Monday, March 18, 2013

The Iris and the Rhododendron

Day 257
The Daily DuBrule

It's mighty cold outside for the week after St. Patrick's day. The plants were rejoicing earlier last week with the warm, mild weather. They bravely appeared the minute the snowbanks above them melted. Snowdrops, snow crocus, Hellebores all opening their faces to the warm sunshine, celebrating the season of rebirth. Alas, winter weather returned. Snowflakes flying, frigid temperatures, bone chilling cold making it very uncomfortable to continue the pruning chores I had so hope to accomplish over the weekend.

As I look out my window I see my Iris histrioides 'George' flowers facing down the upcoming snow and ice storm with fortitude. They are so small and precious. I have been studying their progress all week from emerging buds to a fully open patch of purple beauty. Right next to them is an ancient 'Nova Zembla' rhododendron. The leaves on this plant give me an instant read on the temperature outside. I don't need to see a thermometer to know that I need to layer up today. The rhododendron leaves are curled up tight.

The contrast of my brave little irises and the curled rhododendron leaves remind me once again of the fact that March is the cruelest month in my opinion. You are teased by spring-like days and you feel that fever rising. The return of snow and ice is so much harder to take when spring is so close.  

I need to learn some new coping skills to deal with this phenomenon. It is an all too familiar feeling. Scented candles, soothing music, a fire in the fireplace, and looking at hundreds of digital photos of flowers on my computer as I prepare for various talks I have to give all help. I focus on one of my favorite quotes, shared with so many friends for so many different reasons: "Faith is the bird that sings when the dawn is still dark."

Monday, March 11, 2013

Getting a Jump on Spring Pruning

Clematis 'Arctic Queen' and 'Niobe'  

Photo courtesy of Diane St. John
Day 256
The Daily DuBrule

I have to admit, this has not been my favorite winter of all times. I am slowly working my way out of a funk, most likely brought on by my impending milestone 60th birthday. Friends in their mid-sixties, seventies, and beyond laugh at my angst. I know, it's a bit ridiculous, but there it is, sitting there, laughing at me.

Anyway, I don't like winter, and I especially don't like March. I get all excited when the snow melts and the snowdrops bloom and the witch hazel flowers and I believe spring is around the corner. Then good old Mother Nature dumps 14" of snow on my yard and I just want to crawl under the covers and hide until April.

Yesterday and today I pulled myself up by my big girl bootstraps and decided to get started on cleaning up my yard. Needless to say, it is a mess. Broken branches everywhere. Blueberries snapped off. Low hanging Norway spruce branches still pinned down to the ground by wet snow. One 'Midwinter Fire' twiggy dogwood completely encased in snow, like a snow mummy, just emerging today with half the plant springing back into the light. 

I decided to tackle my climbing roses and clematis arbor first as it is right by the garage and the snow had melted in that bed. I dragged out the ladder, set it up, climbed on, and the ladder sunk 6" in mud. I wiggled around a bit until it was properly balanced in the mud evenly (a new skill I just learned, by the way) and proceeded to prune away. The roses were easy. I cut off tons of dead wood, thinned the branches, tied them to the trellis, and voila I had made order from chaos. The clematis was also a snap- I cut it to the ground.

What? To the ground you ask? How did you have the courage to do such a thing? You must know the name of it, you must have looked it up on a clematis pruning chart... Nope. When I moved into this house I met this clematis for the first time. No label to be seen. I watched it for an entire growing season. Purple flowers appeared in July and continued coming until the fall. Aha. This clematis blooms on new wood. The following spring, I cut the entire rat's nest of vines out of the two climbing roses and pruned it to the ground. Every year since then it has climbed the arbor, entwined with the roses, and been happy as can be with it's annual new lease on life.

If you have a clematis that you don't know what to do with, you can figure it out too. By observing it for a year, you can track when it blooms. If the flowers come out in May and June and then there are no more flowers, it blooms on last year's wood. The time to prune it is right after blooming, in late June and early July, and then leave it alone for the rest of the growing season. If it doesn't flower at all in the spring but starts to flower in July and continues for the summer and into the fall, it blooms on current year's wood. You then have my permission to cut it to the ground every spring and enjoy a fresh, new plant each year. If your clematis blooms in May and June, takes a rest from flowering, and blooms again late summer or fall, it blooms on both last year's and this year's wood. You have a couple of options. If you are like many people who don't understand clematis and have consequently left your vine alone for years in fear of damaging it, you have a giant tangled mess on your hands. In that case, cut it down in the early spring, sacrifice the early bloom season, and get control back of the plant. You will still enjoy the late season flowers. If it looks pretty good and you don't feel like it will tear down the trellis anytime soon, do a light pruning in the spring and a second light pruning in late June or early July after the first heavy bloom period finishes. 

Poking around outside these last few days was good for my spirit. It soothed my soil to get muddy and use my muscles again. When studying the plants up close, I can see they are getting ready for spring just as I am. Buds are swelling and I find myself being extra careful not to step on the bulbs that are poking their noses up everywhere. There's hope!