Time is good for planting grass

BACKYARD Q&A

March 19, 2000

Q. Is it too early to plant grass seed? I have a few bare areas from last year's drought.

A. Late February through the end of March is the second-best time to plant grass; the best time is late August through October. Early spring seeding will help give your new grass a head start on weeds. Remove leaves and other debris and rake the soil smooth. Spread tall fescue seed evenly at a rate of 3-4 pounds per 1,000 square feet, and then gently rake and walk on the area to ensure good seed-to-soil contact. Lightly cover the areas with straw and water daily.

Q. I need to buy some topsoil for raised beds I'm building for a flower and vegetable garden. How can you tell good topsoil from bad?

A. There are no regulations in Maryland that set standards for topsoil sales. Ask the seller for references and try to find out about the soil's history. Where did it come from, what tests were done on it, what is the pH, what has been added to it? It's best to examine the soil before buying it. It should be dark and crumbly with a good, earthy smell. Reject any soils that smell bad, have grayish mottling or are very chalky in texture. Some sellers mix topsoil with leaf compost, creating an improved growing medium for plants.

Q. My aging aunt has asked me to come over and prune some neglected blueberry bushes. My usual approach in these cases is to cut the plant down to the ground. Will blueberries come back with vigor if pruned all the way back?

A. They would come back, but selective pruning is a better approach. Thin out (remove down to the crown) all canes that are old and un-productive. These will be gray in color with peeling bark. Also remove canes growing into the middle of the plant, those that are diseased and damaged, and weak shoots that emerge this spring. The goal is to have a mixture of approximately 16 canes ranging in age from 1 year up to 8 years old. Spread 1/2 pound of ammonium sulfate fertilizer evenly around each bush, and keep them well-watered through the growing season.

Q. Are there any good tricks to growing early tomatoes in our area? When I've tried planting a month early the tomatoes seem to ripen the same as when I plant in mid-May.

A. First, select early season cultivars that are supposed to ripen 55 to 65 days after transplanting. There are numerous early cultivars from Russia and Eastern Europe that are beginning to appear in seed catalogs. The other important key to early tomatoes is warming the soil where the roots grow and the air where the plant grows. Lay down black plastic mulch two to three weeks before planting to warm the soil. After planting, surround the transplants with some type of plastic enclosure open at the top. A tomato cage surrounded by clear plastic sheeting works well. Fill plastic soda bottles with water and line them inside the cage close to the plants. The water will heat up in the day and release the heat at night. Be prepared to throw a quilt over the cage on nights when the temperature dips into the 30s. Wall-O- Water is a commercially available plant protector that has produced good results for local tomato gardeners.

THIS WEEK'S CHECKLIST

1. Clean out nesting boxes for song birds or install new ones.

2. Hold newly bought bare-root shrubs, trees and fruit plants in a cool, well-ventilated area until they can be transplanted. Keep their roots moist at all times.

3. Plant seed potato pieces that are certified disease-free. Space them 12 inches apart in a row. Be patient; it sometimes takes one to two weeks before shoots emerge.

Garden tips are provided by the Home and Garden Information Center of the Maryland Cooperative Extension. For additional information on these questions, or if you have questions of your own, call the center's hot line at 800-342-2507, or visit its Web site at www.agnr.umd.edu/users/hgic.

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