What to do with a late spring?

Last year saw throngs flocking to garden stores the first two weeks of April. This year saw them pulling out their snowblowers, with some having to refill the gas and oil they’d so optimistically drained in late March.

Once the snow melts, it might be tempting for cabin-fevered gardeners and turf fans to get out there and make up for “lost” time. But experts recommend not getting ahead of yourself.

Put the rake down

What homeowners will see once the white stuff is gone is a lot of brown stuff. They may want to get out that heavy-duty rake or even the dethatcher and tackle that depressing canvas.

Not so fast, says Dege Garden Center owner and turf expert George Dege.

“There are millions and millions of new young roots down there that you don’t want to rake up,” he explains. “Unless you have a bunch of leaves or lots of matted dead grass, just pick up the sticks and stay off the grass.”

A bamboo or plastic “broom rake,” wielded gently, will remove matted clipped grass or leaves, he says.

And lawn lovers should wait until several mowings before they fertilize. Right now, Dege says, grass just isn’t growing fast enough to take up and use those extra nutrients.

“The grass is just waking up from the winter,” he says. “It’s trying to get its feet out of bed. You wouldn’t care to have a steak dinner at 6 in the morning, and neither does your lawn.”

Crabgrass preventer? Not until the first week of June, no matter how balmy May turns out to be.

Get your hands dirty

Ramsey County Master Gardener Gail Lee says that even with a foot of frost just below the ground, a few good rains and warm temps should make ground workable for vegetable gardens.

Think snap and pod peas, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, Swiss chard and lettuce.

Garden centers are also selling onion sets, seed potatoes and asparagus roots.

How can you tell, though, that it’s time?

“The soil is considered workable when it’s no longer soggy, but if you dig up a layer and hold it in your hand and it crumbles,” Lee explains, “then you can plant those early crops.”

Beans and squash, though, will have to wait, unless gardeners are so eager to get them going they’re willing to pay a little extra attention.

“If you have a special area where you’re going to plant those warm-season vegetables, you can get a head start by covering that part of the garden with black plastic for a few days,” Lee says.

Black absorbs the sun’s warmth, at the same time keeping the soil from germinating weeds that could outcompete your seedlings.

Once the soil is warm, workable and planted, just keep an eye out to cover leafed-out plants in case of late frost.

Go to pot

Better yet, put the next couple of weeks to use gathering pots or lumber to garden in containers and raised beds, she suggests.

“Vegetable gardening has really taken off -- people are very interested in growing their own food,” Lee says. “And even if you don’t have a lot of space or don’t want to get into tending a big garden, you can do it in pots.”

Herbs, of course, do well in pots, and any 5-gallon container will hold enough amended soil or purchased garden soil for peppers and tomatoes.

With a raised bed 4 feet wide and however long you like, gardeners can reach everything they’re tending without bending and stooping.

Plus, raised beds are usually used for ultra-efficient “square-foot gardening”  -- a square foot of this, a square foot of that, and no trodden paths between them.

Lee herself, who grew up on a farm, uses these approaches to help make the most of what she says is a “postage-stamp-size” St. Paul lot. “It’s just the usual 40 feet by 120 feet, but it’s everything I need.”

Plant a shrub, plant a tree

This is, however, a great time of year to get their bigger cousins in the ground.

“Shrubs and trees, even young ones, are larger and less susceptible to frost than seedlings are,” Lee says. “They’re not going to sprout and start growing quickly, and they’re not going to freeze, so they’ll be fine.”

The biggest worry about shrubs and trees is that they’ll dry out in the heat of midsummer, she adds.

“So the earlier in the spring you plant them, the less you have to worry about heat evaporating the water out of the soil.”

Boulay, the climatologist, has another warning on the subject of trees.

“This year is not like last year. You won’t see those crabapples blooming tomorrow.”

Holly Wenzel can be reached at review@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7811.

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