Monthly Archives: January 2010

1st Reason to Love Public Gardens: Witch Hazel

When you cultivate a plot of land as small as I do, you learn quickly to appreciate acres and acres of professionally landscaped and maintained garden. Today’s adventure was to Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, a  92 acre botanical garden just inside the city limits of Philadelphia. It used to be the summer home of John and Lydia Morris, who left their little plot to Penn in 1932 because they were dedicated to horticultural education. They kindly planted loads of  lovely plants and conveniently tagged them with both common and latin names. (Just didn’t want anyone to think I actually KNEW all this information).

Primavera Witchhazel - hemamelis x intermedia primavera

So there are tons of reasons why I love  botanical gardens. First, my favorite ones all used to be private estates. Part of the fun for me,  I’ll admit, is  to imagine what it would be like to live in the big house on the hill and watch your team of gardeners create and maintain this paradise for your own back yard. A little bit of role-play never hurt any of us, no matter our age.  Second, everything is always just right. The house lines up with the trees which line up with the lake which lines up with the paths.  They look amazing in all four seasons. There are no weeds in botanical gardens. They are just right. Third,  there are just so many darn plants.  I took hundreds of pictures of beautiful things today, and it’s January 31. Imagine what a bounty I’ll bring home in May.

Wintersweet witch hazel - chimononthus praecox

Wintersweet witch hazel - chimononthus praecox

Part of the joy of the “so many darn plants” scenario is that you get to see multiple cultivars of the same plant. The star today was witch hazel, because it’s 28 degrees and it snowed yesterday, but these guys are blooming their heads off. I’m a witch hazel newbie, but according to internet sources, there are three kinds of witch hazel: the North American native  (hemamelis americana), the japanese version (hemamelis japonica) and the chinese witch hazel (hemamelis mollis). The hamamelis x intermedia is a cross between Japanese and Chinese cultivars.  They grow to be 10-20 feet tall and 15-20 feet wide.

Orange Beauty Witchhazel - Hamamelis x intermedia "orange beauty"

But here’s the interesting thing. I googled “witch hazel” and had to really search for information on the plants themselves. The vast majority of the information was about the herbal remedy that comes from this shrub’s bark. This astringent reportedly clears up pimply skin (where was this information when I was in high school?) soothes diaper rash, reduces hemorrhoids (Tuck’s pads, anyone?), shrinks bags under your eyes, relieves varicose veins, reduces pain from poison ivy and oak (two of the less friendly plants native to N. America), heals skin ailments ranging from sunburn to dry skin to chicken pox blisters to bruises, and provides an important ingredient (along with a good amount of vodka, interestingly enough) for making your own deodorant. An impressive list without a doubt.

Lansing Witchhazel - hemamelis Lansing

So, if you ever have an occasional breakout, if you have child-birth induced complications (I see at least two listed above), if you sometimes look in dismay at the dark circles under your eyes, if you engage in outdoor activities which  might bring you in contact with poisonous plants, bruise inducing garden tools or the sun: this is the plant for you. (Do I sound like a snake oil salesperson to anyone besides myself?)

Rochester Witchhazel - hemamelis rochester

Seriously, I would love to have the space to grow one of these, because they really do bloom in the depths of winter. And who wouldn’t want to get rid of those dark circles??

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Roses in January? Outside?

Roses in bloom in January? (taken 1/21/2010, Philadelphia)

Rose petals should not still be clinging to the plant now, should they? It’s January for goodness sake. There’s nothing out there that remotely resembles a flower, and yet, these rose petals hang on.  And it’s not just one either – it’s all the flowers on the whole darn plant.

And buds too!

I have to admit I was a bit surprised to find these in my neighbor’s yard. All my roses are dried up, thorny stick bushes. Without color. What did this fellow gardener do right (or wrong) when preparing this rose for the winter? Surely some trick exists to replicate these freeze dried roses in real life.

So I did a bit of cursory research on how to prepare roses for winter including a quick primer on deadheading. Turns out that everything I was ever taught about roses was wrong.

I grew up in the shade. My mom has no roses in her garden. I probably wouldn’t have listened to her advice if she did have roses (I’m kind of a pain that way). My first introduction to roses came when I got married. We were young and poor and homeless, and a lovely couple took us in as caretakers for their turn-of-the-century mansion in St. Louis. I do not exaggerate when I say mansion:

May I present the "John A. Holmes Mansion". Newlywed suite: 3rd floor.

12,000 square feet of house takes a long time to vacuum, I assure you. Part of our job was to help take care of the yard, which included a nice little rose garden. Mrs. G loved those roses and taught me everything she knew. Ever year since then, I’ve applied these lessons to the roses that have grown in my own garden around my exponentially smaller house.  Only water them in the morning. Take care not to wet the leaves. Water them every day. Deadhead them by pruning at an angle above the first healthy five-leaflet leaf. Prune the canes down to about a foot tall and mulch them for winter.

Okay, except it turns out you’re not supposed to cut them down for the winter.  And you’re not supposed to dead head them after September.  (And some say you should deadhead them right below the bloom, not at the five-leaflet leaf, but that really has nothing to do with this story. See Frances Ballentine’s intriguing article on this subject for more detail.)

According to the University of Illinois extension (seems like a reliable source, right?), the right thing to do is coax them into complete dormancy. This means no fertilizing after August 15. No deadheading after September – which should cause the rose to form hips. Then there’s a whole process of mounding and mulching and covering that seems like a lot of work to me. But they are very clear: “Pruning, however, at this point should be kept to a minimum. The majority of the pruning will be done in the spring to remove dead and diseased canes.”

So my neighbor did it right. He or she did not prune the canes prior to winter. But, I think my neighbor might also have done it wrong. Instead of letting the hips form, my guess is that this avid rosarian kept deadheading, so the plant kept producing more flowers. And in some twisted confluence of rose production and winter’s onset, the first hard freeze came when this rose was in full bloom. Hah! And the result was freeze dried roses for his garden all winter long.

Should we try to duplicate these very cool results despite the risky methods hypothesized above? I suppose only time will tell if this rose survived it’s beautiful winter.

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Contain your Cabbage, Make a Friend

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a gardener in possession of a lovely plant will not be in want of a friend. (Forgive me, Jane Austen).

Courtney's Cabbage

Okay, here’s the story. I promised myself when I started this blog that I would never post an ugly picture. In my quest to find blooms around me even in January in Philadelphia, I knew I would want to address the ornamental cabbage. The problem lies in the fact that I, as rule, find ornamental cabbages quite unattractive.  To me, they look faded and dirty and wilted. Especially the white ones. I kept my eyes peeled for said cabbages, anyway, tending to find them only in roadside beds in front of WholeFoods, the high rise condos, the cabinet company, the reformed temple, the outdoor mall. No pretty pictures to be had here. Never mind the fact that I would have to risk life and limb to park, get out of the car, and take a picture on the major thoroughfares of the Delaware Valley. I guess these establishments contract with landscaping companies to rip out the faded vincas or impatiens at the end of the growing season and plant up row upon row of ornamental cabbage. Winter color, hey, I love it. But these guys are just ugly.

Or, so I thought until I took a nice, sunny walk around my neighborhood the other day. I had been searching for these cabbages (officially a kale species, fyi) in residential landscapes, but was coming up woefully short. They seemed resigned to their destiny as strip mall accessories. But there they were in front of a neighbor’s home, just two of them, thriving in pots perfectly sized and suited to their particular mounding growth habit. The containers lifted them off the ground and highlighted them as  specimens, rather than trying to make them work as mass plantings.  They flanked the front porch and actually looked pretty. Pretty enough to photograph, even.

Cabage contained.

The car was in the driveway and the front door was ajar, so I figured I’d knock and ask permission to take a picture. I didn’t want any startled homeowner calling the cops because of the strange woman trapsing about the yard. A cute toddler came to the door and tried valiantly to let me in. Soon came the mom, who very graciously agreed to my request and then said, “Hey! Don’t our kids go to the same preschool?” Indeed they do. We’d been at the same school for a few years, but in different classes, so our paths had never crossed directly. We needed a cabbage to bring us together! Now I have a pretty picture of a cabbage and a new friend. Gardens are so great.

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To do in September: Plant Snowdrops

The problem with the winter garden is that there is precious little you can do to improve it in the winter. Gardening in general takes forward thinking and faith.  The 2 foot sapling that you might trip over on the way out for a jog today will shade your home years from now. But spring, summer and fall give us wiggle room. If we forgot to plan for blooms or foliage in one corner of the garden, a quick trip to the garden center for a flat of annuals can fix us right up. We can even move containers of lush tropicals around to pretty up those problem spots.

Not so in winter. Any beauty that shows up in the winter gardens was arranged for months or years ago. Plant a flowering shrub that holds its dried flowers ‘till spring – you’ve got winter interest. Add a berry bearer – there’s your winter color. Bury early blooming bulbs – you’ve got flowers in January! Check out what’s BLOOMING in my garden:

Snowdrops (galanthus), 1-21-2010

Again, I have my neighbors to thank for planning ahead. (Remember, I’ve psychologically annexed all the yards within walking distance of my home as “my garden.”) I know you have to plant bulbs in the fall. I plant bulbs in the fall. Why oh why have I never thought to plant super early blooming bulbs in the fall? These beauties are snowdrops (galanthus). According to various internet sources, there are over 75 species of these little gems that originated in Europe and Asia minor. They are thought to have been introduced to England by the Romans in the 16th century, and I guess they made their way across the pond to Pennsylvania with some colonial gardeners who had that forward thinking down.  They bloom really early in the winter – in warmer zones they can bloom from fall all the way through. They don’t like warm winters, though. Ha – they’re one thing those southern California gardeners will have to envy in our gardens. They multiply well, especially if you help them along by dividing clumps after the flowers have faded but while the foliage still looks happy. And, did I mention, they bloom in January?!?!?!

So – another resolution. I will plant snowdrops in September. Apparently, the bulbs don’t store well, so they’re only on shelves for a short time. I will seek them out. I will plant them. I will have blooms in my garden (my real garden) next January!

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Why we should love January

Birch Tree in January

I knew that sooner or later I would have to start talking about bark. I was hoping that I would find at least a few more colorful specimens to raise my winter spirits before I had to resort to bark, but alas, bark it is.  But maybe it’s not such a consolation prize after all. Look at this photo of the birch tree in the woods near my house. I think surely this should count as winter color. White is what happens when all the colors blend together, right? I’d be thrilled with a white rose in my garden in May. A dogwood blanketed in white blossoms defines spring in my opinion. All the gardening books tell you to plant white flowers in your “night garden” because they reflect whatever light is around and brighten up the space. Okay, I’m convinced. The white bark of this towering birch is as beautiful as a blooming rose.

Here’s the thing though. This tree is this beautiful all year round. I’m sure that if I stumbled upon it during a summer hike through the same woods, I would appreciate it. Its leaves would shade, its bark shimmer, its grandeur impress.  But I might not single it out as the one plant that wins the prize as most beautiful of the day. In the spring and summer, this birch would compete with scores of other plants and flowers, all claiming their own share of my fascination. In winter, the birch gets to be the star. Especially set, as it is, among its gray-barked brethren, it stands out. Washed in the low light of the winter sun, which makes pictures shot at 2pm as beautiful as those shot at dawn, it shines. If not for January, I would have missed the scope of its beauty. Thank God for January.

Do I really mean that? I guess I do.



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Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, January 15

I’m a week in to my little blogging project, and I just experienced my first wave of complete overwhelmedness (is that a word?).

Did you know there are THOUSANDS of garden blogs out there? They are gorgeous and the writers are real writers and the gardeners are real gardeners. There’s even a garden blog directory (and if there’s one there are probably a hundred). 997 garden blogs currently registered on just this one.

Did you know that there is a conference every year for garden bloggers? This year’s meeting in Buffalo will be the third annual. According to their website, “during the day, we’ll hit the highlights of Western New York’s most beautiful and interesting gardens (public and private); during the evening we’ll eat, talk and hang out.” Sign me up!

Did you know that today is Garden Bloggers Bloom Day? Who knew? Actually, every 15th of the month is Garden Bloggers Bloom Day  – bloggers from all over post descriptions and photos of what’s blooming in their gardens that day. It’s like a little botanical journey ‘round the world! And, let me tell you, it makes me feel a bit inferior. Lots of orchids out there, and, hey, its January so I do have one orchid bloom on my brand new purchase. But lots of real blooms – actual flowers that are growing and blooming OUTSIDE on the 15th of January. I really do need to move to California.

Did you know that I had to rip off another berry picture from a neighbor’s garden even to participate in Garden Bloggers Bloom Day? Nothing blooming at the old homestead this year. I think I’m going to have to appropriate the entire village of Penn Wynne, Pennsylvania as “my garden.” (The sign erected by the county on our main road actually reads “Village of Penn Wynne.” A village 15 minutes from downtown Philly. How great is that?) I think I’ll do that. My yard is miniscule as are those of my neighbors. We must stick together.

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3 remedies: Winterberry, Beautyberry, Wendell Berry

The quest: to find naturally occurring color outside in the middle of January.
The location: my little neighborhood near Philadelphia.
The result: berries!

Certainly, I enjoy paging through glossy gardening magazines to see lush fields of lavender that bloomed in France in some long-passed August.  Sure, I score a bit of a color fix with my annual attempt at orchids. (Here’s a quick rundown of my orchid calendar. Jan & Feb: enjoy delightful blooms. March thru May: try to remember to water. June thru August: remove leaves that died because I forgot to water. September thru November: remove more leaves that died because I over-watered. December: neglect completely, hide behind poinsettia. January: start again).

But magazines don’t quite do it, and my house plant casualty list keeps growing. This all begs the question: is anything alive out there? Anything at all? Given my new resolve not to be brought low by winter this year, I took the only logical first step. I went outside and started looking. I know in my head that life is teeming under the surface – tulip bulbs put down roots, lilacs gather their energy in tiny branch-tip buds, giant oaks rest before shooting out an army of leaves. In my heart, though, I’d rather have some immediate gratification, thank you very much. So I looked. I looked as I drove my kids to school. I looked as I walked to the library. I looked, and amazingly, I found!

Winterberry, a deciduous holly wins double points for being a native plant, as does beautyberry. Not only do they cheer up a dreary winter day, they were made to grow in this soil and to feed the birds and insects that just happen to live near by. Both drop their leaves in the fall to show off their lovely little berries, encouraging birds to eat and deposit their seed far and wide (and encouraging me with bright color in January!) And they’re both growing in right around the corner and they’re both gorgeous! I’ll add “plant winterberry and beautyberry shrubs” to the long list entitled, “Things I would do if I had a bigger yard.” Oh well – at least my neighbors have seen fit to help me out.

What to do, however, if your fellow gardeners don’t take care of you quite so well as mine do? Read a book by Wendell Berry. This man is an artist. His books define life out-of-doors. He loves the land. His characters are real and deep and humble and loving. He will make you want to move to a farm. I bet even January is warmer in Port William.

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Can roses cause the winter blues?

The offending specimen

It will be 35 degrees today. Balmy compared to the last two days – maybe we should break out the t-shirts and shorts. The sun is shining. At least we’ve got that going for us. Days are getting infinitesimally longer since the sun made its turn at the solstice and I no longer desire to sit by my fire and look at the Christmas tree and read tales of idyllic English villages covered in blankets of snow. I wish I were still content to do that; I would be much happier. I enjoyed December. I enjoyed the rest, the coziness, the dark evenings that forced us all inside to string popcorn and to watch Jimmy Stewart realize his worth. Now all of a sudden, I’m restless. I’m buying orchids. I’m kicking the snow off my garden to see if I could possibly dig. I’m visiting the local nursery just to stand in their greenhouse and pretend I’m actually warm.  I want spring. Maybe it is the turning of the sun that winds me up again. Slight changes in the amount of light received can cause poinsettias to turn red or Christmas cactuses to bloom; could those few extra minutes of daytime ignite my overwhelming, almost physical need to see things bloom?

Here’s the problem, though: Nothing blooms in January in southeastern Pennsylvania, and nothing will bloom for weeks and weeks and weeks. C’mon, Kelly, you say. Buy some tropical house plants, enjoy some central American flowers in a vase. Certainly those could help take the edge off? Somehow, they seem only to make things worse. I made the mistake of buying myself a few sprigs of salmon colored roses the other day. They’re lovely, no doubt about it. Sitting on my kitchen counter, all cheerful and flouncey, they do make me smile. That is until my gaze wanders to the view out my window. Gray trees growing next to stone houses sitting under a steely sky look even more gray compared to those little show-offs. Thus, the winter blues begin.

I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but I just might need some resolve in this case. So instead of moping around and feeling sorry for myself and counting down the days until the Philadelphia Flower Show opens (48), I resolve to be a bit more constructive about my self-diagnosed seasonal affective disorder. (My husband Eric will certainly cheer this news. By the end of February every year, he’s ready to cash in the 401K and seek out serious professional help for his sad, sad wife).  I will seek out a remedy. I will read great books about the earth blooming. I will try to appreciate one thing about creation every day – even if it is neither bloom nor bud. I will look for beauty and take pictures even if I have to trespass. I will write down my plans for the growing season instead of letting them fester in my depressed head. I will look for a job in a nursery. I will take a class on turning my tiny yard into a wildlife habitat. I will wear brighter colors.  I will ….well, we will see, won’t we?

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