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Gardening Column

A Slow Bird Gets The Worms
by Marjorie Harris
April 9, 2000

When I look at the mess left in the garden under the guise of forage for the birds, I want to get out there like a good little housewife and clean up. But I don't. I'm not lazy-it's just that all those leaves lying about are fodder for worms. And if there's one thing I want slaving madly away in this garden, it's worms. They will replace several helpers by cleaning up the leaves, certainly; but they also do all the work of cultivating (mixing up the earth as they move around) and feeding the soil (worm poop). Soil is a complicated medium that doesn't need a lot of help unless it's completely dead. No worms and you'll know you've got a problem.

Right now, when things look dreariest, is the time to assess what's good and bad about the garden. Walk around. Take pictures. Spend some time just staring it at it and figuring out where you've let it down. If you want to plant early blooming perennials for next year consider the following: hellebores, primroses, violas, Phlox divaricata and P. stolonifera; Dicentra eximia 'Luxuriant', Aquelegia 'Nora Barlow' and epimediums. You'll have a tapestry of spring colour.

THE CAVEATS

Don't rush about with a rake scraping the garden clean it's an invitation for erosion and plant damage. Just remove fallen branches, big dead hosta leaves and winter damaged stems and branches, and do it by hand. Don't rush things. Don't plant too early, and don't start moving things around until the bulb season is almost over. Don't worry about the bulbs if we get one more bad storm (and we will no matter where we live in this country). Bulbs can take care of themselves. As for the rest of the plants, there's nothing much you can do about it except wait until the ground thaws and the temperatures stay up. In warmer parts of the country, you'll be able to do all of the chores below, while the rest of us wait for temperatures to climb to start serious garden prep.

THE SOIL

This will be the basis of all your plant selections. If you have relentlessly alkaline soil, then you won't be planting ericaceous plants such as rhododendrons and azaleas. Get your soil tested by mixing soil from different parts of the garden in a quart jar. Take it to a garden or agricultural centre where it can be tested. Ask for an evaluation for organic gardening. You don't want to start tossing a pile of chemicals on those hapless worms.

Be sure to turn over the compost, and add new material you've picked up around the garden. That would be large dead leaves that look yucky. Kitchen parings and leaves you've saved from last autumn. Things will start percolating in there very quickly if you add a little manure or blood meal to the top.

CREATING A NEW BED

As soon as it's possible to put a shovel into the ground, block out the area for the new bed using twine.

  • Cut out the sod, shake out as much of the soil as possible and set this aside on a drop sheet or an old plastic shower curtain. Drop the sod, green side down, into the bed which should be dug to at least 6 inches deep.

  • Go to the nearest liquor or grocery store and get a bunch of cardboard boxes. Flatten them and then put them on top of the upside down sod. One or two layers will do just fine.

  • Add four inches of soil to the top of the cardboard layer and then add about 2 inches of mulch. This will break down rapidly (though the sod will take a year to break down completely) and should be in good shape for popping in plants by the 3rd week of May.

  • To really speed things up, solarize: add a sheet of black plastic held down by bricks over the newly dug area. If there are any weed seeds it will kill them off. Keeps animals from using it as litter.

START SEEDS OF QUICK GERMINATING ANNUALS:

Frankly, I'd rather just buy sets when they are available from the nursery in the middle of May. But growing your own seeds is cheaper and you can get a wider variety. It may be too late to start many plants, but there are several that germinate in six weeks or so. Try Zinnias and marigolds which are both sure-fire.

Here's what to do:

  • Read the instructions about how deep to plant them (every seed's going to need its own depth and these guys know what they are doing).

  • Fill seed trays with packaged soilless soil and then plant to the right dept making holes with a pencil or chop stick.

  • Make sure you leave the tray in a warm moist atmosphere (also check to see if germination needs light or dark conditions); cover with plastic and be vigilant with misting.

  • Transplant into a larger container once you see leaves form.

  • Harden off before you put them outside in May by leaving them out during the day and bringing in at night. Just make sure 'all' chance of frost is past.

WHACKING BACK

Pruning is one of those spring chores where it's possible to get carried away. You have to use a little judgement and extremely sharp clean tools. A couple of rules and some tips:

  1. Always prune for shape. Unfortunately you see a lot of shrubs that look weird because they've been sheered from the outside in. Don't. If you can, lie under a shrub and see how it's formed. Then cut out anything that crosses, rubs against another stem or appears to be dead. You can figure out the latter by using a magnifying glass to check for life.

  2. Anything you prune now, won't bloom for at least three months. Keep your hands off any spring blooming plant until after the flowers are spent, unless a branch or stem is dead.

  • Cut back ornamental grasses to about three inches from the ground. They will perk up and look just great in a few weeks.

  • Take out all those irritating suckers you find around cherry trees, lilacs and nut trees.

  • There's a great temptation to cut back silver plants way too soon. Wait until you see solid growth at the base of lavenders, santolina, artemisias, buddliea, or caryopteris before you touch them no matter how gruesome they look.

  • Cut vines such as sweet autumn clematis (C. terniflora); and C. jackmanii to about a foot from the ground. Trim back autumn-blooming vines like bittersweet to the main trunk.

  • Now is the time get the clippers going on the wisteria. Prune for form and leave at least two buds from the main stem if you want it to flower. Prune again in the summer.

THINK TRENDY

Most gardeners don't care a hoot about having a trendy garden. But there is one trend you should consider seriously: Xeriscaping. This means gardening with the water that nature provides. First principle of gardening is right plant for the right place. So choose plants that require as little water as possible if you are in a dry situation. In Ontario we're having a drought; on the west coast its been too wet. In those dry places lean towards Mediterranean plants such as lavenders and artemisias. In wet places, look for bog-loving plants.

  • Change your watering habits. Think about investing in a really good watering can that you can carry around easily and water plants by hand.

  • Use stones as a mulch. They will hold water in the ground and provide warmth for plants. A stone mulch should only be applied to exposed sites, not under trees (it would drive you nuts trying to keep leaves off).

CONTAINERS

  • It's too early to put plants in containers, but get them ready:

  • Remove any left over soil and toss it into the compost.

  • Take a large brush and scrub out each container rinsing with clean water.

  • Add a few stones, twigs, horticultural cloth, or anything to the bottom that will allow the water to run out but keep the soil inside.

  • Fill with potting soil to about an inch from the top.

  • Jam them as full as you can with the glorious hardy pansies and violas that are available right now. Get some colour as early as you can and everything else will fall into place.

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