Excessive rain has a silver lining

MD-gardening column  2x-050916

When rain forces a gardener to abandon mowing for days on end, a multitude of wildflowers may spring up. Bees and butterflies will forage in them.

The wet grey weather we’ve had for days on end this spring brings to mind the silver-lining aspects of too much rain. Even if you’re sitting in a patch of sun now, as I am as I write, soggy times will return sooner or later and it’s useful to have a strategy for turning them to ones gardening advantage.

A long stretch of rain – and I mean days, not hours – loosens up the soil like magic, creating perfect conditions for weeding. One of the great joys of gardening must be plucking a usually steel-like weed, with concrete roots, out of one’s often cement-like soil as easily as a knife cutting through butter.

Don’t be afraid to don a rain jacket, grab a garden fork and weeder and venture out into a fine drizzle. I’m certainly not advocating taking a chance on catching cold; but if the temperature is mild and the rain so fine you could almost imagine it’s not there, take advantage of the soft soil.

The other day I attacked several terrible thistles. They had appeared almost overnight. Due to their long roots, tenacious grip on the soil and habit of spreading their prickly leaves around them on the ground, thistles rank among the most intractable and daunting weeds of all, barring dandelions, which I don’t really consider weeds because they’re edible, pretty and attract pollinators.

After a few jabs around the thistles with my weeder, out they came with only a small pull. Same story with invasive Japanese honeysuckle, except that to loosen that plant’s roots, I used a garden fork. Japanese honeysuckle travels at great speed in wet weather, invading the lawn and climbing trees which it can strangle and smother with its strong vines and luxuriant foliage. Sometimes its roots are shallow, but sometimes they run deep into the earth and grow as thick as a small tree trunk, making their extraction almost impossible.

If you need to knock some posts into the ground, for example to create a grape arbor, or poles and cages to hold up heavy crops like tomatoes, this is the perfect time to do it because the soil offers very little resistance.

While you’re outside in such weather, take some deep breaths. Damp conditions magnify smells. Since many flowers have opened up by this stage of spring, there’s a cornucopia of fragrances to sniff. Inhale and relish the perfume which may vanish in a few days’ time. (Hopefully, you have no allergies to pollen and there’s no lingering smell of skunk, as I detected outside my front door recently).

Cedars, some pine trees, grass and damp earth also give off a beautiful smell. Consider that, after all the work you’ve done outdoors since January, you’ve earned more than a few minutes of relaxation in the garden appreciating nature. It’s good for the soul and the nerves.

Meanwhile the abundance of rain will have replenished the water table. Before it fell, landscapes had been looking dry for about two months. The amount of green growth spurred recently by the rain is staggering. I could swear my high bush cranberry doubled its size in a week.

The hummingbirds have returned. One sits on a small branch near the hummer feeder, looking wet but determined. If another hummer approaches, the first bird rushes into action, performing a side-to-side war dance accompanied by loud humming to drive away the trespasser. Bird number two flies off to investigate the black locust flowers – fragrant, white (despite their name), and hanging in wisteria-like bunches from a thorny little tree that appeared in my lawn a few years ago.

If the rain stops for a day or so, try mowing the lawn, but only If the grass is dry. Before you do, however, take a look at the small wildflowers that may be growing in among it. Their stems may have grown tall and the seemingly insignificant blossom may be attracting hungry bees.

A day before I wrote this, I spotted an orange butterfly balancing on a minute pink flower nestled in green leaves, atop a two-foot long stalk. Elsewhere, bees were visiting yellow, pink and mauve wildflowers of various kinds. I decided not to mow just yet.

Many of these flowering plants may be known officially as weeds, if I cared to look them up. But I don’t. I’d rather leave them as valuable resources for the pollinators’ appetites and the gardener’s eyes.

Every year, at this stage of spring, I face a battle between my socialized self, which says: “Mow the lawn now! It looks awful, what a mess!” and my wild side, which says, “Are you mad? It looks awesome. Look at that tall grass full of flowers. It’s like a supermarket for pollinators!”

When you do decide to mow, cut When rain forces a gardener to abandon mowing for days on end, a multitude of wildflowers may spring up. Bees and butterflies will forage in them.

the grass at three inches, no shorter. It’s better for the grass and will produce a finer looking lawn in time.

After a few days without rain, when the plants have dried off, prune any shrubs and vines that have finished flowering, like lilac and some types of clematis.

Wait until July to plant squash

Now that Mother’s Day has come and gone, you can plant and transplant warm-season annuals and vegetables, providing the soil has dried enough. Warm-season veggies include tomatoes, peppers, beans, corn…the list goes on. Squash is one, but another master gardener told me recently to wait until July 1, to plant it. Any earlier, and squash borers may destroy the plants.

Tender bulbs such as dahlias, gladioli and calla lilies can also go in the ground, now the threat of frost has gone. And spring bulbs, such as daffodils, taking up too much space can be lifted and divided.

Mid-May is a good time to prune a hedge, as long as the new shoots have grown at least as thick as a pencil. I always wait until after a hedge has finished flowering though, because bees love to forage in its blossom.

There’s more one could add to the gardening to-do list, but it’s also important to lay down tools from time to time, look, listen and smell the beauty of spring. So, happy gardening!

The gardening column goes on vacation now, but God willing, it will return in July.

Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.

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