Spring has arrived at our quarter-acre plot in the middle of the central Illinois suburbs! The lawn is starting to green up, bulbs are bursting through the soil, and early shrubs are starting to break bud. If I hadn’t looked at the calendar before walking through the garden today, I would have sworn it was March instead of January. The new year has definitely taken a turn for the …. balmy.
Yesterday, when I brought our Christmas tree outside, I threw on my Carharrt not because of the cold, but for protection from the dried needles of our Canaan Fir that stopped drinking nearly 10 days ago. I stood the tree up between a stand of Miscanthus and our old satellite dish (that needs to be removed). Until it’s recycled when the calendar hits spring, our Christmas tree will provide shelter for wildlife in the garden. Unless you looked under the lower branches, you’d never know it wasn’t growing in our garden.
My footsteps in the back border crushed some of the old Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) foliage on the ground, releasing a minty fragrance into the air. A few of the Bee Balm seed heads remain standing along the back fence.
|Viburnum rhytidophylloides ‘Allegheny’|
In the side yard, the first flower bud on an ‘Allegheny’ Viburnum has formed. This shrub, considered semi-evergreen, has remained green so far this winter. Only when the temperatures dropped suddenly into the teens earlier this week did the foliage show any damage.
The lilacs are kicking into spring mode, their terminal flower buds bright green and swelling. This sight normally brings a wide smile to my face, but in January my grin is tinged with worry.
|Rosa Knockout® ‘Rainbow’|
Bright red buds have formed at the nodes on my Knockout® ‘Rainbow’ roses.
It’s not unusual for the new foliage of bearded Iris to emerge in autumn and persist through winter, but I’m seeing signs of new growth throughout the garden. A return to more seasonable (i.e. cold) weather shouldn’t hurt the iris, and the flowers don’t emerge until long after the foliage has grown.
|Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’|
The young twigs on the dappled willows in the back border are displaying their characteristic red winter color. This color is most apparent at the top of the shrubs, which have now grown taller (12-14 feet) than we ever expected. If we can find a way to control the scale that’s started to colonize one of the trunks, this shrub should be a focal point in the border for years to come.
Several unidentifed bulbs have sprouted in the new patio terrace. They are likely Muscari or perhaps Chionodoxa, but haven’t come up in numbers that concern me yet. When we finally get some cold (yes, I said when), the remaining bulbs will return to dormancy and come up at more expected times.
|Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’|
One of my favorite shrubs in winter is oakleaf hydrangea. I love the color and texture of the fuzzy leaf buds. A look at the past bud scars on this shrub show that last season was a good growth season for this young shrub. I’m glad the fact that I moved it twice in one year doesn’t seem to have stunted its progress. It now grows under the 20-year-old honeylocust at the end of the patio terrace.
|Acer palmatum ‘Roseo Marginatum’|
Near the hydrangea is the first Japanese maple I’ve added to the garden. Bought at the end of autumn from the discount section of a local garden center, I’m pleased with the number of healthy buds that cover its tender young branches. Planted along one of the terrace walkways, I hope it will provide a beautiful focal point from both our dining room and gazebo. I’m already dreaming of the evening light filtering through its variegated, cutleaf foliage.
|Heuchera ‘Cherry Cola’|
Most of the Huechera in the garden haven’t shown any signs of succumbing to the cold. ‘Cherry Cola’ — a variety whose color is highly dependent on environmental conditions — has returned to the hue that inspired its pop-ular name.
A mainstay in our winter garden, the seedpods of sweetgum hang with ornamental precision. Now that we no longer have any turf beneath these trees, the cleanup and hassle of these spiny balls is minimal. They simply become additional mulch in our 8’x60′ driveway border. What cleanup we do is to rake those that fall in the neighbor’s yard.
|Buxus microphylla ‘Wintergreen’|
The five boxwood shrubs that curve along the leading edge of the our front foundation border are afterthoughts for most of the year, but in winter stand out against a backdrop of dried ornamental grasses. They, too, are enjoying the spate of warm weather — retaining a glossy green sheen. Often, their winter color can take a rusty cast.
|Hylotelephium (unknown variety)
The tall sedum (Hylotelephium) throughout the front borders stand in various angles from upright. We’ve had no snow or ice yet to break their stems, so most are retaining a summery habit, sans foliage. The clump pictured above grows at the base of a Whitespire birch on the southeast corner of the house. In summer, the foliage is a bit too light green for my taste, but it is among my favorites in winter.
|Rhododendron catawbeinse ‘Nova Zembla’|
The buds on my four Rhododendron are growing slowly, some larger than others. It’s normally interesting to watch their evergreen foliage curl along the midrib on colder days on winter. This week, they’ve been curling as much as the Olympic team from Costa Rica.
A few of the smoky tails of sweet autumn clematis seeds remain on the vines that cover the southern rail of our deck. Last year, a large number of seedlings emerged in the river rock along the deck. I’m hoping for a repeat performance so that I can transplant some to other areas of the garden. This vine is an amazing performer.
Miscanthus is one plant that I’m glad doesn’t reseed (at least not in my garden). Hundreds of seeds line each of the strands that make up the floral plumes of this clump-forming perennial. I love this three-season grass (it gets cut back in spring and doesn’t reach appreciable form until summer), but would have second thoughts if I had to deal with an aggressive reseeding habit.
I mentioned that shrubs were starting to break bud. Well, make that one shrub — the vernal witch hazel that has been both hallmark and stallwart of the western border since I started gardening at Cherry Creek. I noticed the first flower starting to emerge on Saturday. By today, several more had broken bud.
When I close my eyes tonight, I will be hoping for our true winter to arrive. The plants don’t know any better. They don’t understand that a freeze is sure to come. They have no calendar, no sense of history. Only a genetic predisposition, an instinct to follow.