Everyday gardener: Spring forward

Spring. Can you believe it? It’s time to get out and inspect our gardens. We’ve been lucky this year. With so much snow on the ground to protect everything from the harsh freeze-and-thaw cycles of winter, we’ll all probably lose fewer plants than in years past. Now, if I could just get my dog, Lyle, to stop using my perennial garden as a toilet.

I know it’s tempting right now to just tromp out and start uncovering plants and cleaning up beds but, remember, we live in a crazy place where spring can easily give way to killer frost until around May 15. So go ahead and remove mulch, leaves and all the other gunk winter seems to deposit in our gardens in areas where you’ve got bulbs that need to come up soon or where you’ve got indestructible hostas or established shrubs. But be careful not to remove too much protection this early from perennial beds or you might lose some plants.

When you do start cleaning up, try not to walk on wet soil. (I know. I’ve done it, too. But we shouldn’t.) Use a rake to pull debris out of the garden. Walking on wet soil harm’s the soil’s structure and you’ll wind up with hard, compact dirt over time. Wait until the soil warms up in May to start walking around, digging or rototilling in the garden.

If you can reach into your gardens, go ahead and cut back all the dead growth from perennials and ornamental grasses. Wait to prune Russian sage and salvia until you see what’s growing on last year’s stems. Pull out any annuals you left in the ground last year and throw them away or compost them.

If you wrapped your trees for the winter, take the wrap off now before moisture builds up beneath the layers and becomes a breeding ground for disease. If you staked a new tree and it’s been a year now, you can take that stake up, too. If you’re thinking of planting a new tree this year, you might want to have a look at what Tree Trust has to offer: treetrust.org. In an effort to help replenish our urban forest, Tree Trust offers several different types of trees to Minneapolis residents each year for the low price of $25 each. Last year, I got a beautiful ‘Autumn Brilliance’ Serviceberry, and it looks great in my front yard. Trees can be ordered on their website and are given out on a first-come, first-served basis.

Early May is a good time to divide perennials. The ones that need dividing are the ones with the big empty doughnut shape in the center and those that looked a little too floppy or flowerless last year. If the plant you want to divide blooms in the spring, you may want to wait to enjoy it before you dismember and move it. As you divide plants and add new plants to your garden, it’s a good idea to add a little bit of compost or composted manure to the planting hole—or an entire bed if you’re starting from scratch. Look at the bag to see how much to add per square foot. To keep existing beds nutrient-rich and healthy, take the time every couple of years to add a few inches of compost or composted manure to your beds. Just rake it lightly into the soil

Even though it’s the time of year to get all squirrelly about pruning, resist the urge to prune the crap out of all of your shrubs and trees. It takes a long time for a shrub to gets its shape back if you shear it, and trees, well, you don’t want to go whacking off their arms all willy-nilly. Basically, you want to prune out dead branches from your trees and shrubs. You also want to get rid of branches that are crossing over other branches in weird ways. And, to be honest, there are lots and lots of other things to know about pruning that would take pages to tell you but, really, you don’t need to know it all to do just one thing and you’ll just get all overwhelmed. (I know I did.) So I’d suggest checking out the University of Minnesota Extension website, which has lots of handy pruning advice.

Once your lawn is dry, go ahead and rake it to clear off debris so the grass can get some sunshine. Though the best time to seed your lawn is in the fall, you can reseed now if you like, particularly bare patches or spots your dog has sullied over the winter. (That means you, Lyle.) Happy spring!

Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer, living in Linden Hills. If you’ve got a gardening question you’d like her to address in her column, you can email it to [email protected]