Spring horticultural hints
from Betty Sanders
It’s easy to keep a safe six feet distance in your yard and garden, so get out there when the weather allows.
Clean up your dead leaves, remove dead stalks from perennials that you left up to benefit birds – or because winter got here before you finished the fall clean-up. Now’s the time to
Fertilize all your bulbs. A sprinkling of all-purpose organic fertilizer around bulb foliage now will help them build strength for the future. Plan ahead to Spring 2022. Look around and decide where more bulbs could provide welcome spring color. Then take a photo of the site, mark it up, and store the photo under a title such as ‘Where to plant next fall’. A few minutes now will spare you trying to remember, six months from now, what you wished was there in the spring. After spring perennial bulb blooms fade, allow foliage to yellow and ‘ripen’ before being removed. This is important because the foliage is responsible for passing nutrients down into the bulb to produce a new flower next year. You can hide the foliage by growing perennials and annuals around it. When the foliage turns brown – likely in June – you can safely cut it at ground level, secure in the knowledge that your favorite spring bulbs are ready for next spring. Remember what you didn’t love last year? Plan additions and alterations to your home garden. Put some time into finding solutions.
Too cold to plant? In Zone 5 or 6, April is too cold to plant any annuals except pansies, peas, spinach and onions. That doesn’t stop the big box stores from putting out festive displays of (greenhouse-grown) plants such as marigolds and impatiens – annuals that require soil temperatures in the 60’s or higher to survive. And favorite vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers need the soil to be over 70˚ before you think of planting them outside. Plant cold hardy crops early this month. Put in your radishes, peas, carrots, beets, spinach, onions as soon as the garden is dry enough not to leave footprints. Use row covers to help warm the soil and exclude insects that will attack your plants. Check before you sow early vegetables. The best test of soil readiness for a home gardener is to take a small handful of soil and squeeze. If it holds together as a wet clump, or heavens forbid, water squeezes out, you need to wait and hope for sunny dry days. Seeds put into cold wet soil will rot. Further, working cold, wet soil with a tiller or spade will destroy the soil structure.
Mulch do’s and don’ts. Resist the temptation to apply mulch now. Applied too early (and April is too early in Massachusetts), the mulch will slow down your garden by acting as a blanket, preventing warming and keeping the soil colder than the air. Pull back mulch anywhere green is showing on perennials, including strawberries and bulbs. But be prepared to add some cover if night time temperatures drop in the twenties. Conversely, never put fertilizer on top of mulch unless you want to help any weed seeds that may have fallen there. Place any fertilizer on the soil after you have pulled the mulch back. Before you put down fresh mulch, remember the two-inch rule: if the mulch is deeper than your forefinger, it will prevent water and air from reaching the roots of the plants that you want to benefit. And colored mulches (red and black, for example) may be colored to disguise the use of recycled wood from industry. Steer clear of them. Invasive Alert. Garlic mustard is a very invasive weed that easily out-competes native plants. In early April, garlic mustard pulls easily – roots and all – out of the ground. Be sure to wear gloves because the sap from the plant can cause a painful, poison-ivy-type rash. Once garlic mustard flowers, each plant can produce thousands of seeds that remain viable in the soil for years.
Tread softly. The soil around your home and garden is just coming out of its winter hibernation of alternate freezing and thawing. Right now, the top few inches of soil is exceptionally airy, and every time you walk over it, you compress some of the air out. Avoid doing damage to your soil by walking on it too much. Spray dormant oil now to control aphids and other insects on your trees and shrubs. Commercial dormant oil sprays have an emulsifier added to allow the oil to mix with water. Spraying trees and shrubs now, before buds break and leaves appear, will kill eggs and insects while not affecting foliage or harming birds or mammals. In the flower garden. Any remaining perennial tops from last year should be cut off and removed before new growth begins. A thin top dressing of compost around perennials prior to this year’s bloom will enrich the soil. What, and what not, to prune. Everyone likes to prune in April, but follow these guidelines: Prune spring blooming trees and shrubs only after the flowers are finished. Don’t be in a hurry to prune off brown areas on evergreens. They often will regrow the needles that have suffered winter kill. A light scratch with your fingernail on the branch will show green if the wood there is still alive. If you have fall-flowering shrubs, this is your last call to prune them.
You can read more of Betty's horticultural advise on her website, www.BettyOnGardening.com. She is a lifetime Master Gardener.
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