In my lifelong quest for infallibility,
I have come up short yet again. Last fall I predicted
a long hard winter. So far winter has been the usual
length and not particularly hard. Barring end-of-season
snow or ice storms, we may end up with a prolonged early
This is both a blessing and a curse for
gardeners. The mild weather makes it a joy to be outside,
but it is still too soon to do many garden chores.
Of course you could just accept the fact that the
weather is out of sync with the season and clean your
cellar instead of going out in the garden. Fortunately,
I don’t know many gardeners who would choose that option.
A soft late winter day is the perfect time to be outside
soaking up the sunshine and shaking off the lingering
effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder. The pundits
who write garden books will tell you that this is also
the perfect time to do things like sharpening tools.
As much as I treasure a good sharp pair of loppers,
I, for one, do not spend sunny days sharpening tools.
There are many more interesting and useful things to
do, and there is no time like the present.
First there are the snowdrops. They are blooming
now, and there is no time like the present to divide
clumps and sprinkle them around your yard. Snowdrops
should be divided during or just after they bloom.
Otherwise the foliage dies back and you can’t find them.
Dividing snowdrops every year is a great way to accomplish
the “carpet of flowers” effect that is on display in
the pages of all the English gardening magazines at
this time of year. Being American, you will probably
never live in a 600-year-old former abbey. You can,
however, imitate someone who does by cultivating a bounteous
array of snowdrops.
And then there is pruning, the fire-breathing dragon
of horticulture. Some people hate it, others fear it,
and more than a few avoid it all together. In my community,
many property owners slay the pruning dragon in true
medieval style by hiring burly young men with formidable
weapons to joust with the rampaging shrubbery. I happen
to like pruning, especially at this time of year, because
it makes things look so trim and tidy. This is the
time to get your lilacs back into shape. Butterfly
bushes (Buddleia), those “summer lilacs” should also
be trimmed back to about 18-inches tall now, so that
they will be lush and full next summer rather than sparse
and leggy. Rose of Sharon (Hybiscus syraicus) is much
more tolerable if it is cut back every year. If you
didn’t get to the chore last fall (or the fall before
or the one before that) there is no time like the present.
Don’t worry about sacrificing next summer’s blooms.
Rose of Sharon is so vigorous that it will take the
pruning as a sign of undying affection, and produce
a bumper crop.
You can prune your forsythia, pussy willow or flowering
quince in the next few weeks and harvest the branches
for indoor displays. This is especially satisfactory
with forsythia, which spends most of the year looking
like a weedy leftover, and only shines for a short time
in the spring. Bringing it under control and making
the most of the flowering branches during the plant’s
few weeks of glory is the only way to justify the space
it takes up.
The other day I went to work pruning several of my
large hybrid musk rose bushes. Normally I indulge their
tendency to sprawl around in relaxed fashion, but lately
the ones along the driveway have been attacking the
contractors’ trucks and other visiting vehicles. Now
that I have trimmed back the long canes and eliminated
some weak cross branches, the bushes look one hundred
percent better. I will surround each one with ring
of compost to encourage strong growth.
Generally I prune the roses back by about one third.
I have high hopes this year of getting to all but the
newest bushes. With luck this effort will bring me
extra armloads of flowers come late spring and summer.
The mailman and various contractors will able to get
up the front walk and driveway without being snagged,
which means everyone will be in a better mood.
Unless we have an exceptionally rainy spring and summer,
we will probably be in a low water situation during
the growing season. Now is the time to prepare for
drought. Soaker hoses are not particularly sexy, but
they can be lifesavers for waterloving shrubs such as
rhododendrons, azaleas and hydrangeas. Buy the hoses
now, so you will be ready for the season. Outside you
can tidy up garden beds made messy by gusty winter winds.
Winter mulch should stay on about another month longer,
but you can certainly rake it back into place.
Finally, make a trip to the nearest sporting goods
store or pro shop and buy some golf tees. Then, as
the crocuses, snowdrops, daffodils and tulips show their
heads, use the tees to mark positions of clumps of plants.
Not everyone makes a planting diagram of their garden,
but just about everyone can stick a golf tee in the
soft earth. The tees are not particularly noticeable
and serve a useful purpose. Next fall when you want
to plant new bulbs, you won’t have to stand around like
a squirrel trying to figure out where all your old ones