Garden Notes: January blooms

Order your seeds, but it’s too early to sow most of them.

Winter-blooming hellebore. — Susan Safford

Ah, January! “As days lengthen, the cold strengthens.” Find ways to celebrate winter.

On a flawless, frigid day, we took a postponed New Year’s Day beach walk with friends, congregants in the church of winter. The Jan. 7 snow was beautiful, but melted away quickly, leaving soil and plants bare and stripped of its insulating qualities; and now, serious cold is in coincidence with the full moon.

So, what’s in bloom?

In a modest annual ritual of the New Year and early January, I check the witch hazels. Yes! Minute specks of color and bloom! (The cultivar here is ‘Jelena,’ early, with brick red to coppery flowers.)

This signal of the year’s turning and incipient spring may be completely meaningless, given the up-and-down aspect of recent Januarys. The flowering stage now evident may remain arrested for weeks. On the other hand, full bloom may occur in a week or two, possibly bowed down under a mantle of snow. It all depends on the flukey weather.

The minute, threadlike witch hazel flowers unfurl themselves, and roll up again, in response to temperature fluctuations and conditions. If open on warm days, the scented flowers are available to any arthropods that are out and about, for a quick hit of nectar or pollen. Wintering birds will post themselves nearby for their quick hit of insect protein.

The native species, Hamamelis virginiana, with abundant, fuzzy-looking, pale yellow flowers, blooms in mid-November. After not too much of a break, and sometimes bridging the gap depending on the weather, the Asian species and hybrids take over in December or early January.

Hamamelis thus provides insect life, and birds, with sustenance from late autumn through the solstice, and into official winter.

We can be citizen scientists in our backyards, with eyes peeled for activity within the natural world. In fact, backyards are where a lot of interesting information originates.

One just has to be out there, looking around, and noticing things.

So, what else?

Helleborus, especially the early sorts, are forming their flowerbuds, or may have been blooming already. They too are a welcome sight, not only for gardeners but also for insects.

Hellebores are a hot buzz in gardening circles now, and for good reason. Their winter bloom is appreciated; the tough, handsome foliage, often beautifully marbled, is decorative throughout the year. Hellebores are as deerproof as anything known and grown on Martha’s Vineyard.

Helleborus were formerly mostly known by separate distinct species such as H niger, H foetidus, H. viridis, etc. A subsequent explosion of hellebore breeding and hybridizing has occurred in the past quarter century. If you are buying plants today, they are unlikely to be those straight species anymore.

The pedigree of nursery-bought hellebores is complicated, bringing in large amounts of genetic material from many sources, plus back-breeding, and the nomenclature is complicated too. Epithets such as xsternii, xericsmithii, and xhybridus can be daunting.

No matter. Almost any hellebore offered to gardeners today is an exceptionally fine plant; which to choose depends more upon individual taste and what appeals to the gardener — height, flower color, and form. There is an array of choices.

Hellebores are plants of the woodland understory. If you can provide it, humus-rich, free-draining acidic soil in partially shaded locations suits them well. Alternatively, even planted in sunnier sites, say near a high-visibility entrance, hellebores are tough little plants, known to persist for decades. One here is over 30 years old.

However, they do appreciate mulching with compost for top-down soil improvement, and will need extra watering if the site is dry (best to transplant to more suitable location).

Care now consists of removing tattered or unhealthy foliage before new growth emerges. If seedheads are allowed to remain and ripen, a veritable forest of small, mutt seedlings (germinants? I just learned this term) may occur in likely sites. Accept the gift, transplant it, or eliminate it if parent plants are truly special cultivars.

For everything you wanted to know about hellebores, consult “Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide,” by C. Colston Burrell and Judith Knott Tyler.

Catalogues and seeds 

Order early, but hold off on sowing: Unless you are operating a fully functional grow-house, it is best to hold off on sowing all but a very few seed-grown plants. The generally recognized exceptions to this are peppers, and maybe celery, which take a long, long time, and some of the more challenging seed-sown ornamentals.

In the garden

There is not much to do in gardens just now, but there is a winter’s worth of puttering to be performed, including things put off by the onset of the holidays: for example, tool care and sharpening.

We are never really sure how deep and solid winter’s dormancy is here on the Vineyard, so prune “bleeder” plants as needed, now. Plants that typically bleed as the sap begins to rise in early spring, include dogwood, maple, birches, styrax, stewartia, elms, and grapevines. 

Bleeding is not harmful, but most would rather avoid it by pruning while these plants are in deepest dormancy. Improving structure of trees and shrubs is made easier by winter’s sparseness; flaws are revealed.

In addition to prunings, high winds continue to find branches to remove. Debris can go on a brush pile, be composted, or become hedging in “dead hedges” — debris stored between spaced, upright keeper stakes, in structures that create privacy and generate wildlife habitat combined with garden waste disposal. How about constructing a dead-hedge maze?

Picking up and putting away: looking around, finding lots of small details that missed notice earlier. Garden stakes here and there. Containers to be brushed out and collected in one place. Wire supports that also need to be stored together. Tools left out.