April 13, 2016

Planning Ahead for Planting Brings the Best Results for a Flourishing Garden

home improve 4-13-16

GLORIOUS GARDENS : “We plant containers that our customers bring in or purchase so that they have exactly what they want without having to do all the work at home.” Lisa Miccolis, owner of Bountiful Gardens in Hillsborough, is shown working on a special container garden.

How does your garden grow? It’s probably not in full-fledged bloom yet, but it is definitely time to get started. As so often in life, preparation is key. Preparing the soil, adding compost and mulch, planning for color and texture, sun and shade are all very important considerations.

“Gardening is great for the mind, body, and spirit,” says Lisa Miccolis, owner of Bountiful Gardens at 135 Route 206 in Hillsborough. She also owns garden centers in Ewing Township and Chester.

“Our goal is always to inspire our customers to garden. We believe it promotes wellness, and we even work with companies to add gardening to their wellness programs for employees.

“Spring is a terrific time to make changes in your yard by creating a new garden or expanding your existing garden,” she adds. “April is an excellent month to work with the soil because the temperatures are usually mild, and we get a lot of rain so digging is easier.”

At-Home Tests

Ms. Miccolis recommends turning over the soil and fertilizing in April, and she says that it is also important to test the soil’s pH level, especially if it is a new area to be planted.

“There are at-home tests you can buy to test the soil yourself,” she explains. “The results will identify the acidic or alkaline level of the soil, and this affects how plants absorb nutrients. Since different plants thrive in different pH levels, the test will help determine what to plant and whether you need to treat the soil with amendments.”

Ornamental shrubs, flowers, turf, and vegetables grow best in slightly acidic soils, points out Ms. Miccolis. Also, at a pH level of 6.5 most nutrients are readily available for plants to use. Levels of pH can be adjusted if a soil test indicates the soil is too acidic or alkaline.

“In addition to determining your soil’s pH, a soil test will indicate your soil’s fertilization needs.” she adds. “This is very important for sustainable landscape gardening because it eliminates spending money on unnecessary fertilizer. This reduction of unneeded fertilizer also reduces contamination of the environment.”

Type of soil is another factor, she notes. Is it easy to shovel, does it crumble?

“Clay soil is what I come across most often here in central New Jersey,” says Ms. Miccolis. “Really hard clay soil and shale lack nutrients, are difficult to grow roots in, and they collect moisture. You should add good soil and compost to these areas and try to aerate the soil as much as possible before planting. Many soils, especially sandy and heavy clay soils, need a lot of organic matter worked into them to produce a soil best suited for perennials, for example.

“Each year, three to four inches of organic material should be worked into the top 10 to 12 inches of soil. This can easily be done before perennials are planted. If plants are established, spread the organic material evenly between the plants and work in as much as possible. Worms will also help to mix additional material into the soil.”

Natural Organics

Ms. Miccolis recommends the Espoma line of products for amending and feeding plants. “These products contain natural organics which are longer lasting and break down slowly for steady continuous feeding. They add organic matter and are safe for people, pets, and the environment.”

Planting in April and May is the best time to get started, depending on the plant, she adds. “All perennials, shrubs, and trees that are permanent and live in our climate zone can be planted now. It’s a great time because we usually get a lot of rain in the spring, and the weather is cool, which is an ideal situation for root growth. This means your plants start establishing before the summer heat and dry periods begin.

“Some great perennials that I would recommend for having fabulous foliage are pulmonaria, heuchera, artemesia, sedum, and variegated iris, to name a few. Soil that is ideal for growing perennials is loose and easily workable. A sandy loam soil that is well-drained, fertile, and contains an abundance of organic material would grow fabulous perennials. However, many of us do not have this type of soil in our garden, and most soils need to be amended somewhat to provide an environment in which perennials thrive.

“Once you have the list of plants that tolerate the sun exposure in your area, then you will need to consider your moisture conditions in that space. Is it very moist with poor drainage? Does the water collect? If this is the case, there are not that many plants you will be able to use but there are some, and these are often used in rain gardens, which have become very popular.

“A rain garden is a garden that takes advantage of rainfall and storm water runoff in its design and plant selection. Usually, it is a small garden which is designed to withstand the extremes of moisture and concentrations of nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus that are found in storm water runoff.”

For those who look forward to planting annuals, such as the popular geraniums, petunias, impatiens, snap dragons, etc., Ms. Miccolis advises waiting until May. “The rule of thumb has always been Mother’s Day or simply mid-to-late May. You want to be sure the last spring frost has passed.”

Colors and Textures

Flower gardening is most popular in spring and summer, she adds. After a long winter without much color, “Everyone is starving for some color, and flowers are a feast for the eye! My experience dealing with do-it-yourself gardeners is that they all have different tastes. Most gardeners who do not have any formal design training mix all colors and textures and create a masterpiece of their own. And thanks to the internet, garden magazines, and garden television shows, the home gardener is now learning that taking the trouble to plan can save time and money

“Trained and experienced landscape designers and architects, of course, plan everything — the colors and textures in the garden, the timing of the blooms in the garden, etc.”

“My philosophy, that I share with our customers who come in looking for guidance, is that planning your gardens for foliage color and texture will provide much more satisfaction than just flowering colors. Flowers come and go. I see flowers as a bonus, but I am more concerned with the foliage color and texture, its height and width.”

Flowers can require more maintenance, she points out, adding, however, that it can also be relaxing for many people. For example, “I enjoy ‘deadheading’ flowers in my garden. It’s very meditative for me.

Maintenance is an important consideration, especially for those who don’t have the time to spend tending the garden. As Ms. Miccolis says, “In my experience over the years, people do not have as much time available to do a lot of maintenance so they are looking for low maintenance plants. Overall, low maintenance is the trend. We sell so many container gardens that are all ready to go and can just be set by the door.

“Also, flowering shrubs and trees do not need much pruning unless you plant them in a space that is smaller than they need to grow, which actually happens very often. The landscape industry is trying to educate gardeners to plan correctly and plant the right plant in the right space to avoid such maintenance.”

Early Spring

Vegetable gardens are becoming more and more popular, adds Ms, Miccolis. “People want clean organic vegetables, and the best way to know for sure what you are getting is to grow it yourself. Organic vegetables cost more in the store, so growing them is the only way some people can afford to have them.

“For vegetable gardening, there are vegetables you can plant early in spring and again in the fall that prefer cooler weather and that can even tolerate hard frosts (25 to 28 degrees). These vegetables, such as broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, collards, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, mustard greens, radish, spinach and turnips, taste better when grown in cool weather.

“Others that like cool weather and tolerate light frost (29 to 32 degrees) are considered semi-hardy vegetables. These are beets, carrots, cauliflower, celery, Chinese cabbage, endive, Irish potatoes, lettuce, rutabaga, and Swiss chard. You can find most of these plants in six-packs at Bountiful Gardens in March and April. They are fully rooted and ready to go right into the garden. Summer vegetables can be planted safely in the garden mid to late May after the last spring frost. These are peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, corn, green beans, peas, and others.”

Herbs are also favorites with many gardeners, says Ms. Miccolis. “Most herbs would be planted at the same time as the summer vegetables. There are many herbs that are perennial and come back each year. Those can be planted early as long as they aren’t new tender plants.”

Whatever your favorite garden — flower, vegetable, or herb, one of the biggest challenges is dealing with the pests. Many solutions are available, some tried and true, and some definitely work better than others.

“For vegetable gardens, I recommend a wire fence around the bottom that is dug underground on an angle about 18 inches to keep out rabbits, groundhogs, moles, voles, and chipmunks,” reports Ms. Miccolis. “These are the most common pests I come across. If you have deer coming into the yard, then I recommend an eight-foot high fence to keep them away from your plants entirely.

Tiny Seed

“If you do not want a fence, then learning what the deer like least is the best next step. No plant is completely deer-resistant because if they are starving, they will eat even things they don’t like to survive. However, there are plants that deer do not like, and they will usually pass them by. At Bountiful Gardens, we have many plants, shrubs, and trees that we categorize as deer resistant.”

Gardening continues to be one of the most popular outdoor activities, with a myriad of benefits — from relaxation to exercise to the intangible pleasure of seeing a beautiful blossom or vegetable materialize from a tiny seed.

As Ms. Miccolis points out, “Gardening is a great way to spend time alone, or with family and friends. It is rewarding. I have also noticed that younger people are becoming more involved in gardening. I am seeing more 20+ year-olds than ever before. I think they are concerned about what they are eating, and they want to become good stewards of the planet.”

Whatever one’s age, there is much to be appreciated, and always more to learn about the pleasures of gardening. As Thomas Jefferson, in his later years, wrote to a friend about his gardens at Monticello, “I may be an old man, but I am a young gardener.”