March: Anticipation and Ugly Truth

March can be cruel. After some 18 weeks of crummy weather, March should be full speed ahead with pretty flowers and springy greens. Often, especially in the last few years, March has instead presented us with late-season frosts, often snow. It is a back and forth between hope and despair. This time around, March has had mercy. But the weird thing is that I am noticing all kinds of crazy damage to plants that would otherwise look pretty darned good right now. I can't figure out why. We had a very mild winter, a little snow, a few freezes but nothing extreme. All I can guess is that last summer's Heat Dome is beginning to show signs of its impact on what seemed to be unaffected plants. So that's the ugly truth part. First up, though, here are a few shots of the garden that feed my soul.

Erica carnea 'Rosalie' is beginning its rather long bloom cycle. It is well visited by both bumble and honey bees. Other plants in the berm garden are looking fine, too - relatively unchanged year round.

A sweet pulmonaria seedling brings the first blues of the year into the garden. When I see this, I am so grateful. These are so easy and rewarding.

Another of the first to bloom is Pachyfragma macrophyllum. This just really does its own thing and asks nothing of me. It seeds about locally and has a nearly evergreen presence in the garden.

Veratrum nigrum's presence in early spring really makes it real for me. It is usually done by the time August rolls around (going dormant) but its fresh green pushing out of the soil makes me happy.

Our native trout lily, Erythronium revolutum, poking its head above the sea of compost and leaves. It's amazing to me that plants can do that - I mean, the amount of compost I put down and somehow they find their way through. Hopefully these will spread to form a colony in the woodland area.

A heuchera of which I am quite fond, Heuchera americana 'Green Spice' lights up shady areas in the woodland garden. Right about now it's putting on a lot of fresh new growth, although it does persist year round but the leaves get a little tattered. I love the new foliage.

Azara microphylla, a small, evergreen tree that is currently in flower perfuming the air with chocolate scent. It smells like someone is baking brownies. The flowers are so small, however, you have to stand close to even realize they are there. It's a beautiful multi-stemmed tree and when the sun reflects off of its shiny little leaves it simply sparkles.

The ribes are finally blooming! This is Ribes sanguineum 'White Icicle' - still rather small, but a fabulous multi-stemmed deciduous native shrub. 

The arctos are nearly all in bloom, this is Arctostaphylos 'Saint Helena' with its gorgeous leaves and flowers.

 Holboellia coriacea, sausage vine, is winding its way up a redbud tree. I am thrilled it has taken off and hope it reaches a size akin to the one in the garden at Joy Creek Nursery. Gardening vertically, that is adding vines to the garden, has been an exercise in patience. Most of the vines I have are planted at the base of a tree to climb upwards, but there is generally speaking root competition and slow growth. Most vines are finally settled and have found their footing so are growing appropriately and will add that special element to the garden.

Salix eleagnos var. angustifolia flowers and leaves emerging.

When backlit, the leaves catching the light in late winter/early spring make the whole labyrinth garden feel fresh once again. It is one of the first signs of new life in this part of the garden.

The saxifrages are also growing rapidly.

A second ribes, this is our straight native species Ribes sanguineum. Just opened up in the last two days and will certainly be visited by hummingbirds in the coming weeks. 

Lonicera nitida 'Briloni' and its fun new growth along the stem. This has been a steady and easy small evergreen shrub in my shade garden and adds a little bit of chartreuse.

Here is a selection of plants that are currently suffering. All of these have been champions pretty much year-round for the last several years - only now, after a mild winter, are they showing signs of stress and possibly decline. This is Ceanothus 'Diamond Heights' that up until two weeks ago was gorgeous. 

This breaks my heart! Oscar the agave has some serious damage. It looks like frozen/water damage, but what the hell? It's been fine in the ground for several years with no issues at all. What can I do? I originally planted him facing sideways to aid in drainage, but he has "righted" himself over the years and is now upright. Suggestions are welcome.

My once evergreen Atriplex halimus, saltbush, should have silver foliage. Its foliage completely browned about two months ago after a mild snow, which is again quite odd as it has seen record cold temps and snow and ice many times with no impact. We did prune it back as we do every year and the cambium is still green so it will in all likelihood be fine. But what the hell?

The same is true for my Grevillea x gaudichaudii. It has survived deep freezes, almost two feet of snow, ice, winds, you name it with little impact. It does usually look a little tattered by winter's end and grows out of it but it has never looked this crispy. Again, green cambium means that I hold out hope.

The Phormium tenax 'Rubra' does get a little ratty by winter's end but this year the majority of it has folded over. I suppose it's more of a case of getting quite large. I will wait to see what to do as the spring progresses.

In addition to these, there is a Phlomis lanata that completely turned dead overnight (its foliage, but it too has green cambium), a few cistus, a dierama and several others that have suffered from what I can only imagine is environmental stress. The winter was mild as I stated earlier. We had gradual frosts and ultimately snow twice which was less than a few inches. There have been no major wind storms or other unusual weather - just last summer's Heat Dome. I will continue to monitor the garden closely and observe changes and patterns. I am not overly worried for I think once it warms up many of these will rebound and regrow foliage. I am concerned for future weather extremes, but I can't save everything, so we just roll with the punches and enjoy those first signs of spring. 

There it is, my hope and despair all wrapped up into March. I think I'll hold on to hope and keep going. That's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens, as always, thank you so much for reading and commenting, we love hearing what you are all up to! Happy gardening from our home to yours.


  1. My climate is very different but when I see seemingly inexplicable declines by plants after they appeared to have managed the worst nature could throw at them, I've wondered if it's the plant version of PTSD - one kick too many. Hopefully, most if not all of yours will come through given time. As to Ceanothus 'Diamond Heights', I think it should be sold with an expiration date - sudden death seems to be its hallmark.

    1. PTSD for plants is an excellent description. Maybe we'll just never know for sure but there certainly have been more than a few "kicks" these past few years with temperature extremes.

      I am hopeful they will all pull through. But you too with the Cenaothus 'Diamond Heights' ?? Oh no! Well, I shall hold out hope for a little while more.

    2. Dii Mazuz11:45 AM PDT

      All but my most protected Diamond Heights died back more or less completely after the late February freeze. They might've grown back but I moved on and cut them out.

    3. Aaah, you too, Dii? Well...if this one wants to live, I'll certainly give it a chance. Otherwise I'll move on too!

  2. Not Oscar!!! Well, if it's any consolation I'm hearing of (and seeing) similar issues on other agaves here in Portland and the larger PNW. We did have a very wet start to winter, followed by cold at the end of December and then lots of grey cool days. Sean was talking about grey fog that hung over Sauvie Island for what felt like weeks and it's effect on things. As for the Grevillea x gaudichaudii mine all look similar, although there are bits of green leaves here and there. The thing is, mine usually look like this come spring. Eventually the brown leaves fall off (or I cut them off) and new growth takes over. Gardening is a wild ride isn't it?

    1. Yes, Oscar. I was hoping you'd see that and offer advice. It looks as if I'm not alone.

      The weather conditions you list make sense, maybe it was just too much. I notice that "rot" is coming from the spikes and moving downward from there in many cases. I don't know if I should remove it or let it be....

      Anyhow, good to know about your Grevillea too. Wild ride indeed! I hope yours rebounds nicely soon.

    2. If you can stand to look at it, and if the center is still solid, I would leave it and see if it doesn't start to grow out of it over the summer. I had one years ago right out front that looked horrid after a bad winter. I couldn't stand the sight of it, so I dug it up and put it in a container and eventually it recovered.

    3. I will leave it, a good portion of it looks good. Maybe a container is a better idea....I'll wait and see. It's just so odd - the damage seems to be coming from the point where the spikes emerge. Thanks for your comments and suggestions, Loree. I appreciate your experience and expertise greatly.

  3. "...all kinds of crazy damage... I can't figure out why." I'm thinking the same thing. A recent stop at the Bellevue Botanical Garden, I visited a most favorite variegated Daphniphyllum, a towering magnificent giant, which now has sever leaf damage after a seemingly mild winter?
    Happily, Spring growth keeps pushing on and I'm easily distracted. I've just planted Azara microphylla. No flowers this year (yet?), but I'm very excited about this small tree. Your photo of the growing saxifrages flanked by mossy goodness make me forget about leaf damage anywhere else.

    1. Oh, man...sounds like it's more widespread than I realized.

      Glad you like the saxifrage photo, I love little details like that. Also, may your Azara m. grow quickly and beautifully!!

  4. Dii Mazuz11:52 AM PDT

    I also had a lot of mystery damage, including on perfectly hardy plants that are not borderline in our climate. I saw the worst damage after the late cold spell in February. I initially attributed that to plants getting a false start growing during the warm week earlier in the month. But that theory felt thin, since it wasn't just new growth that got hit. I didn't think about the heat dome weakening things as a factor, since most of the stuff that died back did not have any visible damage from the heat dome by the end of summer. But that theory certainly checks out more than any of mine, since there really wasn't much of anything exceptional about this winter.

    1. Exactly, Dii! Plants that usually have no issues with cold are suffering. I think the impact of heat dome could take longer to manifest in visible damage - like our large, mature trees and drought...sometimes it takes years to see it and all of a sudden the tree is dying.

      Well, let's both monitor our gardens and report back at the end of summer. Thanks for commenting, I value your observations. Cheers!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Aren't those Heuchera lovely? Yes, plant more plant more! I bet they look smashing with your mahonia. I can picture it in my mind's eye. Aaaahhh....

      Thanks for sharing,
      Cheers to you as well!

  6. My Phormium tenax 'rubrum' is in a similar condition. It and P. 'Pink Stripe' both got seriously scorched in the heat dome. I removed most of the damage last year but the new spears still look lackluster and damaged. Your suggestion that yours might be getting too old is intriguing as mine are about 10 years old. I may end up removing them both, but what a job!


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