2018, December 2018, What to do in the garden

A Bittersweet substitute that’s only sweet

 

Bittersweet
Bittersweet berries

 

You used to see branches of Bittersweet, or Celastrus orbiculatus, for sale all over the place at this time of year. Thankfully, this has mostly stopped, because this invasive thug has been squeezing the life out of our more sedate plants, trees, and shrubs, and the use of its berries in holiday arrangements has made the problem infinitely worse. I know of a local museum that has suddenly had Bittersweet mysteriously growing in a place where it never had grown before – mysterious until someone was discovered throwing out holiday decorations containing Bittersweet berries in that general vicinity.

The berries are lovely, there is no doubt about it. But if you have ever seen a Pine tree with a rope of Bittersweet cutting deep into its bark, or a shrub bed completely suffocated by its voluminous growth, then I think you will agree that it’s time to think of an alternative.

Luckily, We have choices. One such choice is Ilex verticillata, or Winterberry Holly. A deciduous holly, it is smothered in red berries all winter long. You need a male and a female in order to get berries, but one male will pollinate females that are quite a distance away so if your neighbor has one growing in their garden, for example, you don’t need one yourself. The males have wonderful names like “Jim Dandy”, or “Southern Gentleman” and grow 6-8 feet tall, where the females can range from the 8-10 foot tall “Sparkleberry” to 3-4 foot tall “Red Sprite”.

If you’re still missing the orange color of Bittersweet, there’s an orange-berried Winterberry called “Winter Gold” that will scratch that itch for you.

Winterberries are a bit boring in the summer, with small, unremarkable flowers, but that’s ok. They are a nice backdrop for other plants, and they more than make up for it in the winter. And they don’t take over and strangle the good guys.

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2018, November 2018, What to do in the garden

Take care of tender perennials

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It’s starting to get colder, and soon the snow will start to fall. This is great for the plants, as snow is an excellent insulator. But what if it doesn’t snow? What if it’s just really cold for awhile, first? Straight – up cold can be devastating for perennials, especially tender ones that are at the limit of their cold hardiness, or new ones that got planted late.

What to do? Well, it’s better to hedge your bets and give your most precious plants some protection than just hope that there will be snow. This doesn’t mean anything too complicated – just cover the crowns of the plants with salt-marsh hay, or evergreen tree boughs. (You can supplement these later with boughs cut off your Christmas tree, if you have one.)

Roses can also benefit from a little cover. Plastic fencing or chicken-wire, wrapped around them, and stuffed with leaves works well. You can also buy things made especially for roses, but then you have to figure out where to store them the rest of the year. But in the end, it’s up to you. Anything you can do to help the plants will be greatly appreciated by them, and they will reward you in kind in the summer.

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2018, November 2018, What to do in the garden

Time to do your future self a favor

The gardening season has pretty much wound down by now, and before the holiday season starts up and while the garden is still fresh in your mind, you can do your future self a favor and prepare for next spring, now, by getting organized so that when the time comes, you won’t be searching for blunt tools or wondering why your peony hoops have become inexorably tangled with the gardening twine. It’s rather like taking the time to put the Christmas lights away properly so that you won’t have a tangled nightmare next time you need them.

-While your gardening tools are all in one place (or if they aren’t in one place, get them in one place), go through them and see which ones can be sharpened and either sharpen them yourself or bring them to a professional. There are some inexpensive kits out there, and it’s not hard to do. Then rub a very light coat of oil on the blades to help prevent rust, and put them away somewhere where you will remember to find them in the spring! For more on this, click here.

-Sort through the area where you keep your gardening tools, and make sure that everything is in good shape. Get new wooden handles, if necessary, throw away anything which is beyond fixing, and clean off any soil from shovels and spades.

-Paint the wooden handles of your garden tools. I can’t tell you how many pairs of pruners I have lost, but I can tell you that the ones that I have had the longest have red or orange handles. Some came that way, but others I painted myself. I just taped off the business end of the tool and sprayed the handle scarlet. Not only are they easier to pick out when you have gotten distracted and put them down amongst the flowers, but people are far less likely to walk off with them thinking they are theirs!

-And finally, get the oil changed in any power equipment that you have that needs it. You wouldn’t want to wait until the first snowfall to get your snow blower serviced, and you wouldn’t want your string trimmer or blower to fail to start the first time you feel inspired to use it. We all know how long it takes for that inspiration to come back.

Just a few preparatory steps now and you will be patting yourself on the back in the spring. So go ahead! Set yourself up for success! You’ll be thanking yourself before you know it.

2018, October 2018, What to do in the garden

Hydrangea Health

Hydrangea

Hydrangeas are lovely plants. There is one for every situation – for shade, for sun, tall, short, giant flowers (mopheads) or more sedate lacy ones (lacecaps). There are some that grow to the size of small trees, some whose blossoms can change color based on the pH of the soil, and others that stay the same. They evoke an old fashioned feel, both in the ground and as cut flowers, either fresh or dried. No wonder people love them.

As much as people love them, though, they are also confused by them. Different types of Hydrangeas require different pruning times, and when you prune has a huge impact on whether or not you get blossoms the next year. And their stems often look quite dead in winter, when, in fact, they aren’t.

Luckily, there is help out there. I am attaching a wonderful brochure put out by Proven Winners which will guide you through the confusion. Below that will be a link so that you can download it for yourself, if you like. I am also attaching a link to a great Hydrangea pruning video put out by Fine Gardening. Between the two I think you will find that Hydrangeas are a lot less daunting, and you will be free to enjoy the incredible number of opportunities that are out there. Have fun!

Hydrangeas 1Hydrangeas 2

Click Here to download this as a pdf.

Click Here to access a great video on how to prune Hydrangeas. And for a good companion article, click here.

hydrangeas

2018, October 2018, What to do in the garden

Time to plant bulbs!

mixed spring bulbs

It’s time! Over the next two to three weeks, depending on your climate (I’m assuming Zones 4-6 for the purposes of this post) it is time to plant the bulbs that you have chosen for your garden. For the bigger ones, like Tulips or Daffodils, it makes sense to dig a hole for each one. If you have been really ambitious and have a lot of bulbs to plant, you can buy an auger bit that attaches to your drill and will make the “digging” a pleasure as long as your soil isn’t too rocky. (Just be sure you get one that is a little bit wider than your bulbs.) If you are planting a lot of little ones on one place, then its easier to dig an entire area to the depth needed, place the bulbs, and then carefully fill it in with soil. Digging hundreds of tiny holes will make you crazy. Space the holes at the proper distance apart for that type of bulb (usually stated on the packet). For a more natural look, space them in clumps, and don’t make the spacing as even.

The next question is, “How Deep?” This depends on what kind of bulb that you are talking about, but the general rule of thumb is to plant it 2-3 times deeper than the bulb is tall. So a good sized tulip bulb would be buried about 8 inches deep, whereas a small crocus bulb would be more like 4 inches.

Bulbs 2

Once you have the hole ready, you may wonder which way is up, especially if there aren’t any root remnants visible. In general, the flat end goes down and the pointy end up, but if you get one that you really aren’t sure about, plant it on its side and let the plant figure it out for itself. Plants are smart that way. (A side note: as a young gardener, I decided that I wanted to plant a row of Peonies. I ordered them through the mail, for some reason, and when they arrived, they were bare root – no soil. All there was to see was what looked like two bunches of worms attached by some fibrous stuff, some red and some white. I had absolutely no clue what to do with them, and after thinking about it for awhile, I planted them with the red “worms” down. I had a 50/50 chance, but had chosen wrongly and so had planted every single one upside down. I am pleased to say, however, that they righted themselves, and now, more than 20 years later, they still bloom every year. So, you see, plants can be very forgiving.)

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Once you have set them in their hole, carefully fill it in, and make sure that they are watered a little over the next few weeks. After that, you can forget about them until they show up in the spring and you pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Have fun!

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2018, October 2018, What to do in the garden

Time to transplant?

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For similar reasons to why it is a good time to plant plants in the fall, it can also be a good time to transplant them. (See the post from Sept 27th for why.) With transplanting, however, the plants aren’t neatly in pots, dying to be planted,  they are already growing in your garden, so you have to give a little more thought as to whether it’s a good idea to disturb them or not.

A decent rule of thumb is to transplant/divide spring blooming plants in the fall, and fall blooming plants in the spring. When a plant is blooming, it has just expended a lot of its energy to make those flowers, and will expend even more in the near future to set seed, so it doesn’t have a lot of spare energy to rebuild itself in a new place. So if you really wish that your Asters were in a different place, make note of it, and do both of you a favor and move them in the spring. But if your Lady’s Mantle has outgrown its space, by all means, cut it up and move it around.

Dividing perennials is an involved subject in itself. Tools needed can range from a simple trowel to an axe or a saw (I’m not kidding!) And it’s always preferable to do a quick Google search on the particular plant that you are about to divide, in case it has any peculiarities. (Baptisia, and other plants with tap roots, for example, do not like being transplanted or divided much at all, so it’s best to know that going in.) But in general, when you divide something, you need to make sure that you have a decent amount of both root and shoot (stems) on each piece that you plan on putting back in the soil. That ensures that there are enough food gathering parts (the leaves) and water gathering parts (the roots) to help get the plant established.

 

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Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is an ephemeral, which means that it blooms in the spring but then goes completely dormant in the summer, dying down below the ground. This needs to be divided after flowering, or you’ll never find it again. I recommend putting in some sort of marker once you have transplanted it so you don’t dig it up again by mistake.
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Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis) is the plant with the chartreuse flowers in this picture. This plant flowers in June and can be divided easily in the fall. The Geraniums in the picture (the magenta and purplish-blue ones) can also be divided in fall.
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This is one of the tall Sedums – ‘Neon’, maybe? Sedums flower in the fall so would be something to transplant and divide in the Spring. They take to division really well, although I’d recommend a nice sharp horticultural knife or spade to help you along, unless you have very strong hands!
anemone
Japanese Anemones don’t really like being divided much, and don’t really need it more than once every 10 years or so. When you do, do it in the early spring, when the first leaves start to emerge, so that the plant can have a good long time to recover.

 

As with any new introduction to the ground, an important thing is to water, water, water! As plants go into winter, they need a good store of moisture in their cells to help them survive. Transplanting and dividing on a rainy day is a great start.

So if you’re in a “tidying up” frame of mind, and want to move some things around, the next week or so is a great time to do it for certain plants. (It’s no coincidence that I send these blog entries out just before the weekend… 🙂  )

2018, September 2018, What to do in the garden

A good time to plant

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I get asked a lot if fall is too late to plant trees, shrubs, and perennials, and the answer is a resounding “No”. In the fall, they are starting to get ready to retire for the winter, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the strength to establish themselves- quite the contrary. In the fall, perennials, trees, and shrubs don’t have to spend their energy on making leaves and flowers and attracting pollinators, so what energy they have can be used for root growth and getting settled in their new place.

Some caveats apply – if the summer has been very dry, and the plants seem stressed in their pots because they haven’t gotten enough water, you might want to pass them by and find others that have been better cared for. You don’t want to start with a stressed plant.

Also, if it’s a dry fall, and there is water rationing, it’s better to wait until spring when hopefully more water will be available. Just like any other time that you are planting, the new plants need to be well watered for several weeks in order to do well.

In New England, it’s best to stop by Halloween. But until then, as long as there is enough water, you can have great success with new plants. And sometimes they are on sale, because nurseries are often looking to get rid of stock so they don’t have to overwinter it. Win-win!

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