Start Your Spring Gardening Early

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By Ashley M. Heher, AP Retail Writer

CHICAGO (AP) — So what if there was snow on the ground in 49 states this month? When it comes to your garden, it's time to think spring.

These tips for smart gardening will also save you some green.

STUDY UP AND USE SEEDS: Learn what grows best in your climate so you can do the right planting at the right time and build a garden with seeds instead of more expensive starter plants.

Do you want a lush lawn? Organic vegetables? Wildflowers indigenous to your area? Or do you prefer stately shrubbery? Make sure you're clear on when the last frost usually ends, how long various seeds take to germinate and what kind of care your plants will need.

Thinking ahead can also help you avoid an overhaul during the growing season.

"Planning is the key right now," says David Ellis, a spokesman for the American Horticultural Society.

For ideas and advice, check with your state university's agriculture extension office and area gardening clubs.

GROW DURING SNOW: Even if your backyard is still snow-covered, it's not too early to get your hands dirty, and green thumbs in the coldest regions can begin cultivating plants indoors. Meanwhile, in many parts of the south and west the growing season is already well under way.

Pick up a seed starter kit for about $15. Or, for as little as $30, buy seeds, containers, soil and a warming pad to help your seedlings get a head start before transferring them into the ground. Starting plants indoors is especially helpful if you're trying to grow food because it extends the growing season and improves your chances of having a bumper crop.

"The longer you have vegetables growing, the larger they're going to grow," says Johnny Rey, a landscaping expert at The Home Depot Inc.

PRUNE AND PREPARE: If the ground isn't too damp, late winter is a good time for general tidying and, in many climates, for pruning trees and shrubs. Take time to remove debris like broken branches felled by storms and to pull out winter weeds.

"In areas where the ground isn't too soft, you can do cleanup of beds that weren't cleaned up in the fall, prune perennials back to the ground and do some early weeding," Ellis says.

It's also a good time to study design ideas and measure your gardening plot if you're a first-timer or you want to add new beds to an established garden.

If grass is your goal, consider treating your lawn with what's known as a pre-emergent weed killer once temperatures settle into the 40s.

The herbicide comes in grain or liquid states and zaps weeds before they start sprouting.

"You want to get it down early because it keeps the weeds from popping up," says Rey. "You don't want to wait until it's 60 or 70 degrees, because your weeds are already germinating. You just haven't seen them yet."

SHOP AROUND: Employees at home improvement stores and nurseries know volumes about local growing conditions, but remember to shop for seeds and plants by mail or online too because those vendors may offer a bigger selection of plants at better prices.

Check Web sites for Spring Hill Nursery, Park Seed & Co., Burpee and others for help selecting plants and learning to care for your garden.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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