We are so glad you have arrived, even with your unpredictable weather. March will offer some warm days, but gardeners need to keep in mind that there will still be a number of cool—almost freezing—nights. As we drift into April, our last frost date comes and goes, and we can finally settle into warm days and comfortable nights. This is the time to sit outside and enjoy the beauty of your spring garden, but you should also look at what chores need to be done to prepare for summer.
This is the time to plant trees, shrubs, hardy perennials, and certain bulbs that are known to bloom in summer. However, wait until after mid-April to plant your summer annuals to make sure the last frost is gone. You will notice your deciduous shrubs start to bloom. I often shape them by cutting unwanted stems and using them indoors for flower arrangements. Once these shrubs finish blooming, decide if certain ones like deutzia, quince, spirea, and forsythia have grown too big for their space. If so, it’s time to cut them back to within 6 inches of the ground if severe pruning is needed or you can simply remove the longest shoots at ground level to reduce the overall size of the plant without changing its shape. With evergreens, unless you want to do severe pruning, I suggest you wait until the new shoots are out and new growth has slowed in late spring. Then shape the evergreens as desired. With summer flowering shrubs, except florist hydrangeas, it is okay to shape these plants now by taking out limbs that do not enhance the beauty of the plant. A good way to evaluate what needs to be pruned is to photograph your planting and evaluate the image. That will give you good clues as to how your plant compositions would look best Once blooming is finished and pruning is done, fertilize the shrubs with a good fertilizer like 15-0-15.
All of us like to add new plants to our garden. I tend to add too many plants and crowd things, which is not good. Sometimes I am resistant to take something out that doesn’t work, while other times I just want to bring in more color or change the look of an area. The most important thing for me to remember as I am doing these things is what is already in the ground, such as summer and fall bulbs. I also am careful to make sure my garden is not just a collection of plants but rather a composition pf many things that work for the whole garden.
If you are looking to plant trees, spring is a good time to do so. There
is a lot to think about in choosing a good tree for your landscape. First and foremost, what do you want the tree to do? Do you want it to shade part of the house, balance the house or landscape, or add seasonal color? Then there is a matter of whether you want a small tree (mature height usually under 25 feet) or a large tree that will be a monumental part of your home landscape. Many folks prefer to choose a native tree, but I think we have lots of non-natives that also do really well in our area. Most of the time we pick what we like and wonder why it sometimes is not successful. For example, the beautiful ginkgo with its clear yellow fall color does not like wet roots, so a low spot would not be a good selection for that location. In contrast, red maple and Southern magnolia thrive in damp locations. While at the nursery selecting trees, you may want to Google each tree and see if its cultural requirements match where you want to plant it.
When you are ready to plant the tree, be sure to do the right things to get it well established. First, dig a big, deep hole at least one-and-a-half times the size and depth of the container or root ball. If the tree is container-grown, you will need to slip the tree’s root ball out of the container and really tear the exterior of the root ball up so the roots are not circling the plant. Once this is done, plant the tree at the same level it came out of the container. Pack the soil firmly around the root ball, and water it well. If the tree is top-heavy, you might want to stake it until the root ball is firmly established in its new home. In addition, if you have poor soil, you will need a good planting mix to amend the soil you dug up and promote better growth. Keep in mind that while all of these spring chores require some time and elbow grease, you can look forward to the rewards of an even more beautiful yard in the future.
Floyd’s To-Do List: March/April
Daffodil Care Wait until the foliage of your daffodils turns yellow before removing the leaves. This helps the bulbs have nutrients for flowering next year. If your bulbs did not bloom well this year, they probably need dividing. Dig when the foliage yellows or dies, and separate the bulbs. If you like the location they are in now, replant by spacing about six inches apart at the level you dug them. The remainder of the bulbs should be replanted as soon as possible or given away. If you are not ready to plant them, allow the foliage to dry, and then store them in the refrigerator in a net bag (like the kind that fruit is stored in)to allow the bulbs to have air around them to keep dry.
Tomatoes If you are planting seeds indoors, get them planted as soon as possible. Make sure they have good bottom heat and a sunny location, and keep the seeds damp but not wet. Germination may be a bit slow, and all the seeds do not come up at once. I do not transplant until the seedlings are sturdy and growing. If you are going to buy transplants, wait until after mid-April and buy strong sturdy ones. Plant them deep with just one or two sets of leaves above the soil line.
Summer Bulbs Now is a great time to purchase summer bulbs like lilies, dahlias, callas, pineapple lilies, and ginger. Also consider tubers of caladiums and canna. While some can handle winter well in our area, others such as pineapple lilies and some of the dahlias and callas will not make it if we have a very cold winter. Make sure the bulbs or tubers are firm and do not have rot in spots. Since many of these are bought at big box hardware stores, they are packaged several to a pack. Check all the ones in the pack. The best way to get top-quality bulbs is to order them from a grower. Make sure you plant them according to package directions. Two mail-order companies I like are B&D Lilies (bdlilies.com) and Brent and Becky’s Bulbs (brentandbeckysbulbs.com). Both have excellent websites.
Encore Azaleas Now is a great time to buy these azaleas. The “Autumn” series does very well in our area and will produce spring, summer, and fall blooms. Remember that azaleas like to be planted in well-prepared, fertile soil. If they have been grown in pots, make sure you remove any roots that are circling the edge of the pot, and then tear them up so they can grow out into the soil you prepared. Water well and plant at the same level the roots came out of the pot. Two things to remember: More azaleas die from not getting enough water through dry periods, and light shade is best for them.
Tulips Most of these plants have to be pulled out after blooming is finished. The tiny “species” tulips, as compared to the familiar bold blooming tulips, are growing in popularity because they can be perennial. I have a clump in my garden that has bloomed consistently for more than 10 years with blooms that are about an inch tall and about the same width when open. Here are a few that should do well, but they may take two years to bloom after planting: Taco, Cynthia, Lilliput, Lady Jane, Lilac Wonder, Chrysantha, and Stella. I suggest you buy a few from a good mail order company like Brent and Becky’s Bulbs to make sure you get top-quality bulbs. I have never seen these for sale in a local garden center.
A Tribute to John Floyd
A lifelong gardener and skilled horticulturist, John Floyd was passionate about Birmingham Botanical Gardens, where he shared his expertise, talents, and enthusiasm for four decades. The longtime editor-in-chief of Southern Living was a driving force in the creation of the Southern Living Garden in 1981 and overawes the Gardens’ second master plan. In retirement, John volunteered weekly in the Japanese Garden and helped guide future master planning. His passion lives on in the garden spaces that he elevated and in the gardeners he continues to inspire. The Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens is honored to be named as a beneficiary of memorial gifts celebrating his enduring legacy. Visit bbgardens.org/donate to make a gift.
Birmingham lost friend, horticulturist, writer, and former Southern Living editor-in-chief John Floyd, in February, but his passion for gardening and the impact he made in our city and across the South endures. We will be forever grateful for the gift of his voice and garden expertise.