Writer : chores

Spring Chores

Come spring, everyone is eager to get outside and prod into nooks and crannies searching for the first signs of green. As the sun warms the soil and the snowdrops fade, we feel an ever increasing need to get our hands into the dirt and do something PRODUCTIVE in the garden.

Cutting down the sodden remains of plants, raking out leaves, and generally cleaning the garden to show off the newest sprouts and earliest flowers are obvious chores. In our first spring spurt of energy we sometimes ignore the weeds. They aren't that noticeable yet and there's so much else to do. Unfortunately, such a justification can lead to a great deal more time and work over the rest of the season.

Early spring is the best time for a really vigilant weeding. Tackling perennial weeds while the ground is still cold and moist takes optimum advantage of their growth cycle. Plants have a greatly reduced need for nutrients and water during the dormant winter months, and most of the small hair-like capillary feeder roots die back. Though larger roots remain, the lack of these smaller roots makes it easier to get plants out of the ground. Stoloniferous weeds (ones that spread underground) like quack grass and sheep sorrel can often be pulled out like long strings of wire. As normal growth resumes, it becomes harder to remove these weeds without breaking off and leaving behind considerable amounts of the root system. When this starts to happen, the garden may look better temporarily on the surface but the weeds continue to spread.

Unhappily, many of these stoloniferous weeds pop up in the middle of established clumps of perennials and left unchecked can sometimes overpower a plant. In early spring many perennials can be lifted completely out of the ground, have the weeds pulled and teased out from their midst, and be replanted with out much of a set back. Tackling such problems can seem overwhelming but doing it in the spring when your enthusiasm and energy levels are high, and the probability of success greater, means less work for the rest of the season.

This is also a good time to curtail the excessive growth of spreading perennials like monarda (Bee Balm), physostegia (Obedient Plant), cerastium tomentosa (Snow in Summer), artemisia "Silver King"and many others. If their boundaries are limited once during spring clean up and again in the fall, they are less likely to become nuisances.

Decide how large you want the plant clump to be, leave space for new growth over the season, and dig the rest out. You can give the excess away, throw it on the compost pile, or start another garden. Be diligent and get out all the wandering runners. Some artemisias are especially sneaky, sprouting new growth from the ends of roots several feet from the main plant.

Learning to identify the root structure of stoloniferous plants is extremely useful. It allows you to recognize the errant roots of artemisia when you're working six feet away planting tulips. Forewarned, you can remove the roots and save your tulips, and the plants in between, from becoming artemisia challenged.

Spring may give gardeners a head start in pulling weeds but Nature gets her head start growing them in the fall. With the garden cleaned up and cut back, you may think you're ahead of the game but plant roots are still active, and many weeds keep their lush green tops ready for action the first sign of warmth, like the Johnny-Jump-Ups that bloom in a February thaw.

In time you'll begin to track other plant patterns. Most people learn quickly that mint smothers its less aggressive neighbors. In the nomenclature of botanical classification, mint is a member the Labiatae family along with monarda and physostegia, another pair of aggressive plants. Would it surprise you to hear that ajuga is in the same family? Learning more about the root structure and spreading habits of aggressive perennials and weeds can save time, plants, and entire gardens. Root structure, along with Latin nomenclature, can often give advance warning when you acquire an unfamiliar plant.