To my surprise, I forgot to schedule the post I had intended for today (March 22nd). I’ll schedule it for next week, and in the meantime, here are some photos from my garden taken on the first day of spring.
I was about to say something about the garden being a welcome diversion in these days of staying at home and “social distancing,” but that would be inaccurate. The truth is I prefer messing about in the garden to most kinds of socializing.
Fellow bloggers, how are you coping with whatever virus-avoiding situation you’re in? Are you reading, watching, or maybe even writing? Is anyone getting bored?
Never mind that March 20th is the official first day of spring, here it’s been under way for weeks. The grass has been mowed twice. Crocuses have gone through two sets of flowers (the first of which were nibbled by deer). And the gardener is racing around with clippers in pocket, clutching a digging knife in one hand and a bucket (for the stuff to be clipped or dug) in the other, muttering incoherently.
I should know by now that going out and having a look around the garden at this time of year always ends in a frantic session of dealing with several small crises at once. Spray deer repellent or fetch netting for the plant that always gets eaten. Dig up those wild garlic sprouts and those snowberry suckers.
Where did all these weeds come from? Especially hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta). I pulled up zillions of them last spring, but I must have missed a few. This plant is also called “shotweed,” and no doubt it lived up to its name and shot seeds all over the place. The little plants are kind of pretty, with their rosettes of lacy leaves and their tiny wild flowers. Maybe I should just leave them? I understand this plant is edible, reputed to add a peppery zing to salads. Maybe I should treat it as a salad herb.
Hold it right there! This sort of thinking is why I have so many quasi-weeds and out-and-out weedy weeds here. Many are self-inflicted.
As a reminder, here is a list entitled Plants I Would Never Have Planted if I Knew Better: Italian arum, Snowberry, Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), Periwinkle, Peruvian lily (Alstroemeria aurea). And another list called Plants of Which I Have Way Too Many. I’m talking about you, Purple Toadflax and Rose Campion, champion self-seeders both.
Of course, it doesn’t help that I find it nearly impossible to remove (i.e., kill) any plant that’s growing vigorously and looking great. Even if it’s a weed. In fact, it’s quite possible all those hairy bittercress plants are descended from a pretty little specimen I failed to pull up years ago, thus ensuring its abundant presence here for all time.
On the plus side, in an east-facing window of the garden shed, there is a small pan containing a nice little crop of blue poppy seedlings. They are still too small to handle, but they’re alive and therefore full of potential.
The evergreen clematis (C. armandii) looks wonderful this year, weaving garlands of white flowers through a big old holly. Last year it failed to bloom at all, after brutally cold winds in early February. The pink hellebore “Pirouette” is blooming abundantly, and dark red “Ruby Wine” is living up to its name. “Black Diamond,” on the other hand, is not blooming. “Not blooming yet,” I say hopefully.
Sometimes I think nine-tenths of gardening is a matter of balancing the plants that grow way too vigorously with those that don’t. Maybe instead of striving for the ideal of each plant neatly surrounded by an area of bare dirt, I should consider how plants behave in natural environments, where tangled messes are the norm and bare dirt is an aberration. Let them fight it out among themselves and appreciate the survivors.
Years ago, I wrote a post about why I hate pruning. I still hate it. “Strength follows the knife” and “Prune vigorous plants lightly and weak ones hard,” are two pieces of advice I wonder about as I wield the clippers and pruning saw. Maybe they’re true for plants in optimal situations. What really happens is gardeners underestimate the ultimate size of shrubs. A day comes when hard pruning of the vigorous is necessary to make it possible to get into the house without having to turn sideways. It’s not a pruning issue so much as a planting one.
Uh-oh, I hear the garden issuing further orders. Gotta run. Not wanting to end on a complaining note, I’ll just insert another picture…
May is over, but here is a bouquet of sights from my garden gathered during that month. It was a great year for irises. Two managed to bloom that had not for years, probably due to shade and dry conditions. And I have blue poppies once more. I can’t take any credit for them as yet; if they survive the next winter to bloom again, I’ll have something to brag about. The mass of yellow bloom on the right side of the featured photo is a giant kale plant, almost a tree.
Here are four photos of the two blue poppy plants I bought a few months ago. Their labels call them Meconopsis sheldonii “Lingholm” (grandis).
I’m looking forward to June, but sorry to see the end of iris time.
Our recent snowfall is almost a memory. We’ve gone from this…
It’s still unseasonably cool. The therapeutic effect of warm temperatures and sun hasn’t arrived, although the patient plants are trying to pick up where they left off in January. The garden has that battered and squashed look produced by two bouts of strong northeast winds, days of below freezing temperatures, and almost a foot of the white stuff.
Today I went looking for photo-worthy sights in the garden and didn’t manage to find much. The old stuff looks tired and beaten-up, and the new stuff hasn’t really started.
Now back to making lists of things to do: cut down old stalks, tidy up beds, prepare mulch, distribute mulch, seed tomatoes, foxgloves, and verbena, set out new plants, work on the soaker hose revival project, finish pruning… Rush to get it all done before summer arrives.
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.
All 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 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 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.
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.
* 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.
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.
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.
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.