Fending Off The Freeze

By the time I publish this post about fending off a hard freeze, it will be too late to be of any help to anyone. I do not blame myself.  I have no insider information regarding the weather.  Nor do I have a vote in the nature congress.  A greatly talented gardener/writer from Kansas who writes the blog  My Education Of A Gardener  addresses the issue succinctly- Nature bats last. 

Nature batting last is on the minds and hands of gardeners throughout the midwest and northeast tonight.  Not that passionate gardeners need any help from me when faced with a crisis.  Most gardeners I know are hard working, resourceful, independent-and very hard working people.  While they were all about planning to fend off the freeze forecast for tonight on their own, so were we.  

I have 2500 tulips budding, and showing color,  givcn our extraordinarily warm March.  Did I have a plan to protect them overnight-yes.  Covering plants that might be damaged by frost is a good idea.  Leaves might sustain damage, but buds subjected to very cold temperatures will die, and drop.  The exact science of it-I will not bore you.  Suffice it to say that a newly emerging spring leaf that is subjected to bitter cold-I am quite sure you have seen that green black mush that is a frozen through plant.   

Covering our tulips was one part engineering, and 5 parts work.  Cice had it all in hand.  After all of her work today, I am sure she went home, and repeated the same process to protect her own garden. 

Row cover was designed to protect crops planted early.  This non woven fabric is lightweight.  It is a heavy weight in the protect the plants realm.  The plants underneath a row cover benefit from a 10 degree increase in temperature.  Row cover was the order of our day. 

frost blanket

Ten degrees warmer makes a considerable difference.  Row cover is worth the effort.   The winds usually associated with late winter/early spring trouble pose a problem for this lightweight protection.  That said, we secure the frost cover in every way that we can.  A frost cover flapping and beating the plants underneath can cause more damage than the freeze.    

Our defence is simple.  Cover the plants.  Secure the edges.  Batten down the hatches.  

This may look like a lot of trouble over a few tulips, but we value every season.  There is no season we would want to do without.  Tonight’s low temperatures may devastate farms with fruit trees, early crops,  botanical gardens, and those little gardens that you and I tend. Tomorrow’s news will tell the tale.  But tonight I feel better, knowing we have protected our plants.

At the shop, we have moved as much in as possible.  We have covered what we could, in the best way we know how.

 We have spring plants under this bench for the night.  I am sure they will be fine.  As for my own garden, I am worried.  There is much I cannot cover. 


Sunday Opinion: Heart And Soul

I am reluctant to have plants at the shop too early in the spring.  As Rob has said, it takes mother nature a long time to make up her mind to commit to spring.  I hate to see plants damaged by frost.  We do have a green space of sorts where we can stash plants during inclement weather.  I cherish that glass roof. It makes reference to the living and the breathing that is the heart and soul of a garden.  Sun streams through the roof.  We sawcut and removed the concrete floor adjacent to 3 of the walls. We planting creeping fig at the base of 2 of those concrete block walls 10 years ago.  These green walls are lush and thick year round, and provide a green backdrop for the plants we house there year round.

Plants and water-we felt these two elements were an essential element of any garden shop.  We tore the midsection of the roof off the building in this room.  It sat exposed to the weather for 3 months, until we found an old used Lord and Burnham greenhouse for sale.  I remember watching rain falling inside that room.  The floor was greasy and slick from years of cutting oil that lubricated the machines bolted in place. The rain puddled on the floor, until we shotblasted that surface clean.  A steel storage tank that held waste oil was pumped out, and filled with sand.  A built-in concrete wall fountain designed after a French original sits on top of that old tank.  Eventually we set the peaked roof and hip of that greenhouse on top of the existing flat roof.  The room was flooded with light.  The exposed steel H-beam is a strong visual reminder of the industrial history of the building.  The glass roof still has the original old chains that open the vents.  I would not call this a conservatory-that would be laughably overblown, and altogether missing the point.  It is an old factory room repurposed such that we can shelter plants.

I am sure I have talked before about the purchase and reclamation of this building.  A good portion of it was built in the 1920’s-the rest in the 1940’s.  But that protected green space is much on my mind now, given the weather.  I have been uneasy about the unusually early warm weather-uneasy enough to be sure I had a giant roll of floating frost cover on hand.  A frost warming last night, and a freeze warning for tonight makes me glad I have it.   Yesterday afternoon we brought almost all of our plants indoors in anticipation of a threat of frost last night.  The glass house is stuffed with plants-hellebores, primulas, rosemary, ivy, myrtle topiaries and so on.  Ordering in plants in the spring can be dicey; that room has my back right now.  Most of our pansies are still outside, under steel plant tables covered in several layers of row cover. All of the espaliers are under cover, in the garage.

None of the plants in that space are rare but for our Wollemi Pine.  It is a small start of the rarest of all trees.  Only one stand of about 50 trees in some undisclosed location in Australia is known to exist. I bought a seedling propagated from an original tree from the Brooklyn Botanic garden 8 years ago.  The sale of these seedling trees goes towards protecting the habitat of the original trees. I like that it lives and thrives in our glass house.  The other plants we have you might well expect to see for spring, or perhaps they are unusual in commerce.  But what really makes them different is that they are very well grown, or in large sizes as in a 25 tear old lemon tree. Or that we created a space so we could properly look after them in stormy weather.  We will haul our usual standard spring plants in and out as often as we have to, until the night temperatures are reliably friendly. 

In the same vein, there is nothing about this standard issue old concrete and steel factory that is of any particular architectural interest.  The renovation and repurposing of an old building-our own showstring version of urban renewal-isn’t particularly newsworthy either.  Lots of people do this.  But standing in that glass house this very cold March morning, I felt such relief that we were at least able to protect some of our plants.  I cannot do a thing about my Galaxy magnolia in full bloom which will possibly be subjected to 25 degrees tonight.  If every flower freezes and falls tonight, there will be the ordinary heartbreak that is part and parcel of a gardening life.  But I could hardly sleep last night, worrying that gardeners in the northeast are facing much more seriously damaging low temperatures overnight tonight than I.  Godspeed, all of you.                      


At A Glance: Thought We’d All Drop By Early

The European ginger sprouting in mid March is a bit of a shock.  I would say this is definitely 3 weeks earlier than usual-maybe 4 weeks early. 

Clematis sprouting in mid March?  Unexpected.  Unusual. Ok, no kidding-astonishingly early.

Roses leafed out in March

Delphiniums making an appearance in March

Very dry winter.  Cracked earth in March.  Who waters their garden in March in my zone?  All of us serious gardeners in southeatern Michigan-that’s who.  Mother Nature-any water coming our way from the sky soon? 

Big weeds in the isotoma-not to mention the grass growing like crazy

Magnolia Stellata-blooming March 14.  Dropping petals, March 16

Hellebores blooming

Magnolia Soulangiana, the third week of March

March spring -down the street

The neighborhood, March 2012.  Today was distinctly chilly.  What’s ahead?  I have no idea-I am just a girl with a passion for the garden. The passionate part means that I will stand tall and be stubborn.  Most importantly, I will roll with the program. I like playing a small part in a bigger picture.  What could be better?

Easy Does It

helleborus hybrids

If you are experiencing a spring astonishingly fast forwarded as I am, you have a garden usually sleepy in mid March that is marching dramatically on to a drummer you have never met before. I am struggling to keep up. I have 2 areas in my garden devoted to the cultivation of hellebores-why wouldn’t I?  Their leaves are evergreen until late winter.  Their flowers are intricate; the sepals are astonishingly colored.  Once established, they make big gorgeous clumps, even in fairly shady locations. It is the first perennial to break ground and bloom for me in the spring. This is one of my most favorite moments of the gardening year. 

helleborus orientalis

The leaves are stubbornly stalwart-they do not go brown until late in the winter.  The bare flower stalks emerge early in the spring; the new leaves will come later.  Just when gardeners are about to go mad from the endless grey and cold of the winter, they deliver.  The flowering stalks of helleborus orientalis emerge early in the spring-this usually means early April.  The sustained 80 degree temperatures had thrown my hellebores into full bloom in mid March.  My magnolias, PJM rhodendrons and maple trees were not far behind.  I have flowers everywhere, at a time I usually associate with the last of the winter.  

No matter how much I might write about the natural order of things, the real news is that I have hellebores blooming way ahead of my usual spring cleanup.  The late winter tattered leaves in concert with new bloom stalks-not my idea of a good look.  The early spring has caught me by surprise.  To say I was not ready for the hellebores to represent is putting it mildly. 

 My impulse was to clip and clean up-fast.  But how could I?  I am used to cutting off all of the dead foliage on a plant with one swipe, as I usually do this before the bloom stalks stir.  This year I had to proceed with caution, for fear I would mistake a bloom stalk for a leaf.  I did cut off two flowering stalks-how irritating.  One of my greatest spring pleasures has become a marathon I had no chance of winning.      

A fast cleanup given the very early and unseasonably warm weather might rake away a moment you do not want to miss. This clump of crocus was buried undeneath last years hellebore foliage.  Any carelessness on my part would have been disastrous. I am happy to say this little crosus clump was beautiful for 2 days, until the heat made it collapse in a heap.  But 2 days was better than no days.  I knew enough to take a picture, that this flowering would be ephemeral.  Beyond my shears, the only tool I put to this cleanup was my fingers.  Any garden accumulates leaves and sticks and other garden memorabilia over the winter.  Each bit came out of this garden one cautious handful at a time. 

 The new and tender shoots of your hellebores might benefit from those gentle fingers-they are so easy to break. New growth is as extraordinarily tender as it is beautiful.  Easy does it is the only way to do it.  So for 2 nights after work, and two weeks late to the game, I cleaned up my hellebore patches. 

My old hellebores are sprouting from seed like crazy this spring.  How pleased I am about this!  A gentle spring cleanup does not dislodge the babies.  My hellebores are grown with sweet woodriff, and crocus.  I interfere as little as possible with what goes on here.  I do not worry them about anything.  I water when they need it-that’s all.     


Rob’s Ivory Prince hellebores are planted in myrtle.  This taller vining groundcover can make the spring cleanup all the more time consuming.  He tells me the hellebore cleanup is finished-and on to the next part of his garden that needed cleanup a week ago.  Both of us have held off on any pruning-sure enough, night temperatures in the mid 30’s are forecast for next week.  The ride could get bumpier.  We’ve have snow and freezing temperatures in April plenty of times. 

My hellebore patch looks much better now.  Now on to the roses which are completely leafed out, and still sporting dead blooms from last fall.  And then there are the 6″ tall weeds in the isotoma and herniaria.  And the emerging leaves of Jack Frost brunnera encircled by their winter remains.  Have I mentioned that my holiday wreath and magnolia garland are both still in place?  And that the greens in my winter pots have gone brown with the heat?  My delphiniums are a foot tall.  My Magnolia Stellata started dropping petals after one 88 degree day in bloom.  My Yellow Butterflies magnolias are showing color.  My maples are blooming.  I have talked of nothing else to Buck for 2 days.  In celebration of my out of season garden and my attending hand wringing for the last 2 days,  he drummed up some of his favorite Christmas music for me last night.  What else could he possibly do for me?  Funny, that guy.  Not so funny, this weather.