Betsy Lyman is a freelance writer and gardener.

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Spring Ahead
by Betsy Lyman       #Advice

Spring is coming and with it one of the busiest times in the garden. Even though your last frost date may be weeks away, there are some key things you can do now so when the season kicks into high gear, you’ll feel like you’re ready. 

Tune-up Your Tools

Since the line at the small engine service shop only gets longer from now until the end of summer, this is the ideal time to take your gas-engine-driven garden equipment (mowers, string trimmers, blowers and tillers, for example) in for a checkup. It’s better to find out sooner than later if any repairs are needed. Some dealers offer a discount for bringing in your equipment during the off season. General maintenance can include sharpening and balancing the mower blades, carburetor adjustment, as well as changing the oil, fuel and air filters.    

Cleaning and organizing your hand tools is a great project for a late winter day. If they are dirty, use a putty knife or steel wool pad (wear gloves) to remove any dirt or rust. An easy way to keep them clean until you are ready to use them is to fill a bucket that’s wide enough for your shovel with clean sand. With a hand trowel mix some lubricating oil (I use WD40) with the sand until it is moist. Push the clean tools into the bucket. The sand acts as an abrasive to remove dirt and the oil helps prevent rust.

This is also the time to take an inventory of your gardening supplies such as soil, mulch, fertilizers and such. Make a shopping list of the items you will need for spring. Use the list to do some price comparison and to take advantage of preseason sales.


Mix lubricating oil with a hand trowel in a bucket of sand.

Keep hand tools clean and ready to use by storing them in a bucket of sand mixed with lubricating oil.

Snoop Around

Let’s face it, when it is cold and dark outside, the garden can seem like a faraway place. So now that the daylight hours are increasing, it’s time to get reacquainted with your yard. Grab a hot beverage and take a stroll outdoors to see how your garden has fared over the winter. Depending on the severity of the weather in your area, you may find broken branches, deer damage or frost heaving.

Frost heaving isn’t something we’ve had to worry about too much with the last few years of mild temperatures. This winter’s freezing and thawing cycles may have pushed some of your plants right out of the ground. If you have shallow-rooted plants such as sedums, strawberries, coral bells (Heuchera spp.), pincushion flower (Scabiosa spp.) and daisies (Leucanthemum spp.), give them a closer look. They are especially susceptible to frost heaving. If you find any of your plants in this condition, cover the exposed roots with soil. Sometimes you can lightly tamp the plants back into the ground. Once the roots are covered, add several inches of mulch around the plant to insulate the soil and protect it from further damage.

Lop and Crop

Another thing to look for in your yard is the condition of your trees and shrubs. Before the leaves reappear it is easier to see a plant’s form and decide what needs to be pruned. The best time to reshape and trim woody plants is after the severest cold has passed but before new growth begins. Pruning wounds will heal quickly and the new vegetation will cover the areas that have been trimmed.


Identify the branch collar before cutting limbs from trees. Look for the slightly swollen area at the base of the limb and trim just outside the collar.

Before you make a cut on a tree, identify where the branch collar is located. Look for the slightly swollen area at the base of the branch that sometimes has a bark ridge. This area contains a substance that protects the trunk from decay. If the collar of the branch is removed during pruning, the plant may become infected with fungal or bacterial diseases. So make your cut just outside the branch collar.

Start pruning by removing dead and broken branches and then cut away the smaller stem of any cross-over limbs. Next remove branches that are interfering with the plant’s natural shape. Go easy with this. As you trim away a branch or two, stand back and reassess the plant’s form before making your next cut. The rule of thumb is to leave at least two-thirds of the plant so it has enough energy to regenerate. Sometimes, particularly for older woody plants, several years of pruning may be needed before it looks its best. Avoid leaving stubs. The goal is to allow the plant to look natural and healthy.

There are some trees known as “bleeders” because of the amount of sap that is produced when they are pruned in late winter. Maple, birch, dogwood and walnut trees are in this category. Pruning won’t hurt the trees, but if it is in a prominent location you may want to wait until summer.

Get All the Dirt

Improving your soil is one of the best ways to save time. Great soil means a good root system, and healthy roots mean vigorous plants. So this may be the year to test your soil. Testing is usually recommended if you are starting a new garden or if it has been more than 3 years since you’ve had a test. Depending on the test you use, the results will tell you the soil’s pH, lime requirements, total organic matter and the amounts of phosphorus and potassium. With that information, you can tell whether or not you will need to apply lime or sulfur to adjust the acidity of your soil, and if your soil is high or low in the essential nutrients plants need most.

There are different ways you can have your soil tested. Many gardeners contact their county’s extension service and request a soil testing kit. Others call the extension and ask for a list of approved soil testing organizations. Another option is to buy your own soil test kit at a local nursery or garden supply store. Make sure you are provided information on how to interpret the results so you can determine application rates.

Oil as Needed

Early pest control using horticultural oil sprays is another way to get a jumpstart on spring. To be clear, this should be done in very late winter when temperatures stay above freezing. As gardeners with fruit trees know, horticultural oils are a safe and effective way to deal with aphids, caterpillar eggs, leafhoppers, mealybugs, mites, scale, spider mites, thrips or whiteflies. If your plants have been bothered by these pests, treating them before the growing season begins will keep plants from becoming stressed and weakened. Some gardeners also find horticultural oils useful in controlling powdery mildew and preventing the spread of plant viruses transmitted by aphids.

As always when working with any gardening product, read the label’s instructions. Different plants might require different concentrations. The horticultural oil works by smothering the insects or their eggs, poisoning them, or disrupting the way they feed. The pests or eggs must be thoroughly coated with the oil for it to be effective. The product is inactive after it dries on the plant.


Keeping a garden journal helps you plan ahead based on results from past years

Note Your Progress

Keeping notes about your garden is worth the effort. If you start now, it will be easier to keep it going when things get busy in the spring. Many gardeners find a garden journal to be a useful way to recall temperatures, rainfall, planting dates, plant varieties, fertilizer applications and pest control measures from year to year. Being able to look back on this information will help you figure out reasons for both your gardening successes and failures. A journal is also helpful in planning outdoor events so you can anticipate what will be blooming at the time, or recall when certain plants put on their best show.

Social media and blogs provide an easy online way to post information and pictures about your garden. Just be sure to occasionally print off the pages in case you lose access to the record. Other gardeners prefer jotting things down in a notebook. Whatever works for you is the right choice. Keep your garden journal next to a favorite chair so that every night when you sit down to relax, you can enter the day's activities and observations. Next year when you’re planning your garden, you many discover that keeping a journal is one of your best gardening tools.

Photos courtesy of Betsy Lyman.

 

Posted: 02/10/14   RSS | Print

 

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