Tag Archives: garden insights

Taking Stock of 2018

June Delpiniums

Part of the preparations for updating the Avant Gardens 2019 plant list is to archive the gazillions of garden photographs taken and update the website with new and better images. This cataloging of images reminded me of the star performers of 2018, and regrettably, which plants had a less than stellar year.

Planted in a sunny warm spot at the base of a wall, Acanthus hungaricus

Now one thing always holds true. You can’t rely on any particular weather pattern here in southern New England.   Every year (every season!) challenges us with a totally different set of circumstances, and 2018 was the most challenging gardening year that I can recall. Drastic swings in winter temperatures are the new normal…we began with an arctic blast with January’s arrival followed by 6 weeks of typical winter weather. The last week of February brought surprising warmth and it was a terrible tease… the dusk to dawn thermometers remained above freezing for 7 nights in a row. 

March Blizzard with Hamamelis (Witchhazel)

March weather reminded us why some New Englanders vacate to warmer climates until May….3 nor’easters blew in during the first 2 weeks, and this made spring seem so very far away. Sunshine and a gradual warming trend finally arrived in May, continued for a few weeks, and then summer heat and humidity settled in.

Dwarf Bearded Iris ‘Pastel Charm’ in May

Our garden, late spring.

This is what I remember about last summer…lots of heat and humidity but no rain to speak of…oh wait… on Aug. 4th we had a half inch of precipitation. Yes, I do know folks in much of the northeast had record rainfall, but during July and August the ocean fronts pushed any rainfall off of Cape Cod, the MA South Coast and coastal Rhode Island to the northwest. Our high humidity finally turned to almost daily precipitation in September and October, and then a killing frost finally pulled the curtain just before Halloween arrived.

it’s raining at last…August rainfall is wonderful!

So how did various plants in the garden fare with this irrational weather pattern? Well this was the first year the succulent planters, which in previous years have sung Hallelujah gloriously in September, sadly cried “Enough wet air, already!” long before the first frost arrived. The hardy succulents seemed worse for wear from the constant humidity even when they inhabited the leanest, well drained spots in the garden. On the other hand, any plant with tropical origins prospered in 2018…the Cannas, Caladium and Colocasia were saying “Hey baby!” without any coddling on our part.

Black Colocasia, Caladium and Variegated Bermuda grass

Magnolia macrophylla blossom

Clethra barbinervis in flower

Trees and shrubs always seem to persevere despite the weather, but I know they appreciated the rebound of precipitation our wet autumn provided.The standouts in 2018: I continue to be impressed with Magnolia macrophylla and Clethra barbinervis as extraordinary trees for our landscapes.

Honey bee visiting Pycnanthemum muticum

Calamintha nepeta

Persicaria ‘Firetails’ in the August border,

Detail of Persicaria ‘Firetails’

A few always stellar perennials stood out: Pycnanthemum muticum, flourished and bloomed for months, providing a food source for our honeybees and other pollinators as well. Aralia ‘Sun King’ just kept looking better and better into the fall. Calamintha nepeta ssp nepeta and Persicaria ‘Fire Tails’ bloomed incessantly from mid-July to October. Tricyrtis ‘Autumn Glow’s handsome variegated leaves held up strongly in the shade garden, and its display of lavender orchid like flowers bloomed for 8 weeks beginning in August. The Shrub Mints, Leucosceptrum ‘Golden Angel’ and ‘Mountain Madness’ , maintained their good looking foliage all summer and then their autumn flower spikes provided a feast for our bees!

Aralia ‘Sun King’

Tricyrtis ‘Autumn Glow’…in bloom from August to October.

Gardeners, who aware of the effects of climate change on their plantings, will be challenged to predict which plants will be the stars of 2019. We are lectured that native plants are always a good bet, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that climate change isn’t affecting them as well.  One thing that is constant: plants perform better when good gardening practices are in place. Select the right plant for your soil conditions, amend your soil with compost, mulch newly planted areas to retain moisture and limit weeds, use soaker hoses to irrigate and provide a habitat for beneficial insects. 

A yellow intersectional peony on a late spring evening.

Each year is different, and gardeners are optimists. There’s no telling what 2019 will bring, but I’m sure we will experience pure bliss when we will sit in our gardens on a late spring evening, inhale, and feel that at this moment all is right in this world.

Which plants performed best for you in 2018? Which plants are you looking forward to trying this gardening year?

Joy

A while ago I heard someone comment “Happiness is overrated”.  Something about that comment resonated. 

We are constantly encouraged to pursue happiness. We are told that acquiring “things” will make us happy, that we will be truly happy when we meet our soul mate, that our children’s and loved ones’ happiness will make us happy too. If we don’t have new things or a soul mate, or our children are not happy, then that must mean we are unhappy too.

Joy, to me,  is something different. Joy really can’t be purchased nor taken away. Joy comes from deep within us, a place that is solid and loving. It is an intense feeling of contentment which can be ignited when we experience something pure: watching kittens or puppies play and tumble, observing an elderly couple walk hand in hand, spending moments in a garden while contemplating the array of life surrounding us. We can share joy with others who are open to it.

This holiday season, may moments of contentment ignite the joy within you. May those around you be open to the joy you feel. And may we all continue to find and savor joyous moments throughout the coming year.

 

Hygge…& Celebrating Winter’s Gifts

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Aronia arbutifolia “Brilliantissima’ with the first snowfall

Last week’s arctic blast brought temperatures in the single digits and truly announced that winter had arrived. Ready or not, garden chores were a wrap and the time had come for most of us to give ourselves permission to chill…indoors! 

We gardeners are naturally inclined to follow the rhythm of the seasons, and the shorter days of winter are a check for us to slow down and restore our energies. You, like I, may resist going into full hibernation mode, but why not take cues from Scandinavian folks, who endure even shorter days than we do. For example, the Danes practice hygge (pronounced hoo-guh) as part of daily life. Hygge can’t be translated into English with a single word, but imagine feelings or activities that promote coziness enhanced by candles or firelight….think warm socks and woolen sweaters, friendly gatherings before a roaring fire, warm beverages in your hands, looking dreamily at snowy scenes through frosted window panes, and late afternoon nature walks to catch the last rays of light.

The words of many secular Christmas carols promote feelings of hygge. There is no need to stop at the Yuletide’s end; we should make it our practice to continue hygge through the long winter. Take back the darkness by continuing to light candles or drape strands of white lights, then sit in your most comfy chair under a coverlet and lose oneself in a good book or listen to music, or finish knitting that scarf you started last year. All too soon spring will arrive, and the garden will beckon.

What interpretations of  hygge do you practice in winter? Would you like to share?

Summer Hardiness–which plants survive the heat?

Yucca 'Color Guard', Vernonia lettermanii and Crambe maritima have performed despite the heat and drought .

Yucca ‘Color Guard’, Vernonia lettermanii and Crambe maritima have performed despite the heat and drought .

Well, we know we’re not alone, but here in southern New England, we’ve had an exceptionally hot dry summer. The amount of precipitation in our area has varied due to isolated showers, but I would guess here at Avant Gardens we have totaled less than 1 inch during the past 75 days. Lack of rainfall plus high humidity, coupled with daily temperatures in the high 80s and 90‘s can have an effect on plants. (Many plants begin to suffer physiological damage when temperatures remain above 86F or 30C)

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This brings up the classification of plants rated for Summer Hardiness. The American Horticultural Society (AHS) has created a Summer Heat Zone map of the US.  Regions having less than 1 day with temperatures above 86F (30C)  are classified as zone 1, and on the other end of the spectrum, the areas having the most days with high temperatures are classified as zone 12. This may correlate with the familiar USDA Winter Hardiness Zone Map (which rates average lowest temperatures) but in some cases it does not. Folks in the southern US have learned that Summer Heat Zone Hardiness is definitely a criteria when selecting plants. The above map will need regular adjustments now that global warming is causing extreme temperatures worldwide, and northern gardeners will have to pay heed to which plants will survive/perform with higher summer temperatures.

We’ll be ruling out more plants that do well in our gardens in the future, I’m afraid, as climate change continues to affect what we can and cannot happily grow.

Have you come to the conclusion that some plants, which once thrived in your gardens,  no longer will? Which plants have you found best withstand our ever warmer drier summers?

Spring/Winter Flipflop

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Snow-kissed Magnolia Buds

Argghhh! So much for an early Spring in New England. March began with May temperatures, but the weather decided to chill out after April Fool’s.  Trouble is… all those  warm days and mild nights encouraged the garden to wake up early.

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Early April Buds 2016/End of April Glory 2015

Normally, the plants in our gardens know when they are being teased with a few mild days, and hold off bursting prematurely.  The image above left was taken 4-4-16, the one on the right: 4-28-15.

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The show from Jeffersonia dubia probably won’t continue after this cold

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Maybe this cloche will help.

Jeffersonia dubia , the Asian form of Twin Leaf, became too excited and emerged with color last week. The next few nights will have temperatures dipping into the mid teens, and we have  one cloche on hand to add a little protection. Trouble is, we can’t do this for every early bloomer.  And, unfortunately, there is not enough snowfall so far (more is predicted, but…) to insulate before the arctic cold blows through.

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Epimedium, budded and shivering.

Epimedium, with new foliage and budded flower stems….we’re not too optimistic for a later show, but we can only wait and see.

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Helleborus viridus will take it in stride.

Hellebores and the bulbs not yet in bloom will take this in stride, but the Narcissus and Grape Hyacinth which are already showing color might not be focal points  after this big chill is over.

Buttoned Up, with blankets and heat.

Buttoned Up, with blankets and heat.

In the nursery,  many plants have started to leaf out with tender new growth.  For added protection, we’ve covered them with microfoam blankets and added portable heaters inside our frost frames to counter the low night temperatures.

Gardeners are always being challenged by the weather. It will be interesting to see which plants come through this cold snap unfazed. How is your garden faring with the early start to spring?

A Gift: The Little Fir Tree

fir500Sometimes certain people touch our lives and leave us with a message that continues to reveal. Last week, while wandering about the garden in search of wreath making greens, I caught a glimpse of a little fir tree that was a gift. This little fir is not a “show off” plant, but its presence speaks of goodness and hopefulness, qualities which most gardeners share.

The little fir tree had been a gift from a soft spoken older gentleman, Phil Sheridan, who frequented our nursery in the early years. On one visit, Phil had just come back from a Conifer Society meeting (perhaps 1998?) and presented me with a small 8” seedling of Abies siberica. The only info I could recall him sharing was that it was quite rare. Phil, who was charmingly eccentric and in his eighties at the time, then went off to peruse the nursery and selected several perennials and a young Stewartia, no more than 18” tall. “I’ve always wanted a Stewartia,” he said, and I remember thinking  then what a remarkable optimist he was.

Back to the rare little fir tree. It was tiny and grew slowly, so it lived in a pot for a number of years until it was big enough to be planted in open ground. I had no idea of its eventual size. I checked out the woody plant bible by Mike Dirr…no reference at all to A. siberica. The internet was still immature, and there was no listing in any of the search engines. When knowledgable plant people would visit the nursery I would quiz them if they knew anything about this particular species, but only received puzzled responses. Perhaps it had been mislabeled. I knew most firs preferred cool summer climates, and more often than not, our summers were warm. I finally planted the little guy anyway at the end of a mixed border, and watched him grow.

Today, the little fir tree is almost 10’ tall. It has a lovely pyramidal form and soft fragrant needles. I went back online to see if there was now more information on this elusive species, and if it was truly Abies siberica. Yes and maybe! There was information…Abies siberica, a conifer native to Siberia and other parts of northeastern Asia, reaching heights of 60’ or more…notable for the production of a resin that has anti-inflammatory properties which is used in herbal medicine. A couple of things puzzled me though. Some of the online literature described a plant with hard needles, (this fir is soft to the touch) and also stated the needle length was a bit shorter than what my fir presents. Perhaps it is a variant. More research is necessary but I  think I should be prepared for some epic height.

E. Philip Sheridan passed away in 2000,  and while I was online I searched to see if I could learn more about him. Phil was a retired English professor who dabbled in botany and zoology (I remember he once told me he had pet starlings). Everything I read confirmed what I knew of Phil: that he was a curious, generous soul and, like all gardeners, an avowed optimist.

Photographing Plants, Gardens, Chanticleer

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A view from inside The Ruins

It’s been on my calendar for months: Oct. 23-25, a 3 day weekend at Chanticleer, taking photographs with guided instruction from Rob Cardillo and Lisa Roper. Rob is an accomplished garden photographer who recently collaborated with Adrian Higgins, garden writer for The Washington Post, to chronicle the seasonal beauty of this “pleasure garden” as well as honor the artistic creativity of the talented staff in Chanticleer, A Pleasure Garden. Lisa  Roper is one of the horticulturists at Chanticleer, who combines her artistic training with horticultural knowledge to design, implement and tend special garden areas, most recently the celebrated Gravel Garden. Lisa takes much of the imagery that graces the Chanticleer website.

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The Gravel Garden: Aster (Symphyotrichon) ‘October Skies’ with Grasses

I was also a tad worried. I knew that frost had struck the gardens just the week before (as it had here in my own garden), and I was wondering if the photo ops would be minimized by one freezing night’s wrath.

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Fall color…Oak leaves in the Ruins

No need for concern, as a  garden as beautifully composed as Chanticleer always has imagery to offer. There was luminous autumn foliage of course,  and the grasses were at their prime, as well as seed pods which offered curious if not whimsical subject matter.  I tend to look at things differently and find beauty in decay, as the garden surrenders to shorter days and limited temperatures.

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An early arrival on Friday allowed me time to do some scouting as to where I should  zoom in for image taking. The light in the garden was a bit harsh before 5pm,  but this vignette on the covered porch had possibilities, so I made a mental note.

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Chiaroscuro Orchid

Good thing I did, because Sunday morning brought drizzle and skies of gray, and the porch was a safe refuge. The light turned out to be exquisite. I haven’t succumbed to orchid addiction yet, but this Lady Slipper Orchid caught the light most pleasingly in a chiaroscuro sort of way. Overcast days can present opportunities.

ruin_room

Chanticleer: Outdoor Living Room

The Ruin and its surroundings have always been my favorite part of the garden, although I am apt to change my mind depending on the season. This outdoor living room, with its cut stone sofa and chairs, is both whimsical, functional, and works as year round sculpture.

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Chanticleer…the reflecting pool with succulents

Within the walls of the Ruin is the most elegant raised reflecting pool. After taking several shots at different times from different angles, a few images were quite pleasing but this one really sang. Yes, I am a succulent fanatic, and isn’t it delicious the way the succulents are reflected, not only in the pool but on the polished stone apron as well?

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An admission here:  I was unleashing my individualist’s streak here trying to work out this composition. (I had stopped at the Barne’s Foundation on Friday morning and absorbed a lot of Impressionist and Post Impressionist sensibilities.) I wanted to capture the pattern on pattern of the Poncirus (Hardy Orange) with the tree trunks and fall foliage in the background. There wasn’t a positive response from my classmates when I shared this image, but y’know, I still like it.

This brings me to a strong recommendation: whether you’re a budding photographer or involved in any artistic pursuit, you should consider signing up for workshops with peers. It is quite astonishing how everyone sees things differently. Each individual has his/her own point of view, and most points of view are valid. Positive or constructively critical feedback provides you with an awareness you are unlikely to arrive at on your own. Our instructor, Rob Cardillo, always found something positive to say about each participant’s work, and was kind and generous with his instruction on how each image could be improved.

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Fall Finale

One last note: if  you’re someone who loves gardens and has never been, plan to visit Chanticleer.  There are only a few days left before they close for the season on November 1st, but the 2016 season begins again early next spring. It is a public garden that is intimate, artistic, and full of horticultural treasures.  It truly is a Pleasure Garden; there is no better way to describe it.

What Survived the Winter

A survivor…..Stachyurus chinensis 'Celina' cared little for being under 4' of snow.

A survivor…..Stachyurus chinensis ‘Celina’ cared little for being under 4′ of snow.

The agony and the ecstasy, or is it the other way around?
After this marathon winter, crocus, daffodils and hellebores have gushed forth with a grand ta-dah! Emerging growth from so many herbaceous perennials reassures us that a heavy snow blanket was good for some plants.

HOWEVER…. trees and shrubs exposed to the onslaught of 3 months of cold and frigid white stuff fared unevenly. Some came through unscathed, while others lost limbs and suffered dieback. The most serious casualties in our garden were the broadleaf evergreens, especially boxwood and Japanese holly, and the evergreen bamboos. The question, what does hardiness mean, is provoking a lot of discussion.

This variegated boxwood is toast!

This variegated boxwood is toast!

A variegated boxwood, which grew from a rooted cutting 15 years ago to 7′ tall, is now the color of straw and shows no green in the cut wood, except for the lowest branches. The fastigiate Japanese Holly, Ilex ‘Sky Pencil’ has more than its share of crispy foliage, but the wood has life and we’re confident it will put on fresh growth. Amazingly, once again the Trochodendron araliodes which horticultural friends cautioned would be iffy, came through looking fine, despite broken branches, (it was buried under snow for weeks). Planted right next to it was a so called hardy gardenia, a loss, or at least total die back to the roots.

A few smashed branches  reduced the size of this Trochodendron, but it's going to be fine.

A few smashed branches reduced the size of this Trochodendron, but it’s going to be fine.

The bamboo grove of Phyllostachys aureosulcata is a sorry sight. What once was a wall of green is now stationary beige. Yes, discoloring of leaves happens in cold winters,  which drop when the new leaves emerge in May, (most years)…but this year many of the 30′ culms are brown or oddly discolored. I’m confident that new shoots will break from the ground, but thousands of dead stalks will need to cut down before this happens. Know any artists who may need bamboo for a big project?

Note the brown culms, and even some of the green have threatening discoloring.

Note the brown culms, and even some of the green have threatening discoloring.

I usually advise patience before yanking out plants that have suffered winter damage. April is often too early to tell if a plant is a goner or will convalesce and recover.  In the meantime, where there is hope, prune damaged branches, fertlize gently and let nature heal. Miracles happen while you are busy watching everything else grow.

the rare little Helleborus torquatus, returning again after more than 20 years

the rare little Helleborus torquatus, returning again after more than 20 years

In Color: Hardy Succulents

Clockwise from left: Sempervivum 'Pacific Blue Ice', Sedum 'Angelina', Semeprvivum 'Carmen', Sedum album 'Coral Carpet', Sempervivum 'Topaz', and Sedum stefco

Clockwise from left: Sempervivum ‘Pacific Blue Ice’, Sedum ‘Angelina’, Semeprvivum ‘Carmen’, Sedum album ‘Coral Carpet’, Sempervivum ‘Topaz’, and Sedum stefco

It is early April here in New England, and as the snow retreats, a walk about the garden reveals color from unexpected plants…winter hardy succulents. Yes the early crocus and snowdrops are showing off, but they will come and go quickly. Since we’re still flirting with frosts and will not begin to see rich greens and bright pastels until the end of the month, the delicious burgundy and coral tones taken on by many hardy Sempervivum and Sedum provide a different color palette. These hardy succulents may not grab your attention when plant shopping, since many gardeners aren’t selecting plants at nurseries until warmer temperatures prevail. By late spring, the intense foliage hues change to more muted blue green and olive coloring. And of course, there are many more brightly colored blossoms to distract us.

If you’re taking a survey of your gardens right now, consider where you can use the rich, changing colors and textures that winter hardy succulents provide. They require minimal care and look good year round, especially the “evergreen” forms. Many are hardy into zone 3 plus are deer and rabbit resistant.  They ask only for sun and good drainage, and can winter over admirably in containers as well.

The receding snow (we had over 3′ at one point) did not harm Sempervivum ‘Carmen’ in the least.

The receding snow (we had over 3′ at one point) did not harm Sempervivum ‘Carmen’ in the least.

Hungry for Color, and Dahlia Ramblings

Clockwise from upper left: Dahlia 'Crichton Honey', Dahlia 'Gitt's Crazy' with Tithonia, Closeup of Gitt's Crazy' and 'Crichton Honey', Dahlia 'Corona'

Clockwise from upper left: Dahlia ‘Crichton Honey’, Dahlia ‘Gitt’s Crazy’ with Tithonia, Closeup of Gitt’s Crazy’ and ‘Crichton Honey’, Dahlia ‘Corona’

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting ravenous for color. Here in MA, spring seems so far away. Every other day there is a major snowfall in the forecast, along with frigid temperatures. Looking out my window, I only see white, on shades of brown and gray…not even a hint of green from snowdrop shoots, our earliest bulb to bloom.

As I was scanning through images from last summer’s garden, my gaze stopped to absorb the vibrant color of the Dahlia beds. Oh baby, what a color fix! I immediately went out to the cool winter greenhouse to check on the health of the tubers I’m wintering over…so far, so good. The tubers are stored in pots of well drained potting soil, and  I decided to move a few of them into the warm greenhouse (55 degrees) to try awaken them. As soon as there is enough healthy growth, I’ll take cuttings of these named cultivars. The cutting grown plants will bloom this year, but may not get as large as the plants grown from year old tubers.

Clockwise, from upper left: dark leaved selections from 'Twinings After Dark' seed, The "whitest" of the group, and the much sought after Dahlia 'Swan Lake'.

Clockwise, from upper left: dark leaved selections from ‘Twinings After Dark’ seed, the “whitest” selection of the group, and the much sought after Dahlia ‘Classic Swan Lake’.

Last year I grew a dark leaved variety of Dahlia from seed, collected from an older cultivar called ‘Twining After Eight’, which boasts chocolate colored leaves with white flowers. The description reminded me of another cultivar we once grew, and lost,  Dahlia ‘Classic Swan Lake’. The ‘Twining After Eight’ seed came from a reputable seed merchant, and the seed germinated well with most seedlings showing a nice dark foliage color.  The only thing that disappointed me was not a single plant had white flowers…half of the plants bloomed orange-yellow and 3 were in various shades of pale pink/ lavender/cerise. You might consider the palest one an almost white, in just the right light. These plants grew robustly and created a pleasant display which provoked many complements, so it wasn’t a bust.

Here are some things you might want to know about growing DahliasDahlias are native to Mexico and Central America and love lots of sun and warmth. Most of the best forms are propagated by division of the tuberous clumps or are grown from cuttings, and there is wide variety of named forms available from Dahlia merchants. Seed sown strains do not usually come true to color or form, and much of the seed commercially available is for short stemmed, small flowered varieties suitable for bedding and containers. I prefer taller forms for cutting or for showing off in the late summer/fall garden. Tall forms can be grown from seed, but again, there is no predicting color and most will have single blossoms. I don’t want to dissuade you from trying to grow Dahlia from seed, as I ended up pleased with my pink/purple blend last year, but be open minded about the results.

Fresh seed takes 7-21 days to germinate, depending on conditions, and will grow more evenly if provided with bottom heat. Once seedlings develop a couple of pairs of true leaves, prick seedlings apart and repot  individually in small pots or 6 packs. Give the young plants lots of sun, and wait until the soil has warmed to 60 degrees or more (for us here in MA, it is safe to plant Dahlias outdoors around Memorial Day). Pinch back to encourage bushiness. The above upper left image shows the seed sown plants beginning to bloom in our garden in late June, which actually was weeks before many of our tuber grown plants began. The floral show kept getting better and better until the frost.

P.S.  We have Dahlia ‘Classic Swan Lake’ tubers on order from a European supplier. Fingers crossed that they arrive safely in March. Stay posted.