Darn Leap Year

Even though most of the long range forecasts hinted at a shift to colder weather, I’m 99% sure it’s because of the leap year.   I haven’t filled in all the gaps in my new theory but Saturday was much colder than I think we deserved and I bet it would have been a much nicer day if it were March 1st rather than February 29th…. unless that’s not the case.  Come to think of it February wasn’t all that bad this year, with a couple days in the 50’s and plenty in the 40’s to counteract the odd 4 degree night.  Much warmer than normal and practically snow-free, and that made for some wonderfully early snowdrop visits.

galanthus rodmarton arcturus regulus

‘Rodmarton Arcturus’ to the left of ‘Rodmarton Regulus’.  Two stand out snowdrops in a stand out NY snowdrop collection.

First on the list was a visit to an open garden on Long Island NY.  I was in the area to visit my parents and with beautiful sunshine and warm weather in the forecast it just made sense to drag mom out to look at drops.  Dad has learned his lesson on previous colder visits so he wisely stayed home, but even he would have enjoyed the location and warmth.

long island snowdrop garden

The garden’s host leading a group around to admire the drops.    

This is the same garden my friend Paula and I visited last year (nearly a month later btw), and this visit made me realize how spoiled were were the first time.  We had our host nearly all to ourselves that time, and all the stories and tips and conversation made the time fly by too quickly.  This time even though we had to share him with the other groups flowing through, we were still able to catch a glimpse of several treasures and check out what the new season brought.

galanthus joe spotted

Galanthus ‘Joe Spotted’ was looking much finer than my overexposed photos show.  Pity that we were forced to endure such strong sunshine and warm breezes during our visit.

This garden has clump after clump of rare and special snowdrops, so it takes a while to inch through the plantings, but as we got around to the end the healthy clumps of “wild” ‘viridapice’ scattered all through the hedges and shrubbery reminded me that the tried and true also has incredible value.

galanthus viridipice

Patches of Galanthus ‘Viridipice’ around the garden’s edges.  

Come to think of it I may have to order a few more ‘viridapice’ this year when I send in my wish list.  Earlier orders are well on their way to clumping up here and if you’d like to do the same, check under sources on my snowdrop page for the owner’s email address.

winter beach long island

It’s a shame to be less than a mile from the ocean and not stop by.  I miss the winter beach.  

For as pleasant and warm as our February snowdrop visit was, the fake February visit I made yesterday was a far different experience.  On a day which should have been March I set off to the Philly area to meet with my friend Paula for our traditional snowdrop tour.  Cold it was.  And windy.  It was ridiculous to stand out in the wind and cold for nearly three hours but we did, and I’m not sure who was to blame.

winter garden northeast

The garden looked March-ish with witch hazels, snowdrops, and hellebores.  The green of winter aconite looked awfully fresh for a day hovering just above freezing.

Normally Paula and I have much more adventurous spring snowdrop agendas but this year she abandoned me to take on a big overseas adventure in the UK amongst more ancient and vast snowdrop gardens.  Just catching up on that alone took most of the afternoon!

leucojum vernum

Spring snowflakes (Leucojum vernum) and some yellow winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) carpet the mossy ground under the central cherry tree.

The garden was filled with enough other distractions to compete with the trip stories.  Snowdrops are nice but the hellebores were also coming up all over, and the mix of colors made me grateful there are plenty of fantastic gardens on this side of the Atlantic as well.

winter hellebores and snowdrops

A real winter garden with awesome hellebores and snowdrops seeding and sprouting everywhere.

I also had an experience which shook me a bit.  There’s a leafy evergreen perennial called the Japanese sacred lily (Rohdea japonica) and although some people go absolutely nuts for them, paying thousands of dollars for special forms, I have remained entirely immune to any desire to grow them.  Then I saw Paula’s.  It was kinda nice.

winter hellebores and snowdrops

More snowdrops and hellebores plus a nice clump of Rohdea japonica.  Hmmmm.

I’ll have to be careful the next time I’m around Edgewood Gardens.  John Lonsdale has a nice variety of them scattered across his hillside and what harm could a second look do, but in the meantime let’s think about cheaper plants.  Galanthus worowonii is a species snowdrop which can be had for a few bucks a bag and in general is nice enough, but not much of a bloomer for me.  Then I saw a nice bunch at Paula’s.  Out of all the many goodies this is the one I was interested in, and I think you’ll see why.

galanthus woronowii

A good blooming, nicely formed Galanthus woronowii on the right, and a regular one on the left.  As you would expect most of what I have in my garden are leafy and floppy like the ones on the left.

So now I’m thinking of more unnecessary plants to try,  Might as well add another.  Winter jasmine (Jasmine nudiflorum) is a floppy, messy, wanna-be shrub that sometimes identifies as a vine.  Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s as fragrant as its cousins (it’s not), but it is a surprisingly floriferous late winter bloomer that doesn’t mind freezing more than it thaws.  I see it listed as hardy to zone 6, so I may poke a stem in here (it roots easily wherever a stem touches down) and give it a global warming try.

winter jasmine

Winter jasmine artfully slung over the perfect boulder.  I’m sure it takes a little trimming to keep in check, but the effect is worth it.

Hmmmm.  It seems like I’ve mentioned quite a few new things to try out this year, and there have only been two garden visits so far.  Luckily it’s March and even though the month is a day late in coming, flipping the calendar means one really important thing which you may or may not know about.  It’s the month of official snowdrop events, and next Saturday, March 7th is David Culp’s Galanthus Gala.  From 10-3 Downington Pa shall transform into the epicenter of rare snowdrop sales, hellebore offerings, uncommon plants, and a celebration of all types of plant nerdery in general.  Alan Street of Avon Bulbs will be offering two lectures and I suspect many plants will find new homes that day.  Admission is free, but pre-sale entry and the lectures will require ticket purchase.  All the cool kids will be there and hopefully I can sneak in as well.

Hope you have an excellent week.  March does have its benefits, and hopefully one of them is warming temperatures.  Not an insignificant point since it took me about 8 hours to warm up again after trying to pull off a garden visit in Fake February.

You Call That A Cleanup?

So here we are in late January and winter still hasn’t put up much of a fight.  I fought the urge last time and took the Christmas lights down instead, but this weekend’s rain and above freezing weather was too much and it broke me down.  The snowdrops are coming up all over the front foundation beds and of course I need to see them clearly… plus the ski season stinks.

late winter garden cleanup

This is the after picture, and is probably as good as cleanup gets for this bed.  The keenest eyes may spot a few snowdrops 🙂 

I have a tendency to do my spring cleanups early but this winter you barely know if it’s a really late fall job or if this already qualifies as spring.  Time will tell.  One thing you can be sure of is that my need to tidy up every last stray leaf and twig has evaporated as I get older.  Older and wiser maybe?  The leaves disappear quickly as new sprouts come up and hide them, and they’re small enough that they break down into the soil again before summer is too far along.  If they were bigger and tougher leaves like oak or sycamore I’d rake them off and run over them with the mower before throwing them back on the beds, but they’re not and that makes for a quick tidying up.  The twigs and stems and cut back hellebore leaves were carted off to the back yard,  I didn’t want to attract too much attention running them through the mower in January since I just recently made fun of my neighbor for doing the same.

overwintering lettuce

Verbena bonariensis and lettuce seedlings, both surviving the cold just fine.  It will be interesting to see what all makes it through the winter this year… assuming we don’t get slammed in March.

Maybe I’ll run all the trimmings through the mower in February.  The ten day forecast shows a dip in to the teens and then another warming trend through Groundhog Day and beyond, so early February doesn’t look any more promising for snowy slopes than January was.  I’ll try to cope 😉

Fake News!

Spring arrived last week.  There it was right in front of me, the thermometer was roaring to the top and everyone was thrilled by the high numbers.  Records keep breaking and coats were thrown aside as ridiculously overcautious and we embraced the sun.  Surely that weak, orange sun was the reason things were so warm.

galanthus potters pride

Galanthus ‘Potters Pride’, typically in bloom for the end of November Thanksgiving table, has only now been coaxed out of the ground.  

The neighborhood was bustling.  Nearly everybody had a job as garages were swept and litter was cleared and the last of the holiday decorations were secured.  It sure looked good.  My brother in Law even pulled out the leaf blower and cleared all the riff-raff which had blown in while our backs were turned.  Back into the woods it went, and a quick round with the lawnmower has everything returned to that bland, uniform, suburban look which all my neighbors seem to love.

lawn mow in january

Nothing like a freshly cut lawn in January.  Mid January.  In Northern Pennsylvania.  For those who have let the 63F (17C) high get to our heads, our normal lows for this time of year should be closer to 17F (-8C).

The last three months have been filled with erratic ups and downs, but the ups are all we care about.  I have snowdrops sprouting and in full bloom outside and it’s the middle of January and that must be good.

galanthus three ships

Galanthus ‘Three Ships’ up and blooming last week.  Although ‘Three Ships’ hails from milder climates and is known for its Yuletide arrival, here in the colder zones it struggle to reach port by the end of January in a “normal” winter.

But in spite of the early sprouts and premature color something still feels wrong.  The sun keeps claiming it’s perfect, and he deserves all the credit for this unusual warmth but most everyone else can see it’s near the lowest point of its year.  I wish my plants would check this out, but no they just keep fixating on these temperature numbers.  Who cares about tomorrow.

hamamelis pallida

The first of the witch hazels to open here is Hamamelis ‘pallida’.  Full bloom and it’s about a month early. 

Oh well.  When it gets cold I’ll just shelter in place and ride it out.  As usual the weather will take out the most vulnerable and either kill them outright or set them back for a few years, but it happens and in spite of warnings the plants never learn.

I’ll protect my favorites though.  Some plants just agree with everything I do and even if I’m the most incompetent gardener they always make me either feel good or look like I’m winning.  Right now with colder weather and snow briefly returning it’s the winter garden that’s got all the good stuff.

cyclamen coum

The Cyclamen coum growing under lights are starting their show.  Hardy enough to survive outdoors I just like keeping a few inside to enjoy.  

My winter garden in the garage is a nice escape from the real world.  Under the fluorescent shop lights I have a few plants pretending they’re not part of this Pennsylvania garden and also a few that are just too tender to make it on their own.  This year’s wunderkind is the pot of galanthus seedlings I have coming up.  A friend gave me the seed last winter and although a few sprouted then, the bulk have waited until now to start coming up.  Realistically they would be better off in the garden, but here I can admire them endlessly and imagine the hundreds of blooms which are sure to follow… in three or four years… assuming I don’t kill them… just like I’ve killed all the others…

snowdrop seedlings

Snowdrop seedlings.  They still have a long way to go but just think of the possibilities!

I’ve been off my seed-starting kick for a few years now but stuff like this is still irresistible.  There’s so much variability in these seed grown bulbs that I’m excited just thinking about what could be.  I guess that’s what optimism looks like when the nights are still so long, since there’s still bound to be a three year wait at least.  In the meantime three years can pass quickly, and three years ago I started some narcissus seed, and three years later I have a bloom!

narcissus romieuxii

Some type of hoop petticoat daffodil.  The seed were labeled as narcissus romieuxii something-something but they’re not the pale yellow I was expecting, so I’m not committing to a full name yet.

Non-hardy daffodils growing under lights is practically a gateway drug to greenhouse thoughts, so fortunately I don’t have much access to more seed but in these unsettled times you never know.  An offer for more seeds would be much better news than what usually shows up.

In the meantime this winter could end up anywhere.  History shows that these fake warmups always end up badly but maybe I should just hide out in the winter garden and hope for the best.  Maybe this time we’ll only get the tornado rather than the tornado, hail and lightning storm.

Winter Disinterest

After what seems like the longest stretch of gloomy weather ever in all recorded time, the sun finally came out.  The cold came along with it, and that’s probably related, but it was worth it to see all that brightness again.  Walking across a frozen lawn with the sun on my face is something I’d been missing for the last few months as I’ve been more used to shuffling in order to keep from slipping in the muddy mess I’ve been calling a yard.  The sun also lifted some of the gloom and anxiety of all the earth-moving thats still going on behind the house.

industrial park

The lights of the industrial park seem to have caused a little state of emergency down at town hall, and apparently the mayor has declared that a wall must be built.  So far the wall is completely ineffective in stopping the lights, but we now have a big beautiful wall of dirt and of course that must be a great thing.  

Before this post turns into what looks like just another ‘woe is me’ update I want to say again I’m over it, and whatever happens happens.  I just want all this mess to be done so I can go back to tending my little plot in peace, and if that doesn’t work out we can always move.  In the meantime I’ll keep myself busy with regular runs into the construction zone to steal even more interesting rocks for the garden 🙂

garden stones

One of the dump trucks was rich in a bunch of relatively flat pieces of Pennsylvania bluestone.  You can never have enough stepping stones so of course I was pleased.  

This afternoon I was inspired by the sunshine and upgraded the little stone accents in the front foundation plantings with some heftier rocks.  It was easy enough to roll them around on the frozen soil, but the problem will come later when some planting I forgot all about sprouts up right where I dropped a 100 pound rock.

garden stones

I’ll move the rocks some once spring arrives, but in the meantime I already like being able to jump from stone to stone rather than step on every important sprout that I forget is there.

Those who like to point out the obvious will note that I should have used stepping stones rather than boulders if I was going to use them as stepping stones.  I’d say that’s a good point.

galanthus three ships

If you notice the big white bucket in the middle of the foundation plantings, and think you’re doing me a favor in cleaning it up, you’ll notice instead two foolishly early snowdrops sheltered underneath.  Galanthus ‘Three Ships’ usually set sails for Christmas, but here in the cold north the end of January is more likely, and I for one am relieved I haven’t killed them yet.

Honestly I was a little bored as I wandered about in the sun.  You can only haul so many rocks, I wasn’t dressed warmly enough to just sit in the sun, and even for me it’s still too early for any serious cleanup so pruning was about all I could think of.  I stood for maybe twenty minutes clipping dead leaves off the witch hazel.  The flower buds were just starting to open and although clipping individual dead leaves off a bush in January is possibly the most pointless thing to do, I did it.

-well actually I only did about half the bush before I got tired of it…

witch hazel pallida

Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’) just starting to open in the warm sun.

When you consider the usual barks and foliage that pass for winter interest in the northern zones I don’t get quite as excited as many gardeners do.  I appreciate them, but I’m more of a flower kind of guy, and the fact that I was able find a few blooms here in NE Pennsylvania in almost the middle of January, while temperatures hovered at just below freezing,  it made me pretty happy.

Of course a greenhouse would probably make me happy too, but for now I’m going to stick with adding more witch hazels.  Have a great week.

The Plasticine Era

Don’t bother searching the title.  It’s not the first time this blog has contained made up words and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but it’s just I’ve been thinking about plastic lately since it seems to be the material of the day.  It started with some comment I read, that all the plastic humankind has ever made is still in existence.  I know of course that’s not true since I can personally vouch for having thrown a plastic cup or two into a campfire somewhere along the line, but the main idea is that plastic doesn’t break down anytime soon.  My compost pile will attest to that fact.  I throw nearly every scrap of yard waste onto it and as the organic materials break down into a deliciously rich soil amendment I’m left with a constant peppering of plastic trash bits picked up by the mower or left behind by the kids.

garden plastic

I keep a (plastic of course) bucket back there to hold all the plastic scraps I pick out of the finished compost.  I’m always amazed by how quickly it fills.

I never catch all the trash and much of it gets dug into the soil with the compost.  I’m pretty sure that in a couple million years future archeologists will be able to identify this era of time based on the layer of plastic remains which we’re laying down each year…  assuming we make it that far of course.

So in addition to keeping some weak kind of transparency to my gardening budget this year I’m also going to try and reduce the amount of plastic I use.  I’d aim for recycling too but I’m just not convinced that’s a good solution, so the goal is just less of it.  Maybe I can start with the awful plastic based fleece and clingy ‘performance’ fabrics that just breed static and just don’t breath (as opposed to cotton of course).  Better late than never since people have been onto this movement for years, but I guess everyone makes their changes according to their own timetable.  …Now about that budget.

I love tall garden phlox (Phlox paniculata). I should take better care of the ones I already have, but I’m sure a few new ones wouldn’t hurt either.

I’m going to confess to a few plant purchases and I’m actually going to count them this time.  For the record I recently celebrated a birthday and in all honesty I should be counting these as birthday presents to myself (and not apply them against the gardening budget) but a few comments have questioned the accuracy of my accounting and have implied that I play it a little too fast and easy with the numbers.  So just to keep things on the up and up I’ll admit to a $68 phlox purchase from Perennial Pleasures in Vermont and a $65 order of cold hardy cactus from The Cactus Man out in Colorado.

hardy cactus

Hardy opuntia seedlings in the rock garden last week before the latest snow.  Brutally spiny and unforgiving, kind of dull in the winter, and painfully torturous to weed around… obviously I need more.

Seriously this really shouldn’t count against the budget.  I don’t need any new phlox and I kind of hate the nasty little cactus I already have, but there they are, new plants pointed to and clicked on and now destined for this little patch of suburbia.  Of course I’m excited 🙂

$68 for six must-have new (and heirloom) phlox
$65 for several super spiny, wildly colored, completely exotic hardy cacti

$288 total so far for the 2018 gardening year

Happy Post-Solstice

A few years ago I was introduced to an excellent new holiday.  Maybe holiday is a bit strong but January’s a pretty dull month and coming off of a three day warming spell has me optimistic that winter might not go on forever… even if it does feel that way most of the time.

I first heard about ‘Post-Solstice’ over at the always inspiring macgardens.org, and it’s described as that unofficial point where the earth has tilted back towards the sun just enough to start warming this hemisphere back up again.  It takes a while to get things moving on this big old planet of ours, and although December 21st was the shortest day with the least amount of solar warmth hitting the Northern half, it’s not until one month later around January 21st that we start turning the tide back to warmer days.  To help with the celebrations this year there was a special treat.  The first snowdrop is up, popping out just hours after the rain melted the last snow and ice away from this spot.

winter snowdrop

A surprise in our January thaw, the first of this winter’s snowdrops.  Galanthus ‘Three Ships’ in case you’re wondering.

A lone snowdrop doesn’t make spring, and I’m sure I’ll be out there covering it up during the next arctic blast, but for now it sure does give a little bit of hope.  There are other sprouts as well but I’ll only bore you with one more photo.

winter snowdrop

More snowdrops showing signs of life.  I wish I could say the same for the winter-burned hellebore foliage but I’ve long given up on worrying about things like that. 

It’s nice to see things as anxious as I am to start the new gardening year.  We have already added just over thirty minutes of daylight to each day and that goes higher with every sunset and before we know it the whole adventure will start anew!

Enjoy your weekend 🙂

The Winter Garden 2017

Once again the new normal in winters is proving itself to be completely abnormal.  Instead of celebrating the depths of winter last week with a warm blanket and a seed catalog I found myself outside in the sun clearing dried stems from around snowdrop sprouts and spreading mulch and compost on top of the earliest spring flower beds.  I loved it for a few days, but to see snow and freezing temperatures in the week ahead was much more reassuring, if only to keep the flowers asleep until safer weather returns.  It is winter gardening season after all, and the 2017 winter garden has been up and running since the holidays.

the winter garden

Life under the lights.

The cool (but rarely freezing) workshop which adjoins the back of the garage is home to my often celebrated winter garden.  A collection of overwintering bulbs and potted plants survive the cold in this dimly lit room, and each winter they are joined by a table top full of forced bulbs, early seedlings, and whatever else I can’t leave to freeze outside.  I’ve upped the number of fluorescent light fixtures to three this year and am feeling rich with all the extra growing space!

the winter garden

A closeup of the different foliage types filling the table.  Snowdrops and cyclamen dominate, the cyclamen are only just starting to put out their midwinter flower show.

Interest in the winter garden rises and falls opposite the outdoor temperatures.  Colder weather means more tinkering indoors, warmer weather results in general neglect.  This week I bucked the trend though, and brought in a tray of primula seedlings before the approaching snow and ice locked them up in their protective mulch pile.

forced perennials

With just a little cleanup I’m optimistic these primroses will look great.  Hopefully blooms will show up in just a couple weeks under the lights.

Three plants have become standards for my winter garden.  Snowdrops are the first.  They’re an addiction so I can’t really reason out why I must grow them here when they’re just as successful (and nearly at the same stage) as under lights… but I do.  Cyclamen and primrose are a different story.  Their bright colors and their overall happiness in this cold back room really cheer up a gloomy winter evening and make this my new favorite place for sorting seeds and planning the new season’s garden.

indoor garden

Each year the winter garden room gains a little more street credit.  Maybe someday I can be surrounded by aged terra cotta and antique garden décor, with a few rustic signs which say ‘garden’ or something similar….  Maybe.  Either that or a beer tap.

As I hide out in my man cave it gives me the necessary time to fully enjoy the snowdrops and other goodies which are coming along under lights.  The bulk Galanthus elwesii which I bought as dried bulbs and potted up for forcing have given me a few nice surprises, but I will spare you from most of those photos.  Here’s one though which I will put in, it’s a particularly tall one growing alongside a peculiar climbing asparagus which I grew from seed last winter.  Asparagus asparagoides is a noxious weed in several tropical areas outside its native African range, but here under growlights in Pennsylvania I think we’re safe.  To be honest there’s nothing really special about it, except that it’s super special… if you know what I mean.

snowdrops and asparagus

Snowdrops and the climbing Asparagus asparagoides.  I don’t think the asparagus would be hardy outdoors, which is probably a good thing.

Ok one more snowdrop.

forced snowdrop

A particularly nice snowdrop with average markings but a second scape (extra flowering stem) coming up, and a third flower coming up off of a side shoot.  A snowdrop which puts out three flowers is a good thing in my opinion.

Until the cyclamen get into full bloom and the primroses burst into flower I’ll just give an update on the hyacinths I potted up just before Christmas.  They’re starting to sprout and I’ve moved them onto the coldest windowsill of the workshop for some light.  Once the flower stems start to come a little more I’ll move them under the grow lights as well.  The fragrance of hyacinths will be a nice addition to the winter garden.

forced hyacinth

The poorly insulated, dirty glass of the shop windows is as close to a coldframe as I’ll get this year.  The bulbs don’t seem to mind though and the cool temperatures keep the flowers from opening up too fast (before they’ve sprouted up out of the bulb).

So that’s where the winter garden is this year.  I planted onion seeds yesterday and in my mind the primroses already look as if they’ve grown a bit since coming inside.  It’s exciting but also dangerous to start so early on that tricky road to spring fever, but maybe the next four days of below freezing weather will help.  I’ll just need to ignore the fifth day when the high is predicted at 50F (10C)… a temperature too high for February and one which is sure to bring on the first outdoor snowdrops.