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Gardening Column
by Marjorie Harris
by Marjorie Harris


May 20, 2007

The garden in spring is supposed to be a place of magic, not a housekeeping project. When you tidy it for the growing season, you needn't produce a squeaky-clean landscape so beloved by the leaf-blowing brigade.

You'll find that bulbs can get their heads through a thick layer of leaves without damage, but they won't survive the tugging off of old leaves and mulch once they're come above ground. Leaves and mulch provide food for earthworms, the workers of the garden.

This spring, clean up the big loose stuff (junk from trees) and mess left over from last fall (large leaves of hostas), but aim for a natural look and retain a blanket of leaves as a background to show off plants.

The ground is moist these days, a perfect occasion to winkle out weeds -- if you can figure out which of the green things they are. Leave alone anything you're not sure of; it probably will turn out to be something precious you planted in last fall.

Clean your tools regularly. They should not be dirty when they go into the soil and in spring they will get sticky very quickly with sap. Use the finest grade of steel wool to sharpen spades, shovels and secateurs. Then wipe off with carburetor cleaner. Rub again with steel wool and wipe with a clean cloth. Ratchet pruners are cheap ($10 to $12) and easy to use, although a little dangerous; they do a good job so quickly, you'll find yourself prowling around the garden like some marauding angel. Use a little caution. It sounds daft but I couldn't do without my children's wooden rake. It gets into inconvenient spots and drags out debris better than any other implement I own. If you have one, soak it before first using. A transplanting trowel has a long dish and will sniggle in between plants if you want to pop something into a tight space.

A pruning verity: It takes about three months for a plant to set flower buds after you've cut it. Wait until after spring blooming plants have done their stuff to cut out anything but dead stuff. On most plants, take out a third. That does not mean shearing a third of the plant from the outside; it means removing about a third of the worst-shaped twigs and branches and letting light into the centre. Coppice any plants (spirea for instance) that tend to get ignored and have become unruly. Coppicing means cutting the whole plant within a few inches of the ground, then maintaining its shape for the future. Vines: Cut back clematis -- viticella, jackmaniicct hybrids, autumn-flowering forms -- to about a foot from the ground. (In warmer parts of the country, it should have been done by now.) Tidy up spring-flowering ones after they've bloomed. Remove dead material from other vines. Cut back Hydrangea petiolaris only after it has flowered. Shrubs such as elders can be cut back severely so they keep colour and shape. Take out weak or damaged branches on hydrangeas, which bloom on old wood; hard pruning will result in fewer but larger blooms. Whack Lavatera 'Barnsley' right to the base when the first shoots pop. Leave silver shrubs such as artemisias, caryopteris, lavenders and perovskia for another week. Leave trees such as birch and maple alone until much later in the season. They are bleeders and you'll be doing them harm if you prune them now. Cut out dead material on roses and pull back any mulch. Then plant a clove of garlic beside each plant to keep fungal diseases at bay. Sprinkle a little Epsom salts around the perimeter of the plant to add potassium to the soil. Get a good pruning manual: Cavendish Encyclopedia of Pruning & Training by Christopher Brickell and David Joyce (Cavendish books, $39.95) is easy to follow.

Before popping in annuals, wait until the soil is warm enough that it doesn't turn the hand numb. Pansies are ideal for current conditions: warmish days and cool nights. They will carry on for months with careful deadheading. Waiting until May 24 to plant perennials is too late, given our short growing season. If you know the various microclimates in your garden, you can do all sorts of planting before then. Plant woody perennials such as herbs, shrubs and small trees as soon as the soil is warmed up. Be sure to dig holes wider than they are deep. There should be as much native soil as possible in the hole so that roots don't go into shock when they expand. You shouldn't have to put anything into the soil except coarse sand if it's heavy clay. Water deeply, then mulch. Don't let mulch get near stems and trunks; it will rot them. Very hardy perennials can go in now, but wait for a couple of weeks before planting tender perennials and most annuals. Plant annuals near the yellowing foliage of bulbs to disguise them.

It's time to get out the containers and all the paraphernalia most of us didn't clean particularly well last autumn. Wash out pots with water, rinse with a very, very mild borax solution (a tablespoon to a bucket of water) to kill off unfriendly microbes. The only thing you need to prepare a container is a piece of broken clay over the bottom hole; or some twigs you've cut up from debris in the garden; or one or two of the plastic six-packs you get from nurseries when you buy annuals. You can also cover the drainage hole with landscape cloth to keep soil from leaching out. Make up your own mix of soil. I use a third each of bagged topsoil, cocofibre and container soil (it's light and contains vermiculite and perlite which help with water retention). Don't use soil from the garden.

Apart from leaves, compost and manure, most soil doesn't need much else to be healthy. Choose a few plants native to the area along with anything else you fancy. Just keep a mix of them. Biodiversity will attract good bugs and birds. Habitat is the word. Highly toxic herbicides and insecticides will kill the good bugs as well as the bad. Clay soil: Instead of buying expensive triple mix to add to the soil to bump it up, try a combination of coarse concrete sand and fine brick sand. Cover the surface around plants and the sand mixture will percolate its way down. It will add nutrients and lighten up the soil. Most of us don't need to supply more clay, which triple mix will do. Add the same sandy mix to the bottom of the hole when you put in new trees and shrubs to help with the drainage. Earthworms will do the rest of the work. Sandy soil: To stabilize this, leave snags (bits of tree branches and trunks) and stumps in the ground; they will break down slowly adding organic material to the soil. If grubs are a huge problem, you might have to let grass dry out; grubs like moisture. If you are putting in vegetables, till deeply and leave grubs exposed for birds to pick out. Then get ready for some good hand-squishing.

Mulching can be done after bulbs have pretty much finished. Add a layer of cocofibre, compost and manure mixed equally and spread it around the garden. This will keep weeds from growing and be a haven for slugs that can then be picked out by hand. Don't let mulch touch the crowns of perennials or the stems and trunks of woody plants.

Don't ask the staff to design your garden. Get a good book or take a course. Take a shopping list. I go in and dart all over the place looking for anything new. This is not a good system unless you know what you're doing. By knowing how many hours of light are available in the parts of your garden, you'll read a label with some expertise. When the label says full sun, it means it's meant for plants requiring more than six hours fo sun a day. Part sun means less than six hours a day. Part shade means four hours of sun a day. Shade usually means dappled shade, and deep shade means the area on the north side of the house that sunlight does not hit. Read labels carefully. A lot of what you need to know is there.

Copyright ©Marjorie Harris,

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