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Spring Gardening Ins and Outs

By Cindy Murphy


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Cindy MurphyIt’s March ... is it time to get out in the garden yet? Patience, patience, Cindy – the time will come soon enough when the nursery re-opens, and you’ll be back to work. Then, between there and your own gardens you’ll have more than enough gardening. But right now, although the snow’s melted, the ground is still frozen and there’s not a whole lot that can be done. Enjoy the last days of winter while you can. Even the closed buds on bare trees hold promise spring will come ... in its own sweet time.

I have to tell myself things like this as we stand on the cusp between winter and spring. A friend from Oklahoma mentioned her roses had leaves, and her daffodils were already blooming. “Wow,” I thought, almost envious. The fairy roses in front of my house haven’t even lost last year’s leaves; they were freeze-dried to the branches when the first snow hit in early November.

Coming in the house the other day, I stared at the bare dirt where daffodils waft a heady scent through the back door when they’re in bloom. I tried to will them to flower, but they ignore me, and haven’t broken ground yet. The straw-colored clump of red switch grass (Panicum virgatum 'Rostrahlbusch’) near the daffodils-to-be spot, looks broken and beaten after spending months under the weight of snow. I really need to cut that down soon. Ornamental grasses should be cut to two to three inches above the soil before new growth begins to sprout. Divisions too can be done in spring – I want to divide the grass and move a clump or two into the new garden this year.

Hacking through grasses and dividing them can be a chore. These, and many other big spring gardening tasks, can lead to sore muscles that haven’t been worked in a while. As indoor activities shift to outdoor work, remember not to over do it. Start slowly to give your muscles time to acclimate. As with any physical exercise, stretching beforehand is a good practice. Don’t forget to include a cooling down period after the task is completed ... and what better way than taking a stroll through the garden looking at what you’ve accomplished ... and taking inventory of all that still needs to be done.

Hands too, should be protected. Good work gloves are as essential tools to me as pruners and a shovel. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that I wear gloves; dirt and mulch seem to find a way inside them. Try this trick for removing that ground-in garden dirt from your hands: Pour equal amounts of sugar and olive oil into your hand, and rub together for a few minutes, before rinsing. The grit of the sugar is abrasive enough to remove the grime, and the olive oil softens your hands at the same time. Because I wash my hands so much during the work season, this is one way I've found to keep them from getting red and dry like they do with abrasive hand cleaners.

Nebraska Dave, a great conversationalist in the blog comment sections and forums on this site, said, “The warm Spring sun, the sound of birds, watching the squirrels play in the trees all just make a body feel good inside.” Very true indeed, Dave. Last fall’s cranberry viburnum berries dusted in a sugary spring frost are a bright splash of red for a gray day.

Cranberry vibernum

A budding pussy-willow standing against a clear blue sky, which on closer inspection reveal fuzzy gray catkins beginning to open, is therapeutic for a winter-weary soul.

Pussy willow and blue sky

Plants are like that – they make us feel happy, even inside the house; it’s been proven by Harvard University scientists. Participants in a behavioral study reported feeling happier, more compassionate and energetic after looking at flower bouquets in the morning. A good thing to remember when the cats wake me before 5:30 a.m insistently demanding they be fed. Placing a bouquet of flowers near their dishes for me to see through half-opened bleary eyes might not be a bad idea.

Too early to cut flowers indoors from your garden? Don’t want the expense of buying them at the florist’s or consider it an unnecessary extravagance in today’s tumultuous economy? You can still fight those late winter blahs (and uncompassionate feelings towards early-rising felines) by forcing branches indoors. See my last week’s entry, “Bring Branches In and Force Spring a Little Bit Early” for some tips on getting dormant branches to bloom.

March is also the time for spring gardening shows. The county’s Second Annual Garden and Landscaping Expo takes place this weekend. I’d like to attend one of the seminars at the show, “Water Conservancy for the Home Gardener,” given by the Van Buren Conservation District. Interesting topic; we can all be stewards of this earth and of our wallets. I’ll fill you in on what I learn about saving water and money.

At these gardening shows, plant and gardening enthusiasts will browse the aisles like kids in a candy shop. This year’s hot new perennials and shrubs will seem irresistible must-haves for the garden. But anyone who’s ever planted ornamentals has had at least one instance when that “sounds-too-good-to-be-true” adage was proven. A plant touted to “attract wildlife” has left you with every deer and rabbit within a twenty-five mile radius using your entire front yard as their grazing grounds. That exciting new and improved hybrid cost twice as much and performed half as well as its predecessor.

I discovered some tongue-in-cheek plant advertising gimmicks reading “The Real Meaning of Plant Catalog Terminology” on The Spirit of Gardening website. The site offers over 3,500 quotations, poems, quips, adages, links and references for the gardener and nature lover.

The Real Meaning of Plant Catalog Terminology:

"A favorite of birds" means to avoid planting near cars, sidewalks, or clotheslines.

"Grows more beautiful each year" means "Looks like road-kill for the foreseeable future."

"Zone 5 with protection" is a variation on the phrase "Russian roulette."

"May require support" means your daughter's engineering degree will finally pay off.

"Moisture-loving" plants are ideal for landscaping all your bogs and swamps.

"Carefree" refers more to the plant's attitude than to your workload.

"Vigorous" is code for "has a Napoleonic compulsion to take over the world."

"Grandma's Favorite" – until she discovered free-flowering, disease-resistant hybrids.

The author is not credited on the site, but I laughed at his or her descriptions – I’ve had many of those same experiences in my own garden. Patience may be a virtue, but having a sense of humor is a gardening prerequisite ... because gardening should be fun. I can’t wait to get started. Patience, patience, Cindy. Sigh. No one ever said I was a virtuous woman.

cindy murphy
3/12/2009 1:59:55 PM

Lori! I don't have hyacinths, but am excited to report that the other day I noticed the daffodils poking their noses out of the ground where last week there were none! Of course, today, they're coverd in snow, but that's beside the point. I can't help but think it won't be long now. Thanks for the compliment about the viburnum photo; it's especially nice coming from an accomplished photographer such as yourself. Digital cameras are such a wonderful thing - if it weren't for them, I'd have more wasted film of pictures of my thumb and strands of hair, than I would of actual photos where you could make out the subject! Take care, and think spring!


lori
3/12/2009 6:29:52 AM

Cindy, I too am chomping at the bit to get started playing in the dirt! My hyacinths are teasing me by showing me their tops poking through the ground! I love the explanations for plant terminology! When I read the one for vigorous, it immediately brought to mind my ongoing battle with Lemon Balm! The stuff smells wonderful all right, but anyone thinking of planting this herb be aware that it will seed itself all over your flowerbeds if you let it go to seed. A lesson I learned the hard way! I love your photo of the frosted berries! They do look like they were dipped in sugar!


cindy murphy
3/12/2009 6:01:39 AM

Hi, Dave. I'm employeed at a nursery, and I used to tell people that I played in the mud for a living when asked where I worked....until someone thought I was a mud-wrestler, and I could not convince him otherwise.


cindy murphy
3/12/2009 5:57:48 AM

HA, Iggy! I've killed cactus too, inside the house. Anything that crosses the threshhold of the door from the outside in, has pretty much been handed a death sentence in my house. Just call me The Black Thumb of Death; I've never been able to keep a houseplant alive for more than a couple of months. The girls and Hubs have been laughing at me the last couple of weeks, because I refuse to give up on a purple-leaved shamrock that sat on my porch all last summer, happy, big and beautiful. It now has just three scraggly leaves left. I think a lot of it has to do with the lack of humidity in the house; in addition, all my sunny windows have heating vents right underneath them. That's my excuse anyway....it has nothing to do with me forgetting to water them.


nebraska dave
3/12/2009 1:20:07 AM

Cindy, It sounds like you are describing the Spring thaw when the frost comes out of the ground. I never cared for that part of Spring when the mud was knee high and stuck to the boots until I couldn't pick up my feet. Oh, yeah and that trick when the boot got buried and stuck so deep in the mud that it stayed right and out came my foot when I lifted it. It was always a treat to try to pull that boot out of the mud and get it back on while trying to say upright on the other stuck in the mud foot. That part of Spring I'm with you and didn't really care for.


michelle house
3/11/2009 10:22:24 PM

Hi, I wish I was half the gardener you are. I kill cactus, but I do enjoy looking flower gardens and such. Iggy


cindy murphy
3/9/2009 7:02:02 AM

Truth be told, Dave, I prefer winter over spring...or rather, January and February when the snow flies over March's cold rains. It rained here all weekend; heavy rain that turned the small creek in the ravine into a torrent over-flowing its banks, and the ravine itself into a muddy swamp....which the puppy discovered, much to her delight. It'll be weeks, it seems, before I'll be able to get down there and do all that yard-work that came to a screeching halt when the snow started in November. Ah well, I did enjoy watching the birds splash around in the standing water - it seemed they were having a good old time; more like playing than bathing. I should probably take a clue from them and the dog, and have some fun stomping around in the mud, instead of bemoaning what a mess the rain has left. All too soon, we'll probably be wishing for rain - come mid-summer we always do. It's sweet you named your trees, and described them personified. Such joy they can provide, and when they die, we, in essence, lose a friend.


nebraska dave
3/8/2009 12:39:07 PM

Cindy, Spring is fast upon us. Here in Nebraska we have very distinct seasons that last long enough to almost tire of them but makes the next season all the more enjoyable. My most favoritest (yes, I know, I’m making up words again) time of the year is the Spring time. I so enjoy watching nature wake up and come back to life after the long winter sleep. I guess for me it’s just reassuring to know that some things always remain the same in this crazy world. I really liked the cranberry picture with the frost on it. I probably should get my camera out and start taking some before pictures to compare the after pictures in the fall. It’s not long now before the Spring yard clean up will begin. I expect maybe in a couple weeks. I didn’t quite get finished with the fall cleanup before old man winter blew in and put a halt on all outside work. And then there’s old Rose. She was a good old Rosebud tree that filled my life with joy every time she displayed her Spring time splendor of purple flowering. She lived to a ripe old age of 40, about 20 years past what a normal Rosebud should and finally started loosing her limbs from center rot and carpenter ants. She has warmed the hearts of many people as they sat around their backyard fire pits last fall. Only her stump remains. This Spring will begin Rose’s stump removal. I’ve already dug a trench around the stump and cut the lateral roots. Now all that’s left is to chop around the base of the stump to gain access to the tap root. Once that is cut then Rose’s stump will roll right out of the hole. That’s the plan anyway. I did the same with old Crabby and it worked pretty well. Old Crabby was a Crab Apple tree that also had lived a good life but became old and crabby. Life and death doesn’t always have to be about farm animals. I always enjoy your blogs. Keep them coming.