Slowly, but surely, the time for gardening is upon us
By Julie Brocklehurst-Woods | Cornell Cooperative Extension
Happy spring! I am delighted to be starting a new gardening adventure, as a regular contributor of gardening information to the Livingston County News.
I have been a “Master Gardener” volunteer with Cornell Cooperative Extension for ten years, and completed Master Naturalist certification last year. My monthly seasonal gardening talks at Wadsworth Library in Geneseo are now in their fourth year.
But what I really enjoy is digging in the dirt. I did not grow up gardening. My first garden was in a community vegetable plot in Jamestown (my hometown) after I got out of college. I have grown vegetables and flowers every year since then.
The garden centers are slowly opening. Country Max is this spring in Geneseo, in the old Ames plaza next to Goodwill. Their offerings will include a nice selection of annuals, perennials, vegetables and shrubs, based on what I’ve seen in their stores on East Henrietta Road and in Batavia.
If the weather is cool, be sure to gradually get your new plants accustomed to the outdoors. Plants grown in the greenhouse may die if suddenly exposed to cold temperatures.
It is no news that spring arrived early this year; it felt like spring through much of the winter. I have been out a lot, cleaning things up and even transplanting.
On New Year’s Day I dug out three overgrown shrubs, then replaced them on St. Patrick’s Day with three small shrubs that weren’t doing well in the back corner of my yard. The replacement shrubs are Clethra Ruby Spice, commonly called sweet pepper bush or summer sweet. It tolerates a shade, with fragrant blooms in July/August. It requires more moisture than it was getting in my back corner, but it will tolerate clay soil, which holds too much moisture for some plants.
The new location is shaded by the house, but there aren’t any tree roots sucking up the moisture. You can read more about this plant and many other Plants of Merit at the Missouri Botanical Garden web site: use the search term Clethra MBG and you will see a link to this wonderful resource.
I adore the daffodils currently in bloom, but a more subtle early bloomer is the hellebore, which prefers to grow in the shade. This flower often opens in late March, and stays nice through June.
The evergreen leaves are not preferred by deer (deer-proof plants are rare, especially in the winter). The cut flowers float beautifully in a decorative bowl. It is a slow-growing plant, but not fussy. I will be donating some to the Geneseo Garden Club plant sale on May 12, in Gateway Park across from Wegman’s.
It is very unusual to have the soil dry enough to work in March, like it was this year. Most often the ground is still frozen.
How do you know when it’s okay to dig? The soil needs to crumble. If you squeeze it in your hand and it stays in a sticky lump, it is too wet. It needs to crumble into small particles. If you dig a hole for a plant, then put those big chunks back in the hole, they will often stay in that shape, leaving air pockets. When the roots reach an air pocket, they die. It pays to wait to plant until the soil is dry enough to dig.
This is the time you will want to prune flowering shrubs right after they finish blooming. My pruning mantra is “reach down inside.” You should prune out some of the interior branches, instead of just cutting off exterior growth. This will enable healthy growth to emerge all over the shrub.
Remove the oldest, thickest stems close to the ground on shrubs that have multiple branches coming out of the ground.
Julie Brocklehurst-Woods is a Master Gardener with the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service office in Mount Morris.