March 3, 2024

What to Plant (and When) This Spring

Experts share tips for successful spring gardening and landscaping
By Rachel Pasche | April 22, 2023

Spring is the time for those of us with green thumbs to break out our trowels and take a trip to our local garden store. But sometimes all those little green shoots in their starter pots can be overwhelming. Which native plants offer the same beauty as popular perennials? When should you opt for planting trees? What’s the trick to growing fruits and veggies? And how do you know when the moment arrives to put everything in the ground? We spoke with a few local gardens and nurseries to get some expert input and gardening know-how.

Opting for Native Plants

For every garden or landscaping situation (sun, shade, dry soils, wet soils) in northern Michigan, there are dozens of native plant species to choose from that can thrive in each particular setting, providing colorful blooms and supporting native pollinators, songbirds, and other critical wildlife. Because native plants are adapted to our local landscape and climate, they require much less maintenance and watering than most non-native options.

Bonus: Native plants are also often less expensive. Garrett Noyes of Birdsfoot Native Nursery in South Boardman tells Northern Express, “Due to a lower cost per plant, native plants are a great budget-friendly option for installing a garden.”

To provide the most benefit to pollinators and other wildlife, Noyes suggests “buying ‘straight species’ native plants, rather than cultivars. Cultivars have been selectively bred by the horticulture industry for characteristics not found in the true native—different color blooms, plant size, bloom time—often compromising the ecosystem services that plants can provide to pollinators and other wildlife.”

In terms of what to plant, Anna Ohler of Bright Lane Gardens in Lake Ann has some good suggestions for plants to substitute for popular landscaping blooms that can wreak havoc on our local ecosystems. She suggests winterberry holly instead of Japanese barberry; bearberry instead of myrtle or periwinkle; and creeping thyme instead of creeping Jenny. These small changes are an easy way to make your landscaping better suited for the ecosystems of northern Michigan.

Some species also tend to grow better than others in our local climate and terrains. If you want to get a jump-start on your outdoor space and not wait several years for the payoff, Noyes offers some recommendations for quick-growing plants: 

“For dry, sunny gardens: butterfly weed, blazingstars, black eyed Susan, harebell, horsemint, coreopsis, New Jersey tea, little bluestem, and showy goldenrod. For shade: foxglove beardtongue, columbine, wood violet, wild strawberry, and foamflower. For shorelines and wet soils: Joe Pye weed, swamp milkweed, wild blue iris, meadowsweet, and dogwoods.”

Jen Sheperd of Garden Goods in Traverse City recommends planting milkweed for the monarch butterfly population, plus dill and parsley for swallowtails. “Viburnum is great for birds, as it blooms in the spring and gets berries later in the fall that the birds can eat,” she adds.

Spring is a popular time for planting native plants, but can come with a few challenges. Noyes explains, “While native species are generally hardy, if you are planting young plants, they can be susceptible to hard frosts in the spring. It’s best to wait until the danger of frost has passed, or to be prepared to cover your plants at night. As we often go from spring straight into hot, dry summer weather, plants installed in spring will need to be watered regularly during their first growing season. Most natives are very drought-tolerant after they have become established.”

Planting Trees

Like native plants, trees are a beneficial addition to most landscapes, as they provide necessary shade as well as habitat for a large number of animal, insect, and bird species. Trees can also be a primary focal point of your landscape, adding depth and height in contrast to smaller plants and ornamental grasses. 

“The right tree(s) can really add a lot of beauty and functionality to your yard when they are appropriately planned out,” says Ohler. 

When considering adding trees to your landscaping, you should first select a mix of species (two to three varieties) and research their attributes. 

Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources MSU Extension website (canr.msu.edu/outreach) has plenty of helpful resources for curious minds. On their list of trees and shrubs that do well Up North are red and sugar maples, oaks, hornbeam, basswood, hickory, tamarack, eastern red cedar, eastern white pine, and black spruce.

Once you’ve selected a few trees that match your needs and to fit the style you’re looking for, you’ll want to make sure you don’t plant them too close to your home—leave at least 15-20 feet from the house—or over your septic field. Be sure to water your new trees consistently in their first year, and consider creating barriers to hungry wildlife like deer that may see your tree as a snack.

In fact, deer can be a massive source of headaches to growers; they’ll graze on many native and non-native plants alike, posing a huge issue for the growth and health of your plants.

Ohler has a few tricks, which include planting deer-resistant plants, such as “nodding onion, spiderwort, and bee balm. Another option is to use scare tactics, like motion-activated sprinklers, motion-activated lights, and hanging shiny objects—like CDs or chimes—from trees; the motion and sound can be enough to scare a deer away.”

Growing Food

Speaking of trees, northern Michigan boasts weather and soil quality that allows for multiple varieties of fruit trees and bushes to grow well. Apple and cherry trees are popular options, of course, but they do require ample room, pruning, and care in order to grow properly.

For those new to growing fruit, Ohler recommends blueberries or raspberries, as “both of these berries grow on bushes or shrubs and will maintain a smaller footprint than a fruit tree. There are also container-friendly varieties of both blueberries and raspberries, making it easy for someone with less space or lack of yard to be able to grow their own fruit.”

Once the soil is soft enough to dig, you can plant a bare-root, dormant plant (such as a fruit bush), according to Ohler. They will come out of dormancy once the weather is warmer. 

More of a veggie person? A lot of vegetables thrive during our summer months but can be hit hard by cold temps. MSU Extension notes that “Cool-season vegetables such as lettuce, peas and spinach will thrive early in the season. Tomatoes, peppers and melons will perform best when air and soil temperatures are much warmer.”

The rule of thumb for starting with seeds indoors is six to eight weeks before the normal last frost date—which is May 1-15 in our neck of the woods—so that means it’s time to hop to it! Meanwhile, garden centers usually start offering veggie starts in late April, saving you a few steps in the process. Just be sure to keep all your little plants inside and/or protected until the weather is stable enough to keep their fragile shoots warm.

“If you’re planting seedlings and young plants, you’ll want to wait until the threat of frost is over,” Ohler says. “I would love to say Mother’s Day, but we did get snow on our first Mother’s Day weekend that we were open in 2020, so a few weeks after Mother’s Day is likely safest. If you do plant seedlings in the ground and we get a frost warning, you can typically save the plants by covering them with a light sheet of plastic or cloth.”

Beyond what’s edible for you, also think about what your wild friends might like to eat. “I love adding hanging baskets of fuchsia to bring in the hummingbirds,” Sheperd of Garden Goods says. “Planting for the types of wildlife you want to encourage is a great way to get more enjoyment out of your garden.”

She adds that it’s important to have a variety of plants in your garden, like perennials and annuals, and that planting for your space is a good way to ensure you get the best yield, which means being aware of the amount of sunlight and water your plants will receive. 

Last but not least, Noyes of Birdsfoot Native Nursery says gardeners should educate themselves on other threats at play in the growing season. “Increasing development, pesticide and herbicide use, as well climate concerns all pose a threat to the health of our local and regional ecosystems,” he says.

He restates the importance of native plants, which are “the foundation of a healthy, functioning ecosystem, providing food for hundreds of species of butterflies, moths, native bees, and other insects, which are critical food sources for nesting songbirds and other wildlife.”

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