Following a memorable winter of record snowfall and battering winds the gardening theme for Spring 2011 is renovation and damage control. This year, spring cleaning of the garden is going to be a bigger job than usual and begins now, with a sharp pencil and, in a few weeks, with an even sharper pair of pruners.
Safety First. Take a good careful look at your trees. Broken branches and damaged limbs pose an overhead threat to people and property, but, for safety’s sake, know your limits. Pruning large trees is dangerous work and ought to be done by a professional arborist.
Shrubs: There are a number of books written about pruning, which is as much an art as a science. Not all plants are pruned in spring. Different species have different pruning requirements and under normal circumstances we would prune spring flowering plants in early summer, after they have flowered. But drastic times call for drastic measures, which is what this severe winter has dished out to us.
Without the protection of A-frames or burlap wraps, evergreen and deciduous shrubs will have suffered. The prolonged weight of the snow may have caused broken and splayed branches and misshapen bushes and shrubs. Extensive pruning is in order. The damage may be particularly severe at foundation plantings where snow and ice deposited from the roof, sometimes with great force, may, in places, have reached depths of 5’, exacerbated by our own blind footsteps while raking our roofs. During your landscape inspection, pay special attention to shrubs and plants that are near drainpipes, downspouts or beneath the drip-line of roofs, where torrents of water from melting snow, ice and rain have washed away soil and mulch, leaving the vulnerable plant roots exposed. Replenish soil and mulch wherever you find this condition.
The general rule for pruning shrubs and trees, the 3-D’s, is to remove all dead, damaged and diseased wood. By focusing on the first two we may avoid the latter, later. This, of course, does not bode well for spring floral display. Alas, alack! The blooms of plants that flower on the previous year’s growth, such as rhododendron, azalea, lilac, hydrangea, spirea, weigela and many others, may be sacrificed. (This might be a good year to indulge in colorful annuals or experiment with planting annual climbers (or, if I may be so bold, in an English cottage garden sort of way, perennial climbers) at the bases of your newly shorn shrubs. Although this strategy won’t compensate for the loss of flowering shrubbery it will provide some welcome, and well-deserved color for the coming season.
If you have severe damage to boxwood, azalea, rhododendron, hollies or yew, you may need to cut these back hard in late March or early April, while they are still dormant. If necessary, they can be pruned to 24” – 36” from the ground. Where the damage has been caused by frost, prune back to a bud into healthy wood, but not when more frost is likely. The cut will expose buds, previously protected by the damaged stem and leaves, making them vulnerable to further frost damage. If you have been pruning out diseased plant material, disinfect your tools before moving on to prune any other growth, and or before putting them away. (A travel size spray bottle of 10% bleach solution is convenient to carry around for this purpose).
After severe pruning always apply a suitable fertilizer for acid-loving plants around the root zone. (Remember that the ‘root zone’ is wider than the freshly pruned shrub, if you’ve removed side growth as well as height).
Frost heave is not likely to be a big problem this year (am I speaking too soon?) as the ground has been well-insulated with deep and heavy snow. Crown rot and root rot, however, may pose problems for plants that prefer dry conditions. If areas of your garden are wetter than usual, or your drought-loving plants were situated in ‘borderline’ areas, inspect these perennials carefully. Plants such as artemesia, lavender, and bearded iris are particularly susceptible to crown and root rot . Remove any mulch or soil that may have washed around the crowns of these plants and provide extra drainage, using fine gravel or small stones.
Anticipating problems; For the sake of safety, many of us had to resort to using ice-melting salts and chemical compounds on our doortseps and walkways this winter. Plants exposed to run-off of these compounds may exhibit weak growth and look sickly. There are a couple of things that you can do to try to revive them before giving up and replacing them entirely. First, if the plants have been mulched, remove the mulch and dispose of it. Next, give the plants a good long soaking with a slowly-running hose; this will further dilute traces of salt in the soil. Side dress the plants with a balanced organic fertilizer and apply a 3” layer of fresh mulch around the base of the plant.
Soil testing. This is one of those activities that never makes it to the top of priority lists, if it gets on the list at all. Maybe its too ‘sciencey’, maybe we blame the mice and voles and weather for non-performance or outright failure of plants, maybe we figure that if we’ve added enough compost or manure or well-balanced organic fertilizer that all will be well in our Garden of Eden, and it may be. But, it ain’t necessarily so….
Although your plants may have received a boost from the nitrogen enriched snow, they may also have received a dose of acid rain in the process and with melting snow and its subsequent run-off, many nutrients may have leached out of the soil. Soil-testing kits are readily available by mail order or garden centers and usually come with easy instructions. Perform soil tests throughout the garden where different conditions exist and keep careful notes. Knowing where your soil is deficient empowers you to treat the problem effectively and enhance the growing conditions of your plants.
The endless plowing and shoveling this winter has made a mess of gravel driveways, paths and walkways and likely to have made even more of a mess of surrounding areas. Raking gravel out of lawns, beds and borders and shoveling it back to where it belongs is one of the least enjoyable jobs to look forward to this spring. Patios may have been undermined by soil erosion and stone flags may have shifted. These may present dangerous tripping hazards and ought to be re-laid to a flush, level surface, with care being taken to provide suitable drainage.