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12 Months of Helpful Hints!

 

January “Yew, me, snow?”
Heavy, wet snow may be beautiful to look at but it can be nasty on trees and shrubs, breaking off branches and contorting limbs into funky, unattractive shapes. You’ve probably heard that snow provides insulation and shouldn’t be removed. Not so if the plant is a conifer. Take it from me: As soon as the snow has ended -- preferably when the temperature is still below freezing, and the snow is drier, lighter and easier to remove -- take a broom and using gentle downward brushing motions remove the snow.

More January advice from the late garden writer Henry Mitchell: In the event of freezing rain, "simply close the shades". Better yet, read some Henry Mitchell.

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February “Signs of frostbite or signs of spring?!”
You ask: "The leaves on my daffodils and tulips are already up, should I protect them from the cold weather?" Not to worry. The leaves on these hardy bulbs may look cold and vulnerable, but keep in mind that the bulb itself has been growing underground for some time. Simply enjoy this irrefutable proof that spring is coming -– with any luck, sooner rather than later.

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March "Gotta fertilize, gotta fertilize, gotta fertilize!”
Fertilizing is so much marketing and a lot of wasted worry. If nothing’s wrong, don’t even go there. But if you do choose to fertilize for specific reasons, here’s a way to make it cheap, easy, and organic. Cottonseed Meal, the washed remains of cotton seed, is an available and organic fertilizer that is not only cheap but nearly impossible to misuse. It is an acidic amendment that is perfect for acid-loving plants like rhododendrons, azaleas, and conifers. Available in bulk at most nurseries, it may be tossed with abandon around the base of shrubs and perennials in mid-March. The warming soil of spring will break down the nutrients for the plants and make it available just as they begin to grow in the following weeks.

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April "Get up off of the ground, I want a bouquet."
You say: "I love peonies but mine seem to flop to the ground after one shower of rain." Peonies are the grand dames (dare I say doyennes?) of the garden. However, a century’s worth of selective breeding for large multipetalled blooms has not furthered the cause of strong stems. To prevent your peony from flopping, either buy peony stakes or make your own (somebody save me, I’m having a Martha moment):

Take a 18" x12" strip of Chicken wire and fashion it into the shape of a dome, about the size of half of a cantaloupe. Place this dome over the crown of the peony (it should be emerging in early April). The perennial will grow through the cage and subsequently lift it off of the ground (the cage will disappear in the foliage). When the peony blooms, the cage will hold the stems of the blossoms and prevent them from flopping in the mud, at least until you can get there to chop off their heads.

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May "Just say NO to daffodil bondage!"
You ask: "I’ve seen people bundling and tying the leaves of daffodils when they are finished blooming and I’ve heard that it redirects the energy of the leaves back into the bulbs. Is this true?" No. People tie foliage because it looks tidy to them (though positively hideous to others). The leaves of bulbs should be left alone until they begin to yellow naturally. Bulbs such as daffodils require up to 6 weeks of photosynthesis after they have shed their flowers to store up enough energy to mulitply and produce next year’s bloom. If the leaves seem unattractive to you, they may be quietly tucked under the foliage of emerging perennials and removed when they begin to yellow.

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June “Wake up already and bloom."
Roses rule in the June garden (we’ll save the discussion re: the relative merits of a short-blooming, disease-ridden shrub for another time). If you’re lucky enough to have an old, healthy rose bush that just seems tired or worn out, here’s an easy way to reinvigorate the plant. For a shrub that’s about 3’ tall and 2’ wide (after pruning) dissolve one cup of Epsom salts around the base of the plant and then mulch with about three cups of alfalfa meal. This cocktail -- with its infusion of magnesium and a particular element of alfalfa -- is easily metabolized by roses, and will restore your old dear to its former blooming splendor.

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July "Things are looking UP!”"
Here’s a poem by our garden website editor, Paul Bonine, who specifically asked NOT to be identified:

"I’d like to take a little time, to discuss the planting of a vine.
Its not important where it will twine
but the quality of the hole at planting time."

So here’s the scoop: For nearly all vines, particularly clematis, dig as big a hole as possible. Amend it with manure, soft rock phosphate and several shovel fulls of compost (I’m trying to stay away from chemical fertilizers as well as fertilizers that are made from animal products. In this recipe, soft rock phosphate is substituted for bonemeal which is just plain gross and irresistable to dogs). Carefully place the rootball in the hole and back fill. Then give it a good soaking. Now start making plans for where the vine will go.

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August "Teatime for flowers."
By the so-called dog days of August (where’s John Ciardi when we need him?), many annuals have lost that lovin’ feeling and are looking a little spent. Don’t hestitate to get out the shears and uniformly cut the spent blossoms off of anything that is looking down in the dumps (NOTE: this applies to plants only). Prepare a manure tea by putting two tablespoons of some good manure -- for instance steer or bat guano -- into an old nylon stocking. Then steep the concoction in a two-gallon watering can overnight. Water plants in the morning and take a chill pill.

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September "Why rose hips are so hip."
In most parts of the United States, save for the warmest areas, one of the best things you can do for your roses is to leave the last flush of flowers alone. Let them wither as they will -– this send the signal to the plant that is should begin to shut down for the winter –- and watch the rose hips “bloom”. These hips can be quite ornamental for several months, offering you some needed ornamentation on those bare-knuckled canes. Prune those suckers once your nighttime lows stop dropping below 20°F (-7°C).

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October "Back up the Buick, we’re moving. Again.”
You ask: "When is the best time to move or transplant plants?" Undoubtedly the best month is October. This gives a plant time to settle in before winter arrives, without stimulating it’s growth cycle. Also, the cool temperatures will mean that the soil stays evenly moist, providing you watered the plant in well after you moved it (always water in deeply). For best results choose a day in October where the high temperature is below 70°F (21°C) and the overnight lows are above 40°F (4°C). I can just hear the Alaska gardeners laughing at that one.

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November "Native Plants Do It Their Way."
You ask: "I’ve heard that planting native plants is a responsible way to garden. Is this true?" Yes, but native plants like to play by their own rules and many are not very well adapted to the amount of water and fertilizer we regularly shower on other plants. The best thing to do is to ask your local nurserypeople which natives are the most easily grown in your area, and which ones will give you the desired effects. Plants, much like plant experts, have adapted to their own particular niches; some are more adaptable than others.

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December "The Year of the Living Christmas Tree"
If you don’t like the idea of cutting down a conifer, there is always the option of a live tree. Just know there are some VERY important considerations to make before you buy one. Most conifers used as Christmas trees come from cool regions and are adapted to full sun. This means that they’re not going to like the low humidity, warmth and overall lack of light that we humans prefer indoors. Choose a small tree -- it will be lighter and easier to move -- and bring it indoors to the brightest possible spot in the house. Make sure it’s a good distance from central heat or fireplaces and woodstoves (it may ruin the picture, but it will save the tree).

Water ONLY by placing a mulch of ice cubes around the base of the tree (you don’t want to stimulate it out of dormancy). Repace the cubes every other day or so. Feel free to keep the tree inside for a week or two, max, before moving it outside; if you live in a very cold place, let it acclimate to the cold for several days in an unheated sunporch before taking the plunge. Oh, is it too late to mention that you should have dug the hole in the fall before the ground froze?

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