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In the Gardens Blog

The January Thaw

by Neal Sanders
Leaflet Contributor

It is a myth wrapped in hope, buttressed by observation, but ultimately nothing but serendipity. The January thaw came one morning last week and temperatures that day soared into the fifties. Coupled with an inch of rain, the blanket of snow on my lawn was temporarily reduced to a few stripes of white thrown by the snow blower.

As a naturalized citizen of New England I come to the January thaw as an observer and not necessarily as a true believer. I am well aware that for the past thirty days the temperatures have seldom crept above freezing. But I also still have the irrefutable evidence that I retrieved the newspapers that morning in nothing but a robe. So, indeed, because that day's Boston Globe bore a January date, it must have been the January thaw.

January thawI first heard of the January thaw when I lived in North Carolina after college. A co-worker who had grown up in Schenectady, New York, told me that when the Capital District enjoyed its one- or two-day January thaw, people drove around in their convertibles with the tops down, in tee shirts and bikinis. This happened despite the fact that temperatures would top out at around 40 degrees. I didn't believe him; it was too preposterous. But then, I didn't believe the tale of the L Street Brownies descending into Boston Harbor on New Year's Day, either.

The January thaw begins a three-month-long ritual of shifting plants. Last month, I wrote that the tropicals which summered on porches and patios came indoors for the winter to glean sunlight through south facing windows. A contingent of perennials and quasi-hardy plants made do in the garage where they jostled for the feeble light through a single window.

On the first morning of the January thaw, those plants rode on wheelbarrows outdoors for two days of January sun. They were encamped in rows on the driveway where the asphalt provided additional retained heat. That there was snow just a few feet away did not matter. The rain washed their leaves and provided their first moisture in weeks.

This year we are wintering over approximately twenty containers (another twenty-plus were cleaned and are stacked in the basement awaiting the 2010 gardening season). Some of those containers hold cultivars that are hardy to Zone 5, but the terra cotta cannot take the freeze-thaw cycle. A few are hardy in more southern climates and find the just-above-freezing temperatures in the garage acceptable. These days outdoors will help replicate the warm spells and lengthening days in their natural habitat, the better to ensure early blooms. There is a pot-bound hydrangea that already has swelling buds and a perennial snapdragon with a lone, bright red flower.

It takes about twenty minutes to wheel out the plants and set them up; another twenty or so to re-group them in the garage. Last year, a smaller number of containers made more than a dozen such excursions. Some were as short as a single day but in March and April, the outdoor respites stretched to three and four days.

If my math is correct, that means I'll spend eight or nine hours over the course of this winter running a plant shuttle. It's a modest price to pay for early greenery and to see old, reliable plants come back stronger each year.

Finally, as a side note, the accompanying photo of overwintering plants out for their January sun also shows our efforts to protect a Thuja occidentalis, or western cedar from the depredations of snow blowers. In November, we pounded metal fence posts into the ground around the Thuja, then placed burlap roughly five feet high between the fence posts, strung with wire. As of the end of January, the burlap is tight and the tree untouched. It is both decorative and effective.

Neal Sanders is a frequent contributor to the Leaflet. We encourage you to read his contributions to our In the Gardens Blog where he focuses on interesting cultivars that can found in the Elm Bank gardens. Neal's first novel, Murder Imperfect, has just been published. You can learn more about it here or order it through


The Indoor Jungle

by Neal Sanders
Leaflet Contributor

I write these words a few days before Christmas with a large, unruly bougainvillea brushing the top of my head. To my right are lush orchids and more bougainvillea. I’m not spending the holidays on some exotic Caribbean island, however. There’s a foot of snow outside and the temperature is in the low teens. This tropical jungle is in my own home.

From May to early October, the gardens around my home sport a profusion of containers and our porch and deck are awash in greenery and flowers. This year there were more than forty container gardens ranging in size from 14-inch pots to 30-gallon behemoths. In our screened porch, dozens of individual plants were arrayed on trays and benches. On our deck, more containers and heat-loving tropicals provided color into September.

But when overnight temperatures dipped into the 40s, the tender plants began migrating indoors. The tropicals were the first to make the move, followed by hardier succulents, cyclamen and herbs. As annuals succumbed to frost, the containers that bore them were washed and stowed in the basement. The property has been bare of containers since early November.

Indoors, though, is a Noah’s Ark of the plant kingdom. They crowd in front of every window, especially those with a southern exposure. I share my office with a rack of sun-thirsty plants plus two hanging bougainvillea. The aforementioned orchids are in the hallway where there is a triple window. There are half a dozen neomarica, better known as walking iris, that were cut from a mother plant in late summer. They will grow through the winter, and be given away in the spring. Down in the basement where a bank of ground-level windows allow in feeble sun, a magnificent papyrus – rescued from our water garden – stands four feet tall and brushes up against the ceiling. Nearly a dozen spathiphyllum, commonly called the peace lily, are scattered around the house. There seems to be one in every room.

It is out in the garage, though, that the extent of our plant asylum becomes apparent. Betty mixes perennials and annuals in containers, often with dramatic results. When she pulled apart those containers in October, many of the perennials showed well-developed root systems. She made the decision to winter over the best of the plants.

However, we do not have a greenhouse. What we have, instead, is a large, well-insulated garage that stays above freezing and has a large, southwest-facing window. There, up against the glass are huddled more than a dozen containers. There is an enormous, cattail-patterned concrete urn where a fern is going through its dormancy period. A white Italianate container holds a now-well-established trailing herichrysum petiolare, other known as a licorice plant, that has found its hibernal equilibrium. Various salvia, verbena, and gaura have been sharply trimmed back but are holding their own and seem poised to survive a New England winter.

Logic says we should consider our plants disposable; chuck them into the compost pile as we do hundreds of annuals. But logic isn’t the be-all and end-all of gardening. Strange as it may seem to some people, many of these plants are old friends. The bougainvillea over my head (which also sheds leaves onto my keyboard) is more than a decade old. I know it well. Come February it will bloom a pale purple, much to my delight. The bracts will linger into late April. I could no more imagine leaving it out on the porch to freeze than I could do such a thing to our family cat. (Then again, plants never have ‘accidents’ on Oriental rugs.)

Being sentimental about a plant is, in my view, a very good trait. They bring us pleasure and prod our senses. They invoke memory. Sharing a window with a bougainvillea is a small price to pay for the reminder that spring will come again.

Neal Sanders is a frequent contributor to the Leaflet. We encourage you to read his contributions to our In the Gardens Blog where he focuses on interesting cultivars that can found in the Elm Bank gardens. Neal's first novel, Murder Imperfect, has just been published. You can learn more about it here or order it through

Liatris, a staple of New England gardens

Liatris in Weezie's GardenThere’s a plant with spikes of eye-catching purple flowers near the front entry of Weezie’s Garden this month. It’s Liatris, a staple of New England gardens, and it deserves a closer look not only because it’s a handsome addition to any perennial bed, but because of the way it blooms.

Pick almost any other plant in the world and it flowers by putting up a head, panticle or spike. The flowers then appear from the bottom up, with the oldest ones dying and dropping off as the bloom cycle progresses. Liatris is one of a handful of perennials that bloom from the top down, a trait shared with certain species of Solidago (goldenrod), but not much else. (If you don’t think it’s true, go out into your garden and check it out for yourself.) Botanists attribute the unusual flowering habit to the quest for pollinating insects. Tall spikes aren’t unusual in the floral world (the Salvia family is rife with them), but what if you’re a late bloomer? You need something to make you stand out. Blooming from the top down gives you visibility and, hence, a special niche.

Achillea millefolium 'Tutti Frutti' Series

If you are of a certain age, the phrase ‘tutti-frutti’ means either a dish of ice cream with eye-catching little pieces of different fruit mixed in; or a wild song from the dawn of rock and roll featuring a frenetic performer named Little Richard.  If you’re not of that age, the phrase it likely just a meaningless piece of alliteration.

In the Trial Garden this summer, there’s a new reason to get acquainted with Tutti Frutti.  It’s the name of a series of Achillea millefolium introduced by Blooms of Bressingham and two of that series, ‘Apricot Delight’ and ‘Pomegranate’ can be found ensconced in containers.  They’re worth seeking out to admire this year, and to find for your own garden next year.

Salvia 'Sensation'

Salvia SensationThere are more than 900 species of Salvia, according to that fountain of shared knowledge, Wikipedia, and so creating one that stands out above the rest is something of a horticultural feat. Amazingly, there is a container full of notable Salvias in the Trial Garden. They're worth seeking out because you may want to plant them in your garden next year.

Everyone has a patch of Salvia in their garden and, if they don't, they should. It's a sturdy perennial that flowers reliably all summer long in New England. Most species are blue to blue-purple and, if there's a knock on the genus, it's that Salvias don't know when to stop growing. "Compact" or "mounding" are not words generally used in the same sentence with Salvia. They get tall and then taller and, once a spike (yes, that's the right term) is spent, it makes the bed look neglected. Controlling a rangy plant is unwelcome work.

Astute gardeners may already be familiar with 'Sensation Rose', which first appeared in 2007. 'Sensation Rose' was the product of seven years of work by Florensis, the European breeder. It delighted the market because of its compact habit (12" high, 12" wide") and long bloom period (May to August). For those keeping score, anything that grows just a foot high and spreads to a foot wide can fairly be described as 'mounding'.