Welcome to late winter, that magical season that lasts and lasts! The snowbanks, coated in dingy road grit and spangled with dog droppings, have lost their annoying whiteness, and no one bothers to shovel anymore. Instead we enjoy the long, dark evenings, punctuated by the plink, plink, plink of the leaking roof and the occasional crash as another gutter rips off the house.
At the nursery all our orders for spring are in, and we're starting to receive deliveries of tools, pottery and garden accessories. And although we're still weeks away from being able to receive our first deliveries of live plants, I thought a little preview of what's to come might be welcome.
Helleborus x ballardiae 'Merlin'. Large, outward facing flowers open pink, then mature through dusky plum to deep cranberry. The very dark green leaves are marbled with slightly lighter veining and the stems are reddish, making for a beautiful foliage plant even when not in flower. This group of Hellebores (which also includes 'Icebreaker', 'Penny's Pink', 'Cinnamon Snow' and others) was bred by Josef Heuger in Germany to bloom at a very young age and with an extremely long flowering period.
We had a few 'Merlin' last year and they sold out almost immediately. I snagged one for myself and so far, it appears very vigorous and completely at home here in our Zone 5 garden. A mature clump should measure in the neighborhood of 18" across and 12 to 15" tall. All Hellebores are wonderful garden plants: deer and disease resistant, long-lived, early flowering, evergreen and shade tolerant.
Clematis x 'Guernsey Cream'. I first bought this plant years ago, admittedly because I liked the name, but it's proven to be one of the most reliable Clematis I've ever grown. Very free-flowering and hardy into Zone 4, it's so prolific that I've shoveled pieces off the main root and planted them elsewhere on my property. And it seems less prone to fungal disease than the classic white 'Henryi', which I also love.
The 5" flowers of 'Guernsey Cream' open palest yellow with green central bars, fading to ivory white as the blossoms age. It makes an excellent companion for old roses, and the golden seed heads extend its interest well past the flowering period.
Clematis pruning is a topic that drives gardeners mad, but there's no reason to stress. 'Guernsey Cream' is classed in Group 2, those whose main flush of bloom is borne on the previous year's growth. All I do is trim out some of the weak and broken stems in early spring, then tip the others back to just above a swelling bud. My vines top out at around 8 ft, making it a good choice for a fence or a light trellis.
Euphorbia polychroma 'Bonfire'. This plant has been around for quite a few years now, but I never tire of promoting it... truly one of my Top 10 Perennials (don't ask what the other 9 are). The regular Euphorbia polychroma is sort of a standard old reliable garden stalwart, but 'Bonfire takes it to a whole new level, starting with its emergent colorplay of reddish foliage and lime green flower buds... a real spring tonic! Then it pays its way all through summer with compact mounds of burgundy that need no deadheading, staking or shearing. As fall temperatures drop, the leaves take on tints of violet and bronze that complement Asters to perfection.
My only caveat with 'Bonfire' is that it seems to resent disturbance, even planting, making it a bit of a challenge to establish. But once it takes, it's virtually indestructible. Like all Euphorbias, it has a milky sap that causes skin irritation in some people, so wear your gloves when handling!
Agastache 'Purple Haze'. All the Agastaches are beautiful but most of them are, alas, only hardy to Zone 6 or 7. I admit that I've had a little trouble overwintering this stunning variety, but local garden designer Heather Grimes swears she's kept it for years here with no problem, so I'm going to retry it in a different spot. It's definitely worth a little extra effort to find just the right microclimate so that it overwinters reasonably well.
The tall racemes of smoky blue/purple seem to stay in flower for weeks and weeks and weeks, making it a wonderful high summer complement to Daylilies, Achilleas, Echinaceas and other midsummer perennials that tend toward the warm end of the color spectrum. And I love the foliage fragrance: anise, hyssop or root beer, depending on your nose.
'Purple Haze' is highly deer and rabbit resistant, drought tolerant and a bee and butterfly magnet. Site in a well-drained location with plenty of sun and enjoy the long display!
That's about all for now, folks... just a little taste of things to come. Spring is just around the corner, so keep the faith for a few more weeks and we'll soon all be swamped with outdoor chores, the winter blues behind us for another year.
The cat jumps from windowsill to windowsill, meowing pitifully. The dog paces the room before dropping down in front of the fire with a sigh. And the chickens refuse to do more than poke their heads out into the frigid air and survey the knee-deep snow. We try to work through the list of tasks we've saved for the winter months, but how much basement cleaning, closet tidying and tax organizing can a gardener stand?
In a month or so I can start the earliest batch of indoor seeds, but just now, spring seems awfully far away. One consolation is that the seed catalogs have been jamming the mailbox since just after Christmas, providing a wealth of obsession material. Most of them end up in the recycling bin because I avoid buying from the big seed conglomerates in favor of smaller outfits that offer more interesting options and focus on open-pollinated and heirloom varieties. Here, a few of my favorites.
FEDCO. I discovered this co-op thanks to advice from my friend Donald, a professional gardener in Vermont, and they've been my first choice seed source for years now. Their 158-page catalog is a no frills newsprint affair, illustrated sporadically with old cuts and hippyish drawings, but the text is mighty good reading with lots of information from home gardeners and independent small farmers sprinkled throughout. Best of all they send more seeds per pack than most seed houses, and offer bulk quantities of many items. Extensive range of vegetables and a decent selection of flowers. Potatoes and Onion sets too, plus soil amendments, tools, books and some home livestock supplies.
P. O. Box 520
Waterville, Maine 04903-0520
BAKER CREEK HEIRLOOM SEEDS. This is without doubt the prettiest catalog I've received this year, and it's nice to see how this business has grown from its modest beginnings. It's still family owned and obsessed with seeking out treasured varieties lovingly saved and handed down from generation to generation. The photos are so beautiful and the names so enchanting, it's hard to resist ordering more than I need! Mostly vegetables, and somewhat more oriented to southern and midwestern climates, but still plenty of great options for our region.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
2278 Baker Creek Rd
Mansfield, Missouri 65704
SELECT SEEDS. The way this catalog is organized makes me crazy... nothing alphabetical and everything by common name... but this is still the best source for unusual, antique and heirloom flower varieties. Always something new to try here, and old favorites too, offered by the mother-daughter team of Marilyn and Allison Barlow. Many items can also be purchased as starter plants. A few vegetable varieties are listed, but flowers are their real strength.
180 Stickney Hill Rd
Union, CT 06076-4617
TURTLE TREE SEED. We're all trying to buy locally now, and you can't get much more local than this seed producer right here in Columbia County. I didn't get one of their catalogs this year, but their website is full of tempting photos and good descriptions. Several size packets of seed are offered for most items, which is a nice option. And as part of the Camphill community, this non-profit employs adults with special needs on the team that harvests and processes the seed shipments. Strong on vegetable and herb seeds, but I find the flower offerings a little too basic for my needs. Still, a wonderful local resource.
Turtle Tree Seed
10 White Birch Rd
Copake, NY 12516
This is just a personal sampling. There are lots of other worthy sources around, and I encourage you to seek them out and spend your seed budget with some of these smaller firms whose dedication, hard work and integrity deserve our patronage.
No, it's not a lost song by W. C. Handy or Ma Rainey, it's just the way I've been feeling during this challenging season! "Why can't I get my Lavender plants through the winter?" is definitely one of the top questions we're asked at the nursery (right up there with, "Why won't my Agapanthus bloom?") So I thought it would be an opportune time to discuss this much beloved, and problematic, plant.
Although I usually associate Lavender with English and French gardens, it has a history stretching far back into antiquity. The Romans were mad for it, as was Cleopatra. And Queen Elizabeth I required her gardeners to provide fresh Lavender flowers every day of the year. In Gerard's Herbal (1633) he notes, "The distilled water of Lavander smelt onto, or the temples and forehead bathed therewith, is a refreshing to them that have the Catalepsie, a light Migram, & to them that have the falling sicknesse and that use to swoune much." All swooners take note.
Lavender needs lots of sun, good drainage and a high pH, so careful siting and an annual topdressing with a little ground limestone will help your plants thrive. So far, my group of Lavender 'Grosso' seems to be weathering this winter pretty well. 'Grosso' is one of the larger cultivars, and gets good ratings for cold hardiness, but my plants are also on the south side of my house, sheltered from the wind, and get immaculate drainage in sandy soil at the top of a retaining wall. Plus we've had a pretty consistent snow cover, and the deer and rabbits ignore them. So I've got my fingers crossed.
In general, the English Lavender varieties are considered the hardiest, but are smaller than the French types and more susceptible to fungal diseases. Scent-wise, they're all delicious, but the English Lavenders are the sweetest, while the French varieties have a slightly more resinous smell. The most commonly available English types are 'Munstead' and 'Hidcote', which I've had seed into gravel. The French cultivars like 'Grosso' and 'Provence' make a larger plant with coarser foliage that is handsome even when not in flower. All these are rated USDA Zone 5 hardy. And I'm looking forward to trialing a new variety this year, 'Phenomenal', a vigorous selection discovered in Pennsylvania and said to be hardy even into Zone 4.
That being said, we're still in upstate New York, not the south of France, so losses are inevitable. I would never be without a few plants myself, but I don't recommend making Lavender the focus of an elaborate garden design unless you're prepared to replace at least some of the plants just about every year. For a spiky purple effect with less chance of winter kill, I'd suggest using Nepeta 'Walker's Low', Agastache 'Blue Fortune', or one of the hardy Salvias like 'May Night', 'Caradonna' or 'Blue Hill', all more dependable substitutes in our climate.
But really, there's nothing quite like the real thing for the fragrance, the neatness and coolness of the foliage, and the associations attached to it. So do as I do and grow Lavenders in moderation, replace and replant where needed, and enjoy one of the great sensuous pleasures of gardening.
Thanks for reading, and hang in there... spring's coming!
Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.