Yep, there’s more light in the sky, which is telling your body to produce more of the happiness hormone serotonin, and cut back on the sleepy, do-nothing hormone, melatonin.
The result: spring fever – the irresistible urge to run and jump and get outdoors and get busy.
For gardeners, spring fever is a wonderful thing. It fuels motivation. It means new energy and enthusiasm for digging and planting.
If July and August are the months to sit and snooze in the shade of an apple tree and lazily sip lemonade, March and April are the months to do precisely the opposite.
For gardeners, spring is work time. It’s time to get trees and shrubs planted, walls and fences built, patios and arbours installed.
Here on the wet coast, we need to make hay while the sun shines. This is not the time (nor the climate zone) for procrastination.
Don’t put off until tomorrow what clear skies permit you to do today. Ignore those golden days of opportunity and you could end up missing the boat completely.
After all, there’s a reason many coastal gardeners have the words carpe diem (seize the day) written in stone in their gardens.
In March, green thumbs traditionally tidy up the perennial borders, spread mulch, repair walls, fix fences, erect new structures (arches, arbours, patios), pull weeds, place support-rings around peonies and stake floppy perennials.
But mostly we concentrate on planting, planting, planting – everything that’s not prone to cold (in other words “hardy”) from trees, shrubs and perennials to half-hardy annuals, lilies and chill-tolerant vegetable seeds.
Having said all that, here’s a word of caution: In the hustle and bustle and excitement of the season, don’t get carried away and make mistakes you’ll regret later.
Some things are best done later, when the ground has had time to dry out and warm up.
Some things are best left until the air is warm, especially when it’s not so nippy at night.
And some things are best not done at all.
Let’s look at some of the most common spring fever gardening errors and how to avoid them.
• Jumping the gun and planting annuals too soon. Why do we do this? Well, it’s not entirely our fault. We’re encouraged to do it by supermarkets and stores that want to be the first to sell us bedding plants.
You’ll see all sorts of beautiful annuals (pelargoniums, snapdragons, marigolds, zinnias, impatiens, you name it) for sale, mostly at supermarkets, corner stores and even some garden centres. This also applies to popular cold-sensitive herbs and vegetables, such as basil, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.
These stores know it’s too early to sell you these plants; they just don’t care. I think they try to rationalize it by arguing that customers can take the plants home and keep them under protective cover for a month. Yeah, right, that’s gonna happen.
What does happen, however, is that plants do get planted and end up languishing in the cold, damp soil, doing nothing, going nowhere. If you’re lucky, they will survive and eventually recover enough to bounce back and bloom and thrive, but more often than not, they shrivel and die. It’s a waste of time and money.
The answer: Resist. Put your time into other gardening projects and wait until May to put in your summer colour plants.
• Don’t be fooled by flowers. Many of the flowering plants you see at garden centres and elsewhere in early spring have just come out of large, heated commercial greenhouses.
It’s necessary to get them into flower in order for garden centres to sell them. Flowers, after all, are what consumers are looking for.
The problem is when they get shipped from the greenhouses, the plants are often well ahead of their normal flowering time.
Once planted in your garden, they will slowly return to their natural time-cycle. Which means next year that shrub or perennial you thought flowered in March or April won’t start blooming until May or later. The point is, if flowering time is important to you, and partly what you are basing your decision to buy, you need to check what its natural blooming habit is to avoid disappointment in the future.
• Do you ever get the feeling something is holding your plant back? It’s worth asking if plants have been fed growth retardant. This technique is something growers often use to keep plants short and compact so they look good for longer on the shelves.
However, what happens is that consumers wonder why the plants fail to grow and expand and appear to be locked into the same shape and size for weeks after planting. It’s because the plants have been excessively drenched with growth retardant. This is mostly a problem you see with summer annuals to prevent them getting leggy and unattractive as they sit on the store shelf.
• Don’t choose plants simply by the colour and beauty of their flowers. Flowers are exquisite, no question, and a beautiful flower can deliver all the satisfaction we are looking for, agreed. But, it’s wise to look at other factors. For instance, once the flowers have faded, what are you left with? Is the foliage beautiful? Is the shape of the plant attractive? Does the plant produce something more — berries or seed pods or a change in leaf colour or texture that adds an extra dimension of interest? Always try to pick plants that give you more bang for your buck.
• Choose the right plants for the right spot. Yes, you’ve heard this before; it is probably the most important rule of gardening, but it is still the biggest mistake people make. Before going shopping for plants, first look at your garden space and make note of the conditions — sun, shade, wet, dry. Then head to the garden centre with the characteristics of those spaces in mind.
It is quite common for people to fall in love with the first flower they see when they walk into the garden centre and to bring the plant home and put it in the place where they can see it best. Which has nothing to do with whether the plant likes being in full sun or deep shade or in soil that becomes parched in summer or a quagmire when it rains. Follow the rule of right-plant-right-place and you will save money.
• Don’t over-crowd your garden. It’s hard to resist doing this because we all love to see a lush, full border, but in reality, plants grow, often as much sideways as they do vertically. It’s important to pay attention to how much a plant is going to grow horizontally as it ultimately saves you from having to deal with all sorts of disease and pest problems caused by overcrowding and poor air circulation. Planting in drifts is a good technique, but it is a mistake to over-plant and crowd things together. If you must plant six small plants side by side to give the impression of fullness, always be ready to edit or lift or move one or two when they start to crush one another.
• Get your new roses off to a good start. It is a common error to dig out an old rose and plant a new one in the same soil. This won’t work. For whatever reason, roses make their soil their own and turn it toxic for other roses. If you’ve decided to replace a rose, you also need to replace the soil, digging out all the old soil. If you don’t do this your new rose won’t necessarily wither and die, but it will look sick and sluggish and could fail to bloom properly. Some experts even recommend that we grow annuals before replanting a rose in a spot where a rose has grown for some years to allow the soil to rest and recover. It’s simpler to refill the hole with fresh, nutrient-rich soil.
• Remove burlap when planting a tree. This is a bit of a ticklish issue because it all depends on what kind of burlap has been used to wrap the root-ball. Some burlap decays quickly and allows roots to access the soil while older forms of treated burlap were made to resist rotting and can become a problem for a tree that is trying to establish itself. You should ask when buying a tree if the burlap is treated or untreated. I prefer to cut away the burlap, removing as much of it as possible, when planting.
• Peonies like it shallow. It’s one of gardening’s most asked questions: Why don’t my peonies bloom properly? The answer, in a lot of cases, is that they were planted too deep. Peonies prefer to be planted with their “eyes” (where the red shoots emerge) only a couple of inches below the surface. Burying them too deep can affect blooming, resulting in fewer and less spectacular flowers. You can avoid this mistake by planting your new peony at the same level as it was in the container.
• Don’t plant and run away. Your responsibility to a plant doesn’t end when you have put it into the ground. Most plants need to be nurtured a little after planting, meaning that you need to make sure they are watered properly and regularly, and perhaps fed with some root-stimulating transplant solution such as 5-15-5 after planting to ease the shock of being plonked into the ground after being in a protected pot in a greenhouse. You also need to watch out that creatures don’t come along and nibble or sit on or stomp on it while it is trying to grow.
• Don’t rush planting. You spent a fair amount of time (and money) buying your plants, so why not take at least as much time planting them properly. Don’t rush it. You need to dig deeply and prepare each planting hole carefully. For a tree or shrub, you need a spot at least 45 cm (18 inches) deep and wide. It is always worth adding some gravel or sand at the bottom of every planting hole for drainage, especially in coastal B.C. gardens where waterlogging can rot roots.
• Watch out for root-bound plants. These have been left in a pot so long that the roots have started to twirl around and around and even push out the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot. The problem is new root-growth is impaired and the plant also starts to have a problem accessing nutrients and even taking up water.
If the roots cannot be pulled open, the answer is to cut into the dense mat of circling roots, snipping from the bottom to open up the root-ball.
In some cases, it may be necessary to cut away a thin slice off the whole matted bottom of a root-ball. It is better for the plant to have a good start in the ground with a vigorous open root system than one that is choked and contorted.
• Forget fighting moss. It’s a mistake to keep applying chemicals to kill moss in your lawn. Give it up. You need to change the conditions that cause the moss to thrive, usually too much shade, poor drainage and excessively acidic soil.
Garden centres don’t say too much about this because frankly they make a lot of money from selling moss killer, but using moss killer year after year is a poor environmental practice.
Either learn to love moss, or aerate your lawn, lime liberally to reduce acidity and cut away a few tree branches to let in more sunshine. Or, consider changing your strategy entirely and grow rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, kalmias and shade-loving perennials like hostas and bleeding hearts.
• Don’t reseed your lawn too early. If you sprinkle grass seed too early it will sit on the cold ground and refuse to germinate. If it rains and puddles form, the seed will rot. Even cool-season grass seed, such as perennial rye, needs a minimum temperature of 7 to 12 C (45-55 F) to germinate properly.
Cool night temperatures are the biggest drawback. While you are waiting for warmer days, you can work on aerating your lawn — the best thing you can do for it is to let it breathe better. Rake a little sand into the holes and you’re all set for over-seeding which is best done in April.
• Sow vegetable seeds sparingly. Even top seed suppliers tell people not to go overboard when it comes to sowing vegetable seeds. It’s a waste to sow every seed in the packet. That was done in the past when a germination rate of 50 per cent was considered acceptable. That’s no longer the case. Seed gathering and packaging have improved over the years and germination rates have also improved. Better to sow half a packet and save the other half for a second sowing later on or next year. When do you sow vegetable seed? Keep an eye on night temperatures. When they’re consistently above 10 C and when you can squeeze a handful of soil without water running out is the perfect time to sow seed.
• Don’t go postal when you see an aphid or a slug. The only way you are going to have ladybugs in your garden is if there is enough food for them. Having a few aphids is a good thing. It’s a waste of time and money to release swarms of ladybugs into your garden with the idea that they are going to prevent aphids. The ladybugs will fly away to a garden where there are delicious colonies of aphids on which to feed.
If aphids become a problem and you can’t wait for ladybugs to solve it, take a hose and spray the aphids with a hard jet of water. Once on the ground, they can’t climb back. As for slugs, every garden has a few; they are a problem when their population gets out of control. Same with ants. Practice population control rather than trying to eliminate them completely. We can all live with a few nibbled ligularlia or hosta leaves.
by Steve Whysall photograph by Darren Stone
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