How To Guarantee Your Garden Starts Off On The Right Foot

As winter slowly winds down, many gardeners cannot wait to soak up the springtime sun and get their hands dirty in the garden. Such excitement is not just good for gardeners but can benefit the garden in the months to come as well.
Late winter or early spring is a great time to get a head start on the gardening season. Even if the gardening season is still around the corner, completing the following projects can ensure your garden gets off on the right foot.

Clear Debris:

One of the best things you can do for your garden as winter winds down is to clear it of debris. Winter can be especially harsh on a landscape, and gardens left to the elements are often filled with debris once spring arrives. Dead leaves, fallen branches, rocks that surfaced during the winter frost, and even garbage that might have blown about in a garden over a typical winter. Clearing such debris likely won’t take long, but it’s a great first step toward restoring the garden before the time comes to plant and grow the garden once again.

Examine the Soil:

Soil plays a significant role in whether a garden thrives or struggles. Examining the soil before the season starts can help gardeners address any issues before they plant. Ignoring the soil until a problem arises can turn the upcoming gardening season into a lost opportunity, so test the soil to determine if it has any nutrient or mineral deficiencies. This may require the help of a professional, but if a problem arises, you might be able to adjust the acidity or alkalinity of the soil and still enjoy a successful gardening season. Another way to examine the soil is less complex but can shed light on when would be a good time to get back to work. Reach into the soil and dig out a handful. If the soil quickly crumbles, you can start preparing for the gardening season. But if the soil is still clumped together, it needs more time to dry out before you can begin your prep work.

Initiate Edging:

Edging is another task gardeners can begin as they get ready for the season. Edge plant and flower beds, but be sure to use a spade with a flat blade or an edger designed to edge flower beds. Such tools will cut deep enough so grassroots that may eventually grow into the flower beds are severed. Depending on how large a garden is, edging can be a time-consuming task, so getting a head start allows homeowners to spend more time planting and tending to their gardens once the season hits full swing.

Fight Weeds:

Though weeds likely have not survived the winter, that does not mean they won’t return once the weather starts to heat up. But as inevitable as weeds may seem, homeowners can take steps to prevent them from turning beautiful gardens into battlegrounds where plants, flowers, and vegetables are pitted against unsightly and potentially harmful weeds. Spring is a good time to apply a pre-emergent weed preventer, which can stop weeds before they grow. Though such solutions are not always foolproof, they can drastically reduce the likelihood of weed growth.
Though gardeners might not be able to start planting their gardens in late winter or early spring, they can still get outside and take steps to ensure their gardens thrive once planting season begins.

Be Patient Gardner’s: Too early to mess with the mulch.

A reader recently asked if it was too early to remove winter debris from under trees and shrubs and the answer is a resounding “YES!” Dead leaves and needles not only provide nutrients as they break down but provide a tremendous amount of protection to sprouting bulbs and young leaves on perennials that have new growth. Don’t tidy your landscaping, at least not yet. Clearly, there is no specific date set for when spring cleaning can safely be done without frost damage to tender new growth, but in our tri-county area, waiting another month, holding off until around the first of April, is advised. One reader stated “but my mother is cleaning under her shrubs already” and when asked where her mother lives she replied the Willamette Valley. There is a significant difference not only in our growing seasons here but in our ground itself. Rarely will you ever find anywhere in the Willamette Valley ground that freezes solid? Yes, it may become firm at times, but that is just the top few inches. It thaws rapidly. Our ground, and thus all plants, freeze solid each winter so our gardening practices must take this into account. For gardeners new to our area who have traditionally gardened in warmer climates, this could be confusing, especially when the urge to grow, plant and nurture seedlings is strong when the days begin to get longer. An east side gardener is a patient gardener. The debris under your trees and shrubs needs to remain in place for a while longer. New growth will continue to reach for the light and won’t be hampered by leaves and needles. Be patient! Now that the first of March is upon us, it’s not too early to start seeds indoors if you have space. Good spring crops are peas, lettuce, and members of the kale family, including broccoli and cabbage. If you have an unheated greenhouse or cold frame, keep in mind that most seeds won’t sprout with temperatures constantly below 50-60 degrees. They’ll need bottom heat if you want maximum germination. I have snow peas blooming right now but they were actually over-wintered in an unheated utility room from volunteer seedlings which sprouted last fall. They stayed green and short all winter long, a month ago they started growing rapidly, no doubt in relation to the longer days, and now there are blossoms open. It was an accidental experiment but with peas blooming in February, I’ll try more of this “accidental” gardening next fall. Sort of like the fall sown lettuce experiment, it works. If you have vegetable seeds that were sown last fall and they are sprouting now, don’t remove their mulch, there is certain to be freezing days ahead and they’ll continue to need the protection. For those who have had bulbs in pots blooming indoors, don’t throw them away after they stop blooming. I’ve noticed that many of the printed instruction recommend throwing these bulbs out after they have been forced to bloom at an unnatural time, please don’t. Simply plant them outside later this spring, it may take them a season or two to recover but they will bloom again. The patient gardener will see this works well, also. Until next time, enjoy the longer days and watching spring arrive.

deer gardening

Deer? Try Herbs

Feeding deer is a bad idea; once they are attracted to an area, it’s difficult to keep them away.


 In many parts of the United States, deer feast on every garden they can find, chomping and stomping their way through whole neighborhoods with little regard for aesthetics and no sense of fair play. Some frustrated gardeners give up, concluding their carefully tended beds are merely a smorgasbord for the local animal life.

Herb gardeners have a big advantage, though. A fragrant herb garden is a confusing place for deer, which relies on their sense of smell to warn them of predators. Instead of raiding your herb garden, they’ll wander over to the fruit trees and tulips down the street so you can appreciate those magnificent creatures from afar.

Natural Selection:

Growing the right plants is your first line of defense against deer. While no plant is deer-proof when these animals are hungry, rosemary comes close. Its spiky leaves emit a cloud of fragrance that deer dislike. Other Mediterranean herbs, such as oregano, sage, and thyme, have a similar effect.

The plants in a sunny garden have escaped browsing deer in different regions but by all means, experiment. If you love spring bulbs, tuck in some daffodils, which are more deer-resistant than tulips. Deer also will ignore many native ornamental kinds of grass, which are lovely additions to any herb garden.

Tips and Tricks:

Gardening successfully in deer country depends on many other factors, such as weather, the season and even the attitudes of your neighbors. Here in Utah, many people put out “deer corn” in fall and winter, believing they’re helping the poor deer- but they’re not. This lures the animals closer to your garden and makes them dependent on a nutritionally deficient diet. The high-carbohydrate content in corn can cause malnutrition and liver damage and even can prevent deer from digesting their normal forage of native plants. Deer corn should be used only as bait by hunters during hunting season. Your job is to convince your neighbors that feeding deer is a bad idea; once deer are attracted to a specific area, it’s difficult to keep them from returning.

Also, remember to protect vulnerable young transplants before they become established. You can use a physical barrier such as a wire cage or plant thorny shrubs such as barberry, at the edge of the garden.

Or. try spraying the garden perimeter with a deer repellent, such as Liquid Fence, Deer Off or Plantskydd. Most of these widely available products are made from natural ingredients, such as bloodmeal, hot peppers, garlic, eggs, and mint. Be sure to reapply them after rain or heavy watering.

Some gardeners claim to mark their garden territory with urine repels deer, too. {If you try this, consider your neighbors, who probably would prefer you do this discretely.} A dog in the yard, even a small one, also can be very effective at deterring unwanted animals.

Above all, don’t become discouraged. Remember: You’re smarter than the deer!


Plants for a Deer-B-Gone Garden:

* Cinquefoil {Potentilla fruticosa}.

This rock-hard, native perennial shrub with bright yellow flowers is available in varieties that can reach 4 feet. It is widely used in landscaping and hedges; grow it from the division or buy a plant.

* Horehound {Marrubium vulgare}.

This hardy perennial grows to about 2 1/2 feet; deer usually dislike the bitter, menthol-like flavor of its foliage. Grow from seed or a start from a neighbor’s garden. Deadhead blooms if new seedlings become a nuisance.

* Goldenrod {Solidago spp.}.

Don’t confuse these handsome, native perennials with ragweed-goldenrod is nothing to sneeze at! Sends up 3-foot panicles in late summer. Start from seed or plants of selected garden varieties.

* Rosemary {Rosmarinus officinalis}.

This fragrant herb forms a lovely perennial shrub up to 5 feet tall in mild climates. In colder areas {Zone 6 or lower}, grow it in a container and bring indoors for winter. Choose an upright variety to be sure its scent is at nose level for deer. Prefers a gravelly, somewhat alkaline soil.

* Anise hyssop {Agastache foeniculum}.

A hardy perennial in the mint family, this herb produces dense spikes of fragrant blue blooms on 3- to 4-foot stems. Easily started from seed.

* Butterfly weed {Asclepias tuberosa}.

A hardy native of the milkweed family, butterfly weed bears yellow, red and orange blooms adored by butterflies. Grow it from seed or divisions.

* Poppy {Papaver orientale}.

This reseeding annual bears pretty blooms in a myriad of colors and forms, including double. easy to grow from seed; just scatter throughout the garden.

* Barberry {Berberis vulgaris}.

A hardy perennial shrub with bright berries and sharp spines, barberry is easy to grow and pretty in hedges of all kinds. It can reach 8 feet or taller, so put this prickly shrub at the back of the garden. Grow it from seed, cuttings or purchased the plant.

* Baby’s-breath {Gypsophila paniculata}.

The airy flowers of this perennial are welcome in any garden or cut flower arrangement. Grows to about 4 feet.

* French tarragon {Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’}.

Bittersweet leaves complement dressings and poultry. Plant this 2-foot-tall perennial where it will receive some shade in the afternoon. In the South, substitute Mexican mint marigold {Tagetes lucida}, a fall bloomer with a similar flavor.

* Lavender {Lavandula spp.}.

Available in an array of species and hybrids, lovely lavender offers mounds of aromatic grey-green leaves topped with delicate flower spikes, 2 to 3 feet tall. English lavender {L.angustifolia} and the lavender hybrids {L.xintermedia} are hardiest. Purchase plants at a nursery or start cuttings from a friend’s herb garden.

* Santolina {Santolina spp.}.

Both grey and green-leaf forms of this small shrub are strongly scented. At just 12 to 16 inches, Santolina makes an appealing, evergreen edging. Grow from cuttings, divisions or seed.

* Basil {Ocimum basilicum}.

This beloved annual herb, in all its different forms, can be tucked in wherever space allows. Sow seed directly in the garden after danger of frost has passed, or purchase transplants at your local nursery.

* Parsley {Petroselinum crispum}.

Grow this biennial, clump-forming herb as an annual. For landscape interest, the bright green curly-leaf kind works best; flat-leaf Italian parsley has better flavor. Start from seed or buy young plants.

eggshell planters

Plant The Seed: A Potless Approach To Gardening

In your garden, do you want stronger plants, earlier blooms and a longer growing season? Then start your seedlings inside! The Wind, rain, and the occasional hailstorm can damage sensitive young plants, making them weak and potentially killing them. Your dreams of turning your neighbors green with garden envy will die along with your seeds. So, purchase a few seedling bags from your local nursery or grocery store, and follow these best practices for a better garden.

Best Practices to Plant Seeds:

  • Plant your seeds three times as deep as the size of the seed.
  • Water them early and often.
  • Put them in a warm, well-lit space with natural light until they sprout.
  • Don’t transplant a seedling until it has grown at least two “true leaves,” the leaves resembling the parent plant. The first leaves your plant will sprout are just seed leaves, which supply nutrients to the young plant.
  • When your seedlings have grown about 3 inches, they’re ready to be transplanted.

Seedling Planter Options:


Save your shells! They can be used to plant seeds. First, crack the eggs carefully to ensure that more than half of the shell is still intact. Clean the eggshell so it’s empty. Be careful! Eggshells are fragile and will break under pressure. Plant the seeds you’ve chosen according to the packages’ instructions. To keep track of your new seedlings, use wooden coffee stirrers to label what you’ve planted.

Tea Cans

Old tea can work well as seedling planters. If drinking that much tea isn’t appetizing, scour your local thrift store. Vintage tea can often show up as decorative items. Clean your cans thoroughly, and then plant the seeds you’ve chosen according to the packages’ instructions. Because tea cans are deep, you will need more potting soil than you would with eggshells.

Citrus Peels

Cut your citrus in half, and thoroughly clean the fruit out of the center. Eat it. You only want the peel as a planter. Drill a small hole in the bottom of the citrus with an ice pick for drainage, and then plant your seeds according to packages’ instructions. Bonus: You can plant the peel right along with the seedling!

Toilet Paper Rolls

Americans use an average of 23.6 rolls per capita a year. Instead of throwing them away, use them to plant! Cut your toilet paper rolls in half. Place your halved rolls in a plastic or wooden container. We recommend you write your plants’ names directly onto the toilet paper rolls with the pen before you start planting. When you’re ready to grow your seedlings, follow the instructions on the seed packages you’ve chosen. Be sure to only sow one seed per roll. When you’re ready to plant in your garden, you can plant your toilet paper roll, too! It will decompose.