Spring Awakening - The Excitement is Palpable

Chickadees have been showing interest in the new bird houses this spring.

With May only a few days away, preparations are underway to welcome another glorious season in The Big Little Garden. Beds have been gently cleaned, organic fertilizers have been applied and last year’s garden debris is being converted to compost.

Harry catching some early sun

Harry catching some early sun

This is my favorite time of the year as every day brings excitement and wonder. Plant growth is noticeable literally from one hour to the next, and diverse wildlife returns daily.

Bird activity becomes absolutely frenetic. The air is filled with song, mates are found and nests are being built. Adults will soon spend endless hours and days snatching moth caterpillars from high up in the treetops to feed their hungry hatchlings.

Harry is becoming reacquainted with his favorite sunny hangouts. At 17, he’s no longer a mouse-catcher, but still loves long, lazy days in the garden with me. (Well, lazy for HIM!)

A “borrowed view” - our neighbor’s azalea

Hello, Old Friend…

There are few things as satisfying as watching ornamental trees and shrubs respond to late April’s warming temps and frequent showers. Branches, grey and lifeless only a few weeks earlier now bulge with buds ready to burst forth with colorful bloom and foliage.

Our neighbor’s azalea are absolutely glorious and welcome Queen bumblebees as they emerge from their underground hibernation lairs. I love how our green conifers frame the view into the neighbor’s yard and contrast with the pink azalea in the distance.

Renewing Our Pledge…

Now is the time to recommit to sustainable practices, promote bio-diversity and coexist with the wondrous six-legged creatures who are vital to healthy ecosystems - the Insects.

I ask all readers to “think before you spray” this year.

If you knew that the “culprit” that chewed holes in your plant leaves was days away from transforming into a beautiful Monarch or Swallowtail butterfly, would you still spray? I hope not.

If you knew that dandelions were one of the first food sources available to our native “Power Pollinators”, the bumblebees, would you knowingly blast the golden bloom with toxic RoundUp? I hope not.

In healthy, bio-diverse gardens, beneficial insects perform the valuable role of managing destructive insects. For instance, our native Lady Beetles feast on aphids, thrips, scale and mealy bugs. If we spray with pesticides, we upset Nature’s delicate balance. The more we allow insects to do what they do best, the fewer infestations and problems we’ll face down the road.

Go easy on the mulch…

OK, so this is one of my biggest pet peeves. We have blindly accepted the notion that beds should be smothered in bark mulch and that this is somehow beneficial to plants and trees. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes, mulch helps reduce moisture loss and suppresses weeds. But if mulch is applied directly on top of a plant’s crown or piled up onto a tree’s bark, this is a recipe for disaster.

Dreaded and deadly mulch volcanos

We’ve all seen, or have been a party to, the dreaded “mulch volcanos”. where mulch is repeatedly spread high up around a tree trunk year after year, until it ultimately looks like, well, a volcano. Think about it, does this look like something you would see in Nature? Nope. It not only looks ridiculous, but it leads to crown rot and harbors insects and rodents which will feast on the tree bark and eventually cause death. I have personally observed “death by mulch” in prospective clients’ gardens.

So, try to refrain from laying down more than 2-3” of mulch, or perhaps skip mulching this year and give last year’s mulch a chance to decompose and break down into the soil. Your garden beds are more likely to benefit from an inch of rich, organic compost instead.

If you do plan to mulch this year, I recommend heavily aged hemlock mulch blended with compost. If you can not find a blended compost/mulch product then first sprinkle granular organic fertilizer, like Espoma’s Plant Tone or Garden Tone, then lay an inch of organic compost around your plants. I like Coast of Maine products. Both Espoma and Coast of Maine fertilizers and soil amendments are available at Nashua Farmers’ Exchange). Finally, finish with 2” of aged bark mulch or leaf mulch, being careful not to smother the crown.

Make sure not to cover the tree’s “root flare”

Make sure not to cover the tree’s “root flare”

Avoid mulch with color enhancers as they provide no benefit to your garden and can actually be harmful. Here’s a helpful article from a reliable source about the dangers of colored mulch.

If you or your landscaper have already laid down mulch, I highly recommend that you gently pull any mulch back away from the crowns of shrubs, and from the trunks of trees, exposing the tree “flare”. You will be rewarded with healthier, more beautiful, longer-living plants.

Rethinking “Maintenance”…

As Keeper of your garden, your efforts to restore a healthy balance will be rewarded as plants thrive and pollinators feast. Your gardens will be easier to manage, but they will still benefit from your attention.

As we welcome the new season, I ask readers to shift their thinking and update their vocabulary, replacing “maintain” with “nurture”. Why?

Bug’s-eye view of fiddleheads unfurling

“Maintaining" a garden has a negative connotation and for most people means work and drudgery. It frequently involves tools of destruction . . . and an indifference to the needs of the wildlife that is necessary to support biodiversity.

“Nurturing” a garden means relishing the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the magic of our garden – to favor a light touch, and to observe mysterious creatures and wondrous happenings at the plant and soil level. We derive a sense of purpose and accomplishment as we carefully tend to our garden’s needs, being careful not to upset nature’s perfect balance. We are resolute in our role as Steward of the Land.

Until next time, your intrepid garden reporter,