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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: Time to dig in?

Like most gardeners last Sunday, I imagine, I was outside for as many sunny hours as I could manage, doing spring yard and garden tasks. Most of us don’t need lists: We just go out there. Even without a plan, what-to-do leads us forward. It was a joy to clean up the deck, patrol the yard for branches, and to make a small start in flower, fruit and vegetable beds.

As always, when I work in the yard I have thoughts about what to teach or write. I realized that what I assume it is time to do may not be obvious to beginners, and that new homeowners or gardeners often rush the season and do some things prematurely.

These are my recommendations on the tasks and the timing for late April gardening in Western New York, although I know full well that a courtyard in Buffalo or Amherst will warm up (and stay that way) sooner than a windswept hillside in Eden or Holland.

Timing is also a bit different each year. Weather patterns are rarely repetitive, and recently we’ve experienced a series of warmer winters and earlier spring weather – mostly. For decades the average last frosty night has happened around May 20, and we have often had frosts as late as Memorial Day weekend.

That means that some people don’t risk putting out tender annuals or a potted tomato until June 1, while others bet that this May will be frost-free and put those plants out there.

Many people push to get it all going early but prepare to cover tender plants (and those budding big-leaf hydrangeas) when and if a frosty night looms. Regions as well as individual homes have microclimates.

No-risk spring tasks

Nothing should stop you from doing any of the following at this time:

• Pick up branches and twigs, and make a brush pile or start a compost. You might chip them to use as mulch – but be extremely careful about using chippers. (For more detail see my column in The Buffalo News from April 21.)

• Rake or move leaf piles. Use leaves as mulch on garden beds, spread them in a nearby field or forest, bag them for future use, or start a compost pile.

• Sharpen pruners, saws and shovels. What a difference it makes for your hands and your back!

• Finish pruning deciduous trees and shrubs (not evergreens). While late winter is preferred pruning time for most trees and shrubs, sometimes we can’t get to it sooner. Avoid the urge to flat-top or shear most plants; generally a natural structure is more attractive: take out selected branches that are damaged, rubbing, or crowded.

• Weed raised beds or garden beds if the soil is crumbly: Pull weeds up by the roots – so satisfying when the soil is moist! Use a hoe to scratch up soil surfaces and disturb weed seedlings. Do not walk on damp soil, however.

• Spread compost around plants and on top of fallow gardens. Rake back old mulch, spread the compost before mulching.

• You might fertilize trees and shrubs (lightly) and perennials. Read product labels carefully. I recommend organic products that present low risk of burning and that do not force fast top-growth. If you have compost-rich, fertile soil, healthy perennial and woody plants almost never need fertilizer.

• Gather or buy the products you will need: compost, garden soil, mulch, hoops and row covers, seeds, pots, tools, wheelbarrow or cart.

• Plant trees and shrubs if the soil permits. As long as soil is penetrable, dig wide holes and plant any woody plants that have been stored outside.

• Divide, thin, or move perennials. As long as the soil is crumbly, herbaceous plants can usually be resettled without damage. Take the largest root areas possible, and pack some compost around them in the new location.

Peas are a cool-season vegetable you can plant now. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News file photo)

• Plant cool-season vegetables (peas and greens especially). It’s too late for them once the heat comes on.

• Edge garden beds and paths; repair paths and fences.

• Get hoses and watering systems ready for use.

• Take stored potted plants (hardy ones only) out of their shelters and watch for what’s dead or alive; don’t let them dry out.

Too soon, too risky

There is little advantage and lots of risk in doing some things yet.

Don’t plant warm-season crops such as tomatoes until nights and soil are warm.

• Don’t plant warm-season vegetables (tomatoes, eggplant, squash, beans) until nights and soil are warm – at least 55 degrees.

• Don’t put tender annuals in pots or hanging baskets outside, unless you are able to take them inside on nights colder than 40 or 45 degrees. Responsible garden centers will advise you if you are too eager to display heat-loving plants such as mandevillas or basil. The garden centers have many semi-hardy, cold-tolerant flowering annuals, however, so use them freely – just ask about cold tolerance.

• Don’t put tender houseplants outside if you have kept them in a heated home. Wait until the night and daytime temperatures are similar outside and in – usually when you have turned off your heat for the season. If you can’t wait and the plants are dying to be on the deck, learn which ones are the most cold-tolerant and which you should prepare to move under cover when a cold night threatens.

• Don’t work, till, or walk on the soil when it is wet. That damages soil structure, which takes years to repair.

A sunny day is a great tease, and we are easily fooled that summertime is here. We humans can put on a sweater when the sun goes down. The plants cannot.

Consider where each plant has been growing or resting over winter and don’t shock it with radical changes. Read plant tags and labels, and understand that the timing for spring planting and landscape care is an important body of gardening knowledge.

Then notice: The “To-Do” list is much longer than the “Too Soon” list … so get going!

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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