UConn Master Gardener offers spring planting tips

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Willimantic - posted Tue., Apr. 2, 2013
Some of the perennials at the UConn Agricultural Extension Center in Brooklyn. Courtesy photos. - Contributed Photo

Connecticut farmers and gardeners are well aware that we’re getting a slow start to the growing season here this year. But by March 28, the ground was mostly clear of snow, and growers’ minds were turning to spring. Dr. Deborah Lee, Windham County Master Gardener Coordinator from UConn’s Windham County Extension Center, appeared at the Willimantic Public Library to offer some tips on getting started in the spring garden.

Taking “before” photos as plants begin to emerge can provide useful information for planning, said Lee. For example, “clumps of daffodils that need dividing in the fall can be impossible to identify if you don’t document them now,” she said. Pruning out winter kill from existing trees and shrubs can be a useful activity at this time of year. “The raggedy ends tend to be more prone to disease,” said Lee. However, use caution when pruning early. “I’ve cut branches that I thought were dead, only to find they were green,” said Lee. If in doubt, “I’d wait a while, until the leaves begin to come out,” she said.

Lawn-related chores for this time of year include dethatching, decompacting, aerating, replenishing areas of erosion, weed control and over-seeding. Fertilization is recommended only if necessary. “Most lawns around here probably don’t need fertilizer,” said Lee. Fertilizer manufacturers are in the business of selling product, said Lee, and tend to recommend overfeeding. Lee estimated that approximately 85 percent of lawns in the area won’t need fertilizer this spring.

Lime is another additive that tends to be over-applied, said Lee. She recalled a client with an ailing lawn. A soil test measured the client's pH level at 8 - well above the optimal level for most lawn grasses of 6.5 to 7. “They’d been putting on lime every year,” said Lee.

A good way to avoid over-application of additives is to have a soil test performed, said Lee. The UConn Cooperative Extension System offers a low-cost series of tests that can provide a window into the health of existing soils. A standard nutrient analysis, for example, costs $8 and will provide levels of pH, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, iron, manganese, zinc, copper, boron, aluminum and lead. The test includes limestone and fertilizer recommendations, according to a UConn pamphlet.

For those considering a vegetable garden, Lee cautioned that they require some devotion. “You need to be able to take a look in the morning and in the evening,” she said. “At the very least you’re going to need to get out there every other day.” Lee told a story about the year she grew three 50-foot rows of potatoes in her home garden. “They were doing just beautifully,” she said. A glance out the window revealed some movement on the plants, but Lee didn’t go out to investigate further. In the morning her plants were gone, fallen prey to a potato worm. “Overnight, they ate all of that plant material,” said Lee. The lesson? “You’ve got to be able to take the time to keep on top of what’s going on in your garden,” said Lee.

The most successful vegetable gardening results from a respect for the soil, said Lee. She recommended not starting to work with the garden when the soil is very wet. Compaction leads to not enough air for plant roots. Dedicated paths are important to avoid walking on growing areas as much as possible. “Soil is a living thing,” said Lee. In a sample of soil the size of a pencil eraser, the bacteria count would be in the billions, she said, with other living elements, such as fungi and bugs, also taking up residence.

For more information regarding soil testing through UConn, go to www.soiltest.uconn.edu. Questions regarding home horticulture can be directed to the UConn Home and Garden Education Center at 877-486-6271 or ladybug@uconn.edu, or go to www.ladybug.uconn.edu.

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