April 1, 2013

Avoid early gardening pitfalls

By JOLENE WALLACE, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — I celebrated the first day of spring by building a snowman on our barbecue after clearing a path through the snow on the patio. 

Now it’s beginning to look like spring may have finally reached the North Country. While we wait for the temperatures that herald the beginning of the growing season, you may want to keep a few things in mind.

I know how difficult it can be after several warm days to keep yourself from going out with a shovel, rake, hoe and every other tool you have. We are eager to be outdoors working in our flower beds or starting to prepare the soil for our vegetable gardens.

We have been inside for several months now, and although you may be ready to get your garden started, your garden is probably not. There are a few things you want to avoid in your enthusiasm to get your hands dirty.


You don’t want to work your soil while it is too wet and you don’t want to walk on it, either. Wet soil compacts when we walk on it, similar to the way snow does. Compacted soil makes it difficult for roots to grow through or water to drain.

To check the moisture level, take a ball of soil about the size of a walnut in the palm of your hand and squeeze it. If moisture drips or it’s a mud ball, it’s too wet to work, but if the soil holds together rub your thumb over it and see how it crumbles. It should come apart and look like the crumbs of chocolate cake. Soggy soil leads to rotting roots and seeds.

If you must walk on your soil, lay a piece of plywood or even heavy cardboard down to help distribute your weight. Avoid walking on your lawn for the same reason. You want the roots of your lawn, your perennials, shrubs and trees to get a good start on the season as they wake up to spring.


If, like me, you chose not to clean up your flower beds in the fall, doing it now while the ground is still frozen, or ever so carefully if it is thawed, would be a good first project for your garden. Your beds are probably not so wide that you can’t reach them from both sides so you won’t need to step in the soil.

Just cut things off at ground level after making certain that you don’t cut into any new growth that is beginning to appear. Clean up the debris, either putting it in the compost pile or cutting is up for mulch, unless it is diseased, and your beds will be ready to go as the season really gets under way.


While you wait for that happy day to come, we have a couple of great events you might be interested in.

On Saturday, April 6, we are excited to have the opportunity to tour Cook & Gardener and learn about new and under-utilized perennials and shrubs. Master Gardener volunteers will be doing workshops on the most effective ways to plant seeds and growing herbs for using fresh or for drying. This should be an informative and fun way to get in gear for the growing season. The fee is $10, and pre-registration is required. Contact me at 561-7450 or

We are also currently accepting registrations for our Spring Garden Day, to be held on Saturday, April 20, at Clinton Community College. We are offering 12 classes for you to choose from, with classes for beginners as well as experienced gardeners. The event runs from 8:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., and you will register for four classes. Your registration includes pastries and beverages in the morning and a full deli lunch, as well as a binder of resources for you to take home. Classes fill up fast, so stop by the office or give us a call for registration forms or questions.

Jolene Wallace is the horticulture program assistant for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. Contact her at 561-7450 or