Sunday, January 31, 2010

Cabin fever

While walking Biscuit the other day, I ran into one of my dog-walking gardening friends. I think of her as a friend because although I know little about her, I do know her name. With most of the dog-walkers I encounter, it’s the dog’s name I know and remember.

Susan reminded me that again this year a bus will travel from Brookside Gardens to the Philadelphia Flower Show. I’ve never been to the Philadelphia Flower Show, and this might be the year I do it. A half-century ago there was a respectable winter flower show in Washington, D.C. I remember three things in particular from those days. One is that it was the first time I ever smelled acacia (probably Acacia farnesiana). Another is that after the show was over, many of the exhibitors sold off their plants at reasonable prices. One year I came home with several potted palms which looked big at the show and looked gigantic when I got them into my bedroom. The third memory concerns what was called Dancing Waters. This was a display of fountains whose various gushes, spurts and sprays were coordinated with changing light effects and music being played in the background. I remember in particular being transfixed as the music played “Somewhere a voice is calling..." and the water and light worked their magic.

We gardeners frequently suffer from a particular sub-species of cabin fever: it’s the middle of winter, and we want lush, verdant, fragrant vegetation. We’ll do sometimes unreasonable things to get it. For some people a good flower show is the cure. In my case, this need has recently caused me to break a long standing self-imposed rule: stay away from orchids. I’m intrigued by them, beguiled by them – and I have no place to grow them. When I was a kid, one of the neighbors had some orchids growing (really dying) on a slab of wood hung over the kitchen sink. On the rare occasions when I saw these, I was filled with wonder: how could they survive without dirt? She also had “air plants” – various small nondescript bromeliads (probably Tillandsia plucked from the telephone lines in southern Florida) which reminded me of hard prickly clumps of tiny grasses. The popular horticultural press was full of advertisements which promised that you, too, can grow orchids, and plenty of people were trying. This was about the time that fluorescent lighting became readily available, and in that neighborhood there were plenty of orchids, bromeliads and gesneriads thriving under that miraculous lighting.

The last few weeks have seen the food stores and the big box stores full of inexpensive and gorgeous orchids. I think I’m right to say that $10 a pop is inexpensive. The temptation was too strong: the stunning Phalaenopsis seen above came home with me recently, and so did another charmer, an Oncidium noted for its intense chocolate-vanilla fragrance. Did I mention that I sneaked in a Paphiopedilum earlier last year? Obviously I’ve already got both feet firmly implanted in the quicksand: there is probably no turning back!

Three of the symptoms of my condition are shown above: top to bottom, an unnamed Phalaenopsis, and unnamed Paphiopedilum and and unnamed Oncidium. The Oncidium is the fragrant one, and is almost certainly of the well-known Sharri Baby grex.

Goodbye January 2010

An unexpectedly heavy snowfall yesterday has buried the garden. I was careful to cover the cold frames the day before. The low tonight is predicted to be about 12º F; early this morning it was about 10 º F. The snowfall however is a blessing: scattered here and there around the garden there are snowdrops more or less in bloom. The snow will protect them from the worst of the extreme cold.

I’m inclined to say that the best herbaceous plants for winter effect in our climate are Helleborus foetidus and Arum italicum. The former gives the correct impression that something is actually happening. The latter is so improbably lush whenever the temperature is above freezing that it brings on the very incorrect impression that the garden is not just sprouting but actively burgeoning.

Among woody plants, big plants of wintersweet are not to be scoffed at, but how rarely we see them in local gardens. Most gardeners are not aware that in our climate this is eventually a tree, not a shrub. Years ago I came across an old, neglected planting of Chimonanthus praecox which had been allowed to grow into the natural tree form of the plant: they were so large that I did not recognize them at first. The name wintersweet is very apt: the scent of this plant is very free on the air, much more so than that of the witch hazels. Lucky the gardener whose wintersweet has reached a size which allows free cutting of the branches in the winter.

But among woody plants the best for winter visual effect are the witch hazels. They are hardier than the wintersweet and offer a wider color choice which ranges among various yellows and oranges into rusty, ruby- and garnet-reds. Our appreciation of the flowers is much enhanced when the plants have a suitable background, for instance the foliage of some broad leaf evergreen. Ideally this background should be placed so that the witch hazel can be viewed with the sun to one’s back.

The one in the photos above is the cultivarFeuerzauber’ (say foi-er-tsau-bear) which originated in the early twentieth century in Weener, Lower Saxony, Germany according to the account in Bean (Eighth Edition, fully revised). In modern German the witchhazels are sometimes called Die Zaubernüsse (from the words for magic and nut).

The big view image was made today: later, as the temperature rises, the petals will unfurl more and the overall effect will be better. But I’m not complaining! The close up is from 2006.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Yet another early daffodil

Back in mid-December the first of the hoop-petticoat daffodils began to bloom (and were quickly mutilated by snails). Those flowers came from a plant received as Narcissus albidus foliosus. This week, a look-alike daffodil with a confusingly similar name began to bloom. This one was received as Narcissus cantabricus foliosus. That’s it in the image above.

Whatever they are, they are little charmers. In the several years they have been here they have been erratic about time of bloom. This season I gave the bulb frame a good soak in late September; the little daffodils responded by quickly putting up foliage. Now, one by one, they are coming into bloom. The next to open will probably be one received under the name Narcissus albidus kesticus. These plants received as Narcissus albidus variants are probably better thought of as forms of N. cantabricus. But daffodil nomenclature has roiled in recent years, so all of these names are suspect in my opinion.

For more about the December-flowering one, see:

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

In praise of cold frames

The mild weather has had me snooping around in the cold frames this week. I opened the cold frame which contains hundreds of pots of seed sown back in November. It’s always fascinating to see which seeds germinate in cold weather. This time I see various alliums, crucifers, umbellifers, crocuses (Crocus imperati) , fritillaries (Fritillaria tuntasia) and tulips (Tulipa cretica). This is exciting.

Another use for cold frames is the protection of marginally hardy plants or the protection of precocious blooms. For instance, I put a florists’ cyclamen in the cold frame sometime before Christmas, and it really seems to be taking to those conditions. Some Primula acaulis bought as flowering plants have settled right in – I expect them to bloom for weeks at least (unless I forget to open the frames on a sunny day and they get cooked). A rooted piece of Daphne odora is opening flowers now ,too.

Those of us who live in USDA zone 7 and who have read the British gardening literature experience a severe frustration with respect to winter blooming plants. Zone 7 is just a bit too cold to support a British-style winter garden. In some years it works; it works often enough to keep some of us interested in trying. But sooner or later the winter comes which closes the garden firmly for weeks on end. Almost all plants of which I’m aware with winter-blooming potential close down shop. Skunk cabbage is an exception, and isn’t it strange that almost everyone who knows and enjoys this plant is content to enjoy it in the wild: I have never seen it in a garden (there are seedlings here).

But let’s get back to the cold frames. We envy those British growers who tell us about a crocus season which lasts from sometime in September until sometime in March. That simply isn’t possible in the open garden here. But it is possible in a cold frame. And it’s not only possible for crocuses, it’s possible for daffodils and snowdrops, too. There has been a daffodil of one sort or another blooming in my protected cold frame since sometime in September. There have been snowdrops since mid November. Although most of the crocuses were moved to an unprotected bed two years ago, I did leave some corms of the Crocus sieberi cultivar ‘Firefly’ in the protected frame, and they are in bloom today. When grown in cold frames, all of these plants tend to have an extended bloom time – they last much longer (and in better condition) than they would in the open garden. A clump of Galanthus elwesii (the one I call my Christmas snowdrop) dug in bloom from the garden on December 18, 2009 is still in full bloom a month later!

Little rewards like this make the cold frames well worth the bit of bother they entail.

Early blooming Christmas roses

Several of my gardening friends and I have for years shared the pursuit of a sort of holy grail: a Christmas rose which really does bloom at Christmas. One garden we know about has such a plant, but its provenance is not known, and its performance from year to year seems a bit erratic. Hellebores of the Helleborus × hybridus sort are now truly common in local gardens, but few people seem to grow Helleborus niger. In fact, this species has a reputation for being difficult to grow, especially when compared to the easy growth of the members of the Helleborus × hybridus group.

Nurseries used to buy in bareroot Helleborus niger and then pot them up in a peat-based medium. That was a big mistake, and it got the plants off to a bad start. Not knowing any better, most buyers probably attempted to duplicate similar conditions in the garden. Such plants were probably doomed. Every once and a while a plant would take hold, and observant growers often noticed that such plants were near concrete. Eventually the word got around that it was neutral or alkaline soil which Helleborus niger needs.

Years ago I discovered that this species really goes to town in ComPRO (a composted sewage sludge product which contains loads of lime). I once dug a plant and tried to trace the root system: it went on for several feet before I gave up.

Yet even those of us who grow Helleborus niger successfully were still facing one major disappointment: our plants did not bloom until sometime in March.

German nurseries in the early twentieth century grew clones or seed grown strains of Helleborus niger selected for early bloom. But eventually, the emphasis among growers seems to have shifted from selection for bloom time to selection for large flowers. The plant I have had in my garden for decades produces very large flowers, flowers sometimes five inches in diameter – in early March!

The images above show two recent German tissue propagated clones selected for early bloom time. Each of these is said to begin blooming in November! The two cultivars shown are (above) ‘HGC Jacob’ aka ‘HGC Jacob Classic’ and (below) ‘HGC Josef Lemper’. I intend to grow these in a cold frame to give the early flowers every chance of developing well. And, plants growing in the protection of a cold frame are more likely to ripen viable seed.

I'm very excited to have acquired these plants. So excited that after taking the pictures and noticing that the blooms are mud-splashed, I've gone ahead with this entry. I'll try to get better images of cleaner blooms soon.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The daffodil season continues

Many gardeners know about fall and “spring” (really winter) blooming crocuses. Crocus collectors know that it’s possible (with the help of cold frames) to have crocuses of one sort or another blooming from sometime in September right through the end of the crocus season in March.

But hardly anyone, at least anyone in our climate, seems to realize that the daffodil season can be just as long – in fact, a bit longer. To be sure, this won’t happen in the open garden in most years. But with the help of a cold frame (and remember: cold frame means unheated frame), it’s possible to have daffodils blooming from September until the garden daffodils take over.
In the protected cold frame here the fourth daffodil of the season (the season which started in September) is now blooming: it came under the name Narcissus bulbocodium pallidus. That’s it in the image above. The season opened with Narcissus serotinus/miniatus in September, continued with Narcissus cantabricus foliosus, then flowered an unnamed Narcissus tazetta variant (still in full bloom) and now the little hoop petticoat has joined the party.

All of these are small-flowered plants with a wild, unimproved look about them. You probably wouldn’t look twice at them in mid-April during the peak of the daffodil season. But in the middle of January they have just what it takes to keep the flame flickering until the warmth and light return.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Evoking summer

I’m sick of shivering and looking at snow. I’ve had enough of winter; I want summer.

But winter is not all bad; if nothing else, it forces us to face up to all the indoor stuff we’ve been neglecting. Tonight I began to look over images from 2009 to see which if any deserve to be loaded up to the web site. But soon I was wandering and found the images above. The pond scene is from June of 2004. The image foreshortens the distance between the lythrum and the Japanese irises: it’s actually about twenty feet tip to tip.

What the picture does not convey is any sense of the heat and humidity we typically experience when these irises are blooming. And the picture can be enjoyed without the bother of mosquito bites. So winter does have its advantages, doesn’t it?

While I'm at it, here's another view from early summer. This view carries the eye down under the pergola to glimpse the path at the lower end of the garden. This axis is also easily enjoyed from my favorite seat in the fireplace room.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year’s Day

The heavy snow which fell in late December is by now only evident in the shadier parts of the garden. For a week and a half the garden was buried under thick snow – in some parts of the garden it seemed to be over a foot and a half deep.

On December 18, after hearing the weather report, I dug the clump of snowdrops shown above and replanted them into one of the cold frames. They have been blooming there since. The snowdrop shown is my “Christmas snowdrop”, a plant selected from a mass planting of Galanthus elwesii in the front lawn.

I didn’t photograph this one until about 4:45 P.M. today – the sky was by then overcast and the sun was setting. So I used a flash; the flash used at close range rarely produces good results, but the image above will at least give you an idea of what this snowdrop is like.

Winter sweet and witch hazels were blooming before the big snowfall, but the snow was so deep that it kept me out of that part of the garden. Tomorrow I’ll check the back garden for signs of bloom on these winter-blooming shrubs.