by AMY STEWART
People have always told me that you should prune your roses on Christmas Day. It sounds like funny advice; after all, most of us are either out of town on Christmas or just a little preoccupied by -- oh, I don't know -- the gifts, the meal, the spiking of eggnog, the assembling of miniature train tracks and the general merry-making. It's not a day that one typically associates with digging in the dirt or tackling a major pruning job.
But there is something solemn and beautiful about the outdoors on Christmas Day. Step outside and close the door behind you: it's preternaturally quiet. All the usual traffic sounds, and the daily hum of the neighborhood, have ceased. You can hear the birds and the wind and maybe, if you live close enough, the faint lovely roar of the ocean. The day is so short that the light takes on that pale, nostalgic quality early in the afternoon, and the knowledge that darkness will arrive long before dinner lets you off the hook for any major garden projects you might otherwise tackle. It's a day for tinkering in the garden, a day for tidying up and looking for signs of new growth.
So if the weather cooperates and your family will let you slip away for a few hours, here are my suggestions for getting back in touch with the garden on Christmas Day:
Prune lightly. Every year, I learn to prune with a little lighter touch. I was amazed to hear Cindy Graebner at Fickle Hill Old Rose Nursery say that she does not cut her roses back to 10-inch sticks each winter. She prunes a little here and there throughout the year, but mostly she lets her roses stretch out and get comfortable, and clearly, her approach works. So walk around with your pruning shears, but just cut roses and other perennials back enough to let light and air through the plant and remove dead or diseased limbs. If you haven't sheared back your lavender, do it now, but be sure to leave enough new green growth to sustain the plant -- never cut lavender back to its woody base. Just cut back the outer growth and prune it so that it forms a gentle mound shape. Salvia also benefit from this light treatment -- only remove last year's growth when you see plenty of young new shoots emerging from the base of the plant. I usually make two or three passes by my salvia over the winter, removing a little more of last year's growth each time.
Deadhead. If there are any spent flowers left on scabiosa, coreopsis, penstemon, or other flowering perennials, remove them now so the plant can put its energy into its root system.
Weed with caution. If you have heavy clay soil like I do, you'll want to avoid disturbing the dirt too much when it's this wet. But go ahead and pull out any particularly large and offensive weeds before they take over. If it's too wet to dig out the roots of invasive Himalayan blackberries, you might just cut them back to the ground so your garden doesn't get overrun with bramble.
Toss snails. The snail population can get out of control in wet winter months. They've got nothing better to do than wait around for your daffodils to bloom in March, so you might as well outsmart them now. Tossing snails into the street is an entertaining and invigorating way to send them to their doom.
Fill the feeders. If you feed birds, now's the time to offer them an extra holiday treat. Keep your feeders full and take some time to walk through the neighborhood and see what plants the birds are seeking out for food and shelter. The best way to attract birds to your own garden is to plant the kinds of trees, shrubs and vines that are already popular with the neighborhood's avian population.
Feed winter-flowering shrubs. If you've got some fertilizer for acid-loving plants on hand, go ahead and feed camellias, azaleas, hydrangeas and rhododendrons. They will also appreciate coffee grounds, which add nitrogen and are slightly acidic.
Dream a little dream of spring. Spend some time thinking ahead. Step back and look at the garden while you can see it without its flowers and finery. Is anything missing? Are there any holes, any gaps to fill? Bareroot fruit trees, roses and berry vines will be in nurseries soon. You'll also be able to get artichokes, asparagus and strawberries, so take a look around and see if you can find a spot for them. Take a look at low-growing perennials like catmint, thyme, oregano, lamium and cranesbill geranium. Are they ready to be divided? Once the ground dries a little, you'll be able to lift these plants out of the ground, tease the roots apart and plant them anywhere you need a little color.
Don't fool yourself; spring is a long way off. The days are already getting imperceptibly longer, but I have a feeling there is plenty more wind and rain headed our way before the first spring flowers open. The garden doesn't need much from you anyway, but just staying in touch with it does both the garden and the gardener some good. I'll see you in the new year.
garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.
© Copyright 2003, North Coast Journal, Inc.