A few of my favorite things

Latest plants sown include:

My gardening philosophy, if I have one, is of the pasta-pot variety: Throw it against the wall and see if it sticks. (This is not to be confused with seed bombing, which in my opinion is much more charming and probably more effective than what I do.) But in my bit of Arcadia, with its heavy, sticky clay, absurd summer heat and humidity, unpredictable water, and nutrient-sucking oak trees, I have been reduced to nine years of trial and error.

What’s worked for me? Here are just a few of my favorites, in no particular order:

white hellebore flowering

Flowers of Helleborus orientalis bloom in winter and early spring, and are deer-proof.

Helleborus orientalis: Passed along by my neighbor, these lovelies bloom when little else does (right now!), persevere under impossible conditions, require virtually nothing in theway of attention from me, and have bold evergreen foliage. They reseed generously but are not at all difficult to manage. I have successfully transplanted tiny seedlings by sticking my finger into the dirt, shoving the plant in, and walking away. I don’t even water them in. I will never willingly be without these plants again.

Gardenia jasminoides. I have a hedge of these that I planted in 2004 as quart-sized shrublets. Today, they’re well over 5′ tall and flower gorgeously in May and June, when they perfume the entire garden. Their foliage is glossy, their flowers voluptuous, and so far, I’ve not had any problems with insects or disease. Sometimes, if I’ve pruned intelligently, I can get a second flush of bloom in late August.

Iris tectorum 3

The bloom of Iris tectorum, Japanese roof iris.

Iris tectorum. Why did I wait so long to buy this plant? It’s 2 feet tall and bulletproof. It seems to be easy to propagate by seed. The clear, blue-purple flowers are charming and it blooms well in dry shade. Now that I think of it, it might make a nice combination with another favorite,

Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum.‘ Delicate-looking, but absolutely tough as nails (perhaps you are detecting a pattern in my affections by now).

epimedium in winter

Epimedium in winter

Its heart-shaped leaves are evergreen here, though they turn a rusty bronze in winter. It blooms for me for several weeks in spring, with dainty yellow flowers dangling on a wiry stem. I have a clump about 3′ in diameter sitting smack on top of the roots of an oak, and it never complains or looks puny.

winter honeysuckle flower

The blossoms of winter honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima, are lemon-scented.

Lonicera fragrantissima. Fragrant winter honeysuckle grows as a large shrub or small tree. Mine copes happily with hot afternoon sun between (you guessed it) two large oaks, and smells heavenly when it blooms in late February or March (though with all the warm weather we’ve had lately, mine started blooming last week). I admit it looks a bit worn at the moment, but it’s suffered a bit of neglect this fall. In the spring after a light dressing of compost, it will fill out marvelously with abundant, rich green leaves. It would probably be even more glorious if I gave it a more sympathetic home, but it does what I ask of it, and earns my admiration in return.

Taken for granted

I owe a debt of thanks to my hellebores, and to my Lonicera fragrantissima, winter honeysuckle, which are both absolutely lovely in late February and early March. The hellebores were introduced to me about four years ago by my neighbor Martha, who had a surplus. I never had much interest in them before, but was glad to take anything free to fill up the expanse of barren earth I had cleared but couldn’t afford to plant up, so I dug up about four cat-litter tubs’ worth and planted them around the yard.
They bloom in shades of white and rose from February until May, and their palmate foliage stays evergreen for me. The foliage does tend to get a bit ratty looking in late fall and early winter (December around here), so it benefits from a gentle cleaning up. And it reseeds splendidly. The seedlings are easy to spot and pick out if they land in a spot you don’t want them, but I’ve tried to take advantage of their habit by planting them in desolate spots and letting them do their thing. They do take three years to bloom from seed, but as long as you have some going it’s easy to be patient with the young ones. And they are super-tough; they grow at the bases of large oak trees, competing fairly with the oaks’ thirsty roots, coping well with the high-90s temperatures that have become the norm in summertime. They’ve become one of my most beloved plants.
The Lonicera has small, white flowers that look like nothing special from up close, but from a distance they give the sense of impending spring. The scent is fresh and clean, slightly honey-scented, and it carries well. I have one beneath a large oak that has sprung up in a bizarre habit, probably aided by my unskillful pruning. But I love it dearly and planted an additional two last fall to keep it company and fill in an awkward spot between two oaks just off my back deck. I have searched for advice on pruning it and most things tend to say “leave it alone,” but what do you do when  you’ve already mangled it a bit and want to make it look pretty again? There’s another thing to investigate sometime.

It’s this time of year when I am going absolutely mad with the desire to see fresh green growth and clear colors again. I’ve had enough of the grays and browns of late winter. Then the hellebores and the Lonicera rise to the occasion splendidly. I must remember to be more grateful, and not think “Why couldn’t you have done this a month ago?”