Lowenfels on gardening: Start combing nurseries but go with a plan

Jeff Lowenfels

It's May, and, right on schedule, night temperatures are mostly above freezing. Still, it is far from time to plant outdoors and, judging by the leaves on our birch trees, it's going to be a bit longer.

That's the guide here, folks, the appearance of birch leaves -- not a string of evening temperatures in the high 30s. The theory is that nature does not fool itself, and the leaves won't appear until frosty nights are past us. Keep an eye on the thermometer, by all means, but it is the size of the birch leaves that count. Once they are as big as a squirrel's ear -- that is to say, all rolled out of the bud -- we are good to go.

I have already mentioned lawns. Personally, I can't wait to roll over the lawn with the Deere and mulch up all the spruce cones, twigs and leaves that have blown around. No bagging unless it is for the compost pile. This weekend, for sure! It's not green, but I'm going to see if I can lay down a mowing pattern on it nonetheless. Remember, do not try this on a wet lawn.

The other lawn command is to use no fertilizer until you can tell if the lawn really needs it. Visual checks can't be done until the lawn has fully grown out, replacing last season's dead blades. In the meantime, water only -- which is probably all it needs.

Next, watering systems. They have to be set up. It is inevitable that you will get wet while doing it, so pick a sunny day, but now is the time. If nothing else, the dust and debris on the driveway and decks need water. So, get your hoses and water tools out, inspect and if necessary replace their washers and then connect them using a pliers or wrench. By the way, the idea is to be able to get water to all areas of your property that will need it.

The rule is "no leaks." If your system leaks, fix it with a washer, hose repair or new hose or tool. There is no excuse for anyone getting soaked while watering. Southcentral water comes out of the spigot at about 40 degrees, which is unpleasant. Even plants would do better with warmer water, which is why a collection barrel that can be heated by the sun or a warm water spigot make so much sense.

The second rule is to attach quick connectors to your hoses, faucets and watering tools so you can easily connect and disconnect hoses and tools without twisting and turning anything and without having to use a pliers or wrench. Quick connects are available at hardware stores, box stores and nurseries. Two warnings here. First, you have to use the same type of connectors throughout your system. I like the brass ones, others prefer the orange or green plastic ones. It's up to you, but these are a must and will save you work and keep you dry. Second, buy early. Inventory runs out quickly.

The third and final water rule is to place "on/off" valves wherever you need them. You do not want to have to walk back to the faucet every time to turn your hose on or off. And, although not part of the rules, you probably should invest in an automatic timer or two.

Finally, unless you grow all your own, you simply have to start visiting nurseries. Believe me when I tell you that these visits should really be accompanied by some sort of garden/yard plan made before you make your visits. The idea is to record in some form, pictorial, map or list what you need. Aimlessly wandering through a nursery is a very dangerous thing for your pocketbook and can result in some pretty weird- looking containers and landscapes. If you are not sure what you really want, make a few visits without your wallet first to get an idea what is available.

Jeff Lowenfels is the author of "Teaming With Nutrients" and co-author of "Teaming With Microbes," now specially priced at $3.99 for Kindles and iPads at Amazon.

• Organic Gardening: Alaska Botanical Garden's organic gardening course starts May 20, see www.alaskabg.org.

• Vegetables to start from seed indoors: Summer squash and pumpkins

• Plant outdoors if you have warm soils: Peas, spinach, onion sets, potatoes, Swiss chard, mustard and kale

• Vegetables to (possibly) plant outdoors: Peas, chard, spinach, mustard, onion sets and potatoes if your soils are thawed

• Rhubarb: Put a box or paper bag over yours to encourage faster growth and an earlier harvest. Devise some way for your device not to blow away.

• Hedges: If you want to plant a hedge this year, reserve plants at your favorite nursery and pick them up "bare-rooted," which should save you up to 50 percent. Now is the time to reserve.Jeff's Alaska garden calendar

Jeff Lowenfels