Get creative with strawberries. Strawberries can be planted in rain gutters attached to vacant walls on the side of the house, garage or tool shed. If you’re building a rain-collection system this summer, incorporate the irrigation tubes into the berry gutters. Planting this way makes a one-of-a-kind wall covering and keeps the berries clean and away from slugs and mice. Containers also provide flawless fruit for picking. If you’re going the traditional route in the garden, spread straw around the plants, so the berries don’t get splattered with mud during rainstorms. Straw also helps to keep weeds down. (See www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/HO-46.pdf.) My favorite strawberries are the alpines, which I grow from seed. Smaller than regular ones, they’re well suited to modest-sized gardens and containers. The tiny berries also have a distinct — and delectably perfumey — fragrance.
Love a skunk. For the last week or so, I’ve noticed anthills in my lawn have been dug up. No doubt they were eaten by the skunk that frequents my garden in the evening. While ants are valuable decomposers, they sometimes can sting. There are a lot of ants this spring because of the mild winter, which is where skunks come in. They keep the ants and grubs, too, under control. By the way, you don’t have to worry about being overrun with skunks; owls and birds of prey see to that. For more information, go to www.skunkhaven.net/SkunkIntro.htm.
Encourage more blooms. My repeat-blooming climbing roses have just finished their first round. I typically remove the spent heads by pruning just above the first leaf, which has five leaflets. (Roses have two types of leaves — some with three leaflets, others with five.) Removing faded flower heads helps to put energy into new shoots and buds. Once-blooming climbing roses should be left alone. Many of the newer shrub roses don’t need deadheading either; they actually self-clean by dropping their heads after the petals have fallen.
Try this rhody regimen. Now that many rhododendrons are finished blooming, pluck off spent heads down to next year’s developing buds, which are positioned just above the foliage. (They begin forming as soon as the flowers are finished.) This encourages more flowers for next year. You can also pinch or prune back new green growth to give your shrub a rounder shape. Rhododendrons should never be cut back with electric shears or other large power tools; they rip rather than cut the wood cleanly, destroying the structure of the plant and leaving it vulnerable to disease. Information on deadheading: www.kackenhoff.com/pdf/PlantingDirections_Rhododendrons.pdf.
Naturalize azaleas. Most azaleas have finished blooming, making this the best time to prune. Don’t wait! (After their flowers fade, azaleas start on next year. Prune too late and you’ll affect the number of flowers you’ll get.) Take note of the plant’s whorled branching habit, meaning several branches emerging from one point. Follow each stem back to the last whorled grouping; you can remove the stem to this point. (This is considered a thinning and reduction cut.) Azaleas grow in layers created by the whorled branches, so by maintaining the layers, you preserve the natural shape. For large, old, and woody plants, remove dead wood. Then assess what areas need attention. Don’t shear off the top of the plant; this creates unsightly box shapes that encourages dense growth and limited air circulation, which insects love. If you’d like to propagate your azalea, take the cuttings you’ve removed, trim into small sections, and put in a regular plant tray that’s filled to the top with a mixture of half perlite and half vermiculite. Water well and put the tray in a shady spot. Don’t let the cuttings dry out. At summer’s end, when they’ve rooted, pot them up. Here’s how: http://azaleas.org/index.pl/azpropagate.html.
Heed this old-timer. The farmer who used to live behind my house told me the best time to plant any vine crop — cucumbers, pumpkins, squash — is the first of June. The ground is warm and the plants will grow faster and bloom sooner than ones put in earlier in the season. These vines also like high ground, so build a few mounds of soil mixed with compost, and put three seeds in each. If space is limited, install three poles in the ground, tepee-style, and watch the vines scurry up. Containers work, too.
Eva Monheim is a certified arborist, master floral designer, and full-time lecturer in horticulture at Temple University Ambler; she is also an instructor at Longwood Gardens. Contact her at email@example.com