Garden Journal: Tend mom's garden for a thoughtful gift


Red alert! Red alert! As a public service, we bring you this message in the interest of saving face -- yours. A week from Sunday is Mother's Day. You'll have a red face if you fail to heed this warning.

Seriously, don't forget Mom next Sunday. Though I may be the least creative person in the world when it comes to gift ideas, I'm giving you my two cents worth -- the equivalent value of my brain power. Candy is nice, but it's very likely other family members will devour the bulk of it before mom gets to sample any. A bouquet of flowers is OK, but they'll fade before the week is out. When my mom was alive, I favored giving a lasting gift such as a flowering shrub or perennial. Of course, it helps to do the planting for her.

Speaking of which, a personal gift certificate to help mom with some of her gardening chores may be just the ticket. Feel free to borrow from any of these current gardening tasks:

Begin mowing the lawn when grass is about three inches tall. Set mowing height at two inches. That may seem high, but cutting grass lower will reduce the grass plant's ability to regenerate a strong root system.

Cut off the spent flower heads of daffodils and hyacinths, but do not cut back their leaves until they turn yellow or brown. After deadheading, apply a general purpose garden fertilizer, one with an analysis of 10-10-10, 5-10-10, or something similar, around the plants. Do the same for tulips once their blossoms fade later this month.

Prune forsythia by removing up to one-third of the oldest stems (canes) if they are getting crowded. Some people trim the remaining canes to create a dense shrub or one with a formal geometric shape. I don't do such trimming since I prefer the natural arching habit of the canes. However, on occasion, some stems get excessively long. In that case, cut them back just enough to achieve balance or symmetry within the plant.

Evaluate growing conditions if lilacs fail to bloom. Acid soil, excessive shade, over-application of high nitrogen fertilizer and untimely pruning are common causes for lack of bloom. To neutralize acid soil, work limestone or wood ash into the soil every few years. Shade issues are more difficult to resolve. Selective pruning of offending trees will permit more light to reach the lilacs. For fertilizer, use one with an analysis similar to 5-10-10; avoid high nitrogen fertilizer. The proper time to prune lilacs is right after bloom since next year's flower buds are formed in summer.

Make the first planting of gladiolus bulbs (technically they are corms) this week and make additional plantings at two-week intervals through June. I've never figured out how to make gladiolus look good in a flower border, so I only grow them for use as cut flowers.

Plant dwarf or semi-dwarf fruit trees if space is limited or if you prefer to keep your feet on the ground when tending the trees. On the other hand, if you don't want to wait five to 10 years for the first harvest, plant strawberries, raspberries and blueberries to satisfy your fruit cravings. You can get the first fruit harvest in one or two years from planting date. Small fruit also provide higher yields per unit of space than do fruit trees.

Start seeds of summer and winter squash, melons and cucumbers indoors this week or next. Seedlings will be ready for transplanting to the garden in about four to five weeks. Save a seedling or two of summer squash and cucumber for growing in large patio pots. I usually get much better yields from plants that are grown in pots than from the same vegetable variety in the garden. The reason -- better soil!


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