April 05, 2020

Tidbits and notes for season’s end

Whether in the garden or this column, I think I should stop every so often and tie up loose ends. The summer pots, now empty, wait at the foot of the back steps to be washed and put away. And a few horticultural tidbits, none big enough to make a column of its own, need my attention.

Memories of witch hazel

I was heartened to receive notes of memories provoked by my recent column on witch hazel. Elizabeth Gorer of Camden, born in Bar Harbor in 1913, remembered her father’s interest in the plant. “He [a manufacturing chemist and graduate of Massachusetts College of Pharmacy] was very interested in what the Indians and early settlers used to cure their ailments and had many native materials including bear grease and skunk oil. I remember people used to come to him with various ailments and he would mix up what he thought they needed – and they got better! We always had witch hazel around, in after shave and toilet water, and I can remember how soothing it was on mosquito bites. It had a wonderful scent.”

The article also brought back memories for Beniah Harding of Thomaston. “When I was living in Holliston, MA, in the 1930s, my father used witch hazel as an after-shave lotion and as a cleanser. In addition, the local barber used to wipe my head (with witch hazel) after a hair cut.”

Pruning overgrown shrubs

Frank Barnes asked via e-mail how to prune overgrown witch hazels. It occurred to me that my reply was proper advice on pruning any multi-stemmed deciduous tree that has outgrown its garden space.

Use thinning cuts to reduce the spread and height of overgrown shrubs and trees without encouraging new growth. A thinning cut removes a branch where it joins another branch. In addition to dropping the height, thinning opens up the center of the plant to allow better air circulation, reducing disease and insect problems.

Avoid heading cuts, or cuts made in the middle of a branch. These cuts will stimulate new growth from buds just below the cut, quickly increasing the spread and height of the plant.

As to how much to remove, that is up to you; keep thinning until you have reduced the height and spread to suitable proportions. As long as you use only thinning cuts, you will not remove too much.

Getting rid of jewelweed

Mr. Harding also wants to know how to control or eradicate jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), other than pulling it up. Well, I’m not one to recommend chemicals, so my advice is to keep pulling it out BEFORE it flowers and sets seed. It comes out easily, but you will only get the upper hand if you prevent seed production.

Mint for shady gardens

Finally, a note about a North American native perennial groundcover for shady sites: Meehan’s mint (Meehania cordata). Don’t be alarmed by the name “mint,” for this plant is only moderately stoloniferous and will not leap out of bounds.

Meehania forms a carpet of glossy, dark green, heart-shaped leaves. In late spring and early summer, it is covered with one-inch flowers, two-lipped trumpets of lilac, lavender and pink.

I first encountered Meehania this past summer at Fernwood Nursery and Gardens (Swanville). Then it started showing up in the horticultural press; I even received an e-mail advertisement for it. And all this time it has been covering the ground from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, right under our collective feet!

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to reesermanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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