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THE LAZY BERKSHIRE GARDENER: Week of March 14, 2024

I’ve scanned the upcoming weather forecast. After warm days on Tuesday and Wednesday, this upcoming weekend looks like perfect weather for either spraying repellents or preventive fungicides.

Garden shows and open houses often feature flowering plants blooming before their time. A shrub or tree flowering indoors has been brought into a warmer greenhouse for forcing into bloom. It will be done blooming for this season by the time its cohorts that are planted outdoors start to bloom. These shrubs and trees won’t bloom again this year but can be planted outdoors to enjoy a full season’s growth. They will bloom next year outdoors at their typical time.

The compost bin was pushed! Plastic anchors usually hold the cylinder upright, but the bear popped them out. Short bolts and nuts served as replacements. At right, the bin contents have been thoroughly stirred with a deep layer of leaves added. The leaves came from a stockpile formed last fall.

Last weekend’s weather put a full damper on my outdoor gardening list. I mostly just thought about what I could do if I wanted to spend any length of time outside. We had enough time to reconstruct our compost bin, and I darted around taking photos of emerging plants and standing water. Then I dashed back inside to consider options.

I may have dashed, but a tick found me anyway! Ticks are active in cooler weather, so be vigilant. Any time you return indoors, do a tick check. If outdoors for a while, tuck your pant legs into your white socks (the better to spot the brownish critters)! Maybe not fashionable, but very practical. Also, spray products containing DEET on clothing to repel ticks. Ticks carry multiple diseases, and you don’t want any of them.

Even though we didn’t think anything enticing remained in the compost bin, the bear caught a whiff of something. Or he was just making “his rounds” and decided to check. We didn’t find things spread around beyond the bin. After putting it back together, I dug deep into the wet lower layers and broke them up with multiple leaf additions. This serves to aerate the pile, activate more decomposition, and heat up the contents. Stirring the pile also warmed me up. It was cold!

At left, the rose campion leaves have dried, but new green growth has poked through. Time to clear away the dead leaves or fungus could develop, like on the shasta daisy’s leaves at right.

Besides the green blades of iris leaves, emerging perennials putting on the green include goldenrod or asters (I have a hard time distinguishing these in early March), rose campion, bachelor buttons, poppies, and shasta daisy. (Happy St. Patrick’s Day, by the way!) I have also seen the red tips of peony. Now that these plants have begun to show their green, I can gently pull away the dead leaves from last fall. I often let those leaves die in place as markers. However, that may have been a mistake with my shasta daisy. The new leaves all have spots—a sign of fungal infection.

The dead plant material allowed fungus to winter over (what winter?). Shasta daisies seem resilient to environmental stresses like this, and I am not that worried. I will pull out any dead leaves and then spray copper fungicide on the emerging growth. That should prevent the spots from spreading. The current spotty leaves should be removed, too.

On the next dry day, I will introduce slow-release, balanced fertilizer to all my shrubs and perennial borders. I use Espoma Plant-Tone for most things and the Espoma EHolly-Tone for rhododendron, juniper, and, yes, holly shrubs. Add blueberry to that list if you grow this acid-loving plant. Gently scratching in the suggested dose for “established” plants gives them a boost right when the sun gets stronger. Rainy days of March will ensure the fertilizer soaks into the soil.

I’ve scanned the upcoming weather forecast. After warm days on Tuesday and Wednesday, this upcoming weekend looks like perfect weather for either spraying repellents or preventive fungicides. I had peach leaf curl on my peach tree last summer. To control that, I will spray copper fungicide (approved for organic gardens) while the tree is still dormant. The temperature will need to be about 40 degrees long enough for the spray to dry on the stems before temperatures drop below freezing again.

Fungicides are protective sprays that help boost plants’ natural defenses. If your plants had fungal problems last year, chances are the fungus will reappear. Reduce the pressure on plant health by spraying at the product’s recommended rate and timing to prevent another outbreak, or at least reduce the extent of the problem. Some diseases overwinter in the soil, some on dead leaf tissue, some on bark. Other diseases are carried by insects.

I recommend identifying the pest or problem that exists in your garden before applying any products. By keeping your targets specific, you increase the living diversity in your landscape. Not all insects or even fungal outbreaks merit human intervention. Be cautious, be “lazy,” and consider how natural forces may be reinforced when you face a pest issue.

A pile of wood ash and charcoal await distribution.

Our wood stove continued to produce wood ash this weekend. (Probably like you, I am not a fan of damp cold.) There are many garden uses for wood ash, and, like many things, a little goes a long way. Wood ash can be added to compost, but limit the addition to about a quarter-inch layer on the top of the pile before mixing in with your usual one-quarter green scraps to three-quarters leaves or brown material. Sprinkle ash as a thin layer “like salting a salad” on vegetable gardens to add potassium, one of the three most important plant nutrients. Wood ash also contains calcium, helpful to prevent blossom end rot on tomatoes. Sprinkle a ring barrier of wood ash around plants susceptible to slugs like hosta. The slugs will not cross the barrier of ash.

Too much ash, however, will affect the pH of your soil, making it more alkaline. Do a pH test and learn if adding your wood ash to lawn areas will improve grass struggling in acidic soils. Grass grows better in soil with pH between six and seven. Plants have evolved to absorb nutrients through roots and root hairs adapted to the soils in their native habitat. Those soils could be acidic or alkaline based on the bedrock minerals. By supplying plants with the preferred pH, the plants will be able to absorb the nutrients from the soil. Fertilizer does no good if the pH is not appropriate and would be a wasted effort—not a lazy gardener goal! Testing pH can be done simply with a pH test kit found at garden supply sources, or get a more thorough analysis through the UMass Extension Soil Testing Lab.

Pansies are difficult to resist right now. Cover the flowers when frost is forecast.

I wanted to leave you with another pretty shot to encourage spring thoughts. Pansies are available now in garden centers. We are in that iffy time of year when a frost (or snow like on Monday) will turn flowers to mush. Cold hardy plants of pansies and sweet William (Dianthus spp.) will tolerate cold temperatures but frost on the flowers will damage them. Enjoy the pots of flowers on a covered porch where frost can’t reach, or if planted in borders, use spun polyester remay or sheets as a light cover when frost threatens.


I call myself the Lazy Berkshire Gardener because I don’t want to work too hard in my gardens. I want to enjoy them. I find it easier to observe my landscape and let the compost happen, the water pool up, or daisies to self-sow. I look for ways to do the minimum task for the biggest impact. For example, mulching is better than spraying and much better than weeding all season. I look for beautiful, low-maintenance plants that thrive in or at least tolerate my garden conditions. Plus, I’m willing to live with the consequences if I miss something.

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