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It’s not too late to get that garden going this spring.(Credit: David Benthal)

The days are feeling warmer. The sun is shining longer. The clouds are more scattered in the sky.

And a walk down any residential road, blooming with buds, tells you it’s spring again.

With that comes the preparation of an outdoor garden for many people.

Whether you’re a total novice or a seasoned expert, we reached out to master gardener Sharna Nicholson of Mattituck for tips on what we should be doing right now to prepare.

NF: When should people start prepping their outdoor garden area and what steps can they take to do that?

SN: Depending upon whether you are ‘restarting’ an existing garden area, or starting from scratch, greatly affects the earth you are starting with for your garden.

If you are creating a new garden area, and need to remove grass, weeds, rubbish, etc., you can begin clearing as soon as the ground is no longer frozen. On the North Fork, that was almost a month ago this year. Once the area is cleared, it behooves the gardener to have the soil tested to determine what they are working with. Cornell Cooperative Extension, currently operating out of the Long Island Research Extension Facility (3059 Sound Avenue, 727-3595) does a variety of soil and disease testing.

If you have already used this garden area, it’s always good to put down some fresh composted soil, which you can purchase or compost from your own gardens.

What are some plants that can be planted now or in the coming weeks?

Living in Upstate New York for 35 years, I celebrated the arrival of St. Patrick’s Day, because that’s when I could begin my garden. I started that day by planting my sweet peas. Now that I live in our wonderful Zone 7 area in Suffolk County, many other seeds can be planted outside without worry of frost.  These include, but are not limited to: spinach, lettuces, red radish and many seeds for flowers. 

Check the packets and they should indicate the timing for planting outdoors.

For someone who has never had a garden, what advice would you give them? What simple things can they do?

Beginners will be happy when they start slow, using plants that have been ‘hardened off” (the gradual process of getting the plants used to the temperature and lighting). Even if people don’t have a garden in the soil, there are so many ‘ready to use’ planters.  I love the pots and bags sold where a child can plant potato starters and then later in the season dump them out to find real full-size potatoes.

Patio tomatoes, peppers and herbs can be spread around a home’s deck, property or lawns.

If this pandemic continues into May, gardening with children will be a wonderful educational activity for parents with their kids. Planting seeds in cotton balls with tiny sprigs of green to give my mother for Mother’s Day was one of my favorite school activities. 

Is it easier or better to start with seeds or seedlings?

Definitely seedlings. Some seeds are rather tricky to get started, and if the weather continued to be hot then cold then hot, the beginning gardener would be frustrated if their efforts fail. The seasoned gardener knows this happens all the time, but the beginner might quit before they really should.

What are common mistakes people make when gardening?

Where do I begin? Too much water, too little water, too much fertilizer, the wrong kind.  Gardening is easy, but I learned when I completed my master gardener certification how little I know. Gardening is always changing — if it’s not new hybrids, it’s global warming, or just Mother Nature laughing at us.

Do you really need to fertilizer?

You don’t need chemicals, if that’s what you mean by fertilizer, but yet, all plants need food.  The more natural it is, and the more balanced the soil, the better they grow.  Compost, fish emulsion (I use my pond water), coffee grinds, eggshells and oyster shells (for calcium) is what I mean by natural. That said, less is more. We need to keep our waters and soil safe.  

What are some simple tips that can help people’s plants thrive?

You are going to laugh at this, but when I was in college and lived in an apartment, I had a record that was called Plant Music. I don’t play it any longer, but I do still talk to my plants, as I take a quiet walk around my yard to see what’s growing. 

Another important tip is that when in doubt, look online. The Cornell Cooperative Extension has an amazing wealth of information about vegetables, flowers, design, insects, soil and more.

Gardening may just be our best healer during this pandemic, and perhaps we should play the music LOUDER!

Gardening, I believe, is one of the best therapies that exists to get through these times of anxiety and fear. Work in the soil feeds our minds and bodies.

Due to coronavirus and work from home protocols, the horticulture diagnostic lab at the Cornell Cooperative Extension is currently closed to all person-to-person contact.
This includes a suspension of all soil, plant and insect samples. They are not currently in the office to receive phone calls. However we are still available via email: Alice [email protected] and Sandra: [email protected], and would love to receive photos and inquiries from homeowners regarding their plant or insect questions. Gardeners can also follow us on our Facebook page;