February 2018, Garden ramblings

Nature’s thermometer

IMG_9045

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.)

 

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

 

 

IMG_9047
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.

 

IMG_9298
Cut a branch of Witch Hazel with a slanted cut, like in the picture, and put it in the water.
IMG_9311
A day or two later, the buds will begin to break open.
IMG_9320 - Copy
A week later, it’s a party!

IMG_9321 - Copy

 

Witch Hazel

February 2018, Garden ramblings

Witch Hazel

 

Witch hazel leaves
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!

Witch Hazel

January 2018

What will you grow?

IMG_9040

Believe it or not, it’s time to start thinking about ordering seeds for the garden. It will soon be time to start things like tomatoes and pansies indoors, and you can put peas and Nasturtiums in  as soon as the frost is out of the ground. So while the time to plant outside is still a little way off, it pays to do a little thinking in advance so that you have the seeds when you need them.

The seed companies may have already filled your mailbox with their catalogues, but in case they haven’t, here are some of my favorites. Your local garden center or Agway will probably have them, too. Have fun choosing!!

Territorial Seeds

Seed Savers Exchange

Harris Seeds

Renee’s Garden Seeds

Johnny’s Seeds

Park Seed

 

If you just can’t wait to have plants in your life, then I recommend an Aerogarden. This is a small hydroponic system, and you will be amazed by what you can grow in just water! I have grown herbs and lettuce, and even started perennials like Lavender. Right now I have Petunias in it, because I have been dying for some color in my studio. They sell a wide range of kits, but if you want to try things on your own, you can also buy seedless starters and use the seeds of your choice. While the Aerogarden system is a bit of an investment, you can use it over and over again, and the mental and physical health benefits are priceless!

IMG_9042

P.S. Neither Aerogarden nor any of the previously mentioned seed companies pay me anything to recommend them; I have just had positive experiences so I want to share their names.

 

P.P.S. You’ll notice that none of the companies that I recommended are represented in the seed photo. That’s because I haven’t ordered my seeds yet and so all I have are some packets left over from a vacation to Alaska, some freebie Cosmos, and a couple of packets left over from last year that I kept because I liked the artwork.

To check out Aerogarden, click here.

What are your favorite things to grow in winter?

Design ideas, January 2018

Winter Interest

Here in Northern New England, winter interest in the garden is a must.  Just because three of our seasons are “almost winter, winter, and still winter” (the fourth being “road construction”), it doesn’t mean that we have to stare out the window at nothingness much of the year. Creating winter interest is a more subtle art than designing riotous garden beds, but it is absolutely attainable, and the good news is that it can co-exist with the summertime plants without lessening any of their splendor.

Plant choices are important, but structure is even more so, so I will start with that.

STRUCTURE: The “bones” of the garden are made up of things like walls, pathways, trellises, large trees, and the patterns created by the flowerbeds. They are the framework against which we place the plants, rather like a cake before it has been decorated. Good bones give the garden visual balance and make it interesting to look at. The picture below has good bones. Although it’s not a garden, per se, but a field covered in snow, it’s far from boring to look at. The trees in the middle ground and in the background have an interesting shape, and the low hedgerow dividing the fields breaks up what could otherwise have been a rather dull expanse of snow. And the curly iron gatepost and frosty weeds add a lot of interest to the foreground. In the summer that same gatepost would probably be almost invisible, and we would be walking right by it, only registering a rather weeds patch by the side of the path.

In winter, the bones really get a chance to come into their own!DSCN2749 (1)

Here is another picture, but of a real garden this time. However, the principles are the same: Trees placed in the foreground, middle ground, and background, with the space divided up into sections by low hedges. The wall adds interest, too.

winter garden

If you are wondering how to achieve this in your own garden, or if you aren’t quite sure how it will look in the winter, try this trick: Take a photo of your garden and change it to black and white on your phone, or make a black and white copy of a printed photo. Without the distraction of the color, you will be able to see the shapes much more clearly, and imagine what the garden will look like when the flowers have gone away. Then you can adjust, if necessary.

COLOR: Once you have structure in the garden, you can start adding some of the cake decorations- the plants. Plants with brightly colored stems, like Cornus sericea, (Red-twig Dogwood) or Salix alba var. vittellina (A shrubby willow), make a stunning display. Ilex verticillata, or Winterberry Holly, is covered in bright red berries. Neither is all that exciting in the summer, but they make a nice backdrop for other perennials, preferring to  pull their weight in the winter.

DSCN3197

Salix alba var. vitellina, I think, at the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK.

winterberryWinterberry Holly. You’ll need a male as well as females to get a lot of berries. Ask at your garden center.

TEXTURE: Interesting textures that catch the frost or fine snowflakes can also add a lot to the garden. Leave the seed heads of perennials like Echinacea, or the tall Sedums for their unusual shapes. The birds will thank you, too. Just yesterday I had at least a dozen Juncos eating the seeds of the Liatris that I never got around to deadheading. Who knew? And now I get to feel righteous instead of lazy!

Grasses of all shapes and sizes can look splendid in the winter. Tall, plumy ones like Miscanthus add great structure (!!), Medium Pennisetums like ‘Hameln’ add a fountain of foliage to the landscape, and a waterfall of Hakonechloa (see picture below) is hard to beat after a frost.

Grasses in snow

Play around with these elements and you will find that your winter garden is far from boring. Now, if we could just figure out what to do about road construction…

DSCN2703

 

January 2018, What to do in the garden

What to do with your Christmas tree?

Christmas is over, and by now most of us have taken down our trees. They have served us well, but now what? Some towns have recycling programs, but what if you want to recycle them at home? Here are a few ideas. Let us know what you do with yours!

1.Strip off the branches. Some perennials, like Lavender, for example, like a little protection in the winter. Christmas tree boughs are just the thing. They have enough body to them to hold the snow off the plants a little bit and create a cocoon around them, while allowing air to flow.

2. Use the trunk as support. A stout Christmas tree trunk can be used in all sorts of ways – as a support for beans or clematis or other climbing plant (the little nubs left from where the branches were really help them get started climbing) or cut up and used as a decorative border around a plant. I even knew someone once who had an entire fence made of Christmas trees!

3. Let the trees be a winter home for wildlife. Like plants, many animals and birds need shelter from the harsh winter winds. By laying your tree somewhere protected, you can create a much needed escape for them.

Chickadee

 

IMG_0359Photo by Ben Rowland c. 2017

IMG_0363Photo by Ben Rowland c. 2017

Design ideas, January 2018, Plant-of-the-month

January Plant-of-the-month: Microbiota

Microbiota!

Microbiota

I have long been a fan of Microbiota decussata, or Russian Arborvitae. While they definitely have their place, I have never warmed up to the host of evergreen, prickly things out there, like Junipers or some of the dwarf spruces. They just aren’t friendly to hands or shins and can get really rangy if left to their own devices. But Microbiota’s flat sprays of foliage are soft and supple and interesting to look at. Its tiny cones, which are some of the smallest of all the conifers, are so small that they rarely hold more than one seed.  The branches look beautiful in arrangements, and in the summer are the perfect backdrop for perennials. In the winter, they turn a wonderful purple-bronze, which adds subtle color to the winter landscape.

 

Microbiota grows to be about 1-1.5 feet  in height in New England, and about 4 feet in width, although it can grow much wider under the right conditions. It doesn’t take over, though, and can easily be kept within the confines of your garden plan. It prefers sun to part shade, and needs good drainage, but otherwise is relatively maintenance-free. It works well on bankings, or in a place where an elegant groundcover is wanted. And, as it’s a zone 3-8 plant, it can be used in a lot of different climates.

 

Try it with Daylilies or plants with lighter, broader foliage like Echinacea or Peonies, or plants with strong colors like Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia). Enjoy its soft waterfall of foliage – and leave the chain mail suit in the house!

Microbiota 2.jpg