April, the month to start planning your plantings

Our gardens have come alive, bursting out of their winter dormancy with daffodils, forsythia, and rosemary plants covered with a haze of blue flowers against their shiny green foliage.

The cherry trees seem fuller with blossoms this year, perhaps because there were few strong March winds, or because they are the harbingers of a drought condition.

Did you know that trees and shrubs always show a heavier bloom in stress conditions, such as drought?

In fact hybridizers rely on this habit in their work. In order to get bigger blooms or to maximize the length of a flowering season, a tree or shrub will be bred to focus on this flowering characteristic at the expense of other traits such as hardiness and/or limb vigor and strength. This work can be seen in the popular ornamental pear tree, Pyrus calleryana, which is now used extensively for street tree planting schemes.

The pear fruit has become non-existent; therefore no messy sidewalk problems. The blossoms last a long time and profusely cover the entire tree in a grand display. The original horizontal branching pattern has been modified into a more columnar shape which is a helpful characteristic for narrow street tree planting spaces.

The original tree's thorny young growth characteristic has been hybridized into oblivion, making the trees safe for both small and large hands.Does this mean that perfection has been achieved? Not necessarily for when a heavy wet snowfall occurs the vertical branching pattern cannot withstand the weight and branches are torn off or severely damaged. The other weakness, that has occurred after 25 years of hybridization, is that the leaves now stay on long past the autumn leaf drop season, sometimes to the point of muddying the visual effect of the early spring blossoms.

So what is a gardener to do or think? Well it helps to know a bit about hybrids and their histories when you are gardening in a region that will have periods of drought on a regular basis.

For example many hybrid plants have heavy feeding requirements, such as Hybrid Tea roses. Specie roses and older hybrid roses such as damasks, gallicas and centifolias, do not require this regimen after they have become established in the garden, which is usually 2 to 3 years after planting.

Plants that are heavily fertilized produce an abundance of tender new growth that requires a good bit of irrigation to stay healthy and viable.

If the required water is not forthcoming, the plants become stressed and then more easily succumb to pest infestations. Some gardeners respond by applying liberal doses of pesticides while other gardeners become convinced that roses, for example, are just too difficult to deal with in their gardening schemes.

The "experts" devise new rules to reassure gardeners that more soil testing, more fertilizers, more spraying schedules will overcome all setbacks. The logic of looking at site characteristics and learning more about hybrids and species is overlooked in the frenzy to be the master over our garden plants. Preparing the garden for this year's possible drought situation needs to start now, early in the season, before the signs of stress become clearly apparent. I would strongly urge that you reduce your normal spring fertilizing regimen. I know that this is terribly un-nerving to do if you have always felt that feeding your plants ensured their health.

However, by eliminating this false surge of new spring growth, the plants will require less water later in the year. The other key ingredient for nurturing your plants is to liberally apply mulch. So, less fertilizer and more mulch can become your battlecry this year. Call around to the arborists located in your community to find out when they can deliver their chippings to your garden. This material makes an excellent mulch. While it is true that the decomposition process does rob the soil of some nitrogen, that will actually be a blessing this year when we are trying to create a nurturing, non-stressful slow growth for our plants.

The price is good (usually free), and there are no plastic container bags that end up in our landfills.

If the coarseness of the material is visually unappealing, it really is quite simple to pluck out the large bits that seem offensive after you have spread the mulch. If further refinement is desired, the chippings can be mixed with a finer mulch such as Cedar Grove or Whitney Farms compost.

It sounds like a lot of hauling and moving and spreading work. Yes, but it is wise preventive work.

The thick mulch layer allows the plants to nestle into a very protective environment. The soil underneath does not compact.

Fabulous micro-organisms and bacteria add to the health of the soil. Weed plants, if they do get established, can be removed with greater ease.

I look at beautifully mulched garden beds and I see a luxurious cashmere blanket, a valuable security blanket for our beloved plants.

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