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May 19

Wet peat trick, bird-killing burdock, hummingbird recipe, what not to plant, etc

There’s an old English saying, ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out.’ This is said to mean, don’t discard your winter clothing until the end of this month. Another interpretation is that ‘May’ refers to the hawthorn, also known as the Mayflower, and you should keep your long johns handy until the Mayflower is in bloom (probably in another week, for us).

Whatever the case, the message is that winter’s grasp has not been released until the end of this month and that’s why I never write off a plant as dead until June although this year I have serious doubts about my Buttonbush. I cannot find the slightest glint of a growth point on it. Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is a wetland shrub with gorgeous globe-shaped flowers that start to bloom in July. While many wetland plants (for instance, Meadowsweet, Joe Pye Weed, Spiderwort, Smartweed) do fine in dry conditions, the Buttonbush may not be so accommodating.

I recently planted some Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), a low-growing dogwood that makes an excellent groundcover, with showy white bracts in spring and bright red berries in the fall. Various authorities state uncompromisingly that it requires moisture or it will die, so I used a method I learned from nursery industry veteran Keith Squires. I half-filled a bucket with peat, added water, came back, added more water, and repeated over the next couple of days. Keith says peat will absorb six times its volume in water so it has to be soaked repeatedly before it’s used. I dug the plant holes, laid a couple of handfuls of wet peat in each hole, added two inches of soil and then the plant. Once well covered, the peat will stay wet with the occasional recharging from rain, Keith says. It’s very important it stay wet, because when peat dries out it starts sucking in moisture, desertifying nearby soil. Regular readers will know I don’t like to use peat, but when it comes to accommodating wetland plants, a small amount will go a long way and I expect my bag of peat to last a few years.
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May 13

It’s raining - no better time to plant! Return of the Native opens today

The Return of the Native plant nursery opens today (10 am to 7 pm) and tomorrow (10 am to 5 pm). Same hours next week, Friday May 20 and Saturday May 21. Then, for the rest of the summer until August, I’ll be open every Friday, from 10 am to 7 pm, and you can come by any other time, just phone ahead to be sure I’m there, I usually am.

Recently, a customer wrote to me about a plant I’d sold her, I’m thinking, in 2008. It’s a nice reminder that some things are worth waiting for!

“Years ago you sold me a tiny Ironwood seedling. I have meant to tell you how it has done. It is now about 12 or 14 feet high and the bark is maturing and this spring it is covered in bloom!

“I'm so grateful to you because the nurseries all had only European Hornbeam, very expensive and much too huge to transplant well. Evidently that had suddenly come into style, a neighbour has several but they are not nearly as attractive as the native in my opinion.

“I'm also grateful to the neighbours who when shown the seedling almost too tiny for its 4-inch pot promised that they and their helpers would not shovel salt-laden driveway snow onto it.

“Anyhow, it is now the attractive small tree we wanted and starting to shade the window uncovered when the big city maple blew down a few years ago."

It’s nice to think of the Hop-hornbeam or Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana), a common understory tree in our forests, doing well as a specimen tree. It has pleasing fall colours and I have it in stock. The small tree seedling is only 30 cm tall but, if you control the weeds, trees planted young grow faster. And as the customer indicates, watching it grow from tiny sprig into maturity is a reward in itself.
Apr 22

Spring ephemerals, here and in Chelsea

It’s April 22 and I’m bent low over the shade bed tracking the native wildflowers that make the forests of the North East such a joy at this time of year. The delicate white and mauve flowers of the Sharp-lobed Hepatica were the first to appear, on April 15, pretty faces framed by a delicate circle of stamens lifted to the suddenly warm sun.

Today, it’s cold and wet and the Hepaticas have turned away towards the ground. But the Bloodroot’s white buds are on the verge of opening, leaves still curled around the stem. Later, after the dazzling white flowers are spent, the deeply cleft leaves will spread like little umbrellas above the ground.

A Trillium, rescued from the garden of a lady who died, is in full leaf, the buds tightly closed and giving no hint of the gorgeous deep red that makes me think affectionately of the gardener I never met, who unknowingly bequeathed some of her treasures to me. Another one is a Large Yellow Lady’s Slipper of which there is as yet no sign.
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