This last weekend was beautiful – sixty degree weather, sun shining and kids playing outdoors. We saw crocuses popping up through the melting snow and people riding their bikes, zipping around on their scooters and eating lunch al fresco at our village eateries. All of this can mean only one thing; it’s time to start work in the garden. But wait! Before you head outdoors, there are two things to consider: Mother Nature and soil testing.
Mother Nature: As seen by last week’s snow and this weekend’s balmy temperatures, March is as fickle a month as they come. The old saw “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” is more wishful thinking than science. The saying has everything to do with the relative positions of the constellations Leo, the Lion, and Aries, the lamb and nothing whatsoever to do with the weather.
So don’t let the calendar or this weekend’s warm weather fool you. All that snow has left our gardens soggy, and working in the beds while they’re still too wet will damage your soil’s structure.
What, you didn’t know your soil has structure? It does, and it’s a very important part of your plants’ health. Basically, soil structure is the arrangement of soil particles with the ideal being granular, open and loose. If you work your garden while your soil is still too wet, the most likely result will be mud and compaction, and once soil is compacted, it is nearly impossible to restore its structure. Compaction will prevent your plant’s ability to root properly and absorb the necessary nutrients for growth. So stay out of the garden, for now. (To learn more about soil structure and compaction check Cornell’s horticulture website.
Soil testing: So, now that you’ve been kicked out of the garden – what to do, what to do? Well, now is the perfect time to test your soil. Knowing what’s in or not in your soil, will tell you what to add or not add to strengthen your plants and help them fight off diseases.
Soil testing is simple – that’s what Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Westchester is there for. They offer pH and nutrient tests. A pH test will measure the degree of acidity or alkalinity of your soil. The pH scale has a 14 point range, with 7 being neutral. Values below 7 are acidic and those above 7 are alkaline. A near neutral or slightly acidic soil is considered ideal for most plants. A soil with a pH from 6.0 to 7.0 requires no special liming or acidifying.
To submit a sample for pH testing to Cornell Cooperative Extension of Westchester County, take six, evenly spaced, two tablespoon samples from a given area at a depth of approximately 3 inches. Then mix all twelve tablespoonfuls together to create one sample for the test.
- Create a different sample for different beds if each bed has plants dissimilar from the other beds.
- Do multiple tests in very large areas.
- Do multiple tests if different topographical/light/moisture conditions exist on the same property.
• The fee for any one test is $10.
Results will be returned in one to three weeks with instructions for pH adjustments, as needed. Be sure species to be grow or maintained is included with the sample. Call CCE Westchester if you need further sampling details.
A nutrient test is done at the Cornell Nutrient Analysis Laboratory in Ithaca, NY and will tell you the levels in your soil of 18 nutrients that plants need for normal growth, including nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium and sulfur. Plants get these nutrients from soil minerals, organic matter and supplemental fertilizers. To have a nutrient test done on your soil, first download the nutrient test mailer order form at Cornell Soil Kit. Once you receive you test kit, follow the instructions, mail-off your samples and within three weeks you will have a detailed report of your soil’s nutrient content and needs. Note: The Nutrient Analysis Laboratory does not test for lead.
Once you fully understand your soil’s needs, you can amend your soil with organic materials that will bring your garden to life. And organic matter will not only provide nutrients, but will improve your soil’s structure as well.
March To Do List:
Now, on to the fun stuff! When your soil has drained enough so that it is no longer squishy to walk on, it’s time to pick-up those fallen limbs, remove last year’s annuals, and prune back select plants. Here’s a quick list of to-dos:
- Clear the garden of last year’s annuals.
- Prune cold-season ornamental grasses. The easiest way to do this is to tie it ponytail-like and use your hedge trimmers to give it a cut. (See pix.) If they are very large, now is the time to divide them.
- If you have multi-stemmed deciduous shrubs that are overgrown, regenerate them by taking out a third of the branches before they begin to grow. Do one third every year for three years.
- Do you have newly-planted trees? Lightly prune during the first three years to enhance the limb structure. Stick to pruning crossing or broken branches, water sprout growth and suckers. Trim overgrown ground covers such as pachysandra and myrtle before growth begins.
- Prune back perennial vines, like clematis, that will bear flowers on shoots that develop this year.
- Prune back flowering shrubs that bloom on current season’s growth. Examples include Japanese beauty bush, Summersweet, Peegee hydrangea, St. Johnswort, Crape myrtle and Bush rose.
- Do not prune plants whose flowers grow on last season’s growth. Examples include Chinese redbud, Fringe tree, Pearlbush, Forsythia, Honeysuckle, Azaleas and rhododendrons, Lilac and Viburnum.
To learn more about proper pruning techniques, go to the Cornell horticulture site and download the PDF, Pruning: An Illustrated Guide to Pruning Ornamental Trees and Shrubs.
With any luck, March will come in like a lion and go out like a lamb, but in the meantime we’ve got work to do. Watch for our next article on principles of garden planning to learn the basics of site consideration, garden shape, preparation and design.