Friday, January 16, 2009

Winter windowsills

I heard cardinals out in the garden yesterday, singing their spring song. It was only one degree above zero when I woke up, but the sun was sparkling at mid day, and there are nasturtiums in bloom, in little jars and vases in the kitchen windows.

For the past couple of years, just before the first really hard frost, I have taken cuttings from the nasturtiums in the garden. They root in water within a few days and begin to bloom very soon thereafter. They can be trimmed back if they grow lanky, which they inevitably do, but it's nice to let them ramble a bit along the windowsills: their leaves turn so strongly toward the light that they press themselves up against the windowpanes, pushing their luck.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Sparkleberry Christmas

Santa's sleigh was loaded with plants this year. We have a new, highly efficient wood stove, so Santa had to use the front door, which makes a terrible racket, what with the aluminum storm door, and he banged in and out several times. When he was done, a forest of trees and shrubs had sprung up around the Christmas tree, itself suitably decorated for the occasion with colored balls, straw ornaments, and strings of little paper Danish flags (part of what passes for old family tradition around here), and the magnificent dry leaves, 15 inches long, of Magnolia macrophylla, which we had picked up from around our thriving little specimen in the garden. (Santa told me later that he felt like a stage hand in a production of Macbeth, removing Birnham wood to Dunsinane.) 

What we found under our tree on Christmas morning was three handsome 'Sparkleberry' deciduous hollies, covered with bright red berries, and a tall and handsome 'Southern Gentleman', their gallant pollinator. 'Sparkleberry' was introduced in 1978 by the U.S. National Arboretum; it is a cross between Japanese winterberry (Ilex serrata) and the North American native common winterberry (I. verticillata). It is still among the best large deciduous hollies around, according to Michael Dirr. It grows to 12 (perhaps 15) feet tall and wide, and the large fruit is especially persistent, even though birds love it, of course. 'Sparkleberry' received a gold medal from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society in 1988.

The 'Sparkleberry' hollies are already planted in the spaces between what we call the hyphen beds -- they're really more like em dashes -- out along the lane. They join a growing collection of deciduous hollies in our garden: a pair of 'Red Sprite' hollies in the beds close to the house, three 'Maryland Beauty' hollies near the end of the field of Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum), and four 'Winter Red' hollies in open spots farther out among the tall, tawny grasses.

Also in our little Christmas woods in the parlor this year: a Gardenia radicans, two Cephalotaxus harringtonia 'Prostrata', Ilex decidua 'Warren's Red', Magnolia salicifolia, Viburnum prunifolia, and a handsome longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) that looks, at the moment, like a green, five-foot shaving brush. We planted it in the field along the winding path we call Oliver's twist, after the numerous family of that name in this neck of the county.