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Hamptons Life

Mar 25, 2019 12:17 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Get Early-Season Garden Chores Done To Avoid Headaches Later

Mar 25, 2019 1:01 PM

Spring is officially here, and based on the long-range prognostications this one is supposed to be pretty “normal.” There is lots to do, but we need to start slowly and carefully as jumping the gun on any number of early-season garden chores can result in problems in the weeks and months to come. So, let’s take a look at a few of the early things that need to be done and ramble on.

Your houseplants are only mildly affected by the outdoor temperatures, but they are well aware that the days have been getting longer. Even the foliage plants like the Dracaenas and Ficus are elongating and spreading. Some will drop foliage but just as quickly replace it with new leaves higher up. But one sure sign of trouble is a houseplant that continues to drop leaves but not get any larger or beautiful. Chances are these plants simply need repotting and then within a week or two they rebound.

The easiest way to see if your plants need repotting (and this is the time) is to water them well then slip them out of their pots. If the root mass is just that, a solid mass with no soil falling off, then you’ve got a candidate. When repotting up, try to increase the pot size by about 2 inches from the pot size you’re abandoning. A 4-inch gets bumped to a 6, and an 8 to a 10, etc., etc. Use a high-quality potting soil like Pro Mix and Espoma soils and don’t get caught up in soils that claim to be organic. They all are.

When a plant is repotted, the soil in the pot should be low enough below the rim to accept water, but you should be in the habit of watering from the bottom and letting the soil wick the water from the saucer below. Hold off on any feeding for a couple of weeks, and then when you do resume feeding, use an organic liquid plant food. It’s better to add it to every watering instead of every two weeks or so, but when you do this, dilute the amount you use. If the instructions say to add a teaspoon to a quart of water every two weeks and you find you’re watering twice a week, then add a quarter of a teaspoon every watering.

Another little trick is to steal or borrow a little soil from your outside garden and add it to your repotting mix. Most potting soils, although organic, are somewhat sterile when it comes to the soil microorganisms that help plants thrive. When you mix a tablespoon of garden soil (or your terrific compost) with your potting mix, you are reintroducing these microbes to the potting soil.

I’m going through arborist hell right now. We’re about to end the relationship we’ve had with our tree people after more than 20 years. As the company grew, the service declined and some serious mistakes took place, which resulted in me identifying several insect and disease issues—issues that Big Tree should have caught. Like most tree companies, they tout their PHC, or plant health care, program, which has a technician come on the property on a regular basis to perform integrated pest management, or IPM, and surveys of the trees and shrubs.

PHC started out here more than three decades ago when Bob Kirwin, who owned a local tree company, integrated it into his business. Years later others did the same, and it’s now the norm. However, a PHC program is only as good as the technicians who are out in the field and how well they are trained—and paid. The entire theory is to monitor the landscape for disease and insect issues before they become rampant and out of control. With this monitoring it’s possible to control most of the issues with minor applications of organic pesticides such as oils and soaps as well as organic and biological disease controls. It really works when done right.

If you are in the market for a new arborist or tree care company, do due diligence. What are their credentials? Are they certified arborists and pesticide applicators, or are they just being managed by a district manager who racks up the commissions? Are they insured? Don’t be timid; ask for proof of insurance as well as proof of certification. Some local tree companies are local, small and good. But there are now a good number of “tree specialists” who have little to no training in or out of the classroom.

And then we move from the trees and shrubs to your lawn. Who takes care of your lawn and how much do you know about what they do to it? If they are out with spreaders in early April—the soonest you can legally apply fertilizers—they are not doing you any favors. May is much better for your lawn. Do you know or have you ever asked how many pounds of nitrogen (the basic lawn fertilizer element) are being put down on your lawn? Is it 2 pounds of N a year per 1,000 square feet? If so, that’s not a bad number. But if your grass clippings are being returned to the turf with mulching blades, 2 pounds could be too much.

Is your lawn guy putting down a pre-emergent for crabgrass every single year? Wait a minute. If it’s going down every year and controlling the crabgrass, then there’s a good chance—ready for this—that there’s no crabgrass. Are they applying a potent chemical every summer to control grubs that can chew away the grass roots? Why? Is there any proof that the grubs are present? Has your lawn company done any sampling to determine the grub density?

One reason why they always put down the pre-emergent herbicide and the grub control is because they buy fertilizers—chemical fertilizers with no organic components—that have these chemicals built right in. They save the extra step of having to apply a fertilizer then a herbicide and later again with the grub control, but they upcharge you for the chemicals that pollute our water and bays so they can charge more and do less. Do you need it? Have your lawn guy convince you. Again, it’s your responsibility to know what’s going on and why. Ask. If you don’t like the answer, then ask again until you understand.

If you have a walk-behind mower or garden tractor that you do your mowing with, is it ready to roll? Have you changed the spark plug, put on new blades, changed the oil (and filter if it has one) and replaced that wheel that you forgot to order last fall? We’ll be out mowing in just a few short weeks and if you don’t do this maintenance work yourself don’t expect your local mower shop to have your machine ready a few days after you bring it in. Everyone else is doing the same thing—and can be waiting weeks until the work is done.

That’s why I like my little 21-inch Honda walk behind. In about 40 minutes I can change the spark plug, replace the blades, change the oil, put in fresh gas and with one pull I’m out mowing again. On the other hand, my John Deere diesel tractor takes a bit more care, so every year I have a Deere technician come to my house and for about $350 I get the whole works done without killing my back, getting greased up and cutting my hands. But that’s the difference between a 21-inch mower and a 54-inch mower with a front-end bucket and four-wheel drive. Gotta get to work. Keep growing.

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