In the garden, March Madness has more to do with the weather than anything else. One day it’s 72, the next night we’re down to 15 again. Nature doesn’t seem to know which season it wants to be, and this dilatory musing can be a real challenge for the gardener intent on coaxing as much bloom as possible from the landscape. Early heat can set tender buds to swelling, which later are subject to freezing if temps dip again, blighting the blossom and eliminating an entire season of bloom for some species.
Early bloom, and an extended season, is the Holy Grail for someone like me, who hates to wait and needs constant stimulation. Last year I made one of the best decisions of my gardening life when I chose to plant a witch hazel, a small ornamental tree which is among the earliest to flower, smothered in its weird spiderlike blossoms of golden yellow as early as February, a bright beacon in the wintry landscape.
When I found this specimen of Arnold Promise witch hazel tucked in a corner of a local nursery last March, I knew I had to have it. At more than five feet, it was already too big to travel safely in the car, so I recruited a kind friend of my father with a pick-up, and together we brought my new baby home. In time it will grow to 10-15 feet in height, and about as big around. I placed it just inside the garden gate, among the first things a visitor will see.
When I brought her home at the vernal equinox, she was in full bloom, but nursery plants often bloom out of season, forced or retarded to coincide with buyers’ habits and expectations. So it’s impossible to say exactly when any potted plant will bloom in its new environment. A mid-March bloom would be nice, but I suspected my witch hazel would in fact bloom earlier, and boy, was I right!
Placed as it is in the house’s expanded foundation bed, although it’s a wonderful greeter for guests, it’s not real visible to me, unless I crane my neck out of the guest bedroom window, or venture over to the east bed, something I rarely do in winter. But I was determined not to miss the show, so made certain to check at least weekly for signs of life. In late January I thought I saw some: a faint swelling of the bud, and a lightening of color from pale brown to tan.
A week later I was sure, and within another week, witchy-poo had started to pop! That was February 16th, and I was delighted to note that in one stroke, I had extended my bloom season by almost a full month! Witch hazel’s blossoms are as exotic as they are early. Starting as small yellow nodules of vivid yellow, over time they break open, and release masses of thin strands of ribbonlike petals, three-quarters to one inch long, which look like mini tagliatelle colored with saffron. At the base of the bud is a small five-pointed star, in deep rust-orange, tinted much like dried saffron threads themselves, containing a few miniscule cream-colored flowers.
Witch hazel flowers appear quite delicate, but are actually extremely hardy; if your bloom-time is February, you have to be! Frequent snow showers didn’t faze me, or my witch hazel, but about a week after the tree was fully open, we got a late-season ice storm. Seeing the boughs and blooms encased in sparkling crystal, I was concerned what the outcome would be, but I needn’t have worried. Two days later the sun came out, the temperatures rose above freezing, and the blossoms emerged pristine from their transparent cocoons, none the worse for wear.
Three weeks after they first opened, they are still lovely and fresh, despite a few spells of unseasonable warmth, which might have shortened their lifespan. This plant is a keeper, for sure! It will leaf out into medium-sized, medium-green ovals, ribbed along the center line and slightly hatched at the edges. The fall color is lovely as well, with mingled tones of amber and rust, making witch hazel a three-season treat!
In mid-February I was also startled to find more green fingers poking through the snow and leaf mass than I was expecting. These turned out to be snowdrops, crocus, tete-a-tete mini daffodils and a few hyacinths that were planted too shallowly (my bad!). By the end of the month, the snowdrops had started to open, followed closely by the earliest snow crocus, and in another week, small buds could be seen developing among the daffodil leaves.
The first of my crocus to open are a pale blue variety, with yellow throats. I bought them as part of a naturalizing mix, so I’m not sure of the variety. They were planted en masse in the fall of 2020 by Lori, the Master Gardener, and each cluster includes several different kinds. This is a great planting method, allowing the same patch to remain in bloom for over a month, as each successive variety comes into its own. This pale blue is first, followed by a shorter pale yellow, then a vibrant taller yellow, and last an outstanding purple.
These grace the enlarged bed just outside the kitchen door, and are readily visible from inside, but there are also sections of snow crocus lining the path up the sandmound, in butter yellow, white, deep yellow with brown striping and pale purple. These start a bit later, and are just coming into bloom now. Last to bloom are two additional stands, one of classic large purple blossoms and another of purple-and-white striped Pickwick crocus, which vie for pride-of-place just outside the laundry room door.
Now that the year has advanced by a few more weeks, I’m seeing bits of daffodil leaves emerging everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except the new sandmound bed! This was fully stocked with snowdrops, fox grape, bluebells, and about 18 new varieties of daffodil, several hundred bulbs in all. We also planted Ornithogalum, AKA “Star of Bethlehem”, one of my favorites, but a May bloomer, so I’m not expecting those just yet. As for the rest, well, it’s their first year, so they’re bound to be a bit out of season. It takes awhile for new bulbs to acclimate to the microclimate, and even then, bloom times can be off by weeks year to year, depending on prevailing weather conditions. For this spring, I’ll just have to be patient, my least developed virtue. But the upside to this tardiness is that, for this year at least, I’ll have fresh snowdrops when the others are kaput.
It’s not just bulbs that are showing signs of the changing seasons. I left most of the garden cleanup for late winter (it’s good for critters of all types to have that extra bedding, not to mention the perennials themselves, whose roots will be better sheltered), and as I go about cutting back and hauling off what remains of last summer’s bounty, I’m finding quite a few perennials have started to sprout.
No surprise, those ironclad native asters are up and doing already! No wonder they can be so invasive! I’m also seeing rudbeckia and Marguerite daisy showing some color at the root, while the Montauk daisy stalks are covered in tiny green nodes, looking like so many miniscule brussels sprouts. Some sedums have begun to color and send out fresh shoots as well, and the creeping jenny groundcover, which will glow an incandescent chartreuse yellow-green under summer sun, is coming back to life in a burgeoning of burgundy!
These are just the first tentative steps into spring, but in a few short weeks the narcissus nirvana will have begun! With some 1800 bulbs warming up in the bull-pen, about two-thirds of which are daffodil varieties, it promises to be a florid floral festival! Stay tuned for the latest sprouts…