Spring Gardening Guide

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Spring Gardening Guide
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Grab your gardening boots and get ready to get your hands dirty. With so many returning to their roots this time of year, a talk is in order with Sheri Ann Richerson, author of "Complete Idiot's Guide to Year-Round Gardening" and "101 Organic Gardening Tips," to get the dirt on how to weed, prune and prep gardens for spring.

Early Spring: Determine Your Start Date
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Early Spring: Determine Your Start Date

While spring technically begins on March 21st, it's important to take your climate zone into consideration. "Remember, most plants prefer frost-free conditions and soil temperatures that are 50 degrees Fahrenheit or higher," Richerson said. "You can use a cheap kitchen thermometer in place of the more expensive soil thermometers -- simply insert the probe into the ground and let it sit there for five minutes so you know you are getting an accurate reading." In terms of gardening, spring starts when the soil says so.

Early Spring: Check the Soil
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Early Spring: Check the Soil

First, check your soil. "Never work wet soil," Richerson said. "Pick up a piece of soil with your hands and squeeze it into a ball. If water comes out, the soil is too wet. If the soil crumbles and won’t form a ball, it is too dry." If the soil forms a somewhat crumbly, loose ball, you're ready to start prepping.

Early Spring: Clear the Area
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Early Spring: Clear the Area

"Remove plant debris from the garden," Richerson said. Rake your leaves, clear out old mulch and pay special attention to unwanted refuse in the beds. If you need to turn the soil, do it by hand instead of using a roto-tiller. While you're down there, be on the lookout for insect eggs belonging to ladybugs, praying mantis or other "good bugs." "If you find these, try to leave them alone," Richerson said. Not only do they eat the "bad bugs" (the bugs that eat your plants), they also often keep you company while you garden.

Early Spring: Get Rid of Weeds
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Early Spring: Get Rid of Weeds

With weeds, the best defense is a good offense. "Remove weeds as soon as they begin to emerge," Richerson said. "You can pull them or chop them off right below ground level." The goal is to get rid of any unwanted growth before it starts to steal the sunlight and nutrients from the plants you're trying to nurture.

Early Spring: Prune Now to Enjoy Later
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Early Spring: Prune Now to Enjoy Later

Trees, shrubs, flowers and houseplants all need to be pruned. "Pruning encourages new growth and helps give plants a nice shape," Richerson said. "Some plants need pruning to encourage them to continue to flower or flower more profusely." If you've never pruned before, think of it like a routine trip to the barber shop, except you're the barber and your garden is the customer. Essentially, your giving your plants a haircut and encouraging them to take a specific shape. "Always make cuts at a 90-degree angle right in front of a branch or leaf cluster," Richerson said. The goal is to cut as close as you can without damaging the part of the plant you're hoping to keep. In terms of flowering shrubs, remember that it's best to prune them after they flower so you don't accidentally trim off a baby bud.

Early Spring: Start Your Seeds
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Early Spring: Start Your Seeds

Now's the time to plan ahead. "Consider the plants you want to start from seed and how much room you have before you begin," Richerson advised. Then, get out your calendar and count backward. "The typical indoor seed starting time frame depends on the type of seeds -- the average range is anywhere between four weeks and 12 weeks prior to the last frost in your area." The back of your seed packet will tell you a more precise start week for your U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone.

Early Spring: Start Your Spuds
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Early Spring: Start Your Spuds

Potato planting begins as early as November, but if you get them into the ground before St. Patrick's Day, you'll be fine. When you begin to plant your potatoes, select a spot in full sunlight and dig a trench 12 inches deep. Then "fill the bottom 4 inches with grass clippings, leaves or straw and place the sprouted potatoes on top of the straw -- be sure they are cut up and cured first," Richerson said. "Cover them with an additional 4 inches of grass clippings, leaves or straw and a light layer of soil." When you start to see growth, refill the trench with your displaced soil.

Early Spring: Plant Cold-Loving Annuals
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Early Spring: Plant Cold-Loving Annuals

In the early spring, you can plant some of the heartier annuals, such as pansies, like the ones here, and snapdragons. "Once heavy frosts in your area are over – typically four weeks before the last expected frost, you can begin planting annual plants that don’t mind light frost," Richerson advised.

Mid Spring: Plant Trees and Shrubs
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Mid Spring: Plant Trees and Shrubs

If you're buying partially grown trees or shrubs, wait to buy them until you are ready to plant them. "A good rule of thumb is to dig a hole two-to-three times larger than the plant's root ball, amend the soil with organic matter and back-fill the hole," Richerson said. "Remember, the roots need to grow into the soil, and hard, thick, packed soil is not ideal for anything."

Mid Spring: Divide Your Crowded Perennials
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Mid Spring: Divide Your Crowded Perennials

Perennials, by definition, are plants that grow from the same roots year after year, like the mass of daisies here. Unlike annuals, they don't die after germination. This means you don't have to replant perennials each season. But you do have to be wary of overcrowded roots. The solution is to divide them. "If the perennials are dying, don’t wait," Richerson said. "Do what you can as soon as possible to save some of the plant."

Mid Spring: Plant Cold-Loving Vegetables
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Mid Spring: Plant Cold-Loving Vegetables

Peas, carrots, radishes, turnips, cabbage, lettuce, spinach, kale and Swiss chard are just a few of the cold-loving veggies you can plant mid-spring. If you're already a seasoned veteran in the garden, take notes from Richerson. "I start planting seeds for my spring garden in January and continue through March. Most people won’t start until April," Richerson said. "I also replant all those frost-loving vegetables again in July and August for a fall/winter harvest."

Mid Spring: Protect Your Plants
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Mid Spring: Protect Your Plants

If the soil dries out, your plants have already suffered. "Those tiny feeder roots dry out and then the plant cannot take up water and nutrients as necessary," Richerson said. To protect your plants from dehydration, use compost both before you plant and when the weather heats up. "It warms the early spring soil and cools the soil in summer by protecting the plant's roots."

Late Spring: Plant Heat-Loving Annuals
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Late Spring: Plant Heat-Loving Annuals

Impatiens, petunias (like these), geraniums and begonias are among the heat-loving annuals you can plant in late spring. "Plant them after the last frost in your area," Richerson advised.

Late Spring: Prune Spring-Blooming Shrubs
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Late Spring: Prune Spring-Blooming Shrubs

As soon as your spring-blooming shrubs, like the lilacs here, finish flowering, it's time to prune them. "The exception: plants that produce berries," Richerson said. "If you prune these, they will not fruit."

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