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Surveying the landscape

Plan and plant for the coming growing season


While it recently felt like May, don’t count March out for some unpredictable surprises.

Trees are still bare and most shrubs may have the beginnings of fresh green buds. It’s easy to get swept away as the plant nurseries and garden centers begin stocking up and showcasing this year’s color blooms, plant and perennial varieties.

There are plants you can purchase and set soon — as long as the ground is workable — and you have the time to provide supplemental water, said Margaret Pickoff, a commercial horticulture educator in the Bucks County office of Penn State Extension in Wrightstown.

For most plant materials, a good place to start is the last frost date, around May 10, she said.

“Our winters have been warm and spring has been arriving early. Some of the plants you may be using could be cold hardy, especially perennials and shrubs,” Pickoff said.

Spring rains can be a great time to get plants established and provide the best start for the upcoming growing season.

“Soil moisture is critically important for planting success,” she said.

Get soil tested

Pickoff recommends ordering a soil test if you’re starting a landscape project from scratch or renovating an older property or garden.

“Soil test results usually take a couple of weeks, and mid-March is a great time to do this,” she said.

Professional soil analysis takes a couple weeks and soil test kits are available at the Newtown Office of the Penn State Extension Bucks County.

“Kits cost $10 and include a sample bag, instructions, envelope with lab address,” she said. Plan to pay shipping costs. Follow collection instructions carefully. If results are confusing, call the extension service phone number and speak with a master gardener.

Soil test forms may also be printed from the soil lab website using a home printer, Pickoff said.

“Spring is a busy time so the earlier you get the test in the faster you’ll get results,” she said.

If you contract with a landscaping service ask about soil testing.

“They’ll be able to do the soil testing or walk you through how to do it yourself and make planting recommendations based on the results,” she said.

“The more people know about their landscape — from soil to weather conditions — the better,” she said.

What to plant

Native plants continue to be popular with home gardeners for lots of reasons. They’re naturally resilient, attract pollinators, are disease and pest resistant and should be easier to grow and maintain than many non-native species.

Pickoff recommends waiting until late April to purchase and plant new shrubs. Virginia sweetspire, sweet pepperbush, inkberry (a holly variety), red twig dogwood, buttonbush, spicebush (several varieties in the laurel family) and ninebark are among Pickoff’s dependable shrub picks for our area.

“They are resilient to heavy precipitation and will withstand heavy rain downpours,” Pickoff said.

Plant these shrubs in April as they can generally withstand lower spring overnight temperatures, are well suited to the climate and can withstand our winters, she said.

“People like to shop for things they see that are flowering and beautiful to buy at the nursery,” Pickoff explained, “keep in mind when you buy natives they may not look like much when you buy them.”

That shouldn’t be a reason to forgo native plants.

Once they are established, you’ll enjoy their foliage and blossoms for many seasons to come.

“Consider using native plants in the landscape,” she said.

Perennials can be planted in the spring to minimize stress on them as they get established.

Because plant flowering is an energy intensive process — and transplanting is, too — getting and planting appropriately timed plants now means you’ll enjoy them in flower later in the season, she said.

Among Pickoff’s native plant recommendations are: Asclepias tuberose (butterfly weed), New England asters, Chelone (turtlehead), coreopsis, liatris, and monarda (bee balm or bergamot).

“Joe Pye weed is another really popular plant with pollinators, and it can get really tall and overwhelm a smaller garden,” she explained.

Look for smaller cultivars of Joe Pye weed, such as “Little Joe” a shorter variety that grows to three to four feet tall, she said.

If some of these natives are too tall, there may be cultivars that are similar to the straight up species that might be more manageable for the small garden, she said.

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