SOME OF the crocuses have leaves an inch high, and if we had a few days of mild weather the intense orange-yellow ones by the shed would be in bloom (Crocus ancyrensis) and so would the soft lilac-colored varieties of C. seiberii.
But of course there is no point dreaming about spring. If I may say so, the worst thing about the (generally marvelous) climate of Washington is that January does not have enough thaw in it to inspire many flowers.
Indoors I am pleased with an amaryllis, 'Apple Blossom,' blooming well. It is best to take the bulbs (and their great floppy leaves that should be put up with until the whole plant can go outdoors in May) out of the pot in warm weather and plant them in the garden.
There they may be encouraged to grow as robustly as possible until the end of September, when they are dug up with dirt on the roots.
They are not watered any more, after September, and the leaves are usually good and dry by the end of October. The clump is fitted into a large pot, and the whole dry mass of dirt, bulb and withered leaves is left alone until after Christmas.
When you see signs of flower stalks starting up from the dead-looking bulbs early in January, you bring the pot into the light, give it a thorough watering, set it in a sunny window and let it bloom -- then keep the watering up until May, when it goes outdoors again.
My bulbs are about 5 years old. Last summer I left them in the pots, though it is very much better to plant them out as if they were a tomato -- that is, in sun and with plenty of water.
Even cramped in the pot, without the holiday of an open root run for the summer, they are blooming well. These amaryllises are well worth the slight bother they entail.
I look ruefully at the lily pool this time of year. Ice is 6 inches deep on it. After the trees finished shedding leaves in December. I raked out all I could from the pool, and hope all will be well.
The trouble, of course, is that leaves begin to rot and ferment and make gas beneath the ice, especially when the weather warms up a bit, and this can kill fishes.
Not quite trusting the bamboo rake to have got all the leaves out, I make holes in the ice if it goes on without a thaw for more than a few days.
I cannot believe it is good for a fish to endure the shock waves of somebody smashing ice with a sledge, so I make holes by setting a pan of boiling water on the ice. It takes about four repetitions -- four pans of boiling water, one after the other, to melt through 6 inches. You leave the boiling water in the pan, and let the hot metal of the pan's bottom do the work.
In theory this allows any gases from snowy day, when I do this, I do sometimes wonder if it is not a little like shooting off the cannon to dispel plague.
Once the hole is made, you can cover it with boards and sacks of leaves, and not have to keep making new holes every week.
During this numbing exercise recently, I reflected on all those gardeners who acknowledge the magic of aquatic life as I do, but who have no sunny spot for a lily pool. Almost all flowering plants require at least some sun, and water lilies should have full sun, free of overhanging tree branches, high walls and other terrible things that make shade.
The most vigorous water lilies will stand a good bit of shade, though they bloom better in full sun, but if they do not get at least four hours of sun on their leaves they will not bloom well, not even the kinds that endure most shade (such as 'Yellow Pigmy, the red 'James Brydon' and 'Gloriosa,' the yellow 'Chromatella' and the violet 'August Koch').
If I had a shady garden, I would still have as large a lily pool as I could manage, even if there was not sun for water lilies.
The spatterdocks (Nuphars) resemble especially vigorous water lilies, except their flowers are nothing much to see.
But a clump of them in the pool would be better than nothing, and their dark green foliage is at least as handsome as that of a water lily.
Also the water hyacinth endures shade, and sometimes even flowers fairly well in places too shady for true water lilies.
If the worse came to worst, I would settle for a half-barrel filled to within 6 inches of the top with rich heavy soil (clay loam such as you find directly under the grass of a pasture) with a handful of 10-10-10 chemical fertilizer worked in and maybe a double handful of bone meal. In this I would plant a water hyacinth and fill the tub up with water.
The inflated stems of the water hyacinth -- usually like small balloons -- would narrow once the roots of the plant reached the rich earth. When grown as a floating plant, without dirt for the roots to dig into, the water hyacinth maintains its balloon stems so that it floats about, but if it can root in rich mud it has no need to float.
The foliage of this plant, regardless of the thickness of its stems, is deep glossy leathery green, very handsome to see. All you do is keep the 6 inches of water over the mud, by adding a little from a watering can wneh it seems necessary.
The effect is certainly a nice change from pots of impatiens, which is what you usually see in shady gardens.
You would not plant the water hyacinth until late May, and you would have to bring in a root or two to live in a bowl of water in the house during cool weather from October to May.
Another possibility in shady and small town gardens is simply a saucer several feet in diameter, shallow enough for a birdbath, with nothing in it but water. Even water two inches deep reflects nicely in a shady garden, and birds would certainly appreciate it. It would have to be swept out and refilled every other day, but in a very small shady garden that might be a welcome enough chore.
Green and white caladiums in a tub, or in pots, or an assortment of house plants could be stood in their pots in back of the saucer.
One way or another the gardener should provide for the ornamental effects of water, no matter how small the garden.
Even a mere birdbath or a very small pool will justify the gardener spending a good many hours sitting around doing nothing much.
I have been told that dragonflies are valuable predators against certain bugs that bother water lilies. In 45 years I have never seen a bug on a water lily, but then I have always had dragonflies. Nothing in the animal world is so fearsome looking as the nymphs of dragonflies which are totally aquatic until they turn into dragonflies and fly off on a summer day. Their immature form, while they are still aquatic, suggests a water-dragon, and they can move with great speed. They do not bother large fish, but can kill goldfishes up to two inches in length.
Short of draining the pool, I know of no way to capture the nymphs. I have never noticed any missing goldfishes, and besides I am a tremendous admirer of dragonflies and would not feel right about killing them. So it is good to hear they eat injurious insects. Even if you don't have any injurious insects.
It will not be too long (April) before we start hearing frogs and toads. That is a fine thing to think about in January.
Assuming there will be a thaw, eventually, it is worth the gardener's while to peer into his pool or half-barrel in winter, to admire the totally clear water and observe the first leaves of his water lilies, which are always to be seen by mid-March and sometimes earlier than that. It is difficult to see much through a hole in the ice, I do not mind saying, and it strikes me we have had about enough of it for one year.