Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Almanac: March – April 2019

by cathym on March 19, 2019

Early spring is one of the most difficult times for timely tips. How we transition from snow and biting cold to chilly or even balmier weather depends on the year. The following suggestions, created with upstate New York still in winter’s grip, take a middle ground.  Some suggestions maybe too late. Others could be put off for several more weeks.

The period around the equinox (March 20, 2019) is good for fertilizing house plants. Unless they are growing exclusively under lights, longer, brighter days stimulate renewed growth. Nutrients provided this time of year jump start this springtime flush.

Hopefully, your vegetable and flower seed orders have arrived. The packs of onions, leeks, celeriac, and celery are likely sown, and, if they aren’t, although it is not too late, the transplants they produce might be less than ideal in size when they go into the garden starting in late April and early May. This is prime time for sowing warm season crops such as peppers and tomatoes.

Spring-flowering, deciduous shrubs cut and brought indoors will sprout blooms months before they naturally flower outdoors. Cut the stems on a day above freezing and submerge them in a pail of warm water for a couple hours. Then place the branches in a tall container in a dimly lit space. Consider spritzing those stems with water, as that keeps the bark supple and allows the swelling buds an easier way to push through. Changing the water daily slows the growth of bacteria and fungi in the water. Both of these, when taken up by the xylem, “clog the plumbing” and interfere with bud development.

Depending on the plant, the chilling requirement has almost certainly been met by now. Some were reset to bloom shortly after Christmas (forsythia, red maple, pussy willow, and serviceberry, for example). Others, such as crabapple, redbud, and magnolia, require longer dormancy. Display all these flowering stems out of direct sun and warm drafts for the longest enjoyment.

Cherry branches are good candidates for forcing indoors.

If spring bulbs such as tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils were potted and put in the refrigerator last fall, plan to remove them a month prior to when you want the floral display. Only a couple of weeks is required for forcing crocus, snow drops, and winter aconite.

Venture outside during a break in the weather and examine trees and shrubs for evidence of the ravages of winter. Without foliage it is much easier to discern damage that either you or a professional should tend to. Healthy trees can benefit from preventative maintenance such as reducing their crown size. This reduces the severity of storm damage in the future. Look also for egg masses on the bark. Gypsy Moth cycles in our area occasionally. The Spotted Lantern Fly was found in the central Finger Lakes and Rochester last year. The manila egg masses of both are somewhat similar, and scraping them off helps slow the spread of these invasive insects.

Deciduous shrubs respond well to regular pruning. (For instance, by keeping stem diameter of lilacs to less than an inch, the likelihood of a lilac borer infesting a stem is close to zero). Pruning late in the dormant season, before bud break, guides new growth to the direction you want. It’s a good idea, but not required, to prune annually. With a little pruning each year, glaring evidence of a significant pruning is avoided and the plant’s stature remains somewhat constant.

First, select for removal disease and damaged branches. Then, remove the oldest and largest diameter branches. I might remove a quarter but no more than a third of a shrub’s branches. Cut the stems close to the ground. Pruning high in the shrub or removing only branch ends fosters a taller plant with blooms that are up in the air and more difficult to see from the ground. These pruned stems may be forced indoors as described previously.

The most productive fruiting stems of blueberry and currant shrubs are less than four years old. A plant with a dozen or so stems with a mix of one, two and three years old, maximizes yield potential and makes fruit harvesting easier.

Evergreen shrubs such as yew (Taxus spp.) and boxwood (Buxus spp.), particularly those trained as a hedge, benefit from some selective deep pruning. Without that, leaves grow in a narrow band on the plant’s edge. Removing a mid-forearm’s length stem, creating a fist-size hole, (or less with a very small boxwood) exposes dormant buds of the interior to light. These then sprout and grow.

Few of us really want to see the bare lower stems of an evergreen shrub. (An exception might be when creating a bonsai or topiary.) Keep hedge foliage growing close to the ground by trimming the hedge in a trapezoid, with a broad base and narrow top. Vertical sides or broad tops encourage naked lower stems.

Early-season working of the soil depends on the clay content and slope of the land. Working soil that is too wet destroys its tilth, or structure. Make an assessment of soil’s workability by taking a small handful and gently compressing it to a ball in your hand. Now, with the ball in your open palm, gently poke it. If it crumbles, soil work can commence. If the ball resists breaking, then the soil is too wet. Try again a week or so later, unless rainfall keeps the soil saturated.

If springtime cabin fever is an annual event and your soil is not receptive to early cultivation, consider creating raised beds with or without artificial sides. Being higher than the surrounding ground, these areas drain earlier and may be prepared sooner.

The addition of organic matter, particularly compost, is another aid for improving drainage that facilitates early season gardening activity.

In recent years, gardeners reported sightings of invasive worms in their landscape. This time of the year, look for coffee-ground like castings on the soil surface. For unexplained reasons, in 2018, the number of worms significantly dropped in many areas of the Rochester and Finger Lakes as well as part of the lower Hudson Valley. Young Asian worms are most easily seen by mid-May. Look for the telltale blond or gray clitellum or band near the worm’s head. If you find any, consider putting a pin on the virtual map found at nyimapinvasives.org.

Spring weather is coming—Punxsutawney Phil forecasted it!

—Walt Nelson, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Monroe County


story and photos by Christine Froehlich

Shrubs of varying heights create interest and privacy

Bumping up curb appeal often starts with buying more plants. A few shrubs, a tree, or some snazzy containers might be just the thing… or is it? A quick fix can be tempting, but if you want to improve the looks of your front yard and you aren’t sure how to get started, adding more plants right off the bat might not be the answer. Sometimes the best way go about it is to work with what you already have. You might even end up liking the plants you think you want to get rid of.

An autumn view of the garden

Robert Salmon and Catherine Fuller’s garden makeover began with a bunch of spindly trees in their front yard. Robert had been eying the forlorn specimens, worried they might fall on the house. He was about to carefully go at them with a chain saw when his wife, Catherine, called me to consult about their fate—and general appearance of the front yard. She was afraid that if they were removed their house would be too exposed to the street. 

The trees, an assortment of self-sown cherry trees (with a few nice oak and ash saplings mixed in) were leggy specimens with no great appeal. But on the plus side, they provided a degree of privacy from the road and connected the house with the woodlands surrounding it. We decided to compromise on the trees, selecting the healthiest ones with the nicest forms and removing the rest. Even though they weren’t perfect specimens, their height offset the scale of the two-story house. Plus, they would provide a perfect canopy for more attractive plants—a layered planting of shrubs and possibly perennials or groundcovers. We began brainstorming about how to marry it all up to the existing woodlands and foundation plantings that hugged the house.

View from the street
Planted areas seamlessly blend with surrounding landscape

The trees sprang up randomly from an enormous oval shaped bed about fifteen feet from the house and spanned almost the entire width of the front yard. It was a natural but sloppy mess filled with weeds and junky shrubs, but strengthening the connection between the existing foundation plantings and woodlands with better looking plants had possibilities. 

It was a lot of space to plant. Robert and Catherine both like to garden, but their busy work schedules limited gardening, so we needed to make it as low-maintenance as possible. 

Getting Started
We chose plants that would help integrate the leggy trees into the surrounding landscape. Robert and Catherine had a lot of room to work with and their house was large. If your property is small, take heart—the same concept can be used with smaller-scale plants.

Begin by choosing varieties with cultural needs that suit your site and fit the style you want. The growth habit and mature size of the plants you choose should match up to the job you want them to do. For example, slow-growing shrubs or trees with a vertical habit for tight spaces, fast-growing flowering shrubs for privacy borders, or plants with distinct forms to serve as focal points. 

Add Structure
We began with structural plants—the trees and shrubs. The largest specimens went in first. To balance the scale of the existing trees and insure against future tree loss, we planted Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’ on the opposite side of the bed. Commonly known as fern-leaf beech, this stately tree has a pyramidal shape and a lovely texture—the delicate cut leaf resembles fern foliage. 

Around the base of the leggy trees, a mass of Viburnum tomentosum took care of masking the bare bottoms. Also known as doublefile viburnum, you can’t beat it for quick coverage. This fast-growing, deciduous shrub is tall (twelve to fifteen feet) and has a horizontal branching habit (eight to ten feet wide) that makes an attractive screen. Outrageous clusters of white flowers blossom from late May through June, and in fall, the leaves turn an intense plum color with red fruits the birds flock to.

Form and Foliage 
The form of the shrubs and trees dictate the style of a planting. Here, they played an important role in contributing to what I call “the controlled wild look.” The idea was to mimic the woodland without looking sloppy. Fast-growing deciduous shrubs with relaxed growth habits fit the bill. 

We bumped up curb appeal by choosing shrubs with exciting foliage, flowers, berries and interesting texture.

Layers of Shrubs
Shrubs of varying heights were layered together in groups of three and five throughout the bed. This lent a naturalistic look to the planting and provided more screening from the street. 

Many deciduous shrubs of varying sizes offer gold, magenta and variegated foliage. Most are fast growing and are an inexpensive way to fill space quickly and attractively. We made the most of their attributes here, contrasting foliage colors to increase visual impact. 

What We Planted And Why
Most of the shrubs used are deciduous, but some evergreens were included for additional winter interest.

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’ (ninebark) has an arching habit that resembles forsythia and sports pretty, whitish-pink flowers in June. I like it best for the wine-colored foliage that pops out in late spring. Unpruned, this shrub matures at around eight to ten feet tall with a spread of six to eight feet, perfect for the back of the bed.

Cornus alba ‘Ivory Halo’ (Red twig dogwood) The flowers aren’t showy, but the crisp green and white leaves are striking. It grows quickly (four to five feet) and has bright red bark that adds color to a winter landscape.

Ilex meservae ‘Blue Girl’ and ‘Blue Boy’ are also known as blue holly because of their dark blue-green leaves. This variety grows a little slower than others, usually about five to six feet depending on conditions. Red berries and shiny dark leaves add contrast and winter color. Hollies come in two sexes and only females produce berries. To get them to berry you need to have a boy nearby, so make sure to plant both.

Weigela florida ‘Wine and Roses’ The combination of the dark magenta leaf and vibrant pink flowers make this one of my favorite mid-sized shrubs. It reaches a height of about 4 feet and has an arching growth habit.

Hydrangea quercifolia‘Snowflake’: Also known as Oakleaf hydrangea, this slower-growing variety is five to six feet tall. Longwhite panicles pop out in August and turn pink as fall arrives. Bold leaves, which are shaped like oak leaves (hence the name) turn deep magenta as fall progresses.

No Bare Ground
It takes around three years for shrubs to mature. While you’re waiting for them to grow, the quickest way to reduce weeding and achieve immediate gratification is to fill in bare spots with perennials. Obviously, you don’t want any you’ll have to stake or deadhead, so pick low maintenance varieties.

For this planting we chose varieties with interesting foliage and long-lasting flowers. 

HostaSum and Substance’: This big hosta (about 3 ½ ft tall) adds pizazz to a shady garden with its enormous pleated chartreuse leaves.

Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’: Nepeta, especially this cultivar, (36” tall and wide) tends to hog all the space around it, but there was plenty of room here. The long-lasting blue flowers and gray foliage provided a tidy border for the front of the bed.

Amsonia hubrichtii: Commonly known as Bluestar, the pale blue flowers that bloom in June and July are pretty, but I chose this substantial (2’x3’) perennial for the delicate feathery foliage that turns vibrant gold in early fall.

Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foester’: Also known as feather reed grass, this tall (4’) upright grass has attractive vertical foliage that doesn’t flop. It looks pretty in winter too.

Pennisetum alopecuroides: A fat fuzzy grass around 3 ½ feet tall great for added softness and height.

Several views of the mix of trees, shrubs,
and perennials in the Salmon-Fuller garden

By the end of the first summer, the bottoms of the leggy trees were almost hidden by shrub foliage, and the bed blended gracefully into the foundation plantings and natural stone wall Robert had built. It was a perfect marriage.  Robert and Catherine liked it so much that they kept on going, eventually reclaiming more of their overgrown property and extending the controlled wild look farther out into the woods. 

While we all might not be able to turn an ugly duckling into a swan, most of us have plantings that could be rearranged, or embellished to increase curb appeal. It’s worth taking a closer look at what’s going on in the front yard before you go shopping. Who knows? You might end up creating a garden you really want instead of the one you think you’re stuck with. 

View from the front door to the street

Find Christine Froehlich at gardeningwithwhatyouhave.com.


story and photos by Duane Pancoast

The graying of America has been taking place for decades. According to Scientific American magazine, the ratio of workers to retirees was 4:6 in 2014 and projected to be only 1:9 by 2100. These figures, called the Potential Support Ratio, were calculated by dividing the number of people 20 to 64 years old by those 65 and older.

One definition of retirement is being able to do what you want instead of what you have to. For many, that means spending more time in the garden. For a growing number, however, the ravages of old age catch up with them before they have a chance to fulfill that dream. Knees, hips, and backs give out. Arthritis limits finger movement. Cardio-pulmonary and respiratory problems limit the amount of time you can spend in the garden. Eyes fade and our memories may not be as sharp as they were. 

Although this may sound pretty grim, it’s not all that bad. Gardening is one pastime in which people can adapt and continue well into their later years. In fact, the process by which seniors modify their gardens and gardening techniques to continue gardening is called “Adaptive Gardening.” Bad knees forced me to begin adapting more than ten years ago, which is why I have taken such an interest in the subject and write a blog entitled the Geriatric Gardener. 

Recently, I was introduced to two gardeners whose beautiful gardens are tucked into Rochester’s Nineteenth Ward, about two blocks from each other. Both gardens are as unique as the gardeners. 

The raised fish pond in the back corner of Marian Boutet’s garden. When she has the brick path replaced with a wider, smoother surface, the steps will probably be replaced with a ramp.

Marian Boutet’s backyard garden is approximately 60 by 60 feet. Although plagued by knee pain, the 73-year-old has spent lots of time working in the garden since retiring from Kodak 20 years ago. She has been living in the same location for 30 years and the garden has been evolving for 25 years.  

Before “Embrace Imperfection” was an adaptive gardening mantra, it was the theme of Boutet’s garden. The layout is very informal. Edibles are mixed in with shrubs and the hardscape is quite rustic. Walkways are made of brick and fieldstone, which Boutet’s husband John installed. There is even a fish pond in the back corner.

An overview of Marian Boutet’s garden from the deck.
The brick and fieldstone paths in Marian Boutet’s garden will be replaced with a smoother material to accommodate a walker or wheelchair.

Boutet uses a folding bench/kneeler when gardening. When placed in one position, it is a bench. Turn it over and it is a kneeling pad. The legs of the bench become railings that help her get up from a kneeling position. These can be purchased online or from garden supply catalogs.

Boutet uses adaptive tools like the trowel pictured that will work well in the raised beds that are in her future. She is also planning to make the paths wider and smoother to accommodate a walker or wheelchair.

This trowel is one of Marian Boutet’s adaptive tools.
Foliage plants like these in Marian Boutet’s garden require far less care than flowering plants.

Slowly, Boutet, who likes unstructured gardens, is eliminating lawn in the front yard and replacing it with beds of shrubs. John mows the remaining lawn and does much of the other heavy work, with some chores being turned over to neighborhood teens.

— • —

Although she is working to simplify her garden, Marcy Klein hasn’t really embraced imperfection in the same way as Marian Boutet. Klein’s garden is long and narrow, stretching from a street in front all the way to a street in back. The width of the house covers about half the property and the gardens fill the other half.  

The ten individual gardens contain nearly 200 plant varieties. Klein’s husband Rick Schaffer, a painter by trade, separated all the gardens with exquisite stonework. This resulted in waist high raised beds, which are easier for Marcy to work. Schaeffer also built paved pathways that have few steps and are wide enough to accommodate a walker. 

In the back, the gardens are shielded from the street by six-foot Japanese style fencing and beautiful Japanese gates to the street and driveway. Behind the fence and street gate is a Japanese garden. 

Some of the few steps in Marcy Klein’s garden are beside the boxwood garden.
The waist-high stone walls define the meandering pathways as well as holding raised beds in Marcy Klein’s garden.

Klein is a retired graphic artist who taught classes on easy gardening at the Rochester Civic Garden Center. She also took a class on designing healing gardens. Both have equipped her well to adapt to age-related limitations.

Over the years, Klein has planted more shrubs and fewer perennials and annuals because shrubs require less care. They don’t have to be deadheaded or divided like perennials or changed out seasonally like annuals. This has resulted in more foliage plants, a conscious decision since foliage plants are easier than bloomers. She has also taken great care to make sure there are no invasive plants in her garden.

Klein has grouped together plants with similar water needs. This is good for the environment as well as the gardener’s workload. Ideally, plants that require the least water should be at the higher elevations and those that need the most water at the lower elevations, where they can often do well from the runoff from the higher plants.

Marcy Klein and Rick Schaeffer’s front yard. Note the pine straw mulch.
Some of Rick Schaeffer’s stone work in front and surrounded by boxwood, this garden shows off repurposed statuary and a column in Marcy Klein’s garden.

Klein has seven coniferous trees and shrubs, which produce a goodly amount of needle drop every year. She leaves those needles right where they drop to mulch under the plants. Again, this is a tremendous saving of labor, and it’s good for the tree/shrubs and the environment. Down south, people use a lot of pine straw mulch, which means they actually pay for the same mulch Marcy Klein gets free. Then they have to cart it home and spread it.

The whole garden is in shade because of the mature trees overhead. With benches and seats placed strategically throughout the garden, there is no shortage of places to take cool, refreshing breaks. Alternate working and resting in the shade with a cool drink of water is one of the most important things aging gardeners can do. However, many don’t take frequent breaks if it’s too far to walk back to a resting place.

Although most beds are raised, there is still a certain amount of low work to be done. So, Klein also has a lightweight, padded kneeler with arms.

— • —

Klein and Schaeffer open their garden to many garden tours, so Klein has applied her graphic art experience to design and reproduce a map with all the gardens diagramed and all the plants cataloged. She didn’t say whether the copy she gave me was done for my visit in particular, but it does have a section at the bottom titled “Help for Geriatric Gardeners.”

Victor resident Duane Pancoast writes a blog on adaptive gardening at thegeriatricgardener.wordpress.com. He is also founder and CEO of the Pancoast Concern, Ltd., a 33-year-old marketing communications firm serving green industry clients.