Ready, Set, Plant! Tips for getting your garden off to a great start

Stacks of lush spring plants are hard for just about any gardener to resist!  Before buying, don’t forget to read plant labels and make sure conditions in your garden and the plant’s cultural requirements are a match. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

Plant sales abound this time of year and whether you’ve been shopping at neighborhood  plant swaps or browsing through local nurseries — you know how energizing the experience can be. But once you arrive home,  do you ever find yourself saying, “Now what?”  If so, we’ve got you covered!  We love plants sales too, so we’ve put together a few Master Gardener “Tips of the Trade” that will have you digging in to this– the most optimistic of garden seasons–with excitement and confidence.


It’s planting time!  The frost free date in central New Jersey is on or after May 10 –so now’s the time for gardeners to get growing.


Ready or not: What to do if planting’s on pause…

If you’re NOT planning to transplant your new plants immediately,  remember to water them as needed and protect them from animals and harsh elements such as frost and wind until you are ready to plant them.

For the best results for all of your garden plants–as well as your lawn–you should know the pH and nutrient level of your soil.  To do this, have a soil test run.  You can stop by the Extension Office to purchase a soil mailer, or call the Extension Office at 609‑989-6830 for more information.

Planting  101: Steps to help your new plants thrive

The following tips apply to most newly-purchased plants.  But, be sure to check plant labels first for any variety-specific instructions.

SITE CONSIDERATIONS: Read plant labels carefully before selecting planting sites. Plants have different requirements for sun/shade, soil condition and drainage.

Individual annuals and perennials have different requirements for sun, shade, partial sun, soil quality, and drainage. When deciding what plant to put where, also consider a plant’s mature height and whether you will you be able to see and enjoy it among its garden companions. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

Also, since plants have different growth patterns and rates of growth, consider the spread and the height of the plant at maturity.

In addition, two other factors should be considered:  visibility (planting in order for the plant to be seen and enjoyed) and accessibility (planting in order to for the plant be accessible for fertilizing, dead heading and/or pruning).

Make sure to remove weeds and debris before planting. It’s also a good idea to add some organic matter–like compost –into the soil to help new transplants thrive.  (Photo by Theodora Wang)

SOIL PREPARATION: Remove all weeds and other debris from the planting site.  Loosen soil for good root growth and mix in organic matter (compost, well rotted manure or peat moss) to amend the soil. If a recent soil test was performed, refer to the report for information regarding recommended lime and fertilizer. If no soil test has been done, fertilize with 10-10-10 at 2 lb. per 100 square feet, or follow the label directions on a fertilizer for flower or herb gardens. Spade or rototill amendments to a depth of 6-8 inches for most annuals or perennials.

The best time to install your plants is on a cloudy day, which reduces the chance of sun and/or heat stress on new transplants. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

PLANTING: Hardy perennials, trees and shrubs can be planted immediately. (The frost-free day in central New Jersey is on or about May 10.) If tender plants– aka annuals– are threatened by frost, be prepared to cover them.

Plant at any time on a cloudy day, or early morning or late afternoon on a sunny day.  Prepare a space at least twice the size of the plant container and almost as deep. Remove the plant from the container and loosen or cut the roots slightly to encourage growth. Plant at the same depth as the plant was in the container. Gently settle soil around the roots, being careful not to leave air pockets around the roots.  Water thoroughly.

MAINTENANCE: Water early in the morning (preferable) as plant species require. Use a rain gauge to determine how much rain had fallen and adjust watering schedule accordingly.  Mulch will help maintain soil moisture, temperature and deter weeds. Mulch depth should never exceed two inches.

GARDEN HELP: For more planting information, or if you are having plant, tree or lawn problems, please call the MASTER GARDENER HELPLINE (609-989-6853), Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. You can also visit our website at www.mgofmc.org for more information from the Rutgers Cooperative Extension and Barbara J. Bromley.

Looking for inspiration? Stop by Mercer County Educational Gardens which feature a variety of beautiful plants– all of which are proven to thrive in our area. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

GARDEN INSPIRATION: Don’t forget to visit our Educational Gardens  this summer when the gardens are in their full glory, the flowers are in bloom and the butterflies are visiting.  For information about coming activities, check out our Events page.

Happy planting!


More info:

Basics of Flower Gardening

Planting High Visibility Flower Beds

10+ Most Common Gardening Mistakes

 

Falling into Place: Fall Tasks to Get Your Garden Ready for Winter

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Photo by Betty Scarlatta

Another gardening season has come to a close, but there are still a few things left to do before it’s time to hang up your trugs and trowels till spring.  And while it may be tempting to just call it quits, getting around to some of these tasks now will make your gardening life easier in the spring –when your list of garden to-do’s will be even longer than it is at this time of year. So grab a sweatshirt, pull on your warm hat – -and get on out there!

Check out our checklist for what needs to be done now to help your garden weather the winter ahead:

green-ckConstruct a compost bin or pile

Things are piling up –in a good way! A compost bin not only makes fall cleanup easier by corralling yard debris, it offers a big garden payoff once these materials break down. A win-win! Recycling fallen leaves and other garden waste into compost yields “garden gold” aka, compost: a rich dark,  soil amendment that improves soil and helps plants grow.  If you don’t already have one, fall is a great time to start a compost pile. For how-tos, see: Composting at Home.

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Not sure which type of composter is right for you?  More than 20 different composting methods are on display at Mercer Educational Gardens. Each bin is maintained by a Master Gardener team and displays advantages and disadvantages right next to it. The site is open dawn to dusk, and offers self-guided tours so would-be  compost creators can determine which type best suits their needs. Photo by Joe Scarlata.

 

green-ckCompost backyard leaves.

Leave the leaves on the lawn: Why not skip the rake altogether this year and instead, use the mulching blade on your lawnmower to grind up a thin (up to 4”) layer of leaves and leave them on the lawn? If the layer of leaves is too thick, you can remove most of them from the grass and compost them separately. (They will decompose more quickly if you put them through a shredder or run them over with a lawn mower first.)  Oak leaves or other non-packing leaves can be used as mulch around roses and other shrubs.  For more, see: Using Leaf Compost, or download  Backyard Leaf Composting.

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Skip the rake and leave the leaves! Mowing over fallen leaves with a mulching mower or a mulching attachment, chops leaves into smaller pieces that break down easier. Photo by Catherine Horgan

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Destroy any plants in poor condition.

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When cutting back plants in the fall, avoid adding plants with known diseases or pest problems to the compost pile. Photo by Margaret Montplaisir

Banish the blight: Get rid of any plants that are are diseased, insect-infested, or in otherwise poor condition. Prune back any perennials prone to disease, and pull out any weeds you find so weed seeds don’t get a chance to germinate and take over any open ground in spring. Chop up any healthy garden residue and add it to the compost pile.

Just remember to destroy, and not compost, any diseased or infested plant material.

green-ckLeave some spent plant material for wildlife.

Welcome winter visitors:  Support a wholesome ecosystem by not doing too good of a job “cleaning” this fall. Leave healthy stems and grasses in place for wildlife. Perennial stalks and ornamental grasses not only add interest to the winter landscape but also serve as hiding places for insect-eating toads and loads of over-wintering beneficial insects.

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Leaving some grasses and stems not only provides winter interest, but can also serve as additional winter mulch, and help trap blowing snow and leaves. Photo by Eunice Wilkinson

And don’t forget the birds! Birds love to feast on the seeds of certain common flowers like coneflowers and black-eyed Susan. So why not leave them a wintertime treat and give yourself something to look at in the garden during the winter months?

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Overwintering birds rely on the seedheads of dried perennials, like these black-eyed Susans. Photo by Eunice Wilkinson.

While you’re at it, consider hanging up a bird house or two, and setting out some feeders to provide food and shelter for overwintering flocks.

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Residents of this bird house will be sitting pretty this winter, snugly surrounded by plenty of native trees, plants and grasses. Photo by Eunice Wilkinson

Keeping a heated birdbath or other water source filled and thawed will be a boon to birds when other water sources are frozen solid.

green-ckStore tender bulbs, plants, and seeds.

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In the fall, dig up canna rhizomes, cut the stems back to 2-3 inches, and let them dry. Leave them in a box in a cool part of the house where they will not freeze, such as a basement where the temperatures range between 40-50 degrees.

Annual retreat: Hold on to a little bit of summer by bringing less-than-hardy plants inside.  Store summer-blooming bulbs like dahlia, gladiolus, and canna (see also: Cannas )  in ventilated plastic bags in a cool, above-freezing spot.

You can also pot up your geraniums, wax begonias, lantana, rosemary, and other warm weather bloomers and grow them indoors. (See Keeping Geraniums Over Winter.)

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Many summer bloomers like geraniums can be potted up in the fall, overwintered indoors and then replanted in the spring. Photo by Margaret Montplaisir.

Tender annual flower seeds from this year’s garden can be collected, stored, and used next year. (For more info, download: Grow Your Own Vegetable and Flower Seedlings.)

Don’t bother saving seeds from hybrid varieties of annuals, perennials or vegetables though. Hybrid plants grown from seed might not have the characteristics of the original plant.

green-ckMow lawns until growth stops.

Before the lawn starts to yawn:  Keep on mowing until around Thanksgiving. This final mowing can be 2” to 2 ½” high. Don’t remove the clippings unless the mower is also used to pick up fallen leaves.

Give the lawn its final fertilization in November or early December and eliminate the need for spring fertilizing until May. This also helps reduce the incidence of lawn diseases that are influenced by heavy nitrogen applications in early spring. Many fall turf fertilizers contain a higher level of potassium, which is important for winter hardiness and disease resistance.

 

green-ckPull away any mulch around trunks of trees and shrubs.

Stop the (mulch) madness:  Mulch that touches the trunks of trees invites fungus and insect problems, causes abnormal root growth, and may harbor “varmints,” such as voles, which eat tender bark and roots in winter. Maintain a “doughnut of mulch” around trees by keeping at least 4 inches between the mulch and the trunk. For more info, see: Problems with Over-Mulching Trees and Shrubs and Mulch for the Home Grounds.


Planning on buying a potted or balled and burlapped Christmas tree and planting it outdoors after the holidays? Be sure to dig the hole before the ground freezes. Place the soil in a box and store it where it won’t freeze. Then cover the hole with a plywood sheet or fill the hole with leaves or mulch until after the holidays when you’re ready to plant it.

green-ckProtect small or marginally hardy plants

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Winter injury can occur on a broad range of evergreen and deciduous plants like these arborvitae. To prevent breakage, wrap them with soft twine, pantyhose, or broad tape. Photo by Betty Scarlata.

Support your local trees and shrubs:  Protect any plants or broadleaved evergreens that might be prone to winter burn. Try using a burlap screen supported by stakes to surround and protect them. Just be sure to put the stakes in the ground before the ground freezes in November. The burlap can be tacked to the stakes when the weather takes its inevitable turn in late December.

Multi-trunked or multi-stemmed evergreens, such as tall juniper, arborvitae, boxwood, and yews may split under the weight of wet snow or ice.  Lend them some support by wrapping soft twine, pantyhose, or broad tape around them.  Board shelters (a-frame structures like the sandwich boards used to advertise local delis) can be used to cover shrubs that are prone to snow damage–especially plants sited under the eaves of the house where they can get clobbered by snow sliding off the roof.

green-ckTest garden soil

Time to get testy:  Fall is a great time to have soil tests run. (Just be sure to collect soil samples before the ground gets too hard to dig.) Test results will arm you with important information like the proper pH and nutrient levels for lawns and gardens and since the recommendations are customized to your yard, will spell out exactly how to amend your soil for a better garden next year.  Word to the wise: If test results indicate that your lawn needs lime, do not apply when the ground is frozen or snow covered.  (See: Soil Testing for more information.)

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Properly storing tools and equipment, like garden hoses, will make them easier to work with next year and last longer.

green-ckClean and store garden tools

Tool time: Clean, oil and repair garden tools and store them indoors. Drain the gas tank of the lawn mower and other gas-powered equipment after the last use or run the mower until it runs out of gas. Drain and store garden hoses and watering equipment. Turn on older outdoor faucets, then turn off the water from the inside line to prevent pipes from freezing. (Some hose bibs turn off inside the house, so water drains out and pipes are not in danger of freezing.)

 

green-ckStart planning for next year

Sweet dreams for a long winter’s nap:  Once you’ve put your garden to bed, it’s time to cozy up inside and…start thinking about next year!  When winter winds are howling outside, gardeners can nurture  budding garden dreams by digging into some wonderful garden books and lingering over plant and seed catalogs, (a place to start: Mail Order Vegetable Seed Sources for the New Jersey Gardener)

 

Looking to up your garden game? Check out some gardening seminars and workshops over the winter and expand your gardening know-how for the season to come. (A great one one to try from Rutgers Master Gardeners:  Refresh. Renew. Restore. A Garden Symposium)

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Winter reading can provide just the inspiration you need to get through the frosty days ahead. Need a recommendation? Call the Master Gardener Helpline or join us for our annual garden Symposium in March where you can peruse the book sale for our garden must-reads. Photo by David Byers.

There are lots of other horticultural events and workshops throughout the winter that can fill you with inspiration and help you get through those long gray months when spring seems so far away. Browse our Upcoming Events section for a look at what’s next.

Ready to take your gardening skills to the next level? 

Why not become a Master Gardener and share your love of gardening with your whole community?

Find out how here:  Become a Master Gardener

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Join us! Master Gardeners volunteer their time, talent and passion for gardening to make the world a greener place. Among our labors of love is maintenance of Mercer County Educational Gardens, (above) a living affirmation of the beauty of  responsible gardening. Photo by Joe Scarlata.

 


References:

Preparing the Garden for Winter