Many a gardener has an inner Edward Scissorhands, but not all shrubs flourish under the shears and in real life as well as show biz, timing is everything. Cut broadleaf evergreens down to size from Valentine’s Day through the end of March, but save the electric hedge trimmers for summer.
Now is the time for the surgical approach, lopping off individual branches with hand pruners or a saw. Don’t leave stubs. If you do this branch by branch, you can bring a holly, abelia or euonymous down to size in no time.
A formal hedge provides a healthy outlet for those who enjoy sculpting with shrubs. It requires a couple of clippings in July and August to look its best. For inspiration, inspect the beautifully maintained privet hedge at Congregation Beth Israel on E. Jefferson Street.
This is not the season to prune needle evergreens like pine, juniper and hemlock. Only a few of these needle types, chiefly yew, can re-sprout from cuts into dormant wood. Wait until after they begin growth later in the season to shape them.
Flowering shrubs are not at their best sheared into formal shapes. There are few sights sadder than the naturally graceful forsythia reduced to a diminutive green and yellow meatball. Although radical pruning at the wrong time will not kill these shrubs, you can reduce or lose altogether their blossoms for a season. The heart of the mystery is whether the blooms reside in old wood or new.
Forsythia, mophead hydrangeas (the old-fashioned blues and pinks) and lilacs flower early because they carry their buds on “old” wood produced last summer. A trim in late summer or early fall will decapitate them. Butterfly bushes and white snowball-type hydrangeas bloom in July, on “new” wood that will begin growing this spring. They will flower whether pruned or not but they profit from a late winter haircut to encourage more flower-bearing wood.
If untangling the old wood from the new gives you a headache, put down the saw and turn to the vegetable garden where the tasks of the season are as simple as waiting for the soil to dry out and getting something in the ground. Transplants of lettuces, cabbages and leeks will be available at garden centers around mid-month.
If you’re going to be gardening in the same spot for a while and don’t feel it’s spring unless you’re doing some serious digging, consider asparagus. Dormant crowns can be planted this month. A good bed can produce for 15 years and needs to be well-amended at the outset with lots of compost and rotted leaves. Plants need to grow for two to three years before you begin harvesting the tasty spears, so it’s a long-term project, but isn’t that what gardening is all about?
One pleasure of early spring that requires no sweat is to welcome the early daffodils. There is a world to explore beyond the great yellow honkers of April. “Butter and Eggs,” an old species narcissus, and the little wind-swept cyclamineus types like “Peeping Tom” and “February Gold” are among the first to flower. Consult Brent and Becky Heath’s Daffodils for American Gardens (Elliot & Clark, 1995) and the Van Engelen bulb catalog (www.vanengelen.com) to investigate the possibilities.
From the demands of the shrubbery to the promise of the vegetable plot to the lure of the first flowers, the spring garden calls us up from our winter sleep. Be careful what you cut, plant something to eat and put your nose deep in a daffodil as we spin on towards the equinox on March 21.