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Garden Edition: April

by Linda Coyner

The familiar messengers of spring-cherry blossoms, dogwoods, forsythia, dandelions, daffodils, greening lawns--signal the busy season ahead for gardeners. In tropical Florida, the messengers may be different--the fragrance of citrus heavy in the night air and tabebuia* in flower: imagine a tree covered withclusters of forsythia-like blooms -- but the message is just the same. Gardeners busy themselves with  projects ranging from tapping maple trees for syrup to cleaning up lawns and beds, starting seeds, planting, and weeding. Many of us are already fretting over what looks to be another dry season.

      Beyond the basic spring clean-up. Besides the basic chores of leaf raking while gently removing dead stalks and leaves from last year's perennials and fertilizing, certain plants require special care. My spring ritual in the Northeast included cutting back butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii) and on a cool day, ornamental grasses, both of which my garden had an abundance.  I am a big fan of perennial grasses, but they can be monsters to cut back. The big ones are also messy during the year, something the catalogs fail to mention. Old grass stalks, which, only a few weeks earlier were an important part of the winter landscape, get raggedy come spring and can actually impede the new growth. As the larger varieties fill out, their girth thickens and stalks get tougher to cut.
         Powered hedge clippers do the job lickety-split but don't worry, you'll still get plenty of exercise picking the cuttings (which, by the way, are great to use as mulch in the back of the garden). To encourage the tallest growth at the center, cut the plant shorter at the sides rather than at the center. Before you do any cutting, though, check for wildlife that may be nesting in the center of the plant and while at it, place wire cages over those that'll need support later in the summer. Evergreen grasses like blue fescue (Festuca glauca) don't need any pruning, unless it's for a haircut when the seed heads form.
       In regions where temperatures drop below zero, Buddleia davidii dies back to the ground. After a mild winter, it may not be necessary to cut it back at all. One spring I accidentally left one bush unpruned. Apparently, the winter had been so mild that the branches hadn't frozen back. It bloomed several weeks ahead of its pruned garden mates. While you're at it, notice that the branches of butterfly bushes are arrow straight; save them for staking perennials later in the summer.
       If you're confused about what to prune back when, just remember it's safe to prune after a plant has flowered. For instance, now's it safe to prune summer flowering shrubs such as the rose of sharon, butterfly, etc.; in the summer, prune spring flowering shrubs such as forsythia, lilac, spirea, etc.  It all has to do with whether the plant blooms on new growth or last year's growth.  Hydrangeas are especially tricky and vary depending on the variety. Not willing to risk the flowers, I took a very conservative approach to hydrangeas: I'd wait until the plant had completely leafed out and then cut off the portion of the branches that were obviously dead along with last year's flowers.
      Assessing drought and winter damage. It's also a good time to consider post-drought garden care, and the way it looks for many areas, pre-drought care. Damage to perennials is readily obvious. To assess a plant's health, look at its crown for signs of life. Some plants may need replacing.  Trees and shrubs may suffer the lingering effects of a drought for years to come. On a woody plant, pruning may be necessary to re-establish a plant's health. Scratch the bark to see if there's green underneath. If not, scratch a bit lower on the plant until you see green peeking through. Remove the portion of the plant above that. 
       If it turns out you have a lot of casualties, maybe it's time to consider what you're planting and where you're planting it. Exotics usually require copious amounts of moisture. Native plants are better equipped to handle what Mother Nature dishes out. But even so, some plants are naturally thirstier that others. 

Here's a general guideline:
           Thirsty           Drought Tolerant
Astilbe Marigold
Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra Alnifolia) Lamium
Most Ferns Geranium
Yellow Flag (Iris Pseudacorus) Sedum
Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus Sibirica) Purple Cone Flower (Echinacea)
Petunias Lysimachia
Foxglove Perilla
Helenium Gaillardia
Japanese Iris Yarrow
Liatris Asclepias
Monarda (& other mints) Coreopsis
Spiderwort (Tradescantia) Artemisia
Globe Flower (Trollius) Rudbeckia
Rose Mallow (Hibiscus Moscheutos)  Flower Carpet Rose
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia) Rugosa Rose
Turtlehead (Chelone Glabra) Lavender
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorum) Most Floribunda Roses (esp.Betty Prior)
Forget-Me-Nots (Myosotis) Juniper
Impatiens Most Ornamental Grasses
Ligularia Dentata Lilly of the Valley
Mint Gazania
Pussywillow Yucca
Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii_

     Mulch is the gardeners' secret weapon against drought. Mulch provides a shady, cool blanket that preserves moisture and eventually breaks down to make the soil more friable. It also helps keep weeds to a minimum. You'll need to periodically replace your mulch so look for something inexpensive and abundant in your area--grass clippings, leaves, pine needles, etc. Don't overlook the stalks from your ornamental grasses. In my New York garden, I had plenty of them plus access to unlimited amounts of ground up bark and wood at the local recycling center. In my new tropical garden, I use pine needles, which are naturally abundant so it's easy to buy it buy bales of it. 
      The caveats about mulch are slight. If you use wood mulch, test the soil from time to time for a nitrogen deficiency. Pine needles can increase the acidity of the soil so should be used around plants that appreciate it--rhodos, azaleas, gardenias, etc. In a shady moist area, mulch can harbor slugs. That's why I don't mulch the vegetable garden or around plants that slugs have a penchant for, like hosta. 

     Comments and additions to my list are welcome and are, in fact,  encouraged. Send them to my e-mail.  Ill be back next month with more garden news and thoughts. 


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