toadflax

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.

 

Advertisements
dry leaves, drought

Coming to Terms…

This hot, dry summer — and the likelihood of even hotter, drier ones as the climate warms — has forced me to come to terms with the realities of gardening in this place: four big Norway maples on or near my 6,000 square feet; only six millimeters (about 1/4 inch) of rain from mid-June to mid-September; thin, sandy soil into which compost is instantly absorbed.

I’ve lost my inclination to struggle against these facts.

The essence of gardening is creating artificial environments — making plants grow in places they would never exist under natural conditions; tinkering with plants to change their natures; assembling plants into unlikely combinations for aesthetic purposes. That takes cleverness, imagination and energy. Doing what it takes to keep a garden going is the whole point of gardening. A garden is a place in which to dig, plant, weed, prune, edge, trim, water. And, for a few minutes every now and then — admire the results. That’s the payoff (and, of course, edibles in the case of food gardens).

IMG_2457

The trouble for me is that the combination of shade and dry, root-filled soil has made gardening here more of a slog than a pleasure. Those withered August leaves in the featured image perfectly represent the situation.

An obvious solution is to have all or most of the trees removed, but that’s a huge, expensive and disruptive undertaking. Moreover, the trees are inhabited by a myriad of life forms — bugs, birds, squirrels and others. And mature trees take up more carbon than young trees, so cutting them down — even non-native, “junk” trees like Norway maples — isn’t a good thing to do, simply for the rather frivolous reason of growing better perennials.

Another obvious solution is to give up. But I can’t even articulate what that would mean in practical terms, so it’s no solution at all.

No. The only solution is to work with what I have, adjusting my expectations accordingly (sort of like self-publishing, actually). I’ve already identified the plants that tolerate the conditions here. Any that can’t cope have either vanished from the scene or, in the case of must-haves, been moved into pots. Delphiniums, blue poppies and a couple of hostas grow here in pots (or barrels) or not at all. That’s the way it is.

October 2016

Potted Hostas near pond.

Another approach would be to dig up roots, pile on fertilizer and pour on water to counteract the natural tough conditions. But digging in rooty ground is a miserable business, and I already pay enough for water. Besides, the trees would love extra water and fertilizer.

I must accept the conditions as they are and use techniques that work within them to achieve results that meet realistic expectations.

In thirty-five years of gardening, I have learned how to arrange plants in beds and borders, and how to make those beds and borders look good, no matter what they contain. I could make a garden out of utter weeds if I had to — spurge laurel, thistles, dock, brambles and bindweed. “Weed” is only a label.

Some of the plants that do well here, that actually prosper despite the shade and the poor, dry, root-infested soil, are what I consider near-weeds. The two champs are campion (Lychnis coronaria or Silene coronaria) and toadflax (Linaria purpurea). Having worked with them for a couple of decades now, I know how to manage them. Left to themselves, they get seedy and show their inner weediness by midsummer, but deadheaded and cut back at the right times, they are long bloomers that maintain colour in beds that are otherwise a mass of blah by late July.

June 2010 019

Campion

In fact, I’m envisioning a set of posts for next year that will feature these plants and how to grow them well. With pictures showing the different growth stages and effects of deadheading/cutting back.

I recently read something that suggests true gardeners have an insatiable appetite for new plants. They pore over catalogues and nursery websites seeking the latest varieties. Well, I consider myself as much a gardener as anyone, but I don’t buy many plants. Many just can’t take the conditions here, especially since most nursery plants are grown in super-fertile, moisture-retentive growing mediums (or is it “media?”) that are the horticultural equivalent of steroids. Transplanted into my ground, even into spots prepared with hearty digging and added compost, many new specimens either cling to their original clump of super-dirt and slowly dwindle, or go into shock and don’t bother dwindling but die immediately. Any plant I buy now is one I have researched thoroughly and can reasonably expect to do well here. One piece of advice I’ve heard is to wash off the growing medium nursery plants arrive with and plunge them right into the dirt that will be their new home (after reasonable preparation, of course). They have to adapt or die, and if chosen wisely, they will prosper.

005

Oriental Hellebore (in March)

 

Another fact I have to live with is that this is a spring garden, not a summer one. From March through May the soil retains moisture from the winter and early spring rains, but from June to late September, water comes from a hose or not at all. Late-blooming herbaceous plants (asters, dahlias, colchicums, autumn crocus) are fairly reliable, but shrubs and trees are not. I once lusted after Franklinia alatamaha, a small tree that produces white camellia-like flowers just as its foliage begins to turn red and orange. I wasn’t able to obtain one, which is just as well, as it’s native to the southeast U.S., where summer rain is not unknown, and it’s generally reputed to be hard to grow. In autumn and winter, my trees may be appreciated as colours and shapes, but forget about fall bloomers here.

Norway Maples

The Norway maples. Imagine the roots!

What about native plants? I planted Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). They do well — too well, in fact. I’m always digging out their suckers. I also have some native ferns, camas, barrenwort or inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), and a patch of salal (Gaultheria shallon). But this was disturbed ground long before I arrived on the scene, so making a garden of native plants alone wasn’t practical. Those Norway maples, remember? And anyway, our native landscape in late August is pretty brown and uninspiring. In spring it’s a different story, of course. So on my patch, natives and aliens have to rub along together.

Today I moved some colchicums to spots where they’ll show up better and add zing to the late summer scene.

IMG_2463

Colchicums, called “autumn crocus” by some, but they’re not crocuses at all.

Asters are starting to bloom.

IMG_2464

Aster frikartii “Monch”

IMG_2467

“Pink Cloud” and “Monch” asters with fading peony foliage and a few Rose Campion flowers.

October 2016

Those asters again.

As long as I can find a thrill in scenes like this as the seasons go by, I’ll keep gardening.