LANSING, New York—This is the time of year when we have our most trying winter weather. Last year we had scarcely any snow during the four winter months; it was all being saved up for March.
That reminds me of a few lessons on plants and weather that I learned this past year, specifically, that the USDA plant hardiness map means very little. Of course, many people, including me, have been saying this all along, but it was really brought home to me when I visited two Zone 4 gardens, one in Vermont and the other in Denver. In both, helianthemums, sages, glauciums, and santolinas were all thriving; here in Zone 5, these plants survive the winter with such bad grace that they must be severely pruned and tenderly wheedled into facing another season. Often they simply die. Delphiniums and verbascums, too, far from reliable here, grow stout and strong in Denver. And there were many more surprises. It might be a good idea for those of us who go about giving garden lectures to find out first what is going on horticulturally in the areas we’re about to visit. In addition to average temperatures, the altitude, humidity (or lack of it), soil, light, and snow cover all affect which plants can be grown there.
I’m poring over the gift packets of seed I’ve brought back from my travels. Some of them are exciting: poppies and sages, agastache, acanthus, and penstemons. Surely, gardeners are the most generous of all people! I’ve got to scrub the seed flats right away and set up the heating coils. How do nongardeners, who don’t have seeds to plant, get through February and March, I wonder? They miss out on the beginning of the yearly drama. I have about forty envelopes of seeds in the fridge, not so many as in other years but enough to keep me busy along with my big garden. After all, I don’t have a corps of knowledgeable and willing workers at my command. I recall a photograph of the garden staff of the English horticultural expert Ellen Willmott, all lined up in rows, all in uniform, all looking very submissive. Oh, what it must have been like to be Miss Willmott!
I’d like to report on a plant that many of you may know already but which I grew for the first time last summer—false baby’s-breath (Galium aristatum). I think it would make a great addition to any herb garden. I first read about it in Pamela Harper’s wonderful book, Designing with Perennials, and finally found it on a nursery list. It is a kind of wispy, bushy, floppy plant with slender whorled leaves and clouds of tiny white flowers that make a fine frothy effect over a period of many weeks. I don’t think it’s going to gallop all over the garden like its relative sweet woodruff (G. odoratum), but I’ll give you a follow-up report this summer. Presumably, it won’t be as undependable here as gypsophila and will be almost as pretty with lavender and roses.