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The Avid Gardener: Growing into spring

by on April 18, 2019 3:13 PM

“The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another.” Henry Van Dyke

The name for the fourth month, April, derives from the Greek word for “opening.” This could refer to the opening or blossoming of flowers and trees this month, but it could just as well refer to the long-awaited motion of a garden shed door in order to retrieve the basic tools of the trade — shears, rake, broom and trug. It’s finally time to revive and to revel in the great outdoors with all of its new wonders and possibilities.

Weather will be on many people’s minds this year. The 2018 growing season was notable for extreme rain and its effects, such as plant disease, early leaf drop and vigorous growth of weeds and fungi, but so far the early spring temperatures and amounts of precipitation for this month seem to be more normal. The average median date of the last freeze in spring in Centre County, according to the National Weather Service, is May 1, but most wait until closer to the end of the month for planting.

In getting set up for the new season, April tasks will definitely include raking matted leaves, collecting loose brush, digging and including new soil for any new beds, as well as scrubbing accessories like birdhouses, feeders, baths, and fountains. It also means turning on hoses, cleaning pots and hanging baskets, and fixing stone paths or adjusting any ornamentation that may have been affected by the freeze-thaw cycles.

May is likely a better month to mulch because the soil has warmed enough to not be as concerned with trapping cold or root-rotting excessive moisture.

I also find it helpful to step back and revisit last year’s successes (and failures) and try to replicate what went well. In order to do this I keep a general garden journal in which I note any purchases, installations, different plant placements and removals, etc. I often also record weather trends and anomalies. It’s interesting to look back over the years to see how knowledge and experience will grow.

Finally, I make plans for the most fun part, which is which changes and additions I will phase in. Will it be a raised bed for vegetables this year? Some hanging baskets placed along the fence? Replacing those tired daffodil bulbs in the side bed? Planning is all-important when gauging final results, and what often seem to be small steps like getting a soil test, a soaker hose or attending a workshop can be major predictors of success.

To be honest, plant selection is probably one of the top three determiners of rewarding gardening, so it’s worth revisiting at length.

With the help of the University of Minnesota extension here are some best practices when purchasing plants, whether they are tomato transplants, annuals, perennials, or a new tree or shrub.

* Choose reputable nurseries and sources that will stand by major plant purchases; knowledgeable help is invaluable. Talking to a network of gardening friends is helpful in locating plant suppliers who offer good selection and prices;

* Inspect every plant prior to purchase for spots, discoloration, and unusual growth on upper and lower leaves;

* Stems should not have any open wounds, excessive sap, or discolored or soft mushy areas.

* Roots should be examined (take the plant out of the pot) to see that they are firm and light colored with many fibrous root hairs and do not have dark soft areas;

* While many people like to try and save sad looking, weak plants, resist the temptation; it is not recommended;

* Reject plants with sick neighbors since they are all watered and fertilized at the same time, and plant diseases can easily spread through the group;

* Choose only plants suited for the site where they are being planted, as well as the USDA hardiness zone (it could vary from Zones 5b, 6a, and 6b in Centre County). That way they will likely thrive in the conditions of your garden.  Environmentally stressed plants often end up with disease problems, too;

* Look for disease-resistant varieties, a fact which will often be listed on the plant label. Avoid plants treated with neonicotinoids;

* When sharing plants from others, accept them only from a trusted source.  Reject any that show signs or symptoms of disease.

* Don’t be afraid to isolate a plant from others that are in a main bed for as much as a year to watch for potential problems. If a disease does occur, that plant can be easily removed and won’t spread the pathogen to others that are well established.

During this month I will begin to visit the many local (and not so local) nurseries in order to see what’s on offer and chit-chat with the staff.

For example, on a recent visit to Bonnie’s Greenhouse in Osceola Mills, owner April Albright offered her cheerful expert design advice on plant suggestions for refilling containers. Her greenhouse features not only a wide selection of bedding plants, shrubs, trees, containers and ornaments, but she has live animals — ponies, goats and llamas — a fairy garden “store,” as well as a canoe filled with goldfish. It’s a fun place for children.

April is a great month for returning to the enjoyment of gardening, to experiencing its fresh air and renewing sunshine.



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