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March is crunch time for gardeners

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Of Wonders and Weeds


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 properly.

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 us.

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 mistaken.

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 purple.

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 gardener.Ē



Posted 3/26/2008