by Peg Castorani, owner of Gateway Gardens
Now is the time of year we want to be outside and experience the fresh air and sunshine that is a tonic for our mental, emotional, and physical health. It’s time to get your garden gloves dirty and create the gardens you dreamt of in the winter. I am sharing some tips that will make your time in the garden more rewarding. We can never predict Mother Nature’s influence like late frosts or uneven rainfall, but we can set ourselves up for success.
If you are a novice gardener, the ideal place to start is in containers. Flowers, herbs, and vegetables are easy to grow in pots. Spring garden soil can be wet with frequent rains, and weeds can discourage any of us. Pots allow us to control the quality of the soil, which is critical to your success. Potting soil should be refreshed every spring. It is advised to swap out at least 50% of last year’s soil for larger containers. However, it is recommended to replace 100% of the soil for smaller containers. Your previous year’s plants have depleted the soil of nutrients and left decaying roots behind. Compost the old and start fresh! At Gateway, we prefer to use organic potting soil since it is rich in compost and not chemically based fertilizer.
Your local garden center will offer the broadest selection of plants that will flourish in your pots. Since plants vary in their need for sunlight, be sure to take note of the amount of direct sun your pots will be exposed to so you can select plants that will receive appropriate sun. Large pots (14″ diameter and up) will be easier to maintain as the soil will not dry out as quickly. They also allow room for roots to expand, providing you with more bounty and beauty! Lastly, they will create a fabulous display of color and textures. Read your plant’s tags and ask questions of plant experts to make your selections.
Veggies and Flowers
In mid-March and early April, you can direct sow cool weather crop seeds like peas, lettuce, spinach, and potatoes in your garden. Be thorough about marking where you have direct seeded. As your seeds germinate, so will the local weed population, and it may be hard to know which sprouts are weeds and which are your veggies. I recommend giving the sprouts a good couple of weeks to show themselves and look more identifiable before attempting any heavy weeding. Once the seeds sprout, water them gently. This should be done preferably in the morning to prevent burning from hot midday sun or fungus due to being wet all night. Try to water the soil and not the plants.
Direct sowing simply describes the act of starting your plants by placing the seeds directly into the garden soil/ground rather than buying small plants or starting seeds indoors earlier and transplanting them outside.
Generally, seeds of most annuals and vegetables can be started indoors about six weeks before your last frost date. Our last frost date is mid-May so starting seeds indoors in early to mid-April is ideal.
Seed starting is fun! You need a very sunny window and/or grow lights (which mimic the sun’s rays) to be successful. Watching seeds sprout indoors makes a plant parent proud.
If you missed the window of time for starting seeds indoors, fear not! Plenty of vegetables (lettuces, zucchini, squash, cukes) and annuals (cosmos, zinnias, sunflowers, marigolds) can be planted from seed directly in the ground after any possibility of frost has passed, which is around early to mid-May.
Most gardeners will opt to plant a combination of seeds and transplants, aka “starts.” Much of this decision about direct seeding versus transplanting starter plants will come down to personal preference and previous experience. However, there are some examples where one method may be more advantageous depending on the plant. Examples of vegetable plants that do better via direct seeding are beans, carrots, peas, squashes, and zucchini.
Do not try to work your garden soil if it is wet and clumps into a ball when you squeeze it. Seeds will rot, and soil may stay in clumps all season! The new thinking on vegetable gardening is NOT to turn the soil annually. Tilling the entire bed will break up the beneficial microbes in the soil and expose weed seeds to the sun, causing them to germinate. Just dig the hole for your plants. Add compost in the hole and top dress lightly around the base of your plants. Consider using containers for lettuce, onions, and peas if the ground is soggy.
Some examples of plants that do better as transplants include peppers, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, and celery. Typically, transplants are hardier because they are more mature plants with larger root systems. Be sure to watch them closely for the drying effects of sun and wind as they adapt to garden conditions.
By April, it is safe to cut back last year’s perennial stems that may be a winter’s home to pollinators. It is also warm enough to remove any bothersome debris from last fall. Under leaf litter, there are butterflies and lightning bug beetles waiting for spring’s warmth to awaken them. Mulching beds lightly with compost, mulch, or pine needles (just 2″) keeps the soil moist, discourages weeds, and looks tidy. Do not put mulch against the stems of any perennials or shrubs. Do not let anyone working in your yard put more than 2″ of mulch on your beds or against the trunks of your trees.
Consider planting a living mulch in your gardens with plants which will eliminate the cost and labor of annual mulching. Avoid pachysandra and vinca as both are considered invasive and problematic. The State of Delaware requires us to eliminate invasive plants from our nursery. There are many other options that will make you smile every season with their happy flowers and provide nectar for our pollinators. Look at native pachysandra, carex, and phlox as groundcovers in your beds. Hellebores bloom in late winter and will charm you with their winter flowers that linger into spring. In the long term, these steps will save you time and money while improving the environment.
Hold the pruning! Prune most spring-blooming shrubs like forsythia and azaleas after the flowers are finished. Never prune hydrangeas without knowing the variety. You may easily be pruning off last year’s buds waiting to burst forth from their winter sleep. If you love to prune, plant roses that thrive from an annual cutback. Boxwood and other broadleaf evergreens benefit from late winter and early spring pruning before new growth flushes. Shrubs that flower mid to late summer like crepe myrtle may be pruned in spring. Just stop in and ask the experts at your local garden center for your best pruning advice.
Take pictures of any flowering trees and shrubs you see in neighbor’s yards that you might like to add to your landscape. Finding “that tree with the pink flowers” after the tree is out of bloom can be challenging!
Most suburban homes are delineated by the lawn. You have one, I have one, and they require a lot of care. Many of us have lawn service companies who put undisclosed amounts of chemicals on our lawns and mow them furiously every week. Grass should not be mowed lower than 3” to discourage weeds and keep the roots of grass cool. You can reclaim the time and money spent on lawn care by first caring for the biological life in the soil. So here are the steps to a healthier and less demanding lawn:
- Aerate your soil. Aerating the soil creates holes in the top layer, which has often become sealed with debris. This debris prevents water and nutrients from reaching plant roots.
- Apply organic matter like compost and aged manure on top to feed the roots of your plants and fill into the holes created by aeration.
- Apply corn gluten in the late winter/early spring as a weed preventer. This product will work best over time with consistent applications. Corn gluten can also be used throughout the spring with good results because it is rich in nitrogen. Simply spot spray any pesky weeds with an organic herbicide. Spreading herbicide all over the yard is a waste of time and money and is dangerous for our water supply. Your lawn should be a place for children and pets to romp safely.
- Stick with an organic program of lawn care. Healthy soil will support healthy grass. You will not need fertilizers and pesticides that destroy soil life. You can break the cycle and reduce your lawn maintenance cost.
- Lastly, consider planting more extensive beds of native shrubs and trees. Doing so will require less maintenance than lawns and invite nature into your life.
Your gardens should provide you with the beauty, joy, and sanctuary that you crave. Think of your gardens as a space to discover your creativity and playfulness with nature as your companion. You can plant your basil with your coneflowers and your tomatoes with your zinnias. There is no right or wrong in your design; just plant in the environment that gives your plants the best opportunity