Time to Shape Up … Your Lawn

As The Birmingham News reported earlier this month, we have had an unusually warm winter—the third warmest of the last 50 years, to be precise. Still, the cold snap of this past weekend is a reminder that our gardens not out of the woods yet. So, before you let warmth-induced impatience take over, we thought now would be the perfect time to talk to Sallie Lee, urban region extension agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) office at Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

Lee spoke to us about getting in shape for the impending spring and summer warmth. (Though referring to gardens, we should mention that pruning, planting and outdoor cleaning is great exercise for the waistline, too.) She began the conversation by explaining that winter is the perfect time to inspect the structure of a landscape, since leaves are now long gone.

Lee said to look for evidence of the “three Ds: death, disease and damage.” That last one is important, considering the amount of severe weather we have experienced across the state over the past 12 months. If you do see a lot of damage (dangling limbs, fatally wounded trees, etc.), now is a great time to hire a tree service to help out. Speaking of damage, ACES is holding a workshop on choosing plants for better storm resistance later this year. Check out their calendar of events for information about that and other classes going on throughout 2012.

“Now is the perfect time to put on a pair of gloves and clear out poison ivy, wisteria, ivy and other unwanted climbers,” she explained. “It’s cool enough for long sleeves, so you won’t get too hot.” Her advice is to do it before spring gets here.

Rather than hiring a landscaping company or using pesticides, take advantage of nice-weather days and hand-weed your gardens. It will save you money and is better for the environment. “Never compost weeks! Always throw them in the trash,” Lee exclaimed. She said you will get better results if you do it by hand and that composting weeds is a sure-fire way to make sure they come back.

If you want to start plotting your next move, “plan before you plant,” Lee said. Mark a spot where you might want to plant a tree or shrub and observe the sun at different times of the day to be sure the plant will thrive. Don’t plant spring flowers now. We’re not out of the woods yet.

A prevailing trend in the zeitgeist right now is health, and that topic has made its way into the great outdoors, too. When adding new trees and shrubs to your landscape, consider edibles (e.g., peach trees and blackberry vines, rosemary, etc.). These plants can serve many purposes aside from culinary ones: they provide shade, they are beautiful as ornamental plants, and attract pollinators like birds, bees and butterflies.

Catalogs are coming out right now, so as you plan your spring gardening project, pick up a catalog from your local garden shop or from your favorite website. Lee said that it’s helpful (and fun!) to sketch your yard and pick out plants from the catalogs (and where they will best acclimate). “Right plants, right place,” she quipped.

As for the other two “Ds” Lee mentioned at the beginning of our chat, Lee said to call the ACES Pathology Lab at Birmingham Botanical Gardens when in doubt. The “plant doctors” will diagnose mysterious diseases and death

Other pointers Sallie Lee gave us:
• Wait until at least March to prune roses.
• Don’t commit Crape murder.
• Look for classes at garden shops, botanical gardens and libraries for classes on container gardens for smaller spaces.
• Make sure you have essential garden tools (pruners, loppers, etc.). Ask for advice at the garden shop or hardware store.
• Soil is critical. Try J3 Organics for environmentally friendly soils.

Happy Gardening, Liberty Parkers!

Sallie Lee is an urban region extension agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, which is based at Birmingham Botanical Gardens. She also writes a gardening column for The Birmingham News. Contact Sallie with questions at 205-879-6964 or leesall@aces.edu.