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vervain, eastern grey squirrel

April Gardens

by Wes Porter
Monday, April 3, 2006

The common European plant vervain (Verbena officinalis), is now found in many parts of the world, including waste places around North America. Another and very ancient name for annual is Herb of the Cross. The Crusaders believed that the plant sprang up at Calvary when the nails where driven into Christ’s hands. In medieval times people bathed in water containing the plant in an effort to foresee the future and have their wish come true, according to researchers Wee and Hsuan (1990). The plant was also used as a love potion, they note, as well as to ward off evil spirits and to prevent dreaming.

Unfortunately vervain is not present at this season to deter that especially evil spirit Sciurus carolinensis, the eastern grey squirrel. These tree rats have been aloft in maples, nipping twigs to lap up the sweet sap that oozes out. But with the first bud blooms of bulbs emerging down they descend intent like so many uncouth youths on dastardly destruction.

Frequent dusting with cayenne pepper is an excellent deterrent. And no, it does not cause them to scratch their eyes and go blind, a dubious tale made up by some groveling greenies. Blood meal fertilizer is often recommended but has to be re-applied every few days. This results in over fertilizing and probable pollution — if the family pooch doesn’t lick it up first. They then excitedly breath fetid fumes in your face. A fertile source of further information is

There is poo power awaiting you elsewhere also, particularly if you want to discourage such other evil spirits as vampires from the garden. How about going for garlic sets, small bulbs to set out in the vegetable patch early, getting them off to a jump-start? Allium sativum is the botanical name for the plant, allium being what the Romans refereed to it as. In the days of ancient Greece and Rome, it was the plebian masses that gobbled garlic down. Their betters in the upper classes ruled it vulgar to reek of the aroma.

There is plenty of post-winter clean up to complete though before planting.

Shear the dead stems ornamental grasses along with any flowerheads or other foliage left for decoration over winter. Check shrubs for dead, diseased or dying wood and remove. Ditto for suckers emerging from the bases of grafted trees and bushes.

If not already cleared away, gently rake off any mulch from the flower borders and dig into the vegetable bed. If there is no space for the latter, add old, spent mulch to the compost heap. Watch out for emerging bulbs and perennials.

Many popular guides suggest dividing perennials at this time of year. We suggest waiting until fall. There is plenty else to occupy you in spring. Moreover, September and October are also much better months in which to reconfigure perennial borders — and for planting although commercial sources are not keen to advertise this.

If you haven’t commenced fertilizing indoor plants this year, get going right away. An old favourite of ours is the all-natural Canadian fish-based ‘Muskie,’ applied every couple of weeks.

Use a turf knife (also known as a turf edger) to clean up the bedraggled edges to beds, borders and where ever lawn meets patios, walkways or drives. Like spades, hoes and other cutting tools, the work will be far easier if a flat file is first used to sharpen those leading edges. Such edging maintenance cannot be achieved with that instrument of perdition, the filament weed trimmer. Leave such for immature men and other maintenance morons to mess around with.

If you neglected to fertilize the lawn last fall, April is the time to do so, otherwise leave until next month or even into early June. Lawns that were established on clay soils and older, neglected ones should first be aerated, either with specially designed hand tools or mechanically. Next, evenly spread the fertilizer of your choice — natural or artificial. In the olden days, a quarter-inch of fine compost was raked over the grass (this was before metrification was ordered by a defunct prime minister).

Now you are ready for the most important weeding of the season. Down on knees, hand fork in phalanges, loosen the soil across the entire flowerbed and work each weed out by the roots. This includes those embedded in clumps of perennials, too. Leave these weeds all day on patio or drive to shrivel in the sun, then add to the composter. Yes, this actually means dirty hands!

Take a break on Friday, 21st April, to raise a beaker to Queen Elizabeth on her 80th birthday. Her Majesty may not share the enthusiasm for gardening shown by many of her ancestors and her eldest son, the heir to the throne. Still, she has one of the world’s most popular roses named after her — and she is our Queen despite the very best but ultimately futile efforts by aforesaid defunct prime minister.

When the forsythia buds show yellow, not before, it is safe to uncover, prune and mulch hybrid tea, floribunda and grandiflora roses. Remove all except the strongest three to five stems, then cut these back to an outward facing bud about four inches from the ground. Apply a granular fertilizer and then mulch heavily, if possible with composted cattle manure.

The same, or any other mulching material, will be beneficial for all flowers, herbs, shrubs, vegetables and fruit. Three- to six-inches will reduce weeding and watering, cool the soil in the heat of summer and help add organic matter and nutrients.

If all this is not enough for you, many hardier vegetables and herbs can be seeded directly in situ this month. Gardeners with heavy clay soils might wish to wait a while — but then such soils are not the best for vegetables and herbs anyway. A good rule-of-thumb (hand? arm? back?) is if you can cultivate the soil, you can sow the seeds. Chard, spinach, beet, radish, green onion, broad bean, white turnip, carrot, lettuce, peas are just a few to try. Hardy herbs that grow easily from seed include parsley, chervil, sage, thyme, dill and chives.

The late Bennett Cerf was a major publisher, columnist, television personality, lecturer, author, anthologist — and lover of limericks. He was particularly appreciative of trick spellings, hence this somewhat appropriate offering presented here but we hesitate to recommend given our climate:

Said a calendar model named Gloria,
"So the men can enjoy real euphoria,
You pose as you are
In Jan., Feb., and Mar.
Then in April they want to see moria!"

Thoroughly exhausted it is time to call for the spouse to take over in the garden while you relax with suitable beverage and the latest Vineland Nurseries catalogue. They may not have a web site (really!) but Jim and Simone Lounsbery are the people to call on when space is limited and the planting urge is upon one. From Abelia to viburnum, this little nursery with a plethora of perfect evergreens and deciduous miniature shrubs has what it takes — and then some. A pleasant drive down the QEW to just this side of St. Catharines, telephone or fax 905-562-4836 for directions.

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. He has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.