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Great Gardening By Sally Cunningham: Upbeat thoughts and some gardening answers

Gardeners disagree on many topics, but apparently nearly all of us agree: We have had enough winter! We are desperate for spring.

Linda Blyth, of the Town of Tonawanda, is an exception to the I-hate-winter crowd. She and husband Brian are growing thousands of seedlings for their enormous tour garden. Obviously a positive spirit, she sent this piece as a cheering counterpoint to all the moaning:

In Praise of a Harsh Winter

By Linda Blyth

We never had to look at dirty snow.

The deep snow cover insulated our garden plants.

The icy conditions kept our balancing skills up to snuff for gardening season.

Impassable roads kept us inside to browse gardening catalogs.

Hungry rabbits and deer did most of the spring pruning for us.

Subzero temperatures killed some of the marginally hardy perennials making room for us to try some new plants ... any excuse will do!

Mosquitoes and flies haven’t bothered us lately.

And I’ll bet you never heard anyone say “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.”

Common questions

Here are a few things people have been asking:

1. When can I unwrap my arborvitae?

Whoever asked this question was a better gardener than I was last fall. I failed to put the Shrub Cover over a dwarf fir and the Shrub Coat (which I own) on the rare variegated white pine. I paid the price. The rabbits nibbled all the lower needles off the fir, and the deer ate most branches off the pine. Now both are top-knotted oddities. Shrub Coats, fences or even burlap wraps could have prevented all that, although burlap is a poorer choice because it is often torn off or shredded by deer or wind.

For the smart folks who covered their shrubs, there is no reason to remove Shrub Coats yet because the green fabric lets sunlight and rain through, and the plants will emerge bright green and fully budded. If you expose those plants now, it’s like a salad bar for a starving animal. I heard inventor Steve Bakowski tell a customer: “Wait until most other plants have started to leaf out. Then the deer will have many other plants to choose from.”

I would also suggest that when you uncover your precious plant, spray it with some deer-repellent product so that it is the least interesting meal in the neighborhood.

2. My bulbs are poking up too soon! It will freeze again tonight. What can I do?

Most bulb plants survive a stop-and-start routine. Bright, warming days start them growing, and freezing nights halt them. Chemically, the cells have the equivalent of an antifreeze. You may see tip damage but, generally, they will be fine. Two risks to them: Deer or rabbits may nibble the emerging tulips and some others (except for the immune ones such as daffodils, hyacinths, fritillaria and camassia) so you might throw a section of chicken wire or fabric row cover over them while they grow. Then spray some repellent product over the top. A really late, sudden freeze can also ruin fully engorged buds and blacken shoots. If you hear a late, extreme freeze is coming, throw a sheet over the bulb bed.

Next to my driveway is another example of a bulb planting at risk: I planted hyacinths near the spot where people step out of their cars, so we’ll enjoy the fragrance and sight of them. Meanwhile they are likely to be stepped on. Today I will dump a saved-up bag of pine needles – any mulch would do – over them to buffer them for a while longer.

3. When should I cut back my roses?

Gardeners tend to be way too eager to prune roses, whereas everyone could be outside in March pruning grape vines, fruit trees and most deciduous woody plants unless they flower in spring.

Freezing nights occur through mid-May here, typically, killing rose canes back from the ends. If you have cut them, the die-back starts where you cut. Why not leave them long to eliminate the risk? (If some branch is whipping around or grabbing you on your garden review tour, then nip it back, just not the whole plant.) The old adage was to “prune roses when forsythias bloom.” If you don’t know them, forsythias are traditional yellow flowering shrubs that you’ll see flowering sometime in May. Don’t rush it.

4. My wisteria (or trumpet vine or lilac) has never flowered. Can I do anything about it?

If you planted or transplanted the lilac in the last four years, that is the reason for no flowers: They just don’t like to be moved; eventually they will flower, ideally in full sun. Wisterias and trumpet vines are often slow to get started; it’s common to hear of trumpet vines taking seven to 10 years and wisteria vines even 20 years to flower – and then watch out!

Sometime in June you might fertilize the vines with a bulb-booster (high-phosphorus) fertilizer. I also think some vine plants are just inferior species, and some cultivars are simply better plants. You can buy some trumpets and wisterias already in bud. Show that old plant a bright new competitor, and who knows what will happen?

Root-pruning is often recommended for stimulating plants to produce buds. To do so: With a sharp spade or shovel, cut straight down at least 8 inches to sever the roots about one foot from the plant. Moving in a circle, skip a shovel width, then cut down again; continue the pattern. Basically you are shocking and stressing this plant, and a stressed plant’s response to a threat is to produce flowers and therefore seed. (The plant is programmed to procreate before it dies.)

Applying a similar theory, some gardeners use a broom to whack their lilacs’ trunks – shocking the plants as well as any onlookers. Although I stand strongly against plant abuse, I recommend that you should not report your neighbors if you them doing this.

5. About my hydrangea …

More questions will be answered in the weeks to come, although possibly we will never hear the last of this one.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.