Many gardeners put up their tools and prop up their feet during the winter months. It is a time to slow down and take life a little easier. Many gardeners spend the long evenings poring through garden catalogs and magazines. Getting inspiration for their spring planting. I do the same. But that is not the point of this post.
Here in Durham North Carolina, we usually have fairly mild winter with the occasional snow. Today for example the high temperature will be in the 60’s. It is still a little early to do a lot of cleanup in the garden as the leaf litter helps keep down winter weeds and moderates soil temperature fluctuations. Never know if bitter cold weather is still ahead. Besides, the dried tops of many perennials look good in their winter browns and tans. I especially like some of them when they are covered in frost and sparkle in the sunlight. So I usually wait until later in the winter to do my cutting back of perennials. Take the time to appreciate the subtle colors and textures of your winter garden.
I also take the time to see where the garden is lacking in interest during the winter. Around here the leaves drop just before Thanksgiving, and the trees don’t leaf out until late March or early April. That’s a good 4 months or more. Don’t waste that time! Add color for that third of the year. Find blank areas in the garden in the winter where you can add evergreens or plants with winter color like berries or a change in color. One of my favorite plants in my garden is a white pine called ‘Hillside Winter Gold’ As the name suggests, the needles on it turn gold in the winter.
Another plant that adds interest to the winter garden is Ilex verticillata. Some variety names are Winterberry and Sparkleberry. These are native deciduous hollies. As with all hollies, there are both male and female plants. If you don’t have berries, you may have a male or you have a female and there is not a nearby male. I usually insure berries by ordering a male any time I plant females. Most named varieties will be of a known sex.
Other plants with winter berries are evergreen hollies, hawthorn, and beautyberry. Many of the thuja cultivars have evergreen foliage that changes color with the cold weather as do some of the junipers. Many winters the oakleaf hydrangeas hold onto some of their deep red leaves. Some plants have interesting bark that shows more after the leaves fall. The oakleaf hydrangeas have a cinnamon peeling bark that is hidden by the large leaves all summer. Ninebark also has interesting bark that is unnoticed during the summer.
The point I am making is that the garden doesn’t have to be boring for the third of the year or longer that it is “dormant”. With some planning and some appreciation for winter’s subtleties the garden can be quite enjoyable year round.
So I haven’t posted on here in quite a while. 2011 got very busy for me and a lot of progress was made on Jaliya’s garden as well as the plantings around the house. I hired a landscape architect to help with my business as I found I didn’t have enough time to keep up with all the design work myself. He is a plant nut like myself. It’s like living with your crack dealer. He showed me new plants for me to try as well as new sources for plants I had been looking for. Needless to say, I spent a lot of money on plants last year and Jaliya’s garden is filling up. I found a source for native azaleas here in North Carolina and added several species to the garden. I also purchased the new Hamamelis ovalis which was a new species discovered just a few years ago. Other witch hazels I discovered were Hamamelis purpurea which has purple flowers and is blooming now. Another is Hamamelis vervalis Lombart’s Weeping which of course is a weeping witch hazel.
I’ve also added Physocarpus ‘Little Devil’ which is a smaller version of the more well known Physocarpus ‘Diablo’. The Diablo has done very well for me so having a smaller version was a no-brainer. I think I may actually like it better. I will write a post about it with pictures when it blooms later this year. Another new purchase is Diervilla sessilifolia ‘Cool Splash’ This is a rare native plant to start with but this variety is variegated. It held it’s leaves late into the season, and in fact still has a good many of it’s leaves now in the middle of January. More posts will follow through out the year as plants reach their prime season.
So it’s been a few days since I have posted here. With warm weather, seems everyone is now thinking spring and interested in working in the garden or calling me to work on designing their garden. Not complaining at all. I’ve taken advantage of the warm weather and breaks from work to tend to Jaliya’s garden and the garden near the house. Winter weeds are always a problem this time of year as they grow like crazy ready to go to seed. This means hand pulling them before they do so hopefully next years crop is smaller. I used last fall’s leaves to cover a lot of the area not heavily planted so that has saved a lot of labor. But areas that are not quite covered with plants still allow weeds to pop up. Also while cutting back the native ornamental grasses, tree seedlings are exposed. These must be removed since I am not trying to re-create a forest. Everything goes into the compost bin except for the wisteria seeds I still find lying on the ground. These go directly into the trashcan as I do not want even one to sprout. I spent way too much time removing wisteria to create the garden to let it take back over. Unfortunately their is still wisteria next door and the seeds somehow still end up in my yard from the wind.
Late winter in Durham can have a lot of bloom if the right plants are planted. The Camellias are blooming strong as is the daphne and mahonia. Bulbs are blooming everywhere with daffodils and narcissus being the most common. Hyacinths are small but noticeable by their sweet fragrance. Corylopsis, spirea, forsythia are also blooming ahead of their leaves.Crimson Candles CamelliaCorylopsis Golden Spring
The Yoshino Cherry is blooming a little early this year. Macon Ga, where I used to live has a big cherry blossom festival every spring so I had to have one in my yard as a way to remember that city. They say they have over 300,000 Yoshino Cherries planted along the streets there. It is quite a sight to see.
Saturday I took time away from official work to go buy plants for my garden. The North Carolina Botanical Garden sell native plants daily that they have propagated on location. It is always tough to walk out of there without buying too many plants. However, I was able to obtain some new species for the memorial garden. One of the problems I am finding is trying to find the room for some plants. This is where the concept of plant layering comes in. Small plants under medium size plants under even larger plants. However, since the garden is still only about 4 years old, the separation of plants by size is not easily done while some of the larger plants have a lot of growing to still do. But as the saying goes, a “garden is never really finished.”
Walking through my garden on a warm day, I am finding blooming plants that already give hints of what is to come once spring is here. These are what is currently blooming.
The crocus have already bloomed and are fading away. The Camellia ‘Crimson Candles’ is in full bloom. This is an interesting camellia in the way it grows in a open yet narrow habit. The buds show a lot of color long before they actually open. Both the Lenten Rose and the Bird’s foot hellebore are also blooming near them. The Winter Daphne and Leatherleaf Mahonia bloom with their wonderful fragrance filling up the area. Both of these plants are musts for late winter fragrance in the garden. The fragrant tea olive is showing signs of blooming any day now. It too is a very nicely scented plant. One often smells it long before you see the flowers as the flowers are quite small.
In the native garden, the Carolina Jessamine is blooming and it too is fragrant. It is climbing up the arbor leading into the garden which means you get it’s wonderful smell every time you enter the garden while it is in bloom. The native Spring Beauties are also in bloom and the phlox “emerald blue’ is showing some flowers. The phlox makes a great evergreen ground cover. When it is in full flower, you don’t even see the leaves. The witchhazel is wrapping up it’s bloom season while the columbine looks to be ready to pop any day now. I have also seen the Virginia Bluebells poking up so I am looking for their blooms before long. The native violets are also blooming. It is still early in the native garden.
Back up around the house, the Daphne genkwa is just starting to flower. I also have a dwarf forsythia and the Kumson forsythia, both of which are in bloom. Kramer’s Rote heather has been in bloom for a couple of weeks now. The focal of the front garden is the Weeping Cherry Plum which has started to bloom and should be in full flower within a couple of days.
All said, it is an exciting time for a gardener with the glory of spring just around the corner.
I know I recently wrote about the fire dangers of pinestraw year round and bermuda grass in the winter. Just this weekend, a grass fire broke out in Wakefield Plantation, which is a upper end neighborhood on the north side of Raleigh near Wake Forest. I have done work in this neighborhood but have not been over to see the fire damage. I have watched news reports though and believe what I saw on TV backs up what I have been saying. The golf course has a lot of bermuda grass as many of them do in this area. Most of the lawns at the homes around the golf course have fescue. Homeowners fought off the flames with garden hoses. But it was also obvious that they had green lawns. The green grass helped keep the fire from spreading and burning their homes. The bermuda grass is totally brown this time of year and the fire spread quickly. I do not recommend planting bermuda grass any where but especially near a home.
A couple of summers ago, Raleigh had a major fire near some town homes. Many people lost everything. The fire spread there with help from dry pinestraw. Raleigh has since banned the use of pinestraw near residences. I would not use it either even if it is allowed in my area. We have had droughts several times over the past few years. I would rather save my house rather than saving a little money on landscaping.
Ok, I might be showing my age, most people call it weed today. Then again, my definition of a weed is “a plant out of place.” Most lawn grasses used around here are not indigenous to this area. This area was once the “Great Southeast Forest”. There was no open grass areas to speak of. There are some native grasses, carex that grows naturally in the woods. So maybe a grass lawn should be considered a weed patch.
Fescue is the most common lawn grass in the Durham, NC area. It is a “cool season” grass which means it actively grows during cooler weather and stops growing in hot weather. For this reason, it is fertilized 3 times a year on the following easy to remember schedule. Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Valentine’s Day. It has a hard time surviving our hot dry summers and therefore should be allowed to slow down growth during the summer. It should be mowed as high as possible, watered deeply rather than frequently, and mulch the clippings back into the grass. It does not do well under shade trees as it has to compete with tree roots for moisture during the summer. It also needs at least a half day of sun.
Another grass seen in this area is Bermuda grass. Obviously by it’s name, it does not belong here. Bermuda grass is called a “warm season” grass. This means it goes dormant during cold weather and is only actively growing during the warmer months. Bermuda also spreads by runners. This means that it goes everywhere it can. It spreads into your planting beds and the neighbor’s yard. In my opinion, which is always what this blog is about, no one should ever allow bermuda to spread into their neighbor’s yard. It is not at all neighborly to do so. If you want to fight it growing into your own planting beds that is one thing. But you should not inflict that upon your neighbor. Once bermuda has gotten a foothold, it is difficult to remove. You must remove every single piece of it as it can grow back from a single node. These nodes are what looks like elbows on the runner. They are often about every inch apart along the stem. Bermuda also turns brown during the winter. In my opinion, there is enough brown during the winter without also having a brown lawn.
Zoysia is also seen occasionally around here. Zoysia is another “warm season” grass that spreads by runners. It is a very tightly grown grass feeling like a thick carpet when you walk on it. It is totally brown in the winter as well.
We have had problems with brush fires around here lately due to the dry winter we have had. Brown grass for a lawn can help these fires to spread just like pinestraw can. Last week, Interstate 40 was blocked between Durham and Chapel Hill due to the grass being on fire. I’m sure it was bermuda grass that burned. I can’t imagine fescue being on fire during the winter when it is green.
All lawn grasses in this area have their own drawbacks. If you must have a green lawn though, fescue is the best choice. It is greener for the longest time of the year and it doesn’t spread into your planting beds by runners. By all means, don’t waste time trying to grow any lawn in the shade. It takes way too much work and my view is that a garden should be a little work and a lot of enjoyment.
One of the few native plants blooming at this time of year is the native Witchhazel. Hamamelis vernalis is blooming now in my garden. The Hamamelis virginiana blooms in the fall. The blooms are not showy on my witchhazel right now because it has the habit of keeping it’s brown leaves all winter. The flowers are small and not brightly colored. They are however, fragrant when you get close.
Some of the more commonly used witchhazels are actually the Asian hybrids. The hamamelis mollis is from China and the hamamelis japonica is from Japan. Many of the witchhazels in American gardens are actually a cross between these two species. Common ones are “Jelena” and “Diane.”
In Jaliya’s garden I have included both of the native species. To be honest, they aren’t much more than background plants most of the time. The unusual flowers are interesting but only upon close inspection. Maybe over time, plantsmen will find more interesting varieties of the native species so us native plant lovers can have beautiful witchhazels without resorting to planting the exotics.
Witchhazels get their name from the fact that in the past, some people believed that if you cut a “Y” shaped branch from the plant, you could use it to locate underground water sources, practice called water-witching.
With the winter weather most of us have had this year, many are yearning for the first signs of spring. Here in Durham NC, some bulbs have peaked slightly out of the ground and I have seen a few flowering quince. Otherwise, it still looks like winter, especially with the dusting of snow we got overnight. You can have spring blooms a little earlier, however in the house.
What I am referring to is a technique called “forcing.” No, I’m not talking about the way the Duke Blue Devils handled UNC last night. I’m talking about a process where you bring branches of spring blooming trees and shrubs inside your home and trick them into blooming a little earlier. If the plants have experienced enough cold days, once you bring them inside your warm home, they are tricked into thinking it’s spring and buds begin to open and bloom.
Yesterday afternoon, I walked through my garden and pruned a handful of small branches of spring flowering trees. I selected branches 1-1/2′ long that needed to be pruned anyway. These were branches growing back to the inside of the plant or “wild” branches that seemed to be outgrowing others on the plant. I took these inside and gave them a fresh angled cut to help them take up water. I then placed them in a tall vase. Now I just wait for nature to take it’s course. In a week or two, I should start getting blooms. With the selection I chose, I should have an extended display as some will bloom early and others bloom later on their schedule.
The ones I selected were Yoshino Cherry, Redbud, Peach, Plum, Pear, and Red Buckeye. There are others that you may have and could try. Pussy Willow, Quince and Forsythia are all very easy to force. Others to force are your spring-blooming spireas, azaleas, daphne, dogwood, and serviceberry.
Keep the branches in fresh water, out of direct sunlight, and wait for spring to come early.
It’s Groundhog Day in the US. Supposedly if the groundhog sees his shadow, spring is right around the corner. With the winter we’ve had, most everyone is looking forward to spring. Here in Durham NC, it was 63 degrees when I got up at 6 am and is supposed to get up to around 70. Feels like spring. However, tomorrow is forecast to be in the 40’s. Back to winter.
I’m, writing about this because probably no one looks forward more to spring than gardeners. Usually around here, if we have a warm day, I’m out tinkering in the garden. I may cut back perennials stalks that I left all winter. I leave any that just don’t look all that bad for cover for the birds. Leaving them also helps to trap blowing leaves that act as a mulch for the crown of the plant. Leaving leaves over the crown of the plant help to prevent the soil warming up too quickly on a warm day and therefore keeping the plant from sending up tender shoots too early just to be killed back by freezing temperatures. It’s better to be a patient gardener.
Warm days during the winter are great times to take a look at your smaller trees and see where they need pruned. If you have young trees that one day will be shade trees, it is best to prune to create a central leader. This is done by removing side branches that may compete for leadership position. It is also good to remove any lower branches. My rule of thumb is that the lowest branch should be above head height. Even if that means you are leaving a single stick, go ahead and do it. The root system is used to having more top than it does after you prune. So once the plant starts growing in the spring, the root system focuses all of it’s energy into what you have left, actually giving you a bigger plant quicker. So don’t be afraid to prune.
Also look for branches that are growing in the same general area. Leave one branch in that space, removing the others. Those limbs that are maybe even as small around as your pinkie finger will one day be as thick as your thigh. Imagine that as you decide what branches to leave. Also remove branches that are rubbing together.
If you are looking for other yard chores on a nice warm day in winter, look for your summer flowering shrubs that benefit from a hard pruning. Some of these are your hydrangeas, butterflybush, and caryopteris that are common in our area. You may have others. These plants set there flower buds during the spring.
Do not hard prune your spring flowering shrubs yet. However, if you have spring flowering shrubs that have gotten too large, you can rejuvenate them with good pruning now. It is easier to see the stems before they leaf out. The best method of doing this is to remove the thickest stems only, and remove a third of the plant doing so. If you do this each year, you will end up with a plant that has no stems older that 3 years old. This will help to keep the plant down to a more manageable size while retaining the natural growth habit of the plant. A shrub that grows in a fountain shape should never be pruned into a ball in my opinion. I prefer plants grown in a natural shape. Once you begin pruning into an unnatural shape for the plant, you are consigning yourself to more maintenance from then on. I prefer to enjoy my garden with less work, not more.
Continuing on the theme of color during the winter blahs, there are other ways of having color without flowers. Evergreens are the most common. However, some evergreens may also change color during cold weather. One of my favorite plants in my native garden is a white pine called Hillside Winter Gold. As cold weather starts to affect it, the needles start turning yellow. I have mine planted in a bed of Muhly grass. In the fall, the muhly grass seed heads turn pinkish of purple depending on your viewpoint. This contrasts nicely with the yellowing needles of the Hillside Winter Gold pine. As the cold weather continues, the needles turn more yellow and the muhly grass seed heads turn tan. I also have a viriginia pine called Wates Golden that also turns yellow in cold weather. The color is not as intense as the Hillside but it is usually attractive in it’s own right. These plants are barely noticed during the summer months but stand out quite nicely during the winter months. With warm weather, the needles turn back to green and they graciously slip back into the background and surrender the spotlight to the spring flowers.