10 SPRING JOBS TO GET YOUR GARDEN IN GEAR

I love a good to-do list.

For the most part, April is the first real opportunity to get back in the garden in this area and although this week is cold and wet, soon it'll be time to clean up the yard. So in honor of tomorrow being April and my love of to-do lists, here's a list of some spring cleanup chores.


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1. CUT BACK PERENNIALS
Be careful when cutting back perennials left standing for winter. You don't want to damage new growth like on this sedum.
 Anything that wasn't cut back in fall should be taken care of now. For plants with stiff stems, such as echinacea, they will often just pull straight out. Other plants with lots of foliage, such as pulmonaria and lady's mantel, just sort of collapse over winter so I lift up the leaves and chop them back as close to the crown as I dare, being careful to look for new growth. Grasses are another plant to be careful when cutting back. If you cut off any new growth when cutting off the dead bits, you'll have grasses without tips, so a little caution is in order.

This hakonechloa is due to be cut back. I'll be careful to check for any new shoots that may be hiding under that mop and not cut them off. 


2. PRUNE CLEMATIS
Since my current clematis count is somewhere in the mid 20s, this isn't a small task for me, but more and more, I've been planting group 3 clematis that simple need to be cut back to a couple buds above the ground. In that case the bigger issue is trying to remember where they are all planted. Group 2 clematis, often the large-flowering varieties,  require a different treatment. I follow a rule of thirds with Group 2s, leaving one third of the stems untouched, lightly pruning another third of the stems and trimming the last third of stems almost to ground. I also take the opportunity to rearrange the stems, usually cutting off the twining bits and reattaching them with ties to whatever support they grow up. I only have one Group 1 clematis, and these are generally not pruned. Because it is a good grower and I'm afraid it may eat my new magnolia tree, I prune it lightly right after flowering, which is very early in the season. If you don't need to contain the growth, then you needn't prune them other than to remove dead bits.

'Guernsey Cream' may be my favorite clematis. It's a Group 2 so I use a rule-of-thirds approach to pruning it in spring.


If you don't know what kind of clematis you have, don't prune it at all. All of them will be OK without any pruning, at least for a year, it's just that the blooms may be much higher than you'd like and the vine may be a bit tangled. Try to identify what kind it is when it blooms so you know what to do next year. Several years of not pruning will lead to an unsightly clematis.

The exception to this is with new clematis that were planted last year. Regardless of what group they are, I think it's best to cut these back like Group 3s, which allows the plant to put more energy into the roots rather than producing flowers. You'll sacrifice some of this year's show, but it will be worth it for the long-term health of the vine.

I also fertilize my clematis when I do my spring pruning. I use Espoma Rose-Tone, and just use a small amount around the roots, watering it in well.


3. PRUNE (SOME) HYDRANGEAS
I already pruned the big Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight' in my yard and I should have done the others a month ago, but there's still time. This hydrangea puts on amazing amounts of growth, so you can prune it back to 1 to 3 feet and it'll be beautiful and big. If you'd like it larger, prune less.

Last year I didn't cut the Limelights by the deck back by much because they were relatively new shrubs (the before and after follows), but this year I'll cut them back a little more severely. They have grown enough that they flower above the deck handrail now.

Before pruning
After pruning


For the so-called smooth hydrangeas in my yard—Hydrangea arborescens including 'Incrediball,' 'Annabelle' and 'Invicibelle Spirit'—I prune them back nearly to the ground. This excellent pruning guide from Proven Winners recommends leaving some stems as a framework, but I rarely do that.

Bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla), lacecaps (Hydrangea serrata) and oakleafs (Hydrangea quercifolia) shouldn't be pruned at this time of year, with the exception of removing dead stems, which can and should be done any time of the year.


4. CLEAN OUT THE GARDEN
Leaves that fall in autumn can create big mats in the garden that can make it difficult for plants to emerge. I like to clean up the garden, clearing the way for plants to grow and allowing me to keep a close eye on what is growing. It's easy to spot small weeds when they can't hide under leftover fall detritus. The problem, of course, is that perennials are shooting up all over the place and it's easy to crush new shoots inadvertently when you're standing in the garden to rake it out.

From string trimmer to chainsaw-on-a-stick to high-powered blower (attachment below). Makes spring cleanup much easier!




I like to use a leaf blower for this job because you can't damage young plants and you can clean out areas deep in the garden without having to step in it. You may recall that last fall I tested the Troy-Bilt TB60044 Straight Shaft String Trimmer with the JumpStart engine starter (which gets my vote for invention of the decade). I loved the fact that you can easily swap out a variety of attachments for it and it just so happens that there is also a blower attachment for their TrimmerPlus line, so that is perfect for this job.  I'll be testing out a new Troy-Bilt leaf blower soon that is battery powered and full of cool technology so I can't wait to tell you what I think about it.


5. PULL WEEDS
See that little bugger? That is baby garlic mustard weed and it's already popping up all over the place here. I'm trying to pull it anywhere I find it to get ahead of this garden thug. 
It is amazing to me how many weeds are already thriving in the garden. It's a never-ending fight, but dig out what you can now to make for less work later.


6. GIVE THE LAWN ITS FIRST CUT
When the lawn starts growing, which is will very soon, a first cut will make everything look better. A mulching mower will also clean up all of the other bits and pieces left laying around on it, and it will set the stage for a healthy lawn for the rest of the summer. Just make sure to keep the blades nice and high.


7. PLANT EARLY SEASON CROPS
Sugar snap peas started inside and transplanted into the garden.
Peas, kale, spinach and lettuce are all cool season crops that will withstand plenty of cold weather so an early sowing can get you eating vegetables from your own garden early on.


8. WORK ON YOUR COMPOST
A shot of my compost thermometer last spring, when my pile topped out at 140 degrees! I was so proud and now there's a new standard set that I'll have to meet this spring.
My compost pile goes pretty much dormant in winter but as soon as it thaws out I get out there and start stirring. I'll add the material I clean out of the garden and if it needs a kick of nitrogen-rich material, which is not uncommon after all the carbon-rich leaves and garden waste I threw in there in fall, I add a 5-gallon bucket full of rehydrated alfalfa cubes, which is a great source of "greens" for the compost pile. That usually gets everything cooking again and so long as I stay on top of the stirring and watering if necessary, my pile will be hot by the end of May and I'll be making finished compost quickly.


9. EDGE YOUR GARDEN BEDS
I say this all the time, but I know of no other garden chore that makes your garden look pulled together more than edging beds. A crisp edge will make you look past all manner of garden sins, and if you get a good edge early in the season, all you'll need later is a few touch-ups here and there.


10. MULCH. OR NOT.

I know of no other aspect of gardening that is as controversial as mulching. Whether to mulch, what to mulch with and when to mulch will probably be debated by gardeners until the end of time. The most important of these questions, I think, is what to mulch with. It must be an organic material (that is, no ground up rubber, please), it should break down quickly and you should be careful where you source it from.

I like to mulch with compost, leaf mold or pine bark fines, none of which are particular easy to find in mass quantities. I don't care for large chunks of wood and certainly not dyed wood chips. But this year, I may not mulch at all. Invasive so-called jumping worms have come to our area (they are gross and horribly damaging and more than a little scary and I'll tell you all about them soon), and the DNR is still trying to get a handle on making recommendations on managing them. One of the main sources that could bring them into the garden is eggs in mulch, so I'm very wary about bringing mulch into my garden right now. (By the way, they've also been found in many other states.)

If I do mulch, I will probably use mulched leaves from my yard and my neighbor's yard that have been rotting down for a year or more.

I always learned that if you are going to mulch, you should let your soil warm up first, but there is also a benefit to applying mulch before many weeds have a chance to get going. One thing is for sure: If you are going to mulch, be selective in your sources and keep it away from the base of plants.


AND ONE DON'T
At this time of year, you can probably do more harm than good trudging around your garden. Stepping on emerging perennials is no good and even worse, compacting the soil is really bad. So even though I've just given you a list of a lot of thing that require stepping in the garden, try to limit the traffic there. If you can use a board to distribute your weight when you step in prune something, that will help. It's also not great to dig in wet soil as it can damage the soil structure. So don't get ahead of yourself. Your garden will thank you.

What's your favorite spring garden chore, or the one you hate the most?


This post was sponsored by Troy-Bilt, which compensates me to be part of its Saturday6 blogging team. Of course all opinions are my own!

GARDEN BLOGGERS' FAVORITE PERENNIALS

I love asking gardeners what their favorite plant is. It's an unfair question, I know, and on any given day my answer could be any number of things, but I think it's an interesting exercise.

I reached out to some garden blogging friends to see what their favorite perennial is and here's what they said.


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'Sarah Bernhardt' peony. Garden Matter photo

Patti, who gardens in Pittsburgh (zone 6a) and blogs at Garden Matter , said peonies are her favorite.

"They are one of the first flowers I fell in love with in my grandmother's garden as a kid," she wrote. "I love the way they smell and come back with ease every year. They also dry pretty well."

When I pressed her on a specific peony, she chose a classic: 'Sarah Bernhardt.'

"To be honest, I really love the old heirloom handed-down ones, though they are all wonderful. Since they are herbaceous, how about 'Sarah Bernhardt,' a very pretty and fragrant variety."


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'Green Mystique' daylily. Sensible Gardening photo
Lynne at Sensible Gardening, who gardens in beautiful southern British Columbia (zone 5) chose another garden classic: the daylily. Here's what she had to say about them:

When my friend Erin asked me what my favorite perennial was I didn’t even have to think about it. I have been addicted to Daylilies for decades and simply cannot get enough of them. I started to collect different cultivars several years ago and now have over 350 varieties throughout my zone 5 garden in southern B.C., Canada.  I love all the colors, shapes, edges, ruffles, singles, doubles and eyes. As you can see I am a lost cause. You can find great daylily growing tips and more on my site Sensible Gardening.

Daylilies are often called the perfect perennial and for good reason. Such beautiful blooms are part of strong, hardy and adaptable plants. Rarely bothered by disease or pests, available for growing in zones 2 through 9, long lasting attractive foliage, capable of growing in even undesirable conditions, what’s not to love? There are tall varieties for the back of the border and shorter types to be used as edgers or grown in containers. Some cultivars bloom in July and others wait until the fall so you can have daylily flowers for a very long season. Grow them in sun or part shade using average soil and water. Your best resource for buying daylilies is on-line sites from daylily growers. Daylilies travel exceptionally well so mail order buying is a breeze.


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Jami provide me with this gorgeous photo of a brunnera, which I think is 'Haspen Cream.' An Oregon Cottage photo

Jami, who is fortunate to garden in the Pacific Northwest (zone 8), and blogs at An Oregon Cottage (check out her great preserving recipes), chose a fantastic shade plant: brunnera. Here's what she said about it:

It’s not easy to pick just one perennial (I have favorites for each season!), but in spring it’s all about brunnera for me. I love it! It grows in tough dry shade situations and blooms its little head off for 3 to 4 months with sweet blue forget-me-not type flowers, and then stays nice and green until frost (in mild areas it’s almost evergreen). 

While common brunnera is nice, (though it maybe reseeds just a bit too much), ‘Jack Frost’ is well-behaved and it’s variegated leaves practically glow in it’s preferred shaded location. All this with no special treatment other than an annual layer of compost and watering in the summer. What is not to love?
Here's 'Jack Frost' growing in my garden at the beginning of its second year.

Last year I great this 'Silver Hearts' brunnera and it was truly metallic silver! If it overwintered well this will be my vote for my favorite brunnera.


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Lovely Greens photo
Tanya at Lovely Greens, who gardens on the Isle of Man (lucky girl; Tanya, we're all coming to visit!) came up with a fantastic choice that I love because it's so unusual.

"My favorite perennials are perennial fruits like raspberries, blueberries and thornless black berries," she wrote. One could hardly argue with that.

One of the things she said she likes best about them, other than the delicious part, is how easy they are to propagate from cuttings. Tanya has a fantastic tutorial on the process on her blog.

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Garden Therapy photo

Stephanie at Garden Therapy, also from Vancouver, British Columbia said she's a fan of lavender and not just because it's beautiful. "There's just so much you can make from it," she said.

Stephanie said she prefers English lavender. In my zone 5 garden (Stephanie is in zone 7/8), I have had good luck the past couple years with 'Phenomenal' lavender (affiliate link). Whatever kind of lavender you grow, check out Stephanie's suggestions for all the things you can do with it.

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It wouldn't be fair to put all these folks on the spot if I didn't chime in with my pick for a favorite perennial. There are so many on that list, but for all around performance, I think I have to go back to the top one on this list: Alchemilla mollis, aka Lady's mantel. It's nothing fancy, and it will probably never stop you in your tracks, but it is a great performer. Year after year it just does its thing with absolutely zero attention from me. I clean it up when the flowers fade, and a little bit in fall and that's it. The flowers are one of my favorite to add to bouquets and offers great front-of-the-border texture.


So now, dear readers, I turn it over to you. What's your favorite perennial?

Here are some other favorite perennial picks from gardening experts

Richard Hawke leads the plant trials program at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Here some of his favorites. 

And here are even more picks from great garden bloggers.

FRIDAY FINDS: SNOW + EASTER EDITION

Winter came back. I knew it would. I knew that this mild winter and early spring that we were blessed with was just too good to be true, but mentally I had moved on. The end of the week brought us horrible weather and this morning the trees were shimmering with ice on their branches and every sign of live in the garden has been covered up with a blanket of snow. Other signs of life became apparent in the form of tracks in the snow. There appears to have some kind of wildlife party on our patio last night.

If you can make it through these spring weather events, both mentally and physically, the pain doesn't last for too long. The sun has heat to it these days and quickly melts what's fallen. And a little extra water in the garden isn't a bad thing.

I shall plod along with my seed starting to get my garden fix, as clearly nothing is happening out there this weekend. But thoughts of spring are firmly in my mind.

I just got the April issue of House Beautiful  and was completely captivated with an entry designed by Christopher Maya that featured a de Gournay wallpaper called Temple Newsam. It was a mural style and I desperately wanted to show it to you, but I the pictures aren't online at this point. So I fell into the de Gournay website and holy smokes there is some amazingly beautiful stuff there. I shudder to think of the cost.

'Portobello' on India tea paper
'Japanese Garden' from the Japanese Korean collection
'Portman' on custom blue silk
It's worth flipping through. By the way, I don't know that I would have been as taken with that entry if it weren't spring. This is why I'd make a lousy interior designer (well, in addition to the fact that I have no training): I'm far too influenced by seasonal whims. In spring I want pastels and verdant greens, in summer I want tropical colors, in winter I like a calm palette.

Speaking of spring, I'm hosting Easter for our family. I'm not a great hostess, but I enjoy having Easter at our house. It's a low-pressure holiday (not like Thanksgiving or Christmas) and its a good excuse to buy a lot of pretty flowers. I'm also not a great flower arranger, but I like looking for arrangement inspiration online. I'm wildly in love with this bright bouquet full of spring flowers from Floret Flowers.

Anytime multiple gardeners fall down a major slope whilst gardening is considered extreme gardening in my book. But it was so worth it.

This is a Garden Rant classic and I agree almost wholeheartedly with it. I make an exception if someone were to say they wanted to plant something really stupid that we know, without question, will be invasive. In my area that would be something like garlic mustard, which would infect the entire neighborhood in two years.

Here are some fun seed starting tips that are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. Because really, let's not get too serious about this seed business. It is supposed to be fun.

That's it for this week. Sometime between now and Sunday I have to figure out how to cook a leg of lamb. I did find a recipe in Julia Child's The Way to Cook. I'm not a great cook because I play fast and loose with recipes (and yet somehow I'm a pretty good baker, I cannot explain it), but there are two chefs whose recipes I've decided will never fail you if you just follow them to the letter: Julie and Ina. My sister-in-law and I have a saying: In Julia we trust. So I'm going to trust her to not let me ruin a very expensive piece of meat.

Do you have Easter plans for the weekend? Or do you expect to get in the garden at all?

This was the scene on the way home last night. From my series of photos on Instagram.


GREAT NEW PLANTS FOR 2016: ANNUALS EDITION

I am a sucker for new plants. I'm also a sucker for old, tried-and-true varieties, but there is something fun about checking out all the latest and greatest that will be hitting garden centers this year. I'm doing a little series on some of the new plants I'm most excited about this year and I'm kicking it off with annuals. 

Some affiliate links used

1. Bidens Campfire: I will admit that when Proven Winners sent me this plant last summer to trial, I was less excited about this one than any other. I didn't love the colors, for one, and I wasn't sure about the smaller flowers. It probably ended up being my favorite of the new things I grew last year. It bloomed its head off from June until early October and was a lovely little charmer. I'm completely sold on it.

2. Supertunia Latte: This petunia doesn't do a lot for me on it's own, but I think it will be one of those stunning plants that really makes a container design and make the other plants shine.

3. Verbena bonariensis Meteor Shower: Of all the new plants I'm looking forward to growing, this is my No. 1 must have. I also received this plant to trial last year and my love for it is borderline inappropriate. It's much shorter than the usual Verbena bonariensis, so it is perhaps a little easier to use in containers. The information says it's less prolific as far as reseeding goes, which isn't really a good thing as far as I'm concerned because I want more, more, more. Jack Barnwell used this dotted throughout the borders at the Hotel Iroquois garden last summer and the effect was stunning.

4. Pansy Cool Wave Lemon Surprise: I find myself more and more attracted to pansies and this was seems like quite the charmer. It's a nice, soft lemon yellow and every so often a blue-purple bloom pops up.

5. Sedum Lemon Coral: I'm not sure why this is listed as new this year, but I have grown it for two years and it's a must-have for me. I've grown it both in containers and in the ground and it thrives in both places. You don't need to do anything for this plant. Put it in, water it when you water other stuff and stand back.

6. Zinnia Uptown Frosted Strawberry: This zinnia, which are easy to grow by nature, looks more like a dahlia than a zinnia to me. I love the ombre colors.

What new annuals do you have your eye on this year?


5 STEPS TO GROWING GREAT PLANTS FROM SEED

My neighbors must be understanding people. Until about midnight every night a bright white light emanates from the sliding glass door in the office, illuminating our back/side yard and, I'm assuming, that side of my neighbors' house. Fortunately their bedrooms don't face this direction, but it's bright.

Of course by this time they know the drill at this time of year. The lights are part of package when you live next to a semi-crazy gardener. Free plants and garden advice go a long way to make up for what happens during seed-starting season.

If you're into seed starting, you probably have some going by now. And if you don't, it's not too late to start. I'm of the opinion that, especially in northern areas with shorter growing seasons, starting most seeds indoors later that you probably should have is still better than direct sowing them later (the qualifier is there because some seeds just do better being directly sown or germinate and grow so quickly that there's not much benefit to starting ahead of time).

So you've sown some seeds, the next step is taking care of them. Here are some tips.



1. LIGHT, MOISTURE, HEAT
Lots more seed trays will be joining these soon.
Caring for seeds that are waiting to germinate or just starting out pretty much comes down to these three things. For light, I'm going to be honest: In almost every case, you're going to need supplemental light. Keep it close—within inches—and on for about 18 hours a day. I don't have nearly enough light to grow all the plants I start, so I give them a good start under the lights and then move them to the sunniest location I have to make room for more seeds needing a good start. If they start getting spindly, I'll pop them back under the lights on a rotating basis.

As for heat, that mostly applies to germinating seeds, so once you have sprouts, it's not as important. I feel like it's better to leave seeds on heat until about three-quarters of them have germinated, although keep in mind that most lights will produce a fair amount of heat as well.

When it comes to moisture, you want moist growing medium for seeds. In general, I think the dampness of a rung-out sponge is a good guide for what you want. I also think that watering from below by soaking a seed tray, is preferable than watering from above. If you have to water from above, use a spray bottle on the misting function. I have been using soil blocks for a lot of things and I will just fill the bottom of a tray with about a quarter inch of water and the soil blocks just suck it up. Be aware that seed trays that aren't covered will need water much more frequently than those that are covered.

2. PET YOUR SEEDLINGS
I do this naturally because I'm an unabashed plant toucher (plant touching exploits here, here and here) , but it turns out it's good to fondle your seedlings a little bit. Mechanical stress, as they call it, can help trigger an immune response that can help ward off disease. And you get to pet your plants.

3. PINCH THEM BACK
This sweet pea seedling was ready to be pinched back. You can see that I'm pinching to just above the second set of leaves.
I think this is one of the most important things you can do to create great plants. You want to create bushy plants, not spindly skinny ones, and pinching the back is the way to do this. When seedlings have about three or four true sets of leaves (this doesn't count the first seed leaves that appear), pinch back to above the second set of leaves. As plants grow you can keep pinching back but obviously to other locations as the goal is to encourage branching. I know it's hard to just cut off what you've worked so hard to grow, but it really is key to the whole operation.

4. KEEP AN EYE ON THE ROOTS
The roots popping out of the sides of this soil block were the sign that it was time to pot them on.
Unless you start seeds in large pots, which only works for some things like sweet peas and beans, you'll probably need or want to repot seedlings at least once into larger pots. Keep an eye on the root growth of seedlings; when you start seeing roots pop up around the sides it's time to repot. Soil blocks allow roots to "air prune" to a certain extent, which is helpful, but if you plant in little modules, you want to make sure to pot on before they start going in circles. It's not good to go up in size by a lot when you repot, so I usually go to a three- or four-inch pot. Use a regular potting mix at this point, but not one with fertilizer in it as seedlings are still susesptible to burning. And watch the watering, because it's easy to overwater a seedling after repotting. 

5. HARDEN THEM OFF
Small plants hanging out in the temporary greenhouse as they harden off. You can see the garden fabric to the left that I was using to cover some seedlings that had recently come outside and needed some additional protection.
All of the hard work and effort you've put into raising healthy little plants can be erased in one night if you don't properly harden them off. Hardening off plants is the process of gradually getting them used to being outside before they are planted in the garden. Temperature is a factor, but sun is even harder for plants to get used to. You can harden off plants anywhere, just start in a shady spot for a few days and then bring them in at night. Gradually work them into more sun. Garden fabric (I've always called it row cover, but maybe that's not right) is also very helpful to keep plants shaded during hardening off.

I used to load up a wagon with seed trays and pull it around the yard to adjust for the sun when I was hardening off plants. At night I'd just pull it into the garage to protect plants from low night temperatures and browsing creatures of the night. These days I use a temporary greenhouse to harden everything off.

I like to give the hardening off process an absolute minimum of a week, but usually more like two or even three weeks.


FRIDAY FINDS

The other night I had a dream that I was in a nursery buying potting mix, except it wasn't called potting mix, it was called compost. And I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out if I wanted  ericaceous compost or not. But here's the thing: Calling potting mix compost is not common in the U.S., and as far as I know, neither is calling acid-rich soil ericaceous. All of which means that I have been watching way too much British gardening television.

I looked around the yard last night and I think it may be safe to start doing some light garden cleanup. It is certainly time to finish up pruning hydrangeas and clematis.

I hope to have a seed-related post that I've been working on for a bit up later today, but in the meantime, let's get to some Friday Finds.


Thinking Outside the Boxwood image

It is no secret that I have a thing for espaliered trees. This is a great article on how to train them that I really hope to be able to put into good use one of these days.


Here are some excellent tips on organizing a seed swap.


Garden Therapy coloring book
Are you into adult coloring books? They are super hot right now and I can see the appeal. Here's one that's perfect for gardeners.

I am envious of gorgeous laundry rooms. I can't imagine why; I do not like doing laundry and I doubt having a great room to do it in would make me like it much more, but there is something very calming about the idea of a beautiful space for a pretty lousy job.

I really like benches. I think they are very handy to have around for overflow seating and can provide a seating area in a room without visually taking up too much space. I'm looking for an upholstered bench for the office, which is feeling off balance because of the furniture layout in there. One of these might do the trick. 

What's on your list for the weekend? Mr. Much More Patient is out of town so I'm hoping to cross off all kind of lingering projects from the list. Among them are repainting the kitchen (it needs a paint job anyway and I'm thinking of changing the color just slightly), cleaning windows, touching up some paint here and there, giving at least one but hopefully both dogs baths and getting a menu together for Easter, which we'll be having at our house. It is no coincidence that we ended up with the "easy" holiday at our house. I'm not a great hostess so I like a holiday with less pressure.



FRIDAY FINDS + A PEEK AT AUSTIN

It's Friday Finds time, but first I wanted to share a couple pictures from my trip to Austin with Troy-Bilt's Saturday6 gang last week. Troy-Bilt sent the Saturday6, a group of bloggers who work with them, on a shindig to find out about some new products, explore Austin and do a little good. (Disclaimer: They paid for this trip as part of my Saturday6 contract, but I'm sharing pictures with you just because.)

We took a tour of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and although we were about three weeks too early in terms of the blooms putting on a show, it was a pretty fascinating place.

The entry kiosk is entirely self-sufficient. Solar panels on the awning provide all the power, including for air conditioning, which they are able to do because it has a green roof that keeps it significantly cooler than a normal roof would.



For several years, a great-horned owl has returned to the center to nest and raise her young.  She's in the corner in the photo below.


See her head peeking up?

The Texas mountain laurels were blooming.


And the bluebonnets (Lupinus texenis) were just starting to come to life in warmer areas of the garden.

They had very interesting ideas for creating raised and tiered beds.



Unfortunately I can't recall what this plant is, but I loved the combination of blue foliage and orange flowers.

We also spent a day working at a community garden project along with Planet in Action. This was a nice area that sort of fell into disrepair a few years ago, so we, along with Planet in Action, a few county parks employees and a group of very enthusiastic Americorps volunteers (who did a lot of push-ups throughout the day), created some large raised beds, planted grapes and new fruit trees and pruned existing fruit trees that hadn't been touched in a long time.

Raised beds planted and mulched.
This was an example of one of the pear trees we pruned. Everyone sort of divided up and Eric from GardenFork and Kenny from Veggie Gardening Tips and I seemed to end up on pruning duty. It was fun to group prune. Gardening can be such a solitary activity, but we had all had a nice chat while pruning and it was nice to bat around pruning ideas amongst each other. These trees hadn't been pruned in over five years and we had to constantly remind ourselves that you can't undo five years of unchecked growth in one day.
Before pruning.

And here's what it looked like after.
After pruning.
 This next photo is also an after shot although you'd probably not believe that because you can see there's still quite a tangle in there. We were wary of taking out too much of the tree at once (the general rule is no more than 25% of the growth, not counting dead wood), and we had to prioritize the worst offenders. I lobbied hard to take out that older crossing branch that you see in the front of that picture, but was overruled, because it would have left a huge hole in the canopy of the tree. It can and, I'm sure, will be taken out next year.


It was great to get in the garden again and it was nice to help out such a worthwhile project. My fellow bloggers must have felt the same way because we ripped through that project list much more quickly than I think anyone expected us to.

Rochelle and an Americorps volunteer tackle a giant pile of mulch.

 So that was Austin. Now onto what's been good on the Internet this week.

I don't care for corned beef, but plenty of people wouldn't be without it this time of year. Here's what I can only assume is a great recipe for it.

I really enjoyed Matt Mattus's behind-the-scenes look at how the cover of the latest Pith + Vigor came together.

 I love this DIY table.

I'm completely giddy about Michelle Obama's latest initiative.

 Heather is offering up some great March gardening tips to get you going.

That's it for this week. I'm off to the Chicago Flower and Garden Show tomorrow. I'm very excited as I've never been to that one before. I also have some homework to do this weekend. I'm taking an advanced master gardener course on landscape design and one of our first projects is to design a garden for a fictional hospital courtyard. Our designs will be analyzed by professors and students in the landscape architecture program at the University of Wisconsin so I'm alternately excited for real, unbiased feedback and more than a little nervous.

What's on your docket for the weekend?





WAITING FOR SEED SIGNS OF LIFE

I hesitate to even tempt the weather gods by posting this, but holy smokes are we in a stretch of beautiful weather here. The snow is gone, the little creek in the back yard is running (and astonishingly not a single Newfoundland dog has figured that out yet), bulbs are peeking their heads out of the soil.


Only a gardener would truly appreciate all of those things because taken in a broad view, the yard and garden are an unholy muddy mess. It is all I can do to not go traipsing about trying to neaten things up.

Seeds—foxglove on the left in soil blocks and sweet peas on the right—are on a heat mat in the office. Foxglove seeds need light to germinate, which is why they are upstairs. I have two more trays of sweet peas on a heat mat in the basement as well. 

Inside, I have been tending the first seeds of the year. I sowed sweet peas and foxglove 'Dalmation Peach' last weekend, which was a week later than I wanted to. These first seeds are always nerve wracking for me. Even though I do the same thing I have done in previous years, I always worry that perhaps I've done something wrong, or something bad may have happened to the seed. I won't rest easy until I start to see some germination, and that shouldn't be until the middle of next week at the earliest.

As I look at my little pots and tiny bricks of soil, seemingly doing nothing other than occupying space, it is amazing to me to think that soon I will have a room full of seedlings doing a good job of crowding out the humans.

I can't wait.

Are you experiencing amazing weather right now? It seems like all over the country spring is springing.

One last note: I have a very quick favor to ask of you. For the first time ever, I've prepared a very, very short survey about the blog. It's four questions, and one is optional, so it should take about 20 seconds or less to do. Click here if you don't mind helping out. Thank you in advance!



THE WILLOW EXPERIMENT CONTINUES

My apologies for the absence last week. If you follow me on Facebook  or Instagram you'll know that I was down in Austin for a Saturday6 (Troy-Bilt's blogger team) event. I had all kinds of plans to get some posts up but I ought to stop making plans like that because it never happens. We had a fabulous time and I'll share some pictures with you later this week. There were lots of highlights, but the best part by far was that we got to do some gardening while we were there! It felt so good to get in the dirt again.

Do you remember my willow experiment last year? Inspired by a post and interview on Margaret Roach's site, I ordered all kind of willows from Michael Dodge's Vermont Willow Nursery and planted them in a hastily organized nursery bed.



I devised a somewhat odd plan in which I used coffee cups to try to focus some water around the roots of the willow twigs because the nursery bed was a bit sloped. Most of them took off growing and I pretty much forgot about them.

By the end of summer, most were alive although hardly thriving. Two that I had planted in gallon nursery pots were doing better even though they had been nibbled upon by deer. I had actually originally planned to put them all in pots for the first year, but I ran out of gallon containers when my dahlia buying got out of control.

A quick survey of the willow nursery suggests that I won't be bringing any willow branches in for forcing this spring. In fact, I'll be interested to see just what actually comes back.

It's a lesson that I seem to have to relearn every so often: Just because a plant is easy-care, doesn't me it doesn't need care, especially at first. I know this, but I allowed myself a pass.

I've ordered more willows. All of them are purpurea varieties said to be distasteful to deer. I still have high hopes of some day creating a fedge that might help slow the deer traffic through our yard and I love the decorative aspects of a weaved fedge. It's a long-term goal, to be sure, and the fact that I accept it as such is either a sign that I'm finally really starting to accept that gardening takes time or a sign of the coming apocalypse.

Assuming it's the former, these will be grown out in pots this year. And if they aren't appreciative I'll show them the willow nursery bed and tell them they better behave.