Archive for the ‘Winter in the Garden’ Category

A bright red cardinal sits atop a snowy honeysuckle
With the impending nor’easter heading toward the mid-Atlantic and southern New England, homeowners have been stocking up on supplies in preparation. Many may also be thinking about ways to prevent damage to their trees and shrubs that may be caused by a heavy snow burden.

A rhododendron droops under the weight of the snow.

A rhododendron droops under
the weight of the snow.

Here are some tips:

With snow accumulation, if it’s not too wet and heavy, you can sometimes take a broom or a leaf rake and gently brush the snow from the branches. If you keep up with this throughout the storm, you can prevent a heavy buildup. It is best not to shake the branches as this can cause breakage.

In the case of an accumulation of ice or heavy, wet snow, it is better to just wait and let it melt off naturally. If you try to knock it off you will usually do more damage to your trees and shrubs. It’s also very dangerous! Most trees and shrubs will bounce back after the snow or ice melts off so it is usually safer to be patient and wait until they thaw out.

Boxwood nearly flattened by a heavy load of snow

Boxwood nearly flattened by
a heavy load of snow

Snow damage is usually worse on evergreens because the foliage can hold the snow on the branches. Sometimes, the outer branches of shrubs like boxwood, yew, and azalea become weighed down with snow, separated from the center, and pinned to the ground. If you try to remove the snow, you can do more damage to the shrub. Let the snow melt off naturally! Once everything melts, you will be able to see if any permanent damage was done.

Click for some tips for dealing with snow damaged shrubs

What should you do for damaged trees in the aftermath of a destructive winter storm?

Heavy, wet snow can sometimes cause irreparable damage to trees

Heavy, wet snow can sometimes cause irreparable damage to trees

The most important thing is to be safe!

  • Don’t go near trees or branches that have fallen on power lines.
  • Watch for large broken branches that are hanging precariously and could fall in a gust of wind.
  • Assess the damage to determine if it is something that you can handle yourself or if you need to call in a professional tree service for help. Large limbs can be extremely heavy (hundreds of pounds) and dangerous!
  • Avoid any trimming or pruning that necessitates getting up on a ladder. This can be extremely dangerous especially if there is snow or ice on the ground.
  • When using a pole saw or trimmer, be mindful of any telephone or power lines and stay well away from these. It’s very easy to lose track of where they are in relation to where you are cutting! Better yet, leave this pruning to a professional.

What is the first step?

Large branch on a maple broken during an early fall snowstorm

A large maple branch broken
during an early fall snowstorm

The first thing you need to do is evaluate the damage to your tree. Study it from all angles and determine the best way to proceed. Severe damage may warrant a call to a professional tree service like Bartlett Tree Experts, while more minor damage can often be tackled by the homeowner.

Broken branches are one of the most common types of storm damage to trees, whether by snow, wind, or heavy rain. The three D’s of pruning dictates that you can remove these broken branches at any time regardless of when they occur. This is mainly because the ragged wound left from the break can be an entrance point for insects and disease.

Remember, hire a professional to remove very large branches or those that you can’t safely reach from the ground. Ladders can be very dangerous for pruning!

Tips for removing broken branches safely and with minimal, additional damage to the tree

  • Make clean cuts by using a sharp tool – a clean cut speeds callus formation and healing.
  • When removing a branch, make the cut close to the stem just outside the natural branch collar. The branch collar or bark ridge is an area/ridge at the base of a branch that contains cells that multiply quickly to close off and heal a wound. If you cut the branch inside this branch collar, you hinder the natural healing properties of the tree.
The natural branch collar contains cells that speed healing.

The natural branch collar contains
cells that speed healing.

Proper pruning removes the branch just outside the branch collar.

Proper pruning removes the branch
just outside the branch collar.


  • Leaving stubs is a very poor pruning practice.

    Leaving stubs is a very
    poor pruning practice.

    Do not leave stubs. Leaving a stub is almost worse than cutting the branch too short. Stubs will die back and leave the tree open to disease and insect damage. The tree cannot heal over a stub.

  • Smaller branches, less than 2″ in diameter, can be removed with one cut using good quality shears or loppers.
  • Remove larger branches in sections. This takes the weight off the break and makes the final pruning cuts easier and safer.
  • Once you have a shorter section to remove, use the three-cut method to remove the branch completely. The three-cut method prevents tearing or stripping of the bark as the final section is removed.
The first two cuts of the three-cut pruning method. The third cut will remove the remaining stub.

The first two cuts of the three-cut pruning method.
The third cut will remove the remaining stub.

  • There is generally no need to use any kind of wound paint. Painting the wound can inhibit the natural healing of the tree; however, sometimes larger cuts can be coated with orange shellac.
  • If a branch has broken and peeled the bark down on the trunk in the process, remove the branch using the procedure above and then trim off any loose bark.

Here are some tips for dealing with split branches or trunks

Severe damage to trees

Always prune to an outward facing branch or bud.

Always prune to an outward
facing branch or bud.

In many cases, depending on the species of tree, younger trees can bounce back from fairly severe damage – up to 40% loss of their branches. These smaller trees should be pruned to remove damaged branches, making new clean cuts back to a branch collar. If just the tip of a branch is damaged, prune the branch back to an outward facing branch or bud.

In the late spring, you will be able to determine if the tree has survived. Summer pruning may be necessary to reshape the tree and remove additional dead twigs or branches.

In cases of severe damage to larger trees, it is best to consult a certified local arborist such as Bartlett Tree Experts to get their recommendation on whether the tree can be salvaged. If the loss of branches is greater than 40%, the chances of survival can be greatly diminished and you may have to have the tree removed. Even if it survives, it may be severely weakened and it may become a hazard in the future. It’s wise to consult a professional arborist to determine a course of action.

Trees are a renewable and replaceable resource.

If you are forced to remove a tree, consider replacing it with a tree that produces well-spaced, wide angled branches which provide greater strength and resist breakage. To eliminate the problem of trunk splitting, look for trees that produce a single main trunk. Bradford pears are very popular landscape trees but they have weak branches and are very prone to storm damage.
Consider the loss of your tree an opportunity to try an exciting new variety!

Until next time – Be safe and enjoy the snow!

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The winter sun peeks through ice covered branches.

Happy Winter!

Today, December 21st at 11:49 PM EST marks the 2015 winter solstice. At this moment in time, the North Pole (due to the axial tilt of the earth) is at its furthest point from the sun.

My post from December, 2011 expresses my sentiments of this day.

And … my Christmas Rose is blooming! Right on time!


The day on which the winter solstice occurs is deemed the first day of winter. It is the shortest day of the year and consequently the longest night of the year. For eons, many different festivals have been held in observance of this annual astronomical event, most of them celebrating the birth of the new solar year.

I find it a time to reflect on the beauty of the season – the quiet stillness of winter. And when there is snow on the ground – even better, softer, quieter …

Flower buds of the native dogwood lie in wait under a coating of fresh snow.

Flower buds of the native dogwood lie in wait under a coating of fresh snow.

But even in the midst of this tranquility, one can catch a glimpse of the dynamic new season that awaits us. A leisurely walk through the winter garden can be very peaceful; but at the same time quite exciting if you are observant to the world around you.

Though most plants are “sleeping” at this time of year, many show the promise of the beautiful blooms to come with plump flower buds adorning their otherwise naked (except for the evergreens of course!) branches.

Rhododendron flower buds are wrapped up tightly for the winter but come spring ...

Rhododendron flower buds are wrapped up tightly for the winter but come spring …

Dogwoods, azaleas, rhododendrons, and other spring blooming trees and shrubs all produced their flower buds last season. These buds lay dormant now but as spring approaches they will begin to swell and then it won’t be long until they burst into a glorious display of blossoms.

Something to look forward to!

The herbaceous perennials may be brown and dry above the ground but I know that below the soil surface, the new buds are cozy and protected, just waiting for the first warm breaths of spring to initiate their growth.

A cardinal sits on the snowy branches of a honeysuckle vine.

A bright red cardinal sits on the snowy branches of a honeysuckle vine.


The woods are full of the sights and sounds of critters scurrying around busy with their winter activities. Walking through the woodland garden, we always see loads of birds flitting through the trees and shrubs foraging on a wide variety of seeds and berries. We typically leave everything standing in our gardens over the winter and this provides an abundance of food for the birds. There is a wonderful diversity of wild birds that live and winter in the woods around our house. They’re great fun to watch at the feeders during the winter and happily many of them stick around to gobble up some of the insect pests in the vegetable garden during the summer!

The elongated hole is typical of the Pileated Woodpecker. Notice the strategically placed holes! Do you think they were using the shelf fungus as an unbrella?

The elongated hole is typical of the Pileated Woodpecker. Notice the strategically placed holes! Do you think they were using the shelf fungus as an umbrella?

Often the silence is broken by the drumming of woodpeckers in the surrounding woods. We purposely leave dead trees standing –
if they’re in an area where we’re sure they won’t fall on the house or across our driveway! The woodpeckers love them and most of these trees are riddled with holes of all sizes and shapes where the different species of woodpeckers have been pecking for insect treats.

Squirrels are busy rustling through the dry oak leaves in the woods sniffing out acorns, hickory nuts, and other seeds that have fallen to the ground in great abundance. They scurry up the nearest tree if we get too close and then sit on a branch flicking their tails and scolding us for disturbing their foraging.

A fluffed up bluebird tried to stay warm on a snowy day.

A fluffed up bluebird tries to stay warm on a snowy day.



I have so much to be thankful for and a quiet walk through the woods on a beautiful winter day just seems to be a fitting time to reflect on all the good things that life has brought and to look forward to a wonderful new year full of promise.

My Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) is beginning to bloom right now!

My Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) is beginning to bloom right now!




So on this winter solstice, take some time away from the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. Enjoy a relaxing stroll through your garden and just immerse yourself in the quiet beauty of the winter day!


Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy Holidays to all!

I’m looking forward to sharing many new gardening adventures with you in 2012!


Noon in Alaska on the solstice. The beautiful Chugach mountain range. Sent to me by Bill McDonald

Noon in Alaska on the solstice. The beautiful Chugach mountain range.

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A cardinal sits in a paperbark maple tree

Where IS winter?

It sure doesn’t FEEL like winter right now! The winter of 2015 is starting out rather mild to say the least! The whole east coast has “enjoyed” record warm December temperatures. USA Today has reported that in the eastern US, over 1,000 new record highs have been recorded so far this December! People around here have been mowing their lawns! It’s crazy! Who mows their lawn in December in the Shenandoah Valley!

Thankfully, the temperatures are supposed to start dropping to more seasonal levels by the end of the week.

It still LOOKS like winter despite the unseasonably warm temperatures. The winter landscape is quiet and peaceful with leafless trees standing tall and majestic. Here is a post I wrote in December 2012. I think it bears re-posting!

Happy Holidays everyone! Enjoy …

Have you ever looked at trees in the winter?

Trees against a winter skyI mean REALLY looked? I’m talking about the deciduous trees with their bare limbs silhouetted against the sky. Many of them are really quite beautiful in a simple kind of way.

Driving to work the other day I happened to focus on a large, solitary maple that was in someone’s yard. The bare branches gave the tree such an attractive shape against the brilliant blue sky. It struck me that the “skeleton” of the tree was just as interesting in the landscape as the tree was in full foliage – if not more so. This revelation made me pay closer attention to the other trees around me. Maples, oaks, hickories, sycamores, dogwoods …

A majestic oak silhouetted against the winter sky

A majestic oak silhouetted
against the winter sky

The distinctive growth form and branch structure of these trees, which can really only be seen during the winter, add an element of beauty to the winter landscape. Each species has its own unique pattern. It’s something that you can’t really appreciate in the summer when the trees are covered with leaves but it definitely becomes a major part of the charm of the winter landscape. In fact, tree form, branch structure, and bark texture might be features to keep in mind when choosing the trees and shrubs to plant in your garden or around your home.

If you spend some time in the winter garden, you might be surprised at the subtle beauty and tranquility you will find at this more simple time in the gardening year. The winter landscape is all about muted colors and the bare bones of the garden. It’s not just the form and structure of the trees that provide character to the winter landscape, but also the interesting colors and textures you will find in their bark. In the winter when we aren’t distracted by foliage, the bark becomes a much more prominent characteristic of the trees.

Sycamore trees show their attractive form and beautiful bark in winter

Sycamore trees show their attractive form and beautiful bark in winter

As I neared the nursery, I noticed the large sycamore trees which grow along the creek that flows through one of the fields. The sycamore is a tree that I find to be much more appealing in the winter than at any other time of the year. To me, this is when you can really appreciate the grandeur of this massive tree. The open, wide-spreading crown has a beautiful silhouette against the winter sky. In addition, sycamores have wonderful exfoliating bark on the upper trunk and branches which peels away to reveal a striking white inner bark. Much of this interesting bark pattern is hidden during the summer and only becomes visible in the winter months when the leaves have dropped.

White oak (left) and chestnut oak (right) have very different bark textures.

White oak (left) and chestnut oak (right) have different bark textures.

The oaks are one of my favorite trees when it comes to bark texture. Chestnut oaks have beautiful dark colored bark which is deeply furrowed and coarse while the white oak has light grayish bark that has a finer textured and is almost flaky. So beautiful in the winter!

The American beech is another favorite with a beautiful spreading crown which creates a lovely silhouette in winter. The smooth, silvery, blue-gray bark creates a striking contrast to the bronze colored fall leaves which often persist on the tree throughout the winter.

Beech trees with their smooth blue-gray bark contrast with the bright white bark of a white birch.

Beech trees with their smooth blue-gray bark contrast with the
bright white bark of a white birch in the Vermont woods.

Exfoliating giraffe-like bark of crape myrtle.

Exfoliating giraffe-like bark
of crape myrtle.

There are many other species of trees that have beautiful bark which provides color and interest in the winter landscape. Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) and many cultivars of crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia) have wonderful exfoliating bark which peels away to reveal a rich cinnamon colored inner bark that really stands out in the winter. These bare, leafless trees also have a nice shape at this time of year and, if the seed heads are left on the crape myrtles, they not only provide added interest but they will also supply much needed winter food for the birds.

So, take some time to appreciate the wonderful form that your trees reveal in the winter. Spend a quiet moment or two just observing the simple beauty that can be found at this time of year. Just because there are no colorful flowers around, don’t think that Mother Nature has abandoned her artistry. It just takes on a very different form and you have to look a little harder to see the subtle elegance in the winter landscape.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!


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A heavy snow shower blows into the valley on saturday creating near whiteout conditions. Photo taken by Melissa Jones.

A heavy snow squall with high winds blows into the valley on Saturday afternoon
briefly creating near whiteout conditions. Photo taken by Melissa Jones.

It’s very cold – for us, that is.

The high temperature for Fishersville, VA was only 11°F today. The low tonight is supposed to be four below with a wind chill of -8! Everyone in New England is probably laughing at me – considering this to be a heat wave compared to what they have been experiencing during this very cold winter.

Helleborus foetidus with its green bell-shaped flowers pokes up out of the snow.

Helleborus foetidus with its bright green
bell flowers pokes out of the snow.

Luckily, we have a bit of snow to insulate our plants during this frigid cold snap. It isn’t as much as we had hoped, but it will help. I know the vineyards in the area were hoping for at least a foot during this last storm. With the extreme cold that is now upon us, they were hoping to have a good snow cover to protect the grape vines. Unfortunately for them, the storm didn’t pan out as predicted. This was a light, fluffy snow that came down in fine, tiny flakes and accumulated very slowly. The totals in most places fell way below the 8″-12″ that was predicted. We only got 4.5″ at our house – but still, it was beautiful and it will provide some protection for the plants in our gardens.

Begonia grandis seed heads have already dropped their seed. Daffodil foliage pokes up in the background.

Begonia grandis seed heads. Daffodil
foliage pokes up in the background.

Snow has excellent insulating properties, especially when it is at least 10″ deep. The temperature under a deep snow pack is generally around 32 degrees even when the air temperature is below zero! I suppose this might be some consolation for those New Englanders who are buried under several feet of snow. They certainly have been hammered up there! Of course, with that much snow, many shrubs could be pretty flattened by the spring thaw! Here are some tips to help with that when the time comes.

Buddleia sprouts from roots.

This Buddleia died back completely
but came up from the roots.

Frigid temperatures without any snow cover can be very damaging to some of the trees and shrubs in the landscape. Those that are marginally hardy where you live are especially susceptible to winter damage and winter kill. I expect that there may be a lot of winter dieback on crape myrtles and butterfly bushes in our area after this winter. Get your pruning shears and pruning saw ready! Hopefully the roots will be protected underground. If the roots survive, new growth should pop up from below to form a new plant.

Luckily, the wind chill does NOT affect plants; only the actual air temperature. Wind chill only affects warm-blooded animals like us and our pets, farm animals, even the wild creatures like birds and mammals; critters that are trying to maintain a constant body temperature.

Winter burn on Nandina

Winter burn on this Nandina.

This is not to say that winter winds don’t affect our plants. What can harm the plants are the drying effects of the wind. The air in winter is very dry, as evidenced by our dry skin, chapped lips, and static electricity shocks! When the wind blows this cold, dry air over the plants, it carries precious moisture away from the surface of the plants. Evergreens, both broadleaf and needled, are especially affected because they continually lose water through their leaves during the winter; the wind accelerates moisture loss. When the soil is frozen or dry, it is hard for the plant to replace this water by uptake through the roots. This can result in winter damage and winter burn to leaves and even whole branches.

Rhododendron with tightly curled leaves. The flower bud is protected but heavy bud scales.

Rhododendron with tightly curled
leaves. The flower bud is protected by
heavy bud scales.

Rhododendron leaves droop down and curl up tight like little cigars when it is extremely cold. This is a reaction to the cold temperatures but there is still a debate as to why they curl. Read more about it – it’s pretty interesting!

One way to help protect your evergreens from wind burn and winter damage is to spray them with an anti-desiccant like Bonide Wilt Stop. Wilt Stop protects evergreens from winter injury by forming a soft, clear flexible film over the leaves. Wilt Stop also protects evergreens from salt damage which can occur when you have a hedge near a road where salt is spread during the winter. Apply according to the label directions.

Until next time – Happy Gardening and try to stay warm!

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Boxwood bronzing in winter

Orange is an interesting color for a boxwood!

Orange or bronze colored boxwood are common in winter but if you aren’t prepared for this color transition, it can be quite alarming to suddenly notice that your boxwood aren’t green any longer!

Several years ago, I wrote a post about this seasonal color change and it always receives a lot of views at this time of the year. The boxwood hedge at the nursery entrance is again sporting its orange and green winter coat. It is so interesting how the Korean boxwood turns orange but the other species of boxwood right beside it remains green throughout the winter.

Here’s the post from February 2012 …

We recently received an interesting question on our discussion board:

I’m curious to know what has caused the leaves on some of my boxwoods to turn orange during the past two months.

Here’s a snippet of the answer I wrote out to him:

“If exposed to full sun and frequent frost and wind, the foliage of some boxwood may become orange or bronze in the winter …”

Such a contrast between boxwood species

Such a dramatic contrast between
two different boxwood species.

This is really quite common especially in certain boxwood varieties such as the small-leaved Korean Boxwood (Buxus microphylla var. koreana).

In fact, the other morning when I was taking pictures in the Viette gardens, I noticed that the Korean boxwood in front of an outbuilding had a very definite orange/bronze tint while the boxwood right beside it, a different species but growing under the same conditions, was still a nice healthy green color. The contrast was striking and a neat display of the seasonal variation that can exist between two different species.

On the protected leeward side, the foliage remains green except towards the top where it is more exposed.

On the protected side, the foliage
remains green except towards the top
where it is more exposed.

Even more interesting is the fact that only one side of the Korean boxwood is showing the bronzing of the leaves; namely the side that faces west and is exposed to the prevailing winds and the sun. The side that faces the building (which is about 8 feet from the hedge) is still green except for some bronzing near the top where branch tips are more exposed. This provides pretty good evidence that the bronzing occurring here on this particular variety is due to the environmental effects of sun and wind. The building is definitely providing the boxwood with protection from the elements.

There are certain things you can do to help protect boxwood and other evergreens from sunburn and winter winds that might cause discoloration of the foliage.

The windward side has become bronzed from wind and sun exposure.

The windward side has become bronzed
from wind and sun exposure.

Most important is to keep them watered during the winter especially when the ground is not frozen. Gardeners often forget that evergreens continue to function physiologically (albeit at a reduced rate) throughout the winter. Cold winter winds can suck moisture from the leaves and if this water is not replaced through uptake by the roots, winter injury can occur. This is why it is important to water your evergreens deeply in the late fall before the ground freezes. During dry winter weather when the ground is not frozen, be sure to check your evergreen trees and shrubs and water deeply if necessary. This is especially important during a mild winter like we’ve been experiencing so far this year. The addition of a layer of mulch will help retain the soil moisture.

Boxwood bronzing

The small-leaved Korean boxwood
typically turns bronze in winter.

Feed your boxwood in the spring and again in the fall with a slow release organic fertilizer like Espoma Holly-tone or Plant-tone to keep them healthy and vigorous.

Spraying evergreens with an anti-desiccant like Bonide Wilt Stop will also help to protect them from winter injury by forming a soft, clear flexible film over the leaves. In colder areas, the more tender broadleaf evergreens like Camellias and some varieties of boxwood and hollies should be sprayed with Wilt Stop and then carefully wrapped in burlap for additional protection from sun and wind.


The answer, continued:

“The good news is, though many consider it unattractive, this bronzing will not kill the boxwood and they should green up again once temperatures warm up in the spring.”

Certain branches became more orange

A few branches became a brighter 
orange with no green remaining.

Personally, I think this winter “off-color” adds some interest to the boxwood – sort of like “fall color” in the winter! And keep in mind that for some boxwood like the Korean boxwood, this color change is normal during the winter months.

It is important to note that the overall bronzing of the foliage that I am talking about here is a seasonal discoloration, not winter kill. Winter kill is permanent and must be pruned out in the spring – but that’s another story …

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

Oh and Happy Groundhog Day!


Korean boxwood in early April has lost most of the bronze coloration

By early April the Korean boxwood had
lost most of the bronze coloration

A postscript to this post –

That same year (2012) on April 2nd, I took another photo of the same Korean boxwood. The foliage had almost completely transitioned back to its rich green color.

An amazing transformation!

Until next time –

      Happy Gardening!

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Rime ice settled on winterberry fruit

Freezing fog was lifting

The fog was lifting by 9:00am

It was beautiful yesterday morning. The sun was beginning to come up through a hazy fog as I looked out of the window. I could just see a hint of orange glow through the trees. It was 21°F and there was still a dusting of snow on the ground from our little snow squall the day before.

Looking off to the west, the fog seemed a bit denser and the trees looked ghostly white in the distance.

The fog was lifting by the time I was driving to work but the crystalline world that it left behind was breathtaking. The trees, shrubs, fences, and almost any solid surface were covered with white ice crystals.

Rime ice covers the tree branches

Rime ice covers the tree branches

My first thought was that this was hoar frost but hoar frost develops on cold, clear nights. Wednesday night had been cold but overcast. As dawn approached, the humidity rose above 90% and the dew point dropped to within 2 degrees of the air temperature (data from Weather Underground). The combination of these two things led to the formation of a light fog.

Because the temperature was so cold, the tiny droplets of water that made up the fog became “supercooled” but remained liquid – until they came in contact with a solid surface at which point they froze almost immediately, forming beautiful ice crystals on whatever they touched.

Rime ice covers dogwood branches

Rime ice covers branches of a dogwood

This phenomenon is called freezing fog and the ice crystals that it forms are called rime ice. Hoar frost can look very similar to rime ice but hoar frost forms when the water vapor in the air turns directly to ice crystals without first condensing into water droplets. This can occur on cold, clear nights. Rime ice forms from fog (freezing fog).

The tops of mountains are often covered with rime in the winter. I often see it in Vermont when low clouds envelop the mountains (fog is just a type of low-lying cloud). When the clouds lift, the trees on the mountain tops are cloaked in brilliant white ice crystals. It is beautiful!

Rime ice covers trees on top of Bromley Mountain in Vermont

A heavy coating of rime ice covers trees on Bromley Mountain in Vermont

I wandered around the nursery gardens for a while armed with just my iPhone for a camera. When I left the house, I didn’t expect to find myself in the midst of a spectacular winter wonderland! Oh well, I still managed to capture some of the beautiful ice formations before the sun managed to destroy them.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

Rime ice covers pine needles

Beautiful mahonia foliage is outlined by crystals of rime ice.

Beautiful mahonia foliage is outlined by crystals of rime ice.

Flower buds of Mahonia are covered with ice crystals

Flower buds of Mahonia are covered with ice crystals

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A bluebird fluffs up against the cold

An array of bird feeders keep the birds fed all winter!

An array of bird feeders
keep the birds fed all winter!

This post written in December of 2010 is just as relevant now as it was back then. I only wish we had some beautiful snow on the ground for the holidays! Oh well – there’s still time! We DO have the birds, though and they are hungry!

Keep your feeders and bird baths full!

It’s Saturday morning – time to light the gas fire, re-fill the bird feeders on the deck, grab a cup of coffee and sit down in the sunroom to enjoy the birds as they happily feast on sunflower seeds, thistle seed, and suet!

Wintertime is bird feeding time!

Living in the woods like we do means lots of different bird species visit our feeders. Over the years, we have accumulated many types of bird feeders and they get filled with a variety of different food choices. One thing we have found is that it’s important to choose good quality bird seed that is fresh and free of filler seed that the birds won’t eat. This filler is often composed of weed seeds that get kicked out of the feeder and into your garden!

A hairy woodpecker enjoys peanuts from a peanut feeder.

A hairy woodpecker enjoys peanuts from a
feeder at my sister’s house in Vermont.

Chickadees, tufted titmice, cardinals, and both the white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches love the black oil sunflower seeds and the mixed seed filled with sunflower, cracked corn, and other nutritious seeds. The house finches, purple finches, and goldfinches flock to the thistle seed feeders and our suet feeders attract the nuthatches, chickadees, and wrens, as well as four different species of woodpeckers; downy, hairy, red bellied, and even pileated woodpeckers. “Woodpecker Woods” – that’s what we call our place! I think the woodpeckers, the wrens, and the little red-breasted nuthatches are my favorites!

A little wren enjoys the suet.

A little wren enjoys the suet.

We also have several platform feeders for the ground feeding birds such as juncos, mourning doves, blue jays, and sparrows. The jays can be bullies at times and scare some of the smaller birds away but for the most part, they are pretty civil! The squirrels and opossums also like the platform feeders – well, the squirrels actually like all the feeders much to our chagrin. They try their best to empty every one as quickly as they can! The possums mostly nose around for bits of suet that have dropped and tasty morsels on the platform feeders. I guess they need food in the winter too and, well, I must admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for these bird feeder marauders having done field research on both possums and squirrels during my graduate and post-graduate studies! I’m such a softie!

This silly possum was nosing around for some stale bread that we put out for the birds.

This silly possum found some stale
bread we put out for the birds.

Trying to discourage squirrels from raiding your feeders can be quite a challenge. We’ve had mixed success by hanging candy canes off some of our feeders. The squirrels really don’t like the smell of the peppermint. Some people mix cayenne pepper in with their seed. There are also “squirrel proof” feeders but I’ve found that these guys are so clever and dexterous that they can often find a way to get into a lot of them! We have found one that works pretty well, though.

Gray squirrel drinks

A gray squirrel takes a drink

Another thing we have discovered is that providing a big tub of fresh water is really important. It’s often hard for birds to find a source of unfrozen water in the winter and this really helps them out! We keep ours free of ice with a simple bird bath de-icer. It is amazing how much the birds use it. We literally have flocks of bluebirds and cedar waxwings congregating around the water trough all through the winter. Even the squirrels and possums come up for a drink!

A flock of bluebirds enjoys a drink at the water trough!

A little red-breasted nuthatch pecks at a suet cake

A little red-breasted nuthatch
pecks at a suet cake

Once you begin feeding the birds, remember to keep your feeders full throughout the winter as the birds will come to depend on this source of food! Here are some simple recipes for some tasty treats for your birds this winter. You could also consider planting some seed, fruit, and berry producing trees, shrubs, and perennials throughout your landscape. These will not only provide a natural source of food for the birds, but will also give them some great “hiding places”.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

   Enjoy this beautiful holiday season!

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Holly berries covered with a light hoar frost

It’s holiday decorating time! Such a fun time of the year to get the house and porches all spruced up for the season! Holly, mistletoe, and …

Wait! Where are my holly berries? This is a question we often get in the fall and early winter. Many people plant holly trees and bushes so that they can cut berry laden boughs for beautiful holiday arrangements both indoors and out. But sometimes they are disappointed when the colorful berries fail to appear.

We are having a problem with having any berries on our holly shrub. What are we missing?”

Ilex opaca 'Merry Christmas' is aptly named with its reliable profusion of red berries in fall and winter.

Ilex opaca ‘Merry Christmas’

The trouble is, hollies are dioecious plants, meaning the male and female flowers are produced on separate plants. The male holly produces pollen bearing staminate flowers and the female plant produces pistillate flowers which, if pollinated, will normally develop berries.

If you only have a female holly and there is no male in the area, you will never* get berries because there is no pollen to pollinate the female flowers. If you only have a male holly, you won’t get berries either – for obvious reasons. This is true of both the evergreen hollies and the deciduous hollies.

*There are a few hollies (parthenocarpic species) that can produce berries without pollination but this is not the norm. Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii’ is one holly that does not require pollination for fruit set.

If your hollies aren’t producing berries, the first thing to do is to check to make sure that you have both a male and female holly plant. It is best if these hollies are of the same species so that they will flower at the same time. This helps ensure good pollination which should result in a reliable berry crop. If you have NEVER had berries on your hollies, this could be the reason.

Male flowers of Ilex verticillata showing bright yellow pollen

Male flowers of Ilex verticillata showing bright yellow pollen.

The plant label should identify whether the plant is a male or female. Male hollies often (but not always) have male-type names like ‘Southern Gentlemen’, ‘Jim Dandy’, ‘Jersey Knight’, ‘China Boy’ …

If you don’t have a label, examining the flowers is a good way to determine whether a holly is male or female. The small, inconspicuous holly flowers appear in the spring.

  • The flowers of male hollies have four (or more) stamens topped with bright yellow pollen. The male flowers are normally borne in clusters (cymes).
  • Female flowers of Ilex 'Blue Princess'.

    Female flowers of Ilex ‘Blue Princess’.

    Female hollies usually produce solitary flowers. These flowers have a green “berry-like” structure in the center. The stigma which receives the pollen is found at the top of this structure. Bees and other insect pollinators carry pollen from the male flowers to the stigma. If the flower is pollinated, a full-sized green berry quickly develops – if not, the flower dies and falls off without producing a berry.

One male holly can serve as a pollinator for multiple female plants. The male should be planted within a few hundred yards of the females. Bees are the main pollinators and will carry the pollen to the female flowers.

What if you have had holly berries in the past but not this year?

Since holly berries were produced in previous seasons, this would indicate that there are both male and female plants present in your landscape. The lack of berry production in one season could be the result of some environmental or weather related issue that affected the pollination of the flowers in the spring.

  • Late frosts or freezes can damage or kill the flowers and result in loss of the berry crop for that season.
  • Misty, rainy, or cold weather in the spring at the time of flowering can inhibit or limit pollination because bees are not as active in these conditions. If weather like this persists, it can affect pollination and result in a reduced berry crop.
  • Summer drought can cause berries to shrivel and drop off.
Bright red berries of Ilex verticillata in early fall before the leaves drop.

Bright red berries of Ilex verticillata in early fall before the leaves drop.

Healthy hollies will reward you with a beautiful crop of berries as long as the conditions above are met. Be sure to feed them with a quality organic fertilizer like Espoma Holly-tone in the spring and fall. Water them deeply during dry periods in the summer and even in winter if the ground isn’t frozen and it has been dry.

Until next time –

      Happy Gardening!


Ilex verticillata in the snow.  Beautiful!

Ilex verticillata ‘Sparkleberry’ in the snow. Beautiful!

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Woolly Bear

Personally, I haven’t seen very many woolly bears this fall but a lot of people visiting the nursery lately have and they say that these fat, furry caterpillars are mostly black this year. “What does that mean about the coming winter?”, they often ask. It’s hard for people to remember how this little tale goes.

So, in honor of Halloween and the imminent end of Daylight Savings, I thought I’d re-post my woolly bear story.

Here you go – from September 2010 …

Can woolly bears really predict the weather?

Do woolly bears really predict the weather?

They’re beginning to cross the road in front of my car as I drive to work in the morning – everyday I see more of them. It has gotten me thinking about these beloved fuzzy caterpillars that children of ALL ages find irresistible. You have to admit – they really are pretty cute!

Most of us have heard the story about how woolly bears can predict the severity of the coming winter by the pattern of the orange and black stripes on their fuzzy bodies . . .
but is there any truth in the tale? And how does the story go – does a wide orange band mean a harder winter or is it a narrow orange band and lots of black that predicts the hard winter? I, for one, can never remember!

Well here’s the scoop straight from the Old Farmer’s Almanac:

The longer the middle orange band on the woolly bear, the milder and shorter the winter will be. Conversely, the shorter the orange band, hence the more black on the woolly bear, the longer and harsher the winter will be.

This woolly bear would predict a short, mild winter. Boy was he off on his prediction!

This woolly bear would predict a short, mild
winter. Boy was he off on his prediction!

Now, is there any scientific evidence to back this bit of folklore? In a word – no!

Well, I mean not really. The lengths of the orange and black bands are really a function of the age of the caterpillar. Woolly bears are the larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth, a not-very-impressive moth that you might see fluttering around your porch lights at night during the summer. The woolly bear caterpillars molt (shed their skin) several times as they grow and each time they do, the orange band gets longer and the black ends get shorter. So if you see a woolly bear that is mostly orange, that just means it’s older and more mature!

So much for their prediction of the winter of 2009-2010! Our woolly  bears were way off last year!

So much for their prediction of
the winter of 2009-2010! Our woolly
bears were way off last year!

But here’s some food for thought … what if you have a long, mild fall? The woolly bears will stay active longer and keep growing and molting. The orange band will become wider and wider! Hmmmm, does a mild fall predict a mild winter? And what if winter comes early? A shorter fall season will mean that the woolly bears are younger/haven’t molted as often before they seek shelter for the winter, resulting in a relatively narrow orange band and more black on their fuzzy bodies. Is a harsh winter on the way?

The woolly bears I found around the nursery last year were an epic failure as far as predicting our winter – most had a lot of orange and very little black! A mild winter? Not by a long shot! We had one of the hardest, snowiest winters on record in the Shenandoah Valley!

I wonder if they’ll do any better this year. I haven’t seen any close enough yet to see their color pattern – have you?

Happy Halloween everybody!

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Robins in a peach tree trying to figure out where spring went

Robins perch in one of our peach trees trying to figure out where spring went!

Daffodil foliage pokes out of the snow.

Daffodils poke out of the snow.

What happened to spring?

The day before yesterday was a beautiful, sunny, 63o day and then less than 24 hours later, the temperature tumbled and it started snowing! This morning we were buried in over 6” of snow! CRAZY! I guess winter wasn’t quite done with us yet.

Actually the precipitation started out as rain but quickly changed over to a heavy, wet snow as the temperature continued to fall throughout the afternoon. The snow came down fast and furious and it wasn’t long before the trees and shrubs were covered. It basically stuck and froze to the wet branches. By morning, the evergreens were bending low under the weight of the heavy snow that was frozen fast to their foliage and branches.

Small American holly bent under the weight of snow

Small American holly completely
bent over under the weight of snow

The poor hollies and azaleas in front of our house were quite splayed out under their burden of snow and a young American holly tree growing along the driveway was bent over all the way to the ground. I’m sure these will all spring back up once the snow melts later this week but it was sad to see them in such a state! In situations like this, where a combination of snow and ice has accumulated on your trees and shrubs, it is important to let them melt off naturally. You risk doing much more damage by trying to knock the snow and ice off.

Don’t be tempted!

China Girl holly buried and flattened by the heavy snow

This China Girl holly flattened by the heavy snow should spring back up.

Helleborus covered with snow. These too will pop back up once the snow melts.

These helleborus will pop back up once the snow melts.

Asparagus bed covered with a blanket of snow.

Asparagus bed – buried!

In anticipation of the coming snowfall, I went out to the vegetable garden and cut back the old stems of the asparagus and fertilized it with Espoma Garden-tone. I also mulched the entire bed with some nice composted leaves. Now as the snow melts, it will carry some good nutrients down to the roots.

We also did some other garden maintenance while the ground was still fairly dry – probably things we should have done last fall but …

Trellises ready and waiting!

Trellises are ready and waiting!

Eric pulled up the tomato and cucumber trellises and stacked them against the pea fence for later while I pulled up last year’s pepper and eggplant stalks and did some weeding. I can’t believe that the chickweed and henbit are already in flower! Yikes! I got them all grubbed out and raked up along with some of the other old garden debris.

Everything was looking pretty good and now it’s all buried under snow.

HA! Poor man’s fertilizer!

It seems that spring is on hold for a few days. It will be back soon enough, though. Don’t you worry! Perhaps this is old man winter’s last hurrah!

Time will tell …

Until next time – Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

The woods were beautiful!

The woods were beautiful!

The dogwood buds wore hats of snow for St. Patty's Day!

The dogwood buds wore hats of snow for St. Patty’s Day!

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