You can’t really get out in your garden and do a lot until the weather warms up and the ground dries out a bit. That happens for me sometime in late April—we’ll still have frost for another month after that, but by late April I can start dividing and moving perennials and really “gardening”.
However, there is a pre-season in gardening, just like in baseball! There are some caveats (read all the way to the bottom of the post) but here are 7 things I’ll be doing to scratch my spring gardening itch and get some necessary tasks out of the way before the real season starts:
- Cut back ornamental grasses. I’ll use sharp shears and cut them down so they’ve about 6-10” tall. Ideally, I’ll do this before any new green shoots appear.
- Remove dead perennial plant stems. In the fall I don’t cut most of my perennials back, but instead leave the stems, leaves and flower heads to create winter interest as well as food and hiding places for birds and insects. In the pre-season I go through and break or cut off the old stems. Tidying up like this now lets the spring garden bulbs—winter aconite, crocus, scilla, daffodil and tulip—be seen more clearly.
- Clean up the bird seed shells from under my bird feeders. I love having birds around all winter but the side effect is a thick mat of shells underneath all the feeders. It looks messy and can choke out perennials and smaller bulbs trying to emerge from below.
- Carefully remove leaf mulch. I rake leaves onto my garden beds in the fall in order to provide winter protection. Because they don’t decompose much over one winter I gently lift them off in the spring (usually one clumpy handful at a time–using a rake wouldn’t be wise now) and put them in my compost to finish decomposing. This avoids smothering emerging perennials and makes the garden look neater. It also helps to let the sun get at the soil and warm it up sooner. If I chopped up the leaves in fall before I put them on my beds I wouldn’t have to do this.
- Sharpen my secateurs (aka pruners). Sharp secateurs are one of a gardener’s best friends. I have a lot of pruning ahead of me, so it’s good to start the season off sharp.
- Take inventory of supplies and make a list of things I need to replenish. How much potting soil do I have and how much more am I likely to need? Did I use up all of the slow release fertilizer pellets in my planters last year or are there still enough? Can I find my trowels or do I need to buy more (and swear I’ll keep track of them this time?) Is there any garden twine left? Knowing what I need helps me make the most out of the spring sales.
- Walk through the garden very slowly, or pull up a chair, and just sit and enjoy. At first glance it may still look pretty brown and barren out there, but look closer and you’ll see tree buds getting fatter, little shoots sprouting from ground, spring flowering bulbs starting their show, and witchhazel in full bloom.
Just because it’s not t-shirt weather yet doesn’t mean you can’t spend time just sitting and enjoying your garden. The beverage at my side might be hot coffee in a thermal mug rather than something icy and fruity, but I enjoy the time just the same.
What I won’t be doing:
I will not step off any paths. The ground is soft and wet—if I step on the soil now it will compact. I would rather leave tasks undone than step into a garden bed now. Instead I stand on the path (or the sidewalk) and stretch into the beds. If I can reach it I deal with it. If I can’t, I wait.
I will not disturb anything carelessly or roughly in my garden beds. Spring flowering bulbs are emerging—if I’m too rough and snap off their tips now there won’t be any blooms this year.
I will not do anything or step anywhere without looking very, very carefully. Especially with an ever-evolving garden like mine, by spring I often forget exactly what I planted where, or where I made a path narrower and a bed wider to fit in just one more “must-have” plant. I tread carefully as I’d rather be able to say “Oh, I forgot I planted that there!” than “Oops. I forgot I planted that there. Too late now…”
I will not cut any silver-leaved perennials or shrubs back. Lavender, caryopteris and other plants with gray or silver leaves should not be cut back until they show new signs of growth. If you trim them too early you can kill them. I learned that the hard way.
So that’s what I will and won’t be doing in the gardening pre-season. How about you?