In That Spot: Lilactree Farm Garden Notes, No. 1, 2011

– Posted in: Lilactree Farm, What's up/blooming

Surely this starting into growth is the true Spring in plant life, whether it be an awakening due to the melting of a covering of snow as with the true alpines, or the commencement of the rains in the African veldt; and so long as we can see some plant in the garden starting off  vigorously for its annual round of existence, so long in that spot is Spring with us. E.A.Bowles, My Garden In Spring (1914).

We have long been keen to encourage a greater interest in the early spring garden. Much happens between the time of the first snowdrop or winter aconite, pulmonaria or cyclamen, and the great panorama of flowering trees from the middle of May onwards, and it seems sad to neglect almost two months, from the middle of March to the middle of May, when our gardens can be filled with exciting plants and vibrant colour. We would really like to have Open Days in late March and middle and late April as well as on the days of magical abundance in May, but there is such a strong residual disbelief that nothing substantial occurs horticulturally before the middle of May at the earliest, that we have not dared to do that. The vicissitudes of weather can make garden visiting at those times cruelly bleak, but perhaps it is a risk that we may all some day be prepared to accept. I have written below, as a seasonal amuse-gueule, an intermittent diary of the very earliest flowering, gardening moments in 2011.

March 16

Galanthus elwesii 'Fenstead End'

Galanthus elwesii 'Fenstead End' This may, or may not, have been the snowdrop Brian saw in that spot.

Snowdrops have been poking up for a couple of weeks now whenever the snow receded. The white flowers buds are quite evident, held upright between two supporting spathe-valves, and enclosed in a transparent membrane which will, when the time is right, split on one side and allow the flower to fall forwards and downwards at the end of the pedicel. Before that could happen, the snow would return and the snowdrops were gone, leaving behind the knowledge of their clandestine existence. Today, a flower opened, and spring, with all of its progressions and regressions, signalled its arrival “in that spot.”

I am not sure what kind of snowdrop this is. Its foliage, often crucial in identification, is still half held by snow, but I can see the foliage is supervolute (the uppermost leaf is wrapped around the lower), and that it is glaucous (bluish-green or bluish-grey) rather than green. This means that it is not Galanthus nivalis, the Common Snowdrop, whose leaves are applanate (the leaves lie flat against each other), but it could still be – what could it still be? This is where the difficulties begin.

The flower is single, with markings only on the inner tepal. It is becoming harder for me to drop to my knees every time I want to peer closely, so much of the time in the garden, I carry with me a powerful pair of field glasses that helps me to know whether or not it is worth making the effort. Once the snow has gone from around the foliage, I’ll take a closer look.

March 17

Geese swirling over the pond on the south side of the road. Our first red-winged blackbirds arrived on the 12th. On this day last year we saw – not with unqualified pleasure – the first cowbird and, with delight, a fox sparrow. This afternoon, Maureen heard a loud ‘crack’ as the old Manitoba maple [box elder] on the Front Lawn suddenly split near the base. We shall have to take it out. It is the last of a number of enormous specimens that surrounded the house over forty years ago, some of which, long removed, gave their name to the Maple Bed between the back of the house and the south fence of the Nursery Garden. Acer negundo is a weedy tree with its rapid, rambling growth, but it has served the valuable purpose of concealing the hydro pole, with its lumpentransformer just to the west of the lawn, and a second pole on the south side of the road.

What can we plant to replace the maple? Whatever it is, it must, I think, be deciduous, be a good size now, as large as we can afford, it must grow quickly but not become too large, should grow into an attractive shape, will be covered for several spring and summer months in dramatic, fragrant flowers, must be comfortable in alkaline soil and full sun, should not throw a dense shade but be leafy enough to hide the hydro poles, be drought-tolerant and disease free, possess dramatic bark and fine fall colour. Not a problem, surely.

March 19

The maple was cut down today. We have tried to dwell on the potential for renewal, but it has been an old friend, a tree that was here when we arrived forty-five years ago, and the symbolism of its destruction is too intense for us to be indifferent. It has also been a serviceable tree, providing a visual barrier from the road, and camouflage of the hydro poles for those of us looking outward, and in the early years, before the barbarian invasion, we often had a cocktail in its shade.

March 20

eranthis or winter aconite

Golden winter aconites

Glumly cool days. Expectations become unrealistic. But there are always surprises. In between the Ladies’ Final at Indian Wells and the Men’s, I made my way gingerly across some remaining snow and ice into the Jungles where the many snowdrops already visible have been joined by the first golden winter aconites at the foot of Magnolia ‘Jane’. From there I turned south into the Orchard and walked around the shrub-beds where I noticed with pleasure that many plants of the white flowered Digitalis purpurea var. alba look as though they have survived the winter and may prove to be temporarily perennial. But my eye was suddenly caught by a substantial patch of rosy-pink flowers, and even though I was surprised, I knew at once what they were.
Cyclamen coum

This is Cyclamen coum, flowering as soon as the snow receded on March 20, covered with a pot during the cold nights that followed, and photographed today after I removed the pot.

We began growing cyclamen from seed four or five years ago, though we supplemented our efforts by buying a dozen or so plants of the fall-flowering C. hederifolium from Ellen Hornig’s Seneca Hills Nursery in Oswego. Cyclamen are easy from seed and will, if the conditions are right, soon begin to self-sow; that is happening already in our not very hospitable conditions, and we are eagerly transplanting the seedlings.

It is paradoxical to write of “not very hospitable conditions,” as that is exactly where cyclamen will thrive, in dry shade where few other plants will do well. What I was seeing in the garden was C. coum, said to be less hardy than hederifolium; we mulch both species in the late fall, preferably after the ground is lightly frozen, with pine needles. The plant I was seeing had shrugged off its mulch to reveal a patch some 40x35cm. I spread a towel (reserved for such purposes) on the soggy ground, sprawled out, torpedoed my way under some shrubs and counted the flowers; there were at least 70, and I could see nearby siblings urgently pushing through their cover.

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“We drank tea at Coleridge’s. A quiet shower of snow was in the air during more than half our walk.” (Dorothy Wordsworth, March 21, 1798)

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March 22

Leucojum vernum var. carpathicum

Leucojum vernum var. carpathicum

With snow gone from many parts of the garden, the cyclamen will be at risk if night time temperatures dip, as is forecast, in the -10C to -13C range, for the next five or six days. Fresh snow is also in the forecast, but only for 3-5cm, not enough to provide sufficient protection. So in the late afternoon I covered not only the large visible patches of cyclamen but all twenty-seven of the digitalis with the largest pots I could find.

Many shoots of Leucojum vernum, the Spring Snowflake, are well up in the Acid Bed.  They, too are showing their eventual white flowers. Elizabeth Lawrence in her eirenic, elegant The Little Bulbs (1957) tells us that it

is called St. Agnes’ flower in honor of the patron saint of young virgins. The modest chaste, and solitary bells are wonderfully fragrant, but the fragrance is not of violets (Leucojum means white violet).  It is of vanilla and of something else, something that eludes analysis. The buds swell when they are ready to open, but the lime-green tips of the petals remain tightly twisted into a point until they suddenly flare apart…Although this species has been common in British gardens since it was brought to England from central Europe at the end of the sixteenth century, it is very rare in America…I know of only one way to come into possession of the spring snowflake, and that is to be a friend of Mr. Krippendorf.

Fortunately, in the fifty years that have elapsed since Elizabeth Lawrence wrote those words, it is no longer necessary to grow the bulb from seed, though that is not difficult to do, if you don’t have access to the late Mr. Krippendorf.

March 23

All the scrambling to find pots yesterday turned out to be unnecessary. It was snowing when we raised the bedroom blinds this morning, and it is still snowing as I write this at 5.30p.m.; probably 10cm of new snow, and it has tethered and covered the pots so that they haven’t blown away in the “more sharp than filèd steel” east wind. Now, with luck, the snow will stay around until we get past this spell of cold nights.

I potted up, into one 7cm pot, 5 tiny seedlings of Lilium mackliniae. I have not been able to germinate this lily in the past, but this time I used a method that has been particularly successful with Regale lily seeds, of putting the seeds into an air-tight transparent Velcro bag with some barely moist sterile soil (sphagnum moss seems particularly effective), and throwing the bag on to the top of the refrigerator where I check from time-to-time to see if anything is happening. The lily grows only to about 40-50cm, with nodding white, pink-flushed flowers reminiscent in shape of Clematis alpina. Its home is “north-eastern India (Manipur), on rocky grassy slopes at 2150-2600m.” Does it have a future in Mulmur? The path from germination to flowering is more precarious than a pilgrim’s progress.

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Coleridge dined with us. He brought his ballad finished (The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere). A beautiful evening, very starry, the horned moon.” (Dorothy Wordsworth, March 23, 1798)

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March 24

The new deep freeze, but gloriously sunny over a chaste white landscape. There was not a single footprint on the front lawn this morning.

The spring, clad all in gladness,

Doth laugh at winter’s sadness

Orazio Vecchi, for Thomas Morley’s Now is the Month of May.

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Greetings from Maureen and me. We shall be providing Notes for our first Open Garden day on April 24, and for our subsequent Open Days of May 8, May 22, June 19, September 18, and October 16. This set of Notes is simply born of vernal vigour. Please feel free to forward the Notes to friends.

About the Author

Brian Bixley and his wife live in a Victorian farmhouse 70 miles north-west of Toronto, where he has slowly been making a garden in the middle of open farm fields. While he has particular interests in clematis (the species), alpine plants and, more recently, unusual trees, his main concern is making a garden that is satisfying in a number of ways, and which relates to and “borrows” the beautiful countryside that surrounds it. Brian’s book, Essays on Gardening in a Cold Climate, is available for $20 (US or Canadian), plus shipping. His new book, Ten New Snowdrops, is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the passion for new snowdrop forms. CAN$15.00 Click here to order them.

If winter is slumber and spring is birth, and summer is life, then autumn rounds out to be reflection. It’s a time of year when the leaves are down and the harvest is in and the perennials are gone. Mother Earth just closed up the drapes on another year and it’s time to reflect on what’s come before.

~Mitchell Burgess in Northern Exposure

Comments on this entry are closed.

commonweeder April 1, 2011, 12:42 pm

You have inspired me to think about more early spring plants, but early spring obviously starts later here. We ‘welcomed’ another six inches of snow last night. totally buried the snowdrops.

Jennifer Patterson March 31, 2011, 3:39 pm

Thank you, I was afraid of that, a girl can wish though! I might try some in a part of the garden that gets good snow cover every year, in fact it’s still snow covered.
The stone is another idea……have to keep that in mind.

Brian Bixley March 31, 2011, 3:02 pm

Deborah – That ‘s an interesting suggestion, though I suspect I shall choose something with quieter foliage.
Alistair – I’m sympathetic. We only have so much energy, so much time to devote to the garden. But the spring flowers – you should be here when the scilla and chionodoxa are in bloom – don’t require much attention, once they’re in.
Jennifer – I doubt that our winters are quite as cold as yours. So much depends on snow cover (good this winter, but not dependable), so we mulch with pine needles in the fall after the first frosts. We also grow C. purpurascens which flowers on and off through the summer months, and the fall-flowering C. hederifolium; both are reputed to be hardier than C. coum. An English gardener once told me that the way to grow doubtfully hardy cyclamen was to plant them and put a flat stone over the top. The stone would presumably provide some frost protection, and the flowers would push up around the edges of the stone. Sounds worth trying.

Deborah March 31, 2011, 2:43 pm

My suggestion for your box elder replacement is… another box elder! But this one is special. Acer negundo “Kelly’s Gold” (from Broken Arrow nursery or Forest Farm) has vivid gold leaves all summer; the silver blue twigs add winter interest. It tolerates wet locations and grows vigorously like all box elders. Who needs flowers with this stunning foliage?

Jennifer Patterson March 31, 2011, 2:12 pm

How hardy is that cyclamen? I would love to try some here in MN, (right on the line zone 3 and zone 4)

Alistair March 31, 2011, 1:09 pm

Why oh why for the forty years in which I have been gardening have I not embraced the magic of Spring. Now don’t get me wrong it is in fact the season I love the most but I have never taken the full advantage of it. Always been obsessed with the beautiful Summer garden to the expense of Spring. Thank you, a failing which I will now address.