Spring is nearly here. After the last few dreary, dry months, the longer days and sunshine of March are a welcome change. It’s finally time to air out the house and prepare outdoor spaces.
To kick off the gardening season, step outdoors and assess your lawn and garden areas. After you’ve identified any major changes or additions you’d like to make, it’s time to make way for new growth.
The following five tips are from area garden experts, Sedgwick County Extension Horticulture Agents Rebecca McMahon and Bob Neier, and Nursery Owners, Jim Denning of Denning’s Greenhouse and Garden Center and Jeremy Johnson of Johnson’s Garden Centers.
According to McMahon, March is a prime month to remove dead or unruly branches on trees and shrubs and cut back ornamental grasses. “It’s time to remove any dead plant material and do general clean up.”
For shrubs like lilacs and forsythia that grow in canes from the ground, Denning suggests cutting a third of the shoots to the soil, removing the thickest canes. “Every year you’ll get a fresh-looking plant,” he says.
Although summer-flowering shrubs should be pruned in early spring, you should avoid pruning spring-flowering shrubs until after they’ve flowered to avoid cutting buds.
Apply organic matter
“The key is to work on the soil,” Johnson maintains. “The healthier the soil, the better the garden is going to be.”
Enhance your soil by adding compost material, which can be either homemade or bought commercially. Chopping up dead plant material removed during clean up, including roots and material from planters, and working it back into the soil is a great way to recycle the waste you clear from your garden.
For general nutrition, Johnson recommends a combination of cotton boll compost, Gardener’s Special and bone meal. For a more targeted approach, soil can be tested with a home kit available at nursery and garden centers or assessed by Kansas State University through the Sedgwick County Extension Office. For a small fee, Kansas State University will test soil samples and note any deficiencies or imbalances in composition.
“Sometimes you may find that you don’t need to do anything at all, or you may find you no longer need certain nutrients, for example phosphorus, so you could buy a fertilizer without it that’s cheaper,” Neier points out.
Although spring also is an ideal time to fertilize before temperatures heat up, Neier cautions people to watch moisture content.
“I encourage people to fertilize as little as possible in drought,” he says, noting the extreme conditions of the last couple years. “The more you fertilize, the more you have to water.”
If it is necessary to fertilize, Neier suggests using slow-release fertilizers, which don’t require quite as much water.
to start planting cool-season vegetables.
Although it is not yet known how much moisture we’ll get over the coming months, the lessons of last summer loom large. Unless we experience significant rainfall this spring, Neier says it is important to compensate for a lack of rainfall. He explains that yards, gardens and especially trees and shrubs should be thoroughly soaked every five days to a week to rebuild subsoil moisture.
“Give it a good soaking – an inch if you can – and then don’t water again until things are almost wilting,” he says, urging gardeners not to overwater. “That will help establish deep roots.” As a general rule of thumb, both McMahon and Neier urge people to be water conscious, watering as little as possible, yet applying enough water to protect plants, shrubs and trees from the effects of drought.
Since efficient water delivery is an important aspect to maintaining Kansas gardens, McMahon adds that irrigation systems should be assessed and, if necessary, upgraded to maximize water use.
“Have someone check out the watering system for lawns and make sure that drip systems for landscapes and vegetables are in working order,” she says.
Another way to combat the effects of drought is to help your garden retain as much water as possible.
“Mulching is one of the best ways to conserve water,” McMahon relates. “In an ornamental bed, wood chips or finished compost that looks clean and attractive, or a wheat straw mulch or compost in a vegetable bed will help keep the soil moist and cool and slow down evaporation.”
In addition to helping keep moisture where it is most needed, mulch will help combat weed growth.
Even though there still may be a little chill in the air, Denning says it’s time to start planting cool-season vegetables, including peas, potatoes, onions and radishes, as well as cole crops like cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and broccoli. He adds that the cooler weather in spring also is ideal for planting fruit trees, roses, rhododendrons and azaleas, along with ornamentals like pansies.
It’s also time to make plans for the warmer weather to come, picking drought-tolerant varieties to plant in the next month or two that will withstand the rigors of a Midwestern summer. The extension office and most nurseries have a list of water- wise plants that thrive in our region. Popular, heat-loving, options are crepe myrtle, butterfly bush, spirea and viburnum. Another option is to incorporate ornamental grasses into your landscape.
“A hot trend, nationally, is planting ornamental grasses,” Neier relates, explaining that the trend copies the natural look found in the Flint Hills. “When you talk about ornamental grasses a lot of people just think about the pampas grass of the 1960s, and that is still an option, but there are so many more varieties out there to use in lieu of shrubs.”
Neier urges area gardeners to embrace the natural landscaping aesthetic currently trending across the country, explaining, “Long term, considering where we are in our climate, what will grow best depends on what is most natural to the area.”