By Jennifer Fairfield, owner the Garden Mill
(Publisher’s note: Part one of this column published Saturday.)
Wait to cut back semi-woody and woody perennials until the end of the month, then decide how much you want to trim based on where you see new growth, and how you want the plant to appear. Semi-woody perennials are ones that form woody stems, but aren’t as substantial as true shrubs or trees, and include Russian sage, lavender, and some thymes.
Apply weed preventer to your lawn this month to keep the seeds of dandelion, crab grass, and other weeds from putting down roots when they germinate. Using corn gluten, an organic, natural weed preventer, which also naturally contains nitrogen, can help get the lawn growing. It won’t kill perennial weeds that already exist in your lawn, but will keep new seeds from taking hold.
Some things can go into your garden earlier than many others. Peas, lettuce, and spinach can be planted as soon as the soil is workable. Carrots, radishes, and beets can go in once the soil temperature is above 40°.
Don’t plant all that you want of these crops at once, though. Planting things in “succession” – planting some now, some more in a week or two, and some more a week or so after that – helps you spread your harvest out, so that you can enjoy them longer into the season, rather than all at once. Just keep in mind that peas, lettuce, spinach, and radishes are cool-weather plants that won’t do well as the temperatures start to really warm up, so you’ll want to finish planting them by mid-May, at the latest.
The simple way to tell if your soil is ready to be worked in (and on) is to take a handful of soil and squeeze it. When you open your hand, if the ball stays together, it’s too wet. If it falls apart and is a bit crumbly, then it’s safe to venture into the garden.
Cabbage and kale transplants, as well as onion sets, can generally go out by mid-month; broccoli and cauliflower transplants should be OK to go out by the end of the month.
Pansies and primrose can go in flower beds and containers outside now, but keep Row covers handy – it is Michigan, after all. It is almost a given that we will yet see one or more nights (or even days) when the temperature drops below freezing, and new growth is more tender than old, so your plants are more vulnerable at this time. Row covers can help protect your plants from frost and freeze, by keeping the warmth of the soil around the plant.
Around the end of the month or early in May, if it looks like we have seen the end of frost, divide summer-blooming perennials that you didn’t get to in the fall (you can divide spring-bloomers, but they may not bloom this spring). If you have more plants than you have room for, give some away to friends and neighbors, or swap them for plants you don’t have, but want.
Plant dormant trees and shrubs once the soil can be worked. To make sure you’re giving your trees and shrubs have the best chance at survival, be sure to plant them properly. The Arbor Day Foundation has details for planting various types of trees, which can also be applied to shrubs.
For the birds:
If you’re interested in attracting bluebirds to your yard, the Michigan Bluebird Society has lots of great tips. You can also find out what it takes to be a purple martin landlord with information from the Purple Martin Conservation Association.
Both of these birds are wonderful to have in your yard, because they eat lots of insects. Just be careful about applying pesticides in your yard and garden if you are attracting birds to your yard, as they can both kill off the birds’ food supply, and potentially cause the birds themselves harm if they ingest insects that have been poisoned.
Check existing birdhouses before cleaning them out to make sure they aren’t already being occupied. If the nesting materials in the box look at all new and fresh, leave them – it’s an indication you already have tenants. If the materials look old, clean them out to give the birds a fresh start.
If you’re considering putting out nesting materials for your birds, be sure to check out the Audubon Society’s website to learn the do’s and don’ts first.
I have seen a number of pictures from people in Michigan who have spotted Northern Orioles at feeders already this year, which surprises me, because I don’t typically think of them as being here this early. But, just in case, I’m going to get my feeders out this weekend. I love watching these beauties at my feeders.
I have not seen any evidence of hummingbirds yet, though. Generally, we start seeing them in mid-April to early May. If you’d like to track them as they travel north, you can so that at this website.
Make sure your feeders are ready for them – check for cracks and replace them if needed. As the temperatures start to warm up, put your feeders out during the day to help early arrivers find food. If the temps dip below freezing at night, be sure to bring the feeders indoors to prevent cracking.