Mayday! Mayday! This week it can be either an announcement of spring or a distress signal once you realize how many of your plants turned to frozen mush this winter.
The bad news: Your New Zealand flax, jasmine, evergreen clematis, expensive new hybrid tea roses, hebes and other marginally hardy plants are dead and gone. Unless they’re still alive. You won’t know for sure until June, when you can determine that there is no new growth coming up from the roots. Meanwhile, if you have winter-damaged shrubs that still look pitiful in the month of May, don’t feel guilty about digging them up. Your plants aren’t children. There are no plant police. When plants disappoint you or grow unattractive, there’s no need for a lifetime commitment.
The good news: The hard winter was nature’s way of cleaning up and clearing out. Consider this spring a clean sweep so now it’s time to get down and get dirty and fill those empty spots with some great new shrubs.
WHAT TO DO FIRST
1. Dig out the skeletal remains of your winter-damaged plants and remove as much of the roots as you can.
2. Loosen the soil well in the area before you add the new plant. It’s more important to have a shallow but wide hole than it is to dig deep.
3. If you want to add compost or improved soil at this time, make sure you mix it in well throughout the planting area – if you just plunk a shovel full of compost into the bottom of a planting hole, it will act like a sponge to trap excess water. This can cause root rot. Mix the compost into the topsoil all around the new plant, not just into the bottom of the planting hole.
WHEN YOU ADD THE NEW PLANT
1. Make sure the new root ball is level with the top of the planting hole. Don’t plant too deep or your new shrub could suffocate. This is especially true when adding rhododendrons and azaleas.
2. Fill the planting hole with water and let it soak in. After you add the plant, water slowly all around the roots while you fill in with soil.
3. Don’t stamp on top of the soil with your feet. This can compact the soil too much and push out all the air pockets. Instead, firm the soil around your new plant with the heels of your hands.
4. To make the new addition feel welcome, tuck a blanket of mulch around the root zone but don’t pile woodchips or compost mulch up high around the neck of the plant. Mulch touching bark can cause stem rot in our damp climate.
SOME SHRUBS TO CONSIDER
For evergreen color that will light up our dark winter days, choose plants with variegated foliage. Golden euonymus takes full sun or some shade and can be kept clipped like a hedge or allowed to sprawl.
There also are silver-leaved euonymus, tidy box leaf euonymus and burning bush euonymus with fiery red fall color.
For hot sun and lousy soil, the barberries won’t disappoint. There are red leaf barberries, Golden Nugget Dwarf barberries and a slow-growing Lime Glow barberry that also offers winter red berries.
Want something more “scent” sational? Lilacs are lovely but they take up a lot of room.
Unless you adopt “Miss Kim,” the well-behaved Korean lilac that grows slowly to 6 feet but still displays fragrant and abundant blooms.
This dwarf lilac has been chosen as one of the flowering shrubs you can have shipped straight from the grower to anyone in the United States just by calling 1-800-FLOWERS.
Mom might appreciate you sending a shrub over cut flowers.
If you have a spot for a new shrub that is more shade than sun, consider adopting a cute and chubby Teddy Bear rhododendron.
Grown locally and supplied to retail nurseries all over the state, this rhododendron blooms pink, is cold resistant and stays compact and under 4 feet tall.
The underside of each leaf is as furry and brown as Winnie the Pooh. All of this brown fur (or indumentum as the hort heads say) makes the Teddy Bear rhodie naturally resistant to our local root weevils.
Now that’s a good reason to give any new plant a hug.
Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. For gardening questions, write to her at P.O. Box 872, Enumclaw, WA 98022. Please send a SASE for a personal reply. She also can be reached at www.binettigarden.com.