Spring Prep for the Garden

May 28, 2011

This is my 4th column for the Zenith, the un-edited version.



Looking out the window you might not feel in the gardening spirit.  These drab, dreary, rainy days are not exactly inspiring.  And it’s not very fun working outside when it’s cold and the wind is in your face.

But, now is actually a great time to work your soil.  All this rain makes it easy to pull grass and weeds.  I’ve had my garden for about 14 years now, and I am amazed at how even though every spring I work very hard to clean out my beds, by the next spring I am inundated with grass again.  Why can I grow grass in my flower beds and not in the parts of my lawn that need it? Ah, yes, the ultimate conundrum.


So this weekend I plan to don my warm clothes, and rain jacket, get the tools out, and get my butt out there to get things started.  After all, in a few short weeks it will be time to plant and I want to be ready.


When pulling weeds and grass you must be sure to get the root.  If you leave it in there expect a whole new crop within a couple weeks.  The easiest way to do this is to get a pitchfork, a hoe or my favorite, the twist-action Garden Claw.  This tool is a must-have for me. You can use it while standing, it’s sharp, and the torque action you get when you twist it really loosens up the soil making it very easy to pull the grass and the roots. Not to mention, it gives you a nice little ab workout.

If your soil is really compacted, or you are starting a new bed, you might have to get a bit more extreme and use a tiller.  After many years of back breaking weed pulling, my husband suprised me bought me a tiller.  What’s even better is that he tills for me.


We work as a team, I point out the areas I want tilled, being careful not to disturb the perennials, and he works that area pretty deeply.  As he loosens up the grasses I pull them out.  We can get the beds cleaned out in just a couple hours.  We have about 400 square feet of flower beds so this is a great time saver.


Once you get the unwanted growth out of your beds, I highly recommend you do a few things.  Firstly take this time to amend your soil. You need rich, loamy soil for good growth.  And to get that you’ll need a few key components.


Compost, Peat, Vermiculite and Black dirt.


Compost is a natural fertilizer.  Adding it alone to your soil will give it much needed nutrients.  If your soil has a lot of clay add some peat moss as well, it really helps keep the soil from compacting.  Another great additive is vermiculite, it will help airate the soil. And lastly, black dirt, your base.


All of these additives together will give you a solid foundation for good growth.  Once you have a good base add an application of long acting fertilizer and an application of Preen (a weed inhibitor).  Preen will help keep the weeds at bay, but it’s not going to stop them from growing, your best defense is consisitency.  If you can, spend a half hour after work each night and pull some weeds.  It’s a great way to leave the work day behind and get some fresh air and exercise.  And yes, gardening counts as exercise.

After you apply your weed preventer, and get the dead leaves and debris out of your garden, apply a good thick layer of mulch.  Now you may want to delay this step until after you have moved or placed any new plants.  Because once the mulch is down the rest of the summer is just maintenence.


Mulch is probably your best defense against weeds.  I’ve tried several mulches from Cocoa Bean Hulls to Rubber Mulch to free Composted Wood Chips to bagged Cedar Mulch.  What I’ve found is that Cocoa mulch, although it smells really good and looks great, it doesn’t last the season.  It’s good because it breaks down easily and you can work it back into the soil, ultimately airating it, but if you have low-lying areas that gather water, it can get moldy.


Rubberized mulch has been popular in some commercial areas.  It’s cool because it comes in some vibrant colors, looks like shredded cedar, and is suposed to last forever, but I found two issues with it.  One, it floats.  So if you get a lot of rain and your planting area is not level, it can sort of float away and create a mess.  Secondly, it does not decompose.  So this type of mulch is best used for walk paths or rock gardens on level ground.


Composted mulch is a great money saver.  We are regular contributors to our local composting center and when you give, you can also receive.  We used composted wood chips to fill areas where we have lots of trees and shrubs.  It may be hard to take advantage of the free mulch if you don’t have a good way to haul it.  It’s sharp so it tends to break bags easily and if you don’t have a truck or trailer, you could be making lots of trips to the compost center.  The other issue we had is that it is not sterilized.  So along with your mulch you can get lots of seeds.  We have sprouted numerous unknown tree types by using this mulch.  If you have a large area and are ok with that, go for it.


Lastly, bagged Cedar mulch.  I have to admit this is my favorite.  It might not be the most eco-friendly option, but it does seem to work the best for our needs.  Cedar mulch comes in several colors, but in my opinion the dyed mulches can look really un-natural.  I just go for the plain old red cedar mulch.  It’s cheap, you can catch a good sale this time of year and get 5 bags for $10.  And considering I need a minimum of 10-12 bags for my perennial beds alone, it makes it affordable. Plus, the bags are something I can personally lift and work with.


With any type of mulch you’ll need to put down a good 3” deep layer to keep the weeds at bay.  Mulch also helps the soil retain moisture when the heat of summer persists.  Not to mention it makes your garden look clean and neat.


If you prep your garden early in the season, the rest of the summer all you need to do is water, weed, deadhead and Enjoy!





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