March 2018, What to do in the garden

Time to Force Forsythia!

The season is moving along, and we are getting close to spring. But it’s still rather inhospitable outside, so why not bring some of the garden inside, to be enjoyed where you are warm and comfortable? Like forcing Witch Hazel (see post from Feb 8th), forcing Forsythia is as simple as cutting a few branches and putting them in water in a warm room. In case you forget what Forsythia branches look like, here is a picture:

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This is a picture of it blooming. Ironically, I don’t have any in my garden (thanks to friends who are willing to share theirs) so I’m not able to run out and take a picture, but this picture gives you a good idea of its shape. Look for clusters of buds, branches that are opposite one another, and  bumpy openings called lenticels on the stems and you can’t go wrong. And once you recognize it, you will recognize it forever. The arching habit of the shrub is a dead giveaway from a distance, too:

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Once you have identified it, just cut off a few branches, put them in water, and wait! Soon your home will be filled with a great preview of spring.

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

January Plant-of-the-month: Microbiota

Microbiota!

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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!

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2017, Design ideas, What to do in the garden

The Power of Potential

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Christmas Eve. A magical day, even more so than Christmas, in some ways. Christmas Eve is all about potential. Christmas itself is still ahead, in its entirety, and none of it has been used up yet. It’s rather like the last few hours of work just before you stop and go on vacation. The possibilities are endless, with the thing that you have been looking forward to lying there in the near future, whole and untouched, ready to be enjoyed. if you have done your preparations right, you will soon reap your reward.

The winter ahead is a little like Christmas Eve, in that it is the preamble to celebration that will eventually come. Spring gives us a fresh start in the garden. The weeds we never got around to pulling up, the flowers we never deadheaded, and all the other chores that we put off have been forgiven. The garden can now be anything. Under the snow, the plants are storing up their energy for the season ahead, and while they rest, we can prune and tame them so that they will wake up looking better than ever. We can sharpen our pruners, look through the gardening magazines that we were too busy to open over the summer, and dream. By the time spring starts to stir, we will be poised to act.

Winter, while it can be a trying time for the gardener, can be a gift if you use it to rest and let your mind wander through the garden while it is free from the distractions of jobs that need to be done. Enjoy the blank slate… it is nothing but potential.

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