By Maureen O’Connell
In T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land” (1922), widely regarded as one of the most important poems of the twentieth century, the opening sentence suggests that “April is the cruelest month.” What does that sentence and the rest of this long poem mean? Is it Mr. Eliot’s eschatological view of the world? Scholars have debated this issue for years with mixed interpretations. Suffice it to say that it will remain inscrutable.
To apply this phrase to the gardening world, I beg to differ with him, depending on the vagaries of weather for particular years. Very often, April is certainly not Camelot’s “lusty month of May,” but it does have a role in the life of the garden. To me, it is a neither-here-nor-there month that gently eases you back into the coming chores of spring and summer. It can still be bone-chilling cold, the soil can be too wet and compacted to plant in, and a sneaky, late frost can nip an unsuspecting young flower bud.
Once the first spring bulbs emerge, gardeners are itching to go out and do something in the garden. Resist the urge to work the soil; now is the time to prune. With the rainy, cold, snowy weather we had in March, I am a bit late in doing my late winter pruning. St. Patrick’s Day is my usual target date. Most plants benefit from some sort of pruning; the trick is to know what to prune when. Usually, you can’t kill them by pruning at the wrong time of year, though it might result in less flowers and fruit production. The pruning general rule of thumb is to prune summer and fall flowering trees and shrubs in the dormant season (late winter and early spring) and prune spring flowering ones after their flowers fade. There is confusion with plants like hydrangeas, clematis, and roses, which can bloom in spring, summer, or fall, or repeatedly. To avoid mistakes, know the particular growth and flowering schedules of all of your plants.
We prune to: encourage new growth and bloom; remove dead, diseased, and damaged wood; shape plants; and improve air circulation. Invest in the right equipment for this job and buy the best that you can afford. The four basic tools that you need are: hand pruners (I swear by the Felco 2 hand clippers), loppers, shearers, and a saw. To keep these working efficiently, keep the blades clean, sharp, and oiled.
Many perennial plants need winter protection from their fallen leaves to help them survive harsh weather conditions. Here is a list of garden perennials to prune now: Artemisia, asters, black-eyed Susan, butterfly bush (wait for sign of green at the base and cut back to six to ten inches), butterfly weed (Asclepias), coral bells, Dianthus, gay feather, globe thistle, hosta, Lady’s Mantle, lamb’s ear, lavender, lupine, mums, coneflower, Russian sage, sedum, and coreopsis.
This is a turning point year for my rose gardens. Many of my plants are ten to twenty years old, and some of them are showing their age or have been damaged by harsh winters, pests, and diseases. I have decided to dig up and discard the oldest ones, where the main root stem is dead. There are many thin branches growing around the base, but they are not vigorous or healthy. The harsh winds of this past winter have heavily damaged many of my new hybrid teas and David Austin shrub roses in the Upper Garden. They will have to go. Years ago, I planted about twenty David Austin roses in the Middle Garden along the white pine fence line. For years, they thrived for they received enough sunlight. Now, however, the white pines are over forty feet tall and they shade most of the rose plants. They are too old to transplant, so they will also have to go. As I have said many times, a garden exists in a state of fluctuation. Nothing is stagnant. My gardens will now have to acquire a new look, as they adjust to changing light levels.
Many gardeners have questions about how to properly prune roses. Most roses fall into one of several groups; their pruning methods vary slightly. English roses and other repeat-flowering shrub roses should be cut down by between one and two thirds but only thinned a little. Bush roses—hybrid teas and floribundas—should be cut down harder by between one half and three fourths and thinning out some of the older main stems. Non-repeating shrubs should be left alone or lightly pruned by no more than one third and thinned very lightly. For climbers, the previous year’s flowering shoots should be reduced to three or four buds or about four to six inches and the strong, new stems tied in, cutting out older ones as necessary. Ramblers should be left to ramble unless they need to be controlled. Many people in our area grow Knock-Out roses. They are relatively low maintenance, but they can get out of hand. Prune back hard now to keep them in good shape and within their boundaries.
What are my new gardens going to look like, now that they have lost their rose residents? Read my next column to find out. The Gardener.