SPRING NEWSLETTER – 2016
I hardly know what season to call this. Spring somewhere and summer temperatures other places. After a bout of hip surgery, eye surgery and dental woes, I feel like the Bionic Woman and absolutely raring to go in the garden. But slowly.
All through April, I didn’t think this bounty was ever going to happen—proving T. S. Eliot to be so right—it is definitely the cruelest month. And here in southern Ontario, we have little or no rain. My litmus test for our area has always been the height of the flood in the back garden. But this year, we could handle it much too easily. The ground water depth dropped dramatically and it’s not being replaced. Things are usually very boggy at this time of year. But a winter of no snow, not a lot of precipitation and we’re looking at a very dry warm summer. These are dangerous days.
The important job is make sure all your big plants (trees, shrubs and large perennials) have lots of water. Dump a bucket or two around them right now and then continue to be vigilant. Don’t worry about the perennials because they are pretty tough especially when well-sited (read those labels). But if you have anything fragile, now is the time to be careful.
Don’t step into the borders: it compacts soil and makes things more difficult for plants and soil health. Your aim is to have lovely loose, friable soil with a high content of humus. This does for most plants. We add duck compost to the gardens we tend but only those that didn’t get it last year. So mine is not getting it this year which is just as well. The growth spurt can be watched from day to day and it is astounding now.
How this particular cinquefoil escaped earlier patrols of the garden is beyond me. I know that leaving the weeding for late spring is not a good idea. It takes more work especially with those, like this one, which have a deep tap root. This year there has been an extravagant amount of pollen doing it’s damnedest to make life hell. You’ll see little things scattered all over the place. Get them out as quickly as possible.
Weeders: we use Japanese and Korean hand weeders, both lethal weapons and fairly easy on the arms. As I grow older, finding easy tools has become a whole project in itself.
Always weed just after a rain if possible, the soil will give up things so much more easily. And after you’ve finished disturbing things—gently water again. The soil is such a delicate medium that the more scratching around and mucking about the more likely it is to germinate weed seeds and mess up the profile it has worked so hard to establish.
If you have healthy birch trees, be very careful around the whole drip line. Birches eventually set up a complex relationship with the micorrhiza in the soil and if you come along with machines, even a benign shovel, you’ll probably make things more difficult.
Last year saw the strangest thing happening to a mature beech: Fagus sylvestris ‘Roseomarginata’. One of the focal points in my garden. It started to shed leaves so early I called in Derek Welsh our arbourist. His take was to leave it alone, get any plants away from the base because somewhere along the line the root system had been disturbed.
Trees look so imposing when they get big, you think nothing will hurt them. But this is so wrong. We keep forgetting just how and where the roots are travelling. When you buy a new tree, or even muse over an old one, always study the shape of the root system. Then eyeball where you can do anything. And try not to crowd them.
I’ve just lost my city tree: a hundred and ten year old Silver Maple. I have looked after this tree since 1967, so when asked if I was attached to it or not I didn’t start to cry, but I certainly felt weepy. I have managed to live with this old monster, keep it fed, planting companions and dodging the falling branches that come with old age. What we could not have predicted is just how much things have changed with the tree gone: so much light is coming in to the house I’m wearing sunglasses as I write. The plants are going to go berserk and any rain that comes down actually gets into the soil
It will be replaced with my all time favourite: a Kentucky Coffee Tree (Gymnocladus dioicus). But I was a bit startled when the forestry inspector said: “Oh they like a warmer climate.” Well then, how come I have one growing in my back yard and there are two down the street? We are on the edge of the Carolinian forest and this is a superb tree. Long and tall with a glorious lacey canopy from late spring to late autumn. Sort of dead stick-ish in winter but it will let in needed light at that time.
I decided on this one because my neighbour has a fairly large Oak Tree and the two canopies won’t interfere with each other. They will be an odd couple but everything on our street is dying and we’ve already got a couple of Tulip Trees, which would be another contender. This time we are building a mixed forest which no one understood in an earlier era when they planted nothing but maple trees (native and alien). They looked for fast growth and quick shade. Now we’re looking for diversity and longevity.
The change in the ecology around the house is staggering. But I’ve been planting enough things to mitigate some of the intensity as you can see in the picture above.
Great time to prune and get them into shape. The usual rule is to let them flower first and then go for elegance. If you can see some obvious dead stuff get it out immediately. Later on prune for shape, crossing branches (I see this so often it’s why I keep mentioning it) and never take out more than a third of the volume of the plant. You don’t start whacking at the exterior and cut back by a third, you take out a third of the stems and branches. But no more.
A well-pruned garden makes all the difference. When we go out to open up a garden in spring, here’s what we do:
- Leave most of the leaves alone unless they are matted and wet.
- Add a thick layer of duck compost around all the major plants and over some of the perennials.
- Make really well defined edges. What a difference this makes. It’s a lot of work but when you clear stones, driveways or paths of any soil that’s erodes into them, the shape of the garden starts to emerge much like seeing a good line in a drawing. We extend borders, re-shape them by digging a V-shaped trench. Remove crappy soil, weed and then add good black garden soil with a little sand added. Top with mulch.
- Every plant that needs a haircut gets it—like making something blurry come into focus and look regal. Grasses are cut back, big perennials left over the winter to feed birds and most shrubs and low hanging branches of trees get a whacking. The rest we leave to a certified arbourist such as Derek, who will make the call on what should be pruned now and what later.
Here’s an overgrown shady garden we tidied up this week. The dead cedars will be removed by the nursery that sold them to the homeowner and did a really terrible job of planting them. Once that’s done, this area is ripe for soil repair, and a gorgeous replanting. It’s a great base to rework the whole back garden and make this a true urban oasis.
This year, I have had nothing but complaints about squirrel damage, dog damage etc. In the past I’ve recommended putting a mild solution of ammonia near areas where dogs pee. Well that turns out to be wrongo. That smells yummy just like pee. Have a look at: www.bitterapple.com Usually available in pet stores. It might do the trick. Of course training the owners would help but you can’t get a spray for that.
Be sure and sniff the air, check where there are holes to be filled and wait patiently for May 24th to put out annuals anywhere but Vancouver and Victoria.
Tradition Japanese Weeders (right hand only available) www.leevalley.com
Derek Welsh, Authentic Tree Care 1-888.366.2273 (Toronto and cottage country)
Marjorie Harris Gardens: 416.531.3774 (we work in Toronto, Mississauga and Oakville)
Marjorie Harris 2016