Spring planting essentials — top 7 gardening tasks to do right now
Planting a garden this spring but have limited time to prepare? Whether you want to grow vegetables or flowers, following these steps will almost guarantee you gorgeous greens (and reds and violets and more).
1. Test your soil for greater gardening growth
Check for missing nutrients at the start of gardening season and you’ll get a leg up on nature. Do it in early spring for plenty of time to work in amendments, like fertilizer, before it’s time to plant.
A soil analysis will let you know if you should add lime, ash, or other nutrients to improve your garden. Plus, you can get it done by experts in your area for less than $20. Just contact your local cooperative extension office and ask them how to send in a soil sample. Or send off for the University of Georgia’s testing kit (http://aesl.ces.uga.edu/scripts/store/). For $15, the UGA extension service will mail you a kit with instructions. Send it back with a sample of your soil, and experts there will tell you which fertilizer to add and in what amount. It’s that simple!
You’ll need roughly 2 cups of soil. Gather small samples from about eight places in the garden. Brush away plants or debris from the area first, then dig a hole about 6 inches deep. Scrape a small handful of soil from the side of the hole. Leave your soil samples on a piece of plastic to dry, then mix well and place in a clean container. Experts suggest testing your soil every three to five years.
Master gardeners know that when to do certain gardening tasks is just as important as knowing what to do. For complete year-round gardening information you don’t often hear but really need to know, check out How to Grow Just About Everything.
2. Wipe out weeds safely with vinegar
Start watching for weeds in early spring. As soon as you see the first sprout, pour undiluted vinegar into a spray bottle. Just remember these tips.
- Spray weeds when they are small. Older, taller weeds may need more than one spray of vinegar to take them down.
- Vinegar can kill any plant it touches. Protect nearby plants with this trick. Trim off the bottom of a plastic 2-liter bottle, and place the bottle over the weed. Insert the sprayer nozzle into the mouth of the bottle, spray the weed with vinegar, and wait 30 seconds before lifting the bottle.
3. Ready beds and borders for new spring planting
For flowers that wow, mix 1 to 3 inches of compost into your existing soil. Don’t pile on more hoping to rev up your garden’s growth. With compost, you can have too much of a good thing. If you overdo the organic matter in your garden, soil can become spongy, and plants can suffer from pests and disease.
Be picky about your compost. While it can do great things for your garden, if its ingredients are contaminated with herbicides, you could end up killing your plants. Not all weed-killers break down during the composting process. Beware of:
- hay that is contaminated with long-lasting herbicides, known as pyralids. Farmers sometimes use these on their fields, and the chemicals stay potent for years.
- manure from animals that have grazed on herbicide-sprayed pastureland.
- your own lawn clippings if you had the grass treated with a weed-killing chemical. Some experts say to wait at least three cuttings after herbicide treatment before you add clippings your compost.
4. Protect seedlings from sudden death
Going from a dim, warm house to the sunny days and cool nights of spring can kill the seedlings you so lovingly sprouted from scratch. Harden them off to ease their way and boost their chances of survival.
- Wait until nighttime temperatures stop dipping below 50 degrees.
- Begin by setting seedlings outside in the shade, where they will get little if any direct light. Gradually increase the amount of sunlight they receive.
- Keep their trips outdoors short at first. Leave them there a little longer each day over the course of two weeks.
5. Master mulching now, prevent thirsty roots later
Make your yard look like a million bucks when you learn to mulch like a pro. First, water the ground before you lay it down, or you could be doing your plants more harm than good. Once the mulch is in place, rain water will have a harder time reaching the soil. That’s why it’s best to start with damp ground — for both organic and inorganic types of mulch. Water again after mulching to keep small pieces from blowing away.
Spread a light, even layer of mulch in flower beds with a flick of your wrist and a flying disc, like a Frisbee. Just scoop up a handful of mulching material on an upside-down disc, then toss the mulch off by flipping your wrist. No need to struggle with a heavy bag.
Avoid creating a mulch volcano around the trunks of trees and shrubs. Pull it back from the trunk about 3 inches, leaving a donut of breathing room around the base of each tree. Piling it up against the trunk traps moisture that can cause mildew damage and attract pests.
6. Pick the right time to divide
Spring isn’t always the best time to divide and propagate perennials. It depends on where you live. In cold climates, divide them in early spring. This gives new transplants the whole summer to grow strong before winter. In milder climates, fall is ideal, so they can grow roots in milder weather before the punishing summer takes its toll.
Or base your timing on when they bloom. Divide fall bloomers in the spring, and spring and summer bloomers in the fall. Just never move or divide perennials when they’re busy blooming or growing.
7. Time pruning for bigger blooms
Pay attention to when deciduous shrubs blossom if you want more blooms. Timing your trimmings this way gives your shrubs a chance to recover before flowering again. Shrubs that bloom in the spring, such as azaleas and rhododendrons, flower on old growth. Prune them just after their flowers fade. Shrubs that bloom in the summer and fall, like rose of Sharon, flower on new growth. Prune them in the early spring when they are still dormant from winter. Not sure what kind of shrubs you have? Just search the National Gardening Association’s Plant Finder. [link:http://www.garden.org/plantfinder/] Follow these rules of (green) thumb for other plants.
- Prune evergreen hedges in late spring or summer, once all severe cold weather has passed. You can trim them lightly after they flower to deadhead them, clear out old unproductive wood, and keep their pleasing shape.
- Prune established apple and pear trees in either late winter or early spring before they set new growth. Hold off on pruning stone fruits until summer.
- Give vigorous ground covers like ivy a quick pruning every few years. Simply mow over them with the blade set high, leaving the foliage 4 to 6 inches tall. Do this in early spring, after the last frost, to keep them going strong.
Pruning — especially hard pruning — makes plants hungry. Feed pruned plants in spring with a general fertilizer and mulch around them with the compost of your choice. This dose of nutrients will help them put out fresh growth triggered by your shears.
- FC&A Staff Writer