Pruning Lilacs: Now is the Time, and Here are the Keys to Keep This Old-Time Favorite Looking It’s Best…

June 18th, 2009 § 3 comments § permalink

syringa-vulgaris-mme-lemoine-double-whiteSyringa vulgaris, “Mme. Lemoine”, double, white

Of the many questions I am asked by gardeners during consultations, seminars and social gatherings, the most frequently posed is: “When should I prune my lilac?”, often quickly followed by, “How do I prune my lilac?”. These are both very good questions because the well-timed, correct pruning of this beloved shrub will result in neater shaped lilacs and more blooms in the coming year.

To begin, the basic principles of pruning should be observed.  I recommend starting with my earlier post, Pruning Trees and Shrubs in the Garden for Beginners. When pruning any plant, a gardener should take care to time the pruning correctly, and to step back and observe the overall shape and condition of the specimen before cutting. The correct time to prune lilacs is right now, in mid to late June  just after the flowers have faded, but before new woody growth begins. Why? Prune your lilac any later than the Fourth of July, and you will risk cutting away next year’s blossoms. Next spring, your lilacs will flower from the blossoms set on this year ‘s growth, (the green new wood). So it is important to finish up this year’s lilac pruning right away.

There are two types of lilac pruning I will cover here.  The first is simple annual pruning for young lilacs and regularly maintained mature specimens already in good shape. The second type of pruning I am frequently asked about, and will review, is renovation pruning. This second type of pruning is more labor-intensive, and is best spread-out over three seasons for the safety of the shrub.

To keep a young, or properly maintained older lilac looking great, and to direct energy toward new growth, (and next year’s bloom), it is best to remove spent flower heads soon after they have faded, (see photo one).  To prevent tearing, remove the old blossoms with sharp, clean bypass pruners. Make your cut straight-across, and very close to the opposite branches below the browning stem, (see photo two).

lilac-pruning-two1Photo one: pruning out faded lilac blossoms.

lilac-pruning-one1Photo two: correct pruning technique for removing spent lilac blossoms

Next, if the shrub is more than a few years old and beginning to look over-crowed at the base, cut some of the old stems out. Make these cuts as close to the ground as possible, and at a slight angle to shed water. Cut out any young, new stems that rub or cross, and/or cause congestion at the base. Retain the strongest stems and remove the spindly, diseased and weak, as they will detract from the attractive structure and shape of the lilac.

If the lilac has produced some extra tall stems, spiking up and distorting the shape of the shrub, shorten these stems down to the strongest branch. After each cut, stand back and observe your progress. If the lilac is a specimen shrub in a perennial garden, try to aim for a neat, natural vase shape, (slightly narrower at the base and spilling out toward the top).  Properly pruned, the base of a lilac can be an attractive, verdant background for perennials in a mixed-border. If the lilac is part of a loose hedge, more growth toward the base of the plant may be desirable for privacy.  In all circumstances, it is very important to remember the natural shape of lilacs. Never prune with shears, or attempt to force lilacs into boxy shapes.  Square pruning is best left to boxwood, privet, yew and other formal hedge-shrubs.

Renovating a very large, older lilac is a more labor intensive task, and it should be addressed in stages. Often, the new owner of an old, neglected farm will also inherit an overgrown lilac hiding the house! Whether an old lilac is part of a larger hedge or one wildly-suckered specimen, the renovation process should be spread out over three years, with no more than a third of the lilac removed each year. The goal is always to bring the shrub back into context with the garden and house, and to bring the blossoms closer to nose-level.

The first year, have a good look at the hedge or specimen. Look for stems and branches jutting out away from the main core of the plant or hedge. Cut wayward, leaning stems to the ground and shorten branches aiming horizontally or drooping out from the shrub. These stems and branches are usually quite thick, and will require use of a grecian saw or bow saw. In some cases, an arborist’s chain saw may be required, and a gardener may need some assistance. Next look the tallest stems and branches within the shrub. Over the next three years, the overall framework of the shrub can be reduced by cutting branches back by a third and removing about a third of the older stems right to the ground. This task will likely involve ladders, and for safety it should always be considered a two person job. Once a third of the old wood has been removed, remove a third of the new stems, (shoots at the base), as well. Select strong young stems to form the new framework of the shrub, and remove any spindly, weak stems and all of those crossing, rubbing or very close together.

If pruning is accomplished before July 4th, and held to the 1/3 rule, the lilac should bloom normally or better the following year. Each June, continue to prune the lilac in this manner until the framework is back in context with the home or the desired hedge-shape. Once the desired shape has been achieved, the lilac should be lightly pruned in June, just after blooming, as outlined under annual maintenance pruning above.

For further information on the pruning of lilacs and all woody trees and shrubs, I highly recommend Lee Reich’s The Pruning Book, from Taunton Press.  All of Reich’s books on pruning are easy to read, with many photographs and drawings to help you learn to cut with confidence.

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Article and photographs © 2010 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

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“That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”….. Shakespeare

May 18th, 2009 § Comments Off on “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”….. Shakespeare § permalink

wild-rose

Selecting and Siting Roses in Cold Climates

Damask, Moss, or Gallica?  Modern, Old or English? Call them what you will, many gardeners fall in love with roses early on, and the infatuation never ends. The moist, velvety petals and heady fragrance of this fabled flower are powerfully seductive.  It is easy to to understand the allure of roses. A garden in June, with roses climbing walls, tumbling over fences and nestled into perennial borders, is a beautiful sight. During the long, dark months of winter, many northern gardeners curl up with spring catalogues, fantasizing about the vast array of rose offerings.  I too have been tempted by this fragrant queen of flowers, and having succeeded in my first garden with a luxurious climbing-beauty named “Constance Spry”, I know the sweet rewards of success. But as a professional gardener, I also know that growing roses can be a real challenge in cold climates. And unless the rose-lover takes as much care in the planning and planting phase as he/she does in the dreaming stage, there will often be great disappointment. Healthy, vigorous roses of almost all types can be grown in New England with a bit of research and proper care. The first steps in successful cold-climate rose culture are choosing the right location for the rose within the garden itself, and of course, selection of the best plants for hardiness

Choosing and siting a rose with it’s individual lifetime requirements in mind is wise for many reasons.  A rose planted in a proper site will receive ample sun, water, nutrients and protection.  The site should also allow the rose enough space to reach its full size and shape, and provide ample air movement for healthy foliage and adequate drainage of soil for healthy roots. Focusing on the process of gardening, by providing a proper environment, is key to success no matter what the gardener wishes to grow.

Soil is important to all plant life, of course.  And roses, like most plants, have preferences about the soil in which they grow.  It is wise to test your soil pH level, as well as nitrogen, phosphorus and potash levels, and adjust your soil chemistry accordingly. Roses prefer soil rich in minerals, nutrients and organic matter.  Like most garden plants, roses prefer a slightly acid soil with a pH between 6 and 7. When soil pH becomes too low or too high, nutrients become less available to plants. A pH test is easy to do, and takes just a few minutes. Soil testing kits are readily available at most garden centers and through online vendors and more extensive soil tests can often be done through your local university extension service. Getting pH and nutrient levels right is the first step toward making sure that your roses are receiving what they need from the soil in order to grow and thrive.

Soil texture is also very important to roses. And while it is true that roses prefer mineral-rich soil, it is also critical that they receive proper drainage and air circulation at their roots.  For these reasons, it is often helpful to closely examine your garden soil, and modify the texture if necessary, before planting roses.  Clay rich soils provide the minerals roses prefer, but unless organic matter, (such as compost and peat moss or other fiber), is added to the soil,the rose will rot and suffocate in water-logged, poorly aerated root conditions. Conversely, sandy soil will provide the rose with the drainage and dry roots it prefers, but the plant will suffer as minerals and nutrients wash away from the roots in quickly draining sand. Organic matter such as compost and other fibrous materials will hold moisture, minerals and nutrients in the soil, allowing the plant time to absorb them into it’s root system.  Adding compost and other organic material will improve your soil, be it clay-like or sandy.

Protecting the root zone of roses in climates like New England,where wildly fluctuating temperatures are common, will help prevent many problems. Compost-mulch shields roots and soil from heat and cold, weeds and insects, wind and erosion.  Bare soil is not natural, and stresses plants. Caring for the parts of the rose beneath the ground is as important as the attention we give to the plant we see. The rewards of good soil-science are strong, healthy root systems and roses with access to good nutrition. a few inches of compost mulch, and perhaps the addition of herbal companion plants such as thyme and lavender, (herbs provide some natural insect resistance, and attract beneficial insects), will go a long way toward giving your rose ideal growing conditions.

Of course, what goes on above soil level is equally important to rose-culture. Full sun is an absolute requirement for healthy roses. The plant should receive bright light from sunrise to sunset. Without full sun, a rose can not properly photosynthesize, and the result is a weak and spindly plant with few blossoms. Sunlight is also critical for dry foliage, and dry foliage is key to preventing fungal infections and disease. Although some rose varieties will tolerate less than a full day of sun, no rose is truly happy in shade. Sunny-sited roses will always be stronger and healthier than their shadowed neighbors. Give the rose what it needs, and it will return the favor of what you want: blossoms.

Considering air circulation and flow is advantageous for plant health, and longevity.  Siting your rose for unobstructed growth and air movement is important for disease prevention and cold protection.  Roses protected from prevailing winds by taller trees and shrubs will grow stronger and avoid the damage of winter desiccation.  So long as neighboring plants do not obstruct sunlight, roses will benefit from the back-up provided by neighboring hedges or groups of shrubs.  It is also beneficial to plant roses on a slightly elevated portion of a site.  Cold air flows downhill, and frost settles in lower parts of the land first.  Siting roses in a raised position will help with both airflow and drainage, giving roses another advantage in a cold climate.

Providing roses with the correct growing conditions is clearly important. However, no amount of care and consideration can substitute for proper selection of the rose itself.  When selecting roses for any garden, it is important to first consider the uniqueness of the plant. Every rose has an individual habit, mature size, shape and texture.  Some roses are vigorous and shrubby, some are politely contained bushes. Certain roses are open-shaped, others are dense. A few roses may be grown as climbers or tall shrubs, others remain petite. Knowing the form of the plant will help the gardener decide if it is right for the garden’s design. Rugosa roses have very different requirements from English roses.  And of course, any rose grown in a climate with cold winters must be fully compatible with the garden’s USDA hardiness zone.

As most gardeners quickly become aware, even individual gardens can have micro-climates with enough temperature variation to make a major difference in cold-hardiness. Spots protected from prevailing winds and freeze-thaw conditions on an individual site may allow for some zone-flexibility.  However, given the temperature variations in New England, it is safest to stick with a conservative attitude toward cold-hardiness, unless the gardener is willing to take extra precautions by mounding rose-root zones with compost each fall, and in some cases providing protection for the entire shrub.  New rose varieties will be more variable than the tried and true, and for the beginning gardener, hardy and time-tested varieties are a good place to start.  USDA zone 4/5 roses are a safe bet for most gardeners in New England, and zone 2/3 varieties will be safest for very cold, windy or exposed sites.

Most rugosa roses, modern landscape roses, and many antique shrub roses are extremely cold hardy. Rosa rugosa “Sarah Van Fleet”, “Belle Poitevine” and “Blanc double de Coubert” and hybrid “Therese Bugnet” are beautiful, exceptional performers.  Rugosas are a good choice for fences, hedges and groupings in the landscape. David Austin English roses are a nice choice for mixed borders, and provided the bud-union, (point of graft), is planted at least 4 inches beneath the soil-surface, a well sited Austin rose will perform well in New England.  Tried and true landscape roses, such as “Carefree Wonder”,( and for small-bloom lovers, “The Fairy”), are excellent selections for a wide variety of perennial garden designs, including designs with stone and along walkways. For old rose lovers, the hardy gallica, alba, moss and damask hybrids are good bets. “Charles de Mills”, “Konigin Von Denmark”, “Karl Forster”, “Maiden’s Blush”, “Striped Moss” and “Stanwell Perpetual” bring some old European-style to northern rose gardens. In addition to the shrub and landscape roses mentioned above, some climbers such as  “William Baffin”, “New Dawn” and “John Cabot” are tough enough to weather the cold winds and blistering sub- zero temperatures New England dishes out. Extra care must be taken when siting more marginal climbing roses, such as “Constance Spry”, in a cold climate.  It is important to protect the exposed canes of more delicate climbing roses from desiccating winter winds. And always remember to position your rose to avoid damage from snow loads sliding off a steep roof.

When purchasing potted roses, try to buy from a local nursery, where the growers know your zone hardiness and purchase or propagate roses with cold conditions in mind. Take the time to ask the garden center staff about the roses you buy, and research the variety online to learn its habits and preferences. Knowing your rose and giving it what it needs are key to success no matter the garden climate, however this advice holds particularly true for gardeners in the north, where roses named “cold hardy” will continue to smell sweet for many years.

( coming soon…. part two roses: planting, pruning and maintenance )

Copyright 2009 Michaela H

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Pruning Trees and Shrubs in the Garden: A Guide for Beginners…

May 3rd, 2009 § 4 comments § permalink

 

ubc-botanical-garden

 

When I think about the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen, my mind’s eye goes not to the flowers or the foliage in these spaces, but to the sculptural shapes of the trees and shrubs.  I can recall many such stand-outs; a magnificent wisteria, masterfully pruned against a stone wall in Positano, Italy; a spectacular, dark skeleton of a Japanese maple silhouetted against blazing vermillion foliage on an October afternoon;  a curvaceous stand of kalmia latifolia worked into a haunting arch. So much of what makes a garden memorable is structure. Pruning, when done with artful and surgical precision, can transform an otherwise cookie-cutter garden into magical and memorable architecture.

But beyond aesthetics, why do gardeners prune? And how is it done correctly?  I have seen otherwise confident gardeners run in the opposite direction when confronted with a pair of Felco 8 pruners. And is it any wonder?  After years of observation, I can understand the fear created by the horrific end-results of ill-considered, suburban hack-jobs with loppers and shears, (strange yellow balls of forsythia and mutilated yew spring to mind). Many gardeners would sooner allow their shrubs to become tangled masses of neglect and ruin than subject them to such hideous fate.  However, both approaches are as unhealthy, incorrect and unsightly as they are unnecessary.

It is important to know that proper pruning not only creates beautiful specimen trees and shrubs, but it is also important to the health and longevity of our garden plants. Broken limbs, rodent or deer gnawed twigs, and crossed, rubbing branches are an invitation for disease, deformity and death. Untended shrubs can block windows and doorways, crowd out other plants, and ruin property. Larger trees with damage can be truly hazardous. Properly pruned trees and shrubs in the garden will be healthier, and produce more abundant foliage, flowers and fruit.

Any gardener, with practice and determination, can learn to prune and prune well. The basic principals of cutting are quite simple, and with practice comes confidence.  The second part of pruning, the art of this skill, comes with time, observation and discipline.

The first step in pruning is to have the proper tools on hand, and to know how to care for those tools.  Most gardens can be maintained with four basic pruning tools. Always purchase the best tools you can afford. The most important of the four is the bypass pruner. I prefer Felco #8’s. Cared for with a whetstone and oil, Felco pruners will last a lifetime. Most pruning tasks involving twigs, stems and small branches are best handled by this device. The next tool on my beginner’s list is the Grecian saw. Invaluable for its ability to cut in tight spaces and fold away in a pocket, this saw will quickly and cleanly cut through most branches and small limbs, particularly those in tight spaces. Larger limbs are best tackled with a bow-saw. Purchase a good bow saw; one with a replaceable blade. A good, sharp pair of pruning shears is the final tool on my basic list. Even if a gardener has no use for hedges or cone shaped conifers, pruning shears are a great tool for cutting back perennials, ornamental grasses, and for shearing woody plants such as spirea, caryopteris and buddleja davidii. All pruning tools should be kept good and sharp with an oiled whetstone, and well cleaned, (after cutting each specimen), with a rag soaked in rubbing alcohol. Your tools should always be dried, oiled and stored in a moisture-free environment after use.

Once you have assembled your basic tool kit, it is important to consider the plants you will be pruning. Learning to correctly identify trees and shrubs and researching their growth habits, bloom times, forms and preferences, is key to knowing how to get the most from the larger plants in your garden. Some trees and shrubs will require little pruning, and others will require regular and aggressive attention from the gardener. Begin by studying the difference between opposite and alternate bud patterns on branches, as this will allow you to correctly decide when to make shallow angled or straight pruning cuts. Understanding how the plant will respond to your pruning will help you decide on where to cut branches to direct new growth, or how to check growth on the plant. And knowing when to do your cutting will give you the results you hope for.

I recommend that gardeners buy a good tree and shrub identification book or two. George Symonds, The Shrub Identification Book, and Michael Dirr’s encyclopedic, Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, are certainly good starts. A book with good photographs, such as Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs, by Michael Dirr, is also helpful. And a good instructional book, especially Lee Reich’s The Pruning Book, from Taunton Press, is key for the beginner. Haunting local nurseries and arboretums may also help with memorization and enhanced visual recognition.  A great arboretum will offer a gardener the opportunity to see mature tree and shrub specimens properly planted and pruned. Research combined with experience is the best teacher. Working with an experienced pruner, if you can find or hire one, is ideal.

Once armed with the proper tools, and with a bit of research, it is time to practice cutting.  This process will be less stressful if the gardener begins on less-desirable plants, or scrub brush in the corner of the yard.

Understanding bud types is critical to knowing how to cut woody stems. Alternating bud patterns have buds staggered up and down the stem.  Opposite buds, as the name implies, have buds opposite one another on the stem. Look for these patterns and study them. When pruning, the first key is cutting to just above a healthy bud on a strong, healthy stem. It is important to make the cut close enough to avoid leaving a stub of wood above the bud, (with few exceptions, this will die back and rot), and it is always important to avoid cutting too closely, (injuring or killing the new bud, resulting in die back and rot).  Ideally the cut is made just slightly above the bud.  Alternate buds will require a slightly angled cut, directed away from the bud.  When outward growth is desired on an alternate budding specimen, (in most cases), the cut is made directly above, (but not touching), an outward facing bud. The new growth will be in this direction.  With opposite buds, (buds directly opposite each other on the woody stem), a straight cut is made directly above, (but once again, not touching), the buds.  When making a thinning cut of a branch, or limb, always make the cut just beyond the branch collar, (the rough ridge between the branch and the trunk), and at a slight angle.  With larger limbs, first remove some of the heavy, excess branches. This is advisable both for safety and ease.  It is also good practice to make three cuts on limbs of significant size. First, a few inches away from the collar, make a short undercut to prevent a tear to the bark, followed by a top cut through the branch.  The stub may be pruned off last, in a clean line with the collar. It is important here to avoid leaving a stub of branch, and equally important to avoid a flush cut to the trunk, removing the collar.   This is why controlling the removal of the branch with at least three cuts is the best practice.

There are three main types of pruning cuts: pinching, heading and thinning. Pinching stem tips will stimulate hormones directed toward the remaining side shoots.  This type of pruning is frequently used on perennials such as mums, for bushy-growth, plants such as tomatoes for fruit, and for flower or foliage production. Pinching directs energy to branching, flowers and fruit, and makes lanky shrubs fuller. Heading cuts shorten branches.  The more you head cut a branch, the more vigorous the new growth will be below the cut. Hormones quickly kick into gear to insure the plant’s survival. This is important to keep in mind when trying to keep an unruly plant in check, as certain plants are stimulated by severe pruning, and will become shrubbier faster. If you do not desire this sort of growth, aggressive heading cuts are counter productive. Dramatic heading cuts are important in creating hedges, for example, or to stimulate leaf production on plants grown for foliage and stems, (such as ornamental sambucus, salix and red twig dogwood). The third type of cut is the thinning cut. This type of pruning eliminates a branch entirely at the ground, or by removal just past the branch collar. As the name implies, this cut thins a tree or shrub, and is intended to lean out bushiness and undesirable growth.  Some examples of this cut’s use are for the removal of damaged limbs and crossing tree branches, suckers and water spouts or with shrubs, to provide air circulation inside a dense mass.

The seasonal timing of cuts will be a major factor with successful pruning. Removal of damaged and diseased wood can and should happen whenever a problem is noticed. Other pruning depends on the plant in question, and the desired result. For most deciduous trees, the best time for structural pruning and renovation is in late winter, (late January to mid February in New England for most species), when trees are dormant. Trees with heavy-running sap should never be pruned during the spring thaw in late February and March, (such as maple and birch trees, for example). Light aesthetic pruning and the thinning of undesirable new growth, such as waterspouts and suckers, can be done on most trees and shrubs during the summer. The thinning of waterspouts and suckers is easiest when this growth is new and soft, and thinning cuts to the trunk or main branches will prevent new growth.  This type of thinning is best done when those undesirable branches appear. Evergreen trees, and conifers in general, are pruned in spring before their flush of new growth. Some ornamental conifers may also be pinched to produce bushiness as new growth appears. In general, most ornamental shrubs are pruned in spring. Those shrubs blooming in spring are pruned immediately following bloom, (lilacs for example, must be pruned immediately after blooming, or the following year’s blossom may be sacrificed).  Late-blooming shrubs are pruned in early spring, before they set buds, (clethera for example, is pruned early in the season just before growth begins).  Always research your flowering shrub to understand when and how it blooms, on new wood or new growth on old wood. Some trees and shrubs require minimal pruning for best results, and others demand a more aggressive approach.

When making cuts, it is important to have very sharp, well cleaned, (with rubbing alcohol), pruners.  Any cut must be very even and smooth, with no jagged edges. When pruning, the gardener is creating a wound. The plant will respond by protecting itself, and forming a callus to seal the wood. A woody plant calluses fastest over the least surface.  It is always best to prune branches when they are still small, and to make clean cuts.  Clean cuts prevent trapped moisture and rot in crevices, and help discourage disease and insects.

After you prune, do absolutely nothing to seal pruned branches. A properly pruned tree or shrub will callus naturally.  A clean, dry cut will allow the plant to quickly callus.  Moisture and wraps are generally the enemy of the callus and the friend of disease. There are a very few exceptions, (such as elm), but in general, remember that a clean dry cut is the best course of action in pruning.

Practice of these basic principles and rules will prepare the gardener for beginning the necessary damage repair, renovation and aesthetic pruning of woody plants in the garden. Remember that engaging in the act of pruning will build your confidence. Study branches, research specimens, and practice on undesirable, broken or wasted wood and plant material.  Buy the best pruning tools you can afford, and care for them well. With practice any gardener can learn to approach a tree or shrub with pruners, and correctly cut a tree or shrub with care and confidence.  Remember that neglect will ruin a woody plant as surely as incorrect pruning.  Trees and shrubs are important and valuable assets in your garden, learning to correctly care for them with pruning will insure your success with these plants and the long term value of your investment.

f82Felco # 8 bypass pruner

grecian-pruning-sawGrecian pruning saws, folding type at bottom

bow-sawBow saw with replaceable blade

topiary-hedge-shearsTopiary/Hedge pruning shears

 

Photo Credit Top: Acer Palmatum, UBC Botanical Garden file photo credit: Folius

This essay is the basis of a detailed seminar on pruning at Walker Farm in Dummerston, Vermont by Michaela

For seminar inquiries, please contact Walker Farm

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Article copyright 2009, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used without express written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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Waking up the Garden in Spring

April 26th, 2009 § Comments Off on Waking up the Garden in Spring § permalink

early-viburnum

Although a thorough fall clean-up will make a gardener’s work-load lighter in spring, there are many reasons we might find ourselves in quite the opposite situation. Personally, I have always enjoyed the visual delights of a winter garden. I like seeing the plumes of ornamental grass covered in ice and snow, and I love watching birds flock to blackening seed pods.  And while I will protect my tender plants with a blanket of mulch, carefully putting my valuable perennials to ‘sleep’, I am more inclined to postpone certain gardening task until springtime.

All gardens, even the most meticulously trimmed and tucked, will need special attention in spring with a ‘wake-up’ in order to look great and perform well through out the coming seasons.

I like to begin my garden year in March.  As soon as my mailbox begins to fill up with gardening catalogues, I know it is time to start rummaging around the tool shed. In early March, before the spring thaw in Vermont, I begin to take stock of my tools.  I examine my garden spades, shovels, rakes and hand-tools for wear and tear and I repair what I can. Before the gardening frenzy begins, I like to sand and oil wooden handles, tighten or replace missing screws, and sharpen and oil metal blades. Sometimes, I will find tools in need of cleaning, or things beyond repair and needing to be replaced.  As things wear out, I try to replace them with the best quality I can afford.  Hand forged tools, (DeWit is a fine company), are the best choice for a serious gardener.  With proper care and protection, well made tools will last for generations.  I always give my pruners and shears a thorough cleaning with rubbing alcohol and a first sharpening with an oiled whetstone at this time of year. I have owned the same pair of Felco bypass pruners for years, and they have served me , and my clients, very well.  A thorough inventory of the shed includes a check of tarps, hoses, nozzles, wheel barrows, power tools and mowers. Getting things ready now will save me precious time later.

Once I have my tool shed ready to go for spring, I start thinking about my pots, potting soil and soil amendments.  Usually I get a jump on the season by buying some fish emulsion, dried blood, and anything else I might be needing before the garden centers run out. Meanwhile,  I have a look at my seeds and their expiration dates, and I begin to fantasize about my annual displays. I try to empty my decorative clay pots in fall, and store them upside down in the cellar for winter, (with the exception of the heavy frost-proof pots I tend to leave out on the terrace). Come spring, I examine those pots and give them a thorough cleaning with soapy water and a bit of hydrogen peroxide or bleach before refilling them with fresh potting soil.

Around this time, the snow is beginning to recede and I enjoy taking walks around the perimeter of my sleeping gardens.  It is hard to resist the urge to pull mulch and prod plants before temperatures moderate.  But I have come to expect the bitter cold snaps and late snows following those flirtatiously warm spells in early April.  So until I hear the Hermit thrush singing sometime around the second week of April, I try to keep the mulch on my tender plants.  It is also wise to avoid compacting valuable loam by making it a rule to never walk around in wet gardens.  I try to stick to the stone paths and walkways I have made, leaning my body in toward the beautiful, dark soil to see what is happening.  For a lover of gardens, it is always such a pleasure to smell the damp earth in spring.

As I walk around I note my garden’s structure and examine trees and shrubs.  I may finish up some last-minute tree pruning on varieties not at risk for bleeding sap, (avoid early spring pruning of maple or birch, for example).  I will look for rodent damage, such as gnawed bark and girdled branches and prune those jagged edges clean.

Once my soil has dried out, and has the consistency of crumbed chocolate cake in my hands, I pull out my shears and begin to cut back my over-wintered perennials to within a few inches of the ground.  Some gardeners like to use a string trimmer, but I prefer hand shears.  I would rather not risk nicking a fine Japanese maple, or favorite viburnum, and so I stick to the manual labor.  Cutting back my garden makes the second phase of spring-clean up easier.  At this early stage, I use a wide plastic garden rake to whisk away the debris left over from last year, allowing the sunlight to warm and dry my garden beds and reveal the new growth emerging from the soil.  I clear away the dried remnants and rotting debris completely, using a hopping motion with the rake to pile it up and remove it from the garden on a tarp. I never add this material to my compost heap as it may contain fungus or insects, but instead I choose to burn these left overs.

I like to enjoy the pleasure of early spring bulbs, and I take photographs to remind me of my plantings later in fall.  By then I have usually forgotten where things were located, and I like having these visual notes to guide me in my plans.  As things continue to warm up and plants emerge further, I switch to an adjustable metal rake for continued clean-up.  This tool gives me a bit more control between perennials and shrubs, and helps me to avoid ripping the heads of my fragrant narcissus.  A well cleaned and tidy garden enhances my design, and it is the first step in successful organic gardening.  Now I may begin to add well rotted compost and mulch to my beds, and to test my soil for pH, nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. Usually, I amend the soil in my gardens in fall, but I check it in spring too and make adjustments as necessary.  I like my soil just slightly more acidic than neutral, as most perennials and shrubs tend to prefer.  I use organic methods, and I improve my soil with compost, peat, manure, dried blood or fish emulsion, rock phosphate and green sand when necessary.  I also add a bit of green sand to my compost, as it will keep my potassium levels steady and condition my soil.

As I walk around primping and pruning and edging in mid to late April, I take note of what has died off, and what needs dividing.  I do some early weeding as those undesirable plants emerge, to get a jump on their aggressive ways. Soon I pull out my fork and spade and set to work on the task of removing the weak, dividing the over-zealous, and replacing the gone.  I have a realistic look at my plants as they awaken, and I make a list of what I might need to buy on my first shopping trip to Walker Farm and my other local sources for healthy annual, perennial and woody plants.

Now that I have spent many long hours and days awakening my garden for spring, I try to reward myself with trips to the greenhouse and nursery, checking out what is new, and planning for my annual planting splurge.  It always feels so good to get outside in the morning with my cup of coffee and my sleepy pets, enjoying our morning-walks in spring.  Everything, even the earth itself, seems suddenly awake and full of life.

***

This article is a summary of a detailed seminar presented at

Walker Farm – Dummerston, Vermont

Article and photos copyright 2009 Michaela / The Gardener’s Eden

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