The first big clear up of the year began last weekend.
It started in the morning as I opened the bedroom curtains to find a pair of house finches chattering away upon my porch roof. The male had three or four twigs in his beak and had clearly never been told not to talk with his mouth full. They wrangled with each other for a few minutes, discussing the neighborhood, the views, the schools and off-street parking, but he eventually won the argument, taking his bride to look at a prime spot in the climbing rose. The sun was coming up, the temperatures were well on this side of respectability, and all this feathered activity motivated me to get my own house in order – my garden house that is.
I tread with a careful step this time of year. On the one hand, ‘the lark at heaven’s gate sings and Phoebus ‘gins arise,’ but on the other hand, weather is one of the greatest uncertainties in a gardener’s book of uncertainties, and I am not immune to the superstition that I may be tempting fate. Plant some peas – expect deep snow; uncover the swaddled hypericum – expect temperatures to drop to record lows for the season. Mother Nature likes a laugh just as much as the next guy. So, I instead ignored the exciting for the mundane, turning my hand to the raking and the pruning.
First on the list, an awkward Manhattan Euonymus, once pretty and petite; now grown gangly and bitter by crushing snows and freeze-drying winds. I pulled out the shears, intending to trim, but realized that broken branches, unsightly holes and a front and center position in the border meant a complete overhaul was in order. I considered the possibility of limbing it up to create a little evergreen ‘tree’ in the border, and then considered the probability that I might make a dog’s breakfast of the whole endeavor. After staring at it for a full ten minutes, wondering ‘do I dare and do I dare?’ I armed myself with loppers and went into the belly of the beast. Twenty minutes later, the beast was once again a beauty, I’d cleared out a lovely area for some shade-loving dicentra, and I’d discovered six layered plants rooting in the soil beneath. Just goes to show, ‘He who dares, wins.’
The ladder was required for my next horticultural stunt. Twenty feet of ladder to be precise. Each year at this time I ask myself why I spend countless hours and endure innumerable scratches tending a Paul’s Himalayan Musk rose scrambling up the south side of the house. However, in three short months I get my answer: unbelievable bloom and intoxicating fragrance. Makes every scratch, every ladder wobble, and even an aching hand worth it.
After many years, the form and structure of this giant has been established, and with a little work – timed perfectly – it is now possible to maintain it without losing my mind in a sea of twenty foot lateral canes. Later, the grandiflora, two David Austins and two climbers got their annual cutback, and I went after the sprawling rugosa with fire in my eyes.
Maintaining a list of priorities at this time of year is crucial when tacking garden projects. There is no point in rebuilding the tomato bed in the first days of February when you haven’t any tomatoes to plant until May, and re-gravelling the paths comes in a distinct second to hard pruning the lavender walk before the little guys have a chance to start their spring growth. For the most part I stick to my list even though it is very tempting to let the domino effect of little jobs change the grand order of things. Once you get distracted, the jobs multiply exponentially, and before you know it, you are making a hypertufa trough for your sedums when you are meant to be on your knees seeding poppies.
Stay focused. There will be time for all. And, as T.S. Eliot’s immortal Mr. Prufrock once said, “ … time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions, before the taking of toast and tea.”