The expanding plant world reaches out with new growth in all directions. Devil's club's swelling tips begin to open into individual leaves, and they are their most friendly to humans. The soft new spikes are laid along the ribs of the leaf buds and can be stroked as if they were paws. Not a hint of thorniness, as long as we respect the direction of growth, and such a feeling of having one's hand in the tiger's mouth.
The thousands of mugho pine in our community are offering their candles this week, sleek bundles of new needles lifting from the ends of hundreds of thousands of branches. These hardy immigrants are at their most manipulable at this phase of their life. Left alone they will follow the dictates of their genes, arching towards 10 or 15 feet with open lower limbs. But they can be guided towards other body types.
These candles are the new branches, with the needles softly wrapped around a sap-filled core. The whole burst of growth will swell at one motion, giving the year's lengthening to the limbs and setting the new buds for the following season's branches. The size of the increase in length can be limited by pinching the candles while they are soft like this, and they will still set buds for the following season.
These conifers have distinct growth points, and can only start new branches from these buds. So it they are cut between branches, the remaining stubs will die back to the next whorl of branches, and then these will become the new dominant tips. The result will be the unusual looking bulges in the profiles of the shrub that we often see after accidents or wounding.
Mugho pines are willing participants in our domesticated landscapes, valuable for their evergreen presence and enduring strength. Keeping them at a size where they can be seen over, and so that they have greenery all the way to the ground is a simple task, if it is done now. Pinch the new candles in half, the young tips will heal, and the buds will be able to set so that next year it will still have the normal growth characteristics.
The spruces, hemlocks, firs and pines that we use in our home sites and commercial locations are generally selected for their looks, hardiness and ease of care. A little fertilizer to replace the nutrient recycling of the mature integrated ecosystem, enough water when young to establish good root systems in the less than ideal soils we provide, and they are content. They will grow according to their internal schedules, and we can securely manage them by recognizing those schedules and fitting our maintenance tasks in where they will do the most good.
There is another maintenance task coming up too: The lilac leaf miner will be making it's annual emergence, the overwintering eggs will hatch, new larvae will tunnel into soft lilac leaves creating voids and galleries that cause the leaves to collapse and roll up on themselves. The unsightly damaged leaves will be filled with the larvae, now enlarged to visible size and growing into adults. These will emerge and lay another crop of eggs and the cycle will repeat.
We stewards of the ornamentals want to break that cycle at its most vulnerable point. It is hard to get at a pest that is concealed within a leaf most of it's life, but we can add an insecticide to the leaf that makes the internal juices of the leaf deadly to that tiny worm. Do it this week, spread a systemic insecticide around the roots of your lilacs, enabling them to resist the ravages of the insects and stay the beautiful, fragrant, stately shrubs we love.
Late at night, after the coals of the bonfire have cooled and the kids have gone to bed, go out and stroll through your garden, look at the lovely new leaves, feel the sleek bark and cool soft buds of your ornamental plants. Experience the rising tide of the spring and feel the strength of the plant communities you have created. These purposeful arrangements of species and sizes reflect your own views of timing, proportion and repetition. They give visual information about your own senses of what is good and valuable and attractive in the world.
We interact with the whole world on an intimate level, and the parts closest to ourselves get the most attention. This season it is the most clear what message we are sending; make sure it is what you really mean.