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Great Gardening: Develop an action plan for the upcoming growing season

Last Friday was that day for me: the day I got spring fever, the day the warm sun revealed shy perennials peeking through the soil, the day nobody could find me because I was in the garden.

Most gardeners revel in such days. They help us tolerate some of the other days – when the blackflies bite your sweaty neck, when the wind blows the newspaper and mulch in your face, when the cold and damp make your bones ache but you have to get the chores done.

Some days gardening is work, but other days it’s pure joy.

Status report, action plan

And yet ... while I don’t want to squelch the joy, I must interject a little discipline into these giddy gardening weeks. No matter how wildly spring fever grabs us, there is something we should do, just as it is required in any office or organization: the status report. It asks us to assess the garden, ask what works and what doesn’t, review the priorities, and make an action plan. In my mature perennial garden (which Mom calls “overgrown” but I hate that term) I will resist the urge to plant anything new until I’ve done the status report and completed some action items.

Action: Thin the perennials – My assessment told me I absolutely must lift out great clumps of my most enthusiastic spreaders: variegated Solomon’s Seal, Filipendula rubra (Queen of the Prarie), Japanese anemones, ferns, Chelone (Turtlehead), Shasta daisies, an unnamed but nice peach daylily, and a fluffy little white flowering one with the two different leaf shapes (chatham, chettle … in the name, oh darn I lost it) These are wonderful plants I have loved for many years, so dividing is a given. Also, giant alliums – no matter how gorgeous the purple globes – must go; they take over.

Action plan summary: Dig out large swaths of spreading perennials, leaving open spaces between drifts of equal competitors. Identify dominant plants that are in jeopardy and give them wide protection zones or lift them and place with less aggressive neighbors.

Does my plant list make you want to hang around with me while I’m thinning? We might be able to work something out, but in the meantime I need a plan. (It’s a big garden.) One great idea for these early gardening sieges – that I keep intending to organize – is to share time with some gardening friends. I could ask three or four friends to choose a few dates to help each other with our gardens. (Allow extra dates for rain postponements or life/work crises.) We’d work together and there would be beverages or lunch – but no hostess duties, no cleanup, just quick and delicious survival food. (If my husband wants to cook, that would be great!) It is important in this plan to include only real gardeners who recognize every little pip of a hosta or delicate plant crown, who never step on the soil, and who honor your preferences for how and what to prune, divide, or pull.

Where will I put these plant divisions? Some I will put in pots or plastic bags, for friends or new gardeners I meet. Some I will plunk somewhat casually in a slightly improved hole on the edge of an outer bed in the yard, where they will make it or not. Always be careful not to introduce a future invasive plant.

Action: Control the weeds – Weeds are next on the priority list. Before I decide to live with them another year or just pull-as-I-go, I am determined to engage in this battle full force. (Cinquefoil is my special enemy but yours might be creeping Charlie or goutweed or horsetail or garlic mustard or chives or myrtle or even violets in the wrong place.) I do not use herbicides ever, so I will go at this in two ways.

Strategy No. 1: Where the cinquefoil (or a similar bully) is spreading over an open space, I will smother it by placing thick newspaper topped with heavy black plastic sheets or garbage bags covered with nice looking mulch. Two things happen: Under the plastic the cinquefoil grows into the damp newspaper, so after some weeks you might pull back the plastic and rip our whole swaths of the weed tangled in the paper – if you remember. Some of the weeds die under the plastic but cinquefoil, goutweed and many others have amazingly vigorous runners that seek the light. The other thing that happens is that new cinquefoil runners grow into the mulch on top and take root. Some even root in the plastic. If you time it right (remember to check) sometimes you can pull up the plastic and almost all the weeds come along. It’s not foolproof but you can certainly feel satisfied about getting a lot of the weeds in one sweep. You will probably have to persist with this cover-and-rip routine.

Strategy No. 2: Some of these weeds have twined around the roots and crowns of beloved perennials, so a different method is called for. Picking them out from around the base of the plants works for a little while, and some perennials are vigorous enough and block enough light to survive the weeds. My Thalictrum (Meadow rue), Veronicastrum (Culver’s root) and Aconitum (Monkshood) have tolerated the annoying cinquefoil for many years as they are tall and sturdy and shade the space below. But if I see the weeds encroaching around a mild-mannered, young Penstemon or Tricyrtis hirta (Toad lily), I know it’s time to lift the plant, pick the weeds out of its roots, put it in a pot or holding bed where I can inspect it for a season to be sure all the weeds are gone. (They are almost never all gone.) Then thoroughly cover the hole it came from.

Action plan summary: Get a good head start, cleaning some large weedy areas. Lift and protect plants about to be strangled.

These jobs won’t end here. Dividing and weeding are part of gardening and I can’t wait for my next great day for it.

Let the joy begin!

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.