Jump-Start Your Garden
If your green thumb is restless, there is plenty you can do to get a head start on the gardening season.
Late winter is hard on a gardener! You've had a break from outdoor work and enjoyed the holidays. Now, your green thumb is itching, even though the days are still short, and the garden is not yet awake.
Luckily, there are plenty of things you can do to get started on the upcoming growing season, projects large and small that will make you feel proactive in the backyard. Best of all, a little work now will save you time and effort later.
Before you go charging off, some words of advice—pace yourself. Your garden emerges slowly from its winter rest and, in order to keep pace with it, so should you. Do a few things each week, and soon enough, spring will be here. And you'll not only be ready, you'll be ahead of the game and organized while others are racing around garden centers at a frantic pace!
To get you started, here are 10 things you can do for your garden in late winter and early spring, tasks that are both satisfying for you and safe for your plants. They're in chronological order, so you can begin at the top of the list right away and work your way down. By then, the tulips will be ready to bloom!
#1: TUNE-UP YOUR TOOLS
Description: Most of us take our garden tools—from shovels and hoes to clippers and loppers—for granted, but the fact is that dirty blades and dull edges diminish their usefulness and make our chores twice as difficult. If you're guilty of neglecting your tools (or if you put them away without a drop of maintenance last fall), take some time now to get them back into tip-top operating condition.
What to do: Start with a good cleaning. A damp rag may be all that's needed to get off last season's encrusted dirt, or you may need to soak off or chip away at caked-on crud.
After that, you're not done...the next step is to sand off rust spots (use sandpaper or steel wool) and wipe the blades down with a soft oil-soaked rag. Vegetable oil from the kitchen is fine. Some people swear by linseed oil, which is also nice for burnishing wooden handles, making them look good as new.
Beyond that, bolts may need tightening and edges may need sharpening. Most garden tools have single-bevel edges. To sharpen them yourself, use a 10-inch single-cut file (above). Clamp smaller tools in a vise so they don't wiggle while you work. Or take your garden tools to a professional sharpening service...it's not likely to be too expensive, the job will be done right, and you'll be ready to go when the garden comes alive.
#2: INSPECT FOR WINTER DAMAGE
Description: Ice and snow can damage your trees, shrubs and rosebushes by causing branches to snap. Severe cold weather can also harm your plants, partially or completely killing branches.
What to do: If a branch or limb is obviously dead—snapped or otherwise damaged, dry or blackened—you may clip or saw it off at any time. Be sure to make cuts flush with the branch bark collar near the base. It's one of the earliest tasks you can do in the garden, sprucing things up for the spring to come.
If you are not sure if a branch is dead, be patient. It's best to wait a few more weeks. A dormant limb can look dead but still have life in it.
#3: GRADUALLY REMOVE MULCH FROM FLOWER BEDS
Description: Perhaps you laid down compost, straw, salt-marsh hay or some other organic mulch last fall. This made a protective blanket for your plants, especially for marginally cold-hardy perennials. Mulching like this is a perennial saver, especially in areas with cold winters that lack a blanket of insulating snow.
At this time of year, the weather can be variable and temperature swings can still cause harm to treasured plants, so don't be hasty.
What to do: If more chilly weather is still expected, hold back and leave the mulch on a bit longer, until the temperatures are hovering around freezing, even if the plants below have started to show growth. When you do remove it, use your hands, a rake or a leaf blower.
#4: TIDY UP PERENNIAL BEDS
Description: Early spring is not the most beautiful time in the perennial bed. In fact, it may be looking a bit bedraggled, especially if you didn't get around to cutting back the plants in fall.
But that's okay. Research has shown it's better for hardiness if plants aren't trimmed back until after winter. Plus, lots of backyard wildlife rely on seed heads or the protective cover plants provide in winter. And with certain sedums and ornamental grasses, it's just fun to see their flowering stems covered with a jaunty cap of snow. But clean-up is now in order.
What to do: Once the mulch layer has been removed, go into the garden with a pair of clippers. Tread carefully, though—if the ground is still semi-frozen or saturated with water, your footsteps can compact the soil, which isn't good. (It denies the reawakening plants the oxygen they need in the soil.)
Try placing a plank where you will walk or kneel to distribute your weight more evenly. Better yet, wait until the soil is drier. Cut all dead stalks down to the ground or crown of the plant.
You may be heartened to observe that new growth is starting to emerge. This is another reason to groom the perennial bed now, early in the season. It can be a real chore to extract dead stalks from a tangle of taller living ones in a few weeks.
#5: SPREAD COMPOST
Description: Compost, whether store-bought or homemade, is always beneficial for your garden, especially early in the season. Because compost is sometimes still decomposing, it generates some heat, a hedge against springtime's temperature swings.
It also helps prevent compaction when drenching rains pound your soil, and helps smother early emerging weeds. Plus, as it breaks down, it contributes texture and nutrition to your soil.
What to do: Use a bucket and trowel or a wheelbarrow and shovel, depending on the size of your garden bed. Choose a pleasant day with no rain or wind in the forecast and sprinkle compost over the garden to a depth of 1 to 3 inches. Be careful not to bury emerging perennials or spring-flowering bulbs.
If it's a new or unplanted bed, you can follow up by digging or rototilling the compost a few inches into the ground.
#6: PRUNE TREES AND SHRUBS
Description: Deciduous plants have been dormant all winter and are just now waking up. Root growth is resuming, buds are swelling, and new stems and leaves are being generated. This is, therefore, an ideal time to groom the plants—they're full of energy and will readily "bounce back" from any trimming.
What to do: Get busy before leaves emerge. Use sharp clippers or loppers (remember Step 1?) to cut out all dead, diseased and damaged branches, as well as any suckers or shoots at the base of the plant. Next, remove branches that upset the symmetry and appearance of the plant. Finally, thin out branches that are growing too densely or crossing others.
#7: MOVE AND DIVIDE PERENNIALS
Description: During the time when plants are still dormant, or just starting to unfurl leaves and flowers, most are easy to move. Wait too long, and overgrown plants are difficult to divide and move. As the soil and air continues to warm up and the days get longer, the transplants will quickly "get their legs under them", and you and your back will be glad you made your move at the right time.
What to do: Always begin by deciding where a plant or division is going to move to, and get that spot ready in advance. Dig a hole, improve the soil and have the hose or a watering can handy. Then, working quickly, dig up the plant, taking the biggest possible root ball. Divide it into substantial sections if you are making divisions with a sharp clean tool (shovel, trowel or knife). Transfer it to its new spot, setting it in the ground at the same level it was growing at before. Backfill and water well.
Description: A little nudge from plant food is not harmful and can make the difference between an average performance and a spectacular one, especially with flowering perennials, shrubs and roses. It's important, however, to choose the right fertilizer and not to overdose your plants. A soil test will help determine exactly what nutrients are needed, as well as how much.
What to do: An ordinary well-balanced fertilizer (formulation 5-10-5 or 5-10-10) will do for the majority of garden plants in most areas. And remember, too much—as with aspirin—is not a good thing. Always follow the application rates on the label directions.
Plant food can be sprinkled on the ground around the base of your plants or scratched in lightly with a trowel or rake. It's important, unless steady rain is predicted, to water right after fertilizing so the nutrients can soak in, reach the plant roots and be taken up and used.
#9: ADD BARE-ROOT PLANTS
Description: Many garden centers and mail-order nurseries offer bare-root plants early every spring. If you have not tried these, you may feel dubious as you look at the straggly roots and the lack of top growth. (This is no cause for alarm, though—last year's growth was clipped off, and this year's will soon surge into sight.)
Unlike greened-up and growing plants, bareroot ones can be planted early in the season because they're dormant. Transplant trauma is not an issue, so you can plant them in cool soil and let them emerge from dormancy at a natural gradual rate as the growing season ramps up.
What to do: Inspect a bare-root plant carefully, and remove any obviously dead (blackened or wiry) roots. Soak the roots for a few hours or overnight in lukewarm water to help them plump up. Plant as soon as the soil is workable (that is, not semi-frozen or soggy). Though bare-root plants may look small to start, always allow ample elbowroom based on information you have about their mature size.
#10: PREPARE CONTAINERS
Description: Potted plants are always a garden asset, whether they are spots of colorful flowers for the patio or deck, herbs to keep close at hand or tender exotic plants that you enjoy having around. Because containers are not cheap, and larger ones are always worth saving, chances are you have some empty ones lying around. Why not have them ready to go, so you can plant them the moment garden fever hits?
What to do: Begin by scraping out any lingering residue, whether old potting soil or roots from last resident. Soak very dirty ones in a tub, or scrub them out with a sponge or piece of steel wool. Then sanitize them for pests and diseases invisible to the eye with a mild bleach solution. The best way to do this is to rinse them, inside and out, with a bleach-and-water mixture (1 part bleach to 10 parts water is fine). Let them air-dry afterward.