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Get Growing: For planting season, start with the soil

Small plants just begining life

Small plants just begining life Purchase photo reprints »

Despite the bizarre weather — frost then 80 plus degree heat and thunderstorms — planting season has finally arrived!

It’s time to get those tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash and tender annuals into the ground.

Proper soil amendment is crucial to gardening success. That’s a lesson I wish I had learned 35 years ago when I started my perennial gardens. Over the years as I revamped the gardens I did improve the soil at least in specific holes or, in some cases, whole areas of the gardens. Still, it takes years for soil to “grow” and my plants would be so much happier if they had started out in a good growing medium.

So, if you are just starting, start with the soil. Add compost and well aged manure, lime if needed, and organic fertilizer like Pro-Mix or Espoma. It helps to mulch your plants once the soil really heats up in a few weeks. Straw (not hay) is traditional for vegetable gardens. You can lay down newspapers, (even colored pages since companies use soy-based ink these days) and then cover the paper with straw. For flower gardens, use bark mulch or shredded leaves, and for shrubs and newly-planted trees, wood chips are great. Grass clippings are fine as long as you haven’t used any pesticides or herbicides on the lawn. Home-made compost makes a fine mulch if you have plenty of it. Otherwise, use compost in the planting holes.

May is prime planting season with all those temptations at the garden centers, nurseries, farmers markets and not-for-profit local sales. It’s best to venture out with a want list instead of buying on impulse.

Tomatoes really do need at least 6 hours of sun daily in order to thrive. Salvias hate wet feet. Delphiniums can topple in a wind so site them in a sheltered spot and stake them. Consider light, wind, soil moisture and texture (wet, dry, sandy, clay), and microclimates when selecting plants. When you get them home, provide the right place for the species, provide good soil according to the plant’s specific needs, stake and mulch where necessary and — with ornamental plants — site them where they can be enjoyed from the house, the deck or porch or the entrance walkway. Don’t force plants to struggle in conditions for which they aren’t designed.

As well as planting season for all kinds of gardens, it is “in between” time in the ornamental garden. The first splendid floral display of dogwood, magnolia, viburnum and lilac is now over. Most bulbs have “gone over” as the British say. For a week or so we will have a minor display of perennials like columbine and certain wildflowers.

Next comes iris and peony season — always timed to coincide with thunderstorms and heavy rain. That’s why we stake peonies, so rainstorms don’t drive their gorgeous heavy heads of flowers into the ground. Most iris can hold their heads up, but rain and wind can shred their petals. Roses will soon be in bloom and then come delphiniums, the queens of the perennial garden.

Annuals won’t really get established for a few weeks, but their perky flowers at least bring some color to the in-between garden. Actually, it helps to cut off those first blooms in the six-packs, but most of us don’t have the guts to do that. The ruthless procedure will produce more and better flowers later, but, let’s face it, we are so aware of the lack of color in our gardens this coming week that we haven’t the heart to cut off the flowers. I did cut back my snapflower plants when I planted them to force them to branch better, but the other annuals were allowed to continue to flower.

Don’t forget to stake delphiniums, tomatoes, dahlias and other tall plants when you plant them. If you wait till they get taller it will be more difficult to site the stakes without damaging the new root systems. And get those soaker hoses rigged up before the plants they are designed to water get too tall to wrestle the hose snakes through the garden beds.

Enjoy the fresh lettuce, asparagus and radishes from your garden now and give your tomatoes a good start along with the other fruits of summer. Your indoor floral bouquets may be smaller for a week or so until the peonies bloom, but delicate flowers are just as welcome as the dramatic gangbusters.

PLANT SALES: The season for plant sales is still in full swing. Tomorrow there are sales in Amherst and Leverett. June 1 is Hadley and Sunderland.

e_SBlt Amherst: Tomorrow from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in front of the Grace Episcopal Church, Boltwood Avenue on the Town Common. Perennials, trees, herbs, vegetable starts from parishioners’ gardens. There will also be a tag sale as well as garden books and decorative pots. Proceeds will be used to landscape the church grounds.

e_SBlt Leverett: The Leverett Historical Society’s annual sale of plants and garden books is tomorrow from 9 a.m. to noon at Leverett Town Hall. Students from the Leverett Elementary School will be fundraising for their greenhouse projects. Master Gardener Dawn Marvin Ward will offer advice on choosing and caring for plants.

e_SBlt Hadley: The annual Hockanum Schoolhouse sale is June 1 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the schoolhouse on Route 47 across from the entrance to Skinner Park. Perennials, shrubs, herbs, rock garden plants and more to benefit the schoolhouse. Plus free tours of the historic one-room schoolhouse guided by former students.

e_SBlt Sunderland: First Congregational Church in Sunderland will hold a plant and bake sale from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the church at the junction of routes 47 and 116 in the center of Sunderland. Proceeds will be used for church outreach.

HADLEY GARDEN CENTER: Container gardening made easy, is the Wednesday Learn About topic at the Hadley Garden Center, Route 9 in Hadley, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Staff member Sharlene Boyce, creator of the planters in front of the business, will give tips on combining plants. Bring your ideas and containers for a consultation. And Thursday at 6 p.m., Karen Olsen of Sunny Border Wholesale Perennial Growers in Connecticut, a venerable firm, will share information on new and unusual perennials. Olsen is also northeast regional director of the Perennial Plant Association. Programs are free. (My apologies for an erroneous listing at the center last week.)

GARDEN TOURS: June is garden tour month. So far, I’ve heard about tours in Northampton, June 8; Whately, June 15; Amherst, June 29; and Shutesbury, June 30. If your organization is planning a tour, send details to valleygardens@comcast.net.

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