Month: March 2011

The Rigors of Spring Begin

I have mixed feelings about spring, even this year as we emerge from a La Nina winter. We had two bouts of snow here, one in November and another in February. There was a lot of wind and rain in the first part of March, so it’s good to see longer days (a few of them sunny) and temperatures of more than 10 degrees C. (50 F).

But I still find spring to be a challenge. For several months the garden has been quiescent, with last year’s memories preserved in pictures and vague intentions for the future. But with the coming of spring, it wakes up and makes demands. Or, to be accurate, plants in the garden emerge from dormancy and begin to grow. Seeing this, the gardener begins to make lists of Things To Do: prune roses and hollies, cut down old Epimedium foliage, edge all beds, seed tomatoes (indoors, of course), dig vegetable patch, and (as Henry Mitchell would say), zub zub zub.

In spring, the garden stops being theoretical and becomes actual.

Things that haven’t worked out can no longer be ignored. Six potted Meconopsis have sprouted out. The seventh has not, so must be dead, a possibility confirmed by judicious prodding around the crown of the plant. The hebes, which actually had a few blooms in January,now look dead, no doubt as a result of the snow and cold in February. A large portion of the front garden is a mess — full of unwanted grass and renegade Campanulas.  It adjoins the Bad Neighborhood and is starting to resemble it. Something must be done, and soon.

That’s the thing — certain garden tasks are best done now rather than later (which so often translates to “never”). If the invading grasses are ignored, they will gain a few more yards and the weeding job will only get bigger. The soil will dry out, making it harder to extract the weeds, and the job will end up being done in warm weather instead of these cool, damp days which facilitate weeding. Or so I tell myself on the way to the shed to get the hand fork and dandelion tool.

Spring is like getting up after a long night’s sleep. You are rested and want to get going, but it’s still an effort to flap back the blankets, put your feet on the floor and head for the bathroom. It’s so easy to go back to sleep for another hour and dream about roses in bloom and a mist of blue poppies in summer shade. Those things won’t happen unless you, the gardener, overcomes inertia and participates in their making. So get out of that chair, put those boots on, get out and dig!



The Agony of Pruning

It’s pruning time in my garden.  Late winter is an appropriate time to prune many trees and shrubs, but the reason I prune in March is because of “Compost Day.” Once a year, the municipality picks up garden debris piled on the boulevard by residents. Just once. The rest of the year we have to dispose of this stuff ourselves. Hauling long, sometimes prickly branches to the municipal yard is not easy, unless you have a pickup truck or utility trailer, which I don’t. Even then it’s not a fun trip, for a variety of reasons. So I make the most of the Compost Day pickup. In the past few weeks I have performed selective amputation on a climbing rose (‘New Dawn’, I suspect), a tall photinia and an Oregon grape.

I find pruning to be the most difficult of garden operations, in part because it is irrevocable. Cutting pieces off a shrub I want to have in my garden, growing and prospering, seems counter-intuitive. Obviously, I don’t want to kill or damage it. Pruning is supposed to be beneficial, resulting in improved appearance or better flowering, but the immediate result is slanted stubs where there used to be bushy limbs. The sad truth is that many gardeners don’t dream of pruning until the little shrub from the two-gallon pot turns into a hulking monster blocking access to the front door, and Something Must Be Done.

Before I commence a pruning operations, I ritually consult a book that was recommended as simplifying the whole business and making it crystal clear — Pruning : a practical guide by Peter McHoy (Abbeville Press, 1993). It has no doubt been superseded in the nearly two decades that have passed, but by now I am convinced that you can’t really learn to prune by reading about it, so I haven’t bothered to seek out any other books on the subject. Still, as a psychological aid, I dutifully consult Mr. McHoy before I get out the secateurs and saw.

McHoy describes nine different pruning techniques, each one appropriate for a specific group of plants. His book also has an A-Z section (by Latin name) in which you can see which of the nine is recommended for the plant you wish to prune. One of the simplest is trimming the outer growth of a shrub, achieving a bun-like or lollipop shape. This is the only technique many people use, which explains all the gardens you see full of shrubs that all look more or less alike, even though they are of different species. Another easy technique is cutting back to the ground or at least to a framework of old stumps — a no-brainer, as they say. Just cut off all the stems, every one of them, making sure you slant your cuts.

Lollipop photinia

The problem arises when you have to be selective, as in Technique 5, cutting out one stem in three. This is recommended for a surprising number of species. So — first you count the stems. If there are nine, you have to decide which three you are going to remove. Ideally, it should be the oldest and weakest, but at the same time you are trying to achieve a balanced shape, so if the old stems are all on one side of the plant, they can’t all be removed. On the other hand, I don’t want to cut this one because it will leave a big gap over here. Well, maybe this little guy; it looks kind of weak, but…

You get the picture. Once cut, a stem can’t be put back, so you have to visualize what the plant will look like before you make your amputations. I have circled a shrub many times, secateurs in hand, dithering over this stem or that stem and working myself up to a state of high anxiety before I snip. If pruning is painful for the plant, the gardener suffers right along with it.

Another thing that makes pruning difficult is the fact that the best foliage is usually found on the ends of stems and branches, because this is where the newest, freshest growth is. It feels wrong to cut this off, leaving a stub of older wood. And yet roses, to give an example, are rejuvenated by cutting them down to stumps. In spring they put out all sorts of bushy new growth and all is well. But at pruning time, all you can see is that you are about to remove what looks like perfectly healthy growth.

I suppose this is yet another reason why gardening is a craft that takes a long time to learn.

I can’t say that I have actually harmed a shrub by pruning it. Most likely I have achieved less than spectacular results by choosing not to prune, or by doing so too timidly. That’s hard to believe, though, when you look at the pile of stuff I have waiting to be hauled away on Compost Day. All this from a 50 x 120 foot lot! And more to come through the rest of the year.

The Results of Pruning

The Garden’s Bad Neighborhood

I suspect most gardens have at least one area that might be described as a bad neighborhood. Mine looks something like this:

"Bad Neighborhood"

Under a rather lopsided ceanothus bush is a convention of thug plants, most notably a relentlessly pushy periwinkle (Vinca minor) and a sneaky grass that I have no hope of identifying.  The former is a self-inflicted pest; I suspect the latter invaded from my neighbor’s lawn. A few other tough characters have swaggered into the mix — suckers (or possibly seedlings) from a handsome and vigorous Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) I planted years ago, and a gang of less vicious but still formidable specimens of seedy plants such as toadflax (Linaria purpurea) and peach-leaf bellflower (Campanula persicifolia).  Rooting around in this danger zone,frantically ripping out periwinkle, I came upon several corpses — the stump of a fancy French lavender that perished in a hard winter some years ago, and remains of long-dead valerians (Centranthus ruber) whose descendants still bloom at the same time as the ceanothus, presenting a nice (if naive) contrast of powder blue and deep pink.  There were also a few clumps of irises (purple-blue ones, I recall from the last time I saw them bloom), looking somewhat  anemic and possibly grateful to be rescued from the mob.

"Urban Renewal" site

I’ve been eying this area nervously for years (easy to do since it’s close to the front door of my house) and thinking that Something Must Be Done — just not now. Well, this spring it’s time for urban renewal. In the process of digging out a superfluous clump of Oregon grape last weekend, I realized that despite its problems, this spot is not infested with a mat of tree roots. In my garden, that’s prime real estate.

My first idea was simply to reduce the periwinkle and remove as much as I could of the invading grass, although experience tells me that fight will end in a standoff rather than a victory. Then I would improve the soil and plant some bulbs for spring and fall — crocus, Chionodoxa, colchicums — stuff like that. I would keep a watch on the periwinkle and its thuggy pals, and life would be beautiful.

Then I got a bit more ambitious. The ceanothus has blue flowers. I love blue flowers. Why not make this a little enclave of blues? Rip out all the periwinkle and replace it with plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) and add a few clumps of the blue poppy (Meconopsis) of which I have about half a dozen growing in pots. And Chionodoxa, which blooms a heavenly blue in early spring.

OK, we’re talking about a spot that measures maybe three feet by four, angled between a big ceanothus and and even bigger Oregon grape. Probably not the best site for the fussy Meconopsis, a prima donna type plant if ever there was one, especially with that evil grass still lurking under the surface. Yes, but if I dig it over carefully, sifting out the grass roots, and add some prime compost…

Some say that the best gardening is done in the mind.

An E-book Review Blog

Indie authors take note! Editors Bill and Davilynn Furlow have started the Great Books Under $5 blog to bring notable e-books to the attention of the reading public. They have posted reviews for seven books since February, in a number of genres: mystery, thriller, historical and even a “quirky allegory.”

When Mark Coker of brought the Furlows’ blog to the attention of the Smashwords community, suggestions for books to review flooded in — more than 60 to date. The reviewers are diligently reading their way through these books and posting reviews (positive ones only!) every couple of weeks.

Readers and writers — check out this blog, subscribe and comment!  It’s good to see that someone is paying attention.

The Non-Submissive Submissions Race

Irony strikes again!  Just a couple of weeks after I wrote a screed about the words “submit” and “submission” as they pertain to writers, I’ve joined a group of writers from one of my critique groups in a Submissions Race for the month of March.  The idea is to haul out any idle manuscripts, whip them into shape, find potential markets for them and send them out — in other words, to do a whole bunch of submissions.  Points are assigned for each one and at the end of the month there will be a prize for the most “submissive” writer, and another prize later on for the one who harvests the most rejections.

It’s actually a good idea — gets those of us who have abandoned the practice of sending out our writings back into that mode. And because a group of us is doing this, we’re not alone. Competition, conviviality and commiseration should make the process easier.

My intention is to send out at least one short story and one novel.  Have I actually started? No. But it’s only March 6. There are 25 more days to line up my offerings and launch them into the world.

Also, this is Read an E-Book Week at  My e-book, The Friendship of Mortals, is available for FREE until March 12.