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Great Gardening By Sally Cunningham: Time to ‘pre-garden’

I’m betting that every gardener in the region was outside early this week, doing anything we could. I picked up sticks, clipped dead perennial stalks and rebuilt the composts. Knowing how harmful it is to walk on wet soil, I stayed out of the flower beds – but it wasn’t easy. While we hold back on some gardening steps – yes, there will still be freezes – we can do a lot of garden prep. Let’s call is “pre-gardening.”

About weeds

If you can work from a path, do pull or dig up weeds early. Get them before they get you. After you have weeded an area, cover the soil to block the next crop of seedlings. You can cover the soil with thick newspaper or cardboard covered with mulch, or just plain mulch (shredded bark, pine needles, chopped up leaves, compost, cocoa shells or straw). If you have patches of terrible thugs like creeping Charlie, goutweed (aka bishops’ weed) or cinquefoil, you could cover entire areas with heavy black plastic (and later cover it up with more attractive mulch). Unfortunately, such weeds usually reach out from under the plastic or creep over the top of the mulch, so you will have to persist.

The alternative is a total renovation of the garden bed, and even then a few culprits remain and you’ll be starting all over again. Gardening is weeding. Accept your fate.

Soil prep

Gardeners with really well-drained soil or raised beds may be able to till the soil and turn in compost or manure soon. Most soil is not ready to work, and you are damaging the soil structure and causing long term compaction if you do anything to it while it is wet. The test: take a handful of soil and squeeze. If you have a mud patty, it is too wet. If it crumbles without caking, go ahead.

You may be noticing farmers out with their tractors, tilling or planting potatoes, but don’t take that as evidence that it’s time for you to do the same. They have acres to cover and they have to do whatever they can to get a jump on the season, wet soil or not. Some have worked hard to improve drainage. Many also invest great effort to repair and improve soil by planting cover crops or turning in manure.

The best activity you can do for your soil right now may be gathering, making, buying or hauling compost, so you have it ready to incorporate when your soil has finally dried sufficiently. Compost is the best soil amendment to add, whether your soil is mostly clay or too sandy (rare around here) or just nutritionally impoverished.

Soil testing

Especially if you have a new garden or landscape, or if you have had generally poor crops in the past, it is smart to get a soil pH test. Also, if you have or are planting acid-loving plants such as rhododendrons, blueberries, potatoes, Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia), Clethra, hollies or you want to keep your blue hydrangea flower blue, then you need to know the pH. In Western New York it is typical to have pH readings from 7.2 to 8.0 or higher (alkaline soil), which tells us that a rhododendron, etc., will never thrive unless you work to lower the pH. It takes time and persistence, adding sulfur-based soil amendments, to change pH.

You may purchase a soil pH testing kit to get a general sense of your soil pH. If results are critical to your garden or landscape planning, get it done professionally, through your CNLP or Cornell Cooperative Extension. For $2 per sample, pH testing is available at CCE, 21 S. Grove St., East Aurora, or at local soil pH testing clinics, including at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens May 16-18 (for hours visit See for more information, including how to take a proper soil sample. Soil samples must be air-dried before testing is valid.

For larger projects you may want to consider a full soil test, also available through Cornell University.

Plans for planters

Last year’s planters need a little work before you fill them with beautiful plants from the garden center.

Hoping to save some money, many gardeners ask if they can reuse the old potting mix. The correct answer is no: The potting mix is used up, nutrition depleted and it may carry weed seeds, diseases or insect eggs. Dump the old potting mix into the compost or garden, where it can’t hurt. (While it would not be acceptable in a registered organic system, the bit of vermiculite, etc., is not doing any harm in most systems.) Then clean up the pot in a tub of soapy water. I admit, however, that in larger pots many of us get away with removing just the top two-thirds of the old stuff.

Then use the right fresh medium in the containers. Use only soil-less mix (bagged expressly for containers), from a professional garden center. While microorganisms, worms, pillbugs and company are needed and welcome in garden soil, they are not helpful and sometimes a problem in the microcosm of a container.

If you aren’t confident about making up your own urns and planters, some garden centers take in your containers and create arrangements according to your instructions. You may also find workshops for making your own container designs guided by a teacher.


For how-to, see prior Buffalo News articles, do some reading or get professional help. As for time, you are running out of it soon. Grapevines should be pruned by now. Prune woody plants selectively before they leaf out, only if they look crowded or have broken limbs. Leave spring-flowering plants alone until after they flower. Never top plants; get expert help if you are tempted.

Soon we will be doing all the great activities we call gardening. Once the soil is crumbly we can plant trees, shrubs and hardened-off perennials. For now, do the garden prep – the “pre-gardening” – and you’ll be so ready when the time comes.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.