pruning

pink watering can

Managing

Compost in progress, last fall's leaves

Nearing the bottom of Bin #2

One of the big garden jobs that actually got done in May was Compost Management. This means: 1) Shovelling out the remaining bit of finished compost from Bin #1 (the smaller one). 2) Building a new heap from all the accumulated stuff in Bin #2 — cut down perennial stalks from last summer, last fall’s leaves, old stalks cut down in fall and spring cleanup, and fresh material from recent tidying jobs. All this is layered and arranged in Bin #1, new material on the bottom, old on top, dampened down, and allowed to mellow until next spring. 3) Meanwhile, new stuff will be deposited into Bin #2, where it will pile up through the rest of the summer, the coming fall, until next spring. Whereupon the job will be repeated.

Compost heap flipped and moved

Bin #1 full, #2 splendidly empty

What happened to the former contents of Bin #1, i.e., last year’s compost? Most of it was distributed around the garden this spring with supplements mixed in to make a “feeding mulch.” Some was used to make soil for potting up tomato plants in May. The last wheelbarrow full is sitting in a neat pile near the shed, until needed for mulching or mixing.

Lost tool found in compost heapAt the weary end of forking and shovelling the half-baked brown stuff (mostly leaves and fern fronds), I discovered a tool I’d been missing — a three-pronged cultivator with a wooden handle. I must have inadvertently dumped it into the heap along with a bucketful of garden debris. It doesn’t show much damage from its year in the heap, only a bit of rust. Painting the handle red might be a good idea to avoid reburial.

Watering anxiety and rain envy begin now. Our very dry May hasn’t had visible effects on plants here, but it has affected the gardener. I’m apprehensive about the next two or three (maybe four) months. If the trends of the past few years continue, we may see almost no rain until late September. Water from the end of a hose is a poor substitute for rain, which has the great advantages of even distribution and no cost.

Ceanothus, California lilac in bloomFor the past month, whenever I exit the front door of my house I’ve been getting a visual treat from the ceanothus or California lilac, its branches almost solid with puffs of tiny flowers of a magical blue. They’re really popular with all kinds of bees.

California poppy rosy pink colourYears ago, I bought a packet of California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) seeds. They were called “Thai Silks” and featured colours  other than the standard bright orange. I recall one plant, long gone now (they’re annuals or short-lived perennials) with double lemon yellow flowers. Even now, some of the unusual colours persist — cream, cream with pink or red flushes, different shades of pink, and extra-dark orange. It’s a surprise every year to see what colours show up.

California poppy red and yellowI don’t know about other gardens, but here plants fall into three categories — those that struggle and eventually die, those that grow ferociously and try to take over, and some that prosper in a quiet, reliable way. Guess which one is predominant. Well, to be fair, the pushy plants attract more attention so it seems there are more of them. But they do need to be managed, i.e., pruned, restrained, or dug up.

The next Big Garden Jobs on the agenda involve pruning. That lovely ceanothus has a habit of growing sideways, which means it ends up overhanging walkways and getting too friendly with people who use them. And the Oregon grape you can see behind the ceanothus is frighteningly vigorous. I wrestle with it every year, trying to keep it shorter than 12 feet and digging up suckers. It’s almost too late, though; I should have tackled it right after it finished blooming in April. Well, there’s always next year…

Allium christophii blooms and Phlomis foliage

Allium christophii and Phlomis fruticosa foliage

When I’m not deadheading, edge-clipping, checking on recently-planted things that might be getting overwhelmed by the incumbents, or lugging cans of water around, I do stop to admire plants that are performing as expected.

Ornamental grass Stipa tenuissima, Penstemon blooms and Lambs' ear stalk

Ornamental grass Stipa tenuissima, Penstemon glaber flowers, a lambs’ ear bloom stalk, and a few remaining forget-me-nots.

 

Clematis "Pink Fantasy" in bloom

Clematis “Pink Fantasy”

 

 

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Lily-flowered magnolia "Susan" in April 2014

The Rites (and Wrongs) of Spring

Spring has settled in and I’ve done the usual things associated with the season: edging the perennial beds, distributing enriched compost, cutting the grass, seeding tomatoes (indoors), cutting down old dead stuff, and, of course, pruning. Pruning is always a challenge, often involving ladders, rose thorns, and holly prickles. Then there’s disposal of the trimmed off stuff — more thorns and prickles.

But now all that’s done, and the deadheading and watering phase hasn’t started. The garden is looking pretty good (except for certain spots to a discerning eye). Time to list the good and the less-than-good (i.e. bad) things I’ve noticed so far.

The Bad

  • poppy pagoda to protect blue poppies from winter rainAll except one of the blue poppies (Meconopsis) perished over the winter, despite (or maybe because of) being transplanted to deluxe quarters in half-barrels last autumn. Even the specially built roofs on legs, intended to protect them from winter rain, didn’t do the trick. I think my mistake was the pea gravel mulch, which kept the soil too moist through the winter. The sole survivor looks a bit feeble, but I’m letting myself hope it will survive. Local nurseries don’t as yet have any plants in stock, but I plan to give this fussy species another try.
  • The reliable-as-furniture ferns (Dryopteris species and others) haven’t unfurled their fiddleheads yet. Usually by mid-April they are well under way. They’re alive but dawdling. Why? The past winter wasn’t that harsh. Could it be because I cut down last year’s fronds too early, before the last hard frosts?
  • A potted delphinium has, like the blue poppies, succumbed to root or crown rot, probably because I didn’t repot it into fresh, uncompacted soil last year. Delphiniums need that near-mythical combination of “moist but well-drained” soil. If they’re grown in pots, the gardener needs to keep in mind that the soil becomes dense and less well-drained over two or three years. The next winter administers the kiss of death. Goodbye, delphinium.
  • A couple of tulips appear to have “tulip fire,” a disease caused by the fungus Botrytis tulipae. They will have to be dug up and disposed of. This problem is new to me. Those particular tulips have occupied their spots for years — which, I understand, is the problem. The longer they remain undisturbed, the more susceptible they are. If I decide to replace them, the new bulbs will have to be planted in different locations.

The Good

  • The winter massacre of crocuses (most likely by rats) wasn’t as bad as I thought. Some areas escaped completely.
  • A potted hosta I thought was a goner after it was dug and dumped by some creature (probably a raccoon) has sprouted out nicely.
  • The pretty blue* bindweed relative, Convolvulus sabatius, has survived the winter well, unlike other years when it didn’t show above ground until June. I also have hopes that Gaura lindheimeri made it. I still don’t know why this plant, supposedly hardy to Zone 5 or 6, has a habit of dying here in Zone 8. My soil is sandy and well-drained, which is supposedly what it needs.
  • Daylily “Hyperion,” which I dug up and divided in February because it seemed to be in decline due to pushy maple roots, appears to be doing well, both in its old spot (from which I removed a lot of roots) and the two new ones.
  • Clematis armandii foliage and flowers in holly bush

    Clematis armandii and holly

    I managed to prune both Clematis armandii and the holly that supports it without inflicting major unintended damage to the clematis. It tends to grow in loops and figure eights, so if pruning is needed (best done as its blooming period ends), you can’t just snip anywhere. My rule is never to make a cut unless I can see the end of the thing being cut. There’s nothing worse than seeing a whole section of the plant wilting a few days later because of a blind cut.

  • After a dry March, we’ve had an abundance of rain in April. The real test, of course, will be June, July, and August. At least one of these months will be rainless. If it’s two consecutive months, there will be groaning and gnashing of teeth by this gardener.
  • The pink magnolia is blooming heartily. So are forget-me-nots and bluebells. And gentians, which are intensely blue.*
  • The apple tree and lilac have obvious plans to bloom soon. In general, the garden looks fine.
Back garden spring 2018 birthday birdbath

Part of the back garden, featuring the birdbath that was this year’s birthday present. A few birds have actually used it for bathing purposes.

April 6, 2016

Gentiana acaulis

* Like many gardeners, I have a thing for blue flowering plants, many of which are hard to grow (blue poppies and delphiniums, for instance). One type of gentian (Gentiana acaulis) seems to do fairly well here, and forget-me-nots are practically a weed. For them I am grateful.

Miniature daffodil, variety unknown.

Garden Restart: Mixing, Mulching, and Moving

Transitioning from the somnolence of winter to the sometimes frantic activities of spring in the garden can be painful. For a few weeks, I kept finding reasons to stay inside, hunched over my electronic devices. Too cold, too windy; oh hey, now it’s raining! I’m staying in.

Feeding mulch ingredients in wheelbarrow with spade near compost heap. Alfalfa pellets, soy meal, lime, steer manure, compost.

Compost, steer manure, and alfalfa pellets under soy meal and lime, waiting to be mixed up.

Two weeks ago, I shook off the excuses, made a Things To Do In The Garden list, and got going. I visited my local feed, seed, and garden supplies store and bought a bunch of stuff. I cut down old plant stalks, removed some plants entirely, and moved others to better spots. Having been somewhat negligent about soil improvement the last few years, I scattered 6-8-6 fertilizer around. Then I wheeled out the wheelbarrow, grabbed a spade, and mixed up some feeding mulch.

Feeding mulch and trowel.

Feeding mulch ready to use.

Feeding mulch, otherwise known as “top dressing,” is something I discovered in Further Along the Garden Path, a book by Pacific Northwest gardener and writer Ann Lovejoy. You mix up a bunch of mostly organic plant nutrient materials and apply them to your beds and borders. The basic ones are alfalfa pellets, aged manure, and compost. Extras include dolomite lime, bone meal, kelp meal, and soy meal.

The compost I made last year turned out exceptionally well — nicely rotted down, black and crumbly. To half a wheelbarrow of this, I added half a bag of steer manure, an ice cream pail of alfalfa pellets, another of soy meal, and half a small coffee can of lime. This year I didn’t have bone or kelp meal, but I’m hoping it won’t matter.

Feeding mulch in wheelbarrow with spade and trowel.Mixing up the stuff is sort of like combining the dry ingredients for muffins, on a grand scale. I use a spade, turning the mixture into the centre, rearranging and turning again until it looks uniform. Then I deposit about 2 cm (1 inch) uniformly over the soil of each bed. The idea is to sprinkle it evenly, avoiding damage to plants. Sometimes I have to flap a hand gently through foliage to shake the stuff down. Five wheelbarrow loads pretty much did the trick. I’m self-congratulating that I managed to get this task done early this year, before most plants have made much growth. There’s nothing like damaging delicate new growth by dumping mulch on it. Oh, the irony.

Another must-do-it-now thing is pruning, largely because of “Compost Day,” which is the one day per year when the municipality picks up fallen and pruned branches, twigs and other garden debris. This year it’s March 20th on my street, so any ambitious pruning has to be done before then. I already have the usual huge brush pile, but will add to it once I psych myself up, don a suit of armour (actually an old yellow rain jacket), and cut out the deadwood from a massive old climbing rose that’s grown into a maple tree and neighbouring hollies. Yes, rose thorns and holly prickles. Oh joy.

I’ve already pruned the magnolia, the photinia and another climbing rose, a plant of “New Dawn” that graces a rather shaky pergola in the back garden. And I’ve lived to write about it, despite racing up and down ladders and wrestling thorny rose canes. Not to mention dealing with the terrible finality of pruning — once you cut something, you can’t put it back. My rule: if in doubt, cut less rather than more.

Toadflax (Linaria purpurea) foliage turning colour in fall.

Linaria purpurea plant last fall, now dispatched (by me).

Speaking of terrible finalities, I actually made myself yank out three magnificent specimens of toadflax, Linaria purpurea, one of my favourite near-weeds. They looked great all last summer and into fall, when the foliage turned an interesting pinkish shade. They were all set to do it again this year, but alas, they had planted themselves in a spot I’d never intended for them, where they threatened to hulk over a couple of groundcovers. So, out they came. I hate killing healthy plants, even if there are way too many of them; part of me still regrets the deed.

Surviving purple crocus, dead fern foliage.

Crocuses protected by dead fern foliage.

On the plus side, quite a few crocuses have survived this winter’s massacre, although some of the survivors have been nibbled by deer. At least deer nibbling doesn’t kill the plant outright. Having their corms dug up and eaten by some pesky rodent does. Crocuses growing under other plants have been overlooked by both diggers and deer.

OK, I’ve checked off a whole bunch of items on my TTD list, and I’ve re-engaged with the garden. The weather is improving (but let’s hope the rain doesn’t stop altogether; we need those April showers). These days, I’m finding reasons to stay outside rather than in.

Corsican hellebore and variegated vinca, green and yellow with pale purple flowers

Corsican hellebore and variegated periwinkle with swollen alfalfa pellets visible in the feeding mulch.

 

pole pruner closeup by shed door

Tool Review: Pole Pruner

I’ve been doing a lot of pruning around the place lately, and had a substantial brush pile for pickup on our recent Compost Day.

IMG_2298

Most of the pruning and trimming was done either with feet on ground or from an 8-foot-tall stepladder. Not, unfortunately, one of those elegant three-legged numbers used by professionals, but an orange fiberglass and aluminum one intended for the handy homeowner. In most places it worked well, and is just light enough that I can lug it around and position it properly.

October 12, 2009 027

My cutting tools — secateurs, loppers and scimitar-shaped pruning saw — also worked as expected. Near the end of the job, I tackled a relatively small but (when fully leafed out) shade-creating branch of the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima). I had an idea I could remove it by deploying the pole pruner. Most of the time, this tool stands unused in a corner of the shed. Once more I have been reminded why.

In theory, it’s a marvellous thing — a 5-and-a-half-foot-long telescoping pole that may be extended to 10 or so feet, with both a clipper and a saw blade at the end. The clipper is operated by pulling on a long cord (wrapped around the pole when not in use, as in the photo) that works a spring-loaded device attached to a blade-and-hook arrangement similar to that found on loppers. The gardener may stand on the ground (or, if desperate and daring, on a ladder) and cut otherwise unreachable branches. In theory.

IMG_2299

Slick, eh? Except the damned thing is virtually unusable, especially when fully extended. For one thing, it’s fairly heavy, with the cutting equipment on the end accounting for a good portion of that weight. It’s hard to finagle the hook over a branch at the correct angle and then hold the tool with one hand while pulling the cord with the other. The cord is long and hard to manage. The cutter can’t easily cut branches thicker than half an inch in diameter. That leaves the saw blade, which is about 9 inches long, but it’s impossible to saw a branch that’s bobbing up and down and can’t be held steady because it’s out of reach. Thus the saw is usable only to cut branches fairly close to a trunk or thick branch.

My pole pruner gets a one-star rating — or, if you prefer, a multi-#*%! rating.

To anyone who has been contemplating a pole pruner as a solution for pruning out of reach vegetation, I would say — don’t. At least not a heavy two-tools-in-one thing like mine. I think I’ve seen pruning saw blades attached to long wooden poles, which are probably a lot lighter. The limitations I’ve already noted would still apply, though. All in all, I would recommend a good ladder, and if that won’t do the trick, note the real problem branches and hire a professional to deal with them.

The Unkindest Cut

I hate pruning.

For a gardener, that’s a dangerous admission. Gardeners are always pruning, or at least always cutting. (“Pruning” usually refers to operations on woody plants such as trees and shrubs, with the artistic intention to shape and train). We are always cutting down old stalks, bushwhacking overgrown or unwanted vegetation, or “pinching” young plants to make them bushier and fuller. The garden tool I use more than any other is a set of secateurs, otherwise known as pruners or clippers. On any inspection trip around the garden it takes only a minute or two before I spot a job that requires this tool.

So what’s the problem?

Yesterday, for example, I finally got around to cutting down last year’s fern foliage before the new fiddleheads start unfurling.

March 23, 2015

I wasn’t quite so prompt with Epimedium x perralchicum “Frohnleiten.” The durable foliage of this useful plant lasts all winter, but should be removed so the dainty flowers and beautiful new leaves may be seen and admired. By the time I got around to doing that yesterday, tender bloom stalks with their yellow flowers had already unfolded, with others still bent over but preparing to rise.

March 23, 2015

Rather than the quick clip that would have been fine a few weeks ago, I had to do careful, stalk-by-stalk cuts. Accidentally cutting off new growth is sickening and guaranteed to make one feel like a Bad Gardener.

That’s what I hate about pruning — cutting off healthy growth. In the case of the Epimedium, it’s not desirable and happens only as a result of clumsiness or haste. But pruning, done by the book, often requires removal of new, leafy plant material. Many types of clematis require that the plant be cut to the ground every spring. Easy but brutal, because often there is visible new growth all over the old vines. The gardener must steel herself and snip, suppressing the thought that the plant will have to replace all that mass, not just pick up where it left off last fall. (And yes, I know that if you leave the old growth, in a few years you end up with a woody tangle and fewer blooms).

The healthiest and most vigorous growth on roses is at the very ends of the branches — and if you prune as directed, you cut it off, leaving stumps from which you hope and believe better new growth will come. At the plant’s lower height, you will be able to see and appreciate the flowers. That’s a good reason for pruning, but right after making the cut — reducing a lush mass of fresh, red-tinged leaves to a bare stub — I feel like like a vandal.

I’ve been gardening for more than 30 years, and I still have trouble cutting off healthy-looking growth, even when I know it will (eventually) improve the looks and performance of the plant. Even now, there are occasions when I simply don’t do it, which means the plant gets leggy or woody, needing more drastic treatment (including total removal) down the road.

“Strength follows the knife.” I mutter this gardening maxim as I stand in front of a plant, secateurs in hand, contemplating amputation. It’s what I think of as the Pruning Paradox — the weaker the plant, the harder you are advised to prune it, because pruning stimulates new growth. Like many maxims, it’s not 100%: once a plant is really weak, my advice would be simply to save yourself the effort of hard pruning its measly little limbs. The result will probably be the same, in the end. Once a plant is dead, there is no hesitation before cutting it down.

Epimedium "Frohnleiten"

Epimedium “Frohnleiten”

Dryopteris fiddleheads

Dryopteris fiddleheads

Garden Notes

I’ve kept a garden notebook for years. It contains monthly precipitation figures, comments on how well (or badly) things are going in the garden, a record of watering from June to September (so I can be sure of watering all areas equally) and lists of things to do. Turning to the notes written last summer or fall, I find: “Important Notes for 2014” in all caps and underlined. The first note is a list of plants to be netted against deer by certain points in the growing season, starting with bergenias and tulips, progressing to hostas, roses and sedums (yes, sedums, specifically the big ones such as “Autumn Joy”).

Well, so far this year I haven’t had to take any anti-deer measures. Either deer no longer find my place interesting, or there aren’t as many of them around. Of course, the tulips are pretty much gone as a result of their visits in 2012 and 2013, but bergenia blooms were untouched this spring. Last year they barely had time to sprout bloom stalks before they were nipped. I’m wondering if enough gardeners around here have fenced off their plants that the deer no longer find it worthwhile to visit the area. (In the meantime, the municipality is still entertaining the idea of a “cull”).

Note #2 says:  Introduce chicory to that patch of miserable lawn on the far side of the driveway. This is sort of interesting. I’ve observed this plant, with flowers about the size and shape of dandelion blooms, but a gorgeous sky blue, growing without any care at all on roadsides. It grows to 3 feet if left alone, but if mowed it blooms practically at ground level, much as dandelions do. I think it would be cool to see it in the scraggly lawn, looking like a bright blue dandelion, weedy but wonderful. So far, though, all I have is one seedling in a pot and seeds scattered in the lawn’s bare spots.

Notes #3 and #4 contain lists of plants to be pruned, both perennials and shrubs. Some perennials can be made to grow shorter and bloom later than they are inclined to by cutting them back halfway earlier in the season — asters, for example, and others such as Echinacea, fennel and sedums. Yes, those same tall sedums that got deer-nipped a couple of years ago. (Which makes me think — too bad deer can’t be employed as plant management experts, the way herds of goats are. But no — they’re too unreliable. Didn’t even show up this year).

As for shrubs — photinia, barberry, spirea and cotoneaster are all on the “to be pruned” list, and some of them can actually be crossed off. The photinia is done (totally — just bare stubs 3 weeks later). I whacked the cotoneaster back a couple of months ago, but decided to cancel the barberry job after I found a bushtit’s nest in it last fall, in case the birds decided to refurbish the nest this spring. I thought I was too late with the spirea, but Peter McHoy’s Pruning : a practical guide recommends “early to mid-spring,” which is where we are right now. Trouble is, the spirea is sprouting out with new little amber-coloured leaves, which makes it hard for me to even think about cutting it back. Well, maybe next year.

There’s always something else that needs to be done. Time to make a new list.

 

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