“Now is just a great time for planning what you need to do, purchasing seeds from catalogs or obtaining your soil. It’s still a bit early to start working the ground,” said David Lowenstein, Ph.D., a consumer horticulture educator in the Michigan State University Extension’s office in Macomb County.

“Now is just a great time for planning what you need to do, purchasing seeds from catalogs or obtaining your soil. It’s still a bit early to start working the ground,” said David Lowenstein, Ph.D., a consumer horticulture educator in the Michigan State University Extension’s office in Macomb County.

Photo by Brian Louwers


Spring forward in the garden

Experts share tips as new, established gardeners get ready to grow

By: Brian Louwers | Metro | Published March 24, 2021

METRO DETROIT — For new and experienced gardeners, springtime is the perfect time to assess, observe, prepare and plan what the garden will look like and what it will need for the, hopefully, long and fruitful growing season ahead.

“The first thing you would want to do before you add anything to it is to get a soil test to find out what your nutrient levels are,” said Lori Imboden, Ph.D., a consumer horticulture educator with the Michigan State University Extension’s Oakland County office. “The plants can’t use more than they need. When we have excess fertilizer, whether that’s in the form of compost or other types of fertilizers, the extras are the sort of things that end up in our waterways.

“We always want to make sure we’re supplying what is actually needed. A soil test is a great place to start for that,” Imboden said. “From there, it depends on what you’re growing and what the soil test says your levels are.”

Soil test kits are available through the MSU Extension office (online orders only, due to COVID-19 office closures) for $26 at homesoiltest.msu.edu. That includes an all-inclusive kit and the prepaid postage to send back the samples. In return, you’ll get an analysis that comes with recommendations for your particular circumstances. The information you’ll get covers nutrient levels for phosphorus, calcium and magnesium. It also addresses soil texture, pH value and soil organic matter percentage.

“After you take a sample, you’ll tell them what plants you’re planning to grow and then they’ll make recommendations based on your soil test and what you plan to grow,” Imboden said.

Once the test is complete and it’s clear what’s needed, gardeners can reach out to MSU Extension experts via the statewide garden hotline or the “Ask Extension” online resources.

Imboden said observing your growing space during daylight hours is a great way to make good use of extra time spent at home these days.

“If you’re planning on growing in different areas of your yard, especially if people are home, see how the light changes as the day goes on,” Imboden said. “Try to figure out where the areas of sun and shade are, how much light they’re actually getting.”

She cautioned that it can be challenging to figure out in March and April.

“A reminder: the trees have not leafed out,” Imboden said. “I had an area that was pretty sunny. It turned out the trees across the street leafed out, and it’s actually shady. That can be tricky this time of year, but it’s something you can do.”

When you’ve got a handle on the soil and light conditions, it’s time to use what you’ve learned to finalize garden plans.

“Now is just a great time for planning what you need to do, purchasing seeds from catalogs or obtaining your soil. It’s still a bit early to start working the ground,” said David Lowenstein, Ph.D., a consumer horticulture educator in the MSU Extension’s office in Macomb County.

Working the ground too early in the season can lead to compaction.

Clearing the surface of the garden should be fine, as long as you watch for signs of helpful overwintering insects.

“That’s really most applicable for cavity-nesting bees,” Lowenstein said. “If you are cleaning up areas and the plants have open stems, you want to take a look and see if those stems look like they’ve been filled with mud or some other material. That would be a sign that there is a bee nesting in there. If you see that, leave that area alone. Otherwise, you should be fine to do your garden cleanup at this point.”

He said it’s generally safe to clean garden beds, as long as you’re not digging deep into the soil: less than an inch and a half, to be safe.

“That’s where a number of insects do spend the winter,” Lowenstein said. “Beneficial things like butterflies, good beetles, lacewings, because at this time of year most of them are either in the larval life stage or as pupa, so they’re not quite adults yet and they need a bit more warmth to finish out their life cycle. But if you’re just taking things off the surface of the ground, if you’re not doing a lot of digging, that’s not going to be as likely to damage them and you won’t be bringing them away accidentally, unless you’re really working the soil hard.”

Imboden, Lowenstein and Barslund Judd, their counterpart in the Extension’s Genesee County office, will host a four-part “Gardening Basics” series for beginning gardeners April 15, April 22, April 29 and May 6. The classes will cover basic gardening concepts and an introduction to beginner-friendly plants. Soil preparation, sun and shade, plants for beginners, and tips for avoiding diseases and pests will be covered. Registration costs $15 for individual classes and $40 for the four-class series. The classes will be accessible on Zoom from 6 to 8 p.m. Scholarships are available. For more information or to register, visit events.anr.msu.edu/gardenbasics21s.

Garden questions and related photos may be submitted through the online Ask Extension tool at ask2.extension.org. This system connects users directly to the extension’s network of gardening experts. Gardeners with questions may also call the extension’s free lawn and garden hotline at (888) 678-3464 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon.