The coolest temperatures of the year have given way to the blossom and bloom that accompanies the arrival of springtime in Cenla. With the warmer temperatures, gardeners across our area are busy breaking out the gloves and dusting off their tools to once again get their Cenla gardens growing.
Start your spring with a strong foundation by tending your lawn. Clear the grass of any remaining leaves or debris from the fall and winter seasons. What may seem like waste can be worth its weight in gold to gardeners when it’s converted into compost. Composting bins are commercially available, or you can choose to upcycle old shipping pallets, leftover construction materials, etc. by making your own. Fill your compost pile with the debris from the yard, including grass clippings, old plant growth and leaves. Be sure that the materials you add to your composting pile are free from disease or harsh herbicides, which could render your “gardener’s gold” useless. Once you’ve established your compost pile, moisten it and let Mother Nature do her magic. Composting always takes time, but you can speed up the composting process by building your pile in layers. Adding a layer of brush at the bottom of the pile creates space for airflow, which will speed up decomposition. On top, add equal parts of green and brown materials. Add fertilizer every six to 12 inches. As the materials decompose, the pile will heat up. Be sure to turn the pile periodically to ensure even decomposition. Bring a soil sample to your local LSUAg Center Extension office for testing to best understand the particular needs of your soil. The results will be well worth the effort!
With the lawn cleared of seasonal debris, it is important to set your grass up for success through the coming months as the temperatures steadily climb. Late March into early April are great times here in Cenla to begin fertilizing our lawns. It’s important to feed the grasses when they are actively growing. Signs of that growth have already begun for 2018 across our region. Evenly apply a quality, slow release fertilizer, then water it in to give your lawn the early boost it needs. If you have areas in your lawn that have been historically troublesome or are uneven, once you’ve ruled out disease, early spring is a great time to consider replacing the trouble spots with new sod. Once the old grass has been removed, till in a generous amount of compost from your pile and rake level. Lay the new sod in rows, creating tight seams. Use a sod roller to establish a firm base underneath the sod, then water, water, water. Be sure to limit traffic on the newly sodded areas until the grass has taken firm root. Likewise, avoid mowing your newly sodded lawn until at least three inches of new growth from the sod have developed.
We saw multiple hard freezes over the course of the winter, which can play havoc on tropical plants. It’s important to properly prune freeze damaged vegetation to ensure the long-term health of the plant. With the freezing temperatures in our rearview mirror, early spring is a great time to evaluate the damage, and prune accordingly. In some cases, this may require pruning down to the ground level. Take care only to remove the dead, damaged vegetation, leaving the healthy parts of the plant intact to nourish continued growth.
Early spring is also an ideal time to plant ornamental grasses and ground cover. Ground cover gives a lush visual appeal with less maintenance than traditional turf grasses. Because ground cover plants do not require mowing, they are useful in hard-to-access places such as corners, steep inclines and areas where large tree roots stick up from the ground. Grass cover planting options include monkey grass, liriope, Japanese ardisia and Asiatic jasmine. Be sure to consider the amount of sunlight and size of the area to be covered so that you can best match the ground cover plant to your needs.
With a healthy lawn established, attention turns to adding color and texture to the remainder of your landscape. Spring is a good time to add even more color to your already-blooming garden. Consider adding a variety from LSUAg Center’s list of Louisiana Super Plants. Named to the list of Louisiana Super Plants just last year are sunpatiens. These hybrid impatiens love full sun and are a great spring addition to your garden. Growing up to two feet wide and tall, the blooms will continue through the first frost of the year and are available in over a dozen different colors! Another Super Plant, Evolution salvia loves full sun and can grow up to a foot tall or higher. With crisp white and vibrant purple small blooms, salvia planted in spring can bloom perennially following a mild winter, though will not survive harsh freezes. Likewise, angelonias love a lot of sun. Named a Louisiana Super Plant in 2011, Serenita angelonias are similar in height to salvia and work well in flower beds or in containers, coming in a variety of colors. Angelonia will flower throughout the summer, thriving in the heavy Louisiana heat. For a more dramatic splash of color, consider adding hibiscus to your garden. Luna hibiscus produces huge blooms in a variety of colors and mixes each year from spring to fall. Like the angelonias, hibiscus love sunlight and will attract a great deal of activity from pollinators and butterflies.
Add height to your garden with bushes and fruit trees. The first consideration when selecting additions to your landscape is to pay careful attention to the conditions in which you intend to plant. Know how much sun the area will receive each day, the drainage and clearance above and surrounding the planting site, as well as evaluating the amount of attention each variety will need to ensure you get the best match. Fruit trees, in particular, require a great deal of sun and space to thrive. In terms of upkeep, be sure to note how your fruit tree pollinates. Most peaches, apricots and fig trees self-pollinate. Most apple, pear and plum trees do not. That means that, should you choose from the latter, be sure to establish multiple plants if you hope to reap a harvest. Citrus trees present a particular challenge in our area, particularly in years with unusually harsh winters. However, with the proper care, a hearty crop of satsumas is well worth the effort. In certain areas of the state where the soil conditions are most ideal, blackberries, strawberries and muscadines can thrive.
Be sure to note before planting that some fruiting plants will require significantly more effort in terms of pruning, training and spraying in order to bear maximum yield, so choose accordingly, given the amount of time you’ll have available. For the best variety and expert advice on the wide variety of plants available to add to your garden, take a short drive to visit some of the many Cenla nurseries that are open to the public. One of the best opportunities to do just that is the 33rd annual Louisiana Nursery Festival in Forest Hill. The Festival has been a Central Louisiana staple since 1985. On the third weekend of March, you can find flowers, food, friends, and fun! This year, the Festival will take place Friday, March 16th through Sunday, March 18th, featuring a parade at 10:00am on Saturday, carnival rides, arts and crafts, local nursery offerings and equipment displays.
No Louisiana garden is complete without a vegetable and herb garden. Nothing beats Louisiana cuisine that incorporates fresh ingredients grown right here at home. We are blessed with a climate that offers an extended growing season and a wide variety of options from which to choose. Begin your vegetable garden by clearing an adequate amount of space for the number of plants you wish to cultivate. Be sure to completely remove any grasses and weeds that may cover the area currently. The more you are able to remove on the front end the easier maintenance will be as the growing season progresses. Establish a clear border for your garden with landscape timber or other edging material. Next, dig or till the area to a depth of six to eight inches. Incorporate organic materials in with the soil. This is where a hearty compost heap comes in most handy. Include granular fertilizer in your new bed. Once the groundwork is laid, make decisions on what kinds of plants you’ll incorporate. This will allow you to decide on a layout for your garden. Take sight lines into consideration as you sketch your garden map. If you intend to include corn or sunflowers in your garden, be sure to reserve that space toward the back of your garden. Plan for your low, sprawling plants to inhabit the front of your garden so your view of the entire garden is unobstructed. Also, be sure to leave yourself enough space to access your plants for weeding and when harvest time arrives. From here, you’re ready to plant!
Early spring is an ideal time to plant Louisiana staples like snap beans, sweet corn, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, okra, tomatoes, squash and watermelon. You can choose to germinate your garden from seed or transplant young plants which are available from a variety of nurseries or local home and garden outlets. A key ingredient in the “holy trinity” of Louisiana cooking, bell peppers require a lot of sunlight and a generous amount of space. Bell peppers love the heat of Louisiana summers and while they require a consistent source of water, do not like to be wet around the base. A drip sprinkler or daily mist watering should do the trick.
Like bell peppers, tomatoes thrive on warmth. Tomatoes also require stakes or a trellis upon which to grow, which should be in place directly after planting. This keeps the fruit off the ground, allowing it to mature without decay. Tomatoes are notoriously susceptible to disease and insect damage. Treat early with fungicide and remain vigilant as the season progresses, looking for any signs of trouble. Both bell peppers and tomatoes benefit greatly from pruning. Your plants will yield larger, better fruit if you remove some of the flower buds once the plants start to produce.
Few things are better on a hot, humid Cenla summer day than an ice-cold slice of sweet Louisiana watermelon. Be sure to plant watermelon plants three feet apart in a row, and space your rows widely to allow for vine and fruit development. Watermelon loves sunlight, so be sure to set your plants in an area that gets plenty. As the plant spreads and flowers, keep the garden clear of weeds and other growth. Starting early and remaining consistent will make the job easier as the large fruit begins to develop. Typically, watermelons take about two months to mature, so starting now will yield fruit as we enter the hottest part of the summer. As the spring progresses, add snap beans, cucumber, okra, field peas, sweet corn and sweet potatoes to your garden. Aim to have your garden in full swing by late April to early May.
Round out your garden with a variety of fragrant herbs, which can be planted in a designated portion of your in-ground garden, and/or in a stand-alone planter. Herbs can thrive year-round in Central Louisiana. Basil, mint, oregano, rosemary, parsley, dill, garlic, celery, fennel, arugula, chicory and cilantro are some of the wide variety that flourish in our area. One of the advantages of a raised, or portable, herb garden is that you can proactively relocate it as the seasons change to keep it positioned in optimal conditions. If you opt for an in-ground herb garden, remember that herbs like parsley, cilantro, lavender, thyme and others may not fare as well in the hottest areas, or may have abbreviated production as the summer wears on.
A bit of planning and information gathering can yield tremendous results for your home garden. A free, comprehensive Louisiana Vegetable Planting Guide is available for download on the LSU AgCenter website at www.LSUAgCenter.com. In addition to providing the Planting Guide, the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service includes offices in all of Louisiana’s 64 parishes. Educational opportunities offered through these offices include online and in-person classes, seminars, workshops, field days and more. In addition, extension agents provide one-on-one advice and, increasingly, use the Internet to disseminate educational information. For more information on getting the most out of your Louisiana garden and much more, contact your local AgCenter Extension office or visit www.LSUAgCenter.com.
So whether you’re a novice or a master gardener, put on your gardening hat, dust off your tools and get to work in the gorgeous spring temperatures to help your Cenla garden grow!