Everywhere I look, perennial plants are breaking ground and showing themselves. Even though I’ve worked in my garden for two decades, there are still plants I don’t immediately recognize, and puzzle over them for a few moments before remembering what I planted there. I enjoy rediscovering these old friends, and anticipate how they’ll soon fill the space with flowers.
One plant that’s no mystery because it comes up so quickly is everlasting pea, or spring vetchling, (Lathyrus vernus, Zone 5). This early perennial pea is related to two other ornamental pea plants — scented, annual sweet pea (L. odoratus) and hardy sweet pea vine (L. latifolius, Zone 4). Spring vetchling carries a swarm of silky pea flowers on erect 15-inch (38-cm) stems held above attractive, pointed foliage. Each plant is about 12 inches (30 cm) wide with deep roots that are able to reach ground water and keep the plant hydrated in summer heat. Plants bloom in various shades of pink and purple, and among the best are bi-colour soft pink and rose ‘Spring Delight’ and violet blue ‘Spring Melody’.
Spring vetchling is a plant for part shade to full sun, and blooms enthusiastically for several weeks. Mine stays in flower all through May, and then begins developing ornamental burgundy seedpods that last the whole summer. It’s curious that I’ve never come across anything in print noting the ornamental value of the pods, because they’re quite attractive. Spring vetchling divides easily after it finishes flowering, but this year I’m going to harvest some of the seedpods and try starting plants from seed.
A few clumps of spring vetchling scattered through the garden are good companions to tulips and provide a prolific flower display after a long winter, just when you need it most.
Preserving soil structure
Cruising the local garden centres this week was encouraging — lots of plants are being unloaded from trucks and prepared for sale. (I bought two pink ‘Olga Mezzit’ rhododendrons.) Gardeners know that plants might be perfect when purchased, but healthy growth and performance rely on well-structured, organic soil. My colleague Lorraine Flanigan has provided a wealth of thoroughly detailed information on soil amendments of all kinds in the spring issue of Garden Making (see “The scoop on soil amendments, page 51). Whatever your soil profile and its troublesome characteristics, there is an amending element or material that can help solve problems and promote plant growth.
My own garden was once an apple orchard and has clay loam that fruit trees grow well on. It’s also good for shrub and perennial gardening, with good drainage and a rich organic bank of composted leaves. I continue adding leaves, conifer needles, and also shredded bark and coarse builder’s sand. These elements go a long way to creating friable soil texture and a pore system to allow water and air to effectively move through the root zone.
I’m a bit of a fanatic when it comes to preserving the pore system. The impact of heavy construction equipment, excessive tromping by athletic teams and car wheels rolling over the lawn all act to compress soil structure and interrupt the flow of moisture and oxygen. Once the pores are compressed, it’s hard work to repair the damage. Most of these circumstances are avoidable, but what sends me screaming from the room is excessive force used to firm new plants into their holes. When I see a new tree or shrub being trodden into the ground by foot stamping, I can just hear the pore system collapsing. Forcefully packing, or jumping up and down on the soil over roots, only serves to deprive the plant of oxygen and water. If firm hand pressure isn’t enough to settle a plant securely into its hole, then use a stake to keep it upright just until roots grow and grip the sides of the hole. Oh dear, don’t get me started on this!
Time for dormant oil
The larvae of many chewing and sucking insects, such as aphids, scale, white flies, fruit moths and various mites, can be smothered by a timely spray of dormant oil. The treatment is time specific; spray dormant oil on woody plants (including still-dormant roses) in the few weeks when buds are swelling, but not yet open. Don’t spray dormant oil on green leaves or conifer foliage. Read the package information carefully to be sure you understand when and what to spray.
If you miss the window of opportunity for applying dormant oil, it’s possible to spray horticultural oil later in the growing season. Horticultural oil is a thinner, less viscous oil that is tolerated by green foliage. It’s sprayed when pests are present on plants and acts to smother their breathing. Once again, read the package instructions carefully to understand what plants and pests can be treated. Dormant and horticultural oils are manufactured from petroleum. If you prefer to use organic products, there are plant-based formulations of both oils (usually made from soy beans).
It’s been good to have you visit Making a Garden, and I’ll look for you next week.