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Spring Gardening

Centre of the City, Toronto, March/April 2004.

Now that the snow is finally receding and daylight is lasting just a little bit longer, it is so tempting to get out there and start digging in the garden. It’s important to remember, however, that there are still three weeks of winter in March and as much as we’re ready for spring to arrive, winter is sometimes reluctant to leave. Still, there are lots of garden activities that can be started early in the season. These general guidelines may help you get your garden off to a good start.

Maintenance tasks on garden structure, all too easy to let slide during the busy summer months, are best addressed before plants emerge. One of your earliest activities could be the repair and repainting of any trellis or lattice work, and any arbors on which plant material will climb. Repair any holes and loose boards or wire in fencing, and inspect decking for any nails that have worked their way up. Clean, sharpen and ready tools such as secateurs, spades, and shears. You could prepare a bucket of builders’ sand mixed with motor oil (new or previously enjoyed). Use it to keep your tools clean and oiled through the season. Also sharpen or replace the blade on your lawnmower, and check oil levels on all machinery. Ensure that your electrical cords and hoses are in good condition.

Once you’re convinced there will be no further snow or ice storms, remove protective winter covers from evergreens and hardy shrubs. Wait a bit longer to remove winter protection from planting beds and roses.

When the ground has thawed, and you can move the earth around, you can really get busy. Look for any plants that have heaved out of the soil in the winter, and re–set them. Dig and aerate the soil, adding amendments as needed. If your soil is very wet, hold off on this until it dries out a bit. Tilling soil when it’s too wet can cause the soil to break down. Turn and aerate your compost bin, as well.

Fertilize your trees and shrubs. The spring rain will carry much needed nutrients right down through the roots and give these large plants a good start. Plant any new trees or shrubs as weather improves and soil is workable.

Cut back any ornamental grasses to new shoots, and while you’re at it, cut back any dead plant material in the garden. Take care not to pull the dead material out entirely, roots and all, unless you know it’s not perennial. Just trim it off.

Rake up any leaves and other winter debris, digging–in or composting non–diseased material, and check all beds and lawns for weeds. Hand–pull these completely as possible. Unfortunately, weeding is not a spring–only task, but getting started early will help keep it under control throughout the season. Fill in low spots in your lawn with soil to even it out. Re–seed or over–seed damaged lawn areas. De–thatch and aerate your lawn if required, and fertilize with slow–release fertilizer.

If there are any design modifications you want to make to the garden, such as changes to your irrigation system or lighting, or relocation of trees and shrubs, this would be a good time. You’ve just spent months looking at your garden in its winter state. Are there areas that seemed particularly bleak. Now would be a good time to plan for something more interesting next winter.

Some vegetable seeds, such as carrots, parsley, lettuce, spinach, dill and peas, like cool weather to germinate. These can be planted directly into your tilled and prepared garden at this time. Annuals that also prefer cool weather to start include bachelor’s buttons and poppies. Be sure to check and follow instructions on the seed packages.

Early bedding plants can also be planted while it’s still cool. Plants such as pansies, snapdragons, dianthus (pinks), alyssum and dusty miller are tolerant of the chilly spring. Hold off planting new perennials, warm–season annuals and anything that does not tolerate frost until the danger of frost is past.

Pruning is often necessary on trees and shrubs, but we’re not always sure when this should be done. At this time, you may prune any tree branches damaged or broken through the winter. Fruit trees need to be pruned before growth begins. Those shrubs that bloom in summer and fall on new wood, such as butterfly bush, may also be pruned now. Wisteria and trumpet vine need to be pruned back to a main stem. Delay pruning of early–flowering shrubs, like forsythia and lilac, until after they bloom. Spray dormant oil on trees, shrubs and roses, to prevent spread of over–wintering disease. Use as indicated on package once danger of night frost is past, but before buds open.

Don’t forget your indoor plants. Cut back leggy houseplants to encourage more compact growth, now that the light is getting stronger. Prune plants such as a standard hibiscus that were moved indoors over the winter. Hibiscus blooms on new wood, so you may want to take off about one third of the foliage. If some of your houseplants will move outdoors for the summer, you may want to move them outside on warm days to get them acclimatized. Take care not to expose them to too much sun, wind or cold, and bring them in at night until the danger of frost is past.

As perennial growth begins to emerge, place any supports or barriers around plants, such as peony supports or copper circles for hostas. Fertilize perennials when 2–3 inches of new growth is visible, but don’t fertilize your peonies. This is a good time to divide summer–blooming perennials. Check with your neighbours, and maybe start a group to swap excess perennial divisions. It’s a great way to introduce some change into your garden without spending a fortune.

As your garden starts to come back to life, check for visual gaps and plan to purchase bulbs in the fall to brighten things up next year.

Most of all, enjoy being out in your garden again!

Helen Kirkup
HMK Consultants
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Also by Helen Kirkup:
The Kirkups: Pioneers & Travellers
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