It's human nature, or at least a gardener's nature (which is not quite the same thing) to want to live at least one and preferably two climatic zones warmer than where he gardens.
Thus in Washington the gardener wishes he could grow the flora of New Orleans or at least Savannah. Such a gardener is forever trying to find hardy oleanders and Confederate jasmines.
In Boston, on the other hand, they are not even thinking about oleanders or gardenias, but as someone recently wrote me from there, "What I would give if we were warm enough for evergreen hollies."
There are gardeners in the far upper Midwest whose dreams are simply to be able to grow the rambler rose 'American Pillar.'
I spent a little time on a paradise island once, where the air was full of butterflies big as saucers and the trees were hung with glossy vines laden with scarlet waxy flowers. It was there that I woke up one morning with a scorpion sitting on my chest. I had an excellent view of him until he stung, at which time I rose up with greater speed than usual and this has colored my view of tropical paradises ever since. (The pain was no greater than that of a wasp sting, but an egg-size lump swelled immediately over my sternum, subsiding in 45 minutes and I had no aftereffects beyond new insights into the folly of envying those of warm climates.)
As Eudora Welty once wrote in her fiction (a country schoolteacher's exhortation to her pupils as a tornado approached), "We're in the best place right here."
That could be the wise gardener's motto. Wherever one gardens is the best place right here.
A few weeks ago, determined to grow some common larkspurs like everybody else in town, but keenly aware how often I have failed with them, I set out 10 small seedling larkspurs, hoping they will gain strength over the winter and burst into growth and flower in May.
But one annoying thing about this Zone 7 region is that if you plant out your "hardy annuals" in the fall, you can count on freezing rain that simply tears the young plants to pieces over winter. Or, even worse, the ground freezes several inches deep, then thaws at the surface, trapping water above the frozen subsurface, and that water freezes and thaws again. That happened one year to my sweet peas, which looked great at Thanksgiving but not a one survived to spring.
So you say you'll wait till spring. The year you do that, everybody else has those annuals in full bloom about the time your seeds are sprouting.
Theoretically, and in reality, we are wonderfully situated, where we can grow evergreen magnolias and crape myrtles but also can grow peonies and the best daffodils. We are at a meeting point of the flora of the North and the South. Which means some years it is too cold for the crape myrtles and other years it's too warm for the daffodils and peonies.
But the Boston writer is correct in implying we are lucky indeed with our hollies. It is never too cold or too hot for them here. They grow to perfection. Which is why, I guess, hardly anybody pays the slightest attention to them.
I am glad to see our native Ilex opaca, our common holly, less despised than formerly. There was a time all brisk gardeners lusted after the English and Chinese hollies with their shellacked leaves. They disparaged the less shiny leaves of our common holly. But now that obsession has run its course, and our native holly is available in at least 100 varieties, probably 300.
We can still grow other hollies well, such as Ii. aquifolium, pernyi, latifolia, cornuta, and some others, but our native holly is no longer thought of as merely a poor relation of the European and Asian hollies. Bravo.
A particularly good holly for small gardens here is 'Foster No. 2,' which is said to be a hybrid between the common holly and another native, Ilex cassine.
I do not see the yaupon, Ilex vomitoria, in Washington, but there is no reason a gardener should not try this handsome small-leaf red-berried holly that bears clipping so well. And although one deciduous holly, I. verticillata, is occasionally grown, I never see an even showier one, I. decidua, which so brightens the lowlands off the Lower Mississippi -- I have seen remarkably beautiful stands of it in lowland Arkansas.
Although I have planted hollies this time of year, that is foolish. Losses may be expected, and the three hollies I once planted at Christmas took three years to get going again. They may be planted in April or, surprisingly, in July or September, when they will need some attention to watering.
The common holly, the common ivy, the common yew and the common juniper (or redcedar as we commonly call it) are treasures, and like most of our greatest blessings we treat them like dandelions, rarely making any of them a feature of the garden.