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Preparing Your Garden for Planting

Now that winter is finally over and the weather is turning warmer, it’s time to get your garden ready for planting. Robust plant growth isn’t an accident. Proper soil preparation is needed to ensure that vegetable gardens and flower gardens are productive as possible. 

The first step toward planting a garden, if you are planting it directly in the ground, is to do a soil test. What is your soil type? Is your soil alkaline or acidic? Most plants prefer acidic, loamy soils. Sandy soils and clay soils on the other hand can be more difficult to grow in; if you have these soil types soil amendments may be needed. One of the best ways to help prepare your garden is by adding organic matter to the soil such as grass clippings from the first mowing of the year, or compost. These organic materials will help with both nutrient delivery for your plants and will also ensure that the soil holds a proper amount of water. If you are an organic gardener you may choose to exclusively use this type of garden soil addition as fertilizer. 

Double digging may also help to prepare your garden for planting. When you double dig you are increasing soil drainage and aeration by loosening two layers of soil as you add in organic matter. This creates good garden soil for your plants to grow into and will help plant roots grow deep and strong. 

Early in the season cover crops may be a good idea to plant. A cover crop is a plant that you grow specifically for the soil. It’s meant to grow and be turned under into the soil instead of being harvested for your plants. Growing a cover crop can help ensure that you have good soil and that your soil for planting is full of available nutrients for your vegetables. 

In addition to planting directly in the ground, another good garden idea is to use raised beds. This means the soil is layered on top of your existing soil, generally within a frame. This can be done directly or in grow boxes. For these gardens, you’ll most likely purchase pre-prepared soil mixes that will come ready for use right away. They will have the proper nutrients available from the start and may make for an easier experience for beginning gardeners. 

What to Plant in March

Now that March is here the real work in your garden can begin. This month your garden comes alive with the end of snow and sleet, and the coming of warm weather. 

Early spring is the perfect time to get annual and vegetable seeds started indoors. Veggies—such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, melons, zucchini, basil, and other herbs—should be started early so they are well established by the time warm weather arrives. These vegetables tend to do best when you sow seeds indoors in pots rather than straight into the ground once it gets warmer. Once started they are easy to grow. Just give them lots of sun and water. Some plants don’t need to be started indoors. Asparagus roots, for example, are something that you should plant bare-root once the last frost date has passed, around mid-April.

Early potatoes can be planted from early March through April. These plants can tolerate a light frost but not a hard freeze, so mulch them to protect from the extreme cold if a late-season blast of cool weather should come up. Potatoes are cool-season vegetables and do best with temps below 80 degrees, so planting them in March gives you a nice head start. 

Broad beans and brussels sprouts take around 90 days to mature. Planting in March gives them a good head start. Brussels sprouts in particular benefit from maturing in cooler and even frosty weather. Leafy greens also prefer cooler weather, so as soon as the threat of a hard frost has passed, they should be planted in the ground. 

March is also a great time to plant fruit trees. Once the ground has thawed enough to dig a hole you’re safe to plant the tree. Don’t forget to water it well to help it settle into its new spot and you’ll have fruit in coming years. 

The Best Bulbs To Plant in February

While it may seem counterintuitive, winter can be a great time to plant bulbs. The bulbs you buy now are in a state of dormancy and, when planted properly, will not suffer damage from spending time in the ground over the winter. In fact, they may actually benefit from the chill. Many early spring flowers come from bulbs that require a chill in order to bloom. It is a belief among many gardeners that as long as the soil is workable there’s time to plant bulbs. Most bulbs prefer well-draining soil in full sun to part shade, so choose your location carefully. 

Tulip bulbs, lily bulbs, hyacinths, and more often require a period of chilling or they will not bloom the following season. Without a chill, they become annuals and die off. On the other hand, tender bulbs such as gladiolus bulbs need to be dug up before the true winter cold sets in or they will likely die off in a deep freeze. In hardiness zones, 4–7 early winter is an ideal time for planting spring-blooming bulbs. As a general rule spring-flowering bulbs should be planted in fall or winter, while summer flowering bulbs should be planted in the spring. When deciding which bulbs to plant when go by that rule and you will likely have success with your blooms.

Dig as deeply as you can when planting your spring bulbs and then cover the area with mulch to protect them. Don’t worry if you’ve already seen snow on the ground. As long as the ground itself is not frozen, they will likely grow roots. 

Plants like tulips, lilies, and hyacinths often look their best in naturalized plantings. So plant tulips and the like in a random pattern with irregular groupings for the most impact. Choose various shades of similar colors such as blue, purple, or white flowers for a more refined look, or mix them all together for an even more natural feel. 

These winter-loving bulbs often have blooms that make excellent cut flowers, so plant them thickly and they can be thinned out for bouquets without sacrificing the overall look come spring. 

January Gardening Activities

It’s a new year and your thoughts may be turning to your spring garden. That can seem far away during the dark days of January, but there are still plenty of things to keep you busy in the cold winter months. 

Winter is a good time to get organized for spring. Cleaning tools and going through seed catalogs for vegetable seeds are perfect snowy day activities. Be sure to put a thin layer of oil on your tools to protect them from rust. Choosing what plants you’ll grow and the layout of your spring garden is another good idea. Will you be planting right into the ground or into raised beds? If you’ve never tried raised beds before, read a couple of gardening books about their benefits; it may just give you a project for early spring! 

During winter trees and shrubs are at risk for being eaten by deer, particularly on Long Island, where the population is high and there are few natural predators. Hire a licensed company to apply a deer repellent spray to evergreens to deter munching. Speaking of sprays, using a dormant spray on trees and shrubs now can mean fewer pests and diseases during spring. Fruit trees in particular will benefit from this. 

January is a great time for planting bare root roses and bare root trees as well. These plants will be dormant this time of year and as long as the ground is workable it’s ok to put them into the ground. This will give them an early start before the heat of summer sets in. Rose bushes that are already established can be cut back in winter before new growth starts. 

While it may be too early in the growing season to sow seeds, you can still visit your local garden center and pick up the supplies you’ll need for sowing seeds starting in a month or two. This will give you time to figure out the lighting and location for your starter plants. 

Finally, if the lack of greenery is too much to bear, growing indoor plants can satisfy your green thumb. Miniature roses and poinsettias are popular this time of year, and love bright light or grow lights. These plants can bring a little floral pop to an otherwise grey winter day and help you make it through until the first crocuses of spring begin to pop their heads up above the soil.

Annuals for Cold Weather

The chilly weather is here but that doesn’t mean you can’t have some color in your garden. There are many flowers that come in a variety of colors that can handle a light frost and sometimes even a mild winter. Hardy annuals are easy to find in your local garden center, and they can extend the gardening season by months.

One of the most common cool-season annuals that you’ll see being sold are Pansies. Pansies come in almost every color of the rainbow and absolutely love cool weather. Planted in early fall or late winter, these cool-season annuals are champs at keeping color popping in your garden bed.

The Dusty Miller is another one of the frost-tolerant annuals. While they’re capable of surviving a light frost, once the first heavy frosts are expected it’s best to prepare them for the winter ahead. Trim them to about 4 inches tall and heavily mulch the plants to insulate them from the extreme cold of winter. Come early spring you can remove the mulch so your plants will be ready for another season of velvety growth.

Sweet Alyssum are annual flowers that can survive the cooler weather as long as there is no hard freeze. Made up of mounds of honey-scented, white blossoms, they add a snowy presence to the landscape and will, in the early part of the season, draw pollinators to your garden.

If you are looking for cut flowers in the winter season there are a few choices that can add color both inside and out. Winterberry comes in varieties with red, pink, or gold berries that look beautiful in arrangements. In addition to looking lovely, they also last long with an average vase life of 14 to 21 days.

Winter Heath blooms with lovely florets of pink, white, purple, mauve, yellow, or red. These can be cut in extremely long stems to add height to an arrangement.

Winter Jasmine blooms in mid-to-late winter with bright yellow blossoms. These can also be cut in long stems and bring a little joy to dark winter days.

Finally, Camellia is lovely in arrangements during winter. Their waxy rose-like blooms don’t tend to live long in a vase (about 3–5 days) but their unique and perfect beauty more than makes up for it!

How to Mulch Leaves

For many people, when the leaves fall it’s time to pull out the rake and the blower and start bagging leaves to be taken away. However, what you may not know is that by not raking leaves and leaving them on your lawn instead you can help enhance the soil and the effectiveness of your lawn fertilizer. 

It’s important not to leave whole leaves on your lawn as they can smother the grass, blocking the sun and eventually killing the lawn. Instead, you should run over those fallen leaves with a mulching mower. Most mowers have the ability to mulch if you use the right blade. A mulching blade is serrated rather than straight and helps to shred the leaves as you go over them. If you’re using a regular mower you’ll need to put on the mulching blade before starting your task. If you’re using a mulching mower you just need to raise the blade up as high as it goes and remove the grass catcher so that the shredded leaves go back onto the lawn. These leaves will break down over the course of the winter releasing nitrogen back into the soil. This nitrogen, in turn, will feed your lawn and help it to be as lush and green as possible. It will also help your lawn to fight off weeds like dandelions and crabgrass. Depending on how thick the tree cover around your property is you may have to mow once a week or so until the leaves stop falling.

As you mow over the leaves you’ll notice the pieces getting smaller and smaller until they sink down a bit between the grass blades. Once the grass is showing through, and the leaves are broken down to confetti size, you’re done with your lawnmower or mulching mower. 

If you want to use your fallen leaves as mulch for plantings rather than for lawn care you’ll still need to shred leaves first, though not as small as when you’re using them for the lawn. Even leaves destined for the compost pile should get shredded rather than remain as whole leaves. When you pile up whole leaves air and sunlight cannot get to the decomposing leaves, and it becomes worse once they get wet and soggy. Mold and diseases can grow in this anaerobic environment. Your mulch, like your compost pile, should be as fluffy as possible so that air can circulate and nature’s decomposers can do their work. The idea of leaf mulching is to protect the ground from freezing, thawing, and then re-freezing because this is damaging to plants. The leaf layer in this case serves as a temperature regulator to keep this from happening. You’ll want a thick layer of shredded leaves for leaf mulching your garden beds. 

So before breaking out the rake and the blower this year consider mulching your leaves instead. Your garden, and especially the soil, will thank you!

Fall Garden Cleanup

There’s a chill in the air and there’s no doubt that fall is on the way. For most of us, the garden has at least started to die back, and for the rest of us, it’s completely brown and wilted save for those cold weather harvests. You may think that your gardening chores are over for the year but you’d be wrong. What you do with your garden cleanup now will have an effect on how your garden performs next spring. So follow these tips to ensure a happy and healthy spring flower or vegetable garden.

Out With the Old.

Go through your garden beds and clear out any remaining foliage. If it is healthy you can put it right into your compost pile. If there are any diseased plants, or if they were attacked by garden pests over the summer, be sure to put them into the trash. 

Deadhead the flowers in your flower bed and collect seed heads. These contain the dried seed that you’ll need to replant the same flowers next spring. You can also start the seeds indoors in late winter to ensure spring color as soon as possible. 

Mulch It!

Work mulch or compost into your garden soil. This will help “recharge it” for another season of growing. The mulch and compost will break down over the winter, leaving you a bed full of nutrients for next year. Add more mulch to your still active garden plants to extend your fall gardening growing season as long as possible. Some plants when properly cared for can last long enough for a winter garden harvest, so don’t skimp on the mulch for your beets, garlic, cabbage, carrots, and whatever else you have going in your fall/winter garden. 

Leaves. Leaves Everywhere.

While it’s tempting to get out your leaf blower and start piling up those fall leaves, consider the benefits that leaving fallen leaves alone can have. Our gardens are havens for beneficial insects and animals of all kinds. Leaving at least some of the leaves in the place where they fall can give them a safe place to overwinter. While it’s tempting to go all out with your fall cleanups, leaving at least some of the garden intact isn’t the worst idea. Don’t forget: you can use some of the leaves that you do pick up as compost and mulch. 

Wrap ‘em Up.

If you have delicate trees and shrubs you may want to wrap them in burlap to help protect against winter winds and heavy ice. While this is not a bad idea, it’s important to remember to trim and prune any dead or diseased branches first. For spring-blooming perennials now is the time to cut them back without risking blooms. 

Clean Your Tools!

Finally, when you’re all done, you should give your garden tools a good cleaning and/or sharpening. Wash any remaining soil off and give them a soak in soapy water. Then rinse and thoroughly dry your tools. Use a wire brush to remove any rust; a light coating of vegetable oil will help you to loosen it. Finally, make a mix of 2 cups chlorine bleach to one gallon of water and dip your tools. Let them soak for at least 10 minutes to kill bacteria and fungi that can spread from one diseased plant to another come spring. Once they’ve soaked be sure to dry them COMPLETELY before putting them away for next spring.

Growing Succulents in Containers

If you’re looking to grow hardy plants that thrive on benign neglect, look no further than succulents. Succulents are plants with fleshy leaves and stems that come from all over the world. Cacti are in the succulent family, as is aloe. Succulents come in all shapes and sizes.

In warm, dry climates succulents can be used outdoors as landscaping focal points. Most succulents cannot survive a New York winter (though a few like prickly pear cacti, hens and chicks do quite well!). Because they are low maintenance and require little water succulents are perfect for container gardening. Succulent container gardens can thrive for years on end, as long as their needs—lots of light with just a little bit of water—are met. 

To grow succulents in pots the first step is to purchase the right container. Head to your local garden center or nursery and take a look around. Succulents tend to spread, so you’ll want a nursery pot with plenty of space depending on how many you intend to plant. You’ll also want to make sure that your container has a hole in the bottom because a drainage hole will ensure that your succulents are never sitting in too much water. 

Regular potting soil tends to be too heavy and holds too much water for succulents, so you’ll want to get a potting mix specifically made for cacti and succulents. Save the regular soil for vegetable gardening. 

After you’ve filled the pot with soil you can carefully begin planting succulents. Poke a hole in the dirt not too close to the side of the pot and then gently remove the plant from its container and place the roots in the new hole and cover. Repeat with whatever plants you intend to use, but remember that they will spread and need more space eventually. When first planting you can water your succulents lightly. 

Before you water again it’s important to let your plants dry out completely. Healthy succulents do not need or want to be watered too often, and excess water in the soil can easily cause root rot. 

In the spring and summer months, your succulents can live happily outdoors in a sunny spot. For the first few days of the spring, you’ll want to place them in the shade so they can get used to being outside. If you put them directly in full sun they may burn. 

Over the winter months indoor succulents need a lot of sun, so be sure to put them in a West or South-facing window. Succulents need even less water in the winter months. To test if a succulent needs water you can squeeze a leaf; if that leaf is firm you can leave it alone, but if it squishes a bit then it’s time to water.

How to Garden in Containers

Container gardening is a great solution for those of us who may not have a tremendous amount of garden space. Whether you’ve got a small patch of land or just a patio to work with, you can container garden successfully in any number of different barrels, containers, large pots, or even window boxes.  

Growing flowers in containers means you can add color wherever it is needed in your yard without having to dig a permanent bed. Using a container garden to grow vegetables means you can take advantage of that patch of full sun even if it happens to be on your driveway!

Flowers, herbs, and vegetables are happy to grow in containers. It is easier to grow plants in larger containers as they hold more water; this helps plants last through hot summer months. 

Before deciding on your container it’s important to decide what type of plant you want to grow. Consider the size of the plant when mature, how deep the roots will grow, and how quickly the plant will grow. If you plant zucchini in a tiny terra cotta pot, it won’t do well at all. Note that unglazed pots let a lot of water evaporate through the sides, while glazed pots hold in moisture. With the right variety of pots, you can have an entire vegetable garden in containers. 

Plants that grow large need a lot of water, so you’ll want a large pot that will retain moisture. When plants get root-bound (the roots fill the pot) they dry out too quickly. In that case, you’ll need a larger pot. For example, pole beans have a deep plant root system so you’ll need a larger pot than you would with bush beans that have a shallow root system and can be planted in a smaller pot. 

In addition to pot size, location makes a difference. For vegetables, you not only want full sun but if they are trailing plants like pumpkins you need to make sure they have enough room to spread out.

It is important to make sure that your pots have drainage holes. Too much water is just as bad as too little. Drainage holes help excess water to escape. There are certain kinds of potting mix you can get that will help to adjust the water level automatically by holding it and then releasing it to the plants slowly. Using potting soil rather than garden soil is preferred in container gardening as potting soils are formulated for container gardening and will not compact delicate roots. It also doesn’t drain as well. 

Finally, you should feed your container garden plants just as you would a regular garden plant. Fish emulsion is a great (though pungent) choice for organic fertilizer, though there are many other options such as Miracle-Gro available on the market. 

No matter which fertilizer you use, with a little bit of patience, sun, and nurturing, you’re sure to see success and get to enjoy the fruits—or vegetables—of your labor, all summer long.

Summer Lawn Care

Summer is here and your lawn may be looking a little bit crispy or have a few bare patches from higher foot traffic. To maintain a healthy lawn you need to adjust your lawn care depending on the season; so here are some care tips to help you care for your lawn this summer and keep it looking green and healthy. 

Some grass types are naturally brown in the summer. Cool-season grasses such as fescues and bluegrass go dormant in the heat of the summer and will naturally look browner. They will green up on their own once the warm season and summer heat come to an end. 

When it comes to mowing in the summer you’ll want to adjust the mower blade to mow high. A taller grass blade offers more shade to the roots helping to keep them cool in the heat. Taller grass also grows deeper roots, aiding in an overall more healthy lawn. You may want to leave your grass clippings on the lawn to help return nitrogen to the soil as well as helping to retain moisture in the ground. 

Your watering schedule should water deeply once or twice a week rather than shallowly every day. One and a half inches of water per week is an ideal amount. If you’ve got rainy weather adjust your schedule accordingly. The early morning hours are the best time to water your lawn so that the water has time to evaporate during the day to avoid developing fungal diseases. 

Your lawn should be fertilized every 6 weeks during the active season with a slow-release fertilizer, whether or not you also use a weed control or grub control brand. This will help to keep your lawn green all summer long. Do this before the real heat sets in and then after it leaves. If grubs are usually a major issue in your lawn you can apply a separate grub control during midsummer when grubs typically emerge. You should only do this if you have severe lawn damage. You want to add as little to the lawn as possible to keep it in good condition. Too much fertilizer or insecticide can harm your lawn, so be sparing in all applications. 

Finally, before it’s very hot out (as well as in the fall), you can take the opportunity to overseed your lawn with grass seed. Try using a warm-season grass that tolerates heat better when overseeding. This will help your lawn to grow thicker and fill in any bare spots that may have developed over time either from traffic or pets.