Tidewater Gardening - April 2011


Proverbial Showers
K. Marc Teffeau


With the wet winter that we have had, and all the spring rains, don’t be in a hurry to work the garden soil when it is wet. If you do, you will destroy the soil structure and will make it hard as concrete in July when it does dry out. The easiest test to determine if the soil is ready to work is to squeeze a handful into a tight ball, then break the ball apart with your fingers. If the ball of soil readily crumbles in your fingers, the soil is ready to work. If it stays balled, however, it is too wet to work. Wait a few days and do the test again.
There are lots of things to do in April in the yard and garden but remember, don’t rush the season by planting those tender plants too early. We usually have a cold front come through toward the end of April or the first of May, so wait until the soil has warmed up – about the second week of May before you set out the tomato, eggplant, and pepper transplants.
For springtime lawn care, now is the time to apply a pre-emergent herbicide for crabgrass control in the lawn. The best control for crabgrass however, is mowing your lawn at two inches or higher. The higher the grass height, the more shade the soil surface gets. Crabgrass seed needs light to germinate, so if you reduce the light, you reduce your crabgrass population, not to mention having a thicker looking turf.
Make sure that your lawn mower blade is sharp. This will give a cleaner cut to the turf, reduce the ragged edge on the grass blade which gives the grass a brown tinge after being cut, and reduces potential disease problems.
If you didn’t get your fertilizer on the lawn last fall, you can apply a ½ pound of Nitrogen per 1,000 square feet now to help green-up the lawn. Avoid fertilizing any later than the end of April.
In the pruning department, you can prune out the water sprouts and sucker growths that we find in the crabapples and other spring flowering trees. You can also prune needled evergreens now if they need to be cut back. This includes cutting back the “rat tails” on yews.
If you want to keep the needled pines and other whorl-branched conifers from getting taller and want a more bushy appearance, pinch the candles at the end of the branches in half. This will cause the plants to branch out instead. Pinching by hand rather than using pruning shears is recommended because use of pruning shears will leave the needles with brown tips.
Perennials will be poking their heads out of their beds in April as the soil warms up. Now is a good time to dig and divide fall-flowering perennials that have multiplied and overfilled the flowerbed. One of the nice things about perennials, after you have planted them and they become established, to get more, all you have to do is divide them, rather than having to go out and buy additional plants. Check with some of your gardening friends, maybe they have some extra fall-flowering perennials and you can do a plant swap.
While we all enjoy the beautiful outdoor flower displays of the many types of tulips that are available, you can also cut them and bring them inside to brighten up the house, especially on those rainy April days. A bunch of cut tulips from your yard will last six to eight days indoors.
The Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center provides a few tips on how to keep the cut tulips at their best. When cutting the tulips in the landscape, use a sharp knife and cut the tips of the stems off at a slight angle. This will help the stems take up water. Unlike most cut flowers, tulips keep growing in the vase. In addition, as they grow taller - often an inch or more - they tend to bend toward the light.
Most people enjoy the unpredictable twists and turns of the tulips. However, if you want to re-straighten the stems, simply remove the flowers from the vase, re-trim the stem tips, and roll the tulips in newspaper with the paper extending above the flower tops, but not covering the lower third of the stem. Place the wrapped bunch upright in a container of cool water, deep enough to submerge the exposed stems. Leave in a cool place for an hour or two. Your tulips will soon be standing tall and you can return them to the vase.
Most bulb flowers respond well to the addition of cut flower “food” or floral preservatives to the water. Tulips are the exception to this. Keep the tulips fresh and full of vigor by adding fresh cool water to the vase every day or so. Fresh tulips will last a good week or more in the vase with some help. For the longest flower life, keep tulips in a cool spot in a room with no direct sunlight exposure and away from heat sources.
If you like to combine tulips and narcissi (daffodils) together, first treat the narcissi by trimming the stems and keeping them in a separate container of water for a few hours before adding them to the arrangement. This step allows the slimy sap in the narcissi stems to run off. The mucilage sap of narcissi can adversely affect other flowers in the vase by clogging up their water-uptake channels.
In the vegetable garden, seed some of your cool season root crops like beets, turnips, parsnips and leafy greens such as spinach and kale as soon as the ground can be worked. Early lettuce transplants can be set out but you must cover them if a hard frost is predicted.
Don’t forget to seed the edible pod peas and the traditional peas as they can germinate and tolerate cool soils. To help supply a natural source of nitrogen to the peas, buy inoculants for the peas and treat them before planting. These naturally occurring bacteria will grow into the pea roots and fix nitrogen from the air and convert it to a source that the plants can use.
Looking for a small flowering shade tree for the yard? The Society of Municipal Arborists has selected the Goldenrain Tree, Koelreuteria paniculata, as their 2011 “Urban Tree of the Year.” Also called the Pride of India, China Tree or Varnish Tree, this tree species is native to eastern Asia, China and Korea.
First introduced by Thomas Jefferson around 1810, Goldenrain Tree produces large panicles or clusters of golden yellow flowers and forms unusual bladder like pods that are almost as attractive as the flowers. The seed pods, which look like Chinese lanterns, are a chartreuse yellow turning tannish brown, and staying in the tree for long periods.
The tree exhibits deeply incised pinnately to bi-pinnately compound leaves which allow for light to penetrate to the ground. The tree grows to about 30 feet in height and develops a flat, compact head with twisting branches. Noted for its tortuous branching, Goldenrain Tree is best used as a specimen tree near the edge of the lawn or in a woodland border.
It has relatively few common pests and problems as a landscape tree and tolerates a wide array of soil types. Goldenrain Trees are also drought and heat tolerant and grow well in tough urban landscapes.
Happy gardening!