Late winter is hard on a gardener. Your green thumb is twitching, but the days still are short and the garden is far from ready for planting. My advice: Get started! “Stage-setting” late winter/early spring tasks will make all the difference when it comes time to plant (and beyond). But it’s important not to act too soon or improperly—you could damage your plants, the soil or your yard’s good appearance…
FIRST TASK: SPRUCE UP YOUR TOOLS
Why it matters: Dirty blades, loose bolts and dull edges make garden tools less useful and make chores more difficult—even dangerous.
Mistake: If tools are dirty, don’t force off or chip off caked-on crud. That can gouge a tool surface—and might strain your hand, wrist or arm in the process.
What to do instead: Wipe down each tool with a damp rag. Still dirty? Immerse it in a bucket of lukewarm water for an hour or more. This may reveal still-persistent crud or rust spots—sand these off or scrub with steel wool. Then wipe blades with a soft, oil-soaked rag. Some people swear by linseed oil, but vegetable oil from the kitchen will do just fine, honestly. Burnish wooden handles with the oily cloth, too. Check bolts on loppers and clippers, and tighten loose ones with a wrench.
Make sure all edges are sharp. A dull pruner, for example, will mash stems rather than slicing them. Not pretty or healthy. Clamp a dull tool in a vise so it won’t wiggle while you work. Then use a 10-inch single-cut file—the kind with a single set of parallel diagonal lines—to patiently, neatly restore the original factory bevel. Or ask at your local garden or hardware store about professional sharpening—usually about $10 a tool.
REPAIR WINTER-DAMAGED SHRUBS AND TREES
Why it matters: Snow and ice can snap off branches, and extreme cold can kill branches, too. To improve your garden’s looks and health, prune branches with damaged or dead parts in early spring (once daytime temps are above freezing). Tip: Cutting on a warmer, sunny day is more pleasant for you and better for the tree.
Mistake #1: Cutting only at the point of damage. That can leave the plant looking awkward. Also, stubs left behind eventually rot and may spread rot to the rest of the tree.
What to do instead: Clip or saw off a branch or stem all the way back to the trunk or a main stem. Make it flush. Exception: If there is a substantial branch collar—that thick area where a branch attaches to the trunk—don’t cut into it. It forms a protection zone, helping to keep infection out of the trunk. Also, removing the collar can cause unwanted sprouts to grow in the wound area.
Mistake #2: Cutting too liberally. For example, taking out an entire limb when only a branch or two coming off it is damaged. That can set a plant back years in looks and health.
Not sure a branch is dead? Leave it! A dormant limb can look dead but still have life in it. Check back in a few weeks to see if it is showing signs of life. Tip: Truly dead branches will snap, not bend, and they feel lighter and hollower and may be shedding bark.
Mistake #3: Cleaning up a shrub or tree too late. If you wait until such plants leaf out, it’s harder to get a good overview, and it’s harder to see the shoots that sprout from the roots, which divert energy from the rest of the plant.
What to do instead: Get busy before the leaves emerge to take care of problems that are damaging the plant. Take out shoots at the base of the plant, and thin out branches that are rubbing or crossing one another so densely that healthful air can’t easily circulate.
PRUNE (SOME) FLOWERING SHRUBS
Why it matters: Cutting back flowering shrubs improves looks and helps the plants focus energy on blooming.
Mistake: Doing major aesthetic pruning on stems that could have bloomed, diminishing a shrub’s flower show.
What to do instead: Plants that bloom on “old wood”—last year’s growth—should not be pruned for appearance until the year’s flowering is over. But do it right after the blooms fade or drop their petals. Some common plants to prune right after they bloom: Beautybush, daphne, forsythia, honeysuckle, kerria, jasmine, lilac, mock orange, smoke tree, weigela. (Note: It’s fine to cut back dead/damaged branches any time.)
If, however, a shrub blooms on “new wood”—the current season’s growth—it’s safe to cut it back in early spring while the plant is still dormant, before the buds show green. The surge of spring energy will lead to fresh new branches ready to bloom. Some common plants to prune early: Abelia, beautyberry, broom, butterfly bush, caryopteris, crape myrtle, nandina, Pee Gee hydrangea, potentilla, rose-of-Sharon, roses and viburnum.
PREPARE YOUR FLOWER BEDS
Why it matters: Spring, not fall, is decidedly the best time to prep your garden perennials. Research has shown that it’s better for hardiness if perennials aren’t trimmed back until after winter.
Mistake: Jumping the gun on removing mulch from your flower beds. If you laid down compost, straw, chopped leaves or some other organic mulch last fall, don’t remove this protective covering too early. Spring’s temperature swings can cause harm to treasured plants.
What to do instead: Wait until the daytime temperatures are reliably above freezing. That’s true even if the plants below have started to show growth. Better safe than sorry! When you do remove mulch, use your hands, a light rake or a leaf blower rather than a shovel, hoe or heavy-duty rake. Work rather gently so that you don’t inadvertently break or uproot plants.
Once you remove the mulch, cut all dead perennial stalks right down to the ground or at least to the crown of the plant (the spot where the plant stems meet the roots). Fresh new growth will soon follow.
PREPARE THE SOIL
Why it matters: Healthy, aerated, well-drained soil is the garden ideal, and fooling with it too early can compromise this.
Mistake #1: Inadvertently compacting your soil. If you get to work outside too early in the year, when the ground is still semifrozen or muddy, your footsteps or the wheelbarrow can over compact the soil. (Semifrozen soil goes through freeze-thaw cycles and is easy to compact.) That denies the reawakening plants the oxygen in the soil that they need.
What to do instead: Hold off until the ground dries out a bit more, or try placing a plank where you walk or kneel to distribute your weight more evenly.
Mistake #2: Leaving open ground. A cleared garden area (flower bed or vegetable garden patch) may look tidy, but not for long—it’s an open invitation to weeds. And exposed ground is vulnerable to compaction or erosion when drenching spring rains pound your soil.
What to do instead: Sprinkle nourishing compost (homemade or store-bought) over the beds to a depth of one to three inches. Take care not to bury the crowns of emerging perennials or spring-flowering bulbs. Do this on a pleasant day when there is no rain or wind in the forecast. Unlike some mulches, compost is rich in organic matter, contributing nutrition and texture to soil. As it breaks down, it generates heat—a hedge against springtime’s temperature swings.
SPRING LAWN DOS AND DON’TS
Did you know that winter’s cold toughens grass and strengthens its roots? That’s the good news. But the freezing season can leave your lawn looking ragged.
Here’s what to do—and what not to do—to get your lawn off to a good start this spring…
Do: Thoroughly remove all debris (sticks, twigs, last year’s leaves). Use a rake or even a good outdoor broom, which is gentler.
Don’t: Be rough, lest you uproot shoots or dislodge chunks of sod.
Do: Patch bare spots. If you use seed, water frequently with a gentle spray until the grass is up and growing strongly. If you use sod, be sure to remove enough soil in the area so that it is level with surrounding grass.
Don’t: Use sod in shade. It will struggle. And don’t use a weighted roller over any freshly sown lawn areas—sod or not. Once standard practice, it’s now discredited because it compacts soil.
Do: Spread ground limestone to nourish the emerging grass (follow label directions).
Don’t: Fertilize yet. Instead, wait until spring is well under way and you’ve mowed a few times. At that point, a dose of lawn fertilizer will be beneficial (follow label directions).