Spring is a dress rehearsal for summer.
Spring brings with it changeable, often unpleasant, gardening weather. The beginning of spring still finds us in our winter mode.
In about as much time as it takes to turn the calendar page, May arrives and, along with it, much higher temperatures. We unofficially enter summer mode.
Summer is truly here on June 21, but by then we are already feeling the heat — and often even drought — before we celebrate the day with homemade ice cream and a bowl of peaches.
Spring into summer is a delightful time. We have so much to anticipate: homegrown tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, blueberries and baskets of Chilton County peaches.
The time to deal with summer is spring.
Many gardeners use the few spring days before summer hits full force as a time to make plant selections as well as prepare their gardens for what lies ahead. Since we are never really sure what is around the corner weather-wise, my theory is prepare for what the past has brought (heat, drought or gully washers).
Much ado about mulch
If your garden has not had a layer of fresh mulch since last year, time’s a wastin’. Mulch is the garden’s friend. It keeps down weeds, conserves moisture, keeps soil from crusting, protects the plants from the weed eaters, adds organic matter to the soil and is just plain pretty. I have been asked if there is such a thing as too much mulch. Indeed, yes. Mulch should be about a couple of inches in depth. Mulch should never be piled up again up against a trunk or a stem; that will cause decay and damage by pests and also rob the soil of nutrients. When you mulch, think doughnut, not volcano shape.
When to prune
If a nice day in early April inspires you to get out with your pruners, stop and think. When does the object of your attention actually bloom? We can do lots of damage pruning at the wrong time.
Follow the “May Rule” when pruning: If a plant blooms before May, prune it after it flowers, as the plant blooms on old wood (no later than July 5). Do not prune azaleas or forsythias in March or all the blooms will be cut off.
If the plant blooms after May, prune it before new growth begins in the spring; it blooms on “new” wood.
Of course there are always exceptions to every rule (just ask your children). French or mop head and oakleaf hydrangeas bloom on old wood; they should be pruned after they bloom (by mid-July). Paniculata (‘Limelight’) and smooth hydrangeas (‘Annabelle’) bloom on new wood; they should be pruned in late winter before new growth begins.
Inspect gardening equipment
The days before heavy use begins should be used to inspect gardening equipment.
A lawnmower needs sharp blades to cut the grass neatly without shredding the leaves. While you are checking your lawnmower, make sure the blades are set at the proper place to cut your type of grass. There are many publications on Alabama Extension System website (ACES.edu) on how high to mow bermuda, centipede, zoysia, etc. Cutting grass at the right height is an imperative to its health.
Keep your cutting tools in excellent condition. Sharp edges encourage an easier cut with less strain on the gardener and less damage to a plant.
Make a watering plan
Although we have had lots of rain this winter, finally ending the drought, the time is going to come when we will start watering routinely.
Check hoses for holes and kinks. There are small gadgets for sale at the hardware store to repair broken hoses.
Invest in a good hose nozzle. They really do a better job and last longer than the cheap ones.
Plan on watering wisely this summer as water is becoming a precious commodity. Confine plants requiring lots of water to focal points. Teach your plants to be less water-needy by watering deeply and less often. Check your results by sticking your finger in the soil to check for moisture.
The best time to water is between 4 a.m. and 9 a.m. What, you wonder? Watering early gives the moisture time to evaporate off the leaves before nightfall, preventing fungus or disease. Watering during the heat of the day is unwise as the water can evaporate before it hits the soil.
Watering plants with drip irrigation is touted as the most efficient, as the water goes right to the roots and does not wet the foliage. Unfortunately, not every flowerbed or yard is suitable for drip irrigation. Drip, however, is an ideal way to water vegetable gardens.
The biggest water users are lawns, and it is important to know the lawn is getting the right amount of water. Set empty tuna cans or other flat cans around the lawn and measure the amount of water. Most lawns require an inch a week. Any more can be wasteful. A brand new lawn will require gallons of water on a daily basis.
‘Drought proof’ plants
Many gardeners are investing in “drought proof” plants. “Drought proof,” however, does not mean “no water.” These plants still need ample moisture until they have settled in — at least two years. Since planting conditions may vary, some plants (especially those on the south side of the house) may need additional water.
Plan for a vegetable garden
For those who want to get the first tomato in the neighborhood in the ground and relish their summer gardens, some crops should not be planted until after the last frost. Planting more than once over the summer encourages the garden to keep producing.
As you select your vegetable plants, search out the varieties with virus and disease protection. That information is available on the label. For information on having a prolific vegetable garden, ACES.edu is an outstanding source of information.
Late spring tends to be the most popular time for plant swaps and sales. A word of caution: Know what you are bringing home. Some plants are actually “plant spam”; they come and unfortunately never leave.
In late spring (May and June), the garden centers are stocked with amazing annuals, perennials and shrubs. Looking at those beautiful specimens is so tempting. We tend to over buy, often not having a clue as to what we will do with the latest haul.
For the sake of a plant’s health (and your sanity), have a plan in mind where all these plants will go. Without some prior thought, plants often go into a place that is not suitable for them.
Please remember to plant all the sun plants together in the sun, shade plants all together in the shade, all the water hogs together (and in a spot close to the water source) and separate from the drought-tolerant plants. These decisions will help the plants thrive, especially during the heat of summer.
Last but not least
Get a soil test! No matter what the season, a soil test is essential for a healthy garden. If you have not had one in two or three years, it’s time to get a new one.