Posted on 16 February 2012.
by Carina Langstraat February 16, 2012
Even though I think about plants year around, I still surprise myself every spring by how botanically rusty I’ve become over the winter. I find my mind occasionally reaching for the botanical name of a plant I’ve known for decades and have to shake the seed pods from my head. If we have a good run of weather in February, I can’t help but turn the steering wheel every time I drive by a retail nursery just so I can be surrounded by the potential energy of the plants. Yet if I succumb to buying something, I bring it home only to realize there’s work to be done before I plant my new treasure. The furniture, as they say, needs to be moved around. And that starts the process for the rest of February’s work: rearranging, pruning, mulching, and generally setting my garden up for success during the growing season to come. Once I do that, I succumb to my addiction for trying new plants, rationalizing at the nursery that I’m ready, I’m organized, I’ve done the work, and I deserve it.
Here are things you can do in your garden this month that will set the stage for spring and summer.
Now's the time to fix mistakes!
This is your last chance to move plants that bugged you last year. What I like about doing this is that it makes me feel empowered: I can change my mistakes of the past and turn them into pleasing combinations that make me smile every time I look out my kitchen window.
If your anemones took you by surprise by achieving five feet, dig them up and move them to the back of the bed. If your Shasta daisies have seeded themselves TOO much (can they really do that?), then spread the wealth and relocate masses of them to an area that is falling short. The list of what you can move is infinite.
To maximize your chances of success, I recommend cutting all the way around the root mass first with a sharp shovel (do this before you press down on the shovel handle for leverage to pop it out of the ground). Then, once you’ve defined the exterior perimeter of the root mass, begin to pry it out of the ground, using your shovel handle as leverage. If you realize it’s too heavy to get out of the hole you have a few options: get help if you can, divide it so it weighs less, or dig a slightly bigger circle around it and put your shovel in at an angle so you can shake dirt from the underside. You’ll need to proceed with a certain amount of caution because you don’t want to remove valuable roots, but don’t be too afraid. A lot of perennials and rhodies are surface rooted and move extremely well, especially in February thanks to our wet winters.
Trees are a different matter, requiring a deeper root ball and therefore more muscle, but if the size seems approachable, you may be surprised at what two people can accomplish. One trick I use often when I am alone is to slide heavy material onto a large tarp. I find I can move a great deal more weight with a tarp than a wheelbarrow because I avoid having to lift into the height of the wheelbarrow. Once on the tarp, I can drag around more weight than I can balance in a wheelbarrow. And remember, the worst thing that can happen isn’t that the plant you move won’t make it. The worst thing that can happen is that your garden won’t excite you. Looking at a lackluster view too many years in a row douses your gardening fire. Moving things around allows you to find new, pleasing combinations, motivating you to no end.
If you haven’t already done so, mulch your garden beds, but do it after you’ve moved the furniture around. Moving plants around will, by definition, create wonky, hummocky areas of your garden. After raking out those areas with a steel rake as much as possible, a final layer of mulch will allow you to hide a multitude of uneven sins.
There are several good products out there, and what you should choose depends on what your goals are. If you are on the Seattle side of the water with an empty truck, Pacific Topsoil’s sells a product they call Screened Comp Mulch that is useful if you want to discourage weeds, maximize moisture retention in your soil, and give your garden a finished look. It is composed of composted cow manure and sawdust and run through a half-inch screen. I like using this for areas close to the house that have an already established soil base because it contributes to that base but still looks polished. Its dark color provides a pleasing contrast to the green of your plants, and the fact that it is well screened helps you keep your patios and high foot-traffic areas clean because it doesn’t mud up.
If you are working on areas farther away from the house or that need soil modification, Cedar Grove Compost is a good option. It’s definitely lumpier than Comp Mulch but also richer, so it will help rectify tired soil more expeditiously. A third option is going to Port Madison Enterprises (formerly Liberty Bay Excavating). They carry two products made by North Mason Fiber: Organic Compost and Fish Compost. The Organic Compost is made of decomposed wood and leaf products and heated to 170 degrees to ensure than any weed seed is neutralized. The Fish Compost is a mixture of Organic Compost and ground up salmon discarded from fish hatcheries. Both products have been pushed through a half-inch screen.
Now is the time to prune the hydrangeas that have been driving you crazy. Cut back any hardy perennials that you haven’t already trimmed. Cut back your Hakonechloa and your Miscanthus sinensis. The rule on roses is to cut them back by President’s day, but going over a week or two is a delay they can survive. My general rule is that I like to focus on my perennials, groundcovers, and mid-sized shrubs now in terms of pruning; then prune my deciduous trees once they leaf out later in the spring so that I can see what portions have died and need to be removed. My other general rule, which is partially because I am often pressed for time, is to let the evergreen shrubs like laurel (hopefully you have Portuguese laurel and not English) and other big hedge plants put on a good flush of spring growth so that I only have to prune them once in the spring and then a second time at the end of the summer. Finally, bear in mind that shaping shrubs and trees into little balls is almost always a bad idea; however, pruning perennials with reckless abandon also is usually no a good idea. For mid-sized shrubs, think structure and openness. If the plant is big enough, lie on the ground and look up at the sky. Prune any branches you see that are growing toward the center and open up the middle of the plant enough to see dappled views of the sky. Unless it’s a fruit tree, never top a tree. For tired perennials, think in terms of removing spent foliage, freeing them to push out fresh, new growth.
Wait to Fertilize
Depending on the weather, the end of February or early March is actually too soon to fertilize your plants. If you do so, you are encouraging them to push out new growth before the cold nights are over. Instead, wait until the end of March or beginning of April, when the soil temperatures are warmer, allowing your plants to take in the fertilizer you give them.
Your moving, mulching, and pruning will pay you back many times over in the coming months. Once you begin a fertilizing regimen at the end of March, then you can let the music begin and enjoy your garden well into the fall.
For more information about Carina Langstraat’s landscape design firm, Langstraat-Wood Inc., visit www.langstraatwood.com.
Images by Carina Langstraat and Julie Hall.