Garden Diary - January 2002

Even with an extra week after Thanksgiving added in to the time frame it seems as if New Year's was here before I knew it. December came and went in the blink of an eye, with weather mild enough that I had snowdrops in bloom in the garden on Christmas Day, a first ever event for the seven winters we have been here at BelleWood.

Usually we buy a spruce from one of the nearby tree farms for our solstice tree. Last winter we had a 14-foot tall tree, elegant and imposing but difficult to decorate. Carol, my friend and neighbor, came over and, with the two of us up on ladders, a yardstick to manuever strings of lights, and a bottle of champagne to cheer us along we got the job done. Having gotten that impulse out of my system, this year I did someting different. Riding pillion behind Paul on the Quad, we went over to a neighbor's field where we cut three field cedars, Juniperus virginiana instead. They are more humble trees than stiff-branched firs or spruces, with a country, cottage feel. Their winter color turns from green to a subtle bronze tint. And their upward reaching branches are quite flexible so care must be taken that more substantial ornaments don't slide off and end up on the floor, perhaps in pieces.

One 7-foot tall tree went in the foyer by the front door to greet visitors and guests, decorated with glass balls in gold and silver, blue and green, and red. I looped several garlands of shiny red beads around the tree. Though glittery and festive, the tree still needed more ornaments. So I took the seed pods from annual poppies, Papaver somniferum and hot-glued them to wire ornament hangers. Then I used gold paint on the fat round pods, though leaving the flat cap unpainted. Light enough to ride on the tips of the flexible cedar branches they provided just the right finishing touch.

The second 7-foot tall tree went in our bedroom. Really, this seems the height of luxury to me - having a tree where I can fall asleep at night with the pleasant tang of conifer needles in the air. This tree was decorated with gold and silver ornaments, some bright and shiny and others with an antique look in more of a dull, pewter hue. And walnuts I painted many years ago with gold paint. There's a reindeer Paul cut from stiff copper sheet so long ago neither of us remember how he did it. A bird's nest lightly touched with gold paint, and a small feather bird to sit in it. Gold bead garlanding swirled around the tree from top to base.

But the third, and the smallest tree at 5 1/2 feet, was perhaps the prettiest. It was set up on a small chest in the dining room so it did reach almost to the ceiling. And it was simply decorated with little fake fruits: red apples and pomegranates, and golden pears, and real kumquats. A few strands of gold bead garlanding. And that was all.

Friends brought one of their 18 llamas to our open house party the weekend before the new year. He was very well-behaved: no mishaps on the floor, and gentle enough that our almost-six-year-old granddaughter and her even younger brother could safely hold his halter rope. Carol fed him carrots from the platter of crudites. And he patiently posed for pictures with just about every guest. Mid-Knight did try to sample the solstice tree in the foyer, though.

The first weekend of the new year was a productive weekend in the garden. While overcast, Saturday's temperatures in the mid- to high 30 degree Fahrenheit range felt balmy. I made three trips over to the neighbors who were cleaning their horses' stalls. Twenty 15-gallon buckets of wet straw and manure went into the compst heap, and the twenty-first went over my ornamental rhubarb, Rheum palmatum 'Atrosanguineum'. It has had the same treatment in previous winters, and responds by producing enormous leaves. Rhubarbs are best described as "gross feeders."

I also did some pruning on a large oak at the edge of the lawn. Using a pole pruner I was able to take off several whiskery sprouts and a couple of small, dead branches. Just an hour's work and a great improvement in the tree's appearance. Mild winter weather when I don't mind being out of doors (it is difficult to work in cold weather when my fingers go numb!) is a great time of year for simple chores such as this.

Not as much fun as putting them up, the ornaments were taken down and packed away on Epiphany. Then the trees were carried outside and their branches cut off to use as mulch over the 11 peonies I planted last November. Good timing, as it began to snow late on the first Sunday of the new year. So I am feeling virtuous and timely, and my new peonies are well snuggled in, to await the return of spring.

The situation is very different when it comes to evergreen shrubs. Colder temperatures when the snowfall occurs produce lighter, drier snowflakes. It is very different when temperatures hover around the freezing point. The 2 inches of heavy wet snow that fell Sunday night weighed heavily on shrubs such as boxwood, pieris, rhododendron, leucothoe and and Japanese plum yew, bending their branches to the ground and opening the center of the shrubs. The danger is that when temperatures drop the wet snow will turn to ice that cannot be removed, and permanent damage can occur. A gentle shaking is often all that is necessary to assist the branches back to their normal upright position. The same holds true for ornamental grasses. They'll remain ornamental much longer if snow is removed.

Rather than paper white narcissus whose scent can be over-powering, this year I chose to force Chinese sacred lilies, Narcissus tazetta orientalis. Their white-petalled flowers with a small yellow cup have a lighter, more pleasing floral fragrance. A pink cache-pot with six bulbs in bloom sits on a painted concrete plinth on the stair landing, an enjoyable decorative detail on trips up or down the stairs. While 'Zivi' paper white narcissus are more floriferous both in number of flower stalks per bulb and flowers per stalk I find the Chinese sacred lilies delicate fragrance a satisfactory compensation.

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