Gardeners are eager to immerse in all spring work, but the forecast calls for extended cold and wintrier than normal spring conditions.
Condolences to the family of Donald Mills Jr. of Hillside Farm. It is sad saying, “rest in peace,” because he was a good guy, gone far too young. Donnie was one of the most modest members of the often colorful Island agricultural community, with such a self-deprecating manner that many Island residents perhaps did not know him. Nonetheless, for those who did, the laconic and humble Donnie always had a pithy or amused observation to make, whether on the struggles of Island farming or the crazy greater world at large.
False starts, cold temps
There was solace in pricking out lettuce seedlings indoors while a blizzard thrummed outside, although I’d have rather been working in the garden. Island gardeners are eager to immerse in all spring work with headlong energy, rather than waiting. However, it would be wise to practice restraint since the national weather service’s seasonal forecast calls for extended cold and wintrier than normal spring conditions.
There will be many broken twigs and branches from wind, ice, and snow loads; damage will continue to become apparent as plants come into growth. Pruning and general clean-up is integral to spring garden maintenance and of that, clean-up and pruning the sub-shrub category of blooming plants constitutes a large part. Hydrangeas, Montauk daisies, caryopteris, potentilla, Rosa rugosa, perennial herbs such as lavenders and salvias, and buddleia: these all need tending.
Think twice about pruning them this year and do not berate yourself for putting it off if more freezes or snows threaten.
The above-mentioned are sub-shrubs being neither “woody” nor “herbaceous.” They derive a certain amount of their ability to survive in this hardiness zone from the cold protection afforded by their old wood. Remove the old wood prematurely through seasonal clean-up, and cold shock may cause the loss of swollen buds protected by it. In some cases, the entire plant may die from it. Use your judgment, depending on Island location and exposure of individual sites.
Big to-do list
The recent weather conditions have created for many a backlog of garden tasks. What might have been done in March will now mostly take place in April. In no particular order of importance, here are suggested tasks:
- Dig and stew dandelions, root and top, from untreated lawns and gardens. The traditional tea is an excellent spring tonic, with kidney and liver cleansing effects; roots lose potency upon flowering.
- Start tuberous begonias if you have not already done so.
- Prune Hydrangea paniculata back to lowest pair of strong buds on last season’s growth, likewise H. arborescens (‘Annabelle’s and similar).
- Clean up winter trash and the remains of last year’s annuals and perennials. Cut back herbaceous perennials and divide.
- Prune shrub roses.
- Indoor plants (in photo: amaryllis, pomegranate, and pelargonium): feed every two weeks at half-dilution and spray with insecticidal soap. Repot any needing it with fresh potting mix before moving outside in warm weather.
- When soil reaches 41°F, cold-hardy vegetables such as broad beans, carrots, lettuce, and peas may be planted, but may need further protection of floating row covers.
- Prune canes of Rosa rugosa back to a strong bud, or about 12 inches.
- Top-dress evergreen and deciduous trees with HollyTone, TreeTone, ProGro, or ProHolly.
- Henbit, spitting cress, and chickweed are up and growing in beds and vegetable gardens. Weed them out while young and before flowering (latter two make good salad greens if harvested from untreated soils).
- Add organic matter to ornamental and vegetable garden soils, but refrain from digging prematurely, until drying-out has occurred (working sodden soil destroys structure and creates compaction).
- Cut back ornamental grasses.
- Apply corn gluten (10-0-0) as a weed/crabgrass pre-emergent.
- Last call for spraying with lime sulphur oil mix: fruit and other small trees, shrubs, roses, to control mites, scale, leaf diseases. Ideal conditions for applying occur when air temperatures are above 40° for a 24-hour period, with no rain in the forecast. Do not spray if you see any leaf growth, as this will burn the foliage. (If bought separately, both sprays can be mixed in the same tank; mix at recommended rates.)
- Spray deer repellant on susceptible plants, such as fruit trees, lilac buds, daylilies, and tulip shoots.
- Lawn mower maintenance: sharpen blades, change oil and air cleaner, and clean.
- Shear groundcovers such as ivy, epimedium, ceratostigma, and liriope.
Despite the vagaries of the weather, by now clematis should have been cut back. The method, however, depends upon which category your clematis plants belong in (a complex discussion in its own right and worthy of a separate column). Save pot-tags or record name of cultivars planted; books and the internet supply lots of information on clematis categories if you know the cultivar name.
Group 1: prune right after flowering. Group 2: large flowered hybrids, pruned variously. Group 3: (includes sweet autumn clematis) flower on new wood produced in the current year; prune back severely every year in late winter, when they are completely dormant, to about 12 – 14 inches.
Ag Society news
On Sunday, April 6 at 1 pm, M.V. Agricultural Society presents Jonathan Bates with “Paradise Lot, Growing an Edible Garden Oasis.” Presentation is free and open to the public, and will constitute April’s Homegrown meeting. Along with Eric Toensmeier (and their families), Jonathan Bates has been demonstrating the self-sufficient, permaculture lifestyle on Paradise Lot, formerly a junked-up urban yard in beautiful rust-belt Holyoke. For more information about Jonathan Bates, please go to www.foodforestfarm.com.
On Sunday, April 13 at 12 noon, MVAS presents Lamb-O-Rama, a Palm Sunday noon meal (adults $12, children $7, tickets at the door) that complements the Farm Institute’s April 12 Sheepapalooza, a “celebration of all things sheep,” and the regular Sunday get-together of the Spinners & Weavers.