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Growing Green: Time for spring cleaning in the garden

In late March and early April, many of us are getting that itch to work in our gardens.

Many areas are still soggy from rain or maybe some snow melt, making soils too wet to work.

Even using only a garden spade, working wet soil can badly compact soil and the negative effects will last for many years.

Working wet soil will pack particles tightly, leaving less room for water and air to penetrate. Compacted soil makes it difficult for plant roots to move through the soil.

To determine whether your garden is dry enough to work, dig a trowel full of soil and squeeze it in your hand.

If it crumbles through your fingers when squeezed, it is ready to garden.

If it forms a muddy ball, it is too wet to work. Give the soil a few days to dry and sample again.

Early spring is a great time to “spring clean” your garden. Start by clearing away last year’s plant debris. Cut back ornamental grasses.

Cut back the stems of summer flowering perennials, but do not chop these stems just yet as they may harbor the overwintering pupae of stem-nesting bees and other beneficial insects. Give insects time to emerge before chopping up the stems for the compost bin.

Remove excess leaves and winter mulch from ornamental beds but leave a thin layer of leaves or mulch covering the ground. Mulch and leaves are good, but in early spring too thick a layer impedes growth.

Broadleaf weeds are easily removed from moist soils at this time of year. This is the ideal time to pull hairy bittercress, chickweed, deadnettle, henbit and invasive biennial garlic mustard.

Prepare garden soil by adding compost. Adding compost enriches the soil and helps to retain moisture. It encourages the production of beneficial bacteria and fungi and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. Apply one inch of compost to beds.

Early spring is a good time to plant new trees and shrubs. Consider growing conditions: sun, shade, moist, dry.

Dig a shallow broad planting hole, as much as three times the diameter of the root ball or container. It is important to make the hole wide because the roots of newly establishing trees and shrubs must push through the surrounding soil to sustain. Tree and shrub roots grow out, not down.

Then mulch the newly-planted tree but keep the mulch a minimum of three inches away from the tree trunk. Water regularly.

A special word of caution about container trees and shrubs. Most trees and shrubs are sold in small plastic containers. One problem with container trees has to do with expanding root systems.

As roots grow, they hit the side of the container and turn, and soon the pot is full of circling roots that have become pot bound. This is resolved by cutting the roots with a knife. Do no tear roots. Torn roots do not regenerate.

Container trees and shrubs are often planted too deep in the pot. Do not plant trees and shrubs too deep. Locate the root flare. The root flare is where the first main roots attach to the trunk.

Tree roots need oxygen to grow. By placing the root flare at or slightly above ground level when planting the tree, you are giving the tree the best situation to grow and thrive in.

These garden projects can be done any time in April if the soil is too wet.

“Growing Green” is contributed by Diane Dorn, Lehigh County Extension Office Staff, and Master Gardeners. Information: Lehigh County Extension Office, 610-391-9840; Northampton County Extension Office, 610-813-6613.