Hollow Garden: Spring Cleaning

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Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientale). Photo: Cathy Clary.

By Cathy Clary

Whether you cut back your beds last fall or left seed heads and foliage for a winter cover, spring is upon us and a bit of tidying is in order. But not too much. Dedicated naturalists go so far as to avoid shredding leaves and garden debris in order to preserve beneficial insect cocoons and larvae. They leave it whole instead and alternate with kitchen scraps and manure as layers in a managed compost operation or take the lazy gardener’s route and heap it all into a pile to rot.

Take care tromping about in this wet spring. Our clay soils don’t like compaction and without amendment turn into brick or mud. Ages ago when I was a young gardener on the round-about at Monticello, we amended each year with rotted leaves from the old City leaf dump and created a beautiful clay loam teeming with organics. We fertilized with dehydrated chicken manure, which had a pungent smell. The little tourist children would laugh at us and hold their noses.

After dealing appropriately with extraneous leaves and twigs, pull heavy mulch away from perennial crowns and clean out the crotches of shrubs, especially boxwoods, which recoil from poor hygiene and succumb to fungal disease at the drop of a hat. Never mulch boxwood deeper than 1-2” after meticulously removing any fallen leaves or debris which harbor fungal spores.

If you’re lucky enough to have one (I always think of the ancient Greeks), this is the time to cut back figs (Ficus carica). Now that our hardiness zone has gone southward to Zone 7b (See Master Gardeners in Feb. CG issue), figs do not live as dangerously hereabouts as they used to. We spread 4-6” of straw on our “Chicago Hardy” each fall. In spring I pull that away and cut back to outside buds on live wood to keep it 5-6’ tall. This fits it to the little southwest nook where it thrives, baking in the reflected heat of the ‘L’ made by the stucco walls of the house. Eat fresh figs with soft brie, a baguette and chilled Prosecco. If this appeals, and you have the microclimate, try planting one this spring.

Miniature Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’. Photo: Cathy Clary.

Avid vegetable and flower gardeners are assembling seed-starting paraphernalia, sorting through last year’s left-overs and getting the spring order off if they haven’t done so already. I gave up starting seeds indoors a few years ago because our drafty dark house is inhospitable, and I resist gearing up with lights, heat mats, etc. I like to direct sow or buy small plants from the garden centers. Cool season vegetables that can be direct sowed in prepared soil of a fine tilth (ideally vegetable beds were dug and amended last fall) include the Brassicas (cabbage, brocolli, cauliflower), peas and salad greens. 

If you’ve somehow managed to clean up the beds without trampling too much and have uncovered bare ground, try sowing cool season annuals like bachelor’s button (Centaurea), love-in-a-mist (Nigella), or poppies (Papaver sp.). Lightly scatter on open soil, cover with a bit of compost and tamp in with the back of a rake before watering. Poppies don’t need to be covered but should be tamped. When they sprout an inch or so, thin seedlings according to package directions. 

Thinning is the test of the accomplished gardener, delicately untangling tender tendrils from the cool soil with bare fingers without losing your balance or your patience. If you’re not the type to Zen out in this kind of activity, local plant centers will have on hand starts of vegetables as well as sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), creeping phlox (Phlox subulata), larkspur (Delphinium ajacis) pinks (Dianthus sp.) and herbs (sages come in many colorful variegations) along with perennial primrose (Primula), the happiest yellow known to man, and of course the pansies, number one on the deer buffet. Sweet William (D. barbatus), creeping phlox and herbs are said to be resistant, though as we all know, they’ll eat anything once. 

Praying Mantis egg case. Photo: Cathy Clary.

I have made my peace with deer. Here in the hollow, we have accommodated the resident herd by the simple method of retaining only the plants they haven’t eaten (among them: Amsonia, Ferns Hellebores, Iris, Narcissus, Peonies, dwarf Plumbago). I do play favorites with hosta and summer phlox by spraying organic repellant. Start early before they get that first bite. Later in the season, tomatoes and basil grow in pots on the deck where they’re out of reach. If you want an in-ground vegetable garden, you must fence it.

As I work in the beds, I hear the racket of spring: crows barking at each other up in the pines, woodpeckers tap-tap-tapping, the cooing of the mourning doves who have just shown up in the hollow. A cacaphony in the gloaming, the soundtrack of spring. 

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