Expert offers tips on spring gardening in Helena

Despite some lingering snow patches and brisk morning temperatures, it appears as though spring is finally here in Helena. Lawns are slowly greening back up, nursery shelves are being stocked and most days you can get away with only wearing a light jacket outside.

By the time Montana’s short growing season commences, gardeners are bustling to make the most out of each day in the dirt. But before you dust off your spade and run outside to plant your flowers or tend to your vegetable garden, here are a few tips for getting your spring garden green and beautiful by the time the season reaches its peak.

First, be patient. Terry Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Nursery and Gardens in Helena, stresses patience above all other tips for spring gardening. Montana’s most recent winter was particularly harsh and drawn-out, which is why people are extra antsy to get outside. But if you start planting tomatoes or annuals too soon, they may not last very long.

About a month before planting, take some time to clean up your garden area and tools so everything is ready to go when it’s time to start working the soil. Clear out leaves and fallen branches from your flower beds. Fix broken gates and fences and make sure all your tools are clean and in working condition. Cleaning your tools not only ensures that they last longer and perform better, but it also helps prevent the accidental spreading of disease-causing pathogens in your garden.

Before moving on to actual planting, Johnson shared that soil preparation is critical. But time this step just right. To do so, Johnson advises to look at the wetness of the soil. Depending on where you live in town, the ground may still be too wet to work with. Johnson’s nursery, located off of McHugh Lane in the Helena valley, still receives a layer of frost in the mornings and is not warm enough to plant in yet.

“You can’t work with the soil yet,” said Johnson. “Right now the moisture content is too high and it will just gum up and create clay balls. The soil temperature is also not very warm yet, which is critical for the germination of seeds.”

How do you know when the soil is ready to be worked with? One tried-and-true method is the squeeze test. Grab a fistful of garden dirt and squeeze. If it easily forms a ball that doesn’t crumble, it’s not ready. But if it breaks into granules as you squeeze (because there isn’t enough moisture to allow it to clump) then it’s ready. One exception to this would be if your soil is particularly heavy in clay, which will naturally clump more easily.

Once your soil is dried out enough to work with, Johnson recommends rototilling the soil before planting. Rototilling not only takes care of any pesky weeds, but it also “fluffs up” the soil which allows it to get more sunlight and thus warm up faster.

Prior to rototilling, Johnson likes to add amendments to the soil to improve the structure and also increase the organic content so it is capable of holding more nutrients and moisture. Fertilizers like manure, peat moss or compost are all suitable options. After distributing the fertilizer atop the soil, Johnson will then rototill to better distribute the amendments into the soil.

Once your soil is ready, it’s time to start planting seeds or transplanting those plants you started indoors. But stay mindful of dropping temperatures overnight that may render the soil too cold for planting.

Cold tolerant vegetables like onions, cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli are some of the first vegetables Johnson suggests planting. Hold off planting veggies like tomatoes and peppers until temperatures get warmer.

One flower Johnson said people can start planting early is the pansy. The pansy is perfect for all gardeners who are itching to get outside and plant something now. Despite its delicate features, pansies are tough little plants and can be planted early in the spring long before other flowers.

“Pansies are extremely hardy and thrive in colder weather,” said Johnson.

Johnson also shared that this is a good time of year to plant trees. Because it’s still colder out, newly planted trees won’t require such extensive watering and some of the normal transplant shock is alleviated. For established trees, spring is also a good time to prune before the sap starts to run through them.

With temperatures on the rise and the Helena Farmer’s Market season officially underway, the long, pleasant days of gardening you’ve been dreaming of all winter are just around the corner. But remember, be patient and take the necessary precautions before diving into that rich soil.

“Gardening in Helena really is difficult at best,” said Johnson. “The hardest part is the temptation of the warmer weather that makes you want to go outside and start planting. I just caution people to resist the temptation because if people plant too early they might end up getting frustrated.”

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