Crocuses along front walk

Spring Again

My garden to-do list for February and March

  • Finish winter pruning and haul brush pile to curb for collection
  • Clean up beds, cut down dead stalks, etc.
  • Uproot or cut suckers of lilac, snowberry, and Oregon grape from spots where they’re not wanted
  • Dig up or at least cut down plants of invasive Italian arum (aka Arum italicum or lords-and-ladies)
  • Pull up maple and laburnum seedlings, shotweed, and other weeds
  • Lay out soaker hoses. (They won’t be needed until June, but it’s much easier to wrestle them into place when plants are small)
  • Edge the beds that adjoin lawns
  • Acquire materials for mulching mix: bagged manure, lime, slow-release fertilizer, kelp meal, bone meal, alfalfa pellets
  • Mix above materials with compost to make Alfa-Omega* mix for mulching, and distribute among the beds
  • Repot potted delphiniums and hostas to larger pots; ditto the rose “Fragrant Cloud,” which was grown from a cutting and therefore is on its own rather feeble roots, rather than grafted onto a vigorous rootstock
  • Seed tomatoes
  • Execute the colchicum-clematis move as per plan.

*Alfalfa plus the “end product,” i.e., manure.

I’ve already done some of these things; others are in progress. Pruning was easier this spring due to the acquisition last fall of a ladder designed for use in gardens, as opposed to home maintenance.

Three-legged ladder and Photinia
This ladder is way more stable than the four-legged type, and can be adjusted for uneven terrain. Pruning the Photinia was much easier this year! (Photo taken Feb. 27/21)

While racing around doing the tasks on the to-do list, it’s nice to stop and admire something that looks wonderful.

Iris reticulata
Iris reticulata (Photo taken Feb. 19/21)
Hellebore "Pirouette"
Hellebore “Pirouette” in its new pot (repotted last September)
Hellebore "Pirouette"
Hellebore "Pirouette" flower closeup

Hellebore photos taken Mar. 6/21

Sacrifices in the Garden

No, not the bloody kind performed in times past to ensure good crops and the survival of the group. I’m talking about a situation that happens often in old gardens that aren’t as disciplined as they might be, with more plants than there is space for them.

Specifically, several years ago I saw a clematis for sale at a building supplies store. It was on deep discount because the main planting season (spring, to most people) was over and the stock, including this clematis, was looking a bit tired. The variety is “Blue Angel.” I’m a sucker for any blue flower, and a look at its tag revealed it to be a variety that should be cut to 1 foot (30 cm) of the ground in spring, which simplifies pruning. It’s possibly related to the viticella type clematises, one of which (“Polish Spirit”) is happy in my garden.

But sadly, “Blue Angel” has not done well here. For one thing, I planted it near a large magnolia, with the idea that its blue flowers would look great peeking out of the magnolia foliage in late summer. But that meant the clematis had to establish itself in soil full of magnolia roots. The hole I dug for it was probably inadequate, and to make matters worse, a large (you guessed it) Norway maple a few metres away supplies more roots.

In its second summer, “Blue Angel” actually managed to set up a couple of dozen flower buds on the two stems it had produced that spring. Then one of the stems wilted, along with all the flowers. Clematis wilt is a thing. No matter, the other stem survived and its buds bloomed. But the next year and the one after that (which was 2020), I could see the plant was struggling. I resolved to find a better spot for it and move it this spring–if it showed signs of life, that is.

So spring is upon us, and “Blue Angel” is alive. It has little leaves on its single feeble stem. Now is the time to move it, except that the site I picked out for it is occupied by half a dozen colchicums, which are at their peak of leafiness, feeding their bulbs for next autumn’s bloom. I could move them, but this isn’t the best time. It would be better to wait until summer, when the colchicums are dormant. Except that isn’t the optimal time to move the clematis. I could compromise and wait until the colchicum foliage starts to yellow off in May, but even that might be too late for the clematis.

What to do? Well, I have only this single plant of “Blue Angel” and several dozen colchicums. In its present spot, the clematis is likely to die. It might be possible to move the colchicums with sufficient soil around their bulbs that they wouldn’t know what’s happening. On the other hand, they might die. And even if they don’t, the clematis might not survive the move. But since it’s not likely to survive in its present spot, I’ve decided to make the move.

So here’s the plan. First prepare spots for the colchicums. Dig them up carefully with lots of soil (which will make a start on digging the hole for the clematis) and move them. Then finish prepping the clematis hole and move the clematis. Pray to the garden gods. Sweat (but with luck neither tears nor blood) will have been exuded in all these operations as a tribute to those deities.

This is exactly the kind of situation writers are advised to create for their characters–one where there is no good choice and a calculated risk is needed. And it shows that gardening really is a life or death business.

Colchicums, brown Carex and Euphorbia myrsinites
spade digging perennial bed

Digging and Renewal

My garden consists of seven or eight beds, inhabited mainly by perennials and bulbs.

Here is a description by Eleanor Perényi (in her book Green Thoughts: a writer in the garden) of what was necessary to maintain the classic English herbaceous border*:

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For a start, it was double-dug to a depth of several feet, then filled with well-rotted manure, ashes, sand, etc., and as if that weren’t enough for a lifetime, it was taken apart every third year, dug over, replenished with huge amounts of fertilizer and fresh soil. At that point, new plants were put in, old ones in need of dividing were broken up and reset, and the whole elaborate complex reassembled.

*A perennial border. Herbaceous plants are those whose top growth dies down in the winter.

If I managed to do even an approximation of this, my perennial beds would no doubt be glorious. Deep digging would remove the mat of feeding roots put out by the Norway maples that shade the beds. All the extra fertilizer would mean those roots would return, but a three year renewal cycle would ensure reasonably root-free soil for the perennials.

When should this operation be carried out? I suspect early autumn would be the best time. Many perennials would be at the end of their blooming seasons, and all spring bulbs would be dormant. There would be enough good weather left for plants to re-establish before winter. But what about those dormant bulbs? I can tell a daffodil bulb from a tulip or crocus, but unless there was a detailed and up to date map of the bed, or excellent labels (both unlikely at my place) it would be impossible to know which varieties they were. So much for any carefully worked out colour schemes.

So am I planning to dig up my beds any time soon? Not on your life.

For one thing, I’m not Superwoman (or Super-Gardener, for that matter). Digging up tree roots–or more likely sawing and chopping them–is brutal work. I’ve done it in small areas when moving or dividing plants. I can’t imagine working over an entire bed. My beds are up to 5 feet by 20. The grand gardens of England had small armies of gardeners to do stuff like this. In this non-grand garden of Canada, there’s just one gardener–me. Yes, there are a lot of spades-for-hire in the form of landscaping and yard maintenance companies, but they seem to fall into two groups: the mow the grass and trim the edges crews, or the ones that install instant gardens around new houses built on lots where old gardens have been stripped away to make room for the new. I’d rather not deal with them.

Another problem is my beds aren’t exclusively herbaceous. Some include shrubs, which would be impossible to dig up and replace. I would have to work around them, which would further complicate matters.

And yet, just reading the paragraph I quoted above, and imagining how the renewed beds would look, and how the plants would burgeon forth and bloom the following spring and summer–that brings on an intense bout of gardener’s guilt.

My practice is to apply an annual mulch of compost enriched with a variety of organic supplements such as alfalfa pellets, aged manure, kelp meal, bone meal, or soy meal, and inorganics like lime and all-purpose fertilizer. When I plant something new, I dig up the immediate area to the depth of the spade (about a foot, maybe 18 inches) and add compost and whatever of the other goodies I happen to have on hand. And of course I cut and remove any tree roots that have invaded the spot since it was last dug. (This is why I know I could never renew a whole bed at once; a 2 x 2 foot area is an all-day project.)

Feeding mulch ingredients in wheelbarrow with spade near compost heap. Alfalfa pellets, soy meal, lime, steer manure, compost.
Compost pile and wheelbarrow full of mulching mixture.

The above-quoted Ms. Perényi goes on to endorse this practice in her chapter on perennials, where she offers her thoughts based on experience in her own Connecticut garden.

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Nor is it necessary to double-dig. Ordinary digging in of natural fertilizer at the start, and liberal additions of enriched compost after that, are perfectly adequate.

It’s reassuring when another gardener, especially a noteworthy one, says it’s okay to do things the way one already does them. And gardening should be a life-enriching activity, not ache-inducing, heavy labour.

Front arches and cotoneaster with snow February 2021

First (and Last?) Blast of Winter

Until last week, the winter of 2020-2021 was a mild one here on the west coast of Canada. That’s the way it should be, right? A couple of weeks ago, I was anticipating spring.

But this is a La Niña winter. You know La Niña–she’s El Niño’s evil twin sister. Her style is to hold back until spring is just around the corner, and then to descend on the unsuspecting saps who’ve been busy sending photos of stuff blooming in their gardens to folks in places that always get real winters.

miniature daffodils
Early daffodils in 2019. This year they didn’t quite get to this stage before the snow.

Last week, temperatures as low as -9C (16F) were forecast. I raced around the garden, lugging pots into the basement and moving other pots into what I hoped would be sufficiently sheltered spots to withstand the predicted northeast winds that were supposed to produce a wind chill well into the minus degrees. Then I covered up plants that couldn’t be moved with odds and ends of pruned twigs and things like old bath mats and car seat covers that I keep in the shed for these weather eventualities.

Snow on front garden shrubs February 2021

I kept hoping it wouldn’t be as bad as predicted, and it wasn’t, but a low of -4.5C (24F) is pretty cold, especially with a wind gusting to 70 km/hr (35 mph). Having done what I could for plants, I worried about how birds were faring. I made sure the two hummingbird feeders went out first thing in the morning. On Friday, February 12th there were three Anna’s hummingbirds tanking up at the same time at one feeder, a sight I haven’t seen before, since each feeder is usually hogged by one aggressive dude who chases any others away.

Hummingbird at feeder February 2021
Anna’s hummingbird tanking up.
Hummingbird in cotoneaster February 2021
Keeping watch on his (or maybe her?) feeder.

On Friday night, snow began and fell steadily until after noon on Saturday. Total was 30 cm (1 foot). Fortunately, the wind diminished and the temperature rose to an almost tolerable -1C (30F). Rain is predicted for next week, and a return to normal temperatures, meaning lows of 2C (36F) and highs of 8C (46F).

Bird bath and snow February 2021

Returning to plants, I would have been happier if this wintry blast had turned up in December or January, before plants were starting to sprout and even bloom. Now the hellebores, which were in bloom, have gone limp. I know they’ll rebound once it warms up, but it’s still depressing to see them lying on the ground. Buds of Clematis armandii, the evergreen clematis that’s the first to bloom, may have been blasted to the point of no bloom at all by that cold northeast wind. Some of those potted plants may have suffered as well.

Snow on front steps February 2021
Pots near front steps. You can see limp hellebores hanging over the edges of the pots on the left.

While distressing, this sort of snow and cold event is by no means unheard of here. We get one every couple of years. I just wish La Niña had better timing.

Snow on front walk February 2021
Crows in trees

My Bird List

Ever since I first hung up bird feeders (seed, suet, and hummingbird) in my garden in 2015, I’ve taken note of the birds that show up here. I’m not a bird watcher (life list, keen to see rare birds), but over the years I’ve noticed the regulars and learned who makes what sounds.

Bird feeder on clothesline
Feeder hangs from the clothesline, so is about 8 feet from the ground and inaccessible to squirrels.

Regulars, meaning birds that frequent the feeders or are seen almost every day:

  • Crow (there’s always a crow family around)
  • Sparrows: Fox, House, White-Crowned, Golden-Crowned, maybe others as well
  • Bewick’s Wren (the Shoe Birds of 2015 were a pair of these)
  • House Finch
  • Purple Finch
  • Pine Siskin (identified these recently)
  • Dark-Eyed Junco (fall and winter only)
  • Chestnut-Backed Chickadee
  • Bushtit (tiny birds who travel in gangs)
  • Spotted Towhee
  • Anna’s Hummingbird (lots of these around here; year-round residents)
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Red-Breasted Nuthatch
  • American Robin
  • Starling
  • Gulls (not sure what kind; fly over daily)
  • Raven (seen/heard regularly in neighbourhood)

Occasionals, meaning seen or heard infrequently:

  • Steller’s Jay
  • Northern Flicker
  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Barred Owl
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Rufous Hummingbird
  • American Goldfinch
  • Kinglet (not sure if Ruby-Crowned or Golden-Crowned)
  • Mallard Duck (a pair used to visit the pond years ago)
  • Great Blue Heron (when there were goldfish in the pond; now just fly over)
  • Bald Eagle (fly over occasionally)
  • Turkey Vulture (fly over occasionally)
  • Canada Goose (heard honking as they fly over)

Here are some rather inferior photos of a few of these birds. I have neither the skill nor the equipment to take good ones. Clockwise from top left: Barred Owl, Bewick’s Wren, Anna’s Hummingbird, American Goldfinches, Mallard Ducks. The featured image at the top of the post shows four crows, two in a birch and two more in the ailanthus.

Snowdrops (Galanthus) January 9, 2021

First Signs of…

Someone I worked with used to declare, as we all returned to the office after the Christmas break, “Okay, now it’s spring!” The rest of us would beg to differ, because rain, cold, and even snow are possible until March or even April.

But my coworker had a point. If you know where to look, even early in January, you can see plants budding or even blooming.

Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius) January 9 2021
Corsican Hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius)
Hellebore "Ruby Wine" January 9, 2021
Hellebore “Ruby Wine”
Hellebore "Ruby Wine" January 9, 2021
“Ruby Wine” close-up
Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis) January 9, 2021
Algerian Iris (Iris unguicularis)

Best of all, as far as I’m concerned, the Chinese witch hazel, which hardly ever blooms, has managed a respectable show, due to extra watering last summer. OK, this is a pretty substandard photo, but if you look carefully, you can see the threadlike yellow flowers in the upper third of the picture. If you look even more carefully, you might spot a dark-eyed junco (bird) perched on a branch. These juncos are frequent visitors to the bird feeder all winter.

Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) in bloom January 9, 2021
Chinese Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis) in bloom, with visiting Dark-eyed Junco
Chinese witch hazel, Hamamelis species
Chinese Witch Hazel flowers close-up

All photos taken January 9, 2021, except the last one, which is from January 2015

Winter jasmine yellow flowers on trellis

My Tough Plants #6: Winter Jasmine

Winter jasmine seemed like the right plant to feature for my first post of 2021. The bright yellow trumpet-shaped flowers that appear as the days grow shorter are a fanfare for the new year and an early promise of spring.

Winter jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum

All right, I’ll admit that ironically enough, winter jasmine isn’t exceptionally tough in terms of winter hardiness. It’s hardy only in the USDA’s climate zone 6 or milder. That means low temperatures of no more than -23C or -10F. Given that its claim to fame is winter bloom, winter jasmine will not be found in places that have snow and frigid temperatures all winter.

But in relatively temperate places, winter jasmine is a treasure. Its long, whippy stems are bright green, and from November onward it produces bright yellow flowers. Unfortunately, they are scentless, which seems to contradict the name “jasmine,” but they are cheerful in a season when flowers of any kind are welcome.

Winter jasmine tolerates both drought and shade to a certain extent, which makes it a good choice for my garden, with its sandy soil and Norway maples.

The plant is a flexible shrub. It may be grown tied to a trellis or fence, or cascading down a retaining wall. I have also seen it trimmed into a bun shape, which destroys the plant’s natural graceful shape, but even so it was blooming well.

Winter jasmine yellow flowers on trellis

Stems that touch the ground will root and form new plants. This makes winter jasmine a good pass-along plant, but it’s worth keeping this habit in mind if you don’t want it taking up more than its share of garden space. Cut those stems back when pruning in spring.

More information:
Plant Pick: Winter Jasmine by Vancouver Island Master Gardeners Association.
Jasminum nudiflorum by Missouri Botanical Garden.

Winter jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum

Photos (featured image and second from top) taken December 11, 2020. Others in 2018 and 2012.