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Planning a Spring Garden

Planning a Spring Garden

Planning a spring garden is a great way to help you get through the dreary winter months. It may be too cold to start gardening, but there are still quite a few things you can do to make your life easier in the early spring. 

Before you start planning there are still a couple of outdoor tasks to take care of, so make sure you get to those first. 

Late fall and early winter are the perfect time to remove and discard diseased or bug-eaten plants from garden beds. Don’t toss them in the composting bin, however, as that can spread disease to plants the following season. 

Check and see if any plant roots are growing where they shouldn’t be, such as into your septic field or your foundation. Some roots can even buckle your driveway. Make a note of these and have them taken care of asap. 

Early winter is a good time to mulch overwintering plants and vegetables like carrots. Cleaning and storing your garden tools properly is also important so you have them ready for next year.

It’s always a good idea to check your grow zone to help you determine not only what the best plants are for your area, but also when to begin germinating seeds, and how long the plants growing season will be. 

Start creating a garden plan. Sketch out your garden area and plan where you’re going to put your vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Remember to leave room for the plants when they reach adult size so your garden isn’t too crowded!

Break out the seed catalogs. Ordering seeds from reputable companies will mean you get high-quality seeds with a high germination rate. Read up on germination times for each plant so you’ll know the perfect time to start indoor germination. Seed catalogs often contain gardening tips to get the most out of the seeds you order, so make a note of those.  

Check out your local garden center and pick up soil and extra mulch now, when it is often cheaper than in springtime. 

Decide where you’ll want to keep your summer flowers. These are usually going to be planted in pots, so a sunny patio or deck is a perfect home for these plants. You may also want to start shopping for decorative containers for these now, so you’re ready to go once they’re available. 

Finally, determine your goals for your entire yard overall. What do you want to get out of your yard? Are you looking to start a large landscaping project such as installing pathways, water features, and arbors, or do you just want to maintain your vegetable garden? Do you want to create a place for activities, or a calm Zen-like retreat? Working out your goals now will make it easier to create a realistic plan to execute come spring. 

By taking some time to do these things now you’ll be ready to get out there and garden the moment the ground thaws and the weather warms. Remember, a little planning can go a long way, so the sooner you start the more time you’ll have!

How a Warm Winter Affects Plants

For the past few years, Long Island has had relatively mild winter weather. While some people enjoy warmer weather in the middle of winter, for plants the fickleness of mother nature can be extremely confusing. 

During the cool season of fall, plants begin to enter dormancy. They are, for all intents and purposes, asleep. They do not put out new growth or take in many nutrients. However, when winter temperatures warm up for a long period of time (weeks instead of days) plants may break dormancy. 

When trees and shrubs break dormancy they may push out flower buds or new shoots for branches. This can be a problem when a cold snap comes and cold weather returns as those buds and branches will likely die off in the cold weather. Fruit trees in particular may have their spring fruiting ability affected by extremely cold weather after warm temperatures. 

Spring flowering plants may begin to push out of the ground early, breaking ground in early winter instead of spring with similar results as with trees and shrubs. 

Another issue that comes from a warmer winter is that harmful insects will not be killed off. Normally, during cold winters harmful insects and their eggs are killed off in great numbers with just a few surviving through until spring. These insects hide in tree bark, the grass of your lawn, leaf piles, the shingles on your house, and more. With a mild winter, there are more resources available for pests to consume, which means that there will be a lot more pests around. Bugs like cockroaches, mosquitoes, spiders, ticks, mites, moths, bees, and wasps can all benefit from a warmer winter. Bugs that burrow into trees may also be more active in a mild winter giving them more opportunity to cause damage. 

There is no good way to protect your plants from a fickle winter, but there is no need to worry as most of them will do just fine once spring comes around and the weather warms up normally. The best thing you can do is avoid heavy pruning in late summer and during the fall, as this triggers new growth that will likely be killed in the cold weather. Generally speaking, even if the cold kills off new growth and flowers the issue is only cosmetic and will resolve itself over the next growing season. 

Cutting Decorative Grasses

Ornamental grasses are one of the first plants to greet us come spring. You’ll see little green shoots coming up from the cut-off crowns and know that spring is finally really here. Decorative grasses can be warm season, cool season, or evergreen grasses. Warm season and cool season grasses are sometimes called “deciduous grasses”, meaning that the foliage of these types of grasses turn brown in the fall but tend to remain standing. These grasses when left as they are can provide winter interest to a landscape, particularly when they are in the background. 

While you can leave these grasses without care all year, they will tend to look more attractive if you cut back ornamental grasses in the forefront either in late fall or early spring. 

Cutting these grasses may seem like a difficult task, especially the kind with razor-edged leaves, but it doesn’t have to be. To cut back the grass, first, take twine or string and wrap it around the grass creating a sheaf. This will be easier to manage and cut through. Then, take your hedge shears—or for an easier job, a hedge trimmer or power hedger—and cut the grass about 4–6 inches above the crown of the plant. You want to protect the crown because it helps to insulate the roots through the winter, so don’t cut the grass at ground level. 

Once you’ve cut your grass plants down you’ll want to take the dead material and place it on the compost pile. Dead grass is a great way to get nitrogen into the soil, so it’ll help your compost pile do its job. If you happen to have a shredder you can also run the grass through it and make a great mulch for your other plants!

Remember, ornamental grasses grow not only tall but wide as well. Eventually, in addition to cutting them down, you may also need to split them so they stay manageable in your landscape layout. We’ll cover how to split grasses in a future post! In the meantime, find that string and get going on your trimming!

Winterizing Strawberry Pots

Strawberries are one of the more hardy fruits you can plant; but they still benefit from winterizing if you want to be sure of a full crop come spring, especially if you are living in zones below zone 7. If you live in zones 8 and higher they will often not need any help at all to survive the winter. Overwintered strawberries tend to bloom in early spring, letting you get a jump on the growing season. Being perennial, strawberries are built to survive cold weather, however, they do not have the woody bark some other perennials do so they need a little bit of help in cold temperatures so they don’t die or suffer injuries.

The way you overwinter your strawberries will depend on how you grow strawberries. Potted strawberry plants and those in hanging baskets are the easiest to overwinter. Winterizing strawberry plants in strawberry pots simply means moving them to an unheated garage. Once the crowns have browned and shriveled and the plants have entered dormancy it’s time to move them. This means that it has been below freezing for several nights in a row. First, clean up the crowns by snipping off any browned leaves to prevent them from rotting over the winter. Then, just move the pots inside against the house if possible for the ambient heat it provides if you live in a very cold location. However, if the garage doesn’t get below around 28 degrees Fahrenheit you’ll have no problem putting the pots anywhere in the garage, or even in an unheated shed. 

For strawberries in the ground, or in a raised bed, winterizing strawberry plants is only slightly more involved. Plants in the ground will need a layer of insulating material to keep them warm. Straw or leaves work perfectly for this purpose. 

It is important not to let the plants completely dry out. You want to keep the soil moisture level just slightly damp. A layer of straw will help with this for in-ground plants. Potted plants will have to be checked and watered about once a week. 

By following these tips your plants will be bearing strawberries again come spring, and you’ll be sharing all of the sweet treats you made with them by early summer!

Prepping Shrubs for Winter

Every year as fall rolls on you start thinking about winter. More specifically, you start thinking about your plants in winter. While some plants are easy because you can just bring them inside, the plants outside your home are a little more tricky. So how can you prepare your outside plants for winter?

The first thing to know about your trees and woody plants is that if they are bred to survive your hardiness zone you don’t really have to do anything to prepare them. Most local deciduous trees and shrubs can survive on their own with little-to-no intervention on your part. To prepare these shrubs for winter simply remove any dead or diseased branches that may snap under heavy snow and ice. Save the heavy trimming for spring so that you don’t lose any newly developed flower buds.

The exception to this is newly planted trees and woody shrubs that may need more care for the first year or two until their roots settle in. For these plants, you’ll want to mulch heavily, at least 2–3”, around the base to cover the entire root zone of the plant. This will help protect the roots from the constant freezes and thaws that are more damaging than staying frozen. Keep watering through fall, but stop watering them before the ground is frozen. These tips should keep young trees in good shape. If you are worried about branches snapping you may want to use a tree wrap of burlap around the tree for extra protection. You can find burlap at almost any garden center. 

When it comes to evergreen foliage such as arborvitae a burlap wrap is a great idea to protect against snow, wind, and sun particularly for the plant’s first three years of life. Winter sun can activate growth activity in evergreen trees, meaning that when the sun goes down and freezing temperatures return the active areas can be killed. Drying winter winds can pull moisture from these plants leading them to turn brown and sometimes die. The wrap will help keep the shrubs safe until the growing season starts again. You can either wrap directly around the tree or you can create a wind barrier by driving stakes into the ground and then wrapping the burlap around the stakes. If you directly wrap the tree you need to tie off the burlap with twine, and if you use the windbreak method you need to staple the burlap to the stakes. 

With just a small amount of prep work this fall your trees and shrubs will emerge from winter looking great this spring. If you don’t feel comfortable doing your own fall prep, give Organically Green Horticultural Services a call and they can do the job for you!

Making Pumpkins Last

You’ve spent the day out east pumpkin picking and you’ve found THE perfect pumpkin for Halloween (or pumpkins!). Hopefully, you’ve started with a firm pumpkin. Any soft spots will quickly develop into rot, so be aware of that while picking out your pumpkin. Now, how can you keep them lasting through Thanksgiving and beyond?

The first thing to know about keeping your pumpkin fresh is that uncarved pumpkins will last a lot longer than a Jack-o-lantern. Carved pumpkins give mold and decay the opportunity to take hold and begin the decomposition process. 

Now, if you’ve decided to carve your pumpkin, there are a few things you should do to help it last as long as possible. Put a teaspoon of bleach into a quart of water (this is best done in a spray bottle) and cover the pumpkin with the bleach solution. Let it dry before carving. This will sterilize your pumpkin and kill any existing bacteria. Make sure it’s completely dry before carving. 

When you carve your pumpkin it’s important to make sure that you’ve gotten ALL of the pumpkin guts out; the moisture they hold in their guts will speed up the rotting process and mold growth. 

After you’ve carved and cleaned the pumpkin thoroughly, make a mixture of ⅔ cup of bleach and at least a gallon of water in a bucket. Submerge the pumpkin, leaving your pumpkin to soak for up to 24 hours. Once you are done soaking let your pumpkin dry completely. 

Finally, to help prevent mold and to keep the moisture inside the pumpkin, coat the exposed carved edges with petroleum jelly, vegetable oil, or coconut oil. This will keep the gourd from drying out and collapsing too quickly. However, bear in mind that because these are flammable you should not put a candle inside a pumpkin treated in this way. You should use a flameless votive instead. If you want to use a real candle skip the coatings and just hope for the best! At the very least, your pumpkin should be looking good for Halloween, but if you do it right you can keep it going for quite a long while afterward.

How to Overwinter Mums

Mums are one of the most popular flowers you’ll see this time of year. Hardy mums are carried at almost every box store and farm stand and even supermarkets. Keeping garden mums helps to fill in empty spots left after the growing season has ended and most other flowers have wilted. Along with pansies and asters, mums are the heroes of the fall planting season. They continue to grow well after most other plants have slipped into dormancy and bring much-needed color to your yard. 

If you’re the kind of person that doesn’t like to throw away your plants once the winter months arrive you may be wondering how you can help your mums survive the winter. 

The easiest way to keep your mum plants alive for next year is to bring the plants indoors. For potted plants this means cutting off the brown foliage and stems about 3–4 inches long above the soil, wrapping the pot, and bringing it inside to an unheated garage or shed. This area should stay between 32 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit so that the plant can stay dormant. If your mum plants are in the ground you can move them to a pot before the ground begins to freeze or heavily mulch the ground around them. Be sure to add some potting soil and organic fertilizers to the pot so that your potted mum has a good start come spring. 

In areas that receive slightly warmer weather, including New York, overwintering mums can be done outdoors as well. Heavy mulching can keep the roots from freezing and thawing again during the winter. This mulch can be straw, leaves, or even grass clippings. Remaining frozen during the winter is less damaging to your plant than freezing and thawing over and over. With the warmer winters we have been having this is more and more likely to occur. Your mums can even stay in the ground, provided that you give them enough mulch. Just be sure to cut off the dead stems and bury them in mulch shortly after the first frost. 

By following these steps you’ll be able to keep using your mums year after year with the bonus that every year they’ll be bigger and lusher than the year before!

Keeping Ticks Out of the Yard

With the fall weather here your family is likely to spend a lot of time outdoors. It’s still warm enough to barbecue and the kids love jumping in piles of leaves. What you don’t want to happen is for them to become victims of tick bites. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ticks on Long Island can spread diseases from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme disease to Ehrlichiosis and Babesiosis. So what can you do to keep ticks away from you and your family?

Well, there are a few options. The first is to use a tick repellent. There are both chemical and natural tick repellents available on the market that all work relatively well when applied appropriately. However, if you really want to enjoy your yard as much as possible, the best thing to do is to manage the tick population in your yard and try to keep them as far from play and living areas as possible.

Make sure there is at least a 3-foot barrier of wood chips or gravel between your yard and any wooded areas surrounding it. Keep it clear of leaf litter, which is one of a tick’s favorite places to hide. If you have playground equipment try to place it in a sunny location; ticks absolutely love the shade and this will help keep them away from the kid’s playthings.

Keep your grass trimmed neatly. Tall grasses and brush should be cut down whenever possible as they can carry ticks and spread them to anyone who walks by.

Some people use tick tubes. These are tubes filled with cotton doused in Permethrin which can kill and repel ticks. These tubes are placed all around the yard and can help reduce tick populations by using mice to do the work. Mice take the cotton and make nests out of it and that in turn helps to keep ticks, which breed on and feed on mice, at bay.

Another step to control ticks is to keep your woodpile far away from your house. Keep your wood neatly stacked and dry and away from your lawn.

Finally, one of the best things to do to keep ticks from your yard is to have it treated for ticks by a licensed professional such as Organically Green Horticultural Services. Their tick repellent services can last up to a month and will make your yard a safer, and more comfortable place for your family to spend their time.

Bees vs Wasps: What You Need to Know

You hear something buzzing by and catch a black and yellow streak out of the corner of your eye. Quick! Was it a bee or a wasp? And what’s the difference anyway?

While you certainly wouldn’t mistake an inch long bumble bee or a carpenter bee for a common wasp, wasps and honeybees can sometimes look very similar. Honeybees come in black and yellow—like yellow jackets—but also solid brown or solid black. Honeybees are rotund and fuzzy. They can only sting once, and then they die. This makes them more hesitant to sting people than wasps, which have narrow waists and are smooth and shiny. Wasps come in a variety of colors and patterns and can sting multiple times and come back for more. 

Like honeybees, many species of wasps are social wasps. They make large, paper-like wasp nests out of wood pulp and saliva where they lay eggs and raise their young. These are known collectively as “paper wasps”.

If you’re wondering about hornets, the main difference between wasps and hornets is the size. Wasps tend to be smaller and have black and yellow stripes, whereas hornets are larger and have black and white stripes. This is with the exception of the mud dauber; the mud dauber is a solitary type of wasp that prefers not to sting humans or animals. 

Bees are also social animals, building a bees nest to raise their young. The queen sends out worker bees to collect pollen and protect the nest, so most any honey bee you encounter will be a worker bee. 

Both bees and wasps serve an important role in our ecosystem. Bees pollinate our plants and wasps consume pest insects.

No matter what type of stinging insect you encounter you’ll want to be careful. Wasp and bee stings can sometimes be life-threatening if the person has a bee or wasp venom allergy. So be careful around them. If you find a nest too close to where you live or play contact a pest control company. They can verify whether you’re dealing with honey bees (in which case, they’ll likely relocate the nest) or wasps or hornets (in which case they’ll dispose of the insects as pests).

So the next time you hear that buzz, take a closer look (if you’re not allergic!) and you’ll be able to tell the difference between a bee and a wasp.

How to Attract Butterflies

One of the most welcome sights in the garden is when a butterfly comes to visit. When a whole swarm of them comes, it’s like magic. So how can you be sure to get more of these lovely visitors? By planting a butterfly garden! A butterfly garden, or pollinator garden, is planted specifically to lure beneficial insects who pollinate your flowering plants.

Here on Long Island, we have many butterfly species that you might see in your garden. Monarch butterflies, black swallowtail, and the painted lady just to name a few. To lure adult butterflies you not only need nectar plants for them to eat, but you also need to plant native plants that are food for butterfly caterpillars.

In early spring butterflies arrive and begin to lay their eggs on native plants that will feed their young. These eggs hatch into caterpillars. Once the caterpillars eat their fill they will build a cocoon. They’ll stay inside the cocoon until they emerge sometime later as an adult butterfly. Your garden should provide for every stage of the lifecycle. Plants like butterfly bushes (which are considered an invasive plant in some states), coneflower, sage, and lantanas are great at feeding adult butterflies, while milkweed, aster, parsley, and violets are the favorite foods of caterpillars.

Most plants that attract butterflies grow in full sun, so plan ahead before planting your butterfly garden. While some birds and butterflies can get along, most birds love butterflies for a snack. When laying out your garden place bird feeders well away from your butterfly garden, as well as any birdhouses.

In addition to knowing what plants to grow, you need to provide water, shelter, and sun. A birdbath or water feature is the perfect way to ensure that your winged friends have access to water to drink. Trees and shrubs make for the best butterfly houses. They provide branches to roost on at night and a place to hide from predators. Many trees and shrubs are also excellent caterpillar food.

Finally, the sun. Butterflies are cold-blooded insects and they need the sun to warm themselves up each morning. Make sure that some sun reaches either open ground, stones, or even pavement early in the morning so that it warms up and will be attractive to butterflies.

If you do a little bit of advanced planning and make sure to offer everything butterflies need to thrive you’ll lure them into your garden year after year.