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An Unusual Spring

May 5, 2012

south gardens May 2012Christina writes: I commented in my February blog post Where’s Winter that we were enjoying early signs of spring after an unusually warm winter with little snow. The weather continued warm throughout March, indeed for a few days it was like high summer when the temperature reached 84º F (about 29º C). By early March, the snowdrops were out in our garden, followed by crocus and dwarf iris. The first daffodils, which flowered in mid-March, are over now but others are still providing patches of bright colour, perhaps different varieties but more likely ones planted in areas which get less sun. April, however, has been colder than March, and we have had to go back to wearing winter woollens, even the thickest Shetland sweaters on one or two occasions.

I wondered in that post how well our various shrubs and perennials had survived without a protective snow cover to provide warmth and prevent the ground freezing. I failed to think of another benefit of snow cover: as the snow melts, it provides constant moisture for plants, encouraging growth. This would not have been so significant if we had had our usual rainfall in the early months of the year. But as the gardening column in our local paper on 27 April noted, the rain that fell a few days previous was the first significant precipitation since 27 January.

In mid-February, when I walked through the garden with Dan, our landscaper, he commented how well our evergreen shrubs looked, except for two mountain laurels which had suffered badly from winter burn. In mid-March, I noticed that many of the leaves on three of our andromedas, which had looked healthy when Dan visited, were turning brown. At about the same time, we became aware of how dry the ground was: cracks in the lawns, and the soil on the beds either like dust or very hard. We normally don’t need to do any watering before May, and it hadn’t occurred to us that any was needed. We immediately laid out the soaker hoses we had found so successful last year and ordered several more to cover all suitable areas, mainly those with shrubs. For beds with low plants, we bought sprinkler hoses, which we thought  would be better in those areas, and we bought soaker rings for our three apple trees. We still need to use a hand-held hose or one with an attached sprinkler on the perennial bed adjacent to the driveway, as the width of the bed and irregular placement of the plants would require multiple soaker hoses, and the spray from sprinkler hoses would be blocked by the leaves of taller plants. During renovations to our house in 2007, we had three outside faucets placed strategically for covering the whole garden, which allows us to water three beds at once using soaker and sprinkler hoses. These are much more economical of water usage, delivering it slowly over a period of time to where it is actually needed rather than upon a wider area with much overspray or evaporation. We have already seen results since we have saved two of the andromedas, and an azalea which did badly in the 2010–11 winter and did not flower in 2011 will be in flower soon. Ironically, since we laid the last hose at the end of April we have had much more rain!

Dan’s men removed the deer fencing and did the spring clean up in mid-March, several weeks earlier than last year. In early April they were able to mulch the beds devoted mainly to shrubs. Those beds where perennials are dominant had to wait until the beginning of May since, early spring or not, perennials vary greatly as to when they develop new growth, depending on the variety and on how much sun they get. This was very noticeable in the two long beds that stretch north to south on the east and west edges of our property. In each case, plants at the northern end, which get much less sun, were several weeks behind similar plants to the south. The mulching was completed only at the beginning of this month. This should also help conserve water. We did lose several perennials, mainly new ones planted last year which may not have established deep enough roots to survive. Dan reported that he himself had suffered losses.

It was not just garden plants that responded to the early spring: weeds also took advantage, and they don’t seem worried by lack of water. Almost immediately after the spring clean-up, I had to begin my weeding cycle which generally takes about a month, during which time I get around every bed once, and those in the front twice. In addition to the usual weeds, this year has seen an incredible number of maple seedlings sprout. I am not exaggerating when I say that I must have pulled up tens of thousands. Often they grew so thickly that I could pull up a fistful. More difficult was pulling up the ones growing in the middle of perennials, especially ground cover. Various theories for this abundance have been suggested: perhaps the trees produced more seed because they were stressed by the lack of snow, or they were encouraged by the early spring, or some near the end of their lives were making a last desperate attempt to propagate themselves.

lamium in locust May 2012Normally my busiest time in the garden (on average two hours a day) doesn’t begin until mid-April, then extends into the beginning of September, gradually winding down during the autumn, leaving me more time for other things during the winter and early spring. This year, not only did my busiest time begin in late March, but I had the additional task of dealing with the watering.

I also mentioned in my February post that some violas had continued to flower through the winter. By late March, these had become beautiful flowering clumps. During April, I added another 160 violas, edging the two beds in front of our house to provide a continuing band of colour to beds mainly planted with shrubs, albeit with contrasting colour and texture of leaves. Last autumn, I removed violas that I thought would not flower again, but this year I will leave them in the hope that a good proportion will survive the winter and that next year I won’t have to buy and plant so many.

We made a tour of our usual garden centres in mid-April, but found they were only just beginning to get stock in. We bought several more hellebores since these do well in the shadiest corner of our garden, as well as some dianthus and more heuchera to fill gaps. Last autumn, as several of the plants in the perennial bed had spread well beyond their original area, I had Dan’s men remove sections of shasta daisies, rudbeckia (black-eyed susans), and iris. Now that May is here we look forward to visiting garden centres to acquire new perennials to fill these gaps and to replace those that did not survive the winter. Then in June, when the danger of frost is over, it will be time to buy and plant annuals which I like to include in the perennial bed as well as elsewhere as they have a much longer flowering period.

Images, top to bottom: part of the garden beds in front of our house, with birch, spirea, daylilies, sedum, violas, Japanese willow, sand cherry, etc.; lamium that has escaped from ground cover and taken up residence in the gnarled bark of a locust tree, next to our driveway.

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