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Tooling up for Spring Gardens: Tool Care Tips for that First Cut, Happy Spring Containers & Orchards

Sheryl Crow and Cat Stevens sing passionately “the first cut
is the deepest.”
Gardeners know better.
Our log-splitting president, Abe Lincoln, probably got it
better when he famously said: Give me six hours to chop down a tree and
I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Before you take to cutting out what you think are “dead” leaves or
branches from this long, cold winter, with its see-saw of freeze, thaw, freeze
thaw – take the time to prepare.
Spring is new beginnings.
While I joked that with the weather so curious recently – we might see
Frosty holding hands with Peter Rabbit!
Time to end your winter nesting – and get outdoors to see the birds

It IS spring

Albeit a cold one – meteorologists say it’s ten degrees colder than
The nursery owner told me yesterday that with the full moon around
Mother’s Day, the calendar date that marks the unofficial OK to plant annuals
in our zone 6/7 – you may still be susceptible to frost at that date – so check
up before planting.
However, I’m the optimist and believe it’s better this way than too
I will enjoy our pansies and ranunculus container plantings.
While botanists at the area botanical gardens forecast a mash-up of bloom
times – with tulips blooming along with cherry blossoms and magnolias, enjoy
what is nevertheless the season’s ephemeral beauty.  
And if you missed pruning your summer blooming trees and shrubs due to
too-cold weather, you’re not too late.
Before you head out in those first warm days to play catch up and cut –
heed some of Abe’s arboreal wisdom.
Tool Smarts
Review your tools before you start pruning, cutting, trimming or digging;
make sure your tools are clean and sharp.
If you thought it was a long winter, imagine what your tools thought –
sitting in the corner of a tool shed, garage or back of your truck – where
dampness or fungus can grow.  
At my spring garden talk on Tuesday, a woman from the garden club
sheepishly admitted that she’d never cleaned her garden tools.  While she looked more like I’d just caught
her cheating on her taxes (or worse) – you should love your tools and good
maintenance will help not only preserve them and the investment you made with
them, but clean tools help insure you don’t pass along sap or pathogens.
Plus, clean and sharpened tools help you to do garden work faster and
more efficiently. After all, they are part of your garden team – labor-saving
assistants to make your efforts much more effective.
Tools that need to be sharpened are loppers, pruners, knives, hoes,
shears, and shovels, to name a few.
I start by washing; dipping the tool blades in a bleach bath – three
parts water to one part bleach. 
Wipe dry.
If needed, use mineral spirits to remove any tough to rid residues.
I lay mine outside for further fresh-as-spring clean. 
No hanging on the line!

But you do want to stand your tools up or hang from pegs rather than lean
against a wall or floor where the tools can gather moisture – the enemy of your
tool’s beauty and utility.

Of course, we should all wash up our tools after each garden adventure –
think of it like washing the dishes after the meal – or taking off your makeup
at the end of the day.
Yes, there are those times when we just. Can’t. Seem. To spend. One.
More. Minute…
Spa Talk
In general, wipe your tools down after every use – with a quick wash at
the sink or with a soap and water drenched cloth and/or nail brush.
Keep a bucket of sand handy moistened a tad of linseed oil to dip the
tools into after using them.
This mix is abrasive and lubricating – a veritable spa treatment for the
Experts recommend the linseed oil vs. the old-fashioned recipe of using
motor oil and I agree.  No one wants
motor oil on their melons!
The Linseed oil is also beneficial for the tools’ wooden handles – so go
ahead and give them a quick wipe too.
We have an automatic blade wheel but you can also use a handheld whet
stone or flint or carbide sharpener and file the blade at a 20-degree angle.
This is the first year I’ve pruned our crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia
indica).   In the northeast, zone 6/7
area (thanks to climate change) where we live, late winter/early spring is the best
time to prune these blooming beauties and workhorses of the summer garden.
The crape myrtles are one of the few blooming shrubs/trees of the summer
here, their bark is museum-worthy and their easy-to-no care maintenance and
glorious, colorful, stately beauty elicits smiles and a loyal following.
Crape myrtles bloom on new growth.
You can prune them for a shrub-like screening effect or more as a tall,
lollipop look. Pruning correctly will allow flowers to arrive earlier.
Don’t top off; rather prune gently – mindful of the lateral or axillary
buds – not the terminal buds – in order to encourage more full growth and avoid
the spindly or lanky growth with few to no inflorescence.
Fine Gardening advises “to prune
them early spring before they break dormancy. And good pruning while crape
myrtles are young will mean less maintenance when the trees are older.”

I also snipped off the spent hydrangea heads from the macrophylla aka
Mophead hydrangeas that bloom on old growth in order to improve their
performance – and look.

I was not pruning – that work should be done when the flowers fade in the
fall.  However, I like the look, and
believe it strengthens the plant for the winter and provides food and shelter
for pollinators of all sizes. 
These summer blooming shrubs set flower buds in late summer or early fall
so take care when removing the dried blooms from last year.
There is a school of thought that says Mopheads don’t ever really need
Today, due to the shrubs sheer popularity, there are ever-more varieties
available for your garden – and these new – often branded hydrangeas can bloom continuously
as in “Endless Summer.” Still others bloom on new growth and should be pruned
in spring, 
Be sure to check the plant you have before lopping off part of it
nutrient-building woody stems.
Remember – ask or find out – if your hydrangea is the kind that blooms on
old or new wood.
Want to change the color? That’s another story.

We also cleaned out the herb bed gardens, gently raking with the small
Japanese-styled rake. Likewise, I raked the pea gravel walks that embrace the
garden’s quadrants.

I fluffed up the indigenous, local rock borer that gets beat down over
the winter.

It was now mulch time!  We get three to five yards delivered and then distribute in the beds accordingly.

At this time, I also walk my garden and my clients – to produce a punch list and a need-to-buy list – talking into my iPhone until Siri has enough of my garden talk… 
This way I can readily email text or images or add to existing project work to share with my garden team, too. 
Like tools, make technology work for you. 

Last autumn, I planted the espalier apple against the wall of our front
entrance porch.
And planted its mate J around the back in what I dreamed would be our future orchard, located
next to the farme-ette. 
The apple trees were an exciting find at our local nursery.  I was delighted to find any fruit trees to
tell you the truth. My research and calls turned up zero at just about every
 There wasn’t much choice in the
fruit trees when I did find a source – the pears they had just didn’t work for
But I got the two apple sweethearts, and planted them right away.
Especially happy to be starting our homegrown orchard.
The design is a simple one: two beds, a path in between so garden guests
can bask in the spring blooms and seasonal fruit above – while taking in the
edible farm-ette.
After marking off one bed and planting the apple, I swiped the bales of
hay from my neighbor’s discarded Halloween post design and used it as a ground
cover for the tree. 
Despite the Polar Vortex and because of the snow, the apple stayed snug
as a bug and warm. The blossoms on him and the espalier are already

Last fall, I ordered three more fruit trees – these I sourced from Willis

The dwarf peach (Bonfire), cherry (Compact Stella), and apricot (Garden
Annie – maybe Leeannie!) bare root fruit trees arrived last week. I chose dwarf
not only for the scope of our yard; I am careful not block our neighbors’ view
of the harbor and NYC skyline so didn’t want big trees that we’d need to
continually prune or make for bad relations.

With visions of fragrant fruit blooms dancing in my head and my mind’s
eye (Hello Monticello!) and excited for what might be our own homegrown fruit, sitting
under the fruit trees’ canopy – on a bench, perhaps, fueled my enthusiasm to
plant my design.
I couldn’t wait to complete the orchard.
I measured, modified, cut the grass patch and used the rototiller to
create the aerated bed.  Then I planted
these fruit-cuties with an eye toward staggering them so that when viewed from
the side, one can see all the trees.
Satisfied – I’m waiting for nature and hoping the pollinators will love
us more
I shovel cut the bed borders – ridding the accumulation of leaves and debris there too.  Years ago I interviewed the garden estate manager at Linden Hill for a Two River Times feature here in the Garden State – and this Cornwall-raised and trained hort expert was quite persnickety about maintaining the crisp shovel cut border.  “You can tell an expert and caring gardener by the borders they keep,” he admonished.  It stuck with me.   
Happy Containers
Getting ready for Easter weekend, I wanted to fill the front urns and flower pots with seasonal, welcoming flowers to help guests smile on their way in for homegrown hugs, food, and drink.
Spring cleaning doesn’t stop at the windows.
For healthy plants, a good scrubbing will make
all the difference. 
Be sure to wash or sterilize your
containers to rid them of mold and fungus. 
To clean, you can use a pot-scrubbing brush and soak in the bleach
solution for 5-10 minutes in order to kill bad things that may have set up
housekeeping in your pots.
Because it’s so cold still, the plant choices are limited for spring
containers here. 

I hope you’ll agree that that the white pansies and ranunculus that
highlight the white star magnolia and the house’s trim are a welcome sight.

And nothing says sweet spring like pansies.

Don’t their “faces” just make you want to pinch their cheek or kiss them?
Happy Spring. Cheers to new beginnings.

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