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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.