Guest Post: Gardening Tips for April

One area of my industry I’ve wanted to do more with is garden coaching- working with homeowners to teach them how to care for their gardens themselves. The curse of running a small business is that there are only so many hours in a day, and rather than clone myself (way too controversial), I went one better and teamed up with a great garden coach. Thomas Bolles hold s a Masters in Agricultural Education from Virginia Tech, and has spent over a decade teaching people agriculture and horticulture. He even spent six months training agriculture students in Afghanistan- temperate Virginia has to be a walk in the park, compared to Afghanistan! I’ve invited Thomas to provide periodic guest blog posts so that you can get to know him as well. If you’re interested in working with Thomas as your garden coach, give me a call at (540) 308-5411 and we’ll set it up.

Enough from me; here’s Thomas!

April is National Gardening Month and the ideal time to break out of your indoor routine and get into the garden.

You need to have an idea of what nutrients are in your soil before you add more to it. If you haven’t already done so, get your soil analyzed. Virginia Tech tests soil for Virginia and Maryland . Contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office to get a soil test kit. Test kits are free but the standard analysis will cost you $10 if you’re a Virginia resident or $16 if you’re out of state.

The average last frost date for Northern Virginia is April 15th. Keep in mind it’s an AVERAGE. Keep an eye on your favorite meteorologist until mid-May to make sure you can protect your young plants if there’s a late frost. Plants started indoors need to be hardened off – gradually exposed to outdoor sun, wind and temperatures each day as you approach time for them to go into the garden. Forgetting to harden off may result in dead or stunted plants after a cold night. You can also help your ground absorb and retain heat by covering your beds with black plastic. This will get soil temperatures up so the seeds you sow directly in the garden will germinate faster.

To sow or not to sow is a question many of us never think about. Some people would rather start their own seeds. Some people are intimidated by the idea of germinating their own seeds, don’t have the space to start a lot of seeds or like the convenience of not having to mess with seeds. Personally, I like starting seeds, but for some plants I would rather buy seedlings. If you do buy seedlings, it’s important to do a few simple things to make sure you’ll be successful.

  1. Inspect the plant for any sign of disease
  2. Make sure the plants aren’t excessively root bound
  3. Make sure you know if your plant dealer has kept the plants inside or out (see hardening off above)
  4. Make sure the plants look vigorous and are not excessively leggy.

If you’re thinking lawn care, now is NOT the time to fertilize if you have cool-season grasses (fescues, bluegrasses). When you fertilize in the spring, cool-season grasses grow more leaf area which means more mowing. It also can mean Brown Patch, a rather ugly fungal disease, latter in the summer. When you wait for the Fall before fertilizing your lawn, your cool-season grass will focus more on growing roots. Strong roots will do more than just carry your grass through winter dormancy – it will also allow them to tap moisture deeper in the ground next summer when it’s hot and dry. If you have warm season grasses like Bermudagrass and Zoysia, you can fertilize from May until Fall, but keep in mind that fertilizer plus no water equals a weaker, more stressed plant. So make sure you give your grass plenty of water when you fertilize.

Also of Interest: Virginia Historic Gardens Week is April 17th – 25th this year. See for details.

Winter Storm Damage to Your Landscape

Oak with Snowy Branches

Now that Snowpocalypse 2010 is over (Snowmageddon was a close second for my fav name, with SnOMG a distant third), what has it done to your plants? It was a really wet, heavy snow; my river birch were almost bent completely over into the snow until the sun began to warm them up Sunday. Some plants aren’t so resilient. My neighbor asked me to take a look at her Little Gem Magnolia. The weight of the snow had pulled the very top of the leader down and broken it partway through. Can it be saved? Maybe, maybe not. We discussed options, and hopefully the tree will heal well and bounce back.

The only way to know how your landscape fared is to take a walk around your property, if you can. At the very least, look out as many windows as you can to assess any potential damage. Some things are critical and should be dealt with immediately, such as damage to large trees, overhanging branches, or anything touching your home or utility lines. In cases like this I highly recommend following the same rules I do: if I can safely remove a branch by myself, with both feet planted firmly on terra firma, it’s reasonable to do so. Having somehow survived making unsafe choices throughout my early 20s, I recommend against pruning anything that requires you to work on a ladder.

After a winter like this one, it could be a good idea to create a detailed landscape maintenance plan. Here’s what I do for my clients:

  1. Starting with a scale drawing of the property, locate all major features (hardscapes, utilities, trees, etc.)
  2. Inventory and locate all smaller trees, shrubs, and perennials
  3. Make note of ANY damaged plants or structures
  4. Create an action list of tasks to be performed, with photographic examples if appropriate

At that point, they can go one of three directions with the list. They can tackle it themselves; they can do the work with me there as a garden coach, helping them do it correctly; or they can have my crew perform the work. Whichever path they choose, a little pre-planning makes it easy to get the desired result.