In January, Hickory Hollow Nature Trail in Lancaster County holds some early spring secrets. A winter trek into this woodland and to Cabin Swamp reveals a quiet wonderland. For as the outside temperature makes it feel like it has not begun its journey to spring, the skunk cabbage (symplocarpus foetidus) is in full bloom. Washes of this plant fill the valley. Large bright green leaves surround a tropical looking mahogany (sometimes blue-brown) cone-shaped blossom. Preferring fresh tidal and nontidal marshes, forested wetlands and shrub swamps, this plant’s sap has a skunk-like odor, hence the name.
Plantings of pansies in the fall wake from their dormancy. Violas respond better than pansies and brighten up with the warmth of the early spring sun.
Lenten rose (helleborus) bloom in very early spring. These genuses of perennial, some of which are evergreen, are grown for their winter and spring flowers. The bell-like flowers remain on the plant for as long as a month. They prefer semi-shade, moist well-drained soil and work well in a woodland setting.
Long before you can poke in the garden, shrubs and bulbs can be forced in the house. Paperwhite narcissus are available ready to force. They can be purchased not needing refrigeration, which can be used to mock the winter cold needed for bloom. Simply place the bulb in a bowl or narrow necked vase (forcing vase) and add water. The forcing vase has a narrow neck allowing the bulb to be supported above the water so the roots grow downward into the water as the sprouts grow upward. They usually bloom within two weeks or so and need only indirect sunlight. Anytime you force bulbs inside, it is best to make sure the green sprouts have adequate support. This can be easily provided by the placement of a hurricane shade around the leaves, resting the bottom either around the vase or in the container of pebbles.
Highbush blueberry (vaccinium corymbosum) is a gift year round. The branches, brown in the summer, turn to a deep red in the winter. Cut some, bring it inside and enjoy its color and unique structure in a vase of water next to a light colored wall. Soon small white flowers open and add to the beauty. Now slowly the days warm and spring arrives. Quickly the longing turns into busyness as the chores pile up.
Springtime: Taking Some of the Work Out of It
Springtime in the garden is somewhat like planning a large family dinner. First you think it out and list all the details. Then, if you are smart, you eliminate one half of it all. So for that garden, simplify! Begin with the basics. Test your soil (soil test kits are available through the extension office.)*
Look around your yard and the neighboring areas. See what likes to grow and under what conditions it thrives…or not. Although denial can be a handy tool, it does not work for gardening. If a plant does not like it in your area, you can not convince it to be happy.
Never has a gardener requested MORE maintenance. So certainly consider the scale of your garden and plantings. Is this the size you can comfortably maintain or do you have additional help? Husbands, boyfriends and children are usually available for limited time and duration.
Carefully evaluate the placement of plants by their mature size. Be aware that the labels may not truly reflect the changes caused by different soils and exposure. When a plant needs to be whacked back several times a year…
then hello, it is in the wrong place!
A finished garden should not look like it is! It needs time and space to grow.
I have found a style of establishing a new garden that works well. Lasagna or No-Till gardening is a method that works like a charm. Simply lay out the area you wish to plant, using a hose or spray paint to outline the edge. This can be done directly in an area with no need to kill the grass or existing plants. Stand back and see how the scale and shape work with the surroundings. View the area from several angles including the view from the inside of the house.
Think creatively, gardens do not have to be in straight lines. They are not so in nature. Most structures have enough
Dig healthy holes. Healthy holes consist of ones dug three times the width of the incoming plant ball and not quite as deep. Then remove the plant from the pot or burlap, and disturb the roots using your fingers or a trowel. Now I mean really disturb them…like waking a sleeping teenager on Saturday morning at 11 a.m. You want the roots to be loose. Spread them out in the planting hole.
Fill the hole with some well-composted material, a little crushed oyster shells or grit…to discourage the voles, and a small handful of organic low nitrogen fertilizer. Nitrogen is unstable and leaches out of the soil and into the water. This can cause increase algae bloom that steels the oxygen from the aquatic inhabitants. It can also burn a plant if improperly applied. So fertilize carefully and not just for the immediate impact on plant growth. Over the long run, trust your soil sample results and do not fertilize to the waters edge.
Fill the hole with water. Let it drain.
If you are planting in an area that does not have good drainage, your plant can rot. It should drain well in about a 30-minute time or less. Then place the plant in the hole, being careful to handle it by supporting the root ball and not the stalk or trunk. Plant it slightly higher than it was in the pot. Step back to make sure you have its right side towards the area mostly viewed.
Carefully replace the soil around the root ball, tamping with your muddy sneaker to remove air pockets and water well. Water from a rain barrel is the best choice.
When all the plants have been placed in the garden space, place several layers of wet newspapers (white pages only) on top of the surface. Add 4-6 inches of mulch (suggest shredded hardwood mulch), being careful to keep the mulch and newspapers a little back from the trunk
or base of the plant.
This method saves on all the tilling, muscle aching and turning effort. The lawn and weeds will decompose under the newspapers and mulch. The resulting soil will be workable in a couple of months.
The reasoning behind No-Till gardening is that the soil contains nutrients and bacteria that assist in the decomposition of organic matter. Tilling the soil disrupts the soil’s structure, making the nutrients less available to
Following the establishment of your no-till garden, you may need to do an occasional weeding to control any grasses or weeds that poke through.
Over time the newspapers and underlying grassy surface become a part of the compost process and feed the plants.
Now watch that plant! Care for it! Soak the roots of all new plantings with rain barrel water, when possible, each week they are without an inch of rain for the first year. A slow trickle of water for one or two hours is suggested. Overhead sprinkling can cause mildew to form on the leaves, especially in the evening. The only exceptions are when it is freezing weather or when the plant is deciduous, (the expected loss of leaves in the fall/winter.)
Check for disease. When in doubt, take a large sample of both the healthy and diseased plant material in a plastic bag to the extension office. There they will try to identify the problem or send off the sample to the Land Grant university lab for analysis and treatment recommendations. A report will be sent to you.
Now assuming the plant/plants thrive, not eaten by deer, rabbit or voles or infested by fungi or bacteria, experience a draught or a year of drenching rains, enjoy.
Remember, some plants die, all brown and crispy, for no noticeable reason. No matter how knowledgeable you become, life happens. You may never get it all right: when to plant, when to deadhead, when to prune, and what disease is about to attack. Like parents we need to let nature happen. Sometimes that means when a plant is in its optimal growth, really tall and beautiful, not one person will come to visit and see it. And the converse is true—when you are having a major happening with 265 for a garden dinner, a damaging wind arrives with hail the night before or a herd of deer camp out in your yard and all is lost.
A sign for all gardens should say “You should have been here last week; my garden was in its prime.”
Now most especially, enjoy that plant. Revel in its color, form and aroma. Bask in its shade.
Like children, in summer if you get them out into the sun and water them, they grow!
*Extension offices were established almost 100 years ago by an act of congress, which created a network of cooperative extension services in partnership with land-grant universities. They are available to assist the farmer and homeowner with horticultural information and services. Check your phone book for their number or with your county court house.