Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January's parting gifts

Has January 2012 been the mildest January on record? It certainly has seemed so. Those who have planted gardens for winter interest are really getting their money's worth this year. If you planted seeds of poppies, larkspurs, corn flowers and other hardy annuals you are probably seeing a lot of green by now - and, barring a severe shift in the weather, the promise of lots of huge plants in a few months.

Here are some photos taken today which give an idea of what is happening in the garden. From top to bottom: Galanthus 'S.Arnott', Hamamelis 'Jelena', Crocus tommasinianus, Jasminum nudiflorum, Cyclamen persicum and Taraxacum officinale (dandelion).

The cyclamen are florists' cyclamen and were purchased about a month ago; they have been outside since except for one or two extremely cold nights. If you have failed with these plants in the past, try again but this time keep them as cool as possible (but above freezing). Plants purchased during the Christmas holidays can still be blooming in April if they have been kept cool and moist. That is moist, not wet: the roots rot quickly if the drainage is poor. The big, large flowered forms have a disagreeable odor, but the smaller pink and white  ones seen above  are very sweet (the red one has the stink of the big ones). As you can see, they are worth growing for their foliage, too.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Enjoying it while it lasts...

Weather-wise it's hard to believe that it's January 27th. At 6:00 A.M. this morning the  temperature was 58 degrees F. We then had some rain, and at 8:30 A.M. there was a thunderclap to raise the dead., soon followed by another one. It's turning out to be one of those days when we're at the edge of a cloud mass so that when the clouds obscure the sun it cools off, and when the clouds move and the sun comes through the temperature jumps. When the wind stops and the sun is shining, the sun is warm on the skin.

The first winter aconite is up: that's a record here in this garden. The winter aconites here typically begin to bloom about two weeks after reports come of blooming aconites in other local gardens. Tommies have started to bloom, too. Many hellebores are in full bloom - I picked the small bouquet shown above this afternoon.

The unnerving thing is that winter can hardly be said to have started here; so far there has been only one day when the temperature did not get above the freezing point. Occasional drops into the single digit range are not unknown for February, so there might be trouble ahead.

The Giant Snowdrop

Here's a size comparison of several snowdrops blooming now.

The common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, is not in bloom yet, so a direct, side-by-side  comparison in size between it and these very robust sorts cannot be shown. So I've done the best I can with what's available: I've included a budded scape of Galanthus nivalis and have used a stem of Galanthus 'S. Arnott' for comparison. 'S. Arnott' itself is a significant jump in size over the common snowdrop, and I hope this helps to give an idea of the size of these big ones.

The remaining ones are all forms of Galanthus elwesii in the broad sense, and it's not hard to see why a half-century ago Galanthus elwesii was marketed as The Giant Snowdrop. There was in fact a company which called itself The Giant Snowdrop Company back then. The Giant Snowdrop Company is long gone, but its spirit (and possibly some of its plants) has been revived here:


Now back to the plants shown above. From left to right they are 'S. Arnott', then four progressively larger forms of Galanthus elwesii and finally on the right the budded scape of the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis.

The image which follows was added on February 7, 2012, and shows the contrast in size between the small common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, and one of my big ones.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Late last year, while walking Biscuit, I noticed some unfamiliar young men who had stopped on the path and were intently watching something across the street. As I approached them they assumed an attitude and gave me a look which suggested that they might be up to no good, so I greeted them and asked them what they were watching so intently. Their answer surprised me: they were watching what they thought was a big bird in a neighbor’s yard. They pointed, and I looked: indeed, there seemed to be a Great Blue Heron off in the distance. At this point, I started to laugh: the “great blue heron” was in fact a statue of a heron placed by a pond to frighten off the real thing – heron predation in local fish ponds is becoming an issue for some of us. When I told them we all had a good laugh about it. But I’m still amazed at the acuity of their eye sight: I had walked by that spot hundreds of times and looked over in the direction of the fake heron and never noticed it. Since I had been in that garden and seen the fake heron close up, I knew it was there. But how in the world did those young men notice it from such a distance?

Last week Biscuit and I were returning from our walk and as we approached a house near the site of the fake heron I thought I heard a rustling sound. Thinking it might be a deer emerging from the woods, I looked over in the direction where I’ve seen deer leave the woods. There were no deer in sight. Was the sound from a neighbor moving around the side of the nearby house? No, there were no people in sight either. Then I looked down at Biscuit to see what she thought. She was not looking at the house or the woods, she was looking up. So I looked up. There, sitting on the chimney of the house, was a Great Blue Heron. It was probably warming itself in the heat coming from the chimney. To see it sitting on a chimney reminded me of storks in Europe. The bird remained calm while we were there, and after we resumed our walk, the bird remained as long as I could still see it.

As I was leaving the house yesterday, a neighbor called over to me “Jim, a crane just flew into your back yard”. Right away I knew what kind of “crane” it was; I went back to take a look and got there just in time to see a Great Blue Heron  flapping off to a new roost.  

There is no sign of gold fish in my pond: presumably the herons have had many a good meal. It’s time to restock!

Sunday, January 8, 2012


While walking Biscuit this morning I had a nice surprise as we were crossing the bridge over the creek: a long, chattering bird call caught my attention. I looked over in time to see a flash of white as the bird dropped from its perch and skimmed the water, then the bird landed on another snag projecting from the water. Now I got a good look, and as expected it was a kingfisher.
Years ago I found a place where the creek banks were high and there were holes dug in the banks: these were the nest tunnels of the kingfishers.

Kingfishers are the sort of bird of which it can be said "you see them when you see them". What I mean is that although they are probably always back there patrolling  along the creek, I don't expect to see them every time I'm down there.

The technical name of this bird, Ceryle alcyon, is a bit of a redundancy: both words mean kingfisher in classical Greek, although both words were also used to name a mythological bird. The English expression  "halcyon days", in the sense  "the good old days when things were better, less hectic", is derived from the name of the mythological bird, which was thought to have the ability to calm the seas during its winter solstice nesting period at sea.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Looking ahead to where I want to be

I'm in the throes of re-doing a part of the garden. Several aspects of the original design, while they looked good on paper, did not work out on the ground.  The space available in the CGP has emboldened me to move plants and get them out of the way. The original design had its strengths, and luckily I was there to photograph some of them.

Here are two photos from several years ago. The upper one shows many aspects of the outline of the original design; here it is captured after a light snowfall which has the effect of highlighting the structure of the garden.

If this garden were in the southern hemisphere, the scene shown in the second image might have been captured today. Somewhere in the southern hemisphere the roses are in full bloom today. I need some encouragement to keep me focused on where I want the garden to be, and the scene here is one I want to repeat.

The aroma level

When I walked Biscuit this evening at about 7 P.M. I had the chance to experience again one of the interesting atmospheric effects associated with living on a hill. We live at the top of a hill, and a turn to the right or the left on the sidewalk takes me downhill in either direction.  The temperature at 7 P.M. was an improbable 61 degrees F – especially improbably when I consider that only a few days ago we were experiencing the coldest day since last winter, a day during which the temperature did not rise above the freezing point all day.

So it was a pleasure to leave the house and step out into a relatively balmy temperature.  It was at a point about half way down the hill that the atmospheric effect alluded to above became apparent.  We passed through the place where the warm air mass was layered over a colder air mass. That in itself is interesting to me, but there is another aspect of this which is notable: at the point where my face passes the level where the two air masses meet, there are always distinctive and pronounced odors apparent. Often this is the fragrance of soil itself, or more frequently (as it was tonight) the odor of the creek water.   On a couple of late summer evenings it’s been the fragrance of the kudzu blooms – those are evenings to remember!

The same effect takes place in the house. When I go up or down the basement stairs, there is a point where I pass the “aroma level” – in this case typically an enhanced version of whatever I have been cooking.

As winter is coming to an end, the most poignant of these odors is the fragrance of defrosting  soil after the frozen months of denial.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Winter jasmine

Here’s a good example of why this plant has been cherished by generations of gardeners: it’s January 5th and as we approach the front door we’re greeted by a scattering of cheery blooms. No, it’s not May in January, but they are flowers and they are bright enough to attract attention. It’s not fragrant, and that’s doubly curious: first of all because it is a true jasmine, a group noted for intense fragrance; and secondly because plants which bloom in winter often have intense scents, presumably to advertise their presence to the few pollinators likely to be active at that season. Sorry, the second clause in that last sentence was wildly metaphoric (plants don’t advertise, for example), but these days more and more that’s the way we talk about these things.

Time of bloom with this plant is erratic, and that only adds to its charm. In the same garden plants on a sunny bank will bloom before plants on the north side of the house.  It’s usually seen as an untrained mound of arching, sprawling stems about two or three feet high and of ever expanding width. It’s easily trained against a wall or even on an isolated stake six or eight feet high, and plants trained upright can be really spectacular in bloom.
This is one plant on my list of plants I would not want to be without.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Baby, it's cold outside!

This is Rhododendron 'PJM Elite'. When I saw it early this morning it was in full curled-leaf mode: it looked as if the leaves had all been transformed into little brown cigarettes. By the time I got around to taking these photos at about noon, the leaves had already uncurled a lot. It's thought that this leaf curling is an adaptation to prevent desiccation during below freezing conditions.
I've never seen this plant used as a hedge (I've been thinking about it here) but it would be easy to see through a hedge in full leaf curl mode. Most of us wouldn't want the neighbors to catch us sun bathing nude in 20 degree F weather, would we?

Or would we? It's all relative: years ago Wayne and I used to bird regularly during the winter. Several ocean-side sites were often our goal, and  on more than one occasion, as we stood on the windy beaches shivering under multiple layers of coats, scarves, hats and gloves, we spotted some rare birds indeed. They're a shy, quiet species which typically lands on some far, remote end of the beach. Their  bright pink color makes them very conspicuous from a distance.  "No", I thought to myself the first time I saw them, "it couldn't be, could it?..." But our eyes were not deceiving us: there they were,  Canadians from the frozen prairies far to the north,  all but naked in the frigid air, sunning themselves under conditions which perhaps suggested spring back home to them.  Brave souls indeed: all I could think of was getting to someplace out of the wind and settling down to hot lunch.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Is this the Red Line fern?

The local branch of the Washington, D.C. subway system is the Red Line. Who would have thought that attentive riders of this line can do some botanizing deep below the streets of the city above? Yet there they are:  as the trains approach stops such as Woodley there are illuminated signs, and if you peer closely you'll notice a fringe of green in the glow of the lights. That fringe of green is a fern,  a fern of the genus Adiantum. I don't know which species it is, but the one shown above, Adiantum capillus-veneris, is a likely candidate. This species grows in many countries around the Mediterranean and from northern South America well up into North America. On the Atlantic coast it gets as far north as Virginia.

On the other hand, there are several tropical species of this genus which are commonly sold as house plants, and over the years many of these have probably been brought into the subway system by shoppers. Perhaps spores from one of these got things going.

Whatever they are, it's a surprise to see them deep in the subway system. They are abundant and easily spotted at several stops. Are they confined to the Red Line? I don't know; perhaps someone reading this will comment.