Things you can do to prepare for another growing season

by Dorothy Dobbie

The garden centres are filled with eager gardeners right now, but hold on — it will be another couple of weeks or so before you can start putting out those new bedding plants.

Still, there are things that you can do now to get your spring fix of the “happy bacteria” (Mycobacterium vaccae), the organism that lives in the soil and, when you breath it in,  stimulates serotonin and neurons, reducing anxiety and making learning easier.

Take a look at that lawn: Early spring always brings its share of snow mould and this year has been no exception. If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to give the lawn a light raking with a bamboo rake. You don’t want to scratch too hard so as not to tear up tender young grass shoots, but you do want to disturb the film of mould that can kill the grass. 

This is an easy task and is probably all the raking you will need to do; contrary to popular belief, grass thatch, unless it is very dry and thick, is good for the lawn, giving it a springy feel and a place for new grass seeds to take hold as it breaks down and return nutrients to the soil.

When you’ve finished that, you might want to lay down some grass seed to help choke out the heavy infestation of weeds we expect this year. Apply some elbow grease and dig out the bigger weeds that make it through the winter.

You can also apply a pre-emergent product such as corn gluten meal (Scott’s sells it under the trade name Turf Builder). This product inhibits the germination of seeds, so be sure to put it down after any grass seed has taken. Corn gluten meal, a byproduct of making cornstarch, also has the benefit of adding nitrogen to the soil to help the well-established grass. Try to get it down in a dry period when there is no rain on the horizon for a few days.

Stop tree bugs: Now is the time, before bud break, to apply dormant oil to shrubs and trees as long as the temperature will remain above freezing for 24 hours and there is no rain in the forecast. This will help get rid of the overwintering insect eggs of tent caterpillars, leaf miners and leaf rollers.

Be careful, though, as some trees and shrubs have a low tolerance for dormant oil, including many maples, smokebush, blue junipers, walnuts, Colorado Blue spruce and cedar. Treat those shrubs and trees by washing them down with a sharp spray from the hose to dislodge spider mites and other pests.

Take a look at your still leafless woody plants and prune out any damaged twigs or branches. Prune back to just above the little swelling that occurs near the junction of a branch and the main stem. This is called the branch collar and it is where the plant manufactures the chemicals needed to heal the wound. You really don’t have to paint the scar with anything if you prune properly.

Add tilth to the soil: Dedicated gardeners will have an ample supply of compost to add to the soil right now, but if you are not that committed yet want to avoid that dead pan mud full of cracks in mid-summer, you can amend garden soil with peat moss or with commercial compost.

Any organic material will break down over time, keeping earthworms interested and giving bacteria something to chomp on.  Leaf mould is an easy answer and farsighted gardeners will have chopped up fall leaves with the lawnmower, and put the leaves in plastic garbage bags punched with a few holes to let in moisture and air. Over the winter, the leaves will break down and provide a lovely and nutritional organic fix to feed the flower beds and veggie garden in springtime.

Wood chips or even shredded newspaper will also do the trick. The smaller the pieces of any of these amendments, the faster they will break down and add tilth to the soil.

What is tilth? It’s structure consisting of air and water. The organics help retain moisture and add structure to let life giving oxygen into the soil. For very dry areas, you might want to exchange peat moss for coir, ground up coconut husk, which you buy in bricks, reconstitute in water and add to the top six inches of your garden in a ratio of about one part coir to seven parts soil. Coir breaks down more slowly than peat and holds three times as much water (eight times its own weight in water). It is easier to rehydrate than peat if it does dry out.

(Dorothy Dobbie is the president of Pegasus Publications Inc., which publishes Manitoba Gardener magazine.)