When flowering trees bloom, they are a boon for pollinators, particularly bees of all sorts. They bloom en masse for a week or more, offering a lot of essential food with little forage. There are no better plants to boost these essential pollinators in the garden, and the native trees here feed for both our honeybee friends as well as native bees.
Most do not realize that the early spring flowers of red maple(Acerrubra, Zones 3-9, 40-70 feet) are essential early food for honeybees and native bees (Red Maple (Acer rubrum L.), an Important Early Spring Food Resource for Honey Bees and Other Insects, 1985). Their small masses of red flowers appear before the leaves emerge in late winter or early spring and provide winter-weary bees needed pollen and nectar. The lovely eastern-native shade trees cool and beautify large landscapes all summer long, and their leaves turn shades of red, orange, and yellow in the fall. They grow well in open, sunny areas in dry uplands as well as moist lowlands.
The delicate white flower clusters of the eastern North American downy serviceberry (Amelanchierarborea, Zones 4-9, 15-30 feet) also provide early-spring food for lots of bees, especially small native bees (mostly mining bees and sweat bees). Its new leaves emerge after the flowers and have downy hairs on them, which explains the common name. In summer, the edible summer fruits are a favorite of many fruit-eating birds, and the fall leaves turn brilliant shades of orange, red, and yellow. Some gardeners like to collect the ripe serviceberries for fresh eating, jam making, or pies. Though the multi-stemmed tree grows well in forests, it develops its finest habit, fruits, and flowers when grown in the full sun.
Eastern redbuds (Cercis canadensis, Zones 4-8, 20-30 feet) bloom for one to two weeks in the mid-spring with bare branches laden with lots of tiny, purplish-pink, pea-like blooms that glisten in the sun. Bees can’t get enough of them. Once the flowers of these eastern North American natives cease, the large, heart-shaped leaves unfurl. Sometimes they are reddish or purple as they emerge. Lots of small, thin pods follow the flowers, which turn from green to papery brown before they split open and release their seeds. The fall leaves turn humdrum shades of yellow. The fast-growing trees tolerate partial shade but perform best in the full sun and fertile to average soil. There are lots of great specialty redbud varieties from which to choose with variously colored leaves and flowers.
A native of the southeastern United States, white fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus, Zones 3-9, 12-20 feet) has fine, fringed, white flowers that are fragrant and almost exclusively bee-pollinated. They bloom for several weeks in May and June. Fleshy fruits that turn from green to blue-black follow, which feed many bird species. The small trees develop a pleasing rounded canopy and have green lance-shaped leaves. Expect the leaves to turn yellow in the fall.
Green hawthorn (Crataegus viridis, Zones 4-8, 20-35 feet) is a handsome small tree from the eastern United States whose copious clusters of white mid-spring flowers attract lots of bees. In the fall, the glossy green, toothed leaves turn attractive red and purple hues, which look striking against the bright red fruits that cover the branches and are retained into winter for birds to eat. The branches of wild specimens have thorns, but some varieties, such as the popular ‘Winter King‘ have few thorns, while also offering more flowers and brilliant-red fall fruits. The newer variety Crusader® is equally beautiful and totally thorn-free.
The large, lush, copious flower clusters of the northern catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides, Zones 4-8, 40-60 feet) bloom in the late spring. The fragrant flowers have maroon and yellow nectar guides designed just for bee pollination, so the insects know where to land and gather nectar and pollen. Large, elongated pods follow the flowers. Its large, elongated/oval leaves turn yellow shades in the fall. The only downside of these easy-to-cultivated trees is that their fruits are messy, and the trees live for only around 60 years. Still, they have high wildlife value and beauty. If you have a spacious yard, plant them where they can be enjoyed but won’t be a bother. These trees naturally exist across the southeastern United States and tolerate average to moist soils.
It’s always nice to add a real pollinator generalist and Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago, Zones 2-8, 18-25 feet) is a very good one. It is a small tree, unlike most other viburnum species, which are shrubs. Its flattened clusters of ivory flowers appear in mid to late spring, and they are pollinated by bees as well as other insects. The caterpillars of the spring azure butterfly feed on the summer leaves. Edible black fruits and bright red or orange leaves comprise its fall show. Birds eat the nannyberries and disperse the seeds, but the sweet fruits are also edible to humans as well as other wildlife. Nannyberry tolerates moist soils or those with average drainage.
Every year, holiday-house-plant lovers enjoy the sensational fall and winter blooms of crab or Thanksgiving (Schlumbergera truncata) cactus and winter or holiday cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi), but it does not have to end there. There are other Schlumbergera that bloom at different times of the year, particularly in the mid to late spring, making them outstanding house plants to color homes through many months of the year.
A Short History of Common Holiday Cacti
Holiday cacti are Brazilian natives, and several common cultivated species and hybrid groups exist. The popular Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) tends to bloom in November and early December. It has joined stem parts (technically called cladodes) that have pointed edges, and its brilliantly colored, long, multipetaled flowers have bilateral symmetry. When viewed head-on, the blooms look almost crab-like, which explains one of its common names, crab cactus. It is the most commonly sold species and new colors are always being bred in shades of pink, magenta, red, orange, salmon, apricot, and white. The true holiday or Christmas cactus is Schlumbergera × buckleyi, and it tends to bloom in December or early January. It has flowers in shades of red and pink that are more radial, and its cladodes have rounded edges. Oddly, it is harder to find, despite its wide appeal and beauty. Easter or spring holiday cacti are mostly comprised of two species with radial, multipetaled blooms in shades of orange, pink, red, and white, Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri (syn. Schumbergera gaertneri) and Rhipsalidopsis × graeseri (syn. Schlumbergera × graeseri). These plants have smooth cladodes, and their hybrids are less often sold but very beautiful with cheerful blooms that appear from March to June, depending on the variety.
These cacti naturally grow in the mountainous rainforests of Brazil. Most are epiphytic, which means that they grow in the branches of trees. Their seasonal blooms are pollinated by hummingbirds, which explains why they are tubular and come in bright colors, particularly shades of red.
Schlumbergera truncata was the first species brought into cultivation in Europe and America in the early 1800s (~1817 to 1839). Their regularity of bloom, ease of growth, and great beauty made them popular house plants and conservatory specimens in no time. Schlumbergera x buckleyi started to appear around the 1850s in Victorian England and was popularized in the US and Europe a bit later. It fast became the official Christmas cactus due to its consistent December bloom time. The spring holiday or Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) was the last to hit the scene. It was brought into cultivation in the late 1800s, and is surprisingly less popular than its winter-blooming cousins.
One great trait of all Schlumbergera is that they are wonderfully long-lived. This explains why many are passed down from generation to generation. Lots of home gardeners proudly grow the same holiday cactus raised by their grandparents or even great grandparents. It’s a nice thing to consider when purchasing one for the first time. It’s a long-term investment. If you grow one for each season, you can then enjoy their showy blooms through much of the year.
Fall, Thanksgiving, or Crab Cactus
Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata and hybrids) is the number one selling holiday cactus, so most growers likely already have one. Some exceptional varieties are available.
One of the prettiest pinks is the profuse, reliable bloomer, ‘Cristen’. The large flowers of this truncata hybrid have pale-pink petals edged in darker pink. The effortless November bloomer ‘Dark Marie‘ is similar but its flowers are edged in scarlet. Some varieties have a more weeping habit and are better suited for pedestal planters or hanging baskets. The November-blooming, golden-apricot-flowered ‘Christmas Flame‘ has a beautiful weeping habit and reliably blooms annually. The unusual ‘Aspen‘ is another to seek out. Its extra-large, frilly, white flowers are spectacular.
Winter, Christmas, or Holiday Cactus
True holiday or Christmas cactus bloom about a couple of weeks to a month later than the Thanksgiving type. The plants can become quite large with age and tend to weep, making them extra appealing when placed on a sturdy pedestal. There are few cultivars of this true December bloomer and even the standard form is a challenge to find. Look to Etsy and other specialty sellers to find the real deal.
Spring, Spring Holiday, or Easter Cactus
Spring cacti (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri and hybrids) have many colorful petals in shades of pink, magenta, red, orange, white, and other related color variants. There are several pretty varieties that are readily available including the pure-white ‘Sirius‘, which has golden centers and is a reliable bloomer from May to June. The brilliant-red-flowered ‘Scorpious‘ generally flowers a bit earlier in the spring, from March to April, and will bloom for weeks. If you like bright orange flowers, try ‘Colomba‘, which blooms along with ‘Scorpious’.
Growing Holiday Cactus
There are several general growing requirements for holiday cacti. Provide the following for good growth.
Place them in bright, indirect light. Full sun stresses them out and turns their stems shades of purple and red.
Water regularly during the growing months. Apply less water before they start to set bud and average water while they are budded and flowering. Too little or too much watering can kill a holiday cactus.
Provide light fertilization during the growing months, from spring to fall.
Take them outdoors in the summer to soak up the heat and indirect light.
To learn more about winter-blooming holiday cacti, watch this useful video.
If your spring-blooming bulbs are sitting around somewhere, like mine, or you have not even bought them yet, you will be glad to know that it is not too late. Bulbs can be planted as late as November or December, as long as the soil has not frozen solid, and the bulbs are alive and healthy. You can even take advantage of sales in October or November, and save a little money.
How to Choose Healthy Bulbs
First, check any bulbs for good health before purchasing them. How can you tell when a bulb is healthy and alive or not? Healthy bulbs should be ivory, firm, and have papery coverings. (If you cannot see the flesh, just squeeze to make sure that they are firm.) It is especially important that the bottoms, where the roots are, remain firm and blemish- or mold-free. Dying or diseased bulbs have drying brown areas, brown or blue-green spots, or may even be soft and flakey. Never purchase bulbs with these traits. If one or two out of the bag appears to be in poor shape, it’s not a problem. Otherwise, you are wasting your money. For more bulb troubleshooting information read How Do You Keep Spring Bulbs from Rotting?
General Bulb-Planting Information
All bulbs like sunlight. Early bulbs can be planted beneath deciduous trees that often don’t leaf out until the spring bloomers have stopped flowering. All bulbs require well-drained soil. It helps to amend beds before planting bulbs with Black Gold Garden Soil or Garden Compost Blend. Be sure to have a sharp trowel, planting knife, or bulb planter on hand for fast, easy planting. Fertilization is also important. Throw a little Dutch bulb fertilizer or bone meal into each hole to promote better growth and flowering in spring. (Click here to learn more about the benefits of bone meal.) As soon as bulbs are planted, they begin to establish roots for the coming spring.
Planting Tips for Specific Bulbs
There are many different bulbs that you can plant and each requires different care. Here are my favorites.
Tulip (Tulipa hybrids, USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8) bulbs should be planted 7 to 8 inches deep, with the pointed tops facing upwards. Ideally, they need to be planted by early November to flower on time in spring. You can plant them a bit later, into early December, but they will likely bloom a little later as a consequence. Unfortunately, most hybrid tulips die away in just a couple of years, but some reliably return as perennials. These include species tulips, such as Tulipa praestans ‘Shogun’, which has sunny orange flowers, as well as Tulipa clusiana hybrids with their colorful, linear flowers and bulbs that naturalize over time. Also, tall hybrid Darwin Tulips look like most standard hybrids, but they will come back for years. They are a cross between old Darwin tulip and Tulipa fosteriana hybrids. Check out ‘World Peace’, which has deep-rose flowers furled with yellow, or ‘Cosmopolitan’ with its stately pink blooms and burgundy-striped leaves.
Bulbs are breakfast, lunch, and dinner to voles, mice, squirrels, and deer while being poisonous to humans, and, for whatever reason, cats (when would a cat ever eat a tulip?). (Click here to learn more about tulip toxicity.) These bright-colored flowers are among the most beautiful and varied in the spring garden, so they must be planted in pest-free areas or have some protection. I have two very large trees with wide roots that I like to plant bulbs around. The protective roots keep the voles from tunneling. The rest of my garden is a different matter, so I put thorny leaves or cat litter in the hole, to deter pests. When it comes to protecting the actual plants from deer or rodents, I’ve found that Plantskydd is an excellent repellent. It does not smell nice, but it works.
Daffodils (Narcissus hybrids, Zones 4-8) are another story. They are poisonous enough so that voles or deer will not eat them. One daffodil will form a clump in just a few years and over decades will naturalize. They do not die, which is why you will see them blooming in front of old, abandoned houses. They can be planted up to December so long as the ground is not frozen. Daffodils come in many sizes, shapes, and colors. They bloom in early, mid, or late spring, depending on the variety. Premium bulbs often have multiple offsets while standard bulbs are single. Plant them 7 to 8 inches deep.
Siberian squill (Scilla siberica, Zones 2-8) is one of my favorite early spring flowers. The small plants only reach 4 to 6 inches tall with bell-shaped flowers of the most intense blue. They spread gently among beds, under shrubs, and even into lawns. By the time it is time to start mowing the grass, they are already dormant. Siberian squill are pest resistant and poisonous to humans, so do not grow them where children play. Plant them 3 to 4 inches deep as late as December. Those planted a bit late may emerge later in the first year.
Crocus (Crocus hybrids, Zones 3-8) are a sure sign that spring is just around the corner. Some even push up through the snow. You can plant them in 4-inch holes after a hard frost while the soil is still workable. Crocuses require a long cooling period, so don’t plant them past late November. They make excellent additions to lawns, small garden corners, and rock gardens. A single crocus will form a clump over several years and then spread to other spots in the garden.
So, don’t fear planting spring bulbs late, if you lost track of time or want to take advantage of seasonal bargains. You may see them emerge a little later in the first season but without detriment to their long-term success.
When we think of pruning shrubs, we probably think of late fall and early winter as the ideal time, but this is not always the case. For many spring-flowering shrubs, late spring is the best time to prune because pruning must happen shortly after flowering. Prune off-season, in fall or spring, and you will remove the following year’s flower show! In my own garden, I have many spring-flowering shrubs that need late spring or early summer pruning, so I have learned to time my pruning carefully.
As a rule, most spring-flowering shrubs must be pruned just after or shortly after flowering because this is the time when they set new buds for next spring’s show. Prune them later in summer, and you will end up trimming off next year’s flower buds. For this reason, I have highlighted just a few spring-flowering shrubs and tips for pruning them.
The plant that immediately comes to my mind that requires at least two prunings a year is the English Laurel, (Prunus laurocerasus, USDA Hardiness Zones 6-8, 10-18 feet), a hedge that my neighbors have. It is an evergreen and fast-growing shrub with dark glossy green leaves and has spikes of creamy white fragrant flowers in late spring. The scent is sweet and powerful, and the shrubs look very attractive in bloom.
My neighbors always give it a heavy pruning after it blooms and then another pruning later in the summer. They also selectively prune to keep the favorite hedge shrubs open and airy, which helps prevent disease problems. Theirs is certainly a taller variety that would take over the house without being pruned twice yearly.
Pruning Azaleas and Rhododendrons
Rhododendrons and azaleas (Rhododendron species and hybrids, variable hardiness and sizes) will both bloom on second-year wood, so they benefit from spring pruning just after they have flowered. Any later and you risk accidentally removing next year’s blooms. Often the process for both is referred to as ‘deadheading’ because the old flower is removed. Once the flower has faded, it can be removed. Not only does this look nicer, but it allows the plant can expend energy for new growth instead of seed production.
Deadheading a large rhododendron plant can be quite time-consuming, but it is well worth the time. The plant will physically look better without faded flowers and it saves the plant energy. Some care is required when removing the old blooms. If you look carefully, each has a tender stem that can be snapped off just below the bloom. This is where care is required because it is important to just remove everything above the stem–nothing below because all of the new growth will emerge below the stem.
Generally, rhododendrons and azaleas do not require more intensive pruning unless it is needed for space considerations or plant shaping. If pruning is required, do it immediately after flowering so the plant has adequate time to produce new growth for next year’s flowers.
The common lilac (Syringa vulgaris, Zones 3-8, 8-20 feet) is another plant that usually requires spring pruning. Once the plant has bloomed, cut off the spent blossoms. To do this, make the cuts back to the first or second pair of leaves on the stem.
If the shrub needs some major pruning, do it immediately after flowering because these lilacs bloom on wood from the previous year. On established plants, cut out a few of the oldest stems yearly and this will encourage new growth. It is also important to remove dead or dying stems, as needed, to keep the shrubs looking their best.
Pruning Tree Peonies
The tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa, Zones 4-8, 3-5 feet) in my garden have finished their flowering season, so it is time to cut off the old flowers to keep the plant from producing seed. I do this with hesitation because the brown, starry seedpods open to show bright red or black seeds, which can be quite attractive. But, the seeds also take needed energy away from the plant. To have the best of both worlds, I sometimes leave some pods on to look nice. In general, shrubby tree peonies do not need to be pruned extensively, unless it is to remove a stray or dead branch. These architectural slow growers are usually happy just remaining as they are.
My Japanese camellias (Camellia japonica, Zones 7-9, 7-12 feet) put on their greatest show in late winter or spring, but they will also bloom intermittently. Generally do not need pruning except to improve the appearance of the plant or for space considerations. I also remove the old flowers after they are spent to keep the shrubs looking nice and clean. When I do decide to prune, I do it immediately after flowering.
I have found that most spring-flowering shrubs are fairly forgiving with regard to pruning if you are sure to prune them after they flower and no later. If mistakes are made, the plant will survive. Severe pruning may eliminate, or decrease flowering for the next year, but the plant will carry on. Remember that gardening should be enjoyable, so don’t stress too much about potential pruning mistakes. Common sense is a good trait!
Weed competition drags gardens down in every way. Ignore your garden for just a couple of weeks, and weeds can take over in a flash–turning once tidy, pretty beds into a tangled mess of green interlopers with no room to spare. If you use the right tools, techniques, and timing necessary to stop a weed takeover, it will save you trouble and reward you with bountiful flowers, vegetables, and fruits.
Common, aggressive garden weeds spread by many means. If allowed to set seed, they will pepper the garden ground with loads of obnoxious seedlings crying to be hoed away. Some have the deepest, most far-spreading root systems that will get away from a gardener in no time if allowed to take hold. Different weeds appear at different times of the season. The most unexpected are prolific winter weeds that will happily fill your beds in late winter and set seed by late spring. Summer weeds require heat to germinate, so you can expect them to start popping up as soon as the weather becomes truly beautiful.
Knowledge is power when it comes to weeds. Here are the essentials necessary to keep your beds happy and weed-free throughout the year.
Know Your Weeds and Their Spreading Power
Your worst weed enemies are perennial weeds that are deep-rooted, fast-spreading, and produce generous amounts of seeds that spread and sprout quickly. Annual weeds are also pesky, but they are generally more shallow-rooted and easier to kill by quick digging and hoeing before they set seed. Here are five of the worst perennial weeds that you may face. From there, I recommend relying on the helpful, Farmer’s Almanac Common Weed List, as well as the excellent UC Davis IPM Guide for common weeds.
Worst Perennial Weeds
Field Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis): Here is a real monster of a spreader that’s hard to remove. The hardy perennial sets fleshy rhizomatous roots that can extend deep into the ground and many feet from the parent plant. The vine twines and strangles garden plants and then becomes covered with little, white, morning-glory-like flowers that set hundreds if not thousands of seeds. Scrape and dig the seedlings on-site and try to dig the root systems as soon as possible. Smothering and covering infested areas is also a good method, but it takes time. (Click here to learn more about bindweed removal.)
Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense): Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) is notoriously difficult to remove and is also a notorious spreader. Its leaves and stems are painfully prickly, and pollinated summer flowers produce loads of puffy seeds that get caught in the wind and spread everywhere. (Don’t let this go to seed anywhere near your yard or garden!) When they sprout, a single plant can become a dense colony connected by deep, rooting rhizomes that are impossible to dig out. Leave just one piece, and it will return. It is also resistant to all but the strongest herbicides.
Aside from using commercial-grade herbicides, the second-best method is to smother plants with weed cloth and mulch until they are gone. Watch out for plants that creep into the grass, once they do, a good broadleaf herbicide is your only option, unless you want to kill everything and start over.
Dandelion (Taraxicum tomentosum): Dandelions spread by seed but can be tamed, so I don’t mind them growing in the lawn. Bees and other early pollinators rely on their golden flowers for pollen and nectar, so they do some good, but they have no place in my garden where they compete with other garden flowers. The deep-rooted perennials are easy to grub out with a garden knife, as long as you remove the whole root and leave no pieces behind. The key is keeping them from setting seed. This is the source of dandelions in the garden. In the spring months, I try to mow low and often to chop off the seed heads before they release their seeds.
Ground ivy(Glechoma hederacea): The aggressive member of the mint family is a ground-covering weed with creeping stems that root and spread fast. Its spring flowers set lots of seeds, which sprout quickly. It also thrives in lawns, so you will need to rely on a broadleaf herbicide for the lawn if you want to truly get rid of it.
Thankfully, this weed is relatively easy to pull, but if you leave even the tiniest piece in the ground it will root and regrow. T manage it well, remove it from garden beds first thing every spring, and then apply a 3-inch layer of mulch, being sure to leave the crowns of garden perennials uncovered. If stray pieces emerge from the mulch, pull them on site.
Nutsedge(Cyperus esculentus): Unless you live in the desert, your garden has likely experienced nutsedge. The aggressive, moisture-loving sedge produces copious seeds in summer that sprout everywhere. Even worst, the plants have fine, spreading roots that develop small, brown nutlet tubers. Leave one tuber in the ground, and it will sprout into a whole new plant. (Quirky fact: The tasty nutlets can be harvested and eaten.)
All of these weeds require good tools for thorough removal, followed up by mulch, and often herbicides or other harsher measures. Once again, annual weeds, like winter chickweed, summer purslane, pigweed, or spotted sandmat euphorbia, are very easy to dig and pull. The key is removing them before they can set seed and germinate or add to your garden’s soil weed seed bank.
Know Your Weeding Tools
Over the years I have used a number of different weeding tools. A few have stood out and become fast favorites. The three key characteristics I look for in a good gardening hand tool are 1. ease of use, 2. working power, and 3. durability. These criteria are met by the following tools:
Prohoe Rogue Do It All Tool and 7-inch Hoe: The hoes made by this company are wonderfully sturdy and well-made, razor-sharp, and long-handled for those of us that do not like to bend. The Do It All Tool is triangular on one side and has a raking tool on the other. It is perfect for rogueing our deep-rooted weeds. The thin, 7-inch Pro Hoe is ideal for scratching up mats of shallow weed seedlings. These hoes are so strong and sharp, the job will get done in an instant.
Pullerbear Uprooter: For big “weeds” choose a Pullerbear uprooter. In a matter of minutes, an area riddled with small weed trees can be cleaned beautifully roots and all. It works like no other tool I’ve tried. Just clench the base of the sapling or small tree and pull. Ignore the fact that it’s a bit pricey. It will pay for itself quickly in time and effort saved wrangling with hard-to-pull woody weeds.
My trust garden knife (also called a soil knife or Japanese hori-hori) goes with me everywhere. It can cut into the soil to deep roots below and saw through the roots or bases of tough plants. I even use it for harvesting greens and cole crops. One side of the knife is sharp for slicing, and the other is serrated for sawing. They can easily break through the skin, so I use mine while wearing garden gloves and I store it in a leather belt sheath.
Fine-bladed hand trowels are excellent all-purpose tools for weeding and planting. They quickly cut at deep or shallow roots in no time and withstand lots of wear and tear if made well. The “rockery hand trowel” at Clarington Forge is just such a fine-bladed tool, and it’s beautifully crafted for the long haul. Its fine blade makes for easy weeding and planting–especially in heavier or pebbly soils. The narrow rockery hand trowel from Clarington Forge easily expels weeds and gets into small spaces. (image care of Clarington Forge)
For super fast hand weeding nothing beats the classic ho-mi (hoe-mee), also called the Korean hand plow or cultivator. This sharp, downward-facing tool can get to the base of a dandelion root in seconds with a quick chop, chop, chop. Nothing is more effective. For smaller weeds, I use the side of the ho-mi to scratch and smooth the soil. It’s an excellent tool for lightly aerating the base of a plant or getting to the root of a tough herbaceous weed as well as planting new plugs. If well cared for, a ho-mi will last forever (if cleaned after use and oiled to prevent rust). It’s relatively cheap, too. Long-handled versions are also very useful. Just be careful when chopping away with this sharp tool. Its tip can be nasty.
Practice Timely Weeding
I weed two ways be either casually weeding as I water, harvest, and enjoy my garden, or intensively bed by bed. I do casual weeding almost daily. More intensive weeding is something I do three times a month in summer. I also try to catch weeds at various times in their life cycles.
Catching weeds before they flower and set seed is timely weeding. I write this article as the winter weeds in my vegetable garden have begun to set seed. A busy spring pushed back my weeding schedule, and I am paying for it. Had I removed these weeds just two weeks earlier, before they had begun to release seeds,
Catching weed seedlings before they become large is timely weeding. Digging or hoeing up weed seedlings before they become large and take hold will make your garden life so much easier.
Smothering beds before seeds sprout is timely weeding. Adding mulch in late winter or spring, before weed seeds really sprout is very important to keeping weeds down. Miss just one year, and you will pay for it.
Lots of lawn grasses and weeds like to creep into garden beds. Once in your garden, they become weeds. To stop this, it helps to edge your gardens, especially at the start of the gardening season. Edged beds also look tidier and nicer. Mowing your lawn regularly to stop weeds from flowering and setting seeds is also advisable. (Click here for a tutorial about how to edge beds.)
Soil polarization is a method of weed removal that relies on the heat of the sun to kill weeds en masse. Methods vary, but in general, it involves covering a bed area with tacked-down sheets of clear or black plastic for several weeks during the summer. When it works, the heat generated heat cooks everything below–plants, seeds, and all. Keep in mind, the method is used to revive whole beds and remove all weeds, so no desirable plants can be present. It is also less effective further north where summer temperatures rarely exceed 90 degrees F.
Use Herbicides as a Last Resort
Herbicides that really work are generally toxic and best applied by garden professionals. If you have a severe problem with one of the worst perennial weeds mentioned, like Canada thistle or field bindweed, then you may consider resorting to a professional-grade herbicide very selectively applied by a trained horticulturist. Otherwise, they are not needed. More natural means of weed removal are safer and better.
Stay on top of your weeds, and your gardens will prosper. Put aside just a little time each week and it will be a small burden to bear.
“A friend of mine has a viburnum shrub. Its short-lived blooms smell very much like lilacs. He can’t remember the name of it. Do you have any ideas, as I’d really love to get one? Many thanks!” Question from Diane or Newark, Ohio
Answer: It sounds like he has one of the very fragrant viburnums called Koreanspice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii). It is one of the most nicely scented of all viburnums, with its powerful, sweet, spicy scent that fills the air in spring. It is a non-invasive Asian native that reaches a maximum of 6 feet high. Its clusters of pink-tinged white blooms appear from March to April and are followed by attractive fuzzy foliage that turns dull red or reddish-purple in fall. Pollinated flowers sometimes produce clusters of blackish-blue fruits. If you have a smaller garden, there is a variety called ‘Compactum’ that reaches just 4 feet at maturity. Proven Winners’ Spice Girl® is another great variety with especially bright red autumn foliage as well as spectacular pinkish-white flower clusters.
“Can spring bulbs such as daffodils and tulips be planted in early spring in NJ?” Question from Glenn of Parsippany, New Jersey
Answer: You can only plant potted bulbs that have emerged and are flowering in spring. No bulbs should be dormant by spring. If you happen to have some live tulip or daffodil bulbs that have yet to fully grow and flower, you can try planting them in spring, but do not expect them to flower properly for at least a year. Be sure to plant them 6 inches down and feed them with a bulb fertilizer at planting time. The addition of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend also helps.
There are many perennial flowers that come up in early spring, to let us know the beauty of our spring gardens has arrived. After a long year of COVID-19, and the recent terrible weather across much of the US, I want to boost my spirits with as much garden color as I can. Other gardeners that I know plan to do the same. Here are some of the best spring perennials that I grow and enjoy each year in my Indiana garden. These are sure bloomers with lots of color!
Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis and hybrids, USDA Hardiness Zones 6 to 9) are among the first flowers to bloom, from February to April depending on where you live. The large leathery leaves are evergreen. Each plant produces several stems of flowers. The blooms can reach up to 3.5 inches across. These range from single blooms, to rose-shaped doubles. Some are single-colored, while others have the most spectacular spots, such as ‘Confetti Cake’. The yellow and maroon bicolored Honeymoon®Spanish Flare is a favorite this year, in addition to ‘Fire and Ice‘, which is a white picotee with dark-rose edges.
In spite of the common name, Helleborus are not real roses. Instead, they are closely related to buttercups. They like shade, and moist, well-drained, soil. Plant them in spring, being sure to add Black Gold Garden Soil into the planting hole for added organic matter and fertility. Keep the crown of the plant just under the soil, for better blooming. For nicer leaves, cut back the old ratty ones, at the end of winter. Water more from spring to fall since it is the primary growing period. Lenten roses are generally 2-feet tall and wide. All plant parts are toxic, so be careful if you have pets and small children. (Click here to learn more about Lenten rose toxicity.)
An old spring favorite is a native plant, Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica, Zones 3 to 8). In spring, it sends up 2-foot stems, with numerous, nodding purplish-pink buds, that turn into bright, trumpet-shaped bluebells. They naturalize and like shade and moist, rich soil. The whole plant goes dormant as summer approaches, so it is best to plant them in the fall among other perennials that will cover the holes that they leave behind.
Lungwort (Pulmonaria species and hybrids, Zones 3 to 7) derives its name from the long-ago days when it was thought that a plant, with similar leaves to a body part (like the lung), would be beneficial in treating that body part. Lungwort has spotted leaves, like the spots on the lung, thus its common name. At one time they tried to use it to treat lung ailments, even though it is Lungwort is toxic. (Click here to learn more.) I am happy that the days of Medieval medicine are gone forever…
Pulmonarias have become very popular over the last 25 years, so there a lot of varieties available. They are grown both for their leaves as well their beautiful flowers. The flowers range from deep blue, to sky blue, deep rose, and light pink. The lovely plants are about 16-inches tall when in bloom, give or take, and like full shade and moist, rich garden soil. Cut back any bad-looking leaves through the season and watered them well through summer to keep the leaves looking beautiful. Here are some of my favorite varieties: ‘Silver Bouquet’ has flowers that change from coral to pink to violet, and the long, pointed leaves are pure silver. ‘Raspberry Splash’, from Proven Winners, has deep rose flowers and leaves with large silver spots. Also from Proven Winners comes ‘Spot On’ with its speckly silver leaves and deep pink buds that change into a dark, intense blue.
Columbines (Aquilegia hybrids, Zones 3 to 8) are some of my favorite late spring flowers, with clumps of scalloped leaves that send up narrow stems topped with shooting-star-shaped flowers with long nectaries at the base of the petals. The slender stems get 12 to 20 inches tall, depending on the variety, and support numerous flowers. Each flower has spiked petals of red, yellow, rose, purple, blue, or pink, and inner petals that are usually a lighter version of the same color. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees love them.
Columbines are popular, so there are many different varieties available. Most do best in full to partial sun, though some species prefer partial shade, such as the native red eastern columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). The McKana Giants comprise an excellent columbine mix that is easy for new gardeners to try. The tall stems bear huge flowers in many colors, and they are easily grown from seed. The western native golden spur columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha) is an uncommonly good garden species with its large, long-spurred golden flowers.
Another reason that I like columbines so well is that they randomly cross and reseed easily, with new hybrid plants blooming each year. So, you never know what you are going to see in the garden at flowering time.
Barrenwort, or Bishop’s Hat, (Epimedium species and hybrids, Zones 3 to 9) is a low-growing plant, with delicate flowers, on narrow 12-to-18 inch stalks, held above heart-shaped leaves. In spring they may produce flowers of lilac, pink, yellow, orange, white, or rose, depending on the plant. With some varieties, the leaves are deep red with green veins or are edged in purple. I consider it to be a slow-growing ground cover, excellent as a front-of-the-border plant in a shade garden. Barrenwort will tolerate dryer soil than most other shade perennials. Some excellent varieties are the orange-flowered ‘Orangekönigin’, my first barrenwort, as well as the white-and-purple-flowered ‘Cherry Blossom’, double-flowered ‘Rose Queen’, and airy, yellow-flowered ‘Old Yeller’. To keep the leaves looking good, cut back the old ones in late winter, or early spring.
I will always remember the early spring day in the 1960s when I exited the freeway into a wooded neighborhood and first saw saucer magnolia saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana, 20-25 feet, USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9, a cross between M. denudata x M. liliiflora) in full bloom. It was a spectacular introduction to the genus Magnolia.
Since that day, my interest in magnolias has not diminished and actually continues to grow each spring. In my own garden, I have several and would have more if it were not for space limitations. I regularly visit our local arboretum, the Hoyt Arboretum of Portland, Oregon, in the spring to see the Magnolia collection. There are also several area private gardens with extensive plantings of Magnolias, and I am a regular visitor.
Generally, magnolias are not small trees. Most of them will reach at least 25 feet and many have broad branches. Roger Gossler, of Gossler Farms Nursery in Springfield, Oregon, has an extensive display garden of magnolias, and he told me that he has consistently asked the hybridizers to please breed magnolias that are smaller because many of today’s customers are looking for trees in the 10-15-foot range. (The classic varieties in the Girls magnolia group, bred at the National Arboretum, have many smaller trees with fantastic blooms, but several are no longer on the market, and there is always a need for great new varieties for smaller gardens.)
For choosing the best Magnolias for your particular area, check varieties that local garden centers are offering. I also think that one of the best tests for specific varieties is to see what other gardeners are growing where you live. Be sure that they are reliably hardy where you live and not susceptible to early cold snaps in your area, which are known to sometimes freeze the spring buds and flowers.
Most Magnolia’s will grow in a full sun location but many also benefit from some protection from the hot afternoon sun. They like organic-rich and well-drained soil. The addition of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend would be ideal at planting time, and a yearly top-dressing is also beneficial. Magnolia roots tend to be fleshy so transplant them carefully while being sure to lightly tease apart any dense, pot-bound roots.
My Favorite Magnolias
There are so many different varieties of Magnolias, and I am only able to list a very small number of them here. As I mentioned earlier, check to see what your neighbors are growing or local garden centers are carrying. It’s a great way to ensure that the trees you plant will grow well in your garden.
One of the earliest blooming magnolias, which I have in my garden, is star magnolia (Magnolia stellata, 15-20 feet, USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8). This is one of the smaller growing types, my plant is probably 20 years old and perhaps 10 feet tall. The fragrant white flowers are small, 3 inches across, and appear on the stems before the leaves. The plant is a profuse bloomer and is covered with flowers in late winter.
Another that I have in my garden is Yulan magnolia (M. denudata, 30-40 feet, Zones 6-9), which has fragrant, ivory, goblet-shaped flowers that are 4-6 inches across and open before the leaves appear. Often a few flowers will appear during the summer. A bonus with this tree is that in late summer, red cone-like fruits appear and from a distance look as though the tree is in bloom.
Yellow is a rather elusive color in magnolias and ‘Elizabeth’ (15-30 feet, Zones 5-9) has set the standard since it was introduced and patented by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 1977. It has light yellow, fragrant flowers that are 6-7 inches across and often appear before the leaves. Another yellow is M. ‘Butterflies’ which is similar but has smaller, (3-4 inch) flowers.
I would be remiss without mentioning the one that, when in bloom, attracts the most attention in my garden. Magnolia ‘Black Tulip’ (15-20 feet, Zones 5-9) has one of the darkest blooms of all the hybrids. As the name indicates, tulip-shaped flowers that are very dark purple-red appear on stems before the leaves. This makes a spectacular display.
Here I am offering just the tip of the iceberg of available Magnolia selections. I have only mentioned some of those that bloom in early spring, but there are plenty of other varieties that bloom in summer, such as southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) and Virginia magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), so don’t stop with spring!
My first spring salad pots were grown in large, inexpensive plastic containers that I bought from the garden center. I filled them with some Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix and added a little fertilizer. They performed so well that I couldn’t believe it. Just a few pots provided delicious salads through spring, so this year I decided to redo this year’s salad containers with a little more flair.
I took it up a notch by creating suites of well-paired greens and herbs for custom-made salad containers–one with an Asian theme, another French, and the last for the Italian palate. Large (18″ or 24″) pots are ideal for these plantings. This will ensure that you can plant enough vegetables in each pot to make several spring salad bowls. As I said, I planted mine in Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix, but this year I plan to try Black Gold Raised Bed & Planting Mix. Both mixes are OMRI Listed for organic gardening. My plant food of choice is a slow-release fertilizer for vegetable growing, though I often hit my plants with some water-soluble fertilizer a week after planting to help them take off.
About the blend – This is a two-pot salad mix because Chinese cabbages are bulky. I am confident that the outcome will be worthy of a very tasty sesame salad dressing. The crisp, flavorful Chinese cabbage will combine nicely with the mustardy kick of the mizuna, the mild green-onion flavor of the bunching scallions along with the crunchy, sweet taste and bright color of the red romaine.
Planting tips– I recommend filling one pot with three Chinese cabbage heads with a sprinkling of mizuna around the exterior. Another pot can contain the romaine with scallions planted along the side. Be sure to space the scallions 2-3 inches apart. I always start cabbage, scallions, and lettuce plants indoors several weeks before planting outdoors. I start the seeds in 4-inch pots under grow lights. (Click here for growing tips.) Then I acclimate my seedlings to cool spring temperatures in my enclosed back porch. Scallions are often tender and slender at planting time, so be gentle with them and don’t plant their bulbs too deeply. One-half inch is perfect. The mizuna is a mustard green that can directly be sown in the pots at the time when you plant your seedlings–generally in late March or early April in my USDA Hardiness Zone 7 garden.
About the blend -The sweetness of the snap peas and butter lettuce blend well with the slight heat of the fresh French breakfast radishes. Chervil is added to provide a fresh, slightly anise flavor–much like the flavor of fennel. Together they taste very excellent with a classic French dijon vinegarette. If you are not partial to uncooked snap peas, try blanching them for a minute and then immersing them in an ice-water bath.
Planting tips– I recommend three large pots for this salad blend–one for the peas (a tomato cage makes an easy pea trellis), one for the radishes, and one for the butter lettuce with two chervil plants on the side. It is best to start the chervil and lettuce indoors under grow lights, as recommended for the greens above. The radishes and peas can be directly sown in the pots. Surface-sow the radish seeds and cover them with 1/8 inch of potting mix. Plant them in circular rows 6 inches apart and then thin them to 3 inches apart after they have sprouted. The peas should be planted in a circle at a distance of 3 inches apart and 1 inch below the soil surface. Time everything well, keeping in mind that the peas and greens need more time than the fast-growing radishes.
About the blend – The bitter bite of the chicory tastes nice with the sweet crunch of the romaine lettuce and sweetness of the baby beets. Chioggia beets are candy-striped with red and white bands inside, so they are as beautiful as they are delicious. The three taste very good with honey balsamic vinegarette and shaving of Parmesan cheese.
Planting tips– Two large pots are sufficient for this salad blend–one for the chicory and romaine lettuce, and one for the beets. The lettuce and chicory can be started as seedlings indoors, using the same recommendations for the two previous gardens. The beets should be directly sown in the pots. Keep in mind that the beets may germinate more slowly in cool weather, so you may want to plant them a week earlier than recommended on the packet.
To learn more about great lettuce varieties, please watch this helpful video!