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Early Season Tips for a Healthy Landscape, Part 1, In White Plains

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)
Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) Photo Credit: Contributed by Kim Eierman

WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. -- Snow flurries and chilly weather have made this early spring seem more like early winter.   But before you know it, warm weather will arrive and our gardening can begin in earnest.  By following some early season best practices you can maximize plant and soil health, and ensure greatest results in your landscape.

Although you may be anxious to get out into the garden on the first warm, sunny day, pause for a moment and check the moisture of your soil.   As our landscapes thaw out after a long winter nap, soil can be extremely wet.  Spring rains and late season snowstorms add to this moisture, making the soil sponge-like and vulnerable to compaction.

When you walk on wet soil, or even worse, move heavy equipment across it, you compress the pore space within the soil.  Compacted soil is unhealthy soil, resulting in decreased plant root growth, reduced nutrient uptake by plants, diminished water storage in the soil and increased soil erosion.

Compaction can also kill off many of the microorganisms living in the soil - those creatures ranging from nematodes to arthropods to beneficial fungi  - a complex living system that creates a healthy soil food web.  Your soil is alive, so please don’t treat it like “dirt.”  The bottom line - soil compaction is terrible for the soil and the plants trying to live within it.

Wait until the soil has dried up a bit before you begin your work in the garden.  It’s worth the wait, since it can take years to undo the damage caused by compaction.  Simply turning the soil isn’t the answer – that will actually “slice and dice” even more beneficial organisms living in the soil. Seasonal applications of compost will help alleviate some compaction – but it takes time.  Far better not to cause the problem in the first place.

If you simply can’t wait to get your gardening started, you can cheat a bit by stepping on your driveway or walkways to prune here and there, without walking on the soil.

Try to keep heavy equipment off your soil, especially in the spring, and particularly around trees.  Within minutes, a heavy truck or a piece of construction equipment driven over the soil can cause irreparable damage to a mature tree.  It’s not just about damage to the immediate area around the trunk  - a tree’s roots may cover an area 2 to 3 times the diameter of its canopy.  Those small wooden barriers that contractors often put around tree trunks to “protect” them during construction are so insufficient as to be virtually useless.

Be patient in returning to the garden – it will pay off in the long run.  This year we may have a longer wait - usually March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb, but in 2015, April may be taking its place!

Kim Eierman, a resident of Bronxville, is an environmental horticulturist and Founder of EcoBeneficial. When she is not speaking, writing, or consulting about ecological landscapes, she teaches at the New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Native Plant Center and Rutgers Home Gardeners School.

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