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Get ready for spring gardening

Gardening guru P. Allen Smith offer advice on spring gardening.

The official start of spring is March 21 but in parts of the country it has felt warm for a month and in other parts the ice is just melting away. Is it too early to plant in the North and too late in the South? The answer is a resounding NO.

If you didn't plant tulips and daffodils in the fall then head out to your nearest nursery or garden center for a look at the "eye candy." Nurserymen who have wised up to our forgetfulness start spring blooming bulbs in coolers and then put them out for sale this time of year. I was even in a discount store recently and their garden center had racks of potted hyacinths, tulips and daffodils just waiting to be snapped up. While you certainly don't want to plant up an entire flower bed with these convenient beauties — they can be costly — they are ideal for potting up a container or two and bringing a little spring magic closer to your home.

Tulips and daffodils have built in antifreeze that makes them very hardy for spring and able to withstand sudden cold snaps. In fact, to get these bulbs to bloom you need a period of dormancy where the bulbs are exposed to freezing temperatures before the warmth of Spring coxes the flowers out into the open. If you experience a sudden cold snap in your area, more than likely, the bulb or the plant itself and any buds will be fine; however, a flower that has already bloomed is at risk of being bitten by frost.

Some other flowers that can take the often chilly temperatures of spring are:

  • Snapdragons
  • Violas
  • Purple Cabbage
  • Hyacinths

Moving from flowers to vegetables, there are several that only perform well in the cool months of spring and fall. These include the many varieties of lettuce available these days. You see, lettuce is a particular passion of mine and I'm determined to become a connoisseur and sow up to a dozen different kinds as soon as temperatures permit. 'Loraine', 'Buttercrunch' and 'Red Sail' are three that have been outstanding in my garden year after year. I also take this time to grow broccoli, Brussel Sprouts and parsley.

Now a lot of people think that leafy greens are boring but I'm here to set the record straight. One of the most elegant containers I've created in my spring garden has been a combination of creamy white tulips surrounded by lovely green parsley and lettuce. It was absolutely simple but everyone who saw it commented on the juxtaposition of edibles and ornamentals (although the petals of tulips grown organically can be eaten and some say they taste like cucumbers or fresh lettuce leaves).

If you've never grown lettuce before here's a simple idea: Punch about six or so holes into the bottom of a galvanized metal tub or large pail (these are inexpensive and can be purchased at most home improvement stores). Fill the tub with potting soil and sow lettuce seeds and care for them according to package directions. In no time your family will be dining on gourmet salads nightly. I also appreciate that more and more nurseries and garden centers are carrying a wider selection of lettuce varieties in cell packs which makes planting a snap. Talk about your instant vegetable garden: You just pop them out, plant and go.

Now all this planting is fun and exciting but it is spring and there are a few maintenance issues to address in the garden that'll get you ahead of the game when summer heat rolls around namely weeding and feeding.

Your lawn can be one of your biggest investments so use this time to feed and also take care of weeds. The numbers on a bag of fertilizer can be confusing so here's what you need to remember: Plants need large quantities of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Those are the three elements we see on the back of fertilizer bags. If you were to pick up a typical bag of lawn fertilizer the ratio would probably read high in the first number, which represents nitrogen. It might read something like 28 - 4 - 4. That means in a hundred pounds of lawn fertilizer there would be 28 pounds of nitrogen, 4 pounds of phosphorus, and 4 pounds of potassium.

Nitrogen is important because it helps with vigorous growth and produces lots of leafy foliage. It's the sort of thing, as you might expect, that would be ideal for grass, because you're producing blades of grass. But not the sort of thing that you would want to put on tomatoes, because you would produce lots of leaves and not much fruit.

The middle number is phosphorus, and it's important in the production of blooms and fruit, so I use it on my perennials and in my vegetable garden. The last number is potassium. This is good for strong root and stem development.

Also for your lawn, pre-emergent can be purchased at garden centers and nurseries and what this does is kill the weed seeds before they germinate. For an all natural approach try using corn gluten. To target certain annual weeds like dandelions you can spray them with products designed to eliminate them quickly but organically. This targeted approach is great for sidewalks and patios where unwanted grasses and weeds sometime sprout up.

For flower beds try using a weed barrier fabric and topping beds with mulch. This does two things, it prevents the sun from germinating the weed seeds and also locks in moisture keeping your plants better hydrated during the summer.

So remember, this spring do three things: Plant, weed and feed. Happy gardening!

P. Allen Smith is a garden designer and author. More at .