Springtime is right around the corner, and Northern Virginians are looking forward to enjoying warmer weather and fresh flowers. For many green thumbs in the area, the spring months include planting seeds, prepping soil and getting backyard gardens ready for summer.
Anders Vidstrand is the program head of the horticulture program at Northern Virginia Community College, teaching on the Loudoun campus. We spoke with him about what local gardeners should be doing during March and April to see their gardens bloom. Highlights are below.
As the season changes to spring, what can Northern Virginians do to prepare their gardens for summer?
The months of March and April are potentially one of the busiest times of the year for gardening in Northern Virginia. Early spring contains a multitude of potential tasks, from completing the unfinished work of winter to planting and protecting for summer, and maybe even taking on an elusive spring garden. Focus on four things: weeding and mulching, pruning, fertilizing and growing edible plants.
As the days lengthen and the soil warms, the cool season weeds begin to take off, which is why now is the time for bed preparation, edging and early weed control (physical, chemical or otherwise). Remember to thoroughly control the weeds before applying any mulch. Also, please do not volcano mulch! Mulch should be kept back 1-foot or more from the crown or trunk of trees and most shrubs, and should be spread out over the area where surface roots for that plant are growing, not just in a 3- to 5-foot circle.
For pruning, herbaceous perennials should be cut back now since any winter interest they may have had is gone. Wait to prune your evergreens until new growth starts to show. This is also a typical time for fertilizing beds, but remember most fertilizers are most active at warmer soil temperatures, so waiting until a little later in the spring is a good plan.
Now is the time to plant the elusive spring (cool season) garden with all of the greens, brassicas, root crops and other cool season vegetables that you might want to grow and eat before your summer harvest comes in. Additionally, now is the time to seed indoors many of your own summer crops, especially tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and similar plants that take a long time to size up to transplant. Otherwise, you can always buy these as starts later in April or May. This is also a good time to plant fruit trees and other bare-root edibles like berries and vines.
Which vegetables and flowers grow best during the spring in our region?
This is a great time to plant and harvest cool season vegetables. These include salad greens (lettuce, spinach, arugula and other unusual greens), cooking greens (kale, collards, chard) and root crops (radish, turnips, beets, carrots), as well as other brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage) and onions and potatoes. If you think about how popular these crops are to buy, and how much better many do in our cool spring and fall seasons than in the summer, you can see the potential for an extended vegetable gardening in Northern Virginia. Look for days to harvest on the seed packet and plant quicker to mature varieties for a fast spring crop.
Annual and biennial flowers have a similar amount of cool season potential in our climate. Now is a good time to plant calendula, bachelor’s buttons, sweet alyssum and so many others that can take a bit of frost. Perennial flowers are also a good option. Look for local species and hardy prairie perennials native to North America, and, of course, bulbs for spring interest too! By the end of April, almost every type of annual vegetable and flower is a great option to plant since we will be past our average last frost date. The summer garden is best established at this time.
For those who don’t have access to a backyard garden, what plants are easiest to maintain indoors?
Indoor plants can be a challenge, but there are many good options. If you have some available light indoors (or a grow light) you can choose from a multitude of indoor plant options. If you have really limited light, you need to be more selective, and may have to choose from old standbys like snake plant, spider plant, peace lily, pothos or cast iron plant. If you have medium light or bright indirect light you will have many more options to choose from. The important thing with all indoor plants is to not overwater them or underwater them. The key is to let them dry out between watering, and then when you water them, thoroughly water them (for example in your sink) until water flows out through the bottom of the pot.
Where is your favorite place in NoVA to purchase garden supplies and flowers?
I am new to the area, but my favorite place so far is Merrifield Garden Center. Its huge selection of plants, especially perennials, trees and shrubs, immediately made me feel at home. It also has great free workshops throughout the year. Most importantly, many of our NOVA horticulture students work there!
For more information on the horticulture program at NOVA Community College, click here. The college’s Horticulture Club will be hosting its spring plant sale on April 23-24, from noon to 6 p.m. at the NOVA Loudoun Campus Greenhouse, and will also be selling plants at the Leesburg Flower and Garden Festival April 27-28.
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