Dearest readers,

girl gardenerAh, spring is in the air. Well, sort of. We’re still technically about three weeks out, but our unusually unwintry weather here at Grist HQ seems to be duping buds into bloom and setting off an outbreak of early onset spring fever, which has, in turn, caused mulch, seedlings, watering, and weeding to infiltrate my thoughts. How I adore digging in the dirt — so much so that I dug through the archives for some especially delicious gardening advice from Ask Umbra columns past. Enjoy, and let me know what you’ll be planting in your spring garden in the comments section below.

  • An urbivore’s dilemma.
    For ye urban container gardeners, don’t sweat long-term soil buildup of city-dwelling airborne toxins so much as having them land on your plants. Three solutions proposed by the Cornell Horticulture program (and others) are: Locate your garden away from a heavily trafficked street, erect a fence or hedge as a shield, and wash vegetables. But in what, we all would like to know? In a 1 percent vinegar solution or a 0.5 percent dishwashing liquid solution (regular old vinegar, regular old dishwashing liquid). Get the full Ask Umbra answer.
  • Smother them with kindness.
    Embrace mulching to suppress weeds, improve the soil, and/or make an aesthetic statement around trees, shrubs, and other plants. You can mulch with wood chips, compost, bark, newspaper, straw, recently weeded plants, all sorts of handy matter. (Note, however, that mulches do vary in their nutritive properties.) Get the full Ask Umbra answer.
  • Weed out the worst ones.
    When it comes to weeds, the best defense is a good offense. All plants, including grass, have places where they thrive naturally — but lawns made purely of mowable grass are unnatural in most of the U.S. Plants growing in compacted soil and in unnatural conditions are unhealthy, and unhealthy plants are the first to be attacked by pests and weeds. The best prevention is natural lawn care: soil improvement, thatch removal, overseeding with locally appropriate grass, and appropriate watering. And if the weeds have already moved in, skip the toxic chemical herbicides to get rid of them and try this new-fangled technique: weeding! Get the full Ask Umbra answer.
  • What’s bugging you?
    Got pests? Step one is to figure out what kind of pest you’re dealing with. Look closely at the plant — you may actually see the pest in action. If not, note where the damage is happening — on all leaves, on the oldest leaves, on the stem, etc. Next, onto the web to investigate your plant’s condition. Then opt for a series of less-toxic interventions. These include habitat modification (killing the host plant, removing the places where pests nap, etc.), mechanical control (this includes squishing and picking off), barrier techniques (deer fence is an example), and less-toxic pest controls (ladybugs, for instance). Last resort would be the toxic interventions. Get the full Ask Umbra answer.
  • Psycho grass killer. Qu’est-ce que c’est?
    Live in a dryer climate and/or don’t want to deal with the hassle and waste of a large lawn? Kill it! Or more technically, xeriscape it. For befuddled readers, a xeriscape is a water-saving garden. Ditch the grass by digging it up with a garden fork, patiently waiting for sheet mulching to do the trick, or rototilling it like nobody’s business (getting a pretty hefty workout in the process). Get the full Ask Umbra answer.

Fertilely,
Umbra