Thursday, April 17, 2014

Tooling up for Spring Gardens: Tool Care Tips for that First Cut, Happy Spring Containers & Orchards

Sheryl Crow and Cat Stevens sing passionately “the first cut is the deepest.”

Gardeners know better.

Our log-splitting president, Abe Lincoln, probably got it better when he famously said: "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."

Before you take to cutting out what you think are “dead” leaves or branches from this long, cold winter, with its see-saw of freeze, thaw, freeze thaw - take the time to prepare.

Spring is new beginnings.
While I joked that with the weather so curious recently – we might see Frosty holding hands with Peter Rabbit!
Time to end your winter nesting – and get outdoors to see the birds nesting.

It IS spring

Albeit a cold one – meteorologists say it’s ten degrees colder than normal.
The nursery owner told me yesterday that with the full moon around Mother’s Day, the calendar date that marks the unofficial OK to plant annuals in our zone 6/7 – you may still be susceptible to frost at that date – so check up before planting.

However, I’m the optimist and believe it’s better this way than too hot. 
I will enjoy our pansies and ranunculus container plantings.

While botanists at the area botanical gardens forecast a mash-up of bloom times – with tulips blooming along with cherry blossoms and magnolias, enjoy what is nevertheless the season’s ephemeral beauty.  

And if you missed pruning your summer blooming trees and shrubs due to too-cold weather, you’re not too late.

Before you head out in those first warm days to play catch up and cut – heed some of Abe’s arboreal wisdom.

Tool Smarts

Review your tools before you start pruning, cutting, trimming or digging; make sure your tools are clean and sharp.

If you thought it was a long winter, imagine what your tools thought – sitting in the corner of a tool shed, garage or back of your truck – where dampness or fungus can grow.  

At my spring garden talk on Tuesday, a woman from the garden club sheepishly admitted that she’d never cleaned her garden tools.  While she looked more like I’d just caught her cheating on her taxes (or worse) – you should love your tools and good maintenance will help not only preserve them and the investment you made with them, but clean tools help insure you don’t pass along sap or pathogens.
Plus, clean and sharpened tools help you to do garden work faster and more efficiently. After all, they are part of your garden team – labor-saving assistants to make your efforts much more effective.

Tools that need to be sharpened are loppers, pruners, knives, hoes, shears, and shovels, to name a few.

I start by washing; dipping the tool blades in a bleach bath – three parts water to one part bleach. 
Wipe dry.
If needed, use mineral spirits to remove any tough to rid residues.
I lay mine outside for further fresh-as-spring clean. 
No hanging on the line!

But you do want to stand your tools up or hang from pegs rather than lean against a wall or floor where the tools can gather moisture – the enemy of your tool’s beauty and utility.

Of course, we should all wash up our tools after each garden adventure – think of it like washing the dishes after the meal – or taking off your makeup at the end of the day.
Yes, there are those times when we just. Can’t. Seem. To spend. One. More. Minute…

Spa Talk
In general, wipe your tools down after every use – with a quick wash at the sink or with a soap and water drenched cloth and/or nail brush.

Keep a bucket of sand handy moistened a tad of linseed oil to dip the tools into after using them.
This mix is abrasive and lubricating – a veritable spa treatment for the tools.
Experts recommend the linseed oil vs. the old-fashioned recipe of using motor oil and I agree.  No one wants motor oil on their melons!
The Linseed oil is also beneficial for the tools’ wooden handles – so go ahead and give them a quick wipe too.

We have an automatic blade wheel but you can also use a handheld whet stone or flint or carbide sharpener and file the blade at a 20-degree angle.

This is the first year I’ve pruned our crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica).   In the northeast, zone 6/7 area (thanks to climate change) where we live, late winter/early spring is the best time to prune these blooming beauties and workhorses of the summer garden.
The crape myrtles are one of the few blooming shrubs/trees of the summer here, their bark is museum-worthy and their easy-to-no care maintenance and glorious, colorful, stately beauty elicits smiles and a loyal following.

Crape myrtles bloom on new growth.
You can prune them for a shrub-like screening effect or more as a tall, lollipop look. Pruning correctly will allow flowers to arrive earlier.

Don’t top off; rather prune gently – mindful of the lateral or axillary buds – not the terminal buds – in order to encourage more full growth and avoid the spindly or lanky growth with few to no inflorescence.
Fine Gardening advises “to prune them early spring before they break dormancy. And good pruning while crape myrtles are young will mean less maintenance when the trees are older.”

I also snipped off the spent hydrangea heads from the macrophylla aka Mophead hydrangeas that bloom on old growth in order to improve their performance – and look.

I was not pruning – that work should be done when the flowers fade in the fall.  However, I like the look, and believe it strengthens the plant for the winter and provides food and shelter for pollinators of all sizes. 
These summer blooming shrubs set flower buds in late summer or early fall so take care when removing the dried blooms from last year.
There is a school of thought that says Mopheads don’t ever really need pruning.
Today, due to the shrubs sheer popularity, there are ever-more varieties available for your garden – and these new – often branded hydrangeas can bloom continuously as in “Endless Summer.” Still others bloom on new growth and should be pruned in spring, 
Be sure to check the plant you have before lopping off part of it nutrient-building woody stems.

Remember – ask or find out – if your hydrangea is the kind that blooms on old or new wood.

Want to change the color? That’s another story.

We also cleaned out the herb bed gardens, gently raking with the small Japanese-styled rake. Likewise, I raked the pea gravel walks that embrace the garden’s quadrants.

I fluffed up the indigenous, local rock borer that gets beat down over the winter.

It was now mulch time!  We get three to five yards delivered and then distribute in the beds accordingly.

At this time, I also walk my garden and my clients - to produce a punch list and a need-to-buy list - talking into my iPhone until Siri has enough of my garden talk… 
This way I can readily email text or images or add to existing project work to share with my garden team, too. 
Like tools, make technology work for you. 

Last autumn, I planted the espalier apple against the wall of our front entrance porch.
And planted its mate J around the back in what I dreamed would be our future orchard, located next to the farme-ette. 
The apple trees were an exciting find at our local nursery.  I was delighted to find any fruit trees to tell you the truth. My research and calls turned up zero at just about every nursery.
 There wasn’t much choice in the fruit trees when I did find a source - the pears they had just didn’t work for me. 
But I got the two apple sweethearts, and planted them right away.
Especially happy to be starting our homegrown orchard.

The design is a simple one: two beds, a path in between so garden guests can bask in the spring blooms and seasonal fruit above – while taking in the edible farm-ette.
After marking off one bed and planting the apple, I swiped the bales of hay from my neighbor’s discarded Halloween post design and used it as a ground cover for the tree. 
Despite the Polar Vortex and because of the snow, the apple stayed snug as a bug and warm. The blossoms on him and the espalier are already intoxicating. 

Last fall, I ordered three more fruit trees – these I sourced from Willis Orchards 

The dwarf peach (Bonfire), cherry (Compact Stella), and apricot (Garden Annie – maybe Leeannie!) bare root fruit trees arrived last week. I chose dwarf not only for the scope of our yard; I am careful not block our neighbors’ view of the harbor and NYC skyline so didn’t want big trees that we’d need to continually prune or make for bad relations.

With visions of fragrant fruit blooms dancing in my head and my mind’s eye (Hello Monticello!) and excited for what might be our own homegrown fruit, sitting under the fruit trees’ canopy – on a bench, perhaps, fueled my enthusiasm to plant my design.

I couldn’t wait to complete the orchard.

I measured, modified, cut the grass patch and used the rototiller to create the aerated bed.  Then I planted these fruit-cuties with an eye toward staggering them so that when viewed from the side, one can see all the trees.

Satisfied – I’m waiting for nature and hoping the pollinators will love us more

I shovel cut the bed borders - ridding the accumulation of leaves and debris there too.  Years ago I interviewed the garden estate manager at Linden Hill for a Two River Times feature here in the Garden State - and this Cornwall-raised and trained hort expert was quite persnickety about maintaining the crisp shovel cut border.  "You can tell an expert and caring gardener by the borders they keep," he admonished.  It stuck with me.   

Happy Containers
Getting ready for Easter weekend, I wanted to fill the front urns and flower pots with seasonal, welcoming flowers to help guests smile on their way in for homegrown hugs, food, and drink.

Spring cleaning doesn’t stop at the windows.
For healthy plants, a good scrubbing will make all the difference. 

Be sure to wash or sterilize your containers to rid them of mold and fungus. 
To clean, you can use a pot-scrubbing brush and soak in the bleach solution for 5-10 minutes in order to kill bad things that may have set up housekeeping in your pots.

Because it’s so cold still, the plant choices are limited for spring containers here. 

I hope you’ll agree that that the white pansies and ranunculus that highlight the white star magnolia and the house’s trim are a welcome sight.

And nothing says sweet spring like pansies.

Don’t their “faces” just make you want to pinch their cheek or kiss them?

Happy Spring. Cheers to new beginnings.

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