Tea and Winter Pruning

This morning was sunny, a momentary break between showers. I kicked off my slippers, put on my boots, and went outside to have a look. Sipping my tea, I walked through the soggy garden, waiting for a little prompting to tell me where to work today.

My eye was caught by a section of the garden where last year’s growth had caused some shrubs and perennials to grow into and through each other, leading to a visual mess. They were beautiful plants, just right for a sunny dry border with a sturdy succession of bloom. Starting the year with African daisies and Jerusalem sage, then irises, followed by summer and fall blooming sages, the border was also filled year round with grassy clumps of Carex testacea (an orange-tinted sedge) and the year-round colorful Leucadendron ‘Jester.’ Clumps of garden geraniums also bloomed more or less year round. Every year I also add milkweeds for the monarchs to lay their eggs on. For some reason the milkweeds don’t overwinter well in this border, and I have to start over with them each year.

The graceful lines of a sedge.

The graceful lines of a sedge.

Decision made, I went back inside, finished my tea, and sharpened my pruners. For a reshaping project like this, sharp pruners make the morning much more fun. This was just a “field sharpening.” I ran a sharpening stone over the blade and lubricated the moving parts without taking the pruners all the way apart.

Next it was time to set up my wheelbarrow. One of my gardening bad habits is to get all excited, and mix everything in the wheelbarrow. There it turns into debris instead of compost because the weeds are mixed in with the compostable cuttings. Or I just keep filling my wheelbarrow and dump a big pile next to the compost bin without chopping. Then I get discouraged by the huge pile and don’t go out in the garden for awhile.

Today I was determined to take my time and work mindfully. So I set up my wheelbarrow with a big bucket inside. I would chop into the bucket as I went, so the compostable cuttings were ready to go straight into the compost pile. Branches too big to chop and weeds would go in the wheelbarrow, already sorted for the green bin. I wouldn’t get quite as much done, but the garden would be tidy and ready for some fun again tomorrow, and the compost would get a boost of new materials. (If you don’t know how to make compost, check out our free class in the garden the first Saturday of each month.)

Now I was ready to start separating each plant from the others by removing branches and shoots that had invaded the space of another plant. I left some room between them, since they will soon be growing vigorously again, and they need some space to expand into. As always in perennial borders, some plants had grown much more than others last year. So some had to be strictly reduced, even having some rooted shoots around the edges of their clumps dug up and discarded. Some just needed a trim.

I gave extra room to the sedge clumps, and then a tiny haircut by holding all the long grassy leaves in one hand and trimming off just the tips with the other. As each sedge clump became a little more uniform, not like soldiers but softly shaped, the whole border began to have a rhythm and flow to it. My eye started to see all the sedge clumps together, drawing my attention along the pathway with an easy interest.

Also, as the shrubs began to get disentangled, the foliage contrast between plants began to show. Each plant has its own shade of green, and different size and textures of foliage began to help me see the rhythms in the shapes and repetitions of the planting. Even in winter, without flowers, the border was starting to be beautiful enough to stop a pedestrian for another look. By the way, in order to achieve this, I often had to cut off the last flowers of 2018, blooming on the end of last year’s new growth. It’s a common beginner’s error not to be willing to cut a branch with a flower, even when it is the branch breaking up the shapes and contrasts of the border.

Foliage colors pop in the winter garden.

Foliage colors pop in the winter garden.

A wonderful thing about this time of year is that because many plants are dormant or partly deciduous it is easier than at other seasons to find the drip irrigation lines under the plants. Many of the plants in this border were planted with the idea that they would not need any irrigation once they were established. Even drought tolerant plants need some summer water during their first dry season.

However, it’s a common mistake to forget to take the watering off after the first couple of years. The water keeps flowing to these plants, helping them flop and overgrow, and dooming them to early mortality because they are vulnerable to crown rot if the soil never dries out around their roots in summer. Winter cleanup in the border is a wonderful time to find these irrigation lines and remove them. This saves water and money, and also helps the plant’s health.

About two hours in, I started to have an uneasy feeling. I wasn’t quite done, but my hand was getting tired from chopping, and my stomach was starting to grumble. Time for a break! For years I used to garden way past the point of pleasure, trying to get things perfect. Now that I’m older and wiser, I know that things are never perfect in the garden, and that I am a non-renewable resource. While caring for the soil, the water, the students, and the climate, I also have to care for myself. Tomorrow is another day!

So clean up was very simple. The compostable debris was already chopped, and could be dumped straight into the compost bin. The weeds and heavy branches were sorted for the green bin. A quick wipe for my pruners, and everything was where it belonged. Time for another cup of tea.