Garden Notes

Side-dress shrubs like this hellebore foetidus with plenty of organic material. Photos by Susan Safford

Custom cutters

By Abigail Higgins - April 27, 2006

At this year's New England Grows green industry trade show an Island tree surgeon and fellow attendee advised me to check out Bahco pruners. I went around to the Oesco booth, looked the wares over, had the measure of my hand's width and length taken, and ordered an appropriately sized left-hand model. I wrote a brief mention in Garden Notes to say I would be making a comparison later on between the Bahcos and my trusty Felco No. 9's.

Shortly thereafter my pruners arrived in their own little molded plastic suitcase, which included two spare springs of varying strength, a small wrench, and a plastic flask of blade cleaner. Pretty nifty, I thought to myself. (I noted that they were made in France, although Bahco - formerly Sandvik - is a Swedish company.) But as I handled the clippers I had a bit of a sinking feeling: they felt alien and somehow not too hand-friendly.

I am happy to report all that has changed. Now I am enamored. I have given my Felcos barely a backward glance after becoming more accustomed to the Bahcos. Since recovering from the flu, I have been trying to make up for lost time, pruning and cutting back nonstop in all our clients' gardens. The Bahcos are lighter in weight, strong, and cut with a minimum of wrist stress due to the improved ergonometrics. Compared with the straighter Felcos, there is a pronounced obtuse angle between the Bahco handles and cutting head. There is nothing wrong with the Swiss Felcos, and I am certainly not advising against investing in a pair. (Right-handed gardeners have a wider range of models available to choose from, too.) But the Bahco PX-S2-L has won me over.

The following are some of the plants that respond well to spring pruning, with whichever pruners you use: caryopteris; potentilla; buddleia; Montauk daisies; rosa rugosa; Hydrangea arborescens (like 'Annabelle'); hypericum; rose of Sharon (as needed); perovskia; and lavenders. Prepare also to prune the spring-flowering shrubs such as forsythia, deutzia, azalea, flowering quince, and viburnum immediately after bloom, so as to allow them to form next year's flower buds on this year's wood.

Felco No. 9's (top) and Bahco No. PX-S2-L pruners.

Pruning is an operation that keeps plants healthier, more floriferous, compact, or the size necessary for the available space. Look for crossing or rubbing canes and branches (prune these at any time of year.) Prune to keep centers more open to improve ventilation and light. Many flowering shrubs benefit from a yearly planned removal of selected older canes, right down to the base - I am thinking especially of forsythia, mock orange, deutzia, and lacecap and mophead hydrangeas - to keep the plant well-supplied with younger productive wood. Caryopteris can be shortened back by about a third, as can hypericum and shrub potentilla. Hydrangea arborescens can be cut back to the ground, or alternatively if you want to hedge your bets, to between 12 and 24 inches from the base.

Montauk daisies, now Nipponanthemum nipponicum in the great daisy taxonomic shake-up (formerly Chrysanthemum nipponicum), can be cut back hard to any fat healthy buds low down toward the base. They can then be pruned again with hedge clippers before the end of May to maintain a more compact shape or to retard bloom time. Try shearing groundcovers like ivy, Vinca and pachysandra with hedge clippers. Phlox, asteromoea, asters, echinacea, and veronicas can be made more compact and caused to bloom later by shearing in May or June. Wood from the previous season on Buddleia davidii can be cut back hard to buds low down toward the base of the plant.

While cutting back or shortly thereafter, fertilize beds and side-dress shrubs and perennials, such as this hellebore, using plenty of organics: blood meal, ground rock dust, seaweed meal, fish or crab meal, wood ashes, steamed bone-meal and feather-meal, or use a prepared organic "soil food" fertilizer. (Keep wood ashes and bone meal from acid-loving plants, as these are soil sweeteners.)

Eat your enemy
On an entirely different subject, this at the suggestion of Nancy Weaver of Polly Hill Arboretum, Japanese knotweed or "bamboo" is coming up in the places where it is growing and inevitably spreading. Nancy reminds me that "bamboo," Polygonum cuspidatum, is edible right now, as the new, red-tinted shoots emerge from the ground around the remains of last year's dead stalks. Imagine doing one's bit to stifle "bamboo" by eating it!

Knotweed is a rampant plant, spreading by underground rootstocks, and many a good dollar has been spent on glyphosate products to eliminate it. Most of us know it as a scourge of open sunny places with good soil that have been subject to disturbance. (In the U.K. it is actually a crime to knowingly contribute to the spread of this plant.) The shoots are tender as they emerge and remain edible until simply too tough to eat. According to the "wild foods guy," Wildman Steve Brill, at his web site www.wildmanstevebrill.com, the shoots are tart, similar to rhubarb, and may be cooked by slicing and steaming. He recommends removing all leaves due to their toughness. Knotweed is an excellent source of vitamin C. There are also many good pictures at www.foragingpictures.com. As with all food collected from the wild, positive identification is a must. Do not collect near the edges of roads, due to accumulations of lead and other heavy metals. It is necessary to dig the roots in addition to harvesting the shoots, in order to inhibit the growth of the Japanese knotweed.

As a postscript, be wary of any plant offered for sale with the names Polygonum or Fallopia. Japanese knotweed was originally brought here as an ornamental. With hindsight it is perfectly obvious what a mistake that was.

Eat heirloom tomatoes
The plant sale of the Community Solar Greenhouse (COMSOG) will start on the weekend of May 13 and 14, at the greenhouse behind the former 4-H headquarters on New York Avenue in Oak Bluffs. While a variety of vegetable and annual plants will be offered for sale to the public, it is for the wide variety of heirloom tomato plants that the COMSOG plant sale has become justly famous. Mark your calendars and be sure to come early for the best selection. Prices will range from $1.50 to $25. The plant sale is the major fundraiser for COMSOG, truly a community based institution and activity, which deserves the Island's support.