Bees, bush cuts and baby weeds -- 6-10-14

(This week’s flower in the daisy fleabane, also known as Erigeron annuus. To enlarge the picture, click on it.)

When I was still in the working world, time spent in the yard and garden was a series of visits -- chores and observations done when I could, instead of when I wanted to. Now that I am retired, I realize that I missed a great deal. Wildflowers appear and disappear in a week’s time, as the cycle of life goes on like a merry-go-round. If I can’t jump on at the right time, then I must wait until next year.

Last week when I was weeding a small flower bed next to the garage, a bed which was buried in snow and ice for a lot of the winter, I heard a humming noise, as if a thousand tiny fans were all running at once. I looked up and there were a variety of bees and other insects visiting the blossoms on one of our big holly trees. I’ve heard the same sound while standing under an old Golden Delicious apple tree we once had -- a host of small creatures striking when the time was right, the buzz sounding like a crew of tiny carpenters trying to finish work before a rainstorm.

A day later, I went back to finish weeding the bed and there was no noise, but a dusting of bh;tiny white holly petals littered the ground. The bees had moved on to the honeysuckle vines peeking out the top of one of my Japanese yews, making it difficult to trim. I can’t blame them for dive-bombing me; those sweets will be gone in a week.


The proper time to trim Japanese yews is just after they put on new growth, in the late spring. They can be trimmed with pruning or lop shears, if you want a more natural-looking bush. But mine are foundation plantings, which keep the winter winds from whipping heat away from the base of the house, so I want a more squared-off shape. Therefore, I used electric hedge shears. There are gasoline-powered ones available, but electric shears aren’t as heavy. To produce a nice edge, hold the shears parallel to the surface of the plant, then tilt the lower edge of the blade toward you by 45 degrees.

Always take off less than you think you need to. At regular intervals, stop the shears, step back and see how you’re doing. Yews and other evergreens are not like forsythias, which you can run over with a tractor and still get a showy display the following spring. Evergreen pruning mistakes can take years to fix.

I let ours get out of hand for several years -- does “several” cover five? -- and I’ve spent three years straightening out the mess, spurred on by my wife, who has threatened to have someone come and rip them out. I could have whacked them into shape all at once, but I’ve seen bushes treated in that way end up as a collection of bare branches. Mine are back in shape now (sort of) and the empty spaces are filling in again. Remember: Japanese yew clippings are poisonous to livestock and the red berries are poisonous to humans.


My son is still facing the problem of small, tiny weeds invading the garden around his vegetable plantings in the two raised beds he has at his home near Greencastle, Pa. The other day he told me that he sat down and pulled them all out while his 1-year-old daughter played in the grass nearby. Not the most efficient way to do it, he acknowledged, but it felt so good and so peaceful, he did it anyway.

I too have experienced that sort of feeling. When I worked three summers on the U.S. Soldiers Home nursery crew, I spent lunch time with my summer reading assignments for college. Then, as I raked, pulled weeds or trimmed hedges, I would think about what I had read. Over time, the manual part of my labors seemed to go onto automatic pilot and the grunt work was accomplished without much thought. I have been told that knitters have the same sort of experience -- doing a repetitive task with the hands while talking or thinking about something a million miles away.

My son’s problem with his raised beds is that the soil is fairly fine. When the rain is followed by sun and drying winds, the top of the bed is covered with a soil “crust” and only the weeds can muscle their way through. Those plant pests are powerful critters. All of us have had the experience of seeing a weed burst through a fresh coat of blacktop that it would take us a lot of elbow grease and a pick to knock a hole in.

The cure for the crust is organic matter, starting with mulch applied after a rain, but before the soil surface is crusted over. Then, at season’s end, the mulch and other compost is tilled in, keeping the soil loose and providing nutrients. It took me a while to realize that plants’ roots need air as well as water. (I found that bell peppers particularly benefit from regular cultivation.)


Sometime toward the end of July, we will hold our annual Big Tomato Contest, though the venue isn’t secured yet. In the meantime, if anyone has tomato-growing tips that they would like to share, please do. As always, if you don’t want your real name used, a pseudonym or “pen name” will be fine.

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