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Ask the Gardener: What you should be doing now in your garden

Ask the Expert
Hydrangea-in-Bloom-Adobe-Stock
Sprinkle calcitic garden lime around hydrangeas. Adobe Stock

What to do this week: Get your mower and cutting tools sharpened and your power tools serviced. Inventory what materials you already have and what you’ll need. Line up landscape and tree care help. Start cutting down the dead tops of ornamental grasses and perennials such as hellebores to make room for new shoots. Cut out raspberry canes that fruited last year. Prune back vines, including three-quarters of new grapevine canes, leaving the darker-peeling old wood. Don’t fertilize lawns until the fall to prevent water pollution from nitrogen run-off. However, this is a good time to patch lawns with a high quality mixed grass seed, as spring rains will help it sprout. Rake it in using a springy type of rake along with a quarter inch of compost, which will benefit both old and new grass. Collect fallen limbs from trees and prune broken ones. Get a burn permit from your town. Sprinkle calcitic garden lime around hydrangeas, lilacs, roses, bulbs, and your vegetable bed. At the same time, you can also scatter a slow-release fertilizer around plantings. (All organic fertilizer is “slow release.’’) Sow peas, beets, radish, spinach, lettuce, Swiss chard, kale, and other frost-resistant vegetables outdoors. Start more seeds of tender summer flowers and vegetables, such as tomatoes and peppers, indoors. Don’t fertilize seeds in their first month, and use a soil-less mixture to start seeds indoors.

Q. I enjoy your column. I have always been plagued by cabbage moths attacking my kale plants. I have been reluctant to use chemicals. I have tried a soapy water spray but not much else. I usually have about 75 plants that I can harvest even into the first snow.

D.B., Westwood

A. There are a lot more organic defenses to try: Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), netting, diatomaceous earth, and many homemade blender sprays of various combinations of garlic and/or garlic oil, spearmint, onion, horseradish, hot pepper, and/or citris rinds — all ground and whirred with liquid soap to help the concoction stick. Many organic gardeners have a blender dedicated to homemade tonics for their garden. (You wouldn’t really want to have all these leftover scents infusing your margaritas.) Cabbage moths produce inch-long green caterpillars that eat cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, bok choy, and kale. The insects winter over in the soil, so rotate these crops to a new part of the garden each year, and turn over the garden soil where you last grew them to expose the dormant pupae to the killing cold each spring or fall. You can spray Bt as soon as you see the white moths flying, and continue to spray weekly until they are gone. This is an organic bacterial pathogen safe for plants, humans, and beneficial insects. Speaking of which, yellow jackets love to eat cabbage worms, so try to coexist with the nests they build in trees and old chipmunk holes.

Book recommendation: “The Garden Tourist: 120 Destination Gardens and Nurseries in the Northeast,’’ by Jana Milbocker. The time for shopping rare plant nurseries during actual planting season (April-June) and visiting public gardens during peak bloom (May-July) is brief. So it pays to make a geographic battle plan in advance, or you’ll find yourself at the right place at the wrong time. I keep a copy of this handy guidebook in my glove compartment so I can drop by far-flung gardens when I’m out of town. It covers New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, as well as New England. Milbocker is the owner of Enchanted Gardens, a landscape design firm in Metro West. The book costs $21.95 at enchantedgardensdesign.com.

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