Snow on Easter

And what’s happened to British gardening skills?

Black-and-white garden: Snow, trees, and birdbath. —Susan Safford

Lots of snow and record cold temperatures — it laid early-blooming bulbs over, limp and wilted, vestiges of their days’-previous selves, and challenged the survival of first-arrival lambs.

Does this mean we can expect snow on Easter? The recent cold and snowy weather, and the Siberian aspect of the Arctic blasts, blew many of us out of our complacency about winter’s end. Was it a new record for March cold? Is the new paradigm less winter during the traditional months, and more of it during spring’s prelude?

The inference is to be extremely cautious about spring garden work. The source of the cold appears to be displaced air masses from Arctic regions, sent down to lower latitudes by as yet uncategorized patterns of atmospheric circulation. In any case, be on your toes. At least (and a consolation) these weather events were accurately forecast.

Gardening skills

In two recent blog posts, the British plantsman and garden writer Noel Kingsbury deplores what he sees as an increasing and disturbing lack of basic gardening skills in the U.K.: “‘Lifestyle’ publishing stressing design over gardening. End result is a whole generation seems to be growing up not knowing how to prune, take cuttings, grow their own bedding plants … Gardening media have focused on ‘getting the look’ rather than ‘how to do it.’” If this is the know-how level in that legendary nation of gardeners, what must it be here in the U.S.?

Related, but in a slightly different vein: Christopher Lloyd, one of the most prolific and knowledgeable British gardeners and garden writers of the 20th century, in “The Well-Tempered Garden,” wrote, “The best policy for anyone new to gardening is to do his jobs by the calendar until he has built up sufficient confidence, experience, and general understanding to be able to break the rules cheerfully when it seems sensible and necessary to do so.”

Know-how: Pruning clematis

Late February and early March is pruning time for clematis plants that need it. Clematis pruning seems complicated, and it is, slightly. This is partly due to the mixed species used in the parentage of the many spectacular hybrids we enjoy today, their different origins, bloom times, and culture.

There are hundreds of distinct clematis species worldwide. Modern large-flowered hybrids are creations stemming from breeding work done in Europe and the U.K. using many of them, starting during the mid-19th century and ongoing today.

When one purchases a clematis, it is most helpful for future culture to note to which clematis group (Group 1, Group 2, and Group 3; or Group A, B, C) the plant belongs. This will be printed on the pot tag. However, it is recommended that initially all newly planted clematis be pruned as follows, irrespective of group number: cut back stems to about one foot in height the first spring, just above a pair of strong green buds. This is done in February or March to create a future framework of strong, flowering stems.

Group 1 (A) includes the spring-blooming (usually rampant) growers such as C. montana and its selected cultivars; C. alpina; and C. macropetala, which flower on old wood. If needed, they may be pruned just after flowering, no later than the end of July.

Group 2 (B) includes the early, large-flowered hybrids that flower before the end of June, and some others. Many of these have flower buds growing on short stems from the previous season’s old wood, although a subsection flowers intermittently on longer growths throughout the season. Now is the time to remove dead or weak stems, but do this very carefully. Many seemingly dead stems will be seen to have pairs of large, fat buds at their extremities!

Group 3 (C) clematis are the ones blooming entirely on the current season’s growth, or between late June and October, such as the “sweet autumn clematis” of ever-changing botanical nomenclature. Old growth of these vines may be pruned down to 10 or 12 inches from the ground in February or March. If being grown on a wall, cut back all the stems to one node above the previous year’s growth.

Barry Fretwell, in “Clematis” (1989), includes a blended category that sits “rather uncomfortably astride the B and C fence.” Examples are ‘Hagley Hybrid’ and all the red large-flowered hybrids: “The only satisfactory method of dealing with these is to cut them hard back one year and prune lightly the following year.”

However, Christopher Lloyd in “The Adventurous Gardener” cautions against cutting very old plants with single, thick trunks back too hard: “The more stems a clematis has, the thinner they’ll be, and the more likely to respond well to cutting back.”

‘Gardening with Chickens’

Of equal value to the holistic poultry-keeping advice in “Gardening with Chickens” (2016, Voyageur Press) is its worth as a guide for the beginning gardener. Lisa Steele, a frequent contributor to Backyard Poultry magazine, rightly emphasizes the soil as the foundation for all homestead health: hens’, humans’, and plants’. Free-ranging hens have a frustratingly high frequency of canceling out gardening endeavors. Steele writes of her varied experiences raising chickens, gardening, and how to blend the two successfully, in this nicely designed and photographed book.

Polly Hill Arboretum

Polly Hill Arboretum plans an ambitious spring program of classes, beginning this Saturday, March 18, with “Winter Tree ID: No Leaves? No Problem,” with Ian Jochems at 9 am. Tim Boland will give a talk on March 22, “A Plantsman’s Adventures in Ireland,” at 5:30 pm. Mr. Jochems will lead a workshop on “Holly Hat Racking” on March 24 at 10 am. Please call 508-693-9426 to preregister. Information about additional spring classes and workshops may be found at Polly: