Spring pruning begins

Inspired by clear blue skies and a forecast of 61F, I grabbed the chance to get out in the garden for two hours this morning. I’m determined not to pay for it in stress later in the afternoon. Slowing down is important.

What I’ve been calling the blue slope garden is what I see when I approach my house from the street. It faces west and south, and is terribly hot and dry in the summer. It is backed by a medium-sized Magnolia grandiflora that could do with a bit of perking up, but that’s a post for another day. Because it’s so highly visible, naturally I want this garden to look good. I gathered soil samples for a much-needed soil test, and by the time I get the report it will probably be warm enough to start fertilizing.

I raked out all the fallen leaves (note to self: do this much earlier next year, as some of the plants you’re growing want excellent winter drainage, which is not exactly what mounds of wet leaves provide!) and cut back the Leymus ‘Blue Dune,’ the Perovskia atriplicifolia, and the straggly bits of Santolina that suffered from being smothered last summer by a particularly vigorous Ipomoea batatas. I trimmed back the Ruta graveolens, which is starting to show new growth. Mine tends to get rather leggy, but perhaps my soil test will guide me to better cultivation this year.

I have been reading about how to prune effectively for best displays of foliage, flowers, or fruit. According to Lee Reich, Callicarpa is one of the shrubs that benefits from pruning hard to the ground each spring. It blooms on new wood, the wood that grows in the current season, so cutting it back hard should produce very vigorous and lush new growth and loads of flowers and electric-purple berries in the fall.

I hope. Putting my faith in Mr. Reich, I took a deep breath and whacked my Callicarpas to the ground. I will be watching anxiously this spring to see whether my faith was properly invested. If not, I’ll have a ghastly hole in my planting and my nose will be firmly out of joint.

callicarpa before 2

Callicarpa ‘Issei’ before…

callicarpa after 2

Callicarpa ‘Issei’ after the whack. I need to clean up the cuts; a few are ragged. To do: sharpen my pruners!


Butterfly-friendly plants

Part of the fun of sowing all these seeds is the need to plan what to do with them.

On the last day of winter vacation from school, I took the kids to the local science museum. A visit to the butterfly house–always one of my favorite spots–inspired me to dig through the seed packets and see what butterfly-friendly plants I might grow for next year.DSC_0755

Butterfly gardening is not an entirely new concept to me, but thus far I’ve preferred to plant for hummingbirds. But who can resist butterflies? It’s time to add to the mix. So I started Datura ‘Ballerina Yellow‘ and a pan of mixed hibiscus. DSC_0771

I already have plenty of rue and bronze fennel, which are terrific host plants. Amsonia, coreopsis, and Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) are also ones I both own and have sown this winter. And Maryland wild senna, which will be a new one for me this year, is a primary host for butterflies from the sulphur family.

blue morpho cropped DSC_0771I’m limited in the area of my garden that receives full sun, but I’ll pepper these plants around where I can. The Joe Pye and Amsonia can go in the blue slope, the coreopsis can go on the south-side walkway, and the Maryland wild senna can go in a few different spots, to see where it will thrive.

Here’s a good primer on butterfly gardening, if you care to learn more.

Winter zeal

It’s not much of a winter around here lately, with temperatures in the 50s and 60s. But the trees are bare and the landscape is otherwise fairly bleak. My outlook, however, is anything but, as I have become newly converted to the technique of winter sowing.

Winter sowing is the cheap and lazy gardener’s expressway to paradise. The idea is to take advantage of nature’s cycles of temperature and moisture fluctuations and to allow seeds to do what they have evolved to do. I have only had moderate success with seeds in the past, because while I’ve started off well, at some point life always got busy and I neglected to water them, and the seedlings dried out, or otherwise succumbed to damping off. I suppose that’s still going to be possible with winter sowing, but perhaps in the absence of central heating and arid indoor air, they’ll fare better.

I joined Garden Web’s Winter Sowing forum, and took advantage of their newbie seed offering. A kind soul in Ohio gathers saved seed from other winter sowers around the country, and compiles free packets of seeds for those of us new to the technique. I got my package a few days ago and I was giddy with excitement!

DSC_0002After supper, I dug out the saved milk cartons and Chinese take-out pans, filled them with my favorite shredded coir mix, and sowed Ruta graveolens, Digitalis (sp. unknown); soapwort (Saponaria officinalis), English lavender, and Maryland wild senna (Senna marilandica), an important host plant. Full description of a proven winter sowing technique can be found here.

I must spend all available days between now and April preparing ground for these little guys. But I’ve got the shredded leaves ready to till in. I can’t wait to see how this experiment goes!

Rain delay

This morning, it’s finally raining. We’ve been without rain for some weeks; officially, we’re in a moderate drought. It’s nice to see the rain barrels filling back up.

Rain days are the only thing that slow me down. I’ve noticed that when I feel like my plate is overfull with responsibilities and to-do items, I tend to flee to the nearest garden center for retail-horticultural therapy. I cannot promise myself to only get one item. While I never spend so much as to get into debt, I do from time to time feel a bit guilty about indulging in plant shopping when I could be alleviating my stress by actually turning to the work to be done and getting cracking.

There are three areas of the garden that are under active development. One of them is the front slope near the driveway, a barren plot about 20′ x 20′ devoid of organic matter, nutrition, drainage, or anything else. Except for the orange double daylilies which are strikingly similar to those planted along interstate highways around here. There’s a reason why those are the flower of choice.

blue slope

I am referring to this spot in my mind as the “blue slope” because I’m renovating the area in a blue palette, with touches of red-violet for punch. It gets western sun and is about as far from a water source as it’s possible to be, so I must force myself to refrain from planting the David Austin rose ‘Tradescant’ there….we’ll see how I hold out.

Last fall, I excavated the top four or five inches of soil from the northeast quadrant of the plot, and disposed of it because it Liriope spicata was running rampant through it. The only way to be rid of it is to dig it out entirely, and then be prepared to do spot removal for the rest of one’s life. They emerge from little white bubble like tubers, and creep via rhizomes throughout the toughest, driest, most obstinate soil. The smallest one seems to be able to repopulate a garden in short order.

I brought in a load of grit to improve drainage, and several yards of composted horse manure and tilled it in. Still awaiting the results of the soil test. If I were good, I would do the soil test first, and then plant after I had tilled in the necessary lime and so forth. But I’m not. I cannot wait to plant, so I do the necessary soil drainage and improvement work and wait for the test results later. I planted three Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ and five Eleymus something or other (still looking for that tag, you see). Mulched with a decent pine bark mulch and dug in about two cups of lime per plant. I assure you, that’s only a start. They seem to be doing very well. Also planted four Ruta graveolens from 2-inch cell packs. They may or may not be ‘Jackson’s Blue;’ I am not sure about that. They seem to be struggling along for the moment, but I expect they’ll take off well enough in April. Maybe by then the soil test results will be back.

Also planted about forty Allium azureum and half a dozen Allium ‘Globemaster.’ The Globemasters are already pushing up through the mulch, but I’m not seeing the azureums yet.

I managed to leave well enough alone through the winter, as we were finishing up a kitchen renovation and we had the holidays to deal with.

Then last Thursday, in a fit of delight over 75 degree weather in February, I fled to the plant store in search of Sambucus ‘Black Lace.’ Didn’t find it, but did find two Callicarpa dichotoma ‘Issai,’ two Salvia guaranitica, and three Santolina chamaecyparissus, which are happily installed. Actually, the santolinas are in a temporary spot, as I really can’t carry on with the development of the front slope until I get some large rocks installed. (My husband is thrilled.) I am looking forward to fall, when the Callicarpas will display their metallic violet fruit. I hope it resists the birds long enough for me to appreciate it.

Salvia 'Argentine Skies'

I am guilty of wandering off to the next project when the last is only 75% complete. If I have a New Year’s resolution, it’s to finish what I start. Now that I have declared it so, you may gently hold me to it.

I’ll let you in on the other areas under development in my next post. I must turn to the other things on the to-do list, like the 20 people coming over for brunch in the morning.