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Time for Spring Greening

A break in the weather is perfect for planting and pruning.

The snow is gone, the weather is clearing and temperatures are finally starting to inch upward. That can only mean two things: it’s finally spring, and it's time to get planting.

David Yost, a plant specialist at Merrifield Garden Center, said business is starting to boom, with many customers just waiting for the weather to break so they could start on their gardens, landscaping and yard work.

“March was a cold, wet, rainy month, so there’s all this pent-up gardening energy and the moment the sun comes out, people are ready to go,” Yost said. “With the first sunny days, things just get crazy here.”

Early spring is a time not only for planting but for preparation work, he said.

“It’s important to think a season ahead when you’re planting. Part of that is taking advantage of the opportunity to prevent weeds later by taking action now so you don’t have weed problems this summer,” he said.

Yost said he and his fellow gardeners are encouraging customers to put down some fertilizer along with a "pre-emergent," preventative weed control that eliminates weeds before the weather is warm enough to allow them to germinate and grow. Adding a layer of mulch on top of the beds and seeds can “save a lot of headaches later,” Yost added.

THE BIGGEST YARD eyesore is crabgrass, a type of grass that grows yellow and weed-like in its spreading capabilities.

“If there’s an area of lawn that is sort of thin, crabgrass can come in and take over the area,” Yost said. “Right now, it’s just seed but as soon as it gets warmer, it’ll start to grow out of control.”

Taking care of crabgrass is “a battle,” according to Brad McLean, head operations manager at CLS Landscaping in Great Falls. “We sometimes have problems with the timing and taking care of crabgrass before it’s too late. Then again, some yards have problems with irrigation, which makes it harder to deal with the problem,” he said.

When planting grass or re-seeding a lawn, it’s important to know that “grass needs to be cut four times before a pre-emergent can be put down,” McLean said. “The seeds need to be rooted before a pre-emergent can be effective, so if anyone is planning to put that on their lawns, they may need to wait.”

Some pre-emergents can be used on spring seeding, said Fred Dickinson, manager of the Burke Nursery.

“Generally, we tell people to stick to seeding in the fall and worry about weeds and diseases during the rest of the year, but if you have to seed in the spring there’s a pre-emergent called tupersan that is safe to use with new seeds,” Dickinson said.

In addition to crabgrass, grubs can damage or destroy a lawn, he said. “It’s usually in about mid-May that you have to start worrying about grubs, but there are ways to eliminate them as well. Most people apply a fertilizer with either Meritt or Dylox in it,” he said, chemicals that sink into the ground after half an inch to an inch of water falls on it and kills grubs before they cause too much damage.

MOST FERTILIZERS and lawn chemicals are safe for families with children and pets, Dickinson said, because after half an inch to an inch of water, the chemicals are pushed far enough underground that they cannot harm living things that roll around on the lawn, whether they have two legs or four.

“I usually put fertilizer on my lawn right before a big rain and that takes care of it, but a sprinkler will work too,” he said.

Also available are organic options for weed control and fertilization, like gluten, which can be used to kill crabgrass, he said. “I’m not sure if there’s an organic option for getting rid of fungi, but there’s something call milky spore which is an organic way to eliminate grubs and Japanese Beetles.”

Milky spore is a tablet that can be dropped into a lawn in 3-foot intervals and takes two years to become fully effective, but will remain effective for up to 20 years, Dickinson said. The chemical seeps into the ground and destroys the bugs’ nervous and digestive systems, but has the added bonus of being a sort of nutritional supplement for plants.

Watering a lawn is important in moderation, Dickinson said: most lawns only need about an inch of water a week.

Spring cleaning isn’t just for the inside of a home either, McLean and Yost agreed.

“Taking away the leaves from last fall, pruning shrubs, taking out old mulch are all very important things to do in the spring,” McLean said. “It’s a lot of maintenance work but it pays off.”

“Some weeding, edging, putting down new mulch and fertilizer, cutting back perennials and ornamental grasses from last year help to allow new growth to flourish,” Yost said.

WHEN PLANNING yard improvements, more people are looking to create an outdoor living space with their landscaping as well as creating some privacy in their yards.

“A lot of people are looking into plants that grow quickly and provide some sort of screening,” said Mike Williams, an assistant manager at the Meadows Farms Nursery in Fairfax.

“There are some plants, like the Leyland cypress, that grow quickly, up to three feet in a season, that provide great, quick screening,” he said. Taller evergreen shrubs work well also, but may take too long to provide the coverage people want, growing only three to six inches in the course of a season.

“Lately, in a lot of the new housing developments, the houses are being built practically right on top of each other or near major roads, so people want to keep some privacy and muffle the sounds,” he said. “Quick-growing shrubs can provide that.”

People are starting to look to their yards as a true outdoor living space, Yost said. They are seeking out plants that will not only give them privacy, but will create a colorful environment in which to entertain guests.

“Homes are getting bigger, yards are getting smaller and it’s getting uncomfortable,” he said. “Creating a private living space is a challenge I’m getting faced with increasingly every year. People might go out and buy trees that grow really quickly but eventually overwhelm the entire yard, so it’s a matter of taking care of your concerns now as well as into the future.”

Yost recommends shrubs like holly and skip laurels that provide coverage and grow at a moderate pace but not so quickly that they get out of hand for people who want to create privacy in their backyards. Additionally, more customers are adding water fountains or ponds, along with plaster stepping stones to create a living area outside.

THOSE LOOKING to plant right now are likely shopping for colorful perennials and annuals, helping to brighten up flower beds and shake off the final winter blahs.

“The place is full of pansies, which are gorgeous right now,” Yost said. “People are buying things like dogwoods and cherry trees because they’ll be blooming soon.”

A new development in the past few years is the availability of perennial plants in the spring, a time when annuals usually are the dominant items.

“Most people plant things like daffodils, tulips and hyacinths in the fall, but if you didn’t have the time or just moved last fall and couldn’t plant those flowers then, you can buy them now like they were annuals,” Yost said. “Three years ago, that was not an option, but we see it happening more and more every year.”

For some plants, like tomatoes and more fragile annuals, it may be a few more weeks until it’s safe to plant them, unless the proper precautions are taken.

“It’s safe to plant anything that’s not a tender annual, but plants that have new growth on them might need to be covered up at night to protect them from any frost that might occur,” Williams said. “After May 1, it’s technically safe to plant the more fragile plants because we can still have some cold nights in April, but if you take those precautions anything’s fair game.”

Calls to landscaping companies are starting to pour in, making this the busiest time of year for that industry.

“The end of March through the end of April is our busiest time because everyone’s shopping around, looking for services,” McLean said. “We’re getting calls for spring cleaning, mulching, lawn mowing, upgrading existing landscaping and making improvements.”

Novice gardeners should take advantage of classes offered at local colleges or the advice of horticulture experts at local nurseries, Williams and Yost suggested.

“Northern Virginia Community College’s campus in Loudoun offers a good range of horticulture programs and classes on just about anything,” Williams said. “It’s the best thing for people who want to learn something more than they’d find in a book.”

“We have horticulturists available at Merrifield to answer any questions people might have while shopping,” Yost said.