The Easter Bunny has come and gone and we’ve had our last snow shower (fingers crossed). The buds on the dogwoods, the cherry trees, and the crabapples are beginning to swell, presaging the gorgeous clouds of pinks that we will enjoy on the streets of Larchmont in May. Despite what feels like unseasonal cold, there are clear signs of life in our gardens. The white grape hyacinth and blue scilla we planted last fall are blooming; the sedum, the pink garden phlox, and the meadow sage are all showing new growth.
If the weather has been too daunting to start your garden clean-up, now is the time. Remove all those leaves from the bases of your shrubs; gently cut away the brown foliage from your lady’s mantle and your cranesbill geraniums. The sorry truth is that those leaves really are dead and they won’t come back to life. Cut back the dried stems from the yarrows and the astilbe that you left up for winter interest. Check for any plants that did not winter over, but don’t be too hasty: some plants like false indigo and hibiscus are late to break.
“Hey! Wait a minute!” we can hear you saying. ” When do I get to do something more fun like digging in the dirt?” Now is the time. Before you rush out to the garden centers on the Post Road or Weaver Street or even farther afield, let’s talk about some basics.
SELECTING NEW PLANTS
A Brief Primer on Plant Types: In our last article, The Right Plant for the Right Place, we talked a bit about garden design-sun, shade, bloom time, and height. We also blithely used the terms perennial, biennial, and annual. What are the differences anyway, and why do they matter? Perennials- like peonies, beebalm, and black-eyed susan-are herbaceous plants with soft stems that die back, but their root systems store food and can survive for years. That’s why it’s important to think about where you are planting them. Biennials-those lovely foxglove, for example-produce foliage in the first year, and set seed and die in the second. What looks so pretty this season may be an empty hole next year, although some biennials will self-seed. Annuals-impatiens, alyssum, angelonia-go through their whole life cycle in a season; they don’t come back at all. That’s why they are useful for fillers. You can find lists of each type at www.gardening.cornell.edu/flowers.
How to Plant: It may seem like a no brainer, but there are right ways to plant. When you come home with your new little darlings, don’t rush to put them in the ground if it’s mid-day. You don’t like to work too hard when it’s hot, and the plants don’t like it either. If your sweet things are a bit dry, give them a nice drink and set them in the shade.
Early the next morning or the next overcast day, put on your gardening gloves and get out your trowel. Dig a hole that is deep and wide enough for the plant; you can judge by the size of the pot. Remove the plant from the pot with your trowel by loosening the soil around the edges and tamping hard on the bottom. You may need to use a bit of pressure.
Score the root ball slightly from top to bottom in several places and gently open up some of the roots at the bottom. Place the root ball in the hole with the plant’s crown (the part where the stems and foliage emerge from the roots) at soil level. Water immediately: you have given those poor things quite a shock and the roots need moisture to recover. But be careful: overwatering and underwatering are major causes of failure. Your garden needs about an inch of water a week under most conditions. A slow soak at the root level is better than quick little showers on the leaves.
Fertilizing: Feeding your plants is important and there are some good cultural practices to follow. Most plants need a balanced fertilizer-with a ratio of 5-10-5, which means 5 percent nitrogen (N) to 10 percent phosphorous (P) to 5 parts potassium (K). The phosphorus promotes roots and shoots. Organic fertilizers are another option, but they’re not balanced and may have a strong odor. (Think fish meal while you’re having your first barbeque.) Cornell Cooperative Extension of Westchester County (914-285-4620; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) has a lot of good information about fertilizers).
Before you feed your new plants, it’s a good idea to ask if they have already been fertilized: many of them come from the nursery with a slow-release fertilizer in the root ball. For your established beds, you can apply a granular fertilizer or a slow- release fertilizer around the crown when the plants first come up (Now). You can also use watersoluble fertilizers (we can’t name names here) but they require more frequent applications. You don’t have to fertilize again until June unless it rains a lot.
MAKING NEW PLANTS
Dividing: There are many different ways to propagate plants. Here we’re going to tell you about dividing, because it’s a good idea to use this method before the end of April when it gets hot in May. Knowing how to divide your plants is great: it’s good for you-you get new plants for free; and it’s good for your plants: you rejuvenate them. This year we’re planning to divide several of the summer-blooming perennials-Siberian iris, phlox and sedum-in our garden.
Start by digging up the root ball with a shovel. Be sure you dig deep enough so you don’t damage the roots. Then gently brush some of the soil. Break apart the root ball or cut it through evenly from crown to base with a sharp gardening knife, being sure to leave a good amount of roots in each section. Then plant your new plants and water well. Voila!
To Do For Mid-April:
- Once blooms have faded, deadhead spring-flowering bulbs like daffodils and hyacinth. Do not remove foliage until it turns yellow. This feeds the bulbs for next year.
- Prune forsythia after it blooms.
- Remove side buds on peonies for larger flowers.
- Stake tall perennials like hollyhocks and delphinium when they reach 12 inches in height.
- Wait until Memorial Day to fertilize your lawn.