in the Spring Garden
  what's going on and what tasks are necessary in the spring garden.  (in my zone 4, York Region gardens, "spring" means mid-April/mid-May).  It's a VERY busy time of the gardening season with important tasks that won't wait!    

 You may have noticed as you browse around these pages, that I've scattered a few favourite gardening quotes around.  Here's one that I think of most at this time of year -  "Spring has hit with a visual thunderclap followed by trumpet flourishes."   Diane Ackerman in CULTIVATING DELIGHT: A natural History of My Garden.  

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Nothing better describes spring in our part of the world!   Tumultuous weather see-sawing from winter to summer in just a day ... brown turning to green in the blink of an eye ... surprisingly bold colour in the flowers that bloom at this time of year ... sun so strong it dazzles the eyes ... birds hopping and flitting everywhere as though they were literally dancing ... air full of the scents of earth and dew ... ice crashing on the lakes as frost loses its grip ... life literally bursting out around us after a long winter sleep.  A "visual thunderclap with trumpet flourishes", indeed!  

 Of all the tasks that should be done through the whole gardening season, at least half of them are best done in these opening weeks of April & May.  In our climate zone 4, early April is usually still a frustrating mix of warm sunny days followed by snow and cold, preventing us from getting out there until things dry up enough.  So once warm enough and dry enough weather finally comes, gardeners are like racers waiting for the starting gate to open!  

I have to confess though that I find it hard to consider all these necessary tasks as "work" though.  Having so much practical need to stay outside, with noses, eyes, ears and hands deep in the "thunderclap" of spring, all the while playing in the dirt and getting up-close with the earth with childlike intensity again, is pure pleasure.  

I have to deeply thank Diane Ackerman for coming up with that wonderful phrase in her book.  When it comes to mind, as it always does in late March as I wait at my own starting gate, all the "work" I have to do in both my own and my many clients' gardens, immediately becomes something to look forward to rather than dread.   

 So ... happy spring everyone!   The "thunderclapping" will start soon.  Evelyn
(An April 3rd 2019 "My Garden Diary"entry that grew too long for the space allotted!) 

©Evelyn Wolf, 2019.



...from my "Dirty Knees" email newsletter, March 18th 2011
March to-do's.  ... already lots you can do for a jump start on the season. 
This is the time of the garden season when weather forecast watching becomes a bit of an obsession in itself for us.    Will winter come for a day or two again and frost bite emerging plants?  Will spring rush to summer’s warmth too quickly for a good Tulip show?    Any freezing rain in the forecast that will pool and rot the crown of plants just stirring from dormancy?  

Here in our zone 4 northern York Region gardening climate, it’s very frustrating to make plans for a spring garden since “spring” is so different from one year to the next.   At this point “They” are calling for a long cool spring this year.   While this sounds discouraging for cottagers, campers, and the winter Hellebore 'Golden Sunrise"hibernators among us (like me!), this is good news for gardens!    Long and cool is what all spring blooming plants need for a good long show.  (I planted tons of tulips last year and can’t wait to see how many the squirrels left for me.)

In my own garden I love to include some plants that bloom in very early spring.  Seeing flower buds opening amid the last of the melting snow is more heartening for a winter weary gardener than any good weather forecast could be.   The last of the lingering snow cover in my garden just melted off yesterday to reveal Hellebore flower buds just days away from opening and the first few flowers are opening on my Witchhazel ‘Diane’ in a rich deep red.   I like to think of these super early signs of the many flowers to come, as Mother Nature declaring her superior weather forecasting skills – if she says it’s OK for her subjects to start the growing season, then it must be spring! 

Late March To-Do list –
 ~ try not to let spring fever get the better of you!   In the middle of March while watching early spring flowers come along, it’s hard to remember that we’re still a full 8 weeks away from our climate zone’s last frost date in late May, when it's fully safe to plant tender annuals and veggies, and that it’s very likely we’ll still get lots of below zero nights. 
Don’t uncover any broadleaved evergreens protected from winter damage with burlap or pine boughs yet – Rhododendrons or Pieris in particular.  Their flower buds are very sensitive to damage from these late spring frosts during the intense sunshine of spring that is fooling them into blooming too early.
 ~ Start weeding!  The very definition of a “weed” is a plant that knows how to outwit more well-behaved plants.  One way they do this is by germinating seed extremely early, or are evergreen and ready to zoom into flower and drop seed before being bullied out by main season plants.  We haven’t even had a chance to dust off gardening tools for the new season yet before chickweed, for example, is blooming and dropping seed!   It's still pretty mucky at this time of year but as soon as you can, get out there and dig up all the evergreen weeds you probably didn’t even notice were there last fall.   (see side note "tip" on wet soil).    Easy to find at this time of year since they’re often the only thing in a garden that’s green in March and early April!  Get them before they drop seed which may only be a couple of weeks from now.  
Walking on your garden's soil or on your lawn when it is very wet, as it is in spring before ground thaw is complete, can cause permanent damage to the soil.  It compacts and doesn't regroup once it's dried out.  Get out there early in spring  by all means - get those weeds early ... plant some new things ... but lay out a wide board to walk on to spread your weight to protect the soil.
Make a plan for your lawn’s Corn Gluten application to prevent this year’s crop of new weeds in your lawn.   Overwintered weed seeds will be germinating over the next few weeks and corn gluten will kill them before they have a chance to open and develop roots.  Overseeding with new grass seed in spring is also a good standard practice, but careful - corn gluten will kill those seeds as they germinate too, so timing is important - that's why laying out a plan on your calendar is a smart thing to do. 
Corn gluten is effective at killing newly germinating seed of any kind, for up to 6 weeks.  Overseeding and applying corn gluten are two very good things to do for natural lawn care, but the two things must be well timed.  Either apply corn gluten now and wait 6 weeks before overseeding with grass seed, or spread the grass seed now and wait for at least 4 weeks to allow the grass seed to germinate and grow some roots before spreading corn gluten.    Doing both at the same time will be a waste of the grass seed since the corn gluten will kill the newly germinating seed.   Once the new grass plants have put down some roots, corn gluten won’t harm them at all  – in fact corn gluten is a natural source of nitrogen and will feed the developing grass plants.  Corn gluten, used correctly is very effective at controlling weeds if used correctly and regularly.  An all natural weed ‘n feed!  Getting the timing right though is the key to its effectiveness - BEFORE the weeds appear, not after. 
                                     Happy Spring!  Evelyn     back to Index 

©Evelyn Wolf, 2019.  All rights reserved.  Please contact for permission to use.  

... from my April 6th, 2009, email newsletter.
How to get bulbs blooming earlier than usual?  Cheat!
In fall when it's the right time to plant all kinds of wonderful spring bulbs, spring seems just too far away for me to think about.   My body aches from 7 months of hard work in my and my clients' gardens, and it's hard to generate enthusiasm for extra.   Creative juices are also too pooped out by September to work through the possibilities and placement, and besides - it was a full 6 months ago when whatever bulbs I already have, bloomed, and I can never remember where they are, or more to the point, where more are needed. (Of course, here's where I give myself another lecture about the need to start keeping a proper garden journal, but ... well ... whatever!)

What do I do instead?  Well, when excitement and anticipation is high in early spring, the grocery stores and garden centers are right there to soothe the gardener's itch with lots of Hyacinth, Tulips, Daffodils and more - already up and ready to bloom.   You can do much more with these spring treasures than put them on the kitchen table to tide you through the last few weeks before your garden starts to pop!
Hyacinth covered with snow. During those teasing warm spells in spring I purchase lots of these ready to bloom pots, chip a hole in the semi-thawed ground and plant them!  Sometimes they are knocked down in just a couple of days by the return of winter weather, but just as often, I get at least 2 weeks of something colourful in my garden when all else is either white, tan, or brown. 

Worth every penny of the $7.99 it cost me!  Although I've been very cruel to these poor guys by subjecting them to this extreme, they will regroup and be fine next year to bloom when they should.  (The Hyacinth in the picture were planted two weeks ago and although their struggle is evident in some leaf damage, they quickly adapted and are putting out an additional bloom or two and most of the leaves stayed strong enough to do the job of feeding the bulb for next year.).  They usually use terrific top sized bulbs for these spring pots, so rather than the $7.99 being a self-indulgent waste, it's actually a bargain! 

I call this my Cheater Bulbs routine and get a little thrill from the thought that neighbours may think that I'm some kind of garden magician, with the power to manipulate even the natural spring blooming schedule of my plants!  (Unless they catch me planting them of course!).
Happy almost spring everyone!  Evelyn

  back to Index   ©Evelyn Wolf, 2019.  All rights reserved.


  ... from my email newsletter of April 7th, 2010 on the very unusual spring weather.

Is it really here?  No more freak storms like we usually get?
I keep my own temperature and weather records each March/April to monitor the subtle changes that climate change is creating for our gardening zone.   Well ... this year's shift from winter to spring takes the cake!    Last year on this date, we were still watching the melting of the last snow fall that left 5" on the ground on the 4th.  The ground was only partially thawed and very little was out of the ground yet.  Below are some photos from the first week of April 2009.  What a difference this year!
In my long gardening career I've never seen a spring like the one we're experiencing this year.  In hindsight, many of us could have been out there seeding all the cool season vegetable crops and some of the hardy annuals around the beginning or March!  Imagine!

I have two Witch Hazel's - 'Diane' and 'Arnold's Promise'  - that have been in bloom since March 10th;  Primulas, snowdrops, scilla, have been in bloom for at least a couple of weeks now, and the past weekend I drove by some Forsythia in full bloom!  Apple trees and tons of other shrubs are already starting to open their buds.  At this time they're usually just starting to swell out of dormancy!

I have a gambler's heart (I think most gardener's do), and my gut tells me that this is really it - that we can get those veggies and annuals in the ground and open the season with just the same level of risk as there would be in a normal early May period.  A full month's extra growing time this year?   That's huge!

The problem with being ready for some risk taking?   The garden centers aren't ready with any plants!   The wholesale / retail side of this industry has many thousands of dollars at stake if they risk bringing plants in too early, only to get zapped by just one night of frost.  I can't image that they'll take that risk, which means that unless you're planting seed, you may nevertheless need to wait for the regular planting time.  What a shame, huh!

This will be a year for experimentation and note taking for sure.  The downside is that many insect pests may have also had a very easy time overwintering in large numbers successfully, and there's perhaps even time for an additional egg laying cycle.  The lack of snow and the extra month of warm weather may cause an early drought season ...   There's always a cloud that comes with any  silver lining.

                     Cheers! Evelyn
    back to Index  

 ... from an article from my old "Dirty Knees" email newsletter from May 2014 You may notice the many references to where these articles first appeared.   I used to email a monthly newsletter to people in my address book and also did some writing for the local Era Banner many years ago.  Many of these articles first appeared there. 

These have all been gathering dust in my old laptop, so I'm pleased they have a new home here at YRGardening!  Hope you enjoy them as well as add another tid-bit to your gardening know-how.  Evelyn

To-Do's for May.  These tasks won't wait!   
As anyone who has ever attended my “Think Like a Plant” gardening lesson knows, this is the time of year I simply call “zoom zoom”!  Maximum green growth in the race to out-compete neighbours for precious sunlight and maximum photosynthesis potential, is the only thing on your plants’ mind in these opening days of their active season.  They're growing so fast that from morning to evening of the same day there’s a visible difference in the perennial garden.  Was it really only a few weeks ago that the view out the window was solid mud brown?  Hard to believe!
The dandelions have certainly been doing a lot of zoom zooming in this wet cool spring we’re having too.   I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many!  Spread some corn gluten in the lawn before all those dandelion flowers turn into thousands of dandelion seeds!  For up to 6 weeks, corn gluten will kill any seeds as they try to germinate.  [I'll post a fresh article here soon on using corn gluten for weed control and how it works.  E. ]

There’s so many “to-do’s” for this time of year that it’s hard to know where to start, but here are a few to keep your available gardening hours productively filled –
tip pruning Sedum 
Tip Pruning for height and shape control, staggered bloom, or less flopping must be done NOW!  
~ Sedum spectabile(a.k.a. Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’) Prune off the top 2” of each stem when they're at around 6" tall.  This will stimulate branching for more compact growth and fuller flowering so they'll look great in fall with less flopping open over Sedum in Aug - compact after tip pruning in spring. winter.same Sedum in Oct - one solid head of flowers 
~ Monarda didyma (a.k.a. Bee Balm)  If you have a large stand of tall Bee Balm, cut the front ½ of the group of stems down by approx. 1/3 when the stand reaches around 30" tall.  This will stimulate branching to give the plant stand a more rounded look, plus, since the pruned stems will bloom later than the unpruned ones, you’ll prolong the bloom time of the patch.

~ Euphorbias of all types are in bloom now.  I love their chrome yellow flower cushion to partner with the bright colours of May tulips.  If they are left to drop seed though you’ll have a few too many seedling volunteers to weed out later in the season!    Euphorbia myrsinities (a.k.a. Donkey’s tail spurge), and E. polychroma (a.k.a. Cushion Spurge) in particular are prolific re-seeders and many people avoid them for this reason.  But they are very useful plants for an all season planting design because of their other merits of good foliage colour in fall and firmly contrasting shapes.    To solve the reseeding problem, cut all the stems back, at least by half, after the best of the flowering is done later this month and before seed has a chance to ripen.   (Discard the trimmings in a yard waste bag rather than your compost bin so your don't release seed in the compost bin!).    New growth will quickly fill in at a more controlled shape and will be a lovely foliage contributor to your perennial garden design in Autumn.
~ Forget-me-nots are a delightful partner to so many other things coming up in the spring garden, but too much of a good thing is just one season away if you let too much seed drop.    Forgets are biennials, which means each plant blooms only once in it's lifetime - but are prolific seeders.  More appear again the following year from seed that drops and grows their greens phase of a biennial later this summer, to be the blooming plants for next spring.  (the young seedlings are often mistaken for "weeds" later in summer and pulled out!)   This means that as soon as the best of this spring’s blooming is over, the entire plant can be just pulled out of the ground, roots ‘n all, given a gentle shake to drop a few seeds, and then the garden space can be given over to your expanding summer perennials.   No need to suffer through the tail end of Forgets' blooming time when they stretch out and get mildewy – just yank them out once the best of the bloom is finished or you’ll have too much seed dropping and and an ugly mess of mildew-y stems.
~ Oriental Lilies and their arch enemy - Red Lily Beetle!    The hugely destructive Lily Beetle is busy mating and laying eggs right now.   Starting mid May,inspect your emerging plants daily and kill any you find.  Also inspect the back of the Lily's leaves for a bright orange line of eggs and wipe them away with a gloved hand.   Here’s a link to a detailed Lily Beetle battle plan on the "Collected Wisdom" page.
This long cool and wet spring is exactly what perennial plants love.   I sense in my capital “G” gardener’s bones that it’s a great gardening season ahead!  

Happy gardening season, ... and remember to keep it fun!    There's lots to do, but clear a full day of all other pressing commitments and enjoy a relaxed day of enjoying the sunshine, clear air and the much needed exercise after a long winter.   Time spend getting ahead of problems now will reward you with triple the amount of time in saved work later in the season.   Evelyn  

©Evelyn Wolf, 2019.  All rights reserved.  Please contact for permission to use.
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(We're in zone 4 on the USDA climate map, but our Canadian zone map identifies this area with their own boundary system as zone 5b.  Both indicate the same average temps and first / last frost dates etc - they just name the areas slightly differently.  VERY confusing though since many of the tags at our Canadian garden centers are produced in the US, so the zone indicated on the tag is a USDA zone number, even though you're buying the plant in Canada!  I'll post a thorough article soon on understanding what the zones are about and how it matters to your plant choices or where to plant them.  Evelyn )

 ...excerpt from my May 2011 newsletter
Spring Perennials NEED the weather to stay cool!
So hard to decide what to do in our crazy climate here in York Region.  Even in the super warm winter and very early spring of 2010, we had that late May return of winter temperatures that keeps us on our toes - right on cue with our average last frost date for our zone 4/5.   

This photo is from late May 2010.   In that unusually early spring, lots of warmer than usual April and May temperatures brought along the dwarf Iris, Muscari, and Bigroot Geranium, but this freak dusting of snow in late May won't harm plants adapted to the cool growing conditions of spring.  A day or two later they perked themselves back up and carried on.  Freak super warm weather though would have sent them packing up their flowers early .  Spring bloomers NEED cool weather to bloom well - they're adapted to the vagaries of Mother Nature and are used to getting dumped on!  

Don't stress over a late snow fall  -  stress over an early arrive of summer heat!   That'll knock down your tulips faster than any crazy cold weather would.    Evelyn
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 ... from my email newsletter of May 2010  
Spring Weather - ya never know what to expect!  But a dry spring?  That's a problem!  
Now that the month of April 2010 has closed, the stats are in.  According to yesterday’s Toronto Star, this has been THE warmest April on record since records first started to kept in 1938.  It’s also the second driest on record, with just 36 millimeters of rainfall – a full 50% less than average.  (The driest April on record, since rainfall records started to be kept at Univ. of Toronto in the 1840’s, was in 1881 with just 2.6 millimeters.).  ... and the rain we did have, fell mostly during the first week.  Here then, at the end of what is supposed to be the wettest month of the year, the ground is already so dry that some gardens already need watering attention.  We can apparently blame (or credit, depending on your point of view), a lingering El Nino climate pattern. 

What does this mean to our gardens?    We’ve experienced drought conditions before, but usually during the mid summer months.  The repercussions of a dry spring though is much more challenging for our garden plants.  Any of you who have taken my gardening class in the past will perhaps remember that I call April and early May the “Zoom zoom” period in a plant’s annual cycle, when from one week to the next they rush to put out maximum leaf growth to sustain them for the season.  They need A LOT of moisture to do this – more than at any other time of the season.  In response to extremely less than adequate moisture, most of the larger perennials will likely be dwarfed this year.  They’re unlikely to die just because of inadequate water, but they’ll hunker down and put out less growth in a survival adaptation response. Not always a bad thing though - tighter, shorter plants means less flopping and in some drought loving plants, more blooms.  

Each gardening season's weather patterns has it's pros and cons.  They're predicting a drier than usual summer, but I'd rather deal with drought than all the excess rain and cool temperatures we had last year where plants had too much of a good thing and grew tall and fat with all the water and just flopped about as a result.   

I wonder if there will EVER be a full season with just the right amount of water through each month of the year.   Too much to ask?  Probably.       Cheers!  Evelyn.