almanac

A volunteer pansy shows its cute face in April

Looking out the window in March when the snow is still flying, or trying to determine in April when the ground is dry enough to dig, we may feel as though spring will never come. Even so, there are many gardening chores that can be done. This is the perfect time to tackle some of the less-than-glamorous but critical tasks that will ensure a splendid garden throughout the year. On days too messy to work outside, there are plenty of jobs for the indoor gardener.

Inspect your tools and remove any rust you find. Sharpen the edges on your cutting tools to make sure you will obtain clean cuts on shrubs and trees. Take your power equipment to get an annual servicing—this includes tillers and lawn mowers. Even though they may not be needed until later in the season, now is a good time to do in, in order to avoid possible long service waits. You can also spend this time to cleaning pots and other containers to be sure that no diseases or pests carry over into the new growing season. Soap and water and/or a bleach or vinegar solution should suffice.

Now is also the time to start seeds indoors. Resources to find the correct time to start seeds and to transplant can be found at monroe.cce.cornell.edu (Gardening Factsheets) and at almanac.com/gardening/plantingcalendar/. Cool season vegetables such as beets, cabbage, leeks, and spinach can be sown or planted outdoors in April or as soon as the ground is workable.

Containers of plants that tolerate cooler temperatures can be placed outside in a sunny location in mid-April. Plants that work well for these early container gardens include pansies, cineraria, oxalis, heuchera, and parsley. Seeing these blooms has the added advantage of chasing away the winter doldrums. The container may need to be covered if a hard freeze is expected.

As the weather improves or on warm winter days you can begin your outdoor preparations such as pruning trees and shrubs and cleaning and readying garden areas. With the leaves still off deciduous trees and shrubs, it’s the perfect time to survey them for broken or diseased branches. You can remove them along with any branches that cross each other. Prune shrubs that need to be shaped. Shrubs that bloom on new wood, like roses, can be pruned back in early spring. Shrubs that bloom on old wood should wait until shortly after blooming. Azaleas fall into this category. There’s a helpful resource for pruning at pubs.ext.vt.edu.

It is also a great time to clear garden beds of leaves and other debris that has accumulated over the winter. Herbaceous perennials that were left to add winter interest to the garden, such as sedum and decorative grasses, should now be cut down close to the ground to allow for new growth. Evergreen and semievergreen perennials like heuchera and lavender can be trimmed of old leaves to improve shape and bloom. Mulching, however, should wait until the ground has warmed up in late May. And, yes, start attacking weeds as soon as they appear.

Once the ground is workable (a handful of dirt is crumbly), garden beds can be prepared for planting. Most plants need well-drained soil. Dense soil can be improved by adding organic matter to help hold moisture and nutrients. A soil test is beneficial to determine if additional nutrients are needed. Some local Cornell Extension offices, like Monroe County’s, can perform soil testing at a reasonable price. 

Use of fertilizers should be judicious to avoid runoff harming the watershed. Organic fertilizers are often easier on the environment. Your local nursery should be able to provide advice on which fertilizer to use as well as organic controls for pests, diseases, and weeds.

Lawn rejuvenation should wait until May when the ground is warm enough to germinate seed. The lawn can be prepared now by gently raking up leaves and debris. Vigorous raking at this time may pull up the grass you want, so be gentle. Fertilization of lawns should be delayed until the grass has been mowed a couple of times. Lawn care information is also available on the monroe.cce.cornell.edu website in the Gardening Factsheets.

Start planning for next spring by taking a survey of your garden. Do you have any early signs of spring such as snowdrops, hellebore, witch hazel, flowering quince? What about ephemerals that appear in spring and then die back until the next spring, e.g., bloodroot, Virginia bluebells, hepatica, spring beauty, Dutchman’s breeches, and bleeding hearts? Plant some of these this year and you will be pleasantly surprised early next year when they appear to let you know that spring is coming!

The mantra for all gardeners should be “Right plant, Right place.” Take this time to get fully acquainted with the sunlight and moisture available in different parts of your yard. We all want to rush out and buy something that looks good in the nursery, but will it survive in your garden? Our growing area for perennials, trees, and shrubs is zone 6 near Lakes Erie and Ontario and zone 5 the towards the Southern Tier. Be sure to check the hardiness zone on plant tags.

Finally, both gardening and spring awaken our senses to what is different and emerging around us. By interacting with nature, we learn to appreciate what is possible and needed to make our gardens a joy to behold. We get exercise, learn to solve problems, and make decisions for the benefit our environment. Most importantly, we get to enjoy a sense of peace as we look at the natural beauty we have in our gardens.

—Bonnie Knoke, Master Gardener, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Monroe County


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Almanac: November–December 2019

by cathym on November 1, 2019

Drain and store hoses
Photo: Jane Milliman

One of the wonderful things about gardening and raising plants is there are things to do in every season … a time to sow, a time to reap,and as fall ends and winter rolls around … still more to do. Some planting and reaping continues. This is the time to get the remainder of any spring bulbs (tulips, daffodils, crocus, hyacinths, and snowdrops) in the ground before it freezes. It’s also a great time to root-divide and plant perennials; plant roses, azaleas, and other shrubs; and establish rhubarb and/or asparagus beds—first prepare the bed/s, and then set the plant crowns under soil.

Now is the time to plant tree seedlings and shrubs, as they enter dormancy. I have potted apple, chestnut, aronia, and elderberry first-year seedlings ready to go into the ground, but the same goes for currants, raspberries, and others. Having waited for dormancy, I avoided the extensive watering that would have been required if I planted them earlier. For those plant seeds needing cold stratification, you’re on schedule to take your nut seeds (oak, chestnut, hazelnut, etc.), fruit tree seeds, and some berry seeds and get them planted in potting media. Place planted containers and trays outdoors, (covered with hardware cloth if squirrels might be tempted in your yard) Since they are outside, the cold winter weather will help soften up the nut seed coat, allowing them to sprout for spring.

If you plan on buying a live Christmas tree for the holidays, dig your hole before the ground freezes. Cover the removed soil to insulate it, so you can place it back in the hole when you plant the tree after the holidays.

Bring potted plants that will not survive the winter indoors as house plants (hearty geraniums, begonias, fuchsia, etc.). Potted tender perennials such as lavender and rosemary can also be kept in the garage or basement where temperatures stay above 32 degrees.

Time to harvest! After we have had a few frosts but before the ground freezes solid, turnips, parsnips, Brussel sprouts, and carrots may be harvested and will be as sweet tasting as they can be. This is the time to finalize clean-up and organization of the root cellar, as well as to can and preserve your remaining harvest. Check stored onions and potatoes periodically during the months ahead, removing any damaged or rotting fruit. Still, for those who want to extend the season, it’s time to set up cold frames and get your winter hardy greens (spinach, kale, and such) going in your greenhouse. As they are tropical perennials, you may even wish to bring some small pepper plants right into the house, where they may produce fruit all winter. Lift dahlia tubers, begonias, and gladiolus corms to store them in a dry and cool location over the winter, making sure to remove any dead foliage before storing.

For many gardeners, November and December is when to transition from growing to care and maintenance—this is the time to winterize your garden. Adding organic matter to beds and blending it in is important. You can also spread fresh manure over the surface of your vegetable beds to rot down over the winter months. Cut back and prune out any diseased or infested foliage. When cleaning up, make sure any refuse from any diseased plants is disposed of; do not put it into your compost, as typically home compost piles do not get hot enough to destroy pathogens. With crops removed and beds bare, it’s a good time to take any necessary soil tests.

Collect leaves, hay, etc., to either spread as mulch orto add to your compost piles. When mulching young trees, avoid putting the mulch directly next to the base of the tree, thereby stymying rodents’ easy access. Keep mulch at least two to three inches away from the tree trunk. Shielding the tree with wire mesh guards, tree tube, or some form of trunk protection is also critical in preventing mice, voles or rabbits from girdling and killing young trees. Remember, deer will be looking for young trees, evergreens, and shrubs to browse in the winter snow, so consider more substantial protection. Mowing lawns low close to your shrubs and young trees will also help prevent damage from rodents, as they avoid open, exposed spaces. Protect roses by mounding soil around the crown and covering the bud union. Tie down climbing rose canes to protect them from freezing winds. Before the snow turns everything white, aerating your lawn is a good idea, as well as a final mowing with the blade set high.

This is maintenance time for garden equipment, when hoses are drained, tools are cleaned, and all are appropriately stored for winter. Some tools, especially hoes and your handy scythe, need sharpening. Sharpening lawn mower blades before storage helps set you up to be ready for spring. It’s also inventory time, wherein you gaze across your garden and landscape, snap a few pictures, and ask yourself what worked, what didn’t work, and what would you like to do differently next year.

For further gardening advice contact your local Extension office and ask for the Master Gardener volunteers help line.

—John Slifka, CCE Oneida County Master Gardener Volunteer

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Almanac: September–October 2019

by cathym on September 4, 2019

First please take the time to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of autumn. This is a special time not to be missed. Now to work!

Don’t cut back grasses until spring.
Don’t cut back grasses until spring.

GARDEN MAINTENANCE
Fall is an ideal time to weed. This prevents both perennial and annual weeds from getting a head start in the spring. No time to weed? Cut off and discard the seed heads.

Watering trees and shrubs is as important as watering perennials, especially anything planted this season. They need to be well hydrated going into the winter. Keep all plants watered if it doesn’t rain at least an inch per week.

Allow annuals such as nicotiana, annual poppies, cleome, and Verbena bonariensis to drop seeds in the garden, unless you don’t like them!

Prevent mouse and rabbit damage to thin-barked trees and shrubs by installing a hardware cloth barrier that extends at least two feet above the anticipated snow depth. Cut any grass around the base of trees short to discourage nesting by these critters.

Add compost to your beds to improve soil texture and promote beneficial microbes to prepare the garden for next spring. If you have a compost pile, turn it. 

Late winter is the better time to prune trees and shrubs. Fall pruning cuts may not heal as they enter dormancy.

PERENNIALS
Move, divide, and share your oversized perennials so you can have one less thing to do next spring. Do this in early fall so the plants can establish roots. This is a good time as energy can go into root production rather than flower production. 

Remove and discard all diseased plant material. Do not place in a compost pile as some fungal spores can winter-over in ground litter and may re-infect plants. Disinfect your pruners after each cut when pruning diseased plants. Spray pruner blades with Lysol, dip in a 10 percent bleach solution, or use alcohol wipes.

Remove and destroy iris foliage to eliminate the eggs of the iris borer.

Mound soil around your roses when the temperature drops. Bring in fresh soil to avoid disturbing roots. 

Leave the seedheads of astilbe, black-eyed Susan, coneflower, daisy, etc. intact to provide food and shelter for wildlife as well as giving winter interest.

Don’t cut back grasses and plants such as red osier dogwood; they add to the beauty of the winter garden. 

BULBS, TUBERS, AND CORMS
Purchase spring bulbs that are unblemished and large for their species. The presence of blue-green mold is not a problem unless it penetrates into the bulb itself.

Choose bulbs like daffodils that perennialize to save both time and money.

Begin planting spring bulbs. You will get better results if you plant when there is a month of 40 degree or above soil temperature (mid-September to mid-October in our area). This allows the bulbs to set strong roots and will give you better blooming.

With some bulbs it’s difficult to tell the top from the bottom. The skin is loose at the top and attached at the bottom. If you can’t tell, plant them sideways

To deter moles, voles and squirrels, put a layer of pea gravel or small-gauge chicken wire between the bulbs and soil surface.

Plant bulbs two to three times as deep as their height and a little deeper for naturalizing varieties.

Dig and store summer blooming tubers such as caladium and elephant ears before frost and tuberous begonias, cannas, and dahlias after foliage is blackened by frost. 

LAWN
September is the best time to fertilize your lawn and seed a new one. A top dressing of good compost is an ideal natural fertilizer. Overseeding bare spots helps prevent weeds in those areas the following year.

Remember to water the grass seeds regularly to keep the soil moist and choose high quality seed appropriate for your site.

In early September check your lawn for grubs by lifting up about a square foot of sod. If there are more than 10 to12 grubs per square foot you may want to treat for grubs. First identify what type of grub you have so you know the proper treatment. Complete your grub control program by the middle of September. Contact your Cooperative Extension for help in identification and treatment options.

Keep mowing the lawn. Make the last cutting one inch lower than usual to prevent matting and to discourage snow mold.

If the leaves aren’t too thick on your lawn leave them there when you mow; those mulched leaves feed your lawn naturally.

FRUITS, VEGETABLES, AND HERBS
Any time after the first frost through late October is a good time to plant garlic.

Pot up some parsley, chives, oregano, or mints to use indoors. You can also freeze or dry herbs for winter use. Be sure to wash off the plants. 

Pick off the tomato blossoms that won’t have time to develop so the nutrients go into the tomatoes already growing on the vine.

Plant cover crops such as peas or clover as you harvest your vegetables. This will reduce the need for weeding and will add nitrogen to the soil. Another option is to sow a cover crop such as rye or winter wheat in the vegetable garden. Turn it over in the spring.

Dig mature onions on a dry day. Store in well ventilated mesh bags or panty hose.
Plant radish, kale, spinach, and lettuce seeds in early September as your last crops. Extend the season with floating row covers or cold frames.
Pull up hot pepper plants and hang them until the peppers are dry. 

If you had any vegetables with fungal problems, make sure that area is cleaned of all plant debris and avoid planting the same variety in the same spot next year.

Mulch asparagus and strawberries.

MISCELLANEOUS
Bring in tender perennials such as scented geraniums and rosemary and any annuals you want to overwinter before you turn on the furnace. This cuts down on the shock of moving inside. 

To start annuals for next season, take cuttings from scented geraniums, begonias, strobilanthes, and coleus in early September while the plants are in their prime.

Collect seeds from open pollinated plants such as kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate, Big Max pumpkin, and Brandywine tomatoes. If collecting seeds, be sure to keep them dry and chilled at 35 to 45 degrees.

Plant trees and shrubs now. They will have time to develop roots before winter sets in.

Fallen leaves are one of the most wasted natural resources the home gardener has. They can be chopped and used as a mulch to improve soil texture and to add nutrients. (Get some from your neighbors as well.) 

Small leaves like linden or birch trees can be spread on gardens directly. Larger leaves can be shredded or run over with your lawn mower before spreading. Avoid using black walnut or butternut as they can be toxic to many plants. Excess leaves can be composted for use next spring. They decompose faster if shredded first.

Begin bringing in houseplants that lived outdoors all summer. Wash off with a good spray of soapy water. Check for diseases and insects before bringing inside.

Lay out thick layers of cardboard or newspaper over areas that will become new beds in the spring and cover with mulch or compost. This will kill grasses and/or weeds as they break down making spring efforts easier. This is also a good method of controlling large masses of weeds.

Take pictures of your gardens. Make notes for next year’s gardens now. What worked, what didn’t, what to add, remove, or move etc. (You may think you will remember next year but you probably won’t.)

—Carol Ann Harlos and Lyn Chimera, Erie County Master Gardeners

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