My garden is coming along, a bit slower than in other years. Nice days are followed by cooler weather, and we still have the occasional frost. Hostas unfurl, get frost, and turn mushy. It gets warmer, they come back up again, only to be hit by frost again. Not every Hosta turns to mush, some are definitely less tender, but still.
While we have to contend with one more night of 29 or 30 degrees right after Mother’s Day, I started bringing up seedlings from the basement to harden them off. Twenty-five red Celosia plants and five Angel’s Trumpets or Brugmansia are now outside. They got rained on their very first night out and the Celosia looks a bit the worse for wear with some torn leaves, but they are managing otherwise in a shady corner right next to the house.
As I walk around the garden shrubs are leafing out, flower buds are showing on trees (but NONE on my Magnolia) and perennials are reappearing everywhere. A Japanese painted Fern reseeded itself in previous years in unexpected spots; now the small plants are coming up in crevices between rocks, softening them with their appearance. I never would have been able to cram the plants in where they are, but nature found the perfect spot and they are happy. So am I.
Pulmonaria or Lungwort also reseeded itself around my garden, but nicely. I can always find baby plants around the mother, but just as with my Fern, sometimes seeds find a spot further away. One seed found its way to the back of the waterfall, growing in the protection of an evergreen. Another one found its way in the gravel, growing at the foot of the retaining wall, again softening it.
Meanwhile The Spouse and I have been forced to use the garage to enter the house rather than the front door. Several weeks ago, a pair of finches decided the tulip wreath on the door was the perfect spot to build a nest. Once it was built, eggs appeared, one each day until mom was done with five. Now there are five downy chicks growing like weeds. A few more weeks and the front door will be ours again.
For the third year in a row a tree frog is calling the birdhouse hanging from the arbor its home. I do not know if it is the same frog from last year, it could be, but it is fun to see its face peering from the entrance.
The garden snakes are back as well. Not as much fun as the various frogs in my garden, but nevertheless they are welcome too.
Seedlings, baby birds, frogs and snakes, my garden has room for it all. A little slice of nature carved out from an empty lot with heavy, heavy clay, six years in the making. It is just as I imagined it.
There is no greater joy than seeing a magnolia in full bloom in early spring. Pink blossoms arrive when our souls need that burst of color early in the season. It is enough to make your heart sing.
No wait, let me correct that statement.
There is no sadder sight than an early blooming magnolia caught in a late frost. One day there are the magnificent flowers unfurling; the next morning they are but a blasted husk of their former self, having turned brown overnight. Soon the ground will be covered with decaying material, a great amendment to soil, but a sad sight, nevertheless.
While I still lived in NJ, I visited a gardening friend and fellow gardening club member. She had a collection of out of the ordinary shrubs and trees and among them was a yellow blooming magnolia, something I had not seen before. Right then and there I said, my Pennsylvania garden must have one too, and once we moved here, the hunt was one. In September 2017, about 16 months after moving, I found a nursery that sold yellow blooming magnolia. It did not have a tag, so I never found out which variety it was, but at least I had one!
In spring 2018 it bloomed – and yes, the nursery was correct – it had yellow blooms. My little tree did not have a ton of blooms, but the hope for the future was there. All I had to do was wait for future springs.
2019: my tree bloomed, with five flowers! FIVE! To say I was underwhelmed was an understatement, but there was hope.
2020: my tree was full of blooms, and it lived up to my expectations. I counted ninety-eight flowers (yes, I counted them twice, just to make sure). It was a sight to behold. Then a major storm blew through only days after most of the flowers had opened. By the time the storm left I had a few petals clinging on. Oh well, it was grandiose while it lasted and there is always next spring!
2021: never did my (steadily growing) tree have more buds. Walking past it every day I wondered how beautiful it would look when the flowers finally opened. One early spring day I spied the first yellow peeking out and knew I was in for a treat in the days to come. I was going to call my gardening friend from the other side of our block to enjoy the sight of all these blooms, just so I could share it with someone else besides The Spouse! Overnight we had a heavy frost, but I did not give it another thought. Then I came out in the garden in the morning and noticed how each slightly opened bud had gone from pale yellow to brown overnight. In the passing days as buds opened further, blasted flowers dropped to the ground and other than a few (very few!) late blooming flowers there was not much to see.
Spring 2022: here we are again. With a stretch of exceedingly nice weather in mid-March my garden jumped back to life, as did my magnolia. Buds fattened and on March 25 the first buds cracked open, showing just a hint of yellow. Then there are several nights of heavy frost in the forecast, more than enough to dash my hopes of flowers. But there are ways to protect just about anything from a late frost, frost blankets. Woven material that covers plants or early crops when frost is in the forecast. I covered my tree and hoped for the best. Despite three days of being covered up, 19 degrees Fahrenheit blasted quite a few buds and they fell off. On Easter weekend the first flowers opened; then we had another frost. When I looked on Monday morning the flowers had turned brown as did a few more opening buds. I will have flowers in the upcoming weeks, but they will be few despite the early promise.
I considered digging up my tree and replacing it with something else but after nearly five years in the ground it is turning into a handsome little tree. I may get to see a full bloom maybe once every three or five years. I may get a few flowers in other years, and I will just have to treasure each and every bloom as I get it. But gardeners are an optimistic lot; after all, there is always next spring!
In one of his poems Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The world laughs in flowers.” That being the case, my garden is slowly building up to a chuckle. After weeks of looking for those first blooms (Witch hazels followed by Hellebores or Lenten rose) an early stretch of above normal temperatures is giving me color everywhere. Little irises, crocuses and a handful of snowdrops bloomed. Now grape hyacinths are adding blue ribbons along some of the beds, while Forsythia are following the Witch hazels with a blaze of yellow. Primula or primroses are pushing forth their blooms, some bright blue with a yellow eye, others in bright yellow all over. And everywhere green is making a reappearance.
Shortly after Iris reticulata ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ made her appearance, I spotted puddles of blue on either side of the (not yet running) waterfall. Iris reticulata ‘Alida’ planted in memory of my mom with the same name was in bloom! Their light blue standards (upper part of the flower) with the darker blue falls and yellow and white splotches glowed. Protected from the wind by a row of evergreens they should last for a while. Considering my mom was deathly afraid of anything without legs (worms!) she probably appreciates being there and then be gone. Unlike my dad, the gardener, who is represented in my garden by Marigold ‘Kees’ orange’. This annual, whose seeds I have not yet started, will hang around from May through September but at the first good frost it will turn up its toes. Then I harvest seeds for another round the following year. And so, mom and dad show up year after year.
A ten day stretch of above 50 (60 and even 70) degree days with mostly mild nights allowed me to do a more thorough clean-up of perennials. Old stems and foliage were cut down and put on the compost heap. Willow branches grew ten feet or more during the gardening year and some branches were slapping me in the face every time I walked past. But every time when I cut the worst offending branches back late last year, I would find baby tree frogs clinging to the cut-off branches. Rather than accidentally discarding a tiny frog in the trash I saved this job to spring and risked the occasional slap in the face. Now I can walk my paths again without ducking and weaving!
Meanwhile plans have been hatched to convert the remainder of lawn in the front yard with a raised bed and extensive plantings. The landscape architect drew up a plan I liked, it was approved by the HOA and in about five weeks work will commence. By the time all is said and done, it has taken me six years since moving into our new home to landscape back and sides and now the front into gardens. Granted, a crew built the pond and sculpted the surrounding beds, and this raised stone bed and planting will be done by another crew, but everything else was planted (and sometimes moved and replanted) by me. One strip of grass remains between sidewalk and road in front of our house. Our neighbor will mow it for us, my final concession to a lawn.
Today the clocks jumped forward, giving us an extra hour of daylight. Not everyone likes daylight savings time, but I haven't met a gardener yet who doesn't appreciate the extra hour of light. Not only that, but next week is also the end of winter. This winter was supposed to be harsh, and I dreaded it. While it has been very cold at times, we didn't get much show. Each time when precipitation was in the forecast temperatures headed up and we got rain instead of snow. A few times we had snow, but never anything significant. Yesterday we got a few inches of snow but since temperatures are heading up into the sixties, this too will be short-lived.
Meanwhile in my garden the first flowers are in bloom. Iris reticulata ‘Catherine Hodgkin’ bloomed for a short period of time; so fragile on the slope of the waterfall, wind did the flowers in again. I really should move these to a more sheltered location. Crocus ‘Orange Monarch’ planted this fall, peeked up for a day or two and was promptly buried in the snow. We’ll see in a few days if they came through unscathed or if I must wait for next year for a grander show. I also planted two varieties of snowdrops last fall; in the backyard the first ones bloomed with a delicate white bell. These flowers shrug off cold and snow and I have no doubt they will be in full bloom through the next weeks.
Then there are the Hellebores, or Lenten rose; a very hardy and long-lived perennial which develops into substantial clumps over the years. A lot of my current Hellebores came out of my New Jersey Garden, others were bought when I couldn’t help myself to have just one (or two) more. At first my Hellebores were unhappy because of overly sunny spots, but by now trees and shrubs are providing dappled shade, making them much happier. Over time the heavy clay soil is also improving through decaying mulch and added compost, making for a better environment for these plants. In winter I cut each plant back rigorously, although making sure the developing buds close to the soil line are untouched. Since Hellebores can develop black spot on their leathery leaves, I throw out the tattered foliage rather than composting it. Then it is just a matter of being patient for better weather as the buds start to rise, unfurl and stems grow taller. Soon enough (although sometimes not soon enough!) I have a grouping of flowers which shrug off cold, ice or snow and remain beautiful for weeks on end. Once the flowery show is nearing its end, new foliage grows, giving you a more substantial plant than the year before. Most likely you will find seedlings surrounding the parent plant in the months to come. Their reseeding is never obnoxious with unwanted seedlings spreading far and wide, but a gentle surprise. Since Hellebores hybridize freely (you might call them promiscuous) you may get something different from the parents. If not, you will have additional plants to move around in the garden or to share with friends.
The few seedlings I have started in the basement are growing well. I will even go as far as to say my sweet Cuban chili pepper seedling is turning into the most beautiful plant I have ever grown. My Datura or Angel’s trumpets still have a long way to go to six-foot plants, but they too are steadily growing and will be potted up in larger containers soon. In early June they will go outdoors and then I will wait, impatiently, for the orange flowers to appear.
January is my least favorite month of the year. Horticulturally speaking there isn’t much going on. Houseplants, which spent spring and summer outdoors, have adjusted to being inside again, and don’t need much care. It’s too early to start plants from seed. Outdoors I pull the occasional weed when I can, but there isn’t anything else to do. I used to take a deep breath on January 1st and let out a huge sigh of relief on January 31st; happy for another January to have passed. It’s a dark, dreary, cold, and long month; sometimes it seemed it would never end. But this January is different.
Last year when talking to my sister, I expressed my frustration about Covid, our inability to travel to see her, quarantine, and a general observation that 2020 and the beginning of 2021 were such lost months. She disagreed. Granted, Covid made life more difficult, but despite it all, she was given more time to spend with her husband and daughter thanks to chemo and surgery. Even when given the devastating diagnosis in March of 2021 of having only a few more months, she lived every day to the fullest, until she couldn’t anymore.
Seven months on I am slowly making peace with the loss of my only sibling. I should be grateful. The days are lengthening imperceptibly, but undeniably.
In the basement I did start a few seeds under lights. I look at a tiny cutting started in August; hoping for something bigger to pot up sometime in spring. Online I found some encouragement: you can remember only that they are gone, or you can cherish their memory and let it live on.
A week after starting those few seeds I noticed the first tiny little seedling appearing. You were right sis: I am thankful in January, thankful for January.