A gardener’s spring: Tools, cuttings and plant care

It’s spring, so let me offer you tips — and encouragement — to get your garden ready for its debut.

• Let’s talk about tools. Not just any tools — the sharper the better. Spades are perfect for planting and transplanting. However, new spades do not come with a sharp edge. It’s best to use an electric hand grinder to sharpen them, as well as your old spades, by moving the grinder back and forth across the edge of the spade while keeping a consistent angle and gentle pressure. Spades that have very thick edges or that are corrugated tend to require more pressure on the grinder to sharpen the edges. Do not hold the grinder in one place too long to avoid an excessive buildup of heat that may cause the metal to turn black. I prefer to sharpen the inside edge of the spade. Remember to wear ear and eye protection to protect yourself from noise and sparks.

• When you clean up garden beds this spring, be sure to check for plants that have been pushed up during freeze-thaw-freeze cycles. This occurs more often with plants in (1-gallon) containers and smaller that were planted last year. Gently press the crowns of perennials back into the ground. Try to avoid stomping heavily around plants so you don’t compact soil that is still damp at this time of year. Apply a layer of mulch to help prevent additional frost heaving.

• It's not too late to start cuttings from houseplants like coleus for transplanting to the garden. Use a sharp, clean knife or a pair of pruners to cut the stem just below a leaf node. Remove the lowest leaves, dip the cut end into a rooting hormone and insert it into some fresh, sterile potting soil. Rooting hormones are synthetic chemicals that can be applied to stem cuttings to promote the development of roots. They are easy to find in local shops. The cuttings will also readily root if you place them in a glass of water. Transplant to a pot with growing medium once a small mass of roots has developed. Growing medium is the material where plants grow. Outdoors, this medium is usually soil. Indoors, it can be soilless and composed of perlite, peat moss, sand, or other materials. The plants will be ready to use in the garden by the middle of May when the danger of frost has passed. Gradually acclimate coleus plants to the outdoor environment by increasing the time the plants are left outside over a period of a week or so. Be sure to avoid direct sun at first so the leaves do not burn.

• Many trees and shrubs have started leafing out very early this year due to the warm weather. Here at the Garden, we have already noticed crabapples starting to leaf out. Very cold freezing spells have the potential to damage this foliage along with early-flowering magnolias. There really isn’t anything that can be done with these trees and shrubs except to enjoy the fleeting beauty. On the other hand, bulbs and perennials should fare well with any cold snaps

• Tim Johnson is director of horticulture at Chicago Botanic Garden,

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