The Bad News

DSC_9332Every warmer day, there are new signs of the damage sustained in the landscape from our once in better than a lifetime winter.  The news is discouraging.  Any gardener who has zone 5 or 6 plants in their landscape is feeling the side effects of a zone 3 or 4 winter. I do not know the cultivar of pine in this neighborhood garden, but I am quite sure these trees are bone dead.  I was a long ways away, but a close inspection was unnecessary.  That saturated orange brown color on every needle but for the very bottom branches-very bad news.

DSC_9403Our past winter was a once in 130 year event.  Record cold. Record snow. The ice on the Great Lakes-3 feet thick.  The ice on the Great Lakes are still 40% covered with ice.  Some say it will be well into June before all that ice melts.  Chilly is the prediction for our immediate future.   This specialty and marginally hardy spruce grew and prospered in this client’s garden, for going on thirty years.  This past winter proved too be too cold.  Just too cold.  No one could have foreseen a winter like this, nor could this spruce have been protected.  Unless you are older than 130 years, this is this first time you have seen a winter this fierce.

bamboo.jpgLike other stands of mature bamboo I have seen this spring, the culms and leaves are dead.  It is impossible to predict yet if the roots survived.  Time will tell.  We have had a very long period of mild winters.  That length of time was long enough to tempt gardeners to push the limits.  My magnolia stellata bloomed today.  The flowers are small, and look like wet kleenex.  Not that I am complaining.  I am shocked it is blooming at all.  Planting magnolias in a northern zone is a leap of faith.  A story about hope. Our winter was very rough, and every gardener in my zone is being educated daily about how that winter is intruding on our spring.

alberta-spruce.jpgI have not seen a single Alberta spruce untouched by the winter.  Every neighborhood I have visited has alberta spruce burned on the south side.  Some very exposed locations show burn all around.  Fierce burn.

winter-burn.jpgMany landscapes show damage which is hard to understand.  Some plants are untouched.  Others are burned all over.  Others are burned in specific spots.  Some have been killed outright.  Do I have a simple and swift explanation-not really.  Some species of plants that are marginally hardy in our area-many of these are in the killed outright list. Do I have zone 5 and 6 plants in my landscape-yes.  A once in 130 year winter cycle would not prevent any gardener from testing the limits.  The fact is, my 20 year old  garden is but a short intermission in the bigger scheme of things.  This spring is making me realize that nature bats both first and last.  There is no negotiating once a winter tests the limits of cold hardiness..  Too cold is simply too cold.  No zone 6 specialty conifer could not have fared well this past winter.  I have no easy and simple answers.

winter-damage-on-boxwood.jpgI love boxwood as much as the next gardener.  Every Green Velvet boxwood in my garden at home is unscathed by this past winter.  They are green and good to go.  This boxwood hedge in a neighborhood garden south of me did not fare so well.  The cause of the damage?  Salt spray generated by cars driving by at a brisk speed is a toxic bath that can damage boxwood.  Extremely low temperatures can test boxwood cultivars intended for warmer zones.  Exposed plantings of boxwood were bleached by sun reflected off of deep snow.  A boxwood that went into the winter dry can be severely damaged by cold winter winds. Evergreens need to be well watered in the fall.  They cannot absorb water from the roots once the ground freezes.  Water evaporates quickly from evergreen leaves given cold temperatures, wind and sun.  The damage on this hedge is hard to pinpoint. How that damage should be handled-it is too early to tell.

winter-burn-on-boxwood.jpgBoxwood is a broad leaved evergreen.  It needs to be well watered and juicy before winter.  Once the soil freezes, no boxwood can access the water it needs to keep the leaves juicy and green.  The water available at the root is turned off.  Strong winter winds makes the water in the leaves evaporate at an alarming rate.  An evergreen cannot replace the water it looses by evaporation over the winter.  What that leaf has to sustain it in November will have to do for the rest of the winter.  An evaporation rate that exceeds the store of moisture means leaves will dry out and die.

damaged-boxwood.jpgThe boxwood leaves on the interior of the shrub, protected from salt winter wind and sun scald may survive the toughest winter.  The damage I see on the boxwood at the shop makes me want to rush out there with my pruners. Notwithstanding my instinct to remove any sign of damage, I will wait.  Viable branches that have lost their leaves will releaf, given some time. Boxwood damaged by repeated soaking in road salt may not recover. Marginally hardy varieties of boxwood may be dead from the cold.  Hicks yews are not so wonderfully hardy.  Yews pruned after August show striking signs of damage.   I am inclined to wait and see how all of my plants will respond.  Plants have a will to live.  I would advise giving them the room they need to recover.

boxwood-damage.jpgA sick and challenged plant needs time to sort out the insult and injury on their own.  This is my opinion.  This spring following a once in a century winter-what do I know what will be?  I do know this section of boxwood has been struggling with fungus for 4 years.  An extraordinarily bad winter may have done them in.

winter-kill.jpgI have a plan to grieve privately about the damage to my beloved boxwood hedge, and wait.  I know I need to wait for the plants to respond.  Once they respond to warmer weather, I will know what to do.  It is not clear yet what is lost, and what is burned, and needs pruning.  Having never experienced a winter like this before, the last thing I want to do is interfere with the natural order of things.  If you are as passionate a gardener as I am, the waiting will be horticultural hell.  But all of us would go to hell and back for a garden, wouldn’t we?

Sure Signs Of Spring

snowdrops.jpgI have had some signs of our very early spring. Piles of snow in April.  Hellebores encased in ice.  Yews whose foliage is bright orange from  exposure to cold, wind and salt.  White leaved tips on boxwood tell the same tale.  Broken and smashed boxwood-those people plowing snow for days and months on end hardly knew where to start or end their efforts.  Every rhododendron I have seen has damage of one sort or another.  But there are some signs of spring that are as right as rain.

crocus.jpgI had no idea what my crocus would do, considering the length and the severity of our winter.  Would they come up in March, sense the three feet of snow overhead, and give up?  Would they bloom late, pout about a season that did not favor them, and peter out overnight?  Would they stay put below ground, in anticipation of a better spring next year?

crocus.jpgMy worries were unfounded.  Lots of my worries about the garden have much more to do with me, than how nature responds to challenging conditions.  This early spring has made clear that the smartest move I could make as a gardener is to carefully observe natural phenomena.  And take comfort in the fact that nature is eminently able to handle trouble. I may have been laid low by this winter, but today I have crocus in bloom better than I have ever had them. When I got home from work tonight, I was astonished.  My field of crocus-a sure sign of spring.

crocus.jpgThe crocus are very low to the ground. I would recommend that you take the effort to get down and take a few moments to appreciate them.  I am making a very special effort, as they are the first sign of spring in my garden.  These Pickwick crocus are gorgeous today.

crocus.jpgThe life of the gardener is not convenient, predictable, or easy. That said, I would say that every plant in my garden has had a hell of a winter.  Their troubles are much more trying than mine. Any plant that managed to survive the winter we have just lived through deserves my recognition.

crocus.jpgThe crocus wide open in the sun the second week of April- hear hear.  Well done.  Thank you.  So glad to see you.

crocus.jpg The crocus blooming is a sure sign of spring.  These tiny plants blooming big bring me a substantial sigh of relief.  The coming of the crocus in my zone means that spring cannot be far behind. So incredibly beautiful, the crocus in early spring.  Every gardener that I know appreciates the little treasures.  They have a sure idea about what constitutes a big treasure.  The big treasure are those small moments.  Gardeners one and all, I am happy to know you.  Having a crocus moment?  Write me.  Thanks, Deborah

 

Seeding Sweet Peas

the gardener's workshop high scent sweet peasCould there be any fragrance more enchantingly reminiscent of spring than from the flowers of the sweet pea?  “High Scent” is a cultivar of sweet pea known for its fresh and sweet scent.  Sweet peas, indeed. The creamy white flowers are edged in pale lavender.  Divine. Like edible peas, the plants are vining, and grow to 6 feet tall. They want the same cool conditions that all peas want. They will continue to grow and bloom as long as the nights are cool, and the days not too hot.  Mulching helps to keep the root runs cool. Once the heat of the summer arrives, the edible and ornamental peas wane, and quit producing.  Sweet peas is just one of many things that come to mind when I think of English gardens.  The climate in England means the run of the annual sweet peas is a long run.  Sweet peas are are difficult to grow in my area, unless we have a long cool spring.  I usually buy them as cut flowers when they are in season.  I have never tried to grow them.  All the literature suggests that sweet pea failure in my zone would be predictable.  Both this vase of high scent sweet peas, and the fabulous photograph is from The Gardener’s Workshop Flower Farm in Newport News, Virginia.  If they can be grown in Virginia, might I not be able to grow them?

sweet-pea-seeds.jpgWhy on earth am I thinking about sweet peas? This past weekend I had the pleasure of meeting and spending an hour with Fergus Garrett, head gardener and designer at Great Dixter in England. He was in town for the Spring Symposium  arranged and given by the Master Gardeners of St Clair County.  One of his hosts brought him by the shop.  His favorite thing of all was an old perennial spade of mine that I have had for years that he found in the tool closet in the garage. Figures!  I am thinking I should send that old spade to him. He also talked with Rob about English hurdles and hurdle makers.  Malcolm Seal is a close personal friend of his, and anyone who goes to the gardening school at Great Dixter learns how to make sweet chestnut sheep’s hurdles.  The hurdle talk, and the company of one of England’s most celebrated gardeners got me to thinking about sweet peas.

sweet-pea-seeds.jpgAnother pea reason-the state of our wintery spring.  Marlene Uhlianuk who owns Uhlianuk Farms in Armada stopped by for our hellebore festival.  She said the ice on Lake Huron near her was 3 feet thick in places.  Too deep for ice fishermen to augur through.  Her theory is that it will take a very long time for all that ice to melt.  She wonders if the ice cover on the great lakes will cool air passing over, and influence our summer weather.  As in a chilly summer.  I am thinking about the possibility that a cold summer may follow a very cold winter. Well, if the summer will be cold, maybe I’ll be able to grow sweet peas.  This is the optimist in me.  The one seed in the above picture that did not swell-I pitched it.  I doubt it will germinate.

sowing-seeds.jpgA third reason?  It was 12 degrees here again today.  Meaning that the we are still ice bound and snowed under.  Any gardening would have to be conducted indoors.  It only took a moment for me to forget about the winter, and concentrate on sowing my seeds.  Seeds with hard seed coats benefit from a process called scarification.  The hard coating can be abraded with a piece of sandpaper, so water can penetrate.  Or you can soak the seeds.  I soaked for 24 hours, and then set the seeds about an inch below the surface.  I made sure that the soiless mix in my flats was thoroughly wet.  This part takes a while. It may look wet on the top, and be bone dry in the middle. Once a seed has begun to germinate, it cannot dry out.  Too dry conditions for even a short time can kill a developing seedling.

growing-plants-on-the-sill.jpgSweet peas can take 1 to 2 weeks to germinate.  As I am sowing them rather late, I’ll keep the seed flats in a warmish place until they germinate.  Then I’ll move them into the shop greenhouse-a cool place.  Marlene thinks it unlikely that I will get flowers as I am starting seeds so late, but if the summer stays cool, who knows what could happen.  At the worst, I will have entertained my winter weary self with a garden narrative.

seed-flats.jpgNow all there is to do is wait.  Sweet peas are very slow to germinate.  I have the time.  The time it takes for these seeds to germinate will be vastly less than the time we have taken enduring the winter.

sweet-pea-white“White Elegance”  is beautiful.  It is not particularly fragrant.  It is a day-neutral plant, meaning that it will bud and bloom regardless of the length of the day.  I have a flat of these seeds sowed.  “High Scent” is a long day flowering sweet pea, meaning the daylight hours need to be longer than the night time hours for flowering to be initiated.  The seeds of this sweet pea, soaked and sown.

Lathyrus latifolius mixedMy third packet of seeds-the rambling and vining perennial sweet pea.  Lathyrus Latifolius.  Perennial sweet peas grow over on the property at the Branch studio.  Who knows how they got there.  I have seen them scrambling down wild embankments along the highways in Michigan.  Blooming in shades of white pink and red, they are a cottage garden favorite where they have room to grow.  This gorgeous illustration is from the website of Van Meuven.  Who wouldn’t want to grow this plant?  If I get any to grow lustily from my seed sowing, I may plant them on the fence at the Branch Studio.  Any plant that represents in spite of the tough and unpredictable Michigan gardening conditions is worth a look.  I planted some seeds today, in hopes of having a garden again soon.

A Sunny Window Sill

DSC_8638I was shocked to see that a post I wrote just about this time last year featured the same dirty snow and cold temperatures we are having right now.  It’s easy to forget that as a winter month, March can be only slightly more moderate than February.  As a spring month, it is stingy with both the sun and moderating temperatures.  March can go either way, and neither way is particularly wonderful. This year, I still have my nose pressed to the glass, looking from the inside out.  It was 12 degrees this morning, and barely better by 3pm. But we have had more sun the past few weeks than all of January and February.  We have a little warm and sunny weather streaming through the windows.

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Our helleborus festivalis held over the past 3 days drew lots of gardeners looking for some sign of spring.  Many commented that the greenhouse smelled like life.  My observation?  I could hear gardeners exhaling their dry winter air.  The shop smelled fresh.  Sun was streaming in every window.  Lot’s of hellebores went home to good gardening families.

DSC_8669I have never been a fan of plants in the house.  In my opinion, plants belong outside. Whether in the ground or in pots, plants need fresh air, the sun and rain from the sky.  A plant stuck indoors is a plant longing for another time and situation.  But this very cold and still snowy late March is a situation few plants could endure outdoors.  Indoors, they make the lack of a garden for me to tend a little easier to endure.  Handling garden plants indoors is different than handling tropical plants indoors.

DSC_8646My house is hot, dry, and dark, by plant standards. The heated house air has just about no humidity.  The light inside my house largely is courtesy of the miracle of electricity.  That light is miraculous for people, but not so swell for plants.  I might be able to get some tropical plants with a very low light requirement to live. But tropical plants don’t so much interest me.  I am ready to garden. Can garden plants live indoors long enough for me to take them, and me, outside? I do have some sunny window sills. Given my need for some signs of green life, there are plants that will oblige.

DSC_8655I would not say that any plant loves to be grown indoors.  I would say that a fair number plants tolerate life indoors.  Some low light tropical plants have the ability to adapt to interior conditions for years.  The successful culture of tropical plants indoors is not my expertise.  My interest in plants inside the house is confined to living through the madness I call March.  Some garden plants will tolerate a short stint inside on a sunny window sill, providing certain cultural conditions are met.  Spring flowering bulbs, once their requirement for cold has been met, will send forth leaves and bloom stalks in a low light too warm interior environment.  Don’t expect them to love the house for long.  Luckily, lots of nurseries carry pots of forced bulbs.  Buy lots, and stock your sunny window sills.  Restock when you need to.

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Lemon cypress is not hardy in our zone.  Hardiness zones refer to the hardiness of the roots of a plant-not the tops.  Lemon cypress can actually tolerate a good bit of cold.  Should you see a lemon cypress now that you have a mind to grow on this summer, chances are you can bring it along on that sunny window sill until the night temperatures are warm enough to move it outdoors.

DSC_8643Helleborus orientalis, and its hybrids, are incredibly cold tolerant.  They stir in late March.  They send up flowering stalks in April.  They are glorious in bloom, in late April.  In May, and in to June, the green tepels still look great.  Can you hold them indoors until the ground is ready to be worked?  Sure.  Give them the sunniest window sill you have.  Enjoy those gorgeous flowers.  Go easy on the water. Garden plants do not transpire or grow so much indoors.  If they are not growing so much, they don’t need so much water. Though they appreciate some sun, they would not appreciate the cooking heat from a radiator or heat duct.

DSC_8653I have kept ivy topiaries in the house over the winter plenty of times.  I err on the side of dry.  I give them the best sun I have.  A sunny window sill indoors is but a small shadow of a sunny place outdoors.  For plants lacking sun, dial back the water.  Plants in full sun outdoors transpire a lot, and need a regular drink.

DSC_8658Myrtus communis is an evergreen shrub in zone 8.  They like full sun, but will tolerate some shade.  What they will not tolerate is getting too dry.  As they are willing to be trained and pruned into topiary forms, they are a popular garden plant for indoors for the winter season.  Garden plants that are being grown indoors are not so much growing on.  They are holding on until they can get back outdoors.  This makes growing myrtle topiaries indoors dicey.  They need just enough water, not too little and not too much.  They are much easier to kill than grow.  As for the table in the above picture, do not try this at home!  Myrtle topiaries may look great on your dining room table or mantle, but they cannot be grown in the dark.

DSC_8665Myrtles grown indoors are great on an interior table for a party, or a weekend, but any longer that this in the dark will bring trouble.  Plants need light to survive.  Some gardeners buy myrtle topiaries in pairs.  One sits on the kitchen counter while the other has a sunny cooler sill.  Once every 3 or 4 days, the plants switch positions.  Forced spring flowering bulbs are much easier to keep indoors than a myrtle topiary.  Once they start to grow, they are programmed to bloom.  They will do their destiny unless impossibly challenged.

DSC_8667English daisies are available now.  Their small scale makes them a great choice for the average shallow window sill.

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The idea is just to have a small sign of the garden inside the glass.  Long enough for the season to turn.

DSC_8679My office has very deep window sills, and faces south.  There is room on them to bring on some rare hellebores that were only available as very small plants.  The windows are very tall, so the space is light.   I have to look in on them over every day, watching the water, and turning the pots so every side gets some of that sun.  What started out being a chore has become a ritual I am enjoying.

DSC_8663They are saying 50 degrees here next week.