Get Growing: Winter hardships and May flowers

Last modified: Friday, June 20, 2014

A year ago we had a spectacular and early spring flowering season, especially with ornamental trees like magnolias and crabapples. This year, so far, is less spectacular and several weeks late. However, considering the harsh winter we have endured, the floral display is pretty amazing.

My witch hazel ‘Arnold’s Promise’, which is usually such a delight in March, obviously suffered frosted flower buds since few of them opened. Although I brought some inside they didn’t have half the scent or the beauty of most years. Many people have complained that their forsythia isn’t doing wonderfully this spring.

Last year my star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) was gorgeous. This year it is far less impressive but still quite lovely. It was the first thing we planted way back in the spring of 1976. It was my birthday present and was just about three feet tall. Now it towers up to the second story of the barn.

Some crabapples are genetically every-other-year bearers of lots of fruit. Last year was a bumper crop. This year, we shall see, but I am not hopeful.

Pruning is the key to beautiful blooms on flowering trees and shrubs. Timing is critical. Crabapples and other flowering trees ideally should be pruned in late winter before bud break. They also can be pruned after flowering. In fact, dogwoods resent winter pruning and should be trimmed in late spring or early summer.

It is sad to see flowering shrubs and trees forced into boxy shapes or gumdrops, just to keep them within bounds. Weeping cherries this year look gorgeous – at least those that are allowed to grow naturally. It seems almost criminal to give a weeping cherry a bowl-like haircut so it looks like an awkward Japanese parasol. Do let the branches drip in a natural way. Yes, you will need to cut some back, but don’t give them a symmetrical trim. Let some be longer than others. You probably don’t want them sweeping the ground but they shouldn’t have their branches lopped off like a schoolboy’s haircut.

Forsythia and some other shrubs bloom on old wood. That means they form their flower buds for next year in early summer. All too often we let them grow out of control until they interfere with opening the garage doors or crowd the pathway and then, in August, in desperation, we carve them into silly gumdrops. Schedule a pruning session in June, cut out a third of the oldest stems right to the ground and carefully cut back other branches that are causing trouble. Then new flower buds can form over the summer and, unless we have another hideous winter, your forsythia should bloom gloriously next spring. But if you wait till August, you will sacrifice most of the blooms.

Meanwhile, this is an ideal time to scout out new shrubs to plant to enhance your landscape. Take a tour of the Smith College campus or UMass or Mount Holyoke to get ideas on ornamental trees and shrubs that do well in our climate. Ask questions of campus staff or take a picture and consult your local garden center expert for advice. It’s important to select the right species and cultivar for your particular landscape situation. It was harsh winter winds that dried up flower buds on many of our ornamental shrubs this year, so keep in mind windy situations when making selections.

PRIMROSE AND DAFFODIL SHOWS: Last year spring came early and the Seven State Daffodil Show at Tower Hill Botanic Garden had to be canceled because all the daffodils had already bloomed by May 1. This year, the show should be gorgeous. At the same time, the New England Chapter of the American Primrose Society holds its show at Tower Hill. Early primroses should be looking lovely. The shows are tomorrow and Sunday starting at 1 p.m.; after judging is completed. There are lectures held by each group and a tour of the daffodils at Tower Hill. For more information, go to

SMALL SPACE AND VERTICAL GARDENING: Charlotte Vesel of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association will speak about growing vegetables in small spaces and vertical gardening Monday at 7 p.m. in Amherst Town Hall. Bring a soil sample for testing for pH (acidity level). The free program is sponsored by Grow Food Amherst.

BELCHERTOWN PLANT SWAP: The popular plant swap organized by Elaine Williamson opens for the season on Tuesday at 6 p.m. at 253 Warren Wright Road in Belchertown. Bring plants — seedlings, perennial divisions, seeds — to exchange.

PERMACULTURE: The final session on permaculture at River Valley Market in Northampton is Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. Lisa DePiano of UMass will give a talk called “The Permablitz: Like a flashmob only tastier.” Preregistration is required. Call 584-2665. Free.

WILDFLOWERS: Ted Watt of the Hitchcock Center will lead a wildflower walk on Mount Toby in Sunderland tomorrow from 9:30 a.m. to noon. Fee is $15. Register by calling 256-6006.

TREE ID: Nancy Goodman offers a workshop on tree identification using bark and habitat at High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary in Shelburne tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. under the auspices of Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary. Fee is $25. Register by calling 584-3009.

PEONIES: Dan Furman of famed Cricket Hill Garden in Connecticut, peony specialists, will discuss the flower tomorrow from 10 a.m. to noon at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. Fee is $25. To register go to

WILDFLOWERS: Connie Parks and Janet Bissell, botanists, will lead a wildflower walk at Lynes Woods in Westhampton on Wednesday from 9 a.m. to noon. Fee is $8. Call Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary at 584-3009 to register.

PLANT SALES: It’s time once again for local nonprofit groups to raise funds by offering locally-grown plants for sale to the community. Garden clubs, social groups, historical societies and schools will hold plant sales in the upcoming weeks. Most of the perennials are dug from area gardens, indicating they should be hardy in the Pioneer Valley. Annuals and vegetable starts are grown by local greenhouses or by home gardeners. Plan to patronize at least one of these sales to restock your own garden. Bring a box to take your purchases home and plant them as quickly as possible.

∎ MAY 9 AND 10: Stockbridge: Berkshire Botanical Garden, May 9, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; May 10, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Approximately 5,000 plants from local nurseries and the botanical garden, artisan vendors, living fern and succulent wreaths and mini wall gardens, tag sale of garden-related items. Plant list available online at 298-3926.

∎ MAY 10: Northampton: Support Our Schools, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Smith Vocational Agricultural High School, 80 Locust St., Northampton. Home-grown plants, raffle for arbor or quilt, many professional vendors. Plant donations can be delivered on May 9, 4-7 p.m., to the school. Benefits Northampton Education Foundation’s SOS Book Fund. Amherst: Garden Club of Amherst, 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Town Common. Perennials, shrubs, trees, ornamental grasses and wildflowers all from local gardens. Proceeds used for beautification projects, UMass scholarship, garden book funds for local libraries and contributions to environmental groups. Williamsburg: School support group, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., soil testing for acidity level (pH) by master gardeners from 9 a.m. to noon. All proceeds go to schools. To donate plants call Elaine Hyde at 268-7826.

∎ MAY 17: Southampton: Southampton Woman’s Club Anita Smith Memorial Plant Sale, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Conant Park. Locally grown plants at reasonable prices. Pelham: Pelham Library, 9 a.m. to noon, the library at the corner of Amherst and South Valley roads. Perennials, annual seedlings and vegetable starts. Benefits library programs. South Hadley: Council on Aging, 9 a.m. to noon, South Hadley Senior Center, 45 Dayton St. Soil testing and garden advice available from master gardeners. Shelburne Falls: Bridge of Flowers, 9 a.m. to noon, Trinity Church Baptist Corner, Water and Main streets. Proceeds fund maintenance of Bridge of Flowers.

∎ MAY 24: Amherst: 4-H plant sale, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Amherst Farmers Supply, 320 South Pleasant St., Amherst. Hanging plants, patio pots, vegetable plants, flowering plants, herbs and perennials. Leverett: Leverett Historical Society Plant and Garden Book Sale, 9 a.m. to noon, Leverett Town Hall. To donate plants or books or offer help contact Dawn Marvin Ward at 367-9562 or Julie at 367-2656.

∎ MAY 31: Amherst: Grace Episcopal Church, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Town Common. Plants, including house plants, garden tools, decorative pots and books. Proceeds finance landscaping at the church. To donate plants call the church office at 256-6754.


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