Preparing your garden for spring

March 14, 2012 —

by Amanda Ebbutt

I think most of us will agree that this has been a rather odd winter — warm, wet, and whatever cold spells we’ve had have been brief and not too fierce. It’s not been what I think of as a Michigan winter at all, in fact.

I’m also a brand new gardener. I put my garden in last year where my grandfather used to keep his garden twenty years ago, and didn’t completely kill everything in last year’s scorcher of a summer, which I consider a great success. But knowing how many people around here are getting started with their own vegetables gardens for the first time, I decided that it would be good for me get a little advice, and wanted to share it with the rest of you.

To get that advice, I went to see Janet High, owner of Bean Creek Garden Center, a veritable fountain of knowledge when it comes to gardening, at least in comparison to myself, to see how I should start preparing for spring.

Three Steps for Success

“The first step I tell everyone to do,” said Janet, “is to get your soil tested. The Michigan State University Extension Office offers soil testing where you can send a sample off to get tested, and they’ll send you a report back telling you exactly what you need to add to your soil to make sure it’s ready.”

The Extension Office offers soil testing kits for home gardens for $20, or you can order one online at http://bookstore.msue. msu.edu/. The product to search for is called a “soil test kit self-mailer,” SKU #E3154 and it includes prepaid postage to send it off for testing at Michigan State University. The kit includes instructions for use. The MSU Extension Office is located in the Human Services Building in Adrian at 1040 S. Winter Street, Suite 2020.

The MSU Extension Office also offers a new gardening website for local gardeners at http://migarden.msu.edu.

A regular soil test will tell gardeners the acidity or pH, lime requirement, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and any recommendations for additives or special action your soil might need, like working lime, fertilizer or compost into your soil. The test will take a couple of weeks and the Extension Office will receive the results and then forward them on to you. A copy will also be stored in the Lenawee County Office.

This is meant to help with some problems caused by soil deficiencies new or even experienced gardeners might have. For instance, last year I really struggled with something called blossom rot, which rotted the bottom of my tomatoes no matter what I did. Janet says that this may have been a consequence of not enough calcium in my soil, and it might have been because of the stressful year plants had. “We started out with a very wet season, and when it finally dried out, it got very hot. Blossom rot can happen when plants get stressed and it leeches the calcium from the blossom-end of the fruit, causing blossom rot. It’s not a disease, and it can be dealt with.”

Second, says Janet, “Take out any old debris from your garden to remove any pests or diseases that may be residing in dead plant material. This year may be a real tough one, since it was so warm this winter and we didn’t get a good hard frost. Insects and plant diseases may have overwintered without being killed out, so you want to make sure you get anything that might be contaminated out of your garden.”

The third thing to remember, after you’ve cleared your debris from your garden, is to not work it up when it’s wet. You want it to dry out before you start tilling it up, because otherwise it’ll get packed down.

“Usually people will till it up twice,” says Janet, “First to loosen it up, till it up, clear out any rocks, and add aeration where the roots will be. Right before the second tilling is when you want to add fertilizer. If you put fertilizer on too early, it won’t pose any benefit to your plants because it’ll all have run off by the time they need it.”

For brand new gardeners

Janet also added in information for gardeners just starting out.

“The first thing you want to consider when you’re thinking about starting a new garden is location,” she said. “Is it close enough to a water source? How much sun is it going to get? Full sun is considered at least 6 hours of sunlight; anything less than that is considered shade. Is your choice of a spot for a garden close to a walnut tree? If there’s a walnut tree nearby, it can cause walnut toxicity, and tomato and pepper plants are especially prone to it. They’ll grow too tall and die.”

“If you do want to plant a garden within 100 feet of a walnut tree,” Janet continued, “You can plant a raised bed and it should be fine. If the root system is planted directly into the soil and not raised up, it’ll come into contact with the poison of the walnut tree. Cutting the tree down does no good; the root system is there for a hundred years.”

“Soil is another thing you’re going to need to take into consideration,” she advises. “We have a really diverse soil system around here, but quite a bit of what we have is clay. Anyone who plants directly into the clay will have problems with fruit crops. Plants like potatoes, carrots, and any other kind of root type plant will be stunted, and will tend to be small because the soil will compact around them.”

To combat the issues of clay soil, Janet advises raised beds. “They work great. I’ve heard of people using tires and filling them with soil. If you don’t want to use a raised bed, though, I do recommend adding a lot of compost to the soil to loosen it up. Don’t add sand thinking that will loosen it up, because it’ll just make the soil into a brick. It needs a good compost-type material, which helps to loosen up the clay.”

Composting is great for clay or sandy soils, Janet advises. “It helps with water retention and drainage for both types of soil.”

“Onions, carrots and potatoes are the three things that will have trouble in clay,” she continues. “The rest of your plants will do okay.”

If you don’t want to do raised beds, and your soil or location are too problematic for your garden, you also have the option of container gardening. “They’re making new plants that grow more compact to grow in containers,” said Janet. “If you can’t do them in the ground, you can put them on the ground in a container with something underneath so it can wick water up during the day. Container gardens require a lot of water, though.”

For more advice

Janet’s always willing to dispense advice on gardening issues. You can find her at Bean Creek Garden Center, 645 S. Meridian Rd in Hudson, 448-2326. Bean Creek Gardens is also available on Facebook and on the web at http://www.beancreekgardencenter.com.

If you have any gardening questions you’d like to see answered in the newspaper, please contact the Hudson Post-Gazette at (517)448-2611 or e-mail us at hudsonpost@gmail.com.