Math was never really my strong point, but this basic arithmetic I totally get. Early April is like a starting gun has just been fired as far as I am concerned. Armed with muscle relaxants, pain relievers and the best of intentions I head for my somewhat soggy gardens to increase the flock. Of course, the extent of your garden chores will depend entirely on your region of the country as well as ‘Mother Nature’, ok maybe your amount of energy also. What I mean by division being multiplication and the increase of my flock simply refers to the work in the perennial gardens and borders this time of the year. German and Siberian iris are usually showing full growth and are always in need of being divided as are the clumps of Sedum ‘Autumn Glow’. I find that if I don’t clean these specimens up regularly, they become floppy and the blossoms deplete. The process of division is slightly different for each plant however you won’t really go wrong or do any significant harm if you don’t follow instructions. Very simply, the concept is to lift the entire clump, and remove the majority of soil so that you can take a good look at the root mass. Natural clumps will become apparent and actually most plants will easily break at the correct spot with a little pressure from you. If you can’t pull them apart resort to a sharp knife, spade or secateurs for the operation. Sort through the pieces by size and all that is required is to replant them in the desired area of the garden; of note, perennials are a valued currency in the process of garden trading.
Hosta are a favourite of mine to divide in the early spring for many reasons, mostly because I have so many. As my front gardens are blanketed in shade for the summer months, Hosta perform very well for me, actually too well. Once I can see the ‘spikes’ of growth emerging it triggers a couple of things, one, I can almost remember what plant is where and two, how large the clump is. Somewhat like Asparagus, these green spires seem to push through at an awesome rate, so each day is completely different from the next for dividing. If you grow Hosta, perhaps tackle them first for moving/dividing/multiplying. My method is not overly scientific or even for that matter, textbook savvy. I use my English spade (rectangular blade) to undercut the root mass off first. Often, I switch to a round mouthed spade to leverage and pry the entire clump up, generally they are pretty large. As unorthodox as it may be, I slice the clumps with the sharp English spade into as many pieces as I possibly can, being sensible of course as too small is just a waste. To the delight of the neighbours I have a collection of small, yet viable, Hosta for their gardens as well as for those vacant spots in my rear and side gardens. The trick is to get the new divisions into the garden as soon as possible and water them heartily. The cooler weather of spring and often rain, provide excellent conditions for divisions of Hosta and many other perennials. Thereafter, I visit my new divisions with great regularity often watering if the season is drier than normal and also an initial application of compost or manure is applied. The results are amazing after such butchery and on it goes in my garden, even more Hosta to divide next year. Doubtless I shall get neighbour of the year award for generosity!
Early spring is an ideal time for rearranging the garden as well as making new plants. Often, I will lift entire perennials and transfer them to a new preferred location without dividing them at all. You can rearrange your perennial garden at this time of the year as often as energy will prevail and of course, this may make room for some new additions, perhaps from the neighbours of a local garden center.
Divide and conquer, ‘tis the season!
Honestly, it’s not like we gardeners need any more encouragement to get at it, but the weather certainly is a trigger. Milder conditions are usual in March however, closer to the end of the month can be pretty miserable if March arrived like a lamb. The sun is increasing in strength daily as are the hours that she is shining. This blessing coaxes even the most stubborn of buds to swell and the earliest shrubs to push blossoms. Fruit trees, in particular apples, require some attention in late March while they are still dormant. Certain insects as well as the spores of fungi can overwinter on the branches of many fruit trees, notably apples. The customary ritual is to apply a product called “dormant oil” and often it is combined with “lime sulphur”. The reasons why the combined product is so effective is that the sulphur takes care of any fungi or mold remnants and the dormant oil coats the exterior of any overwintering insects and smothers them. Caution is highly advised if you are planning to use this mixture, not that it is overly toxic to humans and wildlife, but it is the timing that is crucial. If the tree has broken dormancy, as in that the buds have broken, and leaves are apparent, the oil magnifies the sun’s rays resulting in burning the foliage. Roses are often treated similarly for a myriad of fungal and insect issues with the same red flag of caution being raised.
Roses tend to be awakening from their long winter’s dormancy with a gusto in late March. I have found that this time of the year is great for planting bare root roses and even some shrubs. Keep in mind that bare root stock is less expensive than other modes of sale and early in the season is a great time to capitalize on the bargains with more choice typically available. Novice gardeners might better stick with container grown roses and shrubs because bare root material requires much more diligence and experience to achieve success. Older established roses are often pruned in late March prior to any application of control products. Most gardeners tend not to prune enough material from their roses with the results affording a more shrub-like appearance, Hybrid Tea roses specifically. The general rule of thumb for Tea roses is to remove weakened, dead or interfering stems leaving only three (3) to five (5) healthy woody stalks. This framework is then reduced leaving again three to five buds preferably with the top-most bud on the outward side of the stem. Many rose growers attempt to keep the centre of the plant open to optimize the sunlight for the plant. Another chore in March with your roses is to apply a good healthy amount of well rotted manure to the beds. This boost of organic matter, regardless of how aromatic, is a definite treat for your roses.
Perhaps you will be tidying up the roses, pruning, shuffling and scratching and otherwise working the soil, the starter pistol has been fired… and we are off!
The first glimpses of bare soil have a curious affect on those of us who garden. Some of us don our “Crocks” with heavy wool socks yanked up as high as they go and head for the lower realms of the garden. Others, dressed equally as appropriately, rummage through the tool shed feigning “cleaning and sorting” when they really are trying to find a good tool to remove some garden mulch from the perennial border “just to peek”. Whatever March madness overtakes us, this is truly a fun time of the year to be outside…rooting around. Naturally what activities you undertake depends on the climatic zone that you are in as well as what sort of weather ‘Mother Nature’ has blessed you with. Prairie gardeners may have to wait just a tad longer than those who dwell in the more moderate climes as coastal BC and Southern Ontario.
Having been asked countless times to offer opinion on when to get going, regarding lawns, I suggest that if you can walk on the turf without getting wet feet, it’s pretty safe. My initial go to is the perennial border and shrub beds that I so judiciously smother in dry leaves in the fall. My gardens are packed with leaves to extend the range of plants that I can grow in a zone 3b. This time of the year the first job is to remove the now sodden, pre-compost from only the toughest of perennials and those poking their noses through the mulch. Careful here as too much exuberance uncovering perennials leaves them open to either desiccation, sunburn, frost or a cruel combination of all three. Usually, I find the odd Hosta spike and of course the Bergenia are in their glory and the German Iris seemed to have a mind of their own. These perennials I don’t really worry about as they can tolerate a cold snap easily. Heuchera and Tiarella on the other hand I leave covered in leaves until the very last. Year after year my over excitement has proven to be a path to failure with these perennials, not so much from cold weather but more from sunburn. Heavier soils, like the clay in my garden, tend to push my Heuchera clumps up beyond the level of the garden leaving them very vulnerable to drought also.
In climates that afford a mild start to March, one could be scuffling around shrubs and perennials that have been mulch, simply to re-awaken the mulch cover. Many gardeners take this time to scuffle the soil as well with hopes of revealing overwintering larvae of unwelcomed insect pests like the lily beetle. Cultivating early in the year affords reasonable control of weeds as well as some insects. Additionally, just being outside and getting some exercise as you peruse the estate (as it were) is very beneficial for you. There really is nothing quite like a day in the fresh spring air to re-invigorate the soul.
Ontario has a native Magnolia, Magnolia acuminata or the cucumber Magnolia (tree). Unfortunately this native plants is listed as “endangered” in natural habitat. One can still find native stands in some parts of the Niagara region in Ontario, however the ever fragmentation of habitat due to commercial real estate and increased indiscriminate ATV traffic, these limited stands are in peril. Magnolia acuminata is sensitive to prolonged dry periods as well as very wet conditions, compounding the problem significantly. Whenever you discover or realize that a plant is native to your region or for that matter, Canada, it’s a pretty sure bet that the plant will be tough and hardy enough to withstand the Canadian conditions. Magnolias should be in heavy bud in late February and into March, depending of course on the temperatures that Mother Nature has imposed. Keep in mind that the genus Magnolia has been growing for a very, very long time with paleobotanic evidence from the age of the dinosaurs and before. Given this information it should make Magnolias of any variety or species attractive to the Canadian gardener. Some of the genus have leathery, evergreen foliage that is typically quite waxy while others are deciduous with somewhat hairy leaves.
Magnolia acuminata has simple foliage about the size of a man’s hand and is one of the deciduous species. The flowers tend to open around the same time as the leaves start to break bud, giving a reasonable spring show. Many people admire the sweet scent of the flowers however there are other species that have much headier aromas. This tree will grow to a height of 30 meters so is best planted in a location offering ample room for spread.
Saucer Magnolia, Magnolia X soulangeana is quite the deciduous specimen tree for any sizeable landscape. This tree can reach heights of 30 meters and a considerable spread as well. Blossoms on Saucer magnolia are enormous and are in heavy bud in late February, generally speaking. Given that the flower buds are formed the previous season, and the sun’s intensity is increasing rapidly, it’s a good idea to select a location to plant this tree that is somewhat sheltered. Additionally, it is wise to avoid southern exposures as the potential of early bud break is much higher. The chilling spring winds are naturally not the best for the emerging Magnolia flowers. The blossoms themselves are large, like a saucer, hence the name and provide a very pleasing aroma reminiscent of citrus, at least to my nose. Magnolia acuminate is perhaps the most common of all Magnolias on the market with many colourful hybrid varieties reaching garden centres and nurseries on a regular basis. Blossoms now range from the typical pinkish – white through pure pink and burgundy.
The evergreen Magnolia relatives such as Magnolia grandiflora have a restrictive hardiness range. Gardeners being who we are, attempt regularly to grow plants well out of range, Magnolia grandiflora often falls into this category. Relegated to the milder climates of British Columbia and very protected southern Ontario zones, this gorgeous magnolia would offer significant bragging rights to those who keep a specimen successfully. The Southern Magnolia as it is known commonly, is the plant referred to in many classics such as “Gone With The Wind” as the sweet smelling tree so associated with the deep south of North America. Well worth the effort if your zone is accommodating as the results, even on a small specimen, are outstanding. Boasting huge, dark green and very waxy foliage with a “cinnamon” coloured fuzzy underside, the foliage is totally eclipsed by the flowers. Enormous, dinnerplate sized blooms almost flop they are so leathery and heavy. The scent is mesmerizing, intoxicating and very exotic with once again, citrus overtones. The large floral structure in the centre of the flower is prominent and if pollinated, will form a cucumber-like structure with eventual dark red berries. A good friend of mine who moved to Vancouver Island from Saskatchewan, shares photos of his Southern Magnolia so laden with bloom that it requires support. Indeed, bragging rights (he didn’t move it from Saskatchewan however, I’m just sayin’)!
It’s a good thing that the month of February is a short one! We gardeners are often just “itching” to do something outside on those bright, sunny days. The amount of snowfall and the region of the country that you garden in will dictate just how much activity will be possible. Milder and more temperate climes may have very little snow cover, if any, and as such can spend more time outdoors in the landscape. February is a good month to consider pruning both ornamentals and fruit bearing trees and shrubs. Apple trees including Crab Apple are best pruned when they are dormant and well before the spring sap starts to run.
The generally accepted guidelines to pruning apple trees in late January and early February are not that complicated. Overall, pruning is intended to open the tree’s shape up so that light can penetrate the entire plant. Keep in mind that when reducing branch length, the cut should be made so that there is a bud that will have a growth pattern outward, not towards the centre of the plant. With younger plants, new growth will be rampant the season following pruning. This growth is often referred to as “water growth” and should be reduced by about half, keeping the centre of the tree open of course. The following year, reduce this watery growth again, this time by about one quarter. Eventually the new apple tree will have a shape that will carry it well into maturity. New shoots from this point on should be reduced to only six buds, which appears to be rather severe. The thicker, stubby growths are the fruiting spurs and should be left to produce the crop. However, if the tree is heavily laden with fruiting spurs, some gardeners remove a few, very judiciously, to keep the tree youthful.
Weigelia is prone in many gardens, to be overgrown and lacking in a brilliant show of blossoms. February, provided the weather cooperates, is a good time to re-work this shrub. Similar to many sprawling shrubs of this nature, Weigelia is best re-worked over a period of three years. Preferably start pruning from the inside of the shrub, removing the oldest, thickest wood first up to approximately 1/3 of the total being removed. The following spring, the plant will force new, lush growth that will mature and bloom the next season. Year two, remove the largest and oldest wood once again, forcing fresh new growth the spring thereafter. Repeat this process and the plant will be completely rejuvenated and push forth a tremendous flush of flowers. Some gardeners also prune lilacs in February in an attempt to keep the plant under control and increase the bloom for the spring season. A similar approach should be taken over a period of time in order to maximize the blossoming of the lilac. Pruning out too much will cause watery, whip growth and very few blooms as Lilacs blossom on older wood rather than new.
The fact remains that even though the garden appears to be sleeping and you may consider all the chores completed, there is always something to do in the garden, no matter the season.