A warm day in March can inspire a kind of madness in gardeners. It can cause them to burst out the door, desperate after months cooped up by cold and snow, and start work way too soon.
“Be careful what you do right now,” said Sharon Yiesla, plant knowledge specialist at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. “There are things it’s just too early for.”
Here are some do’s and don’ts for early spring gardening:
Do get rid of tree wrap. If you wrapped the trunk of a young tree to protect it from animals over the winter, unwrap it now. “Leaving tree wrap on too long can trap moisture and encourage disease,” Yiesla said.
Don’t walk on or dig in wet soil. “That can compact the soil, which smothers plant roots,” Yiesla said. “Compacted soil is a very difficult condition to correct.” Even as soil thaws at the surface, a hidden layer of impermeable ice often remains below, trapping water like a soup bowl. Wait until the soil has thawed all the way down and water is draining freely through it before you start digging or even walking on any part of the yard, including the lawn.
Do force branches of flowering shrubs. Cut branches of forsythia, flowering quince or other spring bloomers and stand them in a vase of warm water to encourage them to bloom indoors. “Just make sure you prune carefully and leave the overall shape of the shrub looking good,” Yiesla said.
Don’t prune trees. If you prune certain trees such as maples, elms and birches now that their sap is flowing, the pruning cuts will “bleed” with sap that is not only unsightly but can attract diseases and insects. Other species, such as oaks, also will be vulnerable to infectious diseases through pruning wounds. “The best time to prune trees is in the winter, when the trees are dormant, the leaves are gone and diseases don’t spread easily,” Yiesla said.
Do cut back perennials and grasses. Cut last year’s stalks on ornamental grasses back to a couple of inches above the ground before new growth starts. Remove any dried stalks of perennials that are still standing. Do this while the soil is still frozen or after it has thoroughly drained to avoid walking on wet soil.
Don’t clean up too much. Fallen leaves on garden beds protect plants from hard freezes, which are still common in March and early April. Even later in the season, keep some leaves on the ground as mulch, protecting plants’ roots and enriching the soil.
Do prune shrub roses. There’s no need to cut back every stem, as you would with a hybrid tea rose. Instead, prune out any stem or part of a stem that has died over the winter, and prune the shrub as needed for overall size and shape.
Don’t mow, fertilize or treat the lawn. Let grass grow for a few weeks before you work on it. Wait until mid- to late April to apply pre-emergent herbicides that aim to prevent crabgrass.
Do plan your planting. If you intend to add trees, shrubs or perennials this year, now is the time to figure out the species or varieties that are best for your site and locate a source. “You’ll have a tree for a long time,” Yiesla said. “It’s definitely worthwhile to invest some time and effort to choose the right one.”
Choose your tasks carefully and you can relieve your cabin fever without harming your plants.
For tree and plant advice, contact the Arboretum’s Plant Clinic (630-719-2424 or [email protected]).
Beth Botts is a staff writer at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle (www.mortonarb.org).
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You’ve been waiting for the big spring thaw since Christmas. Now that it’s here, you’re hoping to make your garden more eco-friendly. Here’s a spring guide to eco-friendly gardening that will get you pointed in the right direction.
The fastest way to have an eco-friendly impact is by choosing plants that are native to your climate. “Native” means plants that naturally grow in the area. Most home and garden stores carry seeds of regional plants. In Texas, this might mean choosing bluebonnets. In Virginia, you might plant the fiery orange Turk’s Cap lily instead.
One of the main benefits of native plants is that you won’t be fighting Mother Nature to keep them alive and thriving. They also contribute to your local ecosystem, feeding the insects and birds and other native wildlife.
Don’t sprinkle, drip
This is a pricier solution, but it pays off with a healthier garden and a lower water bill. A soaker hose drip irrigation system delivers water directly to the soil and plant roots. You’ll no longer need that spray of water arcing through the air in the early morning and late evening. Soaker hose drip irrigation makes your plants a little more resistant to disease by watering them right where it matters. Since the water is not flying through the air and landing on top of plants and grass, less of it evaporates. That means you use less water, especially if you have it on a timer.
Nix the chemical pesticides and herbicides
Some of your best friends in the garden are vinegar, salt, and dish detergent. A combination of all three is a less-toxic weedkiller. Pouring apple cider vinegar into an anthill will kill the nest. In a pinch, plain boiling water will kill weeds growing up in the crevices in your driveway or back patio. You can get rid of slugs by setting out dishes of beer. Slugs are notorious beer lovers and will drown after drinking themselves into a stupor. Coffee grounds, crushed eggshells, and something called diatomaceous earth are snail repellents. They work by tearing up their soft, slimy underbellies. You may already have most of this in your kitchen and don’t have to shell out the money for weed killers and pesticides that will linger long after you’ve forgotten them.
Maintain your lawn
There’s a lot of bad information out there about lawns, that they aren’t environmentally friendly. This couldn’t be further from the truth in that there are many benefits of lawns. A yard full of grass make prevents water from evaporating and prevents flooding and soil erosion. The trick is choosing the right kind of grass for your region. You can always ask at your local garden store which types of grass are best suited for your climate. Maintaining your grass also makes your lawn eco-friendly. You don’t want to give your lawn a close shave, because longer blades of grass will help conserve water.
Not sure how to compost? It’s a simple way to recycle scraps from your kitchen and replenish the soil in your garden. All you need are the browns (like the twigs and leaves in your yard), the greens (vegetable scraps from the kitchen, coffee grounds, et cetera) and water. Composting also enriches your soil without the need for chemical fertilizers and helps reduce methane emissions from your landfill.
Your yard and lawn can be environmentally friendly in several different ways. They can help you conserve water. They can improve air quality. They can attract native insects and animals as part of the natural ecosystem in your region. This spring guide to eco-friendly gardening should help you get started as soon as winter thaws.
Larry Wilkinson is a garden and landscaping writer. Larry prides himself on finding the easiest way to do anything he can — you can bet he’s tried to make his entire garden self-watering. Of course, he isn’t just about convenience either, adding a unique design flair to everything he does.
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Growing plants in Texas involves a steep learning curve. Even if you grew up seeding and weeding at the side of a knowledgable green thumb, there’s a lot of collective wisdom to internalize before you’re harvesting your own vegetables. Our warmer winters mean an entirely different planting schedule than is suggested on the backs of seed packets. Scorching hot summers require vigilant water management. Plus the bugs more than live up to that old cliche that everything is bigger in our state.
Lettuce Grow, a startup from Emmy- and Grammy-nominated actress and singer Zooey Deschanel (known for New Girl, 500 Days of Summer, and the musical duo She & Him) and her husband, entrepreneur Jacob Pechenik, is an attempt to make that curve a little less steep. On Sunday at the the South Congress Hotel, they hosted a launch party for the Austin-based company, which will begin shipping to its first subscribers soon.
The couple, who have two young children, split their time between Austin and Los Angeles and are familiar with the peculiar challenges of growing veggies here. “In a place like Texas, you have these [weather] extremes,” Pechenik says. With their backyard hydroponic system and accompanying subscription service, he claims, they want to enable people to “grow 20 percent of their food.” It’s an ambitious goal, but Lettuce Grow automates many aspects of gardening, effectively giving its customers a shortcut to homegrown produce. “You might not have a green thumb,” Deschanel says. “We want to do all the extra work that might stop people from growing a garden at their house.”
Here’s how it works: When you sign up, Lettuce Grow ships you one of their “farms.” Made from ocean-bound plastic (plastic that wouldn’t have been recycled otherwise), the farms are vertical hydroponic gardening systems. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil. You set the grower in a sunlit area, fill it with nutrient-enriched water, plug it in, and then add the seedlings that Lettuce Grow ships you monthly. That’s it, more or less.
The plant varieties have been selected to work well based on your geographic location, and the types of plants Texans can expect to receive through the subscription service will be tailored to the seasons and the weather. Lettuce Grow works with local farms to grow the seedlings. In Austin that farm is Agua Dulce, owned by Deschanel and Pechenik’s Farm Project. Varieties are tested and chosen for flavor, yield, insect resistance, climate compatibility, and more.
The goal is to get your Lettuce Grow farm to a point where it’s producing enough vegetables that you can harvest some every day. That way, says Pechenik, “You can start to build a lifestyle around eating at home, cooking at home.” The company has an accompanying app that advises you on when to harvest; when to clean, add nutrients, or add water to the Farm; and provides recipes and tips for eating your bounty. You can even send in photos of your plants if they seem to be struggling, and they’ll offer advice—or change the variety of plants in your subscription box to some better suited to your space.
All of this hand-holding comes at a price: Farms range from $399 to $469 depending on size, and the accompanying subscriptions cost between $49 and $69 monthly. But Lettuce Grow claims that, at peak season, the smallest farm produces $78 worth of produce per month—so if you stick with it, you eventually save money. For those who want to garden and can afford the system, it removes plenty of hurdles to starting a garden. (Lettuce Grow also donates one farm and accompanying membership to “a school or community-based organization” for every 10 new subscriptions it sells.)
“I am drinking the Kool-Aid,” says Stephanie Scherzer of Austin’s Rain Lily Farm, who has worked closely with Lettuce Grow in selecting varietals and growing seedlings. She admires the system for being accessible to children and the elderly, as well as its performance. Scherzer says she’s been able to grow watermelon, eggplant, and peppers in her prototype farm, and that the cooling properties of the hydroponics system extended the Texas growing season for crops like thyme, watercress, and kale. (The service now sends members mostly greens and herbs, but greater variety is planned.)
Deschanel says she’s enthusiastic about Lettuce Grow because “it’s really such an advantage to grow your own food.” She notes that freshly-picked vegetables retain the most nutrients and that picking only as much food as you need to eat can reduce food waste. She adds that her daughter loves picking the vegetables, and the Lettuce Grow system provides a starting point to get kids involved in gardening. “It’s a great way to explore the food you’re eating and explore healthier options too.”
Lettuce Grow is taking pre-orders for its first round of subscriptions. Farms begin shipping in three to five weeks, and it’s available nationwide.
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