Thumbs up to what cold hardy volunteers do at the zoo

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At first, we had to keep moving to keep warm but eventually the sun and the air felt good enough to enjoy sitting down. Paul Needle started earlier than most of us, in order to deliver 20 bags of mulch to our gardens. 

Spring start up continues

You'd never know it was only 35°F at 9 am when we reported to our Detroit Zoo Adopt a Garden today for this season's third work day. Despite being bundled in several layers of clothing everyone was as cheery as for a summer picnic.

What we did:


Looked for weeds in the areas we were about to mulch. We didn't find many -- our reward for the thorough weeding we gave the beds last fall.WinterWeedsN3832s.jpg

Winter weeds like corn speedwell and tall rocket germinate in late fall and during winter thaws. They are ready to bloom very early in spring and may scatter seed before the gardener begins to work. When corn speedwell (tiny scalloped-leaf plants among the seedling Nigella/love-in-a mist) has a good year, open ground such as in fallow vegetable beds may be carpeted with them by spring and whole lawns may develop a blue haze in early spring as a myriad of miniscule blue flowers open.

Our own desirable perennials can be winter weeds, too. Blackeye Susan (Rudbeckia) won't bloom so early as the speedwell or tall rocket but it will be well rooted and tough to pull by spring.


Spread slow release organic fertilizer in the beds not yet fertilized. For 100 square feet of bed we used 3 to 4 pounds of a 5-3-3 fertilizer (5% nitrogen, 3% phosphorus, 3% potassium).

Divided and moved bulbs

Dug up the thickest clumps of daffodils, divided and transplanted them to places where we need more color. Dividing bulbs during bloom goes against some recommendations but it's perfect for us because right now we can see which clumps of bulbs need dividing, we are certain which color and type they are, and we can see the results immediately.

Yes, bulbs can keep flowering after being divided in bloom. And they stand up straight, too. There are two key tactics:
1)  To insert the shovel deep when we dig them, so we bring up the whole root mass, and
2) To replant the divisions deeper than they were growing. We bury not only all the pale parts that were below ground before the dig-up, but some of the green leaf as well.

Tom Theoret decides which of the daffodils clumps to lift and divide.

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Sandy Niks divided what Tom presented to her, populating the winterberry area with miniature daffodils so there will be more color right where the viewers are this time of year. (Photos ©2013 Darione McNeal.)


Mulched all the areas between perennials, 1-1/2 inches deep with cocoa hulls. We spread the mulch right over the on top of leaves and old mulch.

Why cocoa hulls? They're acid in reaction which is a good thing for this garden where the soil ranged between alkaline 7.4 and very alkaline 7.8 on the pH scale. They're a slow release source of nitrogen. They're dark in color and fine in texture so they make a non-interfering visual background for the plants. They're lightweight and thus easier to haul all the way to the zoo's southwest corner. Do they hurt animals who might eat them? We've had four veterinarians looking for verifiable incidents for nine years and still not found a one, despite, emailing to the source "Please put us in touch with the dog's owner or the vet" every time we are forwarded one of those scare stories.

Cocoa hulls are more expensive than bulk bark products and we have 5,000 square feet of bed to mulch. So we mulched only the highest visibility areas with the bagged cocoa hulls. We will continue mulching next time with another of our preferred mulches, finely ground bark.


Demonstrated all kinds of bending techniques. One day we'll have a physical therapist look at our various styles and tell us which is best.

We demonstrate quite the range of moves and dexterity as we spread our cocoa hull mulch! (Photo ©2013 Darione McNeal.)

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Renewed fencing and sculptureCampfireTrioN9627s.jpg

Made and renewed wattle fencing, including reweaving our wattle sculpture, the "campfire" in the big central bed in our garden area.

While some volunteers wove new wattle fences, Alex Grady, Dakarione Talley and Darione McNeal took the faded wattle off our "campfire" sculpture and recreated it with fresh, brightly colored branches.

Resurrected tender plants

Dug up the fig tree from its underground retreat. It isn't hardy enough to survive winter above ground in this zone5-6 area but it can live if it's moved into a root cellar or buried so it's insulated by soil.

It looks great, just like it did when it went under in fall. We should have lots of figs this year -- if we can find a way to keep zoo visitors from eating them first.

Last fall we buried some elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta) tubers with the fig. The tubers came up from their winter rest still firm, so we planted them.

Phil Gigliotti brought a fig tree one year and his talk of picking fresh figs encouraged us to overwinter the tree. Paul Needle and Carol Ebner joked with him about his dedication to the cause. (Photos ©2013 Darione McNeal.)

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Pruned to thin and to encourage vigorous growth

We pruned the blue spruce (Picea pungens) where last year's reduction pruning left the south side too dense. Too little light could penetrate there, but it must do to keep needles growing in the interior and on the north side.

Janet claimed to be aiming for the yard waste bag but most of her clippings rained down on Dakarione Talley's head. (Photo ©2013 Darione McNeal.)

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We also pruned back the rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) "trees." They now look like trunks with stubby branches that end in knuckles. A number of branches will sprout from each knuckle. Each of those will grow 24 inches or more, and bloom in August.SorbariaPriscN9595s.jpg

Priscilla Needle, pruning the Ural false spirea (Sorbaria sorbifolia) to clip off last year's seed stalks. More important, she used both sharp spade and clippers to cut back the suckers running out from the roots. Left to its own devices this shrub would triple the space it occupies each year and all the rest of the plants in the bed would be shaded out. We love it for the white butterfly-attracting plumes it produces in July (continuing into fall if we keep deadheading it) but we do wish it wasn't quite so rambuunctious in suckering.





Celebrated success

Checked the graft on the living arbor we've made from two callery pears (Pyrus calleryana) and made additional grafts.


Photo ©2013 Phil Gigliotti

Enjoyed each other's company, and the warming day. Everyone was delighted that a mallard duck decided to nest in our patch of creeping St. Johnswort (Hypericum calycinum). What brave creatures ducks are, to hunker down and remain on the nest despite a hubbub all around.




Can you see the nesting duck? Alex Grady certainly did. He walked slowly and kept a non-threatening distance to pose with her.DuckAlexN9638sa.jpg


We hope you get out and enjoy the spring, too. Even if it's cold!