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.

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.

That wasn’t smart 7.0

It’s a new year and a new season and although one would hope for inspiring resolutions and the turning over of new leaves to happen, this dog has already finished trying to learn that trick.  In my opinion we might as well skip the introspection and self reflection and jump right into the new year with a fresh batch of poor decision making and questionable choices!

too late to plant bulbs

Option 1.  The temptation of clearance bulbs when both the thermometer and calendar say it’s too late.

In this neck of the woods after Christmas is too late to plant spring blooming bulbs.  Reason number one is that a week of snow and temperatures in the teens has frozen the soil solidly leaving no options for outdoor planting.  Solution?  Pickaxe a clump of compost, thaw it out in the garage, and pot up way too many bulbs for winter forcing.  I’ll let you know how it works out.

planting clearance shrubs

Option 2.  The temptation of clearance evergreens when both the thermometer and calendar say it’s too late.

Same deal with a ‘Red Beauty’ holly and ‘Butterball’ Hinoki cypress.  The holly was practically free since its clearance price was significantly lower than any other single item purchased on that particular trip to the DIY store, and the Hinoki (Chamaecyparis obtusa) also barely registered when dropped into the wagon during a Christmas Eve grocery run.  At $8.99 it was completely worth the eye roll I endured during checkout. 

in the green galanthus

Option 3.  The way below freezing forecast (and calendar) say this snowdrop is much too far along.

Snowdrops are hardy bulbs more than capable of enduring the next two months of cold in the wide open garden.  I’m a worrier though, so when my precious ‘Fly Fishing’ sprouted too eagerly I chose to opt out and just take the little guy inside and under the lights of the winter garden.  People say growing snowdrops indoors under lights and in pots is difficult,  I say running outside to cover a precocious galanthus every time an arctic blast threatens is worse.  So in it comes.

planting snowdrops in containers

My modus operandi for these snowdrop “rescues” is to completely rinse off the garden soil and pot up in a deep container with a loose, gritty mix of potting soil.  Not to point out the obvious, but I really have no basis for much of what I do.  Advice is always welcomed. 

‘Fly Fishing’ came inside the first week of December, so it’s been a month, but this transplanting “in the green” at what’s probably not the best time of its growth cycle seems to have done little damage.  Obviously you should take care with the roots while doing this.

galanthus 'fly fishing'

The flowers of Galanthus ‘Fly Fishing’ hang at the end of long pedicles.  Outside it sways gracefully in every breeze.  Inside it’s just as nice, and perhaps even better when I can turn on the lights and admire it at 8pm with an adult beverage in hand.

Anyone who has followed this blog for any amount of time knows that smart decisions, restraint, and resolutions do not come to mind when I consider snowdrops.  On clearance at $17 per 100 bulbs I could not resist a few hundred Galanthus worowonii bulbs even if it doesn’t come close to being a favorite species.  I decided that’s kind of ignorant though since I’ve never even grown the plant myself, so in an attempt to become a better person I bought and planted 300 outside with about 2 dozen reserved for pots in the winter garden.

forced galanthus

The first pot of G. worowonii under lights in the winter garden.  I find it promising that one is not showing the typical apple green foliage of the species, since it’s likely a ‘mistake’ mixed in.  I doubt it’s anything too exciting, but I do love snowdrop surprises!

So at this time of year I guess I am just like every other person out there trying to start the new year off as a better person, even if it means buying more snowdrops.  Not to sound threatening but I’m sure this will involve more snowdrop posts than any decent person would want since there are several more potted up for inside as well as several new ones which look very promising outside.  I’ve already admitted to having a problem, so please spare me any additional eye rolls.  The rolls wouldn’t make a difference anyway since over the years I’ve developed quite a high tolerance.

Happy New Year and all the best for 2017.

Setting the Table

The holiday season has been off to an early start this year.  Under pressure from the children the decorations went up the afternoon of Thanksgiving and within 48 hours the house went from reasonably autumnal to yuletide overload.  I love it of course and even if it means we’ve finally all fallen victim to the day after Thanksgiving holiday commercialism, at least we’ll go down with a smile.  With that in mind, might as well fire the holiday candle full flame and head down to Longwood Gardens for an early peek at the holiday display.

This wouldn’t be our first visit to the gardens during the holidays, we’ve been down before and to be honest I was a little nervous about the crowds on this trip.  The last two visits managed to hit on some of their busiest days and with admission tickets sold out for Friday’s opening day I was holding my breath to see how Sunday would work out.  I should have relaxed, it worked out great.  We arrived around 3pm and were able to just fit into the main parking lot, showed our tickets at the gate, and then walked right in with plenty of smiles and not a single delay.

Longwood Christmas

The exhibition hall with this year’s focal point, a huge ivy and poinsettia tree highlighted with dozens and dozens of white moth (Phalaenopsis) orchids.

I usually have a plan of what’s to be done and seen, but now that the kids are older they’re far more determined to do and see what they want.  There was a much faster pace as we rushed through the displays and barely noticed much more exciting things such as orchid displays, bonsai trees and carnivorous plants.  There was also this odd fascination with organ recitals and Christmas carols, of which we were required to sit (and sing) through two full showings.  This enthusiasm must not have gone unnoticed since by the end of the second session our organist, Rudy Lucente, invited the girl up to give her a close-up of the organ mechanics.  What a thrill that was for our budding musician.

Longwood Christmas

Rudy Lucente at the organ.

So the visit took on a different tone.  I did get to explore the gardens for a bit before the sun set but the visit was more about enjoying the season than it was about examining every new plant.

Longwood Christmas

I sometimes forget there are ‘other’ parts of the conservatory which are devoted to music and grand entertaining. 

Once we had a bite to eat and the sun went down it was time to re-explore with all the lights on.

Longwood Christmas

A Longwood Christmas inside the conservatory.  I was particularly impressed with the huge hanging chrysanthemum balls.  Someday I hope to get down here for that show as well, I’d love to see the greenhouses decked out in fancy autumn mums.

For all the visits we’ve had this might be the first where we’ve sat through the fountain display.  I’m a little embarrassed to admit that since the water, lights, and music were more impressive than I thought they could be…. did I mention I’m more of a plants person?

Longwood Christmas

I guess the DuPonts were onto something when they spent millions on building fountains and then inviting friends to view them. 

The decorated grounds are the highlight of the night though.  I’d show more pictures but we really just spent our time wandering, sipping a warm drink, and enjoying the fact this was our first above the freezing mark visit.

Longwood Christmas

A Longwood Christmas on the grounds.  Music, snacks, beverages, bonfires, and a beautiful night.

What seemed like pushing the season turned out to be perfect.  The two weeks since have flown by and I know this trip wouldn’t have fit in between other visits and snowy weather.  Better to get it in while you can.

Give >their website< a visit even if you can’t make it yourself.  I’ve left out so much and their photography is exceptional.  You can also easily see if things are crowded and if tickets are selling out.

All the best as we begin to wrap up the year!

Tuesday View: The Tropics 11.22.16

Following the first hard frost, the tropical view has continued to spiral downwards into the reality of its temperate latitude.  Our first significant snowfall came on Saturday night and although snow at this time of year is not unheard of, the long warm autumn and the fact Saturday topped out at 65F (18C) left me in a bit of a shock when I woke up to the white.

Tuesday view snow

I guess it might finally be time to dig the dahlias and cannas. 

The frosted annuals and browned cannas are still standing just where they were three weeks ago, and although the mess may look like complete apathy has set in the reality is I’ve been quite busy.  There’s been a good amount of earth moving and bed building on top of the required leaf cleanup and bulb planting and I feel pretty good about spring, I just want warmth to return for a few more weeks so I can finish digging and planting.

But if the weather doesn’t change I’ll get over it.  No one’s life has ever crumbled over a few unraked leaves or frozen dahlias and as long as there are plenty of snowdrops in April I’ll be fine.  There’s always next year 🙂

Our Days Are Numbered

There’s an impending air of doom hanging over the garden, and the threat of next week taints everything.  The Cubs winning the World Series was likely the first sign of the apocalypse and now I can only imagine what next Wednesday could bring.  Our current stretch of warm weather has me even more nervous since as we know from high school science, freezing is an exothermic process and on the chance that Hell has indeed frozen over science would predict that things up here on the surface would warm up as a result.  I’ve never hoped for a cold snap more, even if it means losing the last of the autumn flowers.

late chrysanthemum

The latest of my seedling chrysanthemums.  This one’s not as hardy as the rest but does well enough up near the foundation.

The last of the autumn leaves are really hanging on in the warmth.  This red maples along the fence is always my favorite with its sunset blend of reds, oranges, and yellows.  As the days go on it will hopefully fade to pale yellow with red highlights before finally covering the lawn with a carpet of next year’s mulch and compost.

maple fall foliage

For most of the year I resent the greedy water stealing roots of this pesky red maple (Acer rubrum), but for a few days in autumn I forgive it and soak up every glowing minute of its final foliage show.

Closer to the ground the earliest (or latest, depending on your perspective) bulbs are beginning to show signs of growth.  My absolute favorite right this moment is the fall blooming snowdrop a friend of mine brought back for me from Nancy Goodwin’s Montrose Gardens in Hillsborough, North Carolina.  I love a plant with a story and this one has a good one.  Its full name is Galanthus elwesii var. monostictus Hiemalis group ex. Montrose and to be honest I love writing that one out.  It’s the nerdy Latin way of describing a fall blooming snowdrop with a single green mark that comes to me via Montrose Gardens.  This one and its thousands of sisters are all the descendants of a handful of bulbs Mrs. Goodwin purchased decades ago at a local hardware store.  They say the rest is history, but in this case it’s a history which required years of division and transplanting as the bulbs were slowly spread across her acres of woodland.  The bulbs now make an unparalleled show each autumn around Thanksgiving and I wouldn’t rule out some day making the eight hour trip to see it in person.  Such are the dreams of the obsessed, but if you’d like more information have a look at this NY Times article on a visit to the gardens, and also consider looking up Nancy Goodwin’s book “Montrose: Life in a Garden” for a monthly chronicle of the gardens.  She was also a big fan of the Cyclamen family and grows thousands of them as well.  That’s my kind of gardener.

fall galanthus elwesii monostctus

Galanthus elwesii var. monostictus Hiemalis group ex. Montrose.  Yeah.

Besides fall blooming snowdrops, there was also an October surprise here when my two auricula primrose insisted on sending up a few autumn flower stalks.  I’d rather they waited until spring since the flowers don’t look nearly as big or nice as the could, but my hope is they really liked their repotting and are only just ramping up to an even more amazing show in March under the growlights…. unless they’re planning on dying, which is always another possibility for plants in my care.

primula auricula

A pair of primula.  Primula auricula hybrids to be exact.  The yellow had bloomed before but this is the first flower for the brownish one, and I’m pleased with the color.

Some other final color in the garden is the Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydons Favorite’.  It waits until the very end of the season and carries it out with a clear lavender blue color and attractive dark eyes as the flowers fade.  I should really give it a little more room and respect next year, and not let it suffer all summer crowded and untended while the summer annuals steal the show.

Aster oblongifolius 'Raydons Favorite'

Amidst the mildew decay of fading peony foliage and frosted zinnias, Aster ‘Raydons Favorite’ offers up fresh color for this part of the border.  I think more would be a good idea.

I can’t do a late fall post without slipping in a cyclamen or two.  They’re sending out more and more of their beautiful foliage and while other parts of the garden are fading, these go from strength to strength.  I may have to talk to John Lonsdale about adding a few new ones since you can never have too many of these treasures and he always seems to have a few special ones for sale at Edgewood Gardens.

cyclamen hederifolium

The hardy Cyclamen hederifolium starts flowering without foliage in late summer.  I love it even more when the leaves begin to come up and there are still plenty of blooms to accent them.

The range of foliage types in Cyclamen hederifolium is really outstanding.  The dainty and distinct flowers are almost more of an afterthought.

A pale pink form of Cyclamen hederifolium with a leaf pattern which I love.

A pale pink form of Cyclamen hederifolium with a leaf pattern which I love.

For the moment I may have resisted adding any new Cyclamen but don’t be under the false impression I’ve resisted all the other goodies which can be found during fall planting season… or even better found during autumn clearance sales.  For some reason I found the Santa Rosa clearance sale (still going on btw, and don’t miss out on the additional 20% off coupon code) and discovered I needed more grasses and a trio of carnivorous pitcher plants.  Who knew?

Sarracenia from santa rosa gardens

Three new bog plants (Sarracenia) for the bog I don’t have.  Hopefully I can keep them happy elsewhere since they’re so absolutely cool with their sinister insect trapping pitchers.

As I go on and on about new plants I won’t even mention the tulips which need planting, the daffodils which need replanting, and the projects which need finishing before the bottom drops out of this pleasant autumn weather.  Let’s hope that’s the only thing which the bottom drops out of this week.

Have a good one!

Tuesday View: The Tropics 11.1.16

As you can see from this Tuesday’s view, the weather forecast was correct and Tuesday night we received our first strong frost.  One night and the tropical summer was over… but for this part of PA the last week of October is a late frost date, so there are no complaints from this end.  It was a great year!

tuesday view tropical plants

No denying fall is here now.  The cannas are browned, the dahlias are blackened, yet even at the end of the season there’s still some color left.

You wouldn’t guess it but I did spend a few minutes cleaning up.  The mildewed Verbena bonariensis had been bothering me so those were cut down, and a few large blackened salvias and coleus were taken out as well.  For the most part though the rest will come out this weekend (I hope) as I dig canna and dahlia roots and pack them away for the winter, but I have to say even with less color it’s still kind of interesting.  I’m discovering things here and there which have been overshadowed by the annuals for the past three months.

chrysanthemum carousel

A bit tousled by this weekend’s thunderstorm, chrysanthemum ‘Carousel’ is still holding up to the cooler nights.  The green nicotina is also doing well, but the surprise was the fat clump of Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima… recently renamed though) which was hiding under the verbena I pulled.

Today I did go ahead and plant a few leftover snowdrops in the tropical bed.  The idea of early spring snowdrops sounds nice enough, but I’m pretty sure it will prove to be a bad idea come July when I want to replant all the summer visitors in the same spot.  “Oh well” I say.  Summer is a long time off and spring flowers are more fun to think of.

So as the season winds down here I’d again like to thank Cathy at Words and Herbs for hosting the Tuesday view each week.  It’s been a nice run but I believe winter has most of us calling it quits for the season and our thoughts are turning inside and towards the holidays.  Not a bad idea at all, but I might still have another week or two in me, if only to prove that I really did dig up and store all those fantastic roots and bulbs for next year!