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FAQs for Spring Gardening

Q.

When is the optimal time to transplant evergreens and deciduous plants?

In the NYC area, USDA Zone 7a/7b, most deciduous woody plants can be planted and transplanted during the spring season between March 15 and May 1 before growth begins, or the fall planting season during dormancy between October 15 and December 1. Certain deciduous trees only transplant well in the spring planting season; some of these species include beech, birch, maple, oak and sweetgum.

Evergreen trees and shrubs are best planted in the early spring between March 1 and April 15, prior to new growth, or mid- August through October 1 after growth has subsided and the ground is conducive toward easy root establishment. (Do not plant evergreens in late fall, as they will not have time to harden off before the damaging frost and winter winds arrive).

Transplanting is a shock to living plants and certain compensatory measures will help reduce the level of disturbance experienced by the plants. Judicious pruning at the time of planting will help compensate for root damage. Give appropriate attention to watering immediately after planting, and then frequently, to establish the new root system. Provide an organic mulch at the soil level to help conserve moisture.

Be sure that planting conditions are suitable; do not plant if the ground is excessively wet or frozen. 
 

Q.

How do I prepare to plant a tree or shrub?

For bare-root plants, soak the roots in warm water for several hours to re-moisturize the cells. Dig the hole and determine the proper planting depth by noting the color difference at the juncture of the main stems and the roots. Spread out the roots and backfill the hole with the removed soil mixed and amendments such as compost. Water thoroughly and create an earth saucer around the plant to hold and direct water to the roots. Give appropriate attention to watering immediately after planting, and then frequently, to establish the new root system. Provide an organic mulch on the soil to help conserve moisture.

For container-grown stock, remove the plant from the container even though the label may state otherwise. So-called plantable or biodegradable containers prevent roots from penetrating out from the container wall. If the plant is root bound, cut through the root mass on several sides and pull out roots to give more room. Dig the hole to a depth equal to the height of the container and twice as wide. Place the root ball in the hole and backfill with removed soil amended with compost. Carefully tamp down the soil in six-inch layers, water thoroughly and create an earth saucer around the plant to hold and direct water to the roots. Give appropriate attention to watering immediately after planting, and then frequently, to establish the new root system. Provide an organic mulch at the soil level to help conserve moisture.

For balled and burlap-wrapped plants, dig the hole as deep as the ball and twice as wide. Set the plant in the prepared hole and remove the synthetic "burlap" wrapping material from the root ball. Backfill with removed soil amended with compost. Carefully tamp down the soil in six-inch layers, water thoroughly and create an earth saucer around the plant to hold and direct water to the roots. Give appropriate attention to watering immediately after planting, and then frequently, to establish the new root system. Provide an organic mulch on the soil to help conserve moisture.

Q.

Why do I need to use compost in the garden and can it replace fertilizers?

Compost is used as a soil additive when planting new trees, shrubs, vegetables, flowers and lawns. Its rich, organic content improves soil structure and nutrient holding capacity,  gives the soil a rich, dark color and supplies most of the micronutrients required for plant health.

Compost cannot really replace fertilizer but it does enhance its effectiveness. Fertilizer contains nutrients, the three primary ones being nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) in varying ratios. Each nutrient plays an important part in overall plant growth and vigor. Nitrogen contributes to overall general health and foliage production and growth, phosphorous promotes a strong root system and boosts flower production and potassium enhances fruit production.

Q.

What is soil pH and how do I test soil?

For most home gardens, soil needs to be tested every 2 to 3 years. Although many factors such as type and size of particles and amount of organic matter determine a soil's nutrient holding capacity, drainage and suitability for plant growth, soil pH will indicate whether a soil is acidic, neutral or alkaline. The pH is expressed in a scale from 0-14 where 0 is acid, 7 neutral and 14 is alkaline. Most garden plants in our area do well in a slightly acidic soil with a pH range from 5.5 to 7, although certain plants will have a particular growing preference. A pH reading below 5.5 is quite acidic and is more suitable for growing acid-loving, ericaceous plants such as Rhododendron and Azalea. If a pH is over 7 it indicates that the soil is alkaline and more suitable for lawns and certain vegetables.

To determine the pH reading of your garden soil, obtain a home soil-testing kit and follow the instructions to take a soil sample and test it. Since soils vary considerably on a site, it is best to take random soil samples and mix them together to get an average reading. For lawns, take a sample from the top 2 to 4 inches of soil. If the area to be sampled is for trees and shrubs, a sample taken to the depth of 8 to 12 inches is recommended. If the soil from your sample is found to be too acidic for the type of plants you want to grow, you will need to adjust the pH by adding lime; if the pH is too high, it can be lowered with the addition of sulfur.

A complete soil analysis will test for nutrients in addition to pH. The most important nutrients for plant growth include nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N-P-K) although the presence of other minerals, called trace elements or micronutrients, is necessary for plant growth in lower proportions. If an area in your garden has been used over and over again to grow the same types of plants, i.e. vegetable crops, the soil may become depleted in certain trace elements over time. Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service for information on complete soil testing services available to you.

It is also advisable to test your soil for composition as the types and distribution of particles within a soil will influence its drainage capacity and the availability of nutrients to plant roots. Take a handful of soil, if it feeds gritty, it is mostly sand; if it feels slippery, clay; if crumbly, loam. If there is organic matter present, a black coating will remain on your hands after moistening them and squeezing a handful of soil. Count the number of earthworms in a soil sample, 1' x 1' x 6"; if there are at least ten, your soil content is sufficiently organic.

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