With a winter of near-record snow and ice, we’re all heartily sick of it. Welcome spring!
A great way to blow away the last vestiges of winter is to get outside and start puttering in the garden. As soon as the snow in your yard is limited to just a few last drifts in the shade, get out there and start gardening.
Start with a good garden cleanup. Pick up branches and trash. Rake away old leaves and trim off damaged wood. Pull off winter protection from roses, trees, shrubs and other plants.
In bare areas where you’ll be planting annuals or vegetables, turn over the soil with a spade. Be sure to do it when the soil isn’t too wet or you’ll ruin the soil texture. The mud clods will dry hard as rocks, and only some good smashing from the back of a spade (or time) will fix it. Work the soil only when it’s moist, not wet.
Now is a good time to work in compost for the health of this year’s plantings and future plantings. If you don’t have a compost heap, you can buy it. Residents of Linn County can receive one ton of compost for free at each visit to the Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency. Others can purchase it for $24 per ton (www.solidwasteagency.org/compost-yard-waste).
Spread on an inch or two into your yard and work it, if possible, as much as 18 inches into the soil. But any addition of compost is excellent. It breaks up the soil for better drainage, attracts earthworms for better soil texture and fertility, feeds plants, and encourages healthy soil microbial activity.
Once you can easily work the soil — usually by the end of March — you can plant directly into the soil the seeds of fast-germinating vegetables, such as radishes, beets, carrots, spinach and lettuce. Also consider plantings the seeds of flowers that need cold for best germination, such as larkspur, sweet peas and some types of annual poppies.
If you want to get precise, purchase a soil thermometer for $10 to $15. Good, detailed seed packages (or a quick online search) will tell you the ideal soil temperature for good seed germination of each plants. Radishes, for example, can be planted when soil temperatures are as low as 45 degrees, though you can plant them all the way up to 85 degrees. They won’t germinate at temperatures above 95 degrees, however. Compare that to seeds that germinate best in warm soil, like green beans and corn, which shouldn’t be planted until late May or early June, when soil temperatures are at 60 to 70 degree.
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By the end of March, you also can plant most bare-root trees and shrubs — that is, the ones that arrive in the mail without soil around their roots or are sold with their roots in boxes or bags at the garden center. They’ll just look like sticks at this point, with little green or red leaf buds starting on their branches.
Also check out any cool-season flowers that are in full bloom and ready to plant outside now in pots and windowboxes. (Some will do OK when planted directly into the soil, but the wet cold conditions and driving rains of our Iowa early springs tend to leave them depressingly muddy and battered.)
Cheerful pansies and violas are classics and are readily available. They do well even with a dusting of snow on them. Also look for pots of the more unusual cool-season annual flowers, such as calendula (pot marigold) diascia (twinspur), lobelia, stock and snapdragons. All will last for weeks before temperatures regularly start to hit the 80s. Then they start to yellow and brown and fade, and it will be time to tear them out and replace with warm-season annuals, such as marigolds, petunias and impatiens for an entirely new wave of color and fragrance.
• Veronica Lorson Fowler is co-publisher of The Iowa Gardener website at theiowagardener.com.