Enjoying New Year's Day in the garden - The Buffalo News
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Enjoying New Year's Day in the garden

Jan. 1, 2017: I did some gardening today, unexpectedly. The sun had come out, the ice dam on the roof was melting, the deck needed shoveling, and I wanted to get away from the computer. I intended to shovel a little bit, fill the bird feeders, and hang up a large suet-seed cake. How surprising then to find out all the other jobs my garden and landscape called me to do. It is now two hours later.

Not too late

I can’t remember why, but in spite of the extended autumn weather I didn’t do some landscape jobs I usually accomplished in other years. Protecting a few conifers from deer consumption is necessary at my house, and I simply didn’t do it. After all these years of co-existence with deer – and I welcome the creatures to my property – I have learned to plant what they generally don’t eat. The almost-never-eaten list is extensive, and mostly accurate to the extent that I confidently encourage customers to plant certain perennials and shrubs.

There are occasional exceptions though: If the habitat is way too small for the population, the animals will eat what they need to survive, whether they like those plants or not. Also I believe young deer nibble on anything until Mama says “Oh no, we don’t eat those!” Kids have to learn. But this season I saw the young ones eat the outer branches of a recently planted viburnum, and watched them paw and chew up the browning leaves of some Epimediums. Both are plants they usually leave alone. Where was Mama, teaching that lesson?

In short, for several years I have covered a dwarf spruce, one young variegated long-needled white pine, and a couple of macrophylla hydrangeas (of the ‘Endless Summer’ kind that can re-bloom if the buds survive winter or spring freezes). I have used the product called Shrub Coat or Shrub Cover that was invented by a local landscaper; I think it looks and works much better than burlap and it’s easier than building stake-and-wire cages. This time the green fabric coats were sitting in the closet, and those pretty deer had already stripped the needles off some of the pine and spruce branches.

Sally Cunningham has used a Shrub Coat to cover the Dwarf Spruce during the winter. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News file photo)

After kicking myself for my failures, I took the covers out at last, to cover the plants. Not that it’s easy. The narrow white pine is 6 feet tall now with flexible 2-foot branches in all directions. Slipping the 6-by-3-foot cover over it is a lot like putting a cocktail dress on a horse. The dwarf spruce was easier, but for all the wrong reasons: One year the rabbits ate all the lower branches of this sweet specimen, making it lollipop-shaped.

I am not a fan of clipped conifers – certainly not in a country garden – but this one has been very pleasing in that shape, sitting in a swath of hellebores. As a result, all I had to do was pop the cover over the topic of the plant, with no need to tack it to the ground.

A walk around the yard showed me many other jobs that it’s not too late to do. I cut back my Lespedeza (Pea shrub), Hypericum (St. John’s wort), and a couple of ornamental grasses. If your grasses still look nice, there is no need to cut them back – fall and early winter are often their prettiest times. But these had gotten beaten down by wet snow and wind, so I cut them about 10 inches from the soil, leaving just enough old growth to protect the crown somewhat. I also cut back some perennials that I’d missed: Filipendula, Japanese anemones, and Thalictrum.

Analyze the perennial bed

In winter when there is little snow a gardener has a good opportunity to walk around flower beds, looking down at the clumps of plants in their winter dormant states. Only a few perennials are ephemeral – completely disappearing beneath the soil after their above-ground performances.

As with bulbs, it’s important to remember where they are planted. Otherwise, you can see clearly how much area each perennial covers, which ones are crowding others, and which little specimens are struggling for space. I made mental notes about where to pull back the vigorous shasta daisies, Japanese anemones, and lambs’-ears.

Remarkably, some perennials look absolutely wonderful now – and I mean their leaves. Most notably, the hellebores have leathery, bright green leaves that are shining with the rain/snow moisture on them. For foliage, they are the year-round best perennial, and their flowers (mostly in February through April) are lovely too. Some gingers and Heuchera (Coral bells) also look attractive and undisturbed after a few snowfalls.

Hellebores are especially beautiful during the winter months. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News file photo)

While walking around the garden beds, I was also drawn into work that I hadn’t spotted in fall when the shrubs all had leaves on them. It is now very clear how much the Sorbaria sorbifolia – both the species and the cultivar, ‘Sem’ – are spreading. These are non-native shrubs that sucker and can form a terrific hedge, the cultivar producing new pink – really, pink! – leaves in spring before almost all other plants sprout. Pollinators love them too.

But they spread by underground shoots and you should only use them where you want an expanding clump. I have put them where their behavior is fine – I want the hedge – with one exception: They are running into an excellent Rose-of-Sharon and must be stopped. While it won’t solve the problem forever, I took my beloved Fiskar titanium Super Pruner and cut lots of shoots off below the soil surface. It gives Sorbaria’s neighbors a head start, anyway.

Once again, gardening was a joy. I handled plants (dressing the white pine). I solved problems (thwarting the deer). I had a workout (chopping at Sorbaria roots). I made plans (re-shaping perennial clumps). Finally I filled the bird feeders and went inside smiling. Happy New Year’s Day.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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