Garden Diary - March & April 2003

Forget the old saying that "March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb." This year it came in like a polar bear. On March 3rd we did have double digit temperatures, but 10.6 degrees Fahrenheit is hardly warm and cosy. The next day did a slide into single numbers. Nothing to entice even the most eager of gardeners out of doors, clear the snow on the ground or ice on the driveway. But by the middle of March it was warming up, and sunny - two things that help melt snow and ice.

The sun also meant my greenhouse was heating up. I have discovered that keeping a greenhouse warm in cold weather is relatively easy. Set the thermostat and the propane heater takes care of things. After all, people can always put on a sweater, a nice woolly scarf, a down vest, and a jacket to stay cozy. But just as you can only take off so many clothes in summer, keeping the greenhouse cool is trickier. Years ago, when fuel was less expensive (to be honest I should say cheap) I knew someone with an air-conditioned alpine house. That's a specialty greenhouse for growing high mountain plants that languish, diminish, and die in summer heat and humidity. I'm lucky our home is air-conditioned. Wouldn't even dream of having that as a greenhouse feature. Two roof vents are operated by temperature sensitive push rods, that open when the air near the roof reaches about 75 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition there is an exhaust fan high on one end wall, and two louvers low in the opposite end wall, that pull cooler outside air through the greenhouse. That's still not enough when sunshine heats the glass-walled, twin-wall roofed structure.

Previously, I had invested in shade cloth what went over the roof. Outside. This was very interesting when it was time to put it on, somewhat less so in fall when it was removed. Try to picture this: The 8-foot wide by 18-foot long lean-to greenhouse is attached to the garage. The end wall with the louvers is adjacent to the kitchen. Since the garage roof is pitched along the greenhouse's long dimension that means that one end of the greenhouse is inaccessible except from the garage roof. So dear husband and I would get onto the garage roof, lay on our bellies and (with difficulty) remove an 18-foot long PVC pipe assembly, and take it down the ladder to the driveway. Lace the shade cloth onto the pipe, and manhandle the bulky bundle back up the ladder. Now comes the fun part - getting the pipe, cluttered with the shade cloth, into the brackets holding it against the garage wall just above the greenhouse roof. Never easy, it lead to acrimonious accusations and complaints.

This spring I bought new shade cloth, designed to go inside the greenhouse. What with hanging baskets, brackets, lights and other bits and bobs there was no way it could be installed in one piece. Not a problem. I cut it into 2-foot wide segments, stitched a rod pocket at one end of each piece, and used tension rods to hold them in place at the back wall. At the lower front end I used wooden clothespins to clip the panels to a front framing member. Voila, easily installed with a step ladder, and smiles all around. Looks better too.

By the end of March the garden was awakening to spring. Temperatures were chilly, but daffodils were in bloom. I was occupied with hauling brush from the big maple we'd had taken down in February, and uncovering perennials and bulbs from their protective mulches of autumn leaves. Ornamental grasses were cut back. March went out with freezing weather, overnight lows in the high 20s, and April started even colder. I suspect there was some confusion in the weather department, with 5 inches of snow delivered on April 7. Narcissus 'Dutch Master' and 'Rijnveld's Early Wonder' looked sensational peeking through the fine icy crust that topped the snow.

Dutch Master

But snow, rain, and chilly temperatures were holding back many early plants, and holding back this gardener. Gray is O.K. but I no longer find it tolerable to be working outdoors in rain and snow.

The month then settled down to more clement conditions, with spring sunshine, breezes, and typically cool nights. Other daffodils followed in sequence: various of the cyclamineus cultivars with their flared back petals. 'Dove Wings' is a favorite. It starts off with white petals and a yellow trumpet that gracefully fades to white as it ages. This cultivar (garden shorthand for "cultivated variety") grows well at BelleWood Gardens, reliably returning year after year. The ever-increasing patches of white flowers show nicely as I walk down the driveway, a pleasing foil for the eight star magnolias, Magnolia stellata, that grace the path on the far side of the intermittent drainage creek. These elegant small trees, which will reach 12 to 15 feet tall at maturity, spreading even wider, provide the name of Magnolia Way for this part of the garden. Last fall I planted masses of little blue-flowered scillas, Scilla sibirica 'Spring Beauty', and glory-of-the-snow, Chionodoxa luciliae, beneath the magnolias. Glory-of-the-snow flower first, and the scillas follow, with a brief overlap. The two are easy to differentiate: since the more nodding flowers of scilla have petals that are separate, while those of the upward facing glory-of-the-snow fuse together at the base, forming a little cup. I like the crisp appearance of white magnolias surrounded by a pool of blue, blue and white, like Delft pottery. While I planted these little bulbs with a generous hand, the display will continue to improve in years to come since both of these small bulbs increase freely.

I seem to have chosen mostly blue and white flowers for this part of the garden, with yellow as an accent. One of my favorite early blooming, blue flowered, shade-tolerant, perennials is Siberian bugloss, a clumsy name for Brunnera macrophylla. Its flowers, like clusters of forget-me-nots, rise above heart-shaped leaves that are perfectly in scale when the plants are in bloom. The leaves increase in size until by summer each one is as large as my hand with fingers spread wide. I have the plain dark green leafed form, 'Variegata' with a clean white edge to the foliage, and silver hued 'Jack Frost', its hoarfrost leaves neatly veined with green. The bold, simple foliage combines nicely with ferns, astilbe, and other lacy leafed plants.

Pansies and primroses are offered as spring annuals, companions for daffodils, hyacinths, and early tulips. Generally the primroses are Pacific Giant hybrids, available in a range of colors from white to yellow, pink and rose, to a rich blue, accented with a yellow throat. Last spring, in 2002, I planted 3 yellow ones down in Magnolia Way. They have now reached sufficient size that each one produces a veritable bouquet of flowers that are visible from a surprising distance. In fact, the plants are now large enough that I plan on dividing them. Somewhat surprisingly, primroses are best separated in early June. Dug at that time, the different crowns, or growing points, practically fall apart in your hand. If I were to dig them now they would tenaciously hold firm to one another. Another primrose that began flowering in late April is Primula kisoana, a lovely species from Japan. It has fuzzy green leaves rather like those of a Japanese maple. And it runs. Underground rhizomes push around under the mulch of autumn leaves I maintain in this garden, like little tentacles that pop up baby plants at their tips. The flowers are a rich fuchsia pink.

The hellebores did wonderfully well this year. Perhaps they enjoyed the autumn rains, winter snow, and a good rest. I especially liked the partnership of mauve-pinkish Lenten roses, Helleborus Xorientalis, with Corydalis solida. This cheerfully rampant little thug throws up sprays of light purple flowers like those of the little dicentras, and masses of ferny glaucous foliage. After flowering they quickly go to seed, then dormancy, with only a fat little yellow tuber sleeping away the rest of the year. Not only do they return next spring, so do all the little seedlings. I have them in my path. Ellen Hornig of Seneca Hill Perennials in Oswego, New York has them seeding about in her lawn. There are worse things. Another pleasant pairing matched Hyacinthus 'Blue Jacket' with Grecian windflower, Anemone blanda Blue Shades. Most of the daisy-like windflowers were the same color as the hyacinths, with a handful of paler blue and an occasional almost white to enliven the display. The hyacinths flower well, and I even prefer their appearance now, less swollen and obese that the first year display. The windflowers have begun to self-sow, a welcome sign that I found them a location to their liking.

As first spring draws to a close the tender green of new leaves softens the outlines of trees in the woodlands, and second spring prepares to move on stage.

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