Lettuce Help (With Your Garden)
UMD Extension Experts Step Up Your Planting Prep
By David Kohn

This was the winter when we all learned what a polar vortex is—and what it feels like when it slams your toes and nose. But finally, finally, the sun is setting later, temperatures are rising (slowly) and it's time once again to get some dirt under your fingernails.

To maximize the potential of your spring and summer garden, start working now, say the experts at the University of Maryland Extension's Home and Garden Information Center. After all, the early bird gets the worm (or in this case, the bulky potatoes, tender peas and luscious roses).

Here are a few tips:

  • Before plants start sprouting, test your soil to find out if it needs nutrients, and whether it has proper pH—how acidic or basic it is. A lawn should have a pH of between 6 and 7. If it's too acidic, it may need treatment with lime; if it's too basic, it may need a dose of sulfur. Ria Malloy, a horticulturalist at the center, says that in Maryland, it is much more likely that your lawn will be acidic than too basic. The Home and Garden Information Center lists several testing labs; the cost is around $10 to $15.

  • This winter was especially rough on many gardens. Clear your garden of any debris, such as broken or damaged branches and stalks, as well as dead leaves and plants left from last year.


  • Touch up bare spots, but don't reseed your entire lawn. Save that and fertilizing for the fall.

  • Apply herbicides help prevent crabgrass from growing. Debbie Ricigliano, another horticulturalist with the center, recommends pendimethalin and dithiopyr.


  • Plant peas, potatoes and onions early. Let the soil dry first. Late frosts can harm other vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, so wait to plant those until later in the spring. "We generally say that after Mother's Day is a time to plant vegetables vulnerable to frost," says Malloy. If a late frost threatens, you can protect plants with a floating plant cover, a lightweight fabric that allows air and water to pass through. If you don't have that, you can use a lightweight blanket, newspaper, or an upside-down basket.

Trees and Shrubs

  • Add about an inch of compost to your soil. Malloy says the compost will improve drainage, and creates an environment that boosts nutrient levels. "It just improves the overall health of the soil," she says. Do not, however, create "mulch volcanoes" extending up the trunks of shrubs and trees. That keeps the bark damp and soft and makes it easier for insects, mice and voles to burrow in. Instead, leave a circle of unmulched soil an inch or two around the trunks.

  • Prune roses and other flowering plants that bloom in the summer. Cutting back on plants that flower in the spring, such as rhododendrons and forsythias, doesn't allow them time to recover, and as a result they won't bloom as beautifully.

Malloy, whose home garden includes spinach, lettuce, beets, garlic and tomatoes, says she is more excited than usual for the start of gardening season: "All the snow this year has only increased my anticipation for getting out there. We're all really ready."

Have more questions? Contact the University of Maryland Home and Garden Information Center at 800.342.2507 from 8 a.m.-1 p.m. weekdays or visit https://extension.umd.edu/hgic anytime.