Roses and geraniums bloomed downtown until Jan. 4, thanks to a mild fall.
Gardeners do not pay much attention to weather stuff in the media because their notion of weather is quite different from ours. A gardener cares little for ordinary weather -- it is a given of the gardening life. But gardeners care a good bit about unusual weather, which can make a great difference.
I think weather bureaus care about accumulated units of cold, say, which makes no difference to the gardener who cares instead about 32 degrees. One year the basil turned black from cold the end of September; another year the geraniums were still blooming outdoors after New Year's, yet the two falls were not particularly remarkable to the weather people.
In January I cannot get excited about a drop to 5 degrees above zero. It is the expected thing, even if some years it never gets that cold. But I would get very upset if it dropped to 15 below zero, a temperature that would kill a number of things not harmed at 5 degrees.
As usual, many spring flowers have appeared off and on this past fall. Fruit trees, azaleas, rhododendrons, forsythia, are the usual early birds, and although they cast forth a few flowers every year in cold weather it often surprises new gardeners. No harm, and nothing to do about it.
Another thing that alarms gardeners is the emergence of daffodil leaves in December. They will not bloom until March, and gardeners are certain they will be frozen stiff before then. So they will. And if the gardener has sense enough to do nothing, they will be all right. The worst thing is to put plastic over them with the idea of protecting them. No. Just leave them strictly alone and they will be all right.
The same thing is true in March. Sometimes we have sharp freezes when daffodils are in bloom. The stems go down on the ground and the new gardener assumes the flowers are done for. Not at all. They will rise to their natural height the next day. They will take several freezes and recover. In an exceptional year they may indeed be damaged and never straighten up again, but that happens only once in, say, 15 years or so. When it does happen, you simply reflect that life can have disappointments.
Far more dangerous, and more frequent, is damage to the flowers from heat. Nothing will undo the damage of 90-degree temperatures in early April, and we have such heat occasionally. Again, you simply hope for better weather next year.
There is no reason I can see, from the weather statistics, that gardenias should not do well here, but the truth is they do not. It is folly to plant them. And this is so even though they flourish in some places that have lower minimum temperatures than Washington.
Apart from the realities of weather, gardeners get things in their heads. There was a time that it was generally believed Kurume azaleas would not take our winters. Now, as everybody knows, the city is almost solidly blanketed with them. Nothing has changed except that gardeners no longer believe the Kurumes will not grow here.
Another odd notion prevalent among gardeners is that the Carolina jasmine is not hardy here. The truth is it is hardy in places colder than the capital, but it is one of those vines that often make very slow progress in youth. As a young plant it suffers more from cold than as a huge established specimen against a wall. (It has a bad, if delightful, habit of blooming out of season in November and December, sometimes so freely as to damage the main April display).
The way to handle it is to plant the youngster in April, give it a light mulch of manure and plenty of water. Once it starts growing well, give it more manure and more water until July 4. Then hold off on the manure, but keep the watering up until the last week in August. Treated thus, the vine will reach six feet by fall, from a foot-high infant of April. The first winter give it some evergreen branches to break the icy blast of winter, removing them in late March or early April. Once this vine is well established and thick against a tree or wall, it will take below-zero temperatures without damage.
Another belief is that figs cannot be grown well here. I assumed the variety 'Celeste' was the hardiest to cold. Farther south and west it is often considered hardier than other figs, and likely to produce great crops when others do not. But I now believe 'Brown Turkey' is hardier than 'Celeste,' in the bottom-line sense that the gardener is more likely to get good crops of fruit from it than from others.
A plum that fruits well here is the prune variety 'Stanley.' Mine, however, does not fruit worth speaking of, simply because it is in too protected a spot. Every year it starts blooming in January, and I trot out to admire the flowers, but I no longer expect more than five plums in summer. Another fault (mine, not the plum's) is that a certain amount of fertilizer is given to a couple of roses near it (the fine alba rose 'Celeste' and the less distinguished rose, 'Will Scarlett,' both of them shrubs) and the daffodils beneath it. The plum wants to grow too much, and I keep trimming it back. What you want is quite moderate growth, what is called "hard" growth, as the plum abhors heavy pruning, and the lush soft growth that follows pruning is not at all what you want for fruiting wood.
Perhaps I should add the plum is also handicapped (but surely it does not mind?) by the exuberant growth of a clematis (the splendid variety 'Perle d'or') and the somewhat wicked growth of a grape, 'Verdelet,' that sprawls over its branches all summer. I was never cut out to be an orchard-type guy.