Garden Notes: Winter wonders

February can bring all sorts of weather, giving us much to work on.


“You buy some flowers for your table;
You tend them tenderly as you’re able;
You fetch them water from hither and thither –
What do you get for it? They wither.”
~ Samuel Hoffenstein (1890 – 1947), from “Up the Garden Path” Laura Stoddart.

Regardless of Valentine bouquets’ inevitable fate, how enjoyable they are! Replace water frequently and shorten stems to increase vase life.

Indoor plants are responding to more light and making new growth accordingly. Stand cyclamen and hippeastrum (amaryllis) on saucers with fine pebbles and water from the bottom. Give flowering plants, such as these geranium cuttings, a dilute feed, using products with the higher middle number, phosphorus. Continue pinching and keeping them on the dry side, and check for insect pests such as fungus gnats.

Pull on your boots!

February is capable of some amazing days in between the crappy ones. Poke around outside: birdcall is increasing. Like many previous winters’ mornings, the flocks of young robins have arrived. They sweep back and forth between nearby evergreens and the heavily berried native holly close to the house.

Why do the robins prefer these Ilex opaca berries to the profusely fruited “Nellie Stevens” hybrid holly? Those who have been reading Garden Notes may guess what I suspect, although it is merely observational!

Is it time to find an early snowdrop or snow crocus? The early giant snowdrop Galanthus elwesii and the “lilac tommies,” Crocus tommasinianus, are just beginning to open.

Crocus tommasinianus, plus its selected forms, is in the Snow Crocus group. These are the very early species croci, and are grouped as such by reputable bulb suppliers. The flowers are delicate and lack the size and impact of the larger hybrids and Giant Dutch Crocus.

Two valuable qualities gardeners appreciate about C. tommasinianus, in addition to earliness: squirrels and chipmunks leave them alone, unlike other members of the crocus family. They self-sow, spreading into extensive drifts in sunny, grassy places where conditions suit them.

Other names to look for, all selected forms from among C. tommasinianus: Barr’s Purple; Lilac Beauty; roseus; Ruby Giant; Whitewell Purple.

While you have your boots on, it is time to sprinkle seeds of annual poppies where they are to grow. These colorful poppies are early and bright, but are almost impossible to transplant. Plants must be allowed to grow where they occur. I allow plants to dry off the previous season and harvest the seedheads.

Never a dull moment

Redtail hawks are pairing up and looking for protein, so hawk attacks are also increasing. Having thickety shrubbery such as yew, boxwood, and rhododendron is invaluable for when the poultry scatters and hides until danger is past.

The seriously low temperatures may have affected the tick population. Here at our place, having hens free ranging mostly takes care of ticks. The exception is the fenced vegetable garden, which is also frequented by a population of chipmunks (and probably rats), wall-dwellers that find homes in the stone retaining wall. This is a good time of year to let hens into the garden to search out any ticks, cutworms, and beetle pupae they can find.

Snow damage

Snow is coming and going, with muddying conditions occurring. Recently, in addition to the blizzard at the end of January, the Island was affected but missed by the serious storm that left a 2,000-mile trail of snow, sleet and freezing rain over Feb. 4 and 5 , from Texas to the Northeast.

As many will have discovered, the broad-leaved rhododendrons and hollies took a pummeling during the Jan. 29 blizzard. They thrive so in this climate, but their large leaf area does become a liability for catching and holding snow. In that storm it just kept on coming, freezing in place as it did so.

Finely branched deciduous trees also collected heavy clumps of snow and sustained breakage. Here, our Japanese maple and chionanthus lost parts up to two inches in diameter. Cryptomeria, native to snowy areas of Japan, shed whole frond-like branches, which makes me think this might be adaptive, since new growth re-sprouts freely from the trunk where the shed branches grew.

Spruces and firs are better adapted to snowy climates and adapt, drooping their branches to take on sloping profiles reminiscent of greeting card graphics. Native junipers, not so much: their shaggier foliage catches and holds snow so mature trees spread and become broad-headed, losing the attractive juvenile, candle-flame forms.

In snowy winters, all evergreens become shelter for wildlife, whether planted in the domestic landscape or as naturally occurring native vegetation. These snow shelters hold incremental amounts of heat and provide cover from wind chill. If you can position the sheltering vegetation around and throughout your garden, the benefits in increased wildlife and winter interest will be worthwhile, in spite of the snow-patrolling necessary to protect it.

February wisteria pruning

Do this now, from the Royal Horticultural Society’s advice post:

“Wisterias can be left to ramble unchecked where space allows but will usually flower more freely and regularly if pruned twice a year. The removal of growth in summer allows better air circulation and more sunlight to reach the base of the young growths, encouraging better ripening of the wood and improving the chances of flower bud formation. Restricting the amount of vegetative growth [the long, whippy shoots] and encouraging short, flowering spurs will result in more flowers.

“Then, cut back those same growths to two or three buds in … February (when the plant is dormant and leafless) to tidy it up before the period of time when an individual plant is in active growth.” The buds that produce flowers are the brown ones at the shoots’ bases that are fatter. Leave just two on the shortened spur.