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Gardening Columns

Enjoy Springtime in All its Glory

First published on on March 13, 2008, by Suzanne DeJohn

Isn't this just the best time of year? Against a backdrop of grays and browns, the crayon colors of crocuses and daffodils seem otherworldly. How can such color emerge from seemingly lifeless earth? What alchemy allows soil, water, and air to combine to produce such outrageous hues? 

These exuberant flowers command attention, but if you look closely you'll also find magnificent colors on trees and shrubs. Inspect the fattened leaf buds and emerging leaves as they begin to unfold. You'll see reds and oranges and purples and every conceivable hue of green. Even the muted colors of hellebore flowers stand out in the late afternoon sun.

Although there's always work to do in the garden, at this time of year I like to savor the start of a new season. I gently pull old leaves from the crowns of perennials, hoping to see signs of renewed life. Some plants, like the dianthus, are up and starting to bloom. The tall phlox and sedums are just emerging from their winter nap. And it will be weeks before we see signs of the late risers like hosta. Every day there's something new to see, a new surprise to behold. Gardening is just an excuse to be part of the magic that transforms our fields and mountains and roadsides each spring.

In the Perennial Garden
If meandering in the garden seems frivolous, take a pair of hand pruners with you. If you didn't cut back your perennials last fall, do so now. If I prune my perennials in fall, I leave at least 6 inches of last year's stems, in part to mark the spot so I don't step on the plants, and in part because the dried stems catch wind-blown leaves that help insulate tender crowns. If I wait until spring to prune, I still leave a few inches of old stem to trap warm air and protect the new leaves from cold winds. The new shoots will quickly hide the dried stems. 

Last year's late spring freeze was a good reminder not to get ahead of ourselves in the garden. Although it's tempting to pull away all the leaf litter from newly emerging plants, leaving a smattering of leaves there doesn't hurt anything, especially since nighttime temperatures are still dropping into the 20s. 

Evaluate the weed and mulch situation in your perennial gardens. Many weeds begin growing early, and now's the time to pull them, especially when the soil is moist from the recent rains. As you pull weeds, note the depth of the mulch. A 2- or 3-inch layer is plenty. Any more and you risk smothering roots. If you simply must have the tidy look of fresh mulch, either remove some of the old mulch or scatter a very thin layer of new mulch over the old. If you're unsure where each of your perennials sits, wait to mulch until they've all emerged. You want to apply just the thinnest scattering of mulch around plant crowns to minimize disease problems from constant contact with damp mulch.

And speaking of mulch, avoid making mulch volcanoes around trees and shrubs by piling it up 6 or more inches deep. Not only does it look ridiculous, it can smother the trees' surface roots. Again, a 2- or 3-inch depth is plenty. And keep mulch a few inches from tree trunks, too, to avoid damaging the bark. 

In the Vegetable Garden
It's probably too wet to rototill. Pick up a handful of soil and squeeze it into a ball. Poke the ball with a finger. If it crumbles and falls apart, the soil is dry enough to work. Until then, leave the garden alone, except perhaps for sowing a small planting of spinach. I like to cover the whole garden with a layer of straw to help smother weeds and prevent heavy rains from compacting the soil. Remove the straw a week or so before planting to allow the sun to heat up the soil.

Focus your efforts on starting seeds indoors. Start cool-season crops like broccoli, cabbage, kale, and lettuce. They'll be ready to move outdoors in about six weeks. In much of our region you can start heat-lovers, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and basil. They'll go into the garden a week after after the average last frost date. In the coldest parts of our region, you can wait a week or so to start seeds of these warm-weather crops. Don't forget to start some zinnia, cosmos, and marigold seeds. They're easy to grow and beautiful, and they will attract beneficial insects to your gardens. 

Springtime in this region is long and luxurious. Take time to enjoy it in all it's glory.


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