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"Escape into the Garden, It may be One of the Safest Places to Hang Out," by the Whistling Gardener

Sometimes I feel like the world is spinning out of control. If you are feeling overwhelmed, I have the solution for you: spend more time in the garden! The sunshine will do you good, working in the dirt will help build up immunities, breathing the fresh air will clear your lungs, and communing with nature will clear your mind.
The Whistling Gardener’s summer garden. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

Sometimes I feel like the world is spinning out of control. There is all the fear over the coronavirus, the political turmoil over the November elections, concerns over climate change, the stock market, March Madness (okay, maybe that isn’t a life or death issue), and just general angst over making the mortgage or being able to pay for health coverage.

If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed, I think I have the solution for you: spend more time in the garden! The sunshine will do you good, working in the dirt will help you build up immunities, breathing the fresh air will clear your lungs, and just communing with nature will clear your mind.

Here are some things you can do while you are decompressing from all that life is currently throwing you…

March is a key month for pruning. Due to our fairly mild winter, I don’t expect to see much winter damage. Deciduous shrubs that bloom in the summer, like butterfly bush, spiraea, potentilla, and hypericum, can be hacked back hard now. This also goes for red twig dogwoods that are grown for their winter interest. Hard pruning stimulates lots of new growth, which is good for these summer bloomers. Early spring bloomers, like forsythia and quince - which are blooming now, should be pruned after they finish blooming, so hold off for now on them.

Roses will require some serious attention this month, if you want spectacular blooms this summer. Prune them down to knee high (except climbers of course), clean around them, apply a generous application of organic fertilizer (two cups per bush isn’t too much), and cover the soil with a fresh layer of compost. An application of dormant oil and copper is a good preventative spray to help control future insect and disease problems. If for some reason you still have any of last year’s leaves on the bush, remove them and toss them in the yard waste bin.

Hydrangeas are always confusing for gardeners. PG type hydrangeas can be cut back “hard” since they bloom on new wood. “Mop head” and “Lace leaf” varieties should be cut just below last year’s blooms, same for Oakleaf and climbing varieties. It gets complicated, so don’t hesitate to ask a horticultural professional. Bringing pictures into the garden center is always helpful when it comes to explaining how to do things.

Fruit trees should be pruned now, even if they are starting to push flower buds. If you act fast there is still time to apply a dormant spray of copper and oil, but always avoid any insecticides (natural or synthetic) when trees are in full bloom. March is the last month to purchase bareroot fruit trees. Starting April, they will generally cost you 20% to 40% more. By planting this month, you can save dollars, get a better selection, and benefit from not having to lug around a 40-pound pot of soil. As a bonus, bareroot plants will often establish faster.

Weeding is so critical this month. Get those weeds out of the garden before they go to seed, and you will have fewer weeds to contend with this coming fall. You can “skin-off” annual weeds with a Hula Hoe in a matter of minutes, then follow up with a layer of compost and be done for the season. Perennial weeds will need their roots removed as well, which is a little more work. Products like Preen, Casaron, and Corn Gluten help to keep future weed seeds from germinating but be sure to read the label - they can also damage desirable plants if used in the wrong places.

Cool season veggies should be planted this month. After you have worked your soil with some fresh compost, fertilizer, and lime, head down to the garden center for starts of potatoes, onions, garlic, shallots, and seeds of carrots and radishes. In other words, root crops! You can also plant leaf crops and peas right now, either from seed or transplants - there is nothing sweeter than a fresh picked pea. Wait on tomatoes, peppers, beans and for sure basil until the soil and air is much warmer, usually sometime in May.

There are tons of documented health benefits from gardening: the exercise is good for us, the sunshine is full of vitamin D, the visual and culinary rewards improve our physical and mental health, the list goes on! These next several months are going to be extremely stressful for all of us and other forms of recreation may not even be options with the threat of contamination. For sure, we all need to pull together and take care of each other, but we also need to take care of ourselves and spending time in the garden may just be the best medicine out there. Stay safe.

Sunnyside will be hosting two free classes next weekend, “Summer Blooming Bulbs” on Saturday, March 14th, 2020, at 10:00 am; and “Dazzling Dahlias” on Sunday, March 15th, at 11:00 am. For more information, visit

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and you can send your gardening questions to him at

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