We have turned the corner, and bam!: Gardening season is coming at us, full speed ahead. How joyful, exhilarating and satisfying were those first few days. Then I began to hoe and dig weeds – growing faster than $16 perennials – and encountered some troubles in paradise. It’s time to savor the happiness and then choose our battles.
The pleasures of perennials
No matter how many years I have gardened, the thrill of seeing perennials emerge never pales. The turgid hosta shoots and sturdy sedums, so perfect and hopeful, the ferns’ delicate fiddleheads unfurling, goats-beard and Solomon’s seal and Filipendula stretching upward 6 inches a day – amazing, all of it!
Plants that I worried about, because they were planted last season, do not disappoint: Lime-gold Aralia (a shade garden foliage plant), Bastard Balm (Melittis melissophylum, with tiny orchid-faced flowers) and new toad lilies have peeked out, untroubled by the tough winter.
Some perennials grow so quickly there is hardly time to divide and share them. Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Herbstonne’ is already up 2 feet, as is Silphium (Cup Plant), both striving for 7 feet by July. Monks’ hood and Penstemons are larger clumps than the year before. Native Turtlehead (Chelone) always spreads beyond its allotted space, already at 5 inches, and I never get to it before it’s too tall to divide easily. Most campanulas are rapid spreaders, too, but are easier to divide because they are shorter.
Another generous spreader, the native Monarda (Bee Balm) looks wonderful where I placed it, in an area where it can naturalize near my swing.
Some of the most popular perennials of all time are daylilies, but this year especially they are making an odd entrance. Because of the burgeoning rabbit population, most daylilies in home gardens appear to have square-end leaves, as if mowed off at 3 or 4 inches. This is a good time to apply rabbit-repellent powders or pellets, or cover them with tunnels of chicken wire. Personally, I would like someone to invent and supply a wire mesh “perennial cap” in a variety of sizes, something like a picnic salad cover, to protect new plants from animals or foot traffic. For now, improvise.
Late to the party
Alert for new gardeners (or those who forget things): Some plants are very slow to emerge and we should never assume they are dead. Notorious for making a late entrance are Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and Balloon Flower (Platycodon). Honest: Beneath those barren-looking spaces are living crowns and roots; hope you marked them.
Butterfly Bush and Hardy Hibiscus seem equally dead, until you see tiny green sprouts at the very base of the plants in the next few weeks. It can take until June depending upon the weather. If you don’t cut the dead-looking sticks back all the way, the growth may emerge much higher on the plant.
A few hosta cultivars and my beloved Rodgersia also are shy about making their presence known. When it doubt, don’t dig; just keep watching.
Biting flies, surprising insects
In most spring seasons we enjoy a perfect period of cool, pest-free gardening weather before the gnats and biting black flies appear. But no grace period this week. The smallest insects mature and emerge very quickly in response to temperature changes, so those unseasonably hot days and moist conditions jolted them into action. They flew, they tickled, they got caught in our hair. Then a few nasty species began to bite behind our ears.
In North America we have over 16,000 named species of flies (Diptera) so it’s not easy for non-entomologists to identify them. Many of these small flies are harmless to us, such as fungus gnats, so don’t be afraid that every small fly is a biter. The biting flies, among them punkies (biting midges) and female black flies, are torment enough to drive a gardener or hiker indoors.
Many small flies breed in moist organic matter, so rake back the mulch and clean up gutters and debris. Then find a repellent and protective clothing. Remember to remove or stir up standing water – start the fountain in the pond – to destroy mosquito larvae. Fortunately, most insect cycles pass quickly.
Many people also are seeing large wasps or hornets inside the house – especially giant European hornets. The queen, who lived through winter, is looking for cavities to start a new colony. For her and all the other unwanted guests, I suggest you keep a cup and cardboard handy. Capture them and put them outside.
Sometimes weeds are too much to handle by hoeing, digging and pulling. The patch has overrun the perennials or has infiltrated the ground covers. With our summerlike heat, accompanied by generous rainfall, these plants had a massive head start. Some gardeners will use herbicides such as Round-Up. If you do so, heed the instructions carefully and don’t kill anything but the targeted weed. Organic gardeners, including me, do not use herbicides. Consider these alternatives:
• In a large patch of weeds, dig out any perennials you want to save. Remove soil and pull the roots apart. Carefully pull out every last piece of the weed. Plant the perennial in a pot or a holding area, because you surely missed bits of the weed. Then cover the whole horrid patch with heavy black plastic. (Newspaper and cardboard may work but sometimes don’t last long enough to kill.) On top of the plastic put mulch and perhaps some decorative containers.
• Where the ground covers and weeds are integrated, give up on separating them. Dig up (deeply) or cover the whole patch with the plastic for a couple of years. It’s easier to replant new ground covers later than to attempt to save the weed-infested pieces. Monitor the area for new weeds.
A few trials may have value. Gardeners cultivate patience. We develop a high tolerance for irritation. We learn to meditate by weeding for interminable hours. We accept imperfection. But when it’s all too much to bear, it will help to focus once again on the fresh, green perennials leaping from the soil. The joy will still be there.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.