Garden Notes

Nothing says springtime like pink blossoms on a cherry tree. Photo by Susan Safford

Prep work for novices and experts

By Abigail Higgins - April 13, 2006

Whether the conditions are pleasant or not, there are many jobs to be done in beds, borders, and yards. If it has not been possible to do yardwork yet, it may be easier and less overwhelming to separate some of what needs doing into discrete tasks, especially if you who are reading are seasonal visitors slowly trickling back onto to the Island to spruce things up. If you number among your family under-utilized pre- and adolescent members, there are some jobs that you can ask them to help you with. You will need more tools, but at the risk of sounding overly pedantic, their purchase is worthwhile if it is for involving your family in hands-on garden activities. The Island's garden centers are pretty well stocked up just now.

Among the most straightforward jobs are lawn work and certain pruning jobs. A good stack of bamboo rakes makes short work of scratching and de-thatching all but the most oversize lawns. (If it is THAT large, please consider turning to the "Island Blue Pages," for suggestions on lessening the adverse ecological and groundwater impacts of what you spread on your lawn. All the Island's shellfisheries will thank you. )

The right rake for the job
Good tools make the difference in most chores. From my own experience I cannot recommend the rakes with the one-piece molded plastic heads: the tines lack the flexibility and bite of a good bamboo or spring steel rake but, conversely, are also more damaging. With careful use and good care the latter two will actually last many years. After the lawn has been raked it can be limed and top-dressed. The micro-milled bagged compost products for use with a spreader on lawns are worth an open-minded, serious trial for top-dressing, as are the slower-acting, low-number organic fertilizers readily available on the Island. For optimum performance, lawn or garden, a soil test is always helpful.

Have a look at the lawn spreaders too, while you are at the garden center; improvements in nylon parts and operation have been made over the years. Make sure to go back and forth over the lawn evenly in one direction with the liming, before turning 90 degrees and covering evenly in the perpendicular direction. Pelletized lime is slightly more expensive but easier to use as its application involves no drift; however, agricultural lime, the finely ground white product, shows quite accurately where you have applied it. (Toss some lime on your lilacs while you have it.) Do the same with the top-dress material. It will show up well on top of the lime, too.

Other good one-description jobs are various categories of pruning. Have one of the youthful helpers prune back all the perovskia, all the buddleia, or all the Montauk daisies. Look for strong buds low down on the plants. Same with the Rosa rugosa. For R. rugosa, have him or her (wearing gloves) cut every cane back to a fat, outward facing bud between six and 12 inches from the ground. Dead canes, which will be very woody, dark colored, and lacking a healthy coat of thorns, can be cut off completely. Manually top-dress with fertilizer, compost, or both. Possibly some sharp replacement blades for your clippers will have to be bought at the garden center, or sharpen with a stone yourself. Healthy additional growth will sucker up from the soil.

If there is a raspberry patch on the property, almost exactly the same pruning can be done on the raspberry canes: cut back to about a foot near a fat bud. The passé canes that bore in preceding seasons should be pretty apparent. Cut them down to the ground. Then manually top-dress with fertilizer and wood ashes.

Rake out the beds yourself: this requires more judgment and detailed knowledge of what has been planted. For cleaning out beds it is helpful to use a daintier rake than a bamboo lawn broom, or pull out leaves and debris by hand. Reserve too for yourself pruning the hydrangeas and clematis vines. Or be prepared to be teacher. It is getting late in the season for this but performance will usually be improved nonetheless, despite the greater difficulty due to enlarged buds. (More on this later.)

When your youth force needs another task, start looking around for self-seeders or invasives like burning bush, privet, rose-of-sharon, or weed maples on your property. If you do not want the shrub/weed, show the children how to recognize it and have them pull, grub, or dig it out. These shrubs are often found in odd places - say, growing very close to and alongside fences or structures, especially in in-town yards where birds can excrete the seeds while they perch. If privet is growing where you want it, prune it to keep it within bounds. It is shocking how fast even one privet shrub can grow. It will easily go over ten or 12 feet and then begin to lean.... For heavier privet limbs a pruning saw or sharp loppers are what you need. Topping privet then narrowing its top can also be helpful.

In the matter of pruning hydrangeas and clematis vines, it really is helpful to have some sort of pruning manual in front of you if you do not already know how to proceed. Also helpful is to know what the plant is. Retain the pot tags or punched aluminum tags that have been wired on. It is not enough to know that it is "a hydrangea," or "a clematis." Plants that belong to the same genus have many different species and hybrids, which are pruned according to differing habits of growth. For example, Hydrangea macrophylla, like the blue or pink mophead, blooms on old wood, while H. arborescens, like the white 'Annabelle,' blooms on new wood. Could make quite a bit of difference to the amount of bloom you will enjoy.

Pruning 101
There are three pruning groups of clematis - I, II, and III. Very generally, group I flowers in spring and needs pruning only if space is limited because it blooms on old wood, i.e., the flower buds are already there, so prune this group, if needed, after it has bloomed. Group II includes the early large-flowered hybrids that bloom on short stems formed on the previous season's wood. This group normally has its first blossoms before the end of June. It is slightly past the optimum time now but this group can be pruned very lightly, to remove weak or damaged stems. Tie them in while pruning. This group can eventually become very bare at the base. To remedy this, cut back to about 12 inches from the base after the first bloom period. Clematis group III blooms late, after mid-June and into the autumn. The previous season's wood is unneeded as they flower only on new wood. This group, which includes the popular 'Jackmanii' variety, can be pruned back hard to just above a good pair of buds about 12 inches from the ground.

For pruning insights obtain a reliable pruning manual. Please check out the trellis making workshop information at It will be held this Saturday.