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Warm weather gives gardeners a jump-start on spring (+video)

VIDEO: How to take a soil test

Use a shovel or check out a soil probe to collect samples that will help tell you what your garden needs (Video by Annie Calovich)
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Use a shovel or check out a soil probe to collect samples that will help tell you what your garden needs (Video by Annie Calovich)

When extension agent Rebecca McMahon took advantage of a recent warm afternoon to take soil tests in her home gardens, she discovered that the Bermuda grass hadn’t even gone dormant in the backyard.

Who knows if it ever will this winter.

The record-breaking warmth this week has had phones ringing off the hook at the Extension Center, crocuses blooming ahead of time at Botanica, and some people running their sprinklers on the lawn.

“People are coming in buying vegetable and flower seeds, talking about spring,” said Cathy Brady of Brady Nursery. “People are getting anxious. I sold two trees so far today. … It’s also nice to have people come in smiling. I’m glad to see the sun.”

Not only is the weather warm, but the spring-beckoning Outdoor Living & Landscape Show is two weeks away at Century II, and daylight saving time starts in three weeks.

There’s plenty that can be done outdoors on these balmy days of February that will put us that much farther ahead come real spring. And some things will just have to wait because winter can always come back.

Watering

I think people might be a little confused on whether to water.

Extension agent Matthew McKernan

“I think people might be a little confused on whether to water,” extension agent Matthew McKernan said.

Soil moisture is still pretty good in open areas, but recent high winds along with the higher temperatures are drying things out day by day, he said.

Especially in need of water are evergreens, which keep their needles or leaves year-round, especially if they’ve been planted in the past year or two; other plants that have been planted within the past year; and lawns that were overseeded in the fall. Outdoor pots and plants that are under eaves or otherwise protected also should be watered on these warm days.

“You don’t need to start watering every day,” McKernan said of new lawns. “I would consider watering once this week. Give it a thorough soaking to 6 inches.”

It’s probably still too early to put down crabgrass preventer, without cutting into the later part of its protection, McKernan said. But preventers that have prodiamine in them can be watered in and won’t be activated until the weather is right, Brady said.

Fill birdbaths

People should put out water for the birds if they hadn’t been doing so during freezing weather, said Nick Clausen of the Backyard Nature Center. “It’s been very dry this winter,” he said.

The weather shouldn’t affect migratory birds’ patterns any more than by a week or so if at all because they react more to day length, Clausen said.

Soil tests

The unfrozen ground means that you can test soil in various garden areas to make sure the pH and nutrient levels are right. Testing is especially important in food gardens, McMahon said.

Food gardens if they’re intensively gardened every year can lose nutrients out of the soil frequently, and so testing your soil pH and nutrient levels on a regular basis — every three to five years — is really important.

Extension agent Rebecca McMahon

“Food gardens if they’re intensively gardened every year can lose nutrients out of the soil frequently, and so testing your soil pH and nutrient levels on a regular basis — every three to five years — is really important to make sure that your yield stays high when you’re putting all your time and effort into your vegetable or fruit gardens.”

Testing involves using a shovel or soil probe — which the Extension loans out for free — and taking several samples of soil within a certain garden area 6 inches deep. You mix the soil samples together in a bucket, then put a couple cups of the mixture in a plastic bag or other container and take it to the Extension, where it’s sent off to K-State for testing. Local extension agents then make recommendations for your soil based on the results.

Use a shovel or check out a soil probe to collect samples that will help tell you what your garden needs (Video by Annie Calovich)

Separate tests should be done for different garden areas, McMahon said. A test costs $20.

“If you have a small garden or a garden that you till every year that you move the plants around every year, you can do one test for that entire area, and the key is to just spread your samples over the entire area. If you have separate raised beds or separate areas of your garden that are treated differently — maybe perennial strawberries in one area, tomatoes in another, things like that — you may want to choose to test your soil separately in each area because the nutrients could be different based on what’s been grown there in the past.”

Garden prep

If you’re not waiting on a soil test to tell you what amendments you might need to add to the soil, you can get started on preparing a bed for such vegetables as asparagus. Asparagus is a perennial crop that comes back year after year for many years if it’s cared for properly, Ward Upham of K-State writes in this week’s Horticulture 2016 newsletter.

Asparagus, as most vegetables and flowers, requires a spot in the yard that gets full sun and that has well-drained soil.

To prepare to plant, work the soil when it’s not wet. Then put 2 inches of organic matter and fertilizer on the surface and work that in, Upham writes. He’ll be in Wichita on Wednesday to give a lunchtime lecture at Botanica on growing small fruits. The talk will be at 12:15 p.m. and is included in Botanica admission.

Watch the bulbs

In addition to crocuses and even early daffodils making appearances around town, Botanica’s tulips are starting to stick their noses out — “which isn’t necessarily a good thing this early,” said garden supervisor Pat McKernan. “That opens them to damage from crows and other predators. … This kind of weather is definitely putting a challenge on things.”

But it also gives gardeners a pleasant task of fertilizing spring-flowering bulbs if needed, because the time to do it is when the foliage is emerging. This is when roots are active, Upham writes. If the bulbs have been fertilized in the past, they may not need any additional fertilizer. A soil test is the sure way to know.

We don’t need to worry about daffodils and tulips unless they start flowering just ahead of a deep freeze.

Bulbs can take the cold unless they’re in flower. We don’t need to worry about daffodils and tulips unless they start flowering just ahead of a deep freeze.

Planting according to soil temperature

If the air is warming up, the soil temperature is too, and it’s a better indicator of when to plant than the air temperature is, Upham writes.

Peas will germinate and grow well at a soil temp of 40 degrees — which we reached this week in the Wichita area. You can use a soil thermometer to check the temperature in your own yard, or you can consult The Eagle’s weather page, under the “Farm & Garden” heading; it lists the high and low soil temperatures 2 inches deep.

Upham also gives growing temperatures for some other vegetables: Lettuce, parsnips, and spinach can sprout at 35 but prefer at least 45 for best germination and growth. Radishes also do well at 45.

Warm-season crops such as tomatoes, sweet corn and beans need a soil temperature of at least 55; peppers, cucumbers, melons and sweet potatoes need at least 60 degrees.

It’s important to always keep an eye on the forecast, though. Really cold days ahead will cool the soil back down. And put us gardeners back in our place.

Annie Calovich: 316-268-6596, @anniecalovich

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