Down to earth – finding a method in spring’s madness

(Originally published on April 2, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life.) 

Spring is finally working its way in (never mind last week’s snow). It has to be. The calendar says so. The redwing blackbirds have been back for weeks. The pussy willows are out and the maples have begun to look lightly dusted in fall colors. (It’s almost as if they’re reminding us not to get too attached.) Crocus and Iris reticulata have bloomed. Daffodils are…well, they’re up and budded and we can be fairly certain they’ll start blaring trumpets one of these days. Whenever the wind isn’t blowing a gale the sun feels as warm and comforting as a bath. I’m itching to be outside. I can’t wait to roughen my winter-soft hands, stretch my back muscles, and get the garden started.

Sweat bee dusted in Mt. Aso pussy willow (Salix chaenomeloides 'Mt. Aso') pollen
Sweat bee dusted in Mt. Aso pussy willow (Salix chaenomeloides ‘Mt. Aso’) pollen

I just don’t want my excitement about spring to shift to panic. I need to remember that there’s plenty of time to get to it all. I am pretty sure that I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed if only I could be methodical about everything that needs doing now. If only I could stick to one task or one section of the garden at a time without spotting, all the way across my tiny property, something else that desperately needs doing and then trying to tackle that too. Distraction is inevitable — especially in a garden — but I feel certain that I’d be able to keep my wits about me if I didn’t also notice, on my way from here to there, by way of the shed, say for loppers, ten more plants that need the attention of my snips or spade. Requiring another trip back to the shed.

Lists help. Or would if I wrote them down. A game plan with a goal in mind might be even better. So, the goal I’m aiming for this spring — every spring — is to clear the clutter and open up some spaces in the garden for more late season color.

First things first. I’m probably the last gardener in the neighborhood to cut back old stems and seedheads. As soon as that’s done it will be high time to prune the roses and other summer blooming shrubs like butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), Spiraea japonica, bush clover (Lespedeza thunbergii) and summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) down to the ground or to within 12” or so. Those plants — along with most deciduous shrubs and trees that bloom on new wood — will rebound from dormant buds with multi-stemmed new growth, lush foliage, plenty of flowers, and a more compact shape.

My enormous Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Eva’) and ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) could stand a hard pruning too but I’m reluctant to lose all of their summer flowers (they both bloom on last year’s wood) so I’ll stick to my resolution to prune about a third back annually. I have to wait for my beautiful but rangy pussy willow (Salix chaenomeloides ‘Mt. Aso’) and winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) to finish blooming before cutting them all the way to the ground to encourage tidier clusters of stems.

Hellebores and a whacked-back ninebark in the background.
Hellebores and a whacked-back ninebark in the background.

Only after the garden is cut back and pruned will there be room to wield a spade, which is what I’m really itching to do. And with any luck, by the time I’m ready to do all the digging, dividing, editing, redistributing, and planting I have on my (mental) list the weather will be warm enough to set the garden off and running.

From the distance of this page, with the whole season stretching ahead, and knowing there can be a method to the madness, it all seems very doable. Like there’s no need to feel crazy and rushed. If spring can take its time working its magic on the garden, so can we.

Since writing this, I have cut the garden back and pruned the shrubs. Some as hard as I intended to. Others harder — the ninebark for one. You too?

2 thoughts on “Down to earth – finding a method in spring’s madness”

  1. I love your way with words, m’dear. And I wish I had a backyard garden to stew about, but there just isn’t much there yet. What to do about Wisteria frutescens? Blooms on new wood I think, so cut it back to the ground? It went in late late LATE last fall.

    Lynn, Thank you! And no doubt your backyard will be full soon – especially with a wisteria in the mix! I have let my wisteria grow since planting a couple/three years ago – I’m sure it would bounce back gangbusters from a hard pruning now but am kind of enjoying how it’s covering the arbor. Since yours went in so late, maybe wait a bit – a year or two – before hard pruning? You can always whack it back if necessary after its first flush. xo -kris

  2. You have me a little worried. I just hard pruned my Sambucus canadensis and S. racemosa. I had assumed they bloom on new growth – is that wrong?

    I can’t remember now where I read that they bloom on last year’s wood but I just checked Bill Cullina’s Native Trees & Shrubs book and he says S. canadensis can be cut back like a perennial and still bloom. I might have to whack my black lace back harder now. It really needs it… But at work we used to have S. racemosa and pruned it hard every year and I have no memory at all of it ever flowering. Don’t be worried. Blooms or not, your shrubs will be happy and healthy this year! -kris

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