Henry Homeyer: Spring cleaning for garden prep

By Henry Homeyer
©2018 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The snow is gone, and I am ready for gardening. And although I have been able to do a few things in the garden, the soil is wet and easily compacted, so I can’t do much until it dries out.

Many of my flower beds are six feet or more deep (from front to back).  This means I can’t stand on the lawn and reach to the back to remove leaves or sticks. I don’t want to walk into the beds and risk compacting the soil. Plants get their oxygen through their roots, and compacted soil has little space for air. The solution? I place a plank on the soil and walk on that. It spreads out my weight.

A plank can be used to distribute your weight on wet soil and minimize compaction.

I generally advise gardeners to wait until the lawn gets green before raking out the sand and dirt that was dumped by the snowplows. I say this because dormant grass is easily pulled up by vigorous raking. But this year I had a lot of sand, and I feared the mess would choke out large sections of lawn near the road. So I used a plastic rake, and raked gently, and I was able to clean up with very little damage to the lawn.

Other chores? If you have decorative grasses in your perennial border, it is important to cut back last year’s stems now, before new growth occurs. I don’t cut back decorative grasses in the fall: I like to see them standing up in the snow, waving in the winter wind.

I have a big clump of tall maiden grass, Miscanthus sinensis, a variety called ‘Morning Light.’ Last year it had started growing before I got around to cutting it back, and there was no way to remove the bottom 8 inches of dead grass, which was unsightly. This year I cut it back low to the ground early and won’t have that problem. Hand pruners work best for cutting back the stems.

The moles and voles always make a mess of the lawn, digging up soil and leaving lumps and squiggles of soil they displaced in winter. I’ve been cleaning that up now, too. I have an aluminum grain scoop/shovel that is 14 inches across and very lightweight. I use a short-tined rock rake to dislodge the lumps and get them onto my shovel. I consider this soil a gift from the rodents. It is good soil that I use to fill holes and top-up raised beds that need some added topsoil.

Insert the soil thermometer to the depth of planting.

Although I know people have already started their peas and spinach, my soil is awfully cold for them. Yes, you can plant the seeds when the soil is 50 degrees F, but waiting until it is 60 degrees makes sense to me. Seeds germinate much more quickly in warmer soil, so there is less chance of the seeds rotting.

A soil thermometer is not an expensive item and will last a lifetime. I have a few, and they all have dials like old-fashioned oven thermometers. The sensor is right on the tip. Keep that in mind when checking soil temperatures. If you push the tip down 6 inches, the soil will be cold at this time of year – but you are not planting seeds that deep. Instead measure the soil temperature an inch down, which means holding the thermometer upright for a couple of minutes while it adjusts. Otherwise it will fall over – hence the impulse to push it down deep.

Near the end of April, I moved my cold frame out of the barn and into the garden. This is a cedar box with polycarbonate lids that allow sunshine into the box, and hold heat in. The polycarbonate helps diffuse the light, reducing chances of cooking the plants. The lids are on a slant, and open on hinges.

After a couple of sunny days the soil inside the box had warmed up, and I planted seeds of lettuce, kale and carrots inside. Once they sprout, I’ll lift the lids a little each sunny day to allow air circulation and to moderate temperatures. The box itself is 8 feet long and 2 feet across. I got mine from Gardeners Supply.

Cut back ornamental grasses in early spring, if you have left them in the winter landscape.

Meanwhile, indoors, I have five flats of seedlings growing under lights. These require daily attention, though not much. I water, and I pluck out or snip off extra seedlings that grow. I want just one tomato plant per cell, for example, though I always plant two per cell just to be sure that I get one to grow. It’s hard to kill a cute little tomato plant, but I know that the survivor will do better if it’s not competing for water and nutrients.

Other early plants I have started include lettuce, kale, purple cauliflower, three kinds of flowers and Happy Rich. Happy Rich is a non-heading broccoli I get from Johnny’s Seeds. It produces the equivalent of side shoots on regular broccoli, but it is quicker to produce, and keeps on cranking out its green blossoms well into the fall. The part we eat is really the buds of its flowers. I have never seen Happy Rich seedlings for sale in a nursery, so I start my own each year.

Another recent chore involved taking the straw mulch off my strawberry plants. Once the plants and the new plants started by runners are awake and growing, I’ll cut any runners connected to the mother plant.

There will still be frosty nights here, and raw rainy days. But I know the worst is over, and summer is just around the corner.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeHenry Homeyer's Notes from the Garden

About the Author: Henry Homeyer is a lifetime organic gardener living in Cornish Flat, N.H. He is the author of four gardening books including The Vermont Gardener's Companion. You may reach him by e-mail at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or by snail mail at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, N.H. 03746. Please include a SASE if you wish an answer to a question by mail.

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