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Miss Floribunda: Gardening hacks

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Posted on: May 9, 2024

Dear Miss Floribunda,

Is it too early to neaten up my garden? In past columns you’ve advised not hacking down goldenrod, sunflowers, ironweed and other tall plants in autumn and waiting till warm weather and new vegetation has sprouted before taking away the dead stalks. The reason you gave was that native bees and other beneficial insects overwinter in these stalks, as well as under fallen leaves. 

However, I hear that my next-door neighbors have been referring to my yard as “Gehenna Gardens,” and I have to agree it does look pretty bad. While the daffodils and tulips were in bloom, there was some distraction. But now, in my garden’s pre-iris and pre-peony stage, I have to admit it is an eyesore. Not only do the dead stalks stick out, but the leaves of the daffodils have flopped and are turning brown. I know that in order to have them bloom again next spring I should not cut them back, but they are seriously ugly. Can you give me some guidelines?

Flowerless and Frowsy on Farragut Street

Dear Flowerless and Frowsy,

Like children, gardens go through some awkward stages between periods of beautiful bloom. We shouldn’t care whether our neighbors think our children are still cute, and we should be able to put up with a little embarrassment when our gardens are taking a breather. As Emily Dickinson said so beautifully, “Nature, like Us, is sometimes caught Without her Diadem.”  I congratulate you on providing a backyard refuge for those all-important pollinating insects that rely on home gardens now that so much urban development has ousted them from their natural habitats. Your conscientious husbandry has effects reaching far beyond just the confines of your block. 

It is hard to set exact dates for intensive garden cleanup, because different larvae hatch and leave their stalky nurseries at different times — some as early as March, others in late May. Global warming and the various vagaries of weather further complicate matters. 

This is where phenology, also known as “springcasting,” comes in. Just as we know whether to prune roses or plant different vegetables when certain trees or shrubs bloom, we can assume that when our native redbuds finish blooming, it is safe to cut down stalks, as well as compost or cover with soil those leaves you permitted to stay on the ground last fall. (Caveat: Rake up and bag leaves from plants to which you have applied pesticides, as well as diseased leaves like those of roses with black spot.) As it happens, redbuds are in bloom as I write, and may have finished blooming by the time this column appears in print. If your irises are blooming, then that is a good sign, as well. Even if you feel compelled to cut the old stalks down before then, leave them on the ground so that pupae can continue to have a home till they develop wings with which to go out and benefit the world.

To placate your neighbors, you might consider planting winter-hardy pansies as a border along your flower beds. The pansies will shrivel up and need to be replaced when the weather gets hot, but they are worth the purchase because they provide an indication that you have not irresponsibly abandoned your garden. 

You might dot decorative kale and cabbages throughout your winter garden, as well, and then use them in imaginative recipes later. Decorative allium is a good interregnum flower between tulip-time and the advent of peonies, irises and roses. As for the dying foliage of the daffodils, it can be camouflaged with any number of colorful annuals. Petunias in sunny areas and impatiens in shady areas are effective.  

Decorative kale can be added to gardens
Photo credit: Pexel stock

These suggested plants are imports from other countries, so I paid a visit to Wendy Wildflower, who has a four-season garden of mostly native plants. Among the late tulips, I saw various native asters of two genera, Symphyyotrichum and Eurybia, which will succeed each other in bloom from late spring to late fall. They are of varying heights and come in soft white, as well as shades of blue, rose and purple. Right now, Wendy’s breathtakingly beautiful Eastern blue star plants (Amsonia tabernaemontana) effectively cover withering daffodil foliage. The foliage will be long gone by the time the blue stars fade in midsummer. Then, interesting seed pods will replace the blue flowers to join her other versatile native plants as they segue into autumn. 

For more ideas, please come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society on Saturday, May 18. It will begin at 10 a.m. at the Hyattsville Municipal Center, 4310 Gallatin Street. I hope to see you there. 

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