Gardening is a year-round treat, but the arrival of spring is special because it is the moment when both the gardener and all the plants in the yard are bursting with excitement.
The next six weeks mark not only when we start the growing season, but also when plants are most vulnerable. Fresh growth is tender and can be damaged by the wild weather fluctuations in March and April. In the mid-Atlantic (and many other parts of the country), Mother Nature can give us an 80-degree blast, followed by a frost and a punishing hailstorm. There isn’t much you can do about hail damage, but you can take steps to help the garden survive the weather roller coaster. They also give you the opportunity to go outside to greet and enjoy spring.
You need to get fresh supplies of plants, soil mixes, fertilizers and tools. This may be a problem in times of coronavirus restrictions, but many garden centers, hardware stores, and feed stores operate mostly outdoors. And of course there is this bazaar known as the Internet.
Tidying up and bed preparation
In beds without permanent planting, such as the vegetable garden and annual flower beds, the tasks are straightforward. The first task is to remove weeds. Forget the upcoming dandelions and violets; I’m talking about established winter weeds, the roots of which are now deep, with invaders like henbit, chickweed, bitter cress, and ivy. You rarely need herbicides for this; The weeds lift slightly between your fingers in the rich, moist soil of the vegetable patch. They will also surrender to a weed knife or a sharp, long-handled hoe. Go to them before they sow.
Weed seeds germinate every time the soil is disturbed, so weeds are not an annual event. It’s a way of life. By sowing the seeds you want in a straight row, you can more easily spot the weed seedlings crashing through the gate for quick removal.
Any dead carrots, kale stalks, and other remaining debris from last season should also be removed when you work the soil.
The soil is compacted by snow and rain and needs to be loosened. The easy way to do this is with a three-pronged cultivator, although I prefer to turn the bed with a garden fork that goes deeper. After rubbing the floor, add a layer of fresh material to the bed and process it. You can use your own sifted compost or bags of soil improvers. I like to use purchased composted leaf molds and aged manure, which in my experience are reliably free from weed seeds. Water the newly prepared bed and wait a few days for the soil to set before sowing and planting it.
In permanent plant beds, cleaning requires a finer touch. When removing weeds, be careful not to damage the resulting growth of bulbs and perennials. Hand pulling is a good option, or use a small, sharp knife to get into tight spaces.
Remove any accumulated winter-blown leaf litter from under bushes and hedges, and prune back any remaining dead stems from last year’s perennials and grasses. The soil benefits from a small cultivation and a top dressing of compost or leaf mold, which is then scratched into the soil. These beds should also be mulched.
Once trees and shrubs have broken into flower and leaf growth, they are prone to cold damage because the tissue is soft and delicate. It is worth keeping an eye on night temperatures until early May. If frost or near-frost is forecast, you can cover certain plants for protection. The Hortensia hydrangeas are a good candidate for this, as are Japanese maples. The flowers of strawberries and blueberries should be protected from frost, as should those of apples, peaches, and persimmons if the trees are small enough to wrap them around.
Seedlings of vegetables, herbs, and annuals should be covered on such evenings.
If you don’t have a horticultural row fabric, a lightweight sheet can be used. The challenge is to make sure the cover doesn’t blow off (clothespins come in handy) and not to use anything that will crush small plants.
Sowing and curing
We start young plants in two ways: either by sowing directly in the garden or by planting small grafts that are a few weeks old. Some seeds, including peas, radishes, carrots, nasturtiums, and lettuce, can now go straight into the soil. However, wait for the soil to warm until at least early May in the mid-Atlantic to sow (or transplant) vegetables in the warm season and summer annuals.
The process of conditioning grafts for the spring garden is called hardening them. If you don’t, plants will likely wither and die – or at least not thrive. Even if you buy grafts, there is no guarantee that they have been adequately conditioned. So you should toughen them up to be sure.
Put the pots outside in a sheltered area during the day, away from wind and afternoon sun. Bring her in at night. Water them at least once a day before they wither. Do this a week before planting, longer if cold temperatures are forecast.
Cold isn’t the only problem. After planting, the grafts should be protected from sun and wind for at least the first 24 hours with horticultural row covers or shade cloths. If this is not possible, plant on a cloudy or rainy day.
Transplants of harder plants like cabbage, broccoli, parsley, lavender, coriander, nasturtiums, and pansies are popular in April. Warm season transplants such as tomatoes, pepper, squash, cucumber and basil require the warmer soils and temperatures of May. Don’t be in a rush to plant them, even if they retail out (too early).
A light layer of mulch no more than 5 cm is helpful in suppressing weeds and maintaining soil moisture. However, mulch should not be viewed as a cosmetic cover for our benefit. it is there for the needs of the plants. Mulching that is applied too thickly or too often damages plants and the soil. I prefer finely structured organic mulches such as fine pine. Save wood chips for trails. Avoid mulching volcanoes around trees, which cause harmful root growth and other problems.
If you need several acres of mulch every spring, it’s because you don’t have enough ground cover plants.
It might be inconvenient to plant every vacant bed in the yard at once, but you could start this spring by tackling an area that is 10 feet by 10 feet, for example. Filling in pluggable plants takes a few years, but provides a more cost-effective way to bulk-plant.
It is best to plant most trees and shrubs in early fall as they will not put energy into top growth when dealing with transplant shock. Woodies planted in spring must be handled with greater care. The sooner you can plant them, the more established they will be before summer.
Most trees and shrubs have been grown in containers and may have clogged roots that need to be pulled out and cut off. Hence, there is always some degree of root manipulation and damage involved in planting. Be careful and make sure the tree or shrub is set to the correct height and that the backfilled soil is tightly packed. A good soak at the time of planting is appropriate, and the plants should be watered regularly, especially when the weather becomes dry, but the roots should not be kept wet.
The principle of careful handling of roots also applies to perennials and annuals.
Any lawn looks better when it has a sharp edge where it meets plant beds. If possible, use a spade or long handled edge tool instead of a shovel.
The predominant grass species in the Mid-Atlantic high fescue of the turf type grows quickly in spring, especially in wet ones. It’s best kept at a slightly tall three inches to reduce stress, but mow it before it gets more than four inches in height. This may mean mowing twice a week in April and May. Replace or sharpen blunt mower blades.
Pre-emergent herbicides are available to deal with crab grass and Japanese stilt grass. The best way to minimize lawn weeds is to have a thick stand of lawn. Dandelions and other weeds can be dug by hand or treated with weed killers on site.
Lawn fertilizer should be applied in spring at half the normal fall rate to reduce nutrient runoff. However, check the rules that you live in. Some jurisdictions restrict the use of fertilizers and pesticides on home lawns.
The optimal time for sowing fescue is late summer and early autumn. Bare patches can now be sown with proper soil preparation, but the new grass can melt away in the summer heat. Similarly, fresh lawn also needs soil preparation and may not make it through summer, but it will look great for at least a few weeks. Consider converting part of the lawn into plant beds.
Old soil and plant material should be removed. The soil can be spread around the garden, and pots can be scrubbed with a bleach solution to disinfect them and send snails on their way. It is best to use fresh potting soil. To keep it going, fill the bottom half of the pot with your own compost. All weed seeds in the compost are safely buried.
Containers must empty. Make sure the drainage holes are not blocked and do not put a saucer under them. The same hardening rules apply to bucket systems.
Plants get a boost from fertilizer, but check the ratio of key nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium – to see if it suits the plant you’re feeding. Slow release feeds are useful in container plants. Granular fertilizers can damage the plant tissue. In general, I prefer organic fertilizers such as seaweed meal, fish emulsion and plant feed made from animal by-products. They are gentle on plants and contribute to the preservation of soil biology.