By Roger Erpelding
Saturday, April 2, dawned clear, cold and still. Nevertheless, by 10 a.m. Beth and I had determined that it was warm enough to work outdoors. And by noon we had our coats off, and were happily working in shirts and slacks.
We had two goals on this date–to clean off the garden and flower beds, and for me to trim the apple tree. While Beth began to clear off the butterfly garden, I pruned the apple tree. This is done entirely by touch. The apple tree should be shaped like a bowl, to increase air circulation and sunlight. Unfortunately, my apple tree has gotten the best of me, and has an indescribably ugly shape. I first walked around the base of the tree, looking for water shoots. These are shoots that arise from the trunk or branches, and grow straight up. They are also sometimes called whips. I follow the sprouts to the base of the tree, then cut them at a slight angle with a sharp pair of pruners.
I have a four-step stepladder at hand, and since I’m not afraid of heights, I often climb to the top to look for additional water sprouts, along with branches that are rubbing, or clogging up the middle of the bowl. Since this tree is probably about 20 feet tall (it is a semi-dwarf), the top branches are out of reach for me. I have found that when pruning fruit trees there is a simple rule–when in doubt, cut it out! I shake the tree, listening for branches in my range that are rubbing together. I can find them quickly, and the pruners again come into play.
After I cut all I care to, or simply run out of patience, I pick up all the cut branches from the ground, bundle them up, and put them in a bag for compost collection the next Friday.
My next task was to clear off the perennial flower bed in my garden. This is an established bed, and I know it well. It was also an easy job, as the old stalks were dry and brittle. Since all of these plants will come back from the stems, not the roots, I could break the old stalks off at ground level. One full compost bag later, the task was complete. Experience tells me which old stalks are from which plants. The old hardy amaryllis stalks are tough like wood, and require the clippers. Old oriental lily stalks are long and thick, but break off easily. The amsonia “Arkansas blue star” have their fronds of fuzzy leaves and also break off easily. The 5 foot tall stalks of my giant coreopsis still have dried sead heads. The baptisia have shorter brittle stalks, and may occasionally have a seed pod still attached. Daylily and hosta leaves have no stalk at all–just their dried rosettes of leaves. I also have some of the plants placed in white plastic tiles, and some have Braille labels on metal stakes inside the tiles. So, they are fairly easy to identify. I know the woodland poppies by location. They are in the southwest corner of the garden, just east of the rocks that line the foundation of our house, and north of the south fence. Their last year’s foliage is almost nonexistent, but I found a nice clump of lush growth in its stead.
We finished the morning by cleaning off the pine tree and apple tree garden. This was done mutually. Each of us had a bag, and clippers if need be. We noted that the mums were already sprouting. Their dried foliage is slightly fragrant like camphor, so I knew it was from last year’s growth. The “garden phlox” (phlox paniculata) stalks were thin and dry, with old flowers on the end. The flower bed in front of the house on the west side was the last to be cleaned. The hyssop (agastase) stalks were fragrant as well, so they were easy to spot.
We saved our best task until last–the “yard tour” as we call it. The rhubarb in the north west corner of the yard is up. The Lenten rose has new leaves, and a bud to boot! The Dutch iris are in full bloom, in a variety of colors. They are easy to tell by touch with their short, narrow and thick leaves, and their flower form. A row of white crocus is also in bloom on the north side of the pine tree garden. The garlic planted in that same garden is up. Our daffodils in both the pine tree and apple tree gardens are healthy and about to bloom. I noticed that a row of tulips had been eaten off at ground level–probably rabbits.
And of course, the chive harvest continues. On April 1 and April 4 I harvested chives to accompany our baked potatoes. They are so fresh and tasty that I simply eat whatever is left over.
We didn’t trim the butterfly bush (budlea davidii) in Beth’s butterfly garden. Since it sprouts from its woody stems, we decided until mid-May to determine how far to cut them back. We will do them when we trim the hydrangeas on the north side of the garage later this spring.