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Stuck at home? Try some dirt therapy

Spring is here but not quite planting time yet, you’re stuck at home and itching to get dirt under your nails.

Lelia Scott-Kelly is a consumer horticulture specialist at Mississippi State University. She says while you’re waiting for the soil temperature to rise and the first buds to appear, go for a walk outside and analyze your gardens.

“You can see where there’s work that needs to be done. You can see well maybe there’s some standing water. Maybe a little shrub didn’t look good next to another one,” says Scott-Kelly. “Take a pen and a notebook and go out there. It’s a great time to evaluate your landscape and note the things that work, and then note the things that don’t.” 

If you’re eager to get your hands dirty, tackle chores such as cleaning up your old perennial bed.

“If you haven’t already, take out all of the dead foliage from last year and reapply mulch. If you’ve got perennials that bloom in the summer, those can be dug up and divided in the early spring,” she says. “Now, what you don’t want to do is dig up and divide the early spring-flowering perennials.”

Don’t transplant or prune early-flowering shrubs now. Wait till they’re done blooming. Leave irises alone until after they bloom, too. Daylilies bloom later, so Kelly says you can divide them as soon as you see their tips peeking out of the soil.

If you have a compost pile, this is a good time to start replenishing it. Shovel out the finished compost and work it deeply into the soil, so as plants start to grow, those nutrients are available.

Salvaging old seeds

If you have garden seed left over from previous years, it might still be viable and this is a good time to check it.

Ward Upham is an Extension horticulturist at Kansas State University. He says a packet of seeds will generally last three to four years, but there are exceptions.

“For example, if you have onions, they are very short-lived, they will last about a year so you can plant them this year and then next, and that’s probably about it. Also, things like carrots and parsnips, and parsley, maybe one to two years, corn and peppers maybe two years,” says Upham. “For most the other stuff, it’s going to be a good three years, some seed will last as much as five.”

If you’re unsure of viability and have plenty of seed, there is an easy method to determine how good it is. Upham says to roll up 10 to 20 seeds in a moist paper towel and put them in a plastic bag with a few holes for air. The bag needs to sit in a spot that’s 70°F. to 80°F. The top of the refrigerator is usually a nice warm place.

After about a week, check to see how many seeds have germinated.

“Pull those germinated seeds out, roll them back up, make sure that paper towel remains moist, and then check them after another week. And then you can figure out what your germination percentage is,” he says. “Some people say that as low as 50% you can actually still use the seed – just sow it twice as heavy. I prefer probably closer to 75%. If you have 75%, just assume that seed’s good, and you’ll be fine.”

You may have better luck with seed longevity if they’re stored in an airtight container, in cool, dark, and dry conditions. Upham says one the easiest ways to do that is to put your seed packets in a canning jar and keep them in the fridge.

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