Waking up the Garden in Spring

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


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

Designing for early spring garden interest: the first act in a dramatic garden year…

April 24th, 2009 § Comments Off on Designing for early spring garden interest: the first act in a dramatic garden year… § permalink


spring-looking-down-the-stone-stepsEarly Spring Entry Garden

Designing and planting a garden for all seasons reminds me a bit of theater. From the moment an audience stands at the entry of a garden, an opportunity exists. When guests emerge from their cars, or step inside a gate, what will they first notice? In early spring, perhaps the delicate scent of Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’ will lure them forward as they open the door, or the small, starry- blue blossoms of chionodoxa will greet them alongside a stone walkway. The bright colors of spring bulbs and the perfume of fragrant shrubs enliven a washed out winter landscape and awaken dormant senses.  Taking advantage of the very early days of spring in your garden design will lift your spirits and prolong the pleasures of the growing season.

From the creamy whites and cool blues of galanthus and muscari to the warm golds and peaches of eranthis and narcissus, spring bulbs are the first notes of music in the garden theater. When planned successfully, these early players will slowly fade back as the other acts roll out and fill in the story. Companion plants such as huechera, hosta, Alchemilla mollis, galium and Artemisia ‘silver mound’, (to name a few stalwarts), gradually nudge-out the spring bulbs as they take over the garden stage. Ideally, a complex tapestry of perennial foliage and flowers will camouflage yellowing bulbs as they die back for the year. Plan your plantings accordingly, leaving space for bulbs between perennials, and make note of your plans in your fall calendar.  Early spring photos can be a help later as well. When you return to the garden to plant spring flowering bulbs in fall, your notes and photos from spring will serve as your guide.

When choosing from amongst the vast array of flowering trees and shrubs for your garden, it is important to consider those varieties blooming very early as well as those extending very late in the garden year. The star players in your garden will shine best when each is given a moment of design consideration all its own, in addition to thoughts about how the plant will play in scenes created with other members of the garden cast. Try to select woody plants with staggering bloom dates for an uninterrupted show. And keep in mind that a carefully chosen cast of characters will provide not only drama when blooming, but will add interest and support to your garden story though out the year. Try to always consider foliage, a season-long contributor, in your choices.  And remember that many shrubs, will provide a full year’s performance, with structure, blossoms, lush foliage, autumn color and even winter fruit.

By the time many of the early blooming shrubs make it to local garden centers, they have faded out and become unlikely candidates for sale.  Hamamelis vernalis, (the spring witch hazel), Fothergilla gardenii, and Lindera benzoin, (spice bush), are three oft-overlooked early blooming shrub varieties for the garden.  All three of these garden-worthy plants provide early spring blossoms, structural interest, contrast, and spectacular autumn foliage. Early blooming trees for the garden, such as amelanchier, Cornus alternifolia, (pagoda dogwood), and Cornus florida (flowering dogwood), and the show-stopping Cercis canadensis,(eastern redbud), are some beautifully structured, smaller-sized tree choices for gardens. Amelanchier and cornus are valued for both bloom and later, vivid red and orange fall foliage and fruit. The plum-hued buds of Cercis candensis are followed by heart shaped leaves; dark green in summer and then turning a lovely golden hue in autumn.  In addition, all these shrubs and trees are natives to north America, making them environmentally sound choices for the landscape as well as beautiful additions to the garden.

A well designed garden will provide a steady performance, with early scenes seamlessly flowing into later acts.  Successful spring planting involves the big picture.  Carefully selected plants will provide a solid structure and a season-less stage for poetic vignettes of spring bulbs and vibrant perennial dramas through out the year. I am continually amazed by the design possibilities and endless combinations I discover when visiting friends gardens.  Take the time to visit public and private gardens in early spring, and make notes about what you see.  Add some new characters to your cast to extend your seasonal show, and enjoy the pleasures of your garden-theater throughout the year.


early-spring-walkwayPlantings pictured, (top and bottom photographs):

Stone steps and an entry walkway are lined with Daphne ‘Carol Mackie’ , Juniperus squamata,’Holger’, Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, Fothergilla gardenii, and Acer palmatum x dissectum “Seiryu”. These shrubs and trees are complimented by an under-planting of various bulbs, including muscari, galanthus and narcissus and companion perennials such as heuchera, sedum, Cerastium t, sanguinaria and Phlox divaricata among others.

Along the walkway, emerging perennials are edged by a wide blue swath of ajuga.

Article, design and photos: ⓒ 2009 Michaela – The Gardener’s Eden

all stonework: Dan Snow


Signs of Spring: April 2009

April 23rd, 2009 § Comments Off on Signs of Spring: April 2009 § permalink

Wet stepping stones enhanced by the beauty of early blooming plants…

Pictured here: Daphne “Carol Mackie”, various heuchera, sedum, cerastium t., and sanguinaria c.

Stonework: Dan Snow

Garden design and photo ⓒ Michaela, The Gardener’s Eden


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