Spring Awakenings

Screen shot 2012-08-01 at 4.49.12 AMIn our region, winter may be said to be the great reducer of all things.  We may call autumn fall, but winter is really the season that ought to bear the caveat: watch your head!  Snow, ice, and often prodigiously powerful winds (which seem to blow ceaselessly from November through February across our mountain) all work together as a kind of elemental demolition crew, mercilessly exposing flaws in structures both natural and built – and bringing those structures down when those flaws become inescapably fatal in nature.

As the snows recede, exposing stratum upon stratum of debris brought literally low by the assault of winter, we can find ourselves asking, if only rhetorically, whence it all came.  Looking west through the forest at my now much enhanced, though still heavily filtered view of Judge’s Hill, it is readily apparent – even with a foot or two of snowpack remaining – that a large volume of previously storm-damaged wood was scoured out of trees this winter, with some fresh damage thrown in for good measure.

All extraordinary phenomena, from the mundane to the catastrophic, are products of uncanny coincidence.  This season’s bumper crop of debris found a proximal cause in the fact that the season’s highest volume snowfall (33″ total in my location) was followed immediately by a small but wet storm, encasing in a crust of ice the almost Wasatch-grade powder of the first storm that remained in large drifts even in pine boughs.  Some of the wildest winds that I have ever witnessed then finished the job by tearing this weak, overburdened wood out of trees.  However, a lot of the damaged wood now scattered about the ground was overdue for removal.  Most perceptive residents of locations affected by the ice storm of December 11, 2008 will no doubt have noted that familiar forestlands have a markedly different appearance after this winter, as a large backlog of storm-damaged wood and compromised trees was indeed brought down by the severe winter weather.

Pruning concerns

Of course, the same forces wreaked no small havoc with the human-crafted landscape, both built (barn, and even house collapses were not infrequent occurrences) and cultivated, in a prolonged season that continues to see enormous trees snapped like matches or uprooted as the soil thaws and heaves in the transition toward true spring.  In short, woody plants large and small received a thorough thrashing.  Snapped branches and winnowed twigs are common on even the most pliant shrubs (dogwood, rose, clethra), with many of the more brittle species (hydrangea, tree peony, pieris) suffering severe damage.  I don’t even want to know what the infamously shatter-prone ‘Carol Mackie’ daphne looks like under its slowly diminishing icy shell.

Still, some of the damage is not yet entirely visible where snow cover remains; I continue to anxiously await the revelation of the condition of my apparently flattened highbush blueberry shrubs, fourteen youngish shrubs in total, that suffered the same inglorious meteorological insult whether sited out in the open or in the pinetum.  While it is plainly clear that the best-case scenario for this spring is a considerable amount of pruning to be done (particularly at higher elevations), most established, healthy plants will respond to the trauma of the original injury with a greater-than-ordinary flush of new twigs.  Prudent pruning of damaged shrubs in the spring will encourage this new growth to fill in as normally as possible.

As an antidote to catastrophizing what are – let’s face it – mere horticultural setbacks, it is worth noting that real aesthetic character is often created by these periodic, traumatic events – even if that distinct personality is not evident until the specimen has attained some advanced age.  While symmetry can be beautiful, artful asymmetry is something yet more uncommon and sublime.

Danger overhead

However, what may be a mere horticultural setback at the scale of the shrub or crabapple can manifest as an imminent threat to life and property when present at the scale of a canopy tree.  During this period of cold spring, before flowers and foliage begin to obscure the view, one is well advised to take stock of the health of any particularly important trees on one’s property, with special attention to any that could pose hazards to structures, vehicles, pathways and gathering spaces.  If you do not know what to look for, consult a landscape professional for an evaluation of arbor health and hazard assessment.

Kinder, gentler spring clean-up

After having been penned up for months, it is tempting to attack all of your landscape tasks at once, but it is safer and more efficient to prioritize the tasks that are most timely – namely, pruning and light clean up of debris – rather than allowing irrational enthusiasm to get the better of us.  The soil, and by extension, everything that depends directly on it for life, is in a period of extraordinary transition during early spring (what we hill folk call mud season), and it is exceedingly unwise to tread upon planting beds until they have fully thawed and sufficiently drained, essentially reawakened and recharged with metabolic activity.

During this time, it is perfectly acceptable to rake lightly from outside the margins of planting beds to sneak in some timely clean up before bulbs spring forth, but one can do real damage by treading within beds when the soil is still soft, undoing years of soil-building toil in an instant of clumsy eagerness.  The same issues apply to lawn areas as well; while it is fine to lightly rake up winter debris, and as tempting as it may be to vigorously rake out matted turf, bear in mind that turfgrass is easily injured at this time of year – and act with suitable restraint with implement, vehicle, and footfall alike, avoiding saturated areas entirely.

While conditions vary widely due to elevation, microclimate, exposure, drainage, soil type, and spring weather, it is generally safe to begin cultivating, planting, or otherwise invading the soil matrix within two to three weeks of the ground having fully thawed.  In terms of our calendar, cultivation can usually begin by the third week of April.

Compost: ambrosia terrae

The process that brings debris into contact with the earth is a vital part of the nutrient cycle, and we ought to realize the consequences of interrupting its intent.  Gardens can be, in a way, something both of nature and apart from nature depending on our own particular, individual expectations of appearance, and demand a level of maintenance that often includes a convoluted, interrupted nutrient cycle.

However, with the use of low-impact, sustainable materials and proper timing, even this more refined level of maintenance can be achieved with minimal disruption of nature.  Consider on-site composting as a means of minimizing trucking costs associated with your landscape.  It saves money, fuel, and in time creates healthy, rich humus that recharges garden soil when applied as a top-dressing.  If you contribute your grass clippings, food waste, wood ashes, and biodegradable sundries (unbleached paper products, including egg cartons) to your compost pile, you add several factors which can help to speed decomposition – and reduce your trash bill and your personal contribution to the waste stream otherwise destined for incineration, abiotic entombment in a landfill, or worse yet, an ocean gyre.

Non-naturalized, traditional gardens benefit greatly from a generous top-dressing of compost every few years to revitalize and aerate congested and compacted soils.  In situations in which one has very infertile soil or is seeking to remediate a poorly prepared planting bed, top-dressing should be performed annually, in autumn or spring, until performance has achieved the desired level.  Annual landscapes, whether edible, ornamental, or some combination thereof have especially intensive nutrient demands and ought to receive a hearty supplement of compost annually, and often with even greater frequency for optimal performance of heavily-feeding crops.

Learn your limits

One should also be quite conscious of where the cultivated landscape ends, and not give oneself over to the obsessive tendency to scour the forest of every trunk, branch, stump and leaf.  Those wooded landscapes that have been so manicured as to appear to have been vacuumed by a crack force of over-caffeinated Sutton Place domestic workers are disturbing not only because they look so unnatural but mostly because they are so unnatural.  There is little hope for the long-term health of these trees, deprived as they are of the nutrients that are the final remains of the their own gift to the earth, once all the ever-decreasing orders of organisms have processed the leaves, wood, and bark that comprise that regular contribution.  If you are surrounded by woodlands and feel the need to reduce the mess a bit, try to limit your interventions to the first 15 or 20 feet in from the woods’ edge; remaining debris will provide important food and habitat for a variety of organisms, including moss, which will likely cloak it within a year or two.

Spring exposé!

The current period of transition from winter to spring also vividly exposes notable problems and opportunities in the landscape.  Most important in terms of our infrastructure and ability to easily move about our landscapes is drainage, unglamorous a topic though it may seem.  In the late winter and early spring, recurrent or latent drainage issues are most likely to manifest, and the evidence of these failures provides useful information for crafting enduring solutions that address problems as close to their source as possible, thereby minimizing the likelihood of recurrence, and obviating the possibility of secondary issues that could have developed from the original problem if left unaddressed in the long term.

With no pun intended, what may appear on the surface to be drainage problems can often present opportunities for creative, responsible, sustainable landscaping.  An area with wet soil, whether by nature or as a result of human intervention, can become a garden that never needs watering, provides habitat and food to birds, amphibians, and beneficial insects, and acts as a genetic reservoir for native plant species.  Additionally, interesting design possibilities abound for applications of native stone when used in drainage courses and permeable hardscape surfaces, especially around structures, where a sharper aesthetic is usually preferable.

Drip bedDrip Edge

It has been said that water finds its own level, a truism that is vague enough to be accurate in consideration of water’s unique physical properties – which we see mainly evidenced by the weird, wonderful, and sometimes maddeningly destructive things it can do in its solid phase of ice.  Examining drainage issues in the spring allows a landscape professional to understand, account for, and remediate the effects of ice impeding and redirecting water, above and below grade.  Drainage issues are also handled most cost-effectively in early spring, as soon as the earth can be worked – and before torrential spring and summer rains can wreak their havoc, via flooding of structures or erosion of infrastructure such driveways and culverts.  Proper drainage and stormwater management are essential foundations of a well-designed, functioning, and sustainable landscape.

Harbingers of cold spring

Finally, pay attention to which areas on your property become free of snow earliest, as these can present opportunities for expanding the growing season into the late winter with such species as winter aconite, hellebores, snowdrops, and other plants bold enough to claim the waxing days of March and April for their own.  Many of these, including native ephemerals, will casually colonize the ground in bright woodlands, require close to no maintenance and can provide generations with ever-naturalizing beauty.  As always – but especially important if you are seeking to create any type of garden room – don’t forget the shrubs!  Several species of woody plants, including spring and hybrid witch hazels, as well as the cornelian cherry dogwood, unfurl their hardy, subtle blooms as soon as and whenever conditions permit, from late February into April, and can provide either the skeletal structure of a late winter garden or a stunning statement in and of themselves, whether showcased as specimens or deployed en masse.

By Terrence Trapp, Director of Horticulture

April 1st, 2012

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