What's up North - Charlie Nardozz
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Knowing the amount of sun and shade you have in your garden is critical to selecting the right plants for the right place. But there are other factors in the northern garden that will influence your plant's health.
One of the fastest ways to kill a plant is to plant the wrong plant in a site with heavy clay soil and poor soil water drainage. I know this from my experience, having tried three different varieties of trees in a spot on our property until I found the right one that could cope with the clay. Before planting a tree or shrub, check the water drainage of your soil. Dig a hole 1 foot wide and deep and fill it with water. Let it drain. Then, fill it up again. Measure the depth of the water, wait 15 minutes, and measure it again to see how much water has drained. Multiply the difference by 4 to calculate how fast the water drains in an hour. Good soil water drainage should be around 2 to 3 inches an hour. If the water drains 1 inch or less per hour, this site is poor for most trees and shrubs except wet soil-adapted plants such as willows. If it drains 4 inches or more an hour, then it's best to grow drought-tolerant plants or amend the soil heavily with organic matter to help hold the water. A solution for poorly drained sites is to build a raised bed on the site and amend the soil with compost.
Another factor is wind. As the climate changes, I've noticed more severe storms in all seasons usually accompanied by heavy winds. Some plants are tough enough to withstand high winds, but young shrubs, trees and soft wooded plants, such as willows, pines and poplars, can be damaged severely by wind. Observe where the prevailing winds come from in your yard. Consider planting a windscreen of native evergreens, such as juniper, spruce, and fir trees, or deciduous trees, such as hawthorn, oak and maple, in those areas to withstand the wind. This will also create a microclimate on the leeward side of those plantings to grow perennials that often flop in the wind such as peonies and hollyhocks. You can also plant wind-tolerant perennials, such as 'Perfect Profusion' perennial salvia - Salvia nemorosa, Prairie Winds® Brush Strokes little bluestem - Schizachyrium scoparium ornamental grass, and 'New Hampshire Purple' hardy geranium, bloody cranesbill Geranium sanguineum in the windy spots.
Finally, consider sight lines. In the North, we spend lots of time looking at our garden from indoors during cold, rainy springs and falls. When planting, especially blooming spring and fall flowers, choose locations to enjoy them from the comfort of your home. Also, when growing fragrant shrubs, such as Vanilla Spice® summersweet - Clethra alnifolia, and flowers, such as Oriental lilies, place them close to a window where the scent can perfume the home.
- With freezing and thawing temperatures, watch for any heaving of recently planted herbaceous perennial flowers. Gently sink them back into their hole and mulch with wood chips to prevent it from happening again.
- Take inventory of seed starting and gardening supplies, such as pots, stakes, garden ties and markers, and stock up now before the spring rush.
- Check overwintering dahlia and canna lily bulbs indoors. If the bulbs are shriveled, mist with water. If the bulbs are rotting, let them dry out. Then repack them for storage.
- During a warm spell over 40F on a calm day, reapply sprays of anti-desiccants to tender, broadleaf evergreens, such as Pieris and Kalmia, to prevent the leaves from drying out.
Light in the Northern Garden
During these days of shortened sunlight, it's a good time to think about light in your garden. One of the challenges we face, especially in small yards, is lack of sufficient light to grow our favorite flowers, shrubs and trees. The shade maybe from a neighbor's house or building, from our own buildings or from trees and shrubs that have grown large over the years.
Shade is caused by obstacles, but also due to the position of the sun in the sky. A full sun garden in May or June may be part shade come August and September because the sun is lower in the sky and gets blocked by even low buildings and trees.
It's also good to understand there are different types of shade and different plants adapted to these conditions.
Full sun is usually considered 6 to 8 hours of direct light a day. Part sun is when your plants get only 3 to 4 hours of direct sun. The timing is important because morning sun is generally gentler on plants than the harsh, afternoon sun. Many flowers and shrubs thrive in part sun.
Dappled shade is what's found under lacy leafed, deciduous trees such as honey locust and tall, cut leaf Japanese maples. The dappled light filters through the foliage allowing flowers, such as azalea, lamium, hellebores, brunnera, and pieris, to grow.
Medium shade is when the light may shine directly on plants for only an hour or two, early or late in the day when it's at an angle. This can occur on the North side of a building or under large deciduous trees with no limbs lower than 20 feet off the ground. Hostas and ferns are two good examples of plants that grow in medium shade.
Finally, deep shade is what's under low lying evergreen trees, such as hemlock and spruce. Moss and mulch are best under this type of shade.
Depending on the variety of plants you're growing and how they're cared for, some shade lovers may be able to grow in sunnier locations in the North. That's because the sun isn't as harsh as in Southern climes. For example, yellow and gold leafed hostas, such as 'Etched Glass' and 'Autumn Frost', can tolerate part sun without leaf burn better than blue, white or green leafed versions. It's best if they're exposed to only morning light and important the soil is kept evenly moist.