Must be spring. My friend Phinney of Fairfax reported his first snowdrop on Jan. 19.
But for those who are still stuck in winter, there is reason for rejoicing in the broadleaf evergreens so common from the Middle Atlantic states south.
Now you see how priceless the common ivy is, and the common red cedar. Few things are more dazzling than a clump of nandinas with their huge clusters of red berries. In shady spots their leaves are a bronzy green but in full sun their leaves are now brilliant red.
Photinias are rich deep glossy green and already in sheltered places they are putting forth their tufts of salmon-red lustrous new leaves at the tips of their branches. Decades ago I admired a huge old photinia bush behind a mass of the old daffodil 'Mary Copeland.'
A visit to Williamsburg, Va., the past week was greatly enlivened by Jeff, a spanielesque fellow who braved his electric fence and sent us into the plashy lush places on either side of a stream to fetch him home. Jeff loves that territory, partly because it is full of squirrels and deer. You can hardly take a step without encountering a seedling holly, along with occasional young magnolias.
At Great Falls recently, while walking a terrier, I was surprised to see a clump of the polypody fern right on the towpath; it must have been planted, as I never saw it before. There are plenty of polypodies off the beaten track, some of them holding on for dear life at the side of great rocks.
In really damp bottom land, especially farther south and along the lower Mississippi valley you see these elegant tough ferns adorning tree branches, and in the Carolina low country you see the same fern in abundance on old brick walls. It is, however, difficult to establish in gardens; I have tried it more than once without success, though the nursery-raised plants were full of vigor when I got them.
One of the tricky and challenging operations of winter is forcing tulips. There were some splendid ones ('Apricot Beauty') in Williamsburg raised by William Maner, who pots them up in October, keeps them cold and brings them to a cool window greenhouse after Christmas.
The trick is to plant them early. September is better than October if you can get the bulbs that early and if you can keep them cold. An icebox does well, though sometimes it is thought by some that pots of tulips take up too much space. It is important to keep the pots cool, 50 degrees or so, after they are brought indoors, and that is not easy to do in modern houses. It's amazing, really, that success often rewards the gardener who has not been able to give the pots ideal treatment.
Occasionally gardeners want to plant the earliest crocus of the year. My own experience, limited to a dozen or so kinds, is that Crocus sieberi usually blooms with me by the last week of January. My fine clump was disturbed when I planted one of those Meserve hollies and I am not sure where the bulbs were replanted. I have tried other crocuses supposed to be earlier but with me they have been later. The one called 'Violet Queen' I found to be reliable, settling down comfortably for years.
The wild C. tomasinianus and its varieties like more sun with me than the books suggest. I had the idea they would grow up under an oak amid azaleas and they died out in a few years. The famous planting of them often illustrated (in Col. Stearn's limestone garden in England, if memory serves) is in full sun, and I have seen them seeding about in Washington in gardens quite sunny, but I never see that in woodsy sites.
In lily pools here you want to keep a bit of the surface (two feet square does well) ice-free in February and March. Ideally there is a small heater in an open floating box. If that is not feasible, it's a good idea to melt the ice (a pan of boiling water set on the ice will do the job eventually, but it's a royal pain) before it gets thick. Then siphon out some of the water so the layer of ice is separated from the level of the pool water by a couple of inches of air. Then over the hole throw a mat in bitter freezing weather.
The point is to allow gases in the pool (formed by decaying matter) to escape. Fish go through winters here quite well unless gases under the ice kill them in March. It should be insisted that if a heater is used, the kind that goes on only when the water temperature approaches 32 degrees, the wiring should be absolutely weatherproof.