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Take time to care for long-time garden friends

“Make new friends, but keep the old; those are silver, these are gold.”

— Joseph Parry (1841-1903)

I started humming this tune from long ago Girl Scout campfires the other day while I was removing spent plants from my garden and replacing them with new starts. It occurred to me that vegetable and flower beds are meeting places for my new and old friends — annuals that visit for only one season, and perennials that return each year to rekindle acquaintances.

At any given time in our flower gardens, some plants are just beginning their lifespan, some are in their prime, and others are declining. During springtime, when the focus is on caring for new plants, it’s easy to forget about those stalwart friends who brightened up the winter and early spring but are now fading into dormancy. Annuals are removed and composted, but what about caring for perennials whose arrival next year will again be welcomed?

I have several shrubs of winter-flowering heather (Erica carnea), whose abundant purple, pink or white flowers I am always grateful for during a time when not much else is blooming in my yard. Now that the flower clusters have finally faded, it’s time to cut back the flower shoots to the old wood. New buds will form later this summer. I’ll also prune any dead branches and lightly shape the plants. They don’t need much supplemental feeding, but an acid-based fertilizer can be used if the foliage has faded.

Another prolific winter/early spring bloomer in my garden is hellebore. I have a few evergreen species with dark green, leathery foliage that adds color even when the plants aren’t blooming. The flowers have faded now, but I haven’t removed them yet because I’m hoping the plants will set seed and multiply in the garden. Although seedlings may be different from the parent plant, I’ve found that disturbing hellebores by dividing them can prevent blooming for a few years. To rejuvenate foliage, I’ll cut away damaged leaves and mulch around the plant with compost.

I’ve noticed that slugs are chewing on one of my hellebores and a nearby hosta. I usually spread a ring of crushed oyster shells around the plants to deter slugs; however, recently a gardener friend suggested leaving an overturned melon rind next to the plants to attract slugs. She said they’ll feed on the rind and then hide there, so they can be collected and discarded.

Daffodils, hyacinth and tulips are also early spring bloomers that have now declined to yellowing leaves. Snipping off any remaining flower heads will allow these plants to divert energy away from setting seed to replenishing the bulb where nutrients are stored. Bulbs of plants that have become crowded may be dug up and divided, but I’ve had the best results when divisions detach naturally, rather than pried away from the parent bulb. I allow the bulbs to overwinter in the ground as long as the soil doesn’t stay soggy; otherwise, I’ll store bulbs in labeled pots and leave them outside in a place that is not as wet.

Despite their unattractiveness, leaves of spring-blooming bulb plants should not be removed until they are completely dead and easily detach, which takes about six weeks after the bloom period. Cutting green leaves or tying them together prevents the plant from making food through photosynthesis, and a lack of food means a lack of plant health and blooming vigor. Planting annuals in front of or among the dying leaves makes them less visible; another option is to treat the plants as annuals and remove them after the blooms have faded. I often treat tulip hybrids as annuals because they don’t produce well after the first year anyway.

I’m excited about all of the new plants I’m adding this year, many of which I hope will become long-time garden companions. However, I don’t mind taking some time to attend to my old friends, too, because as Welsh songwriter Joseph Parry wrote, “Friendships that have stood the test of time and change are surely best.”

Rhonda Nowak is a member of the Jackson County Master Gardener Association and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.