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Q: With all the recent rain, is the soil too wet for me to plant in the vegetable garden?

A: Water drains out of some gardens faster than others, but there is an easy way to tell when it is time to dig in your dirt safely. Pick up a wad of soil in your hand and squeeze it gently, then release it. If the dirt sticks together in a mud ball, wait. If the particles come apart again when you release your pressure, go ahead and plant.

Soil in hand for planting

To tell when it is time to dig in your dirt safely. Pick up a wad of soil in your hand and squeeze it gently, then release it. If the dirt sticks together in a mud ball, wait. If the particles come apart again when you release your pressure, go ahead and plant.

The problem would not be that the dirt is too wet for the seeds but that the physical structure of the soil will change if it is handled when it is soaking wet. For the same reason, avoid walking on wet garden soil. In parts of the country there is clay soil with fine particles which are slow to dry. In those areas gardeners often lay down boards and use them as a path. The boards spread the gardener's weight from a spot the size of a footprint to a whole board. That avoids the same kind of structural damage that would come from planting in mud.

Q: Can I plant an onion that is sprouting in my kitchen?

A: You can, but you may not get what you expected. Onions are biennials. That is, their first summer in the ground they make leaves and a big bulb. In their second year the bulb sprouts to make more leaves; those leaves are followed by a flower and, finally, seeds.

If you plant your sprouting bulb, it should give you leaves which you can cut up and use as green onions. After that, you may get a lovely flower for an arrangement. What you will not get is a big bulb like the one you planted.

Q: We were thinking of buying a nice big shade tree for our new front yard, but they are very expensive. How small a tree can we buy in order to save money, and still have it grow to a respectable size in less than our lifetimes?

A: If you need a big tree instantly, you will have to spend many dollars. It costs a nursery money to grow a tree for several years before selling it, and that time while the tree was growing is reflected in its price. If you can wait a few years while the tree grows bigger in your yard, the story is completely different.

Buy one of the youngest and therefore smallest trees available. It also will be the least expensive. Because the tree is small, fewer roots will have been damaged when it was dug and moved to your yard. The roots will begin to grow sooner than those on a bigger tree. The size of the root ball will be more in balance with the top, so the top will begin to grow right away. Within three years a small tree will have grown larger than one bought when it was twice as big.

For the quickest growth of a new tree, buy and move it early in the season as a bareroot tree. Because bareroot trees are still dormant, they do not suffer the shock of moving that comes to trees in containers. They start growing, above and below ground, right away.

Q: We are planning to buy a tree this year. How can we be sure that it doesn't die after we plant it?

A: There is no gold-plated guarantee, of course, but there are some ways to plant the tree that will give it the best chance. In purchasing a tree, remember that the bigger the top compared to the roots, the harder it will be for the tree to start growing. A bareroot tree is likely to have a better root system than one in a container. If your tree is in a container, choose one that is no more than five times as tall as the container is wide.

Allow time to plant the tree as soon as you get home from the nursery. While you are digging the hole, soak the roots in a bucket of water. Keeping roots damp means keeping them alive.

planting a tree

There is no gold-plated guarantee for planting trees, but there are some ways to plant a tree that will give it the best chance.

Dig a hole the same depth as the roots but wider. It will not harm the roots if you take them out of the bucket to check the hole size as digging progresses. Just remember to put the tree back in the bucket each time after checking. When the hole is big enough, set the tree in place. Be sure that the root flare (the bottom of the trunk where it widens to meet the top of the roots) is at ground level. Do not plant a tree more deeply. Laying the shovel handle across the hole lets you see ground level easily.

Fill the bottom half of the hole with some of the dirt you dug out. Do not add fertilizer.

Do use purchased topsoil or potting soil. The tree roots need to spread into the surrounding soil. They will grow outward if all the soil is the same.

Walk on the dirt or pack it down with your hands and the shovel handle; then pour a bucket of water into the hole. When the water has drained away, fill the rest of the hole, compact the dirt again, and water again. Finish the job by adding an inch or two of mulch in a circle wider than the hole. Mulch will help to keep the roots damp and will discourage a weed garden around the tree trunk.

Keep watering, every day for a week, then every other day for the second week. These actions are as close as you can come to a guarantee that the tree will not only live but thrive.

Q: I have a garden border of low growing grass--blue fescues, to be exact. Do I need to prune them? Right now they look as if there is a vacant spot in the middle of each plant.

A: You have two different things going on. Yes, you should cut the grass, or any grass that you do not mow regularly, once a year. Since ornamental grasses look nice all winter, most gardeners choose to cut them down in early spring, before the new grass blades appear. A power saw or a heavy duty pair of scissors will be a good tool for cutting through those tough stems. Early April is a good time to cut down ornamental grasses. Some are later in starting the year's growth, but none will be earlier.

Blue fescue

Blue fescue surrounded by mulch in a garden. Since ornamental grasses look nice all winter, most gardeners choose to cut them down in early spring, before the new grass blades appear. 

The vacant spot in the middle of each plant tells you that the grass is aging. As it grows older, new growth pushes the perimeter ever outward. The oldest part of the plant, in the center, has died. To get rid of the empty spot, cut the grass clump into pieces about the size of your hand, digging deep enough to keep some of the roots attached to each piece. Also dig the dead roots out of the center. Replant one piece in the center to start the new plant, and plant the other healthy pieces somewhere else. Or give them away. Or compost them.

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