Mulching in Hello Kitty Pajamas

Okay, I give up. I admit defeat. I tried to go dormant in winter like a good gardener—like a sane gardener—but the garden will not let me.

Sure, the main plants gracefully died back to stems, but they grew a suspicious fuzz of green around the base almost immediately. The lettuces finally succumbed to frost, but the beets are growing furiously. I transplanted the black-and-blue salvia to a narrow bed on the side of the house where it can grow as madly as it likes, and instead of dying of transplant shock like a normal tender plant in mid-winter, it hunkered down and threw out more leaves.

The roses finally decided to settle down and act like it’s winter, but the mountain mint is already six inches high and expanding outward. The yarrow never even considered a die-back—it’s yarrow. Do I not understand what it is to be yarrow? Hmmph! Sure, it has been planted in a grim wasteland of pine roots, but it is undaunted! Yarrow will triumph over all lesser beings!

If there was ever a plant that believed in manifest destiny, it’s yarrow. If those plants were humans, they would form militias and attend very intense meetings with other yarrow and the rest of us would worry when they moved in next door.

The bloodroot is lost in a tangle of climbing aster, so I can’t tell what its opinion is, and the toothwort would be out in January anyway, but the daffodils have all come up, budded and some of them will be open by the time you read this. The buds covering the fothergilla haven’t opened yet, but they’re clearly thinking about it. I went out and waved a calendar at the garden. I pointed to the bit that said “January.” I circled it with Sharpie. The garden ignored me, partly because plants are not readers, mostly because the garden has decided that it’s spring and if I don’t like it, I can go mulch myself.

I realized that I was probably in trouble the day that I went out to fill the bird feeder and then the ground was so muddy and squelchy underfoot, I thought I’d throw a load of bark mulch on the path, just to give myself a decent footing, and before I knew it, I’d moved six wheelbarrow loads of mulch. I was wearing sandals and fuzzy Hello Kitty pajamas*, because I hadn’t planned to do anything in the garden. It’s January, after all. Gardens are dormant in January!

Except when they aren’t. And when the garden isn’t dormant, the itch to get out and DO something is overwhelming. I suspect that the plants beam waves of gardening-compulsion through their leaves. Maybe the guys with tinfoil hats are on to something.

I stood on the front porch, trowel in hand, and said “Fine. You win. It’s…spring-ish. Sub-spring. Semi-spring. I declare the gardening season open.”

I am fairly sure the garden snickered at me.

And so I have moved loads of stone edgers for the Next Great Bedding Project, I have expanded the mulched path (I hated trying to deal with grass there anyway) and today I dumped a layer of topsoil and a layer of mulch at the edge of the gravel turnaround where cars pull in so that they can get a good run at the driveway and hopefully sail across the potholes without becoming mired. Then I divided my black-eyed susans.

Now, I have not actually divided all that many plants before, for the simple reason that I am a fairly unlucky gardener in some regards, and I kept having to move. So a three-year-old clump of Rudbeckia is a new thing for me. I checked the internet, which informed me that I should have divided them in fall, but I didn’t, so the next best thing is very early spring before they break dormancy.

I went and looked at the black-eyed susans. They are not dormant. They have never been dormant in the entire time I lived here. The year we got the big snowstorm, when I scraped down through it, there were thick green leaves. Nevertheless, we make do. I dug the spade into them, cut out big wedges, and filled in the holes with mushroom compost. The big wedges (eight of them! I could have gotten a dozen if I were more aggressive!) went into the mound of mulch and topsoil. Black-eyed susans are nigh-on unkillable, but I have some pretty impressive plant-slaughtering skills, so we’ll see if I have managed to create an exuberant edge planting (backed by a row of mountain mint and a row of shrubby St. John’s wort) or whether I have merely stunted the growth of my existing clumps.

While I was there, I discovered yet again that bee balm Does Not Sleep, and took out handfuls of runners. I love bee balm when it blooms and loathe it the other ten-months-and-some-change of the year. This year I’m going to experiment with Monarda punctuata, which apparently is much less of a thug, and Bradbury’s bee balm, which will take significant amounts of shade.

But not for a bit yet. I know full well that this may be a cruel illusion, that the temperatures may yet plummet, that I will may wake up one morning and find the frog pond covered in a skin of ice, much to the annoyance of the sweet flag that has already put up a stiff fan of leaves. I am not willing to risk trucking in new plants that may perish in a sudden hard freeze.

The rest of the garden, however, is fair game. We’re in this together, the garden and I, and apparently, regardless of the date, it’s decided that it’s time for spring.




*They’re warm. I like Hello Kitty. And I am quite skilled with a mattock, if anybody wants to make something of it.


© 2012, Ursula Vernon. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    I have been harping that nothing is blooming and we finally have winter…or so I thought…I have a few snowdrops blooming and lots of green growth around many natives…that is not unusual to see the green growth in winter since they grow even under 5 feet of insulation known as snow…but the bulbs blooming has me worried…I am thinking I may not get my 3 months of rest from the garden…I fully expect to be out in Feb. cleaning up the spent blooms from last year..oh and I just saw a heron and a robin… a robin and a heron!!! The robin will be featured in my TH post…a Robin!!! in January!!!!

  2. Siouxellen says

    Oh ye of southern temps! You have lovely winters – some frost and then sunshine. There is no debate on winter gardening in Michigan! The snow makes that decision for us. And it stays until March! Which makes spring all that much more delightful. True about bee balm – even in Michigan. All winter it is sending out spies, undercover trailblazers looking for new property, like prairie schooners setting out west for gold.

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