“I’m so late this year,” a customer told me this week. “I have whole beds I haven’t even planted!”
Her cart was brimming with 4-inch flowering begonias, sweet potato vines and coleus. I spent some time explaining that she is not late. June-like weather is just early. Planting tender annuals – her cartload – is early, or at least a bit risky. She knows she will have to cover the plants and take hanging baskets inside on the inevitable frosty nights still ahead.
The woman, like thousands of people thronging the nurseries on these glorious days, is not wrong in sensing some urgency, however. It’s just not about planting. One landscaping or gardening task is absolutely crucial right now: Watering is reaching crisis status in many yards. And right behind that, another maintenance task, weeding, will get away from us if we don’t attend to it promptly.
Water is crucial now
Shrubs and trees manage to survive winter by relying on the energy stored in their roots while they are dormant. Once they break dormancy they begin to work hard, using every last bit of energy to produce shoots, leaves and flower buds. They need a great amount of water to transport nutrients and to support this growth, and fortunately, spring rainfall is usually generous.
As the woody plants and early perennials start to grow, the rain supplies moisture to the roots and vascular systems so they can transmit nutrients and support the whole structure. Once the plants use up the moisture in the soil, and they are still growing, the leaves continue to transpire – lose moisture – and then what? If water isn’t continually supplied during this intense growth stage, buds will drop, new growth will die back and permanent damage may occur.
That’s where we are right now, and why your most important job this month is watering. I’ve been noticing that people are surprised to hear it, but the water table is very low. From a tree’s perspective, getting through last summer was tough enough. It may have entered winter already stressed – and now this!
If you doubt me, use a shovel – often. Dig next to your key plants, and see how far down the soil is dry. Even if it rains today or this weekend, dig again a couple of days later. Especially soil that is lacking in organic matter (that is moisture-retentive, such as compost) doesn’t stay moist for long.
If your watering setup isn’t ready, or you have limited time or water, make your watering count. Start with any trees or shrubs that were planted in the last two or three years, especially evergreens, and then move on to young herbaceous (non-woody) perennials. They have the smallest root systems and sustain damage soonest. Do not water a little every day, wetting only the top inches. Instead, water once or twice a week deeply – as deeply as you must to soak the entire root system. Not sure how much it takes? Again, use the shovel and find out how far your watering penetrated. Did it reach all the roots? It takes more than most people think.
Weed me now or weed me later
We each have a different set of weeds to deal with, but every single one is best removed right now, before its roots take hold, before its rhizomes or runners reach out, or before it disperses millions of seeds to make millions more plants.
How to kill weeds? I cannot tell you how often I am asked about which products to use to kill or prevent weeds, only to find out that we’re talking about a small garden that is easily manageable by hand.
In a large landscape or vegetable garden, you may choose a product such as Preen – an organic version is available – to prevent new weeds from germinating. It is very effective for that purpose, not for killing existing weeds. There may also be a time for a product such as Roundup to kill vast stretches of perennial weeds or invasive plants. But most homeowners do not need herbicides to kill weeds. You just have to hoe, dig and pull.
Weeding is much easier if you have the right tools and techniques. First, sharpen your hoes, shovels and trowels; some professionals will do that for you. If you sometimes suffer from an aging back or hands, I suggest you do not go at weeding the typical way – bending, stooping and pulling. Just yesterday I weeded a large bed (deep-rooted dandelions, chickweed, bed straw and a few prickly lettuces) this way:
Step one: Standing up, use a hoe, scraping it back and forth quickly over open areas to dislodge seedlings. No need to pick them up as they will die in place.
Step two: Still standing, use a pointed shovel or spade to dig straight down next to dandelions, thistles, buttercups, burdocks – any unwanted plants with deep roots. I say straight down because if you angle the shovel you cut off pieces of roots that usually are capable of re-sprouting. You may need to make two digging thrusts to loosen large weeds, and wiggle the shovel. Cover the whole area without bending yet.
Step three: Now get onto your knees and pull all the loosened weeds and put them into a basket or bucket. A little bit of crawling (or scooting along on your bottom) is a lot less strenuous than all the ups and downs of the other method. And that’s what old jeans are for.
Any week in spring is a good time to plant a tree or shrub (as long as the soil is ready). Perennials are also ready for planting, hardened off in most garden centers, and some frosty nights won’t kill them. For warm-weather vegetables (tomatoes), annual bedding plant flowers or container plants, you are definitely not late. Warm days in early May do not mean it’s summer.
Remember: Gardening is not a race, and we’re not on the clock. Gardening is joy; we do it for pleasure and beauty. Take a deep breath.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.