Everyday Gardener: Springtime tips

I haven’t done a spring tips column in a long time, and after the long, snowy winter we’ve had I figured now is as good a time as any to do so. We all try to push it and get out and garden as soon as the first sign of spring comes but, honestly, that’s a bad idea. Tromping around on wet soil does more harm than good.

And though I’ve seen a lot of people doing it, you definitely should not be raking your lawn when the soil is still cold and soggy — even if you are grossed out by all the horrible snow mold everywhere.

What is snow mold? It kind of looks like gauzy, gray spider webs on top of the grass. In actuality, it’s a fungal disease that becomes visible in spring as the snow melts. There are a couple of different types of snow mold. Gray snow mold is caused by a fungus called Typhula blight, and pink snow mold is caused by the fungus Microdochium nivalis. The fungi overwinter in infected plant debris — though gray snow mold can also survive in the soil — and they start growing during the winter underneath their cover of snow.

You know you have snow mold when you see matted, beige/gray-colored patches in your lawn in the spring. As long as the grass stays wet and cold, those patches keep getting bigger. Though it looks horrible, damage from snow mold is usually just temporary. Gray snow mold stops growing once temperatures reach 45 degrees or the soil surface dries out. Pink snow mold, though, may flare up in wet weather if temperatures are between 32 and 60 degrees. By the time you read this much or all of the snow mold in your yard will hopefully be gone.

If you do have snow mold in your lawn, rake the affected patches gently to help loosen up matted areas and promote drying. Those areas should green up fairly quickly as the weather warms up. Whether you have snow mold or not, it’s best not to rake turf grass in any vigorous way until the soil warms up and dries out. Otherwise, you run the risk of damaging healthy grass, which just contributes to more lawn problems and disease, as well as soil compaction.

Walking on and digging in wet soil harms its structure by packing soil particles together so there’s less space for air and water. Over time the soil becomes hard and compacted, making it difficult for roots to penetrate well and impairing drainage. To test whether soil is dry enough to work, squeeze a handful and see if it crumbles nicely when you touch it rather than staying in a big, sloppy ball.

If you just can’t stand the wait, and I know I can’t, do what you can in the garden by working only as far as you can reach without walking on the dirt. Cut back perennials if you didn’t do that in the fall. But wait to prune Russian sage and salvia until you see what growth you get on last year’s stems. Pull out any annuals left in the ground through the winter and toss them in the compost pile if you’ve got one. Remove tree wraps because moisture can get trapped under there and become a breeding ground for disease. You can always replace them in the fall if you’re worried about sun scald or critters gnawing on the bark.

Pruning is a good thing to do in the spring. Just make sure you’re pruning plants at the right time. If you prune lilacs, azaleas, forsythias or magnolia in early spring, for example, you’ll miss out on this year’s blooms because those plants flower on last year’s growth. Prune these early bloomers right after they’re done flowering and then leave them alone to set their buds for the following season.

Spireas and hydrangeas bloom on new growth so they should be pruned in spring, ideally before new growth starts. You can also prune shrubs known more for their foliage than flowers, such as dogwood, ninebark, sumac and smokebush. To find out more about pruning check out this University of Minnesota Extension publication: extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/DG0628.html.

Spring is a great time for starting seeds outdoors. But if you’re like me and you save seeds from year to year or have older, half-used packets of seeds lying around, it’s a good idea to test them before planting them in the garden. Who wants to plant dud seeds?

You’d be surprised how many seeds are still good long after the expiration date on the packet.

Place the seeds you want to test on a moist (not soggy) paper towel and cover them with another moist paper towel. Put your seed-towel sandwich inside a sealed plastic bag, or between sheets of plastic wrap, label the bag, and store it in a warm spot out of direct sunlight — on top of the fridge is usually a good choice.

Check the seeds daily and use a spray bottle to moisten them if they’re drying out. Depending on the seeds you’re testing, sprouting could take a few days or a few weeks. (If you have commercial seed packets check those for germination times.)

Meleah Maynard is a writer and Master Gardener. Her column appears monthly n the Southwest Journal.