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THE LAZY BERKSHIRE GARDENER: Week of March 28, 2024

If you have too much lawn, or your attempts to grow grass in an area always fail, maybe you should grow something else there. Creating an island of shrubs with perennial groundcovers or just an island for annuals with a few perennials to anchor it might be the perfect solution.

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I am glad I trimmed some forsythia branches. They have come fully into bloom. Keep any cut flowers in cool temperatures if indoors. Early morning or northern light is best. They will last longer. The bright yellow color helped to offset the damp gloom of last weekend.

That was a rainy Saturday! I have mixed feelings about that storm. If temperatures were three degrees colder, I would have had a foot or more of snow. The snow would melt slowly. Instead, I had a rush of water and mini ponds everywhere. I did not get peas in the ground yet. When the skies cleared on Sunday, the raised bed’s soil was too soggy to do anything. I will wait for that to drain and sow the peas when about four dry days are forecast into the future. I am not worried; there are many cold days ahead, and the peas will do fine.

Areas of lawn or property that regularly flood might need some redesign and reshaping by a landscape contractor, or you could embrace the wet and plant native plants endemic to wetlands.

After the rains, freezes, and thaws, the “lawn”—if you can call it that—has many ponds that take days to drain. I have planted redtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea), willows, and chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) in these spots where rain will usually puddle. These native shrubs thrive in the wet soil, and we don’t have to worry about mowing those areas.

If you have too much lawn, or your attempts to grow grass in an area always fail, maybe you should grow something else there. Creating an island of shrubs with perennial groundcovers or just an island for annuals with a few perennials to anchor it might be the perfect solution. Mosses are lovely to walk on and green up beautifully, too! Steep slopes need some sort of plant to reduce erosion. Low-growing junipers, Russian arborvitae, or even a patch of daylilies will fill a slope and simplify the maintenance compared to mowing that area.

That said, I have some young shrubs planted about three years ago that could use a better system for maintenance. The shrubs are spreading now, but the grass has moved into the planting area. I need to define a grass-free understory for these shrubs that will be easier to weed. This past Sunday, I had to tear back the encroaching grass so I could fertilize around the shrubs and apply a new layer of mulch.

If I expand those planting islands into a border, I could plant clumping perennials or slow-spreading groundcovers. These would help hold the soil and keep the aggressive grasses out. Even mature trees could benefit from eliminating grass under their dripline. The dripline is the radius from the trunk out to the widest branches that would drip after a rain. Mature tree roots often rise to the soil surface and prevent grass from growing well anyway. Save your effort and your tree’s health by spreading a layer of compost in that area and two inches of mulch. No need to mow that area now, and you avoid potentially damaging the roots with mower blades. You may have to hand-pull weeds occasionally, but regular mulching should help.

Spread fertilizer now and then add a fresh layer of mulch. Check to confirm your fertilizer formulations have slow-release nitrogen as part of the mix. Plants need nitrogen to get growing, but the nutrient dissipates quickly in the air. Scratch the fertilizer into the soil surface and cover with mulch so the rain draws nutrients down to the plant roots. It is good to use a fertilizer now in early spring that has a mix of quickly available nutrients as well as forms that take longer to break down and will be available to the plant later in the growing season.

You can still prune now. I find it very relaxing to stare at my plants for a while and envision how I want them to grow. I prune to open the center of shrubs to more light, to cut out older stems and make way for new, and to keep the plants to a manageable size. Pruning regularly will help them mature into stronger specimens. Shrubs or trees pruned now (especially to remove dead or broken branches) will heal the wounds more quickly at the start of the active growing season and before fungi have a chance to take hold.

Scout for animal damage on shrubs and trees. Prune off sections with large wounds in the bark or ragged ends. Rabbits take clean bites, but deer will shred stem ends.

Since the soil and temperatures continue to prevent planting, look for damage on your shrubs and trees. Rabbits nip off flower buds or scrape young bark off twigs. Small damage will heal quickly, but if large sections of bark are shaved off, prune off that stem section. Deer smash stem ends rather than snip cleanly. Prune back tips that have been gnawed by deer to help the plant form a callous more easily.

Rhododendron invading a porch and the pruned shrub with roughly a third of the stems cut.

Our house has a mature rhododendron that did not get pruned for many years. The interior branches are a mess. However, the plant looks healthy and grows well. I have started what will be an annual pruning to eliminate crossing branches and to reduce its size overall. The house is due for a new coat of paint as well. Branches were wrapping around a pillar and tapping at the wall. I trimmed a few of the most twisty branches back to a leaf node and away from the pillar. I cut less than a third of the leafy growth so the plant should recover easily from any shock. The pieces all had fat flower buds, and I have put those in a vase of water in hopes of blooms indoors.

Rhododendron stems in a vase. Fingers crossed for beautiful blooms!

It is almost time to start pepper and tomato seeds inside. Start these seeds in a warm place or on a heat mat. Soil should be around 75 degrees for good germination. I do this around the first week of April. After eight weeks, the seedlings can be hardened off and garden soil should be warm enough for the young plants outside. Planting after June 1 helps reduce cold-weather setbacks. Planting these heat-loving seedlings in cold soil will delay your harvest. Don’t rush it!

I had more vindication of my lazy gardener program. I cut back my dead perennial hibiscus stems in the fall but always leave about six to eight inches of stem mostly as a method to find the plants the next year. They come up later than most perennials. Recently, I spotted a chickadee pecking away at the top of the dried stem! I am only guessing, but I think the bird must be pulling at the pith and plant fiber to line its nest. That is a bonus for me to see the bird in action and a bonus for the bird—organic material easily accessible.


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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THE LAZY BERKSHIRE GARDENER: Week of May 16, 2024

I mentioned spongy moth caterpillars briefly last week. I hear Columbia County in New York has a tremendous outbreak now.

Ideally situated in the heart of downtown Stockbridge, and move-in ready

Elle Villetto and Jared Kelly of William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty offer an 1860 colonial home, stylishly updated and move-in ready. See it now and be in before the summer!

A minimalist condo with maximum light

We often referred to this project as the “house of glass” because there is glass everywhere.

The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.