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Queens Chronicle

Spring Guide 2013: Green thumbs Queens, how does your garden grow?

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Posted: Friday, April 19, 2013 4:00 am

Queens has a lot to brag about. 

But what it doesn’t have much of is open space. 

Perhaps that’s why denizens with green thumbs seek out any plot of dirt to plant colorful flowers and grow hearty vegetables.

It’s still early in the year. Trees have barely bloomed and the ground has only recently thawed. The first flowers of the year — daffodils, forsythias and tulips — have begun blooming, but there’s still a wait for the roses, rhododendrons and irises that color the green spaces across the city and flower pots outside windows and on fire escapes and porches. 

For those preparing their garden, the most important initial step to take is to make sure you have good soil.

Fred Gerber, director of education emeritus at the Queens Botanical Garden, advises gardeners to test the soil’s pH levels before doing any planting.

“The soil is important,” Gerber explained. “Most garden plants need the soil to be slightly acidic.”

Test kits are available at any garden supply store and give details on how to test the soil’s acidity or alkalinity and what steps are needed to make the earth perfect.

Gerber also suggests that the soil  should include some form of organic matter, such as compost. While compost is available at any store, he advises regular gardeners to keep their own compost pile somewhere nearby.

He also stresses not to use peat moss because it can be too acidic and the removal of peat moss from its natural locations can harm the environment. 

There are two main types of plants: perennials, which will come back each year with the right care, and annuals, which are planted just once and die when the first frost comes.

For flowers, Gerber said hardier species, such as marigolds, can be planted now, but it is too early for some more tender annuals, such as petunias and impatiens.

“We could still get nights where it drops down into the 30s,” he warns. 

Impatiens are a group of popular planting flowers for small pots or gardens with little space that often have long durations of shade. They come in a variety of colors, from bright whites to deep reds and purples. They are fairly easy to take care of, needing to be kept well watered, fed and out of direct sunlight for long periods of time — especially on the hottest summer days. With the right care, impatiens can balloon to over a foot tall.

But this year, gardeners who rely on them will have to find another flower to beautify their property.

A blight has killed off much of the impatien populations and led to most garden sellers pulling them from their stock. The disease — a form of mildew — has no cure and has been ravaging impatiens since last summer.

Gerber suggests vinca, a flower similar to impatiens, as a substitute. 

“The flowers look like impatiens and are more resistant to drying out,” he said.

New Guinea impatiens, petunias, begonias or coleuses — the last of which are not flowers, but do have colorful leaves — are also some suggestions for impatiens substitutes.

It isn’t too early for marigolds, Gerber said. The hearty flower, often yellow or gold in color, can withstand those late-spring chills and often grow well into the fall, sometimes flowering as late as November.

Salvias are also a popular flower, especially in pots. They thrive in sunlight and often don’t bloom until later in the summer, when they can grow tall, colorful stalks. 

For those planning on building an edible garden, depending on what you want, you possibly should have already started it.

Gerber said some crops should have had their seeds planted months ago, as early as the first week of February. However, for novice gardeners, he suggests buying starter plants, which can be purchased now and planted.

Lettuce, onions and carrots are among the vegetables that can go in the ground now, along with herbs like parsley and basil. 

Summer crops, such as tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers, should not be placed into the ground until next month. 

“They shouldn’t go in until May 15,” Gerber suggests. “If you put them in early, and they get cooled, it sets them back.”

But seeds can be planted now in pots indoors and in a well-lit place.

For summer crops, Gerber suggests large containers — about five gallons in size. Eggplant and cucumbers require containers even bigger than that.

“If you are using containers, make sure to purchase seeds that are made for containers,” he said.

If you are using pots to plant your flowers or crops, Gerber warns, keep in mind the amount of commitment you will have to give to the plants. 

“If you have something in a little pot, you have to water it every day and twice a day,” he said. “The bigger the pot is, the better,”

Herbs are perfect for pots because they can survive drying out for a time.

Gerber also suggests investing in self-watering pots. 

“This is very good if you’re away for a long weekend and there’s hot weather,” he said. 

For new trees or shrubs, there are certain steps you should take when planting, Gerber said. 

“For every two-thirds of soil, mix in about a third of compost, then fill the hole back up,” he explained. “You should never plant something deeper than it was growing in the nursery and you should leave several inches from the base of the trunk.”

Gerber recommends using general purpose fertilizer for all plants, especially a 5-10-5 variety — 5 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus and 5 percent potassium. It’s best to feed most plants and crops when they are planted and again in late June or early July.

The Queens Botanical Garden offers help for people who tend gardens at home, including workshops and classes that offer tips on fertilizing and composting. 

And the garden will host an Arbor Fest on Sunday, April 28 from 2 to 3 p.m., which will feature workshops on composting.

Queens Botanical Garden Executive Director Susan Lacerte will lead a tour of the garden, along with arborist and Vice President and Division Manager David McMaster of Bartlett Tree Experts, a leading scientific tree-and-shrub-care company.  

“This will be a terrific opportunity for people to hear from a top expert,” said Darcy Hector, spokeswoman for the Queens Botanical Garden. 

McMaster will also discuss tree and plant damage pertaining to Hurricane Sandy. 

Residents and business owners with lingering concerns and those affected by damaged or downed trees are encouraged to attend this special tour. 

The even is free with garden admission, which is $4 for adults; $3 for seniors or $2 for children ages 3 through 12 and students with ID. It is free for QBG members. No registration is required.

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