I know that April has been called “the cruellest month”, but with all due respect to Eliot, since we moved north, I’ve found it each year to be March. (Of course, we might not be writing of exactly the same thing.) Despite the bad PR for rainy Seattle, summer is usually lovely up here, sunny with little rain and temps in the 70’s. Autumn is my favorite season. I love to crunch through the fallen leaves, wrap up in scarves and gloves, savor hot drinks by the fire. Winter has its consolations too. Grey days beckon warm soups and staying indoors, playing in the (occasional) snow, cozy hours in lamplight with good books. I can just manage it through February. And maybe it’s because I grew up in Southern California (the four seasons there are: Earthquake, Fire, Flood and Drought) but by March it should be springtime, and I am done with the cold. DONE. WITH. THE. COLD. But this March has been a delight. We had a very warm and sunny winter (sorry, East Coast) and spring is popping out everywhere. Trees are blooming, green buds are showing, and while it’s not exactly a riot of color around here, it’s a big improvement on the bare branches and grey skies that usually predominate about now. Even the deer have noticed and are wandering and running through more often. I counted six in the old pasture just the other day! (One ran off while I was getting the camera.)
Because it can be so waterlogged and cold now, we don’t usually start working much in the garden. But this year is begging us to get out there and prepare for summer. As our property is a couple of acres and abuts a stream, much of it is left in its semi-wild state, but even keeping the forest from encroaching takes some work. And remember how I said my lovely teacher-daughter is getting married this summer? Yes, well, while that is mostly joyous news, it does mean we will be having lots people to the house.
Which leads me to the most salient feature about that: NO ONE can know how we really live! Which is: often more interested in enjoying the view from the balcony or backyard with a mug of tea or a glass of wine and a good book (or a nap) than spending that time on the endless amount of gardening we should do. So there is much work to bring the place up to snuff before the happy occasion. An early start is just what we need. The first week-end of March was sunny and about 60, so we headed out to get some work done.
We usually try to do a pretty good clean up in fall, but inevitably some things just get missed. This year we didn’t get to cutting down the iris, crocsimia and etc. types of bulbs, so we’ve looked at their ugly fallen foliage from the windows all winter. THAT was first on my list. Dead peony stalks were next. Clipping the left over daylily leaves – they are usually an ephemeral plant up here, but this year we never had them go completely dormant.
Mr. Wow (or Karlo) doesn’t like to watch me do the pruning around here, (in fact he calls me “Freddy Krueger”) but as I keep explaining to him, in the plant world as well as in the human world, sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. I use “Cass Turnbull’s Guide to Pruning” as my first go-to book because she’s so easy to read and a local too, but of course the internet has lots to say as well.
The Hardy Fuchsia is a great plant for up here as they can weather the frosts and occasional snow, and still bloom profusely through the summer straight to the first frosts. You don’t need to prune them heavily in spring, but because mine are directly on the path to the front door, I do so that it looks neater until the plants start to bloom. I cut them back hard to about 5″ once the branches start to green up at the base. They always fill in nicely and bloom until late fall.
Western Sword Ferns are abundant natives, and although they don’t require it, their appearance is much improved by a short top-and-sides haircut in March. Cut off all the existing fronds, and you will reveal this years new fronds curled up and ready to unfurl. It keeps the size slightly in check, but mostly gets rid of all the ugly brown undergrowth. If you wait too long, you risk cutting out the new fronds as well.
Spiraea is an early blooming plant that grows easily here, and while leafless in winter, lightens up the garden with chartreuse foliage in spring, delicate flowers in summer and often beautiful fall colors of copper and gold. They would like a good pruning in late fall or early spring, but make sure it’s before it is leafing out as you will trim off the new flowers. Cut out dead or branchless sticks and allow air and light into the center. A light pruning after bloom will often cause additional rounds of flowering.
Hydrangeas get a lot of different advice for pruning. Many say you don’t need to prune at all as the new growth can be floppy, but they can get rather sloppy looking so I like to cut off the very lowest branches touching the ground, ones that cross and crowd, and a small neaten up trim to keep the shape somewhat round. Because our soil is so naturally acidic, most of the hydrangeas are some type of blue. I could treat the soil for pink ones, but on a lot this size I like to let the plants just be themselves. These remind me of my grandfather’s garden in Westchester, and I’ve had them in every house we have owned.
Rhododendrons and azaleas get the big ignore. I will trim awkward branches but otherwise I leave them be. They grow to the size they want to grow, and you’re wasting your time trying to change that. I’m not a huge fan, but they are a dependable spring flower before much else is in bloom and are an okay background plant, but a little goes a long way with me. I must have 20 or more on the property, though. Pieris are only trimmed if they have dead branches.
I hadn’t pruned the roses in a few years, but it seemed like we didn’t get too many blooms last year (though that may have been the deer!) so I trimmed that back by about 30%. You don’t NEED to prune them this much, it’s mostly for appearance, but mine really needed a cleaning up. Cut out crossing, dead and skinny branches, and brought the size down just a bit to increase the view. We’ll see if it increases the blooms or just makes it easier for the shorter deer. (They are why I don’t bother with tulips and other bulbs. NomNom deer.)
After the pruning and clean up Mr. WoW spread five cubic yards of fertilizer bark on the beds in the lower garden. It does cover up the groundcover strawberries, but they will work their way through the mulch and look great before too long. The bleeding hearts are unfurling and I even have one little “heart” showing on the plant. The lilies are pushing up, blueberries are budding up, and even some of the rhodies are starting to flower. Cleaning up the dead leaves and branches makes it look so brightly green and fresh.
The front garden got a weeding and trimming as well, but since that’s going to need about 15 MORE cubic yards of dirt, we will hire out the spreading job to a landscape team of 20-year-olds who will do the job in half the time and without any of the limping later. Sorry, Karlo!
The vegetable beds are another matter. One sad old cabbage overwintered, and the odd leek or onion still shows, but otherwise it’s time to replant. One bed stayed pretty weed free, but strangely the other one in an absolute thicket of dandelions. What? I have no idea but they both need a spading and some new compost worked in. Molbak’s has their seeds on sale right now, so I may need to mosey on over there to see what they have.
Now that it’s looking more respectable, I’m finishing up the list of garden jobs left to do:
- Bark front garden, top up gravel beds (hire this job out)
- Sand, repaint Adirondacks
- Power wash, paint barn RED! (Sherwin/Williams “Vermillion”)
- Give another coat to the playhouse (already sanded and prepped)
- Plant pots for seasonal color – entries, balcony, driveway
- Plan and plant vegetable beds (WEED FIRST!)
- Replace tiki lights, carport lanterns, weave in fairy lights
- Power wash concrete surfaces
Doesn’t seem like an impossible list, but I think I have one more thing I need to add. I recently saw something on the Internets that I. Must. Have. A single stone fire pit. We have a portable one from Smith-Hawken that we use quite a bit, and the portable heaters help keep us out later at night, but I’ve long wanted a permanent one at the end of the drive. But naturally all of my plans were quite ornate (and costly). Then I saw these beauties recently, and I am positive one is a necessity for us. What do you think?
I don’t want it to run on gas, our interior fireplaces already do and I like being able to have a real wood fire. I’m leaning towards the one in the middle as it has spots to sit and enjoy the fire up close for s’mores or extra warmth. Which do you prefer? I think it will be a perfect addition for 3 season entertaining and fun in the garden, for the wedding celebrations and after. All I have to do is find the stone, have it cut to measure and delivered. Easy peasy! Sorry, Karlo!
Doesn’t this space just cry out for a new fire pit? I know, it’s a brilliant idea! What have you been up to in the garden lately?
ps. Glad we got out when we did. This last week-end set some new records for rainfall so we moved to some projects indoors. Hope your spring is filled with possibilities too!