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It’s Time to Plant the Garden

Becky Gallery
April 16, 2019

One of a series of articles on the topic of wellness. Click here for more.

As May’s longer days warm the soil, we wait anxiously for the day we can get those new plants and seeds into the garden. The garden centers and nurseries abound with seedlings, each vying for attention.

The Harpswell Garden Club maintains the gardens at Harpswell Historic Park on Route 123 in Harpswell Center, and our cutting garden there is a source of flowers for the club. My task each May is to find a variety of flowers suitable for use in the bouquets and arrangements our club makes.

Tall snapdragons always fill a row, with some florists’ asters, cosmos, salvia, zinnias, ageratum and dahlias filling other rows. I have gotten a head start on my dahlias, by planting the tubers in pots four to six weeks before the last spring frost date, which is usually around Mother’s Day here in Harpswell. I plant the tubers one or two inches deep in a light potting mix and water sparingly until new growth appears. When the garden soil has warmed, I transplant the sprouted tubers into the cutting garden at Centennial Hall. Sales of the bouquets and arrangements made with these flowers help support our maintenance of historic Union Church in North Harpswell.

An arrangement made by the Harpswell Garden Club featuring peonies.

We also have several perennials in the beds at Centennial Hall. We start the spring with our flowering shrubs and trees and follow that with June’s peonies. While not native to Maine, the peony has lush blooms and never spreads beyond the original space in which it was planted. The lucky June brides usually have some peonies in their bridal arrangements.

Baby Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium spp) is one that is a butterfly magnet late in the summer. It has an added bonus of being deer-resistant. The tall phlox and daisies also bring summer color to the gardens.

Cardinal flower

But what about some native perennials to fill your gardens? Wild columbine, milkweed, chelone and coreopsis all attract butterflies during the season, along with the Joe Pye Weed. Another good plant to attract pollinators is the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). This tall flower loves wet soil, as we learned at the HHLT office, where some cardinal flower plants were put in last summer.

If you are looking for a flowering shrub, try buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) or beach plum (Prunus maritima). The beach plum is salt-tolerant for those seaside Harpswell homes, helps stabilize the shoreline slopes and its white flowers are followed by edible purple fruits that attract wildlife.

After your shopping expedition to the nursery, take care when planting your new plants. A few basic steps will ensure your plants thrive in your garden. Dig a hole larger than the plant, and add a bit of compost if your soil needs enriching. Tuck the plant into the hole so that the root crown is level with the surrounding soil, fill the hole, tamp down the dirt, and give your plant a generous drink of water. It will need water throughout the growing season, so plan on revisiting your new plants each week.

According to Maureen Heffernan’s Native Plants for Your Maine Garden, newly planted perennials need to be watered up to three times a week for the first month or so. They should get enough water that it reaches through the soil to the bottom of the plant’s roots, encouraging the roots to grow more deeply. A meager dose of water only waters the surface of the soil, and will not help the root system develop. If your soil is sandy, or the weather very warm or windy, more frequent watering will be needed. A few days of rain will reduce the times you need to water the plants.

As the plants get acclimated to their new home, the need to water is reduced, but that first year is critical for the perennial’s survival. Putting a drip hose or soaker hose in your garden reduces wasted water, and puts the water right onto the soil. Some plants are susceptible to mildew and other fungi when their leaves get wet. I always try to do the watering chore early in the day, which allows for any water on the leaves to dry.

Adding mulch to your garden also helps keep the soil moist, with an added benefit of keeping weeds in check. If you are shopping for mulch at a garden center, try to avoid those “colored” varieties, as well as any mulch made of plastics or rubber. A natural material will eventually become part of your garden’s soil as it decomposes. Pine bark, shredded leaves or pine needles all make great mulch.

As your perennials and shrubs grow, the time and effort to maintain them decreases. With less maintenance in your own garden, you will be able to sit, enjoy the sights and scents of your garden, and perhaps get a glimpse of Maine’s native wildlife paying a visit to your native plants.

Here are some books I recommend:

Native Plants for Your Maine Garden, by Maureen Heffernan (available for loan at the HHLT’s Lending Library) is a great source of information on our native plants and how to grow them.

The Ever-Blooming Flower Garden, by Lee Schneller, which offers a guide to what flowers are in bloom at different times of the season.

Planting in a Post-Wild World, by Thomas Rainer & Claudia West, while not a garden guide per se, offers interesting views on sustainable landscaping.

Online resources include:

https://extension.umaine.edu/gardening/ is a good starting point for information on gardening in general, with other links to specific topics.

Local nurseries all have webpages full of information on their plants and services. O’Donal’s in Gorham and Estabrook’s in Yarmouth are just two examples.