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New gardeners should put 30 per cent of their budget into perennials the first year and 50 per cent annually thereafter. (iStockphoto/iStockphoto)
New gardeners should put 30 per cent of their budget into perennials the first year and 50 per cent annually thereafter. (iStockphoto/iStockphoto)

Gardeners boot camp: What to do and when to do it Add to ...

Ready? Get set and get out there into the garden. Ah, but wait a moment. We lose more plants at this time of year than any other because we're so winter-weary we'll head out on the first warm, sunny day. Don't.

Safe planting times differ across the country, so here's a rough guide as to when and what you can do over the next few weeks. And when you plan your budget (yes, you must), be sure to leave something for bulb purchases in the autumn.

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Timing

Ancient farmers said you could plant when you could sit on the ground with your bare bum, but nowadays you need to know frost dates. The accepted past-freezing date ranges from April 19 in Victoria to June 2 in St. John's.

This is especially important for vegetables. When you choose your veg seeds, check out how many frost-free days they require and make sure you have that. And note: Frost means 0 C but damage can also occur when it's slightly above.

Prepping

Let fallen leaves lie. Worms will use them up within a few weeks. Start your garden prep gently: Tidy edges and paths but avoid raking so you don't damage new shoots. Very carefully remove mulch around plants on the south-facing areas you want to warm up quickly. Anything you remove can be tossed into the composter for later use.

Rinse out the rain barrel and get it ready for spring rain. If you don't have one, get one.

Turn over the vegetable patch and add a layer of compost or manure (or a combination) and let it settle. Remove any weeds you can identify.

Vegetables

New gardeners should start with about 10 per cent of the budget devoted to vegetables. By now you've started your indoor seedlings; turn them daily, giving all sides equal exposure to the light source, to ensure they grow evenly. They also need daily watering and misting, and thinning out.

If you have no seedlings, you can sew directly into the soil as follows: carrots, two weeks before the last frost is predicted; tomatoes, a week after the last frost; basil, two weeks after last frost. Frost-hardy plants include arugula, kale, lettuce and peas. Frost tender: tomatoes, basil, cucumber, squash.

Plant vegetables among perennials and annuals, especially chard and kale: Sow seed outside right after last frost. Keep harvesting outer leaves. They look ornamental and taste delicious.

Woody plants

New gardeners should plant 50 per cent of their budget in trees and shrubs. These are the skeleton of the garden, will establish a look and provide year-round form.

Established gardeners should consider investing 30 per cent of the budget in trees and shrubs once the garden has started to mature.

Mulch with compost (or a combination of compost and manure) around major plants and newly planted areas once you've finished mucking about in the garden. Do this any time, especially in places where there is likely to be a drought. Make sure the soil is loaded with moisture before you do this and protect with mulch (but never dyed mulch).

Trees and shrubs, a.k.a. woody plants, can be planted fairly early in the season: Plant deciduous trees before buds break in spring; plant evergreens up to four weeks after leaves on deciduous trees unfurl.

For a stylish look, plant dwarf evergreens. They are exceptional plants for small city spaces and can spruce up an old garden. Make sure they have lively companions such as ornamental grasses, which are in scale (not a teeny evergreen and a giant grass).

Prune all the dead wood out of your shrubs now; wisteria can be whacked back to the structure (main branches) but leave enough so that you see buds popping out.

As for clematis, if they are spring blooming, leave them alone; summer and autumn blooms can usually be cut back to within 30 centimetres of the ground. When they start producing stems, cut back to three. They grow astoundingly fast.

Perennials

Perennials are a great investment because they come up every year. New gardeners should put 30 per cent of their budget into perennials the first year and 50 per cent annually thereafter.

They take about two to three years to really do their stuff visually - this is not instant gardening - so think of putting them together with annuals. Use a palette confined to about three or four colours that will harmonize or contrast.

Now is the time to divide hostas, which stretches the budget by doubling your plants. You should also divide anything that's sagging in the middle (this happens with daisies and heucheras).

Leave spring bloomers alone: Bulbs will disappear with time so don't cut back any yellowing foliage (it's next year's food).

Annuals

Lemming-like we go to the nurseries on the Victoria Day weekend. You can go in and shop your brains out when you are totally confident that there won't be another frost in your area. If you can't wait (and everything is tempting), then have an old sheet at the ready. If there's a frost threat, use it to cover your planted annuals in early evening and get it off in the early morning.

Spend 10 per cent of your budget on annuals. They give incredible value for dollars spent, provide glorious colour and attract lots of good insects.

Don't dot annuals around so they look ditzy. Put a blue annual near a perennial with the same tone or colour of bloom. White will shine at night and, for the new gardener, it's the perfect colour because there are so many tones and variations. Work other colours in as you become more confident.

And finally, a word about tools. You don't need anything terrifically fancy: a garden spade, a trowel and a pair of good secateurs. Keep them in good nick and they'll last for years.



Special to The Globe and Mail.



Go to marjorieharris.com for plant suggestions and growing tips.

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