Malcolm McDowell Woods
Natural Gardener

Time to get your hands dirty

By - May 23rd, 2010 04:00 am
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By Peg McCormick Fleury

Finally! Spring is really here and it’s time to turn winter plans and dreams into reality. Overwhelmed? Take a deep breath and pause to enjoy the budding trees and shrubs, greening lawns and return of birds and wildlife.

When you’re ready, pull out last year’s garden photos and journal as well as any “to-do” jottings made while your garden slept. If winter slipped by without making plans, take time now to visualize your dream landscape; consider what needs to be updated, what plants to be divided or moved, what new things to try.

Before visiting garden centers and nurseries, make a list of what you need. If your goal is continuous garden color, check out bloom times of various plants so your color moves smoothly from spring through fall. For a more unified look, choose a specific color scheme. Research plants to provide the colors in beds, containers, window boxes and even on trellises and fences. If this is the year for a new tree or shrub, determine which do well in our area and definitely check their mature size, both height and width.

Now you are ready for a shopping list. Also, make a belated New Year’s resolution to keep garden notes this year. It will be most helpful for the future.

Gardening tasks
When spring flowering bulbs begin to fade, snip off the flowers but not the foliage! Wait until it dies back because it’s needed to provide energy to the bulb for next year. Tuck early blooming annuals such as pansies among the bulbs to provide color and hide straggly leaves. You can also add perennials — but be careful where you dig!
Mark the location of existing bulbs before adding plants or more bulbs. This prevents you from digging up the bulbs or accidentally slicing them with a sharp tool. Buy markers at a garden store or use transparent plastic knives, adding plant type and color with a permanent marker. This is useful if you decide to move the bulbs in fall. It also flags lone plants that should be consolidated.

You can prune spring-blooming shrubs as soon as they are done flowering; finish by early June to provide sufficient time to set next year’s flower buds. Suckering shrubs including lilacs, forsythia and bridal wreath spirea can benefit from renewal pruning. You need to remove one third of older stems to ground level. The University of Wisconsin-Extension (UWEX) website has publications to guide you.

Start pinching back fall-blooming plants such as mums, asters and tall sedums. Do this weekly until mid-July. If you want to expand planting space, use a garden hose to outline proposed beds. This provides a good visual reference so you won’t later regret that you chose the wrong site, size or shape.

Before planting, prepare your beds. Work compost or fertilizer into the top 6-12” of soil, rake it smooth and let it settle. Mulch can be added later in May when the soil is warmer. A soil test is recommended to determine if your garden needs specific amendments. This can be done commercially or through UWEX.

Containers provide warmer soil for a head start on planting. You can add a soil release fertilizer to the soil and it will be released as you water the plants. If your current or new plants need supports, add them now so you avoid struggling to tie up mature plants.

Lawn care
Check your lawn for color, density and overall vigor. Wet springs encourage some turf diseases so look for any problems. Late May (around Memorial Day) is a good time to fertilize with a controlled release or slow release formulation. As the weather heats up, avoid fertilizing again until fall. If you choose to use herbicides, do not apply to newly seeded areas. If possible, use them on broad leaf weeds when they are in bloom.

May is the second-best time to seed or overseed lawns (mid-August through mid-September is best). Look for any thatch problems that keep necessary nutrients and water from reaching grass roots. Check UWEX for lawn care information or get advice from a local professional.

If mowing and lawn care are becoming a burden, consider such alternatives as large areas of ground cover or native plants.

2010 winners and debuts

Garden catalogs have whetted our appetites and we are ready to race to garden centers and discover what is new. Consider the latest All-America Selections including the Gaillardia ‘Mesa Yellow,’ the bedding plant winners, Snapdragon ‘Twinny Peach’ and Zinnia ‘Zahara Starlight Rose’ and the cool season Viola ‘Endurio Sky Blue Matien.’

Boerner Botanical Gardens
A visit to Boerner Botanical Gardens is a good way to see how trees, shrubs and plants actually look (including their mature size). There are expert-led garden walks/classes and other educational opportunities. Early season walks, starting at 6:30 pm, include:

  • Wednesday, May 26: Early gems in the rock garden
  • Wednesday, June 2: Hosta – King of the shade
  • Wednesday, June 9: Peonies – Old-fashioned, fragrant perennials

Vigorous vegetables
Garden centers report that 2009 was a big year for vegetable seeds and plants and predict 2010 will be even bigger. This may reflect the economy plus a growing preference for fresh and/or organic vegetables. Look for new, hardier varieties as you select seeds and plants. Definitely check maturity times as our season can be short.

You can begin transplanting parsley, head lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, early cabbage, collards, kale and onions early in May. If you opt for seeds, start snap beans, late cabbage, Brussels sprouts, pumpkins and sweet corn by mid-month.

In late May, sow seeds for lima beans, Brussels sprouts, late cabbage, cucumbers, summer squash and watermelon. By late May or early June, transplant celery, melons, pumpkins, winter squash, tomato, eggplant and pepper plants. Warmer container soil provides an earlier opportunity to plant peppers, tomatoes and eggplants.

Vegetables need sun! If sunny space is limited, tuck vegetables into your flower beds or use containers in sunny spots. A long window box can be a bed for lettuce, for example. Be sure that containers are large and heavy enough so they won’t tip over as the plant grows and can accommodate plant supports if needed. UWEX has container and small space gardening information.

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