We've had a relatively mild winter here in PA. The weather teases us with warm days followed by temperatures dipping back down into the teens at night. The warm weather gives me Spring Fever - I just can't wait to get out and plant. But the returning cold makes me grumpy and I want to go back to hibernating under a warm quilt. It's been quite a temperature roller coaster of late, but hey, welcome to Pennsylvania.
Sadly, it's not quite time to start planting yet and I know that it is still a bit too early to remove the leaves in beds that beneficial insects are using for winter cover.
I see lots of folks in my gardening groups starting seeds. While I do love the idea, I've never gotten around to setting things up.
We moved from our house into an apartment last year so any idea of doing that is on the back burner for now.
We are so fortunate that in our area we have so many Amish and Mennonite greenhouses. I can get the plants I need and want there and support their local businesses. One of my favorite pastimes is taking a tour of my favorite greenhouses and exploring what they have to offer.
So what will I be doing? Here is my list of 5 things you can do now to get a jump on your spring gardening.
1. Take a Test (A Soil Test - That Is)
One of the most important things you can do to help your plants grow big and strong is provide the right food for them in the form of nutrients in the soil. And the best way to determine that is to have your soil tested. Yes, even if you are composter, checking your soil is a good idea.
While this may sound hard, it's very easy. Most states have a land grant university and that university usually sponsors a cooperative extension office in each county. Here in PA our university is Penn State and we have a Penn State Cooperative Extension office in most counties. These folks run educational programs as well as provide support to local farmers, nurseries, etc. They are one of the best places to pick up a soil test kit. You pay for the test when you pick up the kit, follow the directions to collect a soil sample and then send the kit off in the mail. In a few weeks the results will come back. The test looks for levels of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium as well as pH and the results will let you know how much of each you should add to your soil.
For do-it-yourselfers (and people like me who want instant results), there are test kits available in nurseries and on-line. Here is a link to one that is available on Amazon:
Read the packaging carefully before you buy. Some of the kits only test for pH. You want the ones that test for Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium.
I've used these kits at my home and plan to use one at our office because I want to do some planting there this year. They're not hard to use and I find them fun. But, I also love chemistry and fooling around with things like that. If you don't, talk to your local cooperative extension or contact them on-line (some of them will send you the kit in the mail if you don't live close to an office.)
By making sure that you have the right nutrients in your soil before you plant, your plants will have a better chance of thriving this gardening season!
2. Follow the Sun
Another extremely important thing for success in growing plants is the right amount of sunlight. Too much and some plants dry up in the heat; too little and you can have spindly plants struggling to survive.
So now is a great time to determine how much sunlight different parts of your yard receive throughout the day. Here are some guidelines to match what growers use on plant tags:
Full Sun: More than 6 hours of sun/day
Part Sun: 4-6 hours of sun /day
Part Shade: 2-4 hours of sun/day
Shade: Less than 2 hours of sun/day
3. Take Stock
On a warmer day, spend some time in your garage or garden shed getting organized. Here's a list of things you can do:
- Take stock of the tools, pots, and other garden items that you have.
- Repair or discard anything that's broken.
- Make a list of any tools that you need to replace or new tools that you've been wanting.
- Check hose ends for damage. Damage here means that you may not have a tight seal at the spigot or when connecting your hose nozzle or watering wand.
- Replace the washers in hose ends and in nozzles as needed. These do wear out and again will cause leaks if they don't make a tight seal.
- Make sure shovels and pruners are clean and sharp.
- Organize pots for container gardens. Clean any pots that were not cleaned at the end of the previous season with warm soapy water.
- Organize potting soil grow mix, fertilizers and soil nutrients. Make note of anything that needs to be replaced. If you have received the results of your soil test, check to be sure you have the right amounts of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium to add to your beds based on the results.
- Go Shopping! Visit your local greenhouses and garden centers to stock up on what you need.
4. Create a Pruning Schedule
Again on a warmer day, take a walk around your yard and look at your existing shrubs. Make sure that you know what varieties you have and note if any need pruning.
Most shrubs can benefit from regular pruning to reduce size and thin out weak branches. It's important to prune at the right time of year. At my old house, I had 3 crape myrtles which would grow to almost 2 stories high by the end of summer. They require pruning in early spring while I waited to prune my rhododendrons until after they bloomed. One size does not fit all. Now is a great time to take stock of what you have and spend a few hours on your computer to find out the best time to prune. Then set up a list or note on your calendar so that you can do it yourself throughout the year or have a professional do it for you.
5. Decide on How Much Time You Want To Spend Maintaining Your Garden
Now is a good time to really think about how much time you want to spend maintaining your garden this year. Plant Buying Fever hits me every year. I can't resist buying new and interesting plants when I start visiting greenhouses in the spring. I love planting lots of containers and creating beautiful combinations only to find myself complaining when I have to water them all in July.
Deciding on how much time you will have and how much time you want to spend maintaining your garden is especially important if you have lots of summer vacation plans or are very busy with other hobbies. ( I love to horseback ride, bike ride and kayak in the summer).
If your time is limited, does that mean you can't have a beautiful yard and garden? Absolutely not! It just means being realistic about how much you want to maintain and planning out your plantings with low maintenance plants.
When I bought my previous home, there we lots of beds on the property and I had lots of time to garden. Life changed and so we ended up returning some of the beds to grass where it made sense. Being realistic about what you want and have time for and planning in advance can help to curb your 'Plant Buying Fever' when you go out to buy.
I hope I've given you a few things to do until it's warm enough to clean out beds and start planting. Don't worry - that time will be here soon enough.
Do you have a suggestion of things to do in the garden now while waiting for cold weather to pass? Please comment below - I'd love to hear your ideas.