Tasks to perform to prepare your garden for spring

Spring is coming, hurrah! We’ve reached meteorological spring, the weather reporters tell us. Astronomical spring is only three weeks away — gardening begins in earnest at last.

There is plenty to do and inviting days of mild temperatures dare us to declare winter over. But, not so fast. While this year has been mild with scant winter weather, we shouldn’t be lured into letting the desire for spring outpace the reality of spring. We will have warmer temperatures and longer days, but remember that a single hard frost can wipe out plants set out too early. Snowstorms are not that uncommon in March and while I, too, hope for an early spring, I urge you to use common sense and caution in embracing the change too early. There’s plenty we can do now without risking frozen or stunted plants.

Protect your soil. Don’t walk on wet garden beds or dig in soil that is not dry enough. Check it out, pick up a handful of soil, compress it lightly and drop it on a hard surface. Does it go splat? It’s too wet. Working wet soil can be very harmful to your garden. You risk destroying the desirable crumbly texture and compacting the area into a hard, unhealthy mess. Have patience and tend to the tasks at hand: Rake back heavy mulches from the beds containing your earliest flowers. Rake carefully as many bulbs are already pushing up their greens. Fertilize your bulbs when the greens have emerged.

Keep cleaning up that winter and fall debris. Broken limbs, leaf litter, abandoned pots, tired holiday decorations, forgotten tools — clear it all up, discard the useless and clean and store the recoverable. Take down any lights, test and store the good, toss the broken and note what needs to be replaced. Remove protective burlap wraps from shrubs and trees.

Apply preemergent herbicides, the first step of crabgrass treatment and a first volley in the fight with Japanese stilt grass. If you have the space indoors or a protected area outside that doesn’t freeze, you can pot up summer bulbs for earlier blooms. Try it with tuberous begonias, dahlias or maybe cannas. When you see color in the swollen buds of forsythias or the bulging catkins of the pussy willow, cut a few stems and bring them indoors for forcing. On warm days, clean out water features, clean, repair or replace your pond equipment.

Check out your birdhouses. Repair, replace and clean out boxes so that birds can settle in. Later this month start planting seeds for cold tolerant plants like peas, or onion sets. Purchase and plant bare-root items like bushes, trees, asparagus crowns, horseradish roots, and such. If you must set out flowers, select cold tolerant ones like pansies. Add pots for quick color around the entrances.

Garden event

Bethlehem Garden Club: First monthly meeting of the year on March 16 at the Moravian Church, 3730 Jacksonville Road, Bethlehem. Doors will open at 11:30 a.m. and at noon the club will offer soup, bread and rolls and dessert. The regular meeting will begin at 1 p.m. with the featured program starting at 1:45 p.m. The topic for March is Conifers and Rhododendrons for Durability, Versatility and Seasonal Interest presented by Bruce and Marianne Feller. All are welcome.

Garden reference for a beginner

Last week I requested that readers send me the name of the reference guide they would recommend to a beginning gardener. Jack Keptner recommended “Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew.

“This has been my gardening bible since I first started gardening over 45 years ago. While I do a modified version of vegetable planting now, I still use it as an easy reference for questions I have regarding planting. Warmest regards, Jack Keptner”

Hawks at the feeder continued

Last week I offered Rick two options for discouraging the hawk from dining at his feeders. He reported back:

“Thank you, just read your article (never miss it). I will keep the feeders down for another few weeks. Just don’t see any birds lately. Appreciate the feedback. Rick Wagner.”

Week in the garden

Planting: Start seed indoors for: Leaf lettuce. Finish sowing for transplant: Dahlia, larkspur and portulaca. Next week start: peppers, eggplant and tomatoes.

When the soil warms, plant bare root trees and shrubs. Make sure the soil is dry enough to work — don‘t dig or plant in mud. Create and follow a schedule for starting seeds. Check packets for instructions such as start indoors four weeks before last frost date. Then, using a calendar, count back from your area’s date (May 10-15 for most areas) for the appropriate starting time.

Seasonal: Test soil for new beds, Retest soil in poorly performing areas or those that haven’t been tested in the last 3-5 years. As plants held indoors start to show new growth, move them into brighter light and start regular watering. Cut back ornamental grasses. Divide when you see new green growth. Examine trees and shrubs. Note damaged limbs and candidates for winter pruning. Please check proper pruning information for each plant and prune as needed and recommended. Take cuttings of African violets and geraniums.

Check for heaved plants, particularly when soil temperatures are fluctuating between freezing and thawing. Check germination rate for all stored seeds and replace those that perform badly with fresh seed this year. Get seeds for any new plants you intend to grow from seed. Cut the flower stalks off amaryllis plants after the flowers fade but keep the greens warm and watered in a sunny area if you plan on keeping them until next year. Discard paperwhites after blooming.

Lawn: Take a break but resume watering newly planted lawns if the ground thaws and we don’t get rain.

Chores: Check seed starting supplies for spring and note or purchase as needed. Use a humidifier, humidity trays or misting to increase the humidity around your houseplants. Mark off beds, new plantings, plants that are late to break dormancy in the spring and delicate plants. Stay off them when dealing with snow removal. Top dress beds with compost or manure and till in when soil is dry enough to work in spring. Water any new plantings anytime the ground isn’t frozen and we experience a week with less than an inch of rain.

Fix damaged screens and garden hoses. Note damaged caulking around doors and windows. Provide deer, rabbit and groundhog protection for vulnerable plants. Reapply taste or scent deterrents. Clean and fill bird feeders regularly. Clean up spilled seed and empty hulls. Dump, scrub and refill birdbaths at least once a week. Use a heater to provide water during freezing weather. Clear gutters and direct rainwater runoff away from house foundations.

Tools, equipment, and supplies: Maintain winter equipment and replace or repair as needed. Place ice melts and shovels near exterior doors along with boots, gloves, and other outdoor gear. Check spring/summer equipment — repair or replace damaged or worn out tools. Check power tools and mowers and send for service if needed.

Safety: Use pet-, child- and plant-safe melting products if possible. Store garden chemicals indoors away from pets and children. Discard outdated ones at local chemical collection events. Photograph storm damage before clearing or repairing for insurance claims and file promptly. Anytime you are outside and the temperatures are about 50°F or warmer watch for tick bites. Use an insect repellent containing Deet on the skin. Apply a permethrin product to clothing. Wear light-colored clothing, long sleeves, hats and long pants when working in the garden. Stay hydrated. Drink water or other non-caffeinated, nonalcoholic beverages. Even in cold weather, apply sunscreen, wear hats and limit exposure to sun. Wear closed-toe shoes and gloves; use eye protection; and use ear protection when using any loud power tools.

Sue Kittek is a freelance garden columnist, writer, and lecturer. Send questions to Garden Keeper at [email protected] or mail: Garden Keeper, The Morning Call, PO Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105.

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