Lovettsville, VA 20180

March 17, 2022

Dear Scott,

I am glad we agree upon the many joys of Brunnera and Carex, if not the fact that you are clearly affable and everyone knows it.

I have just finished my reluctant hard cut of all the carex here in various states of ‘semi-evergreen’.  The heart says no, the steely, hardened (and experienced) brain says yes.

For any of these semi-evergreen plants, the choice is not straightforward at the end of the winter in the Mid-Atlantic – perhaps a little easier in the brutal Midwest? Anne has been writing about this issue with epimedium and hellebores from the tender, Gulf-stream-kissed climes of Wales – and her actions are, for obvious reasons, different than yours or mine; but the commonsense rules apply to us all: If it’s browned and ugly, cut it back, if it’s not, don’t. 

hellebore and daffodils

I’m on the fence with hellebores, usually preferring just to leave them alone as most of the old green is a welcome backdrop for the new green – and flowers.  And I can’t quite get my head around naked flowers sticking up in tufts.  Leave that to shameless lycoris.

So what to do with those plants which stubbornly place one foot in both camps?  The variegated C. morrowii under the pergola is tip-browned, but it is still substantially green and white and makes it look like I could, possibly, at some point, if pressed, consider myself a four-season gardener. 

Carex morrowii

The pergola with its abundance of carex and miscanthus in late January

I have experimented with all manner of timing.  I have left it alone and watched the emerging foliage become tainted by dirty petticoats – and have laboriously trimmed it by hand in mid-summer when I could no longer ignore the mess. 

I have waited to trim it back until mid-spring in order that it could serve as backdrop to early bulbs – and lived with browned stubby mounds (and browned emerging tips recklessly cut in the process) just as everything else is green and gorgeous. As an added bonus, this method also showcases the otherwise modestly-clothed brown (!) inflorescences above the browned and ragged edges.  If you’re sensing a color theme here, you’re correct.

And I have gulped deeply and trimmed it back in late winter, saying goodbye for a time to its structure, but knowing that some of the most painful decisions in life provide the best results.  Late spring comes and all is forgiven.  

As I have wondered what the hell everyone else is doing re: the carex conundrum, I called and asked a friend recently, cryptically uttering one word – “Carex” – when he picked up the phone. “Cut it back. Hard.” came the answer, without a beat skipped.

So it’s officially agreed by at least two people with their hands perpetually in the dirt – care to make it three?

However, the term ‘cut’ is loosely applied this year.  I confess to the use of a battery-operated weed whacker. My tired back said “hell to the no” to the low, forward weight of a hedge trimmer or hand shears. 

trimmed carex

Hard to look at, embarrassing to admit to. But then so are a lot of things around here this time of year.

The twenty-foot patch is so congested that it laughed off my original militaristic demand of two-inches. Armed only with determination and a spool of .095, I have had to settle for a frayed and ratty six.  I am deeply ashamed of the state of it, but spring will put it right.

All the members of the EverColor® series of C. oshimensis present a harder choice as they are rarely browned here. Instead they are as lanky and long as the hair on our heads during 2020.  Yours especially. Last week I called on what core muscles I could scrape up and sorted those into neat little mounds by hand. Ditto C. comans ‘Amazon Mist’. Much better. 

everillo carex

In July, the Evercolor Everillo carex by the front door is glorious. In January, semi-glorious, but tired.

Friends have a river of C. pensylvanica mounds running for many yards through their garden – originally 600 plugs on six-inch centers. Fully browned right now, simply gorgeous. This river must be mowed for the full spring effect, but last year they made the inspired but labor-intensive choice of planting the early Fritillaria meleagris throughout.  Oh boy. Advil on standby.

I have the same conundrum with various epimedium, hellebore, disporopsis, even autumn fern in a kind winter, and am thankful for those hybrids, such as E. x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ and E. x rubrum that make the choice clear. (A big patch of brown, begging for the chop.)  And to a certain extent, it is always a wrench to cut back the true grasses, and lose that strong winter structure in the landscape.   Honestly it’s hard to lose the drying heads of Hydrangea paniculata.  I’m about half way through the amputations.

Epimedium x versicolor

Pretty obvious action called for here. Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ in late February.

 

epimedium

Just four weeks later and it’s equally obvious that a clean slate was called for.

 

Yet in other places, epimedium foliage is just a little battered and the choice is harder. E. wushenense ‘Sandy Claws’ and E. wushenense/flavum cross, ‘Amber Queen’ Those are some seriously tough leaves.

In other plant related news, I am the happy recipient of 2000+ snowdrops gifted by a friend who cannot be thanked enough times in this life.  Fat, healthy, and green! (The snowdrops that is.) And virtuous – as they are rescued from a property that is destined for the dreaded R1 slice-and-dice.  My Power Planter™ is making a job that might have killed me, merely cripple me.  Hurrah for Greg Niewold and his magical auger!

Plants aside, we are also in agreement upon the existence of groupies.  Please tell your prudish Michigan landscapers nervously trying to read the room that observing something exists doesn’t necessarily mean one needs to get into bed with the idea of it. In this case, quite literally.  Like it or not, becoming a groupie is a choice. A choice, it appears, that a lot of music fans still make (though I imagine the forms they need to sign these days could take the edge right off it).

daffodils and carex

Cutting back the carex means the determined téte-a-tétes will be seen.

 

One can only strive not to be a groupie oneself in order that one is not made the butt of poorly conceived jokes in landscaping circles.  But that’s the point, isn’t it? Make good choices, lest you find yourself paying dearly for them. I’m afraid I cannot share your fascination with Chrissy Hynde, but I might have found myself tempted to board a bus with Slaid Cleaves at one time. Singer-Songwriter and English/Philosophy major – a devastating combo.

Although they may not admit to it, I reckon most of your upstanding audience would not be averse to the persistent attentions of a lithesome twenty-something after a particularly intense lecture on arborvitae – even if it was only to savor the moment of being desperately, irrationally wanted by a lithesome twenty-something.  I salute your honesty, if not the quality of your joke.

I look forward to your upcoming whirlwind visit to my muddy valley with its ragged carex.  The prosecco is already cooling. Let’s hope the weather gods are kind.

Yours,

Marianne

P.S.  I am painting my kitchen garden fence black!  Riskiest thing I’ve done for years. 

painting black fence

Absolutely terrifying, but damn I love it.