I risk provoking ire when I mutter “weather weenies,” but let’s get a grip: we used to have winters like this every winter. Snow: we get it, we get rid of it — and then we get some more. From the gardener’s viewpoint snow is a good thing. “Poor man’s fertilizer” and an insulating layer are two benefits, and the accompanying cold is welcome as a disinfecting control for soil-borne and insect organisms.
Islanders are eager for spring, the above notwithstanding. Pre-breeding season birdsong has begun; the woods, otherwise quiet and shrouded in cold and snow, are full of it. It is an early sign, as is the flowing of springs and streams, freed from the stasis of winter, and the coloring of twig tips.
Groundhog Day (February 2) has been observed across the northern hemisphere as Imbolc, St. Brigid’s Day, Candelmas, and others, since long before recorded history and religion. Observing the timing of the seasons has been crucial to survival over the ages, especially to people living more intimately and entangled with nature than we are.
Imagine wintering over as an early human 900,000 years ago, as I attempted to after reading a “science/environment” item in the news recently.
Erosion from storms in May 2013 had revealed human footprints in ancient sediments along the Norfolk seacoast of Britain, estimated to be between 850,000 to 950,000 years old. They were dated from the overlying sedimentary layers and glacial deposits and from the fossil remains of extinct animals.
Paleo-archeologists, working flat-out between tides, photographed and took casts of the prints before the waves erased them.
These are the oldest human traces ever found outside of Africa; they date to a time when it is thought the British Isles were connected to chilly northern Europe by a now-vanished land bridge. In an existence and world almost impossible to imagine today, the small party of adults and children left their footprints in what was once a muddy estuary.
In a cold climate, they walked through a mysterious landscape vastly different from today’s: “a river valley grazed by mammoths, hippos, and rhinoceros” (press release, BBC). We can only imagine how welcome the coming of spring was like for these unknown individuals.
More winter interest: green
In the previous Garden Notes I wrote about perking things up in the winter garden by adding shrubs with brightly colored stems, but if you are the understated type, you might wish merely for more green.
Due to warming winters an array of note-worthy plants, previously thought to be marginally hardy on the Island, appears to repay the risk. The small list here is of interesting “laurel-like” evergreens. Use the Plant Lust web site, http://plantlust.com/, (“56 plant catalogs in a single search”), to source less common plants.
Distylium, in the Hamamelidaceae (sometimes known as winter-hazel, or evergreen witch-hazel) an attractive broadleaved evergreen with about ten species native to China, is beginning to create a stir in this country. Two species at least are available from U. S. suppliers.
D. racemosum is a slow-growing, upright shrub to small tree with lustrous elliptical foliage. It prefers moist, acidic soil in partially shaded, sheltered woodland, with some protection from strong winds. Due to its slow growth rate (8”) it seems like a good choice for more confined sites, or small gardens. The “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants” lists D. racemosum’s eventual height at something over ten feet; compact selections are available.
D. myricoides is a spreading shrub of mounding habit suitable for low hedges, foundation planting, or mixed beds. The arrangement of lustrous blue-green leaves upon the arching branches is said to have great visual appeal. D. myricoides has a very slow growth rate too.
I have previously mentioned Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis (sweet or Christmas box), thought to be the most cold-hardy sarcococca, in this column. It makes a creeping groundcover, with inconspicuous, fragrant flowers in early spring. S. confusa, a slightly taller and less hardy species thought to be even more fragrant, is a good substitute for the sometimes funereal cherry laurel. It is more cold-hardy than it is given credit for, 6A-9B.
Danae racemosa (Alexandrian laurel) is “an elegant, refined… slow-suckering shrub that grows 2 to 4’ high and wide in shady spots with even moisture. The habit is gracefully arching…glossy green leaves are handsome throughout the year.” (Dirr) The fleshy orange-red fruits persist into winter and are attractive. Hardy from 6A-9B.
In the garden
Check for damaged branches, particularly on evergreen plants such as hollies and inkberries, prone to holding onto their snow and ice loads, maybe because they are often planted in shaded locations on north sides of buildings. Trim away as cleanly as possible and remember to make undercuts on larger branches.
It is time to gear up for seed sowing and acquiring supplies – trays, modules, etc. – especially if one plans to shop locally, because selection will suddenly diminish.
However, check cultural directions on packets for time to plant. It is difficult to maintain plants that grow over-large before outdoor planting time arrives, and plant quality diminishes if they are kept overlong in modules.
Avoid seeding in ordinary soil, which carries many pathogens, but instead purchase a fine-textured seed-starting mix that holds moisture and promotes good root development. For organic vegetables, Vermont Compost’s Fort Vee works well as a seed-starting mix.
Shallow flower pots, pie pans, and trays of various sorts are all good for starting small seedlings, which are then transferred individually into their own separate modules. Larger seeds may be sown directly into modules, and those with longer roots do well in Rootrainers, deeper cells, or four-inch plastic pots. Fine seeds as a rule are sown at or near the surface, but all others are covered enough to retain the moisture needed to germinate. Provide light and warmth, preferably from below.