Spring came late to Western New York and then, whoosh, everything leaped from the soil. Bulbs were glorious, but all too briefly. Sudden warm spells made some of them open too far and finish too soon. Perennials have stretched so quickly that many gardeners didn’t have time to divide or thin the clusters.
The grass turned green, sending homeowners to stores looking for those lawn care products they hear about on television. The feeling is hurry, hurry, hurry – but gardening season has only just begun.
We have time. Let’s do things right.
No matter what projects you are starting this season – planting vegetables, designing great containers, or renovating the flower and shrub beds – a few horticulture guidelines will increase your success:
1. Don’t walk on wet soil. That also means no tillers or plows until it dries out. However eager you are to prepare a garden or to weed among the perennials, putting weight on damp soil (typically clay-based in our region) creates compaction that can take years to repair.
Soil should be porous, filled with air pockets and millions of living organisms that are crying out: “Don’t tread on me!” Soil is ready to work when it crumbles in your hand. Mud cakes mean not yet.
While you’re waiting to get at that soil, how about starting a composting project, or buying some?
You may have leaves, twigs and clippings around ‑ good for starting a pile. Compost is the answer to improving the clay soil (that you’re not walking on.)
2. Get weeds before they make seeds. Working from the paths or edges of your garden, pull any weeds that are flowering. Garlic mustard is challenge No. 1. It’s one of the top non-native invasive plants of New York State, and it reproduces prolifically from seed – in May.
It pulls easily, but don’t be tempted to make piles and let them lie. They are one of the naughty plants that continue to develop seeds after they are pulled, so you must smother them in garbage bags.
Other weeds may pull easily now too: bedstraw, chickweed, cinquefoil. If dandelions bother you, here’s the lazy way out: Just cut off their heads so they can’t make seeds. You can dig the tap roots – carefully, because every little piece you leave behind will re-grow.
But if you leave the tap roots they actually benefit the soil: Called “sub-soilers,” the tap roots pull nutrients from deep in the ground. My ecology-minded friends agree with me about liking dandelions, as the yellow flowers provide much-wanted nectar early in the season for lady beetles and many pollinators.
3. Analyze the site before you shop. Take the time to look at your yard and garden, and think about what’s great and not-so-great.
In flower and shrub beds, what plants are crowding others? What don’t you like? Is the foundation planting wide enough to complement the house (or is it the common 4-foot skimpy border?) What gaps or holes do you see, and where would you like a new bed?
Make notes, then do the most important thing you can do before you go to a garden center: Evaluate the sites for your plants, honestly. How many hours of sunlight really hit that area? If there is shade, is it dappled or solid? Notice the wind, traffic patterns of people and animals, and the space you want your tree or perennial to occupy when it is mature.
Failure to know the sites available is a primary reason for plant losses … They can’t get up and tiptoe away if they don’t like where you put them.
4. Know which plants are cold-hardy. A common mistake among eager gardeners is rushing the planting time for some plants – tomatoes especially. There are cold-season plants that do fine in cool soil, unless it’s so wet that they rot.
These include peas, that you could have poked in the soil six weeks ago if it wasn’t frozen, as well as spinach, lettuce, and other greens. Potatoes tolerate cold soil, and cole crops (broccoli, cabbage, kale, cauliflower.) Some flowers are fine to plant in cool soil as well (cosmos, allysum).
Read the labels on seed packets that show things like “four weeks before last frost date.” Your garden center staff will know which annuals are cold-hardy (likely to be those they are selling now in baskets). Woody plants (trees and shrubs) can be planted as early in the season as the soil is ready.
Warm-season vegetables include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans, and squash. While a frosty night might kill the plant (unless you cover it), the outside temperature isn’t the biggest problem. It’s the soil temperature that counts. A tomato doesn’t grow well, and will often develop growth defects, if the soil isn’t consistently above 55 degrees. Until the soil is warmer there is little point, and high risk, of putting out most tender annuals or vegetables.
5. Prepare to plant. If you are starting a new vegetable or flower bed, decide whether the soil and location will work for an in-ground planting. Clay soil is nutrient-rich, not a bad thing, but you will likely have to bring in compost. When the soil has dried out enough to turn it over by hand or with a tiller, spread the compost first and then till lightly.
This rule applies to established beds as well: Don’t pulverize the soil; leave it lumpy. The purpose of tilling is to break the soil surface and expose some weed seeds and grubs for the birds. If you have a planting date in mind, till lightly to 6 inches or so, and two weeks later till shallowly (2 inches deep).
The alternative to a flat garden is raised bed gardening. Your raised beds can be enclosed by boards, cinder blocks, rocks, straw bales ‑ whatever you have. Or you can make a slightly raised bed, 3 or 4 feet wide, by raking the soil higher than the path enclosing it. Fill that bed with superior garden soil from a trusted source.
These guidelines will help some of you avoid common mistakes and make a great start. Now enjoy it.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.
* Read Sally Cunningham's recent column on composting: