Get Growing: Embracing spring garden chores

  • Crocus, Field, Flower, Springtime, Blossom DuchesseArt

  • Gardening wheelbarrow and rakes near flower tulip bushes in a garden Nikolay N. Antonov

For the Gazette 
Published: 4/5/2019 11:23:43 AM

Dare I say it? It’s time to start spring clean-up in the garden. Although we had a typical April Fool’s Day on Monday — cold and windy — and I am dressed for the outdoors in the same winter clothes I wore three weeks ago when I headed to North Carolina, the season has progressed considerably. The peepers started their ecstatic racket this past weekend, crocuses are blooming in sunny places and robins have returned.

The most important caution when heading out to the garden is to avoid trampling on soggy or semi-frozen soil and compacting it. Compacting soil changes its structure by eliminating the air pockets between particles. Water has a harder time sinking into the earth and tends to puddle on top. Plant roots have a harder time growing in compacted soil — think brick instead of brown sugar — and can even expire. So be careful: test for moisture by taking a handful and squeezing it into a ball. If it crumbles after a few seconds, it’s dry enough to work. But if it holds its ball shape, wait a few days and try again. If you absolutely have to walk across a garden bed lay a couple of boards across that you can walk on to disperse your weight.

Don’t be in too much of a hurry to cut things back or clear dead leaves. Beneficial insects such as bees, butterflies and moths that have nested in leaf litter need time to get moving. Wait until there have been a series of daytime temperatures of 50 degrees or higher to minimize the damage done to these precious critters.

One of my favorite spring chores is removing old patches of dead leaves and revealing tender shoots of spring bulbs and other early bloomers. This is slow, delicate work but it’s infinitely rewarding. This is also a good time to use gardening scissors or other small pruners to trim out dead leaves from epimedium and heuchera to expose new growth. A lot of epimediums’ magic happens under a tent of dead leaves; you will miss the lovely, pale green buds that unfurl into clouds of tiny flowers if you don’t clear out the debris. But take care not to cut the new growth underneath.

If you have butterfly bushes (Buddleia ‘davidii’) cut them back hard, to 12 inches or so, before new growth appears. You might feel like you’re killing the plant, but by June the base will have filled out with new shoots and leaves. Without pruning, butterfly bushes will become leggy and messy. Older varieties of Buddleia self-seed like crazy. Newer ones don’t have that tendency. If yours are self-seeders, don’t be afraid to pull some of them out. I know from experience that they can take over a garden bed.

If you have a lawn, wait till it’s good and dry and then rake it briskly to remove thatch and give the new grass some space to emerge. April is the right time to plant and fertilize grass. Wait until the daytime temperatures are 65 degrees or higher. Seed will not germinate if the ground is too cold. UMass Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment has a lot of helpful information about lawn care; see for detailed advice about growing a lush, healthy lawn.

If you grow vegetables, organize and stay on top of your planting schedule. Keep a calendar of what you plant when, and what should be reseeded when so that you have a steady supply of things like lettuce and other salad ingredients.

No matter what you grow, get your soil tested. UMass has an excellent soil-testing service. Preparing a good sample is the most important part of testing. It’s not difficult, but do it methodically for the best results. Take 12 or so samples of soil from an area that has similar soil characteristics. Dig 6 to 8 inches below the surface — a small spadeful from each site — and mix them in a clean bucket. Remove debris, stones, etc. Take a cupful of the soil and let it dry. If you have multiple areas of soil with different characteristics, make a test sample for each site. It’s a good idea to sketch a map of where you’ve taken your samples from. You can find all the necessary information and forms on their website. Paige Laboratory on campus even has short-term free parking for soil sample drop offs!

It’s not too late to straighten out your tools and clean them up for the season. Many of us are too busy in the fall to get this chore done before the snow flies. Then it’s winter, and who wants to be out in the garage or garden shed in the freezing cold scraping dried mud off trowels or scrubbing pruner blades with scouring powder?

Now that daylight savings time is here, most of us have time in the early evening to say hello to all our new arrivals. Spring happens fast once it starts. After surviving another cold, dismal winter, you don’t want to miss anything.

 Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.

Upcoming garden eventsArt at Berkshire Botanical Garden

Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Center House Leonhardt Galleries Botanical Art will feature an art exhibition by Carol Ann Morley, with an opening reception on Apr. 5 from 1 to 3 p.m. “Nature Narratives” is a retrospective collection of Morley’s botanical artworks presented in colored pencil, pen and ink, graphite, carbon dust and pastel. There will be a "Meet the Artist" gallery presentation on May 26 from 2 to 4 p.m.

A New Hampshire artist whose love of nature is reflected in her subjects, Carol Ann Morley was classically trained in England, graduating in 1963 from the Medway College of Art. Her artwork has been represented in numerous private and public collections and museums including the Smithsonian Institute of Natural History, the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, the Shirley Sherwood Collection and the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in England. Carol has taught basic drawing skills, drawing nature and botanical drawing at BBG since 1999. Her popular workshops focus on observation of the natural world and how to acquire the necessary drawing skills to create representational drawings.

Gallery hours through Apr. 30: weekdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.,  Sat. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sun. by appointment by calling 413 320-4794.

Beginning May 1, gallery hours are daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Free with Garden admission.

Tower Hill gardening classes on Apr. 6

Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston is offering a trio of interesting and seasonally appropriate classes on Apr. 6. Planning a Kitchen Garden will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Creating Foundation Gardens that Welcome Native Plants takes place from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. In the same time slot, there will be a session on Gardening in Small Spaces: Vegetables and Herbs in Containers. For more information and to register, go to:

Sights, sounds and secrets of vernal pools 

When you walk through the woods in the early spring, have you seen a small pond that wasn't there in the summer? It's likely to be a vernal pool: as essential breeding habitat for amphibians like salamanders and frogs and other tiny wildlife species. On  Apr. 13 from 10 a.m. to noon,  join Kestrel and distinguished Smith College biology professor Steve Tilley to explore the fascinating life cycles that take place in these unique spring features of our forests. We will visit a vernal pool in the Saw Mill Hills Conservation Area of Northampton, which is owned by the City of Northampton, and permanently conserved with assistance from Kestrel Land Trust.  The event is free of charge, but registration is required. For more information and to register, go to:

Plant a perfect cutting garden

Cutting gardens are lovely to look at. They also provide fresh-cut flowers and keep your perennial borders from being raided for indoor display. On Apr. 13 from 1 to 3 p.m. at Berkshire Botanical Garden, you can learn how to grow a small, highly productive cutting garden as an addition to the vegetable patch or as a stand-alone garden. Instructor Elisabeth Cary,  former Director of Education at BBG, will discuss all aspects of growing cut flowers, including designing and constructing an efficient but beautiful garden using select flower varieties that hold up best as cut flowers. Included in the talk will be tips on sowing, planting, transplanting, cultivating and preparing flowers for indoor use. This program is designed for the home gardener. Members: $25/nonmembers: $25. For more information and to register, go to:











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