Tuesday, April 5, 2011


            Tim and I spent the last week or so doing a basic spring landscape clear-out—pruning, weeding, feeding. (It wasn’t awful as it sounds: an average Fitz workday runs about four hours, plus we get all inclement-weather days off. Oh, the joys of self-employment! But don’t try this at home, kids, unless you are mortgage- and debt-free, and can be happy with a simple, low-tech, anti-consumption lifestyle.) The lovely, appreciative couple whose yard we literally crawled all over marveled at the difference between before and after. And that’s without planting a thing except one 30” hayrack.

Southern crabapple blossom
(Malus angustifolius)
            It’s not really horrendously hard work, because Tim and I have a rhythm that plays to our individual strengths. It occurred to me that I could share some of our techniques, discovered during years of T always looking for the easiest, fastest and most efficient way to get things done and me poking along behind, humming to myself, avoiding tool-use as much as possible.          

I’ve also been having an online conversation with a reader named Julie about some of her gardening woes. She describes a problem, I respond with what I think the cause might be and suggest a solution. (See what making a comment can do for you?)  Between the two of us, we decided a post of early-spring tips might be generally helpful. So here are a dozen snippets of random advice, from the voice of experience.
TIP 1:  The optimal time to feed your plants is when active growth begins. I’ve covered the ins and outs of this topic ad nauseum in “Food for Thought, Parts 1 and 2” (see February 20th and 24th posts), so all I’ll add here is a factoid: at the job we just finished, it took five 40-pound bags of Holly-Tone to do the job right for an average-size suburban lot. Don’t scrimp.

Unlimbed-up hedge

TIP 2:  Prune before you feed, so you aren’t schlepping around underneath shrubs with your face in fertilizer. What do you mean, “underneath”? you say. I mean it’s critical that you limb up plants from below to enhance good air circulation, in turn enhancing pest resistance. (I recommend protective eyewear for this task if you don’t already need corrective lenses to see your shrubs.) Cool weather is best for this chore, especially for those of you who are reptile- and insect-phobic—get out there before hibernating creatures stir. Clear out dead leaves and twigs and old mulch while you’re down there: this also helps improve circulation and can remove overwintering pests.

Limbed-up hedge

TIP 3:  One other pruning hint—if you haul your cullings off yourself, cut them into straight pieces so they’ll compact better. Y- and L-jointed branches take up more space, meaning more runs to the dumping ground.     

TIP 4:  On to weeding. Drag a big tub (my favorite is a 25-gallon nursery pot) around with you for collection. It’s easier than making piles you have to go back and pick up later. Why do I have to weed? I hear you whining. Because weeds take water and nutrients away from the things you actually planted, that’s why. Don’t throw weed flowers or seeds into the compost pile. That’s just asking for trouble. (At T’s and my latest job, wild garlic grew rampantly. Its bulbs, and those of wild onions, are edible. The onions’ flavor is sharper, like green onions, and the garlic milder than cultivated versions. Just in case you were wondering.)

Summer snowflake
(Leucojum aestivum)

TIP 5:  While you’re down on the ground weeding, you might as well neaten up the edges of your beds. I pull the mulch away from the grass, removing any lawn incursions, and leave the edge open. Tim comes behind me with his sharp shovel and cuts a lovely English trench. (Sound like too much work? You may want to invest in hard edging, which is a topic for another day.)

TIP 6:  Getting ready to plant containers? Clean your pots after emptying them—recycle the soil to the compost pile or to low spots in your yard if last season’s plants stayed healthy. I don’t usually bother with the ten-to-one bleach-and-water scrub, but I do give my pots a brisk once-over, inside and out, with a nail brush, then wipe them down with a clean cloth (which is why I never throw away ratty dishtowels).

Sweetly fragrant monastery vine
(Akebia quinata 'Shiro Bana')

TIP 7:  How do you figure how much soil your pots will need? Cubic volume is height times width times depth, which gives you cubic inches: divide by 1728 to convert to cubic feet. But what about soil measured in quarts? A 32-quart bag fills two-and-a-quarter-ish 30-inch by 9-inch by 6-inch hayracks, so I’d guesstimate it to be a tad over two cubic feet of soil. Trial and error is the best teacher, of course. Always buy more than you think you’ll need: that way you won’t have to stop in the middle of planting to run back to Lowe’s.

Rain and wind-battered
Rosa chinensis 'Mutabilis'

TIP 8:  Mix a couple of 16-ounce cupfuls of composted matter (I use Black Kow) and a half-cup or so of kelp meal into that 30” hayrack’s soil. All commercial potting mixes are sterile by definition: the Kow helps with moisture retention and the kelp with trace minerals Osmocote and Miracle-Gro (good fertilizer choices for containers) lack.    

TIP 9:  If you have moss or coco-liners to change out, the old ones make good weed barrier fabric for around trees and shrubs. You’re not only recycling, you’re building your soil as the liners decompose over time.

Spanish bluebells
(Hyacinthiodes hispanica)

TIP 10:  Is your garden’s soil sandy? Azaleas, gardenias and Japanese camellias looking sad? Give them a boost by doing three things. 1) Make sure they are not too deep in the ground. In particular, shallow-rooted azaleas do best when their topmost rootlets are at soil level. Digging them up and resetting them higher will make a world of difference. 2) Take advantage of the replanting opportunity and amend the soil in the hole with composted matter and a healthy dollop of elemental sulfur (available at farmers supply stores if not at the local home improvement emporium). 3) Feed the buggers. In addition to appropriate amounts of Holly-Tone, topdress all your acid-lovers annually with composted matter and elemental sulfur if your native soil tends toward neutral or alkaline.

TIP 11:  Distressed by a black coating on your gardenias and-or crape myrtle foliage? It’s called sooty mold, and is mildewed whitefly and aphid poop, respectively. The good news? It’s a cosmetic problem, and, since neither pest is active right now (although they will be soon!), now’s a good time to clean the mess off. Mix a tablespoon of soap (not detergent) in a quart of water in a spray bottle. Coat the affected foliage to the dripping point, top and bottom, with the soapy water. Let it sit 10 or 15 minutes, then blast the plant with the hose to wash the stuff off.

American honeysuckle
(Lonicera sempervirens)

TIP 12:  To prevent recurrence, clear out and dispose of (but not in the compost) the mulch and any dead leaves at the base of the plants to remove any over-wintering eggs or larvae. Treat gardenias with horticultural oil at intervals all season, per package directions. Aphids on crapes (or anything else, for that matter) dislodge easily with a strong jet of water from the hose, or you can use an insecticidal-soap spray. Make sure all plants have good air circulation from all directions, including from underneath.

            Hope these tips help as you ready your property for the coming warm weather. Not that gardeners need an excuse to spend time outside in the spring.

            A note on the pictures: since the subject wasn’t particularly photogenic (except the limbing-up underneath bit), I supplemented with what’s blooming today chez Fitz.

            Thanks for dropping by. Next time—veggies!