APRIL 1st…old farmer’s saying…’if you hear thunder on the first day of this month, the corn and hay crops will be plentiful…’
Spring is traditionally a time of new beginnings and fresh ideas, the perfect opportunity to get my garden growin’…
SPRING INTO ACTION…April brings with it the promise of warmer weather, those ‘May flowers’, and the thought that spring is well on the way. My gardens are full of unstoppable vigor…now in their fifth year the roses should soon be putting on quite a show…even though a few slept-in this spring.
And elsewhere, there are beautiful stands of creamy yellow, lavender, deep purple, and pale pink iris in bud…deliciously fragrant chocolate vine winds up the porch rail, larkspur sprouts hither and yon, wanton drifts of love-in-a-mist budding profusely and tips of elephant garlic peeking through the mulch…gardening, that creative journey in which I never have to worry about being there on time or at all!
SPRING IS EXHILARATING!
April 7th…sights to stir the soul. Driving to Williamsburg along the Colonial Parkway…a cold rainy day, the white blooms of dogwoods brighten the woods…redbuds contrast and excite…maypops like hundreds of tiny toad umbrellas…
In December of ’04, when we moved back to Virginia from Texas, there was not a single flower or shrub on the entire property. Since moving in I have planted many perennials, vines, heirloom plants, old roses, a few unusual shrubs and lots of herbs around the house. Now, in just a short time, there is always a lovely fragrance to enjoy, rose blooms to cut and the beginnings of a terrific herb garden. Amidst the frenzy of spring and the growing ‘to do’ list, it is a very busy time in the garden when the days are not long enough, nor my back strong enough to cope with the pressing tasks of feeding the soil around existing plants, trimming, planting, potting up, let alone the routine maintenance. I always enjoy my time in the garden; it is relaxing, yet tiring, soothing and very comforting. Ok, so some of it is just doing work for love!!
What Makes My Garden Feel Special…great blooms of color, fragrance, sound and a relaxed atmosphere. From the first moment, wandering along the gently curving stone path lined with thyme, rosemary and lavender, you feel my warm embrace…then you are drawn into the backyard where a rustic cedar arbor covered in climbing roses and evergreen clematis, offers a shady spot to rest, relax and enjoy the views, fragrance and sounds of the garden. Surrounded by woods, the area attracts a good variety of birds, wild turkeys, deer, and other wildlife…all contributing to a feeling of tranquility.
Food bar for Butterflies…In a few more weeks the buddleia or butterfly bush will begin to bud. This large shrub/plant is so named because butterflies cannot resist its fragrant blooms that form long, pointed clusters at the tips of arching branches. Buddleia, in shades of white, pink, purple, lavender and yellow is quite similar to a lilac bush and is just as easy to grow…but continues to bloom all season. Use it as a full shrub or trim it as a small scale tree form from early on…consistent trimming of old blooms will keep the bush going into fall. Actually, mine is really leafing out since I cut it back several weeks ago…it’s the focal point in a small butterfly garden close to the woods.
AND, don’t forget…
HUM-M-M-M…I’ve put out my hummingbird feeders, they are on their way! Fill with natural sugar water at 4-1, no red coloring needed, no honey, and change the mixture every few days. Long before honeybees were brought to North America as pollinators, the busy hummingbirds were already on the job. In order to survive, these tiny birds need to consume more than half their body weight in food every day.
From sun up to sundown, they visit hundreds of flowers feasting on nectar and insects. So…not only are they efficient pollinators but they are pest predators. Hummingbirds are attracted to flower colors and shapes…usually BRIGHT colors like red, yellow, orange and purple.
I love finding beautiful new feeders to hang about the garden, also found several that actually hang on the window glass and am able to enjoy watching them feed from the kitchen table…up close!
APRIL SHOWERS bring those May flowers…well usually, but last year it was May before there was much spring rain. So, this is my strategy for saving water in the garden and keeping plants happy:
*keep beds mulched to prevent moisture from evaporating… and mulch only after a good rainfall or heavy watering
*add soaker hoses under the mulch in areas that are very sandy and on a slope…this will make them easier and more efficient to water
*add more water barrels to collect rainwater at downspouts
*use watering cans instead of spraying with a hose…I can actually get water to the root system better this way; keep cans filled and station them around the garden ready for use while weeding or wandering
*don’t water unnecessarily; frequent light watering encourages surface roots that are more prone to drying out
*in dry weather, water containers and new young plants in the evening so they can absorb the moisture overnight
MID APRIL…sprigs and petals appear…and I can almost hear the garden growing as ripples of fresh green leaves giggling in the breeze fill the trees and gardens…transforming itself almost overnight from a tangle of twiggy brown stems to a vertical tapestry of swirling foliage and blooms.
Jottings…I had so many ideas that I jotted down in my journal during the winter…so, reading today…planning to do
- Delicious scent by the front door…Daphne, of course, along with my Osmanthus
- Do I need more bulbs…always, some can be divided soon; I will keep the blooms deadheaded before any seedpods form
- Where can I plant a viburnum…one with the fragrant white blooms…at the edge of the woods where it can grow up however it chooses
- Need another big rosemary for the front herb bed
- Look for comfrey plants to edge the blueberry garden
SPRING is most enchanting… the days are getting longer and slightly warmer…and fragrant blooms open daily. To celebrate, I’m planting one of my favorite old garden roses that a friend in Texas sent me from the Antique Rose Emporium…
Blush Noisette is a glorious old-fashioned climber that rates as one of the greatest performers of all time. The flowers open from lovely shaped buds, the petals are a gentle pink that pales as the blooms mature and the spicy perfume is best on a warm, sunny afternoon. The flowers, formed in loose sprays all the way up the canes, are produced consistently from late spring going on through November or later. This is a vigorous grower and can be treated as a large shrub…but, I think Blush Noisette is happiest as a climber reaching 10 feet or more in 3-5 years. Its scale makes it especially good for arches or rose arbors. Mine will be growing on a sunny arbor where it can show off its blooms all day…all the while enticing me towards the backyard with her fragrance.
Spring has sprung…it’s full speed ahead in the vegetable garden or potager with direct seed sowing and potted starts. As I plant and sow seeds, I chart my garden so I can rotate crops next year. Also, I firmly believe in the ancient concept of companion planting…growing herbs, edible flowers and vegetables together to produce happier, healthier plants and provide better insect control than a monoculture. For example, basil and garlic planted with tomatoes or even roses will produce more flavorful and colorful fruit and blooms.
But much more about companion on another post.
Provence lavender outlines one quadrant of the potager, chives and thyme another with rosemary as an enclosing hedge. English peas are blooming and have climbed halfway up their trellis…some vines are already full of tiny pods…umm, they taste so sweet raw. Sprouts of potatoes in their baskets have appeared and will be blooming soon, the garlic and onions look great. Alpine strawberry plants are full of tiny white blooms, and those tasty terrific little yellow pear and grape tomato plants can now go in along with basil, parsley and marigolds.
ACTUALLY, I prefer the French way of growing my little tomatoes. I get many more blooms and thus fruit and they are so much easier to care for than the larger bush varieties. Tomatoes fall into two classes: determinates, which are bush types that grow to a certain size and then stop; and indeterminates which are vining types that continue to grow until killed by a frost.
TOMATO GROWING TIPS…
- Be patient, wait till soil and weather is warm enough to plant
- Select a variety of tomatoes…I prefer mostly heirloom types
- When buying starts from a garden center, DO NOT PUT ROOT-BOUND PLANTS IN PEAT POTS IN THE GROUND. Remove the pots!
- Tomatoes appreciate LIGHT feedings throughout the growing season; either top dress with compost or foliar spray with fish and seaweed…do not overfeed or you will have lots of foliage and no blooms/fruiting
- Water EVENLY, DEEPLY, CONSISTENTLY…1-1½ inches of water a week depending on soil; do not let them dry out! This is key to avoiding blossom end rot
- Stake, cage or trellis tomato plants…they will be twice as productive and ripen faster
- Mulch soil around plants to retain moisture and suppress weeds
- If you find tomato hornworms…pick them off and feed to the birds
- Use basil and marigolds for companion plants
- Pinch out growing tips, side shoots and remove yellowing, old lower leaves; keep airflow good by cutting out thick foliage
I use this French-pruning technique to grow sweet 100’s, cherry or yellow pear tomatoes…
1.Plant seedling at base of stake and mound soil up to the middle of the stem, pinch out suckers
2.As the plant grows, keep pinching out lateral buds and tie stem to stake encouraging a leafy top to form
3.When the plant reaches full height, pinch out the main shoot to encourage more fruiting.
Wish I could put the drawing on here!!
AN ALTERNATIVE WAY TO GROW TOMATOES IN A SMALL SPACE…
Build a grow ring…a terrific way to grow tomatoes in a limited space while conserving water. Simply clear a 7’ circle and then build a hogwire ring about 5’ in diameter by 4’-5’ high in the center of the cleared area. Add some wire screening inside the cylinder up to 18” high and secure the ring to the ground with stakes or pins made from coat hangers. Fill the cylinder to about 12” high with organic compost and then put in 3-5 tomato plants spaced evenly around the ring. As the plants grow, trim and train two main stems and attach them to the wire ring with strips of cloth or twine. After 2-3 weeks, add another 6”-12” of soil and compost mix along with a little rock phosphate. Always water in the center of the cylinder and as the plants grow their roots will seek out the nutrient rich area inside the grow ring.
A side benefit: To protect from cold…it’s easy in late fall with approaching frost to cover the whole structure with a flannel blanket or row cover.
NOTE: this type of growing system can also be used for peas, small pumpkins, cucumbers and other vining vegetables/fruits.
CREATE YOUR OWN HANGING GARDENS…you can plant tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, bush beans and even compact melons in hanging baskets…BIG hanging baskets. Inexpensive wire baskets will work for a season but I prefer the heavy black coated metal baskets from England that will last for many years. Use 14 inch baskets for most vegetables, 16 inch or larger for zucchini and melon. First, I line the baskets with chicken wire and then use sheet or sphagnum moss on top. Fill with quality soil, no peat!
In my baskets I have planted heirloom grape tomato, spicy globe basil, and marigolds. Another is filled with yellow pear tomato, lemon basil, onion chives and sweet red pepper.
I hang them where they will get at least 5-6 hours of morning sun and then are shaded somewhat for the late afternoon. WATER consistently and feed with liquid fish and seaweed once a week…WHILE WATERING DAILY. Sounds like work, but this is an easy way to grow food crops in small spaces…your own fabulous hanging gardens…
Heritage Seeds and Plants… Over a hundred years ago, every country garden sprouted a variety of fruits and vegetables. Most gardeners grew what we are NOW calling HEIRLOOM varieties. At that time, most families lived their whole lives where they were born…all the while planting, growing and collecting seeds from their gardens.
Sown from a collection of seeds both inherited and from mail order, these vegetables and fruits adapted to local conditions and their seeds became part of the family’s most precious possessions…allowing them to plant and then exchange seeds with neighbors. Instead of buying seeds of hybrid vegetables and fruits EVERY YEAR…please consider buying and growing as many wonderful HEIRLOOM varieties as possible….they taste better!
Just don’t forget to collect seeds at the end of every season…and store in paper bags or glass jars.
Okay, so what’s the big difference?
*Open-pollinated…flowers, vegetables and fruits that will come true from seeds
*Hybrid…plants from 2 different families are crossed to make a flower or vegetable with a particular habit or color, seeds will not come true…you must buy new seeds every year.
OH, OH…just noticed, I need to get some pine straw to put around my Alpine strawberries, it’s good mulch and will keep berries from getting buried in the dirt by any heavy rain storms. These wonderful plants also make a lovely, ruffly edge for my flower beds by the front porch…I just pluck a berry every time I pass by.
Gerberas in Pots…this lovely daisy will flower pretty much all season if I treat it well. In colors of coral, butter, lavender, orange, red and so on…I like to put 5-6 plants together in a large pot or wooden tub…sometimes with Autumn ferns. I give them good soil and drainage and continue to feed with my liquid fish and compost…I am also careful to put stones around the crown of the plants to keep them warm, happy and free from rot. They really look nice marching in pots up the steps to the porch.
Old-Fashioned Garden Wisdom…”some people can grow things and some peoples can’t”
FRAGRANT FAVORITES CREATE A PERFUMED PARADISE…a scented romantic retreat, a place to relax from the hurly-burly of the world. With a few subtle changes to plants and accessories you can have a fresh ‘look’ for every season on a patio or deck.
1st of the season series:
For the SPRING patio, create a corner or backdrop of greenery with climbing vines or shrubs or a mini forest of potted trees. Try a fig or bay standard or a Japanese maple for color, a wax myrtle or Savannah holly, or sweet olive as evergreens. Find a stylish or funky table with matched or odd chairs. An old bench or metal table can be used to display small pots of bulbs, objects and blooms. Group arrangements of leafy plants together at ground level to enjoy their fresh foliage and fragrant blooms…THINK about sambac jasmine, gardenia, roses, honeysuckle, Meyer lemon tree, sweet peas, sweet flag, elderberry and a hydrangea for a shady afternoon spot.
Use plant stands, simple metal or wood tables and whimsical pieces to bring special plants closer to eye level. By early summer there will be plenty of fragrant perennials, herbs and annuals to choose from for potting up…group herb pots of rosemary, thyme, lavender, patchouli, lemon verbena and lemon grass for added fragrance and insect control.
Plant hanging baskets with colorful and fragrant blooms… I’ve just finished several English iron baskets that are filled with trailing vines of tropical pink jasmine. Wall mounted hayracks are great for trailing ivy, geraniums, alyssum and mint where the spot might get only dappled light.
Also, I use some gorgeous Italian rolled rim pots for planting mini perennial gardens as well as a few filled with all one plant…sunny rudbeckias, agapanthus, stunning verbena bonariensis, Shasta daisies and ‘Blue Princess’ verbena. Fragrance is intensified by developing this type of enclosure…it ensures that the scents are collected into a sensuous melting pot and not blown away on the wind. A sunny enclosure also brings out the best aromas, especially of herbs such as lavender and thyme.
While many fragrant plants , such as honeysuckle and lilies, are powerful enough to waft their tempting scents freely around the garden or patio…others need to be positioned near a path, patio or on the edge of a flowerbed to ensure that their delicate fragrance can be easily enjoyed.
MORE FOR SUMMER & FALL TO BE CONTINUED…
PLAN AHEAD…now is the time to think about MAY DAY. Carry on the tradition of May baskets or little flower bouquets from the garden…leave one on the front door as a special spring gift for a friend on MAY 1st. This charming custom began in Europe many years ago and is a major part of MAY DAY celebrations in France where tiny bouquets of lily of the valley are sold on every street corner. I still have mine from May 1, 1999…purchased on a street corner in Monaco.
END OF THE MONTH Garden Check-Up…
Time to feed camellias and azaleas that have already bloomed; composted rabbit manure is the best food for them or a specially mixed food for acid loving shrubs from ESPOMA. [depends on soil]
Bulb reminder: all bulb foliage should be left alone, uncut, until it yellows. This gives nutrient to the underground bulbs. I cut only after 85-90% of the foliage has died back. If you didn’t have many blooms this season, it’s probably time to lift, divide and replant your bulbs. A 50/50 mixture of worm castings or good compost, and soft rock phosphate should be used when replanting…a small handful at the bottom of each hole, mixed into the soil. I also add a sweetgum ball to deter marauding voles.
Not so fast…while I’m out doing the specialty feeding, I also check the evergreens and other ‘leafing out’ shrubs to see if they are getting a well-balanced nutrition from the soil. Sometimes in early spring while plants are growing rather quickly…especially after several weeks of good rain…foliage MIGHT be a paler shade of green than normal. This is a good time to top dress with compost to balance out the soil…
Divide, Conquer and Rule…After several years of growing and blooming, some perennials and herbs will quit producing or get leggy or too crowded or there is a dramatic reduction of bloom. This usually means it’s time to divide the plants…now is the season for dividing fall bloomers. Simply dig up the plant with plenty of root system and using a sharp knife, digging fork or spade…divide the root system. Amend soil in the new planting area with worm castings or compost and rock phosphate. Soak the roots and any foliage in seaweed water for a bit and then replant in holes larger than the root system. Keep well watered with seaweed for 2-3 weeks or until you see new growth. Sometimes it is necessary to cut back foliage when you divide. For spring bloomers…wait until just after they finish any blooming and before it gets too hot and then divide and replant.
*Some easy to divide perennials and herbs that form mats, patches or clumps:
daisies dianthus asters yarrow phlox ferns iris chives daylilies tansy creeping phlox beebalm
society garlic scabiosa comfrey lemon grass spiderwort rudbeckia
‘Layering’ is an easy way to propagate woody perennials, herbs, or shrubs. Just find some healthy branches or stems at the bottom of a plant and pin down the woody part so that it touches the soil…or you could place a rock or brick on the branch to hold it down for rooting. It doesn’t take long so check your work after a few weeks. When the branches have rooted well you can cut the newly rooted section from the mother plant and pot up or replant in the garden.
*Some perennials and herbs that are easily propagated by layering:
rosemary thyme sage rose salvia spirea savory lavender summer phlox catmint lemon verbena
Russian sage germander santolina wallflower
CUTTING ADVICE…NOW is the time to cut back sweet autumn clematis, if you have not already…cut back to one-third the size of the overall plant and redirect new growth where you want it to go. Plus, by controlling growth, you’ll get lots more blooms!
GARDEN KNOW-HOW…To prune or not to prune…that IS the question. For any gardener it is essential to grasp certain facts about why we have to prune at all. I much prefer to let nature take her course, but most people want plants in a garden to ‘perform’, to flower regularly with good healthy foliage and look orderly or graceful when not in flower.
Many shrubs have such beautiful natural shapes that pruning could and should be kept to a minimum. NEVER, EVER cut abelia, forsythia, lilac Chinese fringe, or elaeagnus into boxes or balls! Just pick prune to control growth and leave them to a natural shape.
When you prune or trim, you stimulate growth at the point where the cut is made…this is extremely important as you can ruin the natural shape of many shrubs by trying to force them to grow where they shouldn’t or cut them into balls or boxes or other contrived shapes. AND then you have hedges and topiaries, but that’s another whole story…
WHEN to prune is as important as why. If you prune to improve flowering, find out whether the plant flowers on ‘old’ or ‘new’ wood. Old wood is the growth made the previous season; new wood is the growth from the current season.
NOTE: most spring-flowering shrubs flower on wood or branches made in the previous year, so they should usually be pruned directly after flowering. Shrubs that flower later in the season can be trimmed as needed during the late winter or early spring.
GET TO KNOW YOUR PLANTS AS INDIVIDUALS AND HOW THEY FLOWER. ONE RULE DOES NOT APPLY TO ALL.
Always top dress with compost, mulch and water well after any heavy pruning.
Speaking of Topiaries…use them to create whimsical effects from garden grandeur to horticultural humor. A rosemary standard looks like a fat lollipop, makes a great focal point in an herb garden or creates a bit of order in a cottage garden. Cones, balls and pyramids of rosemary, germander or boxwood can anchor the corners of a potager, guard the entry to a path and create a reassuring sense of permanence in the garden…if you feel inclined to snip and control, that is!
ASPARAGUS…the aristocrat of vegetables…what can beat the sweetness of freshly picked, homegrown asparagus…
To enjoy its true flavor, cook it properly…a light, quick simmering in a flat sauté pan is best…it should still be crunchy, not limp and mushy.
Then lightly butter and squeeze a bit of lemon on the spears.
If you have to buy it at the local produce market….look for tightly closed buds at the top of the spears and stalks which should break with a snap.
Superb addition to a spring risotto…
WHAT’S IN A PHRASE? “make a beeline” Old country lore has it that bees are so efficient and dedicated to their work that after busily gathering their pollen from flower to flower they always fly in a straight line back to their hive…eager to deliver their nectar.
KNOW IT, GROW IT, Comforting comfrey…The vigorous comfrey plant, with its large fuzzy leaves and drooping pink flowers, has been considered primarily as a great miracle healing plant since the Middle Ages. In fact, bruised fresh leaves can be used as a poultice for cuts, rashes, bites and resultant swelling as well as ankle sprains or strains.
CAUTION: Check for allergic reaction before using on skin. Comfrey is rich in potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous making it an excellent plant healer and fertilizer as well. Just soak comfrey leaves in water till they rot, strain the mixture and use to foliar spray or root water plants. I’ve also used the aforementioned strained mess or chopped leaves as a mulch around my tomato plants. AND, it acts as a compost activator. Adding this ‘plant healer’ will help other plants in the garden!
Great Germander…a nice moderate size, mostly evergreen shrub that mixes well into the flower border is upright germander. ‘Tutti-Frutti’ has silvery gray, small leaf foliage and lavender blue blooms in summer. This great looking shrub will stand up to heat and drought once established. It prefers well-drained soil and a slight trim on occasion to keep it tidy. I plant it with purple sage, silver thyme, white coneflowers, verbena bonariensis, and butterfly bush.
GRASSROOTS…a fresh outlook for cleaning the kitchen sink drain: pour a small handful of baking soda down the drain followed by a cup of white vinegar, a natural antibacterial, follow with 30 seconds of warm water to flush
Some everyday items that get the cleaning job done: baking soda, distilled white vinegar, lemons, all purpose liquid detergent…an earth-friendly version…see many more HOUSEKEEPING tips in back of book section.
SAFE COLORING FOR EASTER EGGS…make your own egg dye the natural way using common foods and flowers…and don’t forget, the longer you soak eggs in homemade liquid, the deeper the color tone.
For PINK: cranberry juice For LAVENDER: grape juice For YELLOW: turmeric or saffron, dash of vinegar in boiled water…or calendula petals For GREEN: boiled comfrey leaves or parsley For BROWN: very strong brewed coffee For BLUE: blueberry juice, of course…Experiment with different edible blooms to find new colors.
Experience is a funny thing. If you make a botch of something, you learn from your mistake, and if you do something that works you know from that experience you have acquired a skill. Well, that’s the theory anyway…so the more experience you have, the more you realize that gardening is not an exact science. The best way to do something is the way that works for you!
Go out NOW and experience the wonder and glory of springtime!