Get out and dig in the dirt: Spring is perfect time to start a garden or pick up where you left off in the fall

Joyce Christini places a mistflower in a larger pot as she and fellow Penn State master gardeners repot hundreds of plants in preparation for their upcoming garden show.
Joyce Christini places a mistflower in a larger pot as she and fellow Penn State master gardeners repot hundreds of plants in preparation for their upcoming garden show. CDT photo

Ready to get a garden going this spring? According to local professionals, there are a few things you should do now to ensure that whatever you plant will thrive all season long.

Now is the perfect time to start a garden or pick up where you left off in the fall, said Holly D’Angelo, manager of Fox Hill Gardens in State College.

“The ground is mostly unfrozen now, so gardening is definitely possible,” D’Angelo said. “Spring and fall are the best times to garden. Summer is a little more challenging, especially if there’s a drought.”

The first thing to do before heading out to the lawn and garden store or ordering any plants is take a soil sample to see what type of flowers, plants or trees will grow best in your yard. Sample kits are available from Penn State’s Extension office in Bellefonte and from any garden center.

“You get a report back telling you exactly what the nutrients are and that can help in your planning,” said Molly Sturniolo, master gardener coordinator in the Centre County Extension office.

A soil sample can also help determine how much fertilizer is necessary for plants to be successful. Sturniolo recommends using compost or other organic products where possible, and starting with a slow-release fertilizer to ensure that a baseline is established for new plants.

The limestone in Centre County’s soil makes it very basic, or low-acidity, said Curtis Runyan, retail sales manager at Scott’s Landscaping in Centre Hall. In addition to a soil sample, Runyan said, a water test is important because the water used on plants can impact the pH.

“Certain types of hydrangeas you can control the color of flower by adjusting soil pH,” Runyan said. “We really don’t carry too many things that grow in acidic soil because they really don’t do well in this area.”

Once the soil is sampled, the next step is to select plants. Runyan said a typical new customer at Scott’s spends about $700, which would include one shade tree, 10 shrubs and 10 perennials.

Another commonly used rule of thumb in the landscape business is that consumers should plan to spend about 10 percent of their home’s value on landscaping over the course of their time in the home.

Landscaping companies can help consumers select plants that meet their budget and aesthetic preferences. One common mistake, Runyan said, is planting too many of the same type of plant — known as monoculture in the industry.

“What you get later on is an insect or disease comes in and hits that particular plant you might lose a lot of your landscaping all at once,” Runyan said.

For someone who moved into a new home over the fall or winter, D’Angelo recommends waiting a few months to see what has already been planted before jumping into buying anything new.

“See where you need more screen, more coverage, and where winds come in and where storms come through in the summertime,” D’Angelo said. “You don’t want to plant something in a location that won’t end up being viable.”

Determining a maintenance plan is also important at the start of the gardening season. Many garden centers and landscape companies offer maintenance services on products they sell, but many gardeners choose to do their own.

The decision about which path to take should depend on how much time a person has to devote to what they plant, Sturniolo said.

“I would prefer to see people who care about plants do the work, whether that’s the individual or a landscaping company,” Sturniolo said. “There is a cost associated with hiring someone, but you know that things will be installed correctly. … They don’t just dig a small hole and plop a tree in the ground.”

Ed Meek, a tree specialist with Bartlett Tree Service in State College, said seeking professional help early may help prevent problems down the road, especially with larger things, such as trees that are designed to be permanent fixtures.

“To me it’s well worth the investment to have someone who knows what they’re doing come in and take care of something that may last hundreds of years,” Meek said. “I’ve come into properties where someone didn’t know what they were doing and it has ruined structure of the tree and it takes a lot of work to restore. If it had been dealt with properly it would not have been an issue.”

No yard? No problem.

Container gardening is an option for those who do not have outdoor space. The master gardeners offer container gardening workshops that have become very popular over the past few years, Sturniolo said.

“Container gardening can be so much fun,” Sturniolo said. “Just like with outdoor gardening, you need to have the right soil and need to have enough light and room for healthy root development.”

Sturniolo said container plants tend to use water and fertilizer more quickly than outdoor plants and require a place for any excess water to drain out of the container.

Keeping weeds at bay is a problem for new and veteran gardeners. Sturniolo said hand-pulling is best for removing smaller weeds. Establishing a good ground cover will help because the weeds will not have room to grow.

Runyan said he commonly sees people run into trouble when using landscape fabric designed to prevent weeds.

“A lot of people will put mulch on top of the fabric, and as the mulch decomposes, new soil is generated and weeds grow directly in it and in the weed fabric,” Runyan said.

Commercial weed-killing products like RoundUp should be used sparingly so that plants are not killed along with weeds, Sturniolo said. She recommends using organic solutions, if possible, and applying them in the evening when bees are less likely to be around plants.

“The master gardener program is really big on gardening for pollinators,” Sturniolo said. “They are in so much trouble right now.”

Applying mulch is also key to keeping weeds at bay. Experts recommend 2 to 3 inches to start. However, weeds must be removed prior to putting down mulch or it will feed the weeds just as much as the plants.

“If you use a good quality mulch, it will feed the plants as it breaks down and you do not have to use as much fertilizer,” Runyan said.

The best advice for new gardeners, though? Start small.

“If you want flowers, start with putting annuals in and learning how to care for them. If you want vegetables, start with a small plot and see how they grow,” she said. “You have to start somewhere.”