It’s that time of year again!
Time to pull on those boots and get down and dirty!
Once the risk of frost has passed, and the temperature reaches an average of 12C to 25 C consistently, planting crops outdoors can begin. I do a check around to see how everything did over the winter. You can safely remove any protective coverings from your plants and shrubs - I use burlap; if you use and re-use burlap, hang these out to dry, roll them up and place in storage for next winter if they are still in good condition.
It’s always a good starting point to check the ground and make sure it isn’t too saturated or difficult to work; the last thing you want to do is compact or compress all of the soil – don’t make any more work for yourself. The earth should be relatively dried out and easy to work with a fork or shovel.
Start of the Season Maintenance and Care:
First things first…after winter, your plants need nourishment; it’s important to feed your trees, shrubs and perennials the appropriate products. I have ‘feeding Fridays’ in our garden and I use dried seaweed. Match the correct nutrients to your plants and if you’ve inherited a garden ask an expert which products are best.
Gardening is a personal experience; one that comes from trial and error as there are so many variables that it can sometimes be confusing. One of the areas that I struggle with is pruning. The rule of thumb to follow when pruning trees and shrubs is ‘If you have no good reason to prune, don't’. Most trees and shrubs have a natural form and may do better and look better if left alone. Each species of tree has their own characteristic shape or growth habit and when pruning, you should try to maintain that as best as possible. There are times, though, when pruning must be done and proper procedures should be followed:
Pruning is essential to:
- Eliminate any limbs with weak crotches that arise from the trunk at acute angles.
- Eliminate limbs that cross one another or compete for the same space in the crown.
- Eliminate dead and diseased branches which also improves the appearance.
- Prevent the presence and spread of disease and insects.
- Enable more vigorous growth in the remaining branches of older trees by pruning out part of the crown of the tree and reducing the leaf area that the root system has to supply.
- Increase the air circulation through the tree to increase air flow. I was always advised that a bird should be able to fly between the branches. An open airy canopy allows more sunlight to filter through which is beneficial both the tree and for lawn growth below.
The best time to prune larger overgrown shrubs is late winter or early spring (March or early April); take note that heavy pruning in late winter or early spring will reduce or eliminate the flower display for 2 or 3 years. Keep this in mind.
- Summer-blooming flowering shrubs: the best time to prune these shrubs is from the end of winter to early spring for shrubs that bloom from late June through to fall and examples of those are Rose of Sharon, Spirea, St. John’s Wort, Hydrangeas (Smooth and Panicle), Beauty berry, Buddleia (Butterfly Bush) among others; these bloom on new wood -the flowers that appear in mid to late summer develop on the new growth that occurs in the spring. For this reason, pruning should take place in early spring just before active stem growth begins so there’s no danger of cutting off flower buds that formed last year.
- Wait to prune spring blooming shrubs like Forsythia, Azaleas, Rhododendrons, Weigela and Lilacs until right after flowering normally, but if hard, renovation type pruning is required, it is better to do it in early to mid-spring just before new growth starts. After pruning, fertilize, and apply a loose layer of bark or leaf mulch ensuring not to cover the base of the tree, and water well.
If you’re not sure, ask an expert; if you have to prune I suggest you do your homework and research first - I have killed many a shrub trying to ‘pretty them up’ (namely a gorgeous smoke bush) because I cut too it hard and at the wrong time of year. Lesson learned!
Start with a Plan: I would always forget what plants I wanted to move and where to (or I thought would do better somewhere else) so I started using bamboo canes to mark these; if you have a similar system, now is the time to see if you want to remove and change out plants from last year. This helps me formulate a plan of what plants go where (and what new seeds I can buy and transplant!) I start my plan by drawing a garden map (as best I can) and make note of what is being moved, added or removed.
OK…plan in place, boots on – coffee in hand – first on the list of chores, if you hadn’t done it at the end of the last season, is to clean up and organize your potting shed and sort of your tools. I clean my tools with soap and water and rub any metal parts with some 3-in-1 oil, just to keep them looking and working smoother. All of my seeds are organized by timelines and my potting table is readied with seed starter trays, potting soil and I add vermiculite to some mixes for better draining soil. Once i have the tools, potting shed and supplies sorted, I start outside.
‘Weeding’ doesn’t take us long. Most people remove their dandelions and other weeds while the ground is relatively wetter as it’s easier to remove them. We remove all weeds except dandelions because we have read up on bees and their struggle to find sources of food at this time of year and they add a bit of colour after a drab winter– to each their own. We will be outside later in the year after all the flowers start blooming and popping the dandelions out of the lawn with a handy long root removal tool!
We are lucky in that we inherited an incredible coastal garden – thankfully two owners before me and both very experienced garden ladies choreographed the overall layout - we don’t have a lot to change. We added a signature palm tree (since we were from Ontario and still can’t believe they grow in Canada!) and we are trying to grow everything else from seed. We have a small greenhouse which makes sowing seeds early an option and something fun to do in the late winter. If you don’t have one - put one on your list; they are great places to experiment with growing different seeds, and storage for citrus trees and tender perennials if you have them.
Preparing the Soil and Beds:
If you’re starting from scratch you can always get a soil test and either match your plants to your earth’s soil characteristics, or you can add nutrients, mulch and remediate your soil to suit. Firstly, you have to prepare the beds…if you have to dig a garden, grab a pointed shovel, a garden fork and some friends. Dig up the entire area, remove any grass and break up the soil. Add nutrients such as compost or manure and work it in well so it’s easy to dig; if you need to add some sand to make it well draining soil do so.
As I said there are many variables to gardening…some people don’t do anything to their existing beds and things grow back just fine. Others like a clean and tidier look and remove the leaves and rake out the beds from last year to clear the way for this year’s new growth that will be breaching the surface. At this point you can add an inch or two of mulch. My beds are mulched – pretty low maintenance; I just top the existing layers up and stick a seedling in here and there wherever I can. There are different kinds of mulch and several colours to choose from. Mulch helps to retain moisture (and we typically use less water) and is applied once the soil warms consistently for the season. I like a sharp edge on my garden beds as it defines the lines of my gardens; on my wildflower meadow I have no edge and some beds have rock lined edges. Depending on the look you want the sky is the limit.
Containers are an easy planting option and one that can be used for anything from herbs, lettuce mixes to trees; great choice for balconies, patios and anywhere you want a featured plant or easy to access garden pickings. Ensure the soil meets the requirements of the plant choice and there is good drainage so the roots don’t sit in water. Containers tend to need more water more often so best to make water easily accessible.
Don’t dig digging?
Then no dig gardening is for you. If you’re looking for an easier gardening option, other than tilling and turning up the soil, why not make a raised bed planter to plant flowers, veggies and herbs? You will need to build either a raised box (you don’t have to bend over so much with this one) or a box with walls about 18 inches or so high on the ground and place cardboard in the bottom; cover the entire bottom of the box.
Place your garden soil on top of the cardboard and mix in any sand or grit for drainage and compost or manure you need for the plants you are planting. There you have it, an easy no dig garden option that is ready for planting!
Now is the optimum time to divide or move your perennials before they start new growth. Dig out away from the roots and replant them in their new digs as soon as possible. Ensure to water them in well; they may droop but should come back with added vigour. Any perennials that are already starting to flower or have some buds should be left standing, and divided or lifted after they bloom or best moved in the fall.
If you started your seedlings indoors you will typically need to transition them from the greenhouse to the garden by placing them in a cold frame until the temperature warms up consistently or just bring them in and out of the greenhouse for a period of 7 – 10 days to acclimatize them gradually. Having a table handy beside the greenhouse helps with this but a cold frame makes things easier and a lot less work. After all danger of frost has passed it is time to plant them into your prepared garden areas; you can also direct sow them. Follow the instructions on the seed packets or online.
Alternatively, you can plant the seedlings out and place cotton sheets, burlap, plastic or fabric over hoops to protect the rows/seedlings; this raises the temperature and keeps the cold off.
Seeds you can sow in March:
- Indoors: cauliflowers, lettuces, salad greens and tomatoes under cover.
- Outdoors: beets, broad beans, Brussel sprouts, cabbages, carrots, herbs, leeks, parsnips, peas, spinach, spring onions and turnips.
- Great time to start planting out early potatoes, onions, garlic and shallots.
Seeds you can sow in April:
- For most crops, start seeds indoors about six to eight weeks before the last spring frost date.
- Start your broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery and cabbage seeds indoors 4 to 6 weeks before planting them outside so they can be harvested before the fall frost
- Outdoors: direct sow collards, corn, lettuce, kale, kohlrabi, onions, peas, peppers, radishes, spinach and turnips
We love gardening. And we enjoy meeting gardeners, who like myself, get a kick out of picking, growing and planting new seeds (as well as learning new and interesting methods to make gardening easier, faster and more affordable so we can buy more seeds!) I especially like the opportunity gardens provide me with, I can enjoy a bounty of vegetables and beautiful flowers all grown without any pesticides.
- Helps you and your family eat more vegetables.
- Saves money
- Connects families by working on a project together
- Creates sharing if you have more than you need
- Let’s you know what you grow
Gardening is not only one of the healthiest activities I enjoy, and our family eats better because I know what I grow, but research also proves that thanks to beneficial bacteria found in soil, gardening also improves your immune system - helping us get sick less often, fight off infections easier, and improves our immune system.
And healthy for us translates into healthy for everyone including our beneficial pollinators. Newbees to expert gardeners are learning everyday about the importance of attracting pollinators to our gardens. These pollinators…we call them the 4 B’s…Birds, Bugs Bees and Butterflies need us now more than ever!
If everyone let a small part of their backyards 'go wild' that would help. Providing a consistent food source like a pollinator wildflower garden is an ideal start. Every seed counts. Let’s all do our part to help the 4 B’s!