The Sweet Scents of Spring

It never fails: every year, I am happily surprised by the powerful scents of early spring here in my garden. I have scented flowers all over my garden throughout the growing season, of course, yet these early ones get my blood pumping. Walking through, I encounter sweetness at every turn.

Entering the front walk, I have a big Variegated Winter Daphne, Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’. The pink buds open to pale pink, almost white, and have such a powerful scent you can smell them a couple of houses away. The entire front garden is smothered in fragrance. To my nose, they have a slight citrusy smell. Most people stop and try to figure out where it’s coming from. Daphne are notoriously finicky–they like some shade from the hot sun and do not like to be moved once established. Know that they can turn up their toes and die in a heartbeat…it’s just the way they are. But so very worth the risk, in my opinion. And by the way, yes–I have lost several. And yet I keep planting them.

Variegated Winter Daphne

Variegated Winter Daphne

Walking across the front of my house, hanging a left and heading down the steps past the waterfalls, a different sweetness hits my nose. This one is not so obvious because the flowers are largely hidden. Tiny, white flowers are covered by the evergreen leaves of the little Sweetbox, (it’s a tongue-twister) Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis. It doesn’t grow much higher than one or two feet, and makes a terrific groundcover, even for dry shade. I don’t know why, but I always think of dryer sheets (think Bounce) when I smell the Sweetbox…I happen to like the smell of dryer sheets, so it doesn’t smell weird to me.

Next to my lower pond is an odd-looking plant, Edgeworthia, or Paperbush, Edgeworthia papyrifera. It is a curious thing…deciduous in the winter, with stems that always remind me of long fingers like those of the movie character ET. The flowers, clusters of pale yellow with the look and smell of Daphne, come out on the tips. The leaves emerge soon after the blooms fade and have a tropical appearance to my eye.

Edgeworthia flower (with Daffodil below)

Edgeworthia flower (with Daffodil below)

Going left as I enter the woodland part of my garden, I see a Leatherleaf Mahonia, Mahonia bealei. It’s a coarse thing, with big, evergreen, holly-like leaves and clusters of bright, yellow flowers on the stem tips. The bees love them so there’s lots of movement and activity. The scent reminds me of Jonquils/Daffodils. Today’s rain is knocking off the flowers, so I don’t have much longer to enjoy them this year. The fruit ripens in about June and looks like clusters of blue-purple grapes. The bluejays and catbirds love the fruit and practically fight over it–they strip the fruit in not time.

Leatherleaf Mahonia

Leatherleaf Mahonia

And speaking of Daffodils, the garden is filling with their blooms (and fragrance). I think my favorite is ‘Tête à Tête’, a dwarf that blooms in tight little clusters. Looking at it just makes me happy that it’s spring!

\'Tête à Tête\' Daffodils

'Tête à Tête' Daffodils

I have a Winter Hazel, Corylopsis glabrescens, growing in front of the shed. I’d call this a large shrub or small tree. The hanging blooms are pale yellow and fragrant. It’s graceful and very elegant.

Winter Hazel

Winter Hazel

Finally, wafts of sweet Winter Honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) hit my nose as I get further into the lower garden. They’ve naturalized in the surrounding woods. As plants, they are not the prettiest things…just sticks in the winter and small-leafed shrubs during the growing season…but I do wait–and look forward to–their sweet scents in late winter and early spring.

It just occurred to me that most of the late winter/early spring flowers I have are yellows…to remind me of the sunlight I’ve missed so much over the winter?

Posted under Fragrance in the garden

Bring in Some Branches

When I got home from Wilmington a couple of weeks ago for the spring season, one of the first things I did was cut an armful of dormant forsythia branches. I have a wonderful Blenko Glass vase that some friends gave me–heavy, solid and perfect for holding floppy branches. I re-cut the branches and put them in deep, warm water. They started to bloom this week. When I cut them, it was still snowy and quasi-wintry…now, it really is feeling like spring. No matter. The forsythia blossoms laugh away on my kitchen table, the color of summer sunlight.

You can cut and force lots of different spring-flowering shrubs and trees into bloom, you know. In addition to forsythia, I’ve done spirea, viburnum, flowering almond, cherries, plums, pears (but the pears are a bit stinky, I’m just sayin’)…almost all the deciduous, spring bloomers can be forced.

Re-cut them before sticking them in deep water and enjoy. I do it every year.

Forced forsythia in my kitchen

Forced forsythia in my kitchen

Posted under Flowers in the House

This post was written by Jeff Minnich on March 14, 2010

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The Birds are Returning

I’m just as stunned at the remarkable turn-around in the weather these last ten days as I was about the record snowfall this winter. Overnight, spring has returned to Virginia. Things are flying out of the ground at an amazing rate. I am cleaning up the garden here at Woodland Cottage as quickly as possible! Partly, to give the newly-emerged plants some light and air, and partly from sheer excitement!

The seasonal birds are returning, too. A mourning dove wakes me daily. Every day and night over the past week, I’ve heard flocks of Canadian geese overhead, honking away, all heading north for the season. I love the flock of chickadees flying–darting, really–around the yard. They seem so happy to see spring! Can’t blame them, after enduring this winter. We have a flock of robins all winter, so they are here, as well as bluejays, Carolina wrens, sparrows and cardinals (“Redbirds”, as my grandmother used to say, and Mom still does). I can hear their songs.

I am still waiting for those other familiar songs: towhees, catbirds, etc. Sometimes, I hear songs I can’t identify. I went online and found this cool website: You can hear sample bird songs and it has helped me identify many birds by song and photo.

Around the first week of May, the warblers come through on their way north. I start looking out my kitchen window at the pond in late April–suddenly, one day, they are there, in all their glorious colors. They are so fun to watch. I have an upper pond; the water rushes from there down a flat rock to a big waterfall, which flows into a lower pond. The warblers love to stand in the rushing water and get an easy bath. About two weeks later, they are gone. I wait for their appearance every year, kind of like I wait for the forsythia to bloom. It’s a fleeting sighting, but I know true spring is here. I keep my bird book–one of my prized possessions from a friend who is no longer with us–on the kitchen table by the window, easily accessible. Each year, I record the comings and goings of the different birds, and their consistency is really remarkable.

Birds are such a necessary and sensory part of the garden. I can watch them for hours. They bring me great joy.

Posted under Animals in the Garden

This post was written by Jeff Minnich on March 11, 2010

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Sometimes, things just work out for the best. Like last Thursday. Steve and I got in the car in Wilmington, on a rainy, nasty, cold morning at 7am. We were headed to Montrose in Hillsborough, NC, to tour the gardens. Hillsborough is northwest of Durham, so we went through Raleigh on the way. It’s really a straight shot up I-40 from Wilmington. When we got close to Raleigh, it started to snow…the snow was covering everything but the road…and I started to fret that I wouldn’t be able to see anything in this garden we were traveling almost three hours to see. But then, on the other side of Raleigh, things opened up and the snow magically just disappeared.

We got to Montrose at the stroke of 10, right on time. Our hostess (and owner of the property), Nancy Goodwin, was just then swinging open the gate (I almost ran into her, I was so excited to get in there!). She said, “I was almost ready to give up on you all. Everyone else canceled.” Lucky us! We got a private, almost two hour tour with this delightful, energetic, and amazingly knowledgeable plantswoman. To say I was in heaven is an understatement. What a treat.

In late February, Montrose is loaded with hardy cyclamen, hellebores (Lenten Roses), and snowdrops (Galanthus)–all of which are Nancy’s passion and favorites. She has and does breed them all. As much as I hate winter, I really do love the late winter/early spring crossover for all these same plants. There is nothing like walking through the garden and seeing these signs of life suddenly appear amidst all the dead leaves and bare branches, and despite the cold. So cheerful and hopeful.

Looking through the woodland at Montrose

Through the woodland at Montrose

I had vaguely heard of Montrose, and Nancy Goodwin, and I am ashamed to say the horticulturist in me didn’t put two and two together when I read about her in Frances Mayes’ blog. Frances (who wrote Under the Tuscan Sun and sequels) lives in Hillsborough, also, when she is not in Tuscany. She recommended Nancy’s book, Montrose: Life in a Garden (Duke University Press). I ordered it right away, of course, and then sat down and read it in Wilmington the week before we went to visit the garden. It is a wonderful intro to the garden, and Nancy, and I felt like I was visiting an old friend as I walked around the gardens at Montrose.

I later found out from Nancy that she and Frances are now friends. I wrote to Frances, via her blog, to thank her for her recommendation and tell her we had visited Montrose. She responded back that we should definitely go back and see the gardens when the roses are in bloom and “see [them] arching into the trees.” She said she had “fantastical dreams for a week” after visiting the garden. She’s oh so right.

If you are ever in the Triangle area of NC (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill), you must visit Montrose. It is open for tours by appointment. For more information, check out this link.

Posted under Garden Tours