Don’t Be Too Quick To Clean Up In Spring

It’s mid-March. Next week is astronomical spring, otherwise known as the vernal equinox. If you’re lucky, you have some signs of spring coming up in your yard or somewhere nearby.

I must encourage you, though, please don’t be too quick to tidy up in the yard. We gardeners are a manic bunch, aren’t we, hating to see even a leaf out of place? What is it we think might happen?

Please leave some of the leaf litter in place until some real warmth takes place and holds awhile.

This would be the same for some plant stems–if you left any in the garden in the fall.

Why am I asking you to leave your garden messy? Simple. There are “things” living in the leaves and the plant stems that need time to emerge and find new homes. If you clean up leaf litter too early,  you might be destroying overwintering butterfly larva, or worse yet, the lovely mourning cloak butterflies that are sunning themselves there.

If you cut down and discard hollow plant stems, you might be discarding all sorts of beneficial bugs, including valuable native bees.

When we talk about all the “good bugs” in the garden, these are the ones that you want. If you’re not seeing them, ask yourself if your clean-up practices might be accidentally contributing to their demise. You surely wouldn’t want that.

On a warm spring day, go outside and take a walk instead. That will help you get over the urge to tidy too soon–and you won’t feel too lazy!


Should I Amend My Soil?

This is a tricky question. On Friday, you heard me talk about my heavy wet clay. Countless times, I have had people ask why I don’t amend it?

Probably the first 10 years that I lived there, I tried. I used compost. I used bark mulch. And nothing seemed to make a difference. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening.

The Spoiler was happening, I think. Long time readers have seen the photos I post every fall of soil all over my porch from his leaf blowing. The amended soil, which was mostly in the top layer because I don’t till or turn my soil (more about that on Friday) was getting blown away when he blows leaves. And even though we now try to retain as many leaves as possible on the property an in the gardens, some do have to go down to the curb for town-wide recycling.

So that’s my new version of garden bed amending–leaving the leaves where they fall to decompose in the beds. If it works for nature, it’s good enough for me.

But a more important part of this is about planting holes. Remember several years. Back? The adage was to dig a $5 whole for 50 cent plant. That’s no longer true.

The reason you were supposed to dig the huge hole in the “old days” was so that you could mix all the soil you took out of it with all sorts of “good stuff:” compose and good planting soil and maybe even some fertilizer. They you partially back-filled the hole, set your new plant in, and filled around it.

Please, no more! What gardeners and soil scientist have discovered is that we were creating giant planting containers int he ground and our trees’ and shrubs’ roots had no incentive to leave the nice “$5 hole” that we made for them to go out into the rest of our regular garden soil (really, if you heard the description of my soil on Monday, and then this lovely soil, and you wee a plant root, what would you do?!)

So now, the idea is to just dig the hole that you need, no deeper and just wide enough to get your plant in. Do not amend the soil because then the plant will have no reason to grow out into your own garden soil. Interesting.

Of course, with my soil, there was never any $5 hole digging anyway, so I can tell you that I have never done any of that nonsense.  I was always lucky if I could pry a spot open large enough to get  a tree into. Luckily, we are already heavily wooded so I don’t have to plant too many trees.

But it’s always nice when you find that what you have been doing all along is suddenly the “new” correct thing. Wow.


Gardening Ideas, Continued

On Monday I talked about living mulch–or the idea the ground cover plants could actually fill in the spaces between perennials and shrubs and be used instead of truckloads of bark or cocoa hulls or whatever it is you prefer (I refuse to even consider the idea that it might be colored mulches, although I know that box stores sell gross tonnes of the stuff every spring. Whatever.)

Today let’s talk about watering–or not. I know that lots of you are not blessed–or cursed–with my heavy wet clay. You may think you are. I’m continually surprised by how many folks tell me that they have heavy wet clay soil. Then I’ll ask them how often they have to water an established plant. If it’s more than once a month, I’m going to tell you that you don’t have the same heavy wet clay that I do.  In a drought, I may have to resort to turning on a soaker hose once every 6 weeks–or not. That’s how well my soil holds water.

What does that mean? A lot of my plants rot if they are not carefully selected for these conditions. Anything the least bit succulent-like–forget it! Lavender? Nope. Heaths and heathers, which should ordinarily love my highly acidic soil, can’t take the wet. Herbs are grown in containers or raised beds (and obviously those need more water).

But roses do fine, hydrangeas are great, because they’re usually very thirsty plants and thirsty plants aren’t going to have an issue in my yard.

This is all another way of saying “know your conditions and know your particular microclimate.” I killed a lot of heaths and heathers before I figured out what the problem was and that there wasn’t enough compost to amend the clay.

We’ll talk about amending on Monday–but before I finish up this topic, I want to talk about how to properly water a plant as it is getting established.

Less frequently and deeply is the proper way. What does that mean? It rarely has anything to do with you standing over the plant with a hose (unless the plant is an annual in a pot–those are the only plants that are acceptable to water by hand with a hose).

If you have a hose that you would like to leave running at the base of the plant at a trickle for an hour (for a large shrub,  longer for a tree) that’s fine. You need to water the plant down to the depth of 1″–and do check, don’t just guess.

Do this once a week. And then, unless it’s a rose or something that needs a lot of water, don’t do it again for another week. If you have questions, let your garden center advise you. Fewer, longer waterings are better. You are training your plant to endure periodic dry spells.

Whatever you do, do not rely on a sprinkler system to water for you. That’s the quickest way to kill a plant. It encourages shallow roots that cannot stand up to drought.

Some Gardening Ideas

Since it is meteorological spring, many of you will be getting out into the garden. Here in New England, we most likely won’t be getting out into the garden for at least another month, if then.

But I wanted to discuss some ideas that I had reinforced at a recent gardening symposium put on by the Connecticut Horticultural Society. Two of the speakers, Rick Darke and Claudia West talked about gardening with plants that work together in community and make life–and gardening–easier for the gardener.

It’s a noble goal and it’s easier to discuss, I think, than it is to execute. West’s book, written with Thomas Rainer, Planting in a Post Wild World, was an incredibly difficult read. Yet when she came to speak about her ideas, she made them simple and easy to understand.  Perhaps I can do the same.

The most revolutionary idea is the idea that plants be used as living mulch. Of course, not just any plants can be used for this unless you are incredibly wealthy or like frustration.

But surely as a gardener you have noticed that certain plants have a tendency to spread. What you want to do is to choose reasonably behaved (in other words, not invasive to your area) ground cover plants that are still aggressive enough to cover the ground so as to keep out weeds.

Depending on your area and your sun exposure, ground cover sedums, low grasses and some varieties of perennial phlox are some examples of plants that might fit the bill for this type of plant. There are obviously lots of other choices as well.

These choices shouldn’t require a lot of additional water once established (depending on where, of course, you are located and supposing that you choose the right plants. Phlox in Phoenix will always require water, for example!)

I have tried this for several years and am still struggling with it in a few places. My long time readers have seen my successes with mosses and ferns in some of my shady areas.

I am still trying to find a good solution for a place that regularly gets assaulted by weed and grass seeds thrown by a neighbor’s riding mower. I will let you know what I come up with–if, in fact, I ever find a solution!

Don’t Kill A Plant With Kindness

I’ve been doing a bit of lecturing lately and I will be doing a lot more as spring begins. Some years, I am so busy lecturing, I can barely find time to get into the garden (isn’t that a happy problem to have?)

One topic that almost always comes up–regardless of what I might be speaking about–is sustainability. That’s a word that gets thrown a round an awful lot but the title of this post pretty much sums it up for me. Another way to put it, particularly for outdoor plants (because remember, I speak a lot on house plants too!) would be “right plant, right place.” How often have we heard that one in our gardening years?

But really, it works. What am I telling you? Am I saying only grow native plants? Oh dear, no! I’d be a terrible hypocrite if I did that! Natives are wonderful, but so are many other types of plants.

What you need to do is to learn what works for you, in your soil and on your site. I have horrible, wet clay that remains wet long into the spring–way too long into the spring. I can rarely work in it before May unless we have an unusually warm spring (and that too is problematic for other reasons). I have learned this over many years of gardening in the same place.

This presents challenges–no early spring pruning or weeding–and opportunities–the beneficial insects and native bees always get their chance to over-winter and emerge from my gardens without being disturbed.

But one thing I don’t do–and never do–is give my plants any “extras” after they get established. Yes, when a plant is first planted, it needs water to help it get settled in. That’s all it needs–water (and that is a post for another day–how to water–and why you don’t want to over-amend your soil.)

But once that plant is established, you’re all set. Some of my plants have been in my gardens for 10, 15 or 25 years or more. Some are original to when the house was built, so that’s almost 60 years. Do you think I run out and water those? Or feed them? Why on earth would I?


It’s the same thing with roses. Look at this plant. Can you tell where it’s growing? I’ll bet you can. It’s literally a foot away from the road. We’ve had a lot of heavy snow and ice this winter. You can see what the plows have done to it. What am I going to do about it? Nothing, except prune off anything that’s broken in the spring.

Can you see why I am calling this post “don’t kill a plant with kindness?” This rose garden has been here for 22 years. It once got plowed into oblivion when my snow plow guy didn’t realize there was anything around the mailbox. These are own-root roses so it’s all good (but you can imagine my anguish when I came home from work and saw my rose canes dragged down the street by the plow-that’s a little too much tough love, even for me!)

Over-feeding and over-watering encourages insects and disease. As we inch ever closer to spring in the northern hemisphere, why not try a little “tough love” (otherwise known as “sustainable gardening”) this year? See if your plants can do with a little less fertilizer and supplemental watering. You might be pleasantly surprised!

Need A Winter Container Indoors?


As you plan for winter arrangements, scavenge in your yard for some foliage.

I don’t live in the Pacific Northwest so I don’t have a lot of those wonderful cedars with cones that you see in the professional arrangements.

And here in the northeast, our magnolias are not evergreen, so that lets out using their lovely glossy leaves.

And I usually want to leave my berried plants–holly, juniper and crab apple–with their berries–as winter treats for my wild life.


This is what I have left: scavenged branches from the bottom of my Christmas tree (Fraser fir from good old Somers, CT), some variegated euonymus and some hellebore leaves.


By the way, that adorable nativity just to the left of the top container is from El Salvador. It’s one of my favorites (I collect nativities, among other things) because of the rainbow arch, the palm trees and the sweet little lambs.

I doubt you’ll ever see most of my collection on here (not gardening or weather related) but most come from countries like Peru, Vietnam, Mexico and the more “rustic” they are , the better I like them!

Time for a Shower


What? I know some people who shower with pets to give them baths. But showering with plants?

Actually I have been known to take my air plants into the shower with me for a quick watering but that clearly is not what’s happening here.  And although it may be TMI, I didn’t shower with these plants.  They didn’t even shower together.  I brought them up and showered them off one at a time.  This photo just shows them drying.

So what’s going on? Well, this.


I first saw this–spider mites, I suspect–about a month ago. This is a pair of leaves from the plant that is the much larger of the two.

At that time, I just wiped all the leaves off and vowed to take a look again in a few weeks. Sure enough, they’re back.  And while they don’t look much like–or behave like–traditional spider mites, meaning that there are no telltale webs, this is very clearly an insect infestation.

So, once I decided that, I grabbed the other plant that had been near this plant when it was outside.  Sure enough,  same sort of little critter. That’s when I decided they both needed a shower to wash all these pests away.

Clearly I will need to watch these 2 plants–and all those around them–for reinfestation. But so long as I don’t mind giving the plants a shower, I think everything’s under control.