January 12, 2014


All one needs is a little reminder - like a blizzard with -8º F weather in January, to remember why keeping a greenhouse full of flowering plants and fragrant pots of lemons is a good this. This week, is one where a greenhouse provided the perfect prescription for depression. Muddy boots are suddenly OK.
This past week, my garden has experienced a 70º shift in weather. with -8º last weekend, which arrived along with a blizzard, to torrential downpours yesterday, which came with thunder, lightning and temperatures the nudged the 60º mark. Not the best weather for plants for such shifts in temperatures ca be most damaging to woody plants, alpine and bonsai wintering over in frozen containers, and with perennials who just want to sleep under a deep blanket of snow over the winter. But a January thaw can be welcome, especially to those of us who must heat a greenhouse.

With all of the puppies now placed into new homes, Lydia and Fergus could finally rest a bit, enjoying some well-earned naps as the snow and wind howled beyond the windows.

Goldfinches in their drab, winter plumage, dine on black oil sunflower seeds.

Feeding the birds remains an essential task throughout the autumn and winter, rain, snow or shine, for this temperature shift are unpredictable. Birds are not migrating in midwinter, rather, they move their populations around based on available food sources, and during this record breaking cold wave,  I was reminded of the risks involved when food sources are lean - a flock of American Robins arrived - a large flock with nearly 50 individuals flew into a neighbors cedar grove, their first choice for berries during these winter months.
When snow storms threaten, the feeders are packed. These Goldfinches arrived in flocks, and I counted over 30 on three of our thistle feeders.

A Song Sparrow, a Slate Colored Junco and a male Cardinal wait for their turn on the feeder - daring not to journey too far in this bitter weather. Small winter birds like these expect a consistent supply of food and water, and any breaks in offering it can result in death, especially when the temperatures drop well below zero.

When the temperatures drop this low, ice forms on the glass of the greenhouse, refusing to melt, even when the sun shines on the glass directly. These first few weeks of January often are the most dangerous times for greenhouse growers.

A little ice melt reveals some color within the greenhouse, but as nightfall comes earlier, this too is brief, and this window will refreeze within a half hour.
Inside, spring is starting. The first pots of bulbs have been removed from the cold frames and place on benches near the glass, and as you can see, crocus, narcissus and tulips are starting to poke their noses out of the pots.

A flock of robins, which decided to not migrate south for the winter, flew into our garden this week, to dine on most every berried shrub, vine and tree that we could offer them. Here, they are stripping the last of the Callicarpa fruit off of the branches. Not a first choice food source for them, I thought that some frozen wild blueberries from our freezer might help, but they just seemed confused with them, as I spread them on the snow below the bush.

Not all robins migrate south, recently, thousands remain here in the  New England area, often congregating in huge numbers in swamps and rural areas where they can find their favorites food sources - berries and insects. As snow flies in and piles up deep, these flocks are becoming desperate, seeking out most any source for fruit or berries. The flock that arrived here mid week, is now gone, after three days of dining on Cedar berries, then moving on to American Bittersweet vines, which has fruited high in our Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) border, then devouring the purple berries on some of our Callicarpa shrubs, which apparently provided more confidence, for they then flew up to our kitchen windows as we ate breakfast to pluck Ilex verticilata, our native Winter Berry, from the branches I had placed into the window boxes as Christmas decorations. just inches from where we were having our coffee.

An American Robin takes advantage of our Holiday display arranged in the window boxes. I think we could spare a few Ilex verticilata berries for the good of spring.

Sunflower heads have been hung up for the birds. I like to wait until the weather is really wicked, so that they can enjoy them when they need the food the most.
This seemed like the perfect time to start bringing out the large heads of dried sunflowers, jam packed with plump seeds, which I grew last summer, and then picked and dried on the back porch. I think a few natural American grown sunflower seeds might be a nice treat on these coldest of days.

Camellia 'San Dimas' in full bloom, in the greenhouse. I was disappointed as we had  a greenhouse tour planned for this weekend, but now it is postponed until next weekend, when all of these camellias will have already dropped. 

As this week progressed, the temperature mellowed, and by Friday, even though we had more snow, the weekend proved to be much warmer, if not unseasonably so, which excited me, as we were hosting our annual American Primrose Society meeting and luncheon along with a greenhouse tour. As things sometimes go, we had to postpone our meeting until next weekend, as the roads were still icy in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York, making driving here for those who needed an early departure, unsafe.

Naturally, the greenhouse had never looked better - with most of my camellia's peaking in bloom = flowers that will be only a memory by next week. Isn't that how it goes? So here are some photos of what guests missed - three camellias each with over 15 flowers open at the same time - that NEVER happens around here! It also reminded me that I am really going to have to scratch around for camellias to enter in the New England Camellia Society show in March, as most of mine will be long gone.

'Lipstick' will still have many flowers, as these are the first two buds to open. This anemone flowered form is a favorite of mine, for obvious reasons - it's gorgeous, and the plants short growing habit makes it a nice potted specimen as well.
Primula obconica  'Libre', a winter blooming primrose not often seen at florists or greenhouses, but if one is lucky, it does sometimes show up in the most unusual of places - this one is from my local Wegman's supermarket. 

On a good note, I did find some Primula obconica at our local market this weekend - always a treat, for this winter blooming primrose species is not commonly carried by many florists or greenhouses. I always feel as if I am rescuing these plants, as it seems no one knows what they are anymore, or can appreciate their more sbtle colors and fragrance when sold against their dwarf, bright and colorful kin (those small primrose acaulis types in 4 inch pots, which are impossibly difficult to keep alive indoors and come in the worst colors imaginable - like sulpher yellow, grape purple and blood red).

Primula obconica is different. Sure, there was a time when they fell out of favor and some people are allergic to the primulin in the hairs on fuzzy leaved varieties, but newer selections have bred much of this out. This is an old classic from the past, and I urge you to try and grow one for a season ( then dispose of it). I have such a fondness for this plant, and tend to buy all of them whenever I see them for sale in January. If only our wholesalers would grow some of the amazing selections I saw in Japan carried by Sakata seed, but I can't complain about the pots I found this weekend, after all, it's been about 3 years since I have been able to find any in the market.

This cool -loving pot plant makes a fine specimen - I report mine into clay pots as soon as I bring them home, being sure not to disturb its root ball. I then place it in the cool greenhouse, as these plants need winter sunshine, and the bright light will enhance the flower colors. I then bring them indoors for a week at a time, to live on a cool, bright window sill. Yeah, it's a white fly trap indoors, but in the greenhouse, it provides lots of spring-like color, just when I need it. Indoors, just hose the foliage off in the sink once or twice a week with warm water, and never allow it to dry out, and you can enjoy its blooms well into March or even April.

It's camellia crazyness in the greenhouse, even the plants that are planted in the ground seemed to be in peak bloom this chilly weekend. I counted nearly 20 flowers open on this specimen. 

Ouside, the snow is melting fast this weekend, which gave me an opportunity to check the glass covers that I placed over some of the alpine troughs. A couple troughs were full of ice, which is not a good thing, but hopefully, with todays warm temperatures, the containers might drain a bit. With the glass adjusted, I might be able to save some of my alpine plants from the freezing wet that can kill them. The saxifrages and primula planted in these, require cold, dry winter conditions until snowmelt arrives, and then all the moisture that nature can provide.

"Thistle seed? Blah. How about want roast beef with potatoes?
Just holler when its ready."


  1. Brrrr. I've experienced similar temperature shifts this past two weeks, although not as low as yours. We did get into the negative numbers though. Today is wonderful warm. I need to go check the greenhouse. I missed going out there today. Home chores kept me inside. Your photos are wonderful Matt. I envy you those camellias. I haven't yet figured out how to grow them here. Such severe weather changes. I don't have room in the greenhouse.~~Dee

    1. Thanks Dee. I would think that your lows and highs are similar to mine here in the northeast.....I would try some of the smaller camellia's in pots, I would imagine that they would do very well for you. I suggest getting the catalog from Nuccio's and try a few next year. I can advise you on which ones would stay small, dense and have interesting flowers. That anemone flowered variety called 'Lipstick' would be my first choice for you. I've had a plant for 5 years, and it is only a foot and a half tall.

  2. So sorry to miss all the peak flowering beauty but I'll be there for sure this coming saturday and we will all be ooohing and aaaaahing over everything! When I worked at the nursery in Mass. I would order Primula obconica and they were never a great seller but I kept ordering them anyway. they are so beautiful and I found them pretty easy to keep and get to rebloom the next year.

    1. Oh Amy, I bet I was the only one who bought them from you! I would always stop there on the way home from buying clay for pottery, and Briggs would be the only nursery with them. I sort of miss that you aren't there anymore ( but if I remember correctly, they had them two years ago too). See you next week!

  3. Same thing here! 9f on the day of the storm but today its 70f!

  4. we had the same type of weather here in indiana last week. my alabama self almost didn't make it :)!

    i have never thought of drying sunflower heads and putting them out for the birds in the winter. great tip, thanks!

    1. The trick is to try and get to them in the late summer before the jays, squirrels and other birds do. But if you can get that far, you're pretty much in fair weather!

  5. p.s. are you on instagram? would love to follow growing with plants there if so.

    1. OK< I know, I really need to get on Instagram, but like Tumbler, I like to share more than just photos. I promise I will look into it!

    2. instagram is fun & easy! do it :)!

  6. glorious posts recently! hard to say which i liked better, the birds, or the flowers. it is the fleetingness of all these things somehow that can make you appreciate them more, i've always thought. all the little miracles.....thanks for this little burst of beauty.

    1. Thanks Mlle Paradis! Always great to hear from you. Hope gardens are going well!

  7. Your camellias are just stunning! I went to the Lyman Estate greenhouses yesterday for a little jolt of color and fragrance and ended up coming away with two little cuttings for my own sun room, as well as a few other treasures. Hopefully I will get the hang of growing them as a container plant - the last time I planted camellias was at my childhood home in southern Germany, and there they are all but carefree outdoor shrubs. One of the ones I planted when I was in elementary school is all but taking over a part of our old garden now.

  8. I hope you try some camellias. Here in New England, they are impossible to grow outdoors or in heated homes, but really, they thrive in a glassed in unheated porch, even if it freezes. I have a few friends who grow them very well in large containers that they winter over on a glassed in front porch ( hint: it's how many grew them in the old days!). They may not be hardy here, but they do make nice winter and spring specimens in containers. I have a large glassed in front porch that freezes, but doesn't drop much below 18 degrees F., so I will try a few next year.

  9. Anonymous2:00 PM

    Obconica 99 cents at Wegmans here---didn't sell I guess

  10. Anonymous9:47 PM

    This winter more than most made me want a greenhouse.


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