Busy season begins for home gardeners

Experts offer tips for spring planting
Mar. 20, 2013 @ 04:59 AM

The weather may not be consistent, with temperatures on the low side at times this week, but today is the first day of spring — which also means it's the unofficial start of the backyard gardening season.

And actually, the lingering cold is great news for those wanting to plant shrubs and bushes, said Avron Upchurch, a master gardener at the Lee County branch of the N.C. Cooperative Extension who specializes in shrubbery.

"It needs to be done in the wintertime," he said. "But if the shrub comes from a nursery in a pot, you can set it out any time of the year — with water being a key factor. You even have to water in the wintertime because the wind dries out the leaves."

As for vegetables, said Phil Griffin, a fellow master gardener and veggie specialist, would-be growers might want to wait a bit. He said he'll probably start planting snap peas around this time (which he added are great for older folks like him because the stalks grow quite high), and that beets, carrots, radishes, chard, spinach and asparagus can also be planted soon. For cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, he said, people will probably still need to wait a week or two.

Griffin explained that many spring vegetables taste better if they endure a light frost while in the ground, and that the last frost date of the year is expected to be April 15 or thereabouts. Other crops like squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants should be planted after that final frost.

But both Griffin and Upchurch cautioned would-be gardeners not to simply start planting willy-nilly. They advised planters to have a strategy — whether it's pairing large shrubs with smaller ones and mixing evergreens with seasonals or, with vegetables, taking measures against pests. Both said that first-timers should go either to the extension, located on Tramway Road, or to a local nursery for advice.

Griffin said vegetables should only be planted in a location that gets at least six hours of sunlight a day and should be planned in full or partial compost. If someone hasn't been composting already, he said, the city is there to help. Sanford operates a facility, behind the Public Works Service Center at 601 N. Fifth St., where locals can buy screened or unscreened compost for $15-$25 per pickup truck load. The facility will also deliver, for an extra fee of $40 within city limits and $65 elsewhere. It's open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but is closed from noon-1 p.m. for lunch. The phone number is (919) 775-8247.

Griffin endorsed the screened compost and suggested soil testing to see which nutrients a garden has and which may need to be added.

Those who want to have their soil examined, said Extension Director Susan Condlin, can simply bring soil samples to her office and wait for a report from Department of Agriculture.

"Soil reports have a lot of information on them, and most of it will be Greek to the average gardener, but we can interpret the results for them," she wrote in an email, adding that the free process usually takes about three weeks, so people need to submit their samples quickly.

She added that those who want the benefits of fresh food, but don't have the time or resources to start a garden of their own, have another outlet: the Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative. Area farms contribute a mix of fruits and vegetables, which is then shipped out either weekly or every other week. For $22 per delivery, people receive a box of fresh produce, or a smaller box plus a loaf of homemade bread.

Registration information can be found online at https://coop.sandhillsfarm2table.com. Sign up is offered for spring/summer foods from mid-April to mid-August, or fall foods from mid-September to late-October.