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Cove Gardener Shares His Top 10 Spring Gardening Tips

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March 20th marks the first day of spring this year, but we’re seeing lots of spring color and growth already, here in Asheville.  Unless you still have snow covering the ground, this is a good time to get outside and tend to the things the good Lord created in our gardens and yards.

Following are 10 great spring gardening tips from Lucas, our gardener here at The Cove.  From planting, to pruning, to mulching– he’s got you covered!

By Lucas Jack, Cove Grounds Maintenance Supervisor

1. Don’t Guess—Soil Test!

This is a tip we frequently share with visitors when they ask our advice about plant problems. Soil testing to determine nutrient and Ph levels is a crucial step towards having a successful garden.  Knowing what nutrients are lacking (or are present in excess) can mean the difference between a green thumb and black thumb.  Soil testing is simple, and it starts with a call to your local agricultural extension office.  There’s an extension office in every county in America, and they are associated with Agricultural College of each state (NC State for North Carolina, UT for Tennessee, UGA for Georgia, Clemson for South Carolina, etc.).  The good folks at your local office will direct you in how to send a soil sample to your state lab.  However, summer is too late—so be sure to do this ASAP!  The test results will tell you what fertilizer you will need to ensure growing success this season.  It will also tell you to how to change the Ph of your soil to maximize nutrient use by your plants.

2. To Prune or Not Prune? That is the Question.

Put down those sharp pruners before you hurt yourself!  Do you know what to prune and what not too?  Often gardeners make the mistake of pruning everything—or worse, nothing.  Plants such as roses need to be pruned before spring, so if you haven’t pruned them hard already, don’t do it now; just get all the dead or crossing canes out, cut back any old blooms from last year, and prune to a height of about 75%.  Some plants bloom on last year’s wood, so be sure to research what to prune and when. Cut back ornamental grasses and debris from perennials.  Prune back hollies now; tackle the obvious die backs and don’t be skimpy.

For the best treatment of Mountain Laurel, be sure to cut it back to within 4 inches from the ground (this will make for a dense shrub in the future, packed with beautiful blooms).   When planning to prune, just remember: Everything has a season, just like you; so take your time and make the right decisions based on research.  It is the Glory of God to conceal a matter and the Glory of Kings to search it out.  (Proverbs 25:2) So, learn first, prune second.

Finally, just a few short but crucial pruning tips from a gardener who’s seen it all: do not top trees, do not top your crape myrtles and do not prune your “dead hydrangeas” back!

3. Its Alive, It’s Alive!

Speaking of hydrangeas…they may not be dead.  Hydrangeas are often slow to push leaves in the spring, and their stems look dry and brittle.  But don’t despair; they may not be dead!  Wait patiently, and by May 1st you should know whether your hydrangea is dead or alive.  The Clematis vine has a similar growth pattern.  The vine itself may look bad but quickly buds out, producing beautiful blooms from what was seemingly dead, similar to me and you when we came to Christ—once dead, now made alive!  A final tip about hydrangeas: Hydrangea macrophyla species (Endless Summer, Dooley, All Summer Beauty, Larnath White, etc.) should be pruned after bloom, but selectively.  Hydrangea penniculata (Limelight, etc.) can be pruned in the spring time.

4. Between the Hedges

If your hedge is way overgrown, go ahead and prune it low now!  Hedges such as boxwood, holly, or Yew can often withstand a very hard prune to the ground.  When done, they usually flush back out in the spring with gusto! (Caution: Hedges such as hemlock do not.)  However; be prepared. After pruning, anything between the hedges will be visible, so make sure the lawn looks like UGA’s Herty field.

5. Don’t Plant that Yet!

All big box stores will sell you a tomato plant in March; but unless you live in south Georgia, just leave it on the shelf and be fine with the fact that you haven’t wasted your money.  Consult the USDA’s cold hardiness map which identifies the typical last and first frost dates for zones throughout the U.S. (For example: Western North Carolina is within Zones 6 and 7, and to the south Zones 7, 8 and 9.  In Zone 6 our average last frost is May 15th.)  Vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, corn, peppers, and Okra will be absolutely stone cold dead if exposed to frost.  Other issues can arise from cold damp air that can likewise kill your plants.  It’s important to do your research as to what you can plant early, such as spinach, potatoes etc.

6. Ah, I love the Smell of Mulch in the Morning…

When preparing to mulch, plan to use pine straw for most shrubs and pine mulch for everything else.  Before applying mulch rake up debris and put in a compost pile.  Apply 3 inches of mulch to previously un-mulched areas and only apply a dusting of mulch to previously mulched areas.  Apply pine straw to a thickness that you cannot see the soil underneath.

One final piece of advice: Don’t use weed blanket.  Here’s why:  If you don’t remove and replace the mulch each year, you’ll end up with a compost layer covering your blanket, which then allows weeds to grow on top of the fabric.  The weed roots will then grow through the pores of the fabric, making it completely useless.  So go ahead and rip that stuff out!

7. Let’s Split!

Grasses, iris’, daylilies and other clumping perennials can be split once they begin to emerge.  This allows them to get over split shock and transplant shock.  Share extras with your neighbor, or fill-in bare spots in your garden with the new starts. Don’t do this late in the year because often their roots will rot.

8. What a Bunch of Manure.

Fertilizer is simply fancy manure.  When choosing fertilizer, it’s important to follow the guidelines of your soil test.  Here are a few other helpful things to know:

  1.  Slow release fertilizers are great if you missed your window for a soil test and aren’t sure what to put down.  They are often coated with a polymer which breaks down with higher temperatures, thus allowing the nutrients to slowly release when plants need it most.
  2. Urea nitrogen-based fertilizers are usually very safe for use on most plants and often do not pose a “burn” risk if used properly
  3. Ammonia nitrogen-based fertilizers can easily burn plants if used improperly or in high doses.  The advantage they offer is a quick release of fertilizer.

Remember: Consult your soil test and your county extension agent to determine the best fertilizer to use!

9. Black Thumb or Egyptian Plague?

By now I’m sure you’re overwhelmed with info, but a few last things to keep in mind:  Sometimes diseases and insects are your issue—not your inability to “grow” a plant.

In the spring, wet and damp conditions can lead to fungal diseases and insects such as aphids.  Fungal diseases can take out your plants in a hurry, so once again take a sample of the plant to your local extension office if you aren’t sure what the problem is.  You can also find helpful information from a web search, but make sure to assess all the symptoms present before deciding to spray.

10. I Want My Yard to Look Like Augusta National.

Good luck with that! But even if you’ve set your goals a bit lower, here are a few tips for a healthier lawn:

Fertilize cool season grasses like fescue now, and over seed if needed. If you don’t want weeds, then use a pre-emergent fertilizer; but be sure not to over seed until fall if you’ve used a pre-emergent.  More is not better, so use the recommended rates and don’t over apply.

Make sure your mower has a sharp blade, a fresh spark plug, and fresh oil.  Purchase a few extra blades as well.  Disinfect the housing of the mower blade, and decontaminate your mower deck with a kitchen cleaner or outdoor use bleach.  Fungal spores and other pathogens can live on the debris under the mower deck so clean well, and make sure to sharpen your mower throughout the season.

Lastly, now is the time to have your local licensed irrigation company scheduled to come out and prepare your irrigation system for use.  If you don’t have a system but want one, now is the time to start planning.  Remember that time you had to stand in the bread line at the grocery store because you didn’t think it would snow but it turned into a blizzard?  Avoid falling victim to summer drought by being proactive and getting your system fixed or installed.  When the drought comes, everybody gets in line.

Thanks for reading!  Hope this helps, and happy gardening!  – Lucas


We hope you’ll make plans to visit Ruth’s Prayer Garden at the Chatlos Memorial Chapel and Visitors Center.  Click here for directions and operating hours.  Tours are free.