Gardening: When to hit the dirt? It’s a gamble

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

This is a frustrating time of year for anyone who digs in the dirt. When the weather climbs into the 60s during the day, the gardening juices flow and the urge to get out in the yard and garden is almost overwhelming. Problem is, the temperatures often drop down in the 20s and bring snow and freezing rain at night, so removing protective mulch and cutting back dead foliage exposes tender growth to killing frost.

If you’re fertilizing your lawn this spring you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck if you wait until the soil temperatures reach 50-65 degrees and the grass is actively growing. Fertilize now using water-soluble fertilizer and you may be wasting your money. Spring rains often wash away most of those nutrients long before the grass roots can make use of them.

Crabgrass starts to germinate at 57 degrees, but the pre-emergent should be in place prior to the seed sprouting, so put it down when the soil temperatures reach 55 degrees. The blooming of the brilliant yellow forsythia shrubs and the emergence of the red bud blossoms are also said to indicate crabgrass will soon germinate so these events can help you with the timing.

Soil thermometers, available at garden centers, are usually priced around $10. To measure the soil temperature, make a hole in the ground about an inch deep with a screwdriver. Be sure the soil is touching the thermometer and leave it in place for a couple of minutes. Do this in several spots in the area you plan to plant or fertilize in as temperatures can vary from one place to another.

Seeds germinate at various temperatures, so it’s best to check their individual needs before planting. Gardening can be a lot like playing the stock market. Timing is key.

While waiting for the soil to warm, pansies, primroses and hellebores can take the cold weather and make delightful porch pots.

Appearances: Join me and celebrate the arrival of spring at English Gardens’ Garden Party Weekend. Saturday at 10 a.m., I will talk about my secrets to growing the best garden ever at English Gardens in Dearborn Heights. At 1 p.m., I will be at the Royal Oak English Gardens, and at 4 p.m. I will speak at the West Bloomfield store.

At 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, I will speak at the Clinton Township English Gardens, and at 2:30 I will be at Eastpoint. All programs are free. For addresses and information check the English Gardens website:

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at detroitnewscom/homestyle.