Is spring looking promising in your neck of the woods? The warmer, longer, sunny days always make me itch to get into my gardens. Just when can you start spring gardening? Keep reading!
Use Caution when Spring Gardening!
It is still (at least it is here) early to get into the gardens to clean them out as many (most) hardy perennials and shrubs are still dormant. I know it is tempting when you start seeing green shoots, but hold off a bit. At least until the soil is not mushy.
The same cautionary rule applies to your lawn. If the snow is gone, wait until it is no longer squishy to walk on before raking, aerating, top dressing etc. I have been aerating in the fall for the past few years, so I am one step ahead.
You also should beware of overwintering bees and other beneficial insects. Gardening too early will disturb them before they are ready to come out of their cozy spots under the debris in your gardens.
Also be on the lookout for nests belonging to our fine feathered friends. Spring is nest and baby season for birds. If you discover one being used, avoid it for a while, until babies have left.
Rabbits have their babies in burrows or holes in the ground in a protected area. I came across one a few years ago when weeding a client’s garden. I was pulling weeds when I spotted movement. The only way I could distinguish that they were baby rabbits was by their big feet. They had no hair yet. I replaced the weeds to protect them and moved on to another area of the garden.
Include Pruning in Spring Gardening
You can prune trees now, in fact, this is the best time to do so, before the leaves come out. Pruning is done for several reasons, even cosmetic ones.
It is much easier to see the “bone structure” of your trees before they leaf out, so pruning shade trees like oak and maples now, while they are still dormant, is perfect timing. Trees and shrubs always look nicer and tidier when shaped properly and not overgrown. Now is the time to do this, before new growth begins blurring the shape. This is especially true if you feel bad cutting out perfectly healthy branches. Pruning to enhance the shape will encourage and stimulate new growth in spring, which is when you want to encourage new growth. Pruning in fall, however, encourages growth when future cold weather could kill it off.
To shape or control size, cut back one-quarter of old stems to where they meet the central branch or right back to the ground if need be. Then cut all remaining stems back to one-half their length. If new growth shoots up too quickly and gets out of shape in summer, cut off the tips.
Boxwoods, yews, holly, and other evergreen shrubs should be trimmed now, while dormant, and before new growth appears. Spruce and firs can be trimmed back now, but pruning pines should wait until June or July, after their first growth of what are called candles (new shoots at the tips). No earlier and no later. With pines, prune (delay growth) by cutting back the candles by half or remove dead, diseased, broken (or unwanted lower) branches to their main stem.
If removing the lower branches of evergreens in your landscape is something you have been considering, now is the time to do so. This is a great way to drastically change your landscape and even improve the condition of your lawn that tries to grow under them.
Overgrown Shrubs and Trees
Overgrown shrubs and trees also benefit from drastic rejuvenation this time of year. Again, this is because the new growth that will be stimulated has a better chance of survival heading into spring rather than winter. I have had particular success drastically cutting back overgrown dappled willows and forsythia in my business. Even though forsythia is on the list of shrubs not to trim back early, this one was so overgrown my client just wanted it reduced in size, willing to sacrifice the blooms that year.
Dead or Diseased Branches
Although it may be difficult to determine if branches are dead or diseased yet, you can mark any suspicious ones for pruning later if this is the case. There is no wrong time to remove dead or diseased branches. Dead, broken, diseased, or crossing/rubbing branches can be cut back at any time during the year. This applies to trees and shrubs. Cut right to the next branch, without leaving a stub.
Crossing or Rubbing Branches
In the case of crossing or rubbing branches, decide which of the crossing branches lends best to the overall shape of the tree or shrub and remove the other. Keep in mind branches should grow upwards and outwards for optimal shape. Heavy snowfalls and winter winds can snap even the healthiest of branches. These broken branches should be removed for aesthetic purposes as well as for the continued health of the tree or shrub.
What Not to Prune in Early Spring
The general rule of thumb is “if it blooms before June, prune after flowering. If it blooms after June, prune in spring.” That is because spring bloomers do so on older (last year’s) wood, while later flowers come from new (spring-generated) wood.
That means do not prune anything that blooms early, like lilacs or forsythia, as you will cut off the spring blossoms.
Use a good quality, sharp set of loppers to prune branches. This is one of those times it pays to purchase quality. Choose a set you can handle, as some are quite heavy, and create a workout for your arms. If cut branches are diseased, wipe the lopper blades with disinfectant (rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide) between cuts.
Cut Back Ornamental Grasses and Perennial Stalks
You can and should cut back ornamental grasses that were left tall for the winter. By now they look weather-beaten anyway. Cut them back to 4 to 6 inches from the ground before new growth appears. This will ensure the tender new green shoots (when they appear) won’t have to compete with the dead and crispy brown ones. Cut them back as soon as you can get to them, even if you have to wade through some lingering snow.
Use a sharp pair of garden shears to make the job of cutting back the ornamental grasses much easier.
This pruning also applies to other perennials you left over the winter. Bird lovers often leave seed heads and pods for their fine feathered friends to snack on. Some leave perennial stalks for their beauty when covered in snow or some variation in an otherwise bleak-looking winter garden. For whatever reason you have left yours intact, now is the time to cut (snap off) the brown and crispy stalks down to ground level.
Give tufted grasses (blue fescue, sedges, blue oat grass etc) a haircut, shearing back to approximately 3 inches from the ground, removing any loose and dry foliage.
Remove only the old large leaves and stems from semi-evergreen perennials such as heuchera and hellebores, leaving small leaves at the plant center intact.
Cut back woody perennials such as artemsia, salvia, russian sage, and lavender to 6 inches from their base.
Trim most roses (except for shrub type that bloom only once; wait until after they have bloomed), as well as sand cherries, spirea, dogwoods, smokebushes, burning bushes, euonymus, and some hydrangeas (PG type only, the rest should wait until summer)
Get Ahead of Crabgrass
If crabgrass is making an appearance on your lawn, treat it quickly! As soon as the snow is gone crabgrass germinates, so the earlier you get to it the better. The snow is always gone from my south-facing lawn first, so I have to get on the crabgrass now. You can recognize the sprouts as they are bright green in an otherwise drab lawn, and whorled like spokes on a wheel.
I have tried corn gluten, a preemergent, with varying results; the biggest problem is finding it in the stores so early. Scotts has a product out with good reviews for treating crabgrass. I have yet to try it.
This year I poured boiling water on the germinating sprouts, will let you know how that works.
Disinfect Tools and Pots with Hydrogen Peroxide
Hydrogen peroxide is an environmentally friendly alternative to bleach for cleaning and disinfecting in the garden.
If you use containers on your patio, deck or in your gardens, a warm sunny day is a great time to clean them out. Empty them by dumping the soil into a large garbage can or bucket. Add some peat moss and compost to the bucket, and stir it up. This soil can now be used for your containers this summer. Rinse out the containers and spray with undiluted 3% hydrogen peroxide to disinfect them. Let the pots sit in the hydrogen peroxide for at least ten minutes. Rinse again, then fill them with new soil so they are ready to fill with annuals when your last frost date arrives.
If you intend to fill any containers with perennials (I have some with ornamental grasses in them) you can do that now. Contact your local nurseries to see what they have available, my favourite here is Ritchie Feed & Seed.
Hydrogen peroxide is also an effective way to clean your tools. Spray or soak them, let them sit for a minimum of ten minutes, then rinse and dry.
Change up Your Outdoor Decor
Remove your winter arrangements (the evergreens that are not so green anymore) and replace them with harbingers of spring. Nothing says spring like pussy willows (I saw some at Farm Boy yesterday) or forsythia branches!
Start Some Seeds
Non-hardy seeds should be started at least six weeks before your last frost date, so this is a great time to get them going. I have learned a few tips over the winter regarding seedlings. Stay tuned for a future post on that subject, coming soon.
Plan and Dream
This is also a great time of year to plan. Make a list of things you want to do, even if they seem far-fetched. Sometimes dreams become reality!
While it is still too early to really get started, there are a few things you can do to scratch that gardening itch.