By Barbara Leach, Horticulture Techniciation, VCE-Roanoke

Once again, it is the time of year for planning the garden.  If you are a gardener, you are aching for something new.  Consider spending time perusing the new online offerings from centralized growers whose names you recognize from your favorite nursery or some of your favorite catalogs.  It is a nice little preview of what you will see in shops this year.  If you are like me, you have been cleaning up and planning what you can get rid of to make room for something new.  Usually, something has died or gotten tired looking, but I am not beyond just digging something up!

St Patrick ’s Day is almost upon us, and that is usually a good time to start annual seedlings.  There is merit in saving seed of open-pollinated plants to preserve some of our heirloom plants.  There is not much sense in saving seeds from hybrids as they will not come back true to type.  Whether starting saved or bought seed, make sure your containers or flats have good drainage and use a seed starting mix, which is higher in vermiculite than a regular potting soil and not as prone to damp-off fungus.  Whole sphagnum moss can be rubbed on a screen or rolled between your palms until it crumbles into a fine dust, which you sprinkle onto the seed tray.  Sphagnum thwarts damp-off, too.  Good air movement is essential.  You may even want to try one of the tiny low-speed fans blowing indirectly across your seed trays.  This lessens the chances of disease, as well as strengthens the stems of things like tomatoes that may try to stretch on you.   Keep in mind a fan will dry your seedlings out faster, but also remember being surface dry does not necessarily mean they are too dry.  Once seedlings are up and have developed some roots, running them a little drier will mean they will grow more slowly and make stockier and better quality transplants.  Do not let them wilt, however.  Feel their leaves to gauge their turgor.  To ensure adequate light, you will probably have to turn trays regularly in natural light or install fluorescent lights just inches above the foliage, moving it up as the plants grow.  Cool whites are fine for most seedlings, but you will need Gro Lights for things you expect to flower under lights.  Incandescent lights are too hot and do not provide enough lumens.  LED lights are not readily available at low cost for growing.

For vegetable ideas, take your cues from what you like.  For example, I love the arugula in salad mixes, so you can bet it will be on my sowing list.  Visit the National Garden Bureau and All-America selections for new plant ideas.  and  Maybe conditions have changed in your garden over the years, necessitating changes in your palette, or you are growing in pots and need compact plants with smaller root systems.

Are your shrubs tired and overgrown?  Look for new, more compact varieties as replacements or ones with desirable characteristics like larger and longer blooming, variegation, new growth that emerges red for some contrast, drought tolerance, blooms at a later time or doesn’t get leggy.  Now is an excellent time to dig things out.  You may also transplant most evergreens now.  Most deciduous shrubs must be moved when still fully dormant so you may have missed it by a week or two this year.

Have you checked your birdhouses?  They need annual cleaning and your feeders need more regular cleaning to avoid diseases that can spread through the flock.  Bird baths should be scrubbed and sterilized to remove algae that often appears over the fall and winter.

Make sure bases for ornaments and bird baths are level and stable, as well as stepping stones.  A layer of sand beneath them will help facilitate the process.  For larger projects like patios and retaining walls, you will need a good gravel foundation.

There is much to do in the garden now and it is still cool enough to not overheat.  Ease your unused muscles into the spring tasks and don’t forget your sunscreen.  As you start this new season, ask yourself what new things you would like to try, whether a new plant or a new skill, let’s get ready for a new year!