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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.