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Getting Ready for Growth

Spring Preparations Help Set Up Your Landscape for a Successful, Healthy Growing Season

written by Stacey Campbell
photography by Joe Crocetta & Ric Dugan

Selecting and starting seeds from the wide array available at garden centers like Snavely's Garden Center Corner in Hagerstown can satisfy the urge to dig before the ground is ready.

“The early bird gets the worm.” It’s an appropriate aphorism for early spring, and one that perfectly applies to the preparation needed to ensure a lush, flourishing and enjoyable landscape throughout the growing season. There’s plenty to do in the coming months to give all your outdoor spaces the best start.

Shaking Off Winter

The last frigid days of winter are perfect for planning and preliminary assessments. Determine your landscaping budget and new projects. And, to appease the urge to dig, consider starting seedlings indoors. “Find out when the plants can go into the ground and back up the date so you have enough time for them to get started from seed,” says Washington County Master Gardener Coordinator Annette Ipsan.

The next step is reviewing your beds and cleaning up the dormant landscape. “The early spring cleanup is a great way to spend those warm spring days,” says Jon Snavely, owner of Snavely’s Garden Corner in Hagerstown. Look for any damage to trees and shrubs, and cut back ornamental grasses and other dead growth to about 2 inches above the ground. “Get everything cleaned out so you know what you have, in case you have (something) dead that you might need to replace,” advises estimator Sandy Carlin of Botanica Enterprises in Boonsboro. Consider what new plants you might need, and whether you’ll want to consult with a professional for design and/or installation services.

Late February and early March is a great time to prune and shape most trees and shrubs, while they’re still dormant. “I use my rule of thumb: if it’s bigger than your thumb, you should wait until it’s dormant to prune it,” Jon says. Be sure to finish pruning by early March, which is when the sap starts flowing again, and be aware of trees that are averse to pruning. “Dogwoods, for instance, are slow to heal because they’re slow to grow,” Sandy cautions. Late pruning and slow-healing cuts can cause sap to weep, inviting bugs and disease. For flowering shrubs like azaleas, forsythia and lilac, prune after spring bloom to avoid cutting off flower buds.

Green Arbor founder John W. Beck loads wood into a fire pit surrounded by hardscaping, which can be installed virtually any time of year and requires only basic cleaning and sealing in spring.

Digging In

Warmer days in March and April really tempt green thumbs, but be sure to wait until the soil has dried somewhat before tilling, adding compost or digging new beds. “If you dig when it’s wet, you damage the soil structure” and compact the soil, Annette says. Use the squeeze test: squeeze a ball of soil in your hand, then bounce it a little. If it stays in a ball, it’s too wet to dig. If it crumbles, it’s dry enough to dig and incorporate soil amendments like compost, manure and other organics.

“You want to get new vegetable garden spaces ready in March and April,” says John Ryan Beck, landscaper and vice president of Green Arbor Flower & Shrubbery Center in Waynesboro, Pa. “If you don’t have those ready, you can be losing some of that growing time” when the warm weather comes to stay in May. Cool-season crops like lettuce, peas, spinach and carrots can be planted directly in the ground in late March and into April. Be alert for frost, and have row covers or blankets ready to protect plants if need be, Annette says.

April and May are great for planting shrubs, trees and perennials, allowing them plenty of time to get established and ready to face the summer heat. Finally, apply or refresh mulch – not exceeding 3 inches depth, Sandy advises – which will help hold soil moisture and temperature.  

Snavely's Garden Corner owner John Snavely trims an evergreen, following his rule of thumb: if a branch is bigger than your thumb, wait until the plant is dormant to prune.

Love Your Lawn

Though lawns tend to get overlooked until it’s definitely time to fire up the mower, key early steps will keep turf top-notch. Consider overseeding thin spots while the ground is still frozen. “When you’re getting freezing nights and sunny days, the soil surface cracks and the seed falls down into the cracks, and it just lays there until the soil temperature comes up (and) the seed germinates,” Jon says. “Mother Nature does the work for you.” Grass is resilient and will take some of the cold, Sandy says, so “definitely do your bare spots as early as possible. Don’t wait until after April, and then May comes and then you have to water it all the time and it’s going to be hot.”

Lawn treatments should start early in the year, too. “Around the middle of March is when you want to get your first application of crab-grass preventer,” Sandy says, which will stop crab grass from germinating in the spring. This can be part of a four- to five-step annual weed-and-feed program, which can be contracted to a professional or done in consultation with a garden professional. A soil test will identify the nutrients your lawn needs, Annette says. Also, get familiar with Maryland’s new fertilizer law, designed to protect the Chesapeake Bay from excess runoff that contributes to algae blooms.

Around March or early April, determine if the lawn needs to be dethatched. “Thatch is the dead, straw-like brown stuff you get in lawn,” John Ryan says, and it’s removed by a rake or renting specialized equipment. “Dethatching allows the soil to accept any grass seed or fertilizers you put down, rather than getting caught up in dead stuff.” Bagging grass clippings on every third mowing can help slow thatch buildup, Sandy says.

Eber Murray tills the soil of his vegetable garden on Hykes Road near State Line, Pa. He likes to plant spring onions and lettuce early in the season.

Easy-Care Hardscapes

If installing a new hardscape is in the plan, winter is a great time to get started. “You can get the ball rolling, getting design options down, and when warm weather breaks, you’re at top of the list,” says Michael Green, co-owner and operations manager of Green Concrete Works in Hagerstown. “And, it’s often best to work backward: think about what you want to do in the space before designing, and what furniture you want in the space.”

Don’t let that stony exterior make you think hardscapes don’t require any TLC. First, do a visual check for any cracks or pavers lifted up by winter freezing. With patio furniture still stored for the winter, now is a good time to clean and seal landscape walls and patios. “Yes, they are very low-maintenance products, but natural materials and concrete are extremely porous,” Michael says. “They can mildew, attract dirt.”

Cleaning can be done with a strong scrub brush or a power washer set to a fan spray to avoid damaging the surface. Soap and water will do the trick, but Simple Green boosts cleaning power for tough jobs. “And, you don’t have to worry about it killing your plants or your grass if it runs off in your yard,” John Ryan says. Follow with a sealer, which will fill the pores in concrete, pavers or brick and help extend time between cleanings. Though these are relatively easy homeowner projects, companies like Botanica and Green Concrete Works handle these services.

Learning and Growing

Once the spring preparatory work is done and your cold-averse plants are in the ground in May, maintain your hard work and enjoy the learning process. “The most important thing,” Sandy says, “is going out at least once or twice a week and policing all your beds.” Check for insects and disease, and pluck weeds while they’re still small to avoid disrupting established plants.

Embrace the fact that there’s always more to learn in the garden. “It can be a very intimidating hobby. And that’s why it becomes a lifetime hobby, because you’re out there and you’re learning every year,” Jon says. “You really never stop learning,” Annette affirms. “There’s alway something new, and that’s part of the fun.”

Homeowner’s Toolbox

The University of Maryland Extension publishes “Gardener’s Guide: What to do and When,” which is available at the Washington County Extension office, 7303 Sharpsburg Pike in Boonsboro. The guide includes month-to-month guidelines, frost dates, hardiness zones, Web links and more. Go to http://extension.umd.edu/hgic for links to soil testing and a wealth of gardening topics. For details on Maryland’s new guidelines for residential fertilizer use, which took effect in October 2013, go to http://mda.maryland.gov/Pages/fertilizer.