Can you feel it? Spring has sprung! There's no denying the feeling that a literal dark cloud has lifted, once the days get warmer, the nights get longer, and the beautiful spring flowers start to poke through the soil. Even on a rainy weekend such as this, the warmer temps and lighter skies help buoy the spirits of us Pioneer Valley dwellers. We are ready!
Each spring, I look forward to the gardening columns from The Daily Hampshire Gazette's Mickey Rathbun. She never fails to give sound advice. The following article will help you form your spring clean up to do list. And in the meanwhile, since you won't likely make it out to your garden in the rain, check out these Northampton area (and beyond) weekend open houses. Enjoy!
Get Growing: Embracing spring garden chores
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 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 ag.umass.edu/home-lawn-garden/ 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.