Everything is full of hope. As we see the swarms of newly hatching insects catch the sun we become aware that this season will not go on forever.
As the seasons change and the soil warms we poke outside and plod around kicking the soil and picking up the eternal sticks and pine cones. Spring is the season of hope and change. Temperatures moderate. Life-giving rains arrive. This season seems to happen all by itself. Each day shows a changing face. Buds open and leaves push up towards the sun. Everything is full of hope. As we see the swarms of newly hatching insects catch the sun we become aware that this season will not go on forever. The heat of the warming sun will get more intense, the rain wane and the pests arrive. So how do we prepare for the summer with the glorious gardens we dream of?
Begin with the Soil
First let’s start with the basics. In order for plants to grow they need 5 things: soil, water, nutrients, sunlight and air. So start at the beginning with the soil. Soil tests are available at your local extension office and when completed and sent in the results give you what needs to be done to your soil to grow the specific plants you desire. For $10 you will get a report and information sheets to assist you with the results/plants you want. The form asks what you want to plant and the information is aimed at that process. So if you want a vegetable garden or acid-loving shade plants, send a sample for each particular garden area. Look for the Master Gardeners at the farmer’s markets or find your extension office.
So TEST YOUR SOIL! If you accomplish this early in the spring you should get relatively quick results and be ready for action. On average this needs to be accomplished every two to three years assuming no drastic changes such as construction, chemical spills or erosion.
Now use your evenings and rainy days to inventory! I mean throw out those old worn garden gloves and replace. Clean any tools that you failed to put away properly. Sharpen blades with a file, use rubbing alcohol to clean blades of loppers and trimmers to prevent spreading plant diseases and oil all working parts! Apply linseed oil to wooden handles to help preserve them and keep them from splintering into your hands and fingers.
Look around at your supplies. Do you have labels for your plants, ties and posts to prop them up, organic fertilizer, crushed oyster shells for placing in newly dug holes (vole deterrent), kneeling pads and seeds you carefully saved and labeled from last year? Browse through your garden catalogs and see what you may need for the busy year ahead.
With concerns about our environment we are more and more aware of where our water is coming from. Wells can be deep and tap into the aquifers or shallow and have high salt content and affect our drinking supply. High salt content is not good for our plants. So look at the possibility of a rain barrel or two or three! Rain barrels are easily available through local hardware shops, garden supply and mail order. The master gardeners hold rain barrel workshops several times a year to assist the general public to assemble inexpensive rain barrels. Contact your extension office for the schedule and contact person.
Look no further than your compost pile. Clean off additional leaves that have fallen, run over them with a mower and load them into your compost bin or alternate with manure on your gardens. For best decomposition alternate brown with green (plant material). Compost is invaluable! Dig out your compost bin brimming over with the fall’s gifts from your gardens. Compost, “black gold,” contains the nutrients your plants need.
Always be aware to apply it around your plants being careful to keep it away from the trunk and stems which can harbor animals and insects that eat and destroy them.
Now is also the time to become best friends with someone who has manure; well rotted, black, clean…relatively speaking, and just the thing to make all those ground leaves turn to nutrients and again into growing plants. When manure is well rotted and dark from a nicely heated-up pile it helps to kill the seeds from the oats and grasses those critters have been eating so they do not reproduce in your garden. Besides, you develop nicely shaped shoulders and firm upper arms just digging the stuff…make sure you use your legs and turn your whole body when lifting.
What do you want in your garden?
I call time in the evening my planning and dreaming time. When I can spread out reading material and pick and choose. Planning can be spontaneous…I believe in spontaneity, but I do realize the importance of carefully thought out plans. Start planning by answering the questions of exposure, space, color, specific needs for formal or natives and the style of buildings and structures in proximity to the garden space. How do you plan on using this space? Is it a formal entrance or recreational? Is it utilitarian or low and cleared for view?
Look at your plat plan and be aware of magnetic north. Is the space shaded by buildings or structure or in full sun and baking in August?
As promising as spring looks with its perfect leaves and tender evolving sprouts and well-watered lush vegetation you can be assured it will change. Those sunlit swarms of hatching insects can devour a plant in half a day. Tender sprouts are no match for ravenous ever-adventurous deer and rabbits. Small trunks and roots are sucked up overnight by tiny elusive voles. Squirrels drill holes in your lawn, that same lawn you labored to aerate last fall! To add to all of this the gardener YOU and ME is bitten, scratched, stung and rashed till we begin to wonder if it is all worth it. But digging in the soil is a disease. Once bitten, forever stricken.
So early in the spring look at your fencing needs to keep the critters at bay. Stock up on environmentally friendly pesticides. Use them carefully and be aware of the good insects as well as the harmful ones. Plant lots of lavender and yucca (disliked by deer). The trick is to mix plants that survive damage with those that are high on the pest’s menu. Natives are certainly worth a glance. See what grows naturally here…could it be it adapts well to the salt and sun and wind? As you peruse your grounds see what did well last year and survived the winter.
Divide and Conquer
Cleaning out gardens gives you a sense of abundance. Carefully divide up spring bloomers of daffodils and iris following their blooming. Thin tight clumps of late summer bloomers such as daisies and mums. Hydrangeas and forsythia can be pruned following blooming. Learn the different needs for pruning hydrangeas. Some bloom on new wood and some on old wood.
When dividing make sure you move the plants to an area where their needs of light, moisture and exposure duplicate
the host plant or if a plant is suffering from too little light or rain or too much, move it and see it improve. New transplants need careful loving and watering following that process which is best accomplished on a cloudy day just before a gentle rain. But…they can be shaded with a basket or shade cloth and watered instead.
Make a Plan
Sketch, measure, lay out a hose and place accessories. Then stand back and look…and on the side and look…and from inside the house and look.
If you are planning a garden down a long driveway be aware of the needs for water and explore xeroscaping. This practice uses plants of lower water usage. Remember that all plants need water to survive especially when first planted. Many fuzzy-leafed plants are low water users and not on the top of the menu for plant-eating critters (lambs ear and lavender).
Your choice of color is an effective tool. Hot summer days spent in a garden full of shades of green and white and pastel blues with a fountain gives a sense of coolness and calm. Plants used between a viewer and the view need to be in soft colors with flowing washes of like plant material towards the view. This allows the eye to move gently towards the view and not be interrupted by abrupt changes of bright colors.
Well kept records are so very helpful. What in the world did I put there? When did I do that last year? Keep a garden journal or at least a dated notebook. You will be grateful when your mind lets you down.
Now give yourself permission to be less than perfect. All systems and goals are just something to work towards. Enjoy this wonderful spring and learn as you plan and plant for summer.
Story and select photos by Judy Ripley