Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Get digging this Memorial Day!

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Memorial Day weekend is always special in many ways. There are the parades and memorial events to pay homage to those members of the U.S. military who have died while in service to our country. It is also a time when family and friends gather together for the first of the year's outdoor social event to celebrate what most perceive as the unofficial start to the summer season. Sadly, those activities are, for the most part, absent from this year's Memorial Day holiday. However, there is another time-honored feature of this weekend, which can continue unabated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that is the dramatic increase in the pace of gardening activity.

So, it is time to get digging with these gardening tasks:

- Prepare garden soils to receive seeds and transplants of flowers and vegetables. Where soils are hard-packed or crusty, add a couple of inches of compost or other organic matter and work it in to a depth of at least six inches. If you already have a weed-free soil rich in organic matter, tilling may not be necessary. In fact, soil structure and soil microbial activity are enhanced by adopting a no-till or no-dig approach.

- Set out seedlings of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, melons and other warm season crops when night-time temperature or soil temperature is consistently above 60 degrees. On the other hand, seeds of warm season crops, such as beans, squash and sweet corn, can now be sown directly into garden soils. The same planting guideline applies to transplants and seeds of tender annual flowers. Be sure seedlings have been hardened of acclimated to the outdoors before transplanting to the garden.

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- Grow annual herbs in pots for convenience. Locate the pots in a sunny location as near to the kitchen door as possible. Include Thai basil among these culinary herbs. It has a distinctly more intense flavor than regular basil with a hint of spice and licorice.When harvesting basil cut a stem just above the lowest set leaves and the remaining side buds will produce new shoots and leaves.

- Save some of your seedlings of annual flowers to plant among crops in the vegetable garden. Marigold, calendula, zinnia, tithonia, sunflower, borage and cosmos are annuals that I routinely intermingle with vegetable crops. These not only attract pollinators, but some also play host to insects, which prey upon some pest insects of vegetables.

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- Hold off on applying mulches around warm-season vegetable crops until mid-June. Applying mulch too soon will keep soils cool and slow development of these crops. Mulches may be applied around root crops and cold-tolerant vegetables, such as cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, lettuce, spinach. My preference for mulch is straw or chopped leaves. Straw in particular breaks down slowly and much of it remains useful as mulch for a second year.

- Finish planting summer-flowering bulbs including gladiolus, dahlia, canna, agapanthus, calla lily and tuberous begonia. These bulbs may be used in mixed borders, cutting garden or in container gardens.

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- Look for natural rock outcrops or a site with very rocky soil on your property. Such a site would make an ideal setting for a rockery, that is, a garden planted to species, which tolerate dry soils. Sedums, creeping thyme, candytuft, creeping phlox and alyssum are just a few of the plants to consider for a rock garden.

- Check the foliage of Asiatic and Oriental lilies for lily leaf beetles now munching on the foliage of these plants. The beetles are bright red and about 1/2-inch in length. Also look for the recently laid eggs of the beetles on the undersides of leaves. The eggs are laid in rows, which appear as tan-colored lines initially and then change to orange or red just before hatching into larvae. The beetles and larvae may be hand-picked, but be aware that the larvae carry their excrement on their backs ... never invite them to a party.

- Take up the sod around trees in lawns to create a grass-free circle around the trees. This not only keeps wacky weed whackers from damaging the tree trunks with string trimmers, but research has shown that a mulch, as opposed to grass, around a tree will enhance its growth at a rate in proportion to the diameter of the grass-free zone.

- Fertilize lawns now if they had not been fertilized earlier in spring. Actually, the best times to fertilize a lawn are in September and again at this time of year. Use a slow-release type fertilizer at the rate recommended on the product label.


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