February ABODE: Nurture bulbs, nurture the gardener


Most deciduous trees and shrubs remain dormant during these short, low-angled days, their tight buds still furled over sleeping embryos. Yet mild temperatures teased out coral quince and pale yellow winter jasmine just after Christmas. As the little bulbs lead us into spring we can be grateful for the early flowers of a benevolent winter. One of my favorite snowdrop displays, hundreds among dark green liriope off a city street near Rugby Road, was in full bloom at the end of December.

Snowdrops (Galanthus) are the iconic bulb of late winter. Emerald leaves pierce the rime with pure white bells tinged pale green like painted porcelain. They prefer a bit of shade and moisture, in contrast to Narcissus (daffodils), especially the jonquilla types, which love to bake in summer. Like narcissus and tulips, you can plant them in fall, but snowdrops have the reputation of spreading into colonies better when transplanted green from small blooming clumps instead of individual bulbs. See if you can beg some from established plantings. They are said to have an affinity for beeches.

Daffodils can also be moved in spring, but with them it’s best to wait until later after they’ve flowered and their foliage is turning yellow. Pop them out and transplant right away (leave the leaves to rot) with one good soak to settle air pockets. This moist season will be ideal for moving bulbs around while you can see what you’re doing.

If you have wood ashes, continue spreading them (always thoroughly cooled; we let ours sit in a metal tub on gravel for at least a week) as a soil sweetener for vegetables like peas and spinach as well as boxwood, lilac and peony. Brent Heath, whose family has been growing bulbs down in Gloucester for generations, recommends a once per season application of wood ashes to help neutralize acidic soils. Aim for a pH between 6.5 and 7, but give acid-lovers like azaleas, dogwoods and hollies a wide berth.

February in the garden

  • Move the little bulbs around.
  • Use wood ashes for sweet soils.
  • Read any good books?

Even in mild weather, what is February for if not delving into ancient garden tomes? Gardeners’ roots need amendment, too, and the dark days can be a good time to re-energize through other gardeners’ eyes, experiences and enthusiasms. I came across the bit about snowdrops poring through Genius in the Garden, a 1992 study of Richmond-based landscape architect Charles Gillette. He designed Greenwood’s Casa Maria and numerous private estates in his heyday during the Country Place era of the 1920s and ’30s, of which local counties abound with examples. This is the epitome of staid Virginia brick, boxwood and ivy, but as the snowdrops show, who knows what else you’ll glean when you rake over the past?

More currently, I’ve put my feet up this winter with Seeing Trees (2011), by local author Nancy Ross Hugo and local photographer Robert Llewellyn; it’s a collection of essays and photographs that renders 10 trees: nine natives plus the Ginkgo. Sheer love of their subject vibrates off the pages and opens the eyes of the most inveterate tree hugger. Embrace it.—Cathy Clary

Cathy Clary is a gardening teacher and consultant; she tends ornamental beds and a kitchen and cutting garden at home in a hollow south of Charlottesville. Read more about her at hollowgarden.com, and e-mail her with questions at garden@c-ville.com.