It’s a Japonica Kind of Day

JaponicaCamellia.  Some say it like this:  Kuh-MAYL-yuh.  Here in the South, “Japonica” is a catch-all term for so many plants:  Winter/Spring-blooming Camellias, Pieris…any plant whose species name is japonica is fair game down here.  Whatever you call them, they’re all the same and they’re all Camellias.

I just took a turn around my woodland garden, and the early Camellia japonicas are blooming away.  Of the varieties I have, these aren’t my favorites (those will bloom later); yet any flower at this time of year is welcome, both indoors and out.  Indoors, I love to float them in shallow dishes.  I have my eye out always for vessels in which I can float Camellias.

Camellia dishes/bowls are an old stand-by, Southern style.  Actually, I got this flat dish in Murano, the island off Venice where the beautiful Venetian glass is made.  It’s perfect for floating Camellias.  I bought it for this use.  This one will hold several blossoms:

Here’s an old one I got at the gift shop of the Mercer House in Savannah, GA.  Steve and I get down there several times a year–we love it–and a stop at the Mercer House shop is a must.  (Remember the book/movie, ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’?  This is the house of Jim Williams.  Check it out here).  A clue that it’s a Camellia dish, and not a cigarette ashtray (though, yes, you could use it as an ashtray), is that it doesn’t have the notches in the rim where you’d rest a cigarette.  I love the cut glass and gold rim:

Many Camellia dishes are passed down through Southern families.  Many shallow dishes did double duty as condiment dishes and Camellia dishes, like these, which were passed down to me by my maternal grandmother, “Miss Lill”:

Sometimes, a Camellia may be blooming at the tip of a branch and have tight buds adjacent.  Every bud means a precious flower, so I’ve found that twisting off the flower, carefully, is the best way to pick them.  Just plop them in a shallow dish, Camellia or otherwise, face up, and there you have it.  They last many days in my house–probably because I’m cheap and keep the house so cool!

What a Winter!  To be able to walk around the yard daily–in JANUARY–and see what’s happening (because, yes, it is changing daily–hard to believe) is a treat beyond treats.  Good for the soul and what ails you.  The days are getting longer and the sun is getting warmer, too, here in the magical Mid-Atlantic.

I never thought I’d ever say this, and I may never say it again–and it may be a first:  Just for now, I’m loving Winter.  How about you?  Do you have any Camellia traditions?

Photos by the author.  If you copy, please link back.

Posted under Flowers in the House, The Winter Garden

This post was written by Jeff Minnich on January 28, 2012

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Winter Tree Work

January.

Blah.

This year, at least, has been warm enough to accomplish a few things in advance of Spring.  Friday, my excellent landscape crew came by and mulched my entire garden, from front to rear.  Our county collects leaves in the Fall and shreds them, then lets them compost.  They do the same with all the tree branches they collect throughout the year, shredding the pieces into a wonderful shredded hardwood mulch which they stockpile and allow to age.  They deliver it to county residents for a song.  I got my mulch from them this year–15 cubic yards–and the guys spread it patiently for me.  A little tricky to coordinate deliveries with the pace of the landscape crew, yet it worked out very efficiently this time.  It’s nice to have it finished early, especially since perennials and bulbs are already emerging.  We’ve had a mild Winter here.

Likewise, the tree guys (arborists) are here right now.  I was surprised to see them this morning, frankly–we had some snow and ice over the weekend, just a bit, and the temperature has hovered right around 32 so it has stayed wintry.  Plus, it’s foggy and drizzly today.  Nevertheless, the doorbell rang this morning and the crew is in the trees, pruning away.

Winter is a great time for tree work.  The structures of  the trees are apparent.  The underlying garden is dormant, reducing the chances of damage.  After all, the tree guys need to stand below the trees and maneuver those big branches they’ve cut, then cut them up and haul them out.  That’s a lot of footwork on the ground.  They don’t have to step as gingerly in the Winter, one less thing to worry about with an already stressful job that requires intense concentration.  Plus, the leaves are off the trees, lessening the weight and increasing the visibility both in the trees and from trees to ground.  One of the trees I’m having pruned is a big Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), and the backs of its leaves are tomentose (there’s your word for the day–it means “hairy”).  Those tomentose leaves can stick to clothes, I’m told, which can be a hassle.  Something I had never thought about, actually.  The biggest bonus of Winter tree work:  demand is down, so you get the work accomplished quickly at a time of year when you are not usually in your garden, anyway.  Another bonus for me:  I can be focused and engaged because this is my slow time of year.

Preparing to climb...

Preparing to climb...

Today, I’m having the big Sycamore trimmed and attending to two other trees, as well.  One is an ancient Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera).  Last summer, we had a bad thunderstorm come through (normal around here) and about a 40-foot piece from the top got broken.  Some of it fell to the ground; the rest has been resting in the top of the tree (maybe 100 feet up–I have some big trees).  Time to clear that top out and cleanly cut the tears.

Attending to the top of the Tulip Poplar

Attending to the top of the Tulip Poplar

The other tree is a Chestnut Oak (Quercus prinus).  They are native on my steep hillside, and I’ve watched them slowly deteriorate over the years–from climate change?   Pollution?  Weather vagaries?  Who knows, but it is happening.  I lost three magnificent Chestnut Oaks in 2003 when Hurricane Isabel blew through.  I’ve been babying two more in my front garden.  One is an ancient, two-trunker and it has been slowly weakening.  Last year, after several years of trying to halt the decline, I threw in the towel and decided to let it die an honorable death.  Very sad for me because this tree sets the tone for my magical woodland garden.  Yet, life goes on and I’ve come to accept the inevitable outcome.  So I’m enjoying the time I have left with this magnificent tree.  When it goes, the adjacent, young Live Oak (Quercus virginiana, an evergreen Oak) will finally have some breathing room and a chance to expand and shine.  I planted it many years ago, anticipating the loss of the larger tree.

Back to the other Chestnut Oak in the back garden:  the arborists are pruning out the dead top, back to the thick, green branches lower down the trunk.  A note here:  I **HATE** topping trees (see more about ‘crape murder’ here).  But removing this tree completely will wipe out a significant portion of summer leaf coverage/privacy in my back garden, so I’m choosing this option vs. removing the tree outright at this time.

Arborist in the top of the Chestnut Oak

Arborist in the top of the Chestnut Oak

To watch excellent arborists at work is mesmerizing.  It’s like watching acrobats.  Ropes, pulleys, people going up and down–what a talent and art it is.  Just amazing.  My hat is off to them for their knowledge, professionalism, care and courage.  What a joy to hear their calls and laughter, even on such a crummy day.  It is obvious they love their work.

Big Chestnut Oak branch coming down...

Big Chestnut Oak branch coming down...

...and on the ground, ready to cut up.

...and on the ground, ready to cut up.

Meantime, one of my neighbors just came around, asking for some of the wood from the Chestnut Oak.  He says it makes excellent firewood, so yes, have at it!

Here is the crew of seasoned professionals!

Here is the crew of seasoned professionals!

Taking care of your trees is an investment–trees are beneficial to us in so many ways:  they cool our environment; provide screening and habitat for our wildlife friends.  And the beauty they provide softens the surrounding landscape, relaxes our eyes, and adds value to our home investment.  I love, love, love my trees.

Are you taking proper care of your trees?  Do you need to invest in some tree work?

Photos by the author.  If you copy, please link back.

Posted under Garden maintenance, Pruning, The Winter Garden, Tree work

This post was written by Jeff Minnich on January 23, 2012

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Often, I Don’t See the Forest for the Trees

I work outside, in Nature, almost every day of my life, either in my own gardens, in Arlington or Wilmington, or in other’s gardens.  Yet I miss so much of the beautiful detail because I am so caught up in the “doing” versus the “being”.  I’ll bet a lot of my landscaping co-horts can sympathize with this realization.  How many times have you gotten to June 1st and thought, “I missed [experiencing] Spring…again”?

April 2007, Woodland Cottage

April 2007, Woodland Cottage

My wonderful friend H/D once observed that I notice so many details in gardens/Nature.  It’s true, to a point–that’s my job.  It’s my job to notice if a plant looks a bit off, or the soil in a particular spot is washing away…if a spot is sunny or shady, or what is growing natively in an area.  These are all clues.  I constantly look for clues.  I try to solve the mysteries of insect/disease invasion, nutrient/soil deficiencies, water imbalances…that’s my job.  That’s the horticulturist Jeff, the scientist Jeff.  But what about what’s beyond my job?  What about the birdsong?  What about noticing that exact day in June when the lightning bugs appear?  Or the exact moment at dusk, in Mid-Summer, when the deafening sound of the cicadas suddenly dies and the chirps of the katydids instantly take over the chorus? What about that exact, glorious day in Spring when the fat, beside-themselves buds burst into chartreuse leaf?  In these moments, I swell and burst myself, with a knowing deep inside me.

For me, Nature calls on me to sit up and take notice in many ways.  She’s in my face to make me notice.  With a fragrance, too strong to ignore, leading me to the source of the scent.  I stop.  And let the flood of sense-memories draws me back in time.  A hummingbird, buzzing inches from my face.  I stop, in delight, and say hello to these lovely creatures that exude energy, and a renewed energy flows into me.  The songs of the birds, at dawn and dusk, calling to me, “Who am I?”  The sudden visits of the birds and squirrels outside the windows where I sit.  The fox.  The raccoon lumbering up my woodland pathways, headed for a morning constitutional dip in my pond.  The blue heron searching my pond for fish.  The rushing sound of my waterfalls.  And the trees.  The trees.  The old, all-knowing trees.

Yesterday, after intensely concentrating on the layout of a new walk we began building, and satisfying myself that it was the way I wanted it, I relaxed and stood back a ways to observe.  Suddenly, a large flock of birds swept up out of a nearby tree, swooped down over us in murmuration, looped around in unison several times and then landed back in the tree they’d left.  It was a stunning, brief performance that stopped the crew and me.  A moment in time.  Nature saying, “Pay attention to the beauty that I have to offer you, the beauty that is always here, if you’ll only look and see.”

What are the ways that Nature tries to make you sit up and notice?

Photo by the author.  If you copy, please link back.

Posted under Animals in the Garden, Fragrance in the garden, Insects in the Garden, Random garden thoughts

This post was written by Jeff Minnich on January 10, 2012

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Honeybees in January!

What a glorious day to be alive here in the Magical Mid-Atlantic (I’m borrowing this phrase from my magical friend, H/D).  On my daily walk through the garden this morning, I stopped in front of the biggest Leatherleaf Mahonia, Mahonia bealei, and lo and behold, the half-open blossoms are covered with honeybees.  Very active and happy honeybees–in JANUARY.  This may not be the earliest they’ve emerged to feast on the Mahonia’s nectar, yet it is the earliest certainly in my memory.  And the fragrance of the Mahonia is intoxicating when I get up close to the flowers.  What a treat and delight!

Look closely and you’ll see the bees:

Photos by the author.  If you copy, please link back.

Coming in for a landing on the left...

Coming in for a landing on the left...

Posted under Fragrance in the garden, Insects in the Garden, The Winter Garden

This post was written by Jeff Minnich on January 6, 2012

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Ice on the Pond

Here in the Mid-Atlantic, it’s been a mild Winter.  Before I left for the New Year in Wilmington, I turned off my waterfall here at Woodland Cottage since I heard a freeze was on the way.  When I got home yesterday, there was a thin coating of ice on the pond–first of the season.

What a difference a year (or two) makes!  Here’s the pond and waterfall after the just-before-Christmas snow of 2009:

And here’s how the waterfall looks, normally, in January:

Today, it’s warming up again, so I’ll probably turn the waterfall back on.  The night temperatures over the next few days are supposed to be just below freezing, if that.  I like to keep the water moving, if at all possible…keeps it from getting stagnant and stinky.  It was warm enough late last Fall that I could give the pond a good cleaning.  Some years, like the last two, it gets cold suddenly, and the fallen leaves and brush get frozen before I can get them out of the water.  Makes for a very unpleasant clean-up when I return North in March!!

Elsewhere in my garden, the usually late-Winter bloomers are showing up much earlier this year (maybe the earliest I’ve ever seen them appear, in my garden).  One of my favorite shrubs, Mahonia bealei, the Leatherleaf Mahonia, is showing its lemon-yellow buds.  The bumblebees love these…I hope the flowers hang in suspended animation until late Winter, when the bumblebees are active again and can enjoy the flowers.  To me, this is just another example of how climate change has things out-of-whack in the natural world.  Gardeners know how interconnected it all is, and if you know your own piece of land, you notice details like this.

Mahonia bealei

Mahonia bealei

Late last Winter, while in Wilmington, NC, where I spend a good part of my Winter with my partner, we were driving home from visiting friends in Carolina Beach and spotted loads of tropical plants for sale at a small nursery.  Turns out they had been used as props for filming a movie–not sure which one.  (Did you know Wilmington has the largest film studio East of Los Angeles?)  We stopped and I picked up a Bird of Paradise and a few other items.  I planted the Bird of Paradise in a large pot in front of my house here in Arlington.  It got so big (and was so inexpensive) that I decided not to bring it into the utility room for the Winter, like I do with so many of the smaller tropicals I use in pots in the Summer.  Believe it or not, it looked great until we had our first hard freeze this weekend.  Leaving it out to see how long it would last has been an interesting experiment.  Here it is today:

Notice the Sprengeri Asparagus Ferns?  They’ve withstood the freeze so far.  Here are some more of them today in windowboxes on the front of my house:

Hellebores are starting up:

Helleborus foetidus, the Stinking Hellebore

Helleborus foetidus, the Stinking Hellebore

Helleborus argustifolius, the Corsican Hellebore

Helleborus argustifolius, the Corsican Hellebore

The Lenten Roses, Helleborus x orientalis, haven’t really started to push their buds yet, but I do see some activity when I look at their crowns.

Snapdragons have become good Winter annuals in the South in the last several years, as Pansies have been for years.  I have some pretty red ones in pots by my front door.  They are looking good right now, if a little wilted–from the cold or lack of water?  Not sure, so I gave them a drink this morning.

And, of course, Snowdrops, and yes, these are blooming earlier than normal, too.  My neighbor, Mr. Jimmy, has them blooming in a sunny spot in his front yard.

Thank goodness the Winter Daphne has not yet burst into bloom.  It would be a major bummer if I lost that glorious harbinger of Spring–absolutely the most heady, powerful scent in my garden.  I’ve got lots of fragrant flowers, yet this one tops them all here, in my opinion.

What’s blooming in your garden this early January of 2012?

Wishing you and yours a joyful, healthy, creative, and prosperous 2012.  I’m optimistic (like most gardeners–it runs in our DNA).  Are you?

Photos by the author.  If you copy, please link back.

Posted under Climate Change, The Winter Garden, Tropical Plants, Water in the Garden

This post was written by Jeff Minnich on January 5, 2012

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