GTI Lawn & Garden Letter

Entertaining advice for home gardeners with a focus on lawn and garden care and the outdoor gardening lifestyle. Suitable primarily for people living in northeastern North America and similar temperate climates in other parts of the world.

Friday, May 18, 2007

May 2-4 in the Garden

While many will be heading out for the weekend to celebrate the great outdoors by opening the cottage, fishing or camping, for true gardeners, this weekend marks the official opening of the gardening season. Certainly the bulbs and some early flowering perennials have been around for a while, but this weekend generally marks when we can start gardening in earnest.

I'm going to be potting up some new resin pots for the front steps and back patio. I know purists prefer the traditional clay pots but resin has clay beat in terms of ease of use and longevity. Its hard to tell the difference between a resin and clay pot and resin is usually a cheaper option.

I prefer to do my own pots as I don't really like the generic pot designs that seem to predominate in many garden centres. In pinch, you can transplant a pre-grown hanging basket or mixed pot into your own pots but if you can find a good garden centre with some unique material, it is a simple and less expensive task to design your own distinctive planters. Sure, it can take a few extra weeks for them to fill out, but you end up with pots like no other on the block. Buy the biggest plants you can afford such as the larger annuals grown in 4" pots.

I like to arrange the plants as I am buying them to see how they might look in a group. Three to five plants are sufficient for a 12" pot but pay attention to the height and spread. It is always good to combine some upright plants with some trailers. Match colours that are appealing to your eye or ask for advice from garden centre staff about what plant combinations that might work. Don't forget to pay attention to the sun/shade preferences of plants and match them to the light conditions in your planter locations.

I like to use new potting soil every year. Lazy gardener that I am, I don't bother mixing my own potting mix but buy a few bags of a good quality mix. In the fall, the mix is recycled through my compost pile and ends up enriching my perennial beds. For the last few years I have been using a brand that has coir instead of peat. Coir is a renewable resource made from coconut shells and has excellent water holding capacity. Frugal gardener that I am, I usually turn a smaller pot upside down in the bottom of larger containers so I use less mix in each pot. Water well after planting and fertilize regularly with a water soluble fertilizer according to the product directions. Good fertility is the key to successful container growing.

I'm attending a container design seminar put on by Sheridan Nurseries later this month and will report back on what the design experts say about planting containers.

I'm a little behind on my vegetable garden as I removed the crumbling wooden frames from my old raised beds and resculpted and resodded the area. I'm establishing a new "kitchen garden" area right outside the kitchen door so I can dash out and grab what I need while I'm cooking. It's also a nice sheltered sunny area where I know my tomatoes will thrive. Eventually I hope to have some hot frames as well where I can rekindle my annual goal to produce a ripe garden tomato by July 1st. If you plant no other vegetables, put in a few tomato plants along with some fresh herbs for cooking. There are varieties available that will grow very nicely in a pot on a sunny patio, deck or balcony. You simply cannot duplicate the taste of a fresh tomato plucked from the vine and sliced onto a plate, burger or sandwich.

Lawn Care

Hopefully you have been mowing regularly this spring to help your lawn develop a dense, weed suppressing growth habit. Even with the best kept lawns, the odd dandelion will sneak through. It has certainly been an exceptional spring for dandelion growth. Within cities, reduced use of herbicides is also probably increasing dandelion seed production in parks and along boulevards. I took this picture of a huge field of dandelions earlier this week just outside of Guelph. With this kind of seed generation and the fact the seed is wind borne, it is obvious that the gardener's battle with dandelions is never ending.

I'm sure you've heard the pros and cons of dandelion. The French are quite fond of them as a salad green and no doubt they are healthy to eat but I personally would prefer to grow a selected variety for this purpose. The odd leaves that I have nibbled were extremely bitter. Dandelion wine is touted by some although I prefer a hearty Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. I do appreciate the beauty of an expanse of dandelions in the spring, but also appreciate that dandelions do not make the best playing surface for various sports and some people are not enamored with this plant. I don't like them in my lawn because it tends to increase their population in my perennials beds were they can be a bear to dig out of a nice patch of phlox or sedum.

Small infestations of dandelions can be readily dug out by hand. In fact, the hand digging of dandelions is a great way to get out on your lawn for a little exercise if soccer of bocce are not your games. I am trying to organize an evaluation of the various dandelion diggers that are available on the market now to find out which are the easiest to use and most effective at removing dandelions from your lawn. If you have a favorite, please let me know. The most effective are certainly those that remove the majority of the root system.

For lawns that are heavily infested with dandelions, there is really no alternative but to have the lawn treated, preferably by a professional lawn care company. Fall is actually the most effective time to treat as the plants are more susceptible at that stage of their life cycle. If you are treating a major infestation, make a commitment to yourself to raise your mowing height, mow regularly to increase grass density, overseed and fertilize appropriately to prevent re-infestation.

A dandelion-free lawn can be kept that way through regular scouting and hand removal of any dandelions or other broad leaved weeds that attempt to become established. In municipalities where pesticide bans exist, this may be your only option. I have heard that some lawn care companies are offering a hand weeding option in cities where herbicide use is prohibited. I imagine it must be fairly expensive.

There are some biological and alternative control products for dandelions and other broad leaved weeds under development but none are expected on the market in the near future. Corn gluten meal is being promoted as a natural herbicide but it will not eliminate established weeds. It works by preventing seed germination.

Now is a good time to apply corn gluten meal to your lawn if crabgrass has been a problem in the past. Crabgrass is an annual plant meaning it germinates, grows, flowers, produces seed and dies in one year. It produces purple finger-like seedheads in the early fall, turns purple and dies when frost comes in the fall. When the yellow forsythia shrubs are in bloom, it is a good indication that the crabgrass seed scattered by the plants last fall will begin to germinate. Applying corn gluten meal according to the label directions will help prevent the seeds from germinating. Crabgrass tends to prefer drier areas and also thrives in lawns that are mown too short. Raising your mowing height will also help minimize crabgrass infestation.

Try to hold off for a few more weeks before making your first fertilizer application of the season. Your neighbor may have fertilized his lawn weeks ago but he has probably had to cut it more often since and he is not growing the nice deep roots that you are right now. Roots are certainly not the most glamorous part of the grass plant, but come summer they will help your lawn resist drought and other stresses like insects better than a lawn fertilized too early in the season.

If you have any questions or comments, please email me or use the comment link below. I am always looking for new topics or gardening challenges to cover in the Lawn & Garden Letter.

In southern Ontario the long weekend is shaping up to be a good one - not too hot and not too cold. I hope wherever you are, you have a fun and safe Victoria Day weekend.