BARBARA LEACH: At Home In The Garden

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In our new normal, I am torn between my economic fears (wanting to be out there supporting our business community) and the knowledge that I must stay put.  Gardeners have been gearing up for shopping since we got our first gardening catalogs and ads in January.  What do we do when we can’t gaily get down to our local Garden Center and Hardware?  We make do and we putter.  We may have become distanced from those terms so now is time to reacquaint ourselves.

Most gardeners have potting soil of some sort on hand.  We may have additives to stretch it for plants that will only temporarily be potted before they go into real earth.  Perlite, vermiculite, peat moss, sand, fine charcoal are all additives that will make our little bit fill more pots.

While, generally we only want to use sterilized materials, we can even bend the rules here, because of the temporary nature.  Perhaps you have compost, rotted leaves, a mulch pile or a bag that you can sift out the big chunks and add the fine pieces to your mix.  I have even been known to pulverize mulch or even orchid mix to get enough fine material to mix with my potting mix.  You need it well aerated and to be fine enough that it can still hold water.

If you have nothing to start, you know sooner or later you will need to go out for groceries.  Search the floral dept.  They won’t have a wide selection of soils but it could save a separate trip to the hardware store and remember, we are minimizing being out and about.

While you may be accustomed to garden transplants, perhaps you have some old seed.  The germination rate might not be great but I bet if you start some seeds you can save having to get some sets. No cell-packs?  No problem.  Egg cartons work great.  Poke a drainage hole in each compartment.  Cutting the carton into 4-packs before you fill with soil will make it easier to get the seedlings out at transplant time without damaging them.

Scrounge your recycle bin.  Mushroom trays are great because they are deeper than Chinese take-out trays or frozen dinner trays, that can also work.  Need labels?  I have used flat-sided plastic containers like detergent or milk/juice bottles cut in strips.  Just be sure everything you use is as clean as possible.

If you gave up starting seeds inside because they get weak and spindly, try starting them right outside.  This year has been mild enough to do that and just pull them inside on the coldest evenings.  The sun and cool temperatures will make your seedlings stocky, as long as you don’t overwater.  If you have added non-sterile material, like compost, running plants a little on the dry side will help ensure you do not have a fungal outbreak before you set them out.

If you have overwintered bulbs and roots, they are likely waking up and you can’t hold them back longer.  Canna rhizomes want to be 4”-6” deep in the garden.  If you pot them in a one or two gallon pot, put them near the bottom and fill the pot.  If you plant the pot soil line at soil level in the garden they will already be deep enough to not blow over.

Once a sprout emerges from the soil it is hard to sink it down without rotting the stems.  I would put dahlias just a little way up from the bottom and begonias and smaller bulbs about ½ way up the pot.  Amaryllis need their roots trimmed and planted so about 1/3 of the bulb is exposed above the soil line.

Use all of your old compost or raked off mulch in your garden soil to improve it.  Maybe this is time to consider starting a compost or worm bin.  No enclosure?  Besides the many options for building homemade compost bins with found items, just a heap will work until you can do better.  Keep it lightly shaded and close enough to the house where you will remember to water and turn it.

Now is also a really good time for rejuvenation pruning, both for shrubs that tolerate that type pruning and for houseplants.  Those scraggly old pothos or philodendron or Wandering Jews can be divided or at least repotted, removing much of the old soil, cutting off that ring of pot-bound roots at the bottom and giving them a severe haircut or even cutting the whole thing back to stubs about 2”-3” high.

This time of year, even the bare stems should rejuvenate after repotting.  Cane plants that are too bare at the bottom can be air layered.  After the newly rooted top is potted you can cut the bottom to stubs, repot it, and will likely end up with new life to the old plant, or recycle in that new compost bin.

There is much we can do to improve our gardens without having to leave the house.  Health experts tell us the sun will be good for us and the sense of control and accomplishment ensures good mental health.

Barbara Leach, Horticulture Technician, VCE-Roanoke