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Plant these items on your to-do list to cultivate your need to garden

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Catherine W. Idzerda
March 9, 2011

March: an icy-rain, miserable-wind, occasional-snowstorm month between curling and gardening.


OK, maybe that definition is too personal.


Let me explain.


March means everything that's fun about winter—curling, snow-covered landscapes, making snowmen—is over, and everything that's great about summer—gardening—hasn't begun.


March makes people surly.


The formula for happiness in these 31 days of waiting for spring is to plan for gardening without actually having a garden to work in.


What can you do?


Prune

UW-Extension Horticultural Agent Mike Maddox tells people, "Do all your pruning before tax day."


Why tax day? Is there a special deduction?


"No, but people like to remember things with holidays," Maddox said.


The late dormant season—February, March and early April—is the best time to prune. Any wounds will be exposed for only a short time before the flush of spring growth quickly covers the cuts.


"The energy for new spring growth comes from the sugar stored in branches from the previous years, and removing the branches before growth is underway is less stressful for the tree," Maddox explained.


In addition, waiting to prune in warm weather means exposing cuts to disease and insect problems that flourish in the summer.


Finally, there are practical reasons: It's much easier to make pruning decisions without the leaves on the branches.


What to prune: broken, diseased or dying branches.


Why prune: to increase flower and fruit production, to make shrubs denser at their base and for safety and aestihic reasons.


Tip from Extension: When renewing old shrubs, remove the oldest and heaviest branches at the base. Pruning encourages new growth. If the shrub is overgrown and there isn't much new growth, remove only one-third of the old growth.


Another tip from Extension: In her publication, "24 Ways to Kill a Tree," Bonnie Appleton, a University of Virginia Extension specialist lists this as No. 5: Coat pruning cuts with paint or sealer to slow healing and promote pest problems. In other words, don't paint cuts. For the rest of the tips, go to online to ext.vt.edu.


One caveat: "If, for some reason, you have to prune an elm or an oak tree while it's actively growing during the summer, we do advise using sealer to help prevent oak wilt or Dutch elm disease," Maddox said.


Sharpen tools

Calendar-style garden books often put "sharpen tools" on January's to-do list. Apparently, the authors have heated garages or are allowed to bring their tools into the kitchen.


That said, it's worth the effort to hone your spade to an edge sharp enough for surgery. It reduces the wear and tear on its operator.


Jerry Wilson, the recently retired Rotary Botanical Gardens sharpening guru, would start with a wire brush to clean off any residue or rust.


Using a metal file, sharpen the blade edge. While this might seem obvious, most tools such as garden loppers or shears have one edge. People often try to sharpen both sides of a blade into a "V" shape.


Use a rat-tail file for smaller tools.


Tip for the summer: Keep a bucket of sand and gravel handy in your garage or near your garden. Put tools into the mix after use to clean off dirt. Add a little scrap oil or motor oil to the bucket, and your tools will get clean and oiled at the same time.


Start seeds

Seed starting pros: It's an inexpensive way to get the variety of plants you want.


Seed starting cons: It's an expensive way to get the variety of plants you want.


Let's start at the beginning. The last frost date for our area of Wisconsin is usually somewhere between May 1 and May 15.


That means if you want to start your own tomatoes, eggplant, peppers or other warm weather annual or perennials, you'll have to get moving. If you're wondering what needs to be started early, just look at the back of the seed packets. It will usually say something like "Start indoors six weeks before the last frost date."


Many seeds, such as tomatoes, green peppers and eggplants, need a heat source to germinate, and some seed starting kits come with heat mats.


All seeds need an intense light-source. A setup that includes tube-style lighting works best.


Secret tip: You don't need expensive "grow lights." Standard fluorescent tube lights have the light spectrum you need, according to Extension. If your light fixture has space for two tube lights, buy one from the "cool" spectrum and the other from the "warm" spectrum.


Yes, people do start seeds in sunny windowsills, but it's much less effective.


Starting seeds is a good way grow a lot of plants inexpensively—if you plan to make a habit of it. Startup costs include seeds, seed trays, soil starting mix, heating pads and lights. You'll also have to commit to the hardening-off process. That involves putting the seedlings outside for longer and longer periods of time to acclimate them to the sun and wind.


If you want to grow heirloom tomatoes, unusual perennials, or mass quantities of anything, seed starting is the way to go.


COMMUNITY GARDENS

It's still March, but it's not too early to sign up for a spot in one of the many local community gardens.


-- Rockport Road or "The Gathering Garden." In 2008, 10 raised beds were built on vacant city property near Wilson School, 465 Rockport Road, Janesville. Garden spots are available to neighborhood residents.


Contact: Ann Marie Ames at (608) 209-2143 or ann


marie.ames@gmail.com.


-- Merrill Park Community Garden, corner of 5th and Merrill Streets, Beloit.


The garden has 12 dozen plots, three raised beds for chair-side gardening and larger communal gardens. Individual plots may be reserved with a $20 deposit. Activities during the summer include workshops, seed exchange, youth programs and the Fall Harvest Fiesta.


Wish list: Children's gardening gloves, juice drink mixes, dried gourds for birdhouse crafts.


Contact director: Anna Kokity, (608) 289-8500, merrillgarden@yahoo.com.


-- Look West Gardens, Washington Park, Janesville.


Nine beds, available to local residents.


Contact: Linda Kitzman at uncleyoyo2u@yahoo.com


-- Rock County Community Garden, next to the Rock County Sheriff's Office, 200 E. Highway 14, Janesville.


Last summer's participants will get priority garden placement. New applications will be taken after March 14. Plots are available on a first- come, first-served basis.


Garden plots are approximately 20-by-25 feet. A single plot is $30, two plots are $55.


For more information, go online to rock.uwex.edu or call Mike Maddox at (608) 757-5696.


-- Walworth County Community Garden, on the south side of County NN, just west of the new Lakeland School, 504 W. Court St. Elkhorn.


For more information, go online to uwex.edu/ces/cty/walworth or call (262) 741-4951.


Three sizes of garden plots are available along with raised bed for chair-side gardening.


Rental fees range from $10 to $30, depending on the size.



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