Getout and grow

Published on Thu, Apr 5, 2007 by Jack Kintner

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Get out and grow

By Jack Kintner

Spring is trying hard to “spring,” despite the cold nights and heavy rains this month, and as the early blooming rhododendrons and bulbs join the cherry trees in adding some color to our drab winter landscape it’s time to start thinking about your own gardening chores.

This week we asked Nancy Bartholomew, a master gardener who worked as a landscaper on Orcas Island for many years before moving to Blaine, for her advice about what to do at the end of March

“It all starts with the soil. Healthy soil means that you need less periodic applications of chemical remedies for things like crab grass, dandelions and crane flies,” she said. “Plus, you can take a variety of soils and improve them with organic matter, something that’s easy to get around here.

Bartholomew advocates a natural approach to gardening, beginning with lawns.

She said she feels that the fertilizer companies have “sold us a bill of goods,” using an inordinate amount of chemical herbicides and insecticides to create a kind and color of lawn that normally wouldn’t be found in this area.

“It’s a personal choice, of course, and that’s how some people like to go, using Scott’s four-step process for example, but everything you put on your lawn gets washed into streams and flows into the harbor or the bay.

“That stuff doesn’t go away, it just moves. So make sure you follow the directions and do not over-apply,” she said, adding that a good slow-release fertilizer is better because it feeds the plant at a rate it can absorb.
Instead of chemically laced fertilizers, she said that you can control things like dandelions and crab grass by making sure your lawn is healthy in the first place.

“Top dress it in the spring with a half inch of manure or compost, such as that available from Smit’s on the Guide, and overseed if you have bare spots. The rain will water it in. We have such sandy soil that you need to help lawns, especially new ones, to make humus for their roots to be healthy.”She said the biggest problem she sees in lawns are that they’re over-fertilized, something that leads to thick mats of dead matter between the blades of grass and the soil.

If it’s a kind of impenetrable mat then the grass won’t get water and should be de-thatched. The clippings should be picked up and can be composted for your vegetable garden unless you’ve used weed and feed or a similar product.

Lawns can then be aerated with a little plug-cutter, and the little cores can be left on the lawn. For watering she said that an inch per week is all that’s necessary, and to see how long this takes set out a few tuna fish cans when watering and see how long it takes your sprinkler to fill them.
“Water once a week deeply, not every day as that can lead to shallow roots,” she said, “but mow often, cutting no more than a third to a half of the blades of grass.”

“Everything is interconnected,” she said, “and it all starts with the health of the soil. A good indicator of a healthy soil is earthworms. They ingest organic matter and mix it with the soil through worm castings, and that really helps a lot.”

For other areas of your yard, it’s a good time to move and divide perennials and finish cutting things back, “although your early bloomers, like rhodies and so on, should be allowed to bloom first and then be trimmed back to new growth.”

Though pruning can actually be done anytime, she said, there are exceptions, like Maples that should be pruned in early summer.
For ornamental shrubs, prune after they’ve bloomed and before they’ve set their buds for the next year.

For weather damaged trees and shrubs, Bartholomoew said that you should prune and shape as best you can, cutting branches off to the branch collar, the small area of bulging bark at the base of the limb, not flush, so it can heal itself. “And pruning paint is not advised, because it can seal in water that will then cause rot,” she said.

For more information on pruning, she said to check the Sunset Garden Book or books by a gardner named Christopher Brickell.

“The Sunset book is nice to have because it can tell you about your plants,what they like and don’t like, how to keep them healthy and disease-free.”

Other things to do in the spring: divide perennials like strawberries, prune roses, sow seeds of flowers and set out most vegetables, potatoes and onion sets, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, spinach, chard, peas, lettuce and greens, garlic and herbs.

Warm weather vegetables, like beans, corn, squash and tomatoes should wait for mid-May when the weather settles down to consistent warmth, because they like warmer soil, she said, and if stressed to much it can slow the plant down and produce diseases.