A method to the madness of Spring

Pussy willows like this Salix chaenomeloides 'Mt. Aso' can be cut all the way to the ground after flowering to keep them from getting leggy. Pussy willows like this Salix chaenomeloides 'Mt. Aso' can be cut all the way to the ground after flowering to keep them from getting leggy.

***** willows like this Salix chaenomeloides 'Mt. Aso' can be cut all the way to the ground after flowering to keep them from getting leggy.

***** willows like this Salix chaenomeloides ‘Mt. Aso’ can be cut all the way to the ground after flowering to keep them from getting leggy.

Spring is finally working its way in (never mind last week’s snow). It has to be. The calendar says so. The redwing blackbirds have been back for weeks. The ***** willows are out and the maples have begun to look lightly dusted in fall colors. (It’s almost as if they’re reminding us not to get too attached.) Crocus and Iris reticulata have bloomed. Daffodils are…well, they’re up and budded and we can be fairly certain they’ll start blaring trumpets one of these days. Whenever the wind isn’t blowing a gale the sun feels as warm and comforting as a bath. I’m itching to be outside. I can’t wait to roughen my winter-soft hands, stretch my back muscles, and get the garden started.
I just don’t want my excitement about spring to shift to panic. I need to remember that there’s plenty of time to get to it all. I am pretty sure that I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed if only I could be methodical about everything that needs doing now. If only I could stick to one task or one section of the garden at a time without spotting, all the way across my tiny property, something else that desperately needs doing and then trying to tackle that too. Distraction is inevitable — especially in a garden — but I feel certain that I’d be able to keep my wits about me if I didn’t also notice, on my way from here to there, by way of the shed, say for loppers, ten more plants that need the attention of my snips or spade. Requiring another trip back to the shed.
Lists help. Or would if I wrote them down. A game plan with a goal in mind might be even better. So, the goal I’m aiming for this spring — every spring — is to clear the clutter and open up some spaces in the garden for more late season color.
First things first. I’m probably the last gardener in the neighborhood to cut back old stems and seedheads. As soon as that’s done it will be high time to prune the roses and other summer blooming shrubs like butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), Spiraea japonica, bush clover (Lespedeza thunbergii) and summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) down to the ground or to within 12” or so. Those plants — along with most deciduous shrubs and trees that bloom on new wood — will rebound from dormant buds with multi-stemmed new growth, lush foliage, plenty of flowers, and a more compact shape.
My enormous Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Eva’) and ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) could stand a hard pruning too but I’m reluctant to lose all of their summer flowers (they both bloom on last year’s wood) so I’ll stick to my resolution to prune about a third back annually. I have to wait for my beautiful but rangy ***** willow (Salix chaenomeloides ‘Mt. Aso’) and winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) to finish blooming before cutting them all the way to the ground to encourage tidier clusters of stems.
Only after the garden is cut back and pruned will there be room to wield a spade, which is what I’m really itching to do. And with any luck, by the time I’m ready to do all the digging, dividing, editing, redistributing, and planting I have on my (mental) list the weather will be warm enough to set the garden off and running.
From the distance of this page, with the whole season stretching ahead, and knowing there can be a method to the madness, it all seems very doable. Like there’s no need to feel crazy and rushed. If spring can take its time working its magic on the garden, so can we.

Kristin Green is the interpretive horticulturist at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum and author of “Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants that Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter” (Timber Press). Follow Blithewold’s garden blog at http://blog.blithewold.org.

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