Tag Archives: winter interest

…wish you had a Winter Greenhouse?

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The Aloes begin to bloom in January

Maybe it’s a luxury, or maybe not…

One of the perks of running a nursery is that on any winter morning I can walk out to the heated 100′ greenhouse and smell the promise of spring. We can’t afford to have the heat cranked up….the thermostat is set at 55F in the warmer half, just enough heat to keep our Begonia collection from pouting . The rear 50′ section drops to 45F at night, and this is where we store our Salvia, Phormium, tender succulents, and plants for forcing.  As the daylight hours gradually increase, early blooming plants set buds and begin to unfurl.

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Today’s arrangement of cut and forced material, including Daphne, Hellebores, Echeveria, Aeonium , Begonia and Ivy

Up until a half  century ago, it was not uncommon for gardeners to have some form of greenhouse structure to protect tender plants, force bulbs and other flowers for arranging, grow herbs and to get a start on seed sowing. For the most part these were not formal glass houses, but homemade lean to’s and pit frames built into a south facing slope or dug into the earth to take advantage of geothermal warming. These “pits” were excavated to a depth of 4′ or more, with hay bales tucked along the perimeter for insulation. Recycled window sashes were used to allow light into the frames, as these were the days before plastic and polyethylene.

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A dear gardening friend, Elinor Malcom, who was one of our nursery’s first customers, loved her “pit” in Carlisle MA. where she wintered over many treasures including a collection of Camellias that belonged to her mother. Ellie’s mom had been an accomplished gardener and was good friends with Kathryn Taylor, who co-authored with Edith Gregg, the book Winter Flowers in Greenhouse and Sun-heated Pit, first published in 1941, now out of print.  My husband Chris was lucky to find a copy in a local used book store sometime ago. (PS…your library may have a copy!)

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pages illustrated with early photos of pit frames

This practical book does go into the how-to’s of small greenhouse growing, but I think the authors hit a happy nerve with their enthusiasm for solar pit houses. Ms. Taylor and Ms. Gregg showed how, with a little Yankee ingenuity and thriftiness, the average home gardener could have the luxury of blossoms and greenery during the winter months without electricity or heating units. The prose is entertaining and easy to understand and there are a number of good technical illustrations as well as charming B & W photographs.The women shared not only their successes but some of the pitfalls they encountered (no pun intended). The last chapters focus on recommended plants for winter forcing. I was greatly impressed with their expertise and ability to use materials  that were easy to be had without great expense, and I loved the simple but direct dedication at the book’s beginning: To the husbands who dug the holes”.

An online search indicated Winter Flowers in Greenhouse and Sunheated Pit is available as a used book on Amazon, but I would also recommend checking out second hand book shops.  For those who are interested in learning more about constructing a pit greenhouse, check out these links: Mother Earth News,  Inspiration  Green, and Solar Innovations. There are now many publications on the subject, some more suited to commercial growing.

Wouldn’t it help you to get through the winter if you could walk out your door after a snowstorm and bring in a gathering of fresh flowers and greenery?

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’

Mahonia x media 'Charity'

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’

What shrub has evergreen foliage resembling both holly and fern, blooms in late fall/early winter with a candelabra of fragrant primrose yellow flowers, is drought tolerant once established and not a favorite of marauding deer? Answer: Mahonia x media ‘Charity, a hybrid of the two species, M. japonica and M. lomariifolia.

Ever since I saw a form of Mahonia  blooming in winter in the Plymouth MA garden of my friend Susanne, I have wanted to have this plant in my garden. Certainly, this is pushing the hardiness limits in our neck of the woods, so I have been  scouting for a very protected spot (thinking of a clearing in our now dense grove of Yellow Groove Bamboo).  ‘Charity’ is hardy to 0 degrees F, but we usually dip below that for at least a day or two each winter.

Of course all of you who live in balmier zones 7-9 should consider giving this winter interest plant a try.  It is a broadleaf evergreen, and so it would be prudent to choose a site with protection from winter winds and strong western sun. Plants develop a vase shape and usually grow to 5-7’ tall but can reach 10’ in mild climates, with a width of 3-6’. The flowers begin forming in late October, providing unexpected color when you need it most from late November into January. The multiple upright racemes of small flowers are magnets for bees, who may venture out on mild days. Rich blue fruit follow in spring, thus the common name Grape Holly,  and these are relished by birds. Older foliage may take on reddish tones in late winter, and tarnished leaves should be pruned once fresh growth begins to unfurl.

Mahonia can be grown in full sun or dappled shade, but if grown in full sun it it may require a bit more watering in dry spells. I should also add that the foliage has rather unfriendly sharp edges, and can deliver a “look but don’t touch” message to passerby.

Do you grow any forms of Mahonia and how have they performed where you live? Please share your experience.

The Other Hardy Hens & Chicks

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Jovibarba heuffelii with small Sempervivum, Echeveria & Orostachys in the background.

The most familiar hens and chicks are in the genus Sempervivum. I’d like to introduce you to the  less familiar with same common name which are classified in the genera Jovibarba, Orostachys and Rosularia.  All are members of the Crassulacea family.

A rosette of Sempervivum flowering

A rosette of Sempervivum flowering, but with a number of offsets surviving.

Like Sempervivum, all are monocarpic, which means when the main rosette erupts into flower, it will set seed and cease to exist. (You can see why it is a good thing that many offsets of new plantlets have been freely produced.)

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Jovibarba hirta ssp arenaria

The genus Jovibarba is sometimes classified as a sub genus of Sempervivum.  Jovibarba is distinguished by blossoms bearing pale green to yellow 6 petaled flowers compared to Sempervivum’s 10-12 petaled pink blossoms. There are only 3 species in the genus: globifera, hueffeli and hirta. J. globifera and hirta freely produce stoloniferous offsets but  J. heuffelii’s “chicks” are tightly attached to the crown, and need to be severed to propagate more babies. J. hirta ssp arenaria  forms dozens of delightful miniature rosettes (1/4-3/4”) of pale gray green leaves covered with tiny hairs. Cool temperatures bring out red foliage highlights. Grow in a lean soil with sharp drainage in hardiness zones 5-9.

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Orostachys spinosus

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Orostachys minutum

Orostochys is a slightly bigger genus…it includes the more popular O. iwarenge (Dunce caps) as well as several others that are garden worthy subjects. The mature rosette of O. spinosus gives the appearance of a silver sunflower with an array of silver quilled foliage surrounding a center of congested tiny tight leaves. It is hardy to zone 4-9, but requires very well drained soil. O. minutum (also listed as O. spinosum minutum) is quite petite as the specific name suggests, producing clusters of 1/2-1” rosettes of blue gray foliage. It  would make an excellent alpine trough plant.

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Rosularia muratdaghensis

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Rosularia serpentinica

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Rosularia chrysantha

The genus Rosularia includes about 35 species. We have grown R. muratdaghensis, R. serpentinica, and R. chrysantha. Both R. muratdaghenis and serpentinica form tight mounding rosettes of gray green foliage, accented with red tones in cooler temperatures. R. chrysantha has a mat forming habit,with rosettes of soft velvety green leaves. All 3 species demand lean soil with excellent drainage and are are hardy in zones 5-9.

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.

Winterberry and Willow Wreath

wreath_winterberryFB500 Each day grows shorter, one by one, until the winter solstice, and we are all craving more color and light.

To brighten the darkest days I created this sunburst of a wreath making use of Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and Curly Willow (Salix matsudana) from the garden. Branches are clipped and tucked in a sphagnum moss covered frame.  This is a wreath for outdoor display as heat and dryness will hasten the berry drop…. I’d also recommend  wall placement as opposed to hanging on a door. The repeated opening and closing jostles and loosens  the fruit, and could be a little messy.

I’ll report back how long it lasts outdoors….at least through the New Year I hope, unless the birds think its their holiday present.

Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’

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Let us reacquaint you with an underutilized evergreen plant for cold climates.

Bold, colorful, architectural evergreen foliage. Dramatic creamy nodding lily flowers in early summer. Deer and rabbit resistant, it grows in poor and dry soils, and is perfectly hardy in zones 4-9. Why oh why don’t more landscapers and gardeners plant Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’?

Yucca ‘Color Guard’ provides northern gardeners with a brightly colored vertical accent for mixed border plantings. Plants attain a foliage height of  24″, and when ‘Color Guard’ chooses to bloom, those creamy white lilies are held on 4-5′ tall towering stalks. Hummingbirds almost swoon over the plants in pour garden. We have it planted in a hot dry bed, with Acanthus hungaricus, Crambe maritima   Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’ and dwarf evergreens.

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Winter Wreath Making Tips

Hinoki Cypress Wreath with Elkhorn Cedar. Love the little cones on the Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) and the undersides of Elkhorn Cedar  (Thujopsis dolobrata) are fabulous!

Mixed Greens Wreath. Dwarf Blue Spruce (Picea glauca ‘Montgomery’), Littleleaf Boxwood (Buxus sinica ‘Justin Brouwer’), plus several cultivars of Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa cvs. ‘Confucious’, ‘Crippsi’, and ‘Jade’)

Mixed Greens Wreath with Golden Berried Blue Holly (Ilex meserve ‘Golden Girl’), Littleleaf Boxwood (Buxus sinica ‘Justin Brouwer’), Various Hinoki Cypress

Littleleaf Boxwood  (Buxus sinica ‘Justin Brouwer’) with Blue Holly (Ilex meserve ‘Blue Princess’ ) plus wreath making supplies

After 25 years of planting unusual evergreens on our property, I feel our plants now have enough growth to afford plenty of interesting options for creating winter wreaths. This year’s crop provided me with lots of interesting material, and while I was taking cuttings I was also pruning at the same time.

I’d rather not make the same composition twice, so each wreath has a character of its own. I’ve used various wreath making forms in the past, but this year I went back to using wire forms which I covered with moistened long fiber sphagnum moss secured with a 22 gauge florist wire.

Here are a few tips:

  • You will need a lot of material for even a small form, especially if you want big fat full wreaths. The amount shown in the metal tub was just about enough to create a 16″ wreath.
  • If  your base is 12″ wide, expect the finish sized to be about 18″ or more in diameter, depending how far out your branches extend.
  • Broadleaf greens such as Boxwood, Holly and Rhododendron desiccate  quickly, especially if they are placed in a warm space or in a sunny spot. Using a base that has moistened sphagnum and tucking in the branch tips of the bunches helps keep them hydrated. Mist or soak your boxwood or holly wreath often. Also, applying an anti desiccant helps prevent the leaves from drying out.
  • Holly berries are often growing along the inner lower branches. Try to position the cuttings so you can see the berries, then trim back as necessary.
  • Repetition of your assorted bundles helps you create a balanced circle.
  • After you create your wreath, hang it and step back to see where it may need editing. You can always trim back or tuck in more cuttings.
  • Weather resistant ribbons add a touch of color to simple wreaths made from one or 2 plants, such as boxwood or holly. I prefer not to use ribbon when I have a lot of interesting leaves and cones to admire.

Giving Thanks

As much as gardeners quickly express frustration about weather, insect pests, or deer browsing, we really are a thankful lot. We are thankful more often than we acknowledge :  for sunshine, rain, snow cover, good bugs, birds, rich earth….Most importantly,  I think we are grateful for the plants which grace our gardens.

After yesterday’s much needed torrential rainfall (thankful!), this morning’s view from my window is tranquil except for the activity at the bird feeders. I’m viewing a corner of our garden which is designed with plants that provide winter interest: Hinoki Cypress Chamaecyparis obtusa, Japanese Forest Grass Hakonechloa macra, Little Bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Blue Heaven’, Hellebores Helleborus ‘Golden Lotus’, a beloved Japanese Maple Acer palmatum ‘Katsura‘, a Wheel Tree Trochodendron aralioides (recently planted, fingers crossed…putting it through the hardiness test) plus the showiest plant right now, Winterberry, Ilex verticillata ‘Berry Heavy’ which like all of the hollies this year, is heavy with fruit.

Soon the birds will pick off the winterberry fruit, and this picture will change as it will again and again throughout the year. I am reluctant to see blossoms fade and watch leaves fall, but then I realize I am truly grateful that this picture from my window is always changing. A new day, a new season awaits which will provide new gifts to be thankful for.

 Happy Thanksgiving!

Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’

Euphorbia 'Ascot Rainbow'Those of us in northern climates are suspicious when we’re told showy evergreen Euphorbia are hardy for us (zone 6), with good reason. Arctic winds and lack of snow cover often dessicate the foliage and those the early blooms. Well we’ve had mixed results with the fabulous Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’, and what we’ve learned is it’s all about siting. That being said, we’d grow this plant regardless of winter hardiness because it looks good for the entire growing season, from early spring into December.

Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’ is a selection of E. x martinii. It boasts beautiful gold and green variegated foliage tinged with coral red, especially on the new growth and when temps are cooler. Multiple red stemmed branches form 18-24″ mounds. Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’ blooms on new and old growth, with adorable variegated bracts exposing tiny red flowers. I’ll say this again, this plant looks fabulous the entire growing season here in New England, and because of this it is equally as wonderful in containers as it is in open ground.

Now in regards to siting: we used Ascot Rainbow in container plantings at an urban restaurant, where they looked so fabulous at the end of the winter  that we left them in for the spring display. Really! In this protected spot, surrounded by buildings radiating heat, the Euphorbs were quite happy. In open ground we’ve had mixed results. In a raised bed with good drainage the plants came through, although we had to cut back the sad looking evergreen foliage after the winter. Snow covered much of the ground during the winter of 2010 and 2012  and our plantings came through unscathed. The recommendation: good drainage, protection from wind,  in sun or partial shade.

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Helleborus niger ‘HGC Jacob’

You may be curious about Helleborus niger. It is the botanical name for the legendary Christmas Rose, but its Latin name translates to “Black Hellebore”.  A little confusing to us in modern times, since we see white flowers. During the Middle Ages it was commonly called Black Hellebore (a name also applied to other European Helleborus species) to distinguish it from White Hellebore (Veratrum), both of which had medicinal, if not toxic, properties.

The other common name comes from Christian mythology. The story goes that a young girl’s tears falling onto new fallen snow caused a group of Hellebores to burst into bloom, providing her with a gift for the newborn Christ Child, and thus, H. niger became known as the Christmas Rose.  The trouble with this story is that the old varieties of Hellebrous niger rarely bloom sooner than mid January, and that is only in mild winter areas, so perhaps this was a belated gift.

Now, thanks to the busy German breeder Hueger, a new cultivar has been introduced which blooms as early as Thanksgiving, with a good display of 2-3″ pristine white single rose flowers in full display by mid December. This compact new cultivar, growing to  roughly 12? x 12?,  is being marketed under the name Helleborus ‘HGC Jacob’. (HGC stands for Helleborus Gold Collection, and but I think they should ditch the monogram for marketing reasons). It is hardy in zones 5-9.

Culturally this evergreen perennial prefers a well drained rich soil that is slightly alkaline. Site ‘HGC Jacob’in a protected area, so that winter winds do not desiccate the foliage and flowers, in partial shade. As an insurance measure, apply a mulch of fallen leaves around this little Hellebore, and on mild days, pay him a visit as he peaks through his protective layer. He will put a smile on your face.