Growing The Earliest Blooms: The Challenge Continues

– Posted in: What's up/blooming
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In my quest to extend the gardening season by growing very early and very late blooming plants, I have begun growing “spring”-blooming* witch hazels. In 2017 I planted ‘Ripe Corn,’ ‘Orange Encore,’ and ‘Birgit’–all Hamamelis x intermedia (hybrids of H. japonica crossed with H. mollis). Only ‘Birgit’ is alive; the other two were eaten during the winter. Last year I planted ‘Pallida,’ ‘Diane,’ and H. vernalis. The vernal witch hazel, as H. vernalis is called, is native to southeastern United States and hardy to USDA Zone 4b. It opened a few blossoms in the most recent thaw.

Hamamelis vernalis first bloom

The vernal witch hazel takes the prize for the earliest bloom.

I concede the shrub didn’t open more than two or three flowers before the next cold wave barreled through. It was a small but potent victory, nonetheless. The vernal witch hazel was in a substantial #3 pot, but ‘Diane’ and ‘Pallida’ were both mere one year old cuttings, so I’m surprised to see ‘Diane’ has flower buds, all five of them. (I’ll post pictures on Instagram and Facebook as soon as it blooms!)
first snowdrops

A few snowdrops (Galanthus spp.)were sighted in the Herb Garden and the wettest part of the Secret Garden.

You may recall that the Herb Garden is the warmest microclimate in my garden. And there is a spot in the Secret Garden that perpetually seeps water. As a result the soil thaws there sooner and that’s why those snowdrops are emerging earlier than their neighbors. Consulting my image archives, I know that I’ve had snowdrops blooming by the end of February in a few years. But they have also often been buried in snow again in March. Looking at the current ten-day weather forecast, I don’t expect to see February snowdrop blossoms this year.
septic tank snow melt

I have long admonished my readers to plant where the snow melts first, in this case, over the septic tank.

This past autumn I followed my own advice and planted a combination of two mixtures from Colorblends: Woodland Blend and Aladdin’s Carpet on the downhill side of this septic tank access.
grape hyacinth sprout

Several grape hyacinths from the mixes are poking up, along with a few other bulbs I couldn’t quite identify.

The soil is poor here and the grass grows slowly, so I don’t think it will need to be mowed before the foliage has died down. And yes, sooner or later something will go wrong with the septic system and it will need to be dug up, quite possibly where the bulbs are planted. I’m just betting it will be later, and I will have many years to enjoy these early spring bloomers.

Meanwhile, inside the house . . .

Proven Winners Rockin' Fuchsia salvia

A trial plant from Proven Winners, this Rockin’ Fuchsia salvia cutting bloomed under the lights in my basement.

Taking cuttings was one of the challenges I gave myself going into this winter. I really was not expecting the cuttings to bloom. I’m probably supposed to pinch the flowers out, but I didn’t.
forced hyacinths on glass shelf

Hyacinth forcing is meeting with mixed success.

All the above bulbs were started at the same time, and look at the difference in root growth! I’m hoping the bulbs without roots are just a different, more pokey variety and not dead in the water. I still have a few more bulbs in the fridge. It seems like forcing them in soil might work better, but then you miss the fun of seeing the roots develop. However, when the roots don’t develop and the bulbs rot it’s no fun at all.
forced hyacinths

These two did well, and each bulb had two flowers!

All of these hyacinths were from the Etouffee mix from Colorblends so I don’t know the variety names of the (hopefully) four colors.
forced forsythia

During our last thaw, I cut some forsythia branches.

forced forsythia closeup

A week later, they are blooming.

That worked well! Maybe next I will try forcing some flowering quince. My friend Christine Froelich published an excellent how-to post on forcing branches for winter bloom. It reminded me of some of the little tips and tricks (like cutting the branches down to size outside) that make the whole process go more smoothly.

Challenging myself to learn more about plants by trying new techniques and by researching and growing unfamiliar plants helps me grow as a gardener–and as a person. I try not to get discouraged about the failures because even they teach me something. For example, the ‘Diane’ and ‘Pallida’ witch hazels are caged so they don’t meet the same fate as ‘Ripe Corn’ and ‘Orange Encore.’ It’s all about being a hardy soul and not letting winter get the best of me. What cabin-fever-fighting tricks do you have in your arsenal?

*About those “spring”-blooming witch hazels: They are spring-blooming only to distinguish them from the fall-blooming Hamamelis virginiana. Most people would call them winter-blooming, but that would confuse us cold climate gardeners. Mud-season-blooming is closer to the mark.

Inspired by the words of Elizabeth Lawrence, “We can have flowers nearly every month of the year,” Carol of May Dreams Gardens started Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. On the 15th of every month, garden bloggers from all over the world publish what is currently blooming in their gardens. Check it out at May Dreams Gardens.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In the end, this may be the most important thing about frost: Frost slows us down. In spring, it tempers our eagerness. In fall, it brings closure and rest. In our gotta-go world–where every nanosecond seems to count–slowness can be a great gift. So rather than see Jack Frost as an adversary, you could choose to greet him as a friend.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

Shea March 1, 2019, 6:24 pm

Kathy, what happened to the DR Mower?
did you ever get running properly again? Is it still Usable?

Sarah February 26, 2019, 4:36 pm

Thank you for sharing your experience. Very useful and informative blog.

Cate February 18, 2019, 6:27 am

Your hyacinths and forsythia just put the hugest smile on my face. Thank you for sharing them!

To get me through the winter, I’m spending a lot of time looking at pics of the flowers we grew last year.

Somehow it reminds me that winter isn’t permanent. Even though – by Feb – it always feels like it just might be!

Kathy Purdy February 18, 2019, 9:41 am

I’ve been looking through garden photos from last year as well, Cate. And I’ve dug through my stack of magazine back issues and picked out the spring ones!

Heather February 17, 2019, 6:47 pm

I just planted a forsythia and a quince last fall so it’s taking everything I have to not go out and cut some stems for forcing inside. But you can be sure I’m planning on doing it next February.

Kathy Purdy February 18, 2019, 9:42 am

Heather, you are smart to give them a year to settle in before cutting. Depending on how small they were when you planted them, I might give them two years.

Donalyn Ketchum February 17, 2019, 4:45 pm

Getting forsythia branches to bloom is the only early season success I’ve ever had. Hyacinths laugh at me!

Dee A Nash February 17, 2019, 2:28 pm

Kathy, I do very similar things. Of course, I don’t usually have snowfall that stays all winter. We’ve had a lot of snow and ice events this year though for us. In fact, it’s sunny today for the first time in days, and tomorrow is more stupid ice. I’m so ready for spring. I totally get why you do what you do to get the earliest blooms. I had mixed success with my hyacinths this year too, but I keep trying. 🙂 ~~Dee

Patricia Evans February 17, 2019, 10:06 am

I have to cage every new shrub to protect it from deer and/or rabbit destruction, but even then, it’s not necessarily successful. This fall one of the young bucks scraped the bark off two 5 year fear it old evergreens which had outgrown their cages. I ran out of fencing and hadn’t gotten to making a bigger cage. I doubt either one is going to survive. I’d love to plant a witch hazel, but it would suffer the same fate. Last year the deer broke all the branches off the bottlebrush buckeye, so while it survived , there were no flowers.

Pat Leuchtman February 17, 2019, 9:11 am

Kathy – It is posts like this that make me wish I had a bigger houselot and could have a bigger garden. I just may have to think a little harder about where to include more early bloomers. Thanks for the pinch.

Lisa at Greenbow February 17, 2019, 6:34 am

It is amazing that the fuchsia bloomed with so little green to go with it. The bloom looks larger than the greenery. I wouldn’t be able to pinch it off either. That color this time of year is great.
The rabbits ate almost everything in my garden last year. This year I caged several shrubs I didn’t want eaten . So far it is working out well. They just eat the lirope for the most part. At least right now. I too like to see hyacinth roots. That is part of the anticipation of the bloom.

Christine Froehlich February 16, 2019, 10:06 pm

That little salvia blossom just pulled at my heartstrings- so brave! You inspire me! Thanks for mentioning me in your piece. Christine

Frank February 16, 2019, 9:59 pm

I would have left the salvia flower as well. That little bloom now is worth a whole shrub full in August!
Great to see things happening in the garden already. We’re still in the depths of winter but at least some of the plants are convinced that spring is a possibility. I for one need that optimism… well that and now I’m looking at the witch hazels you mentioned 😉

Lea's Menagerie February 16, 2019, 4:51 pm

Love those Hyacinths!

Ian Lumsden February 16, 2019, 4:49 pm

You do amazing things amidst winter’s gloom. I’ve tried forcing quince and indeed it’s worth a trial with other shrubs. I’ll try forsythia myself.

Kathy Purdy February 16, 2019, 5:28 pm

Thanks! Hope the forsythia blooms quickly for you.