Roots and Shoots: Garden Time

Car full of plants

Buy wisely whether at the garden center or one of the upcoming plant sales. (Photo by P. Doan)

As we pass the last frost day on May 15, gardeners are lining up at the gate and the race is on for the first tomato and summer bloom. As the temperatures this week demonstrate, though, it’s a less of a race and more of a chess game. The weather moves a pawn (temperatures below 40 degrees) and I shift my queen (planting schedule). 

Observing phenology, planting according to temperature and knowing your next move will keep your garden in play for the season. Noticing the cycles of bud break, leaf out, blooms and fruit set on other plants and trees offers clues to the impact of spring. Are plants showing signs of early stress from high temperatures, too much rainfall or too little rainfall? So far, things are looking OK, although the rainfall has been a bit low. 

The question, “When do I …?” is always on a gardener’s mind. Timing is the key to having something blooming or ready to harvest in all seasons, the way to control weeds, and a strategic way to lower your carbon footprint in the garden. Here are some examples. 

The right time for… 

  • Planting tomatoes: when the soil temperature is 65 to 70 degrees. 
  • Planting okra, pumpkins and squash: when the soil temperature is 85 to 95 degrees. 
  • Tilling the soil: This is practically never necessary and breaks up soil microbes while bringing seeds of undesirable plants to the surface to germinate. 
  • Planting a tree: spring and fall or whenever you have a space or a tree. 
  • Mowing the lawn: when it is more than 4 inches high and then only cut off an inch and leave the clippings on the lawn for best growth and a lower carbon footprint. 
  • Watering the lawn: never if you’re like me or when the lawn has less than 1 inch of rain per week. Measure rainfall with a rain gauge and measure the output of a sprinkler with 1-inch deep container like a tuna can set in the ground. Also note that when grass is brown during a hot, dry summer, it is dormant and will usually revive once the rain returns. 
  • Watering newly planted trees: every day or every few days, depending on heat and rainfall. As a best practice, water deeply to the roots each time. 
  • Watering native perennials: If you’ve planted the perennials in the right conditions, i.e., a plant that likes dry shade in dry shade, then after the first season, the plants won’t need supplemental water unless there are extreme conditions like an extended drought. If you’re trying to grow a plant in conditions other than its optimal setting, it will need help. 
  • Fertilizing the lawn: Do a soil test first before assuming it needs extra feeding. A light layer of compost may be sufficient. More fertilizer run-off from home lawns impacts waterways than run-off from agriculture. Responsibility and knowledge can prevent a lot of environmental issues. 
  • Pruning spring-blooming shrubs: Lilacs and forsythia, two of the most common, can be pruned after they bloom without affecting the next season’s blooms. 
  • Protecting plants from wildlife: as soon as you plant them. It is always disheartening to discover your carrots or just about to bloom flowers disappeared overnight. This year I’ve noticed deer have browsed on previously untouched plants like boxwood, hellebores and peonies, which indicates a lot of pressure on their food system. An average sized deer consumes 8 to 12 pounds of green forage per day. Don’t let it all be your garden. 
  • Weeding the vegetable garden: This is an ongoing task. While disliked by many gardeners, it’s a big part of the job. Weeds have annual, biannual or perennial life cycles just like other plants, and there are spring, summer and fall weeds. By keeping weed pressure low on your plants, they get more nutrients and water. 
  • Mulching: anytime is good for adding mulch. Use it to suppress weeds, hold moisture in the soil and add nutrients as it decomposes. 
  • Planting a vegetable or flower garden: anytime. There are plants that will thrive whenever you’ve got time or space.

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