By LORRAINE BARNETT
Special to The Gazette
Every spring, just before April comes alive, I watch â€œThe Secret Garden.â€ Oddly, Iâ€™ve never read the book, but having viewed the movie many times, I must say the visual appeal intrigues me. Each year I can see something new in that secret garden. The misty air that fills hundreds of rose petals. The old cracked columns that still manage to make friends with flowering vines. Baby animals frolicking through the gardenâ€™s foliage. The scenes never fail to inspire me to create in the garden. But even in the real world, I think April is the most delightful month of the year, watching how, each day, the earth thaws and new buds come alive. To me, thereâ€™s no better time to plan a secret garden, one plant at a time.
Secret white flowers
Long ago, I received a perennial bush as a gift, the first plant for my secret garden. It was precious because my mother bought it especially for me for my first garden. I could hold it my arms, and it had little white flowers on it.
â€œWhatâ€™s her name?â€ I asked. There was no tag in the gallon pot. I sniffed at the flowers, and they had a warm, lemony scent with a hint of vanilla. I could not recall the name of the flowers, but they seemed familiar.
â€œItâ€™s a flowering bush,â€ she said. â€œItâ€™s perennial so it will come back each year. Wait and see. Now, put the kettle on so we can have some tea.â€
I imagined having tea in the garden, with a round table covered in layers of floral cloth, a teapot and cups, with plants growing here and about, small and tall. A cozy little secret garden. It was April, and the grass was green. The next morning the unnamed little potted plant beckoned me into the garden. She wanted to be planted. But the fact remained; there was no real garden yet. Just acres of green grass.
But I did have a vision, and now I had a flowering, though leafless plant. As I looked closer into the dense twigs, I saw a tag hidden beneath her gray wood. It said â€œStar Magnolia.â€ She did have a name! From then on I called her Maggie.
Year by year, Maggie grew larger and my secret garden grew around her. Stone walls were created, a little fish pond was added and daylilies grew beside old sandstone steps leading up to a garden gate. Each new plant was given a special name. And though I once held Maggie in my arms, she grew to 8 feet, then beyond. I finally recognized why the small, early-blooming bush was familiar â€” a friend had a 20-foot tree with the same white flowers. Maggie was a large ornamental flowering shrub, a small tree, really, and she became the star of my secret garden, the first plant to open her blooms in April.
All-star season beauty
What a beauty! If you want your garden to begin blooming early, the star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) is a must. Each season, the star magnolia has some fascinating characteristics. In April, multiple branches already hold lots of flower buds covered with fuzzy fur coats, reminiscent of pussy willows. Branches are mostly smooth, with silvery gray or light brown bark. Leaves have not grown yet, and petals will first emerge from inside each bud, appearing rolled up and ready to unfurl into snow white, pale pink or purple petals.
Day by day, more blooms will open, each holding 12 to 30 petals (depending on variety) and lasting for several days. As you look closer, each petal is a work of art. Some petals change hues as they mature, and some varieties have green or pinkish veins running through their petals. After a couple weeks the petals will carpet the earth. Soon tender foliage emerges in a blend of purple, green and bronze colors that gradually deepen to dark green. Oblong leaves grow 3 to 4 inches long and half as wide. Foliage continues to mature to an attractive thick and leathery green as the season works its way into the summer.
Later in the summer, bumpy green fruit pods may develop. Some pods, now reddish and 2 to 3 inches long, will drop to the ground and others will hold onto the branches. The ones remaining on the shrub will open to reveal shiny, bright orange seeds during the autumn.
As the cold snap arrives, foliage may warm to golden yellow, bronze or pale green, eventually falling from the deciduous shrub. The cycle then begins anew as tiny fuzzy buds begin to grow throughout the autumn, winter and into spring.
The star magnolia, generally considered a medium-growth shrub, may grow a foot or more each year. It is considered dense and may spread to 15 feet wide and stand 15 to 20 feet tall. The plant can be grown from seed or propagated by early summer cuttings. It is a low-maintenance shrub or small tree. Insects are not generally a problem, but magnolia scale is more common and can be treated with advice from your local state Extension service or garden professional.
Where to plant: According to the Arbor Day Foundation, the star magnolia is an ornamental flowering shrub or tree that will grow in Zones 4 to 8, though some gardeners grow them in Zone 9, farther south. Most gardeners agree a star magnolia planted in Ohioâ€™s Zone 5 should be planted in a sunny spot.
Can it be placed in a sheltered nook? The conflict is that the early buds need to stay closed in frosty northern conditions to protect tender flowers, thus keeping the magnolia in a cold space helps to retard early blooms. Other gardeners believe a sheltered place away from wind and cold does bring buds into bloom sooner, but blooms also may stay protected from frosty nights.
Shelter or not, the star magnolia enjoys soil that stays evenly moist but also drains well, so roots do not soak in water. Soil should be deep with organic matter, leaf mold and slightly acidic but the star magnolia can also tolerate a bit of clay soil. Mulching in the fall is beneficial. A sunny spot with morning sunshine is ideal.
Companion plants: Plant a Magnolia stellata with companion plants for beauty plus continuous blooms. Some ideas are:
o Spring bulbs such as tulips, daffodils and hyacinths;
o Green, leafy perennials like hostas, ajuga or creeping phlox. Flowering shrubs like hydrangeas, rhododendrons and azaleas;
o For continuous springtime blooms try ornamental trees like saucer magnolias, crab apples and weeping cherries;
o Unique perennials such as lambâ€™s ears, silver mound Artemisia or ladyâ€™s mantle add interest;
o Ground covers used as underplantings such as ivies, periwinkle or pachysandra;
o Try colorful ground-hugging annuals such as impatiens, calendula and pansies.
Pruning: The star magnolia is fairly carefree and does not need pruning. However, shaping the shrub gives symmetry and reduces the density of the plant.
As some shrubs can potentially grow into small trees, it is beneficial to prune them while young to achieve a tree-type structure.
Pruning bottom branches also can allow under planting. Pruning should be done after blooms fade, sometime in spring, but before summer to reduce the risk of cutting next yearâ€™s buds.
Magnolia stellata cultivars (Magnoliaceae family):
o M. stellata â€œCentennialâ€ has big white flowers that have a pink tinge. The pyramidal specimen has potential to grow 25 feet.
o M. stellata â€œRoseaâ€ grows pale pinkish-white blooms and grows up to 15 feet.
o M. stellata â€œRoyal Starâ€ has double soft pink blooms that pale to white. Grows to 10 feet.
o M. stellata â€œRubraâ€ begins blooming with purplish buds that develop into pink flowers. Leaves are pale green. Grows to 20 feet.
o M. stellata â€œWaterlilyâ€ grows pink buds and blooms with lots of petals. Grows to 15 feet.
Barnett is a greenthumb gardener from Westfield Center.