they surprise us, too

How do they do it? I learned their secret from a bulb expert. No matter how deep we plant them, daffodils will manage. Too shallow? Year by year, new roots gradually “pull” the bulb down to a depth it likes.

Too deep? (My bulbs don’t have that problem; I’ve always felt six inches of depth was getting me too close to China.) As the bulb multiplies, its offsets will form closer to the soil surface.

Yahoo! I am the kid who got away with grabbing the forbidden cookies and didn’t get caught.

Daffodils across the front of our property are planted in fill that was thrown up when the road was built. It took five years for weeds to find a footing here. Occasionally, because they started life in squalor, these particular daffodils have had some 10-10-10 tossed on them as they came up in spring

As you have probably surmised, if I don’t plant well, I don’t amend or fertilize well. They go into mud and muck and the trowel gets stuck, and I curse my bad luck. Once or twice over the years I have fertilized them. I think.

I’ve read that fertilizing should be done in fall, so it’s on site in winter, when daffodils are putting out roots. But how in the world do you know where they are in fall? Should I be carrying a daffodil map in my head?

Nor do I dig daffodils when they get overcrowded and stop blooming. I just fuss at them. Sometimes I threaten them, but they are deaf.

To make an example once, I actually followed through on my threats. Did you know that there are a lot of bulbs in one of those clumps? More than you can imagine.

And you have to separate them and there are these little guys the size of your pinkie nail that you have to do something with.

I threw them in the woods. And guess what? It’s been about ten years or more, but a few are blooming today.

A clump from one of the cast-offs. Ladder in background is a giveaway. I would never plant daffodils near a ladder

Now what am I to do with the rest? I’m supposed to put them some place where they will stay dry. Will I remember where I put them? And remember to plant them next fall? And try to find a spot where no bulbs are already planted? (Which I can’t because I don’t have that map.) Fat chance of that.

So I never dig bulbs up if they don’t bloom. I look at slacker clumps and think they are handsome spots of fresh green popping up at the end of a cold winter and taking up weed-space.

A lovely ‘Ice Follies’ bloom, part of a clump that was moved but survived

Not of my own free will, but once in a while I have been known to dig up bunches of bulbs, always the biggest, healthiest bloomers. They are the unlucky ones that get caught in my frenzies of transplanting.

You may know the drill. You’ve purchased a fabulous plant, one with much more promise than any that you currently own, and you have just the spot for it. Trouble is, the spot is presently occupied by a happy, healthy plant, which has to be dug and, in all good conscience,  replanted elsewhere.

‘Tahiti’, a favorite

Of course, I am only speaking from other people’s experience, but it does seem I am always wanting to put a plant where bulbs are happy. To make matters worse, I sometimes, accidentally, chop a couple of bulbs as I’m digging.

Does a chopped up bulb ever grow back?

Well, no more finding pails and keeping them dry and forgetting about them and all that. I hunt around the garden with trowel in hand, right away, when I don’t need a map, till I find a bulbless spot. Now I can move on to other forgettable items.

Once I made a test case, and followed through on how those bulbs fared during the next couple of years. Do you know, they all bloomed! Though I don’t know about the chopped up ones.

The pot of bulbs and my trusty knife

Something must have distracted me this year. The other day, I found a three-gallon pot with bulbs planted in three inches of mud. When did I do that? And why did I do that?

I would never have remembered this particular pot because it was half covered by another pot that had found its way on top — except that the strappy leaves were growing every which way trying to find a way out. All 35 bulbs stuffed into one pot.

Yellow leaf blades but lovely roots

They were trying so hard, I couldn’t be a bad boy any more. So I gave them the same unruly planting treatment I give store-bought bulbs. They actually seemed to appreciate my efforts to get them out of the ghetto and into the country. Two of them look like they will bloom.

I have one more transgression to admit. After all the joy daffodils bring me, I get cross with them when they decide to check out and lay about like they own the garden, which, of course, they did a few weeks prior.

Clumps like these make me wish weather would stay cool for weeks. Once temps rise, daffs droop

Whoever said daffodils can hide behind daylilies? Mine are so rangy they smother the fresh-faced daylily clumps. Some people braid the leaves, but if I can’t plant ‘em right, I certainly can’t braid ‘em right. Anyway, I heard that braiding tears vessels that carry nutrients.

One year I decided to cut them all back before they got raggedy. I’d take my chances on next year’s bloom. I prided myself on being, as they say, pro-active, which I am usually not.

Was I bummed! The leaves regrew. I had twice as much work. Now I wait till I’m sure they’ve stopped growing and they look tired. By this time, how much good can they be doing for the plant?

The best combination: red quince, yellow daffodils, and in the background a young forsythia that will rise in future years

Whose idea was it to plant so many daffodils anyway?

Ah well, memories fade. By late spring I’ll be missing them and by next fall I’ll be looking to buy more.

A year from now I’ll be writing more doggerel to coax them into bloom.

You know, I don’t think I have enough pictures of daffodils. I’m going out to take some right now. In the meantime, you might like a slide show of our daffodils and some of their companions. Most of the pictures in this post come from the last decade of growing in our garden.

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Posted in Daffodils, spring bloom, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Tatters of Winter, Songs of Spring

 Sunny Days Slip in Between the Raindrops!

Winter took a long time coming this year. In fact, I was so lulled by spectacular fall colors and balmy temperatures that I quite forgot to put the garden to sleep. Then I couldn’t. Snow, drear, and cold shooed my better gardening angels away and kept me indoors.

The cheeky young beech outshines the gnarly oak. What a show!

At least the snowfield, once dimpled with tracks of junco and squirrel, rabbit and raccoon, has ceded ground to sunshine, but the garden has lost all memory of last fall’s brilliance. No longer do bright shawls or icy blankets distract us from dingy, cribbled leaves and broken stems that an irritable winter left for us to clean up.

A brief cloak of invisibility before reality sets in

With great resolution I stride forth on a clear day to rake and trim, impose some order on the shambles. In the stillness, the benevolent Sun God begins to work on me, warming my bones and tickling my face . . . Hmm. . . mm. . . Maybe all this raking and trimming isn’t so necessary right now . . . Maybe I could wait a while . . .

Beneath the rabble that is still carousing along the road a field of daffodils waits to sprout

Instead of raking, I begin to putter. Instead of trimming, I take some time to look and listen, touch and smell.

With the flash of autumn gone and the garden converted to sepia and silver (a more elegant description than dingy and cribbled), a world of whimsy opens up to me.

Starbursts and sea urchins.
Pixie caps and petticoats.
Streamers and space ships.
Fairy cups and mouse parasols.
Honeycombs and featherdusters.

Ferns have crisped and curled and shriveled in reverse ballet of their springtime unfurling. Do these convolutions help release spores?

The dry, split-open, splayed husks hanging from hosta stalks (shame on me, even weekend gardeners pull out hosta stalks) really do look like rows of caps for pixies, with black angular seeds poking out like unruly locks.

In full bloom late summer, pollinators love clethra; tiny petals drop leaving “goblets” with seeds

Distinctive, diminutive seed capsules of clethra that cling to stems through winter could be cups for pixie ambrosia (except they are already stuffed with seeds).

Joepyeweed blooms are a summer show stopper, petals turn translucent in fall, hang on until wind unseats them

Now that blooms have faded, seed heads that are clustered in umbels on plants like Joepyeweed and sedum, could be parasols for mice. No wonder there are so many tales of wee folk in the woods.

Honeycombed cells that remain on stems of monarda still retain their signature pungence. The familiar sweet gum fruits that crunch under foot and make spikey holiday decorations could be space ships landed from some alien micro-world.

Echinacea, or coneflower, seed heads. Photo from Pinterest

Without their petals, purple coneflowers, also known as echinacea, become sea urchins, those mysterious creatures of the tides.

In fact, the Latin term for sea urchins and their starfish cousins is echinoderm, or “spiny skin.” When all the seed-bearing spines fall away, a miniature hollow tepee remains on each stem, cozy way station for spider eggs or small creatures that need a winter refuge.

A breeze drifts by and crisp petticoats waltz in the wind. Yes, those hydrangea blooms could have been cut down earlier, but now, with petals bleached muslin and etched with veins, they could be the stuff of fancy dress balls. Do they give shelter to sleepy buds?

Miscanthus seed heads still rosy and tight in fall

Tousled streamers of dried grasses spiral out of control, bring me back momentarily to the clean-up I should be doing.

By late winter seed heads are fluffy and seeds are flying

Seeds from a butterfly bush swirl like fine dust as I jostle the plant (no I didn’t cut those down, either). Now I know why we find seedlings in yonder beds. What color will their blooms be? That’s a mystery to be solved.

Fuzzy seedheads on New York ironweed, here backed by red maple with swelling flower buds

I touch fuzzy seed heads of New York ironweed, ageratum, and aster, and they are softer and more pliant than I would think. Wee feather dusters for a wee cottage? More practically, tufts of down for nests.

A tangle of fuzzy seed heads and grasses that the gardener will have to cut down but a hideout for birds and small animals

From a gardener’s perspective, there is the matter of seeds attached to the fuzz, oh dear.

I hope the sprawling white wood aster doesn’t shirk its camouflage duties. Its relaxed stems seem to distract hungry rabbits from prostrate phlox beneath.

Our crabapple provides a banquet in fall, though berries dry up by winter

As I walk, I hear continual scuffing and scratching. Quiet chirruping, too, sotto voce murmurs not meant for anyone’s ears. Has the Sun God touched creatures of woods and garden, too, and are they humming their enjoyment as they fill their bellies?

Crabapple on ice last year and snow-crusted ground makes foraging difficult. Let the melting begin….

Safely hidden or boldly surveying, thrashers, wrens, sparrows, cardinals, mice and squirrels are scratching out a living on our plot. I see titmice and chickadees clinging to goldenrod, plucking their dinner. Below ground, earthworms and millipedes will be waking, hungry for seasonal discards, pooping out new soil.

Where would they go if I wiped the slate clean each fall–if all of us wiped it clean? What would they eat? What would they use to build homes?

Mother Earth does not care so much for clean slates. She sweeps the leavings of summer into tatters of winter. A host of creatures will scoop up the tatters.

A touch of spring. Crabapple in bloom last year, sheared grass sprouting new growth

They’ll recycle them one way or another, and next spring new life, sweet song, and rich soil will be cast over a new-begun land.

I hear the barred owl that lives deep in our bottomlands. Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all? he calls in his distinctly southern drawl. Can courtship, mating, nesting and a new family be far behind?

Witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jalena’ flowering now, its best ever bloom despite the wet, cold winter, or maybe because of it. High, wide and spreading, its coppery, strappy flower petals, a mix of red at the base, yellow and orange, fairly glow in the sun

Posted in garden maintenance, Native Plants, snow storm, spring bloom, Uncategorized, wildflowers, Winter | Tagged , , | 8 Comments