Archive for the ‘In the Garden’ Category

We have had some great weather for working out in the garden this spring. In the interest of getting in shape for the season and getting some work done, I have spend a couple of hours a day getting beds cleaned up for spring. Today, I nearly finished cutting back the old foliage on my hellebores, a task that ensures that flowers show to best effect.  My beds in the backyard are more protected than the front, and the plants are in full bloom on this last day of February.

Gryff helped the hellebore effort throughout. He wasn’t as interested in supervising cutting the old foliage off my epimediums. For once, I got to this task before the flowers started to emerge, so shearing was a cinch.

Hellebores and snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) make perfect spring companions.

Clipping away last year’s leaves helps show off the flowers to best effect.

I have seen single snakes in early spring before, but this year I found two curled up next to where I was working.


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Each spring, I look forward to the first flowers, and my winter aconites have come into bloom right on schedule. I won’t be surprised if there are insects visiting the blossoms next week during the warm days the weather forecasters are promising us. Warm weather also provides a great opportunity for pruning, so I am working on plans as I type this post.

Winter aconites (Ernthis hyemalis).

Flowers are not the only way to brighten up the landscape this time of year, though. As I turned back into the driveway at the end of a walk with my dogs today, my eye went right to the clumps of variegated yuccas along the driveway. They not only add splashes of bold yellow to the otherwise dreary winter landscape, they also produce spikes of white flowers in summer. Couple that with the fact that they are incredibly low maintenance plants–all they ask is full sun and average to dry, well-drained soil–and I can’t fathom why they aren’t more popular. (I know that all-green and blue-green types are pretty common!)

So, I am posting pictures of two of my clumps in the hopes that a few Eastern Shore Gardeners will add a plant or two to their own landscapes. Just be advised that you do have to be a bit patient: It takes a couple of years for pot-grown plants to really get established and produce a good-size clump.

Variegated yucca (Yucca flaccida ‘Variegata’

Variegated yucca (Yucca ‘Color Guard’)

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While I am enjoying this year’s early spring, our saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana) was tricked into bloom a month too soon. I looked out this morning and all the buds, which were just a day or so away from opening all the way up, were frozen solid. By afternoon, they had turned brown.

One of the great things about digital cameras is that they keep track of dates, so I could easily check to see when I have taken pictures of the tree in bloom in past years. My largest collection of shots is dated April 9. While similar trees in Pennsylvania, where we lived before, were frosted out probably three years out of four, this is the first time we have lost flowers to freezing temperatures since we moved here in 2004. I will have to content myself with photos of magnolia flowers this year. I expect I am not alone.



Flowers on April 9 in a previous year.

The loss also prompted me to check dates for a few other plants that are currently in bloom in the garden. My hellebores typically bloom around the third week of March, but this year they have been flowering since the third week of February. Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and winter aconites (Eranthus hyemalis) were also about a month early.


Snowdrops, March 10 in a previous year.


Winter aconites, March 5 in a previous year.

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“Glorious February afternoon” isn’t a phrase I have used often in my life, but I have certainly enjoyed the ones we have had this winter. I have been using the recent warm days to give some of my shrubs much-needed haircuts.


Pruning does not need to be one of the great mysteries of gardening, and the techniques I use are pretty simple. Regardless of what I am pruning, I start by looking for two types of growth: Deadwood and rubbing and crossing branches.

Whether you are pruning a tree or a shrub, deadwood can be removed any time of year. Cut back to healthy wood, and be sure to discard the trimmings away from the garden to prevent the spread of any diseases or insects that may have caused the damage.

Rubbing and crossing branches need to be removed because the rubbing damages the bark on both branches.  The damage makes it easier for diseases and insects to get a foothold. Rubbing and crossing branches also create congested growth in the center of the plant.

Whenever you prune a shrub, start by taking a step or two back from the plant to look at the overall shape and identify branches that rub or cross. Mark the culprits with plastic tape if necessary. Marking is also a good idea if you want time to decide which of the two branches needs to be removed. It can be particularly hard to decide when pruning old, overgrown shrubs, because they have so many congested branches in the center. In this case, you can make a plan to prune over several years, and cut out a few branches each winter.


Basic Annual Shrub Pruning


Illustration by © Elayne Sears, from How to Prune Trees & Shrubs, © by Barbara W. Ellis, used with permission from Storey Publishing.”

I usually select branches that cross the center of the plant to remove, because this not only eliminates rubbing, it opens up the center of the shrub to let in light and air. When removing a branch, use thinning cuts. That means, always cut back to where that branch arose from another branch or from the ground. Leave the branch collar, the wood around the base of the branch, intact to promote healing.

Also use thinning cuts to remove any wayward or overly long branches that ruin the shrub’s overall shape. Your objective should be a shrub that is somewhat wider at the bottom than the top, so that light reaches the lower branches. Always cut back to another branch, because pruning actually spurs growth. If you cut across a branch, rather than removing it entirely, it responds by producing vigorous shoots at the tips that quickly regrow. Thinning cuts do not cause this response.

My book, How to Prune Trees & Shrubs, provides much more information on pruning, including principles that every gardener needs to know, basic pruning guidelines for all types of shrubs, trees, and vines, and plant-by-plant lists with recommended pruning times for a wide range of popular plants. You can order it by clicking the book cover on the right.

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For most of this year I have been AWOL from Eastern Shore Gardener. I have a good excuse, though. In March, I adopted a puppy from Mid-Atlantic Border Collie Rescue. Puppy raising and training pretty much engulfed my year after he came home with me. I also raised a litter of rescued puppies for MABCR, but that is another story!


This year’s focus on bringing up a well-rounded puppy has simply engulfed my ability to sit down and write about my garden. Having a puppy outside with me all the time also affected what I can do in the garden, since puppies want to put everything in their mouths and dig holes whenever they get a chance. So, this year supervision took precedence over actual gardening.

Gryff is just over a year old now, and well on his way to being a great family member. He is learning manners, has started in agility, and is a much better garden citizen. He also is currently learning to be a tracking dog and may one day be experienced enough to find lost dogs and cats through an organization called Dogs Finding Dogs.



I have made some progress out there this year, including planting a variety of ground covers and new perennials. I also installed a wall where we had piled stones until a couple of weeks ago and am looking forward to getting it filled to overflowing. I promise you will see pictures next season.


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I am always on the lookout for perennials that are able to withstand summertime heat and humidity and still look great as the growing season wanes. This year one of the late-season standouts is hosta ‘Dick Ward’. Despite the drought this summer, coupled with neglectful watering, it remains attractive well into October.


Above. Hosta ‘Dick Ward’ in the third week of October. The clump is about 19 inches tall and 25 inches wide.

While the foliage color is certainly fading, and there are a couple of browned-out leaf edges, all-in-all ‘Dick Ward’ remains quite attractive. Earlier in the season, the leaves were bright green with darker green margins.


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Weeds in the garden have pulled me away from the computer this summer. After a wet April, a dry May, and a very wet June, I continue to do battle. Fortunately, I have help this summer in the form of David Arnold of The Esoteric Gardener, so by the close of this season the garden will look far better than it has in the past couple of years.

In addition to the regular culprits, I am making a special effort to eliminate wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius), which are threatening to take over major portions of our property. I expect this to be a multi-year battle, and I don’t think I will ever be able to let my guard down completely.



Above: Wineberries with multiflora roses (Rosa multiflora), another common non-native invasive weed.

In the past, I’ve tried digging and discarding wineberry plants. I’ve also routinely cut off and placed the fruit in the trash to try to reduce the number of seed-grown plants. Despite previous efforts, this year they have taken over more space than ever, indicating my past efforts haven’t been effective. In response, I am resorting to using herbicide and a sprayer, something that I hate to do.

Wineberries are a serious non-native invasive that are worth fighting. Not only do they spread by suckers and come up from seed sown by birds, they also root wherever the stem tips touch the soil and produce canes that arch over and shade out nearby plants. The end result is an interconnected mass of thorny stems that form thickets that are really difficult and unpleasant to negotiate. The fruit is edible, but is not enough of a reason to let the plants live. Native black raspberries (Rubus occidentalis) are thorny and can get out of control, but they are a far better choice and a great homegrown fruit.


Above: Wineberries have arching stems covered with bristly reddish hairs and plentiful thorns. On the left is another non-native invasive, oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus)


Above: Black raspberry stems are whitish in color. While they have thorns, they  lack the red hairs that characterize wineberry stems.

Spraying wineberries is not a once-and-done operation. Established plants form dense tiers, and I have found that spraying twice or three times at about 10-day intervals works best to eliminate the plants. The first spraying generally takes care of the main canes, which reveals lower branches along with smaller plants closer to the ground. I am using Roundup mixed according to label directions. (I buy the concentrate, mix it myself, and add a squirt or two of dish-washing liquid as a spreader sticker.) When spraying, I try to isolate the canes to prevent drips from getting on any plants below. This isn’t always possible, and I have  damaged some plant growing underneath the wineberries. I hope they will rebound once the blanket of dense foliage dies away. I am also leaving the canes in place so I can see where they were located and spray again if necessary. I’ll probably cut them back late this fall, then start year two of my elimination program next spring.

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I was honored to be asked to do a video interview about Chesapeake Gardening & Landscaping, for The Chestertown Spy. Here it is for readers who don’t get the Spy. Below, I’ve added a photo that illustrates one my other overwhelming interests!


Above: Front row: Bienn and Bonnie. Back row: Bing, Casey, Me, and puppy Charlie.

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Spring was late this year, to be sure, but in recent weeks the pace has picked up considerably in my garden. This morning, I am sharing a few spring plant combinations. For the most part, my spring combinations depend on self-sowing perennials such as wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata) and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginiana). I am also seeing self-sown plants of great merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora) that are just getting large enough to bloom. My division of this early blooming wildflower originally came from my mother’s garden.

Later today, I hope to see some Eastern Shore Gardeners at Twigs & Teacups in Chestertown, Maryland, for First Friday. I’ll be at the store from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. signing books, answering questions, and talking about gardens. Also, don’t forget to come to the plant sales next Friday at Fountain Park in Chestertown and Saturday in Rock Hall! Both sales begin at 9:00 a.m., and you will find a number of the plants pictured here among the offerings!


Above: Favorite spring flowers, taken April 17. Great merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora), double bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis ‘Flore Pleno’), and Dutchmen’s breeches (Dicentra cucularia)


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Months ago, the University of North Carolina Press asked me to write two blog posts that relate to Chesapeake Gardening & Landscaping. The first of them was published today, and I wanted to share a link to it here on Eastern Shore Gardener. Six Tips for Creating an Eco-friendly Landscape, outlines the fundamental principles covered in the book that help create a sustainable landscape. Each principle offers many options for implementation. Chapter One presents ten tips for each principle that gardeners can use to move toward a beautiful, sustainable landscape.

Since it looks like spring is really finally here, I am spending the afternoon outdoors cleaning up beds and replenishing the leaf litter on the garden. The simple act of mulching works toward several principles. It is especially important for #4, Manage Water Runoff, but it also is an essential part of principle #6, Garden Wisely, because of all the benefits mulch brings to soil, weed control, and more. I wait until spring to clean up and cut down, because deep leaf litter and stems provide overwintering sites for insects and good hunting grounds for birds. All the stems and other plant parts pulled off the garden in spring go directly to the compost pile, and eventually are returned to the garden to complete the cycle.

If you don’t already have a copy of Chesapeake Gardening & Landscaping, consider coming to one of the events listed in the calendar. Adkins Arboretum has copies available by mail. It is also available from Amazon.


Above: Large-flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) is finally beginning to emerge from the soil. It brings yellow spring flowers and handsome foliage to the garden.

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