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Observe your plants -- they may be telling you something

Every year I am amazed to witness the speed of changes in the garden in spring. Especially this season, on the rare days when cold and rain turn to warm and sunny, the plants appear to be producing leaves and shoots at record rates.

We may spot a few failures – plants that could not tolerate soggy conditions – but most plants should look lush and green as the rains recede.

As you go out in your yard, before starting all the tasks you’ve been waiting to do, take some time to observe: Where does the yard stay wet longest? This may be a clue that calls for changes.

You may want to improve drainage. You might dig well-placed ditches or change the grade of the property – sometimes big jobs for which you need a Certified Nursey & Landscape Professional (CNLP) who has studied how to manage water flow.

Or you may need to choose different plant species that actually thrive in boglike sites.

Many wonderful woody plants such as willows, river birches, red-twigged dogwoods and others absorb water like sponges. Many smaller shrubs and perennials (buttonbush, Rodgersia and astilbes) perform best in damp soil.

Make careful notes now, before you forget, exactly where your land remains wet, and plan to make a future spring less frustrating. It’s such a pleasure to see plants thriving because they are in the right places.

Finally in the garden

Like many gardeners I’d been craving gardening time desperately. So when the sun appeared and temperatures became bearable one day last week I guarded my time fiercely. No meetings, no jobs, no talks, no writing.

I even told all near and dear that I didn’t want to talk with anyone, would not have my phone outside, and I wouldn’t be looking at emails or texts. And amazingly, the world didn’t end!

Finally alone, the question became: What to do first? Weeding, thinning perennials, planting saved-up shrubs, unfinished pruning, covering paths with mulch, edging beds, straighten rock walls, mowing the lawn, rebuilding the compost, repairing raised beds … Those are all components of spring gardening and all will get done in time (well, mostly).

What I really did was the kind of gardening that gives me the most satisfaction: just going out to the perennial/shrub bed with no plan and doing whatever the plants told me they needed soonest.

This is not something one can teach exactly, but it is the nurturing instinct of a gardener. We see a plant in trouble. It needs watering; it’s getting overrun by neighbors or eaten by deer; weeds are strangling or crowding it; the roots are popping out of the soil; or it just looks distressed from too much water or shade or wind. And we do what needs to be done to make things better.

Looking for holes

During this stage of spring gardening I characterize a lot of gardening as “looking for the holes.” That is, while many plants are just poking up and most are fairly small, I can see where there is room for new plants.

I can also see which plants are crowding others and where the largest patches of weeds are encroaching. I make notes – some mental, some on paper – that I must move certain plants or get rid of others.

For example: I have started to dig out about 50 square feet of purple allium bulbs which are taking over a section of the perennial bed.

They are fun to see in late May and June, bobbing above the other plants, but now they are overtaking plants I care for. Just too much of a good thing.

I will dig out nearly all of them and get back all that space. Although I will try to get every last bulblet in the soil, many will still appear next spring, and I’ll finish the removal (eventually).

Also – take note – I will advise other gardeners to plant purple globe allium bulbs next fall only where they is room for them to spread in the future. Great plants – in the right place.

The other “holes” I see are occupied by patches of weeds that I want to manage before it’s too late. Two approaches: Some I will pull or dig individually, especially dandelions or buttercups.

Dandelions are wonderful – out there where they provide nectar for early honeybees, lady beetles and other beneficial insects. But they do not belong in my perennial garden. It feels great to pull whole roots out by hand.

(Compost them – they took valuable nutrients from down in the soil).

Or in the case of many such deeply rooted weeds, the best technique is to dig straight down with a spade, loosening many plants throughout an entire area. Then, on hands and knees or stooping, you can pull up lots in a hurry. Shake off – don’t waste – the soil.

The cardboard trick

Everywhere I find a swath of weeds too large to pull individually, I use cardboard. (Thick newspaper could be used the same way.)

This week I took a pile about 1 foot deep of folded boxes about 3 feet long from a dumpster. (Some of it is still riding around in my car).

In the past I have gathered the cardboard off the street on recycling days.

Where there is a discouraging patch of weeds (or where I dug out the excessive alliums) I will spread the cardboard a few layers thick, to smother the weeds or block new seeds or bulbs from pushing through.

Before you place the cardboard, it’s great to spread other organic material over the area, where it will decompose and feed the microorganisms in the soil. This organic matter might be unfinished compost, piles of leaves from last fall, thick just-mowed grass, a leftover straw bale, or shredded newspaper or office paper.

On top of the cardboard you can spread more attractive mulch if you wish.

Then wait half a season or more for those weeds to be dead. Or pull back just enough covering to plant one of your treasures in-waiting.
Now if the sun comes out again, what to do next week?

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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