The Garden Path: February sometimes brings spring
Posted: Tuesday, February 7, 2012 8:12 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams
The Messenger 02.07.12
Feb. 1 is just short of astronomical midwinter, but for all practical purposes we are on the cusp of spring, and forget the groundhog.
This month almost always brings the first “spring” days, with gentle southerlies, and forget the calendar and astronomy.
“In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan.
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
— Christina Rossetti
There are, among us (note: “us”) some who are, even at this early date, already in arrears on demands our gardens make if we are to realize its full potential in 2012.
For instance: Don’t tell me your garden is yet rife with fallen leaves that have, however, gone into relative hiding amongst shrubs and perennial litter as a result of winter gales.
Somehow, no matter how many thousands of them you have dutifully raked, blown or mulched, there are other thousands that appear, seemingly from nowhere, as winter wears on. I have a theory they come up out of the ground.
Even grounds relatively barren of trees finds them appearing from somewhere, and it is up to you to get them up. Leaves left unattended can smother out lawn grass, not to speak of small scale herbaceous things.
Your new beds should have been turned last fall and left to weather out and mellow with freezes and thaws.
Say what! You haven’t done it? Better late than never, but it is more problematic to find soil dry this time of year.
Our resident clay in these parts is notoriously difficult to handle when wet. Every clod turned over wet hardens into a whopsided brick when dry.
One of my (and I hope, your) winter jobs, and one that brings abundant results, is top-dressing. Your cultivated areas, vegetable or ornamental, will produce many-fold when top-dressed over those left alone.
My mixed borders all received a two-inch covering of chicken manure and rice hulls in January. It has begun to melt into the ground and lose (part of) its characteristic raw odor, that is, its stink, much to the relief of the populace of the eastern part of the city.
The influence of the abundant nutrients in the combination will spring into action any day now with the greening of the leafage in those borders, and when high spring arrives the burgeon should be in perfectly green health.
Individual shrubs and trees with little age on them also got a shot of the same elixir, but much deeper, up to six inches, in a “dougnut” over their root systems. Again, winter and spring rains will leach the goodies down into those roots by leafing-out time. Hydrangeas and roses, particularly, are rich feeders.
Old shrubs and trees are not improved significantly by this treatment, since their roots range far afield. However, an aged specimen that appears to be hungry can sometimes be rejuvenated with a top-dressing covering the outlying feeder roots. The only problem is it takes a lot of poop to do the job.
The poop-rice hulls combo is available from some of the big-time broiler or egg operations here. Lacking it, other materials will suffice, including leafmold, compost and sphagnum peat.
Another winter undertaking that can begin as soon as top-growth makes any showing at all is division, and thus multiplication, of perennials. Though some (i.e. irises and daylilies) are better divided in late summer or fall, many more can be split now, or even considerably later into spring. But in most cases, it is better early than late.
It is amazing what a little clump of, say, chrysanthemums or summer phlox, will produce when divided into small pieces. Outlying, newer, sections are best to re-set, with the old, woody, parts discarded. Many perennials are better off thus divided every, or every-other, year, while others (i.e. peonies) can go for a lifetime without it.
I generally tidy up my beds and borders piecemeal over the winter months, the more derelict things going first, and on down to ornamental grasses, which usually stay presentable longer, being among the last to go, about now to wit.
I would wait even longer, but crocuses, daffodils, early tulips, snowdrops, Spanish bluebells, chionodoxas and on an infinitum are waiting in the wings; indeed, many of them are already out.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.