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Spring gardening tips

Many gardeners are going "green," eschewing harsh chemicals.

Posted: March 29, 2008 3:42 a.m.
Updated: May 30, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Jerry Wittmann, plant specialist at Green Thumb International in Newhall, with miniature roses, which are perfect for apartment dwellers.

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Spring is here, the weather is warming up, and your backyard is beckoning. Whether you plan to have a family barbecue, a pool party or just want to spruce up your balcony, a little springtime planting can lift the look of your yard and your mood as well.

And, whether you are a gardening fanatic or just a newbie making your first attempts to beautify your property, now is the time to roll up your sleeves and dig into the dirt. Here are some ideas to make the process easier and safer, for yourself, the environment and your budget.

Annuals, perennials and shrubs
Those who don't mind the yearly cycle of uprooting and replanting will do well to plant annuals, which offer more bang for your buck, but for a shorter time period.

"If you want the full potential of color in your garden, then annuals are necessary because they are the only thing that will bloom continuously for a full six months," said Jerry Wittmann, a gardening expert with Green Thumb International Nursery in Newhall. "Perennials will bloom for only six or eight weeks, then they are just a green shrub for the rest of the year. So for constant color, annuals are vital."

Choosing different annuals and different colors gives you the opportunity to have a whole new garden every year. For a new twist on perpetual favorites such as impatiens, begonias, marigolds and petunias, Wittmann suggests trying the new hybrid-color varieties to add some pizzazz.

"New colors for the same plants get people really excited," he said.

Hanging color bowls can also add interest and a splash of color to a balcony or patio cover, if you don't mind replanting every so often.

"Color bowls only last a couple of weeks, because they are so tightly packed that they eventually crowd each other out," Wittmann warned.

You can either hang them in the plastic planters they come in, or buy your own cocoa-lined metal baskets, which are prettier and can be re-used over and over.

If you are more inclined to plant something that doesn't require a monthly or yearly redo, stick with perennials like salvia or shrubs like camellias or azaleas. And considering that we live in a hot, dry region, try buying drought-tolerant species such as agapanthus (African lily) and dianthus (pinks) to conserve water and reduce maintenance. Both offer a great deal of color and variety despite their less-thirsty tendencies.

For apartment-dwellers who have limited outdoor space, plants like the New Zealand tea tree or miniature rose bushes can enhance a balcony or patio. The potato bush, which has beautiful purple flowers, can be pruned to look like a small tree and fits well in small spaces.

Jasmine or wisteria vines, which should be bought while still in bloom, can add interest and beauty to a wall or trellis, provided they are cut back often, since they grow quickly and can get quite heavy.

Vegetables and fruits
With the price of vegetables rising in stores, more and more people are interested in growing their own, according to Wittmann. In addition to tomatoes, which are the No. 1 seller, corn and peppers are also popular and can either be planted from seed or grown from seedlings.

"Some people don't have the patience to grow from seed," said Wittmann. "But you have a lot more vegetables to choose from if you do." Green Thumb offers dozens of spring vegetables, including 50 varieties of tomatoes, squash, radishes and rutabaga.

A mini-greenhouse can help seeds take off a lot faster than just plopping them in a pot or in the ground. The heat and moisture speed up the germination process and let you get to your first harvest faster.

For those with limited space, another alternative is to get peat pots that contain a disc in the bottom with a hole to drop the seed in. The disc expands when water is added and protects and nourishes the seed, allowing it to grow to a mature plant in just a few weeks.

Fruits also thrive in spring, with strawberries and citrus among the most popular in this area. Strawberries can last several years and produce several harvests a year, and citrus is a healthy and nutritious option if you have enough space to let the tree grow.

Wittmann warns citrus tree owners to be aware of a new invasive species that can destroy new foliage - the Australian leafminer. For the last few years this non-native insect has been devastating citrus crops around the country all the way from Florida, where it first arrived, to California.

The pest mines into small young leaves and, eventually, tunnels into the plant and kills it. To combat it, Wittman suggests vigorously washing leaves with water to knock the larval egg sacs onto the ground, where they will die.

Tools, techniques and pest-control
If you've managed to dig out your gardening tools from the shed only to find that they are worn out or broken, you might want to consider buying something new and innovative.

The "inter-locken" line of tools, made by Wolf Garten, offers interchangeable tool heads that can fit onto a single handle or pole.

"Many people's garages are clogged with long-handled tools," Wittmann said. "These really reduce the number of tools you have to keep on hand." Inter-locken products are made of stainless steel so they don't rust easily, and their super-strong construction means they last longer than more conventional tools.

Since gardening can be stressful on the body, particularly the back, Wittmann recommends getting a back-saving device that can be attached to the handle of a rake or shovel. It is a bit like the vertical grip that juts up on a string-trimmer, and lets you stand more upright and have more leverage without bending so much.

Of course, along with spring blossoms come pesky pests that want to feast on them and weeds that can crowd out proper plants. When seeking fertilizers, insecticides and weed killers, many gardeners are choosing to "go green."

Fortunately, there are many options available for those who eschew harsh chemicals in favor of organic solutions.

"Organic fertilizer becomes more and more popular every year," said Wittmann. "The cost of chemicals is skyrocketing, which has caused many people to look for cheaper, healthier alternatives."

Among the many products offered at Green Thumb are environmentally friendly insecticides, some are which are biologically based. Products containing pyrethrins, which are based on an extract from the chrysanthemum flower, affect the nervous system of insects, but do not harm plants.

The same is true for neem-based products, which contain an Indian tree extract that literally smothers pests. Natural bacteria-based substances are also effective as well, and will typically kill only leaf-destroying insects such as caterpillars, while sparing "good" bugs like ladybugs and spiders.

Green Thumb International can be reached at (661) 259-1071.

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