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!
My goodness, Winter has certainly been having his way with us lately, hasn’t he? At my house, we got rounds of freezing rain and sleet, followed a day later by about a half inch of snow. In a “normal” winter, all would have melted in short order. But this year, Siberian cold followed the precipitation. At my house, the thermometer on our hill bottomed out at 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit. No, that is not a typo. Before and after this polar low temperature, our lows and highs had remained mostly below freezing for quite some time. In our 26 years here, I don’t think the ground has ever been so thoroughly frozen.
We finally got a glorious 55-degree high yesterday. Wonder Spouse and I walked around the yard, slipping and sliding in that welcome mud I mentioned in the title for this piece. But the mud is the result of thawing of only maybe the top quarter-inch of the soil. Walking on this ice-hard ground, you could feel the lack of give with every step. Even on the floodplain beside our creek, which is usually squishy wet this time of year and booby-trapped with myriad mole tunnels, the ground didn’t give at all. It felt as if I were walking on sharp rocks of multiple sizes spread unevenly across the terrain.
Even the deer tracks were really mud skid marks. Their hooves didn’t penetrate the frozen ground either. This is all bad news for southeastern Piedmont gardeners eager to plant their spring gardens. You can’t plant in frozen soil.
Most years by now, my spring veggie beds would be weeded and planted. But you can’t weed frozen beds. My little greenhouse is nearly full with seedlings of lettuces, spinaches, kale, beets, dill, etc. Somehow, I’m going to need to figure out how to transplant them all from their starter cells to larger pots. And then find room for all the pots in the greenhouse. This is going to get … interesting.
Yesterday’s brief warm-up (more snow is in our forecast) had me out in the greenhouse in shirtsleeves transplanting some of the cuttings I took last fall into individual pots. They were well-rooted and beyond ready for their own spaces. I don’t usually take cuttings of my front garden perennials in the fall. But last fall, something told me to root fresh cuttings of rosemary, several perennial salvias, verbenas, and lavender. And now I am very glad I did. The salvias and rosemaries may have been completely killed by that 1.6-degree night. They certainly aren’t looking well at the moment. Many other plants are showing cold damage too, including the large loropetalums up front. The lovely pink flowers on my flowering apricot are all soft brown, but a few tightly closed buds may yet yield more flowers, if Winter decides to loosen his grip.
He can’t hold out for much longer. Soon the sun will be too strong to be denied. Meanwhile, I’ll be juggling plants in my crowded greenhouse, testing soil temperatures in my vegetable garden, and keeping my feathered friends well supplied until the insects return.
I am not a gambler. I don’t buy lottery tickets or spend money at casinos. I am not a gambler — except when I garden. As with any game of chance, all the variables involved in gardening cannot be controlled by humans. In truth, even the plants are gamblers. My lovely ornamental flowering apricots are prime examples. Ten days ago, they were barely blooming, but a slightly (and I do mean slightly) milder round of weather this week persuaded them to open fully for business, much to the delight of my neighbor’s honeybees, who were also out taking advantage of the relative warmth.
When I realized my early-blooming gamblers were waking up, I made a quick trip around the yard a couple of days ago. Although the January Jasmine was still barely open, My Amethyst witch hazel was in full bloom.
The Cornelian Cherries (Cornus mas ‘Spring Glow’) are just cracking open their flower buds. I told them to hold off for at least another week. Betting on successful blooms this upcoming week is a sure way to lose.
All these early-blooming gamblers may pay for their enthusiasm this week. Winter has decided to slam us hard at least one more time before allowing Spring to take over. The weather seers haven’t quite made up their minds (divergent models) about the duration and depth of the cold — and the amount of frozen precipitation that may or may not come with it, but I feel certain that early flowers will mostly meet their demise this week.
I confess the impending forecast has me wondering if I’m being punished for my impudent suggestion in my previous post to defy Winter. Maybe yes, maybe no, but I was left wondering what I should do now. All the spring greens I sowed in the greenhouse two weeks ago are well up. If we lose power, they will turn to green mush, along with all the potted plants I overwinter there.
Today’s mail brought my complimentary seed order from Renee’s Garden. She offers garden writers a few seed packets in exchange for publicity about her wonderful offerings. I am happy to oblige, and you can find my accounts of previous seed trials if you search on the company name. Several of the varieties I ordered this year require a lengthy nurturing period in the greenhouse before they’ll be ready for transplanting into the garden. I pondered — should I sow them now, or wait a week until the arctic deep freeze abates?
What the heck, I figured, I might as well double down and go for broke. I sowed the new seeds in the greenhouse this afternoon, and I fed my vegetable seedlings with a dilute solution of fish emulsion/seaweed to encourage strong growth.
Go big or go home, I say — at least when it comes to gardening. I’ve got plenty of leftover seeds. If all is green mush in a week, I just begin again. Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.
Is it just me, or has this already been the longest winter ever? Oh, sure, we get occasional very brief moments of temperatures in the upper 50s, but they’re usually accompanied by rain. And, yes, I know I’ve had it easy here in the southeastern Piedmont compared to those poor
fools folks in New England currently buried under three feet of snow and counting.
Even so, my winter-blooming plants are way behind their normal schedules. The only one currently blooming respectably is the pink flowering apricot in the above photo. My two other apricots — Peggy Clarke Senior and Junior — are only just starting to try to open a few flowers here and there. Often by this time of year, the apricots have been blooming since late December. Ditto for my January Jasmine. If I scrutinize the flower buds, I can see one or two showing peeks of bright yellow, but no open blooms. They didn’t make their namesake blooming month at all this year. The hellebores are also way behind. I can’t even find any flower buds showing yet. The snowdrops are just pushing up out of the soil, and so on and so forth with all my early bloomers. It’s enough to discourage any gardener.
But for the last two days, suddenly my Northern Cardinals are singing again. Since autumn, they’ve been cheeping among themselves at the feeders, but now the bright scarlet males are perching in the treetops bragging about their good looks for all to hear. Their surge in hormonal harmonizing defies winter’s tenacious grip, and reminds me of the sun’s lengthening daily presence. So I decided to take my cue from them and start some vegetable seeds in my greenhouse yesterday during a “warm” spell.
Personally, I am eager for salad season. An array of fresh-picked spring greens lightly dressed and perhaps mixed with a few other veggies, some nuts or berries or cheese — I’m salivating just writing about it. This excitement annually grips me as I survey my seed catalogs, which probably explains the assortment of seed packets I pulled out yesterday.
Yes, as usual, I’ve probably gone a bit overboard. But that’s why I’ve planted some of each of these in the greenhouse now. I want to prolong salad season as long as I can. You see, the problem with spring gardening in the southeastern Piedmont is that the optimal growing conditions for these veggies can be depressingly short. Sometimes the temperatures leap into the 80s in early April and never look back.
My plan is to grow the seedlings in the greenhouse until the nighttime temperatures stop regularly plunging into the teens. When that happens, I’ll transplant them into a garden bed, mulch them well, and cover them with a tent of the heaviest grade of spun garden fabric — the kind designed to protect plants from nighttime temperature drops. It’s a gamble, but the pay-off is totally worth it.
The lettuce seeds are tucked inside the germination chamber, where the propagation mat warms them from below to raise soil temperatures just enough to enhance germination rates. The spinaches, greens, and beets are sitting in flats on the greenhouse bench beside the germination chamber. They really prefer cooler soil temperatures, so that’s what they’re getting. I’ve never tried sowing beets indoors before, but the seed packet suggested it, and my germination rates from direct sowing have always been unpredictable, so I figured I’d try it this way. Of course, I’ll be sure to let you know the results of the experiment.
I use fresh potting soil for germination operations, and I fill all the cells and water them thoroughly before I start planting. By moistening the soil before sowing, I don’t risk dislodging tiny lettuce and spinach seeds by adding water later. Lettuce seeds especially need to be just barely covered. The only way to achieve the control I want is to slide the seeds in place one at a time into the pre-moistened soil. The green fabric beneath the flats is capillary cloth; this greenhouse staple holds excess water which can be pulled up by the seedlings as they need it. It allows me to maintain more consistent growing conditions inside my little greenhouse.
The top on the heated germination chamber ensures optimal humidity and warmth for encouraging seedlings to emerge. As soon as they do, I’ll move them to a bench. The enclosed chamber is too humid to keep growing plants happy. Plus, I’ll need the space for the next round of seeds I’ll be planting in a week or two.
Today, the winds are howling again, and nighttime temperatures are predicted to be in the low 20s, which translates to the mid-teens at my house. I confess I feel a bit less frustrated with winter’s tenacity, now that I’ve started my own spring revolution in my greenhouse. I encourage all my fellow Piedmont gardeners to join me in this rebellion.
NOTE: For those interested in the germination success of the seeds I planted, I’m providing a running account on the Piedmont Gardener Facebook page. Scroll up and click on the handy link on the right side of this page to get there.
Fire Pinks have always been one of my favorite native wildflowers. I’m lucky enough to have a small patch spontaneously maintain itself on a sunny hill in my back yard. I don’t have to do anything but appreciate them every year when they bloom, which in my yard, is usually in late May. I wrote about my Fire Pinks in a post here a few years back.
I’m mentioning this lovely wildflower today — and yes, I know it’s red, not pink (see my earlier post for an explanation) — because it has just been named the 2015 North Carolina Wildflower of the Year. Here’s an excerpt from the news release I just received:
Chapel Hill – Fire-pink (Silene virginica), one of the most stunning native perennials of the eastern United States, has been named the 2015 North Carolina Wildflower of the Year by the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG) and the Garden Club of North Carolina, Inc.
For a Wildflower of the Year brochure and packet of fire-pink seeds, send a stamped, self-addressed, business envelope with attention to NCWFOY 2015 to North Carolina Botanical Garden, UNC–Chapel Hill, CB 3375, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3375.
The NCBG and the Garden Club of North Carolina work together to promote the use of native plants in home gardens. Each year since 1982, a showy, native perennial has been chosen and seeds of that wildflower are distributed to interested gardeners. To view a list of the past 33 North Carolina Wildflowers of the Year, visit the Garden’s website: ncbg.unc.edu/north-carolina-wildflower-of-the-year
We’re talking free seeds, people. All you need to supply is a stamped, self-addressed business envelope. Once you’ve established this wildflower in your garden, I predict it will stay with you through the years without any additional work on your part. And, no, I’ve never noticed the deer eating it. There’s so much to eat during its bloom period, I doubt deer would ever bother with something so relatively small.
I think this is a wonderful way to expose more gardeners to some of our most lovely native wildflowers. Thanks to the NC Botanical Garden and the Garden Club of North Carolina for keeping this successful program going for so many years!
Recall from my previous post that I’ve noticed deer will eat almost anything if they are hungry enough, or if the whim overtakes them. That being established, I’ve definitely noticed preferences among the deer that have regularly visited my five acres over the last quarter century.
Trees and Shrubs
Almost any tree or shrub that remains green in winter will be at least tasted by deer. Camellias will be devoured, along with gardenias. They’ve nibbled on my Leyland cypresses and my prickly hollies, although not seriously. Even the non-prickly hollies, such as inkberry, are usually mostly ignored. They have eaten the leaves off all the branches they can reach on my evergreen dogwood.
Non-native evergreen azaleas are eaten, especially if they are fertilized. The ones on my property were here when we moved in. I never feed them. The smaller-leaved ones are rarely nibbled. The larger-leaved ones must taste better. If you grow these in deer country, you must spray often. On the other hand, evergreen Southern Magnolias are never touched.
My biggest problem with young trees and shrubs is antler rubbing. Every fall, male deer rub the fuzz off their new-grown antlers by scraping them against young tree trunks and branches. In my yard, they favor trunks and branches with a diameter of 2-3 inches. Before I realized this was a problem, males girdled the trunks of several recently planted saplings. When you remove bark around the entire circumference of a tree (called girdling), the tree dies, because bark contains the conduits that ferry nutrients between roots and leaves. I’ve found two successful preventive methods:
- Wire cage barriers high enough to prevent deer from reaching the trunks.
Cages are ugly, serve as supports to unwelcome invaders such as Japanese Honeysuckle and Japanese Stiltgrass, and if you stop paying attention, the cages will eventually constrict branching, thereby contorting growth.
After trunk diameters exceed 4 inches and the trees/shrubs are growing well, I remove the cages. Often, the deer will at least nibble on the newly freed plants, but usually they survive without protection after this.
- Plastic tree wrap products that spiral around the trunk. These are usually sold to prevent rodent nibbling on fruit tree bark, but they work equally well for deterring antler abrasions.
The kind of wrap I use expands as the trunk grows. It is white, which helps protect young trunks from freeze/thaw cycles, which can split bark. However, it’s a good idea to remove the wrapping periodically to insure that bugs haven’t moved into the cozy space between trunk and wrapping. Again, as soon as the diameter of the trunk is beyond the favored size for antler rubbing, I remove the wrapping.
Note: Although spraying deer deterrent sprays does prevent nibbling of leaves, it does not deter male deer in a hormone-driven frenzy to de-fuzz their antlers on tree branches and trunks.
Shrubs the deer routinely eat if I don’t spray include Virginia Sweetspire. This lovely native must taste very good. My floodplain specimens are now large and wide enough that the deer can’t reach all the way across. Their shapes are strange, but I do get their lovely flowers and fall color every year now. Roses are a favorite food – prickly stems, leaves, and all. I only have a couple that other folks gave me. If I don’t spray, they are gone for the growing season. I’ve written about my Oakleaf Hydrangeas before. Well-timed spraying deters most of the damage most years.
Hostas are deer candy. Only plant them if you like feeding deer. If you are deeply in love with these non-native old-fashioned (in my opinion) southern landscape clichés, your only option is to barricade them or spray them year-round after every rain.
Daylilies are another popular perennial flower. Wonder Spouse became enamored with them and planted quite a few in our yard. It took the deer a few years to find them, but once they did, they began eating every flower bud off the tall flower scapes. And now that they know where the plants are, they and the bunnies graze on new leaf shoots in early spring before much is growing. The flowers are beautiful and widely diverse in color and form. I spray mine. If I forget after a rain, the flower buds are always eaten. The deer must cruise by and check them often.
Dahlias must not taste as good, but mine are nibbled if I don’t spray them early in the growing season.
Hellebores are poisonous, but in late winter new leaf growth is sometimes sampled by starving deer. I’ve never observed flower nibbling on these plants.
Native Purple Coneflower flowers are eaten if I don’t spray, but native Rudbeckia flowers are generally ignored. Native Eastern Columbines are a food of last resort in my yard. Occasionally, all the flowers are devoured. If I spray early in the season, the deer usually go elsewhere.
As I mentioned in the previous post, my native Mayapple stand is partially eaten every year. I’ve never observed any nibbling of my extensive stand of Bloodroots. Both of these wildflowers are poisonous. Native milkweed flowers are routinely eaten if I don’t spray, even though these plants are poisonous too. Lobelia flower stalks are occasionally eaten, but usually ignored. Tradescantia is snubbed.
Fern fiddleheads – the emerging new leaf buds in spring – are eaten. Deer have eaten those on my Christmas ferns, as well as my Royal and Cinnamon ferns. I spray them when they first start popping up, and that usually protects them. My native asters are never nibbled; I’m guessing that their spicy-scented leaves don’t taste good.
Deer don’t like herbs, probably because most are strongly resinous. Rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme, mints, oregano – all are ignored. All perennial and annual salvias are ignored, probably for the same reason. All have fragrant leaves and gorgeous flowers in an array of colors and forms. I grow a lot of salvias.
Anise hyssop is also ignored for the same reason – potently fragrant leaves.
Daffodils must be very poisonous, because they are always ignored. Crocuses are routinely eaten. Snowdrops are ignored. Lilies are eaten occasionally. Flowers and leaves on my dwarf crested irises are eaten if I don’t spray. New growth that emerges in late winter on my Louisiana irises is eaten to the ground. By the time they bloom, the flowers are usually ignored. However, the deer delight in eating the flower buds of my bearded irises if I forget to spray them.
I know this sounds like a lot of spraying, but most of you have much smaller gardens, which helps immensely. Also, I only must spray certain plants at certain times of the year when they are most likely to tempt deer. For me, it’s worth the unpleasant task of spraying a smelly deterrent to ensure I can enjoy my flowers. But I don’t plant new daylilies or iris in my yard anymore. I’ll protect what’s already here, but anything I plant now is either inside a deer fence or has a high likelihood of being mostly ignored by deer.
Unless the coyote pack I’m hearing nightly eliminates my deer predation problem, I’ll continue to practice these strategies. And, frankly, if I’ve got a choice between their eerie yipping and howling and predation of pets and wildlife or outwitting hungry deer, I think I’d rather battle the deer.
Either choice serves to remind me that gardening is an unpredictable hobby. Gardening involves a dynamic, ever-changing interplay between plants, animals, weather, and climate. Every day brings something new. To be sure, I am never bored. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I know, they are cute, especially the speckled fawns as they frolic on my floodplain while their mothers graze nearby. But we all know how much of a challenge gardening in the southeastern piedmont region has become as our deer population has grown exponentially. When I find a treasured young tree with its bark shredded and branches broken beyond repair because a buck used it to rub the fuzz off his antlers, I admit that I am moved to contemplate Bambi-cide. Instead, I’ve spent the last quarter century devising gardening work-arounds for my five acres of green chaos. This is what I have learned.
There is no such thing as a deer-proof plant, except for almost all non-native invasive exotic species. I’ve never seen evidence of deer grazing on privet, autumn olive, porcelain berry vine, Japanese honeysuckle, or Japanese Stiltgrass. The only exception to this rule in my yard is English ivy. During very harsh winters, deer nibble off every green leaf on the vines crawling across the ground in my backyard. Eradicating this ivy is on my infinite gardening to-do list, but standard strategies won’t work, because an expanding stand of native Bloodroot occupies the same areas. Thus, I am delighted to have the deer slowing down the progress of the invasive English ivy, which was already here when we moved in.
If I don’t protect a tree/shrub/perennial/vegetable I care about, sooner or later one or more deer will devour it. The only logic I’ve discerned is that when native food supplies are low, my local deer much more aggressively explore my plantings for dinner options. Deer will take a few bites out of any plant, just to see if it tastes good, or if they are very hungry. Every early spring before native trees and shrubs have leafed out much, one or more deer eat about a fourth of an expanding area of Mayapples. This native wildflower is so poisonous that Native Cherokees called it the Suicide Plant. I’ve never found any unexplainably dead deer lying nearby, so I assume they eat until they get stomach aches, then move on elsewhere.
Fertilized plants are preferentially eaten by deer. I suspect they can smell the extra nutrients. Or maybe when they’re randomly sampling plants, they find the fertilized ones taste better. A few years back, a California-based development company erased 1000 acres of beautiful forest very near my house. They replaced it with suburbs full of over-fertilized grass lawns and ornamental trees and shrubs. When the forest was destroyed, many of the deer that lived there moved to my land. For about two years, I routinely saw a dozen deer a day, and they ate everything. But now that the houses are up and the fertilized landscapes are in place, those deer have returned to that area to dine upon the unprotected fertilized goodies growing there. The only plants I fertilize in my yard are the ones growing in my vegetable garden, and the annual flowers I grow in the bed along my front walk. How do I protect these? Read on.
Deer-repellant sprays will deter deer predation, but you must re-apply the spray after hard rains, and you must thoroughly cover all parts of the plant. On my Oakleaf Hydrangeas in early summer when the leaves are fresh and tasty, if I miss a leaf when I spray the plants, the deer will find and eat that one. I find that I don’t have to spray all the time except during really heavy deer population years. Usually, if I spray during early to mid spring, the deer go elsewhere and find other things to eat through the summer. They usually return and start nibbling in middle to late fall, which is when I spray my hydrangeas again to ensure we get to enjoy their spectacular autumn leaf color.
The noxious, but nontoxic sprays used for deer repellent also deter other plant nibblers. Cottontail rabbits won’t touch sprayed plants; neither will groundhogs. One year during a severe summer drought, deer were devouring my beautiful weeping cherry tree. The leaves of this tree turn a spectacular orange-gold in early fall, but the deer were about to make sure the tree displayed no fall leaf color at all. I thoroughly sprayed this small tree anywhere I thought the deer could reach, which was most of the tree at that time. Immediately, I noticed that another problem pest of that tree – Japanese beetles – disappeared. Evidently, they didn’t like the taste of the sprayed leaves either. I now routinely spray this tree in late spring to remind the deer to leave it alone. During big Japanese beetle plague years, I spray the tree again to deter these invasive exotic pests. Japanese beetles love grape vines too. If you’re trying to grow your own grapes and you have trouble with these pests, try spraying the foliage with one of these repellant sprays.
The repellant sprays only smell bad until they dry. But you want to be very careful about how you spray. From personal experience, I encourage you to avoid windy days, especially when the wind is erratic. I also always wear gloves that I don’t mind getting rid of afterwards. Somehow, the bottles always manage to leak a bit onto my hands. If you are more adept, perhaps you can ignore this advice. You’ll find recipes for making such sprays from scratch. This is messy, stinky work, and because I only spray a few plants a few times a year, I don’t mind investing in the commercial products.
For larger landscapes and especially valued plants (think vegetable garden), barriers are the only effective defense I’ve found. For many years, this meant surrounding all new woody plants with wire cages. This was not only ugly, but invariably the plants grew beyond the confines of the cages before I could provide a larger cage. Deer nibbled the protruding branches, growth of the overall plant was inhibited, and noxious invasive species, such as Japanese honeysuckle and Japanese stiltgrass used the cages for their own evil purposes. Finally, we invested in deer fencing. I wish we had done it sooner.
Deer fencing comes in several forms. We paid a professional landscaping company to install 7-foot-tall plastic deer fencing around about an acre on the north side of our yard where I had planted most of my most treasured woodies – deciduous azaleas, deciduous magnolias, choice viburnums, Stewartias, etc. Freed from their wire cage prisons, all of the plants doubled in size in two years. I think their root systems had been growing, but their top growth had been inhibited by the cages. Once freed, they exploded. I felt like a fool for not figuring this out sooner. The company that installed our fencing built us several sturdy gates for easy access to my beauties, and for the first year, they repaired any holes that developed for free. Every winter, they offer discounts on repairs. Most of the damage to our fence – and there hasn’t been all that much – has resulted from falling branches from the large canopy trees within the enclosure. Only once did a deer try to jump the fence, which resulted in some tearing. The installation of the fence changed the regular paths the deer used to cross that part of the yard. Now that we’ve forced them to detour around the large enclosed acre, they only visit certain parts of my yard when they are very hungry and thus willing to go out of their way to seek food.
We had the same company enclose the vegetable garden in plastic-coated chicken wire fencing of the same height used in the other area. On our fence-enclosed north slope, squirrels immediately chewed holes in the plastic fencing along the bottom. We repair the holes, but the squirrels make more. We didn’t want this issue in the vegetable garden, knowing that the rabbits would happily use the squirrel-created entries for their own purposes. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that on early summer days when my spring lettuces and carrots are productive and juicy, I often spot a rabbit sitting at the garden gate, wiggling its nose wistfully at what it cannot reach. The plastic-coated chicken wire was definitely worth the higher cost for this area.
Certain ornamental plants are just not worth growing in my yard, because I know that deer/rabbits/groundhogs will eat them faster than I can protect them. I’ll give you a list of those plants as well as a list of plants my deer don’t seem to favor in another post soon. This one is already too long.
Have you devised other strategies that work for your garden? If so, please share these in the comment section of this post. They outnumber us, so we gardeners must stick together to thwart them!