Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Snow as hyperbole

We all seemed to have more or less survived this year's first snow storm, though it pains me to use the word storm when describing the weather conditions we had Monday. Yes, we did have snow, a jaw dropping 2"+, and we even had some significant wind. But seriously, snowmagedon? SNOMG? Let's bring it down a couple of notches, people.

I was fortunate to have crammed in the last of my fall work last week in preparation for what might be, what in fact did happen: snow and ice that brought the city to a standstill and set an end, for now at least, to gardening. But what of the rest of the people in this region who aren't able to work from home or who are foolhardy enough to venture away from home without chains? Forget chains, even if you had a snow mobile, the combination of wet roads all day and then a rapid dropping of temperatures well below freezing in the evening made for iced over roads, not just overpasses and bridges. We all saw the videos of cars and buses sliding down hills and bouncing off of telephone poles and other cars like over-sized pin-balls. I admit to contributing to the frenzied flake following but my love of the white stuff stops when it means it takes my partner 3 hours to get home. We live 20 minutes away from his work, 45-50 minutes by bus.

In any event, the drama is all but over, the roads in our neighborhood are bare and we are looking forward to loading in to the car tomorrow to head up to our friends George and Sam for a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends. If there is one place that I can look to as an antidote to all of the hyperbole surrounding the snow and ice, it is the garden. Plants aren't freaking out because of the snow, and the cold; many of them are just now coming into their own.

In a way, I have been looking forward to the snow to see how the garden beds would look covered in a white blanket and to see how some of the marginally hardy plants would fair. I was flabbergasted to see our Maidenhair Fern (Adiatum pedatum) was unscathed, it's jet black, thin, rigid stems stood out starkly against the white snow. The foliage, which I expected to be shriveled and as black as the stems, were just fine. I was shocked, not because it isn't cold hardy, it is, but because it has such delicate, lacy foliage - it should have been bitten back by the cold before any of the other plants. Now, I do have it tucked up at the base of our Pittosporum tenuifolium, which looked a bit more peaky than the more delicate looking fern. Being so close to and slightly under the base of the Pittosporum undoubtedly gave the fern just enough protection to keep it from being frost bitten.
Seeing this reminded me of working at the nursery and the machinations we went through to protect the potted plants during cold spells: dragging long yards of fabric over plants, hauling entire departments into cold houses or pulling plants underneath covered walkways. It's the strangest thing, and you might not believe if you didn't see it, but having two of the exact same plants, same grower, same size, same level of hardening off, both outside, exposed to all sides, except one has a covering over the walkway. Which one is frosted over, has damaged buds and which one is untouched by frost? Plants that are mere feet from each other, and the one that is fine is under the walkway. It really only takes a little additional protection, like tucking up near the base of a broad-leaf or coniferous evergreen, pulling a pot up next to a structure or under an eave and your marginally hardy or containerized plants will pull through extremely cold temperatures.

Not to be out-shown by the miraculous maidenhair fern, our newly planted 'Charity' Mahonia (Mahonia x media 'Charity') is looking rather stoic and unperturbed by the extreme cold and snow.
The stately leaves are held stiffly horizontal and rise ever so slightly, as it of greet the snow. The deep, blue-green evergreen foliage is a perfect winter foil, and the lighter undersides of the leaves reflect the bright winter light. Sprays of newly emerged flower buds burst from the tops of the stems, just waiting to open and release their sweet, delicate fragrance and nectar - a grateful winter gift for our overwintering hummingbirds.
Speaking of which, while I was working in the kitchen making bread for our Thanksgiving feast, I kept noticing a bright flash darting to and fro just out of the corner of my eye at the window over my prep area. Last year we received a beautiful, blown glass hummingbird feeder and the hummers loved it. I brought it in during cold nights so it wouldn't freeze and crack. Unfortunately, the glass feeder cracked and a replacement was bought; this less elegant than it's predecessor but equally as functional. After the cold weather ended and once spring arrived, the hummingbirds stopped visiting and I stopped filling the feeder. Hummers are, apparently, somewhat fickle. Now that the cold weather is back and food is harder to find, I guess I am on good graces with the birds again.

I'll just have to remind myself that, if the hummingbirds and garden plants can handle a little snow, maybe I can too.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reflections on a severed bulb

Waking up to snow this morning means that, despite what the calendar says, fall is over and winter is here. A few weeks back, when fall was still in full swing, I took advantage of the sunny, balmy weather we had  and struck out for the arboretum for a mid-day stroll. I wanted to take in the myriad display of fall color and I was not disappointed. The warm days and cool nights we had this fall, combined with relatively little stormy weather, made for spectacular foliage color. 

I hadn't even made it all the way to the park when I saw a stunning, bright yellow Ginko tree (Ginko biloba).

Ginko has lovely, unique foliage that is mid-green in the summer then turns a vivid, lemon yellow in the fall. It was a beacon of light painted against a gauzy blue sky. The leaves of this living fossil are shaped like a duck's foot for which it gained the name ya chio ( ya chio to ginko) in China, where it originates. Ginko is a handsome, ancient ornamental tree that once grew widely, and has survived virtually unchanged for over 125 million years. The last remaining colony of trees grew in eastern China south of the Yangtze River and was highly regarded for its unusual fruit (yin hsing - silver apricot), which was paid as tribute to the emperor. This rare tree was eventually brought to the capitol and then gradually made its way into cultivation, spreading throughout China, Asia and then to the rest of the world.

The fruit, a drupe, is about the size and shape of a small apricot, is yellow when mature and contains an edible nut. For years I heard of how horribly messy the falling fruit of this tree can be and for this reason most ginko trees in cultivation are male. Last year, when Evan and I were in Montreal, I visited the Montreal Botanical Gardens and I saw the ginko fruits for the first time! They were beautiful - on the tree - and messy on the ground.

This spectacular tree is quite tolerant of a wide range of soil types, grows well in urban environments (though better suited for larger gardens), prefers full sun and is heat tolerant once established. Its habit is broadly pyramidal, growing moderately, it can eventually reach 50-80' with age and can grow to be as broad. Its habit is highly variable, so try to stick to named varieties when selecting your ginko. I highly recommend Hui-Lin Li's The Origin and Cultivation of Shade and Ornamental Trees for more information about the fascinating history of ginko and other ornamental trees.

A few other trees I stopped to admire on my walk through the arboretum were Sourwood (Oxydendron arboreum) and October Glory Red Maple (Acer rubrum 'October Glory').

When I returned home I paused out front to check on the status of our newly planted sidewalk bed. I have been eagerly awaiting the emergence of Cyclamen coum  bulbs that we planted in October. Our neighborhood has more than its fair share of squirrels with all of the acorns that the oak trees shed every fall. Feeling somewhat tenuous about planting bulbs for the first time in our garden, not knowing what the squirrel's level of interest would be, I opted to plant the cyclamen a little deeper than I knew I should have - 5" deep instead of a scant 1".

I know that squirrels generally leave cyclamen alone and I know that newly planted bulbs won't have leaves emerge at the same time as potted/planted bulbs, BUT I just couldn't resist the temptation to investigate their status. Against my better judgment, I grabbed my hori hori knife and dug around where I knew I had planted the bulbs. In doing so, I cut into one of the cyclamen bulbs. Just a nick really and not a mortal wound. The bulbs were there, undisturbed, until my zeal for signs of winter made me foolishly wield my knife. The lesson was clear: let sleeping bulbs lie and let the seasons come and go when they are ready.

"The very things are still the same, but human nature changes in time. Someone should record the beginning so that future generations can know its origin." Ou-yang Hsiu (1007-1072) historian, essayist and poet, discussing the ginko tree, as translated in The Origin and Cultivation of Shade and Ornamental Trees by Hui-lin Li.