Sunday, January 18, 2009

3° F

We’ve just come through a cold spell which the local weather people are claiming was the coldest in many years. Luckily it was brief and was not accompanied by destructive wind. The low temperature in the immediate area was said to have been 3° F Saturday morning. The temperature remained below freezing for a three day period. On one day the daytime high was in the low twenties F.

Before the arrival of the coldest weather I closed the protected cold frame and covered it with a double ply tarp. It remained closed and covered until this afternoon. There was definitely a sense of trepidation when I opened it today. This is only the third winter for the protected cold frame, and those first two winters were not much of a test. This cold spell provided a good test.

And what did I find when I opened the cold frame? Other than some minor foliage damage to some leaves touching the glass, there is no bad news. I’m a happy gardener today.

While walking Biscuit in the extreme cold of Saturday morning I heard a chickadee calling: the first bird call of the year for me. There was a nuthatch about, too, giving its nasal buzz sound.

While typing this entry I heard another bird calling. I didn't recognize it, but there is a resident mockingbird. I jumped up, got my coat, and was about to head out to see what it could be. As I passed through the living room on my way to the door, I asked mom if she had heard the bird. She grinned and said "You mean this one?" and at that she squeezed the stuffed toy cardinal she was holding. The living room filled with the song of this other "bird" as we both had a good laugh.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

January optimism

Although we humans have invented plenty of diversions to get us through that most depressing month of the year December, mother nature provides the only one I need during January: already I sense that the days are getting longer. It's early winter, bitter cold is predicted, the garden is frozen, and yet this for me is probably the most creative time of the year. I revel in the buoyant sense of optimism the gradually lengthening days bring: I'm looking forward now, looking forward with enthusiasm.

It's also the time of year when I pull out all the old catalogs and books to read about annuals. And not just any annuals. I can't explain why, but every year at this time I experience a surge in interest in poppies, morning glories and nasturtiums. Night after night I fall asleep thinking about ways to use them in the garden, in particular in the garden of my dreams where space is unlimited and frost is unknown. All of this is just a memory, if that, when the actual time for planting these in the garden comes. And there is no real loss in that because there is hardly a place for even a few annuals in the garden now - it's that packed.

And how is the creativity expressing itself? This is the time of year when plans for major garden changes hatch and are brooded into feasibility. This time I think I've finally hit on a plan which will turn the site of the never-fully realized sunk garden into something a lot more satisfying. The site poses a major challenge: the main axis of the garden points right at a gap between two trees - good so far - and the gap allows a nice view out into the surrounding woodland. That sounds nice at first, but that open view has prevented any sense of enclosure in that space. In fact, it makes the space feel like a passageway.

And what's the solution? Right now in my mind's eye I see a curved path extending from the area of the border on the north side of the garden and extending to the back part of the south side of the garden. This border will delineate a border facing south - and facing the main sitting area planned for this site. This curved border will not only provide the much needed sense of enclosure but will also allow the plants to be staged more effectively (since most plants face the south).

This is a major change for the garden. It will take at least two years to accomplish this change because it will involve moving tree peonies, and they cannot be moved until fall 2009. To be effective, it will also involve some grading: back, do you hear that? I was out in the garden with the tape measure yesterday - things are off to a good start.

New French doors into the garden

Lows here in Montgomery County, Maryland, are predicted to be around 10° above zero F both tomorrow morning and Saturday morning. Several of my gardening friends have commented on this, as if it were something unusual. But that temperature is right on the line between USDA zones 7 and 8. Has everyone here forgotten those scary winter episodes when the wind howls, the trees snap, the house creaks and the temperature drops to zero F or even a bit below? When a weather front like that comes through at night, I don't sleep.

The protected cold frame was covered with a double ply tarp the day before yesterday, and the tarp won't be removed until Sunday at earliest. The overnight lows are only a part of the picture. This week the day time temperature is not expected to rise above the freezing point all day today and tomorrow.

New doors, French doors, were installed in the fireplace room the day before yesterday - just in time for this very cold weather. These French doors replace old, single-pane sliding doors which, over the years, had become warped, difficult if not impossible to close with a tight seal. And then a tiny hole in the glass (probably from a stray bullet or BB - several neighborhood boys had and used BB guns back in those days) began to expand into a major crack in the glass of one of the two doors. Soon a big piece of glass nearly two square feet in area was just barely hanging on.

Negotiations for these new doors began back in October; I was beginning to wonder if we were going to have to endure the winter with the cracked glass pane. The old door with the cracked pane will go to the dump. The other door already has a job assigned to it: it's about to begin a new life as a cold frame light.

Now that the new doors are in place, the fireplace room is once again an agreeable part of the house's living space. Even at night it's comfortable down there: it's a great place for reading. And best of all, these new doors give a fetching view of the garden.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Camellia japonica "red survivor"

The red camellia shown above has been in this garden for a long time – long as in decades. Early in its stay here it was killed down to the ground during a particularly severe winter. It eventually re-sprouted from the roots; but for a long time, decades again, it made very meager growth. During the last three years it’s been doing much better, and it is now in the five to six foot range and blooming yearly.
When I was in high school I was taken to see the garden of one of the teachers at our school. The only plant I remember from that visit was a camellia, a very big camellia. I remember us standing beside it and looking up into it at the huge red flowers. Local gardens back then probably boasted many such plants, but some very severe winters in the 1970s brought an end to those glory days: most big Camellia japonica in the greater Washington, D.C. area went down during those winters– most never to reappear.
The comparatively mild winters we’re experiencing now have been good for camellias. Once again there are big camellias in local gardens. And if this continues, it won’t be many more years before I’ll be looking up into a big red camellia in my own garden.
Few things in the garden are more beautiful than red camellias in the snow.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

What a difference a day makes!

Today I re-composed the material shown in yesterday's post and photographed it in natural light. What a difference a day makes!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

First week of January 2009

The garden has been good to me this first week of January 2009. Although it took some searching, there have been some things in bloom this week. And there are many things in “advanced bud”, so next week should be even better if the weather cooperates.
In the image above you can see some of the things now in bloom: Galanthus elwesii, Jasminum nudiflorum, Chimonanthus praecoxLuteus’, HamamelisJelena’, H.Feuerzauber’, Helleborus foetidus (with an unopened bud of one of the garden hellebores) and perhaps most surprising of all, Iris unguicularis: not bad for the first week of the year! There is also foliage of Arum italicum, Danaë racemosa, Hedera helix and Sarcococca humilis.
Crocus ochroleucus is blooming in one of the cold frames, and in the protected frame some of the white-flowered hoop petticoat daffodils are about to bloom, too. Out in the garden, Sarcococca humilis is heavily budded and the first Camellia japonica of the year are opening.
The image above was done indoors early in the evening: we've had no sun for days now. It was cropped and rotated and as a result the image quality has suffered. This softening of line and lack of crisp detail, which some might see as defects, nevertheless give the image the quality seen in early twentieth century color images. Think Gartenschönheit in the early twenties. I guess I've just snubbed my nose at nearly a century of technological advancement in photography.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Early January 2009

So, what does the garden have to offer this first week of January?

Nighttime temperatures have been regularly dropping into the low 20s F lately, so I had no hopes for a long list. And the short list is indeed short, but it includes some flowers which make a trip out into the otherwise quiet garden well worthwhile. Here it is: Jasminum nudiflorum, Galanthus elwesii, Chimonanthus praecox, Helleborus foetidus and Iris unguicularis. In one of the unprotected cold frames Crocus ochroleucus is blooming.

In the protected cold frame, some of the little white-flowered hoop petticoat daffodils are about to bloom, as are Narcissus tazettaZiva’ and N. pachybolbus. This last is a white-flowered daffodil of the tazetta group, smaller in all parts except its bulb than ‘Ziva’.

The handsomest of all of these, and – given the weather - the most unseemly, is Iris unguicularis, the Algerian iris. This grows in the open air planted right against a wall of the house. It gets covered nightly. Last year I discovered that it will reward this slight bother with intermittent bloom from November until April. At this time of year it's a real treat to linger over this plant and soak up the gorgeous color.

While walking Biscuit the other day I noticed that the buds of Acer rubrum seemed to be swollen a bit: it’s ready to go, too.