Ask the Chuckster: Early spring plant care

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Ask the Chuckster: Early spring plant care

What’s up with this weather? Do my plants need any special attention?

This is a challenging time for plants. They may be starting to bud out early, and the tender new growth and buds are more vulnerable to freezing temperatures than the dormant wood. I keep hearing from old timers about the great snow of 1993 and other memorable late winter events. My advice is to keep an eye on the weather and be ready to cover your plants, where size allows, with a blanket if damaging cold temperatures are expected after they leaf out or while they are in flower. Seaweed sprays or drenches, such as Nature’s NOG, may afford some level of frost protection if applied 24 hours before a major cold event occurs.

Longer term, this is a reminder to plant a variety of fruits, include in your garden design and plantings plants that flower and fruit later in the season, such as persimmons, mulberries, Rosa rugosa, muscadines, table or wine grapes, elderberries, blackberries, raspberries and jujubes, along with those that have more frost-tolerant flowers, such as serviceberries, Nanking cherries, goumi, hazelnuts, honeyberries, and Cornelian cherries.

Spring is time to take care of plants. What do I need to do this time of year?

The top priority should be cleaning up any fallen leaves or fruit that might harbor overwintering pests. Breaking up their lifecycle in that way is an easy step to lower the number of pests in your garden. Be sure to destroy the insects by putting the material under water, burn it, compost it at high heat, or even send it to the landfill. Good orchard sanitation is the first line of defense against pests and diseases.

While you’re working on the ground, this is a good time to check and tidy up the mulch. You want to keep all carbon-based mulch, such as wood chips, leaves, and grass, at least 6 inches away from the trunk. It’s OK to have crushed rock next to the trunk to deter mice and voles. Add or spread mulch, as necessary so it’s about 2 inches deep.

Can I fertilize now?

Hold off on fertilizing your plants a little longer or you may stimulate frost sensitive new growth too early in the season. In the mountains or colder climates, I’d wait to fertilize with a slow release organic blended fertilizer until early to mid-April, depending on how the season is progressing. In the Piedmont or warmer growing areas you may be able to fertilize your plants a little earlier. Be sure to distribute the fertilizer at the plants drip zone for established plantings. This is the zone of most active root development and if you just fertilize around the plants trunk, you’re probably not getting the fertilizer where it’s most needed. I like to pull back the mulch around the drip zone and apply the fertilizer to the soil, where it will be most effective, then pull the mulch back over the fertilizer. Your fertilizer won’t do much good sitting on top of the mulch unless it is well watered in and kept watered to assure adequate mulch penetration.

What about pruning?

This is the time to be pruning your elderberries, blackberries, raspberries, kiwis, grapes and muscadines, if you haven’t done so already. Don’t prune other plants heavily this time of year. This is a common mistake among inexperienced gardeners who want to get out and do something as spring approaches.

Only prune out dead wood or you’ll be pruning away your flower buds on most plants and thus losing your fruit for the year! Save your pruning urges for June when you can do structural corrections and remove overly vigorous sprouts, keeping your plants compact and productive.

Wait to prune until you can see that the temperatures will stay above 28 degrees for the next 24 hours. Newly pruned limbs are prone to freeze damage and you could end up needing to prune off more than you wanted if you prune too early. See the videos on our website for demonstrations of pruning different kinds of plants.

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