Planting Tips

  • Stabilize soil structure with reliably cold-hardy plants that will remain in place for years.
  • Select insect and disease-resistant varieties to reduce your reliance on pesticides.
  • Avoid deeply tilling the soil, which displaces beneficial organisms.
  • Add a two to four-inch (five- to-eight-centimeter) layer of shredded bark over tree and shrub roots to conserve moisture and insulate them from excessive heat.

Feeding Tips

  • Feed plants with trace minerals by making compost from disease-free garden leaves and vegetable kitchen waste.
  • Fertilize with nutrients from natural sources such as blood, bone and fish emulsion, kelp meals, and alfalfa pellets.
  • Add organic material (pine needles, leaves, peat moss) to the soil to retain oxygen and moisture and improve texture.
  • Enhance nutrient take-up with Epsom salts: 1 cup (250 mL) per nine square meters raked into the soil in Spring.
  • Use commercial organic fertilizers with low formulations, below 15 (e.g., 5-10-5), to prevent root burn and excessive soil salts.

Watering Tips

  • Irrigate your garden in the early morning (especially plants prone to fungal diseases such as roses) or water at night to keep evaporation to a minimum.
  • Replace water-wasting fine mist and overhead sprinklers with soaker hoses.
  • Cover exposed soil with two-inches (five centimeters) of organic mulch (leaves or shredded bark) to conserve moisture.
  • It is more effective to water lawns thoroughly once or twice weekly. Unlike frequent but brief irrigation, more thorough irrigation helps the soil absorb moisture more deeply, promoting healthy root growth.
  • Choose drought-resistant plants that can withstand the summer heat.

Gardening Task to Do Before the Spring Thaw

Gardeners know that the growing season doesn’t start on a beautiful sunny morning in May. For productive gardeners, there is much to be done while frost still lingers in the ground. In the lengthening days of the earliest Spring, while the sap is still flowing, we should be busy in the potting shed, preparing for the planting rush. Organizing irrigation equipment, making tools ready, mixing up custom fertilizers are practical matters we can accomplish before the buds break. Instead of playing catch-up, an early start puts us in confident control of the gardening season.

Prune Summer-Flowering Shrubs

To avoid wasting potential blossoms, it’s crucial to have the first big surge of spring growth going into productive wood. Summer-flowering shrubs make their flowers on new wood:

Roses

Remove deadwood and shorten sections of living wood slimmer than a pencil because they won’t have enough strength to hold up the blooms.

Hydrangea

Cut back branches and canes Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ (also called hills of snow) and H. paniculata ‘Grandiflora’ (a.k.a. PeeGee), ‘Tardiva’ and ‘Unique’ by about half their lengths.

Spirea

Shorten stems of low-growing Spiraea japonica (‘Little Princess,’ ‘Bumalda,’ ‘Goldflame,’ ‘Gold Mound,’ and Anthony Waterer,’ for example) by about 70 percent of their lengths.

Rose of Sharon

Remove up to one-third its height before you see new growth. If you prune your Rose of Sharon later in the Spring, it may result in the loss of some flowers.

Clematis

It is important to cut back last year’s growth before buds break. If you’re doubtful of what pruning category your clematis is in, it’s safe to cut back by 50 percent the plant’s height.

Ensure Soil Fertility

To prepare a quick-start growth stimulant for perennial plants, mix equal parts of blood, bone, and kelp meals. Scratch 125 milliliters of the mix into the soil around every plants’ root system.

Alfalfa pellets (from a pet shop or animal feed company) will also supply growth hormones and can be applied with the growth stimulant mentioned above. Use 150 grams to small perennials, 300 grams to large perennials, and 600 to 700 grams to shrubs.

Buy seed of Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens) online or at a local garden center and broadcast it in lawns—about 250 grams per 1000 square feet (100 square meters). Clover strengthens the lawn against drought, fixes nitrogen in the soil, and crowds out weeds. One of the benefits of clover is that it won’t strangle grass plants. But it will fill in where the grass is patchy.

Irrigation Preparation

Buy soaker hoses. Position the soaker hoses in beds and around shrubs before groundcovers, and perennial plants begin growing.
Patch punctured rubber hoses. Also, replace all plastic washers with non-leaking rubber washers.
You can avoid unnecessary water evaporation by setting in-ground irrigation systems to come on in the early morning, before sunrise.

Check up on plant supports.

To save your blooms from dropping to the ground, put peony rings in place before growth begins. Look for sturdy, long-lasting peony supports.
Set up netting and stakes for garden peas before you plant the seeds.
Replace or tighten wire supports for grape canes and raspberry before buds break.

Pest Control Essentials

Gather blackspot-affected leaves from around roses before spring rains revive disease spores.
To avoid a new outbreak, gather leaves infected with apple scab from under crabapple trees.
Before leaf buds break, spray woody shrubs, still-dormant roses, and magnolias (except Japanese and sugar maples and yews) with dormant oil to smother scale insects. Apply spray in the morning when a freezing night is not forecasted.

Pre-Summer Lawn Care

As soon as the earth is firm, use a leaf rake to remove leaf debris and light thatch from all lawn areas. Use a special prong-type thatch rake for sectors of deep thatch. Spread the removed organic material under hedges and shrubs as a mulch to conserve moisture and protect the roots from the summer heat.

Once the soil is no longer waterlogged, aerate lawns with a core aerator machine. Use the aerator device to remove two-inch-long (five-centimeter) plugs of earth to improve oxygen access to the root.

Top-dress lawns before they begin growing with a mixture of shredded leaves (if available), aged manure, peat moss, or purchased triple mix in a one inch (2.5-centimeter) layer.

Garden Tools and Equipment Basics

If you don’t have special tools and expertise, take lawn mower blades to a professional sharpening service. Dull blades make rough cuts and induce turfgrass diseases. Also, sharpen round shovels and snub-nosed spades.

Check the tires of wheelbarrows and repair wheel punctures. Inflate flat tires and tighten nuts and bolts.

To remove dried sap, clean the cutting blades of pruners with steel wool.
Test the pond pump in a bucket of water to make sure it works correctly after winter storage.

Brush out clinging soil from terra-cotta pots and containers, then soak them for 30 minutes. The solution you use should be one part chlorine bleach to nine parts water to eliminate pathogens.

How to prepare pruners for Spring?

Too many gardeners damage plants by employing dull pruners, which can tear, instead of cut, branches. Keen-edged secateurs are a joy to use—and kind to the plants they prune. Sharp blades cut cleanly with little crushing of stems, less shock to plants, and a faster recovery with less scarring.

If you’ve invested in quality secateurs, one good annual sharpening should suffice. Small nicks in the blades can be smoothed away if they’re not too deep; otherwise, they should be replaced. (Replacement blades are available for some of the better models.)

What you’ll need.

To get started, you’ll need a sharpening stone, preferably the kind that comes in its box to help anchor it while in use. For sale at most hardware and building-supply stores, these stones have two sides—one with coarse grit and a finer surface on the other. Either an oil stone or a water stone will do; be sure you know which kind you have. (A pocket stone is useful for quick touch-ups as you’re working in the garden.)

Using a screwdriver and adjustable wrench, take secateurs apart (note how they go back together). Clean thoroughly with mineral spirits and a soft rag to remove all dirt and old oil. If your sharpening stone has no box to anchor it, try holding it down with a couple of nails driven into your workbench or potting bench.

Soak the water stone or add a puddle of water to wet it. For an oil stone, add a few drops of either a honing oil or a light household one such as sewing-machine oil. Hold the blade at a 30-degree angle to the coarse side and move it over the stone in small, counterclockwise circles. Begin at the base of the blade and move to the tip. Check the angle by holding the edge up to the light. You should see a narrow strip of shiny metal; if the strip is too wide, you’re working too flat.

Finish the blade on the stone’s fine side, which should also be soaked or oiled, using the same motions and running the knife over it five or six times from base to tip. Test sharpness by holding up a sheet of paper and slashing it. If it cuts cleanly, it’s about right. Don’t over-sharpen; secateurs do heavy work, and a razor-sharp, too-thin edge will nick easily.

To remove the burr and give the blade a final smoothing, hold the non-beveled side flat against the stone’s fine grit and gently pass over it with a circular motion. Don’t press too hard. Carefully feel the blade after two or three circles to make sure the rough burr has been removed. Finally, reassemble secateurs and oil them lightly at the base and around the screws.

Mulching 101

All gardens, including vegetable gardens, berry patches, or flower beds, benefit from mulch. Here’s a little gardening secret; mulch adds a professional-look, and finishing touch to your garden. And as much as mulch beautifies your garden, it improves the soil’s health and simplifies your gardening chores. Here are some of the many benefits of mulch and a DIY guide to creating your own.

Mulch Improves the Soil

Organic or natural mulches gradually break down and become part of the soil structure. Mulch improves the soil’s tilth so that roots can better absorb moisture and nutrients from the ground. Using mulch also enriches the soil with essential plant food elements and minerals.

Mulch Conserves Water

During the summer months, mulch acts as a barrier against the sun and wind’s drying effects, slowing evaporation and keeping moisture in the soil. Mulch cuts down on the need for irrigation, which is a great way to conserve water.

Mulch Keeps the Soil Cool

On hot summer days, soil temperatures can rise significantly, causing garden plants to wilt. Although most plants can recover during the cool of the night, fluctuating temperatures can stress your plants. Mulch works as an insulator, reducing plant stress by moderating soil temperatures.

Fight Weeds with Mulch

Both organic and inorganic mulches effectively suppress weeds. Protected from the sun under a layer of plastic, newspapers, or shredded leaves, most weed seeds cannot germinate. Also, mulch prevents weed seeds blown in from the neighboring area from reaching the soil below, so they fail to take hold.

The Benefits of Organic Mulch

Organic mulches break down over time and become incorporated into the soil. A wide range of materials is available, and mulches vary from region to region, depending on local availability. Popular choices include bark chips, crushed shells, composted manure, gravel, and straw.

Be cautious with organic mulch.

Some organic mulches come with caveats. Bagged cocoa hulls lend a wonderful chocolate aroma to the garden, but can be toxic to dogs and cats. And because hay often contains weed seeds, it’s a poor substitute for straw. If you choose manure, always use composted manure rather than fresh manure. Fresh manure can burn plant roots.

When to use inorganic mulches.

Inorganic mulches, such as plastic sheeting, landscape fabric, and rubber mulch made from recycled tires, have none of the soil enhancement and few of the water conservation qualities of organic mulch. Regardless, they can play essential roles in the garden.

Plastic sheets can be used in the spring to warm up beds quickly and then can be removed at planting time. Some vegetable gardeners even poke planting holes through the plastic and keep it on their plots all season to help suppress weeds. Rubber mulch makes an excellent surface for pathways, and landscape fabric can be used as a sub-layer to keep weeds down on a gravel pathway.

DIY Mulches

Some of the best mulches are free. Chopped leaves (run them over with a mower), backyard compost, grass clippings, and pine needles make ideal mulches, and they’re freely available natural resources in many regions of the country.

How to apply Mulch?

Add organic mulches to garden beds once the soil has warmed in late spring or early summer. A shallow layer of between two and four inches (five and eight centimeters) deep provides an effective barrier against weeds, sun, and wind. When applying, keep the mulch away from the crowns of perennials and the stems and trunks of shrubs and trees, where it may promote fungal diseases such as crown rot.

How to protect your garden with mulch?

Have you ever noticed there isn’t a lot of bare soil in nature? A patch of earth gets covered up pretty quickly by something green, often a weed. We gardeners, of course, don’t want weeds. So what can we do about bare soil under newly planted trees or between plants?

The secret is mulch. Mulch describes a variety of materials that are spread on top of the soil around plants. Organic mulches include leaves, straw, and shredded wood and bark chips. In contrast, inorganic ones have landscape fabric (generally covered with organic mulch, so it looks better) and pea gravel, which is usually used for alpine plants in rock gardens.

It’s hard to think of another garden task that provides as much payback as mulching: it minimizes weed germination by blocking sunlight; preserves soil moisture by reducing evaporation; prevents erosion caused by rain and wind, and makes plants less susceptible to soil-borne fungal diseases. Depending on the kind you use, mulch can also add organic matter to the soil as it decomposes.

During the winter months, mulch helps keep soil temperatures even, which is beneficial in alternating freeze and thaw cycles and not enough snow cover to insulate plants.

Simply apply mulch to your garden in late spring when annuals, perennials, or vegetable plants are small enough to quickly work around. Layer the material of your choice about five centimeters thick over bare soil around plants. Be sure to keep mulch about two inches (five centimeters) away from the base of plant, tree, or shrub, as not leaving enough space can promote disease and rot. Because organic mulch breaks down over time, replenish when necessary.

Bark or Wood Chips

Available shredded or in small or large chips; excellent under trees and shrubs; use small or finely shredded bark chips or cedar mulch for flower gardens.

Cocoa Bean Hulls

Suitable for flowerbeds; smells like chocolate, but the scent fades quickly; can get moldy if applied thicker than two inches (five centimeters); toxic if ingested by pets.

Grass Clippings for Mulch

When fresh, they have a high moisture and nitrogen content and can become smelly if layered too thickly, so apply one to two inches (2.5 to five centimeters) thick; avoid using when grass is going to seed, or you may have to deal with a grassy weed problem in the future.

Fall Leaves for Mulch

Use as winter mulch or save in bags for spring mulching of shrubs and flowerbeds.

Straw for Mulch

Excellent for vegetable gardens or as winter mulch; don’t use hay, which may contain weed seeds.