It’s been a mild winter…

…..on the Seacoast of New Hampshire. Lots of rain with temperatures that have fluctuated in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s during the day, and the 20’s and 30’s during the overnight for the most part. But this mild pattern is about to change. Last night we had mild overnight temperature of 33°. Tonight’s temperatures will drop into the mid-teens. Nighttime temperatures will stay there or much lower for the rest of the month. Sigh. Winter has arrived.

So this morning, I had a job to do. Out came the burlap to protect two of my woody plants, the mahonias, that I consider borderline plants in my less sheltered garden sites. Officially we are zone 6 in Exeter, but I always plant for hardiness zone 5b as I learned while working at Rolling Green Nursery here in NH.

mahonia NH 2019

It’s a lovely winter blooming plant and they are beginning to develop terminal blooms on several stems. With temperatures dropping to single digits tomorrow night, I needed to protect those new blooms that are oh-so tiny.

mahonia bloom January 2019

Those blooms will open to beautiful, lemon-yellow clusters in late February or March and look like this photo (below) taken in my January gardens in Virginia. As an early blooming plant, these fragrant blooms are well-known for helping to feed those first bees that are searching for nectar in the spring.

honeybee on mahonia

After pollination, the fruits develop the most divine grape-like clusters of powder blue berries. Unfortunately, they don’t stay on the plants long. My catbirds arrive from warmer climes and devour all before any other migrating bird has a chance!

mahonia berries in Virginia

Mahonia is closely related to the barberry, but the leaves are spiny and look more like a holly shrub. These slow-growing plants are planted in a shady mixed-shrub border that I am currently planning a big redesign. Not to worry… my mahonia shrubs stay just where they are as the jewels in the crown of this garden in New Hampshire.

Aucuba japonica in New Hampshire

In warmer states, folks might stifle a ‘ho-hum’ yawn if they see the Aucuba japonica leaf pictured here… but for me, seeing the plant in New Hampshire is a thrilling sight. First of all, it thrives in hardiness zone 7 or warmer. We are officially zone 5b. Secondly, it’s a sentimental reminder from my 7b home and no matter how common, it’s a favorite for me. Thirdly, there’s nothing more striking than this variegated ‘Aucuba Gold Dust’ variety in a floral arrangement.

In the proper zone, it is an evergreen shrub but a friend in New Hampshire who grows it in zone 6 says it dies to the ground each winter and rises like a phoenix each spring. She shared cuttings with me a year ago and once they were well-rooted, they were planted in our landscape last spring, now protected beneath sandwich boards for the winter. My fingers are crossed for these small shrubs’ survival.  Stay tuned…

In zone 7b, the plant is fairly slow-growing but tough and adaptable, able to thrive in a wide range of, but preferably moist, soils.  It does well in deep shade where this variegated variety flecked with gold shines like a beacon from the shadows.


Propagation by cuttings is almost foolproof. This winter, my friend again shared leftover cuttings from a floral design workshop I organize for our garden club. Success in rooting was almost guaranteed with short roots sprouting on the old wood along the stem nodes.

Aucuba Roots

Not only do I have success with stems, it’s easy to propagate plants from just the leaves. Once my little plants have developed enough roots, into a soil mix in clay pots they will go… and when they are ready, I’m sure there’ll be a home waiting for all of them. How can folks resist?

Aucuba Leaves

Scientific name: Aucuba japonica
Variety: Gold Dust,  v. variegata
Common names: Aucuba, Japanese Acuba, Japanese Laurel
Family: Garryaceae, cousins to the better known dogwood family (Cornaceae)
Plant type: shrub. Female plants will have red berries in the fall if a male is nearby.

I ❤ Clethra!

When I saw the scraggly thicket along the foundation wall of our new home, I clethramade a mental note that it needed to go. Summersweet (Clethra alnigolia), was planted in the wrong place. This native plant looks lovely along the edge of the property but as a foundation plant, it was a tangled, unruly mass that grew in all directions.  I planned to do the deed as soon as spring thaw arrived.

When March rolled around, I waded into the tangle with clippers and began to chop. After 30 minutes, I stepped out and was taken back at what I saw. I had tamed the thicket and liked the look. I decided to keep the clethra as a foundation plant.  Bare during the winter months, spring brought green serrated leaves, and two months into summer brought fragrant and spicy clusters of white racemes that stood upright in 6-inch candles.  Bees loved it. Hummingbirds loved it. Butterflies loved it. I love it…

The shrub does sucker and tries hard to grow into that thicket again. I simply don’t allow that. With a sharp bladed shovel, I chop through each sprout to keep the shrub tidy and I make sure I don’t over water as it seems to sucker more in wet soil. Late fall or early spring, I will prune out the dead and remove some of the oldest stems at ground level since the plant blooms on new growth.

Today I am enjoying another season of color from our clethra. Autumn brings bright yellow leaves that add some interest to the yard. Yes, I’ll be keeping my clethra.


A Walk in a New Hampshire Woods…

Lately temperatures have been unseasonably warm and snow has been slowly turning to mush.  This weekend, it seemed mild enough for family and dogs to have a little stretch of the legs. Instead of a powdery snow covered trail, we found a mess of slippery slush with muddy puddles along the path. I watched ahead as the dogs romped and slid through the wet snow and humans trod carefully watching where they planted their boots.

human and canine prints

I was curious to see what was growing in this zone 5b pine forest. Would I see many alien species?  Well, no, not really. At first I stepped over a familiar fern looking very much like it was out of the moist woods of Virginia. This could be one of the wood ferns although I’m not sure. I need a field guide for ferns!

Then, here, there and everywhere, covering rocks and fallen trees I saw the soft Cypress-Leaved Plait Moss (Hypnum cupressiforme), abundant to the woodlands of Virginia.

Cypress-Leaved Plait Moss

Where the snow had melted away, we spotted the tiny woodland creeper, Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens L.), the acid loving groundcover we find in Virginia.

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens L.)

Even the waterway at the end of the trail had a familiar look. The Oyster River could double for one of the rivers in Gloucester County, Virginia.

The Oyster River

The landscape that was so like Virginia had things we would never see in Tidewater… like moss and lichen-covered boulders rising out of the earth looking much like giant alien eggs!

And the beautiful bark of the white birch tree (Betula papyrifera), the state tree of New Hampshire shone like lights under the pine canopy.

And, of course, there were the white pines, one of my favorite trees in Virginia. But in New Hampshire they don’t look at all like the white pines I loved in Virginia. Here, the Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), thrives in this cool and humid climate of the Northeast. Growing straight and unbelievably tall, these trees were perfect as masts for sailing ship in colonial days. They were so perfect that in 1772, King George III passed a law that any white pines over 12″ in diameter were to be used as masts for the British naval ships… eventually leading to the Pine Tree Riot, the colonist retaliation against the king’s chosen representatives. It was a little like the Boston Tea Party being the outcome of the tea tax.

Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus)

I’ve got much to learn about gardening in zone 5 but I’ve got the rest of the winter to decide how to design my New England garden!