P. Allen Smith: Q&A – Planning for Spring


Raise your garden glove if you are ready for spring!

Photography by Jane Colclasure and Mark Fonville


I love all the seasons, but by January I’m itching to get my hands in the soil to start gardening. While I might not be able to do any digging this month, I can plan so I’m ready to go on those sporadic warms days we typically experience in February and March.

So how do I plan for spring? That’s a good question. Three tasks that are at the top of my list are: getting a jump on weeds; starting seeds; and, my favorite, deciding which plants to add to the garden. Based on the questions I’ve received lately, many of you are thinking about these things, too.

If you make weed prevention part of your weekly gardening routine, the job will get easier every growing season.

If you make weed prevention part of your weekly gardening routine, the job will get easier every growing season.

QUESTION: For those unable to physically pull weeds to maintain the beauty of their gardens, remedies to control or rid weeds would certainly be beneficial. Thank you! — D. Proctor

ANSWER: Much like death and taxes, there will always be weeds, and trying to eradicate them from your garden is an exercise in frustration. My life got much easier the day I learned to accept this  — yours will, too, especially if pulling weeds is difficult for you. My approach is to limit rather than eliminate weeds, using a combination of removing, crowding and smothering.

Weed pulling is essential, especially when dealing with weeds that spread by seed. Spend one growing season pulling weeds every week, and you’ll see fewer weeds the following year. Immature weeds are easier to pull, especially when the ground is wet after watering or a rain.

If getting down to weed level is a problem, look for tools that allow you to remove weeds while standing, like Fiskars UpRoot Weed and Root Remover. Avoid tillers and hoes that bring weed seeds to the surface where conditions are ideal for sprouting.

Open space is an invitation for weeds to take up residence. Flower beds full of healthy plants or robust ground covers are your best defense. Keep lawn turf in good condition to minimize weeds.

Smother weeds with mulch. Apply a 3- to 6-inch layer of mulch in flower beds to keep weed seeds from sprouting. Weeds that still manage to pop up will be easier to pull because mulch keeps the ground moist.

You’ll find that if you make weed prevention part of your weekly gardening routine, the task becomes less daunting over time.

QUESTION: Last year I tried starting seeds for tomatoes and had rotten luck – literally! The stems rotted near the surface of the soil. What went wrong? — K. Peterson

ANSWER: You know, there is a lot of hope in those packets of seeds, but sometimes hopes can be dashed if everything doesn’t go as planned. Even under the best circumstances, you might run into a few problems. Based on your description, your seedlings suffered from a disease called damping-off. Damping-off occurs when disease organisms attack germinating seeds and young plants, especially during prolonged cloudy weather. There are a couple of measures you can take to prevent damping-off.

First, always use a fresh bag of sterile soil mix designed for seed starting. Second, fill the container with soil so the soil is flush with the edge of the pot. This will allow airflow across the surface of the soil.

QUESTION: Can you make suggestions about how to make a small garden bed — small enough for a gardening senior to handle — that packs a lot of floral punch all season long? Thanks so much!  — S. Davidson

ANSWER: If you are looking for low-maintenance and season-long blooms, there are a few new flowering shrub varieties you should consider. Pint-sized versions of our old-fashioned favorites like forsythia and butterfly bush don’t require much space and offer visual interest in multiple seasons. Here are a few recommendations:

Lo & Behold® Lilac Chip Buddleia (Butterfly Bush) / photo at top of page –

Compact and tidy, this butterfly bush will be a constant source of fragrant, lavender blooms from spring until fall. ‘Lilac Chip’ is hardy, non-invasive and never exceeds 24 inches in height. It’s a great bedfellow for perennials and annuals, or it can be grown in a container. Grow in full sun, hardy in zones 5a – 9b.

My Monet® ‘Sunset’ Weigela –

I love this shrub because of the colorful foliage. The leaves shift from chartreuse to purple during the summer, then blaze with sunset tones in the fall. With a compact habit that won’t exceed 18 inches in height, it makes for a fabulous edging plant. Mix it with perennials and annuals in a flower bed or group several together for impact. It also grows well in containers. Grow in full sun to partial shade, hardy in zones 5 – 8.

Sunny Anniversary™ Abelia –

Developed in France, this elegant new shrub is a continuous show of butter-yellow blooms with dusty-pink throats. The fragrant flowers draw butterflies and hummingbirds. Sunny Anniversary™ is suited for both flower beds and containers. Grow in full sun to partial shade, hardy in zones 6 – 8.

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