After being cooped up inside for months, you are probably eager to get outside and get your hands dirty, and give your garden a head start for the upcoming growing season. Now is the time to collect the things you were too tired to put away in the autumn, and to gather the broken branches and garbage blown in by winter winds. Remove and compost any dead annual plants.
If you left perennials standing through the winter, such as asters and black-eyed Susans which have seed pods that feed the birds, cut back the dead stalks as soon as you see signs of new growth. Cut back ornamental grasses to the ground, too. (There’s no need to wait for new growth). Once the weather warms, remove any mulch you had placed around plants for protection, and rake and gather wayward leaves left from the fall.
Clean up can begin as early as you want, as long as your ground is not soggy. These early spring visits will also give you the opportunity to see the bare bones of your garden before plants start growing again. It’s a good time to decide if you want more infrastructure—a stone wall perhaps, or an obelisk to give height, stepping stones, or a new garden bed.
Check your trees and shrubs for broken branches and prune them cleanly to avoid disease. Prune rosebushes of dead wood, and depending on the species, prune and shape them before the buds start to swell. Cut hybrid tea roses back to 15 centimetres; trim shrub roses only to the size you want as well as any old stems.
Climbing and rambling roses need only dead-wood pruning. Don’t prune spring flowering shrubs and trees such as lilacs, as they set their spring buds the preceding summer and pruning them now will cut off the spring bloom. Apart from trimming dead wood, broadleaf evergreens such as rhododendrons and azaleas rarely need pruning.
As the spring continues, your perennials will begin pushing through the soil. It’s time to divide or move them. The general rule is to divide plants every three years to keep them healthy and robust. But if yours are still doing fine and blooming well, there is no rush. You will know that clumps need dividing if the clump looks a little bald in the middle, if the plant is spreading into plants nearby, or if it has not bloomed as well as usual.
If the spring weather is dry, water the plants the day before you plan to divide them. This makes it easier to dig and divide them and it helps them overcome the shock. Before you divide the plant, prepare the hole where the new division will go for quick replanting and the trauma will be lessened even more.
Dig up the whole clump with as much of the root ball as possible, and use a sharp spade or a garden saw to divide the plant into two or more sections. You can use the new divisions to expand your garden or pot them up to give away. Treat them like new transplants: protect them from hot sun and water them until they are established.
There are exceptions to every rule and perennials such as peonies, monkshood (Aconitum napellus), bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), globe thistle (Echinops exaltatus) and pinks (Dianthus) are plants that prefer to be left to their own schedules and require no pruning or dividing.
Sometimes it makes it easier to get the job done if you accept that weeding is a necessary evil to obtain the desired result. Weeds are some of the first plants to sprout and grow, giving them a head start on the plants we want to thrive. Pulling out invaders in spring will save you from digging them out with a shovel later. And hand weeding is easier while the soil is moist from winter snows. Don’t compost weeds or you’ll start a weed nursery.
After weeding, it’s time to spread an inch or two of mulch. If you use well composted manure or your own compost, the mulch will also act as a fertilizer. Place the mulch around your perennials, bulbs, shrubs, and trees up to (but not touching) the stems or trunks.
Spring fertilization is important because when temperatures rise, plants surge into new growth and use up nutrients stored in their roots. Providing extra food for growth now will carry them into beautiful bloom later on. Add mulch on top of this fertilizer as it also conserves water, keeps plant roots cool on hot sunny days, conditions the soil, and smothers weeds.
If you’ve completed all of these projects and still have energy left, you might consider edging your flower beds. This gives a clean, professional look, and it keeps the grass from invading your beds. Just don’t wear out your enthusiasm for spending time close to the nature in your yard.
Don’t prune the following plants until late spring or summer, shortly after they have bloomed: azaleas (Rhododendron species); bridal wreath spirea (Spirea x vanhouttei); forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia); big leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla); lilac (Syringa vulgaris); magnolia (Magnolia species and cultivars); mock orange (Philadelphus coronarius); rhododendron (Rhododendron species); weigela (Weigela florida).