Like the Little Train That Could

I have faith in March this year.  I think he’s a changed month and there will be none of the shenanigans he usually throws our way in terms of weather extremes and spring crushing snow loads.  I think.

snowdrops and winter aconite

Up by the shelter of the front porch, this clump of snowdrops and winter aconite are always first in bloom… even if for only a few hours between snow melts…

It’s only just the first week of course, and this optimism is based entirely on the few hours between Saturday’s snowfall melting off, the sun coming out, above freezing temperatures for just three or so hours, and then the next snowstorm rolling in Sunday afternoon.  I was quick to run out though and take a few pictures while the flowers were also feeling optimistic.

hamamelis diane

I went ahead (perhaps foolishly) and planted out the new witch hazels in whatever decent, unfrozen, spots I could find.  This is ‘Diane’ crammed into a spot close to the street.

Most of the garden is still fully winter, but if I crop out the patches of snow and focus on the few patches of early snowdrops, winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), and witch hazels, well I guess you can have a little hope for spring.

hamamelis barmstedt gold

Hamamelis ‘Barmstedt Gold’ a little further down the border with the earliest snowdrops to appear in the open garden.  ‘Gerard Parker’ is the name of the snowdrop in case you’re wondering, and yes, I still need to do a little cleanup here…

This is the time of year which consists of me shuffling back and forth between the same few spots and poking and prodding every last shoot in an attempt to get them to sprout faster.  I doubt it helps, but on a “warmer” day I’m out there way more than the weather deserves and I’m sure it rolls some eyes.  My neighbor refers to it as ‘you’re out taking pictures of dirt again, aren’t you’ season, and that always reminds me that I should really find a more private spot in the backyard to raise these plants.

galanthus diggory wendys gold

Also in front amongst the shelter of the foundation plantings, galanthus ‘Diggory’ is just coming in to  bloom with ‘Wendy’s Gold’ behind.

The thrill was short-lived.  We ended up with about six inches and although it’s pretty and not all that cold I won’t be sharing any of those pictures.  Im huddling indoors and for my plant-fix it’s back to the snow-free, yet underwhelming winter garden in the rear of the garage.

growing under lights

The last of the woodshop nonsense is finally out of this area and I’m making it 100% plants.  Nothing too exciting going on, but new seeds and cuttings are exciting enough for me, and I’ll show more of that in time. 

So just a couple more days and I’m sure March will be showing his more personable side.  I don’t think I’m asking for too much, just no hailstorms or blizzards this year please.

On a side note, this upcoming weekend (Saturday, March 9th) marks the third annual Galanthus Gala, hosted by David Culp of Downingtown Pennsylvania.  This event is sure to thrill snowdrop lovers and plant lovers in general, and is normally one of the highlights of my late winter snowdrop-a-thon.  Alas this year I cannot attend, and the thoughts of missing out on seeing friends and browsing sales tables and talking gardens would have me depressed if I happened to dwell on it too long, so I won’t.  I will just recommend that you should go if you can, stop by, rub elbows with the garden obsessed from the US and beyond, sit in for a few talks, and maybe leave with a few new goodies.  I hear that besides a healthy supply of snowdrops and such, there will be even more hellebores and also a nice haul of witch hazels this year.  Perhaps my wallet will appreciate missing out on more witch hazels but I’m going to be a little crabby about that for a while.

In any case, all the best for March and have a great week!

6 Years and a Snow Day

At least it’s so cold there’s no mud.

Construction on the border wall has halted for the winter.  The whole thing has been shaped and smeared with a nice layer of topsoil, and all that’s left to add is a row of spruce along the top.  Dark, gloomy, rooty, overbearing spruce that shall eventually loom over my sunny garden.  As you can see I’m still trying to be optimistic about it all.

the wall

The Wall

We’re home today waiting for the snow to fall and that seems like the perfect time to get in a few pictures and celebrate an anniversary.  For me January is an agonizingly slow gardening month, and apparently that was also the case six years ago when in a moment of boredom I found out just how easy it was to start a free online blog through WordPress.  Six years and six thousand snowdrop pictures later I’m still here and although the heyday for blogs seems to have peaked and waned I’m more than happy to keep going on more than I need to about my somewhat suburban, somewhat middle of nowhere Pennsylvania garden.

magnolia grandiflora

The only bit of winter interest I could find in the bleak and cold garden.  The red twigged ‘Midwinter Fire’ dogwood will be fine in this week’s arctic blast, but all bets are off on the Southern magnolia seedlings.

Over the years this gardener has been slowly learning a thing or two but it’s always an uphill battle.  This winter’s “learning opportunity” was not having enough snowdrops and cyclamen to fill my winter garden.  It was a trifecta of bad decisions and luck which began with me planting out all the potted snowdrops, me not buying any bulk snowdrops for forcing, and me leaving the dormant cyclamen tubers in a spot which took on the brunt of last summer’s endless rainfall.  Then I brilliantly chose to reduce the number of geraniums under lights.  In hindsight it’s all my fault, but fortunately I have some experience coping with that as well 🙂

winter garden

There’s like three cyclamen in bloom when there should be a tray-full.  But at least it’s clean since the seed saving mess is all packed up and off my little man-cave table.

Since the winter garden is kind of a flop this year, my natural response is to go all out and make it even bigger!  The area which hosts my grow area was originally built as a workshop, and I’d been using it for tools and storage and some of the messier projects, but enough of that.

winter garden

The cyclamen pots sometimes freeze on a cold and windy day, but this set of lights is further from the drafty  windows and can hopefully stay above freezing even on the coldest day.  Four geraniums (Pelargoniums) are all I saved from last year…

After these pictures were taken I hauled everything home-improvement and woodshop related out and started moving lights and tables into hopefully “better” spots.  Most is still a complete mess but at the far end of the back room, near the furnace where it always stays warm, I’ve already set up two lights for the coleus and other goodies which need a reliably warm spot.

winter garden

Kind of prison cell-block looking, but the plants don’t seem to mind.  Hopefully in a few weeks things will grow and I can move a few under the second light table (not really visible in the back) and make this area a decent growing spot.

There are still a number of little things I have to deal with in the main (colder) area such as a leaky foundation, burst water pipes, and electrical issues but I’m sure that will just clear up practically on its own and I’ll be planting again in no time.  For now though it’s keeping me off the internet and slowing down my new-plant-buying compulsions that all gardeners face at this time of year.

ebay snowdrops

I did not buy this, and in my book that almost counts as saved money… and if you keep with that logic approx $1,500 US would make for an excellent plant budget!

Maybe in a few weeks there will be something slightly less depressing to look at in the winter garden.  Most years this is a pleasant hideaway to escape the cold and brown that lurks outside but so far the winter of 2019 is still a work in progress.  We’ll see though.  It’s remarkably easy to fill up these light tables and come to think of it there are still a few potted primula outside that I could probably chip out of the ice and drag inside before the snow and cold become too unreasonable.  Hmmmmm.

Stay warm!

Indoors, For Now…

After a late start, it looked like winter was actually going to make an effort this year.  We had some cold spells, some snow, lots of ice, and the usual January thaw, but now it’s just losing steam.  A February thaw is in the works, and the freeze out there this morning is the one exception in a ten day forecast that doesn’t even dip much below freezing.  To be honest I’d be thrilled to see this in March or April… not so much February.

hardy cyclamen

I was expecting to spend most of February in the garage, hiding from the cold, and admiring the winter garden which has now officially replaced the workshop.

This weather will quickly bring on the snowdrops and winter aconite, and once that happens I’ll waste every minute of daylight wandering and poking around the garden imagining just how nice everything is going to be this year.  In the meantime though, I’ve come to a decision on a real winter greenhouse, one which involves glass and benches and expensive heating.  Before you get excited for me (doesn’t everyone get excited for people who get new greenhouses?) I want to make it clear it’s not going to happen.  Our local climate is relatively extreme and although that in itself is an excellent reason to get a greenhouse, I just can’t commit myself to worrying about extreme low temperatures, brutal hailstorms and blizzards, heating system failures… and most importantly the extra heating bill.

hardy cyclamen

The hardy cyclamen (C. coum) are at their peak under the winter garden grow lights.  For the second year in a row I’m wondering why I don’t have more in here.

But wait!  Don’t get the wrong impression here.  I’m not having some budget-wise revelation that includes spending less and denying myself things in order to save for our retirement or the children’s education.  I just came to the conclusion that with only a few more grow lights I can change the whole workshop over into a very satisfying pseudo-conservatory.  So I did a little searching and found three more light fixtures on clearance.  $39 a piece, about $120 total… so much better than their $52 normal price.

sowing fern spores

A first time for me.  Fern spores.  You’ll have to trust me on this but there’s a tiny bit of black dust on that silver foil, and hopefully with it and an old baby food tub I can recreate what ferns have been doing for millions of years.

$120 is an amazing bargain compared to buying an actual greenhouse, so in reflecting on how much money I just saved I don’t think I’d be way off in subtracting it from the budget rather than adding, but on second thought a visit to the accountant taught me a new word which might come in handy here.  Depreciation.  From what I gathered (and often what I gather is more what I want to hear rather than real facts) I can take this long-range purchase and pretend it’s really money which has been spent over a couple years.  So for the 2018 budget I’m going to pretend I only spent $30 and we’ll see if I remember the remaining $30s in 2019, 2020, and 2021.

winter sow stratification

Seed starting is well under way.  These will go outside today and spend the rest of the winter on the side of the house under a layer of garden fleece (aka Reemay, or spun row cover) until warmer weather encourages them to sprout. 

The lights are more of a next winter plan, but you never know.  In a fit of boredom a week or so ago (apparently you can’t spend forever sipping beer and staring at cyclamen) someone got it in their head to pot up the coleus cuttings and start a few succulent cuttings.  They’re in the very back of the workshop, in a room with the furnace, and hopefully will stay warm enough there to get shoots growing and roots forming.   We will see.

succulent cuttings

Rootless succulent cuttings newly potted up and coleus cuttings slowly recovering from the last few months on a windowsill in water.

I don’t need more succulents in February, let alone May.  It’s another one of those #becauseIcan moments, but I’m just itching with a compulsion to start more.  Another 25 or 50 more isn’t out of the question and I’m sure something can be done with them in the spring.

In the meantime have a great weekend!

$30 for new growlights

$318 total so far for the 2018 gardening year

Tuesday View: The Front Border 11.21.17

It’s been three weeks since my last Tuesday View with Cathy so I guess it’s about time to check in again.  Winter is getting real and to sum up the passing weeks, the days are shorter, the first freeze has hit, winter cleanup has begun (and been finished), and we even woke up to our first inch of snow yesterday.  I hate the gloominess of this time of year but miraculously the sun came out just enough to capture a highlighted Tuesday view of the border.  And then it was gone again.

front border

The Tuesday view.  Nice enough but I already miss the flowers of summer.  A keen eye will pick out the mushy, frozen lump of my precious cardoon about mid border….

It could look worse.  Right now there’s still some contrast between dead-brown, dead-black, and dead-grey and the different forms and textures could be considered ‘winter interest’ to the more optimistic.  My opinion on winter interest leans more towards the warm shores of a tropical beach so I’ll have to trust others on that.

mailbox planting

The sunflower skeletons have finally been cut down, but that’s as far as the winter cleanup will go

Maybe evergreens are the way to go.  I of course love the too-bright yellows, but I’m sure there’s something more refined for those of better taste.

winter interest

The pink muhly grass has faded so now it’s up to this juniper to carry on for the winter.  I believe the juniper is ‘Old Gold’.

Coniferous color could carry the border through the lean months but for now (and hopefully the next  few weeks) the healthy green hellebore foliage is making the inner parts of the border look healthy and full.  During the heat of summer the taller perennials and shrubs shelter the hellebore leaves.  Now that they’ve died back again the hellebores can shine.

hellebore foliage

The giant reed grass (Arundo donax) has been trimmed back for the winter and the ten foot tall canes lugged away to the compost.  Without the grassy mess the red twigged dogwood ‘Midwinter Fire’ and the green of hellebores are back on stage.

I saw that this week Cathy has devoted her post to a recap of the year’s views.  I love it.  Being able to follow the whole year in just a few minutes is a fun way to spend these waning days of 2017… even if it does mean you’ll miss the garden and maybe get a little excited already for 2018!

Have a great week 🙂

Winter Interest? I guess….

Just like nearly all the rest of the Northern hemisphere we here in NE Pennsylvania are dipping into another cold spell.  As far as cold spells go it’s not anything too intimidating, since we’ve only dipped into the single digits one night, but it is cold enough to make you reconsider running out to the mailbox without a coat on and it encourages you to think of the garden from more of a spectator point of view.  Even from the comfortable side of a windowpane winter interest is still slim pickings around here, but now that a few years have passed things are starting to turn a corner.

paperbark maple winter

A low winter sun catches the russet peels of paperbark maple (Acer griseum).  I may have it in a spot far too close to the house, but at least it’s finally starting to grow well.

Winter interest here does not include early snowdrops or hellebores nor the occasionally exotic winter blooming shrub, winter interest here is a desperate flash of green holding out against the winter, or a fresh blush of colorful bark or bright conifer needles brightened by the weak winter sun.  I guess if pressed I’d include dried seed stems and stalks, but honestly unless they’re frosted in ice or topped with snow they really just remind me of all the cleanup yet to be done before spring.

winter panicum dallas blues

Ok I guess I do like the golden(?) winter tint on the dried stalks of Panicum ‘Dallas Blues’.  While other grasses take on a faded dead beige, these seem to hold on to a much richer color which shows up even better when surrounded by snow.

In the meantime, before the rush of spring hits, there’s still plenty of time to sit back and consider the winter garden.  Snow helps.  There’s really nothing to do out there when snow hits other than watch the comings and goings at the bird feeder, but until we get a couple inches down there’s always a restlessness every time the sun comes out and things look like they’re just waiting.

box hedge winter

The smallest bit of winter structure.  A boxwood hedge which has finally grown in enough to look intentional.  It may not say good design the way I just have it randomly in the yard, but I do love my little hedges and always try to get it just a little more level and a tiny bit straighter.

If cropped perfectly and shot from just the right angle… and if the light just happens to work out, you can halfway believe that my garden has something worth seeing once the flowers have died and the leaves fallen.

winter interest garden

A lawn still holding on to green (which has faded significantly from the last arctic dip), a few little bluestems and dried hydrangeas, a blue spruce… it all looks somewhat interesting right now.

Maybe in a few years I’ll be able to offer something more constructive in the way of winter gardening advice, but for now I’m just glad I can wander through without snowshoes.

magnolia grandiflora seedlings

Future winter interest may be just what these Magnolia grandiflora seedlings will offer… assuming they prove hardy.  Last winter was a protected outdoor test for several dozen, this winter will be an open garden test for the remaining three.

More snow will come of course, and when it does things will officially enter the indoor “puttering” stage of seed sowing and houseplants, but for a few more days I’ll brave the cold and look for even the tiniest sprouting buds of hope.  My anxious side wants to find them everywhere, my cautious side wants them to wait another two months.

galanthus merlin

Here’s a new snowdrop which didn’t get the NE Pa memo on winter storm watches.  Here’s some news for you ‘Merlin’, there will be more blasts of cold, and you shouldn’t be out so early.

So in the mean time we will deal with the ice storms, shovel out from the snow storms, and bundle up for the cold spells.

ice storm

A nice glazing of ice kept the kids home last week.  No good for sledding but they were fine with the day off 🙂

All this talk of braving the weather has been made a whole lot easier with a look at the ten day forecast.  The fluffy snow and single digits from yesterday will warm up and melt rapidly in temperatures that don’t even dip below freezing in the foreseeable future.  This wouldn’t be the first January thaw to ever hit us but considering the ground is barely frozen under the snow, I don’t hold out much hope for convincing bulbs to stay dormant.  February may be ugly if too many things decide to give growing a go, but we’ll cross that bridge when it comes.

GBFD February

Each month on the 22nd Christina of Creating My Own Garden of the Hesperides invites us to join in on a consideration of foliage in the garden.  Foliage effects in the winter months can seem to drag on and February may have its pleasant moments in Christina’s Italian landscape, but here in Pennsylvania February is the month when the relentless assault of winter begins to wear down even the toughest greenery.  Imagine my surprise when a beautiful February weekend comes along and gets me thinking about outdoor things other than snow.  It felt great to get outside again, do a few spring-like tasks, and consider what was holding the garden together.

pelargonium foliage color

Even a nice February day needs some warmup time, so while waiting for the thermometer what better thing to do than enjoy the foliage of geraniums (Pelargonium) and other tender plants indoors under the growlights.

One task I did tackle was a little front garden cleanup.  The snowdrops are coming up here in the front foundation bed, and dead sunflower trunks do not add to ambiance of the scene.  Blue fescue (Festuca glauca, cultivar unknown) does though, and I’m enjoying the edging of faded blue which lines the front.  A nice solid swath of one plant helps tie this bed together but I’m not entirely convinced I can give up my collecting habits in favor of better (notice I won’t say good) design.  My single mass planting of little fescues is a starting point though and even if I can’t add more solid pools elsewhere maybe I can at least repeat a few nice patches of similar foliage here and there for the sake of continuity.

Festuca glauca winter color

Cute tufts of Festuca glauca in their winter finery…. which looks remarkably like their spring summer and fall finery, but every garden needs a few reliable doers.

Another grass which has lasted well throughout the winter are the native little bluestem clumps (Schizachyrium scoparium) which dot the back meadow area.  They will be cut down shortly as crocus blooms begin to fill the meadow, but for now they’re a nice backdrop to my weakly flowering witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis ‘Pallida’).  It’s too dry and exposed here for the witch hazel to do well in this location, but it hangs on and every now and then has a good spring.

witch hazel pallida

The crinkled blooms of ‘Pallida’ Chinese witch hazel are always a nice winter surprise and I feel like the russet foliage of the little bluestem grass in the background complements the flower color well.

It may have felt like spring for a few hours but it’s still surely winter around here.  El Nino has thrown things for a loop and by my wildly inaccurate guess we are about three weeks ahead of a ‘normal’ winter.  Not a problem I say, and I’ll take the early snowdrops and deal with future wild temperature fluctuations as they come.

snowdrops and eranthis aconite

Cyclamen hederifolium foliage and a mulch of dried autumn leaves looks so much more comfortable than bare mud.  I guess even last year’s dead foliage counts on a February foliage day 🙂

So even in the dead of winter there is foliage making a contribution and there is hope for the upcoming year.  Hope is always a good thing, and what better way to breed more hope than to look at other inspiring foliage effects from around the world.  Give Christina’s blog a visit and as always have a great week!

The Winter Garden 2016

An actual greenhouse would be awesome.  To spend the winter nights out in the humid warmth… or even sweater-cool, as long as you can smell that healthy dampness of growing plants, would be a fantastic break from the dry static of central heating.  Since that’s not going to happen anytime soon I’ve got to make do somehow and to that end I have my little winter garden.  It’s two shop lights hung over a table in the small workshop behind the garage.  That’s the reality, but the magic is much more, and of course as with everything else I try to do there’s a story involved.

galanthus in containers

The first of the Cyclamen coum (a nice seedling flowering for the first time), a snowdrop dug from the garden (Galanthus elwesii), and the frilled leaves of a scented geranium are filling the space beneath the lights this year.

Santa brought the kids electric scooters this year, and that has nothing to do with winter gardens but they needed a spot cleared in the garage near an outlet for charging.  Space is tight in the garage so obviously I needed to clean the attached furnace room first.  A day later the furnace room was cleaned and I had room in there for a few bikes, but the cannas and dahlia roots in the furnace room needed a cooler spot.  They had to go into the workshop which had now become remarkably full and as a result also needed tidying up.  A day later with the workshop cleaned and the bulbs stashed away I made the observation that the workbench was really unacceptable as far as winter gardens go.  A few years before we bought this house a pipe burst in the workshop, all was soaked, and the pressboard workbench soaked, sagged, and warped.  It was time to replace the top so off to the DIY store for lumber and hardware.  A day later and the old top was off and a new one had been crafted, more than doubling the tabletop and practically calling for another light to be added, so of course another light was added.

potted amaryllis

Merry Christmas to me.  A ridiculous clearance sale on amaryllis bulbs left me with eight new ones and the repaired workbench is the perfect place to pot them up.  Don’t even ask me how hard it is to find terracotta pots during the holiday season….

So one more day for the stain and polyurethane to dry and then finally I was able to bring in a few things for under the lights.  Just in time since the Cyclamen coum were beginning to flower and I was tired of dragging them in and out of the garage with every frigid weather forecast.

growing bulbs under lights

Twice the growing space of years past and already nearly full.  Overwintering cuttings share space with cyclamen and various too-special-to-be-outside seedlings under the growlights.

I should have tackled this job on a pleasant summer weekend, but at that time the lawnchair was so much more inviting.  Had I been ready to go at the start of the season (or had I built that coldframe I wanted) then maybe these seedling pots of tulips and allium wouldn’t have started to sprout in the garage, and maybe I wouldn’t be the only person in NE Pennsylvania growing species tulips indoors under growlights in January….

bulbs from seed

Hellebore and cyclamen seedlings growing in the winter garden.  The small wisps in the other pots are tulips, allium, and a single fritillaria  seedling.  The economics of spending years nursing along seedlings which are available cheaply (100 blooming sized bulbs for $14 last time I checked) is something else we shouldn’t look at too closely.

To wrap up my ‘How I spent my Christmas vacation’ essay I’ll just add that on the last day I moved an air compressor and rabbit hutch onto a shelf and was able to plug in the scooters.  Don’t ask me how I didn’t see that a week earlier.

pale moonlight eranthis

After two rainy days of 55F (13C) weather the soil has thawed and the first winter aconites have broken the surface. I think they’re perfect and they should be fine even if winter does decide to come this year.

Now I’m all set.  Even though I spotted the first winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) breaking out of the earth this weekend I think winter will still make an attempt at cold before the robins can come home.  Today in between rain showers I put up the bird feeder, braced the pole against tipping out of the mucky quagmire of lawn it sits in, and drug a flat of primula seedlings into the workshop.  Now when the cold hits, repotting a flat of young primrose should be just the diversion for a dark winter evening.