The lone voice of horticultural reason

Spring Cleaning

Between writing about my mid-spring travels and addressing gardener’s concerns following the recent patch of storms, I haven’t spent adequate time relating some of the more pressing, though sometimes mundane, gardening duties we should tend to around the start of June. This time of year there’s always plenty to keep the gardener occupied; even on those busy days when I spend no more than 15 minutes puttering about the yard, prudent use of time and knowing which are the essential tasks keep me from feeling wholly overwhelmed by what is purported to be a relaxing hobby.

We have had one heck of a spring for planting annuals; the last frost in my yard occurred April 12, a full month before the final possible frost date. Now that my flowering bulbs have quit their show and numerous perennials, such as campanula, ranunculus and lysimachia are hitting bloom, my mixed beds are telling me where more annuals can be plugged in. Let’s all plant more of them this week (I’ve become a real sucker for annual salvia and, this is difficult to admit, zinnias) to provide those colorful foundations of constant bloom.

There is one gardening chore I dread but it is vital, and that is the spring cleaning and shaking out of our evergreen shrubs. Arborvitae, yews and junipers are the most common coniferal shrubs in the western suburbs, and none want to go too much longer with their inner branches and trunks suffocating from the great layers of their own dead leaves, needles, and last year’s oak and maple leaves. All plants need good air circulation to stay healthy-it’s one of the overlooked reasons why trees benefit from trimming-and it’s perhaps most true of these three varieties of shrubs.

Clean out the area underneath your conifers, particularly ground-hugging junipers. Picking up the bottom branches and swiping the ground with a gloved hand will remove surprising amounts of dead leaves, brown needles and branches, plus a dog’s lost tennis ball or two. Prune out dead branches at this time, while you pull and shake away all the rotting organic matter building up in the crotches of the multiple trunks. Blasting the inner branches and trunks with a sharp stream of water from the hose is a time-saver, but clearing out most of the junk by hand is the only way you’ll get all of it. I have a stand of 12, six-foot arborvitae and each one takes a good half-hour to clear of its own dead leaves (yes, arbs have leaves, not needles). Utter drudgery, but extremely good for the plant.

Be on the alert for funguses and the onslaught of garden pests, particularly aphids. One sure way to know you have aphids is if you have ants. Ants are on your peonies and Boston ivy and rhubarb and roses because they are eating tiny white aphid eggs, which you will note upon closer inspection. Blasting any infested plants with water from the hose several days in a row is all I’ve ever had to do to wipe out aphids, but then I watch my plants closely and catch pests early.

I was on vacation around the time I would have first sprayed my tall phlox with a fungicide containing daconil, to control powdery mildew, and sure enough upon arrival home I noted some whitening, then browning, of leaves. Even if you spray after the fact there is benefit, in that daconil will stop the fungus dead in its tracks, and allow the new leaves and top of the plant to stay healthy up through bloom time. Light, proper use of fungicides in the garden poses no environmental threat; still, if you’ve decided to keep your garden entirely chemical-free, more power to you, just don’t dream of growing phlox.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener