Toronto Star column – published April 5, 2014
Time To Wake the Garden Up
Gardeners right across the country are good and ready for spring. In Winnipeg the frost is 7 feet deep. They have endured the second harshest winter in 75 years. I only mention this as many Torontonians enjoy moaning about the weather: what it is, what it was, what is forecast. I say enough already. Let’s do something about it.
My late father used to say that when we meet darkness, it is always best to shine a light on it. In other words, if the long winter is getting you down, get up and fertilize the lawn.
I am here this morning with another one of my ‘fridge magnet’ stories. This is a list of things that you can do if you want to enjoy a great garden this season. It requires some ‘work’ on your part. But then, whether you define garden and yard activity as ‘work’ or ‘fun’ [as in my case] is entirely up to you. It is an attitudinal thing.
- Lawn. Annually I remind readers to rake their lawn with a fan rake this time of year, using a gentle touch so as not to give the chiropractor too much business. The idea, after all, is to get the grass blades to stand up on end and encourage the circulation of fresh air through the crown of each grass plant, not to throw your back out. If you have a ‘dethatching rake’, be sure to ignore it and put it in a garage sale for some unsuspecting buyer. Here in southern Ontario dethatching the lawn is overrated, as are the results: stiffness all over. It is a problem that can be solved with a warm bath and Tylenol.
- Lawn #2. After you have raked your green patch of lawn, time to fertilize it. Be sure that you use a good quality product as there are many el-cheapo’s out there that will indeed fertilize your lawn but they work so fast that the results are hardly worth the effort and you risk burning your lawn. A slow release ingredient like sulphur coated urea releases the nitrogen [#1 ingredient in the bag, or the first number in the 3 number sequence] over an eight to ten week period. The nutrients are provided as temperatures rise, rain falls, and microbial activity occurs in the soil. Your lawn will look greener, longer. Quality iron creates a deeper green. Look for ‘DDP’, a special non-staining ingredient.
- Lawn #3. Spread grass seed over bare and thin patches. Lay down about 5 cm of triple mix or lawn soil [not top soil as it is full of weed seeds, defeating the purpose of over seeding]. Rake it smooth. Broadcast some grass seed over the area by hand. Let the seed roll off your index finger as you wave your arm back and forth gently. Apply about one kilo of grass seed for every 10 sq meters. Or two handfuls for an area about the size of a small wading pool [the one that killed the lawn last summer]. Rake that smooth and water well. Continue to add water every day or so until germination occurs and the grass seed has put down a healthy root.
It is helpful to know a bit about grass seed before you go shopping for it. The pedigree of your lawn depends on the quality of the seed that you apply, so don’t skimp. A Canadian source of grass seed helps to ensure that you are getting seed stock that is appropriate for our climate [remember that winter? How do you think your lawn felt about it?] I have more faith in grass seed blends that are rated specific to shady areas, where it is called for. The ‘all purpose’ grass seed mixes are fine for sunny areas but poor performers, relatively speaking, when used in shade.
4. Fruit trees and roses. When night time temperatures remain above freezing, it is time to apply dormant spray. This is a wonderful, safe elixir that kills overwintering insects and diseases on most shrubs and trees. It is especially useful when used on fruit trees and roses as the former will produce fruit, with any luck, that will be edible if you keep on top of the insect and disease challenges. Roses respond well to an application of dormant spray as it reduces black spot, powdery mildew and a host of insects that otherwise can wreak havoc. Buy your dormant spray and the appropriate sprayer now so that you are ready. After the buds have opened it is too late. And that will happen soon enough, believe me.
5. Start tuberous begonias and dahlias. Let’s say that it is raining or too cold to go outside to work just now. This is the perfect time to pot up dahlia roots in one gallon sized pots. Use a quality potting mix like CIL or Pro Mix and place the pots in a sunny window or heated greenhouse.
Tuberous begonias [large flowering, shade loving annuals] are best started in 100% peat moss which has been spread out in a seed starting tray. ‘Screw’ the tubers, convex side up, into the pre-moistened peat moss and gently cover them with a thin layer of peat. Keep the peat moss moderately moist and place the works up on top of your refrigerator where the low, ambient heat from the motor will warm them up and encourage early root development. Watch them for 4 to 6 weeks and when they have nice white roots about 2 or 3 cm. long, pot them up into 4-inch pots and place in a sunny window to grow on for planting out in the garden this May.
6. Start seeds indoors. We are about 6 to 8 weeks away from ‘planting out’ season and there are many vegetables and flowers that can be started from seed this time of year. This is as satisfying as it is money saving. When you peruse the seed racks at your local retailer you will find a wider variety of seeds than you will, generally, come May in the nursery as pre-started transplants. Don’t let your head spin as you look through the selection. Take your time, read the labels and don’t let the fancy pictures fool you. I have yet to grow freesia successfully in my garden but I always try as the picture makes them look so good I want to eat them. As a result I throw away some hard earned cash each season. For a complete list of veggies and flowers that should be started now go to my website www.markcullen.com and look up “A Seedy Pastime”.
Here is a checklist for other tasks that might need your attention. I leave it up to you to decide what you can afford to ignore:
– Lawn mower: change the oil, lubricate the chassis and sharpen the blade
– Hand tools: clean off last season’s soil with a file and use the same file to put a sharp edge on digging tools like shovels and spades. Makes for much easier work.
– Potting soil: stock up, keep it dry and find a big container, like a garbage can to dump it in. You will be filling containers with annuals and perennials soon enough.
– Clean up the debris in your garden that won’t rot down. Stems of perennials, branches of hydrangeas, cigarette butts, and the like. Leaves and ‘soft’ natural material will break down if you ignore it and it is always good for the soil.
Breathe deep, stretch every 15 to 20 minutes, drink lots of fluids [your choice, I have my preferences], and enjoy. You waited for this. You have earned it.