On the wild side

 When my husband and I bought our one-acre property 21 years ago, it was a sunbaked hilltop devoid of vegetation except for an ill-placed dogwood, an ancient smokebush, a couple boring big-box-store shrubs and a sea of scrubby lawn. Inside, we were amazed at the amount of dust and cat hair on our furniture now apparent in the bright house.

I approached the blank-slate property with its rich soil and abundant light as my canvas and it has become my laboratory where I test plants and watch what they do each season. Sometimes I move plants around or split them to share with gardening friends. Some, I dig out and throw away. I have a manila folder titled, ‘Plants That Croaked’ that is bulging with the tags of dead plants. The winners remain in the garden and are included in my plant lists for clients.

As a by-product of all this planting, our property is now an oasis for us as well as wildlife we never encountered when the landscape was barren. We love nothing better than spending an evening on the shady patio watching birds flit among the trees and shrubs, scrappy hummingbirds fighting over the feeder and rabbits nibbling and leaping.

The increase in birds is the most noticeable change. Their songs fill the air and they raise families in the dense foliage. I find their abandoned nests each autumn after the leaves fall. There is an astonishing array of bird species too. Not only the usual suburban wrens, sparrows, chickadees, jays, crows and cardinals, but bluebirds too, and cedar waxwings who descend en masse like bandits in their dark masks to gobble ripe fruits from the serviceberry, holly and dogwood trees. Red-tailed hawks cruise low and fast past the bird feeder, and often ride the thermals high above the open land of the lower yard. Sometimes a puff of rabbit fur tells the tale of a meal found. And climate change has pushed the range of the annoying mockingbird our way.

An eastern box turtle makes an appearance in the vegetable garden every June. I can tell it’s the same one because it has aErnie distinctive ‘E’ marking on its shell so I’ve named it Ernie. This year Ernie brought a friend, a smaller box turtle I saw just once nestled between the rows of garlic. I’m not sure if the scent of ripe strawberries draws Ernie from the woods several hundred feet away, but he always samples the bounty and I don’t mind sharing. Ernie hung around longer this year. From the vegetable garden, he relocated to the shelter of the fig and was last seen burrowed under the towering lovage in the herb garden. After all these years, I have never seen Ernie on the move (although my husband nearly ran him over with the lawn tractor once) and he seems to resent human contact. He slowly withdraws into his shell if I approach, and just our appearance is enough to make him disappear for days. Nonetheless, I feel I have been bestowed with a great blessing when he makes an appearance.

We have seen fox trotting along the woods line and one chilly Thanksgiving morning, I watched a beady-eyed mangy one catch a chipmunk outside the kitchen door and chomp it down in three bites. After its meal, the wretched thing ambled out to the back garden and curled up in the leaves to nap in the sunshine.

The other day I upended in my hand a small plastic pot containing a pepper plant and laughed when I spied a tiny toad butt. I turned the unpotted plant in my hand, and one sleepy eye of the toad stared back at me, looking somewhat annoyed at the disturbance. I gently set the plant and soil into the hole that I had dug and carefully patted soil around it. I hope the toad went back to sleep in its more spacious home.

There has been, to my dismay, the occasional snake. Many years ago on a hot afternoon, a long dark snake slithered my way across the lawn as I watered plants on the patio. I resisted the urge to drop the watering wand and run; instead, I trained the stream of water onto its back, which it seemed to appreciate. After a few minutes, I turned off the water, carefully set down the wand, scooped up the cat, who was staring goggle-eyed, and headed indoors. From the door, I watched the snake curl up in one of the pots I had just watered. A few minutes later it was gone and thankfully I never saw it after that. My husband dispatched a small garter snake who slithered into the garage on a hot day, seeking shade and the cool cement. Recently, my neighbor’s nine-year-old grandson saw a rat snake crawl up her chimney and into her house, no doubt to eat the starling chicks that were nesting in her siding. An hour later we saw the awful thing retreating under the hollies outside our kitchen door. I checked on a robin nest nearby and the lone turquois egg was gone that had been there the day before. I then realized there were far fewer chipmunks making holes in the garden this year and virtually no baby bunnies. Clearly, the snake was enjoying the smorgasbord around here. I know snakes are good and eat a lot of varmints, but I don’t want one nearby, especially one that climbs so well. So I spray a cinnamon oil concoction, which is reported to repel snakes, and keep a long bamboo pole handy to rustle and poke the shrubbery as I mutter “Go away, Mr. Snake.”

For better or worse, the gardens we make enrich our lives and support bugs and birds, mammals and reptiles. And these creatures become part of the story of our garden too.

 

In like a lion

My garden stirs in late winter. I bundle up and venture out to witness the first faint pulses of change, looking for proof that spring is on the horizon. I quickly find the goods.

IMG_2022The air smells different now, no longer tinged with snow but with an earthiness brought forth from the tentative thaw. Hellebore flowers, from under their winter-battered leathery leaves, are dragging their fresh ruffled chartreuse blooms from the cold soil like tousle-headed teenagers trying to wake. Birds dart in and out of the viburnum hedge, noisily staking out their nesting territory. I round the corner and gasp, delighted as spring smacks me full force. Why am I surprised? It happens every year.

In all this hesitant spring business—the freezing and the thawing, the occasional teasingly bright warm day or half day—there it is: the black pussy willow, trumpeting spring and not pussy-footing around about it in the least. I stand marveling at its silhouette against the gray sky, a huge ugly hulking pile of sticks that are now dotted with inky tufts along their lengths. How long has it been in full bloom? It never says. But it might wonder why it took me so long to notice.

I admire these intrepid winter bloomers—the hellebore, the witchhazel, the pussy willow. What they lack in floral glitz they make up for in grit. Their sap stirs long before our sights are on spring and their curious flowers flex from within icy buds. These early risers seem impatient to get the business of flowering and pollination out of the way and, in the process, offer up life-saving nectar and pollen to woozy bees and other insects emerging on those first warm days.

I bought the black pussy willow (Salix melanostachys) as a mere twig in a four-inch pot decades ago from a long-defunct nursery. I remember seizing on it as a great prize, something unique. I planted the tiny stick in what seemed a huge area at the back corner of the garage where it would have room to grow and receive runoff from the downspout, since willows love water. I fretted when my husband ran over it with the lawn mower, twice. It must have enjoyed the abuse because it never looked back from that point, growing wider by the year. Its twiggy bulk now stretches above the roof gutters, trashing them with its slender leaves. My husband complains when he mows under it and the branches knock his hat off. Who’s getting the last laugh now?

For much of the year the black pussy willow is an unremarkable plant, save for its size. But as winter drags on and spring seems distant, I am always astonished when the glistening black catkins emerge amidst the unsettled throes of late winter. I clip a few of the red-tipped stems to bring inside so I can closely watch the black fuzzy flowers open further. Some are capped with shiny maroon bud scales that eventually litter the table, along with yellow pollen that dusts the tips of the shaggy flowers. Soon I will sweep up the mess and drop the spent twigs into the compost pile as the daffodils finally dare to bloom.

Winter pruning

On a sunny mild day early in the year, I bundle up and tromp outside to begin winter pruning of my shrubs and small trees. Despite the cold, this is a garden chore I relish. I love being out in the brisk fresh air. I revel in the lengthening daylight and spending time felcosin my garden after December’s hectic, short days.

Pruning is part science, part art. It is done primarily to improve the health of shrubs and trees. If you find yourself repeatedly pruning or shearing (or wanting to prune or shear) trees or shrubs to reduce their size or keep them from encroaching on your house, walkway, or driveway, consider removing the plant and replacing it with something more suitable since repeated whacking isn’t good for the plant and, certainly, you have better things to do with your time!

My pruning tools include sharp hand pruners, sharp loppers, leather gloves to protect my hands, and a tarp for gathering trimmings and dragging them to the brush pile.

pruning

When pruning trees and branching shrubs, cut all the way back to where the branch joins another branch.

 

If you want to do some winter pruning, keep the following points in mind:

  • Spring-blooming shrubs like forsythia, lilacs, quince, viburnum, azalea, crabapples, and rhododendron have already formed their spring flower buds (they formed them after blooming last spring). Those buds are just waiting for longer days and warmer temperatures to pop open. Prune those spring bloomers now and you’ll be cutting off those flower buds, reducing the spring show. If you don’t want to reduce the spring flowers, wait to prune these plants until just after they are done blooming and before they have formed next year’s flower buds.
  • Some plants “bleed” sap heavily when they are cut. Maples are notorious for this. After all, maple sap is what is tapped in winter to make maple syrup. These trees are better off being cut in the fall, right after they go dormant.
  • Don’t attempt to prune large trees yourself or any tree or shrub that requires you to climb a ladder. Hire a certified arborist. To find one, visit the International Society of Arboriculture website.
  • It’s ok to remove up to about a quarter to a third of the plant’s living branches. If your plant has not been pruned in a long time, you may need to spread the pruning out over 2-3 years.
  • Aside from the tools listed above, the best tools you can use for pruning are your eyes. Put down your pruners periodically to look at what you are doing. This helps keep you from cutting too much or ruining the plant’s shape.

Ready to tackle your pruning project? Here are the basic steps:

  1. Begin by walking all the way around the plant at least once. Note how it grows and its natural form. Does it have an upright, horizontal, or weeping habit? Does it grow with a lot of branches at the base (called a suckering habit) or does it branch from one or two main trunks (like a tree)? Overall does it look balanced, or is it lopsided with more or less growth on one side?
  2. Trim out dead, broken branches first. Cut back to where the branch intersects with another live branch, or all the way to the ground in the case of suckering shrubs. If the plant has not been pruned in some time, it can take quite some time to remove all the dead branches. In fact, cutting dead wood should make up 80% of any pruning job.
  3. Once all the dead wood is out of the way, you can start to see the natural form of the healthy plant. The next step is to clear out its interior to improve light and air circulation. Trim branches that are crossing back and growing inward, toward the center of the plant. If the plant’s habit is suckering growth from the base, thin a few of the biggest interior branches at ground level.
  4. Step back and observe the plant’s natural overall shape. The last little bit of pruning involves a few snips to enhance that natural form: thinning any overly dense areas or trimming the odd wayward stem or two.

Congratulations on a good pruning job!

Below are photos showing renovation of overgrown spireas I helped a friend with. Left–the old beautiful spirea were engulfing the garden before pruning. Center–after pruning, the shrubs are a much more manageable size while retaining their graceful natural shape. Right–spirea grow from the base, so here you can see the cuts we made and remaining branches.