Glistening silvery in the cold morning light, the first spikes of the new century's first pussywillows glow against the gray clouds. The last week of below-freezing weather has not touched them. Too bad we can't say the same for the more tender members of our plant families.
Our crocus and early emerging Bergen blooms have been burnt away for this year. The fat leaves on the rhubarb and the French Sorrel are withered and black, and the thyme that looked as if it had weathered the winter in fine shape has paid the price for my overconfidence. I should have heeded the words of caution whispered by my spouse, but the feeling of spring was upon me.
We uncovered a good portion of the perennials that were buried in chips; they looked like it was going to be an early spring. We excitedly compared this year's easily-lifted layers with the thick coats of ice that held these beds solidly frozen well into the third week of April last year. Oh, if I had only waited one more week.
I can't turn back the clock, or replace those lost leaves, but I can take heart that all these early spring teasers are among the hardiest plants in my collection. Even though a slight setback has occured, they will quickly recover, and the second layer of leaves and flowerbuds will quickly cover up the damage.
The pussywillow is not the only tough cookie in the jar. Our whole spectrum of ornamentals is determined by each member's hardiness, and any plant that can't take spring freezes will be edited out of the perennials collections. That doesn't mean that we won't have them, but we know that they may vanish and we won't count on them to be the backbone of our landscapes.
My early sprouting monkshoods were thick and dark green. They have become spotted with frost damaged areas. This first sprout will probably wither away, but another will soon emerge and by the time it is Monkshood time, we will never know the difference. The spotted leaves of the "Boy-Girl" plant are faded memories, but they will resprout and when the proper time is upon us, they will bless us with the abundant sprays of pink turning to blue blossoms that their name foretells.
These softer species, the ones we call herbaceous perennials, are only one class of flowering plants. They serve as a seasonally changing compliment to the woody shrubs and trees that form the skeleton of most landscapes. The perennials are the flesh, sweet and malleable, that we notice first. The bones are less obvious, but they create the spaces and shapes of the garden rooms. They are the ones that really count when we worry about freeze damages, and the ones we use are among the toughest in the world. This last little cold flash was no problem to them.
We began digging out buried roses this week and I am so pleased. The last couple of years we have been working to increase our spectrum of hardy shrub and climber types, and the test varieties have done remarkably well. We are now able to have rose, pink and red climbers, and fragrant low-growing shrubby types that will provide cutting style blooms each season. Some of them were already coming into leaf during the warmth of the early spring, and the cold knocked the green leaves for a loss. The faded leaves hang from the buds like burst balloons, but from lower buds on the same branches come new growth. The leaves and buds will quickly sprout and grow, and by the time it is rose blossom time, we will be greeted by fragrant, lovely blooms.
Rhododendrons, dwarf blue spruce, lilacs, flame maples, fragrant currants, snowballs, dogwoods, beauty bushes, gooseberries, apples, crabapples and potentilla are all happy; they haven't felt any impact from the slight cooling trend of the last few days. Weeping Japanese maples, azaleas, Norway maples, mountain ash, chokecherries, American cranberries, lignonberries and hundreds of other choice plants are just fine. They like it here and they like it just like this, just like we do.
This is not like the long, deep cold of a few years ago when it froze eight feet deep and all the primroses died. It's just a little cold snap, nothing to worry about. It's going to be a great gardening year, just like they all are. Remember, we do this for fun, it's not rocket science. People have been gardening since the dawn of history. If they could do it, we can do it. Happy gardening.
David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to www.landscapealaska.com.