Nature’s Power: Recovering From An Ice Storm: Lilactree Farm Garden Notes, No. 4, 2016

– Posted in: Lilactree Farm

‘More and more I am coming to the conclusion that rain is a far more important consideration to gardens than sun, and that one of the lesser advantages that a gardener gains in life is his thorough enjoyment of a rainy day!’
Margaret Waterfield, quoted in The Penguin Book of Garden Writing

What kind of weirdo gets out of bed, goes to the window, pulls up the blind to see the first rays of sunlight slicing through the morning mists as they rise from the green valley below and says, ‘Darn it, it’s going to be relentlessly sunny today’? Or as he watches the serene Jane gazing into the teleprompter and reading, ‘No precipitation to worry about,’ shrieks in despair? She means, of course, that there is no need to worry about precipitation; does she not understand that it is the ‘no precipitation’ that he is worried about?

‘60% chance of showers; possibility of a thunderstorm’. With what longing I gaze at those words, read them silently to myself, say them out loud in the belief that a wish expressed – even if only to the lilies in the Oak Grove – is more likely to be heard and granted than those kept privately mute, imagine the rain beginning to fall, the first blessed rustle in the leaves of the tulip tree. I can watch the almost instantaneous greening as I sit in a chair on the Porch, the occasional windy gusts blowing the rain on to my far-decayed sneakers. But it is not to be. There is, says the lovely Jane looking into the teleprompter and unmoved by my cries, ‘No precipitation to worry about.’

What does it mean, in any case, a ‘60% chance of showers’? Is there some accumulation of evidence that makes it possible to say that with such-and-such a combination of weather features there is a 60% possibility of showers on the 8 Side Road? If rain falls on and off throughout the day two concessions away, does that confirm the 60% probability when not a drop fell on the parched grass of Lilactree farm? And what counts as ‘a shower’? Some days, giant black clouds form overhead and then eight drops of rain – few enough that they can be counted – mock my pleas. I know then it is one of the 40% days.
* * *
This has been a spring of great beauty. It seems odd to say that of a March that ended with the destructive ice storm followed by two months of very little rainfall. Paula Deitz writes in her scholarly and provoking Of Gardens: Selected Essays of ‘landscape architecture…as the means by which man redeems the natural environment through design.’ ‘Redeem’ has a wide variety of senses, but its most familiar are ‘to save,’ as in a religious sense, ‘to make amends for,’ ‘to save from some defect or fault.’ Landscape architects have many sins to answer for, the arrogance that springs from a faint familiarity with the capabilities of plants being one of them, but I am sympathetic, at least from time to time, to the proposition that Nature needs a helping hand in order to be aesthetically satisfying. What has been so striking through April and May has been the innate strength with which Nature has shrugged off, with a little help from a chainsaw and a watering-can, its ‘defects and faults’ to re-establish its exuberant majesty.

An example of recovery is illustrated by two images of the Profusion Allée, the first taken on March 24, the second taken a week ago.

Profusion Allee March 2016

The Profusion Allée shortly after the ice storm. © Brian Bixley. Used with permission.

The allée has not recovered its swagger, its sense of being the grandest moment of the spring garden, but some of its joyfulness has been reborn.
Profusion Allee late May 2016

The Profusion Allée, late May 2016 © Brian Bixley; used with permission.

Two of the twelve trees have been replaced; three or four seem unlikely to flourish much longer. [Images of the Profusion Allée from previous years can be seen here.] The allée is a celebration and commemoration of the time we spent in France more than forty years ago.

A vaguely frustrating aspect of our Open Garden days is that so much of interest to the gardener happens between them. We think the garden most horticulturally exciting in the spring, but that is precisely the season when everything moves in a swooshing accelerando so that the garden seen this weekend is barely recognisable two weeks later. You cannot be here every day, so here is a small sampling of what flashed by.

Andro has presided over the White Bed for many years; this year, the log on which s/he was perched finally rotted so that s/he was in danger of falling into the peonies.


Andro © Brian Bixley; used with permission

Dave and Cathy came to the rescue, with a stump cut appropriately from an ice storm casualty. As the seasons and their plants whirl about her s/he remains unflappable, ‘the still point’, in Eliot’s famous phrase ‘of a turning world.’

‘Gentian blue’ is a term known to all, but it is surprising how many visitors have never seen a gentian or, at least, a gentian in flower. Not all gentian flowers are blue and if you loiter long enough in the garden you will see both white and yellow. But the early Gentiana acaulis could not be bluer.

gentian and pulsatilla

Pulsatilla alba on the left, Gentiana acaulis on the right. © Brian Bixley; used with permission

It is a plant of a large genus, much of what is growable here emanating from the mountains of Europe. Though the AGS Encyclopaedia of Alpines describes it as found in ‘acid grassland, stony areas and bogs at 1400-3000m,’ we are able to supply only the second of those requirements and in fact it flourishes across much of southern Ontario in gardens. It is shown growing here with a Pasque flower, Pulsatilla alba.

For brilliance of colour, nothing beats a remarkable tulip, Tulipa vvedenskyi.

Tulipa vvedenskyi

Tulipa vvedenskyi © Brian Bixley; used with permission.

A ‘native of Central Asia, especially of the western Tien Shan’ with narrow glaucous foliage and growing seldom more than 20cm high, this clump has proven to be dependably hardy, flowering here in late May. Named for a Russian botanist, we would grow it if only to have in the garden a plant whose specific name begins with two ‘v’s.

Many visitors are surprised to discover peonies flowering before June is out, and are frequently perplexed by the unusual and unusually beautiful foliage. They are ‘wild’ species, non-hybridised peonies, often growing at considerable altitudes and thriving in cool spring weather. This year they made only a brief appearance because of the high temperatures throughout the last two weeks of May. One that is still in flower as I write is the well-known fern-leaved peony, Paeonia tenuifolia, which grows in Eastern Europe up to 2100m (nearly 7000ft!). Illustrated here is the more timid P. peregrina, at home in Italy and the Balkan peninsula at up to 1500m (5000ft).

Paeonia peregrina

Paeonia peregrina, a species peony that blooms earlier than common peonies. © Brian Bixley; used with permission.

From Josef Halda’s The Genus Paeonia I learn that this species’ odd characteristic of the flowers not quite opening fully is typical.

Two trees have already produced a magical flowering, one with a few flowers, one with many. The latter is a crabapple, Malus sieboldii, known – I am not sure why – as the Toringo crab. (What is baffling is that there is a M. toringoides, an ivy-leaved crabapple growing in the Anniversary Garden.) Both toringoides and sieboldii were grown from seed, but whereas only one seedling of toringoides survived, we ended up with a handful of sieboldii, and we used them to line the New Field path as it climbs up towards the Obelisk. The trees lower down have thrived; those higher up and so exposed to fiercer winds, have struggled.

Malus sieboldii, known as the Toringo crab.

Malus sieboldii, known as the Toringo crab. © Brian Bixley; used with permission.

But together they produce masses of flowers and small yellow berries.1

Their positioning reminds us of how important it is to look back as well as in front of us when we are touring a garden.

The other tree can only with imagination be called a tree. It was on its way to becoming one, but some enormous branches from the Siberian Crab at the Back Porch came crashing down upon it on that March night, breaking the central stem and reducing it from 300cm (10ft) to half that. Magnolia ‘Sunsation’, a hybrid that includes the well-known ‘Elizabeth’ in its parentage, has pale yellow flowers with a rosy flush at the base that extends as a stripe along each of the petals. It is a late-flowerer, coming after the better-known ‘Butterflies’, ‘Gold Star’ and ‘Elizabeth.’ Because of its beauty, we have given it a page of its own.
[Editor’s note: As I said in the previous post, I had the pleasure of visiting the author’s garden last year. I was greatly saddened to learn of the losses it has sustained.]

Sunsation magnolia

‘Sunsation’ magnolia © Brian Bixley; used with permission

There is one unopened bud remaining on the tree. It will be open, like the garden, on Sunday.

1The revised edition (2014) of The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs now lists M. sieboldii as M. toringoides which makes some sense, and the former M. toringoides as M. bhutanica. What fun.

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.

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.

commonweeder June 14, 2016, 6:10 pm

Beautiful post and lush photographs, but as I got to the end I cried out – what about the lilactree? Closer reading exposed my problem of course, but I had hoped to learn more about lilactrees because it turns out that a lusciously bloom lilactree came with our ‘new’ house. We love the flowers and the fragrance and have noticed that there seems to be a local trend, but mine was planted before it was fashionable.

Edward June 9, 2016, 3:04 am

Awesome works! I love reading your article. I learned more while reading this. Thank you for the insights.

Rachel June 6, 2016, 10:54 pm

I love your writing, and I always learn so much from your articles!

Pat Evans June 6, 2016, 9:04 am

Kathy and Brian, thank you both for the wonderful tour. Since I have decided to mostly abandon the gardens because of weather, wildlife, and apparently infected soil which is killing off plants and shrubs, I now need to get my enjoyment from the efforts of other more diligent and determined gardeners.