Hiking through the Winter Woods

After wet, heavy snowfalls this fall, I thought for sure we were on our way to more polar vortices and deep snowfalls like last winter. Click to enlarge all photos.

There’s never 100% certainty, but because a strong El Nino did not materialized, the Climate Prediction Center of the NOAA now predicts a 40% chance the Northeast will have above average winter temperatures. We still may have our share of memorable snowstorms because those can only be predicted one or two weeks before. Fingers crossed…

This weekend the temperatures in Exeter hovered in the 40’s….great Virginia-like weather for a holiday hike with family. Blue skies. Abundant sun. Mild temps. Light breeze.

farmWe hiked over private land to the Phillips Exeter Academy woods and numerous trails that run along the Exeter River and beyond. With hardly a ripple in the water, we were treated to some spectacular reflections of the sky and trees…. only broken up by the activity of 20 or more mallards happily enjoying the mild weather.

Winter is the time to notice the bark on trees and we stopped several times to witness activity and interests along the trails. Click to enlarge.

Finally, with abundance of wet weather, the tiny natives along the trail were gloriously happy and green on the woodland floor when little else was green except tall evergreen trees.

Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens) with its bright red berries grows slowly and will form a thick mat when conditions are right. I am careful not to disturb it.

Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens)Princess Pine (Lycopodium obscurum) is a club moss that looks much like a tiny pine… whose 100′ tall ancestors existed almost 400 million years ago before flowering plants populated the earth.  They reproduce by rhizomes and spores. Often used for Christmas decorations, many states now protect this delicate native plant.

Princess Pine (Lycopodium obscurum)

Gardening with Conifers

Winter officially arrived yesterday at 6:03 p.m.  The contrast between December 22, 2013, and today is remarkable.  On this date in 2013, we had a few feet of snow on the ground and 5 – 6′ icicles  hanging from the roof…. and it only got worse for weeks and weeks… ending with ice dams on the roof and a few dead or damaged shrubs. Folks tell me last year was not a normal year. We shouldn’t have a repeat this year.

So far, so good. We’ve had enough snowfall to have the driveway cleared, followed by some warming and freezing this fall. The forecast for Christmas is 50° and rain. That suits me fine, but after that, I’ll begin to miss the white stuff. Even though the natives say last year was a fluke,  I’m not taking any chances after losing some new plants to the weather.

I asked for advice, I studied other gardens, I formed my vision, I made a plan, and I decided to install a mixed conifer border that will provide interest and give us screening for a cozy backyard retreat. I looked for plants that would survive in zone 4. Conifers bring diversity in color, shape, and texture for every season. The greens are welcome in the spring before perennials and leaves of trees emerge. Summer’s colors in the perennial garden look even more dramatic against the evergreen backdrop. Autumn colors abound in trees and shrubs but it’s pleasing to see contrasting green foliage. However, conifers own the winter season. Cold arrives early in the Northeast. Bare branches, brown grass, barren and bleak landscapes need conifers. Add a bit of snow along the green boughs and, voila! Magic!

Plus, I’m all about the birds in our compact habitat. They have taken to these new woodies as I knew they would. On brisk or snowy days, I can see them seeking shelter inside the branches and dining on the berries. Here’s the short list of what I chose:

  • 6′ Ilex x meserveae ‘Blue Maid’: the hardiest of these hybrid blue hollies, fast growing, bright red berries, can reach 10′-12′ but will prune to about 8′. Her ‘Blue Prince’ grows nearby for pollination.
  • 5′ Juniperus chinensis ‘Hetz Columnaris’: sharp needle-like green foliage and full of  bluish-green berries for the birds.
  • Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Kosteri’: a semi-dwarf falsecypress known for its twisty olive green foliage and dense texture; this 2.5′ species will slowly reach 4′.
  • Ilex glabra ‘Shamrock’: several of these evergreen native hollies are scattered in the border; I will keep these inkberries at about 4′.
  • Buxus sinica ‘Tide Hill‘: I moved my 3 miniature Korean boxwood to this border after the snowplow mounded 5′ of packed snow on them, crushing the centers. They have recouped for two seasons in a temporary nursery until recently. Full size: 15″ high by 3’ wide.
  • Taxus x media ‘Densiformis’: this popular yew is thick and lush and easy to maintain.

Click on photos to enlarge:

Some perennials and ornamental grasses grow in the spaces between the young plants but this landscape will be developed in stages. More decisions will be made after the neighborhood association removes the mature white pines later this winter. I’ll then know how much sunshine my cozy backyard will receive.