Snow-drop madness in Britain; pragmatic garden books over here


Unlike flowering quince, whose buds are looking battered, winter-blooming heathers are outstandingly showy this year, having had a minimum of snow and ice, a fairly dry winter, and no setbacks. My flu-fatigued brain made the stock error in the February 9 Garden Notes, writing Calluna instead of Erica, which many readers will have caught already. The winter heathers blooming now are Erica, although you will have to come up with your own mnemonic device for keeping them straight; I had better just fact-check, every time.

Bird authorities say that holly berries are not the first food choice for birds, accounting for their remaining on trees throughout winter. The American holly outside my study window bore a spectacularly heavy crop of berries this year; seemingly overnight it became once again all green, the red gone. Flocks of foraging robins and bluebirds are the “culprits” and in a short time had stripped this tree bare. It demonstrates the landscape importance of such berried plants for fruit-eating birds when they return in late winter: they arrive ravenous.


The mild New England winter weather has put our Vineyard snowdrops on almost the same timetable as those of Great Britain. There, people actually go around to view noted snowdrop collections and plantings, the season for which is the third week of February into early March.

This is also when the snowdrop bulb auctions take place. One week ago, a record price of £725 was paid for a single bulb of Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison,’ a new record in the rapidly accelerating snowdrop mania called galanthophilia. This is almost twice the previous record of £369, set last year.

There is consensus that snowdrops thrive in the vicinity of beech trees; indulge this opportunity if beeches grow around your garden. Bloomtime coincides with Crocus tommasianus and winter aconite. Snowdrop species seed easily and cross with each other, causing great excitement when new markings or colors are spotted. The £725 ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ is the only known yellow form of G. woronowii; it appears we should all be peering more closely at our snowdrops.

In the garden

The weather situation is maddening for gardeners and growers. Looks like early spring, but heavy snowfall is occurring to the south of us. What other cruel weather paradoxes are in store?

Prune fruit trees and clematis now. On fruit trees, look to open the center, remove crossing or vertical growth, and shorten stems back to twiggy fruiting spurs. Clematis are classified as groups 1, 2, or 3, each having slightly differing pruning requirements. It helps to know in which groups your clematis are before pruning, or significant flower loss may occur.

I took a chance with the temperatures Sunday and sprayed the fungicide oil and lime sulfur on peach and other fruit trees, and roses. Separate a dormant oil application by 14 days from this. Quoting from the Michigan State website:

“Lime sulfur is registered for use…on brambles to control anthracnose, spur blight and cane blight. In blueberries, the diseases controlled include phomopsis and anthracnose twig blights. In grapes, lime sulfur is effective against black rot, powdery mildew and phomopsis. Lime sulfur is also used in apples, pears, peaches and cherries.” Oil and lime sulfur controls peach leaf curl.

Inspiration in books

As more home gardeners become susceptible to the allure of keeping hens, books such as “Free-range Chicken Gardens,” by Jessi Bloom (Timber Press, Portland, 2012, 221 ppg. $19.95) are arriving to egg them on.

Many of the chicken keepers in Bloom’s book are town-dwellers, with limited space, neighbors, and beautiful gardens. Bringing chickens into the picture is a portal: “Free-range Chicken Gardens” is really describing a way to live, a good one, and about how to garden and how to create as much harmony on your small plot of earth as you can.

Bloom’s experienced approach is positive and humble; her tone is very respectful, of people, gardens, our environments, and of the poultry itself. As someone who gardens with chickens I am well placed to appreciate this book. Its advice I have had to acquire experientially, while I am still working on learning the art of living it describes.

“Gardens of the Hudson Valley,” (Monacelli Press, New York, 2010, 223 p pg $50.00) showcases a group of gardens very different from those in “Free-range Chicken Gardens,” yet equally inspiring. With photographs by the team of Steve Gross and Susan Daley, and text by Susan Lowery and Nancy Berner, “Gardens of the Hudson Valley” is a coffee table book in the best sense: I leave it out to return to its lush visuals and careful descriptions of the 25 subject gardens.

This is an inspiring book for gardeners, novice and experienced alike. As the active gardening season approaches, each reading yields greater detail and appreciation of the achievements of the gardens’ creators. Some of the gardens are indeed very grand, while others belong to ordinary people who have elevated their garden art and skills beyond those of most.

Stonecrop Gardens in Cold Spring, the creation of Anne and the late Frank Cabot, is particularly interesting to me as friends gave me a beautiful stone trough at Christmas: Stonecrop is noted for its rock gardens and plantings that feature the specialized plants they require. Mr. Cabot, who died in November, was one of North America’s premier gardeners and the founder of the Garden Conservancy.

Although the Hudson Valley is not New England, it is adjacent to our area, so we may study these extraordinary gardens for ideas suitable to our own. We may not have the incomparable Hudson Valley scenery as a backdrop, but any garden element contained in these pages will work in an Island garden.