5/5/18: Act Now, or Moan Later!

This recent snowfall should be Mother Nature’s last icy huff. Spring-blooming perennials aren’t fazed by her little fling.  

Today I’m working away, raking, picking up sticks, weeding--and thought I’d share some garden wisdom, and even a few warnings. 

Squirrels love to dig up tulip bulbs, or, they’ll wait ‘til the flower is up and open, and scissor its lovely flower off just under the petals. This makes my blood boil!  

The population’s high, so I employ humane traps. At first, though, I leave the cage doors propped open. A squirrel will tiptoe inside one, grab a gob of cheap, crunchy peanut butter, and then escape, triumphant. Two or three visits later he’ll relax his vigilance. Then I set the trap. Outraged captives, if driven to a forest at least 6-8 miles away, won’t be back. Squirrels have a built-in GPS, but its effective range is limited to within 5-6 miles of home. (A dab of white paint on squirrelly backs lets me know if I’ve underestimated.) 

Grass, the largest plant in the garden, loves to mingle. Vigorous blades that have sneaked into my beds, or sprung up from recently seeded areas, must be pried out immediately. If I wait, they’ll grow amongst the flowers, creating a blurred, unkempt look, and become almost impossible to remove later on without my disturbing the plants they’ve intertwined. (Removing them from rose bases down the road is painful when the plant’s in bloom, so I’m highly motivated!)  

Roses may be pruned now. I check their ends. If they’re black or withered, I cut that part away, at a slant, or just above the healthiest bud further down the cane. I trim these shrubs well back anyway, always to fat buds, and always tie climbers’ canes to fences or trellises horizontally, with zip ties. Vertical canes will grow one lovely rose on top, leaving an embarrassed, naked cane below. Canes secured horizontally clothe themselves in multiple flowers. 

Cleaning Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina) is a major job each year, mostly because I have a huge population; two giant Lamb necklaces edge the alley garden. All winter lamb’s ears have been busy making more, and, of course, the oldsters are always dying, so I must sit in the alley and laboriously snip away every limp, gray ear. A ten-foot strip 8 inches wide can take a full 4-hour morning to clean. The remaining soft, new silver-green ears soon plump out and look wonderful, so I consider all that work worth it.  

I clean lamb’s ears about once a month. Again, regular maintenance always enhances their delicate appearance. 

Weeds love the moist spring earth: I try to pry them out carefully, as their roots often descend as deep as the Marianas Trench. If one breaks because I’ve stupidly hurried, another weed will develop from the tiny stump immediately. Now is the time to do this irritating task, as nothing’s up yet, so I can work deep within beds without injuring flowery treasures. Besides, these weedy wretches are so much easier to spot early in the season!  

Some weeds are adroit at hiding or disguising themselves as cherished plants, then growing into huge structures armed with thin, sharp needles that pierce my palms when I finally realize I’ve been duped, and try to pull them out. With their roots wedged deeply this is a miserable job, requiring thick gloves and a sharp shovel.  

I chainsaw big perennial grasses as close to the ground as possible, trying to cut only two inches above the earth. But first, I gather and hold the (usually collapsed) middle together with stout rope to make it easy to haul last summer’s remains to the compost heap. 

I’ve inspected all irrigation lines. A fallen, jagged maple tree branch had pierced one line; repair was easy, as the garden’s still semi-bald, making access to plumbing a cinch. 

I won’t mulch yet, not until early June. Oh – and I won’t even think about planting annuals until then. We’ve had frosts as late as June 4.  

Now’s a good time to spread Slug-go pellets around. (All local nurseries carry this expensive, but safe, effective deterrent.) Young, 100-toothed slime-balls have voracious appetites. They’ll devour an entire hosta in one night! (Slug-go dissolves the creatures, leaving only their teeth behind. I need to spread just a few pellets here and there, near hostas...) 

Daylilies (Hemerocallis) really appreciate being divided every three years. I’ll dig up a clump – it’s easy, as they’re shallow- rooted – and pry/pull them apart after dipping each clump in a bucket of water to get rid of the mud. Only the strongest ones are replanted. But if they refuse to separate, I’ll give up: they’ve effectively strangled themselves anyway. I’ll have to replant. Daylilies aren’t the brightest plant in the garden, preferring to crowd themselves to death instead of spreading outward like a more sensible plant.  

Irises love being divided, too. They’re happiest when situated in part sun, and planted shallow. 

I’m trimming my four spirea shrubs down to about eight to ten inches. They’ll soon grow madly. 

Lavender appreciates a good short cut, too. Otherwise, it’ll go woody. I trim mine about five inches from the ground in a roundish salad bowl shape. Lavender has a relatively short lifespan- normally about 6-8 years. Allowing it to ‘go to pot’ –or thicken- shortens its blooming life.  

Hydrangea bushes can be pruned now, too. I cut all dead branches away- the ones with nothing on (i.e. those with no buds). Deadwood is pruned right down to the base of the plant. (Long, pale dead sticks that poke up through healthy stalks make the hapless plants look awful.) Then, I go to the bottom of every remaining budded stick and prune it to two fat buds from the plant’s base. If a budded stick will chafe or rub its neighbor, I’ll remove the offending one. The bush will grow huge and plump.  

I try to keep each stem about the same height. 

Another chore: I must dig out the uninvited flowering garlic (Allium) every two or three years. I neglect this chore at my peril; they multiply rapidly, depending on how happy they are in their site. If regularly monitored and controlled, alliums offer a delightful show without overrunning the garden. (I planted five fist-sized bulbs a decade ago, and woke up four springs later, horrified to find so many garlic children everywhere. Arghhhh!!! It took two weeks of hard labor to save my garden from being totally enveloped. Thousands of allium were dug up.) 

My spring allium motto:  

A Chop In Time Saves Nine hundred Ninety-Nine Later…. 

I always add tool-sharpening to my list. Maintained tools make every digging job out there much easier on my back. 

I used to cherish the stunning, poisonous lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria) but realized it was almost impossible to kill, once established. It’s also dangerous to little children, who love its heavenly perfume, lush leaves, and fairy-tale bellflowers. Eating any part of it would create a medical crisis.  

(Miss Lily’s happiest in woodland areas where she can feel free to multiply without condemnation.) 

A final task: I check every branch of every little garden tree for branches that rub another, or are growing toward the trunk now, when they’re bare of leaves and flowers  

Errant ones are pruned gone.

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