Amending vegetable bed

Q: As a new gardener, I find early spring overwhelming! What should I do to increase my chances of a successful garden this year?

A: I approach each spring with the desire to overcome last year’s gardening challenges, lay a perfect foundation for my new gardening efforts, and try a few new plants and landscaping ideas.

Laying the perfect foundation in any project is one of the most tedious parts of any project because it is usually unseen, but I vow that this year I want to approach it with a new enthusiasm. Last fall I cleaned all of my gardening tools and put the rust-susceptible ends of tools in buckets of sand laced with oil. During the winter I looked at catalogs chocked full of seeds, new plants, landscape paraphernalia and gardening tools.

Now, it’s time to do garden variety “spring cleaning’, a.k.a., laying the perfect foundation for a new garden. I know this can be accomplished in 10 easy steps, so here we go.

1. Take inventory and start seeds. Although I’ve already started seeds for cold hardy vegetables and am ready to plant them, there are some flower seeds I want to get started too. I’ve inventoried what I have and what I want, and now is the perfect time to gather those clean plastic starter squares, fill them with soil, and lay in the seed. This year I plan to keep them indoors for a period of 3-4 weeks near a sunny window to give them a good start. My starter seeds this year include lobelia and marigolds.

2. Clean out the flower beds and fix up the hardscape. I like to cut plants back hard, almost to the ground. That allows me to see what other debris needs to be removed, like leaves and the neighbor’s garbage that has become airborne. Once it is all clean, I can apply fish emulsion to give the plants a healthy and organic start. I also want to make repairs to landscape fixtures such as netting, cages and trellises, as well as retaining walls, ponds, bridges, walking paths and statuary. Anything that is not moving is subject to a trim or coat of paint.

3. Compost and mulch the beds. I love to get in the garden when the soil is movable, or slightly moist, and warm. Since I enjoy only vegetable and garden beds and don’t have a lawn, I don’t worry about fertilizing grass, but I do add soil amendments to my beds, as well as raising soil levels with the addition of new soil. My favorite mulch is the gorilla hair mulch because it retains its color and does not move as much with the wind. I apply it before planting, knowing that once it comes time to plant outside, all I have to do is move a little mulch to make a hole for my plantings.

4. Fertilize spring flowering bulbs. I have a lot of spring flowering bulbs. My tulips are, of course, planted among the mint which helps to stave off the deer from foraging through the tulips. Now is the time to feed them with a good bulb food. I also have iris that have multiplied over the year, along with hyacinth and daffodils. All get a nice feeding now.

5. Cut back the ornamental grasses. This is the only area of the yard where my husband likes to help with garden work. He claims he is giving haircuts and ties the grass clump together and cuts back to 2-3 inches in one fell swoop. Once done, he cuts down the Russian sage in the same manner and then hands the cutters back to me.

6. Prune back the shrubs. The shrubs are my area of pruning. I like to shape the shrub first and only cut out about 1/3 of the branches. Over the summer, the removed branches provide light and space for more luxurious growth throughout the growing season.

7. Take care of the voles, moles, and pocket gophers. My best advice here is to let the professionals handle the critters. I have tried baits, hoses hooked to my car exhaust, and traps. Nothing I have tried seems to work, so my plan this year is to talk to an exterminator, then clean up the soil piles once the critters have become compost.

8. Feed trees, shrubs, and roses. Using the proper fertilizer of your choice, fertilize and then hope for rain so that the nutrients hit those roots and make the plant thrive.

9. Start a compost pile. I’ve read a lot about composting over the winter, and my new challenge this year is to join the composting craze that espouses “ease and economy.” I bought a tumbling composter and between the organic yard trash and kitchen trash, mixed with microbes, I plan to churn my garbage into garden gold.

10. Clean the curb! One of the best ways to lay a great foundation is to clean the curb at the street level. Tree debris and garbage has a way of accumulating here! I probably should have started here because it is one of the most dramatic ways to change the view from the outside of your yard and really boosts your enthusiasm for getting the rest of the spring cleaning accomplished.

Best of luck to you in the new gardening year – remember that a proper foundation is worth the effort for summertime garden enjoyment!

Contributed by Paula Spinner, Certified Colorado Gardener
Photo by Pete Holzmann