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Spring is in the air: Chelsea Garden Club helps you prepare your garden

By Charlene Harris

The early harbingers of spring, Eranthis (Winter Aconite) and Hellebores (Christmas or Lenten Rose) bloomed in March.  Soon the Daffodils and Siberian Squill ‘Spring Beauty’ (Scilla sibirica) will color our hillside with drifts of yellows and bright azure blue. These plants are tolerant of cold snaps and late freeze, and are not bothered by deer, rabbits, chipmunks or other critters.

Our yard cleanup begins in mid-February and continues through April. We start by walking around the house and working our way through garden beds picking up sticks and twigs and noting trees, shrubs and vines that need pruning. Pruning includes removing crossover branches growing in the wrong direction, opening up the center of shrubs, and removing sucker branches (those growing straight up from other branches).  Some trees including birch and maple are best pruned in late fall or winter to avoid bleeding. Others like oak are recommended to prune after the beginning of November to avoid attracting insects that spread disease.

Raking and blowing the remaining leaves is next. Some go into the compost pile to be used later for soil amending (mixing into the soil) while others are blown into our woodland where they act as natural mulch, decomposing more slowly.

Last year’s composted leaves and garden debris are ready to spread in flowerbeds or to use in the vegetable garden, where they will add nutrients to the soil.  We avoid using fresh walnut leaves in garden beds. Juglone toxins in walnut leaves inhibit plant growth. The toxins break down in a few weeks if the leaves are exposed to the weather (air, water and bacteria), but toxins in soil can last for months. Tomatoes, rhododendron, azalea and roses are a few of the more common plants that are stunted or killed by walnut juglone.

Leaves collected from roadsides where oils or calcium chloride have been used should be avoided, since both are toxic to plants.

As the grass greens, the weeds grow.  I enjoy weeding, but I’m not neurotic about it. It’s a mindless relaxing task that gives me great satisfaction once done, again and again, all summer long. It’s particularly satisfying when I find a large root from last year that now pulls easily from the soft spring soil.

Like most garden practices, composting can be done in various ways. When we lived in the city, we had a fenced four-foot by eight-foot compost enclosure.  We chopped our garden debris and turned it twice a season spring and fall. On frosty mornings you could see heat rising from the decaying mass. It produced rich black humus quickly.

Now, 20 years later we live on a lake.  We’ve adapted to the slow easy method of simply piling all the garden debris in a new heap each spring where it will get plenty of sun, air circulation and rainwater. Occasionally during the dry summer season I water the pile. We stopped turning the pile several years ago when we discovered a clutch of turtle eggs in it. Obviously it is warm enough to provide a haven for turtle eggs to mature and hatch, and still decomposes fast enough to meet our needs.

Once the major yard cleanup and pruning is finished, I focus on the garden beds: removing last year’s plant debris, loosening up old mulch that is compacted and early fertilizing.

Years ago I started leaving my hosta, ground covers and large leaf plants to simply melt in place, allowing the leaves to protect the crown of the plant over winter. I find it easier and quicker to remove plant foliage in spring once our temperatures remain above freezing. And it is already partially decomposed.

I begin to renew and rework the flower garden beds in April as weather permits. I find it efficient to combine removing dead plant foliage with fertilizing and refreshing the mulch. After raking back the mulch I scratch up the soil lightly, add a dusting of my organic fertilizer mix or a side dressing of compost, and rake the old mulch back into place.

We started using organic fertilizers and amendments for our vegetable garden 30 years ago. These products add to the fertility of the soil. They degrade slowly over five to ten years releasing a steady supply of nutrients, compared to water-soluble chemicals that are washed through the root zone of the plant and need annual or more frequent applications.

We use rock phosphate, granite dust and green sand for phosphorus, potassium and many of the micronutrients.  For nitrogen, cottonseed meal is our standby. We apply it annually from April to early May to the lawn. Trees and shrubs whose roots extend into the top layer of the grass roots benefit as well.

Late April to early May after the soil has warmed up I add two-to-four inches of new mulch where needed. It should be kept back from tree trunks, woody stems or plant crowns.

Along the way I often find “extra” plants. Some have multiplied and are growing out of bounds; others need to go so I can make changes to my garden.  I find it easier to remove plants in spring, before they emerge and tempt me to keep them “just one more year”.  The CAGC plant sale provides a great opportunity for us to share our extra plants.

The Chelsea Area Garden Club writes “Local Dirt”, a  monthly gardening column in the Chelsea Standard. Click here to see published article.