Pardon my garden

How to prepare for a garden party

In these times, garden parties are few and far between. But if you practice social distancing (tea at 10 feet) and wear masks as needed, you can still share your garden with others. And despite all the hoopla about how people are gardening more, we all still have weeds. But don’t let that daunt you. Here are some tips for making the garden look great, weeds and all — and sharing it with others.

Lyme, New Hampshire, has an informal group of gardeners who associate in a “not-quite-a-garden-club.” No dues, no meetings except for a mid-winter potluck. Someone manages a listserve with good info, links to articles, questions, offers of free plants and more.

Each summer members take turns hosting a weekly “Pardon My Garden” event. All members are invited to pop by a garden, tour around, share libations and snacks, pull weeds, offer suggestions. These are wonderful. But this year some are hesitant to attend, or to host. Here are a few ways brave souls have reduced risks:

(1) Instead of having a garden open for two hours in the evening, some are saying, “come anytime between 1 and 7 p.m.” That makes the population density at any time lower.

(2) Attendees are invited to bring their own glasses, if they want to enjoy a drink. Or hosts serve drinks in single-serving cans or bottles. At one even, box wine was served – no need to touch a cork or bottle. For snacks there were little zipper bags full of nuts, presumably prepared wearing gloves and a mask.

(3) Everyone is very respectful of interpersonal space. Hard not to hug friends after weeks of isolation, but we all just have to wave.

June is the best time in my garden. I have a primrose garden in the shade of old apple trees with many hundreds of candelabra or Japanese primroses in full bloom. So I want to share this with friends, and recently invited two other couples to join Cindy and me for a tour and a chat.

So how did I get the garden ready? First, I mowed the lawn the day before the event. I also have a nice battery-powered string trimmer that I used to tidy up those corners and edges the mower doesn’t get. A nice lawn sets a good first impression.

My partner, Cindy, loves cutting sharp edges around flower beds. She uses an edging tool that looks like a half moon on a long handle to shape nice curves to beds. She also uses a tool that you could make: 30 feet of strong mason’s twine wrapped around two nice wooden pegs with points. She pushes a peg into the ground, unwinds some string, and pulls the string tight from the other end. She then pops the second peg into the ground. That gives her a perfectly straight edge if she needs one. Great in the vegetable garden.

Next, I look for tall weeds, things that tower over our tidy flowers. Got a clump of tall timothy grass that came, via seed, from last year’s mulch hay? Dig it out. And any weed that is blooming should be pulled before it goes to seed and creates more work later on. Don’t worry about weeds in beds with nothing blooming — no one will pay attention.

Look for empty spaces. After getting the most obvious weeds, there will be spaces. You can cover these with mulch, if you wish. Or you can divide a large clump of perennials and put a few in the space. Of course, you can also go to the garden center and spend your Covid-19 relief check on new plants, too. Annuals are easy fillers, and many bloom all summer.

Plants in pots are good fillers, too. I have a large blue and white Chinese vase with papyrus growing in it. It has been wintering over in the house for several years and is a big, handsome plant. I am not above moving it from the deck to the garden to fill in somewhere, or to add interest to a place with no blossoms.

So far, most things aren’t tall enough to flop, but peonies are about to bloom for me, and a hard rain will knock many of them to the ground unless they are surrounded by peony cages or tied up with stakes. Best to support them now, before they flop. The same goes for delphinium, those lovely tall flowers that are famous for flopping and breaking in a hard rain. Like weeding, staking takes time and patience, but it makes for a much better experience over all.

Lastly, clean up the front of beds. Weed, and if you like mulch, add some. I mulched the first four feet of my huge primrose garden, and a friend thought I’d done the whole thing!

Some feel that gardening is a solitary venture. Not me. Yes, working alone, or with Cindy, is fun. But sharing the garden with others is even better. And when I do invite people over, I generally have some “spare” plants potted up to send home with my guests. And the great thing is I know when I visit their gardens I will go home with something I love.

Be kind to clovers

How to have a better lawn

Let’s face it: Most of us do not have a lawn that looks like the grass on a major-league infield. And I, for one, don’t want one that does. Most professional ballfields are doctored weekly with chemicals: fungicides, herbicides, fertilizers, insecticides. They are cut very short, and look “perfect.” I want a lawn that is green but also full of diversity — clover, different kinds of grass, and (I can see some of you shuddering) even a few dandelions.
The turf grass industry decided long ago that clover is a weed. Why is that? Because the herbicides they promote to control weeds like dandelions and plantain also kill clover — but not grasses. But clover is not a weed. It is a nitrogen-fixing legume that actually adds nitrogen to the soil. It is a friend to your lawn — and your children, who delight in finding good luck with a rare four-leafed clover. Add Weed-n-Feed and the clover is gone.
So what can you do to have a better lawn when the heat of summer arrives? I talked to Paul Sachs of North Country Organics, an organic fertilizer company in Bradford, Vermont. Paul has written books about lawn care and soil biology, and really is a very knowledgeable lawn guy. He mentioned several things you can do. First among them: adjust your mower blades up high.
Sachs explained that cutting the lawn at 3 to 4 inches will help to shade the crown of the grass and keep it cooler, which is good. Hot weather stresses most grasses. Taller grass will also develop a deeper root system because the longer blades will produce more food to nurture the roots.
I don’t recommend that you bag the clippings when you mow the lawn. If you are tending your lawn organically (avoiding all chemicals), the clippings will break down, creating a thin layer of compost. Earthworms will turn that organic matter into the soil, too, like little rototillers. The chopped grass will serve to shade the soil a little, helping to reduce heat stress. The only time I collect the grass clippings is when we get a week or more of hot, rainy weather and I can’t or don’t mow. When there are big lumps of grass, it can smother the grass and turn it yellow, eventually killing it. Fresh grass clippings, added to a compost pile, will add lots of nitrogen and heat up the compost quickly, and help it to break down the carbon-based brown matter.
If you have bare spots in the lawn, now is the time to plant some grass seed. Do that as soon as you can, as the hot weather ahead will make it harder for a new lawn to establish itself. You want to get new grass established before annual crabgrass takes over. The best choice for that is a perennial rye grass, according to Paul Sachs. It germinates quickly, in five to seven days.
Start by loosening the soil in the bare spots with a short-tine garden rake. Scratch it back and forth to loosen the soil and to remove any rocks. Scatter a layer of seed, then use a lawn rake to work it into the loose soil. I turn the lawn rake upside down, so I can drag the back of the tines across the seed. This will cover most of the seed.
You can help your new planting by shaking out some straw over the area, providing a thin layer to shade the soil. It is important that the seed not dry out once it has begun to grow. So if the weather is hot and dry, check the soil every day, and water as needed.
Paul Sachs told me that if you have an irrigation system for your lawn, you can help your lawn by giving it a tenth of an inch of water every day at the heat of the day. That light watering evaporates, cooling the soil and your grass. It’s similar to what we do when we sweat to cool down. Then once a week, he said, give your lawn an inch of water for a deep watering — if we have not gotten that moisture from the sky.
Another way you can help your lawn to grow better and avoid heat stress is to add mycorrhizal fungi to your soil. These fungi work with plant roots in a symbiotic relationship — one in which both organisms benefit. According to Paul Sachs, these are best added at planting time when preparing the soil.
The mycorrhizal fungi coat plant roots and benefit from sugars produced and exuded by the roots. In turn the mycorrhizal fungi breakdown soil minerals and provide needed nutrients to the green plants in a form they can use. Not only grasses benefit from mycorrhizal fungi; most green plants do. Learn more at A number of commercial products are available to provide these beneficial organisms, and many are present without treatment.
One last thought: If we could purchase daffodils that would grow in the lawn and rebloom after mowing, we would pay big bucks for them, right? Especially if they would send out seeds and show up even where we have not planted them. But call them dandelions, and some people declare war. Me? I love those bright harbingers of spring and summer and don’t mind them in my lawn. A diverse lawn is a healthy lawn. I like to say, if it’s green and I can mow it, it’s a lawn!

Plants for free

How to divide your flowers

I spend a lot in plant nurseries. At $10 or more a pop, it is easy to spend a hundred dollars quick as a blink. But I’m also a firm believer in dividing my perennials so that I don’t have to spend so much. Once you have established a good plant palette, you can increase numbers by dividing plants. Don’t be afraid to give it a try.

You need to learn a little about each plant in order to know if the roots can easily be separated, allowing you to divide plants. And although horticulturists may tell you that the time of year is important, in my experience you can divide most things anytime. Peonies are supposed to be moved or divided only in the fall after they have gone dormant, but I once moved 50 peonies for a client in June and they thrived.

One way to learn about propagation is by using a good text. My bible is Manual of Herbaceous Ornamental Plants by Steven M. Stills. Although the publisher sells new copies at $58.80, used copies are readily available for a fraction of the price.

The book tells when to divide (spring or fall) and whether plants spread easily by seed. It also gives cultural tips about where and how to plant each flower. Most common and many unusual plants are included, one or two pages on each. There are drawings for each, with a few color photos in the back.

Another way to learn about dividing plants is to just do it. Dig up a plant and examine the roots. I use a drain spade to do this. A drain spade is a pointed shovel with a long, narrow blade (commonly 6 inches wide and 16 inches long). I plunge it into the soil and pry back a little. Then I repeat the procedure on all sides. When the plant is loose, I lift it out.

Some plants have long, deep roots. Others, such as peonies, have roots that look like tubers. Most have lots of string-like roots going in all directions. If the bed you are working in is full of weeds, it is important to distinguish between grass or weed roots and those of your plant. Observe the color and texture of the plant roots and remove any roots that are different. Daylily roots, for example, are very distinctive in both color and shape.

When dividing a plant, you may wish to actually bare-root it. Do this by shaking off any soil attached, or washing the root system with a hose to remove the soil. Weed or grass roots will be obvious when you do that. I normally do that for any gifted plant because I want to avoid getting any invasive weeds that might come with the plant. I learned that lesson the hard way, having accepted some nice iris plants that had goutweed roots embedded that then have plagued me for 30 years.

If all the roots are attached to a single stem, you cannot divide the plant. But most plants are not like that. You can usually tease the roots apart, taking sections of the clump apart. Each chunk will give you a nice plant.

Hostas are common shade plants with lovely foliage. They do produce white flowers in mid-summer, but most people grow them for the foliage. Big clumps commonly are created as the plant expands, roots sending up new plants. Dig up a big clump and you might get a dozen plants — or more.

I was dividing some hostas recently and found some clumps hard to pull apart. So I used a curved, serrated knife to cut through some roots, allowing me to separate them. If you don’t have a garden knife, buy a steak knife at a yard sale or junk shop — or sneak one out of the kitchen — and it will work just fine.

And then I wanted to move some common orange daylilies. These send out long roots, which then send up new plants, so one plant can become many just in the time it takes to get a bottle of orange pop from the kitchen. Or a year to two.

With the daylilies, I used a shovel to cut through the roots between plants to get them into clumps of a manageable size. Don’t worry about damaging roots or leaves; these puppies are indestructible. Just dig up, cut apart and move.

For spring-blooming plants, digging now may hinder flowering this year. For fall-blooming plants, that is less of a problem. Some plants benefit by digging, dividing and fertilizing. Steven Stills’ book mentions how often to do that: for purple coneflower, for example, it is every four years. For Shasta daisies, every other spring is best. And so on.

Always choose a cool, cloudy day for dividing plants. Even a drizzly day. Plants can go into shock if divided at noon on a hot day. I like to do it in the evening when rain is in the forecast.

The great thing about digging up a big perennial is not only that you have more plants, but your friends will, too!

Photo: Barerooting with a hose will ensure you have no weed roots. Photo by Henry Homeyer.

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