March Is The Cruelest Month, Really

TS Eliot’s poem, The Wasteland opens with the following lines:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Now of course Eliot lived in England and wasn’t, to the best of my knowledge, much of a gardener despite his reference to lilacs.  But here in the “temperate” Northeast, I’ve always felt that March was the cruelest month for gardeners anyway, tempting us out of our homes with occasional gentle breezes and then dumping snow (or worse, ice) on us the next day (or even the same night)

What’s a gardener to do?  Well, there are a few things that it’s perfectly safe to do this time of year.  And there are some things that could ruin–and yes, I absolutely mean ruin!–your gardening for the rest of the season , if not for several seasons to come.

In this post I’ll talk about the things that it’s safe to do out of doors on those lovely balmy false spring days (because although March first begins meteorological spring, many of us know that “actual”–or gardening” spring isn’t going to begin until much later).

For those of you fortunate enough to be living at latitudes warmer than mine,  you can just tuck these ideas away until you need them next year in February (or even mid-January if you’re lucky enough to live that far South!)

One of the best things to do in the early spring is to prune deciduous trees and shrubs.  A caution here–prune only things that flower in the summer or later if you don’t want to lose the current year’s bloom (save the pruning of lilacs, azaleas and rhododendrons until later in the season.)  And only prune the blue or pink hydrangeas after bloom–most, unless they are newer varieties, flower on last year’s wood.

But this is a great time to prune later blooming shrubs, ‘Annabelle’ and panicle type hydrangeas, and to take dead wood and suckers off  trees.

It’s much easier to add new mulch or to refresh your mulch if the plants haven’t leafed out. Also, the sooner you complete this task, the more weeds seeds you smother.  An ideal mulch depth is 2-3″.  Remember to keep mulch away from the root flare of trees.  No “mulch volcanoes” going up the trunks of trees, please.

Cut back any ornamental grasses that were left standing wintered over.  This task is easier before they resume growth.  Larger clumps can be tied up and cut off with a hedge trimmer about 4-6″ from the ground.

Remember to stay off soggy ground, whether it’s the lawn or your perennial and shrub beds.  Walking on soggy soil–or working in it–can compact the soil.  To test if it’s safe to work in the garden, squeeze a handful of soil in your fist.  If it sticks together like a snowball, the soil is too wet to work in or walk on safely.  Once the soil crumbles in your hand, you’re good to go.

On Monday I’ll talk about cutting back perennials, making new garden beds and selecting plants for those beds.

Mushrooms in the Lawn

With due apologies to all our friends suffering through drought, we here in the east have so much moisture that interesting growths are sprouting up all over.  A few weeks back I had some large mushrooms posted for my “Wordless Wednesday” photo–they were almost as large as peony blooms I said at the time.  What I’ll show you today are more “Garden variety” mushroom that spout up due to an over-abundance of moisture–and tell you what NOT to do about them.

These are probably the most common type of mushroom you’ll see.  They come in flat head types like this, and button head types like the ones shown below.

They come in a variety of colors too, and the colors can change as the mushrooms age.

This is a mushroom that starts out reddish in color in my yard and then turns to brown as it gets older.

If you walk or mow over most of these, this is what the underside looks like.  But don’t go playing amateur mycologist.  Mushroom poisoning can be impossible to reverse.  It can shut down the liver and kidneys very quickly and I’m told it is very painful.  Hardly worth it when mushrooms are not that expensive in the grocery store.

Another thing not to do–if your pet gets into these, do not waste precious time bringing them to a garden center and asking them if they are poisonous.  Garden center staff are not trained in that sort of thing. Take the mushrooms and the pet to the vet.  Remember what I said about mushrooms poisoning shutting down the liver and the kidneys.

Finally don’t waste any time or money on products designed to kill fungi in the lawn.  They are not designed for mushrooms.  Even the big Ortho Answer Book will tell you that.  Mushrooms feed on decaying matter in the soil.  That’s why you’ll often see a ring of them (called a “fairy ring”) in the lawn where a tree used to be–they’re feeding on the remnants of that tree.

So mushrooms are actually a really good sign that your lawn is healthy because it has some decaying matter on it or in it–compost or grass clippings or some such matter.  In our case in the East right now, it’s just a case of too much moisture cause too much of a good thing.  Once nature gets back in balance, so will the mushrooms.  And since it’s autumn, you can set your mower blade a little lower and just mow them off if you don’t care for the look.  Personally, I like them.

Lawn Weed ID

I thought it might be useful to do an ID of some of the most common lawn weeds–if anyone besides me cares.  But since some of them have their own special weed killers–I know Ortho used to make one specifically called “Chickweed, Violet and Oxalis Killer,” it might be nice to know what chickweed, violets and oxalis look like.

If you’re really into weeds after this post (and you live east of the Mississippi) there’s a great reference book called Weeds of the Northeast by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal and Joseph M. DiTomaso.  It was published in 1997 by Cornell University Press and is an invaluable reference!

Let’s start simple with one everyone knows–the dandelion (taraxacum officinale). Whenever you see the designation “officinale” after a plant name you can be pretty sure it has some medicinal use and dandelions are no exception.  They also make darned good salad greens when young.  But that’s only if the lawn hasn’t been treated with any pesticides of any kind!

Now we’ll start with the triumvirate mentioned on the Ortho label: chickweed or stellaria media (it sounds so much prettier in its botanical name, doesn’t it?)  This is the one I tweeted about in April, warning that one plant can form 20,000 seeds.  But the birds, especially goldfinch, love the seeds so there is a plus for wildlife–just don’t let it get out of hand!

These can look lovely in a lawn but they tend to spread very rapidly and they next thing you know you have no more lawn and nothing but violets!

Unfortunately this photo isn’t the best but you all know this plant as well.  It is oxalis and its leaves look like miniature clover leaves and the flower, as you can probably tell, is a small yellow buttercup like flower.  It’s a little early for it to be flowering which is why it’s hard to get a good photo yet.

And if you thought chickweed was a prolific seeder, oxalis puts it to shame.  One oxalis plant can make 50,000 seeds!

This is broad-leafed plantain, (plantago major) and it is also a useful weed in two respects.  First, it is diagnostic: it grows in compacted soil so it tells you where you need to aerate; and second, it is supposedly useful as a poison ivy remedy.  The juices from the crushed leaves are supposed to relieve the itch (as of yet I do not suffer from the rash so I’ll have to wait to see).

The weed has so many common names I’ll give you the botanical first: glechoma hederacea. In that name you may recognize the root of one of its common names, ground ivy.  It also goes by Creeping Charlie, Gill-over-the Ground, cat’s foot, field balm and some I’m sure I don’t know as well.

A Spring 2008 article by Katherine Turcotte in the Herb Quarterly called “The Glories of Ground Ivy?” claimed that it was good for a range of medicinal purposes and even offered a recipe for a healing salve.  It certainly makes me look at the stuff differently as is tries to over-run sections of my lawn.  I may have to try making it into salve–or salad!–just to keep ahead of it.  She also claimed it was useful for attracting butterflies and hummingbirds.

Finally this lovely little weed is veronica.  We only have the white form growing in our lawn but I’ve seen a pale blue and a deeper blue form growing in the neighborhood–sometimes all 3 together which is quite lovely.  It comes up, flowers and then is gone in about 6-8 weeks.  That’s how a weed should behave!