One Cold Day in March

Carol Brashear, Woodbury, Connecticut
   Had enough of winter? The snow has melted but it’s not quite warm enough, nor the soil quite dry enough to get out there and start digging in the dirt. However, just one cold day in March can get you started on a gardening season that will make for bigger hostas, fewer slugs and almost no weeds. Sound like something you might be interested in?  Read on!
   To equip yourself for this single day, you will need a few supplies:

>  Bags of 10-10-10 fertilizer, the cheaper the better, enough to broadcast over the   bare ground of all your beds, however many there are.

>  A bag of rain proof slug pellets, like Deadline MP.

> A jug of liquid preemergent weed killer such as Surflan or Oryzalyn. Or for smaller areas, dry Preen or Treflan, the same product in dry form.

   A few simple pieces of equipment will help too:

>  Any kind of bucket with a handle and a belt to hold the bucket over your shoulder.

>  A handheld whirlybird seed spreader.

A rechargeable or hand pump sprayer  

   What drives this day is timing. We are all familiar with the phrase “Timing is everything.” As this applies to one cold day in March, two of the three products used are timing driven. Since the third item is also best applied before hostas unfurl, the three items are applied all in the same day.
   Of the three, the one item that really drives this timing is the weed control-the application of Surflan or Oryzalyn or Preen. This product has its greatest effect if applied before forsythia blooms – as long as there are no earlier warm (60F+) spells. The beauty of this guideline is that it takes into account the weather conditions and zone where you live, no matter the time of year, rather than relying on a specific date. If an earlier warm spell is in the cards, you want to apply before it warms the ground too much and starts the weed seeds going.

   What the weed control product does is prevent the germination of weed seeds. Application of this product after the germination has begun is far less effective and probably not worth the expense. If you see tiny two-leaf weed seedlings, it is too late.
   The second product that we have found to be most effective, if used prior to hostas emerging, is slug control pellets. Over the years our experience has proven that if you can get your first slug control product down before their food supply emerges, you can attract the few hungry slugs that have lived through the winter and eliminate them. It follows that if you eliminate these survivors from the population, you will stop their laying eggs and thousands more additions to the slug population in your garden. Slug eggs also winter over, and a second application will be necessary in a couple months or so to deal with them.
   The third product we put down this day is a basic balanced pelletized fertilizer, the cheaper the better. Doing this before the foliage unfurls eliminates the product getting caught in and burning the leaves and eliminates the extra work of careful application around each plant so as not to get it on the leaves. 
   Start with a ground area clear of all leaves and debris. Fall clean up is best, but if you missed that, clear the way!

Weed Control

   We start with a motorized back pack sprayer, but any pump sprayer would work. What will ultimately make sense for you will depend largely on the size of the property you have in cultivated beds. We have just under ½ acre under cultivation. The back pack sprayer we use was purchased in an online auction at a greatly reduced price, out of season. It runs on a small rechargeable battery and holds 4 gallons of liquid on a full load, but as the day grinds on, we can fill it with only 2 gallons if we choose.
   According to the label of the product we use, we need to apply 3 oz. of product per 1000 sq feet for control of 4 – 8 months. We calibrated our sprayer by filling the tank with just 1 gallon water, marking off our driveway with a section 20 feet wide by 50 feet long and measuring and setting the sprayer to put that gallon of water down on that 1000 sq ft area. This we practiced a few times to pace our application rate. We then mixed 3 oz. of product with 1 gallon of water to get 3 oz per 1000 sq. ft. as the label directed.
   We treat approximately 20,000 square feet and use about a gallon of liquid pre-emergent, at the current price of about $70.00 US. The product we use is brightly tinted with something like orange tempera paint so that it is easy to see where the product has been applied as it is being done. We also try to time the application just prior to a light spring rain that will soak in the product without washing it away. It does need to be watered in, but too heavy a rain will make it less effective. This can get tricky, so if a dry spell is leading up to the flowering of the forsythia, we apply and water it in ourselves.
   The only prerequisite to this product application is bare ground. Here in CT, fall leaf clean up is essential so that as soon as the snow cover melts we can get out there and start spraying without having to first clear any leaf debris. Weed control is done for the summer season!

Swelling forsythia buds- apply soon!

Orange dye shows where you've been

Treated in foreground - untreated in back


   Next, we apply a balanced 10-10-10-type pelletized fertilizer. We find the cheapest stuff we can. One year 14-14-14 was the cheapest, so that is what we applied. You are looking for a basic,  general fertilizer, just as a boost to the tired soil. For this, we take a 5 gallon bucket with a handle and a sturdy belt. Loop the belt through the bucket handle and adjust it to a comfortable position for reaching into the bucket. Don a set of vinyl gloves and off you go, to just do a simple broadcast method of fertilizing. Before anything is up, you can hit everything without worry of any lodging in the base of leaves and causing burn. This is a wonderful welcome for your hosta plants to come up into fertile soil and get a great start for the season. Hostas don’t "need" much food, but if they come up into dry used-up soil, they will be smaller and have to work harder to get started.

Slug Control 

  The secret here is to get it down early. Just as the snow has melted and no plant “food” is up, slugs are hungry. The few that have wintered over are ready to grab a bite and lay some thousands of eggs. Getting slug bait down early will kill most of this population and stop the next generation from even showing up!
   We have found the best product for our use is a metaldehyde pellet that resists rain deterioration. A brand we like is the professional product Deadline MP. It contains a bad-tasting ingredient called Bitrex, so that most pets will not eat it. Some dogs have been known to eat it anyway, so they must be watched carefully while they are in treated areas. This is a poison and should be stored and treated as such, as the biggest danger to pets is their getting into the bag.
   The rate of application for this is only 3 small pellets per foot, so picture an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper and only 3 small grains of rice on that paper. To achieve this with ease, we use a hand-held broadcast spreader. The Scott’s model we have is set to #2. We march around the entire property with 2 hoppers of product, hitting every bed and the lawn as well and in less than 30 minutes we are finished. Slug control is then finished until early May when another application is needed to get rid of the new ones that have hatched from fall-laid eggs that survived the winter. After both of these applications a little spot control may still be necessary.
   The iron phosphate baits are also popular and effective, but a little more expensive. These, despite the “safe for children, pets, and wildlife” advertising are also poisonous and should be handled and, more importantly, stored with the same care as the metaldehyde baits. The "bait" component of these will attract your pets and wildlife as much as it will attract slugs. Always be careful with any poisons.

Our slug bait choice...

...and how we apply it

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