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 spring.
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 are buried.