Rain helps, but prepare for worst

Friday April 27, 2012

I didn't hear Gene Kelly "Singin' in the Rain" this week but I did hear sighs of relief from gardeners as we had the first significant rainfall since Jan. 27.

While it may not have been enough to entice officials of local water departments to sing in the rain, it was enough to moisten upper layers of soil -- the root zone -- critical to the survival of plants. Still, I would not dare say the drought is over. Who knows what's ahead, but a wise gardener prepares for the worst.

Preparing for the worst includes setting up rain barrels and water-conserving irrigation systems such as drip or soaker hoses, incorporating ample amounts of water- retaining organic matter into soils, and gathering mulching materials to spread over soil around garden and landscape plants. Taking singing lessons might also help.

There should be some singin' today but it's more likely to be "Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree" or "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else but Me." If you haven-t guessed what I'm jabbering about, it's Arbor Day.

Speaking of Arbor Day, a popular phrase among horticultural professionals is "right plant, right place." In practical terms this means matching the growing requirements of the plant to environmental characteristics of the site where a tree, shrub, or perennial is to be planted.

So, before spending hard-earned or even soft-earned money on a tree, do a site analysis. Make a list that includes soil pH (acid or alkaline), drainage (good, bad, or drought prone), amount of sunlight (full sun, part shade, full shade), and exposure to wind. Then check this list against growing needs of the tree you wish to buy.

Most site features can be determined simply through observation. However, to determine soil pH, a soil test is needed. Luckily, the Berkshire Master Gardeners will be doing soil testing at Berkshire Mall the four Saturdays in May from 9 a.m. until noon, beginning May 5.

To collect a soil sample, take a tablespoon of soil, six inches deep, from five locations in area of the garden, lawn, or landscape of concern. Mix these together, dry the soil if necessary, and put two tablespoons of the mix in a sandwich bag to bring to the Mall.

Singin' a little tune will help you get through these tasks:

  • Examine trees, especially on crabapples and ornamental cherries, for newly hatched tent caterpillars. Applications of the naturally occurring bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), are very effective on young caterpillars.
  • Transplant cold tolerant vegetable seedlings to the garden. These include onions, leeks, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce.
  • Start seeds of cucumbers, squash, and melons indoors in biodegradable peat pots. In early June, set out seedling and pot.
  • Mow lawns when grass gets to be 3 inches tall. Set cutting height of your mower at 2 or 21 2 inches. Don't try to reduce frequency of mowing by cutting grass very short, i.e. 11 2 inches or less. That merely stresses grasses and results in a thinning of the lawn and encourages invasions of weeds.
  • Plant strawberries. Strawberries grow best in soil enriched with compost or rotted manure. When planting, fan out roots so they aren't entangled and take care that plant crowns (where the leaves originate) are not buried beneath the soil.
  • Make the first application of fertilizer to roses. Apply a half cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer around the plants. If using other types of fertilizer check the label for rates of application. Roses need to be fertilized again in mid-June and in mid-July, unless a slow-release fertilizer is used.


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