Keep yourself distracted.
Although it was a record-breaker (or nearly so) for temperature and snowfall in much of the U.S. this year, our gardening calendars will be back on track soon. It’s hard to tell a gardener to wait when spring is finally here, but there are a few things we can do to keep ourselves distracted until real planting time is here.
Listen to my chat with Green Diva Meg in this Green Divas in the Garden segment:
1. Assess the damage carefully. Get a notebook and take notes.
As always, now’s the time to take notes. (This is advice you will hear from every gardener to every gardener.) Take notes at all times. Make notes about what you like and what you don’t like, what needs to be changed, fixed, moved or planted when you think about it.
This year, don’t assume that things are dead or gone too soon. There are plenty of evergreens that are still “bronzed” from the bitter cold and wind. You might be surprised at the number of them that will come back to normal by the summer.
One way to tell if something is still alive is the “dead or alive scratch test.” Make a small scratch on a twig with your thumbnail. If you see a green layer, the shrub is still alive. If you don’t see it at first, try further down. Out of 14 or so yew shrubs I have, I think I’ve only lost one so far. (Darn it, I wanted an excuse to redesign a section!) If branches are broken into the “dead zone” on an evergreen (the area under the green leaves that’s bare), consider this an opportunity to choose a new plant. Most evergreens will not grow back from the dead zone, but yews will.
Spring bulbs were late to emerge this year in the Chicagoland area (three to four weeks in some areas) but are catching up now. Make notes of what grows where and the additions you wish you had made last fall (wouldn’t some snowdrops be nice here by the back door?). Put a Popsicle stick or other marker there with notes of to-dos for August—order spring blooming snowdrops for planting in Fall 2014. Unfortunately, Popsicle sticks don’t work for us this year—the new “puppy” (nine months old) thinks they’re toys! I’m going to try pieces of broken pots with permanent marker labels.
Gardening Tip: Native plants are hardy and less susceptible to pests and diseases. Find plants native to your area at wildflower.org.
The soil is still too cold and wet to plant just about everything right now in our Zone 5* gardens. I normally have peas planted in my raised beds by now (both sugar snaps and flowering sweet peas) since peas need cool weather to do well, but this year I still haven’t planted them yet since the soil is too wet. I did plant a few pansies Saturday (when it was 60+ degrees), but they can take a little snow and cold.
2. This is a great time for weeding, clearing out and light pruning.
It’s easy to see where the grass has wound itself around the perennials, and satisfying to pull long white roots out of the ground. Since the ground is cold and wet, I try to stay on the edges of beds, and sit or stand on a long plank or piece of plywood to distribute my weight.
I have a lot of cutting back and clean-up to do in the spring since I leave most of my perennials and grasses standing at the end of fall. Leaving them up has many benefits: it provides shelter for the animals and insects that overwinter; it protects root crowns of perennials and grasses; and makes cleanup easier than in fall since they’ve broken down over the winter. I also leave my roses standing over the winter. The deer (we have a small herd of five that are regular visitors) enjoy the hips and the twigs and leaves all winter. When spring comes I prune back to the point where the green growth begins.
I don’t use cones or extra mulch or anything on roses. I think they’re hardy enough to make it through the winter and have heard much about damage caused from overheating from the use of cones or too much mulch in the winter. I also prune things that bloom late in the season like buddleias (butterfly bushes), sweet autumn clematis, Russian sage and caryopteris. They’ll bloom better (and look nicer) for it. Don’t prune things that are going to bloom in spring (lilacs, some clematis, some roses.)
3. Divide perennials.
In the areas where perennials are well drained, I’m starting to divide overgrown clumps. My preference is to lift the entire plant, split the plant into several smaller plants, and replant them with lovely rich compost. The pieces around the edges will be the most robust. Rudbeckia, phlox and daylilies are the ones I divide at this time of year. As the weeks progress, I’ll continue to divide perennials including chrysanthemums that made it through the winter outside, lady’s mantle, Artemisia, perennial geraniums, lamb’s ears, heuchera and grasses, among others.
Gardening Tip: Find your nearest Botanic Garden website to read about your zone and specifics for your gardening area. Click here to find one near you.
* What zone are you in? Enter your zip code HERE to find your garden zone. Note! There are other differences to be aware of too. Denver is also a zone 5, but there the dry air and low rainfall make a difference in what will grow compared to Chicago with our large lakes moderating the temperatures and increased rainfall.