Of Wonders and Weeds
By PAULENE POPARAD
March is for ..... one of the toughest decisions of the gardening year.
For those of us who mulch perennials over the winter, deciding when to take
mulch off is a guessing game with potentially lethal results for the plants.
Remove it too late and the new shoots are pale, weak and possibly prone to
disease. Remove it too early and the shoots could be stunted or even killed
by a late-winter blast.
I go the extra mile and cut up my used live Christmas tree and loosely lay
the branches atop first-season or especially tender plants. The branches are
easy to remove in March, usually when the frost is out of the ground.
Frost in the ground can pose a problem with ice dams that I hope I was able
to address earlier this month. It was a nice, sunny day so I took the first
good walk around the garden, studiously checking everything including the
several (OK, dozens) of plants in pots I am over-wintering.
Every year I swear I am going to manage my gardening better so I am not
babysitting so many pots through the winter but it doesnít work out that way.
On my garden walk I noticed a few of these pots were covered with standing
water, some even topped with a good inch of solid ice. Since too-wet
conditions in winter kill many a plant rather than low temperatures, this was
not a good sign.
I used a sharp knife to cut triangular holes just below the water line and it
came gushing out, making additional slits here and there below. I found a
sturdy metal stake and pried up the ice in the pots and threw it away, then
pried out the pot itself because obviously where it was didnít drain
I reset the pots at a 45-degree angle, which is how some gardeners lay them
out in a trench for the winter anyway with a bit of soil touching the ground
around them. This method obviously wouldnít work if in a low spot.
I did take special precautions in the fall to protect two new plants I never
got in the ground.
I ordered from High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, NM a Texas Red Yucca
(hesperaloe parviflora), which should have been planted last spring or summer
in our Zone 5 and in the warmer Zone 6. I also got a Parryís Century Plant,
Flagstaff form (agave parryi) that says itís good to Zone 4, one colder than
Both plants will be a challenge and a test of my gardening skills.
This is my first order from HCG but I have lusted after the gorgeous things
they sell for some time. However, Iíve been put off by their admonition that
for states east of the Mississippi, my choices are only suitable when special
growing conditions and care (especially in winter) are provided.
After receiving my plants in 2007 I was so doubtful exactly where to put the
darn things, I never did.
This year Iíll take HCGís advice and try --- and thatís the operative word,
here --- to plant the ďxericĒ or dry-loving yucca and agave in full sun in
sandy soil, possibly in a raised bed, using gravel as a mulch and not let
them freeze/thaw, freeze/thaw over winter.
As a stop-gap last November I piled leaves up in the bottom of a slatted,
plastic laundry basket, put the potted yucca and agave in it with some hostas
and tossed a few more leaves around, then covered the basket with chicken
wire so the (%*&! squirrels wouldnít dig.
The basket sat all winter on the east side of my gardening shed out of direct
wind and rain. Turns out it not only looked stupid, it was stupid.
The leaves sagged down, collected water and it froze so the pots couldnít
drain properly. I saw this in early March and immediately put bricks under
the pots to lift them up out of the ice dam.
The still-basketed little agave looks good and the yuccaís strappy leaves are
green but slightly wilted. Only time will tell. Iíve had many a plant look
good in April and die by July. Luckily, itís hard to kill a hosta so they
should be OK.
As if trying to baby the agave and yucca isnít enough aggravation, Iíve
ordered a ĎTasmanian Angelí acanthus mollis or bearís breeches. This stunner
has unusual white-splashed leaves that in summer will give rise to tall
spikes of pink, not purple, white-lipped flower clusters.
Here is where all those who say Latin isnít important in gardening are
My acanthus spinosus has gorgeous big, spiny green leaves and comes back
reliably and flowers better each year, even though some books say itís hardy
only to the warmer Zone 7. Rodaleís Illustrated Encyclopedia of
Perennials says acanthus mollis is hardy to Zone 8, Plant Delights Nursery
guesses ĎT. Angelí is Zone 6b and Wayside Gardens says Zone 6.
I have a partly-shaded sheltered spot Iím eyeing for ĎT. Angelí that I hope
will cheat a zone off the fickle hardiness map. Gardening is about creating
microclimates and Iím convinced another factor is the individual plant itself
even though of the same species and cultivar.
In the garden soon we can cut down to about 6 inches the shrub-like
perennials such as butterfly bush and lespedeza, the latter an under-used
bush clover that explodes in late summer in a cloud of tiny lavender-pink
blooms on an arching plant almost 5 feet tall and wide.
When lespedeza flowers begin to fade and fall, the ground underneath is
About three years ago we cut down a full-grown Washington hawthorn tree that
thrust a shaded area into full sun. Especially sulking was a speckle-leaved
hellebore or Lenten Rose ĎJanetí whose buds freeze out (is she Zone 6?) but
the lovely plant is worth it.
ĎJanetí needed some shade fast. Looking over at the newly trimmed lespedeza
stems I cut off the side shoots, laid the stems out on the ground, wrestled
them into a trellis form and tied the joints with garden twine. A few stakes
to hold it up and instant semi-shade.
ĎJanetís been fine since, but still no flowers. Cut butterfly bush stems are
fine to support floppy plants later in the season.
Plant Delights Nursery is showing three garden-worthy ornamental lespedeza;
Chesterton Feed and Garden also has sold it. I have ĎGibraltarí but PDN
offers the interesting white/green variegated-leaf ĎSpilt Milkí lespedeza,
supposedly Zone 4.
If you havenít cut back the dead peony, daylily and hosta leaves from last
year, weather permitting itís time to get that done.
Experts recommend doing so in the fall but hey, weíve got a lot to do, right?
After cutting and gently pulling the debris away, toss a few dry leaves or a
handful of mulch on top the sleeping clumps. Some daylilies are evergreen or
semi-evergreen and may be showing new leaf starts.
Iíll keep you posted how the yucca, agave and acanthus fare this year. This
month I bought a 10-inch tin Lainiís Ladies garden angel with copper wire and
beads, quite the doodad, but itís the JC Raulston quote on her bowed apron
that caught my eye.
ĒIf you arenít killing plants, you arenít really stretching yourself as a