This Bud’s For You
Our guide to spring gardening
As March blows in like a lion, it brings with it longer days, warmer temperatures and the pleasure of sunshine. In New Orleans, it also initiates the annual post-Carnival event season, which begins with St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s days, moves on to French Quarter Festival, then culminates with the seven-day New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
But for the gardener, the entrance of March heralds something still more exciting: The advent of the spring gardening season.
Hosts of workshops and garden classes ensue over the next few months and provide instruction in how to propagate roses, how to tell a native iris from an imposter, which plants to install to create a butterfly garden and when to cut back annuals. Scour your local newspaper and study the New Orleans Botanical Garden workshop calendar to ensure you don’t miss out.
In the meantime, we have compiled a list of “Tips and Tricks” to get your spring garden off to a good start and help it weather the transition to summer. You will also find recommendations for more than a dozen plants to bring color, form and texture to your home garden.
Dress it up.
It is simple to prepare a brand new bed for spring planting, devoid of existing shrubs or perennials. But how do you improve soil structure and provide nutrients when there’s already an Indian Hawthorn or other spring-blooming shrub present that shouldn’t be disturbed? The answer is top dressing, the practice of scraping back the mulch at the base of a shrub or plant and spreading an inch-thick layer of organic compost. The nutrients in the compost work their way down into the soil over time. (Black Kow, widely available and inexpensive, comes highly recommended.)
Water it wisely.
We like to think that 60 inches of rain annually is plenty to ensure that our gardens stay suitably hydrated throughout the year without our intervention, but it just isn’t so.
Rainfall can be erratic – deluges one day, followed by a long dry spell. A subsurface irrigation system is best, but soaker hoses can do an admirable job of spreading moisture evenly and delivering it directly to where it’s needed: the roots of plants. In a pinch, use a hose and watering wand (to control the flow of water through the nozzle) as long as you take your time, are thorough and aim at the plants’ roots (not leaves). Hand-watering, it’s said, may be at least as beneficial to the one doing the watering as to the plants themselves, because it provides an opportunity to get outdoors and connect with neighbors, as well as with the garden.
Spring flowering plants to add to your garden now
Many gardeners like to get a jump on colorizing their spring beds as early as the preceding fall by planting snapdragons, pansies, violas, alyssum and dianthus. All of these annuals will overwinter well, meaning that they’ll be damaged only in the most extreme cold. But once mid-March has passed, and with it a strong risk of a frost, nasturtiums and petunias can be added safely to the mix and will provide added dimensions of form and color.
Dramatic annuals with a vertical rather than spreading form include foxglove, hollyhocks, larkspurs and poppies. Several of these make stunning displays but don’t last long.
Their ephemeral nature (just the right conditions, not too much heat, adequate but no too much water) means you’ll have to baby them along more than some others, but the esthetic reward justifies doing so.
When shopping for plants to install, look for healthy four-inch pots of your favorite annuals (rather than “six packs”) because they’re generally more robust, and root development is well on its way. The goal is to have your annuals settled in and roots well established in the ground by the time the heat of summer begins to stress the plants.
Perennials, especially salvias, make perfect additions to the spring garden because they bloom and look good from spring to fall. Depending on your color tastes, you can find salvias in red, purple, white and yellow. Monthly sales at the Pelican Greenhouse in City Park often include a number of salvias, many of which attract both butterflies and hummingbirds.
Mulch it over.
Weeding is a thankless enough task without having to repeat it over and over throughout the season. The best way to reduce the need for it is to apply a four-inch or greater blanket of mulch atop freshly weeded soil. The most often recommended mulch in our area is pine straw, which can be purchased by the bag or in large rolls from garden centers and plant nurseries. Pine needles knit together to make a thick mat, but they do break down over time, reducing in thickness, so be sure to keep an eye on them and replenish during the growing season.
Pass it on.
As you assess your spring landscape, you may decide that one plant or more needs to be divided, cut back or removed altogether. Although a compost heap makes an honorable destination for such vegetation, why not offer your cast-offs to your gardening buddies? Facebook messages and Craigslist “curb alerts” are great ways to share your garden materials with others. Who knows what they might offer you in return?
Changes to make once summer has arrived
It is tempting to try to squeeze the last bloom out of a nasturtium or hollyhock, but use a judicial approach if you want your garden to continue looking good. Once it’s over, let it go (to the compost heap) and replace it with a plant that will thrive during the summer months.
Zinnias are long time favorites and with good reason. They come in a variety of heights, many blossom sizes and an extraordinary array of colors. Cleome and cosmos are two more that can take New Orleans’ subtropical heat and stand tall (literally). Lantana is just as heat-tolerant, as is blue daze. None of these plants require a great deal of care and fussing and will reward you with a colorful and healthy garden until it’s time for a fall garden tune up.
R. Stephanie Bruno is a native New Orleanian who lives in an old Uptown house, surrounded by an overgrown garden. She has written extensively about New Orleans culture, architecture, neighborhoods and gardens, most recently for the New Orleans Advocate. In 2011, she published New Orleans Streets: A Walker’s Guide to Neighborhood Architecture.
Head it off.
“Deadheading” is the practice of removing spent blossoms from annuals to encourage them to bloom again rather than set seed. If you’re worried you might take off too much or not enough, ask a professional at a garden center to show you (YouTube has many “how to” videos on topics like deadheading). Pansies, violas and petunias are especially needy of deadheading to prolong their vigor throughout the spring months.
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