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Sally Cunningham: Your garden's calling

May Day. May Day. Help! That could be the cry of many gardeners just getting into the garden beds. Gardening started late this year after a very cold April – with illness, home schooling and new survival techniques on our minds.

Do your flower and landscape beds look hopeless? Do you feel overwhelmed? Today I am writing for perennial gardeners who feel that way – those who do not have enough time, enough strength or enough money to fix it all.

Where to start?

Philosophically, it is wise to divide “must do” from “optional.” Some gardeners bog down as they aim for a yard that looks like a mid-19th century estate in England (where a full-time gardener tended the roses.)

Let us lighten the pressure and decide to do the best imperfect job you can do – without guilt. Begin with the most essential tasks, as you may not get much farther.

Priorities: must do

1. Weed the obvious thugs, especially those that crowd your chosen plants. Take the tools outside with you – preferably a garden fork, sharp pointed spade, sturdy hand trowel and empty wheelbarrow. Wear gloves. Use a fork to loosen some soil areas so you can pull out entire roots of dandelions, thistle-like teasels, goose grass or its ilk, or buttercups with their extensive root and shoot systems. Pull all the shallow-rooted plants like garlic mustard by hand.

Every gardener has a personal way of going at this. What’s yours? Some people will work thoroughly through one garden area at a time. Others (my preference) will do a broad sweep each work session, getting the biggest, most threatening bad guys first, especially if they are crowding a plant that will soon have its moment of glory. Or discipline yourself to filling one wheelbarrow or pail every time you go out.

Whatever you do, pick up the weeds and bury them deeply in a compost or trench, or put them in a garbage bag.

2. Decide which plants and clusters you like and which are now too much of a good thing. The goal is some space between the plants or groups. Some wonderful plants spread, which is great if you want an extensive border. If they are native, let them spread into the field. (Otherwise, don’t.)

In the perennial bed, dig up sections of those spreaders and put them in large pots to hold until you have the right place for them, or a friend who wants them. (Always reveal the spreading tendency.) Or compost them. Holding them in pots lets you watch for weeds that want to travel with them.

How to divide clump-forming perennials as they emerge? Ace gardener and author Kathy Shadrack offers this basic guidance: “Now is a great time to divide hostas, for instance, because you see the shoots without all those annoying leaves in the way. Just stick a sharp spade straight down into the clump, choosing a logical space between the pips. Or dig up the whole clump, saw it into pieces and replant. The hosta won’t know what happened.” This works with many plants.

Warning: A few perennials emerge as late as June 1 such as butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) or balloon flowers (Platycodon). Hardy hibiscus and butterfly bush don’t even look alive until then. Watch where you walk or dig.

Now is a great time to divide hostas, before they have developed as shown in this photograph, taken in late July. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

3. Prune roses and “sub-shrubs” or woody perennials such as Caryopteris and Callicarpa. Apply tough love. Don’t feel sad about cutting off new growth: They will flower all the better. Do not flat-top the plants.

4. Train the deer. (After you roll your eyes, I’ll explain.) Deer are creatures of habit and some young ones are developing their pathways soon. If you use repellents or fencing or scare tactics early, they may forget about your garden as a favorite salad bar.

For casual passersby the repellents do help, but you should change the products periodically. If you have lots of deer friends, choose plants they like least. There are such plants.

If rabbits are also a challenge, then cage or fence their favorite plants. If the daylily or hosta tops are already chewed, the plants will come back fine. I put chicken-wire cages around small shrub-roses or young daylilies. Or lamp shade frames, broken bird feeders, dish drainers, tomato cages or bottomless baskets – whatever barriers you find or buy. For large areas, swaths of chicken wire over the bed can thwart the hoards. (If company is actually coming to the garden this year you can remove the barriers at that time.)

Optional but nice

Professional landscapers do yard cleanups that are pleasing to the eye, including edging, mulching and improving paths. Most homeowners want to see landscape and flower beds with clean edges, separated from the lawn or sidewalks, and a tidy, uniform soil covering around plants that are spaced apart from each other.

If you want that appearance, you may choose to do the hard work of edging and mulching by yourself. Or hire professionals. Just know that you do not have to do those tasks to have a lovely garden.

Edging is valuable for two reasons: It keeps the grass out of the bed, and a clear dividing line looks neat. The simplest method is hand-digging a little V-shaped trench around the beds every spring.

Mulching is valued for blocking some weeds, holding in soil moisture (once you have watered thoroughly), and it makes an attractive look. Alternatively, you may leave the soil bare and simply hoe the surface regularly to dislodge young weeds.

Or let the plants grow close together for a lush, full look, similar to an English border. Most mature perennial gardens reach this stage. Then the job is: Which plants will you thin, and how large do you want the drifts to be?

It will be wonderful to visit garden centers and nurseries again someday. They miss you. In the meantime, work with the perennials you have.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

* Take a look at Sally Cunningham's last column on planting a modern-day Victory Garden:

Plant a 'Victory Garden' in the time of Covid-19

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