From my kitchen window last week, I got an unexpected glimpse of coppery-orange. It took me a few seconds to realize it was the spidery, threadlike flowers of my Jelena Witch Hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’) . This is the earliest this plant has ever bloomed, surely owing to the recent warm temperatures and abundant moisture. A quick walkabout revealed flowering snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and crocus, again the earliest they have ever popped up. And then, horror of horrors, I discovered the big leaf hydrangeas (hydrangea macrophylla) had broken dormancy. Two days later we had a sobering reminder that winter is far from over: a wicked nor’easter with rain, snow, ice and rip-roaring wind.
Gardeners can’t control the weather but we sure can do something about what we plant. Weatherproof plants are what’s called for, plants that can take the ups and downs that Mother Nature dishes out even if it’s not on the scale of a nor’easter. Fortunately there are tough plants galore, no matter your cultural conditions.
Keep that witch hazel in mind. It’s very deer resistant, medium sized, grows in part sun, is long blooming, slightly fragrant, with flowers that can be yellow, red, or coppery orange. Right behind it for sun, you have several choices of lilac (syringa). They do great in cold climates, come in many sizes and shapes, are very fragrant, deer resistant, and some are even reblooming. Not all are purple: some are pink and others are white.
Forsythia are stalwarts. They bloom early, come in small and large sizes, and deer pretty much ignore them. Another shrub you should consider is spiraea. There are dozens to choose from these days with colored foliage, reblooming capability, different colored flowers, and come in a variety of sizes. Both spiraea and forsythia make a great screen even when leafless.
Several years ago we discovered deciduous rhododendrons/azaleas. They flower before the leaves emerge and without the leaves, the winter winds can’t mar the foliage . They come in a variety of colors, all prefer part shade and moist soil. Many have colored fall foliage. Korean Rhododendron ‘Cornell Pink’ (Rhododendron mucronulatum) is well known in the marketplace, with bubblegum pink flowers. It blooms in late winter/early spring, just after the witch hazels. Northern Lights and Exbury are two familiar families of deciduous azaleas available in the market.
Don’t forget the hardy hydrangeas that bloom on current year’s growth (new wood). These are the paniculatas like Quick Fire®, ‘Limelight,’ and Pinky Winky®. Lots of choices await you in terms of size. There are also the hydrangea arborescens like ‘Annabelle’, a new one called ‘Wee White,’ Incrediball®, and the whole line of Invincibelle® Spirit. Many sizes are in the marketplace with a variety of color choices. Some are even rebloomers. But be warned: deer like hydrangeas more than you.
Your bulbs and other perennials should be fine as long as they stay underground and are hardy for your growing zone. Keep an eye on the shallow rooted ones like coral bells (heuchera). Mulch them well (Coast of Maine’s Fundy Blend works great!) and go back to visit them now and then to push them back down if these freeze/thaw cycles have heaved them out of the ground.
One weatherproof perennial you can enjoy in the next two weeks or so is the long blooming hellebore . The foliage is truly evergreen although by now it looks awful from winter’s beating. Simply cut it away to enjoy the emerging flowers. They come in shades of white, pink and rose. The plant likes moist shade and is trouble free from critters, insects and disease. The foliage grows back lush and glossy to color your garden for another year.
Soon this see-saw winter will be in your rear view mirror. You’ll feel the warm spring sun before you can say April!