Thursday, April 09, 2015

Maintenance in the Native Plant Garden: Springtime Editing, Part 1

As I mentioned in my last post, one of the tasks that I find needs to be done each spring is editing.   When you invite animals (especially birds) into your gardens, you are going to get quite a few seeds planted, all of which will be encouraged to grow with a nice dollop of fertilizer.  Many of these will not be plants that you want growing, especially not where they've been planted.

Of course, too, native plants are designed to reproduce on their own...and if they are happy where you've planted them, they may well decide to "go forth and multiply".   Some species are notorious for this, while others reseed or spread only when the conditions are particularly perfect.

So, as the native plant gardener, you can keep things looking relatively tidy simply by removing excess plants once a year - and I find that early spring is the best time to transplant.  Why not take advantage of free plants?!

Personally, I fully understand the need to edit plants out...but I have a terribly hard time actually doing it, especially if I have to discard the plants I remove.  To be truthful, I've gone for years without editing, so my beds tend to get somewhat overgrown at times.  Of course, I like the full, cottage garden look, so this doesn't usually bother me too much, but if you like a more controlled look, editing out is a step that you won't want to skip.

So, on to the actual editing that I'm doing this spring.

Once I got the two areas of my front garden bed appropriately and fully cut back this morning, it was much easier to evaluate what needed to be removed or moved.

The Peach Blossom tulips are planted almost on top of a penstemon, which isn't really a problem as the tulips will die back shortly...but there was also a healthy looking young honeysuckle growing up beside them.  You can see it growing from the base of the plant tag in the photo above.  I DO NOT want a 10' honeysuckle shrub in this location, so that seedling had to go.  Given their invasive nature around here, I don't have any qualms about getting rid of honeysuckle seedlings.  For that reason, I don't like to pass along honeysuckles, either. 

For this honeysuckle seedling, a single stab with a dandelion remover to loosen the soil around its roots, followed by a strong yank, removed it, root and all.

In the center of this next photo is an area under the Callery pear that I've not paid much attention to in the past.  If you look carefully, you can see 3 "small," skinny, woody, hackberry saplings.  At the base of the white plant tag there is a clump of green that is actually a cluster of seedlings which includes a honeysuckle and several Callery pears.  There is another biggish honeysuckle seedling to the left of the plant tag, and there are dozens of Callery pear seedlings in the center of this spot, too.  ALL of these baby woody plants had to go, or this will become a thicket in next to no time.

In removing woody seedlings, the sooner you get to them, the better.  That's why an annual sweep is such a good thing.  For the hardy plants that survive on the Plains, the roots will go down deep and strong;  by the time even a year has passed, getting a woody seedling out of the ground is infinitely harder than removing it shortly after it has germinated.  Give one of these plants a couple years' growth and it's going to be hard to remove without utilizing Roundup, probably multiple times.

On the other hand, if you catch a young tree seedling shortly after it has germinated, all you need to do is give a slight tug and it slips out of the ground, root and all.  If you break off the stem at this stage, there's no problem of future growth, because the plant has no reserves yet in its roots.

It's all about the roots, 'bout the roots, no cutting....  (Confession time:  I found myself singing, "It's all about the roots, 'bout the roots, no cutting...." to the tune of "All About the Bass" for way more time than was rational today.  You're welcome for the earworm, by the way.)  Once a native prairie, woody plant is established, if you simply cut it off at ground level, it will just come back, stronger than before.  Prairie plants are like that.

In the spot above, I had to dig down and cut out the hackberry seedlings as far below the soil line as I could manage.  It remains to be seen if that was far enough down to kill the plants.  If not, I'll have to repeat the process or resort to Roundup.  The honeysuckles came out with strong tugs, roots and all.  I must have pulled out 50 pear seedlings - but they were easy, as the soil was moist (I watered) and they had just germinated this spring. 

This little hackberry seedling located right next to the walkway is one that I let get too big shortly after said walkway was put in, then cut out a year or two ago.  Obviously I didn't get down far enough on the roots when I originally tried to remove it, so I had to repeat the process today.  Hopefully today's butchering will do the trick.

I have a LOT of Callery pears germinating in my beds this year.  Callery pear, Prunus calleryana, is the official species of pear that I usually call "Bradford pear."  Bradford pear is actually a cultivar of Callery pear, but there are also many other varieties of Callery pear on the market these days. This is not a native species, but the tree came with the house and I haven't had the temerity to cut it down.  As pretty as it is in the spring, it reseeds ridiculously.  I consider it a real nuisance plant.

I've got more plant editing that I want/need to do in these beds, but I'm waiting for a friend to come over and get some of the plants when I take them out.  Yeah, I'm putting off the next stage of editing again....  I'll show you that stage next time - I promise!

Maintenance in the Native Plant Garden

As I've given talks about utilizing native plants in our landscapes, I've become aware that many people are scared of "losing control" in their gardens by using native plants and by following organic gardening methods.  So I thought folks might be interested in a blow by blow account of how I maintain my native plant landscape.  I actually think that my garden chores are significantly less onerous than those of more traditional gardeners.

To start with (or, perhaps, to end with), I don't cut back my perennials in the fall or winter.  Many insects overwinter in or on dead plant stems, including some of our native bees;  other insect species overwinter in the leaf litter.  Predators are particularly likely to be among the insects overwintering this way.  The leaf litter also provides great foraging habitat for winter birds, as do the standing seedheads.  Watching the birds forage and seeing the patterns of the plant stems adds winter interest to the landscape.  When you add in the fact that standing vegetation holds snow (moisture) in place better than "clean" beds, you definitely have a winning winter combination for the garden.

Winter, then, is pretty basic.  Enjoy the scenery!

As the plants begin to green up in the early spring, it's time to do the first chore of the year:  cut back last summer's dead plant material.  I consider this the main "work" in the organic, native plant garden.  Otherwise, the garden takes very good care of itself.  The timing of the spring cutback is always a balancing act for me.  I prefer to wait long enough that there aren't many late freezes left, although that's not always possible on the prairie.  Since I have planted a variety of crocus, daffodil, tulip, hyacinth, and grape hyacinth bulbs, I've started using their early blooming as my signal.  Darn it - I planted them, so I want to see them!

This year my spring clean up has been particularly protracted, but that's okay.  This is gardening, not a precision dance routine or an accounting balance sheet.

So that I could see the petite daffodils which had begun to bloom in the front beds, I started the spring clean up on March 18th this year.  This photo was taken on the 20th, the day after we burned the front tallgrass (which you can see in the distance).  All I had done so far was cut back the asters at the very front left of the photo...and, if I remember correctly, a few perennials along the sides of the path itself.

Here is a slightly different view, taken at the same time.  Overall, this is what the front garden looked like for most of the winter.  When I looked out the front windows, it was a rare time that I didn't see birds poking around. When we had some snow, the patterns could be stunning.

By the 26th of March, about a week later, I had cut back about half of the stems in this bed, starting at the driveway.  Of course, a few more things were blooming, too, including the Callery (Bradford) pear.  It always amazes me to see how quickly plants green up in the spring!  Several more types of daffodils had opened, and the blue heirloom hyacinths by the driveway were putting on their annual show.  (You can always click on the photos to enlarge them and see more detail.)

Just 5 days later, on the 31st, you can even see how much the daylilies right by the foundation had sprouted up.  I hadn't done any more cleanup in the garden yet, though, because our kids were visiting for the last bit of March and the first week of April.

In fact, I didn't get more cleanup done until 2 days ago, when I noticed the Peach Blossom tulips in full bloom amidst the cacophony of last year's ironweed and Echinacea stems.  So I did a bit more work that day....

...quitting when I'd cleared everything to the south of the little brick access path...except for the aster stems under the redbud clump.  (See?  I told you this wasn't a remotely frantic process!) 

You can see the newly exposed Peach Blossom tulips a few feet in front of the wheelbarrow. The wheel barrow has the last load of stems for that day, which I take to the brush pile out back, while the yellow bucket holds deadheaded daffodil stems and other non-seedfilled detritus that can be put in the compost pile.   Right now there is a lot more for the brush pile than for the compost pile - but that ratio changes throughout the growing season.

This morning, I finished cutting off the last of the aster stems under the redbuds and took this photo of the bed between the house and the walkway....

...and this photo of the bed between the walkway and the buffalo grass, both looking south.  Although cutting back the stems took me bits and pieces of 3 weeks to accomplish, that was due to MY lack of stick-to-it-iveness, not due to this process taking any huge amount of time overall.  Now that my native flower beds are established, this is the primary job that I need to do in any of  these beds all year.  Period.  It's really pretty simple.

That said, the beds do look better if I follow up this tidying chore with some editing, which is best done at this time of year.  I'll discuss that in the next post.

Oh, by the way, I found 4 Carolina (praying) mantis egg cases and 2 black and yellow garden spider egg sacs among the plant stems as I cut them back.  If you look closely, you can see one of the mantid egg clusters at the base of this grass clump.

I saved the plant stalks with the egg cases on them and placed them strategically in the trimmed areas of the garden, so the young could hatch out and do their thing without further interference.  Last year was obviously a good year for predators in my garden!