Saturday, February 9, 2008

Winter Protection and Pyrrhic Victories

I'm all about experimentation in the garden, which, I suppose, is why mine looks so much like a mad scientist's laboratory most of the time. I go to crazy lengths to provide winter protection for marginally hardy plants at both ends of the hardiness continuum for zone 7b, and sometimes it crosses my mind to do a cost/benefit analysis of all of the effort, silliness, and downright ugliness these projects produce. One such example is Arbutus unedo 'Compacta', the vegetative portions of which are apparently quite hardy and happy to grow in our front yard, directly across from the entrance to the house. Its main attraction is the fact that it produces trusses of fragrant, urn-shaped blossoms simultaneously with ripening fruits which resemble nothing so much as bright red Crunch Berries, and it does all of this during the holiday season. That is, unless the ripening fruit is knocked off by a hard December freeze, the opening blooms (on which the following year's fruits depend) are k-o'd by same, or it's too blasted cold for any potential pollinator to venture out as the flowers are being produced. That's why mine is festooned with Christmas lights through mid-April and covered in a shroud of spun-bonded row cover throughout the worst of the winter weather. I have to admit that it presents a strange view, both to visitors and to us as we gaze out the front door. Is it worth it? Absolutely, considering it's the only one I've ever seen growing in the area, and the fact that Crunch Berries are among my favorite fruits (if only these tasted like the real thing!) I even dutifully untie the fabric cover on warm mornings, just in case a bee or two might venture out into the sunshine in search of a meal.

There are numerous other plants requiring winter life support of one sort or another, for insurance, if nothing else. Of the dozen or so “hardy” palms in the garden, I mulch the bases of a few, such as Chamaerops humilis; in past years this one has lost its outer leaves during cold snaps, only to replace them during the warm season. Most of the Sabal and Trachycarpus species fall into this category as well (except T. fortunei – I figure it’s widely available in case of disaster, and I draw the line at protecting something that grows with no care at every Mexican eatery in town!), but I do afford T. latisectus and T. nanus the extra protection of surrounding them with “Walls-o-Water” (sold mainly for the purpose of getting a jump on the tomato season), mainly because I have no replacements for them coming along in the greenhouse. These stand out in the winter landscape like sore thumbs, but my collecting mania allows me to reframe the offensive little teepees as garden art, to a degree. I can’t say the same for the neighbors, the letter carrier, or even my mother, but that’s another story.

All of the Cannas, Hedychiums, and Musella lasiocarpa get as many leaves piled over their crowns as I can rescue from the neighbors’ curbs on the night before garbage day, as does Musa basjoo. Musa velutina is protected by a bottomless barrel (also “liberated” on a Sunday evening collecting trip) turned upside down over an inverted tomato cage which is filled with leaves. This assembly looked a little strange, so I topped it off with a gazing ball ($1.37 at Walmart during an after-holiday sale – it’s really a ginormous, tacky plastic Christmas ball); the resulting product looks even stranger, but I have hopes that the ornamental pink bananas produced next fall will make the whole exercise worthwhile.

All of this is a lot of trouble, not to mention hideous, in its own way, but at least there’s a payoff during the warm season. The things I consider failures fall into two categories – things that die anyway (too numerous to mention), and things that survive, but aren’t worth the effort due to ill-timed bloom, etc. These are, of course, among the most disappointing. Lots of tuberous gesneriads are proving fairly hardy here in Tidewater; many of the Sinningias have been resoundingly successful, as have some Achimenes, and Eucodonias, along with such oddballs as Tremacron aurantiaca and Titanotrichum oldhammii. I had high hopes for Seemannia sylvatica (this one's blooming in the greenhouse); it wintered over (albeit during a mild winter, and under mulch), and developed a gorgeous clump of foot-high foliage with red stems. On about December 15 I noticed that it was loaded with flower buds; these promptly froze to death about a week later. My theory is that some plants from near the equator are programmed to bloom during shorter days than we have in the summer, so they make vegetative growth during our growing season, but wait until it’s too late to bloom. Sometimes, even in the garden, one wins the battle, but loses the war. Luckily, Gloxinia nematanthodes, more prostrate than the Seemannia, but otherwise pretty similar in bloom, seems perfectly hardy, producing dozens of small tubers and blooming in the ground and in containers from midsummer to frost.

Then there are the things which would be perfectly hardy through the winter, if only they could survive the warmth and humidity of July and August in coastal Virginia. I love tree peonies, but I struggle all summer to keep them free of mildew and fungus. Despite my best efforts, lots of branches are lost to dieback every year. Some hardy orchids are heartbreaking in this climate as well; Cypripediums try to break dormancy during our first week of warm weather, only to be threatened by frost the next day. They sleep under a deep mulch of pine needles all winter; sometimes we mulch to keep things from freezing, sometimes in order to keep things frozen. This is true even for Bletillas, the most nearly foolproof of the temperate orchids; dozens of bloom stems were frozen solid during a mid-April snowstorm (which was, ironically, our ONLY snowfall in 2007). One of my resolutions for this spring is to resist pulling back the mulch too soon this year, but this week we had two days with highs in the upper 70's; with weather as mercurial (pun intended) as that, judgement calls become difficult indeed.

I know there are gardeners much more accomplished than I who would tell me to give up on things that require coddling to survive in any given climate. This is one of the recurring themes espoused by garden guru and iconoclast Felder Rushing on his eminently entertaining podcast, “The Gestalt Gardener”, and if I were giving advice to most gardeners, I’d say the same. For me, however, the joy of gardening has been in experimenting and pushing the envelope. If it’s growing all over town, I don’t want it (okay, that’s what I say now, but wait until July when I’m looking for space to shoehorn in just one more daylily...) What can I say? Giving in to an obsession can be a lot cheaper than psychotherapy (until you factor in the cost of Cypripediums and tree peonies...)

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