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March 1, 2023
It may only be March, but it is definitely time to start getting your garden ready for spring!
Depending on where you are in the watershed, this unseasonably warm spell may have your plants getting ready to break dormancy early. As much as we love early-season blooms and spring flowers, blooming before the true end of winter can result in significant frost damage and even stunt this year’s plant growth. Right now is a perfect opportunity to take a couple of easy steps to prepare your garden and prevent it from blooming too early.
First, it is never too early for a good garden clean-out. You can rake up the loose leaves and debris that may have fallen on your garden over the winter. Though leaves can provide essential cover for plants, this plant debris can also carry seeds for unwanted or even invasive species, so it is best to clean it up before everything starts growing. And don’t worry; we will reinsulate the garden in step three.
A cleaned and mulched winter garden (Photo credit: Jordan Gochenaur)
Once the loose leaves are gone, prune back your dormant perennials and grasses. At this point, most of the seeds have fallen or been eaten by birds, and any nest-building materials that your local wildlife needs have already been used. In late winter/early spring, the birds and animals won’t mind too much if you prune these plants back. Though specific pruning instructions may vary depending on what you are cutting, most perennials and grasses should be cut back to about three inches from the ground. This will leave you plenty of space to see where the plants are. If you have shrubs that need pruning, it is best to look up advice specific to that species before proceeding. Some shrubs like to be pruned in the winter, but with spring-blooming shrubs, that can significantly impact their ability to produce flowers.
Now that your garden is cleaned out and your perennials are cut back, your garden is ready for a nice layer of mulch. A good one and a half to two inches of mulch can help keep your plants insulated from temperature fluctuations. On an especially warm afternoon, this may even be enough to prevent your plants from jumping the gun and blooming before winter is truly over.
Once spring is truly here, and your plants are coming out of dormancy, it is time for the next phase of gardening. Some preemptive spring gardening can prevent your garden from falling into the summer doldrums that so many of our gardens experience.
Purple Coneflowers breaking dormancy in the spring (Photo credit: Jamie Alberti)
The first step is almost always weeding – everyone’s least favorite part of the garden. However, if it is done early and done right, it won’t be too bad. First off, avoid spraying chemical herbicides around your garden. These chemicals can be catastrophic for your local wildlife and can end up washing into your garden, causing significant damage. Secondly, always be sure to get the roots of the weeds. Pulling the roots out is the only way to prevent the weed you removed from regrowing the moment you turn your back. When weeding, always bring a trowel with the intention of using it. The last and most often overlooked step of weeding is preventing surrounding weeds from going to seed. If there are weeds outside your garden that you are not yet ready to tackle fully, plan on cutting them down before they go to seed (when they are blooming) to prevent them from spreading. A few minutes with the stringer or pruners can save you an afternoon of weeding.
If you are working with an older garden, it may be a good time to think about fertilizing your plants. In nature, all the leaves and debris that fall around these plants are allowed to sit and decompose, reinvigorating the soil. Though mulch does decompose and provide some nutrients, it is never a bad idea to add some extra fertilizer.
If you haven’t mulched yet, you can add a thin layer of compost on top of your soil and then mulch over that. If your garden already has mulch, you can use an organic fertilizer like fish emulsion around the roots of your plants. If you are using this method, be sure to give your garden a good soaking after you fertilize, to make sure the nutrients soak into the soil.
A spring garden in bloom (Photo credit: RiverSmart Homeowner)
The last and best part of spring gardening is deciding if you want to add more plants. This is an excellent time to add some new species or replace old ones.
Because it is springtime, garden centers will have all the currently blooming plants front and center. As tempting as it will be to purchase a bunch of plants that are currently in bloom, this may not be the best option. Plants put a lot of energy into producing their flowers, which can make them less resilient to things like transplant shock. It is best to install plants that won’t bloom for another couple of months to give them a chance to acclimate to their new home before they have to start making flowers.
As always, using natives in your garden is the best way to ensure that your beautiful plants are also helping the environment. Besides providing essential food and habitat for birds and pollinators, native plants are more resilient, better adapted to the climate, and have much deeper root systems that can, over time, break up layers of compacted soil well below what a shovel can reach. For more information on caring for your garden this time of year, visit our Spring Care Tips.
Jordan’s dog, Rain, in the daffodils.
Green Infrastructure Projects Manager
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RiverSmart Homes Staff Blog