Finally, it’s April and we are more than ready to get out in the garden. Our little “Tête-à-Tête” narcissus are blooming and the sweet purple dwarf iris have almost finished in some places. Our local nurseries have started to stock plants, and we are tempted by all those beautiful flowers that we see in catalogs. Now is the perfect time to do some planning so your garden will thrive. Go ahead and plant some early spring flowers, such as pansies and give yourself a lift. However for most annuals, wait to plant them until after the last spring frost. For Larchmont, that’s April 20th – 30th. Keep in mind that these dates are based on averages and frost could occur after these dates.
Having the space to plant a garden in Larchmont is a luxury, and in these difficult economic times, hiring a landscape architect to help you design a garden may be out of the question. So how do you make the most of what you have? Well, the first thing that experienced gardeners learn is “the right plant for the right place.” Place is everything. In terms of gardening you may not think that Larchmont is different than Mamaroneck, that my block is different than your block, and that your front yard is different than your back yard. But, it is. These areas are referred to as microclimates and understanding them, and planning for them, can determine the success or failure of your future plantings.
So how does one determine the right place? Conduct a site assessment. Site assessments are routinely conducted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners, but you can do a simpler version on your own. The major things to consider are location and size of bedsoil, hardiness, sun, wind, obstacles and existing plants. For more information, you can download Cornell’s free comprehensive 56 page workbook entitled Site Assessment for Gardeners.
Soil: If you read our first article Don’t Pack Soil, Test It you know the importance of soil for healthy plants. That article addressed soil pH and nutrient testing, soil structure and compaction. Remember to look at soil drainage, too. Most plants will not grow in soil that is poorly drained. If your soil has puddles after rain, you may want to modify the drainage in that area by using raised beds or supplemental drains or by selecting plants like Japanese iris and beebalm that can tolerate moist conditions. In our garden, we have some cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) that are happy in a wet spot.
Hardiness: The term cold hardiness in gardening means tolerance to cold. According to the USDA hardiness zone map, Larchmont is in Zone 6. When selecting a plant, check the label to make sure the plant is compatible. Hardiness zones are general guidelines, but your property may have warmer spots generated by pavements or buildings or colder spots due to frost pockets in lower lying areas. These too are microclimates and can affect the plants you select for those areas. We can see the microclimates in our own yards – the places where the daffodils are almost ready to bloom, for example, and where their buds are still tightly closed.
Sun: Consider the amount of sun in your yard. Determine the directions of north, south, east and west on your property. The sunniest part of your yard for the entire day is the south where the sun’s rays come from and the next sunniest is a western exposure with afternoon sun. Of course, an otherwise sunny location can become shady if there are trees, fences or other structures. When selecting plants, full sun means 6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day. Partial sun/shade is 3 to 6 hours of sun each day. Shade is less than 3 hours of direct sunlight each day. If you don’t follow the guidelines, your fruit plants may not bear fruit if they are in a shady location, and a shade loving plant which gets too much sun may wilt. This speaks to the “right plant in the right place!”
Wind: Observe the wind patterns on your property. If you live on the Sound and strong winds blow on a regular or seasonal basis, you will want to choose plants more tolerant of wind, such as junipers and Eastern redbud. Wind damage may appear on broad-leaved evergreens, like holly and rhododendron. These plants can be quite sensitive to the drying effects of the wind, particularly in winter when the sun and winds deplete moisture from the leaves
Obstacles: Take a look at your property to determine any obstructions which could affect plants. This is important if you are interested in planting a tree or shrub. Trees with a large network of roots and large limbs need room to grow. Obstructions include overhead wires and proximity to buildings as well as underground sewage and gas lines.
Inventory Existing Plants: Many homeowners in the Larchmont area have mature plants and trees. Before you prepare the beds for any new plants, map out what you have. You may not know the names of all the plants on your property, but knowing they are there will be a good start. Remember plants grow and will be larger in the summer and fall. Look at the condition of the plants. Is a plant overgrown? Can it be pruned? Is it in the right location? Is it diseased? If you are unsure of a plant’s condition, you can call the Cornell Cooperative Extension hotline at 914.285.4640 on weekdays between 9 am and noon.
With all the above information, it’s now time to find the right plant. Plant a garden which is pleasing to you and serves your needs. You may want to have a vegetable garden or an herb garden. What about a flower garden or a cutting garden? Whatever you decide, consider height, bloom time, and, if planting a vegetable or cutting garden, harvest schedule.
Height: When planning a flower bed, keep in mind that you want to be able to see and enjoy all the flowers that you have planted while covering unflattering or leggy plants that have bloomed out and/or may be yellowing. If this is an island bed, the tallest plants should be placed in the center. A good rule of thumb is to keep the tallest plants no higher than one half the width of the garden. If this is a border bed, the tallest plants should be placed at the back. In each case, plants and flowers should be positioned so that they graduate down in height and the shortest are at the edges. In the case of a vegetable bed, plant with the idea that taller plants and vines can shade adjoining rows. This is good if your tomatoes are protecting your tender lettuce from the sun, but not good if the shade created creates an inhospitable planting site. This is known as companion planting. To learn more, see Cornell’s Ecogardening Fact Sheet No. 10.
Bloom Time: Perennials have a specific bloom time. When planting a flower bed, your goal should be to create a bed that will provide a continual sequence of bloom. To ensure this, consider planting dominant or backbone plants for different seasons. Since you can’t plant and have a mature garden all in one year, use bulbs and annuals to fill in the gaps until your perennials have matured. Keep in mind the height and width of plants at maturity and plant your flowers in groups for visual impact.
Harvest Schedule: Likewise, if you are planning a vegetable garden, consider your harvest schedule for purposes of succession planting. Some fruits and vegetables take up valuable garden space all summer long, while others may take only a few weeks. Knowing when to plant and when to harvest will allow you to plant in the same space at different times. This technique is known as succession planting. For more on vegetable gardening, see the Cornell Gardening Resources-Vegetables website.
Now it’s time to get specific. Get out your paper and pen and start planning, but whatever you do, enjoy your garden!
To Do List for Early April:
• Sow seeds indoors of annuals that need 4-6 weeks to mature before going outside.
• When you see your peonies emerging, use a wire circular grid to support each plant.
• Amend your soil with compost in your new beds and add a top-dressing around the plants in existing beds.
• If you haven’t done so yet, finish pruning your roses and summer/fall blooming shrubs.
• Now is a great time to fertilize your shrubs. If your soil test proved a nutrient deficiency, fertilize with a product that specifically meets those needs.
• Vegetables you can plant now include radishes, beets, spinach and peas.