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John Fulton

John Fulton
Former County Extension Director

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In The Backyard

Horticulture columns and tips done on a timely basis

Think Spring

Posted by John Fulton -

The calendar says it is April, but the temperatures (both soil and air) have been lagging. It’s been more like mid-March. There is still frost in some places, but the upper layers of soil have thawed. The lower levels are gradually warming as well. This is evidenced by frozen water lines to hydrants becoming functional again. A green cast is gradually taking over grassy areas, and the spring blooming flowers are showing some progress again.

Let’s start with the garden. Any time now, when soil conditions permit, it is time to plant things such as asparagus crowns, leaf lettuce, onions, peas, potatoes, radishes, rhubarb plants, spinach, and turnips. Give it another week or two and it is time to plant such things as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. As with most things, a little bit of planning goes a long way in preventing problems later on. Questions abound regarding fertilizing the garden. The rule-of-thumb rate for fertilizing flower or vegetable gardens is about 15 pounds of 10-10-10 per 1000 square foot of area. This is without soil test information. If you are using 12-12-12 or 13-13-13 fertilizer, use about 12 pounds per 1000 square foot. Soil pH may need to be adjusted due to the addition of lime and sulfur, which are acidifying. Generally, about 4.25 pounds of lime neutralizes the acidity from one pound of nitrogen or sulfur. Beware of pH requirements for different plants before you go out to apply lime. Surrounding plants are also affected. Examples would be blueberries, rhododendron, azalea, pin oaks, and many evergreens.

Next, let’s go over some of the recommended times for pruning different plants. The time of year we prune various trees and shrubs is important. Most trees and shrubs that aren’t flowering in nature should normally be pruned between December and mid-March. With the late season, you can still do some of this pruning now. Flowering trees and shrubs should be done after they flower. Evergreens are best pruned in late June. With oak wilt in the area, oaks should be pruned in December to lessen sap flow, which attracts virus-carrying beetles. And, branches in the way of traffic or mowing should be pruned at any time – except oaks.

What do you do with plants not cut back last fall? Cut back butterfly bushes to live material, with a 10 inch maximum height. Cut back mums, but leave two inches of dead material since much stored food is located there. Cut back ornamental grasses to a height of four inches or so. Some of these ornamentals have some growth beginning, so don’t wait too long! Roses are also ready to be cut back to live material, or shaped in the case of the knockouts.

We’re in the pattern of up and down temperatures as well. That means insect swarms when we hit the high temperature periods. As we get warm spells, we will have the usual “nuisance pests” appear. These include millipedes, Asian ladybugs, ant swarms, box elder bugs, and elm leaf beetles to name a few. They are called nuisance pests because that is what they are. Very few will do any damage, they are just a nuisance when you find them in the house. The best controls are foundation sprays using a chemical such as permethrin or bifenthrin, spot sprays of the same chemical to control grouped insects, bait stations, and sticky traps. A combination of methods will actually give the best results.

Dividing perennials is also at hand for many species. If division is indicated, spring is the preferred time to divide. Some fleshy rooted perennials such as poppy, peony, and iris are best divided in the late summer to very early fall. Division is usually started when growth resumes in the spring. The process starts by digging around the plant and then lifting the entire clump out of the ground. Then, using a spade or sharp knife, start to cut the clump up so that each portion is the size of a quart or gallon sized perennial. The divisions should be kept moist and shaded while you prepare the new planting site. After replanting, water well and protect the divisions from drying out.

With ethephon applications for nuisance fruit removal (such as on sweet gum trees or crabapples), the key is in the timing. The application must be made during flowering, but before the fruit set in. For most flowering trees there is a 10-14 day window of opportunity. Sweet gums are a little tricky since there are no showy flowers involved, so effective sprays should occur just as new leaves begin to emerge. Sprays should leave leaves wet, but not to the point of dripping. Good coverage of the tree is needed, so keep in mind the size of the tree when you are weighing this option.

That should be enough of a list to keep one busy for a week or two. Before we know it, spring will arrive. That will mean getting even busier with routine things such as lawn mowing. After the winter we have had, most are looking forward to it.

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