Monday, April 16, 2012

Spring Ephemerals and Beyond

Henry James said that the two most beautiful words in the English language are “summer afternoon.” But when you see this photograph of Riverside Park taken April 2, it gives you pause.  
I cast a vote for the words “spring ephemerals.”  The phrase doesn’t have the resonance of long shadows and leisurely days, but it means what it says.  Spring ephemerals are fleeting.  You will find them in the woods, generally low to the ground, and they are beloved of gardeners who are out and about with the first breath of mild air.  They need the sunlight and the active pollinators that are present only before trees reach full leaf.  They appear in early spring, and vanish within six to eight weeks.
Among the earliest of the spring flowers are the Trilliums.  Called wake-robins because they begin to bloom at the same time as the return of the red robin, they are among the loveliest of the woodland flowers.  Trilliums are beautiful as a single plant, but they are an astonishing sight when you come across them in large drifts.  They are generous spreaders, so a large drift is not too much to hope for when planting.  

There are about 30 Trillium varieties native to North America, and they are immediately recognizable as they all share a distinguishing feature -- the arrangement of three leaves, a single stem, and a single flower at the top.   You will find them for sale in bulb catalogs, as they are tuberous plants. 

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema tryphyllum) makes a bold entrance into the landscape, emerging from the forest floor on a single, sharp, pointed spike.  The leaves slowly unfurl, revealing a hooded enclosure, the spathe, and the rounded shape of the preacher “Jack,” which is then covered by the hooded “pulpit.”  They are impossible to overlook.

If you are fortunate enough to have a patch of woodland, plant the wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), a close cousin of the sanguineum hybrids much admired in sunny borders.  In the light shade, with its pink flowers and slightly loose habit, it is beautiful in combination with its wildling cousin, the columbine (Aquilegia  canandensis). The geranium will form low mounds along the ground, while the columbine blooms on stems up to two-and-one-half feet, emerging from a mound of green leaves.  Flowers can be yellow or red, and will bloom for almost a month.

Many of the ephemerals will spread to form a groundcover.  Dwarf iris (Iris verna var. smalliana), can be used to particularly fine effect tucked in the crevices between large rocks.  Growing no more than six inches tall, it will spread wherever there is room.   
Woodland phlox (P. divaricata) lasts too long to be characterized as ephemeral, but is too beautiful to exclude.  In early spring it blankets the woodland floor with sky-blue blossoms.  Phlox slowly seeds itself about an area; individual plants grow into one-foot mounds, quickly forming a carpet of blue that lasts for several weeks. 

Shooting star (Dodecatheon media) shows its tall clusters of white flowers atop single stems.  Planted among ferns, it serves as a striking focal point.  The foliage dies down and disappears in the summer, which will go unnoticed in a woodland garden.

For some reason, we seem to see more yellow ephemerals than any other color.  Perhaps we notice them because we long for the sun.   Green-and-Gold (Chrysoginum virginianum) blooms richly with a profusion of yellow, daisy-like flowers.   It does so again in the fall. 

Golden ragwort (Senecio aureus) is a rapid spreader, creating colonies of golden flowers rising above heart-shaped leaves.  It is happiest in moist soil in sun or partial shade, thus a good choice for the woodland edge of a streamside.  Heartleaf Golden Alexander (Zizia aptera) is another healthy spreader.  Usually seen only in mid-western prairie gardens, its resistance to drought, heat, biting winds and severe winters make it a winner in the northeast. 

On the wet side, the Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) blooms in a rich yellow when there is no other color around.  It is usually found streamside where the downstream flow of water carries it along, allowing it to colonize on the banks.  Their areas tend to increase on their own, and if you look closely you will find tiny tubers scattered over the surface of the soil.  
Marsh Marigold
One of the beauties of a woodland garden is that unlike cultivated borders you can forget about something once it has disappeared and not pay attention to the area until the following year, when you will enjoy the resurgence all over again.  For now, when walking in the woods, keep your eyes on the forest floor.  It’s there that you will find the tiniest and the most fleeting of the ephemerals.

Monday, April 2, 2012

April Calendar

Now that we are in full battle dress for the gardening season, it’s time for the return of the Monthly Calendar.  Print it out, post it on the refrigerator door, or in the potting shed, should you be so fortunate.
M. stellata. The end of the earliest blooming variety of Magnolia.

The close of March put a serious knot into everyone’s plans. The extraordinary heat pushed many plants into an early growth spurt while they were still under wraps.  Then a late March freeze made everyone nervous.  Native plants seem to fare well in unexpected turns in the weather since they respond more to light cycles than temperature, but the imports can be been fooled.

Survival of the fittest: violets in concrete.
Planting conditions are a concern; the soil is bone dry since there has been warm sun and virtually no rain.  Dazed New Yorkers are wandering around in T-shirts and sandals.  We are not off to a good start.

If you haven’t already done so, start a garden diary.  Looking back at 2011 will be informative for those of you who are already in the diary mode.

By now winter coverings should be off. Clear mulch carefully to avoid injuring new growth. Keep a few old sheets around for an unexpected frost. 
Make sure you water dry soil before turning over, but not so much that you damage the structure. 
Unwrap roses, prune deadwood, remove mulch from crowns.
Start weeding onion grass and chickweed.
Pansies along a sidewalk.

You can plant pansies now.
It’s not too late to sow sweet peas outdoors. Saint Patrick’s Day and Good Friday are the traditional days for this.  
Train vines to their supports, typing up branches dislodged by  winter winds.  Cut off bruised and broken ends.
Check shrubs for suckers and prune.  
Paint railings and steps.                                                                          
Scrub terraces and balconies.
Visit local nurseries to select trees and shrubs.


Buy new containers and tubs.  Fill with soil in anticipation of planting.

Selection of pots at Phantom Gardener Nursery in Rhinebeck.

Soak and plant second round of sweet peas.

Plant cool weather vegetables : lettuces, herbs, beets cabbages, onions and leeks.
Rake the last of the dead leaves from lawns and beds.
Hose down house siding. 
Cultivate and rake perennial borders.  Feed with                     
commercial fertilizer.

Seed the lawn.
Fertilize lawns, shrubs and roses.

Consider the gift plants.  Prepare to deal with your Easter gifts by locating a place either outdoors in the soil, or outdoors in a larger pot. 
Beware of cut-rate plants.  There are no bargains in this world.
Watch out for rabbits, chipmunks, and voles.  Look for tell-tale holes.  If you have any success in keeping them at bay, please let us know. 
Track down the little bulbs-- crocus, scilla and their kin -- and take notes for your fall orders. 
Finish dividing perennials that performed poorly last year.  
Last call to move large trees and shrubs.

Flowering quince:
glorious blossom, hopelessly awkward form.

Prune forsythia and other spring flowering shrubs whenever the blooms are finished.  
If the soil is not sticky, sow seeds of hardy vegetables and flowers. Make sure night temperatures are steady at or above 55F.
You might be able to keep pansies blooming through early July by picking off the dead blossoms so that seeds will not form.  If they are planted in a shady spot for part of the day, they will bloom even longer.
If you are growing lavender, prune it back hard to encourage new growth.