3/27/15: In the garden this week

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Spicebush (lindera benzoin) is one of the earliest native shrubs to bloom. This easy-to-grow and adaptable plant thrives in part shade and is not fussy about soil. Look for its delicate chartreuse flowers in about two weeks.

Here in the central part of Bergen County, the snow is gone, although in more northern towns quite a lot remains. The temperature has reached the 50s for the first time, springlike temperatures are predicted for the week ahead, and we’ve had the kind of gentle rain that encourage birds to search for insect food in lawns. All week I’ve been catching glimpses of pairs of hairy woodpeckers and cardinals, and the bird condo in my front yard is sporting new nest holes. Skunks have emerged from hibernation. Hazelnuts are in bloom, and spicebush buds are swelling. It finally really is spring.

I know you’re dying to be out in the garden, so here are some things you could be doing this week:

direct sow seeds of early greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, and mesclun mix, plus peas and radishes. They’ll germinate and grow slowly at first, but with any luck you’ll have fresh salad greens in about 6 weeks. Sow a new crop every two weeks to ensure a continuous supply of spring greens until the weather heats up.

— as you see new growth emerge, begin to clean up your perennial beds. Grab a handful of stalks hear the ground and gently bend them to break them off. Rake the detritus away and either compost it on site or, if you don’t have room for it, take it to your town’s compost center. This week I’ll begin clearing the shady gardens where spring-blooming perennials grow; by the first week in May, all the beds will be cleared and ready for division or additional plants.

— once you can explore your entire property, evaluate the winter’s damage. Don’t remove dead wood or broken branches unless they pose hazards to people or property, because they might be supplying food or shelter to winter-weary creatures, but see what will need doing. How much mulch will you need? Will your evergreens need spring pruning to remove winter damage?

— it’s not too late to extend a garden bed or start a new one, and it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn: spread a 3-4 inch layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area now to kill the grass. You’ll be able to plant in April or May.

monitor your garden for bird activity. Spring migrants are arriving and winter residents are very active at foraging and nest building. If you’re not seeing this, maybe your garden lacks winter food. There should still be perennial seeds, berries of less desirable plants, and leaf litter and dead wood for the birds to search for insects. If you’re not seeing birds now, consider what you can do this season to attract them: for example, plant native perennials, stop pruning dead wood quite so aggressively, stop using pesticides.

order your perennials and woody plants now to get the best selection. (Most local nurseries sell only a very few native species, so I rely on mail order and on specialty nurseries that are up to four hours away.) If you wait until it’s time to plant, nurseries will be sold out of many species.

— buy your vegetable seeds and start them indoors according to this schedule so the seedlings will be ready for spring planting.

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This picture was taken in late December, but even now there are a surprising number of colorful berries left on the coralberry shrubs.

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