January 2003 Gardener's Journal
What a cold cruddy way to begin a new year! An Arctic blast rolled into North Florida on Christmas Eve and stayed all month tormenting us with frosty nights and cool, often dreary gray days. If you live in the eastern part of the country, January was probably no winter wonderland for you either with many areas experiencing record cold and much ice and snow (we even had flurries here in Tallahassee). One nice surprise for me was that (so far) damage has been negligible to the more tender plants that I grow outdoors, limited mostly to leaf damage.
I grow some tender tropical species in containers. These normally live outdoors but I gave them shelter inside when the Christmas freeze struck. Since then they've colonized both the living room and my office. Tree frogs and tiny lizards, called anoles, hitchhiked in on the plants and have established breeding colonies in the furniture. Palms reach floor to ceiling and thorny stems scratch bare skin when I answer the telephone. The plants suffered too as the puppies gnawed on woody parts and hot blasts of dry furnace air browned and withered foliage. The tendency of sharp spiny needles on the pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii) and the calamondin discouraged me from properly watering my house guests aggravating their desiccated conditions. January is almost over so if they can just hang on for a few weeks longer a few weeks of spring will restore their good looks.
Old man winter came and lingered this month, but one benefit of the persistent cold is that many of the tender plants slowed growth, essentially becoming dormant. This is one reason they sustained much less damage than one would otherwise expect. Two nights of 17º F (-8º C) temperatures resulted in leaf damage for a few of the Puerto Rican hat palms (Sabal causiarum) and Washington palms (Washingtonia robusta). Except for some drying of the oldest leaves, the Chinese fan palms (Livistona chinensis) and ribbon palms (Livistona decipiens) were unaffected as were the small understory palms; radicalis palm (Chamaedorea radicalis) and the hardy bamboo palm (Chamaedorea microspadix). The soap aloe (Aloe saponaria) sustained much leaf damage as did the asparagus ferns (Protasparagus densiflorus). They're all looking really ratty now but a few weeks of warm spring weather (and an application of fungicide) will soon have them looking good as new.
Some years here in North Florida are so mild that tender species like gerber daisy (Gerbera Jamesonii) bloom all through the winter - but not this year! Winter is the best time to prune many plants and I like to save the most strenuous yard work for the coolest time of year.
For many woody species, winter is the best time to prune. For years I've procrastinated trimming a silverthorn (Elaeagnus pungens) that grows up on The Hill. The thing had turned into a sprawling monster and was shading out it's neighbors. This silverthorn had grown very long, slender, vinelike stems that cleverly wove themselves throughout the adjacent trees. Hundreds of cuts later, I surgically remove most of it. To insure that never happens again, I sheared it into a funny cube as punishment for causing me so much work.
I'm still hard at work thinning the small twiggy branches from the crape myrtles and topping them off with a pole trimmer. Out back by the Catfish Pond (see picture), I performed major surgery on a large Burford holly (Ilex cornuta 'Burfordii') successfully transforming it from a large shrub to a small tree. A nearby quartet of pittosporum (Pittosporum tobira) also felt the might of my swift shears. The were beginning to decline and were entangled with sticker vines and scrub. I removed the trashy stuff and hand pruned them into small bonsai-like trees 8 ft (2.4 m) high. Now when they bloom this spring they will look as good as they smell!
I decided to take advantage of the cool weather by doing battle with several species, both exotic and native, that are invading my space.
Here where I live, the sandy dry soil is only marginally fertile. I spend more time controlling invasive native species than the exotics, most of whom can't hack it on this lean soil. The native culprits that cause me the most grief are Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), blackberry (Rubus spp.), catbriar and Jackson vine (Smilax spp.). The beautiful but overly enthusiastic Virginia creeper is a fast grower that climbs up, into and over everything requiring continual hacking and chopping. Even worse is its rowdy reproductive habit that produces multitudes of offspring that crowd my beds all season long. There are about three kinds of blackberries here, shrubby ones, low ones and viney ones that crawl along the ground - all can and do make angry red scratches on bare skin and unlike Virginia creeper cause aggravation and pain! Then there are several smilax species here that also have thorny stems capable of inflicting pain. Jackson vine and catbriar are both actually rather handsome evergreen vines that I'd probably like if they were rare and more difficult to grow but I don't, so they got to go. They're interesting though, so I plan to do a Plant Profile of this genus later in the year.
Some of the invasive exotic species were already here when I bought the property and others I planted years ago when I was young and stupid. In January I finally cut down six big Japanese ligustrum (Ligustrum japonicum) shrubs. For years I've been too busy/lazy to take them out but was careful to cut off the smelly flowers before seeds could form. Other beautiful exotics that I intentionally planted here before I knew better are the coral berry (Ardisia crenata) and heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica). Both of these are very invasive just north of us, in Tallahassee, where they have red clay soil instead of the sand we have here. Although I removed the individuals that I planted some years ago I continue to find small plants hiding in the hedges and other out-of-the-way places. I removed about a dozen from around the house. Both of these plants produce fruit that many birds find tasty so the seeds are efficiently dispersed to wherever the bird decides to drop a bomb which is, of course, almost everywhere.
I made good use of January's cool moist weather by transplant a some woody shrubs that I've been wanting to move. I relocated two small sasanquas and three camellias that weren't doing too well. I moved a 7 ft pipestem (Agarista populifolia) away from the previously mentioned Burford holly and relocated several clumps of tree ivy (X Fatshedera lizei) to a shady bed in the Dog Cemetery.
By far my most ambitious effort involved trimming, digging, chopping, prying and cussing a huge needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) out of the ground. The plant looked fine where it was and it wasn't really necessary that I mess with it but I really wanted more needle palms to plant in other parts of the garden. Even the smallest specimens at the nursery cost about $10.00 and since I am poor I decided it would be worth my time to dig and divide this particular clump.
I spent an hour digging a trench around the clump to a depth of about 14 in. Then I took a large ax and chopped through the middle between stems. Next I inserted a large iron lever beneath one half of the clump and worked it until the outer suckers began to loosen. Using brute force I dug, chopped and levered until I popped a large bunch of stems from the main clump. Once that happened the attack went easier and within an hour I was gasping for breath as I happily I untangled individual stems and laid them out like trophies in a row. In all I my effort was rewarded with 17 new needle palms of varying size. They are all now situated in their new homes doing their job to make Floridune greener and palmier.
In Bloom at Floridune
January's freezes kept everything mostly brown this year. By now the prolific sasanquas (Camellia sasanqua) are wrapping up for the season and have no more color to contribute. January's extended cold snap zapped flowers like the gerber daisies and caused the "japonica" camellias (Camellia japonica) to keep their buds clenched shut against the frigid air. Even without the freeze it would be drab around here as ravenous rabbits and deer continue eating the cool season annuals I planted last October while moles (voles? who cares?) and armadillos root up what's left. The mangled remains bravely cling to life but no sooner do they recover with a few new leaves than something comes along and scarfs them. But they keep trying... Life longs to live - the little fellows are so persistent maybe I'll reward them with some shots of liquid fertilizer!
Even though most of the species that bloom this time of year got cold-whacked I followed my nose to find two tough guys a'blooming away like crazy. Tea olive is a southern favorite with tiny white flowers with a sweet fruity fragrance. The other is the strawberry tree whose profuse urn-shaped white flowers pleasantly scent the cool crisp evening air. Neither of these are very showy and do little to brighten up the seasonal brownness but the pretty perfume helps to perk up winter spirits! Here's a few of the plants in flower here at Floridune in January (or that would be in bloom if not frozen or eaten by deer and bunnies): tea olive, pansy, snapdragon, gerber daisy, fatsia and strawberry tree.
This icon indicates that a plant produces fragrant flowers, foliage or other parts. Click here (or the icon) to see this list.
Seed pods are "former flowers" that are interesting and often beautiful. Here are two that are currently dispersing seeds where I live. The Confederate rose is a relative of cotton and bears a fuzzy resemblance. Last summer's showy oleander flowers are now winter's beautiful long slender pods of puffy fuzzy seeds. I know these aren't very colorful but by next month there should be lots of things in-flower if we get a non-freezing week or two.
Although January's cold stalled the show, the camellias are once again starting to put forth as January comes to a close. Several species of deciduous magnolias will make their appearance in early February. My (Magnolia stellata and M. x soulangeana) are both loaded with fat buds poised to pop. Bright red swamp maple (Acer rubrum) flowers appeared at the end of January and redbud is about to happen too. I especially look forward to the Carolina yellow jessamine ( Gelsemium sempervirens ). This native vine has sunny fragrant flowers that will chase away wintry gloom by mid February. Spring is just around the corner!
Up On the Roof
I climbed up on the roof to see why it was leaking. What I found was years of leafy debris had accumulated in some places and was composting in place. Acorns were sprouting and scores of baby oaks were probing under the shingles with thirsty roots causing my poor roof much distress. After cutting down the trees, raking the leaves and shoveling the compost, I applied a half-ass repair involving gooey black stuff to the violated shingling. I then sat back and congratulated myself on my handiness and enjoyed the view of the garden from this lofty perspective. It's peaceful, breezy and scenic up on my roof so lately I've taken to climbing up almost daily. Since I broke my lawnchair it provides a dry nearly bug-free alternative for attaining null state consciousness and figuring out how to spend my time in February.
Out in the garden there's an infinity of mulching, weeding and trimming to do - it's always there so I never get bored. Every year about this time I dig up and pot seedling plants that I find volunteering in the garden or out in the wilder parts of the yard. There's nothing better than free plants, so I inspect beneath the podocarpus (Podocarpus macrophylla) for volunteer seedlings that I'll pot up and pamper for a year or two eventually to become a new hedge. I like junipers (Juniperus virginiana) because the birds like junipers so I dig up as many of those seedlings each year. Next month I'll plant last year's crop out in the front. My biggest and most fearsome job in February will be trimming the pampas grass. The sharp-edged whiplike leaves of this huge plant slice and sliver bare skin effortlessly leaving nasty infected wounds. It's a testament to the beauty of this plant that not only do I grow it but I like to grow as much as possible. Therefore this year I intend to dig, divide and transplant at least one clump. There's actually four clumps that have outgrown their situations and need to be moved but if I do just one I'll be pleased!
I guess that's all for this month and I hope February is gentler to us all. Please visit Floridata often as you plan your spring projects, buy from our sponsors and don't forget to tell your friends about us - and, as usual, be good and grow!
John S. "Jack" Scheper 2/10/03