Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)By Mel Bellar

Writing this column forces me to fight my gloomier gardening self. My wife used to joke about us writing a blog called “The Pessimistic and Optimistic Gardener,” her being the optimist, of course. It is amazing that we can walk out into the garden and see it so differently. I seem to always notice a plant that is suffering, an errant branch or spent blossoms while she will be immediately drawn to new blooms or the overall aura of the day. This is why I practice the philosophy of taking small positive steps in the garden (and life) whenever feeling overwhelmed. It works: I invariably feel better. This spring has been particularly challenging for the grumpier gardener and here is why:

I am only now finished watching the winter dieback on a variety of plants while hoping for a little life. I have decided that it is time to prune the dead sticks back to the point of new growth. This is a time-consuming, tedious and often gruesome task, yet it has great rewards. Your plants and garden look so much better afterwards. Also, it is a nice feeling to move from disgust to acceptance and finally onto the promise of fluffy new growth and a regenerated shrub.

Have I said how much I hated this winter? I really hated this winter. First – where was it? It simply wouldn’t arrive and it made the holiday season feel wrong. Then it couldn’t decide if it was going to happen at all and we became somewhat resigned. But as complacency set it, we would suddenly have a few super-cold, pipe-freezing days, inevitably followed by Spring weather. And for the grand finale it went out with a really hard freeze (this of course after an unseasonably warm March that produced a lot of fresh new growth that got zapped).

All of this weather drama went on without any snow cover. Now, I know that many folks don’t like the snow. They welcome less plowing, less shoveling and driving without fear. But snow is nature’s way of insulating the ground and it is the gardener’s friend. This winter the poor plants were very confused with all of the freezing and thawing. I lost more plants this winter than ever before and I have heard the same from most of my gardening friends. One of my mother’s most memorable quotes is “misery loves company.” Hmmm, maybe there is a connection. Hopefully this darkish column will help all of you out there with dead branches and heaved perennials to not feel so alone.

OK, here is a list of some of the worst hit deciduous trees and shrubs: spirea, cotoneaster, weigela, climbing roses, some willows and the Japanese magnolias. Quite a few evergreens also suffered, especially the arborvitae. Even the dappled willows had more dieback that I have ever seen before. My clients span quite a geographic area and nearly all of the cotoneaster had tremendous dieback to the point that I had to cut them back to 8-12 inches from the ground. There was the occasional outlier that seemed fairly

Enough whining! This too shall pass and we gardeners will persevere: clipping, fluffing and replacing plants (better plants!). On a more positive note, a lot of plants seemed to love this winter. The peonies are very strong; the European ginger has never been happier; lupines are going nuts, the ninebarks (although many have powdery mildew) are blooming like crazy; the iris seem to be putting on a better than usual show and the amsonia (Blue Star) are prolific. In your garden and in life there are always many reasons to be grateful.

While this is not the forum to debate climate change, I have even resigned myself to be content with becoming a zone 5 (6?) region (no, I am not changing the name of my company). On the bright side, it would be nice to have a larger plant palette to play with! However, I have come to love our zone 4 area which used to mean no deer ticks, poison ivy or poisonous snakes; I totally bemoan the fact that we are having the ticks and I really dread poison ivy (not nearly as much as my highly allergic wife). Anyway, getting warmer would be OK, but it seems that climate change (or just natural changes in our patterns) is bringing about not just warmer but crazy erratic weather which is the worst scenario for us gardeners.

Remember to “persevere and fluff!”  ~


Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener