Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Garden in Winter

This is not about Rosemary Verey, or about form made visible by the disappearance of foliage, or about subtle colors and interesting bark or berries. This is about weeds; those pernicious winter weeds that, believe it or not, are out there setting seed as I write.

OK, it's technically not winter yet; some guy in a suit says winter starts near the end of December. We've already had many nights in the 20's here on Cape Cod, though, and that makes it winter in my book. So why are there weeds out there, not just green and growing, but actually blooming, and setting seed?

I usually leave all my perennial clean-up chores until Spring; I remove the leaves of peonies as soon as I can after the first frost, to lessen the spread of fungus, and cut hosta leaves soon after they turn brown, because they tend to turn mushy and become hard to deal with in spring, but I leave everything else standing (or laying down, more likely) over the winter. This not only provides some food and shelter for birds and other animals, it increases the survival rate of many perennials. It's well documented that sub-shrubs benefit from keeping their branches through winter, but many herbaceous perennials do better with this treatment. Gaura, chrysanthemum, marginally hardy coreposis (like the lovely pink bi-color Sweet Dreams) are much more likely to survive winter if left uncut.

On a few nice days, I've been out working in the gardens, clearing out maple leaves to allow some of the still-green plants, like pigsqeak (Bergenia cordifolia), lilyturf (Liriope muscari and L. spicata) and various gingers (Asarum europaeum, A. magnificum, etc.) to show. Some of my hellebores are starting to bud up, and I like to make sure they're not being swamped in those heavy, wet leaves. The stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, has its flower scapes fully developed, and will be opening soon; Christmas rose, H. niger, will follow soon after, and is especially prone to damage from damp leaves and lurking slugs, who seem to love the flower petals. The Orientals, or H. x hybridus, are so variable that there's no point talking about when they'll bloom; I've had them in flower in every month of the year, including the summer months. I don't know for sure what determines their season, but they're certainly most welcome in late winter.

One of my new beds is planted pretty sparsely, since it features Nandina domestica and Schizachyrium scoparium 'The Blues' - Little Bluestem Grass, three of each, bought from Lazy S's Farm as tiny starts. They'll need the space I've allotted them, but for the time being there's a lot of bare ground in that bed. Well, there was a lot of bare ground, or rather bare pine bark, when I left town in October. On returning, I found this new bed awash in a sea of cute little Cardamine hirsuta, a.k.a. hairy bittercress. (Photo credit: Virginia Tech Weed ID Guide).

I first spotted this dainty little charmer about a year ago, in that year's new bed, out by the street. A friend was looking over the new garden, and mentioned what a darling little hitch-hiker it was. The leaves really are a nice fresh green, finely cut in a small rosette, and it has a very cute little white flower held on a somewhat wiry stem, well above the base. Cunning, and I don't mean that in the sense of charming, rather in the "Botany of Desire" sense of clever, scheming, evil Plant Will.