Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Almanac: March – April 2019

by cathym on March 19, 2019

Early spring is one of the most difficult times for timely tips. How we transition from snow and biting cold to chilly or even balmier weather depends on the year. The following suggestions, created with upstate New York still in winter’s grip, take a middle ground.  Some suggestions maybe too late. Others could be put off for several more weeks.

The period around the equinox (March 20, 2019) is good for fertilizing house plants. Unless they are growing exclusively under lights, longer, brighter days stimulate renewed growth. Nutrients provided this time of year jump start this springtime flush.

Hopefully, your vegetable and flower seed orders have arrived. The packs of onions, leeks, celeriac, and celery are likely sown, and, if they aren’t, although it is not too late, the transplants they produce might be less than ideal in size when they go into the garden starting in late April and early May. This is prime time for sowing warm season crops such as peppers and tomatoes.

Spring-flowering, deciduous shrubs cut and brought indoors will sprout blooms months before they naturally flower outdoors. Cut the stems on a day above freezing and submerge them in a pail of warm water for a couple hours. Then place the branches in a tall container in a dimly lit space. Consider spritzing those stems with water, as that keeps the bark supple and allows the swelling buds an easier way to push through. Changing the water daily slows the growth of bacteria and fungi in the water. Both of these, when taken up by the xylem, “clog the plumbing” and interfere with bud development.

Depending on the plant, the chilling requirement has almost certainly been met by now. Some were reset to bloom shortly after Christmas (forsythia, red maple, pussy willow, and serviceberry, for example). Others, such as crabapple, redbud, and magnolia, require longer dormancy. Display all these flowering stems out of direct sun and warm drafts for the longest enjoyment.

Cherry branches are good candidates for forcing indoors.

If spring bulbs such as tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils were potted and put in the refrigerator last fall, plan to remove them a month prior to when you want the floral display. Only a couple of weeks is required for forcing crocus, snow drops, and winter aconite.

Venture outside during a break in the weather and examine trees and shrubs for evidence of the ravages of winter. Without foliage it is much easier to discern damage that either you or a professional should tend to. Healthy trees can benefit from preventative maintenance such as reducing their crown size. This reduces the severity of storm damage in the future. Look also for egg masses on the bark. Gypsy Moth cycles in our area occasionally. The Spotted Lantern Fly was found in the central Finger Lakes and Rochester last year. The manila egg masses of both are somewhat similar, and scraping them off helps slow the spread of these invasive insects.

Deciduous shrubs respond well to regular pruning. (For instance, by keeping stem diameter of lilacs to less than an inch, the likelihood of a lilac borer infesting a stem is close to zero). Pruning late in the dormant season, before bud break, guides new growth to the direction you want. It’s a good idea, but not required, to prune annually. With a little pruning each year, glaring evidence of a significant pruning is avoided and the plant’s stature remains somewhat constant.

First, select for removal disease and damaged branches. Then, remove the oldest and largest diameter branches. I might remove a quarter but no more than a third of a shrub’s branches. Cut the stems close to the ground. Pruning high in the shrub or removing only branch ends fosters a taller plant with blooms that are up in the air and more difficult to see from the ground. These pruned stems may be forced indoors as described previously.

The most productive fruiting stems of blueberry and currant shrubs are less than four years old. A plant with a dozen or so stems with a mix of one, two and three years old, maximizes yield potential and makes fruit harvesting easier.

Evergreen shrubs such as yew (Taxus spp.) and boxwood (Buxus spp.), particularly those trained as a hedge, benefit from some selective deep pruning. Without that, leaves grow in a narrow band on the plant’s edge. Removing a mid-forearm’s length stem, creating a fist-size hole, (or less with a very small boxwood) exposes dormant buds of the interior to light. These then sprout and grow.

Few of us really want to see the bare lower stems of an evergreen shrub. (An exception might be when creating a bonsai or topiary.) Keep hedge foliage growing close to the ground by trimming the hedge in a trapezoid, with a broad base and narrow top. Vertical sides or broad tops encourage naked lower stems.

Early-season working of the soil depends on the clay content and slope of the land. Working soil that is too wet destroys its tilth, or structure. Make an assessment of soil’s workability by taking a small handful and gently compressing it to a ball in your hand. Now, with the ball in your open palm, gently poke it. If it crumbles, soil work can commence. If the ball resists breaking, then the soil is too wet. Try again a week or so later, unless rainfall keeps the soil saturated.

If springtime cabin fever is an annual event and your soil is not receptive to early cultivation, consider creating raised beds with or without artificial sides. Being higher than the surrounding ground, these areas drain earlier and may be prepared sooner.

The addition of organic matter, particularly compost, is another aid for improving drainage that facilitates early season gardening activity.

In recent years, gardeners reported sightings of invasive worms in their landscape. This time of the year, look for coffee-ground like castings on the soil surface. For unexplained reasons, in 2018, the number of worms significantly dropped in many areas of the Rochester and Finger Lakes as well as part of the lower Hudson Valley. Young Asian worms are most easily seen by mid-May. Look for the telltale blond or gray clitellum or band near the worm’s head. If you find any, consider putting a pin on the virtual map found at nyimapinvasives.org.

Spring weather is coming—Punxsutawney Phil forecasted it!

—Walt Nelson, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Monroe County

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