For this perky 'Peach Melba' nasturtium, it seems to be endless summer. Prior to now, the latest frost date for my garden was November 17. I recall "back in the day" instances of breathless excitement at the report of an unusual rose or other plant that had the addled vitality to flower late in the year - it would make the paper. I find myself bored with these instances today, and even wish the plant could knock off the unseasonable show. It makes a confusing paradigm as we consider how best to care for our plants and how to put gardens to bed.
On the one hand, who can quibble with mild weather permitting us to continue to eat out of the garden or to delight in a flower? On the other, it presents potential problems - of disease, insects, or hardiness - especially in perennial plantings.
How will the plants know to go dormant and stay dormant? Instead of formal winter prep, more permanent mulching, topped up or renewed several times a year, and construction of low tunnels for cold-hardy vegetable production may hold promise as practical or viable responses.
Year's end: Holly time
Deer are rutting and require alertness and agility behind the wheel, especially around dusk. One spooked deer leaping across the road is often followed by another, or two. Gardeners can take heart: now are the darkest days, but soon daylight will increase. The winter solstice is less than three weeks off. Trim the holly, boxwood, and other evergreens and convert the task into a seasonal pleasure by using the prunings for decorations.
The leadoff item in December's "Avant Gardener" is called "Hat-racking Hollies." This was news to me and I read it skeptically. Topping and/or hat-racking are generally discredited practices that harm trees, often eventually proving fatal. Turns out, with a little googling, that a major proponent of hat-racking hollies is annual Vineyard visitor Andrew Bunting, the curator of the Scott Arboretum in Swarthmore; his endorsement is the equivalent of a gold seal of approval.
Hat-racking means cutting back all lateral branches drastically to rejuvenate declining or injured trees or to contain them within the allotted space. While it sounds like brutal holly abuse, there is a lot to recommend the practice, made possible because hollies retain many latent buds beneath their bark. These are propelled into development by the hat-racking.
March is a good time to do it. First remove extra leaders or damaged branches, and then cut back all laterals by about one third to one half of their length. There may be hardly a leaf remaining on the tree. However, in two years' time, you should have a filled-out, shapely, vigorously growing holly.
Choosing holly cultivars that do not exceed their space is an alternative to hat-racking. An article, also by Andrew Bunting, in "Fine Gardening" mentions the trademarked Red Holly Hybrids series, so-called because new growth on several is attractively reddish. It presently consists of seven lines propagated from female seedlings of one specific holly, Ilex opaca 'Mary Nell': 'Cardinal,' 'Festive,' 'Liberty,' 'Little Red,' 'Oak Leaf,' 'Patriot,' and 'Robin.'
I have planted one of these, Red Holly 'Oak Leaf,' an upright grower with intriguing foliage reminiscent of small oak leaves. It ultimately reaches a height of 14 feet by 8 feet wide and is a beautiful, eye-catching tree. Another in the series, 'Little Red,' is a useful addition to foundation plantings. It may be maintained at a small size indefinitely.
Not all gardeners are familiar with other members of the large Ilex family, but they usually recognize Japanese hollies (I. Crenata) as familiar components of foundation plantings. These can be hedged and clipped similarly to boxwood. In fact, Japanese hollies are often mistaken for boxwood. One form, Ilex crenata 'Convexa' with large, glossy, cupped box-like leaves, is astonishingly salt-tolerant, as I have learned from observing the performance of a 'Convexa' hedge on a harshly exposed Island shore.
Other multi-stemmed hybrid hollies, more like shrubs than trees, are known - surprise - as shrub hollies. These include the so-called blue or Meserve hollies: 'China Girl,' 'China Boy,' 'Blue Stallion,' 'Blue Princess,' and others. These plants, although lacking a central trunk, often need their own version of hat-racking. Over time the plants sprawl or form branches with long naked intervals ending with a lions-tail of foliage; but with helpful pruning they maintain a compact shape.
Ilex x 'Nellie R. Stevens,' a hybrid between English holly, I. aquifolium, and Chinese holly, I. cornuta, may be grown either single or multi-stemmed. It does well on the island and is often used for screening and hedging. Its large orange-red berries are the product of pollination by I. cornuta, I. x 'Edward J. Stevens,' or to a lesser extent, by self-fruitfulness or parthenocarpism. I rooted my single specimen as a cutting from a relative's tree in the 1980s. It is now about eight feet tall and perhaps five feet wide: my first subject for hat-racking?
A biographical chapter on Nellie R. Stevens, the plant and the person, is contained in the informative "Legends in the Garden: Who in the World Is Nellie Stevens," by Linda L. Copeland and Allan M. Armitage (Wings Publishers, Atlanta, 2001). The two 'Stevens' hollies and one other are the result of seeds brought back from the U.S. Botanic Garden around 1900 by Miss Stevens and grown on at her home in Oxford, Talbot County, Md. Keen holly amateurs eventually evaluated them; subsequently their DNA was researched, revealing the combination of the above-mentioned species. My cutting came from Talbot County.
Homegrown meets Sunday, Dec. 13, from 4 to 6 pm at the Agricultural Hall, immediately after the Spinners & Weavers.