Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Cold frame treasures

In addition to bulbs, the cold frame houses a variety of other plants. Most of these are not suited to life in the open garden, and each represents a significant extension of my horticultural horizons in a new direction.

For example, there is a young seedling of Sophora secundiflora. In a very sheltered place, this might be hardy in the open. Mature plants have fragrant flowers which suggest wisteria. It’s a very handsome plant and all but unknown in gardens in this area.

A seemingly thriving plant of Cistus psilosepalus has me hoping that I might soon see a rock rose actually blooming in this garden. I’ve tried others in the open air, and they quickly went from bad to worse. Various cistus have been described as hardy in this area, but it’s not simply a question of hardiness in the sense of cold tolerance. The climate here is all wrong for them. The little seedling I planted into the ground in the cold frame has slowly grown all winter: it looks like it’s ready to take off once the weather moderates. The cistus I really want are the ones with fragrant foliage; if the current experiment proves to be successful, I’ll try one of those.

Several of the asarums are temporarily in the protected cold frame. These are Asarum nobilissimum and A. maximum. Last summer they grew in a spot which got plenty of sunlight and it seemed to do them good. I doubt if their foliage will have a chance in the open air, so they went into the cold frame for the winter.

There are also several rosemary plants; these were rooted from grocery store material sold for culinary purposes. Rosemary is like cistus: it’s not really hardy here in my experience, although an occasional plant might survive for years. Again, it’s not simply a matter of cold: the climate in general here is wrong for it.

Another occupant of the protected cold frame is little Smilax pumila. An earlier trial of this species in the open air was somewhat successful. The plants grew and went on to bloom – but the developing seed was killed by winter cold. I’m hoping that they will be right at home in the protected frame.

Ceratostigma griffithii occupies a corner of the cold frame. I doubt if this plant needs cold frame protection, but at the time the frame was built the Ceratostigma was still in a pot and needed a home. Because it blooms so late in the year, the frame seemed to be a good choice. It has made itself right at home.

Ruscus hypoglossum is also spending the winter in the frame. I expect this to be hardy in the garden, but I have not yet decided where to put it.

There is also a little plant of Calluna vulgaris ‘Mrs. Ronald Gray’: this is there to remind me of my plan to grow a variety of little evergreen shrubs in a cold frame. Heaths, heathers and broadleaf evergreens have never become common in our gardens; I think the main reason for this is that they experience so much foliar damage that they emerge from the winter ugly. Cold frame protection should prevent that.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Smilax smallii

Last week I attended a talk in which Lindie Wilson, who came to own Elizabeth Lawrence’s last home in Charlotte, North Carolina, told us about her efforts to preserve the garden. Those efforts were successful, so much so that the property has been acquired by a trust and will be preserved into the future. For more about this, see:

There are a number of Elizabeth Lawrence plants in my garden – plants which I first learned about from reading her works or which for other reasons I associate with her memory. One of my favorites is a two-for: a plant I associate with the late Henry Mitchell and with Elizabeth Lawrence. It’s the Jackson vine, Smilax smallii. I regard it and Smilax laurifolia as the most magnificent vines native to North America, yet they are hardly known outside of their natural range in the south-east and south-central states.

Although I had known about Smilax smallii for years, I did not know of a source for it until I happened to mention it in 1987 in the presence of a stranger who not only knew the plant but told me where to obtain it: Woodlanders, of course. Soon several feet of slight vine attached to what looked like bananas arrived in the mail. These were given a prime spot in the garden: on the south side of the house against the chimney. It was a good choice. Now, nearly twenty years later, the vine has run up to the roof of the house and hangs out in graceful evergreen swags of handsome foliage. Each year new sprouts rise from the ground and go right up to the roof and more.

Smilax smallii is thornless (or nearly so) and its flowers are fragrant. It has never matured seed in my garden; presumably the developing seed is killed during the winter. This plant carries its foliage in the most graceful way. Each spray of foliage forms a triangle a yard or two on each side; the leaves are disposed neatly and regularly throughout the area of this triangle. Cut branches retain their form and gloss well; I’ve read that in the old days railroad carloads of cut stems were sent north for the holidays.

Take a careful look at that famous picture of Elizabeth Lawrence welcoming us into her garden. On the arch over the gate grows a robust Clematis armandii. If you look carefully at the lower right side of the gate, you can make out a young Smilax smallii getting started. In fact, if you look very carefully you might be able to make out its stems pushing up into the clematis.

After the talk I asked Lindie Wilson about the smilax: she told me that the smilax was gone from the gate when she arrived – but that it now covers the front of the house. More of us should follow Elizabeth Lawrence's example in this.
Smilax laurifolia also grows in my garden. Raised from seed and now about fifteen years old, the largest of several plants is only about seven feet high. It has the potential to go to the tops of trees. In the wild, mature plants of this species are awesome.

The first of the fritillaries

Fritillaria stenanthera is blooming today in one of the unprotected cold frames. It’s the first of the frits to bloom this year. Others above ground now include F. bucharica, F. raddeana, F. verticillata, F. biflora 'grayana', F. liliacea and F. striata. Although all of these will probably survive repeated freezing and thawing in the open garden, it’s hard to believe that it’s good for them. For now I’m playing it safe and keeping them in the frames.

I’m really happy about the way things are turning out in the frames. For one thing, the frames provide keen interest at a time of year when there is little of comparable interest in the open garden. For another, it makes it possible to grow plants which have never become a part of the local garden scene.

And then there is this: sometimes a familiar plant when grown in the frames reveals qualities I never suspected in the past. Here’s a good example. This year 'Ziva', one of the modern Israeli paper white narcissus, is showing me just what these plants can do under good conditions. When they are grown indoors in bowls of wet gravel, they come into bloom quickly and don’t last long. Out in the frame, they have been blooming for weeks – and show no sign of stopping. The huge clusters of bloom are the size of a big orange. And every time I open the cold frame, there is the intense scent to greet my fragrance-starved winter nose. To think that I used to dismiss these plants as a sort of gimmick suitable only for kids: I know better now, and I envy those who can grow them by the hundreds under garden conditions.

Other common plants can be just as exciting in the frames. Crocus are a good example. There are plenty of uncommon crocus in the frames, but even the commonest sorts give huge pleasure at this time of year. The intensity of the orange-yellow and violet tints is a real marvel early in the year. And again, unlike forced plants in the house, they last in the frames.

And then there are the plants such as Tecophilaea cyanocrocus which are too scarce and expensive to risk in the open garden. This is the third year for the oldest plant: I’m doing something right here. These are not in bloom yet, but they are another of those plants which seem to have been made possible by the cold frames. Although in their Chilean haunts they go through the winter under snow, I doubt that they will ever be common garden plants in our climate. I have a hunch that they need the snow cover. The cold frame provides a good substitute.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Cantabrian daffodils

Daffodils have yet to make an appearance in the open garden, but in the protected cold frame several of the tiny white-flowered hoop petticoat daffodils are starting to bloom. The parents of these plants grow wild in Spain and north Africa. The nomenclature in this group is… euphemisms fail me…a mess. Some of the names I’ve seen are ridiculous. For now I’m keeping records of my sources and the “as received” names. And I’m still waiting for someone to sort it all out.

In the meantime, let's just enjoy them.

Algerian iris

The Algerian iris, Iris unguicularis, is being very good to me this year. It’s been in bloom off and on since November. I’m enjoying it while I can: I really don’t expect this sort of performance to be an annual event in our climate.

On the other hand, I have planted two more from other sources just in case our weather in the years ahead remains relatively clement. This beautiful iris is just too good to be true.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Hamamelis 'Jelena'

I’ve spent most of this week tackling various clean-up jobs in the garden. The weather has been perfect for working outside. It always amazes me how much stuff comes down out of our trees. Much of what I should have done last fall never got done because of the odd weather then: it was hot and humid right through October. Then suddenly the weather changed, and we went from hot and dry to much cooler and rainy. The rain went on and on – and outdoor work came to a halt. I’m trying to make up for it now. Accumulations of debris (sticks, leaves) have obliterated pathways; that took plenty of cleaning. A section of wall collapsed last year and was finally rebuilt today. The pergola went down in a pre-Christmas wind storm: I’m still struggling with getting that back in shape. A gift last year of some nice slate slabs finally is being put to use in rebuilding some steps in the garden. Dead stems need to be cut down, and the various beds require a lot of cleaning. So I’ve been busy.

What a day this has been. At 7:30 this morning the temperature was about 50ºF. Throughout the day the temperature dropped slowly to the accompaniment of harsh wind. I worked out in the garden for a few hours: the wind never quit. Trees began to shed dead branches. The forecast for tomorrow morning is for temperatures in the low teens. This sudden drop will catch the garden’s first round of early risers: there are plenty of snowdrops, hellebores, witch hazels and even a crocus or two already in bloom.

It’s now about 4:30 P.M.; the wind is relentless. I’ve closed the cold frames and covered the protected cold frame. There is nothing I can do for the plants in the open garden: they’re on their own. A sudden drop in temperature will damage even tough flowers such as hellebores and snowdrops.

A good garden should keep the interest of visitors for at least a while. But it’s a real event when your own garden gives you a surprise. I had that experience yesterday, when I saw a familiar plant in a way which was both entirely new and very exciting.
Hamamelis ‘Jelena’ is in full bloom now. This cultivar has comparatively big flowers which from a distance seem to be orange. Up close, the flowers look like a mixture of the stringy zest of oranges and lemons. Although the flowers are large and colorful, they do not have the strong scent for which some cultivars are noted.

There are two trees of ‘Jelena’ in the garden. Each is planted very near the back border of the property. As a result, I see them only when I am working at the back of the garden. The better of the two in fact grows on the far side of a substantial clump of camellias and is all but invisible from the rest of the garden.

This afternoon, I was out in back of the garden, at the edge of the woods, enjoying the view down into the valley of Rock Creek. As I turned around to return to the garden, I caught a glimpse of Hamamelis ‘Jelena’. It was beautiful, even glorious, in a way I had never seen before. From that angle, the witch hazel was seen backed by the clump of camellias. The dark green foliage of the camellias formed the perfect background for the brilliant orange blooms of the witch hazel. Never before had they seemed so bright and colorful. The image above gives an idea of what I saw, but it really does not capture the effect because the image was taken later when the camellia foliage was illuminated by the sun and thus did not provide such an effective background.

Of the five witch hazels in the garden, ‘Jelena’ is my favorite. It’s much more effective than the red-flowered sorts ‘Feuerzauber’ and ‘Diane’ and because of its big flowers more effective than the yellow-flowered sorts ‘Pallida’ and ‘Sunburst’.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Asphodelus acaulis

The presence of this plant in my garden is due to the generosity of a friend. It’s a new arrival here; last fall, Alice handed me a tangled clump of roots which seemed big for the size of the plant in question. I had seen it once before in her garden, the rosettes of thin leaves topped with pink stars of bloom. When I first saw it, I did not recognize it. But I have known about this plant for a long time – since 1965 in fact, when I purchased a copy of Anna Griffith’s A Guide to Rock Garden Plants. It is illustrated there, and never did I think I would actually have it blooming in my garden one day.

The image above showing the plant in bloom was made today. The plant shown is in the protected cold frame. In the open ground it would probably bloom later in the year. The flowers have a waxy look, almost as if they were made of pink chocolate. Most members of the genus Asphodelus are several feet tall when in bloom; Asphodelus acaulis thus does not look much like most of its relations.