Garden Editing, Work Reminders and Forcing Branches of Spring

Can’t say I never met a plant I didn’t like – there are hundreds you couldn’t pay me to grow – but I do love far too many. Plus I’m a patsy for garden porn, easily swayed by catalogs that look like Frederick’s of Sissinghurst. As a result, spring around here is a constant struggle, a tug of war between loving plants and loving the garden itself.

Recall the gardens that struck a chord and it’s likely you’ll think first of a long view, framed but unobstructed, or a wide slice of sky between trees, a smooth lawn bordered with flowers, or maybe a waving hedge of tall grasses next to a flagged patio – nary a blossom in sight … in all these cases, place trumps plants: great gardens are always edited .

Even crammed-in cottage gardens, famously places where plants are “riotous,” that riot has harmony and rhythm. One or two orange lilies popping up in the middle of a small bed filled with a haze of bluish perovskia and pale purple verbena would look great. But if in addition there were also a couple of white phlox, a magenta coneflower, and 2 or 3 red and white roses …

Well, trust me. No.

In other words, the mantra for today is: take out the things that stuck out last year, and try to think of where that sexy new black elderberry, red monarda or gold-leafed heuchera is going to go before you plonk down your money.

This week’s garden tips:

* Weed. Weed , and then weed some more. Roots come easily out of cool, wet soil, and if you get evil actors like garlic mustard now, before they get a chance to flower, you’re well on the road to control… at least in selected spots.

* Have you cut down your big grasses yet? Removed all the artistic dead stuff you left last fall to add winter interest? If you do it NOW, you can just use hedge shears to slice everything off at the base, a couple of inches from the ground. Wait two weeks – or one – or maybe five minutes, and the new growth will be in the way.

In theory, you should have a wheelbarrow with you, so you can haul away the debris, but screw that. It’s more important to just leap out there and get stuff done whenever you can spare a few minutes. The world is largely one big debris pile at the moment anyway, it’s not going to make much difference if there’s a bit more of it lying around for a few days.

Of course, you don’t want to leave it around for long, any more than you want to let blown leaves sit on the new grass and kill it. First non-windy day, get out there and rake.

* This is also a good time to renew what I call fountain-growers, pliable-stemmed shrubs that are prettiest when allowed to grow tall and drape over gracefully. Standard wisdom advises pruning in late spring or early summer, after whatever-it-is has bloomed, so you don’t lose any flowers. But that’s just when you have about 40,000 other things to do; and you won’t “lose” any of the flowers if you bring the pruned branches indoors and let them bloom in the vase.

Forsythia is the best-known fountain-grower, but this group also includes kerria, mock orange, wiegela, deutzia, and spirea. They all bloom on year old stems and on year old stems that grow from trunks that are 2 to 4 years old. Trunks older than 4 or 5 no longer send out much new growth, so you have to keep new trunks coming if you want fountains of flowers. ( Simply pruning part way back makes a bristly thicket with polka dots. Not pretty.)

*To manage an old, established shrub, simply cut one trunk at the base each year. Allow 2 or 3 strong new shoots to rise from the ground, choosing those that are reasonably close to the one you’re cutting. Remove the other sprouts so things don’t get crowded.
To manage younger plants, do nothing for the first 3 years, then start the oldest trunk routine.

* To force pruned branches indoors: In addition to those listed above, magnolia , apple, crabapple, flowering cherry, and plum ( which in bloom smells just like cheap incense) are all likely bets. When you get the branches indoors, use a sharp pruner or heavy knife to split the stems several times, then immerse in a bucket of room-temperature water and store in a cool – not cold – place, out of direct sun, until the buds swell and start to open. Change the water every few days.

When the branches are ready to display, rinse the stems and recut them before arranging. It is almost impossible to go wrong with these, big blowsy bunches in pitchers look great, small twigs in tiny bud vases look nifty too. But it’s hard to beat the Japanese effect, if you have those heavy, shallow flower-holders with the spikes on the bottom. One blooming branch arching upward therefrom is almost too beautiful to bear ( also too tempting to the kitten; this year all our branches are in – and then pulled from – the biggest, heaviest vases we’ve got.)

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