Thursday, December 29, 2016

Winter Garden Exhibitionists

'Twas the week before Christmas and all through the garden
Early cold temps and deep snow made perennials harden;
Beds and borders held no rabbits or mice,
Tools were hung in the shed, rust-free and nice.
What did my wandering eyes survey
But eight garden wonders flaunting their winter display.

Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) has a lot to flash year 'round, but when fall strips the beautiful scarlet-orange autumn leaves bark takes center stage. For my money  there are few plants that could steal the spotlight from the handsome, curling mahogany bark, even on small branches. A slow-growing ornamental, this is a stunning specimen either as a single trunk or multi-stemmed tree. The leaves are uniquely three-parted and dark green. 20ish' tall and 15' wide, this hardy Asian maple matures to a rounded silhouette. Zone 5.

Evergreens sometimes get overlooked in the color crush of a flower-filled summer border packed with shrubs and perennials. Right now, dead of winter, it's hard to overlook the sculptural elegance of a Weeping Norway spruce (Picea abies 'Pendula'). This is one evergreen that tolerates shade without getting "skanky". The needles seem to darken in shade and appear almost black against winter snow. Zone 3 hardy, this plant, like weeping just-about-anything, can be extremely variable in form. The plant will be taller the longer it is staked upright in youth and has the chance to develop a thick, self-supporting trunk.

While on the subject of artistic evergreens, Weeping white spruce (Picea glauca 'Pendula') is a perfect pencil-point without ever being touched by pruners. Growing rather quickly (up to a foot per year) the branches hang tightly down like arms against a torso. There is a silver cast to the needles, but they are not blue spruce-conspicuous. This weeper eventually grows 25+ ' or more, but only 3' wide. Sun-loving and happy in well-drained to dry soil, I love using this one to create visual interest by interrupting a long horizontal architectural line. Majestic swathed in winter white. Zone 2.

Yes, weeping plants may be an acquired taste. Purple Fountain European beech (Fagus sylvatica 'Purple Fountain') is a fave. Trees have a strong central leader with tightly held branches that come out from the trunk a bit and then turn south. 'Purple Fountain' has elegant, glossy, maroon leaves all summer. This color is intensified with sun, but like all beeches will tolerate some shade. Leaves hang on until late in the fall before turning bright gold. The bark is smooth and gray, like elephant hide before the elephant wrinkles. Soil must be well-drained. P.F. is a great complement to contemporary architecture. Zone 4.

Compact Concolor fir (Abies concolor 'Compacta') is a charming dwarf shrub sub for blue spruce when that strong color is needed, but space is limited. Growing slowly into a predictable 6' tall, 3' wide pyramid, this sun-lover is low maintenance. The needles are feather soft to the touch, but the plant is oblivious to drought, heat cold and winter wind. "Cute" is an appropriate adjective. Zone 4.

The many chartreuse summer flower heads of  Little Lime hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata 'Little Lime') are now a distinctive brown that provides strong color and bold texture in a snow-drifted landscape. 4' tall and equally wide at maturity this sun-lover provides months of flower effect - from summer through winter. Maintenance of these "panicle" hydrangeas is basically restricted to late winter removal of old flower residue and minimal silhouette shaping. Drought-tolerant when established, use Little Lime in groups to make a powerful statement in your garden- summer and winter. Zone 3.

Golden Mop Falsecypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Golden Mop') is a year 'round  color accent that holds true even in winter. In my experience this is one of the very hardiest Falsecypress varieties. My specimen is in full sun and catches a lot of winter wind with no ill effects after eight years. Zone 4.

Winterberry (Ilex verticiallata) is a rock hardy, native holly. It does drop its gold leaves in the fall to reveal plentiful apple red berries. Requires one male variety to pollinate a group of females. Don't worry, they're sold labelled "male" and "female". Tolerates sun or some shade, as well as wet sites that occasionally flood. The white spring flowers (of both sexes) are not showy, but when the berries go from green to red in late summer enjoy them before the birds discover and devour. This picture (taken the week before Christmas) shows a female winterberry that escaped complete denuding. Zone 3.

Tho' the lawn was long since frozen and snowy,
Salt crystals sparkled on roads like diamonds quite showy.
While ice and snow caused grasses to topple and shatter,
With these eight beauties in the garden, it just didn't matter.

                                                            Tony Fulmer
                                                            December 2016          


Thursday, December 8, 2016

(Paperwhite) Bulbs and Booze

Forcing paperwhite narcissus is a holiday tradition for many families. They're easy, inexpensive, quick to grow and flower once potted, and bear a distinctive fragrance. They don't even have to be potted in soil to perform. The fact of the matter is most people "pot" them in shallow bowls with gravel, decorative stones or even marbles rather than soil. So, what could go wrong?

The common bugaboo is the stems and flowers tend to stretch and elongate, weakening them. Then they splay open like an arborvitae in icy, wet snow. Unlike many flowers it's hard to support them so they look natural. Try running a stake through stones or marbles and see how that works for you. No, not very well.

As the story goes (and good readers, this is true, not another urban legend) a writer for the New York Times posed a question to Cornell University horticulture professor William Miller. Question- "Does gin affect paperwhites?" Great person to ask, right? Those of you that don't interact with the public daily may be flabbergasted and wonder how such a question could have arisen. Not me. The public's gardening questions have kept me on my toes for decades. And watch out for the full moon...

Paperwhites grown, left to right, in 2% to 10% alcohol
Courtesy Cornell University
Professor Miller and his horticulture student, Erin Finan, did the hard work. In the end their research showed that moderate dilutions of alcohol from certain sources did indeed shorten the plants and keep their flowers and foliage upright. The plants were as much as 1/3 to 1/2 shorter than the water only control group. Flower size and fragrance were, happily, not affected.

For those of you that are tired of battling rogue paperwhites and want more control here's what Professor Miller and Ms. Finan's research revealed:
  • Plant in stones and water as usual. The bulbs will root and shoots will start elongating quickly. Once stems are several inches tall pour off the water.
  • The day day you pour off the water take any hard liquor (gin, whiskey, vodka. etc.) or rubbing alcohol and create a 5% solution.
  • I wouldn't do that to you. Saving you the math to get from a 40% alcohol product to a 5% solution (by the by, don't use beer or wine due to their sugars), just add one part liquor to seven parts water. Easy, right?
  • Rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) is 70% alcohol. So, add one part to ten parts water.
  • This is an ongoing process throughout the life and flowering of your paperwhites, not a one-shot deal. So, each time you need to raise the "water level" in the container use the alcohol/water solution.
  • As with people, too much alcohol can be a problem. Don't be tempted to increase the solution to more than 10%. Toxicity will occur.
For those that are scientifically inquisitive and care the Cornell researchers believe alcohol in that lower percentage affects/slows the plant's water uptake. That lack of water somehow shortens flowers and foliage, yet doesn't change flower quality.

In the end if you love paperwhites and the above process reminds you (chillingly) of chemistry class there's another solution. Sorry, pun not intended. I never joke about chemistry. Get a tall glass vase and still plant them in stones and water. As they grow if they start to flop the vase will hold everything upright like a bouquet. Last call....