February 2018, Garden ramblings

Snow fertilizer

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When I get to this point in the winter I am like a petulant child on a long road trip. “Are we THERE yet? How much LONGER?” I have been patient, and now I’m ready for things to wind down and to start to be able to think about working outside. It’s a bit soon, however, and so, like the child in the car, I must think of distractions to keep my impatience at arm’s length.

I am definitely a fan of thinking ahead and doing things now that will make life easier in the future. I always put the Christmas lights away carefully so that they won’t be a nightmare to unwrap next year, for example. Well, Mother Nature does that sort of thing, too. The snow, while nicely insulating the plants, also provides needed nitrogen for the soil.

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Nitrogen is essential for plant growth. It can get into the soil in a number of ways; through the decomposition of plant and animal wastes, through the planting of plants in the bean family which fix Nitrogen in their roots, and even as the result of lightning! And, of course, there is man-made fertilizer. But snow collects nitrogen from the atmosphere as it falls, and then slowly releases it into the soil, so while it may be a pain to shovel, it is actually doing its job as a pre-emergent fertilizer of sorts.

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While that, perhaps, isn’t enough to make the child in the back seat stop whining completely, it is at least enough to make me feel like snow has a purpose in the garden. And you have to admit, it is beautiful. So while we aren’t THERE, yet, perhaps there is still some of the journey left to be enjoyed.

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February 2018, Garden ramblings

Nature’s thermometer

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Do you have Rhododendrons at home? If so, you have a remarkably reliable thermometer right there in your back yard that you may not have ever noticed. The ubiquitous Rhody is not just a pretty face- in the winter, its leaves can tell you a lot about the temperature outside.

At the first sign of freezing temperatures, the leaves will start to droop. On an ordinary, above-freezing day, the leaves will be almost horizontal to the ground, but as temperatures drop below freezing, they will start to point downwards,  resembling shuttlecocks. As temperatures continue to fall, they will start to curl, until they are eventually rolled up tight, just as we all would like to be on a bitterly cold day.

The horticultural reason for this “thermotropic” movement is that when broad-leaved evergreens, like the Rhodendron, are exposed to cold, they protect themselves by rolling up. In this way, the underside of the leaf, where most moisture loss occurs, is out of the drying wind. Imagine that you are outside on a cold windy day – what do you do? You wrap your arms around yourself and huddle up to keep sensitive parts from being exposed to the cold. It’s not exactly the same thing as the Rhody, but the goal of self preservation is the same.

Regardless of the reason, looking at the leaves of a Rhododendron an excellent tool for us to gauge the temperature before we go out (or don’t.) So delete your thermometer app and plant a Rhododendron! Not only will it tell you when to bundle up, but it will bring you flowers in the spring. Is there an app that can say the same? (Don’t answer that.)

 

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A Rhododendron in the spring. See how the leaves are up and open to the sun?

 

 

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This picture was taken when the temperature was 2 degrees F. The leaves have dropped and curled up on themselves. 

 

February 2018, What to do in the garden

Forcing Witch Hazel

One of the great things about some plants is that you can trick them into thinking that it’s time to bloom weeks ahead of their natural blooming schedule. This is called forcing. Nurseries that grow flowers for flower shows do it on a grand scale, even forcing trees so that they will be in blossom early. It’s complicated if you get into it that seriously, but a few plants are so easy to force that anyone can do it.

The timing is important. You can’t cut any old branch at any old time and expect it to do something. Most plants need a certain number of weeks of cold in order to flower. So you need to know approximately when that particular plant will be ready. In the Northeast, the late winter / early spring-blooming Witch Hazels are ready in early February. (See last week’s blog post for descriptions of the various types of Witch Hazels.) By this time the buds have begun to swell, and you can sometimes see the tiniest bit of color showing where the new petals are about to emerge from.

At that time, all you need are some sharp pruners, a vase of water, and a warm room. Cut several branches, put them in the vase of water, and wait. In a few hours to a few days the room will be full of sweetly scented blossoms. Tada!

Life is good.

 

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Cut a branch of Witch Hazel with a slanted cut, like in the picture, and put it in the water.
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A day or two later, the buds will begin to break open.
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A week later, it’s a party!

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Witch Hazel

February 2018, Garden ramblings

Witch Hazel

 

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I hesitate to even post this picture because the fall foliage can be so much more spectacular. I’ll post a better one if I can find one.

 

 

Are you looking for a small tree/large shrub that has pretty fall foliage, interesting, scented flowers, and blooms in winter? Or one that blooms in fall, after most flowering shrubs have finished? Or maybe an interesting native plant? Well, look no further than the Witch Hazel, Hamamelis. Within this group of plants (called a Genus)  all those things are possible.

Hamamelis intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ has yellow, ribbon-like flowers that bloom in late February. You can force them inside as early as late January sometimes, where the warmth of a sunny windowsill will release their delicious scent. (See next week’s blog post for how to force them). If coppery-orange is more your color, try Hamamelis intermedia ‘Diane’. Both will grow to be about 12-15 feet tall (Arnold slightly larger) and approximately 10-15 feet wide, and both have spectacular fall foliage.

Hamamelis mollis, pictured in the drawing above, is similar to Hamamelis intermedia, but has more flowers and brighter fall foliage, if that’s possible.

If a fall blooming tree/shrub is what you’re after, try the native Hamelis virginiana. Growing to be 15-20 feet x 15-20 feet, this plant makes a wonderful shrub border.  Yellow flowers appear in October-November in the Northeast, with yellow fall foliage to follow.

In addition to being a great plant in the garden, Witch Hazel can also be used to make skin care products, some of which you may have seen in your local drugstore. Its attributes go on and on… If there was a downside, I’d say that it doesn’t do much in the summer. But there are plenty of other plants that will appreciate the lack of competition, so that’s barely a bad thing.

If you have the room, and want to stretch the growing season a little farther, give Witch Hazel a try!

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