This post is for me. It will serve to remind me of the fleeting moment when my early bloomers all exploded simultaneously with colorful enthusiasm. Today ahead of a cold front charging at us from the west, our air is sultry, and we’ll be downright hot this afternoon. Ah, but Early Spring will show her cruel side by this Sunday morning. A hard freeze is forecast. In town, lows will bottom out at about 28 degrees Fahrenheit. At my house, that will probably translate to 24 degrees, maybe even lower. The daffodils above will likely survive, but the early-blooming trees will not be so fortunate. And so today, in this post, I salute the beauty about to be blackened by Arctic air.
Its flowers must be viewed more closely to be fully appreciated:
My weeping cherry is just starting to open. Its flowers always open at the tips of its branches first, and then progress up the arching arms of this beauty. Here are a few close-ups of these fragile blooms.
I would never buy pink hyacinths on my own (not my favorite color), but these were a gift. They multiply every year, and I think the cold winter has made them bloom more enthusiastically than usual. When the breeze blows their perfume my way, I cough — too potent for my tastes.
Yesterday, the enormous stand of native Bloodroots — one of my favorite spring ephemeral wildflowers began blooming. Alas, the petals of these delicate beauties shatter easily. Predicted heavy rains will likely pound their petals into the ground. So indulge me as I share a few shots of this ever-increasing stand of ephemeral flowers.
Most heart-breaking of all will be the loss of my Magnolia “Butterflies” blooms. I have repeatedly counseled it to wait just a few more days, but the current round of warm air has deceived it into cracking open its enormous fuzzy buds to release its bright yellow blooms. My only consolation is that its cousin, Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ is still holding her buds tightly closed. She usually blooms a week after Butterflies, and this year appears to be no exception.
On a slightly happier note, the cold air will only prolong the productivity of my spring veggies. We enjoyed the first salad from our garden last week. Admittedly, it was a small salad, but that did not detract from the tender sweetness of the lettuces, the zing of the arugulas, and the mellow hint of onion from newly emerged chive leaves. I’ll tuck them beneath their fabric cover when the freezing temperatures approach. They should be fine.
I’ve been testing the soil temperature every few days. It must be a minimum of 55 degrees for carrots to germinate well. As of three days ago, it was still 48 degrees! After the weekend cold spell, I believe the temperatures may normalize. If the sun will stay out, perhaps the soil will finally warm enough for me to sow carrots and some more spinach and beets. It will be a gamble sowing this late. If summer heat arrives early, I probably won’t get much from these late-sown seeds.
A few day’s before winter’s astronomical departure, from my window I watched a sliver of its final moon fade into a brightening sky. Vocal accompaniment was provided by White-throated Sparrows, who have begun singing their minor-key mating calls robustly at day’s first and last light.
Soon, I reminded myself, the creek reflecting dawn’s light as it snakes along my eastern border will vanish, obscured by summer’s lush overgrowth. Soon, the tall canopy giants – Green Ash, Tulip Poplar, Red Maple, Water Oak, Loblolly Pine, Sweet Gum — that tower over the floodplain will don fresh foliage, merging high above into the roof of my green cathedral. As the Cheshire Cat smile of the moon faded, my gaze lingered on still-bare interweaving branches, starkly outlined, black against an eastern sky tinged with coral and peach.
Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, myriad warblers – all competed to be heard by their One True Love. The Northern Mockingbird, who silently guarded a still-berry-laden holly for months, decided two days ago that it was time to make his presence known. Every visit to my vegetable garden is now serenaded by Mr. Mocker’s versatile repertoire.
Plants pushed deep into hibernation by winter’s prolonged grip are exploding into a procreative cloud of pollen and fragrance. Yellow, lavender, blue, ivory – everywhere color spotlights awakening green friends from their slumbers. Crimson flowers of Red Maples remind me that the giants in my landscape are also stirring.
The dance has begun. Transformation from winter’s contemplative landscape to spring’s ebullience gains momentum as the new moon of the vernal equinox makes its entrance. Love and hope are easier to find as the earth returns to spring. May all your spring dreams of beauty bring hope to your heart – and the most abundant, healthy gardens you’ve ever grown.
Happy Spring, y’all.
A little less than thirty years ago, I was still fairly naive about yard landscaping. I was an ace on organic vegetable gardening, and I knew a lot about native plants, but I was mesmerized by all the glossy gardening magazines that demonstrated how we all should be landscaping our yards. I bought the hype. What can I say? Gardening is all about trial and error. Experience is always the best teacher, and my experience with Leyland Cypress (Cupressus x leylandii) is a textbook example of what I’ve learned the hard way.
When Wonder Spouse and I first moved to our five-acre landscape 26 years ago, we were eager to block out any views of what has become an increasingly busy road. Most of the road front was already blocked by a wild mix of overgrown vegetation dwelling beneath a stand of mature Loblolly Pines, but down in the far northeast corner where the creek that borders our property goes beneath the road, we had an unobstructed view of the traffic, and vice-versa. To reduce traffic noise and increase privacy, we decided to add evergreen trees that would fill in the gap. I immediately thought of Leyland Cypresses.
Leylands were the hot new screen tree back then. They grow very fast — over three feet a year, they keep a nice columnar shape. They can grow 60-90 feet tall, but remain 12-15-feet wide. And they were advertised as trouble-free. Now wise landscapers in my region know better. It turns out that this natural hybrid of western North American cypresses is prone to pests and diseases, especially when it’s not sited correctly. We planted our trees in moist, well-drained sandy loam; we never had any significant pest/disease issues. In fact, our Leylands did exactly what we envisioned, growing 50-60 feet tall in 26 years; they blocked the road and its traffic noise perfectly.
What was not advertised in the literature a quarter century ago — at least not anywhere I saw — was the fact that Leyland Cypresses have remarkably shallow root systems for trees that grow as tall as they routinely do. This, of course, makes them susceptible to being toppled by high winds and heavy ice and snow accumulations. Because our trees were tucked down by the creek, they were protected from strong winds. And they weathered past ice and snow storms just fine. But the last big storms were about 12-15 years ago. Our Leylands had grown probably another 10-15 feet since those storms. This past February’s 5-inch snow was wet; heavy accumulations of snow stuck to every evergreen in my yard. We’re still cleaning up broken branches of Loblolly Pine and Southern Magnolia. But those trees didn’t topple; a number of the Leylands popped right out of the soil and fell onto each other. Five or six trees — about half the stand — came down.
It took Wonder Spouse and two helpers — all with chainsaws — half a day to clean up what the snow toppled. The rest of the Leylands seem to be holding their own for now, but we are debating whether we should bow to the inevitable and take them down too. However, that’s a task best left to this autumn. Our immediate concern was the gap left behind that has re-opened unobstructed views (and noise) of the road.
Having learned my lesson, I decided to replace the Leylands with native evergreen trees that I knew would thrive in that spot. They don’t grow as quickly as Leylands, being characterized as having moderate growth rates. Both of these native species already grow in my yard. They were here when we moved in. Neither species suffered any damage from the recent heavy snow. I know their roots go deep, having tried to relocate their seedling trees from time to time. Thus I settled on Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and American Holly (Ilex opaca). Both species are important food sources for native wildlife, they provide shelter during winter, and make excellent camouflaged nesting sites in summer.
We decided to invest in named varieties of these natives, because they offer more predictability, and often a bit more vigor. We need strong, hardy trees for this spot. Thus, I went to my favorite mail-order nursery that offers small, bare-rooted trees with a price friendly to our budget constraints. I’ve had great success with plants from this nursery. They start out small, but with good siting, they always grow into wonderful specimens in a few years.
For our two holly additions, I chose Ilex opaca ‘Dan Fenton.’ Because hollies are either male or female plants, nurseries sort these out and sell mostly females, because they are the ones that produce berries. If you don’t have male hollies growing nearby, you must add at least one to your planting. Our property is loaded with American Hollies of both sexes, so I just got two female plants. They are supposed to have very glossy foliage and look much more ornamental than the average native tree. Mature trees are predicted to be 20-25-feet tall and 15-20-feet wide.
My Red Cedar choices were between a variety noted for its narrow growth form and one with a pendulous form. I have a few of these more pendulous trees already growing on my property. Their branches droop down aesthetically, but don’t seem to break from ice and snow any more than the straighter forms in my yard. We purchased three Juniperus virginiana ‘Hancock Weeping’ trees. The term “weeping,” in my opinion, is a bit misleading. The branches don’t cascade downward in the way that weeping willows or weeping cherries do. To my eye, such Red Cedars have broader shoulders that hang down a bit. Thus, the trees are wider. Hancock Weeping is predicted to reach a mature size of 25-30-feet tall and 8-10-feet wide — large enough to shelter us from the road, but not so tall as to be prone to toppling by bad weather.
We arranged the new Red Cedars in a triangle near the creek. In front of those and facing our house, we added the two new American Hollies. As the hollies grow and produce berries, they should be framed nicely by a background of growing Red Cedars. In my mind’s eye, I can see them in their mature forms, valiantly blocking road sights and sounds, and feeding and sheltering wildlife.
That ability to envision the futures of our plant charges is an important skill of successful gardeners. I wasn’t born with it. I developed it over the years — years of learning from my mistakes — mistakes such as planting Leyland Cypresses. I offer my experiences here in the hopes that I can save at least a few folks out there from repeating my mistakes.
Before the clouds closed in, our day started with the eastern sky ablaze with color, the air filled with bird song and frog calls. And because this day was preceded by a day packed with warm air and sunshine, I have a few flower shots to share.
Every late-winter/early-spring-blooming plant I grow is 3-4 weeks later than usual in blooming. Not that I blame them! That was one rough February for all of us. My trees, shrubs, and bulbs have bided their time, but they couldn’t contain themselves any longer when sunshine and warmer temperatures finally returned.
The little bulbs showed up first. The snowdrops got flattened by our snow, but the crocuses and little irises were not far along enough to be damaged. So delicate and lovely!
My three-year-old Aurora witch hazel exploded in orange-yellow strappy petals that emit a sweet, clean fragrance detectable on the breeze.
My Amethyst witch hazel starting blooming about a week before Aurora, but it is still quite pretty.
Every year I can remember, the Ice Follies daffodils are first to bloom. But not this year. This year, the big yellow ones — I think they are King Alfred’s — bloomed first. As of yesterday, the Ice Follies were not quite open still.
My small Cornelian cherry dogwoods (Cornus mas) are lighting up the landscape with their small, bright yellow flowers. Individually, the flowers aren’t much to look at, but when they cover an entire plant, you can’t help but notice this tree.
This year, the Lenten Roses actually waited well into Lent before beginning to show their bloom faces.
My past records tell me that my Royal Star magnolia often begins blooming in early February. This fuzzy shot is of the handful at the top of my 25-foot-tall tree that opened in yesterday’s sunshine.
The afternoon sunlight did a nice job of enhancing the color of this hazelnut’s golden catkins, the male flowers. I looked for the tiny female blooms, but didn’t see any.
This one surprised me. My beautiful Parrotia persica tree always blooms this time of year. Its flowers are small and inconspicuous, because they are wind-pollinated. Evidently, my neighbor’s honeybees still managed to find something in them worth visiting.
Not to be left out of the act, the forest giants are beginning their bloom cycles too. The elms have been blooming for a couple of weeks, as my allergies will testify. Now the treetops are punctuated with the crimson flowers of the Red Maples. Some of the trees have orange-tinged flowers like these, but others have deeply scarlet blooms.
My beleaguered ornamental flowering apricots are also still pushing out flowers. Their landscape impact was severely impaired this year by the prolonged cold. But when the wind blows from the south, I still get an occasional whiff of Peggy Clarke’s perfume.
All in all, I’d say March is treating my landscape with lamb-like kindness — so far, at least. Here’s hoping it remains a kinder month than that brutal February we all endured.
If you’ve read much of this blog, you know that most of the vegetables, flowers, and even herbs I grow began as seeds germinated in my little greenhouse. Frankly, I get a little giddy every late winter when these arrive:
I have my reasons for preferring this method, but there are plenty of good reasons to plant your flower and vegetable gardens with small plants you buy locally. Today, I thought I’d go over a few of the pros and cons for each method.
Starting from Seed: Pros
- You can grow exactly the varieties you want because you order the seeds and grow them yourself.
- Seeds are much less expensive than plants, so you can grow more of everything.
- You control growing conditions for your plants from germination to transplantation in their permanent locations in your garden.
- The big sense of accomplishment that comes from doing it all yourself is a great feeling.
Starting from Seed: Cons
- Unless you can provide optimal indoor conditions for germination, you may get poor germination rates.
- If you direct-sow in the garden, you are at the mercy of the weather. You can ameliorate a lack of rain with watering, but you must watch for soil crusting that can prevent seeds from emerging, and if you get a hard rain, seeds will travel remarkable distances, or disappear entirely.
- If you direct-sow in the garden, you also must watch for raids from marauding voles, and if soil temperatures are too cool or too warm, some seeds won’t germinate.
- Most herb seeds, many flower seeds, and even a lot of vegetable seeds are quite small. You’ll need practice to become adept at handling them, putting them where you want them, etc.
- Soil depth is critical when planting seeds. Many beginners plant seeds too deeply, which prevents their germination. Follow planting depth directions on the seed packets assiduously.
Starting from Plants You Buy: Pros
- You save enormous amounts of time by not having to bother with seed germination, and transplanting and nurturing seedlings until they’re ready for your garden.
- You can buy exactly the number of plants you want without spending time trying to find homes for extra plants you grew because of inaccurate guessing of seed germination rates.
- You can see living plants before you buy them, rather than relying on often-overflattering catalog descriptions. This allows you to select the sturdiest, healthiest plants with the best root systems.
- If you live in an area like mine, where farmers’ markets abound, you’ll be able to purchase healthy, locally grown plants ready for your garden. And because these folks usually sell the same varieties they grow for market, you’ll be able to choose from plants well-adapted for your area, grown by experts who love their work. And they often sell heirloom varieties of plants as well as hybrid choices.
Starting from Plants: Cons
- If your only option for plant starts is a big box store’s garden section, you usually won’t get great plants. These are often grown in one place and shipped all over the country, so varieties aren’t necessarily the best for your region, and are usually limited to a few choices. Also, the plants are not treated well during shipping or even in the garden section at the store. Have you ever noticed how staff at such places leave innocent plants out in conditions that are too hot and/or too cold? And how they water the poor things? Find a better local source for your plants or suffer the consequences.
- You don’t know if your purchased plants always grew in optimal conditions. Even if they look healthy, if they were exposed to temperatures below 50 degrees, studies have shown that tomato plants are never as productive as those maintained above that temperature.
- Often the sizes of plants you buy are limited. Early in the season, they may all be small. Small plants don’t handle transplanting stress as well as larger ones. On the other hand, larger transplants can break during transplanting. As with seed sowing, transplanting takes practice and patience to perfect.
- Buying plants is more expensive than buying seeds, and if you lose plants during transplanting, you’ll spend more money to buy replacements. Most folks will buy fewer varieties when they buy plants instead of seeds because of cost considerations.
I hope this helps my fellow Piedmont gardeners as they contemplate this year’s growing season. Time, money, and experience all impact what you decide to grow. I hope this post helps you clarify how you’ll choose what to grow in your garden this year.
Sorry for the prolonged silence, folks. I’ve been too busy to write, thanks to a break in the weather. After the snow melted, we got 1.28 inches of rain, which caused my creek to flood.
Although our vegetable garden is at the top of our hill, a good 200 yards or so up from that active floodplain, the raised beds were still unworkable for a while. I actually hit ice in the first one I tried to weed before the rain came! But my property is blessed with sandy loam instead of Carolina clay, so my raised vegetable beds became workable a few days ago, and just in time. My greenhouse was overflowing with eager spring lettuces, spinaches, and assorted other greens.
I rid two vegetable beds of their winter weeds. The crimson clover I had planted to prevent their takeover was killed by our super-cold February temperatures. But the henbit and chickweed thrived. At least they are relatively easy to remove.
I was hoping to direct-sow some carrots, but they need a minimum soil temperature of 55 degrees, and as of yesterday afternoon, my soil temperature was 48 degrees. Maybe next week, if the clouds will part to allow the sun to warm the beds.
I know they don’t look like much, but that’s a lot of potential salad in that shot. I left a bare spot in the middle for a few carrots, when the soil temperatures allow. I mulched the new transplants with the last of the mushroom compost we had delivered last season. I finished off that pile, so we’ll be getting more delivered as soon as the weather allows.
The kind folks at WordPress who created and maintain the blog software I use provide me with many useful statistics, including a daily list of search terms folks are using that lead them to my blog. From this, I know that a number of Piedmonters are starting to think about spring gardens and what they should plant. So I thought I’d share with you what I’m growing this year and why.
First, gardening — especially vegetable gardening — is a trial-and-error endeavor. Even if you grow the same varieties every year, you won’t get the same results. Weather, diseases, insects, seed quality, pollinator availability, varmint invaders — these are just a few of the variables that make it impossible to be sure you’ll end up with what you envision. That being said, I’ll tell you what usually works for me.
This assumes, by the way, that your garden area is already prepared and waiting. If you’re just now contemplating breaking ground for a spring garden, forget about it — unless you’re going with a container garden. The soil is too wet, and you don’t have time to get it ready for a spring garden. If the soil dries out soon, you could still grow summer crops in new ground, but it will take some serious work on your part. I wrote about soil preparation here.
What I Grow
I like to experiment, so most years I try at least a few varieties that I’ve never grown before. Sometimes the hype in the seed catalogs leads me astray, but sometimes I strike gold. That’s how I found Sweet Treats tomatoes — a cherry tomato variety I can’t live without now.
In the spring garden, there’s really only one kind of onion variety that grows well in our area. Onions are tricky, because most are sensitive to the amount of daylight they receive. The only kind I find worth growing are Yellow Granex onions. These sweet onions remain reliably mild. Mine rarely obtain the enormous size of the ones I see in the grocery stores, probably because I never manage to give them as much water as they want. But we always end up with a nice crop of medium to small sweet onions that store very well in our cool basement.
Spinaches come in two forms — smooth-leaved and savoyed-leaved. Savoyed-leaved varieties have wrinkly leaves. For me, the savoyed-leaf types seem to grow better, but if I plant early, I usually get at least some smooth-leaved leaves worth eating too. Spinach in my garden bolts at the first sign of heat. An 80-degree day is enough to get it to start sending up its seed stalk. When that happens, the leaves turn bitter and inedible very quickly. I always look for varieties that are described as “bolt-resistant” or “heat-tolerant.” Even so, the spinaches are done well before the lettuces every year in my garden.
This year, I’m trying three different spinach varieties. Tyee is one I grow every year, because it always seems to be the last to bolt. It is a savoyed-leaf type. I’m trying another variety, Crocodile, of the same leaf type. This year, the smooth-leaved spinach I’m trying is Corvair. I purchased all three varieties from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
OK, I admit I always go a little nuts with the lettuces. Back in January when I’m perusing catalogs, I’m nearly always craving fresh greens. I look at all the pictures, read the enticing descriptions — and I just can’t seem to stop myself from ordering an array of selections. A few tried-and-true varieties are always on the list, but I’m always on the lookout for new varieties touted as heat-tolerant, productive, and tasty. My selections this year:
- Annapolis — This is a red romaine that I grew last year and loved. I think it was the last lettuce to bolt last year.
- Coastal Star — This a green romaine that also holds up very well in the heat. In the most recent growing years, the romaine lettuces have outlasted all other types.
These are the only two lettuces I ordered from Johnny’s this year, because I had already been tempted by the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog to order a few of their offerings:
- Merlot — a leaf lettuce reputed to be “the darkest red lettuce in existence.” Red lettuces, as with red/purple fruits, contain beneficial phytochemical nutrients. Baker’s claims it’s very bolt-resistant. Time will tell.
- Slo-Bolt — a green leaf lettuce with a name that tells you why I’m trying it. The Baker’s catalog claims it to be an excellent variety for the South. That’s me.
I also love the bitter speciality greens so often featured in fancy salads these days. The arugulas, mustards, and assorted other brassica relatives are very quick to bolt in my spring garden. So I limited myself to one mix from Johnny’s called Ovation Greens. They did produce a nice mix, which I interplanted in the bed with the lettuces and spinaches. I also got a complimentary packet of Tuscan Baby Leaf Heirloom Italian Kale from Renee’s Garden. The packet says it is a fast-growing variety designed to be picked small for salads. Free seeds for salads? You know I had to try it. I suspect it will bolt quickly; I’ll keep you apprised.
I started a few dill plants in the greenhouse when I planted the greens. Like the greens, dill bolts in the heat, and I wanted to try to give some an earlier start than I can provide with direct sowing (that soil temperature thing again). Interplanted with the greens are a few, slightly spindly Superdukat Dill plants from Johnny’s. This variety is supposed to produce more leaves than flowers, and it is the leaves we use in cooking. I’m hoping the plants will look more lively after they adjust to their new surroundings.
Interplanted with the onions are a few Red Ace beets that I started in the greenhouse. They germinated quite well for me. I’m hoping that I’ll get bigger beets by having plants in the ground this early.
I am absolutely gambling on the weather by transplanting now. I plan to cover the greens bed in a tent of heavy-weight garden fabric to protect them from freezes. But I won’t be able to get to that for a few days. If the temperatures dive more than predicted, I could be in trouble. But the prospect of an early, prolonged salad season was too tempting to ignore.
After I finished planting yesterday and took pictures of the results, I walked around the yard to document some of the early-blooming trees and shrubs beginning to explode with color. I’ll share some of those shots soon.
For those of you wondering about summer garden plants, if you’re growing from seed, you should not wait any longer to start your tomatoes and peppers. I’ll share my progress with those veggies soon too.
So much to do and show and tell. Surely, it must be almost Spring!
Are we there yet? To Spring, I mean. I don’t think I’m the only one hoping the arrival of March means sunshine and flowers are imminent. I’ve much greenhouse news to convey, but today, in acknowledgement of the snowstorm that brought most life to a screeching halt around here for the last few days, I offer you these wonderful photos, courtesy of the gifted eye of Wonder Spouse.
It wasn’t the snow that turned most of her flowers brown. That was the 1.6 degree night last week. The snow won’t harm the few still-pink buds trying to open.
Remember when I told you about our new solar panels here? It took four days for the snow to melt off the panels.
But that doesn’t mean the snow didn’t make the bare trees spectacular:
And, finally, a couple of snowy landscape scenes:
I’ll post soon on greenhouse seedling progress. My tiny green babies all survived and are growing larger by the minute.
I hope all my southeastern gardening friends survived and even enjoyed this latest round of Winter weather. Here’s hoping we can all be talking about our Spring gardens soon!