Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Bigger is not always better ...

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It's April ... no fooling!

This is the month when all those winter workouts at the gym pay off. I can now lift a garden fork without breaking a sweat. Digging into thawed and softened earth, on the other hand, is still a struggle — and that's not a bad thing.

One of the biggest mistakes gardeners make is to go big in spring. Buoyed by steadily warming weather (I hope), appearance of early bloomers — the botanical kind, not the apparel — and thoughts of fresh, tasty fruits and vegetables from the garden, we find it so easy to get carried away and turn over the south 40 with the intent of creating new and large gardens, or expanding existing ones.

Stop!

Before your body goes any further, allow your mind to drift ahead to lazy, hazy and hot days of summer, and embrace thoughts of swimming at the lake, sipping mint juleps in the shade of the old oak tree and vacation jaunts. The reality is that gardening tasks can be overwhelming at those times, especially if gardens are extensive. This is especially true of vegetable gardens and their need for unvarying maintenance and harvesting.

I know it's not the American way, but think small. By getting a grip on reality now, your gardening tasks will be more manageable, and your gardens more attractive and productive.

Tasks to tackle

Perhaps tackling these tasks now will temper any out-sized plans:

• Rake lawns. Raking not only removes sticks and stones — and broken bones — from lawns, but also removes some of the dead grass or thatch that has accumulated since last year. Removal of thatch allows for better water and fertilizer movement into the soil.

In addition, with less thatch, soils warm quickly to renew growth of grass. If the thatch layer is more than a half-inch thick, rent a de-thatching machine to remove the excess thatch. De-thatching is a little like removing clippings from your head after a haircut. Unfortunately for me, it hasn't spurred new growth.

• Sow seeds of root crops, leafy greens, peas, and fava beans, if not already done. If some of these were planted a few weeks ago during a mild stretch, make a second sowing.

• Plant a few extra peas for the sole purpose of harvesting the young shoots. When these pea plants are about 8 inches tall, snip out the tips and use them fresh in salads, or cooked in soups and stir fry dishes. Pea tendrils are also edible. Pea shoots and tendrils are best harvested in spring while still tender.

• Start seeds of tomatoes indoors. I know many people like to start sooner, but research has shown that six- to eight-week-old tomato seedlings make the best transplants. Everyone has their favorites when it comes to tomato varieties. I like an heirloom, such as Mortgage Lifter or Brandywine for eating fresh, San Marzano for sauce and for canning, and Sungold for salads and snacking.

• Prune raspberries and blueberries. Cut dead raspberry canes (the grayish canes) to ground level and thin out remaining canes, leaving a space of six to eight inches between canes.

Prune mature blueberry bushes by removing thin twiggy shoots and by cutting to ground level older stems that have few flower buds. Fruit-producing stems and shoots have lots of flower buds. Leafy buds on blueberry are thin and pointy, while flower buds are round and plump.

• Dig up, divide and re-plant snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) if the clumps have become crowded. This is the only spring flowering bulb that I know of that should be divided while the leaves are still green. With other bulbs, wait until the leaves have died down before digging and dividing.


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