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Chores done in April will pay off later
As the days lengthen, temperatures rise and spring advances, the garden beckons. Bulbs, wildflowers and spring-flowering shrubs and trees are blooming and enchant us with color and charm after a long winter. Though it is still early in the season, there are many tasks to do now that will help your garden perform better and make it easier to maintain for the rest of the year. Time spent now will be rewarded later with more time to enjoy the garden.
Early spring is a good time to repot plants. For all but the biggest specimens, it is best to repot container plants each year. Nutrients and organic matter become exhausted and need replenishing. Gently tip the plant out of the pot. If the plant is root-bound, it’s time for a bigger pot. If the roots just fill the pot, gently pull them apart, removing some of the spent soil. Get fresh potting soil and organic fertilizers for replanting. Some gardeners like to mix fertilizer with the new soil, while others put it on the soil surface and gently mix it in. Topping pots with about ⅟₃ inch high-quality compost will deliver nutrients to the plant at each watering and help preserve soil moisture.
Trim container plants and weed
Besides replanting, all container plants should be pruned if needed. Geraniums (pelargoniums), both flowering and those with scented leaves, are popular container plants. They should be pruned down to about 6 inches high each spring and all yellowed or dead leaves removed. Ornamental grasses also may need winter-damaged leaves trimmed off. In general, if container plants look unsightly, it often means it’s time for a trim. Cut to where the new growth looks green and healthy.
While the soil is still moist, this is a perfect time to weed. Each weed can produce hundreds of seeds, and letting them go to seed can be the beginning of a long time-consuming removal effort. If no weeds are allowed to seed, weeding time will diminish greatly each year. If there is a large area of weeds or unwanted seedlings, a super easy way to control them is by sheet mulching. Consider putting down cardboard and topping it with compost to smother weeds. Layers of newspaper or paper bags also work.
Seedlings from annual and perennial plants are germinating in gardens now. Some perennial plants like gaura and Verbena bonariensis can seed abundantly. Keep in mind the ultimate height and width of each seedling when deciding what to save and what to weed out or dig up. Extras can be potted up or moved.
For instance, each full-size gaura plant probably should be spaced about 3 feet from its neighbors. Some perennials, including gaura and Verbena bonariensis, become old and woody after a year or two and need replacing. If there are a lot of dead stems, you can dig out the old plant and replace it with new seedlings. Annual flowers like amaranth, cleome and morning glory seedlings also may need thinning. Alstroemeria thrives in our area and can stage garden takeovers in favorable conditions. Now is a good time to shrink the clumps if they take up too much space by using a shovel to slice off chunks. Replant them elsewhere or discard them.
Finish any cutting back of your perennials, as new growth occurs often from the base. Carefully trim off old foliage without removing new growth so plants can grow unchecked.
Don’t skip the mulch
After everything is trimmed back, apply a nutritious mulch about 1-3 inches thick to the top of the soil to help retain soil moisture, help prevent weeds and develop soil fertility. Keep mulch away from plant stems. Wood chips remove nitrogen from the soil as they break down and are not appropriate around perennials, small shrubs and new plantings. Mature trees benefit greatly from them, especially native oaks. If possible, cover most of your dripline area with chips.
Take note of spring-blooming bulbs you see that you may want to include in your garden. Most spring-blooming bulbs are ordered in the summer, to arrive ready for planting in the fall. As well as the usual large yellow ‘King Alfred’ daffodils, there are smaller varieties available in many colors, from white to almost orange, that are easier to place in gardens.
Narcissus are often highly fragrant. Clustered flowers are small and single or double and make wonderful deer-proof additions to the garden or for cutting. Ixia and sparaxis from South Africa are highly colorful early spring-flowering bulbs and don’t require summer water. Freesias are highly fragrant and easy to place. The Camas lily, a native bulb available in blue or white and even double flowers, is a great garden subject. Spanish hyacinths have very handsome foliage and beautiful blue flowers and grow in sun or shade.
Annual native wildflowers are blooming now, and many are good garden subjects. In many areas it’s too late to plant seeds, and it’s just a borderline time for transplants. But even if newly planted starts don’t grow large, if you let them go to seed, they should germinate in the fall or spring and give you more plants then.
Plant spring greens
In the vegetable garden, remove spent and bolting plants and weed thoroughly. Spring greens, lettuce, Japanese and Chinese greens, radish, Swiss Chard and kale can be planted now by seed or transplanting and do well in the cool spring temperatures. Successive sowings of short-lived greens can be done about every three weeks. May 1 is about the last frost date in much of the region, but in some places and in some years, the last frost may occur sometime in mid-April. Summer vegetables and flowers can be planted after the danger of frost has passed.
Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at: [email protected], freygardens.com, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool
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