Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham - The Buffalo News

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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham

So often I write about the joy of gardening, its spiritual nature, and how the act of being in the garden is transformative and healing, similar to meditation. Well, nuts to that this week. My garden is causing agita. I feel guilty and oppressed. Granted, I just returned from a garden tour to England, and we had a health crisis in the family, and the laundry isn’t done, and I am pressured with deadlines – like so many other working people. But how could my garden turn on me like this?

Exploiters and encroachers

In just two weeks, while I looked the other way, certain weeds staged a coup. With just a little warm weather and rain to fortify them, they stampeded over more-polite plants or reproduced thousands of strong babies that hide under every perennial’s skirts. Yes, those weeds have been with me for years, but I usually intervene in time to limit their success. Now what? For example:

• Bedstraw: Whether you call it Catchweed, Cleavers, Stickywilly, Vecro plant or Galium aparine, it is a thug. It grows extremely fast to stick and cling to everything it touches. Its spongy quality is the reason it was used for stuffing mattresses in ancient times. It has shallow roots, and I just pull and pull it – rather satisfying as you can gather great bundles within minutes. But this year I could start a mattress factory.

• Burdock: This is a biennial with a deep taproot and is very difficult to dig out once it’s mature. Yes, its tender roots and leaves are edible, but harvesting and cooking them is not going to happen in my yard. It is often called “Cardoon, Gardooni” by Italian people in particular, since it tastes similar to Cardone (an artichoke family plant that is technically a perennial too tender for Western New York). They are not the same plant. I want them out before the burrs start clinging to the dog and my pants, but I don’t have the back for it.

• Cinquefoil and Goutweed (aka Bishop’s Weed, Aegopodium podagraria): While these are two entirely different weeds, they present the same kind of practical problem. They make huge patches. Pulling them just leaves bits of root behind. Herbicides that are available to the home gardener are quite ineffective for these, and this organic gardener doesn’t use them anyway. The answer is smothering these weeds, but sometimes they are woven among valued perennials or ground covers. Once you have them in the garden, you must keep on top of the problem at all times. (I shouldn’t have slept this week.) Now I see too many patches in too many places. I will persist – out come the sheets of heavy black plastic or garbage bags. I will cover the large swaths, then put attractive mulch over the plastic. (Then the cinquefoil will scramble on top, and the goutweed will reach for a patch of light ...)

• Dandelions: These are the least of my worries, and I welcome them in my so-called lawn – good for pollinators and other beneficials. In the perennials bed, they can be pulled when the soil is moist but, alas, I missed the best moments, and now the puffy heads will disperse thousands of offspring.

• Garlic mustard (a New York State listed invasive plant): It is easy to pull, but we all should have pulled them before they went to flower and started seeding. Last night I pulled and pulled, while trying not to glance to the right or left to see how many remained.

The best advice for many of us in these straits is to hire skilled help with good backs. However, for a weeding job in a complex flower garden with many less-known species it is not easy to find the gardener or landscaper who can differentiate between weeds and emerging perennials or desirable annual seedlings. If you have such a person helping you, keep her coming back and treat her well. And if you have a professional landscaper – look for CNLPs – who listens to you and handles the hard stuff, don’t lose him or her either.

Abandoned and forlorn

In the midst of the weeding this week, I took time for the fun of placing the birdbaths and other garden ornaments. While extracting them from their storage place I saw something terrible: two crates of potted perennials I’d tucked away for winter storage. This is true guilt. Three special hostas, probably purchased at the Fall Hosta Forum, were never planted. There they sat, stretching their scrawny, white necks upward in the dim light of the barn. Perennials in 4-inch pots, some of them trial plants that Proven Winners sends to garden writers, were dead; others may revive. Sorry, Proven Winners; sorry, lovely hostas; thank you, living or dead, for trying.

Almost as sad looking are the crowded perennial clumps that deserve to be divided, and the moment has mostly passed. They are quite tall, so it’s more difficult and the move will interfere with some flowering. The Aconitum, getting crowded by the Turtlehead, actually looks ticked off, and the ‘Becky’ daisies, to whom I promised a sunnier spot, turn their heads away from me in disgust.

Those gardening flaws led me to focus on the next most important thing: Tend to the woody plants in waiting. Here I am less guilty, since the saved shrubs or trees were stored in plain sight, and I have watered them a few times. All are alive except one, and that loss was because rabbits stripped the bark. But they will start to look forlorn if I don’t soon prune the few dead twigs, pull the weeds in the pots, water thoroughly and get them planted. How thrilling to have a native elderberry (even if it was a lopsided rescue plant) and a small tulip tree to add to my landscape! How much pleasure to calculate the placement of the raspberry and chokeberry plants! It isn’t all bad. I’m not a total failure – just a guilty gardener who has fallen a bit behind. Sound familiar, anyone?

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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